Of course, I knew they were coming. I’m not stupid. The moment someone mentioned there was a bunch of guys who didn’t like people selling unauthorised fish, it was only a matter of time before our paths crossed.
And when Damicar indicated that he was under a cooking embargo, opening up for business meant I was on a collision course with his persecutors, too.
If you can’t avoid trouble, you should at least arrange for it to come to you when you’re good and ready for it. And I was.
The only question was which group was this?
“Oh, dear,” said Damicar, standing behind me and peering over my shoulder. “I’m afraid this is my fault.”
“Is it? Are you sure?” The group swaggering down the street towards us didn’t look like a delegation from Restaurateurs Guild. But then, they would hardly do their dirty work themselves.
“They’re warehousemen. My uncle sent them.”
While we’d been setting up for the evening rush (in our case, one customer would have been a new record), Damicar had waxed lyrical about his family problems, which were the same as his business ones. His uncle.
“Uncle Malmur took me in after my mother and father died in a horrific fire. ‘You will come live with me and your aunt,” he said. ‘You are still a child, but you are not alone, even though your parents have both left this world. I am your father’s brother, so you will treat me with the same respect you would him. You will obey my instructions and follow the rules of my house. In return, you will be treated with love, and this will be your home. Your father was not only my brother, but also my partner, and one day you will take his place by my side. You are no less precious to me than my own children, but that does not mean I will stand for laziness or insolence. When you are old enough, you will make your own decisions. Then my instructions will become suggestions, and it will be up to you whether you wish to follow my advice. I will always be here for you, until I am not. You can rely on me. I hope I can rely on you.’ I was very grateful for his generosity and warm welcome. He gave me a room above the stables, and whipped me every day.”
Damicar liked to talk. I didn’t mind, it was like having the radio on in the background, with some DJ reading out a letter from a listener while sad music played underneath.
“My husband left me, the cat died, and I just found out I have cancer. Can you please play Smack My Bitch Up by The Prodigy.”
It was easy enough to let him ramble on as I tidied up. His uncle and his dad ran the fish business in Gorgoth, until his father passed and Uncle Malmur took control. No one sold so much as a sardine without paying respect to him. And by respect, I mean cash money.
“Why did he beat you?” I asked Damicar as he busily toiled over four woks at the same time. He clearly knew what he was doing. Competence is fascinating to watch, especially when you see it as rarely as I do.
“He said he’d treat me like his own children, and so he did.” Damicar didn’t seem too upset by his poor treatment.
“Did he make them live with the animals, too?”
“Oh, no. They lived in the house.”
“And he whipped them?”
“Not as such. Not actual whippings. But, you know, the implication was there.”
“What implication? That they might get treated like you?”
“Exactly. You understand. In many ways, he put me ahead of his own children.”
Damicar’s approach to survival was to pretend he didn’t need saving. You had to admire that. It did mean having to go slightly insane, but he did it with a smile on his face, and that was the important thing. You already feel bad, why make your abuser feel bad, too?
Because, in my experience, if there’s one thing vile people hate, it’s being made to feel like they’re doing something vile. Absolutely can’t stand it.
“And he’s the one who didn’t want your business being a success?” I asked.
“That hasn’t been proven.”
“But these are his men. You said he sent them, so he’s giving the orders, right?”
“I misspoke. Without proof, technically, that would be slander.”
“Are you worried about being taken to court?”
“It would look bad for the family.”
“Your uncle’s family?”
“Yes. My family.”
That’s the great thing about abusing someone when they were a child, you can twist their minds into whatever shape you like.
I hadn’t figured out exactly why his uncle wanted his nephew to fail — probably something to do with keeping the family business to himself — but I was sure it was no concern of mine.
Why take him into his home in the first place, if that’s how he felt about it?
Again, not for me to involve myself with. I just wanted to make enough money to buy myself a ticket out of here. And these large gentlemen with their home-made tattoos were in my way.
