The bar didn't have a name. It was in a run-down neighborhood, the building was sagging a bit on one side, as if it might gradually subside into a vacant lot if there was a particularly heavy rain. But at least the walls kept out some of the chill air from outside.
Inside, the bar itself ran along one wall. There were seven stools. Along the wall across from the bar were three rickety tables, each with a couple of wobbly wooden chairs.
If you were facing the bar, the door to the street would be on your right. On your left, at the end of the bar, was the door to the back room. Further along that wall, toward the three tables, was the back door of the bar, which led out to a narrow, garbage-filled alley.
There were five people in the place. It was night, though all the windows were painted black and it always looked like it was night when you were in the bar.
Archie was the manager and bartender, and he stood behind the bar. He was a portly, middle-aged man with thinning hair, combed straight back over a bald spot. He wore dark pants, a white shirt and an apron. He wiped the bar with a dirty rag.
Bill was on the stool nearest the door to the back room. He was a medium-sized man, in his early thirties, with his brown hair cut very short. He was drinking a beer, wearing a denim jacket and looking disgruntled.
Matthew was sitting on the stool next to Bill. He was a somewhat larger man than Bill, with glossy black hair combed straight back and a handsome face. He wore jeans and a shirt with wide vertical stripes, and looked like he worked out from time to time. He was drinking a beer also.
The next stool was vacant, and Fiona sat on the fourth stool. She was tall and angular, wearing a black sweater and slacks. Her hair was black and straight, hanging to her shoulders. Her face was thin and hawk-like. She was in her late forties. She was drinking root beer and vodka. Her family's money came from root beer, so she always drank it out of loyalty.
The next two stools were vacant, and a teenage girl sat on the stool by the door. She was about five foot four, wearing a T-shirt and jeans. Her hair was dirty blond, wavy and full, hanging halfway down her back. Her body was lush and her face was expressionless. She had just turned sixteen. She was drinking a beer.
She was obviously underage, but Archie had served her anyway. He had the feeling that these days you were going to get in trouble no matter what you did, so it didn't really matter what you did.
On most nights, Bill and Matthew would have been in a deep discussion by now, probably an argument, but tonight they were silent.
The door opened and a slender man with long red hair came in. "Archibald," he said, "there's trouble brewing. You've heard what happened to Prentice? He–" he did an elaborate double-take at the sight of the blonde girl.
"What-ho!" he said, swinging up on to the stool next to her. "I'm not used to coming into this joint and seeing an unfamiliar face. Is this your first visit, or have I been dropping by at the wrong times?"
She looked like she might like to respond playfully to his repartee, but his leering inventory of her physical attributes was having the opposite effect.
She turned to face him on her stool, meeting his gaze. "First time here," she said. "Probably my last. I came to see the sights, but most of them seem to be closed."
"I thought the same thing until I came in here," he said, accepting a beer from Archie. He held out his hand. "I'm Carl, by the way."
"Nicky," she replied, shaking his hand with elaborate indifference. "Are you going to the protest?" she asked.
He nodded. "I certainly plan on it. I have trouble getting up early, though. Will you wake me if I oversleep?"
He grinned. "Oh, I intend to. I would recommend a more happening joint than this one to pass the time until the protest, but this is one of the few places in town that hasn't been raided and closed down tonight."
"What's been raided?" Bill demanded. "I haven't heard anything about this."
Carl swiveled on his stool. "Sharkey's, the Q and Tiny's, to name three. Maybe a couple more, but that's just rumors. Novak is making the rounds."
"Novak?" Nicky asked, curious in spite of herself.
"Inspector Novak," Matthew explained. "Uncle Mike's whip hand in this area." He smiled. "You've heard of Uncle Mike?"
"Once or twice," she replied sarcastically. "I live over in the city, with my girlfriend."
"Ooooh," Carl said, "you should have brought her along."
Nicky ignored this. "Why are the clubs being raided?"
Matthew shrugged. "Remind us who's boss. Round up some people who might cause trouble at the protest. Alleviate Novak's boredom."
"The cops are pissed off," Bill said suddenly. "They haven't been paid. The papers are keeping it quiet, but that bank closing last week wasn't the end of it. The city's finances are–"
"How do you know all this?" Fiona demanded. "I swear, you believe every rumor that comes down the pike."
Bill shrugged. "I know the part about the cops not getting paid for a fact. My brother-in-law is a cop."
"Is that the one you always refer to as 'the dimwit'?" Matthew asked.
"Well, the dumb bastard is smart enough to know if he's been paid or not. And I think people should be pretty cooled out tomorrow, or there's going to be trouble."
"Because the cops haven't been paid?" Carl demanded, turning from his perusal of Nicky's shirt.
"Well, you have to understand their position–" Bill began.
"If their position is that people should just sit on their hands and not protest because the paychecks are late, then that I don't understand" Carl replied. "If I don't get paid, I don't go to work, simple as that."
"When did you ever have a job?" Fiona asked.
