It started with a deep bass rumble. Hunder had experienced it a thousand times and he reacted quickly. Moving the pan of bubbling brown stuff away from the edge of the counter. As the rumble increased the cheap metal cutlery in the rack started to clatter. Joined quickly by the random assortment of ancient coffee mugs on the overhead shelf as they clinked together excitedly. As the noise grew it temporarily drowned out the machine gun chatter of the rain bouncing against the thin tin of the diner’s lean-to roof. The light dimmed as the ancient pan-orbital tug passed over the building. Its engines groaning under the strain as it gathered velocity and altitude. The immense noise travelled through the walls agitating the diner’s trappings to a cacophonic crescendo.
And then as quickly as it had started, it had gone. The light returned and the noise of the customers and the market filtered back into the world. The rain battered against the roof and the city’s dogs barked furiously as the rusty old airship passed overhead. All signifying the start of another day in South Tycho City.
Hunder checked the burner under the hot plate and gave the eternal gumbo a quick stir. He knew he didn’t need to bother. The stew had been bubbling away on the gas ring for decades. New ingredients were regularly added and stirred into it. Bringing the older ingredients back to the top of the pot. Before a steaming ladleful was splatted into a bowl and handed to the latest customer. Who would generally give the contents a cursory glance before wondering ‘Why the hell do I come in here?’
The old man who’d owned the greasy spoon before Hunder, had been adamant that it was still the same stew he’d made years before. Hunder had always suspected that somewhere in that pot there was indeed a remnant ingredient from the gumbo’s genesis. Years ago, he’d worried that one day he was going to serve it to some unsuspecting punter. Who, having taken a bite, would then scream and mutate right in front of his eyes. Yet the constitutions of the local stall keepers had so far proven more than a match for any potentially antediluvian ingredient.
Out of force of habit Hunder stirred. The same as he’d always done and the same as the old man had done every morning and every night for who knows how long.
But today would be the last day. Today the eternal gumbo would cease to be.
Hunder waved goodbye to a group of market traders who’d finished the nightshift and were on their way home. Their seats had been taken almost immediately by regular customers from the day shift. Who were looking for something substantial in their stomachs before they took up their stalls.
The Quads market did not sleep.
Hunder was a man born to the wrong time.
And almost certainly to the wrong body.
Nobody on these two worlds knew what the hell a Tonka Truck was. But if they did, they would have likened Hunder’s physical appearance to said rugged metal toy.
Hunder loomed, as wide as he was tall. His neck consisted mainly of his shoulders and vice versa. Many years ago, his drill sergeant had aggressively pointed out the size of Hunders hands. “They’re like dead pigs on the end of a telegraph pole!” he’d claimed in front of the other recruits.
Nature had wrapped Hunders imposing frame in a grizzled leather like skin. Black hair sprouted in thick clumps on every available surface. A deep scar, the result of a school sporting event, ran from the temple over his left eye and all the way down to his bottom lip. Giving him a piratical appearance. Not one of those charming pirates who look like they’d be a bit of a laugh and get caught up in all sorts of adventure’s. But a pirate that would happily kill you for lack of anything better to do. Then kill you again to make sure.
Underneath this mass of imposing, almost terrifying man, lurked one of the shyest, gentlest and most intelligent souls anyone could ever hope to encounter. A humble, pleasant and introverted man who had spent his entire life quietly going about his business hoping to be left alone.
A thoroughly nice bloke.
Until six weeks ago that is.
Hunder grunted in acknowledgment towards the kid at the counter in the paper pirate hat.
He was lazily asking for the remote control for the antique black and white TV perched on top of the cooler in the corner of the service area. Hunder gave the eternal gumbo another quick stir and rummaged around on top of the cabinet for the remote. He found it and tossed it towards the kid before turning around and heading away.
He was vaguely aware that the other guy at the counter, the thin man in the loud shirt, was complaining to the kid. Who had switched channel from the news to a black and white cartoon show with an abrasive soundtrack.
Hunder left them to it and headed into the backroom. He closed the curtain across the doorway and stood for a moment. As his eyes adjusted to the sudden darkness of the back room Hunder recognized the broken furniture littering the floor of the room. He held a hand against the wall to steady himself and took a deep breath.
He could feel the reassuring weight of the ticket in his chest pocket and its presence calmed him. Hunder breathed deeply one more time before stepping back into the glare and noise of the diner.
