Remembered Kisses: Chapter 15: Dead End Bar
Sofia led Sam down a few more streets, toward the river, into some neighborhoods he had not been into in a long time. The row houses were in poorer condition, the streets weren’t quite as clean, and the ever-present fog was even thicker, like a moth-eaten blanket hanging stifling over everything. Eventually she turned down one final street, and led Sam to a bar at its end. The bright green neon sign read ‘Dead End Bar.’ Sam gave Sofia a look. “Really?” He asked.
“The Dead End Bar?"
“Absolutely. It’s a dive bar!” She said cheerily. “One might even call it seedy, if seeds were, in fact, diseases. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”
“A little cliche. I know. I get it, standing-atop-cathedrals-man. But this is the right step. Come on.” She grabbed him by the arm and dragged him over, pushed the door open, and together they walked inside.
As they entered, the dimly-lit dive instantly quieted, all conversation coming to a sudden stop as faces turned toward Sam, leaving the wailing of the eagles on the jukebox the only sound. The bar smelled of six kinds of smoke and seven kinds of sour beer, and the regulars looked like something out of a bad crime movie. Sam swept his eyes around, not knowing anyone here but recognizing a few faces. Underneath the beer and the smoke, there was a whole other kaleidoscope of smell. Stale blood. Sickly-sweet otherworldly rot. The unique blend of ash and wood-smoke that came with dragon-kin. It’s like staring at a rogue’s gallery of supernatural scum and villainy. I’m surprised obi-wan isn’t here cutting off arms. Sam looked back to Sofia. “This isn’t my territory,” he said in a low voice. “They don’t know me here.”
“Good. You’ve got too much of a reputation as a goody-two-shoes. Now, I know that’s a lie. But nobody else does.”
“Sofia,” he aid. “You’ve taken me into a seedy bar full of the kind of monsters I chase away from students whenever I see them. If anyone does recognize me, this could end very poorly for me.”
She punched him on the shoulder and winked. “Just relax, okay? Your nervousness is only going to make it worse. Listen, this is a known gathering place. The rules of hospitality work the same here as the Day is Done or Pearl’s Dive. Try and let your hair down a little.”
“My hair’s short.”
“Not as short as you think, Shaggy McShagster. Anyway, it’s just an expression. Don’t worry. They know me here.” She winked again and sauntered up to the counter, all leonine grace in calf-high black boots with devastating heels, and flicked up two fingers. “Two beers, Winston,” she said, and the enormous dark-skinned man behind the bar nodded. “You got it.”
Two were poured out, and she led Sam to a booth.
“That’s odd,” he said as he sat across from her, gingerly settling into the thin and torn leather padding of the bench seats.
“You got a beer.”
She smiled. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Well… you’re a vampire. Can you even drink?”
She shrugged. “I can certainly drink. And I can manipulate my system well enough to let it pass.”
“But you won’t get drunk.”
“Not like this.”
“Could you order, like, a vial of blood?”
She snickered. “Sam, you’ve been reading too many books. No, that wouldn’t do a thing for me. You should know better.”
He shrugged and leaned back a little, giving her his full attention. “Explain it to me.”
She sighed. “Well, it’s not really the blood we’re processing. It’s simply the easiest way to transfer it.”
“Life. Vital life energy. It flows through everyone. That… well, je ne sais quois is sort of applicable, but not really. Neither is joie de vivre. It’s life itself. Blood is an easier way to get access to it, to siphon it out, but not the only way.”
Sam blinked. “So you actually do drink life.”
“We do. That’s what we feed on. What would we do with blood? We don’t exactly have fantastic biological processing facilities, right? We use those to more or less get it through our system, but we don’t really take any literal physical nutrition from it.” She lifted her beer to her mouth and, after concentrating for a moment, took a careful sip. “Ah. Cheap swill. Perfection.”
Sam still found himself staring. “So… a corpse drained of blood really isn’t a smoking gun for vampire involvement.”
“Right. I mean, some of the Medici can get carried away, but even for them what happened to Kendra would be far beyond excessive. And really, older, more practiced vampires are likely to use even less blood. Someone like Quintus could drain a young woman dry with just a paper cut, if he needed to. The older ones are very skilled at efficient feeding. I don’t want to know what old Lorenzo could do.”
Sam nodded, turning his attention to his own beer for a moment before asking his next question. He took a sip and instantly regretted it. It was terrible. “So what are we doing here?”
