Snakeskin

Lissa turns away and sniffs, the smells of the barbecue are drifting down the gaming hall now.  He's pretty certain that he won't have met the minimum for getting entry to the buffet since he's only played one game of Go, but his stomach is rumbling and he's willing to chance his luck.  Then a hand comes to rest on his shoulder, heavy and warm, and when he turns to see who owns it, it's one of the security guards, looming impressively and not smiling.

"Steve would like a quiet word," he says, his voice sibilant and his grip firm.  "I'll show you to his office."

"If you tell me where it is, I can--"

"Somehow get lost on the way?  Steve wouldn't like that.  He'd feel I wasn't doing my job the way he likes it done."

Lissa lets himself be guided by the hand, not quite pushed and pulled, but the pressure on his shoulder leaves him in no doubt what way he should be going.  They go around the gaming tables, through a door that Lissa thinks leads to the toilets, and then through another door that's open that Lissa's not seen before.  He wonders about asking about it, and then realises that the guard is unlikely to tell him.  They're in a narrow corridor painted forest green, the walls are rough-plastered and the floor is ridged concrete.  Metal strips the colour of copper run in parallel pairs down the length of the corridor, and Lissa can't avoid standing on them.  Nothing seems to happen though.  At the end of the corridor there's the barest shadow of a corner, more of a recess at a right-angle to the corridor, and occupying the recess is another door.  This is made of steel and has a tiny window set into it, six inches above Lissa's head.

"Knock."  The guard's voice echoes oddly in the corridor and seems to come back from three or four different angles at different times.  The effect is as though there's a badly-conducted choir giving him instructions.  Lissa raises a hand and raps on the door, three short knocks.

"You knock like a girl."  The guard sounds amused, but the door opens anyway, and Lissa is pushed through.  The guard stays outside.

"Lissajous, come in.  Sit down."  Asian Steve is stood behind a bar.  There are the pumps for pulling draught beers in front of him; Lissa recognises two of the names but not the rest.  A shelf of glasses at a little over head-height runs the length of the bar, and there's a huge mirror behind Steve.  Either side of the mirror are short shelves holding bottles of spirits, and the whole thing is spotlit from above.  The seats are barstools, five arranged in front of the bar.  One of them looks wet.

Lissa looks around; the room -- the bar, he supposes -- is cosy but doesn't feel cramped.  There are banquettes upholstered in red velvet running around the edges of the room, and scarred wooden tables arranged carelessly by them.  One of the tables has a backgammon set on it, men spilled on the table and the dice scattered on the board.  Lissa notices that the doubling cube has the number 128 uppermost and wonders what stakes the game was being played for.  The walls of the bar are scaly, and when he realises that he shivers.

"Sit, you can admire the décor later.  Now, what can I get you?"  Asian Steve spreads his hands expansively, including the whole bar in his gesture.  Lissa, his attention back with his host, comes forwards and sits at the bar.  He looks at the pumps and picks one of the unfamiliar beers.

"I'll try the Pitone," he says.  "Please."

"Pee-ton-ay" corrects Steve.  "I wanted to have a little chat with you, Lissa, about your game earlier."  He selects a pint glass and deftly fills it from the pump with three strong strokes.  The beer is golden brown and froths only slightly.  "But first perhaps I ought to establish our relative positions here.  My name's Asian Steve, and I run this little business.  I offer games of chance, food and drink, and a convivial atmostphere.  I offer haircuts at a very reasonable price, and hot shaves.  People enjoy coming here."

Lissa tastes the beer, wondering where this is leading.  The Oni from the Go table wasn't his fault; surely Steve can't be trying to blame him for that?  The beer is mellow and slightly bitter and warms his stomach as it sits in it.

"You are Lissajous.  You are registered with the University and someone else pays your tuition fees and boarding expenses.  You are studying, when you can be bothered to attend classes, Entropic Computation and Re-informatics.  You're doing better that your tutors expect, based on your attendance record and apparant level of interest.  Your fathe--"

"Is of no concern."  Lissa's face is pale, he has no idea how Asian Steve knows all this, or worse, why he knows all this.  "Look, I know who I am, and I know who you are.  What's all this about?  Why am I here?"

Steve looks at Lissa intently, as though reading something off his face.  He shrugs.  "You played a game of Psychic Go with an Oni just now.  You would have beaten it if it weren't cheating."

"Her."

"You give too much respect to something that has just tried to eat your soul."

There's a silence while Lissa thinks about this.

"Oni are not... let's say commonplace.  I am bound to wonder why one has an interest in you.  I'm even more intrigued as to why it was playing a game with you, offering you information when it could have taken you on the street, in your dorm-room, in a subway car, in a restaurant bathroom; anywhere it wanted, in fact."

"I don't know what an Oni is."

"Well, you have the inkling of an idea now.  But you brought the Oni into my little barbershop, and that means I must take an interest in you now.  If only to see that you don't do it again."

"Are you banning me?"  Lissa can't keep the emotion out of his voice; he's been coming to Asian Steve's for nearly two years now, it's like a home away from home.

"Not yet.  Maybe.  What do you propose to do about this Oni?"

The End

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