01 Feb I run a bar that serves one of a kind drinks in exchange for stories (Part 2)
You ever meet those kinds of people that from the outset, you just know are unhinged? Maybe it takes you a couple of minutes into the conversation before they suddenly mention they regularly infuse their boogers, nail clippings and whatever other bodily shavings into a broth that they think gives them the ability to see into the future or some shit.
Well, a couple days after the incident with Gomez while I was still trying to figure out where to go from there, a patron I didn’t recognise walked in. Maybe that’s just because word was beginning to get around about the kind of place this was, or they just stumbled in here by accident. Either way, it was a tad strange… As were the moments leading up to it.
Cheddar was restless, pacing around the bar constantly. He was never a big fan of thunderstorms or heavy rain, preferring the comfort of his blanket or his best friend’s lap. Unfortunately for him, I was anticipating a delivery and our regulars would need a top up soon. I should clarify: while our top shelf merch is our main attractor and isn’t paid for with money, we do of course have lower shelf brews that are chargeable, how else do you think we stay afloat?
The delivery came and I thanked the courier, a stack of various concoctions now waiting to be placed in their new homes, a regular had come in as the delivery was finishing and sat petting Cheddar, taking grateful sips of Pulse Thumper as they saw the courier out.
The regulars name was Krauss, a short fella with neat brown hair and thick glasses, he claimed to have once been an insurance fraud investigator that occasionally bent the rules to get bigger payouts. By bent the rules, I of course mean he started fires that couldn’t be put out, though he was careful to ensure nobody was ever present at the time. There was still something to his story, though and until he told me everything, I was destined to keep on seeing him and dish out cheap advice.
“So you just straight up torched this motherfucker where i’m sitting?” He asked, a boyish grin over his face as Cheddar lapped up the attention.
“Yeah, melted him into the floor before my partner did his thing, he deserved it.” I replied, cleaning away the four empty bottles Krauss had already had.
“Woah, you are a BEAST Sully! But why would you get involved in this? Ain’t like you to meddle…this place is meant to be free of judgment, right?”
I paused, he was right and I was definitely not going to make any friends by doing this. But, I looked at the ultrasound photo and the coatrack area before replying.
“We have a section of lost and found, as any bar does. But ours has been steadily accumulating more of the lost and it’s becoming a concern…these people are going fucking missing, Krauss.” I sighed, my shoulders felt heavy just thinking about all the people I’d gotten to know that were lost to the ether. “I saw Letty in the way that she was and…well I guess fate intervened when the photo fell out and Gomez walked in.”
Krauss chuckled, finishing his bottle and grabbing his coat.
“Well, you’re a stubborn bastard so you’re in it for the long haul either way, but I’ll be right there with ya! Look, I gotta shoot, but I want some of that Emporium Whiskey next time i’m in, okay? Maybe then i’ll tell you the rest of my story.” He looked over at the grand bronze flask sticking out of the crate, a royal seal adorning it and the label beneath reading: “McGill’s Distilled Black Sea Extract, a way to float or to sink, your choice and your volition! Sea your memories become clear! That’s the McGill way!”
I smiled and nodded, waving him out as I began to put the bottles away and staving off the exhaustion I felt, the day wasn’t done just yet…
I put up our new sign, “Mahogany and Cheddar Make Everything Better”, above the wall behind me, pouring myself a glass of Emperor’s Refuge, a thankfully optional alcoholic drink. It sat in a large oval container, a beautiful fluid preserved in amber with a small crown atop it that acts as a mixer. When the crown is rotated and the diamonds affixed correctly, it releases the extra ingredients into the container, allowing it to glow brilliantly with the shimmer of a diamond in the light.
I stared at the bottle as I swirl the mixture in my other hand, the label in a garish font befitting that of royalty beaming back at me: “Noble Blood Proudly Present The Emperor’s Refuge: For when even the most diligent man must rest and clear his mind.”