“Waiting for what?”
She shrugged. “The right person to come in. Don’t worry. I’ll know them when we see them, and you can be all ‘rawr! Answers!’ I know you like that.”
He stared at her, confused. “Not really my style.”
“I know Sam. Kidding. Man. You would think you were the dead one. Where did you lose your sense of humor?”
“About three nightmares ago, thanks.” He frowned and drank more beer. They sat quietly for a moment, Sam brooding, her watching him with a small amused smile on her soft pink lips.
“What are you grinning at?” He asked at last.
“You,” she said. “Me. Here like this again. Almost like old times. You brooding over something or other. Me being fabulous. Both of us sipping on crappy beer like we have no money.” She laughed. “Of course, I still don’t have any money. Good thing my living expenses are so cheap, right?”
Sam snorted. “It’s not like I have much, either. The bookstore basically pays for itself, that’s it, and the college salary is a joke.”
“No money? That little heiress living with you? Sam, you’re doing it wrong. I would have squeezed her parents for all that they had.”
Sam snorts. “I’m not going to take money for taking care of Audrey. I love her. She needed someone.”
“Not for taking care of her. For tutoring her.”
He shook his head. “Her parents pay for her to go to New Tamsbrige Prep. That’s enough.”
She shook her head. “This is why you’ll always be poor, Sam. You won’t even take the opportunities right in front of you.” Her eyes flicked to the door. “Game face on. Incoming.”
“What…?” Sam turned towards the door, saw a large figure lumbering in through the door. “Who’s…?”
“Sam,” Sofia snapped. “Turn around. You’re looking like a newb.”
He turned. “A what?”
“A new… Ah, fuck it. Never mind. Anyone who looks at you will know you’re not a geezer anyway.”
“Not a geez…”
“I don’t know how you can possibly be so smart and so stupid at the same time. Sit still and try not to make a spectacle of yourself. He’ll be here soon enough.”
“Sam… yes. I’m sure. Honestly, you were a cop. Weren’t you ever on a stakeout?”
Sam sipped his beer. Again. He waited, trying not to look at anything.
Soon enough she was right. A shadow fell across their table. “Sofia,” the figure said. “Been a while since I’ve seen you here. Word was it you were dead.”
“Still warm, the blood that flows in my veins,” she said. “Or something like it. Hello, Tusk.”
He barked a laugh. “Heard that, too. Who’s the meat?”
“That’s Sam. You know. From the Dusty Covers?”
The figure turned, and Sam got a better look at him under that broad-brimmed hat. The man looked like he had been dragged across a mile of hard pavement. His nose looked like it had been broken in a dozen places, just as his lips were permanently split and swollen, and his small, yellow eyes were hard and cruel. “This is the white mage?”
“White mage?” Sam asked, looking towards Sofia.
“White knight,” she said, with a shrug. “Just a mage. You have a bit of a reputation.”
“Wonderful.” Sam looked back up. “Yes. That’s me. I’m surprised you recognize me.”
“He doesn’t look like much.” The man slid in beside Sofia, tucking an arm around her. “So I heard you’re asking questions, hotness,” he said. “You know better. Asking questions gets people killed.”
“So I’ve heard,” she said, a small smile at the the corner of her mouth. “But I don’t believe it. And there are worse things than death, Tusk. You know that. Especially in this town.”
“Excuse me,” Sam said. “I like this town. I don’t think it’s that bad.”
They both turned to stare at him. He wilted a little.
“He’s an idealist. Bless his heart,” Sofia said, curling up against the big man. Sam felt a sudden, surprising flare of jealousy. He forced it back and filed it away for later. “But yeah, big guy. Tusk. Looking into the death of a girl, a few weeks back.”
“There are a lot of girls that die around here,” The man replied, snorting. Something about that snort drew Sam’s attention, and he felt a strange pull to look at the man through his third eye. He shook it off. He didn’t want to open it here. Besides, it’s rude to stare at people’s inner natures. It’s like an invasion of privacy.
It definitely wasn’t because he didn’t want to see Sofia with it. Not at all. But he could smell something off of the man. Something familiar.
“I think you would have heard of this one, honey,” Sofia said. “This one was a witch. A baby one, sure, but they don’t just… disappear like that.”
“And it wasn’t your people?”
“Our people, you mean?” She turned to look at Sam. “Don’t tell anyone,” she said in a loud whisper. “But gorgeous here works as a bit of a strong right arm for Quintus. Reaching places he can’t, sort of thing.”
