Despite the frequent visitors This Time Round saw from anime-side, the Proprietor had run across very few catgirls, save for Nuku-Nuku and JoJo Grant - and /those/ two were, quite simply, the living definition of 'walking disaster zones'.
This did not incline him to look upon examples of the breed all that kindly.
Including the one sat across from him at the moment.
"Right then, Miss Mia," he said. "I see you have previous waitressing experience... previous maid experience... previous bodyguard experience... previous diplomatic experience..."
"I travel a lot," the brown-haired catgirl deadpanned.
"Mm-hmm." the Proprietor said. "In that case, what I need to know is this: are you presently being pursued by assassins, hired killers, kidnappers or general bands of armed lunatics?"
Mia thought about this. "Probably. I lost the last lot a realm or so back, but I'll probably pick up another set soon enough."
"So why, exactly, should I agree to hire you?"
"No reason." Mia sank into her chair, her tail drooping. "No reason at all. Hell, /I/ wouldn't hire me, and /I'm/ me."
The Proprietor blinked. This was /not/ the reaction he'd expected - he'd been anticipating a 'Don't worry, I can handle it', or a 'Fine then, if that's the way it's going to be', and a sniffy departure. Depression had /not/ been on the list.
"And should I turn you down...?"
Mia shrugged. "I'd move on."
The idea was tempting to the Proprietor; after all, the /last/ thing he needed was another damn disaster zone.
There was, however, something vague tickling at the back of his mind, some impulse that kept him from saying 'All right, then. Have a nice trip' and seeing Mia on her way.
It took him a moment to realise it was his conscience.
This came as rather a surprise to the Proprietor, who'd thought his conscience had died off years ago, but apparently it was - barely - alive.
He briefly wondered if consciences went to the Mortality Deferment Office.
But, his practical side pointed out, the last thing he needed was another damn disaster zone. It was none of his business. Just send her on her way. He'd never have to worry about it again.
It was a no-win situation. Just like Adric. He /could/ have fired him - well, he could have before Luna came along - but that wouldn't actually have /changed/ anything; the boy would have ended up sticking around and getting bumped off, anyway. This Time Round was the /Doctor Who/ pub outside continuity, after all.
All /his/ decision changed was where the armed lunatics had their pitched gunfights.
"Miss Mia, I'll be honest with you." the Proprietor said eventually. "This Time Round is already a nexus for armed lunatics of virtually every stripe, and taken together they have helped make this pub a literal war zone. Adding a new set to that list does /not/ rank highly on my list of 'Things To Do'."
"Oh," Mia mumbled.
"However..." the Proprietor continued, "given the fact you are still alive, you obviously have considerable experience in dealing with such situations. Taking into account your prior waitressing experience, it is my belief that the benefits of hiring you would outweigh the drawbacks."
Mia stared at him.
"In short, Miss Mia, you may consider yourself hired."
Mia boggled. "Are you /serious?/"
"Do I look like a joking man, Miss Mia?" the Proprietor asked rhetorically. "You're hired. We'll sort out the contract once I finish the interviews.
"For now, feel free to wait in the common room."
Mia slowly lifted herself from the chair and backed out of the room, her golden eyes never leaving the Proprietor.
Once he was sure she was gone, he groaned.
Wonderful. Just wonderful.
Just how much worse could this get?
The Proprietor had the terrible feeling he was going to find out.
When the female Grey in the little black dress walked through the door, the Proprietor blinked, hastily double-checked her application, and blinked again.
"Sorry about this, Miss."
He started shuffling through the application forms.
"Kelly," the Grey said, sitting back in the chair. "Kelly Kendin."
The Proprietor blinked, and checked the original form.
"Er... it says here you're human."
"I am." Kelly said. "I'm a Transient."
The Proprietor blinked. "A what?"
"A Transient." Kelly repeated. "A human-turned-alien."
"O-kay..." the Proprietor said. "Well, that won't be a problem, Miss Kendin. This Time Round is an equal-opportunities employer; we will employ any being, regardless of race, age, gender, species or creed. All we ask is that you are capable of being informed about your contract, able to consent to said contract, and able to work in the post offered."
Kelly blinked solid green eyes. "O-kay..."