Carl laughed. "Hey, police officers are as human as everybody. Get them out of those uniforms and some of them can get quite frisky, but not getting paid–"
"All I'm saying is that I hope nobody gets hurt," Bill said.
"Does anybody know how Prentice is?" Nicky asked. "That's part of why I'm here. I've been listening to his show for the last few weeks, and I was listening the night the police broke in and stopped it. That was scary."
"He got beat up pretty bad," Matthew said quietly. "And all his equipment was smashed. I think they were sending a message. Pretty soon you won't be able to express an opinion anywhere, even in this place."
There was a moment of silence after that, and Carl turned to Archie. "So, Archibald, have I missed anything since the last time I was in?"
"All problems of the world were solved," Archie said placidly, wiping the bar. "Some more than once. A nice guy from the better side of the tracks came in to visit, but Fiona got hold of him and now he's just a few dried bones in the dumpster out back. The Professor instructed young Fifteen in the proper way to mix a Manhattan. We heard various disreputable rumors about you, and we believed them all."
"Oh, good," Carl said.
"Uncle Mike," Fiona said suddenly, "is teaching us all a very important lesson. If we care to learn it." Her voice was somewhat slurred but her eyes were clear.
There was a pause after that as everybody waited for further clarification. When it became apparent that none was coming, Archie said, "Fiona, you're leaving us in midair here."
"Huh?" she demanded, looking around, attempting to get her lank black shoulder-length hair to stay behind her ear.
"She's referring to the curfew," said Bill.
"Well, I do have an opinion," Fiona said, sitting up straighter.
Not without trepidation, Archie asked, "And what is that, Fiona?"
"I think Uncle Mike really has people on the ropes. They're starting to imagine things. Either they believe that Uncle Mike is unstoppable, that he can see and hear and know everything, or they start imagining that someone's going to appear with magical powers to defeat him."
This was so unexpectedly cogent that everybody hesitated to interrupt, but after a moment Carl said, "What–"
"Like that story we heard before," Fiona continued. "Some guy came in here before and said that his cousin was friends with somebody at City Hall, and he'd heard that Uncle Mike's daughter was back in town, and she'd had a big scene with her father today and ended up punching him in the nose. He said she's going to stay in town and start a big movement to throw Uncle Mike out. You see, people are so frustrated they're losing their minds."
Matthew nodded slowly. "Sounds like it alright. Next we'll be holding seances to get Mayor Forgione back."
Fiona folded her arms and put her head back down. "I didn't like him either," she said, closing her eyes.
"So far as we know, Fiona doesn't like anybody," Archie observed.
"Damn right," she mumbled as the front door opened and several policemen in riot gear came in. None of the people in the bar moved as the officers spread out around the room. Then the door opened again and a sallow-faced man in a dark suit came in. His hands were in his jacket pockets and his expression was sardonic as he looked slowly around the room. Somehow Nicky was sure this was Inspector Novak.
He looked around the room. He smiled when he saw Nicky. "I haven't met you before. What's your name?"
"Nicole Porter. Nicky."
"Sure it is. I'll come back and arrest you later, after I take care of some more important business." He turned to the others. "Let me guess, you're the cleaning staff, right? I mean, you wouldn't all be in violation of the curfew, would you?"
Nobody even bothered to respond to this, which seemed to disappoint him. He shrugged. "Okay," he said slowly, "let me make you all a deal." He smiled. "I'm looking for a girl–'"
"Here's Fiona, Novak" Bill said, "you can take her."
"Hey!" protested Fiona, opening her eyes.
Inspector Novak shook his head slowly. "She's not exactly what I'm looking for, Morrison. The one I'm hot for is about nineteen and dressed like a ratbag. She's been wearing the same black jeans, T-shirt and pea jacket since Epiphany. She's got hair like this." He held up an artist's sketch for all to see. The girl in the drawing had thick dark hair to her shoulders, with low bangs which nearly hid her eyebrows. "Anybody see a girl like that? Or smell her?"
"Okay, here's the deal," Novak continued. "I'm going to find her before tonight is over. Anybody sees her, let me know. Anybody sees her and doesn't let me know, it's three days for C.V., plus we'll give you a nice full-body massage down at headquarters. Any questions?"
"Is that the same kind of massage that Prentice got?" Bill asked.
"Oh, come on, Morrison, Prentice is fine. After all, he has to look pretty for his trial," Novak said with a slow smile.
"How will you know if we've seen this girl?" Matthew asked.
Inspector Novak smiled. "I know everything, McCarthy." He gestured at Nicky. "Well, I don't know who she is, but I'll find that out, and her real name, too. But this other girl is my priority right now." He waved. "See you all later," he said, and he left, followed by the officers.
There was a moment of silence after they left, then they all turned to Nicky, who shrugged. "That is my name. I don't know what he's talking about."
"Uh-huh," Carl responded, nodding slowly.
"Remember, this is Novak," Matthew said. "He likes it when people get suspicious of each other."
