Rain turns into torrential rain, torrential rain turns into a tropical depression, and Jerry is having one of his best nights in a long time. The bar is packed with people willing to pay good money to stay dry. The solid, reliable roof of the Swordfish has, for the duration of the storm, become one of the most popular attractions of the boardwalk. Jerry’s been making money all day, and as the storm increases in strength, so does his business.
It ought to make him happy. At least, it ought to make him as close to happy as he’s ever likely to get. It doesn’t.
The Swordfish is large for the kind of bar it is—it’s about the size of your typical sports bar, instead of a neighborhood hole in the wall—and even on the busiest of nights it manages to feel roomy. Tonight it actually feels cramped, and the regulars resent it. Earlier in the evening Jerry had to throw a regular out for trying to knife someone trying to “sit in his booth.” On most nights Jerry would let something like that slide, but there are too many people in the bar tonight, and some of the new faces are troubling.
There are players in the bar tonight. Not big-league players—not the kind that actually make life or death decisions that affect Farraday City as a whole. But there are people in the bar who have carved out kingdoms for themselves on the boardwalk—the place the civilized people ignore. In a way, in this part of the city, those people are more important. The people who run the city don’t care about the boardwalk—at least, it looks that way—and their decisions rarely change life here in any appreciable way. But the people in here tonight do. They’re drug lords, or would-be gangsters, or psychotics with delusions of grandeur. They’ve all carved out little fiefdoms in the boardwalk, and a lot of them are in the Swordfish tonight.
Jerry rushes around making sure each of the petty lords has enough to keep them occupied and in a good mood. He gives them the liquor that isn’t watered down. He makes sure they all have tables. He even offers them food, which he almost never does. So far, a delicate peace has been maintained. None of the would-be kings of the boardwalk accost each other, and everyone else does their best not to step on any toes.
Jerry’s at the bar, watching everyone, feeling uneasy. He hopes CB doesn’t pick this night to show up—that’s the last thing he needs.
Jerry looks up. One of the regulars, a beefy, thick-necked bruiser named Clarence, crowds up to the bar.
Jerry nods once, reaches under the bar, and pulls out a bottle of beer. He hands Clarence the bottle. He prefers a bottle over a glass, and Jerry likes him enough to humor him.
Clarence takes the bottle, slides some money across the bar, and asks “you hear about the Hyatt?”
Back when Farraday City was a thriving vacation spot, the boardwalk had been lined with tourist-friendly businesses and hotels. After it collapsed on itself, the tourist-friendly businesses were converted into businesses that better suited the community that moved in—the Swordfish was a prime example of this. Most of the hotels turned into tenement houses. The Hyatt had probably been a high-scale tourist hotel once, but it was now one of the worst slums in the city.
Jerry sneers. “If we’re lucky the storm washed that shithole into the ocean.”
Clarence doesn’t grin. He just shakes his head in a kind of subdued wonder. “They’re all dead, man.”
Jerry looks at him blankly. “What are you talking about?”
Some of the other people at the bar quiet down a little and turn their attention to Clarence.
Clarence nods. “There’s a hole in the wall on the ground floor, like a car crashed into it or something. And every fucking person in there is dead. The police even showed up.”
Jerry frowns. The police tend to leave the boardwalk alone. “I didn’t hear anything on the news.”
Clarence snorts once. “That really surprise you? You think the news is going to come all the way out here in this weather? Hell, when I saw the cops out at the Hyatt I thought I was high.”
That provokes a round of laughter from the people around him. But Clarence isn’t laughing. He’s not what Jerry would consider an empathetic man—he believes in looking out for himself, and doesn’t usually put much thought into the struggles of his fellow man—but whatever happened at the Hyatt has put him in an unusually sober and reflective mood.
“How’d it happen?” Jerry asks. “Some kind of hit?” He looks around uneasily, wondering if any of the personalities currently drying off in his bar are involved.
Clarence shakes his head, then leans in, lowering his voice. “It was like some kind of plague. They all died of some kind of disease, man.”