Hunder’s family history could be traced back all the way to the days before the decline. A wealthy family originating from Cardened in BeachWald. The Hunder’s had held vast swathes of BeachWald land. Stretching North along the coast to the quiet borders of Geld.
As the decline had begun to take hold, Hunder’s great-great-great-great Grandfather had begun the process of handing over the land. In accordance with the Shaftsbury Byron Accord, land owners were being compensated by the government for releasing any land suitable for farming. Great-great-great-great Hunder had seized the opportunity to grab a little bit more of the wealth he had become so accustomed to.
The wily old goat had managed to maintain salvage claims on the land he had handed over. As a result, his income had not suffered when the scrappers had begun to take raw minerals out of the previously undisturbed green belt. When the government prospectors had discovered a rich seam of tin on the North West coast of the land, the compensation package had been substantial.
Great-great-great-great Hunder had ensured his family’s income for the next hundred years. And, out of shear boredom, he had turned his attention elsewhere.
For the remaining sixty years of his life Great Hunder had applied his fine eye for detail to a new trade and begun to create, with painstaking precision, luxury handmade fountain pens. Over time, Hunder’s reputation for craftsmanship and quality spread globally. The ownership of a Hunder pen became a required status symbol for the upper classes. It is said that the Relic Pact was signed and ratified many years later by three of great-great-great-great Hunder’s creations. Belonging to each head of state signing the historic treaty. Supposedly, the Emperors desk at the white office in UltraSamp still counts a Hunder among its stationary.
As the old man aged he taught his eldest son the intricacies of the craft. Within a decade Hunder junior had achieved parity with his mentor’s skill. Great Hunder died leaving behind a son to continue his artistry into a new generation. And for generations, this tradition continued. Skills passed down from father to son over the centuries.
Until our Hunder was born.
‘What the bloody hell has she been eating?’ Hunder’s Grandfather had asked. A little too loudly upon his first meeting with his unfeasibly large newly-born grandson.
Fortunately for Hunder’s dad, Hunder’s Mother had not heard his father’s outburst. The labour had been a gruelling affair. Which had culminated in the birth of the largest boy the attending midwife had ever seen. Years in the profession had barely been enough to stifle a gasp as she’d lifted the immense new-born onto her scales.
Granddads reaction had been no less severe upon his second meeting with the child. At the boys’ fifth birthday party. The difference being this time Hunder’s mother had been within earshot.
‘Good god son! He’s like a bloody ox!’ he’d exclaimed to his cringing son who was wilting under the gaze of his less than impressed wife. Granddad Hunder was attempting to tear his eyes away from the humungous slab of five-year-old child. The boy was struggling to climb into the onesie his grandad had recently handed over as a birthday present. If he’d been aware of the boy’s unnatural bulk he wouldn’t have bothered with a child’s garment. And instead opted for something more fitting. Perhaps a boiler suit. Or a tent.
‘Dad, tone it down a bit?’ pleaded Hunder’s Father. Already anticipating the dressing down he would be receiving from his wife the minute the old goat had left the premises.
‘Tone it down?’ Spluttered Grandad. ‘If anything needs toning down son, it’s the amount of protein that bloody kid is getting down him on a daily basis! He’s got more muscles than- ‘
Hunder’s Dad had managed to shunt his old man far enough out of earshot so as to not increase the scale of the bollocking he was about to receive.
To derail the mad old git from further insults aimed at his massive son, Dad had bought up the subject of his imminent apprenticeship. The old codger had agreed to begin the training the following Monday. Hunder’s Dad had viewed this as a double success. Having firstly, shut the old man up from going on about his son’s impressive mass. And, secondly, appeasing his infuriated wife with the news that he might actually be about to get his hand on some of the old man’s wealth.
While the rest of the two worlds population had been changing their world view and re-training for life after the decline. Hunder’s dad had been a little too busy and myopically focussed on getting hold of his dad’s business and the family money to even notice that there wouldn’t be anything to spend the money on.
‘Excuse me sir!’
Hunder was pulled from his thoughts. A customer had tried to grab his attention. Hunder glanced away from the eggs on the hotplate towards the counter. Only the kid in the paper pirate hat and the thin man in the loud shirt reading the newspaper were sat there. Neither were looking to him for service and Hunder returned his attention to the eggs.
‘Excuse me sir!’
Hunder looked around again. The kid in the paper pirate head tipped his thumb lazily towards the floor behind the counter. Hunder stepped forward and leaned over the worktop. A kid aged six or seven stared up at him from the other side of the counter.
‘Good morning sir,’ said the boy in a twee voice.