“Heh, I don’t know about that one, chief. But I’ll take a rest all the same…” I smile, Cheddar walks up expectantly, his tongue hanging out as I down the drink with a hearty gulp.
“Yeah, you’re royalty too, buddy. You’re the duke of scraps and barks.” I pet him as he licks my hand, a brief moment of reprieve before the sound of thunder and the door being kicked open causes him to sit upright and bark, shattering the tranquility.
Standing in the doorway and shrouded by a thick blue robe was a tall, thin individual that I’d never seen before. He didn’t so much move as he did glide towards the bar, not a drop of water leaving his person and staining the wooden floors. Cheddar moved behind me and whined; something about this guy wasn’t right.
“This is…the place…yes?” a raspy, well spoken voice called from beneath the hood. It sounded as if the vocal chords had been shredded to bits and nothing but ribbons held on, threatening to tear at any syllable too elongated; it made my fucking skin crawl. But, I am a professional and I held my nerve.
“You got it, welcome to The Spaces In Between. I’m Sully, this big lug behind me is Cheddar. What can I get you?” I open my arms and gesture to look at our stock; the eyes do not move, but the face gets closer. As they do so, I can see that the eyes are manic and wide, unblinking in their stare. If I looked close enough, I’d daresay they were even shaking…
“I wish to be closer to my lord. How does one do this?” it asked, the stench of its breath now close enough to singe my nose hairs and set fire to my moustache by proxy. I leaned back slowly and took in his question.
“Doesn’t quite work like that here, fella. You want top shelf stuff, you need to bring me a story. I’ll hear it out and help pick the right drink for you on your first time.” I sat back against the counter, determined not to go blind from the smell when they began speaking again. “So, what have you got for me?”
The figure wordlessly sat down on the adjacent stool, their form hunching over like a coiled snake and their eyes fixated on me even as the head beneath the hood dipped down. It was unnerving.
“I was a lost soul, before I found godliness. I used to do as my body commanded without thinking of the consequences. If it urged me to burn something, I burnt it. If it willed me to hit someone, I hit them. If it compelled me to…well…” I may not have seen the smile beneath the hood but I could fucking hear it in their voice. I didn’t like where this was going, but hearing them out was part of the job, so I held my tongue.
“For the longest time, I did as I wished. But one day I grew too bold and my wings were clipped. I gazed upon the sun and saw the true face of salvation, the light shining through him and forcing the light within me up and out through my chest. The Light Inside is the path I needed to give myself purpose, but…”
He paused, the arms under his robes trembling as I sense frustration building in him, the smell of stale water running through the whole bar and making me gag.
“But I have reached my limit and the light in me is growing dim. I heard about your…establishment and the unique properties it possesses. So, if I must divulge something to you, I will. But your concoction must do the job, my friend.”
I give him the once over and beyond the obvious fact he was cloaked and smelled worse than a corpse in the midday sun, there was something “off” about him. Maybe he knew something…
I glanced at my top shelf and saw a bottle roughly the size of a skull sitting dutifully on the far end, waiting to be grabbed. It had a good weight to it, various tendrils forming hooks to hold onto and the base of the tendrils wrapping around a face with a look of abject terror permanently across the only visible eye, the other having the socket bored into by a thick black tentacle and exiting out of the mouth as a spout. A murky, red liquid sloshes about as I set it down, the label reading: “The Elixir of Nortia: The river of fate washing down your throat, never ceasing and singular in its direction.”
“You take this, there’s no going back, I’m not even sure what will happen to you, so your story better be going somewhere. I’m not the religious type,” I frowned, pulling a chalice off the shelf behind me and filling it to the brim, the liquid congealing and laying perfectly still once poured as if frozen over. I kept it in front of me as I felt the unceasing stare bearing down on me, but I was undeterred in my decision.
“Whenever you’re ready. I’ve got all the time in the world, Mr…?” I paused and waited for a reply, but instead I was greeted by that sensation of a smile, like I was being sized up.