Fiona mumbled, "Lies, deceit, creating mistrust are his weapons."
A while later, the place was silent again. Carl had left, having apparently realized that Nicky was unlikely to succumb to his charms. Then, the front door opened and they all turned as though their heads were rotated by a single mechanism. The girl who came in seemed oblivious to all this attention, though. She went to the empty stool next to Fiona and sat down. Her hands were jammed into the pockets of her dirty pea jacket, her mouth compressed in apparent vexation.
Matthew glanced at Archie, who shrugged. Everybody was used to people sneaking in and out after curfew, but usually they had the decency to use the back door and the alley.
"This is even better than the time Barry tried to come in through the window in the Mens Room and got stuck," Bill murmured.
The girl took her hands out of her pockets and put them on the bar, her fingers laced lightly together. "You know," Archie said, "there is a curfew out there."
The girl turned slowly until she was looking at him. Her heavy, thick hair and bangs seemed to weigh down her entire head. "I know all about that," she said. She shrugged. "Can I get a drink?"
Archie got himself into motion and crossed slowly to her end of the bar. "Miss," he began, his heart obviously not in it, "you know, if you get popped for a curfew violation, I get in trouble, too."
The girl's elbow was resting on the bar, her chin in her cupped hand, her knuckles distorting her face as they pressed into her cheek. She nodded slowly and stood up. "Fine," she said in a dull voice. "You got a back way out of here?"
She moved listlessly toward the rear of the place without waiting for an answer, but Matthew leaned out away from the bar and caught her upper arm. "You really should stay for a bit," he said. "The cops were just here, and you should wait until they get out of the area."
She shook free of his hand, but his argument was persuasive. She went back to the bar and sat on the stool to Fiona's right again.
"Can I get a glass of red wine?" she asked. Archie made a face at this rather unusual request, but he moved to the refrigerator.
"By the way, do you know Inspector Novak?" Archie asked Carly after a moment.
She looked surprised. "No, should I?"
"You will know him," Bill said. "He was in here just before you showed up, and he was looking for you."
"For me? He asked for me by name?"
Bill shook his head. "Not by name, but he described you, and he mentioned your jacket, and he showed us a sketch of you."
"Did he say why he wanted me?" she asked, successfully keeping her voice calm.
"Of course not," Archie said, moving forward. "Novak collects information, he doesn't hand it out. If you want my advice, though, I'd think about changing your appearance. No matter what he wants you for, it'll be better for you if you stay away from him."
She thought about this and sipped her wine.
"Are you going to the protest?" Nicky asked suddenly.
The new girl turned slowly. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. Are you?"
"Oh, yes," Nicky replied. "That's why I'm here. I've been listening to Prentice for the last couple of weeks." She smiled. "It's going to be my first protest." She held out her hand, moving onto the stool Carl had been using. "I'm Nicky, by the way."
"Carly," said the new arrival cautiously.
Nicky leaned towards her, suddenly aware that she was flirting with this new girl. "Is it safe for you to go? It seems the police are after you, and I'm sure there will be a lot of cops there."
Carly shrugged. "I sort of promised somebody I'd be going. It's not a promise I can back out of at this point."
Nicky smiled. "I'll protect you. They can take me instead."
Carly laughed. "I don't think it will be that easy to arrange. You're very gallant, though."
Nicky had to control herself so that she didn't put too much girlish simpering into her smile. Suddenly, the last six months of domesticity seemed like six years in a convent.
She was starting to wonder about how things might go with Carly tonight, but then she remembered the curfew. Nobody was going anywhere tonight. Well, if she played her cards right, that could work out to her advantage. Plenty of time for them to bond. Carly was three or four years older than she was, but they were still much closer in age than anybody else in the place.
Later, Nicky and Fiona were asleep at the bar, each with her head down on her folded arms. It had been quiet for a while when the door to the alley opened and a small, slender man with long, stringy brown hair came in. Matthew and Bill greeted him as "Ray" and he took a seat at the bar between Matthew and Fiona, looking right at home. He gave the impression that he didn't spend a lot of time in the sunshine.
The three men conversed in low tones for a few minutes.
Carly wondered how so many people seemed to manage to get around after curfew without getting arrested, but she didn't want to ask. When she'd been walking around the city after her escape from the police van, she hadn't really cared what happened to her. And nothing had.
"How do you get around after curfew?" she asked suddenly, surprising even herself.
Ray turned and smiled a sly smile, as if he might know who she really was. "I hear you came in after the siren yourself. So, why ask me? How did you do it?"
He offered her a cigarette, but she shook her head.
"I did it by not caring if I lived or died," she replied.
Ray lit his own cigarette and shrugged as he drew smoke into his lungs. "I've tried that. It works okay, but so does ducking and hiding and being lucky." He gestured at Nicky. "Who's your friend?"
Carly shook her head. "She's a stranger to me. We were just talking until she passed out." She wanted to establish the difference in their ages, that Nicky was a kid and the rest of them there were grown-ups, but she couldn't figure out how to work it into the conversation.