‘Err… Good morning,’ replied Hunder gruffly. His eyes scanned the seating area for signs of a parent or a guardian.
‘May I please have a portion of the eggy bread?’ inquired the boy.
‘Err… of course!’ replied Hunder taken aback.
‘And a glass of milk please?’
Hunder nodded. His eyes once again roamed the diner. The Quads market could be a rowdy and sometimes dangerous place. It was not unusual for a mother or father to secrete their offspring somewhere safe while they bought groceries. Though it was unusual though, thought Hunder that the parent hadn’t made him aware of the arrangement. It was certainly unusual that the offspring just happened to be extremely eloquent, polite and charming. ‘Of course you can likkle man!’
Oh well thought Hunder at least I can keep an eye on the lil’ fella until his parents come back to collect him. As he was closing the diner for the last time tonight he wasn’t even that bothered about the risk of non-payment. He was thus taken aback again when the boy handed him a copper coin.
‘I’ll take that table there if that’s suitable?’ said the boy, motioning over his shoulder.
‘I’ll bring it straight over.’
Hunder shrugged at the kid in the paper pirate hat and moved back to the hotplate. He felt a warm feeling inside. The kid had reminded him that politeness wasn’t dead. Manners were still a thing.
He also felt sorry for the kid. For a split second he hoped that the kid’s intelligence and well-meaning personality wouldn’t hinder him in life. Wouldn’t leave him downtrodden. Like it always had done Hunder.
Or at least, like it had done until six weeks ago.
Behind him, Revenge Boy sat himself at his chosen table and waited for his breakfast.
The years had passed and Hunder’s dad continued the family tradition. Never once thinking to question the diminishing trade or demand for his work. As his inheritance shrunk so did his son continue his inexplicable growth. By the time of his senior school year Hunder was twice the size of his nearest fellow pupil and a shoe in for every sports team the school had to offer.
During his final parents evening his gym teacher had described Hunder to his parents as positively anabolic. Before proceeding to interrogate Hunder’s mother on what diet he had been bought up on.
‘If I could just get some of whatever he’s had into my year fives… We could really make a name for ourselves this season.’
Hunder’s mother had left the meeting almost in tears and therefore not been present when the rest of Hunder’s teachers had described a model pupil. Studious and intelligent. Hunder had spent most of his school life in the library or extra lessons. His teachers had watched him bloom into a star pupil with excellent grades.
‘Of course, they’re going to say that!’ screeched Hunder’s Grandad from somewhere amongst the pillows of his deathbed. ‘They wouldn’t bloody well dare criticise him, would they?’
Hunder’s dad had done his best to raise the spirits of his father at the hospital. Grandad was too far gone to be able to question why he wasn’t on a private ward. Hunder’s Dad hadn’t exactly kept his old man up to date on the state of the accounts. He had remained by his father’s side for the final moments of his life. Before leaving the hospital and, for the first time ever, wondering what to do.
Two weeks later Hunder had left school. His father had taken him into his workshop to begin the family training. His tools laid out on the ancient battered work surface. Which had stood in the centre of the workshop for over two hundred years. A tangle of metal telescopic arms held an assortment of magnifying glasses which sprouted like a weed from their bracket in the centre of the desk. The small vice, its sharp edges worn smooth with time and graft, waiting mouth open for its next project after the hundreds which had preceded it. To its right the original hand wound lathe on which Old Man Hunder had turned his very first pen. A vast collection of seemingly identical files. All hand made by a back catalogue of Hunder’s. Laid neatly in the very same leather folder that Great Hunder had started with centuries before.
With an air of ceremony (and the need to avert his attention from his family’s imminent destitution) Hunder Senior had begun the training of his intelligent and eager to please son. They had been five minutes into the apprenticeship when Hunder senior had handed junior his current work in progress. Which had immediately been snapped in the huge paws attempting to manipulate it. At that juncture Hunder’s dad had realised, what his father had realised sixteen years previous. That Hunder was incapable of any kind of precision work and the family dynasty was doomed to come to an end.
Hunder’s dad had patted his son on the shoulder and shepherded him back out into the world to find his own way. Before proceeding back into the house and finding a bottle of black hops. Which he ingested far too quickly to be considered healthy.
The bell above the diner’s entrance door tinkled as more customers stepped in. This time a group of pensioners. Three women, led by a little old lady in a blue flowery dress, two men and an unidentifiable sixth person nestled in a wheelchair covered with thick blankets. The lady in the blue flowery dress signalled towards a corner booth. The rest of the group chattered excitedly as they took their seats.