“Venerator will do just fine,” he replied eventually, his arms still in his lap and his posture unchanged. “I must confess your hound makes me…uneasy. Perchance you could remove him until I am finished partaking in this drink?”
Offence washed over me, but I held it in for the sake of the patron and the desire to see where this was going. I obliged and sent Cheddar to the back, knowing this was not my smartest moment. As I shut the door on him, a smash echoed from the bar. Upon rushing round, I saw the bottle was in a thousand pieces and the remainder of the red liquid was fastening itself to the floor, soon to be a permanent stain.
“My apologies, I was reaching for the chalice and I forgot how close it was…I would be happy to reimburse you?” The eyes didn’t leave my direction once; did he stare at me the entire time I was putting Cheddar away? No matter.
“Your story will be payment enough, especially while I pick up these pieces. Go ahead, Mr Venerator,” I sighed, leaning down to begin the arduous and mundane task of cleanup, 99% of a bartenders job. The other 1% split evenly between interesting stories and freaks like this guy…remind me why I do this again?
“I really liked my first test. She was a delicate little thing whose mother had abandoned her at birth, the rest of the litter had cut her out and she was never going to survive. Master told me the light in her would be best suited being added to my own, but it had to be cleansed from her. So, like any dutiful pilgrim, I took the flames of purity to her and stripped the light from her flesh once the fur had melted away.” He paused, I could hear the shiver from under the bar as he gasped. “The screams were like a private performance for me, I still get tingles now.”
I started picking up the bigger pieces and in the reflection, saw that Venerator had set back down the chalice and that his eyes were no longer set on me. Unease washed over me, but I continued to clean.
“What happened after that? Surely your master didn’t just grant you a seat on the council?” I quipped, hoping my humour would ease the tension, but it didn’t.
“He told me I couldn’t be present for the graduation ceremony, that I had a more important job to undertake. My second assignment was dull compared to the final one. I was to gain his favour by ensuring his actions were seen to the end, no matter what it…what it…” He began coughing and hacking, pushing himself away from the table as the drink began to take effect.
The Elixir Of Nortia wasn’t just a way to get closer to your chosen idol metaphorically, it shifted you to be what they wanted, regardless of the circumstances. I had no idea what it would do to him once it took hold, but it was my chance to learn more and I wasn’t willing to let it go. As he curled over on the floor, I got to my feet and leaned over the counter to talk to him, I could see the exposed skin on is arms beginning to grow grey and the nails lengthening to form sharper claws.
“Your master…he did something, didn’t he? Something you wanted to be a part of.”
The Venerator didn’t reply, he didn’t even move save for some light breathing.
“I’m still figuring out what he did and how the hell someone like YOU found this place, you don’t think I realised what you are? You’re playing a dangerous game coming here in your condition, you know that? This isn’t the first ‘out of the way’ bar you’ve been to, is it?”
While I didn’t go out much, I wasn’t the only unusual bar around and my colleagues had been murmuring about weird visits, strange hooded people asking for very specific top shelf concoctions that they should have had NO idea about, with stories that seemed far too strange to be real. I’d even known a few places to go dark not long after mentioning this, so I’d been mindful of newcomers since then.
“What did your master want with Letty? She’s just an ordinary woman, she led a good life…help me understand.” I leaned down to pick him up and I can see his body shaking, a weak laughter emanating from beneath the cloak.
A hand appeared before I could react and lifted me up off my feet with ungodly force; the frame now standing up and becoming taller as it does so, far taller than before. I kicked my legs but I couldn’t find any footing or area to reach.
I was completely at his mercy, the voice no longer raspy as it spoke but booming and guttural.
