Happy Sunday and welcome to Blogfest Weekend (Part Two). Today's entry is for the Bar Scene Blogfest hosted by the lovely Tara over at Secret Stories. Go on over after this and check out all the other awesome entries.
I have to admit that choosing an entry for this was harder than I imagined it would be. I have a ton of things set in a bar. I love bars for storytelling. I've got girls' night out and boys' night out scenes. I've got lonely guy in a bar scenes. I've got pick up scenes in bars. And I have this. It's not the obvious choice for a Bar Scene Blogfest, but what the heck. I went with the non-obvious 1520 words here. We'll see how that goes.
Clouds of dark smoke and ash float on the horizon, and the acrid burn of the air from wildfires scorches his nostrils as he moves past the squat, sprawling mills and their bellowing stacks into the central city.
Haze hangs heavy here, thick and pressing in all around him in the meager spill of light that’s lost to the shadows and the corners in the dark, narrow streets and darker, narrower alleys.
His eyes scan the crowd as he bobs and weaves. Sharp elbows and shoulders cleave the roiling sea of bodies, withered, skeletal creatures wrapped in dull shades of grey and dirty brown scurrying under a dark, angry sky.
He finds what he’s looking for; pulls open the almost invisible grey door, steps over the body sprawled in his way, and into a deeper darkness.
The door snicks closed behind him and he stops, long fingers tapping a staccato beat against the pistol on his thigh as his eyes adjust to the thin trail of light lining the length of the corridor.
Five seconds later he’s moving again, long, silent steps sliding down the close confines of the hallway.
He slips through the door into the main room. Sharp eyes run a quick recon.
Off to his left, at the far end of the bar, the serving girl sits, running a drying cloth around a glass. When she finishes, she flips it upside down and stacks it in line along the neat little row she’s started in front of her. The old drunk at the end of the bar sits hunched on his stool, head hung low over his bottle.
The man rinsing glasses behind the bar flicks a sideways glance in his direction as he slides onto a stool. “What’ll it be?”
The barkeeper barks a laugh and reaches under the counter, plunks a bottle of some local brew in front of him. “Where the hell do you think you are?”
He doesn’t have an answer for that. Just leans forward and watches the girl out of the corner of his eye.
She swivels her head slowly. The tangled spill of hair cascading down her back doesn’t move, but he catches the dark, jagged slash just under her jaw line.
Her lips pull tight in a thin, flat line and hard, hollow-black eyes that are far too old stare out from a face that is far too thin, all angles and sharp planes.
Something he thinks might be shame flutters in his gut as the weight of her gaze forces him to snap his eyes back to his bottle.
“Go on with you, now.” The barkeeper jerks his head toward the back door, holds out his hand. “I need you to finish taking inventory.”
She slides off her stool, ghosts along the length of the bar, stretches out a skeletal arm. A small hand opens and thin, gnarled fingers close on the clipboard he’s holding out as she passes.
He shifts slightly in his seat. His hand wraps his neck and he tilts his head, slides a sidelong glance at the girl disappearing down the back stairs.
The old drunk doubles over and begins trying to hack up a lung.
“One for my friend.” He slides the bartender a ten, chugs half the bottle as he waits for the hacking to end. “Was it something I said?”
The old drunk twists his head a quarter turn, bleary eyes narrowed and trying to focus. “It’s the time of the year.”
The bartender slides a bottle to him, voice sharp in the mid-day silence of the bar. “You talk too much, old man.”
The old man waves a dismissive hand. “You’re not here for the celebration.”
He hands the bartender his empty and reaches up, rubs cool, damp fingers against the beginning of a headache behind his eyes. “What celebration?”
The old man’s head drops and his shoulders curl forward as another fit of coughing takes him.
He reaches over, thumps him hard on the back.
The old man waves him off. “The Great Day of Liberation.”
The bartender ducks beneath the counter; brings up a bottle of JD and three glasses. “Not a lot of reason to celebrate.”
“The Death of Azar.” The old man shrugs a bony shoulder. “The end of the Great War.”