The lady in the blue flowery dress headed off towards the payphone. Hunder watched her colleagues suspiciously. There was always the risk of trouble when gangs congregated in the market. Especially when they were showing colours so brazenly.
Hunder noted the pastel blue blazers of the gentlemen. The flowery blue headscarves, blue rinses and navy raincoats adorning the ladies and the blue chequered blankets of the enshrouded creature in the wheelchair with its electric blue powder coated rims. All indicating the newest customers were Dearz of the North Quad Allotment 88 Crypts.
Hunder scanned the rest of the seating area to re-assure himself there were no rival gang colours on display elsewhere in the diner. He had noticed an unusual amount of watch constables on the perimeter of the market that morning and was confident that nothing would be going down in his diner.
Still, the group were now under his beady eye. Hunder watched as the old lady in the blue flowery dress finished her phone call. Or rather, was ushered away from the phone by a man who looked like a tramp who had just entered the diner. For a second Hunder thought there was going to be trouble. But, the old lady in the flowery dress had moved away towards the counter.
Hunder watched the octogenarian gang leader as she shuffled towards him. Despite her small stature and advanced age, she seemed to exude an air of menace. If a wolf had ever tried to gobble up this Granma it was almost certain that wolf would end up knee capped. At the very least it would have preferred its chances with the woodcutter.
‘Three pots of tea please, young man,’ she said.
Hunder had accepted his failure with regards to his dads attempted training. The following week had caught the next bus into South Tycho City. The driver should have charged him two fairs for the two seats his frame occupied on the journey. Some deep primal instinct told him it wasn’t a good idea. Only serving to prove, once again, that Hunder was instantly misjudged on most occasions.
For the following weeks Hunder had roamed South Tycho City with an air of bewilderment and intrigue. Upon adjusting his senses to the noise and pollution of the city he had begun the task of seeking employment or training from a small short list he had prepared during the journey. South Tycho Library, The Relic Pact Museum, bAden & bAden Pharmaceuticals, The South Tycho Campus of UltraSamp University and other reputable institutions. Who would doubtless make use of Hunder’s sterling academic qualifications.
They all probably would have made use of said qualifications. If they hadn’t been packaged together with what appeared to be an eight-foot-tall, six-foot-wide, bipedal stone ox.
With depressing inevitability, Hunder had headed back to the bus station with plans to return home and seek employment on one of the local farms. When he passed a recruiting office for The South Tycho Defence Force.
The recruiting officer had appeared behind the reception desk enthusiastically. Before backing away a little to take in the scale of the apparition which stood before him. For his part the recruiting officer had seized the opportunity with gusto. He wooed Hunder with the promise of travel, adventure and the opportunity to learn a trade. Hunder, who had excelled in geography and longed to see the worlds had signed up. Travel and adventure? There wasn’t much hope for that back home on the dust farms.
The recruiting officer could barely believe his fortune. He had immediately telegrammed the regional commander. Inquiring about the possibility of an increased bonus. Having just signed up an entire infantry squad.
The regional commander had been delighted with the news and, having missed six months’ worth of quotas, authorised a one-off bonus payment to the recruiting officer. Two months later, after reading the intake report and seeing only one name on the list, the regional commander had exploded with rage at the fraudulent junior rank. The recruiting officer had been summoned and been subjected to a tirade of abuse from the regional commander. With threats of immediate discharge and court-martial.
‘Sir! Before you process the paperwork, I suggest you arrange a visit to Camp Malaki to view the new recruit… Sir!’ Spluttered the recruiting officer. Cursing his own cantankerous nature which had caused him to ask for a bonus in the first place.
‘I bloody well will!’ Responded the regional commander, before storming out of the office in a blind rage. His bloody job was on the line because of that little snot. And if he was going down he was sure as hell going to take that entire damn recruitment office with him. It took the regional commander five minutes to calm down sufficiently to realise the office he’d stormed out of had been his own. He wasn’t bloody going back to it today in case that incompetent idiot was still there standing to attention.
The Regional Commander had visited the training yards at Camp Malaki the following morning. It had taken only a split second for his blood pressure to lower . After having observed Hunder standing clumsily to attention in the exercise yard. The commander excused himself and returned to his office happy in the knowledge that the recruiting officer had a fair point.
If anything, he thought to himself on the journey home, the recruiting officer had probably under-exaggerated his new recruit. Squad? That bloody brute of a man was worth a platoon at least!
