by David Kuijt and Nestor Rodriguez

Louie's Bar & Grill was located just south of Zone City, nestled between two dilapidated brownstone apartment buildings. It was very unprepossessing from the outside, essentially a storefront with a steel-shuttered window and a small washed-out sign tacked over the door.

Inside it looked much as it must have when it was a small neighborhood bar before the Zone was set up, decades ago. The front room was narrow, with the bar running down the right side and tables and booths scattered on the left. The lighting was dim, mostly single lamps hanging from the ceiling; somewhere a small generator coughed and struggled to keep running, causing the lights to flicker slightly.

Louie's was never crowded; there are never any bands, not even a jukebox. There is no pool table or dartboard to take up space or distract from the business at hand. And business is what goes on at Louie's. This is where you meet a contact or settle a deal. Or, if you need something, you can talk to the man himself.

There was a small bar guarded by a bartender, wiping a glass. A swinging door from the bar led behind it, probably to a small kitchen.

A small chime attached to the door rang as someone opened the door and stepped in. Or, to put it more precisely, filled the doorway like a tank would fill an alleyway, brushing the sides with his shoulders and ducking under the doorjamb to step in. After a glance around the room, he approached the bartender.

The bartender kept wiping his glass, greeting the newcomer with the ritual chant, "Wudlidbe?"

"I'm looking for Louie."

The bartender eyed him appraisingly.

The interloper was perhaps the biggest and toughest-looking person the bartender had ever seen. A foot and a half taller than him. Huge, broken-knuckled hands. Muscular bare arms sticking out of a sleeveless armorcloth duster, scars all over the arms. The face would have been homely if unmarked, with thick brows and a nose like an axe. But it wasn't unmarked; it looked like it had been used to batter open a series of brick walls, and the brick walls had lost. He had to be a replicant—humans don't grow that big. Clearly cybered, too, with dermal plating visible on the arms and face.

The bartender said, "And you are?"

"My name is Crusher." The voice went with the face—a cavernous rumble.

The bartender nodded. "Wait here." He headed for the back of the bar, while another bartender smoothly appeared from nowhere and took his place. After a minute, the first bartender returned and pointed behind him. "He's in that booth. Leave your heat."

After a glance at the booth Crusher placed a combat shotgun and heavy pistol on the bar without comment.

As Crusher approached the booth, he saw a man sitting slightly slouched over, wearing a plain brown sports coat over a rumpled shirt and smoking what smelled like real honest-to-Gawd tobacco. Louie was a beefy man, dark haired, with a heavily-lined, tired-looking face that looked like it had seen everything.

Louie gestured to the seats in front of him. "Sit down, Crusher. How can I help you?" His voice was scratchy and a bit thin for a solid-looking man.

Crusher looked dubiously at the chairs, then picked the most solid-looking one and sat down rather carefully. It creaked but held. "I've heard you can get stuff that is hard to find."

"Among other things. I help people find what or who they might need. No guarantees, but, hey, that's life in the Zone. What are you looking for?"

Crusher half-smiled. "I need some clean white shirts."

Louie's hand paused halfway to placing the cigarette to his lips. "Shirts?"

"Shirts. White."

"Huh." Louie eyed the HUGE man seated across the table and nodded. "Let me guess. You're not a 'one size fits all' kind of guy. Okay. I know someone who knows someone. Does brand knockoffs for sale in the Market. You can give me your measurements, I can pass 'em along. Or, for a referral fee, I can give you the address and you can go get measured."

Crusher frowned. "Inside the Zone, or into the City?"

Louie shrugged. "It's right over the bridge. In the City, yeah."

Crusher shook his head. "No, I'm not going into the City. I'll get you the sizes. What do I owe you?"

Louie rubbed his chin as he thought. "Tell you what. Come back with your sizes. I'll get an estimate from the guy and work out a percentage fee, plus shipping and handling. Sound good to you?"

Crusher tilted his head, frowning. "No. I don't need a laundry agent, just information. I don't want to be paying extra on shirts a year from now. I'll give you my sizes; you get an estimate from the guy and get his fees, including shipping to 93 Underground. I come back to you; you tell me his fees per shirt, and your price for the information and your footwork. If the price is acceptable I pay you a flat referral fee for the information, and you put me in touch with the guy. How's that?"

Louie raised an eyebrow as he reevaluated Crusher's business acumen. He shrugged and tapped some ash from his cigarette on an ashtray. "Fair enough. Just drop off the measurements with whoever's at the bar. He'll have the estimate and bill for you when you come back the next day."

Crusher nodded. "Done"

As Crusher made his way to the exit, Louie shook his head and grinned ruefully. "Shirts. Huh."

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