Renata had been a bartender here for about three years. She’d seen pretty much everything in that time. They were close enough to Vegas to get most of the crazies, all of the sleaze, almost none of the glamor.
So when the guy all in black strode in like he was either going to buy the place or burn it down, she wasn’t much fazed. He sat down at one end of the bar after giving the place the kind of once-over you usually saw from either desperadoes or Special Forces veterans, and took his baseball cap politely off and put it in his lap. He was a white guy, kinda pale, square-jawed with wide-set eyes, and had long dark hair that hung loose like he’d either stopped caring or paid somebody a lot of money to make it look like he’d never cared in the first place.
She broke off her conversation with Reynaldo, who had grown roots and become a part of the bar at that end, and sauntered over. The new guy was youngish, and pretty, if a bit dead behind the eyes, so she put a little swing into her hip and leaned up against the glass chiller. “What’ll it be, honey?” she asked.
His eyes were the kind of cold pale blue that looked almost clear in this light, and he considered her for a moment, then looked over at the beer taps, and jerked his chin at them. So either he was an asshole or he didn’t talk. Maybe foreign? He was dressed weird, he could be from Europe.
“Bud or Bud Lite?” she asked. He just stared at her, but there was nothing dismissive, nothing insolent in his face; he just looked blank. Foreign, then. “Bud,” she guessed, and he didn’t react, so she went and poured him one.
Reynaldo rolled his eyes, probably meaning to communicate something about the other guy, but she didn’t acknowledge him. New Guy had shoulders like a linebacker, she wasn’t gonna let Reynaldo start shit. He’d had like twelve beers today, he couldn’t be relied upon to be sensible about altercations.
She slid the beer over the bar to the stranger. “Three fifty,” she said.
He considered her for another moment, and she thought that she was going to have to get a goddamn piece of paper, but then he reached down to his waist and pulled a— Jesus Christ he pulled out a knife— and in the sheath he had a twenty, and he stuck the knife back in the sheath, and she unclenched her fingers from the edge of the bar and realized there had been nothing threatening in his gesture, that was just where he’d had the money and of course there was nothing illegal about carrying a knife the length of her hand. He tossed the folded twenty onto the bar and took the beer, regarding her dispassionately.
She took the twenty, collected herself, and rang it into the register, and brought his change back and set it on the bar. He nodded to her and took a long pull at the glass of beer, and she went back down to the other end of the bar to listen to more of Reynaldo’s self-pitying life story, because the silent guy was kind of unnerving.
He was looking at the television without much interest, steadily working his way through the beer, as Reynaldo rounded the curve of his third ex-wife and started the final sprint down to how he came to be living in a trailer park in Nevada hiding from creditors in basically every state. She’d heard the story before, he came in three times a week and got this drunk at least once a week, but he couldn’t tell her apart from the other brunette girl who worked here who apocryphally hadn’t heard it but Renata presumed that Linda most certainly had because Linda had worked here as long as she had.
The only flicker of interest from the stranger was when Renata stepped away to restock the ice and Reynaldo called out her name to summon her back so he could order another beer. For a wonder, Reynaldo got her name right, and the stranger’s attention snapped to her for a long, cold second. She couldn’t help but stare back, transfixed, until Reynaldo called her again.
“Is he creepin’ you out?” Reynaldo asked, way too loudly. “He’s kinda creepy, is he botherin’ you?”
That was pretty rich, given what a goddamn creep Reynaldo was. The other guy probably didn’t speak English, but she still made sure she angled her body so her voice would carry when she answered. “No, Reynaldo, he’s not botherin’ me at all.”
She’d just made a point of coming over to see if the stranger wanted another beer when the door opened and a group of about half a dozen men came in. Her heart sank as she recognized Sammy. Dating him had been a terrible, short-lived idea; dumping him had turned into an agonizing and dangerous process, and she had been starting to think she’d better leave town. He could only be here for trouble. She turned her face away for a moment, hanging onto the back of the bar, so he wouldn’t see how frightened she was.
“Jesus, María, José,” she said quietly, blessing herself, before taking her courage in her hands and turning around. She set her shoulders and moved to the center of the bar. “Sammy, you can’t come around here,” she said, quietly but firmly.
“Oh,” Sammy said, leering, “I sure can, little lady. It’s a free country, I can do whatever I want.”
“There’s nothing here for you,” she said, pushing her desperation down. “I don’t have anything you want.”
Sammy swaggered up and leaned on the bar, looking her up and down insolently. “I disagree,” he said. She nervously tallied the other men; she knew them, mostly, no-good friends of Sammy’s, and they weren’t here because the beer was cold.