And so, it was that the mild mannered Hunder had passed basic training. Before deploying out into the field with a defence force that had very little to defend. He learned very quickly what the recruitment officer had described as travel and adventure entailed. He had been posted to a permanent artillery position near the north gate of Tycho Crater. A ramscahckle camp nestled among an endless sea of dust. The adventure came from the fact that the nine other recruits in his squad were intellectually comparable to damp bread. And their staff sergeant drank so much cheap black hops on a daily basis one had to question where the hell he was getting it from.
Hunder turned his attention from the hot plate as a rusty old lucky-lucky bob approached the counter. He sighed and stepped towards the ghastly mechanical apparition. Hunder recognized this particular bob from a previous visit to the diner. Its head, left shoulder and breastplate had at some point been replaced with crudely bent, panel beaten road signs and metal cigarette advertisements. It gave the bob a bit of colour.
‘Fzzt…Tsst…ksshhh!’ The bob spoke in a burst of static. Gesticulating wildly towards a fishnet bag overloaded with random tat that was slung over its shoulder.
‘Nope,’ Hunder replied. ‘We still don’t need a set of genuine Kosa-Nui dynasty steak knives. Same as last week.’
‘Kzzzt?’ replied the bob tilting its head to one side, its visual camera apparatus focusing in and out. It jabbed a mechanical finger over its shoulder indicating another genuine bargain from the goody bag of garbage. ‘Ksstt…fssss. Tssss?’
‘Pretty certain! And we’re not in the market for the latest blockbuster video tapes! The ones we bought off you two months ago were garbage. They’d been videotaped from a cinema or something!’
‘Dakkit… zzt… hzzzzz!’ the bob held out its arms, palms up, dripping innocence.
‘Give over,’ laughed Hunder. ‘At one point I could hear someone talking in the audience!’
The bob shook its head wildly. Hunder smirked. The kid in the paper pirate hat was watching the exchange with interest. Over the bobs shoulder the guy using the payphone who looked like a tramp, made a signal for coffee towards Hunder. Who acknowledged him with a thumbs up.
‘Fsst…zzzt…tssst!’ crackled the bob again. This time yellow sparks flew from its imitation mouthpiece giving the impression the really happy blonde guy on the cigarette advert’s head was on fire.
‘Miracle cleaning product? I think we’re fully stocked up on miracle- ‘
‘Yep, even if it comes with a free and equally miraculous mop head!’
‘Fzzzzt….’ The bobs shoulders sagged and it lowered its head dejectedly.
‘Not today! Move along buddy!’
The bob took a step back and decided to go all in. It raised a juddering hand to its chest and flicked a switch. Its entire chest piece sprang open with a metallic clang. Revealing half a dozen rubbish looking fake gold digital watches dangling from brass wall hooks which had been screwed into its inner chest.
Hunder feigned interest in the watches for a split second before shaking his head and turning to leave. The kid in the paper pirate hat was sniggering and the bob turned its attention towards him.
Hunder headed back to the hot plate. There was a time he’d have bought one of those watches out of sympathy.
Until six weeks ago.
His right hand moved up to his chest pocket. For the hundredth time that morning he was re-assured to feel the square of thick card was still there. He glanced over his shoulder to ensure no one was watching. Satisfied he was being as ignored as ever he risked a glance into his pocket.
The print said reassuringly “One Way.”
Hunder passed the two years of military service diligently observing the daily drills. Constantly seeking to better himself at every opportunity. While the rest of the squad lazed around. And the sergeant escalated his drinking to the point where you could wake up with a hangover and a half-eaten kebab plastered to your face by spending five minutes near to him. Hunder would quietly maintain the small barracks. Perform equipment checks and, whenever possible, sit alone reading anything he could get his hands on.
Eighteen months into his tour, a surprise inspection of the camp from the admiralty should have seen the entire squad dishonourably discharged and the sergeant court martialled for gross dereliction of duty.
Had it not been for Hunder’s daily diligence. Whereby the inspectorate had left pleased that the sergeant was, against all odds, maintaining strict discipline unusual for such a remote frontier posting.
The pickled sergeant was put forward for a commendation the following morning. For exemplary performance despite the extreme remoteness of the posting and, as the inspecting lieutenant had personally commented, keeping that bloody hulking private in line.
The coffee which Hunder had deployed to sober up the virtually catatonic sergeant was put to further use post inspection. Hunder found it was particularly useful for cleaning the 40mm artillery piece which formed the centre point of the camp.