"Is Doc going to speak at the rally?" Matthew asked Ray.
Ray nodded. "Jack is negotiating for her to speak early. We don't think Uncle Mike will let the whole thing go on too long."
"Who's Doc?" Carly asked.
"Doc Morse," Bill said, draining his beer. Archie brought him another, and Carly nodded that she wanted one as well. "She's a big troublemaker, frankly," Bill continued. "She had a lot to do with the riots a few months ago, and the student strike."
Ray laughed. "People who don't like her usually make her sound like Superwoman. The rest of us have a more balanced view."
"She wants to change the world," Bill said. "Just like Novak."
"What?" Matthew demanded.
"This sounds like a new one," Ray said. "I've heard people call Doc Morse a lot of things, but you may be the first to compare her to Novak."
Bill shrugged, aware that he'd caused a stir. "They both want to change human nature. Novak wants to make us all obedient and docile and law-abiding. Doc Morse wants to make us all unselfish and cooperative and cheerful. Neither is about to happen, so they're both going to cause a lot of misery instead."
"When I was in college," Carly said, "one of the few books I actually read was a book about Utopia. It was for a sociology course. It covered the whole history of the idea, from the book 'Utopia' to now. Maybe even before, too, I don't remember. And it included socialists and hippies and people who live in communes, but it included Nazis, too."
She was somewhat unnerved to see how completely she had everybody's attention, but she went on.
"I'm sure that was a big issue in the class, though I'd stopped going to classes by then. But it made me think. They were trying to change the world, into their idea of a better place."
Ray nodded. "I think you're right. That's a very good comparison. Both Novak and Doc want to change things, and people, they just have different ideas about what direction. Which is pretty important, really." He smiled at Bill. "Well, if you do come tomorrow, and the whole thing happens at all, Doc will probably convince you that you're right about a few things."
He finished his beer and put the mug on the bar. "I've got to see about some arrangements for tomorrow," he said, standing up. "Maybe I'll see some of you there." He waved and left through the alley door.
A few minutes later, the door to the alley opened again and a teenage boy entered and marched toward Matthew and Bill. He was barely five feet tall, wearing torn cut-off jeans and a tattered T-shirt. His face was earnest under his shaved head. By the time he'd marched to where they were sitting, everybody in the place was watching him. He executed a neat one-quarter turn so he was facing them, and then he saluted crisply.
"Hola," said Matthew casually. "What's up?"
"Corporal Fifteen with urgent news from the front, sir," the young man said. He leaned over to speak to Carly. "Glad to see you're still in one piece, ma'am."
"Do you know our young adjutant?" Matthew asked her.
Bill interrupted. "First things first." He gestured at Fifteen. "What about this urgent news from the front?" He signaled Archie to refill his mug.
"Oh, yes, you're right." The young man scratched his neck and made a face. "I'm afraid I have bad news all around. I just came from Prentice's place, and the entire block is closed down. We won't be able to have the protest anywhere near the storefront. Plus there are already cops assembling in the parking lot where the shopping center used to be."
"Already?" Matthew asked.
"And Novak is running the show himself."
"They're not taking any chances, are they?"
Fifteen nodded. "The word I'm hearing is that people are pretty mad about this. Prentice may not have been the most popular guy in town, but nobody wanted this to happen. Uncle Mike obviously thinks this protest could be big."
"My question is what people think is going to be accomplished anyway," Bill said. "So, they're going to march around for a few hours. Big deal. Is it going to get Prentice out of the can? Is it going to budge Uncle Mike, on this or anything? I don't see why it should. I don't see why he bothers to try to shut it down."
Matthew shrugged. "Well, if it could get some coverage in the press, that would be something."
"Agreed," Bill said, "but will it? Uncle Mike's got that pretty much sewn up, too, these days."
"I had this argument with a friend of mine last night," Carly said, motioning to Archie for another glass of wine. "He felt the same way, that a few people march around for a while, and then Uncle Mike still does whatever he wants anyway. I don't think I can really argue with that, but I . . . For me, there are some times when I can't just sit still. You can say that this isn't going to have any effect, but the one thing I know is that sitting here on my butt isn't going to do anything. I'm sure of that." She drank deeply from her beer.
"Ma'am," said Fifteen ardently, leaning in her direction, "I agree with you completely. Captain McCarthy, sir," he said to Matthew, "request permission to fall madly in love. Sir."
Matthew laughed. "First things first."
"Yes," Carly said, wiping her mouth. "Like puberty, for example."
"Well, now," Fifteen said, leaning forward, "as a matter of fact–"
The door to the back room opened and Carly's portly host from the night before came out, rubbing his hands together briskly.
"Ah," he said, "everybody's here. That's good. Now, in the morning–"
"Where did you pop from?" Carly demanded, and he did a little double take at the sight of her.
