Boys from the Neighborhood
by Dan Reed
Space pilot Tom Farrell finds the Benevento brothers naive in trying to confront a Gilded oligarch over a mining claim in the outer Solar System. But two things command loyalty: they're boys from the neighborhood, and they're family.
“Please. I can pay for it. Just take me to Ganymede.”
I had heard all this bull before, and the one universal truth was that the kid absolutely couldn’t pay for it. That’s why my one policy was that my customers pay cash, and pay it in advance of any interplanetary flight. But this guy thought I was drunk enough to take him on a joyride.
“Listen, I got a line on a big deposit up there. Platinum. Palladium. Maybe even titanium. So much high-grade alunite I could probably build you a fleet of new ships once we process it. All I need is someone to fly me out and set me up. I’ll handle pickup on my own.”
“Kid, it is way too late to discuss business. Why don’t you just close up this dump and throw me out so I’ll go home.”
I owned that dump, but the kid didn’t have a clue. Just as well. I was sitting on my customary stool at Mad Mike’s, a bar that had been in my neighborhood longer for longer than I had been alive. I’d bought it eight years ago when it was about to go under and hadn’t changed a damned thing.
The colored chandeliers that hung over the bar were dulled by decades of dust. The leather-covered booths that lined the back still had an almost mossy stink from the days, rapidly fading into ancient history, when Brooklyn had legalized marijuana. The arcade games in the corner still relied on archaic 2D projections of space battles and deer hunting. As long as I owned it, Mad Mike’s would remain chained to the past, and proud of it.
When I was in Brooklyn, I was in the bar, but that was usually only a week or two between months-long runs out to the Belt, riding a fusion-powered plasma jet there and back. I missed the unpredictability of my military days, when things could get interesting at any time. This was two to three months of butt-numbing boredom with twenty minutes of excitement on either end.
The bartender wasn’t going to quit. “I’ll pay you double, and I’ll give you twenty percent of my claim when I start processing ore. It’s going to be huge. My only worry is that I find so much the commodity market crashes.”
“Listen, you’re a good kid, but you’re slinging suds in a dive bar. I have to assume if you had even a decent freaking fraction of the money you’d need to pay me, you wouldn’t be here.”
“Fine, I don’t have the money. Not all of it, not even most of it. But I’m good for it. You go ask anyone in the neighborhood.”
I guess I gave him a bit of a drunken shrug, because he stopped. He waited until my eyes came up to meet his, and he put his hand on my left shoulder. “Seriously, ask anyone. Ask them if Paulie Benevento is a stand-up guy. If one guy within ten blocks of here tells you different, I’ll never bother you again.”
I looked at him again, but for the first time, really. He was a skinny kid, with a pile of black, curly hair that inspired strong bald-man jealousy on my part. He was dressed in the usual 20-something combination of a smart-fabric shirt, old-school black wool slacks, and the cap of a local hockey team that hadn’t played a game in thirty years.
He was covered in the rings, pins, bracelets and pendants typical of men his age, a garish display of metal that always annoyed me with its superficiality. Yet there was a sharpness in his grey-blue eyes that seemed to imply, if not trustworthiness, at least a hatred of proving a failure.
His hand had been extended at least twenty seconds before I took it. He didn’t look at all uncomfortable while he waited, or when I finally took it in mine and shook it a little too enthusiastically.
“Well, Paulie, you’ve got my interest up, anyway. I only think you’re half full of it. Grab that Johnnie Walker, and let’s drink to thinking on it.”
He poured a couple of shots, and we both murmured salud as we tilted the heat-bearing liquid down our throats. I felt it mingle with the beer and tequila from earlier in the night, with the earlier occupants expressing their disapproval. I pulled out my wallet and fumbled with the cash.
“Mr. Farrell, that was on the house.”
Son of a gun was being magnanimous with my booze.
* * *
It’d probably sound better to say Paulie Benevento had so impressed me with his assertiveness that I took him to Ganymede on faith. But get real: I asked around. I was looking for any reason not to take him, and I still wasn’t sure I was going to help this kid even if he was the flower of Carroll Gardens. But he had already broken down my strongest barrier, my absolute refusal to consider charity cases.
The only way to make money as a pilot for prospectors was to make absolutely sure you got paid before they went bust digging around on some ice-cold rock. And they almost all went bust. Just like the 1800’s California gold rush, the only people who got rich were the ones who got them there or sold them the supplies once they arrived.
Sure, there were a few lucky bastards whose ship had dropped them right on top of a pile of easy-to-refine ore, but for each one of them there were a thousand guys lurking around the transit center on Ceres, hoping to sell off their mining bots and portable shelters to the next sucker.
Unlike most other pilots, I actually owned my ship, which meant I was one of the lucky bastards getting rich on the backs of the young and optimistic. It had been a 50-50 deal with a partner at first, but after a few runs I bought him out, and the Hephaestus was mine. So instead of drawing a salary, I was taking in a small fortune each run to give someone else the chance to make a much larger fortune. I probably would have blown it all on booze, antique motorcycles and women, but in a rare moment of foresight I thought to find someone else who could handle the money side.
My business manager, Joe Hagan, was the only person who knew I was filthy rich. To the rest of the world, I was a friendly space pilot who liked to blow his earnings by buying rounds in the neighborhood bar. The truth was, I not only owned Mad Mike’s, but most of the neighborhood I had grown up in.
Every time a brownstone came up for sale, I had Joe buy it, no matter what the neo-yuppie hordes were bidding. Whenever possible, I would keep the tenants in my new property right where they were.
I wasn’t buying these houses to get richer or develop some nouveau-postmodern-authentic-revival condominium complex for the finance types. I just wanted one neighborhood to stay a place where a middle-class couple could have their kid and their dog and their Wednesday happy-hour drinks and their fresh bread from an unpretentious bakery with a picture of the Virgin on the wall.
But I also wanted to sit at the end of the bar at Mad Mike’s and not have any of my fellow booze-hounds know I was the guy keeping their neighborhood going. So everyone else thought Joe Hagan was the local billionaire, and I was just some whiskey-soaked rocket jockey who liked to touch down in his old neighborhood between launches.
Until now, that persona had saved me from having to talk down desperate dreamers like Paulie Benevento. But somehow he had it in his head that I could get him a spot on my ship (his dumb luck that I could) and clearly intended to keep at me until I told him off or strapped him into a passenger chair on that big white tube with the tiny sun in the back.
I told him, the next night, that if he could make sure I didn’t see the bottom of my glass for the next week or so, and he got together a not entirely offensive down payment, he’d be on my next flight in ten days’ time.
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Dan Reed