“She was a crucial part of the ascendancy. Reverence and Disquiet saw the potential in her and told our Master she was the one. They were tasked with taking her memory while our Master fed on her young. Taking a light before it has a chance to glow brings extra brilliance to his hue.” Venerator’s eyes now filled with such joy and for the first time, I could see something beneath it, a swirling mass of tendrils running across scarred and leathery skin with exposed pink flesh, the nose stripped to the bone and his eyes hanging in jagged sockets. “But my job was special…Master took my light and dimmed it just enough that I’d send out the signals for your bar to appear. Master said this is how people locate you…when they need you the most?”
I began sweating, my vision blurred and my chest felt hot as I gasped for air that wasn’t coming, the feeling of malice seemingly pulsating through his arms and transferring to me; it was borderline palpable. His teeth were visibly shaking as he smiled, this was the face of an animal, not a person.
“I don’t understand, but I am just a pilgrim, so I need only follow. You tried altering the course of fate and that, dear friend, was your biggest error. Master doesn’t wish to have any adjudicators, he has made his choice and so should you.”
I felt the stabbing sensation of a tendril in my side, a hot burning liquid beginning to break down my cells and push its way through my bloodstream, my hands felt numb and I stopped fighting, barely able to muster a whisper.
“You wanted my story, well here it is, Sullivan. What message would you like me to tell the Master?” he called out with glee, pulling my body towards his face so he could hear my last gasps of air.
Maybe it was by chance or by divine intervention, but Emperors Refuge began to kick in, I felt the surge of energy fill my body and remove the semblance of pain for the briefest of moments, I knew I had to act quickly before I succumbed to the darkness. Gripping his arm as hard as I could, I shouted at the top of my lungs:
The sound of the back door swinging off its hinges broke through the air as Cheddar rose behind Venerator, the chunky mountain dog a distant memory as he now stood on his hind legs, his upper half uncoiling like a snake and his eyes rolled into the back of his head. He was breathing heavily, his slobber a thick black and steaming hot, his jaw opening far larger than any dog should be able to muster.
The grip on my neck loosened as the malicious intent was now replaced by abject fear; Venerator turned his attention to Cheddar and looked visibly terrified. The last thing I saw before the subsequent darkness after being dropped to the ground was the unhinged form of Cheddar doing what he does best: cleaning up. First went the head, then the limbs, the last thing was a tendril being graciously mopped up by Cheddar as I fell into unconsciousness, Emperors Refuge taking me gratefully into its arms.
My memories flooded me while I was surfing in the darkness, memories of a man I used to be, of someone who could barely hold a sentence together without the voices overtaking me and driving me to total madness… Of a man who made one crucial mistake and found himself in a pub along the English countryside, greeted by an older woman who gave him a drink and listened for a while…how long has it been, I wonder?
“Sully…Sully? What happened to you?!”
Pain riddled my body as I felt my consciousness being thrown towards the light at an alarming pace, the whiplash coming with a fresh level of pain that steadily rose the more aware I became. My stomach felt like it was rotting away, and I could no longer feel my legs. Cheddar whined and the unfamiliar voice of a woman with dark skin and curly black hair became apparent as she kneeled over me, her eyes darting across my damaged body.
“What do I do, Sully? Tell me…tell me and I’ll do my best okay?” she said calmly, her bedside manner giving me even more cause for concern on my wellbeing. I tried to move, but the pain was so intense that I felt consciousness ripping away from me if I dared to venture too far. I cast my eyes to her and to the bar above me.
“Top shelf…middle…far at the back…silver bottle with a chain around it…ice cold to the touch.” I foolishly tried to move my arm on instinct and again the pain tugged at my mind, reminding me of my error. The woman sprang to her feet and rummaged on the top shelf, the urgency causing her to knock a couple of bottles aside, much to my dismay. Sure enough, she got her hands on the silver bottle and brought it down to me.
