The first time the man at the bar disappeared, Ren screamed and the glass in her hand shattered on the floor. The second time, she was expecting it. The third time? The third time, she yelled at him to pay his damn tab.
Her new boss’ twin sister had warned her when she started, of course, that sometimes odd things happened in the half of Sizzle It Up that contained the old mahogany bar but Ren hadn’t believed any of it. She hadn’t believed it when the awkward man who kept the books told her about being startled by footsteps when he was alone in the building. She hadn’t believed it when the two musicians that played on Friday and Saturday nights talked about sometimes seeing a man in an old uniform watching them from the shadows as they played. She hadn’t believed it until he’d walked up to the bar and ordered a whiskey only to vanish before her eyes.
Making things more complicated, this was Ren’s first real job since she’d moved out of her family home. She had just moved to the city of Neverwinter to start as a bartender at Taako and Lup’s new restaurant. It was upscale and popular, exactly what she needed as a good gig on her resume, or as a permanent gig if she could swing it. The fact that there was also an adorable half elven man who played the violin live some nights. She hadn’t gotten a chance to talk to Johann yet, but when she did, she was going to try and get his number.
She hadn’t planned on the place being haunted though, and this civil war specter was putting a serious crimp in her style. Everyone else seemed to take him in stride, periodically speaking to open air to ask him to put things back or to stop making noise when he was being annoying. She couldn’t quite bring herself to though, it felt too odd. And he came back every night. She could take his order and turn away, which was what she usually did, or she could try to ignore him and spend the night being stared at while she served other customers. His stare was almost accusing but mostly it was like he was lost. She found herself thinking of his dark, lonely eyes when she was closing late and it was almost enough to make her speak to the air like the others. Almost.
The biggest question they had was who was this man and why did he come here night after night instead of resting peacefully in his afterlife of choice. Sure, his uniform was distinct enough that they knew he’d fought and died in the civil war but they didn’t know his name or anything else about him. And without anything to go off of, they couldn't exactly do more research. It wasn't like the bar had ever been owned by a soldier. It wasn't like soldiers hadn't been right in the area to go there all throughout the war. Every so often, someone on staff would suggest pulling out a ouija board to try and find out more, but so far Taako had shut that train of thinking right down, even when it came from his brother-in-law, or perhaps especially when it came from him.
It was late on a Saturday night when something finally happened that shoved things soundly from being a curiosity to being a problem. Ren was closing up while she listened to Kravitz and Johann discuss the set list for next Friday as they packed up their instruments when the staccato sound of boot heels crossing the wooden floor made all three of them look up. The man at the bar stood in front of her, his dark eyes on her. He leaned against the bar and smiled at her, all ready to launch into his usual request for a shot of whiskey, when he suddenly stopped and looked at her with his head tilted just a bit to the side.
"You yelled at me last time... right? I think I remember that."
Ren's jaw dropped. He'd never really interacted before, never seemed to remember anything. Usually, he just seemed like an echo, like a movie that someone somewhere else had hit play on and let him go. But here he was, clearly talking to her and not just replaying his usual course.
"Yeah, I did. You've got quite the tab going." Then she paused, not sure how long he would stay. "What's your name?"
He gave her a little smile.
"Can't be all that bad a tab. I've never gotten my drink." His smile grew even brighter at her question. "And my name's Avi."
Johann took a step closer, his eyes wide as he watched the interaction at the bar. Avi turned, hearing the movement, and met Johann's eyes for just a moment before vanishing into thin air just like he usually did. Ren leaned heavily against the bar, her face pale.
"Did you hear that? We got his name." She was excited, but it was all so much. "Avi. It's not... There's probably been lots of folks named Avi, but its something to go off if we wanted to try some research. Or may just talk to him without feeling quite so weird about it?"
Johann was staring at the place where Avi had been standing and then he slowly looked up at Ren.
"We could look him up in the library, maybe."
Kravitz sat down hard on one of the chairs that still had yet to be put away and put his head in his hands.
"Taako is never going to believe us."
Ren looked over at him oddly.
"Why? He's seen the ghost."
Kravitz scrubbed at his face and then gestured at the place where the spirit had been standing.
"Yes but... never like that. It's never interacted before, just repeated the same order and then... then vanished."
Hands on her hips, Ren gave Kravitz a grin.
"Maybe he just likes me better, that's all."
The next day, Ren didn't have work until the evening. So, she did the logical thing. She went to the local library. What she wasn't expecting was to find Johann already there and quietly going through old documents in the back room. He looked up as she walked into the room and smiled.