“Sammy,” she said, and she hated that her voice shook, “what can you possibly hope to—“
“You filed for a goddamn restraining order against me,” Sammy said, and slammed his palm against the bar. “What the hell is that about?”
Reynaldo’s chair squeaked quietly as he plopped a twenty down on the bar and quietly turned and left. Renata watched him go with dull unsurprise. They’d denied her the restraining order because they said there was no evidence he’d threatened her, despite the bruises ringing her neck, despite the shadows around her eyes. “I don’t want you to kill me,” she said quietly, dully, defeatedly.
“You might still be alive when we’re done with you,” Sammy said, and she looked at his half-dozen no-good friends and knew precisely why he’d brought them and what they intended, and wondered what the hell was wrong with her that she hadn’t left town when she had a chance.
At the far end of the bar the stranger had stood up and was fiddling with his jacket. Preparing to leave. It was just as well, it wasn’t anybody’s business to be getting mixed up in this.
“Sammy,” she said, staring down at the back of the bar as panic beat at the insides of her ribs, “please don’t, I never wanted to hurt your feelings,” but it had never been about that, it never was. It was never about feelings, with men like him, it was always about power, and about being perceived to have power, and she’d known that and had still thought that no might mean a goddamn thing to him.
“We’re past that now,” Sammy sneered. “Stuck-up bitch, you think you’re better than that? We’ll show you what you’re good for.”
There was a sudden resounding thunk that shook the bar, and Renata slowly turned her head to see that the stranger had pulled the knife out again, and slammed it into the bar top so hard it was halfway buried. He pulled out another from behind his back and did the same, then a third from somewhere on his leg and repeated the process. A fourth knife joined them, from where Renata couldn’t even tell, and he stepped forward. His face was utterly expressionless, still dead behind the eyes.
Now that he’d shed his jacket she could see that his left arm was— made of metal, in segmented plates like armor, with a red star painted on the shoulder. He was wearing a sleeveless black tank top, and his mismatched arms were equal in imposing bulk.
“I’m not from around here,” the stranger said, hoarse like he hadn’t spoken in days. His accent was decidedly not local. “And I don’t know any of you people. But it seems like I heard this story before. I seen how it ends. And I don’t like it.”
“This ain’t none of your business,” Sammy said, “and I’m warning you not to get involved.”
The man laughed. “I been involved in shit that ain’t none of my business for longer than your grandpa’s been alive,” he said. “I’m tryin’ to get outta the killin’ business, though.”
“Listen, kid,” Sammy said, “just because you got some crazy robot arm and think you’re special doesn’t mean we won’t shoot out your kneecaps for fuckin’ with us.”
“Idti vperedi,” the stranger said, amused, gesturing with one hand, “go ahead, it is a nice change to have willing opponents.” Weirdly, it was like a foreign accent rippled through his voice and was gone.
“What, are we gonna listen to this little punk all day?” Sammy’s main partner in crime, a burly white dude the size of a truck who always insisted everybody call him Lobo, shouldered forward, ostentatiously looking the stranger up and down. And yeah, Lobo was bigger, but Renata wasn’t putting any money on him. She’d seen that stranger’s eyes, you didn’t look like that just from having a hard day now and then.
“Your choice,” the stranger said. “I’m tellin’ you now, in retrospect, you’re gonna wish you’d listened to me, but like I said, I know how this story goes, and I know you’re not gonna.” He rolled his neck from one side to the other, grinning tightly, and used his metal hand to crack the knuckles of his human one.
“You’re gonna wish you hadn’t stuck all your knives into the bar,” Lobo said, “because I’m gonna gut you like a fish when I’m done beating your pretty face in.”
“Oh,” the stranger said, “I haven’t heard that one in a while.” He took a step back, gesturing as if presenting the floor. “Let’s get you some room to work.” He glanced over at Renata, caught her eye, and tilted his head, quirking an eyebrow at her. He was telling her to get back, she surmised, which would be a neat trick since the place was so small, but she did her best and got the glass chiller and the beer taps between her and them.
Lobo lumbered forward with a growl. “You’re not the first cocky punk I’ve taught a lesson to,” he said.
“You,” the stranger said, “are the first man to dare approach me in longer than I can remember, and only ignorance can possibly explain it.” But there was no swagger in his attitude; his weird phantom accent had drifted over again, and he looked coldly amused. It was like she was watching a kaleidoscope of several different men poured into one physical body.