Two years to the day after his arrival at the firebase Hunder had received his discharge papers. Handed over personally by the recruiting officer who had promised him so much back in South Tycho City. The recruitment officer had stated it was unfortunate that Hunder had not benefitted from the positive influence of his sergeant and gone on to a greater military career. For his part Hunder smiled and left the camp less than an hour later.
Hunder never found out, but karma had eventually caught up with the erroneously praised Sergeant. Having received a fast-tracked promotion he was killed in action a few months later near Mount Thumper. At the resulting inquest his squad mates had maintained that the Sergeant had been inebriated during the mission. Which contributed to his decision to lead his elite squad of drop infantry way off course. Directly into a village of heavily armed Indy insurgents. The squad had miraculously survived.
The adventure had been nothing but tedium. The travel had taken him nowhere. And so, Hunder had decided to settle down. He’d climbed aboard the next available transport and headed home.
His homecoming was not a happy event however. The new tenants of the family house informed him that his father had died the previous year. The townspeople who vaguely remembered the hulking man were quick to fill him in on the gossip relating to his father. It would seem the bottle that Hunder senior had climbed into after his sons failed apprenticeship did not have a bottom. Not a bottom that Hunder Senior had ever found that is.
The last of the family fortune gone. Hunder Senior had passed last winter in, what the town watch described as, mysterious circumstances. The elder Hunder had by all accounts managed to match his alcohol addiction with only one thing. That being sports gambling. There were two schools of thought on what had caused the blaze which had destroyed the family workshop and along with it Hunder Senior.
Firstly, that Hunder Senior had tried his hand at some sort of insurance fraud and ballsed is it up. Secondly, that the local mobsters were less than keen to allow seniors debts to continue mounting. And decided to show their dipleasure with lethal force.
Hunder chose not to seek any enlightenment on the matter and instead stowed away aboard the next freight train heading back to South Tycho City. A crumpled piece of paper with his mother’s supposed new address scrawled on it was the only thing of value he took from his hometown as he left for the last time.
Hunder’s search for his mother proceeded no further than the address he had been handed back home. The landlord of the small storage crate apartment block hadn’t known for sure her location. When quizzed on his former tenant’s current whereabouts he suggested that she may have gone off planet. Searching for employment on Kokoni.
Hunder had trudged away wearily and spent the night at the Kennett Stockades freight terminal. Gazing up at the bright blue orb of Sako’s sister planet. Contemplating the whereabouts of his mother and his next move. Many years later Hunder would recognise that evening as being one of the saddest of his life.
For the next few years Hunder had carried out various labour jobs in the heart of The Quads. Busily he’d lifted and toiled. Surviving on the meagre pickings he was afforded as wages.
He’d spent months trying to find work that would suit his academic excellence but to no avail. On three occasions he’d applied to the Tycho City Library for employment. On all three occasions he’d been turned down.
The third time, having finally made it as far as the interview, the interviewer had reacted in shocked horror as Hunder had stepped into his office. As politely as possible the library employee had rejected Hunder as an applicant. Hunder had thanked the man for his time before stepping out of the office. Hunder remained determined to apply again, only to overhear the employee comment to his assistant “The only way that lump is working here is if we ever need another bloody bookshelf!”
And still Hunder plodded through life. Until finally and inevitably he found himself penniless and at a total loss at to what to do next. In a fateful bout of desperation Hunder had broken into the storeroom of a small eatery in the Quads and settled down to sleep.
Hunder’s huge fingers drummed against the counter top. He glanced sideways at the other two guys who had already ordered their coffee. They fidgeted as their colleague tried to decide what to have for breakfast. The greasy spoon’s menu was not exactly expansive. In all the time Hunder had worked there it had never changed. The few options available to paying customers were scrawled in black marker on a grease stained card pinned above the hotplate.
The third guy rubbed his chin and tipped his head as he scrutinised the menu. Hunder noticed one of the other guys pulling his hair and silently screaming in frustration and shot him a knowing wink.
‘I think I’ll…’ said the third guy slowly and deliberately.
Hunder waited, sensing a decision was about to be made. Then the third guy had rolled back on his heels and returned his hand to his chin. Retreating back into deep contemplation of the difficult decision which had to be made.
‘Bloody hell fire Dade!’ said the first guy, his patience evaporating. They’d been at the counter for almost five minutes now. He checked his watch. Borrst was gonna be here soon and Dade couldn’t even work out what he wanted to eat. ‘Just order something!’
