By mid-1988, Mary’s Place had survived a cluricane, the birth – or more accurately, discovery – of artificial intelligence, and the regular combined punning forces of Doc Webster, Long Drink McGonnigle, and the Lucky Duck, and if that last one doesn’t sound intimidating, you don’t know Mary’s Place.
Considering the precedent set by our predecessor, Callahan’s Place, we should’ve known it would only be a matter of time before something strange and wonderful walked in.
Tom Hauptmann and I opened the bar at about nine that night, like always, and soon after the regulars trickled in – Long Drink McGonnigle, Fast Eddie, Isham and Tanya Latimer, Tommy Janssen, to name a few – the door cracked open and admitted a tall young woman with brown hair. She sidled in like she wasn’t sure if she had the right joint, and to tell the truth, I wasn’t sure she did. We’re an easygoing bunch, and I pride myself on being a liberal barman, but a barman I am, and I was damned if she was any older than eighteen. And Long Island has laws about serving alcohol to minors.
She looked around for a few seconds, hopeful, and apparently didn’t find what she was looking for. Her face fell a little, and the rest of her went with it, slumping down in a posture of utter exhaustion. Stuffing her hands in her pockets, she shuffled over to the bar, blinked once at the tall armchairs lined up there, and climbed into one. I made my way down to her after a minute.
“Hi, there. What can I get you?”
She looked up from memorizing the grain of the counter, and I nearly caught my breath. I’ve seen a lot of pain in a lot of pairs of eyes over the years, but seeing so much sadness and tiredness in such young eyes nearly broke my heart.
“Um.” She glanced at the bottles behind the bar. “Two fingers of whiskey, please.”
Gently as I could, I said, “Sweetheart, I’m gonna need to see some ID.”
She looked back at me, opened her mouth, stopped, began again. “Look, it’s just . . .” She dropped her voice; I had to lean in to hear her over the conversation. “I nearly died last night, and I haven’t slept since then because I’m afraid of what I’ll dream about, and I’d just – really like something to keep me from thinking too much.”
That was a state of mind I was intimately familiar with, and the genuine pleading in her tone, combined with that look in her eyes . . . Well, I shot a glance at my beautiful wife and partner, Zoey, and looked back at the minor.
“Sorry,” I told her. “No can do.”
She sighed, accepted it with a nod, and started to get up. “Okay.”
“Hey, wait. No one said you had to leave.”
This time she gave me a confused look. “If you’re not going to serve me . . .”
“I’m not going to serve you alcohol, no. But if you need something to take your mind off life . . .” I glanced around the bar, at the lively conversations and warm people. “There are worse things than sticking around here and spending some time with this crowd. Trust me.”
She followed my glance, finally ending up with her eyes back on me. I could see her weighing the options, sizing me up – and after a minute, to my pleasure, she sat down again. Her expression didn’t lighten, exactly, but at least it looked a little less tense. “Thanks,” she said. “I’ll give it a shot. Can I just have a Coke, then?”
“Coming right up,” I told her, getting a glass. “If you’re staying, you should know the house rules – you don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, and anyone who asks a snoopy question will be politely asked to take a nap by our pianist over there.” I handed her the Coke. “Drinks are three dollars, but if you return your empty, you get a dollar back.”
She looked startled, but nodded again as she accepted the drink. “Okay. Cheers.”
I shook my head, smiling a little myself. “Save the toasting ‘til you’ve got one worth the fireplace.”
She blinked, repeated “Okay,” and started sipping her drink. That, clearly, was my cue to go help another customer. I kept an eye on her as time went on, but she didn’t show any signs of doing anything other than nurse the Coke and surreptitiously watch the goings-on.
In the meantime, the regulars had shuffled themselves into a rough circle in throwing distance of the fireplace, with Doc Webster at the head. He folded his hands over his more-than-ample stomach and intoned, “The topic tonight?”
See, as at our old haunt, Callahan’s Place, tonight was Punday (you’ve got Sunday, then Monday, then Punday), our weekly competition in honor of that lowest form of humor, the pun. The winner of a Punday gets his tab erased, so competition for the title is intense.
I wandered over, drying my hands on a towel, and said with equal solemnity, “Ladies and fennelmen, let’s spice things up.”
There was a round of half-hearted groans and a few eyerolls. “Anise solid topic,” someone put in, and they were off. I returned to the bar to keep the drinks coming. When the Doc got off a real stinker about Mussolini making the trains run on thyme, it inspired the first real barrage of glasses of the night, and I saw the minor at the bar jump as they crashed into the fireplace. I leaned over to her and grinned. “That’s why you get a dollar back.”