Without warning Lobo lunged forward and swung at the stranger. The stranger, instead of ducking, grabbed his fist, yanked it down, and head-butted Lobo in the face. Lobo staggered backward, and the stranger jump-kicked him in the chest, sending him flying back with tremendous force into the crowd of his friends.
“Don’t get my blood up,” the stranger said. “Stay down, don’t get me worked-up.” He sounded strangely sincere.
Lobo roared and scrambled to his feet, helped up by several of his friends. “You little shit!” he shouted.
“Aw,” the stranger said, sounding disappointed, “I told you to stay down.”
Lobo ran at him, swinging, and this time the stranger grabbed his arm, yanked it right out of the socket, and flipped him over to the ground. Lobo thrashed and howled, and the stranger moved on, graceful and eerie, to the next two men who ran at him, grabbing both, smashing their heads together, and throwing them aside without so much as a grimace of exertion— his face was as blank as if he’d merely walked past them. The next man pulled a knife and shoved it up into the stranger’s gut, but the stranger twisted to avoid it, grabbed the arm, broke it at the elbow, pulled the knife from the suddenly-limp grasp, and threw it expertly end-over-end so that it embedded itself in the wall by the cash register. He dropped the knife-man and stepped on his face as he walked past to the next man, who had pulled a gun.
“I’ll kill you,” the man said, and the stranger laughed mirthlessly, and moved faster than a striking snake, yanking the gun away and pulling the man with it, throwing him over his shoulder so that he landed in an awkward sprawl with an audible crack as something important broke, followed up with a really pathetic warbling yowl of pain.
The stranger still had the gun, and he was staring at Sammy now, who was still standing up against the bar. His face was absolutely impassive, no hint of any expression at all, no sign of exertion. Sammy had pulled a gun too. The stranger didn’t even look at the gun in his own hand; he dropped the clip, threw it over one shoulder, and stripped out the firing cylinder without looking, dropping it on the floor.
“That was dumb,” Sammy said.
“Not really,” the stranger said, “the CIA is hunting me and the last thing I need is yet another confirmed kill. You got one chance to drop that, buddy.”
“Like hell I will,” Sammy said, raising the pistol, and the stranger whipped the dismantled pistol grip-first into Sammy’s face, faster than Renata’s eye could follow.
“I told you not to get my blood up,” the stranger said, and closed the distance, yanked Sammy around by the collar, and paused.
“Fuck,” Sammy squeaked out; it looked like his cheekbone was shattered.
“I almost just broke your neck, right then,” the stranger said. “But like I said, I’m tryin’ to get out of the killin’ business.” He threw Sammy down on the floor so hard his head bounced, stomped on the hand that still held the gun, then picked up the gun. He set it on the bar. “Here, darlin’,” he said.
“Jésu Cristo,” Renata said, pressed against the glass chiller.
“You got any bourbon?” the stranger asked, leaning on the bar. Behind him, various of the men were groaning and whimpering; one was screaming intermittently.
“I sure do,” she said. “Ice?”
“Naw, neat, thanks,” he said, and she poured him two fingers of the top-shelf stuff. He tossed it back as if it were water, no reaction to the burn. “Thank you kindly, ma’am. One more thing: where can I go get my picture taken with Elvis?”
“You want to avoid the big tourist traps,” she said, “you go down three miles and make a left, there’s a little one of them instant wedding chapels and they got an Elvis there.”
“Thanks, doll,” the stranger said. He pulled the knives out of the bar and stuck them back in their sheaths, picked up his coat. “My tab good?”
“And then some,” she said.
“You keep that gun,” he said, “call the cops, maybe that chickenshit guy who was here when I showed up will back you up on this. If not, I wish I could give you my number but I wasn’t lyin’ about the CIA.”
“Am I gonna be answering a lot of questions about a tall dark handsome stranger with a metal arm?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “sorry. For what it’s worth, though, all the crazy stories are true.” He gave her a cheeky grin, pretty much his first facial expression. “Good luck cleanin’ up the mess, sorry I can’t stay to help.”
He’d been gone less than five minutes when the cops showed up. At least that was one good thing Reynaldo had ever done. Renata lied and said she’d told the stranger to head back to Vegas. The CIA showed up, as promised, and confiscated the security camera footage, but word got around town anyway that Renata had ties to the Russian Mafia and they’d sent a hit man to protect her from Sammy. She let that ride and didn’t set anybody straight.
Took her another four months to put the face (and the metal arm) together with the news stories and realize he was the Winter Soldier. When she found out, she sent a fan letter to him care of Captain America.