chapter one – a quiet night at duffy's

Vicki entered the bar and looked around. Everyone was aware of her, but nobody reacted in any obvious way.

There was an eerie wail from outside and people turned to look, but of course the windows were all painted black. The sound faded away.

A sandy-haired guy with a red goatee came in, talking earnestly to the empty air next to him. He sat down and ordered two cups of coffee.

Two men in battered clothes were down at the end of the bar, sitting as if they were waiting for something. They had their coats on. One wore a fedora, the other one a stained cowboy hat.

* * * * *

It was a quiet night, which made Archie nervous. He found himself wiping the bar more and more often, just to keep moving. There were about ten people in the place at midnight, mostly sitting as if they were waiting for something.

There was a couple in the far corner who had been nursing the same two cups of coffee for so long that they were asleep on each other's shoulders, turned in towards each other as if they didn't want to really look around at where they were.

Archie thought they were one boy and one girl, but it had been so long since either had moved that he really couldn't remember.

He shook his head. The sirens seemed to be getting closer, but it could have been just the ringing in his ears.

* * * * *

Archie wiped the bar, thinking that this just might turn out to be a quiet night after all. Maybe it had just been nerves. But then the door opened and an elf came in. Well, she might not have been an elf, since she was dressed in a black T-shirt, black jeans and a leather jacket, but on the other hand she was less than four feet tall, and high, pointed ears poked up from her straight black hair.

Archie nodded to himself, wiping the bar with renewed vigor. He had been right. Something was going to happen. The two guys in the hats had looked up when the door had opened, obviously wondering if this was what they were waiting for, but the elf girl wasn't it. They immediately looked away, one of them then turning back to look again out of curiosity.

He shook his head. The sirens seemed to be getting closer, but it could have been just the ringing in his ears.

* * * * *

Vicki entered the bar and looked around. Everyone was aware of her, but nobody reacted in any obvious way.

There were eleven people in the place, plus the bartender.

A car screeched to a halt outside, sounding so close it might come through the window, and

There was a couple sitting together in a corner, propped up on their stools, leaning against each other. They both had long, stringy hair falling across their faces, and it was impossible to determine their gender.

A guy came in, talking earnestly to the empty air next to him. He sat down and ordered two cups of coffee.

Finally the door slammed open and a blond man in a dusty, battered jacket ran in.

As she crouched in the doorway, a voice came from the darkness, "You're new in town, aren't you?"

The sirens seemed to be getting closer.

* * * * *

A car screeched to a halt outside, sounding so close it might come through the window, and there were several gunshots. Vicki and the bartender both ducked their heads, and the two men in the hats looked up interestedly, as if this might be what they were waiting for, but no one else reacted at all. Vicki was starting to wonder if the couple propped up against each other were alive or dead.

* * * * *

Chet and Randi came in, arguing as always. Chet threw Archie a grin as he sat down, as if to say, "Women!" He ordered coffee for both of them.

After a minute Chet called Archie over. The bartender leaned towards him without making a big show about it, and Chet asked quietly, "Who're the rookies?"

Archie said, "The two guys I don't know. I think they're waiting for somebody, and I think they're trouble." Chet's eyes flickered to the two men in the hats. They had not reacted to his entrance at all.

"What about the little one?" he asked, indicating the tiny girl in the leather jacket.

Archie shrugged, grinning. "She just came in. You know as much as I do."

Vicki turned her head toward them slightly, obviously aware that they were talking about her, and Chet caught sight of her pointed ears, which were nearly as high as the top of her head. "Interesting," Chet murmured.

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?"

Chet stroked his goatee and laughed. "And they say I'm crazy!"

* * * * *

Probably only three or four seconds passed between the lights going off and the subway doors opening, but to Jan Sleet, it seemed long enough that she was definitely starting to wonder about the possibility of starvation. She stepped off the train as soon as the gap between the doors was wide enough for her emaciated frame to slip through without risking getting any soot on her suit. And then, as her cane nearly slipped between the train and the platform, she pivoted awkwardly and stepped back on the subway car, leaning over unsteadily so she could pick up her briefcase.

She was facing away from the doors, she was sure they were going to close before she could get back outside, but they stayed open and she made it back to the darkened platform as they closed again. By then, her eyes were starting to adjust, and she could make out the shapes of the buildings all around her. There was a cool breeze, and she wished she'd worn a coat.

She decided to go downstairs to the token booth to find out how to get back to where she had come from. As she walked the length of the platform to the stairs, she was uncomfortably aware of how close everything was around her. The platform, with a track on either side, was very narrow, and the train she had been on sat dark, the lights off. The buildings seemed very close on both sides, as if the subway had been forced into a street not really wide enough for it.

She looked up, and saw another subway line above the platform where she stood, just barely over her head, going in another direction. She could barely see up onto the platform, and it seemed as deserted as the one she was on.

She went down the stairs, gripping the railing firmly as she swung her bad leg down one step at a time. She suddenly realized she didn't have the magazine any longer.

At the bottom of the stairs, she looked around. The token booth was dark and empty. No one was around. She pushed her way out through the turnstile and limped towards the stairs to the street. She stopped without meaning to when a strange howling noise became suddenly louder. It had been in the air ever since the train had stopped, she realized, but the sudden change in volume made her notice it for the first time.

Three kids with bandannas tied across the lower halves of their faces ran up the stairs and pushed past her. They vaulted over the turnstiles and were gone up the stairs to the platform. But she knew the sound that she was hearing was not an arriving train. She made her way down to the street, her leg throbbing more and more, and as she came out of the covered staircase to the narrow street of closed shops, two police cars careened around the corner, guns blazing out of every window as one of them slid halfway up onto the sidewalk. She jumped behind the subway staircase, her bad leg collapsing under her as she turned, so that she fell flat on the ground, which was the only thing that saved her.

