Anthony J. Crowley walked into a bar in London. That is to say that the walking in happened in London. The bar appeared to be… elsewhere.
Still, the establishment had a cocktail bar along the far wall. First things first. He took up a barstool near, but not too near, a scruffy fellow communing with his whiskey glass. He waited to catch the bartender's eye while he surveyed his surroundings.
The place of business Crowley walked into was posh in a way that attracted more tourists than he particularly cared for. Its website boasted that it was the oldest restaurant in London which was only strictly true if you didn't know that the new vegan falafel place a few blocks over—which replaced the previous Indian place which had once been a pie shop and previously a tavern and a less-informal eatery before that—was, in fact, located directly upon the spot where an enterprising chap first got the idea to trade hunks of butchered mammoth for tools and bits of jewelry. The mammoth was one of the last to make the crossing through Doggerland when the British Isles were still connected to the continent, so not isles at all really, rather the British West Coast of Europe.
The mammoth died of old age, but the man stuck a few spears in the body for dramatic effect thus inventing both marketing and restauranteering in a single endeavor.
The restaurant had large windows and spacious booths. Not at all the sort of place where you would expect anything unsavory to happen. It felt more like the sort of place one expected to get kicked out for being unsavory. Crowley had, in fact, been banned for life. Twice. But he'd conveniently outlived several sets of previous proprietors so he decided that for life meant theirs and it was all well and good now.
The important point was that they had good food and lovely cocktails. It was a bit pretentious but Pretention was more of a tertiary sin, somewhere between Pride and Vanity, so Aziraphale could be persuaded to join him there not infrequently.
The other important point was that this only described the establishment that Crowley had walked into. The place he was actually in was dark and dirty and empty save for the barkeep who continued to ignore his presence and that sole scruffy occupant of the bar stool two seats over. Aziraphale was nowhere to be seen. His angel could always be counted on to be punctual. It was unsettling.
What should have been a spacious room full of tourists snapping pictures of their food was instead a cramped space with all the tables shoved to the side to make way for a pool table that took up at least a third of the room. The large front windows had been replaced by tiny rectangles filled with glass blocks that let in the hint of a memory of light but no glimpse of the street that should have been, but probably wasn't, the posh bit of London.
"How's the grilled quail?" Crowley said conversationally, alternating his gaze between the barman's back and the blond fellow who hadn't so much as looked up from his glass.
"Venison tartare?" Crowley said when the bartender finally turned around and faced him with a blank expression. "Roast breast of Gressingham duck? Alright, but you've at least got to have a steak and kidney pie about?"
With an exaggerated sigh, the barman grabbed a dingy paper card which he deposited on the bartop in front of him.
"'Jalapeño poppers'," Crowley read off the card, popping his p's enthusiastically just for fun, voice sliding into doubtfulness as he continued reading the next item. "'Deep-fried pickles?' Is this Scotland?"
The door opened and a nondescript man in a John Deere baseball cap entered. He was most likely a regular as, with no identifying signal, the barman disappeared into the back and returned with a greasy paper bag. As he ran the man's credit card they engaged in an exchange of "How's life treatin' ya?" and "How're you doing today?" in American Midwest accents. The answers were "Overworked and underpaid"—despite the barman's primary task appearing to be glowering and ignoring Crowley—and "Looks like a storm brewing. Thunderclouds in the West."
"Do you have any recommendations?" Crowley asked waving his menu card.
"Can't go wrong with sliders," the man said, picking up the paper bag. The grease stains were already spreading.
Crowley thought you very much could go wrong with sliders, but was polite enough not to say. He watched the man leave and as the door swung open, he caught a glimpse of a pickup truck where the taxi stand should have been.
"Am I right in assuming we are in the United States of America?" Crowley asked.
The barman squinted at him suspiciously, but the man on his left said, "Kansas" without looking up from his glass.
Crowley brightened. He would figure out how he got to Kansas later. "In that case, I'll have the nachos. Love good nachos. Can't get good nachos in London. They think they can do nachos there, but they can't. They really can't."
The blond man shuddered. "It's pronounced nahwchos."
"And to drink?"
"Beer." When the man didn't move, he added, "Barman's recommendation. What do the locals drink?"
"Diesel fuel mostly," he answered glancing at the other patron, but he reached into a cooler and handed Crowley a can of something that inexplicably said Moose Drool on it.
"Cinnamon-flavored diesel fuel," his fellow drinker added, plunking down his empty glass. "Another triple."
"Shots," the barman insisted. "People are supposed to drink Fireball in shots, not—"
"Trip-ple," he insisted.
The barmanHe shook his head but poured another drink before shouting towards the back, "Plate of nachos for here!"
Crowley opened his can of Moose Drool and took a hesitant sip. "That's not bad," he said with a start. "Some sort of reverse psychology I expect. Anything that doesn't actually taste of moose drool is bound to be an improvement, eh?"
"Do you ever stop talking?"
The honest answer was yes. Crowley often stopped talking. He could do silent and mysterious. For years at a time. Centuries even.
"The name's Crowley, by the way."
"You're not Crowley." The man spoke with an American accent, which was still no excuse for the way he mangled Crowley's name.
"Oh, I most certainly am Crowley," he said, emphasizing the correct pronunciation while politely not pointing out the man had said it wrongly.
The man blinked at him fuzzily and then leaned in and sniffed at him. "New suit?" he asked.
