8BC on a Friday night is usually full of people. Tonight is an exception—there are maybe a quarter of the people CB expected, and he’s not sure how long they’re going to stay. It’s empty enough that CB has a table all to himself. He drinks, he smokes, he pretends to listen to the band; more fundamentally than that, he tries, unsuccessfully, to ignore the world around him.
A few years ago CB, Sin and Billy wound up playing pool with a bona-fide pool shark named Ray—a friendly game where the winner got his drinks for free. They wound up paying for Ray’s drinks all night, but they didn’t mind—he was a riot. He had great stories about all the cities where he played pool, games where he won big, games where he lost big. He had his own pool cue that he’d named “Maureen.” CB is thinking about Ray tonight, because he can’t stop thinking about pool.
He’s been thinking about pool for days. It’s been gnawing at him since New Year’s Day, specifically since the fight with the New Aryan Army skinheads. He didn’t realize what it was at first, he just felt like there was something happening right under his nose and if only he’d been paying attention he’d see what it was. But then, out of the blue, he remembered asking Ray how he got so good at pool, and what Ray had said: “I dunno kid. I can see the shots. I can see all the shots.”
From that point forward, CB has been seeing all the shots. He can’t stop seeing them.
He stares across the table looking at four beer bottles arranged in such a way that he knows, if he flicked his thumb at just the right angle, he could get a bottle cap to ricochet off them and dead center into the forehead of the guy at the next table. He doesn’t know why he knows that, but he knows he can do it, and he knows it’d be easy. Slightly more difficult is kicking the chair out behind him at just the right moment so that someone will step through the back, get tangled up, and fall, possibly breaking an ankle in the process. At one point during the night he sees a guy stumble while trying to carry four beers, and in an instant he knows everything he would have to do in order to catch each beer, before they fell, not spilling a drop. He also knows he doesn’t have the kind of balance and speed it would take to actually pull it off—but he knows what he needs to do in order to do it.
Everything he sees tells him how to do something—or how he might do something, if he were in the kind of shape he’d need to be to do it. Somersault backflip off the table, landing on the next table in just such a way so as to make one end flip up under someone’s jaw. How to kick off a wall in just the right way, to add more momentum to a spinning roundkick. On top of that he sees possibilities that he can’t even understand. He feels, rather than comprehends, the potential to do things that he can’t even keep clear in his head, much less put into words. And on top of that is another layer: a vague notion that, if he wanted to, he could reach out and push the world into a shape that would make some of those ridiculously impossible notions easier.
He can see all the shots, all the time. But it’s a very specific game of pool he’s playing. A very violent game: most of what he sees has to do with fighting. Occasionally it’s just something weird, like how to save the beer, but most of the time it’s about fighting in ways that he’s only ever seen in Kung Fu movies.
He finishes his beer. Even as he drinks he can tell it’s not going to do what he wants. He knows, even as he drinks, that it’s not possible to drink enough to make it stop. He sets the bottle down on the table and immediately realizes exactly how he needs to throw it in order to knock over someone on the other side of the room.
Why is it always fighting? Why isn’t he figuring out exactly what he needs to do to convince the pretty brunette two tables down to go home with him? He glances at her and immediately sees at least three ways he could disarm her, if she were carrying a weapon. Which she’s not, as far as he can tell, but it doesn’t matter. For some reason every time he looks at someone he sees scenarios in which they’re armed: with knives, with pistols, with rifles, occasionally with swords.
CB grits his teeth and stares down at the table. Focusing on a single thing helps, though when he does that he feels himself starting to pay attention to sounds and smells and occasionally pieces together scenarios that deal with both. He grinds the butt of his cigarette on the table, pulls out another cigarette, and lights it, trying to pretend he isn’t suddenly aware of three ways to quickly burn down the club with his Zippo.
“Why is what always fighting?”
CB looks up from the table and finds himself staring at a wide, black leather belt with a heavy iron buckle. He looks up further, and frowns. It’s the pretty brunette from two tables down. Only up close, “pretty” isn’t the right word. “Pretty” is too soft, and she isn’t soft. Her brown hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail, revealing sharp, clean features. Scars run down her jawline on both sides of her face—something he didn’t notice earlier. It seems to suit her—the scars are fierce, and she is fierce. He gapes at her, even as he finds himself assessing whether it would be more effective to try to break an arm or a leg first. If it came down to it.