* * * * *

A few people had left, and the only ones left were Chet and Randi, the elf girl, the two long-haired travelers and the two men in the hats. Archie the bartender was making himself a cup of tea. 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?"

Chet turned to Randi and said, "And they say I'm crazy."

Archie shrugged, and the woman, realizing that no one in the place was going to react to what she was saying, came in and sat on an empty stool. She hooked her cane over the edge of the bar. Archie moved over to her, his cup of tea in his hand.

At that moment the phone rang. Archie reached under the bar and answered it.

"Duffy's," he said.

"Let me speak to Duffy," the voice said sharply.

"Duffy's not here."

The guy hung up. As Archie lowered the receiver, he thought how strange this was. That phone hadn't worked in six months.

"What'll you have?"

The thin woman looked around, still trying to catch her breath. "A coffee, I guess," she said slowly. That was what everybody else was having.

The bartender moved away. She shrugged, smiling at the man with the red hair and small beard. "I'm asking if the police can do something about the shooting," she said, "but now that I think of it, it was the police who were doing the shooting. I couldn't really tell why, though."

He laughed. "Where have you been?"

"Well, I've been out of the country for the past year, as a matter of fact, covering a story. I'm a reporter. Why, did I miss something?"

"A tourista," the man remarked over his shoulder to the empty air.

* * * * *

The door slammed open and a blond man in a dusty, battered jacket ran in. His face was flushed as he looked around the room.

The two men in the corner stood up. One of them yelled, "Reggie! Over here!"

"Can we get out the back way?" the man in the cowboy hat asked as Reggie ran across the room to them.

"There isn't one," the bartender drawled. "And if you guys are going to mix it up with the cops, don't do it in my place."

The door slammed open again and a half dozen policemen poured in. They wore thick leather outfits that looked like black armor, helmets with tinted visors, and heavy boots. They all carried rifles.

"Nobody moves!" the sergeant bellowed, firing a shot into the ceiling. "This place is closed, and everybody is under arrest!"

The bartender looked like he was about to speak, but couldn't get his mouth to work.

When a strange howling noise became suddenly louder.

"You three," the sergeant said to the men, "come over by the window, hands up. No sudden movements."

The tall, thin woman with the cane levered herself erect, fumbling in her pocket. "Officer, I'm a reporter, and–" His gloved hand snapped up and cracked her on the temple. She fell against the stool she had been sitting on, her cane and glasses falling to the floor.

Vicki, her face flushed with anger, jumped off her stool and punched the sergeant in the stomach. Incredibly, her tiny fist went directly through his leather vest, propelling him back against the wall behind him, where he sagged to the floor.

Another of the cops fired his rifle, but he was used to troublemakers who were at least four feet tall and his bullet passed harmlessly over Vicki's head and lodged itself in the edge of the bar.

Of course, by then the place was a war zone.

In the instant that Vicki knocked out the sergeant, the man in the fedora hat swung a shotgun up from under the bar and fired it at another of the cops. The report was deafening.

The reporter screamed, fumbling on the floor for her cane and glasses. The long-haired couple finally woke up and looked around, but it was too late. The cop who had been standing nearest the door tried to shoot the cowboy, but he ducked and they got shot instead.

Another cop tried to shoot the man with the shotgun, but he only managed to wing Chet, and then he suddenly burst into flames, shrieking as he died.

"More cops coming!" Chet yelled as he faded away. "Get the hell out!"

The three men ran for the door, the man with the shotgun unloading the other barrel on the two cops who had stayed outside.

Vicki was about to run when she realized that the reporter was still fumbling around on the floor for her glasses. Vicki grabbed reporter, briefcase, cane and glasses and made for the door, planning to sort things out later.

The bartender had vanished down a trap-door.

The two long-haired travelers lay dead on the floor, along with three cops. A fourth cop was mostly consumed by fire except for a few smoldering scraps of leather. The sergeant was still alive, but the damage to his internal organs was so extensive that he would die before help arrived.

There was no trace of Chet or Randi, except for Chet's beret, which he had left on the bar.

Then, the beret slowly faded and vanished as well.

* * * * *

Vicki ran down the block, half-pulling and half-carrying the reporter. There were sounds of breaking glass and yelling from behind them.

She ran around a corner. The streets were deserted, a few rusted and abandoned cars the only possible cover. Then she saw a staircase down to a basement entrance across the street. She ran to it and slipped, sliding down the stairs, losing her hold on the woman's glasses, briefcase and cane.

The darkness under the metal staircase was nearly complete, and she reached for her new friend the reporter. "Are you okay?" she asked. "I'm sorry I slipped–"

"I'm not sure," the tall, thin woman said. "My leg–"

There was a squeal of tires from above them, and the sound of gunfire.

After a moment, as the sounds faded, the reporter said, "I'm afraid I'm going to start getting used to this."

"You're new around here, aren't you?" came a casual voice out of the darkness.

"What?" the reporter said, panic creeping back into her voice.

"I'm no threat," the voice said. "What are your names?"

"I'm Vicki Wasserman," Vicki said firmly. She reached out and tapped the reporter on her arm, trying to keep her from falling apart.

"Uuuuh," she said, as if the question was unexpectedly difficult. "Jan Sleet," she said finally. "I'm a reporter–"

"You two want to go to a party?" the voice asked.

"Absolutely," Vicki said.

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