She smiled back – encouraging – and nodded. I went back to serving drinks. The crowd around the fireplace warmed to their topic, and the minor seemed to be relaxing, eventually moving to a table to listen to the puns.
Some time later, I noticed another newcomer at the end of the bar, and blinked. Two people wandering in off the street is an unusual occurrence for Mary’s Place, but not unheard of – the last time it happened, we’d ended up with the Lucky Duck, and set someone on a path that we’re all hoping will end up helping treat AIDS. What was more unusual was that I hadn’t seen the guy come in. He was young, slim, red-haired, wearing a black suit jacket over jeans and a wifebeater undershirt, and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful men I’d ever seen. As I looked on, Tom served him a bourbon, and he gave him a smile in return. It was the kind of smile sharks – human or otherwise – give their surroundings. I resolved to keep an eye on him.
Meanwhile, the punsters were rolling around to the storytelling portion of the evening. After a shaggy dog story from Tanya about a Jamaican confession addict (a sinna mon), Long Drink stood up, cleared his throat, and said, “Now, you all know that when Jesus Christ was born, those three wise guys, the Magi, brought the newborn babe and his parents three gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Tom, you want to tell us why they brought those three?”
Tom’s a minister, and a veteran of Callahan’s Place who knows how to help a story along, so he leaned on the bar and said, “Well, Drink, they brought the frankincense to represent Christ as priest, gold to crown him as king, and myrrh to represent him as sacrifice.”
“Ah,” said Long Drink, holding up a finger, “you got two out of three. But recent research has proven that they didn’t bring the myrrh for Jesus. No, the spice was for his poor new mother. The sap, when brewed up in hot water, is a calming, medicinal drink. So on December 26th, when Mary was starting to get those post-partum blues, she asked Joseph to put the gift to its intended use and brew her up a cup.”
Taking a sip from his own glass, Drink continued, “Well, Joseph, dutiful husband that he was, heated the water and poured in the spice, but he noticed that the sap hadn’t been particularly clean. There were bits of bark floating in the water. He started to sieve out the detritus, but Mary stopped him.”
He paused for effect, and Doc, recognizing a cue, jumped in. “Why would she do that?”
“Because,” said Drink, “Mary knew that the quality of myrrh’s tea is not strained.”
In the midst of the resultant barrage of peanuts and chips directed at Drink, and the barrage of glasses at the fireplace, the beautiful young man at the bar rose with his drink and ambled over to the chalk line. We quieted, recognizing the prelude to a toast (and not one of us wondered how this stranger knew our toasting tradition).
“The quality of mercy is not strained,” he mused, looking into his bourbon, “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
“To mercy,” he said, raising his glass. “The badge of nobility, the refuge of the wretched” – his smirk twisted bitterly – “and a lie I wish I had come up with.”
With that, he drained his drink and lobbed the glass into the fireplace. As the crash of breaking glass faded away, he turned to the group and added, “I know, I know. You’re already thinking that I have some sad story, some problem I see as unforgivable that you’ll hear out and prove isn’t hopeless. And it is a sad story, of exile and wrongs that ought to have been put to bed long, long ago. But forgiveness isn’t as easy as that, is it?”
He looked over the group. “Isn’t that so, Tom Hauptmann?” Turning – “Doctor Webster?” Turning again – “Eddie Costigan?”
Eddie froze, midway through reaching for the blackjack he keeps in his boot. No one, in fact, was moving; none of us felt like we could. Something about the man – his aura, or the look in his eyes – had turned into that terrifying darkness that lurks in the shadows of a child’s bedroom, or at the bottom of a bottle, under that last thin layer of booze.
“Yet you are a tenacious bunch,” he continued, glancing at the fireplace. “A thorn in my side, even a small one. The Krundai couldn’t faze you, the Cockroach couldn’t kill you.”
Then he looked directly at me, smiled, and said, “Without your previous proprietor, though, I expect much less of a challenge.”
There’s an expression: my blood began to boil. I think that’s the only way to describe the feeling that, well, bubbled up in me at that. I’ve been called a lot of things, but the implication that I couldn’t handle things as well as Mike Callahan – and more to the point, the distinct possibility that I wouldn’t be able to handle this as well as he would’ve, that I was about to see his legacy go up in flames – that one got to me. Most of the people in the bar there, my family, were well-nigh indestructible thanks to Mickey Finn, but some animal instinct told me that here, we were dealing with someone who wouldn’t care.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” someone croaked behind the young man, and he turned. Our heads turned with him to see who’d managed to break the spell.
It was the minor, rising shakily to her feet, eyes blazing. The young man took one look at her and burst out laughing.
“Another thorn,” he managed. “One considerably dulled at the moment, I think. And what about the quality of your mercy, Nita?”