“What?” It’s the only thing he can think of to say. It sounds stupid.
Her mouth curves into a sharp, sardonic smile. “I said, ‘why is what always fighting?’ You were muttering that to yourself while you were defacing Dennis’ table.”
CB frowns, staring at her blankly. “What?”
She hesitates for a moment, then pulls out the empty chair to his right and sits down, uninvited. She moves two beer bottles out of the way and points.
CB looks down at the table as if seeing it for the first time: he was using a bottle cap to meticulously carve an anarchy symbol into the layers of dirt and cigarette smoke and resin and cheap wood of the tabletop. He stares at it, uncomprehending. He wasn’t aware he was doing it.
“Are you high?” She doesn’t accuse him, she’s just curious.
CB shakes his head. “Trying to get drunk,” he says finally.
“How’s that working out?”
“Not so good,” he says. “Uh… hi.”
Her smile softens a bit, a hint of genuine amusement behind it. “Hi. I’m Joan. You’re CB, right?”
He shrugs, trying not to appear tense as he forces aside the part of him that’s evaluating how much effort it would take to kick out her chair from under her, and whether it would be more practical to simply break one of the chair legs, causing the whole thing to collapse under her weight. “Yeah. That’s me.”
“You’re pretty famous,” Joan says.
“Yeah,” CB says. “I’m a goddamn celebrity.” He stuffs the remains of his cigarette into an empty beer bottle and fishes in his trench coat for his pack.
“The way I hear it, you beat the crap out of Plague and his crew. That makes you a goddamn celebrity this week.”
CB looks at her blankly. “What plague?”
“The leader of the New Aryan Army,” Joan says. “What are you, thick? He calls himself ‘Plague.’”
“That’s stupid,” CB says. “That’s a stupid fucking name.”
Joan stares at him levelly. “Your friend—the one they beat up—his name is Sin, right?”
CB grumbles and lights his cigarette, pondering the effectiveness of cigarette ash being flicked into someone’s eye. He grimaces and pushes the thought aside.
“Is he going to be OK?” Joan cocks her head to one side. “I heard it was pretty bad.”
“He’s gonna limp for the rest of his life,” CB says. “Doctors saved his life. That’s about it.”
“No insurance,” Joan says. “If you’re not in, you’re out.”
“Yeah. Something like that. Are you serious about me being a celebrity?” He can’t keep the incredulity out of his voice, and it makes Joan laugh. He likes the way she laughs.
“Celebrity is a shallow word,” she says. “I’m going to go with hero. Seriously. Plague is bad news. It’s rare to find people who stand up to him. It’s even rarer to find someone who can kick his ass.”
CB shifts uneasily. “Billy did most of that.”
“That’s not how he tells it,” Joan says matter of factly. “He says you took out eight of Plague’s boys all on your own, then you threw his ass across the yard.”
“And then Plague kicked the crap out of me until Billy clocked him,” CB says. “He’s being modest.”
“Bull.” Joan leans in to CB, eyes locked on his. “Billy says he sucker punched Plague, and never would have been able to do it if you hadn’t pissed him off so very, very much. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Plague doesn’t get angry very easily. You have to hurt him to do that. You hurt him. And that’s not easy to do. He’s a metahuman.”
“Right…” CB smirks and settles back in his chair. “I fought a metahuman and lived.”
“Yes.” Joan’s voice has none of the sneer CB has in his. “Plague can make people sick. Anyone he wants. Makes them too weak to fight. Sometimes he can even kill them. And he’s strong, and he’s tough, and despite the fact that he’s a worthless racist shit he’s also not stupid. He’s what most people would call a villain, CB. And you kicked his ass. Which means most people would call you a hero. Or they would, if they gave a damn about any of us. Which they don’t.”
“Wow.” CB keeps his voice light and dismissive. “At least you’re not bitter.”
Joan’s voice is tight with anger. “Why shouldn’t I be bitter? Why aren’t you bitter? We live in a fucking police state, only most people don’t realize it, because it hasn’t reached them yet. I thought maybe you’d understand.” She points at the anarchy symbol carved in the table. “But I guess you’re just a poser who’s in it for fashion and music, right?”
“And the sex,” CB says casually. “You forgot about all that sex.”
Irritation flashes across Joan’s face for a moment. Then her mouth curves into a sly smile. “Fair enough. Spare a smoke?”