"Now, I see here that you've had no previous waitressing experience; that shouldn't be a problem, as our staff will be more than happy to provide the necessary training." The lie implicit in this statement - to whit, that his staff would be happy - never crossed the Proprietor's mind.
"The question, however, is whether or not you feel capable of operating in, shall we say, a 'difficult' environment."
Kelly smiled. "That shouldn't be a problem."
"Oh?" the Proprietor said, raising an eyebrow. "So how would you deal with, say, a group of armed lunatics running amok in the common room?"
Kelly pondered. "Do you need them alive?"
"...Yes," the Proprietor said eventually. "I'd rather have murders kept to the barest possible minimum, if at all possible."
"How legal do you want it?"
"Preferably?" the Proprietor said. "As long as they're alive, conscious, and able to pay, then anything goes."
Kelly smirked. "No problem."
The Proprietor eyed her sideways. "Are there any crimes you feel the authorities may be able to connect you to?"
"Nah." Kelly waved it off. "That was Dad's thing."
"Ah." the Proprietor said. "Do you have any criminal connections liable to result in a group of armed lunatics running amok in the common room?"
"Dad's thing," Kelly answered, grinning.
The Proprietor paused, before raising a finger. "If it's not too sensitive a question, what exactly did your father do?"
"/Ah/" the Proprietor said, in understanding.
Kelly flashed him a grin. "Yeah. One of the bodyguards taught me self-defence, said it'd come in handy."
The Proprietor raised an eyebrow. "Mm. Might I ask just /what/ a Senator's daughter is doing down here?"
Kelly leaned back with a smirk, hands folded behind her head. "Oh, you know. Daddy found guilty of corruption, yadda yadda, family ruined, yadda yadda, need to find a job, yadda yadda..."
"You don't seem all that cut up about it," the Proprietor noted.
Kelly shrugged. "Eh. Dad's an asshole anyway. He had it coming."
"Ah," the Proprietor said. "Well then, Miss Kendin, all other things being equal, I'd say you've got the job."
"Great!" Kelly said. "When do I start?"
"Well, if you wait in the common room, I'll have the details sorted out by the time I finish the interviews." The Proprietor paused. "Oh, and if you could avoid assaulting anyone in the meantime, barring self-defence, it would be much appreciated."
"Next!" the Proprietor called.
There was a brief pause, before the doorknob slowly turned and the door pushed open.
The Proprietor's eyes *bugged*.
A walking corpse had just come in through the door.
This was disturbing, even for the 'Round.
The corpse sat down in the opposite chair.
Try as he might - and he was trying his best, which was a lot more than anyone would have given him credit for - the Proprietor couldn't take his eyes off it.
It had long, stringy blonde hair, watery brown eyes and a pointy nose, and wore a dress that some small part of the Proprietor's brain registered as vaguely reminiscent of 'Gone With The Wind'.
Another, even smaller, part registered the corpse as female, but the rest of the Proprietor's brain was refusing to accept it. There was no way this... this *thing* was female. It was a /corpse/. /Walking/.
There was a long silence, punctuated only by the clock's ticking.
The corpse coughed politely.
The Proprietor kept staring.
"Um... sir?" the corpse said finally. "Are you all right?"
A minuscule part of the Proprietor's brain registered that the corpse was speaking in a genteel Southern drawl.
A slightly bigger part registered that the corpse expected an answer.
"Sir?" the corpse said.
"...Yes." the Proprietor said. "Yes. Um... How can I help you, Miss Cor- Miss?"
Underneath the desk, his hand fumbled for the panic button.
The corpse looked distinctly abashed. "...I'm here for your position?"
"Position?" the Proprietor echoed. He was fairly sure he would have remembered opening a position to corpses.
"Your 'help wanted' sign?" the corpse said nervously. "The one in the window?"
The Proprietor pulled himself together, focusing on the papers on his desk with a certain relief.
His gaze fell on the application in front of him.
He looked up at the corpse, then down at the application, then back up at the corpse, a horrible feeling of apprehension dawning on him.
"Hayley Rhodes?" he tried.
The corpse nodded, an expression of deep apprehension on its face. "Yes, sir."
Oh dear gods, the Proprietor's brain gibbered. Oh dear /gods.../
He suddenly had the overwhelming urge to call Mad Sheila.
