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Dedicated to Phillip Marlowe, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes and Rick Deckard.

A guard walked through a door carrying a locked metal box, placing it on the counter in front of Jali. The guard pressed his thumb against the plate on the front of the box and the lid sprung open. He started to take the items out one by one, checking them against a datascreen as he did so.

“A wallet, synthetic leather,” the guard said. “Four currency chips, two holographs and a key-access card for 17329 Permel Apartments.” Jali grabbed the objects as the guard took them from the box. “One Coruscanti identification in the name of Jali Dawler, planet of origin Coruscant, born thirty-five standard years ago, occupation Coruscant Security Officer, rank Sergeant.” The guard looked up. “You’ll have to get a new one, soon.”

Jali didn’t smile as he tucked the ID into his wallet. What description did they give to those in his position? “Unemployed”? “Ex-criminal”? “Just got out of jail for something I didn’t do”? It was something he had considered in his time inside, just one of the many things waiting him on the way out.

The guard removed his clothes and shoes from the box, the same ones he had worn to his trial seven years ago, a few more personal items and finally his blaster. Thankfully it was his own, they hadn’t taken it from him when he had been dismissed from the Security Force. Jali still didn’t like the idea of going outside without a weapon.

“That’s everything,” finished the guard. He gestured to the cubicle on the far side of the room. “There’s a refresher in there where you can get changed and I’ll sign you out.”

The refresher cubicle was small, small enough for Jali to bang his elbows against the walls when he was changing his pants. They were a little snug, as if they had shrunk between now and when he had removed them after his trial.

Once dressed, he took a long drink from the sink and splashed some water on his face. The face that stared back at him in the mirror was slightly different from before he had been inside. Same features, dark skin, dark eyes, dark hair that he had cut close to his scalp, but his experiences had hardened him somewhat, and it showed on his face.

Turning away from the mirror, he sat on the commode to pull on his boots.

The final slamming of the door of CoCo Penitentiary could not have been a sweeter sound for Jali. Seven years in there, he had missed seven years of life. Seven years that had been cut down from his initial sentence of fifteen. And the charges? Misuse of an official position, accepting an illegal payment and tax evasion. The last was almost laughable, borne out of the desire to make an example of him. Jali knew he had been set up from the very beginning, but with all the evidence stacked against him it was a foregone conclusion. But it was over, and he could begin again, or try to.

For a moment he considered taking an airtaxi back to his apartment, but that could wait. Instead he went back to one of his old haunts. After all, he had to find out what he had missed.

If Jali attracted a few stares when he entered Didi’s Café, he chose not to acknowledge them as he approached the counter. He had come here quite a few times and not just for the food; the diner was one of the many sources of information on Coruscant, and one of the more pleasant places that offered it. Jali couldn't see Didi or his daughter Astri, but by all appearances they had done well these last few years.

Yet some things still were the same. Still the counter with the tall stools and the booths against the walls. And still the same droid waitress with the tinny voice, zooming on her one wheel from booth to counter.

“What can I get ya?” trilled the droid waitress.

“A slider and an ardee,” Jali said, he slid onto a stool and glanced around. Someone who had noticed him when he walked in was still looking at him, the Devaronian two stools down. Was it…? No, it couldn’t be… But the recognition was unmistakable as the Devaronian sidled over, a huge grin decorating his face. It was his old contact in the lower levels, Balor Giderra.

And it was rather comforting to know that the Devaronian hadn't changed. The same lop-sided grin, the same battered flak jacket that had the look of being in several space battles, and the same voice that was both charming and repelling.

“Jalis, friends, Dawlers!” The Devaronian was pumping his arm in a rather embarrassing way. “Haven’ts seens yous ins ahs longs times, whys yous no tells me, yours friends, wheres yous beens?”

“I think you know where I've been for the last seven years, Balor,” Jali said tightly. “For all I know, you had a hand in putting me in there.”

“Oh, no, no, no!” Balor protested. “I’ve ah helpeds yous, haven’ts I’s? Friends don’ts do thats tooes eachs others. That’s ahs wass nots mes whos betrayeds yous.”

Jali smiled dryly but gave no comment, Balor could have betrayed him—after all you never trusted a Devaronian—but he might not have. Still, Balor was a source of information, as long as you double-checked it.

Balor’s order arrived at the same time as Jali’s and for a moment the two were eating. After a moment, Jali opened a packet of Corellian cigarettes and lit one up. He took a deep inhale then asked Balor what had happened in his absence.

“Lots ofs peoples thats yous don’ts knows haves comes, news ones,” said Bolar. “Nots soes bads fors mes, I’s gets whats theys wants and theys pays mes.” He gave Jali a surreptitious wink.

Jali chose not to respond to this. If strangers who didn’t know any better chose to rely on Balor for information, that was their lookout. And it was almost a standing joke that Balor—who made his living as a paid informant—lisped badly.

“What about Meren?” Jali asked. Meren Lok, a Zabrak, had long been Balor’s competitor as far as information went.

“I’s nots knows wheres hes wents,” Balor told him. “I’s cans fainds outs ifs yous likes.”

“No thanks,” Jali said. The details didn’t particularly interest Jali, but Balor was always like this. Selling what he had when he had it for more than it was worth. “Cergan then, is he still around?” He had been on the point of arresting the Rodian for larceny, but that was before Jali had been arrested himself.

“No, no, no,” Balor answered, waving his fork in the air and spraying Jali with sauce. “Hes goes a longs times agoes, Corellsia I thinks, ors Corsulags, I’s nots sures.”

Jali knew it was a safe bet that Balor was sure where Cergan had gone, he just refused to give any particulars without payment.

“What about Vantel?” Jali asked, mentioning his old boss on the security force. If anyone knew anything it was Balor, it was part of his stock in trade to keep an eye on both sides of the law. “He always talked about moving on to bigger and better things.”

“Yes, yes, he’s withs betters things,” Balor replied. “He’s a Captain now, pleaseds abouts thats hes is.”

“I bet he is,” Jali said, inhaling deep. “And Tollan?” Tollan Antilles had been his best friend as well as his partner. Jali had heard that Tollan had wanted to visit Jali while he had been inside, but as Tollan had a young family it wasn't so easy.

“Stills withs thems,” Balor told him. “Hes ahs happys this is confusings, hes a wasteds in that’s locks box.” The lock box was another name for the headquarters. “I’s tolds shims he’s cans comes works fors mes ands gets mores moneys, buts he’s nots interesteds.” He looked at Jali as it this was some kind of insult, grinning in the way that only a Devaronian could grin.

“I don’t really blame him,” Jali said. He drained his drink and signalled the droid waitress.

“Yous goings nows?” Balor asked.

“Yes, you know how it is,” Jali said. “I don’t really have any pressing business, but I’d rather not stay.”

“Maybes I‘s cans helps yous,” Balor suggested. “I’s knows a fews peoples whos coulds use yous, I’s tells thems abouts yous?”

Jali shook his head as he stubbed out the cigarette. “If you told them who I was, Balor, they wouldn’t trust me,” he said. “If I wasn’t me, I wouldn’t even trust myself with my kind of background.” He quickly paid for his meal and then left.

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