Undead Chaos, page 9
Millie eyed the two couples with interest. She grabbed the coffeepot and stood.
“If I hear anything, I’ll let you know.”
“It’s no problem, dear,” she said, gazing down at me. “Like Reed, you’re one of my favorite customers. I just hope you stick around.”
She waved her hand and the noise of the diner returned. She sauntered to her new customers and poured them all coffee. One of the females engaged her in conversation while her male counterpart turned toward me. I waved politely, but received a demeaning sneer in return. I shrugged and decided it was time to go.
As I stood, I noticed a napkin on the table with “FJ — The Golden Teacup” written in pencil. I tucked the note in my pocket. As I headed for the door, Millie’s words came back to me.
“I hope you stick around.”
Where Every Creature Knows Your Name
If Millie’s Place was a shining beacon of light in a dark and dreary world, then The Golden Teacup was a big, steaming pile of vomit on the crap-filled sheet cake of life. A thick haze of refuse hovered over the building, stifling the light that struggled to reach the structure. Bodies of unconscious patrons lay on the piles of street rubbish, snoring loudly.
The front door squeaked as I eased it open. Several sets of eyes turned to gaze at me, but like cockroaches, the stares skittered away the moment the light hit them.
Entering the pub made me want to refresh my tetanus booster as well as my yellow fever, mumps, and flu shots. Humans dressed in soiled rags, bulky Orcs covered in hideous tattoos and a handful of other supernatural creatures were all wasting away one drink at a time. The mist of fumes and depression wafting off of them was thick enough to touch.
I stepped over a snoozing mound of flesh and cautiously approached the bar. A lone Dwarf was seated on the stool next to me, gripping his stein of beer like a vice. His eyes were glassy and unfocused.
I turned my attention to the towering bartender who was rubbing a dirty glass with a soiled rag. The Minotaur regarded me coldly.
“You lost, stranger?” he asked, nodding toward the door. “Because the exit is that way.”
“Thanks,” I replied cheerfully, “but this is the spot. I hear you make the world’s largest appletini.”
The Minotaur’s rag paused. “Cute,” he grunted. “You actually want something or are you here to crack jokes?”
“I’m looking for someone.”
“That’s very stupid of you.”
“Yeah, stupid and I are on a first name basis.” Sarcasm dripped onto the floor.
The Minotaur placed the glass on a shelf packed with equally filthy mugs and picked another one from a sink filled with brown water.
“Conversations aren’t free.”
“I already told you I want a large appletini. Heavy on the ‘tini,’” I added with a wide smile.
The bartender huffed, but froze when I placed a bright gold coin on the counter. His mouth closed slowly as he stared at the money. He set the mug down and gently slipped the disc into the pocket of his tunic. Then he turned, pulled a bottle of vodka out of the freezer, and removed the sour apple mix from a shelf.
“Feel free to get crazy with the vodka,” I said.
The bartender glared at me and went about making my drink.
I took the lull in our riveting conversation to inspect the joint. It was packed, but only a handful of residents were coherent. The majority were either unconscious or staring into space like the Dwarf next to me. He burped once, which ruffled his scruffy red beard, but otherwise showed no signs of life.
I scowled as I examined the human patrons. The Council didn’t like to talk about it, but every Skilled person knew that the Underground was where the Fallen—men and women who’d left our community for good—wound up. Some of them had failed or opted out of Council training. Others were criminals on the run. More recently were those who simply couldn’t handle the reformation with the Normals. Whatever their reasons, places like The Golden Teacup were where the disenfranchised expats of my community called home. It was sad and sickening to watch them drown their sorrows or attempt to erase the memories altogether with booze.
It was also a sobering reminder of how close I’d come to joining them. Were it not for my folks and their support during my darkest days, I could just have easily become one of the Fallen. I shuddered and made a mental note to thank Mom and Dad once again for saving me from such a fate.
I was saved from further self-examination when the Minotaur slid an oversized martini glass in front of me. There were lipstick stains on one side and black smudges on the stem. I dipped my finger into the drink and rubbed the rim of the glass in the hopes that the alcohol would kill the germs. Then I bucked up my courage and cautiously took a sip.
“Mmmm.” I set the glass down. “Just like Mom used to make.”
“Will that be all?” the Minotaur asked with a flare of his nostrils.
“No,” I said in my best business voice. “I want to know where I can find Forlorn Jones.”
The bartender smirked. “Have you checked the local cemeteries? The human liver has its limits.”
“I’m not interested in his liver. I need his brain.”
“You’d have more luck with his liver.”
I leaned on the bar. “Listen, I’m really enjoying our verbal tennis match here, but I have a long day ahead of me and really don’t want to make small talk. If you can help me find Forlorn Jones, I’ll give you another two coins. Otherwise I’m taking my business elsewhere.”
The bartender eyed me cautiously. “Two?” he asked quietly.
“Si, dos,” I said, holding up my fingers.
The bartender nodded. “Give me a minute.” He vanished through a door behind the bar.
Fifty-nine seconds later he returned.
Never underestimate the power of greed.
