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The Astoundingly True Tale of José Fabuloso

This chapter originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue.

Chapter 6

The crew of the José Fabuloso stood crowded around a small table in the busy bazaar slurping something full of starch and broth from bowls at a quick food stall. Squirrel was showing them sketches of her uniform ideas. “And a modest slit in the skirt to allow for easy motion.”

“I’m not wearing a skirt” interrupted O’Riley. Again.

“No, no. I agree. I really don’t want to see that much of you. I was thinking more regulation trousers of the same fabric…”

“Do we get boots?” asked José. “I like boots.”

“Um. I think we can probably work boots into it.” She tried to get back on track. “With piping of a contrasting color in a stripe down the side for that semi-military look we should...”

“Pockets,” said M’Elise. Squirrel glared at her. “They have to have pockets. You don’t have any pockets in your designs.”

“Pockets spoil the line of a garment. We can put in some pocket flaps for looks, but we don’t want unsightly bulges.”

“Ah, I remember when I could create an unsightly bulge” began the old man.

“Spare us,” said M’Elise. “Look. This isn’t fashion. These are working clothes. Impressing people with more money than brains is well and good, but we’re a working ship. We have to have pockets.”

Squirrel looked consternated and flipped through the images on the slate. “I don’t see how we can do that.”

“That’s what jackets are for” said M’Elise.

“Pockets will spoil the line of a jacket the same as everything else!”

“No, the jacket covers the pockets.” M’Elise took the slate. “See: start with something like cargo handler’s pants, lots of pockets, lots of room.” She drew a few more strokes. “Then drape a jacket over the top. Epaulets, big brass buttons, your little fake pocket flaps… whatever rings your bell. You get the line, the colors, your style, and we get pockets to put our crap in.”

“Isn’t that what purses are for?”

“I’m not wearing a purse!” said O’Riley.

“It would just make your butt look big,” said the old man.

“Save the lover’s spat for later,” said M’Elise distractedly. She pointed the stylus at Squirrel. “OK. I’m trying to keep an open mind here.” Someone snorted. “Do you think you can do a purse that rolls out into a utility belt?”

Squirrel took the stylus back and started sketching. “Hmmm. Maybe like a makeup bag. Let me think.” She sketched a bit more. “I might be able to do that. I was thinking of something more… lengthening.”

M’Elise laughed. Squirrel looked indignant. “Don’t worry about it. This is normal duty and dockside wear. You can do whatever you want for your concierge uniform. Other than color, it doesn’t have to be uniform, so to speak. You remember Jenniston on the Rich Kingford, José?”

“She was very pretty” he said.

“But she dressed like a confection overwrought with Frigg’s dividends. Kept the customers happy though.”

“Oh” said Squirrel. “Can I just look for something then?”

“Sure” said M’Elise. “Within budget, though.”

“Oh great,” said O’Riley with false enthusiasm. “Clothes shopping.”

The grand bazaar of the Van Cove orbital was thronged with people. Shopkeepers on several floors cried out their wares, often with amplification. Hawkers worked the crowd, some selling portable wares, others trying to direct people into shops. Guides abounded for discount rates, often for free, with a pre-selected list of shops you had to see. Hassled and harried visitors passed, trying to sort and select what was on offer and choose between huckster and good deals.

“Please! Please! Come in!” cried one solicitor.

“Do you have uranium 232?” asked O’Riley with mock sincerity.

“Yes! In many styles! Many colors! Come in!” They passed him by.

Amongst them all, the locals stood out by their dress and clear ethnicity. Beggars of all sorts abounded. From buskers to deformed panhandlers. A small crowd of urchins descended upon them shouting “Chocolate! Chocolate!”

“Awww” said Squirrel. “They're hungry. Can’t we just get them something to eat?” They looked imploringly from her to the nearby sweet shop.

