There was a tavern adjacent to gladiator entrance to the arena. The sign said “Tavern.” I would have called it a bar. It was the sort of place gamblers went when they could no longer afford seats in the arena itself. There were holo-displays for the fights in progress, a droid taking bets, and plenty of drinks to help sooth bad decisions. It also had a good view of the path gladiators walked to their matches.

Smart betters and failed ones mingled as they watched and gleaned whatever they could about the fighters. If anyone knew where this mystery Jedi was, it was a patron of a bar like this one.

People avoided me instantly. It told me they recognized when strangers arrived. I considered the loud and direct approach, shouting my intention to the room. The blaster rifle hung over the bar told me that loud was not the way to go.

I bellied up to the bar and signaled the bartender. He lumbered over and asked, “Yeah? What are you looking for?”

“I’m looking for a stranger. Somebody who looks like they’re on a mission.”

“Just so happens I seen one today,” he offered helpfully.

“Really?” Perhaps it was still my lucky day.

“Sure. Came in here a minute ago, sat down at the bar, and started asking me about strangers!” His expression turned more sour than his voice. “This isn’t that kind of place. You want something from me? You order it. You pay for it. You drink it. Then, you leave.”

I dropped a coin on the bar. “Give me something blue.” It was clear that I was about to be short on time.

That’s when I met Dutch Virkum. He was a toydarian patron at the end of the bar. He didn’t sit on a stool so much as hover over it. The way he wavered, it was clear he’d had a few drinks already.

“Strangers and blue things!” he called out waving at me. “Come, we’ll drink to disasters averted!”

I gathered up the glass the bartender had put down and moved to my new friend. “You don’t want to drink to fallen heroes?”

“You’re new around here if you think anyone got heroes worth drinking to.”

“That’s awfully pessimistic.”

“Whole galaxy’s full of garbage, kid,” he glanced at me askew, and alighted to his stool. His wings stopped flapping to emphasize the gravity of his statement. “Sometimes, it’s better when it gets taken out.”

I lifted my glass, “To averted disasters!”

His spirits rose again. “Bartender! Another for my hero worshiping friend!”

The bartender refilled our glasses and gave me a look. “Think you can keep him quiet? His bellowing is bad for business.”

“Bah, go away. Keep the drinks coming. My new friend and I will talk quiet,” Virkum taunted. He turned to me and spit in his palm before offering his hand. “Dutch Virkum, reformed gambler.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I shook his moist hand. “So, what disasters have you averted lately?”

“I got a lot of markers out on a fighter who just forfeited.” He spoke out the side of his mouth, “the rest of his fights, if you catch my meaning.”

“You’re a fan of Tondel Moss?” I deduced.

“I bet on him a lot, if that’s what you mean.” He swigged another drink. “But what about you? Are you a bounty hunter looking for who plugged him?”

“Not exactly,” I replied. “But close enough.”

“Figured you’d come looking for me. I’m not sorry he’s dead, if that’s what you want to know.”

“No?” I asked. “You’re a fan of his. Why so apathetic?”

“Don’t get me wrong. I’d rather he lived,” Virkum explained. “But, I have a lot of money on his upcoming fights. Since he won’t be attending, on account of his recent demise, I won’t be losing that or any more money on him.”

“If you’ve lost so much, why bet on him?”

“Moss was a great fighter. Coulda been the best. On his way up, he was unbeatable. Long odds, too. I won a fortune on him.”

“Then what?”

“Kid’s a great fighter, but he’s a choke artist.” Virkum explained, “He gets to a key match, and he blows it. I mean he still fights well, but just can’t win. Not always, but often enough. I lost a fortune on him. It put me pretty far in the hole.”

“So you owe a lot of money?”

“He choked enough—guys figured the fix was in, odds would shoot up. Then Moss’d go on one of his unbeatable winning streaks. Dug me out pretty good.” Virkum cocked his head, “What can I say? I’m a believer in talent. Guess he’s choked on his last fight.”

“So you’re even out?” Betting on a series was complicated enough. Tondel’s death must have been playing havoc with the odds makers. The holo-sheet in my pocket hadn’t updated in an hour, but toydarians were always good at figuring out bets—even if they lost a lot. “How’s that work?”

“Yeah, I got money on Moss in upcoming fights. But they ain’t gonna happen. Bein’ dead’s not like a forfeit. He doesn’t lose. The matches are cancelled. The whole bracket has to be redone. Heck, might even get back what I have out against that new New Mandelore.”

There was that name again. Virkum seemed likeable, for a thug, but it was beginning to sound like a motive. “So you’re better off with Tondel dead.”

“I didn’t kill him, if that’s what you’re implying.”

I was one word from getting thrown out of the bar, so I reframed my implication, “I just mean you’re not terribly upset by the murder.”

“You don’t gamble on gladiators if you get squeamish at every little death.”

He was right about that.

“Sounds like word travels fast around here,” I suggested. “You knew about me. Do you know about anyone else with an interest in our friend?”

“You mean the guy in the dress?”

It seemed as accurate a description of a Jedi as any. “I might.”

“He likes to cloud minds, but it doesn’t work on toydarians.” Virkum pointed subtly. “He’s sitting in the corner over there. He’s been watching you since you came in. It’s how I knew you were alright.”

I glanced in the direction he suggested. I caught a moving shape out of the corner of my eye. The same kind of shape as the machine shadows in the smoke in Tondel’s room. I realized the Jedi had been there, too. Maybe a Jedi committing murder wasn’t so farfetched an idea, after all.

“Virkum,” I spit into my palm and offered it to him, “you are a true friend.”

“Come back when you are ready for some hard drinking!”


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