He lifted the countertop door to allow me access behind the bar. “This way.”
I picked up my drink, eased around the stoned Dwarf, and followed the Minotaur through the door.
We walked through a kitchen that smelled of rancid meat and hadn’t been cleaned in decades. In the back was a thick metal door with four heavy-duty locks. Something roared and banged on it from within, jangling the locks. Part of me was curious what was in there, but the smarter part of me decided to get clear as fast as possible.
The kitchen exited into a small room that was lit by a single candle in a wall sconce. Red wax spilled over the sides like ketchup icicles while the flame flickered meekly in the damp, heavy air. Beneath the wax drippings was a small table with a single occupant. He was face down and breathing loudly. Several bottles of booze were stacked around his head.
“There you go,” the bartender said, indicating the slumbering patron. “The great Oracle himself. Hope he’s worth the money,” he added, holding out his hand.
“Every life is,” I replied softly, plunking the coins into his palm and handing him a third. “We’ll need a large pot of strong coffee, but otherwise, please make sure we aren’t disturbed.”
The Minotaur stared wide-eyed at the small fortune in his palm and nodded.
“Take all the time you want. Be back in a minute.” He ducked out the doorway while I walked over the table, unhitched my backpack and scabbard, and sat down.
Forlorn Jones had seen better days. His blond hair was greasy and tangled and his clothes were matted and musty. A cornucopia of odors wafted from his body, competing with the stench from the bar for the title of most offensive. His face was lined and his brows furrowed.
I sat there in silence for a moment, feeling sorry for whatever demons haunted the guy. Then I dipped my finger in the appletini and flicked some of the liquid on his face. He barely stirred, so I
“Leave me alone,” he slurred. He sighed with a breath that could have stripped paint off the walls. I flicked the appletini a couple more times before one of his eyes creaked opened. The iris was blue. The rest was bloodshot.
“Forlorn Jones?” I asked.
“You need to wake up.”
“Get bent.” He closed his eye again.
“Sorry, but word is you’re the go-to guy for information. If it helps, I have a lot of money and am willing to give you some if you play along.”
The eye eased back open again.
“How much you got?” Jones asked slowly.
“Enough to make it worth your while.”
“My while,” he said, cautiously raising his head, “is worth a lot if you’re waking me up.” He grabbed a bottle, then dropped it on the floor in disgust when he realized it was empty. It landed with a thud and slowly rolled toward the door.
The bartender ducked back in, stepping over the bottle as it rotated under him. He set the steaming pot and two mugs in front of us. He vanished through the door a second later, stopping only long enough to kick the bottle out of the way.
Jones’s eyebrows ticked up with the hope of another drink, but he wrinkled his nose at the smell of the coffee. I poured us each a mug and shoved his toward him. The black liquid wobbled as he struggled to lift the steaming cup.
“Th’ hell’s this?” he asked, giving the contents a sniff.
“Coffee,” I said, sipping my own. I blinked. “Very strong coffee.”
Jones set the mug down hard and pushed it away with a sneer. “Not gonna touch that junk without a dose of Irish whiskey.”
“I think you’ve had quite enough.”
“There’s never enough,” Jones whispered. “Never enough to quiet the noise.” Tears welled in his eyes and he closed them with a sniff.
The pain etched into his face twisted a knife in my gut, but letting him wallow in misery or pass out again wouldn’t do either of us any good.
“Okay, before you get into the crazy-speak, let’s talk business.” I plopped the small sack of gold coins on the table. Jones’s eyes widened and he seized the sack.
“Oh no,” I said, swatting his hand. He pulled it back in surprise. “One coin for every cup of coffee you drink or every piece of useful information you provide. What you spend the money on is none of my concern.”
Considering the collection of bottles, there was no doubt where the coins would wind up. The Minotaur would love me by the time I left.
Jones swallowed the first mug of steaming liquid in one gulp, then held his hands for his reward like a child. I flipped him a coin. He fumbled to grab it and it bounced around the table several times before he slapped his hands over it. He picked it up and gazed at it with greedy wonder.
“I was told you know what’s going on behind the scenes of the Underground,” I said, cutting him off before he started moaning about his “precious.”
“At times,” he replied, cautiously pocketing the coin and eyeing the sack on the table. “It depends on what you seek.”
“I’m pursuing two people on the run.”
“Simeon Fawkes and his daughter, Quinn.”
“Fawkes.” Jones drummed his fingers on the table. “No. Nothing on Fawkes.”
“How about his daughter?”
“Quinn,” he mumbled. “Quinn...”
“Yes?” I asked hopefully.
I frowned. “What?”
He smirked. “Bananafannafofin.”
I took a deep breath and worked to calm the anger rising in my chest. “Listen, I can’t afford to waste time. I need information, and word has it you’re the best of what’s left. But if you’re not interested,” I added with an edge to my voice as I grasped the small bag, “I’ll gladly find someone else willing to accept my money.”
“Wait!” he cried, tears welling in his eyes once more. “Please, I’ll help.”
I took my hand away from the sack and grabbed the pot instead.