Jerry looks at him, expression flat. “Quit yanking my—”
“I’m not kidding.” Clarence holds up his hands for emphasis. “I saw the police on the scene, man. They blocked off the area, put plastic over the hole in the wall, and they were only letting people who were wearing those yellow plastic body suits go in. Like in those virus movies. All the bodies they pulled out were wrapped in plastic, too. Like they were sealed. To keep anything from getting out.”
The other people at the bar mutter uneasily. Clarence is generally reliable when it comes to information as long as he isn’t talking about himself.
Jerry frowns. He doesn’t need this kind of talk in the bar right now. It’s too late to stop the rumor from spreading—he can see it rippling through the room, a guy from the bar heading over to a table, whispering excitedly, one of those guys darting off to tell a friend on the other side of the room, and so on—but the last thing he needs is everyone worrying about some kind of weird plague. He can’t stop the rumor, but he might be able to change its focus.
“What’s going to happen to the building?” Jerry asks, raising his voice just a little to make sure the others can hear. “You know who owns it?”
Clarence shakes his head. “Technically I think Hyatt still owns it. Not that I expect them to come down here.”
Jerry waves a hand dismissively. “I don’t mean that. I mean who controlled the turf? What’s going to happen to the building now? Who’s moving in?”
Clarence purses his lips thoughtfully. “Don’t know,” he says. Then, a second later: “good question.”
And all at once, thanks to the nature of life on the boardwalk, the conversation changes from I hear a bunch of guys died from a plague in the Hyatt to I hear the Hyatt is empty and ripe for the picking. Panic is bad for business. Speculation is good for business. Jerry starts to relax as he watches the new rumor spread through the bar. This might be distracting enough to keep everyone occupied—peacefully occupied—until closing. He starts to wipe down the table, smiling ever so slightly to himself. For the first time tonight he starts to think about all the money he’s bringing in.
The front door opens, drawing a howl of protest out of the unfortunates standing near it. Rain whips into the room, along with an unseasonably chilly wind that carries all the way to the back. Jerry looks up, annoyed, about to shout “get inside and close the goddamned door!” but the words die on his lips.
Two men—one thin, a little on the short side, one much larger and heavyset—walk into the bar. They are both dressed in pin-striped business suits, well tailored but not obviously expensive. They both wear bowler hats. The small, thin man has a lean, birdlike face with bright, gleaming eyes, and a polite, vague smile. The large heavyset man looks around the room once, taking everything in with a dark, flat gaze, then sinks into an expression of bored introspection.
The small man steps further into the room, touching the brim of his hat in general greeting, while the large man closes the door fully shut behind him. Despite their appearance—business suits are not common attire on the boardwalk—they are almost universally ignored by everyone else in the room.
The small man carefully makes his way through the crowd of people, nimbly stepping around groups of people, darting through sudden breaks in the crowd, heading to the back of the room. The large man stays by the door until the small man reaches the bar, then he walks directly to the back. He doesn’t bother to navigate the crowd: people unconsciously step out of his way as he walks. It took the small man minutes to reach the bar; it takes the large man seconds.
They stand at the very end of the bar, a little apart from the rest of the patrons. They don’t do anything. They stand there, the large man impassive, the small man with a polite and slightly apologetic expression on his face, and they wait. Jerry nods at the small man once. The small man’s smile widens, and he bows, ever so slightly, in his direction. Then the small man turns his gaze out into the crowd, watching the goings-on with interest.
Jerry scans the room. He focuses on a man leaning up against the bar nursing a drink. His clothes are newish but filthy, as if he hasn’t changed them in weeks. He has a guarded, cautious look—the look of a man who doesn’t like where he is and desperately wants to be left alone. Jerry doesn’t recognize him, but he recognizes that look.
He moves over to the man, grabs a glass and sets it down in front of him. The sudden motion surprises the stranger, who looks up in a near panic, relaxing slightly only when he recognizes Jerry as the bartender. He looks at Jerry warily.
“You’re new in town,” Jerry says. It’s a statement, not a question.
The man nods unhappily.