“The end of the last war.” The bartender sets a clean glass in front of him, splashes it half full of whiskey as his eyes slide to the old man. “We just quit numbering them.”
The old man leans forward, hungry eyes on the bottle. “You don’t think that’s reason enough to celebrate?”
The bartender splashes another puddle, slides the glass down the bar. “You talk too much, old man.”
The old man raises his glass. “Azar’s gone.”
The bartender snorts; a harsh explosion of breath, raises his own. “For all the good it’s done.”
He almost laughs, clinks glasses all around. “They say change is good. Peace is new.”
The bartender splashes another round, his voice rough and low. “It’s a long story.”
“Not such a long story.” The old man shrugs again. “Clan warfare. Azar was the most powerful of the warlords. Ruled with an iron fist.”
Eyes closed, he raises the glass to his lips. “Decided who would live and die.”
The bartender’s voice is as dull and flat as his eyes. “Trafficked in slaves and weapons to support his private armies…his personal ambitions.”
The words hang heavy in the stillness. “His personal compound is not too far outside the city. You can tour the barracks and the warehouse and cages as part of the celebration if you’d like.”
He leans forward, hands the bartender his empty. “Cages?”
He shrugs and pours, hands it back.
The old man’s voice, savage and sharp as a blade floats between them. “For holding the merchandise.”
He slides his eyes sideways, sets his glass back down on the bar. “You’ve been there.”
“I was there.” The old man taps a long, bony forefinger against the jagged black symbols scrawled in a line on his neck. “Lot number. I worked in the mine.”
“They would come in the dark; take males, females, children.” The bartender’s lips curve gently up at corners in an angry smile. “We called them The Vanished.”
“A number of Azar’s clients had a predilection for children.” The old man curls forward again; coughs into his chest, waves off a helping hand. “The younger the better.”
“And her brother.” Hazy eyes stare into the past; focus on a memory, on some point beyond his left shoulder. “The boy was young, small…sickly.”
He tilts his head, chews on a thumb pad. “What happened?
“We were in the middle of a war.” The old man shrugs, wraps his fingers around his glass. “Azar challenged the wrong people. He’d always armed both sides, but when he began trafficking in biological weapons…”
“You talk too much, old man.” Her voice is a quiet, vicious thing slicing the words like a razor. “It’s not your story to tell.”
She slides behind the bar, sharp eyes catching his.
He flicks his eyes away, forces himself to look back. “What’s the rest of the story?”
Her face twists with anger, grief. “Azar’s enemies sent a team of assassins.”
A long forefinger taps against his glass. “They killed him…and liberated you.”
The dead pools of her eyes pin him in place. “They weren’t there to…liberate us.”
His teeth grind loud in his ear. “They left you there?”
“There were too many of us.” Her lips flatline. “And the fighting was close. We could hear…see the city being shelled. The explosions. The fires.”
“Azar’s guards were coming…”
“One of the team, a female…forced them to take…some of us. Only the ones who could move on their own.”
The old man spit his words. “A twelve day forced march to the border.”
“And the others?”
“My brother was sick…weak…he hadn’t been able to eat…”
“You couldn’t take him?”
“She gave me a choice.” Her hands curl into tight fists at her side. “Said it was already too late for him; we couldn’t save him.” Old grief and guilt flavor her words. “There was nothing I could do. There were too many others to take.”
A small shiver ripples through her body. “I said I couldn’t leave him.”
She lifts a skeletal shoulder. “She said if I wanted to live I had to go with them.”
“You left him?”
She goes suddenly rigid, eyes sighting over his shoulder and burning in a face frozen in a rictus of rage.
“Are you ready to go?” Cacia’s voice shatters the sudden silence.
He swivels his head in slow motion, sees her standing there, staring past him; eyes tired, face drawn, arms wrapped around her middle like she’s trying to keep herself from spilling out.
The girl’s voice floats soft and low behind him. “She was right.”
Cacia wrenches her gaze from the girl, locks him in her line of sight. “The others are waiting for us.”
She spins on her heel and leaves without looking back to see if he’s following.