‘What’s in the gumbo?’ inquired Dade, watching Hunder out of the corner of his eye suspiciously.
Hunder told him.
‘I’ll have a black coffee please,’ replied Dade quickly.
The greasy spoons owner had discovered the slumbering giant the following morning and woken him with a furious tirade. Hunder had argued his case before apologising profusely. He desperately offered to help the old man with any work he needed doing as compensation for his intrusion. For his part, the old man had grabbed the opportunity of some help. He took pity on the downtrodden, well-spoken giant of a man who had, until five minutes previous, been snoring among the tins and packets of cheap catering stock which littered the storeroom.
The old man had been lonely himself. He’d run the greasy spoon for the past twenty years. Ever since leaving the merchant navy to look after his son who had been in serious danger of going off the rails. The old man wasn’t a natural choice for an owner of a food outlet in a busy market square. Having zero people skills and a total lack of any sort of catering knowledge. In the interest of his only son he’d persevered and over time the café had maintained a steady stream of customers.
The old man’s son, who should one day inherit his dad’s small business had, despite his father’s best attention, managed to not only go off the rails but also the wagon, reservation and the bloody chain. The blazing row had been inevitable. So had the result and the old man’s son had left vowing never to return.
The months passed. Hunder continued assisting the old man with day to day chores behind the scenes of the greasy spoon. He spent his days labouring . His evenings at the South Tycho library which had repeatedly ignored his applications for employment. The arrangement had continued until one morning the old man had thrown Hunder a greasy apron and stated that since he effectively worked at the café anyway he may as well look the part.
Hunder had emerged from the back room the following morning and worked the grill. He showed a reasonable aptitude for the work. As the weeks passed the old man had been more and more impressed with his new employee’s industry and can-do attitude. To the point where the old man had all but handed over the front of house duties. Before discovering something called free time which he’d never experienced before. Hunder had been at the diner ever since.
Months passed and the old man had suggested that Hunder should clear out the store room he’d been using as a makeshift bedroom for the past six months and actually make it into a bedroom. In lieu of anything else being on the horizon, Hunder had complied. For the first time in years he’d found himself with his own home.
The months turned to years and the greasy spoons trade grew . Hunder had gone through every book worth reading in the small local library. He now spent many evenings wandering the flea markets looking for second hand books on which he could spend his meagre wages.
The steady years had begun to take their toll on the old man. He had Hunder convert the other downstairs room in the back of the greasy spoon into a bedroom. So the old man could avoid the rickety steps up to his first-floor apartment. The two had spent their evenings together in the makeshift lounge. Greatly enjoying each other’s company. The old man had taught Hunder the intricacies of Triple-Hong and regaled him with tales from his time piloting the pan orbital tugs in the merchant navy. In turn, Hunder would read his second-hand books to the old man whose eyesight had begun to fail.
And then, one rainy autumn morning, the old man had died.
Hunder had been devastated. The old man had been the only person to ever show him any kind of affection. Ever since he’d left his mother all those years ago.
Diligently, Hunder had gathered the old man’s possessions and made the necessary arrangements with regards to burial. He’d used his meagre savings to ensure the old man was well taken care of. Before saying his goodbyes at the small cemetery on the banks of the nearby Bast Canal.
And then Hunder had returned home. He sat in his chair in the small living space. Alone, he stared at the empty chair his only friend had occupied every night for the past two years as they had chatted and laughed.
Hunder had sat there in the dim light of the bare bulb and experienced a sensation he was unfamiliar with. Hunder was angry. As the grief took hold Hunder let himself be taken by a lifetime of resentment. The rejection by his grandfather, the abandonment by his mother and father. That damn recruitment officer and his lies. The ineptitude of the military he had served diligently and that awful sergeant. His rejection by society. It had all bubbled up inside him and Hunder had not known what to do.
Hunder had spent his entire life making himself small and timid. Almost apologising for his size and strength. He had never said boo to a goose. For his entire life he had let the world walk over him. Now, quite unexpectedly, Hunder had the unpleasant sensation that what he really wanted to do… was smash something.
And then the old man’s son had walked into the room.
The breakfast rush was showing signs of abating. Hunder walked around the seating area collecting empty plates and mugs. He stepped back behind the counter and filled the basin with hot water before dunking the dirty crockery into the sink. He was half tempted to not even bother with the pots given that he wouldn’t be opening again tomorrow. But the old man had been rigorous with his routines and Hunder felt letting them slide, even now, would be a betrayal. Once again, he lifted his hand to his chest pocket and felt the reassuring square of the inter-orbital ticket resting there.