He forced it down again. Keep smiling, keep smiling...
The corpse looked even more apprehensive, if that were possible.
The Proprietor forced himself to look at the application once again. "I see your application says this will be your first position, yes?"
The corpse nodded. "Yes, sir."
"The thing is, Miss Rhodes..." The Proprietor was finding it very difficult to open his throat. "The thing is... This Time Round is an unusual place, with an unusual clientele. We have to be confident that our staff are capable of handling difficult situations."
The corpse's expression began plumbing new depths of apprehension. "...'Difficult', sir?"
"Lunatics." the Proprietor intoned, in his most impressive voice. "Armed and dangerous ones, at that."
The corpse blinked slowly, sending shudders up and down the Proprietor's spine. "Oh."
"Indeed." the Proprietor said.
It slowly dawned on him that the corpse appeared to be waiting for something.
"...Do you think you'd be able to handle that?" he prompted, a little lamely.
The corpse looked distinctly unhappy, but nodded its head. "Yes, sir."
"/How/, exactly?" Barring simply walking in and expecting them to quake in fear, the Proprietor added mentally.
"I'd offer them drinks." The corpse's look of unhappiness seemed to have changed quality, in a way the Proprietor couldn't quite - or, more honestly, didn't /want/ - to put his finger on.
The Proprietor blinked. "You'd... offer them drinks?"
"You wouldn't, for example, have a nervous breakdown? Or maybe walk out and start filing a lawsuit?"
The corpse blinked big eyes. "No, sir."
"You're /sure/ you could handle it?" the Proprietor pressed.
"Yes, sir." the corpse said, with rather strained politeness.
The Proprietor glanced down at the application form, hoping desperately he could think of a way to turn it down...
...and caught sight of one particular line.
His gaze tracked across the form.
Cold realisation began to set in.
He lifted his head.
"Let me see if I have this straight, Miss Rhodes." he said. "You are human, correct?"
The corpse looked ill - an impressive trick, for those who could pull it off. "Yes, sir."
"And currently alive?"
The corpse nodded mutely.
"Then would you mind explaining why exactly it is, Miss Rhodes," the Proprietor demanded, dread creeping up his spine, "you look like a corpse?"
Her reaction was nothing the Proprietor expected.
She didn't try to explain herself, or try to attack him; instead, she bolted, throwing the office door open and running for her life.
The hubbub of the bar room fell silent.
Moments later, Luna Inverse marched in, the corpse downcast in front of her.
"_LUNA, WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?_" the Proprietor demanded in mad hysteria.
"Siddown, kid," Luna told the corpse.
Meekly, she obeyed.
"ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?" the Proprietor ranted.
Luna didn't say a word. She just raised an eyebrow.
The Proprietor's self-defence systems belatedly kicked in as he realised just what he'd said, and who he'd said it to.
Mercifully for all involved, his trousers managed to remain unstained.
"Talk, kid," Luna said.
"My... it's my family." The corpse didn't look up. "We... we serve the Eater of Dreams. This is the price of our survival, the price we paid him. Paid in flesh and dream."
The Proprietor stared at Luna. "And you want me to /hire/ her?"
"Didn't say that." Luna said.
"She's /Tainted!/" the Proprietor ranted. "I can take a lot, but there is no way I am taking on one of the Tainted!"
"Why?" Luna said.
"Why?" the Proprietor said. "I'll tell you why - because the /last/ thing we need is a servant of Those Beyond on staff, /that's/ why!"
The corpse /flinched/.
"Is she?" Luna said.
"She just /admitted/ it!" the Proprietor shouted. "What more do you need?"
"Kid?" Luna said.
The corpse froze.
"You serve 'em?"
There was a long pause.
Then, her expression contorted into a rictus of terrible agony, the corpse shook her head.
"You believe her?" the Proprietor said.
"It matter?" Luna said. "Your contracts. Binding, yeah?"
"Well, yes..." the Proprietor said, floundering, "but I don't see-"
"Put in a clause renouncing Those Beyond." Luna shrugged. "Easy enough."
The corpse /blinked/.
"It's not /that/ simple!" the Proprietor snapped.