It’s something I had not seen in many, many years. It’s more of a teardrop than a standard bottle, the chains around it silver even to this day, a small combination lock at the top by the cap. I whispered the number to her and she pulled the cork off, a chill rushing through the room. She read the note on the side, a teardrop falling from the moon with a trail effect burning off of it as the logo reads:
“Professor Ambrose Ashton-Smith’s Silver Tear Potion; Your cycle shall not end so long as you keep this close. One glass for injury, two for death.”
Springing to action, she poured out one glass and the bottle fell empty at the very last drop.
She didn’t register this however, and propped the glass under my lips as I gratefully drank, the horrific cold chill flowing through my body and beating back whatever the hell Venerator had infected me with. After a few minutes, I felt the feeling in my body return and I began to get to my feet, still a little woozy but thankfully none the worse.
“Well, looks like you’ll get a drink on me,” I chuckled, my side still a little sore and the tear ruining my blazer. “Thanks, by the way. To whom do I owe my gratitude?”
She stretched out a hand and I took it, a firm grip meeting me as she flashed a grin.
“Detective Georgia Halpin, someone put in a call that there was an incident here and, well, here I am.”
The woman took a seat at the bar and rested her head in her hands, smiling in bewilderment as Cheddar sat at the foot of the bar, panting and focused on me.
“You’re really okay? What the hell was in that drink…?”
“Ah, just a favour from a long, long time ago…won’t be able to use that again, was really hoping it’d come in handy during an epic battle of some kind…but hell, I never go anywhere…so I guess it is what it is.” I put the bottle away in a small box underneath the bar and begin to properly take in Halpin: she was in her late 20s, athletic and sporting a smart casual attire that suggested she took her job seriously but enjoyed being sociable. A definitive uptake from Mr. Sewer Nightmare earlier on. Her hair was tied back in a bun with a long golden pen in the centre.
“So, how does this place work? How much do I need to fork out for you to bend an ear?” she asked coyly, a flash of pearly whites as I reciprocated.
“You just need to tell a story, but since I owe you…” I trailed off, realising what I was actually saying, but she caught on quickly.
“Since you owe me, you’ve gotta tell the story. Bet you didn’t think that would happen when you woke up this morning, huh?” she laughed, her eyes scanning the shelves behind me for something that took her fancy. “Well, you show me something and I’ll show you something, sound fair?” her eyes resting over a black and white bottle in the shape of a bed stood on its end with a person fast asleep on top, the cork in the centre of their chest. I obliged and grabbed it from the shelf and set it down in front of her, the label reading “The Thought Collective Presents Emporium Brand Black Whiskey with a dash of Pensive: Relive those golden moments in the black of night!”
“Not a bad choice, this will either bring clarity to your mind or make everything feel like it’s in murky waters. Can be a hell of a journey if you’re not careful, y’know…” I said, uncorking the bottle and letting the smell of ginseng and walnuts waft through the air before fetching a large mead tankard and pouring the contents sideways. The black liquid left the container coming out clear as crystal when hitting the tankard, black particles bubbling beneath the surface until the end of the pour when a dark froth bubbled at the top. I slid it over to her and gave her a nod as she took a sip, her eyes closing in enjoyment as she let it fill her. She spun her hand around, signalling me to begin talking.
“Alright, fine, here goes…” I sighed and fetched Cheddar a slab of meat while talking, learning from before and opting to keep the detective in my sight the entire time. “I sort of…fell into this business. I wasn’t always the suave, handsome, charming and obviously humble bartender you see before you. I was once just a fucked up kid trying to find his way.”
She finished her sip with a gulp and smiled, wiping her mouth and looking intently at me, nodding.
“Everyone goes through that phase in their lives where they have absolutely no clue what they’re doing. Mine just lasted from 10 to 30 and saw no sign of slowing down as I fell into my late youth. I just felt…lost…like I belonged nowhere. So, I made people pay attention to me whichever way I could. If that meant lashing out? Well so be it, bad publicity was just fine by me.” I shook my head. Being on the giving end of these was not my idea of fun, but a promise was a promise. “But eventually all our demons catch up to us, and I got in deep with a mistake I made and I was given a choice: do this job or rot. I chose this job and here I am. The end.” I held my arms up and let them fall to my side before shrugging.