Her jaw clenched, and she drew herself up. “Fairest and Fallen, greetings and defiance. I think you’d better leave. Now.”
I can’t describe on paper the way her voice sounded when she spoke. The best I can do is say that I’ve heard Mike’s voice sound like it, coming out from around those foul cigars he smokes. It resonated in a way that said this is how the world is, and this is how it’s going to be, and left no doubt in the listener’s mind.
The young man’s face darkened, and he opened his mouth to speak.
He never got a chance. “LEAVE!” roared the girl, throwing a hand out towards him – and it was a roar, full of words and sounds and fury and signifying a hell of a lot more than just that one syllable.
And he was gone.
We sat frozen for a second, no longer in terror, but in pure slack-jawed surprise.
The spell finally shattered as the minor dropped her arm, swayed where she stood, and started to collapse. Before she could hit, Isham Latimer was next to her, an arm around her, lowering her back into her chair. A moment later, Doc Webster was by them, all professional briskness. And a moment after that, we all started talking at once.
Among the rooba rooba rooba, the minor opened her eyes and blinked at the Doc. Doc waved me over, and after a muzzy second, she blinked at me for a change of pace.
“Hi,” she said. “Uh. Sorry.”
“For what?” I asked. “I think you just saved my bar for a little while.”
“Well. Yeah.” She cracked a smile. “For, um, screwing up your evening?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Doc reassured her. “If nobody saves the world every few months, we start to get bored.”
“I like bored,” I put in.
“Are you calling me boring?” said Zoey’s voice behind me, moments before she spun me around and kissed me. I broke the kiss long enough to say “I’m not that stupid” before going in to finish what we’d started. There’s no aphrodisiac like a little mortal fear.
When we broke up this time, we looked back at the girl, who was looking at us with a slightly bemused smile. “I think,” I said, loudly enough for others to hear, “we all ought to sit down and figure out what just happened. Would you mind helping explain?”
She bit her lip and shrugged. “A – a little, I guess.”
“Why?” Zoey asked. “Mind if I ask?”
“Most people wouldn’t believe me.” She pushed her hair off her face. “Or they would and they’d freak out.”
“You already made a guy disappear in front of our noses,” Zoey pointed out, “and no one’s more freaked than they would be after being threatened by anyone else.”
“Good point,” the girl replied. “. . . Yeah. Okay. I owe you an explanation, don’t I?”
“You don’t owe anyone here anything,” I assured her. “But we’d be honored to hear you out.”
By this time, the rest of the group had quieted down. Tom and I automatically started refilling drinks, and I glanced over at the minor. “Same as before, or you want something different?”
She shook her head. “Coke’s fine.” Once everyone was settled and hydrated, I sat down with an arm around Zoey and nodded to the minor. She looked down into her drink and said, “Where should I start?”
The Doc jumped in. “Can you tell us who that man was?”
“Well, for starters, It wasn’t really a man.” She looked up at us, clearly uncertain how we going to take it, and blinked when she saw us nodding, unsurprised. “It’s . . . Okay, you’ve heard the phrase ‘the Powers That Be’?”
More nods. She took a deep breath. “Well. That was one of Them. The Lone Power. It was cast out a long, long time ago, after the Universe was created. See, It – when all the other Powers were creating the worlds, It was the brightest and most powerful, and It wanted to create something totally unique. And It came up with entropy.”
There were a few quiet roobas at that, and a number of significant looks exchanged. Oblivious, she continued.
“The other Powers weren’t too pleased with It, since It had just guaranteed that the Universe would end, one day, and They cast It out.”
Tom drew in a breath. “The fallen angel. No wonder he was so bitter about forgiveness.”
“Yeah. You found the story in cultures all over this world, and in every other one, too. And,” she added, suddenly soft and bitter, “It was right about mercy.”
She took a sip of her Coke, as if washing away the words. No one interrupted her, though I was sure I wasn’t the only one wondering what she meant.
“Anyway, even though They’d cast It out, They couldn’t undo Its work. So They began granting power to people in the worlds. Wizards.” She pressed a hand to her heart. “Like me. That’s my job – to try and slow down the death of the Universe.”
“How old are you?” Zoey asked.
Tommy Janssen let out a low whistle. “That’s a lot of responsibility for anyone, let alone a kid.” I tightened my arm around Zoey, thinking of our own unborn and as yet unnamed child.
The girl looked ready to argue the “kid” point, considering that Tommy’s only in his twenties, but after a moment she let it pass and just murmured, tiredly, “Yeah. It is.”
“So,” said Fast Eddie, after a brief silence, “what I want t’know is, what made him choose dis joint?”
“Isn’t that obvious?” Doc asked. Catching my look, he added, “We had it up on the bar at Mike’s, Jake. The Law of Conservation of Pain, remember?”