My approach to making money hadn’t exactly been on the QT, but even if I’d tried to play it sneaky-beaky, they’d still have found me. And this was just the first wave. If there were two groups gunning for me, I fully expected the other lot to turn up when it was the most inconvenient. My new approach to the single life had prepared me to expect the worst. Here it was, right on cue. I didn’t take it personally. This was just business.
To tell you the truth, I was looking forward to it. I’d been in a bad mood all day, and I needed to let off some steam. This bunch of twats were ideal.
You might think I was being cocky. It wasn’t like I had the most impressive of records when it came to dealing with life-threatening situations, I’d be the first to admit that, but I was still alive, and survival indicated some kind of ability to handle myself.
In any case, the sight of an unruly mob didn’t make me shit myself these days. I was too pissed off in general to care what they thought they were going to do to me. They needed to worry about what I was going to do to them.
And no, my plan was not to light up my hands and act like some kind of badass who was going to burn their town to the ground. It wasn’t that I was adverse to that kind of dickish behaviour — I may even have been guilty of doing it in the past — but even if it scared this lot into leaving me alone, it would also attract a lot of attention. And not the kind that would be good for business. Hard to sell people a fish supper when they’re running away, screaming.
It was getting dark, but helpfully a lot of the men were carrying torches along with their pitchforks, so people had noticed something was up, and were gathering around the edges, hoping for some entertainment.
I waited in the doorway as they approached, surrounded by the heady aroma of Damicar’s cooking. He was not going to be of any use in this upcoming confrontation, but I was used to that.
At least he wasn’t going to be a hindrance, either. On top of which, he also had a practicable skill to contribute. If he wanted to stay in the back and cook, that was fine by me. I sent him off to finish preparing the food.
“Are you open for business?” shouted the guy at the front. He looked like he was a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. One of the ones whose name had never been mentioned.
“Yes,” I said. “Would you like to make a reservation? Party of twenty-five?”
“I was talking to Damicar,” said the man.
“And I was talking to you. Looks like we’ve got ourselves a love triangle.”
They were looking at me with a mixture of confusion and hostility. Get those two in the right amounts, and you get contempt. Get it wrong, and you get Billy-Joe Hee Haw.
“You’re the one who’s been trying to sell black market fish, aren’t you?” he said to me.
“What if I am?” I was kind of enjoying myself. Not giving a shit is fun. What were they going to do, kill me? Okay, that was probably what they were going to do, but I was ready.
Damicar appeared with a platter of food. Actually, the platter was the broken door of a small cupboard, but it did just as well. Rustic.
The crowds edged forward as the smell hit them.
I took the tray and sent Damicar back for more.
“Would you like to try one?” I asked the main thug. I held the tray under his nose. He sniffed, was tempted, but resisted.
His men eyed each other, wanting to try the food, but they didn’t have the balls to go against their leader.
“What about the rest of you?” I said to the crowd. “Free samples, no obligation to buy.”
I could never be the sort of person who sells stuff to passersby on the street. Just thinking about it makes me shudder. I mean, it’s not as horrific as trying to get strangers to sign up for a monthly donation to Greenpeace — at least being a hawker involves an honest exchange of goods — but giving away stuff for free, that’s not so hard. Especially when it smells so good.
People came forward to snatch the small fish dumplings Damicar had made. The noises of pleasure they made eating them encouraged more to take a chance.
At this point, the thugs had one of two choices. They could get violent (everyone loves the classics), or they could go get someone further up the chain.
With a large crowd watching, it would be hard to start anything without causing panic and general mayhem. The more people I got interested in the food, the less likely I was to get the shit beaten out of me.
Damicar came out with the next tray. I had told him my plan, made sure he was okay with making no money the first night. We were going to give away all the food we could get down their greedy little throats.
And if they did go get someone more ‘official’ to have a word, maybe even Uncle Malmur, maybe I could cut a deal. He was probably a devious bastard, cunning, too, by all accounts. I would have to convince him we could all profit together. Of course, it’s hard to win an argument against a smart opponent, but it’s impossible to win an argument against a dumb one.