"He's going to claim he has a secret network of tunnels under the entire city," Fifteen said, giving the portly old man a friendly nudge which nearly toppled him over.
"It's true," he said, looking pleased with himself. "In fact, from my humble apartment, I can–"
"Whereas, in my opinion," Fifteen continued, "he's been passed out in the back room since right after lunch, and he only just woke up."
He shrugged. "Of course, that is another possibility." He leaned over toward Carly. "You know," he said quietly, "I never should have taught him how to speak. He's been nothing but trouble ever since." He smiled at her. "In any case, Ms. Stein, my presence here is nowhere near as surprising as yours, I must say. The last time you were seen–"
"I've had an exciting day," Carly said. "Let's just leave it at that."
"You've already met the Professor?" Matthew asked her.
"Well, the Ancient One and I had an unexpected visitor last night," Fifteen explained. "A girl who was hiding out, though she brought along the guy she was hiding from, which I thought was a little strange. Anyway, it was after curfew, so we told stories. The Professor here told a story, and then Carly told one, and I was supposed to be next, but then we went outside and she got popped."
"Novak was here earlier, looking for her," Matthew commented. "He showed us a picture."
"And she's talking about going to the protest," Bill said. "Young people never cease to amaze me."
The Professor smiled. "A simple matter, all we need to do is change her appearance." He looked her over. "Well, I think the easiest thing to change is her hair," he said judiciously, walking around behind her. "Now, I have some expertise in this area. If you like, I think I can give you an entirely new look, one which will both foil your pursuers and perhaps attract some new admirers as well."
Bill tilted his head in Nicky's direction. "You know," he said, "if you like, we could wake her up and try to find out what kinds of hairdo she likes best."
Carly laughed. "No, I think evading my pursuers is enough for me. Hey, behave yourself."
Fifteen, who had been standing next to her, lifted his head from her lap. He rubbed his own shaved head. "You know, if you've got a nice shaped head, Miss Carly, and I'll bet you do, a cut like this–"
"Okay," Carly said to the Professor, "I'll go for the haircut, just so long as I don't end up looking like Casanova here."
He nodded, rubbing his hands together. "Anybody can do a buzz job like that. You'll be wanting something with some more creativity to it, I'll wager. Archie, pour me a glass of your finest brandy."
"Hey, if you're going to cut my hair, I want you to be sober."
"Oh, it's not for me," the Professor said soothingly. "I thought you might want something to kill the pain."
A while later, Carly noticed that Nicky's eyelids were twitching. Then, as the blond girl's eyes opened, Carly asked quietly, "What's the dream?"
She leaned toward the younger girl. "What's the dream you're dreaming now?"
"I'm dreaming of home," Nicky said sleepily. "I have no idea why, but I am. Shit, I couldn't wait to get out, and I'm not going back, even if I could, but when I dream, I don't see all the bad stuff. There was nothing good about it, but when I dream about it, we're a family like other families. The parents acting like adults, the kids acting like kids. Like in a TV show. In reality, it was always sad and confused." She sighed. "What's the dream? I dream of home."
Nicky, sure that this childish emotional outburst had ruined any chance with Carly, put her head back down. Feeling like punching herself, she suddenly felt Carly's hand on her back. It wasn't a pat, not a condescending pat on the back. The hand just rested there softly as Carly leaned over and murmured, "I know exactly how you feel." Then the hand continued to rest there for an additional moment or two, until finally, after a little added pressure, it went away.
Nicky raised her head and looked around. Somehow, she and Carly had moved away from the bar to one of the tiny tables along the back wall. And Nicky was startled to see that most of Carly's hair was now gone. The older girl looked like she'd been scalped by a particularly inept savage. There were patches where her scalp was visible, others where there was a little hair left, mostly sticking up in various odd directions.
Nicky was sure that she was supposed to remember something about this. But she was distracted by how sad Carly looked, as if in reaction to the dream Nicky had just described.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Carly said quietly, reaching over to squeeze Nicky's arm with one hand as she wiped her eyes with the other. "I know you hear a lot of sob stories in bars, but I . . . I just had a really rough day." She took her hand away just as Nicky was about to put her hand on top of it. "I won't bore you with the whole thing, but I'll just say that a nice guy I'd been treating like dirt was killed, and then my only remaining parent kicked me out. So, I'm kind of at loose ends, so to speak."
Nicky was not quite sure what to say to all this, so she drank the rest of the beer in front of her.
When had they moved to the table? Was something going on? Had she continued to flirt with Carly? Had Carly confided anything to her which she was going to be expected to remember later? And what the hell had happened to Carly's hair?
Then, before the silence became uncomfortable, the morning siren sounded, loud enough to rattle the glass in all the windows. Nicky looked around and saw Fiona standing behind the bar, playing solitaire. Bill and Matthew were stretching and looking around on their stools, obviously just awakened by the blast of the siren. Fifteen was lying along the bar, his hands clasped behind his head, a tattered cap tilted forward over his face.
"Well, I guess this is the moment of truth," Matthew said, standing up.