I slapped my forehead. “Of course. ‘Shared pain is lessened, shared joy, increased.’”
“‘Thus do we refute entropy,’” the group chorused with me, and I saw more than one fond smile.
“’Course,” muttered Eddie. “Nothin’ pisses a guy off like someone dickin’ around wit his woik. Huh.”
Looking back at the minor, I noticed her dumbstruck look. Finally, she opened her mouth and said, “You guys know that and you don’t know about wizardry?”
“Well, I don’t know from wizardry,” Long Drink said, “but we’re all more than a little experienced with the supernatural. You oughta meet the Lucky Duck.”
“Wait, wait,” said Zoey. “I’ve got another question. How’d you make him disappear like that?”
The minor shrugged. “I know Its home address. I sent It back.” Looking down at her drink, she continued softly, “Took a lot out of me, and I didn’t have a lot left, not after – not after last night, but I couldn’t let It destroy a bunch of innocent people.” She glanced back up and smiled. “Especially not a bunch of fellow thorns.”
A brief silence followed. Tommy broke it. “Friend,” he said, “I’d like to buy you a drink. If Jake’ll turn a blind eye,” he amended, glancing towards me.
In reply, I put my hands over my eyes. “Seeing no evil, here.”
There was a loud, satisfied ROOBA; I uncovered my eyes to see the girl turning pink as the group expressed their gratitude and approval. “What was it you wanted?” I asked her. “Whiskey?”
She nodded, a smile blooming on her face. “Two fingers. My uncle used to say that’s what he’d get me, if I ever needed a drink. The good stuff – Bushmill’s?”
“Your uncle’s a man after my own heart,” I told her, and headed for the bar.
When I returned with her drink, Tommy stood up, grinning. “All right, I think it’s time for a toast. What’s your name?”
The girl grinned sheepishly. “Nita. Nita Callahan.”
I very nearly did a spit-take, which earned me a reproachful look from Doc at the potential waste of alcohol, in spite of his own clear surprise. The girl – Nita – blinked at us. “What?”
“Uh,” I said.
“Well,” Tommy backed me up.
“Anyone in your family by the name of Mike, Nita?” asked Tanya.
Nita frowned and nodded. “Uncle Mike’s the one who promised he’d buy me whiskey. I mean,” she added hastily as our expressions slid further into unbelieving territory, “he wasn’t really my uncle, you know? Some third cousin four times removed of my dad’s sister-in-law, something ridiculous like that. I could never get a straight answer from him about it.” She paused. “You guys knew him?”
“He ran da last joint,” Eddie explained. “Callahan’s Place.”
Nita nodded slowly. “Oh. That – that explains it, actually.”
“Explains what?” I asked.
“How I got here. Uncle Mike mentioned a bar on Long Island, once or twice – I was really little, but it stuck with me – he said if I ever really needed to talk, I should look for him there.” She smiled, suddenly. “There really are no accidents.”
“Truer words,” said Tommy, raising his glass. “Friends, a toast – to accidents that aren’t accidents. To Nita.”
“To Nita!” we agreed, and the fireplace rang anew with glass – including Nita’s.
The night swung back into its usual energy as if nothing much had gone wrong, though there was perhaps a little more of the vigor that comes from bypassing a disaster. Not long after, Nita came out of conversation with Doc Webster, made her excuses, and left to a chorus of “Don’t be a stranger”s.
She paused in the door, smiled, and called back something that sounded like “Go well” that I misheard as “Die steeho,” and I got that feeling again – like her words left the Universe in no doubt how it was going to be.
I joined Doc and nodded towards the door. “His cousin.”
“More likely his forebear,” he rumbled.
“Isn’t that a trip.”
“You said a mouthful.” He shook his head. “Poor kid.”
I frowned. “Oh? She tell you something?”
“Yes.” He paused, debating, and said, “Suffice to say that she learned last night that sometimes mercy can’t be given.”
I could think of at least a couple situations where you might learn that. None of them were pleasant.
“Wish we could’ve gotten her to talk it out.”
“Me too. But I wish we’d gotten that man to talk it out, too.”
I blinked at him. “He seemed more interested in wiping us out than in talking to us.”
“I’ll grant you that,” he agreed. “But we’ve talked down that sort before.”
“I guess we have,” I said slowly. We both fell silent, contemplating our drinks.
“Well,” the Doc said after a bit, “maybe we’ll both get our wishes. Mary’s Place isn’t going anywhere, and they know how to find us now. And I propose we go on being a thorn in his side, until then.”
“Hear hear,” I said.
After all, of all the goals in a man’s life, there are few with the same flavor of satisfaction as annoying the devil himself. I was looking forward to the prospect.