“This is illegal!” said the thug.
The men behind him all chimed in with nosies of agreement. This was a litigious rabble, apparently.
“So sue me,” I said.
“We’ll do better than that. Inspector, if you please.”
The men parted and a little man came out of their little group. He had squinty eyes and a moustache that looked uncomfortable on his face. He had a large leather-bound book under his arm.
The crowd gasped and backed away. That didn’t bode well.
“Is he the fish inspector?” I asked.
“He’s the tax collector,” said the thug, brandishing the words like a weapon.
Holy shit, they played dirty. Bringing a taxman to a fish fight. Touché, gentlemen, tou-fucking-ché
“We haven’t made any money yet,” I pointed out.
“Where did you purchase your fish,” said the little man. He had a squeaky voice to match his squinty eyes.
“I didn’t, I caught them.”
“There’s an import duty on all fish and fowl brought into the city,” he said. “I’d like to see your payment chit, please.”
“I don’t have one.”
The crowd gasped between bites. There was a lot of shaking of heads, and looks of sympathy. It was like they were at a public hanging, and loving every minute of it.
Damicar was still bringing out food, and I was passing it around. The crowd were gobbling it up like popcorn.
“Ooooh, that’s not good,” said the taxman. He opened his ledger and made notes. “All foods prepared for sale must go through customs. A payment chit is to be produced on request if made by an authorised official of the City of Gorgoth.”
“And are you an authori—”
He had his card out before I even finished. I had no idea if it was real, but it probably was.
“No chit means I’ll have to close you down.”
“But we aren’t selling anything,” I said.
“But you haven’t paid duty on the fish.”
“What fish?” The food was all gone. We’d made exactly no money, and had sold out. The perfect price point.
The taxman looked confused. As did the men behind him.
“Show me the evidence,” I said.
“You,” the taxman said to a happily chewing bystander, “give me that.” He tried to snatch the last bit of food from the man’s hand. The man stuffed it into his face. Anyone with food left did the same.
“Here we are,” said Damicar, coming out with yet another platter.
“Aha!” said the taxman.
“Onion rings,” said Damicar. “My latest creation.”
I might have suggested the idea to him, but I was happy to let him take the credit.
“Do you charge duty on onions?” I asked. They grew in nooks and crannies all over the city, so you couldn’t slap an import tariff on them.
By this time the people had been won over by Damicar’s skills, and pounced on the savoury snacks.
“Hey! What’s going on here!” A man in an apron pushed his way through the crowds. “Why is my place empty? What are you making trouble for?” This, surprisingly, wasn’t aimed at me. It was said to the lead thug. “I’m fully paid up. Why are you causing such a ruckus?”
“It’s him,” whined the thug, pointing at me. “He’s giving away free food. That’s why you’ve got no customers.”
“What are you doing that for?” said the new arrival. “You can’t do that. We all have to make a living.”
“Don’t blame us,” I said. “Blame Uncle Malmur.”
You see, I had it all under control. Win the people over, get that populist vote on my side, and then make it clear Malmur was the culprit making life difficult for honest, hardworking folk. Uncle Malmur would have to make a move. He might even try to buy me off with a bribe. Fingers crossed.
“This is great,” said someone in the crowd, mouth full of food. “But what were those fish balls from earlier.”
“Thank you, thank you so much,” said Damicar, his heart bursting with pride because of the way his cooking had been received. He didn’t give a fuck about making money, he just wanted to cook. “They were all different types. I call it my creek fish medley.”
Silence fell like a wet glass from a child’s hand.
“Creek fish?” said the taxman. “Where did you catch them?
“The creek just south of the city,” I said. Seemed innocent enough. “Some really crazy fish in there.”
“The creek?” said the lead thug, aghast. “The old poison pit?”
Everyone started spitting out their food and forcing themselves to throw up. I could feel the populist vote slipping away. I just hoped none of them was the local restaurant critic.