Jerry reaches under the bar. “My sympathies.” He pulls out a bottle filled with an amber liquid that almost glows in the dim light. He pours it into the glass, filling it about halfway, and pushes it over the man. “Been on the boardwalk for… I’m guessing a week?”
The man hesitates, then holds up two fingers.
Jerry raises an eyebrow. “Two. Well, I’d say you’ve earned that.”
The man looks at the glass for a moment, then picks it up. He sniffs at the liquid suspiciously. Then, a moment later, his eyes widen, and he downs the liquid quickly. The effect is almost immediate. The heaviness and suspicion on his face fades away, until at last he relaxes into a happy smile. He looks at the glass in wonder. “What is that?”
“Special,” Jerry says. “Consider it a consolation prize for winding up here.”
“Almost worth it,” the man says, and laughs.
Jerry smiles politely.
“I haven’t felt this good in a long time,” the man adds. He looks at the glass, then at Jerry uncertainly. “Could—could I—would it be all right if—”
Jerry brings out the bottle and fills the glass without a word. The man drinks slowly this time—savoring it—and as he drinks he starts to talk. About his life. About how a business trip ended with a night of revelry turned bad, and how he woke up in debt to some very bad people with no way to contact anyone who might be able to help him. How he wound up on the boardwalk, with nothing but the clothes on his back and a couple of twenties. How the cash was almost gone, and he figured it’d be better to spend the rest of it here, someplace dry, before the inevitable—whatever that was—happened.
Jerry listens. He’s a bartender. People expect it.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” the man says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
Jerry pulls out the bottle and fills his glass a third time. “Don’t think about it tonight. You can’t do anything about it, but tonight you’re warm and you’re dry and you have a drink. Sometimes that’s as good as it gets. You might as well enjoy it.”
The man smiles gratefully and grabs the glass. By the time it’s half empty he’s face down on the bar, snoring softly.
Jerry grabs a rag, picks up the glass, and dumps the contents in a small sink behind the bar. He rinses it out carefully and washes his hands afterward. Everyone ignores the sleeping man except for the small man in the bowler. His gaze is locked on the hunched over form, his smile widening into one of eager delight. The large man is still lost in his own introspective world.
The hours pass, and the people show no sign of leaving. On one level Jerry understands—it’s still raining like crazy—but when it’s finally time to close up he shows no mercy.
“Last call!” He ignores the howls of protest, and for the next half hour he’s busy sorting through the deluge of last-minute orders as his customers take as long as they possibly can to order. He gives them ten minutes to drink up, then he ushers them all out into the rain—even the players. Everyone protests, but not too much, and eventually everyone leaves.
Everyone but the big man, the small man, and the drunk passed out at the bar.
The last of the customers stumbles out into the torrential rain, cursing loudly, and Jerry closes and locks the door behind him. He wipes the rain from his eyes and turns to face the small man and the big man, still standing at the same spot at the end of the bar. He jerks his head in the direction of the passed-out drunk.
The big man, still apparently lost in a personal reverie, moves to stand next to the drunk. The small man doffs his bowler and bows low, long yellow hair springing out from beneath the hat like coiled springs.
“Thank you, Gerald.” The small man’s voice is always deeper than Jerry expects. It’s the kind of voice he’d expect to come out of the big man, if the big man ever talked. “This one is perfect.”
Jerry shrugs, fighting back his unease. “I gotta clean up.”
The small man nods. “Of course. Of course. We won’t keep you. You’ve performed your end admirably. Quite admirably. And on such short notice as well! I thought we had you tonight.”
The small man nods. “Exactly my point. Well, we won’t keep you.” He turns and nods to the big man. The big man grabs the drunk and slings him over his shoulder without any visible sign of effort. The drunk keeps snoring.
“And so we part ways again,” the small man says. “Alas.”
Jerry walks back over to the door and unlocks it. The small man walks briskly to the door, the big man and his burden following close behind. When they reach the door, Jerry pushes it open. Rain and wind blow in to the bar.
The small man tips his hat. “Until next time.” Then he steps out into the storm, the big man following suit. Jerry closes the door, locks it, and checks each lock twice.
“Until next time,” he mutters.