Tusk snorted again. “Just spread that all the way around, why don’t you.”
“Well, you know. If you’re not going to be helpful, I’ll just have to explain to my friend here why you’re not…”
Tusk growled. “Everyone’s saying it’s the Lorenzos. Which makes it sounds like a Medico play to me. They ain’t been happy about the Lorenzo family being on top in, well. Ever. And now that the puppies have pushed them out of the docks, and their safehouse got all exploded…”
“Yeah. They’re looking for a place to muscle in, and campus is ours. Sucks to be them. So you think maybe it’s some poaching?”
“No. They ain’t that clumsy. What I hear is that nobody knows who did it, but people are trying to find out. Too much like it going on lately.”
“Meaning the herd’s been thinned. I’m sure you heard about that.”
“No. I don’t… hear everything.” Sofia frowned. “My supply’s been fine.”
“I’m sure it is. Reasons for that, too. But the vagrants and the vagabonds? The ones that lurk around campus panhandling?”
“Few of those disappeared lately. And they don’t know who.”
“Do you think it’s likely someone taking homeless is going to snag a witch, too?” Sam asked, barely holding back his incredulity. “She was still a student, but she was competent. She could protect herself.”
Tusk glared. “Hey, asshole. You want information, that’s what I’ve got.” He shrugged again and looked back at Sofia. “You want more, little girl…” He grinned. Sam didn’t like what he saw in the smile. “You’ll have to pay for it.”
“All right,” Sam said. “That’s enough. Listen, buddy. You find out more, and I’ll pay you for it.”
Tusk looked back at him. “Yeah?” He asked. “Funny thing. I don’t usually find mages having the coin I want. But we’ll talk about it.” His smile grew, his gaze focused on Sam’s eyes. The mage smelled it again, and this time, he didn’t let himself become distracted. A strange scent, like rusted iron and heavy grease. Familiar.
Sam’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve seen you somewhere before, haven’t I?”
“Seen me? No, mage. You ain’t seen me. But could be I’ve been near to you and you didn’t know it. Maybe I’ve been near you more than once. Maybe they have me watching you, too.”
Sam frowned again, his hackles raising, but he fought the anger off, too, turning it from a cauldron threating to boil over to a simmering pressure cooker. He matched Tusk’s gaze, bending his will towards the other man, focusing on the smell, and the memory. He saw it in his mind. The door in the old arsenal. “They might,” Sam said. “At least when they don’t have you lurking in their shadows, watching the door. What’s a beast like you doing as a gatekeeper?”
Tusk ground his teeth, and Sofia put a hand on his arm. “Relax, Sam. Tusk’s just trying to push your buttons. That’s what he does. He’s a bit of a button pusher, you understand? But he’s tied to Quintus by contract and blood-oath. And you know our oaths bind.”
“Yes,” Sam said, not looking away from the other man’s eyes. Sweat had started to bead on Tusk’s forehead. So. Sam thought. At least part of it is mortal. Good. “They bind all things of this world, don’t they?”
Tusk held his gaze for a moment longer, sweat beading on his brow. He finally looked away. “They do. If I find out more, mage, I’ll let you know. Be sure to have something worth paying me with, or I’ll gut you.”
Sam nodded, not responding to the threat. He didn’t need to.
Tusk shoved off of Sofia… she took it with good grace… and lumbered to his feet. “I’ll be in touch,” he agrowled, then stormed out.
“Not wise, Sam,” she said quietly. “He’s a dangerous man. Word in the court is he’s even sent a few vampires to the boatman.”
“Yeah?” Sam said. He shrugged. “Don’t care. I don’t like the way he looked at you..”
“Just part of the game, Sam,” she said. “But…” That grin reappeared. “Sam!” She said. “You’re jealous! That’s so cute!” The grin changed into a full fledged beam. “I knew you really liked me.”
Sam blushed and looked away.
“Ah, him is blushing. Don’t worry, doll,” she said. “You’re the only mage for me.”
“Are we done here?”
She glanced around. “Yeah, I think we are. Tusks’s information is usually good.”
“Great,” Sam said. “I could tell he was a reliable kind of guy. Let’s get out of here.”
“Are you asking for an escort home, magus?” She asked.
“Night like tonight? Yes. I am. I’d prefer not to be murdered on my way back.” His gaze shifted to the door where Tusk had just left. “By any of the nightmares I’ve seen tonight.”