Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:
No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure
by Maggie Gibbs
Illustrations by Emily Ruf
Chapter Eight: Addie Has a Visitor
Two hours into my shift and I’ve spilled two drinks—neither on myself or anyone else, though it’s still early—and broken one martini glass. Every pair of black shoes and dark slacks heading down the stairs and into view makes me hold my breath: the relative security of my basement bar is not making me feel secure, and no amount of emergency nerve-dampening seems to have had any actual effect on my nerves.
“You OK?” says the skinny, pierced kid in black denim and homemade patches whose combat boots had prompted the martini glass incident. He peers at me from under a spike of hair, concern evident in his eyes.
I shove the tallboy I’ve just irreparably jostled aside and pull out a new one, then crack it with a butter knife and slide it over. I consider answering him, truthfully. But how exactly do I tell him thoughts of ditching my parasite boyfriend have kept me up for weeks, and the one sanctuary I have just got a lot more dangerous? How to explain my nerves are fried crispy from having a relaxing literary Saturday morning turn into a goddamn mystery thriller?
“Yeah, thanks. Just tired.”
Am I OK? I used to think so. But today, I suddenly have absolutely no idea.
The kid smiles sympathetically at me, grabs his beer, sets a small stack of bills in its place, and turns to head back to his table, spikes waggling and his back advising me between two safety pins to GET A LIFE.
He leaves five singles on the bar—borderline absurd for a two-dollar can of PBR—and I blink away tears. In the center of the maelstrom that has become my day, a kind gesture turns me into a blubbering baby.
But even another session of emergency nerve-dampening, after a quick visual sweep of the room for empties, I’m still on edge. I had every opportunity to tell Bradley what had happened in Nate’s apartment during the brief call I made to reschedule our little chat. I wasn’t hiding it from him, not really—but if I told him about the break-in, then I’d have to tell him where I’ve been hiding out lately, and trying to make up an alternate set of circumstances seems like a waste of time. Plus, I’m a terrible liar. Better to avoid the entire thing.
I pick up a rag and begin to wipe down the bar. I’m almost starting to be sorry I had to cancel The Talk, now that I’d actually come to a solid decision about Bradley. I suppose I’d come to a solid decision a while ago, it’s just that I could never think straight around him. Whenever I tried to hint at my dissatisfaction with our relationship, he’d turn the conversation in a new direction, heading me off. It’s as if he has a whole bag of tricks prepared, and he’s pulling all of them out, one by one. And they’re all working.
I give the gleaming wooden bar a tight smile, wiping harder. Not anymore.
I’ve come to another decision, too.
I’m done with the Press.
I don’t know what exactly Tristan is up to in that basement, but his advisor tried to shut it down and he’d been willing to lose his degree over it, two facts that have me wondering if what he’s doing is in any way safe or legal.
I want to support him, humor him, let him sweep me up in his unique brand of single-minded enthusiasm. I was okay with bonkers, and I was okay with strange. I’m even okay with secret pasts, which at least Nate seems to have acquired at some point. But downright dangerous is an entirely different story. Now I’ve got massive, scary uniformed assholes barging into private residences with ginormous guns, threatening my friends.
This bar may be stagnant and unchanging, but it’s safe, or at least as safe as anywhere else. I’ve never once been threatened or felt threatened by a patron, and if I ever was, Ernie at the door would be on it like shit on stink. No one cares if I duck out to my car every now and then. The Todds and Brodies generally head downtown, seeking their Captain-diets and Mic Goldens elsewhere. And no one has ever waved a giant gun in anyone’s face.
Despite all of this, when the next set of shoes comes into view, the bottom falls out of my stomach for the four-millionth time tonight. Luckily, I quickly categorize the footwear as nonthreatening; they are a light embroidered leather—definitely not the military type—and the legs and torso that follow are slight and trim. And no gun.
I watch him in secret, like many great acts of espionage, under cover of cleaning, as he jog-steps down the stairs and into the bar, not because I think he’s a threat, but because he’s nice to look at: dressed smartly in an impeccable suit coat and gray wool slacks—not pleated and billowy like an older man’s, but not hipster-tight either—black hair swept back in a neat coif, features arranged in calm self-assurance. His arms swing easily at his sides as he glides toward the bar, and for some reason, I conjure a sporty detective-style sitcom. Maybe set in Miami.
Then I look harder.
. . . Duc?
My first thought is: What on earth is Duc doing in my bar?
My second thought: What is Duc doing in a suit?
“Dry martini, please,” he says, cutting me off as he seats himself at the farthest end of the bar. “Vodka.” He sends me a dark, unreadable look before looking down at his menu. Then he settles into it, shutting me out as if I were a stranger, as if he’s never seen me before in his life.
Shocked, I close my mouth, then spin to grab a bottle—and mask my hurt. I haven’t always had the most extensive conversations with Duc, but I’d certainly thought well of him, and I’d assumed he thought well of me. He effectively hired me, after all, although now that I think of it, I’ve never though of he or Nate as my boss, though I assume one of them must be (and Tristan certainly isn’t). We really just feel like a team, or did, before being a team suddenly got super dangerous. Is he here to make me feel guilty about hurting Tristan’s feelings with the flying dinosaur stuff? I peek up at him for clues, but he appears fully engrossed in the menu.