“Don’t believe them” said O’Riley. “They’ve got an arrangement with the shopkeeper. He overcharges us and they get a cut.” Squirrel looked skeptical as the wide eyed children mimed empty stomachs. “Trust me” continued O’Riley. “I grew up doing the same thing.”

The old man made a great show of patting himself down. Their attention immediately turned to him. “Well. What do I have here?” He pulled out a foil wrapped packet and weighed it in his hand. The youngsters cheered. “Oh, you want some?” He slowly unwrapped the rich brown blocks, stopping to count all the children. He carefully broke it into several small pieces and gave them each one. He smiled as they applauded in thanks and ran off into the market laughing.

“Wow” said Squirrel. “I never would have pegged you as having a soft spot for kids!”

“What? Children?” said the old man in mock surprise. “Can't stand them.”

“Oh, yeah” said Squirrel, nodding conspiratorially. ”It was nice of you to give them your chocolate.”

“Chocolate?” the old man snorted. “I haven’t been able to eat that in years. Those were my laxatives.”

When M’Elise could stop herself laughing she dragged them off to the side. “Let’s get into an alley. We’ll never get anything done out here before one of you gets us locked up.”

They had much more luck in the side corridors. The crowds were less, the hucksters fewer and when you told the solicitous shopkeepers to go away, they did.

“Ooooh, this is nice,” said Squirrel, finger the trailing hem of a gown hung from the awning of one shop. M’Elise nodded absently looking through the rack in the storefront.

“You aren’t getting me into that get up!” swore O’Riley.

“You’d never fit” commented the old man.

“We have tailors! Very cheap!” said the shopkeeper, helpfully.

“No way” repeated O’Riley, emphatically.

“No one is asking you,” said M’Elise. “She just said it was nice.”

“Then why are we here?”

“Because women have no compulsion against spending copious amounts of time looking at things they have no intention of buying” said the old man. The shopkeeper’s smile faltered.

“We can wait in the bar,” said José.

“Ready to go” said M’Elise, grabbing Squirrel’s arm. They wove their way deeper into the corridors of the station. Thin dark faces stared out at them in mild surprise. Basement factory doors stood open with mysterious machinery quietly throbbing in the background and sweat-stained gaunt workers outside on break watching them pass quietly.

The shops were fewer but the prices were better. After protracted negotiation lapsing in and out of dialect M’Elise secured a full set of monogrammed linen.

“Are you sure they’ll deliver it?” asked O'Riley. “You paid them with cash. I’d just keep it as a stupid person tax.”

“And forgo the generous tip I implied I’d give them upon delivery?” M’Elise asked. “We’ll see who is stupid then.” O’Riley shrugged.

“I smell incense” said Squirrel. Just set in from a corner was a glittery shop front with crystals hanging from the awning and fragrant smoke wafting up from some obscure icon on a plinth.

“Wind chimes!” said M’Elise. She and Squirrel made a bee-line for the shop front. A low melodious chanting came from within.

“They’re off again,” muttered O'Riley.

José looked after them with a worried expression. “M’Elise does not normally like wind chimes.”

“They’re using a chick lure,” said the old man. José looked confused. “It’s like a fish lure but for women.”

“Are they legal?” asked O'Riley.

“Got to love a freeport. Anything goes.”

José looked even more worried. He could see them inside at the sales counter. “We must rescue them!”

“Yes,” said O’Riley. “Let’s do something irresponsible. That’ll get their attention.”

“Good idea,” said the old man. “Look, there’s a bar!” They headed in that direction.

José shuffled from foot to foot uneasily. He looked after the others who had found a high end bar and were waving to him from the doorway. He then looked into the shop where Squirrel was trying on some very glittery necklace and M’Elise was fishing for her credit chit. He let out a nervous breath and plunged through the doorway.

Filmy scarves hung over the doorway dragging at him and a disturbed strand of cloying incense smoke curled in after him. Unsteadily he brushed against a rack and several hangers of improbably sized clothes clattered to the ground. A wan mannequin looked down its exaggeratedly thin nose at him from under painted eyebrows. Swallowing a lump in his throat he struggled toward the sales counter.