CB fishes into his pocket and pulls out his pack. He frowns; there are only five left. He shrugs, then slides the pack and his lighter across the table.
She fumbles with the lighter, and for a moment CB can see the scars on her jawline very clearly. They’re angry purple scars that start where the jaw meets the neck, and travel down to the chin on both sides.
“Let’s talk about something else,” she says.
“I’m… pretty lousy at conversation tonight,” CB says. “Maybe you noticed.”
“I don’t have anything to compare it to,” Joan says. “For all I know, this is you at your most charming.”
“No.” CB stares at the end of his cigarette and watches it slowly burn down. “This is me going nuts.”
“Yeah,” Joan says. CB looks up, and is surprised to see genuine sympathy on her face. “Something happened that night, didn’t it? Something you haven’t been able to shake since.”
CB looks down at the table.
“Hey.” Joan’s voice is soft. It sounds completely at odds with her. “CB.”
CB looks up. For an instant, for one desperate instant, he almost tries to tell her. All he does is grimace, and shift uneasily in his chair.
Joan holds up his Zippo. “This is a nice lighter. I expect you’d like it back.”
She places the Zippo down on the table in front of her. She withdraws her hand; a moment later, the Zippos scoots across the table and stops in front of CB.
“Nice trick,” CB says.
Joan frowns. The Zippo rises into the air, hanging in midair in front of CB. Suddenly the top pops open, and a tiny orange flame appears.
CB stares at the Zippo floating in mid air. He passes his hand over the lighter, under it, and finally plucks it out of the air and stuffs it in his pocket. “Not a trick.”
“No,” Joan says, “not a trick. Not the way you meant, anyway.”
“What do you want?” CB looks at her guardedly. He’s suddenly glad that he can see four different ways to make it to the door before she has a chance to get out of her chair.
“I want to help you,” Joan says.
“I’ll be fine.” CB doesn’t believe it when he says it, and the expression on Joan’s face tells him she knows he’s lying.
Joan leans forward and puts her hand over his. He likes the way that feels. She squeezes his hand, just a little, then says “I’ve been where you are right now. I can help you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” CB says.
“Don’t play stupid. You’re not. You’re a little lazy, maybe, but even if you haven’t admitted it to yourself, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You haven’t been the same since your fight with Plague, and you don’t know how to cope with it.”
CB doesn’t reply. He looks down at the table.
“Look, CB...” Joan looks around the room, then leans in further and lowers her voice. “You’ve been drinking a lot this week.”
“Says who?” CB glares at Joan, voice sharp. “And how is it your business? I never met you before today.”
“Says Billy,” Joan says.
“You know Billy?” CB says incredulously.
“Yes, I know Billy! Everyone who comes here knows Billy! He’s one of the bouncers! He’s worried about you. He thought I could help. And I can.”
CB pushes her hand away, pushes out his chair. “Thanks for the concern, but no thanks.”
CB’s ears buzz, he feels lightheaded, and the room spins for a second. He grips the table to keep his balance. “I can help you. Let me help you.” His eyes widen. His hand immediately covers his mouth. He’s the one who spoke, but they weren’t his words.
Joan looks apologetic. “Sorry. I needed to get your attention.”
His fists clench. He imagines launching himself across the table--a very specific move that involves tucking into a roll on the table itself, and lashing out with his legs, striking her full in the face, sending her toppling backward in the chair. In that instant he’s positive he can do it. He sees her eyes widen, and she tenses slightly.
“I’m trying to show you that I can help.”
CB fights back the urge to fight. He stands, fists still clenched, and backs away from the table. “We’re done talking.”
“Let me help you,” she says.
“No. Don’t... don’t ever do that again.”
He wants to run, but he forces himself to walk to the door, threading his way around a sudden influx of people who have decided to arrive late. It looks like the band will get a full house for its second set. He steps to his right to avoid a group of five, then steps left sharply, forcing the next group to split up to pass around him, and a moment later he’s managed to redirect the incoming traffic so that there’s a wall of people between himself and Joan.
He steps out of the club, into the cold night air, and looks around uncertainly. Where too? There were really only two directions: out of Little Dresden, taking him back into the rest of the city, or deeper in. It was safer to head back to the city, but it was a longer walk. And if Joan tried to follow him, it’d be easier to catch up.
“Right,” CB mutters. “Deeper in.” He fumbles for his cigarettes--only four left--and lights one as he walks deeper into the burned out landscape of Little Dresden.