Crowley reflexively ran his hands over the lapels of his jacket. "Well, newish I suppose. I mean, in the greater scheme of things. Do you like it?"
Rather than voice an opinion on Crowley’s outfit, the man inexplicably said, "The face can't be anything but an improvement. I do like the hair. Bit skinny though don’t you think? A meat suit should have a bit more meat on it if you ask me."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I'm sorry I killed your mom," the man said as casually as the man in the John Deere hat had mentioned thunderclouds in the west. "I mean, not actually sorry, because she was kind of a back-stabbing bitch. But, still, let me buy you a beer. Another Moose Drool for my friend," he drawled out and when the barman put another can on the counter he added, "It's the least I can do. I killed his mom."
"He didn't," Crowley added when the barman looked uneasy, overcome by a strange compulsion to reassure the man that there was nothing to worry about. Aziraphale's troubling influence again. Crowley should have let the man continue on wondering vaguely if he was abetting a felony by not calling the police, a minor sin eating away at him, sins building on sins as he justified his silent complicity.
"I don't have a mum for you to murder as it happens. Even if I did, I think I would have remembered that."
The barman plunked down an obscenely large plate of nachos which allowed for a convenient change of subject.
"Would you like to share my nachos?" he offered.
The man slid over to the bar stool next to him and without warning slung an arm around Crowley's shoulder. "It is pronounced nahwchos," he whispered, almost seductively, in his ear. "Nahw, rhymes with saw. And if you say natchos one more time, I will gut you and braid your intestines into a brand-new doggy chain."
Crowley slid his dark glasses down his nose as if an unimpeded view would help make sense of the man. He smelled human, and yet… Crowley blinked once. This was the point when most humans screamed and tried to run away.
The man blinked back, eyes suddenly glowing red.
"Cool," they both said.
"You are not Crowley," the man drawled, once again making the first syllable rhyme with cattle instead of a corvid.
"Crowley," he repeated and added, "Anthony J."
"No relation to Fergus?"
He hesitated. He rather enjoyed needling the man, but those red glowing eyes suggested that now was not the time. In his best, if somewhat rusty, American accent, Crowley offered again, "Wouldja like t’ share my nahwchos?"
The man's eyes faded to a harmless pale blue and he patted him on the back amiably. He then grabbed a chip and seemed to make a point of hogging the largest dollop of guacamole.
"It turns out I didn't kill his mom," the man told the bartender. "I don't owe him a beer after all, so, he's paying for the next round."
"No next round," the barman said. "I'm cutting you off."
"Excuse me?" the menace in his voice sent a pleasant little shiver down Crowley's spine.
The bartender remained oblivious to the threat. "You can't mix that much Fireball whisky with nachos. You can puke outside. You can puke in an Uber. You can puke in Joe's place down the street. You will not puke in here."
"Oh, dear, I'm late," Aziraphale said as he walked in the door, fumbling with his pocket watch like an adorable talking rabbit. "Oh. No. That's not… I seem to be early?"
"Over here, Angel, I'm having," a pause as he tensed his jaw, "nahwchos with a nice red-eyed demon sort of…"
"Archangel," his angel whispered coming up short.
Crowley didn't know what to say to that, so he just said, "You're late."
"I'm not," Aziraphale insisted, still not taking his eyes off the blond man whose eyes had started to glow red again. "I'm over a year early as a matter of fact. I was precisely on time when I walked through that door, but now I'm early."
Crowley sniffed at the time stream. "That's odd. But now that you mention it, there's a definite whiff of Congressional midterms in the air."
"How do I not know you?" the man asked. "I've met all of Dad's angels."
"Reality has been a bit fluid recently," Aziraphale said, taking Crowley's hand in what would have seemed an almost possessive way if Crowley hadn't known better. "I think we best be getting back to our own reality now."
"You think the anti-Christ did this?" Crowley asked.
"Jack?! You've seen my son?"
"No, no. He's called Adam in our world but he's not your son now and never was. He wished it so. It's complicated. Reality ripples haven't settled completely I expect."
"My son is named Jack," the man said, trying to take another swig out of his still-empty glass. "He won't talk to me."
"Different anti-Christ altogether then," Aziraphale said, tugging on Crowley's hand. "Best of luck, Mister, er, Satan, but we must be off."
"My friends call me Lucy," he said picking up Crowley's abandoned can of Moose Drool.
He knocked it back as the barman scowled. "Out. Joe's Town Club down the block. Go puke there."
"Whatever," Lucifer said and belched. He circled round them and exited first, pausing with the door half open. "That way?"
The barman pointed him north and he left without another word.
"Nice to meet you, Lucy!" Crowley called after him.
Aziraphale glanced nervously around and Crowley allowed himself to be tugged outside.
For a fraction of a second, he thought he saw a sunny Kansas town wavering before his eyes as they stepped through the doorway, but a London evening greeted them on the pavement.
"That was weird," Crowley said.
"Quite. Should we… try again?" Aziraphale suggested looking unsure.
"Well, technically, that place banned me for life back in 1899. Probably should give it another hundred years before I go back."
Aziraphale glanced over Crowley’s shoulder at the perfectly normal-looking restaurant entrance.
"Yes, I think that's probably best."
"Falafel instead?" Crowley suggested.
Aziraphale gave his hand a little squeeze without letting go. "Sounds lovely."