Carly looked at him quizzically. "What?" she demanded.
He laughed. "I just like to say that from time to time."
"He's referring to the protest," Fiona said, putting her cards away. "Now's when we get to find out who's really going and who isn't."
Bill stood up, looking quite green. "I'm perfectly willing to go," he said, reeling toward the back of the bar, "so long as they relocate it into the Men's Room. Right now."
Nicky looked around as the Men's Room door slammed shut after Bill. "Where's everybody else?" she asked. "The Professor and Carl and . . . whoever."
"Carl left ages ago," Fifteen mumbled from under his cap. "The Ancient One just left when the siren went off. I went home hours ago, like a good boy."
"I'm glad to hear that," Matthew said with a laugh. He turned to Carly. "So, are you going?" he asked. "It could get hot."
She nodded. "I know that," she said quietly. "And I may be making a big mistake, since I really can't afford to get arrested right now, but I made someone a promise that I'd be there." She turned to Nicky. "You ready?"
Nicky nodded. "Definitely. And don't worry, I'll protect you," she said. As they went out, she hooked her arm through Carly's.
There was another explosion, a little farther away, and Archie looked up from his diligent polishing of the bar and made a face. The power was out, and the place was lit by a few candles placed around the room. There was no heat, and the room was as cold as the night outside. Every time there was an explosion, the candles all wavered and it made it look like the room was shimmering.
The Professor, who had been sleeping at the end of the bar, raised his head, watched Archie for a minute, and then said, "When the bomb comes that has our names written on the side, history won't care how clean and shiny the bar was."
Archie just shrugged. The Professor lay his head down again and Bill asked, "You won't reconsider about the basement?"
Archie shook his head. "Not a chance. I'm not going to get trapped down there if the building collapses. I'd rather get it over with quick. And I'm certainly not letting you go down there alone either. As long as I'm alive, you're going to pay for your drinks."
Bill laughed and raised his bottle as there was the sound of shattering glass from outside. Fiona said in a peevish voice, "Of course, all of this could have been avoided if they'd listened to me in the first place."
Archie shrugged as he continued to polish the bar. "If everybody just asked you what to do all the time," he said to her, "when would they get to have any fun?"
The door opened and Nicky came in. Her face was grim, her hands were jammed into the pockets of her jacket and it looked like she was doing an impression of Carly's arrival the night before.
She sat down on the stool nearest the door and Archie started to draw her a beer.
"So, how did it go?" Matthew asked after a moment.
"I fucking kissed her, okay?" she screamed, standing up as Archie put the full mug on the bar in front of her. "Well, I tried to. I read the fucking signals wrong! We were running from the fucking cops and I thought it was all romantic and shit, so I tried to kiss her, and that was that. Shit!"
She yanked the door open and stormed out, the door closing behind her.
Matthew waited a beat to see if she'd return, then he reached down the bar to take her mug and pull it to him. Because of this, he was the last person in the room to notice that someone came into the place as Nicky left it.
As Nicky had pulled open the door to the street, the Ladies Room door had opened also. As Nicky had stomped out, someone smaller had come in quietly. The two doors had closed at the same moment with the same sound.
Archie noticed first since he knew that nobody had gone into the Ladies Room, and that the Ladies Room had no windows.
But the appearance of the new arrival was even more surprising than the fact of her being there. She was about three and a half feet tall, with long, straight black hair. Her ears were tall and pointed, the tips as high as the top of her head. She wore a black leather jacket, black jeans and a black T-shirt.
"Nicky's love life is not really what I wanted to hear about," Matthew said as he lifted Nicky's beer.
The tiny girl stood in place for a moment, looking around. Her face gave the idea that she was figuring something out, without giving any hint as to what she was thinking. By then, everybody there had noticed her, even Matthew who nearly poured Nicky's beer into his lap.
The girl nodded once and walked forward. She jumped easily onto one of the stools and addressed Archie. "May I have a beer? Draft, please."
Archie nodded. "Sure. Coming right up."
She paid for the beer and, apparently realizing that she was the center of attention, she jumped down to the floor, reached up to get the beer, and carried it over to one of the tables. There was the sound of gunfire from outside, and then a distant explosion.
A tall, thin woman burst in, face flushed and stringy brown hair all disheveled. She said, "They're shooting out there! Can't the police do something?"
No one reacted to this question, so the woman stood for a moment, collecting herself. She was very tall and thin, wearing a man's three-piece suit and carrying a cane.
She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, reaching up to adjust her tie, when she saw the very small girl in the leather jacket sitting at one of the tables. She turned and limped quickly in that direction, leaning heavily on her cane.
The girl looked up and the tall woman hesitated.
"Hello," the girl said finally.
The tall woman stepped closer. "Hi," she said. "Hello." She didn't move any closer, as if waiting for something more. The girl looked at her calmly as the woman seemed to search her face, then stepped closer.