“Mm…your demons catching up to you, eh? Yeah, I’m sure Gomez DeStefano’s did as well,” Halpin nonchalantly declared before taking another gulp of the drink and wiping her mouth, locking eyes with me. “How much of what you just said was bullshit, Sully?”
I smirked, she was quick on her feet. “Enough that you can’t seem to figure it out. How’d you know my name? Why are you really here?”
She finished her drink, slamming it down on the table before taking a walk in the bar foyer, looking at the photos of past events we’d put on and the notes grateful patrons had left behind.
“Hey, Sully! Thanks for having me for that long weekend, I have no idea how things got the way they are, but the drink you gave was the best. Eternally grateful! – Don Belham”
“Sullivan, our time together was irreplaceable, the drinks exquisite and your wit sharp enough to cleave me in two. I will hold this time in my heart, for you pulled me out of the darkest pit and with one drink made it so I had wings. I hope to see you once more someday, my comrade. – Maximillian Wentworth”
“Sully, you know what this means to me. Everything else has already been said. Thank you. Give Cheddar the biggest hug for me, okay?” – Kathryn Letty”
“Well now, this one looks new! So many grateful patrons, you’ve amassed quite the following here, haven’t you Sully? I assume that’s why Gomez found his way here a couple nights ago.” She turned to look at me, eyes narrowed. “But we’ve not seen him since, nobody has. Even asked some of your regulars and Miss Letty here, but nobody had an answer for me, how oddly protective…”
“Who sent you? Are you really concerned for someone like Gomez?” I asked, feeling suddenly very on edge. She laughed bitterly at the notion.
“Ha! Don’t be silly, that vile prick was a foot soldier and a greedy one at that. No, I’m here because you clearly have no understanding of your boundaries and if violence won’t make the line in the sand clear, maybe fear will.”
She opened her palms out and clenched her fists.
“A pity, really, I liked this drink. But Temperance finds its work is never done.”
Without a second to respond, she began punching her stomach over and over until the drink she’d consumed moments ago poured out of her like a black cloud through gags and belches. It began to form a haze that quickly turned into a cloud. In it, I could see figures moving around as the image became clearer and an apartment room could be made out.
It was a dark apartment room, with a row of plants in the corner, sitting dutifully and waiting for water.
A bunch of baby toys littered the floor, a stuffed animal ripped to pieces and cast aside. I didn’t want to see this.
A hunched over figure voraciously chewed on something as blood and viscera coated the floors. Its shoulder blades jutted out and the hood barely covered the large bulbous head as it gnashed away, two hooded members standing on either side and watching with vested interest.
The bar began to darken and even the sounds of Cheddar barking were muted as the thing in the haze clicked its back, straightened up and began to turn, huge black eyes falling upon me as mandibles clicked and blood covered pedipalps shivered.
“The message has been delivered, my lord. Temperance has served you, the light beckons!” Halpin called, unseen amid the smoke and haze.
I knew whatever the fuck I was staring at was beyond any weird story, gruesome tale or bizarre encounter I’d had to that point. It was something that, for the briefest of moments, created a fear in me that screamed to close the bar and move, but once you start something like this you cannot stop it. I knew that. There was something preying on my patrons and I couldn’t ignore that.
Still, in that moment, amid those blackened clouds, I felt a sliver of the fear that so many victims had fallen prey to, what I was so worried would continue to befall them if I stood idly by when they came to me for help.
The black eyes shimmered and the voice resonated through me, ringing out long after the warning was delivered and I had been left in the dark bar, Cheddar sat with me on the floor as I stared at the empty bottle of Emperors Refuge and lamented on the clarity it could give me, the words swelling and bursting in my skull:
“I’ll see you soon.”