Chapter 3 of another tale from the Exclusion Zone
The next night, Savak looked over the floor of the Bad Habits and could practically hear money flowing into his pockets.
A Friday night, a payday, the bar was packed with off-duty security and Institute pencil necks all knocking back drinks and eyeing the dancers. Oleg and Bort were back on the door, all three bartenders were slammed, and he spied no less than four games of Bura at the back tables. Savak sipped his whiskey and reminded himself to up the rental fees next month. The card sharks had to make good if they monopolized valuable table space.
That said, it was going to be a very profitable night indeed.
There were even a handful of stalkers celebrating in one corner. An uncommon sight. Their kind usually frequented dives like the 100 Rads or Mama’s Beads. Even though Savak billed Bad Habits as a real stalker bar – its walls decorated with de-milled AKs, GP-5 gas masks, and old black and white Pre-Incident photos – the genuine article tended to make Savak’s regulars uncomfortable. This bunch was whooping it up, their table crowded with empty beer pitchers.
He recognized them: four of Bonyev’s crew. Ushanka Security or some such rubbish. The former guide had expanded his operations but named his business after a hat. “We got you covered.”
Savak sneered and took another drink. Why those idiots gave themselves stupid nicknames was beyond him. You need to look strong, sound confident right from the start if you wanted to be taken seriously. Image is everything.
One of the stalkers, a petite blonde called Finch, hoisted her glass and slapped the shoulder of a skinny kid beside her. “Here’s to Pavlo. Popped his cherry and got signed the same day. May the Zone always love you.” Her comrades cheered and drank. Already well-oiled, the kid chugged his beer and slammed his mug on the table. It broke. Everyone roared with laughter.
Khuylo! Savak stormed over. “Hey, what the hell is wrong with you? Think you can come in here and start breaking things?”
Bonyev’s medic, a leathery little knot of a man with a patch of wispy red hair, stood. “Oh, ease off, Tul. It was an accident. We’re celebrating tonight. Ushanka’s got a new member.” He swayed a little as he gestured toward the kid. “Meet Pavlo. AKA, ‘Scarecrow’.”
Savak didn’t turn. Scarecrow. What cow shit. He glared at the man instead, trying to recall his stupid nickname. Red hair, red hair… Rooster. This fool calls himself Rooster.
Rooster tapped the side of his nose. “Scarecrow may not look like much but let me tell you he’s got balls of steel. Kid dropped a pseudo-dog first trip out.”
His comrades nodded. Savak frowned. “A dog? So what?”
Skinny Pavlo bristled. “Not a dog. A pseudo dog.”
Savak finally looked his way. “So you shot a fake dog, is that it?” he scoffed. “Probably a mistake – like my glass.”
“Spoken like a shit weasel too scared to walk the Zone.”
Rooster snickered. Savak heard Finch snort. He reddened, then glanced toward the door to see if Oleg and Bort had noticed what was happening. They hadn’t.
Savak stuffed his anger down and looked back at Rooster. “I’m adding the cost of the glass to your tab. Settle up and get going.”
Pavlo chuckled. “So, it’s true. You are scared, aren’t you?”
Savak turned. “What did you say?”
“You heard me,” the kid replied. He waved one hand to indicate the Bad Habits décor. “So you’re a fake stalker, is that it?”
Savak willed Oleg and Bort to appear. They didn’t. Never show fear, he reminded himself. Certainly not in your own house. He lowered his voice. “It’s past your bed time, little Pavlo. You should toddle on home now.”
The young man sat back, unfazed. A thin smile crept onto his lips. “Savak Tul.” He stretched out the name like a cheap elastic. “I’ve heard of you.”
“Oh really,” Savak replied coolly. “What have you heard?”
“That I should steer clear of you.”
Savak was about to agree but the kid continued. “I heard you give Traders a bad name. That you charge a premium for shit gear while you grind on honest salvage.” One of Pavlo’s hands came up, thumb and forefinger a fraction apart. “Savak Tul is a little man, a tick burrowed in deep just outside the Zone, getting fat on her blood.”