When he returns his eyes to mine, I’m gutting two olives with a plastic sword, which I place in his drink before sliding it over to him. I know how they feel.
He swallows, his face expressionless. I’m half expecting him to cough, having never seen him with anything stronger than a Diet Coke, but he appears to be enjoying his drink. (I do make a pretty decent martini.)
He appears to be enjoying the suit, too, or anyway he looks very comfortable in it. Underneath the sport coat, his cream-colored dress shirt is unbuttoned to a stylish degree, revealing the pointed top of some sort of pendant or charm hanging from a tasteful gold chain, the rest of it out of sight. I wonder if he always wears it or if it’s just part of the costume.
After taking another sip, Duc nods at me before placing the martini glass in the exact center of his Newcastle coaster. He’s looking at me over his martini in that cocked-eyebrow way he has with Tristan, and when I meet his eyes, I realize I’ve misinterpreted his mood. He isn’t angry; he’s worried. Cautious, concerned, and, underneath that, scared.
“What’s going on,” I say in a low voice.
He turns to cough, checking discreetly over his shoulder for eavesdroppers or ninja warriors. I wonder where he’s picked up the espionage skills. Maybe he’s been watching detective sitcoms.
“They’re watching you,” he says, his voice even lower than mine, so low it’s almost inaudible.
I almost drop my shaker, again, and my gaze does a frantic circuit around the room. There are two regulars in the corner drinking gin, a middle-aged couple riding the IPA train, the PBR punks in one of the booths, and another regular in the armchair near the couch, the old guy who consumes only sazeracs and tips via two-dollar bills. No malevolent eyes meet mine.
But then I see a very specific look on Duc’s face—one that tells me I’m being denser than necessary. With a shudder, I understand.
“They’re coming,” I whisper, my voice somehow void of the horror filling me. I knew it, deep down I knew this wasn’t over, but hearing myself say it, standing here in my own bar, my own safety zone . . . I do not like this feeling of vulnerability. Not one bit.
“Yes,” he agrees. “And,” Duc continues, plucking the sword out of his martini and eying olives as if appraising their worth, “there may be more of them.”
I freeze, the glass I’d been washing dripping unhindered onto my feet. Then Duc clears his throat sharply, and I begin moving again. My mind is numb.
“Have you been home?” he says, and when I shake my head, he says, “Good. Don’t.”
But I almost had gone home. I’d actually been heading that way from Nate’s, after those anonymous soldiers had broken up our peaceful slush pile session, before I thought better of it and decided to start my bar shift early. After I’d called off The Talk so abruptly, I didn’t put it past Bradley to be waiting on my front porch anyway, and there was no way I could handle another upsetting encounter.
But I might have gotten there first, before Bradley, or he might not have even come. And if I’d been there . . . if those camouflaged goons had been waiting for me . . .
My legs are suddenly flooded with needles, that feeling you get a cop whips out of the median right behind you but pulls over someone else instead. The feeling of extreme, almost painful relief at a crisis narrowly averted. I grip the bar for support.
“Duc, this isn’t—”
Funny, I want to say, or maybe happening, but I close my mouth. No, it isn’t funny. And it sure the fuck wasn’t what I’d had in mind when I woke up today. But it seems to be happening regardless.
Duc sips while I wipe down the very wiped-down bar again. This used to be my safe place, my haven. Now, nowhere is safe. What am I going to do?
“He’s figured it out,” Duc whispers in a conspiratorial way, black eyes now sparkling.
I blink. “Who has? Figured what out?”
He looks at me with equal parts patience and irritation, as if I’m being intentionally slow. “Tristan has.” At this he downs the rest of his martini, stands, adjusts his cuffs, and winds his scarf around his neck in one smooth flourish. “What time are you off?”
I look around at my tables and do a few mental calculations. “Around eleven?”
He nods. “Come to Tristan’s lab as soon as you can.”
At those words, all previous thoughts of safety, all of my responsible adult decisions to steer clear of danger, disappear in a puff of smoke. I can’t help the thrill of excitement that runs through me.
I don’t know what’s going to happen next. All I know is that whatever happens, the opportunity to see what’s beyond that Do Not Enter sign is more than I can rationalize away with mere logic.
Duc looks me straight in the eyes, and dammit if I don’t see that same excitement reflected in his. “Drive around for a while first. Don’t go home.”
I nod quickly. I’m good at driving around for a while. “I’ll be there.”
He gives me a tight smile and takes a final drink. Then, before he turns to leave, Duc says something strange.
“He says you may be right.”
It’s an interesting idea. But at this point, what I may be right about, I think to myself as I watch Duc’s stylish clone saunter casually out of my bar, a Duc whose own mother wouldn’t recognize him, could be anything at all.