The hero leaned on his staff. Eyes the color of smoke, red-rimmed and weary, met mine. There was a bruise under the left one that I swear was three different shades of green.
“What do I owe you?”
He reached for his wallet with the arm that was not in a sling. Unfortunately, it was on the other side and I watched him twist around for a minute before waving him off.
“Forget it,” I said. “I’ll put it on your tab.”
“Odds are I’m not going to make it through the night. And I’m not exactly a great credit risk in the first place.”
I waved my hand to the quartet setting up on the bar’s tiny stage. “If I was in this for the money, I’d quit bringing in jazz bands.”
One of the musicians opened a road case. He flipped microphones to the others, hardly giving them time to slide the mics into their stands before he followed with cables.
The hero watched this show of precision.
“Nice to be part of a team,” I murmured.
When he didn’t reply, I tried again.
“You always work alone?”
“Not always. Just now.”
“I don’t think so.”
His gaze snapped back to me. “What do you mean by that?”
I inclined my head toward the door. The bar grew suddenly silent as a trio of figures filled the doorway.
And I do mean filled. One was huge, nearly seven feet tall, and hairy as an ape. He scanned the bar, his unibrow wrinkled and his nostrils flared, almost as if he were hunting by scent. He locked on the hero and nudged one of his companions.
She was a petite blonde, very young. At first glance, you’d think she didn’t belong in my place, but in a dance club, doing Jello shots with a crowd of coeds. Until you looked in her eyes. There was something very, very hard in there.
Or maybe it was the twin Desert Eagles holstered on either hip.
The third member of the odd party, a ridiculously handsome man dressed all in black, looked at the hero with an annoyed expression and said, “Well? Are we going to do this or what?”
“How did they find me?” the hero demanded.
“I can’t risk their lives.”
“Their choice, not yours.”
He stared past me, chewing on his lip.
The handsome man tapped his wrist. “Tick tock.”
Shaking his head, the hero heaved himself to his feet. As he did the lower portion of the giant’s beard detached itself and launched into the air.
A grin cracked the hero’s face as he held out his arm. The monkey landed on it like a falcon. It scolded him with a rapid fire explosion of chittering and clambered onto his shoulder.
“Hey!” I called.
Five heads swung in my direction.
“Don’t forget this.”
I picked up the floppy leather hat lying on the bar and tossed it like a Frisbee.
The monkey caught it and plopped it on the hero’s head. The group broke into laughter as music swelled in a glorious crescendo.
And abruptly ended in a squeal of feedback.
The drummer frantically twisted knobs on the amp.
Down the bar, a fellow waggled his glass. I filled him up as he watched the strange posse leave.
The hero was last out. He gently pushed the monkey’s arms out of the way and straightened the hat to a less cockeyed angle. Just before the darkness swallowed him, he looked back over his shoulder and gave me a two-fingered salute.
I nodded back as the hero slipped into the night to meet his destiny.
“What was that all about?” the fellow in front me asked as he took a sip.
“Rogue demigod trying to open up a portal to Hell, or something like that.”
“Oh. That happen a lot?”
“More often than you’d think.”
“Should I be worried?”
I shook my head. “They’ve got it.”
He took a sip of his beer. He opened his mouth to ask me something else, but there was a noise further on down the bar.
A bearded wizard straight out of Central Casting, right down to the robe and peaked cap, snapped his fingers in front of a corncob pipe clenched between his teeth.
I pulled a lighter from my pocket and held it out to him. He stared at me with a confused frown.
I flicked it to life. He leapt back, cursing in Etruscan.
In the same language, I told him to cool it, and showed him how the lighter worked. Delighted, he snatched it from me and cackled happily as he flipped it on and off.
I walked back toward the man I’d been talking to.
“Sometimes they forget magic doesn’t work in here,” I explained.
“Magic?” He looked around, noticing our clientele for the first time. Next to the wizard two dwarves, matched each other drink for drink. Further down, a table full of vampires celebrated a birthday, if the cake with something in the neighborhood of two hundred candles was any indication.
And the band, of course. The man’s eyes grew wide as he realized the slow, shambling gait of the musicians was not from the previous night’s after hours partying.
“Wait,” he said, “Are they…?”
“You know what they say. All the great jazz players are dead.”
If I was expecting a laugh, it didn’t come. He was studying his half-full glass, and didn’t appear to have heard.
“Vampires, wizards, zombies,” he mused. “Why am I buying this just like it’s normal?” He looked up at me. “Am I crazy?”