Savak’s vision narrowed, his heart pounded in his ears. The stalkers at the table tightened like springs. The kid’s next words came in from a great distance. “They say I should never turn my back on you because you’re a treacherous – fucking – snake. Like your old boss found out.”
After that, everything happened all at once.
Savak lunged across the table. Empty pitchers went flying. Everyone started yelling, cursing. Rooster grabbed his arm. Oleg and Bort appeared, large and looming. Finch spun and kneed Bort in the groin. The other stalker swung a chair at Oleg. Those tussles spiraled out into the crowd.
Despite Rooster, Savak managed to grab Pavlo’s jacket but the kid was on his feet in an eye blink. Hard eyes in a young face, mouth twisted into a snarl, a knife in his hand. Savak threw an elbow at Rooster and grabbed at a shard of broken beer glass when a shotgun boomed on the other side of the room.
Yakiv, the lead bartender, was holding Chaser 12-gauge. “Next one goes in someone’s face,” he shouted. Finch and the other stalker stepped back. Pavlo slid the knife into a sheath on his belt and raised his hands. Rooster stepped between him and the bar, his nose dripping blood. “Okay, okay,” he said. “It’s over. No need to blow your top.”
“Get out,” Yakiv yelled. “Now.”
The crowd unfroze and slowly parted. A path opened to the door. Finch spit on the floor then threw a thick wad of Zone Script down after it. Oleg and Bort began hustling the four stalkers toward the front.
Meanwhile, Savak stood rooted in place, breathing hard, watching them go. Before he left, Pavlo glanced back, winked, and mouthed the word ‘snake’ before Oleg shoved him out.
The door slammed and like a circus carousel starting up, the bar slowly returned to motion. A server picked up Finch’s money. Another set the table back on its legs. Yakiv shouted that the next round was on the house and the crowd let out a half-hearted cheer. Music came back on. Dancers reemerged and started gyrating.
Savak seethed. Shit weasel – a bad name – a tick – a snake – your old boss – a fake stalker.
Oleg was at his side. “Sorry, boss. I –”
“Where the fuck were you?” Savak snapped. “I pay you to keep a handle on things. Why did you even let them in, in the first place?”
Oleg shrugged. “They had money. You always say never turn a spender away.”
“Did you hear what the skinny suka called me?” Savak growled. “Me? Me? Who’s been here from the beginning. Back when that little shit was still pissing his pull-ups. For years, I sell supplies to his kind – ungrateful svolochi – and they say I’m too scared to walk the Zone?”
“What?” Savak demanded
“Well, he’s right,” Oleg whispered. “You don’t go in anymore.”
“That’s because I’m BUSY,” Savak shouted. Oleg looked down, abashed. Everyone in the bar froze again.
Savak caught himself, forced a wide smile on his face. “Nothing to see here, my friends. Just a case of Zone fever, eh? You know how it is – blowing off a little steam.”
He waved to get Yakiv’s attention. “Another round of drinks on the house. Never let it be said ‘Savak Tul is a cheapskate.’”
Another cheer in the bar, a bit louder this time.
Oleg was wringing his hands. “I’m sorry, boss. I didn’t mean anything. You’re a busy man, I know.”
Savak grunted, started back to his regular table. Oleg followed, still stammering. “It’s just that, you know, it’s true.”
Savak stopped. “What is true?” he asked, deadly quiet.
“That you don’t go into the Zone,” Oleg said. “Anymore,” he added quickly.
Oleg reddened. “So… so people know that. And, and they talk shit about you. All lies. I know it. But they don’t. So… so I had this idea, maybe to shut them up…”
Savak was still fuming inside but he feigned calm. People call him – Savak Tul – a snake? A coward? That could not stand.
He felt his jacket pocket for the nasty English cigarettes. “Tell me this idea.”