"Ren, I didn't expect to see you here." He stood and pulled out the chair next to him as she approached. "Let me guess. You're looking for Avi too?"
She dropped into the seat with a soft thanks and then leaned in to look at what he'd found.
"Yeah, that was the plan. Looks like you already found a bunch though."
Top most was a battered journal bound in canvas and tied with a ribbon. It lay open to the first page where it read "Avi Puskás, 2nd Artillery." Underneath was an address, probably his home far from here. She reached to touch it and then pulled her hand back at the last moment.
Johann nodded slightly.
"As far as I can tell." He had a pair of light cotton gloves on, the sort that the archivists used with fragile documents like this and he reached to flip to the first page. "He was a cannoneer, according to this. Assuming we have the right person."
Ren reached for one of the photocopies sitting on the table and skimmed through it.
"Any idea why he's in the restaurant?"
"No idea... yet."
She leaned back, starting to read through the military reports and rosters. Somewhere here, there had to be some sort of casualty list. That might give them the clue they needed.
After a few hours, Ren stretched. It wasn't quite time for work but it was definitely time for dinner. She turned and put her hand on Johann's arm. He looked up with a start and then turned slightly to smile at her, a blush coloring his cheeks.
"Did you find something?"
He brightened as he asked the question and she almost felt guilty telling him she hadn't.
"No, but I was wondering if maybe... We've only got an hour before we go on shift and I was thinking maybe... How would you like to get dinner?"
The little bit of blush coloring Johann's cheeks brightened and the reddish tinge raced up his slightly pointed ears. Then he smiled, looking down.
"I'd like that."
They didn't have to go far. There was a small diner around the corner from the library, one that didn't mind if the pair of them sat there and went through photocopies of what they'd found at the library while they ate. Ren reached over to steal a french fry off Johann's plate before she turned one list around so he could see it.
"I think I found another reference to our Avi."
Johann leaned in, his face alive with curiosity. It looked, at first glance, like a roster but quickly Johann picked out other things that made it clear this was something else. This was a list of casualties. This was from when Avi died. Johann traced the printed letters of the photocopy and felt a pang of regret. And wasn't that foolish? Regretting never meeting someone who'd died over a century ago?
"We should go back and talk to him again now that we know who he is. Or at least see if we can talk to him. Maybe his name will call him out?"
Johann said it slowly, working through the ideas as he said them. Ren nodded, a smile playing at the corners of her lips.
“Perfect. How about tomorrow night?”
The next time Ren was working late behind the bar, she had a small notebook tucked out of sight. Contained within it were her research notes, the result of hours spent digging through every document she and Johann could find that was even potentially related to Avi Puskás. The plan was that she would be able to confront him when he appeared, if he appeared. All she had to do was hope he would appear.
It was nearly eleven thirty when he did, stepping up to the bar in his familiar way with his cap pulled down over his long, wavy hair. He looked up, meeting her red eyes as she turned to look at him.
“Could I get a whiskey, Ma’am?”
Ren smiled and reached for a glass, refusing to take her eyes off him. If she looked away, he would vanish. Those were the rules. And she didn’t want him to vanish.
“Avi Puskás, right?” When his eyebrows shot up, she continued on. "Second artillery, right? What's that mean you had your hands on? Cannons?"
For a long moment, Avi was silent. Then he nodded.
"That's right. I'm a cannoneer. But how did you know all that?"
That set Ren back. I am. Not I was. That could only mean one thing. Avi didn't know he was dead. This poor, sweet, beautiful man had no idea that his name was on a list of casualties and his journal was sitting in a library archive where anyone could walk in and read it if they wanted. If she understood the projects going on at the library correctly, it had even been digitized.
How could she tell him? How could she explain that he had died in battle? That he had had a violent and bloody end and now he was haunting a restaurant in the center of a small town a few miles from where he'd died? What could she say? What should she say? So many movies and tv shows would say she should tell him to go into the light, but a selfish part of her didn't want to. She wanted to keep him here and talking.
"You what?" Pause. "Is something wrong?"
She shook her head and gave him the very best smile she could muster, not even a fake service smile at that.
She set the glass of whiskey on the counter, still not taking her eyes off him. He'd get his drink this time, she would be sure of that. It wasn't until his hand closed around the glass that she felt a twinge of panic. What if that was all he wanted and he vanished forever once he'd gotten his drink? That was the last thing she wanted.