"I'm Jan," she said hesitantly. "Jan Sleet. I'm a reporter. May I . . ."
The girl gestured. "Sure. Sit down. I'm Vicki. You new in town?"
Jan Sleet sat down. "Sort of. I spaced out on the subway, I think, and the next thing I knew, here I am. Wherever that is. How about you?"
"I just got here."
"I was supposed to meet someone, in the city," she began, sounding very uncertain of what she was saying. She got to her feet again. "I'm going to get a drink," she said.
The door opened and a man came in, talking enthusiastically, apparently to himself. He was handsome, with a goatee and long red hair which just covered the collar of his shirt. His widow's peak gave him a satanic look when he smiled. "No," he was saying to the empty air next to him, "the whole idea is ridiculous." Jan Sleet stood motionless, looking at him. Then she limped to the bar, still looking at the man.
He sat on the stool nearest the door, and apparently his invisible companion took the next one. He frowned for a moment, as if listening, then he turned to the bartender, who was ignoring Jan Sleet's timid attempts to get his attention from the other end of the bar.
"Listen," the red-headed man said, "what's your name?"
"You own this place?"
"No, I'm the manager."
The man suddenly laughed and looked around. "I guess that makes this Duffy's Tavern, huh?"
He looked around, but nobody there seemed to get the joke. He apparently received some admonishment from his imaginary friend, because he said, "Archie, I have a question. My girlfriend and I are new in town . . ." He looked down the bar. "Why don't you serve the lady first," he said. "My question could get complicated." Archie rolled his eyes at customers who ask complicated questions before they even order anything, and went slowly down the bar to where Jan Sleet waited.
Her ordering was neither quick nor easy, since she first requested a series of improbably named drinks, all of which Archie claimed he had never heard of, and when she had finally resigned herself to having a beer, she insisted on a glass, and not a dirty one either.
Finally, as the beers and glasses were on the bar in front of her, the red-haired man excused himself to his phantom girlfriend and came over, saying, "Excuse me, miss, may I help you carry those to your table?"
"No need," Vicki said as she flipped the glasses over the bottles and picked them up. She carried them to the table and climbed back onto her chair as Jan Sleet followed her more slowly. Vicki took the glass off her bottle, placed it on the table, and then drank deeply from the bottle, thereby earning a disapproving look from Jan Sleet as she sat down. The tall woman then poured her beer carefully down the side of her tilted glass with an expertise which indicated that drinking beer was not an entirely new pastime with her.
"Historically," Bill was saying to Archie, "history tells us–"
"Bill," Archie said, "what history tells is that you usually don't know what the hell you're talking about. If these kids pull this off, I won't have to pay any more taxes, and maybe not my mortgage either."
The Professor at the end of the bar raised his head and yelled, "No representation without taxation!" Everybody ignored this. He looked around, seeing the new arrivals for the first time, and got to his feet.
He lumbered to the table as Vicki put her beer bottle down on the table and belched loudly, obviously shocking her companion. "Greetings," he began, attempting a bow, "I think it's only polite to warn you ladies, since you are obviously strangers in this area, that this is a very perilous place to be at present. You may not be aware, but this is a very dangerous situation. Everything is up for grabs. The center cannot hold. In times like these–"
Vicki giggled. "Oh, don't worry about us," she said. "I'm pretty crafty, and my friend here is as strong as an ox."
The Professor frowned and stood a bit more stiffly. "You are pleased to mock my sincere concern," he said, "but I think you'll find–"
That was as far as he got before Vicki put down her beer, stood up, got behind him, and picked up and carried him back to the bar where she deposited him gently next to his stool and then returned to her seat. This all happened so quickly that none of the people at the bar even realized it until they saw that the Professor was again in their midst.
He started laughing and got back on his stool as there was another explosion in the distance.
Jan Sleet levered herself to her feet and made her way to the bar. Archie came over and she said, "I'm a reporter, sir, and I'm wondering about what's going on outside. All the shooting, and the explosions. Is there somebody who can give me some information? I just arrived from a long trip, and I'm afraid I'm . . ." her voice trailed off as Fifteen emerged from a small trap door in the floor and marched over.
"He can fill you in," Archie said, handing her the glass of wine. "She wants to know why all the fuss and bother outside," he explained to the new arrival.
Fifteen motioned and followed her back to the table. Jan Sleet sat down, and he said, "I'm Fifteen–"
"Me, too," Vicki said.
He shook his head. "No, that's my name. Ladies–"
"I'm Vicki Wasserman," Vicki said. "This is Jan Sleet. She's a reporter."
"Pleased to meet you," he said, bowing. "So, ladies, it's certainly been an exciting and unprecedented twenty-four hours. In times like this–
"You sound like the Professor!" Bill called from the bar. "Cut to the chase!"
Fifteen looked miffed. "As I was saying," he began again, "as of now, this land is not part of the United States." He looked at his bare wrist. "For the first time in months, there's no curfew at this hour. No evening siren, no patrols.