I smiled, and slid a bowl of snack mix in front of him. My snack mix is pretty awesome. I don’t skimp on the peanuts like most places do.
“You’re not crazy. While you’re in my place, having a drink with a wizard or listening to zombies play jazz seems quite normal.”
“They won’t attack us or anything?”
“You mean…” I dropped my jaw and rolled my eyes toward the back of my head. “Brrraaaaiiinnnsss… That’s a myth.”
“But…how can you have a band made up of zombies?”
I shrugged. “I promised these guys once I’d always let them play here.”
“And that applies even after they die?”
“Well, the union would prefer I hire from the roster, but a promise is a promise.”
The dwarves signaled for another round. The man watched as I loaded Natalie up with six more pitchers.
“So what happens when I leave?” he asked.
“You’ll remember sitting next to a weird but harmless old guy, hearing a good band, and buying drinks from a delightful and erudite barkeep.”
“Barkeep, huh? That’s not a term you hear much these days.”
“I’m an old fashioned guy.”
By now his glass was empty, and I refilled him.
“What brings you out tonight?” I asked.
He frowned. “Why should something have brought me out? I stopped in for a drink. Is that unusual?”
“Of course not.”
This was the tricky part. Choosing my words carefully, I continued, “This is your first time here, right?”
“Why’d you pick this place?”
“Because I’d been here…” His voice trailed off and his face clouded in confusion. “No. Because… Well, I…”
“You’re troubled, and a drink seemed like a good way to clear your head, right?”
He frowned. “What is this place?” he said sharply. “Who are you?”
“Just a guy serving drinks,” I said mildly. “Relax.”
“Relax?” He jumped off the barstool. “I think I’ve had enough. Are you using some kind of hocus-pocus to keep me here?
I shook my head. “Don’t be ridiculous. You can leave anytime you want.”
“Sure. Let me just ring you up.”
I turned toward the cash register, continuing with my back to him. “Of course, if you do, you’ll never find what you’re looking for.”
I busied myself at the cash drawer while he digested this, and returned with his bill. He ignored it, staring at me intently.
“What makes you think I’m looking for something?”
“And what does that mean?”
“People find this place because they need to.” I inclined my head to the wizard. “He needs a break from people demanding he lead their quests.”
“What about that guy with the rogue demigod?”
“He needed to be someplace where his friends would find him.”
“So he didn’t end up a bloody smear.”
“He didn’t know that?”
“At some level, we always know what we need to do. Doesn’t mean we’re prepared to do it.”
He didn’t reply for a long time.
“That’s me, I guess,” he finally said.
“You know what you should do?”
“But I don’t know if I can do it.”
I nodded, waiting for him to continue.
“If I’m wrong, I’ll get fired. And black-balled. Probably never work again.”
“And if you’re right?”
“A bunch of people will go to jail.”
“What happens to you?”
“Nobody likes a whistle-blower. I’ll get fired. And black-balled. Probably never work again.”
“Nice. What’s your gut tell you?”
“That a bunch of people need to go to jail.”
I nodded again, and poured him a drink.
He looked at it and frowned. “I just cashed out.”
“That one’s on the house.”
I poured myself one as well, and we touched glasses.
He studied me again as we each took another drink. “You never answered my question.”
“I forgot what it was.”
“What is this place?”
“It’s where you go to get up the courage to go back out there.” I jerked a thumb toward the door.
“And fight a rogue demigod.”
“Or the system.”
He stared into his glass for a long moment. “What are your boy’s chances?” he finally asked. “I mean, if the world’s going to end, breach of fiduciary conduct becomes kind of a moot point, right?”
“I don’t think you can count on that. He’s used to fighting out of his weight class.”
“Just my luck.”
The band had moved on to “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” and he bobbed his head in time with the music. When the tune ended, he tossed off the rest of his drink.
He shook his head. “That would just be putting it off. I know what I need to do.”
“Fight out of my weight class.”
Heaving himself to his feet, he shrugged into his coat and settled a stocking cap on his head.
He strode to the door. Just before the darkness swallowed him, he looked back over his shoulder and gave me a two-fingered salute.
I nodded back as the hero slipped into the night to meet his destiny.
“Got any duct tape?” called a voice.
The sax player leaned against the end of the bar.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Chet lost a finger.”
“Again?” I tossed him the roll I keep behind the bar for just such an emergency.
Some of us go out and wage war against injustice. Others just try to keep the band together.