“Okay,” I said softly. “Have another cup of Joe and let’s talk.”
Jones nodded and I refilled his cup. His hands shook as he drank the liquid. When he set the mug down, I gently pushed another coin toward him. He carefully tucked it into his pocket. Then he shut his eyes and took a deep breath. His lids began to twitch.
“I’ve heard nothing about Simeon Fawkes.” His voice was surprisingly calm. “Nor is there anything on his daughter. Their movements and their paths are shrouded.”
“That’s not very helpful,” I said, slightly concerned by the odd change in the Oracle’s tone.
Sweat formed on his brow. “There is something connected to them, however. Whispers on the wind speak of unnatural occurrences. Something has been dipping into powers no mortal should touch. There will be consequences.”
Nothing new there. “Go on.”
Jones’s eyes moved faster behind their lids. “There are disappearances. Drifters afraid to roam like they used to. Spent bodies discarded like tissue. The scavengers are feasting like never before.”
I swallowed and tried to push the imagery out of my mind. “How is that connected to Fawkes?”
“I cannot see the details, only that the tendrils of these events touch at certain points.”
“Can you at least give me guidance on where to search for Fawkes? Any idea where he might wind up?”
“The future is unclear,” he said. “There are many paths, but none are defined as yet. Several may lead to life. Most will end in death. Starting with the fire.”
“Peachy,” I replied, sarcastically. “Wait, what?”
Jones’s eyes popped open. “You should run.”
The door to the kitchen swung inward. I turned to find the Dwarf from the bar. He staggered into the room, dragging a large iron hammer by the handle.
“I thought I smelled me some gold,” he said with a thick slur. His mouth twisted into a lopsided grin and his eyes glinted in the candlelight.
I eased out of my chair, nudged the backpack under the table, and carefully drew my sword. I would have preferred the pistol, but decided against it since a stray bullet might hit an innocent in the bar. Instead, I placed the tip of the sword on the floor and rested my hand on the hilt in a casual manner.
“We’re in the middle of something,” I said, hoping my voice didn’t betray the pounding in my chest. “Any chance you can cause trouble in a minute?”
The Dwarf’s beard twitched. “Gots a smart mouth on ye. Not so smart a head.”
Two more patrons came through the doorway. One was a large human who was in worse shape than Jones. He was balding, fat and carried a wooden club covered in rusty nails. His Skill radiated off of him in raw, untamed waves that were inherent to those who never completed Council training. He sneered and stumbled slightly as he took a position next to the Dwarf.
The other intruder was a creature I didn’t recognize. It was tall with small horns and large pointed ears. It had pasty gray skin and thin, leathery wings that flexed and folded onto its back. The face was humanoid, but it had black beady eyes and an elongated snout. It had no need for a club since its fingers were like straight razors. It curled its lips and hissed, exposing rows of small sharp teeth.
The Minotaur appeared behind them.
“I asked not to be disturbed,” I said, waving at the newcomers.
“Sorry, I had to pee,” he replied. “Our commode is on the blink, so I had to use the one upstairs. But a deal is a deal. You three,” he scowled as he stepped into the room. “Get out.”
The horned creature became a blur, and a loud crack echoed within the room. I blinked in shock as the bartende
“Three against two,” the Dwarf said. “My kind of odds.”
Jones hiccupped as he stared off into space.
I eased backward just a little. “You know, there’s no need to get violent. If you want the gold, I don’t mind giving it to you.”
“Oh we want the gold,” the human said through rotted teeth. “But it’s no fun if we just take it.”
“Shocking,” I replied, wiping the moisture from my free palm.
The Dwarf made the first move. With a drunken roar he heaved the hammer over his head and brought it down on me. I sidestepped in time to avoid being crushed, but the maul caught the edge of the table. It shattered into a hundred splinters, flinging coffee and empty bottles in every direction.
Jones stared into the distance with vacant eyes.
I snapped the sword upward, swiping it through the flame from the candle. The heat touched my senses through the sword with an energy that crackled and popped. I was grabbing element with my Skill, nudging air into the hungry flame with a simple wind spell. The fire swallowed the oxygen, crying out in giddy appreciation as the steel of my blade exploded with orange light. I swiped it warningly in the direction of the Dwarf. He yelped with surprise and staggered backward.
“That be a Council spell,” he snarled. “I hates the Skilled Council.”
“You and me both, buddy.”
The Dwarf cocked his head, then scowled and swung the hammer again. I hopped backward and felt the iron maul brush against my stomach. The Dwarf stumbled, off balance, and fell to the floor.
His two friends attacked the second he went down. The human charged with a sloppy boost of speed from his Skill and an impressive Hollywood-style war cry. I flicked a blast of wind at him, knocking him off balance. He lumbered past me at full speed and crashed into the wall. He bounced off, then collapsed with a clatter.
The man-bat, however, came at me with surprising speed and precision. I raised my sword to deflect a taloned hand, but he stepped sideways and swept my feet out from under me. “Batman” stood over me and drove a fist downward. I grabbed his ankles and jerked, propelling myself under and behind him.