The sales lady hummed, clicked and made appreciative noises at Squirrel who was staring entranced at a bracelet of precious metals and crystals on her wrist. She kept rotating it back and forth in the light, watching it glitter. The shop lady shot a highly disapproving look at José as he tugged on M’Elise’s arm.

“M’Elise” he said weakly, under the shop lady’s glare. “We should go.”

“Hmm? Ah. Yes” she said distractedly, slowly clenching and unclenching a sateen pillow filled with some resilient beads.

“Pretty lady” José said to Squirrel. “Please. Come away.”

“So pretty” cooed Squirrel. “Pretty.”

The shop lady murmured soothing wordless noises to them and glared at José and the exit.

“Dad and O’Riley have gone drinking” he stammered.

“Oh? Mmm. Of course” said M’Elise, holding up her credit chit, eyes slightly glazed. The shop lady, a predatory gleam in her eye leaned forward and extended her thin arm toward the chit.

“No!” said José plaintively.

M’Elise blinked and turned slightly towards him. “Unnnnh?”

The shop lady reached further out, her heavily varnished nails brushing the card. “No” he said, with more conviction.

“What?” said M’Elise, turning toward him and rotating the chit just out of her grasping reach. Squirrel had looked up from the bracelet.

“I am the Captain. And I say no!” José said firmly.

M’Elise broke into a smile. “He said no!”

Squirrel looked puzzled, “He said no?”

José pulled her hand down and she seemed to note, for the first time, the credit chit in it and the amorphous cushion. She dropped it in distaste to the floor. José started pushing her toward the door.

“Not today,” said Squirrel, tossing the bracelet back onto the shelf and hurried after them.

“Accounts of the Aesir,” swore M’Elise, waving her hand under her nose. “What an evil place.”

“Seriously,” said Squirrel, looking back contemptuously at the shop as they stalked down the corridor.

M’Elise stopped and touched José on the shoulder. “Thanks,” she said simply.

He shrugged. “It’s OK.”

“Where are the others?” asked Squirrel.

José looked uncomfortable. “Um. In the bar.”

“Those miserable term debts. Which one?” José pointed at the marble and brass frontage they were nearing. There was bustle and cheering from inside. “That can’t be good.”

They pushed their way in past well-dressed patrons and news crews. Anger gave way to confusion as they saw O’Riley and the old man at the bar, surrounded by cheering people. They started elbowing their way through the crowd. When they saw they were with the others the customers gave them another cheer and the crowds propelled them together. Drinks were pushed into their hands.

“Who’s paying for this?” demanded M’Elise.

“I told you” cheered O’Riley to the cameras. “The words of a true financial controller! And our ship’s Captain, the famous fabulous José! And lastly, and most lovely, Squirrel, the ship’s lady of the night shift.” José eagerly took the bottle and popped the top.

“My question remains” said M’Elise stubbornly.

“Relax” said the old man. “Turns out this is the oldest tavern on the station and we’re their 1,000,000th customers. Drinks are on the house!” M’Elise blinked several times, taking it all in. She then swung on the cameras.

“A total honor and well appreciated. No one knows the value of good customers like the crew of the José Fabuloso” she beamed expansively and only a little falsely. “It is our total aim and objective as the premier luxury yacht on our maiden voyage to the beautiful people of Van Cove to produce even more of the galaxy’s happiest customers!” O’Riley passed out more drinks and people cheered. She elbowed Squirrel. “Our Executive Passenger Liaison here will be more than happy to talk to anyone about our exclusive service and very reasonable terms.”

Squirrel gave her a sidelong glance, but quickly smiled for the crowd. If there was anything she knew, it was how to play a bar crowd. “Friends!” she cheered. They all saluted her.

“This is turning out better than I expected,” said José.

“It usually does right before things get very bad,” said the old man, grinning around his glass of absinthe.

To be continued...