The entrance bell rang again. Hunder turned to see a watch constable cross the floor towards the man who looked like a tramp. Who was still on the payphone. Hunder thought the watchman was going to arrest the phone user. But instead he’d stopped right in front of him and was almost standing to attention.
The realization dawned on Hunder that the man who looked like a tramp was in fact a watch detective. Was he the reason there had been so many watchmen on duty around the perimeter of the market that morning? Was he here because… No! Surely not.
Hunder suddenly felt nervous. Carefully and as nonchalantly as possible he made sure the curtain covering the door to the back room was drawn. Completely obscuring the wreckage of the back of house area from customers on the other side of the counter. Hunder shuffled back to the worktop. Looking down his nose his right foot probed under the counter until it came in contact with his large leather suitcase. Still trying to act as naturally as possible, Hunder gave the case a shove with his foot. Pushing it right into the back of the counter storage cupboard. It was heavy and even with all his strength he had to give out a small grunt of exertion to get it moving.
The case thudded against the customer side wall of the cupboard and Hunder winced. No one had looked around. The kid in the paper pirate hat looked like he was asleep and the thin man in the loud shirt had gone back to reading the paper. The noise had not been loud enough to grab the detective’s attention. Hunder closed the roller shutter covering of the counter cupboard and breathed more easily.
Bloody typical thought Hunder. He’d have welcomed a watchman into the diner anytime. Until six weeks ago.
Hunder remembered the detective had asked for a coffee a while back and he’d forgotten all about serving him. He grabbed the nearest clean mug and brimmed it with the sludge like coffee before carrying it over to the detective.
Just as he was reaching to pass the beverage to his customer the detective had dropped the phone. It clattered against the back wall of the diner. Hunder could just about make out a tinny voice still talking on the other end of the line.
The detective was motionless for a brief moment before he bounded out the door and back into the rain. The constable followed hot on his heels.
Hunder sagged with relief.
The old man’s son had concluded his experiments with mind altering substances and black hops. He had concluded that he liked them. He liked them a lot.
He’d spent the last three years engaged in a prolific spree of petty crime to feed his habit and was content with his chosen career path. Until last week, when he’d heard that the old codger had carked it. In place of grief the old man’s son had sensed an opportunity. The diner was in a prime location at the north corner of the quads market. It would fetch a tidy sum with an aggressive enough sales pitch. A tidy sum which would allow the old man’s son to kick back for the next five years and get trolleyed at every possible opportunity.
And so, he’d returned. Intent on selling everything of value. He had not expected to find that bloody lump his dad had employed as cheap labour still there. Not only there. But sitting in the downstairs room surrounded by books and his father’s crap like he bloody well lived there.
The old man’s son decided to use the opportunity to test his aggressive negotiation technique. He had launched into a verbal tirade towards Hunder. Paying no heed to the man’s massive stature or his emotional state. Firstly, because he was well aware of how soft the lump of a man was. Secondly, and quire crucially, because he was still off his head on some white powdery stuff he’d treated himself to that very morning.
The bloody brute of a man had just sat there. Head down. Taking the abuse. The horrible son upped the ante another notch and demanded Hunder get out immediately. He realised he was actually enjoying the experience of belittling his father’s assistant when the massive man’s shoulders had started moving up and down. He’s crying thought the old man’s son laughing manically. He must weigh thirty-five stone and I’m making him cry!
The old man’s son decided to go into overdrive and kicked out at the pile of books at Hunder’s side. He enjoyed that as well. He turned and kicked the old man’s vacant chair knocking it into the shelf holding his late father’s triple-hong set. Spilling the battered pieces over the floor. The cascade toppled the old man’s walking stick sending it to the floor with a clatter. Hunder glared at the messy pile of belongings which the old man had kept so neatly these past years. His eyes stung. His teeth clenched together and his fists tightened into a ball. The first pebble of the landslide had fallen.
The old man’s son, revelling in his frantic excitement, turned to find something else to break. He was only vaguely aware of a shadow falling over him as Hunder rose from his chair. Tears streaming down his cheeks. The landslide had begun.
The old man’s son had turned around at the exact same instant a lifetime of frustration and anger had finally found an outlet and exploded into an extraordinary force backed by twenty-five stones of unleashed aggression.
There had been a sound like a raw steak hitting a chopping block.
That had been six weeks ago.