"Contracts signed on the Styx, yeah?" Luna said, raising an eyebrow. "Binding even on gods."
"/Shhhh!/" the Proprietor hissed.
"Why not her?"
The Proprietor stared at Luna, then at the corpse, then at Luna again.
"You're that worried 'bout it, go show Gwyn or Zaqqum. Have 'em check it out. No problem."
The Proprietor opened his mouth, but stopped short.
".../Could/ we do that?" he said eventually.
Luna shrugged. "Don't see why not."
"...What the Hell," the Proprietor said.
He stuck out a plump hand.
The corpse stared at it as if he'd just offered her a live python.
"Shake," Luna prompted.
Gingerly, the corpse clasped hold of the proffered hand.
The Proprietor twitched at the feel of living corpse-flesh against his own, but shook her hand nonetheless. "Welcome to the This Time Round family, Miss Rhodes! Rest assured, you won't regret this."
"Thank you, Mr..."
"Proprietor." the Proprietor said. "Just call me the Proprietor."
"Thank you, Mr Proprietor."
"Luna, why don't you take Miss Rhodes into the common room while I see the last few applicants, then we'll see about her contract."
Luna nodded. "C'mon, kid."
The corpse rose from the chair, and dipped a curtsey. "Thank you."
The door closed behind them.
The Proprietor let out a sigh. All things considered, that could have gone so much worse.
Then it sank in.
He'd just agreed to take on one of the Tainted on staff, and defy one of the Things Beyond in the process.
The Proprietor thought about that for a moment, then shrugged.
His clientele practically made a /hobby/ of defying the Things Beyond, including annihilating Typhon, driving off Shub-Barneyrath - not once, but /twice/ - and sealing off the Things from the various realities for the best part of a cycle (admittedly, this last had drastically cut down on potential defiances for the time being). Something like /this/ barely rated.
He glanced at Hayley's application, noting the elements he'd need to include in her contract, and scribbled them down.
Finally, satisfied, he settled back in his chair and called:
"Francois?" the Proprietor sighed.
"Yes, Bossman?" Francois said, in the tones of someone who /knows/ he's not going to enjoy this.
"You want to know something?"
"Francois think not." the great Ogron rumbled. "But Francois think Bossman going to tell him anyway."
"I've just hired a fugitive catgirl, an alien wannabe, and a Tainted refugee - and the worst part of it is, they were the best candidates!"
"Cruk." Francois muttered.
The Proprietor stared at him. "Why do /you/ care?"
"Francois not win pot, that why." Francois harrumphed.
".../Which/ pot?" the Proprietor said.
"Pot on who Bossman hire next."
"Oh." the Proprietor said. "Who /did/ win?"
"No-one. Even /we/ not loony enough to think Bossman hire such like them." Francois said.
The Proprietor smirked. "Then I guess that makes me the winner by default, hm?"
The crashing expression on the large Ogron's face as this sank in was a source of immense pleasure to the Proprietor. Yes, it was petty, but quite frankly he didn't give a shit.
"Bossman... Bossman not enter pot," Francois's face twisted in agony as he struggled with the terrible decision. "No-one win pot, therefore defaults back to pundits."
"Ah, well..." the Proprietor sighed. "C'est la vie..."
"Bossman sadist." Francois accused.
"I know," the Proprietor smirked, heaving himself up from the barstool. "Now, if you'll excuse me..."
"Mad Shelia?" Francois inquired, raising a heavy eyebrow.
"I've earned it," the Proprietor said fervently. "Believe me, Francois, I've earned it..."
Summary: Who on earth'd want to work in a place like this? The Proprietor of This Time Round is about to find out... again.
AN: Yes, this is a homage to B. K. Willis's 'Hard Help', why do you ask?
And no, 'City Senator' isn't a mistake... (and it's not the City of Dreams, either...)
With thanks to H. P. Lovecraft, Len Kaminski, Warren Ellis and Graham Woodland.
This Time Round was created by Tyler Dion.
Francois and the Proprietor are B. K. Willis's.
Luna Inverse is copyright various people, including Hajime Kanzaka, Rui Araizumi, Kadokawa Shoten and TV Tokyo.
Everyone else is mine.
Copyright 2004 Imran Inayat