"At the rally this morning, before the police moved in, Doc Morse spoke, and she had the people there vote on whether they wanted to secede. Before the vote, she pointed out that the cops have killed six people in the last week, usually for not much more than having an attitude, and it was just revealed that the city government has been conducting studies looking into redefining the city's borders to exclude us, on the grounds that we require a lot of services and don't provide enough revenue. She mentioned that the welfare checks haven't gone out, and unemployment checks bounced, and the only way some people can get a meal is to get arrested. And even then, they hold them for hours and even days before they 'process' them, so they don't have to feed them or give them a place to sleep.
"She asked for the vote in favor of seceding, and everybody yelled. And then, even before she could ask for the vote against, the cops moved in. Doc vanished, I think they had something ready to get her out of there, and eventually order was restored. A lot of the crowd was taken away, and the rest of the speakers had to agree to talk about Prentice only, not anything else. A couple of people spoke, then a drag queen named the Lady Ginger started to speak. She was very funny, which was kind of a relief, and things sort of relaxed, but then she singled out one of the cops and started to talk about him, saying they'd been with each other the night before. Apparently she got pretty graphic, at least she used quite a few words I hadn't heard before, and the crowd was enjoying it. The cop started to go for the stage, but his buddies apparently talked him out of it. They just thought the whole thing was a big joke.
"But the Lady Ginger went on, and the cop pulled his gun and shot her."
He paused for a second. "Not that I knew her or anything like that, I'd seen her around the area, that was all. And it happened just that fast, before anybody could react. Well, a major riot broke out right then. The cops were outnumbered, though they had all kinds of guns, but tons of people just went for them. Some of them just went crazy, it seemed like. And I think some of the other people were armed also. I got out of there pretty quick, but there's been shit happening all over the area ever since." He looked at the floor. "Pardon my language, ladies.
"And, as soon as the Lady Ginger was shot, people started chanting, 'U-town, U-town!' like crazy. That's what Doc Morse called this area when she was making her speech, I think it was called that a long time ago. She said we should stop being part of the United States, and I think a lot of people agree with her, though some of them may have thought she just meant secede from the city. She didn't get a chance to explain in any detail."
"Anyway, the Army is coming now, from what I heard, and people are blocking the bridges with cars and trucks and stuff."
Jan Sleet was looking more and more interested in all this. "Where is Doc Morse now?" she asked.
Fifteen shrugged. "She's around, but I don't know where. There's posters and graffitti up all over which says that they're from her, but I think most of it is fake. She's supposed to speak at a big meeting tonight, but I don't know where or when it is."
Jan Sleet nodded slowly, then she smiled. "Wait a minute." She got to her feet and limped to the bar.
"It's hard to see where all this is going," Bill was saying. "All this politics, fuss and feathers, talk-talk. Does anything ever change?"
Fiona shook her head sadly. "And I thought this was supposed to be a philosophy-free zone."
Chet laughed. "I knew I was in the right place." He had clearly not been accepted yet, though, because nobody reacted to this statement.
Jan Sleet went to the far end of the bar from Chet, and motioned for Archie to come over. The Professor suddenly sat up, though, and said, "Don't even think it, miss. You don't want to go there."
She turned to him, smiling. "Everybody wants to give me advice tonight. Maybe you can just tell me where the Meeting is and when."
The Professor sighed. "The Meeting is a big political powwow, and it's at the Palomar Theater, four blocks that way." He pointed. "Corner of Turk Street."
He slumped down on his stool again. "If you see my friend Ray there," he added, his eyes closing, "tell him I'm keeping his stool warm for him."
Archie hadn't moved through all this, which Jan Sleet took as confirmation that the Professor's information was correct. She returned briskly to the table and said, "Come on. Let's see what's going on with this meeting."
Vicki frowned. "I haven't finished my beer."
"Oh, come on," Jan Sleet said. "It could be interesting."
Vicki shrugged, drank the rest of her beer, belched so loudly that all the windows rattled, and climbed down from her chair.
Outside, it seemed even darker than it had before, and they turned in the direction the Professor had indicated. Even without his directions, though, they would have known where to go, because the few other people they saw were all walking the same way. There were no cars, and people walked in the street as often as on the sidewalk.
Jan Sleet looked at the people around them with interest. They were mostly young, and in appearance they ranged from scruffy to as ragged as any refugees she had ever seen.
As they walked along, Jan Sleet said, "If we can figure out what's going on here, then I can call Marshall and explain why I stood him up. I can tell him that I was after a story. He can't say anything about that."
"Marshall?" Vicki asked. "Your boyfriend?"
Jan Sleet, who had been talking to herself, looked up startled. "Boyfriend? Oh, no, he's my assistant. He works for me."
Vicki laughed. "Then what does it matter what he thinks? Just tell him you had something to do."
Jan Sleet looked pained, possibly imagining Marshall's reaction to this statement. "No, no," she said, shaking her head, "it's not that simple. It's . . . Oh, look, that must be the theater."