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George Thorogood was playing on the jukebox when I tossed Ollie Janks out on his ass. Wasn’t the first time. Wouldn’t be the last. Or so I thought, when I said, “Nothing personal, Ollie.”
Little did I know everything was about to change.
The grizzled drunk staggered to his feet and made a half-hearted attempt to brush off the seat of his bib overalls. Lacking the coordination to complete that simple task, he decided to flip me off instead. “The fuck, Ray?” he shouted. “My money ain’t good enough for the Willowbrook Tavern?”
“Not when you confuse Shirley’s ass with the produce aisle.”
“Practically keep this dump in business,” Ollie said, “much as I spend here.”
“We appreciate your support,” I said. “But Shirley’s not on the menu.”
“And what do I get for my hard-earned dollars, eh? Watered down liquor and the bum’s rush, that’s what!”
“Time to walk it off, Ollie. Or should I call you a cab?”
“Need no fuckin’ cab,” Ollie said with a dismissive wave of his hand. He plodded toward the shoulder of the road. “Live three damn blocks away.”
Shaking my head, I returned to the dark confines of the Willow-brook Tavern. By morning, Ollie wouldn’t have the slightest recollection of the events preceding or following his unceremonious ejection from his favorite watering hole.
Something happens often enough, you begin to expect it. That’s when you need to worry.
Moments later, the door hinges creaked behind me.
I turned, bracing for round two with Ollie, but the drunk had stayed true to form. Instead, a slender young man with dark hair and a harried expression on his gaunt face brushed by me, tossing a mumbled apology in his wake. My first thought was: Underage. My second: Trouble.
The clock above the bar displayed midnight.
Then the red second hand began to descend.
Ignoring the social invitation of the bar stools or the shadowed privacy of the side booths, where most of the evening’s crowd were huddled, the young man chose the nearest of three unoccupied, wobbly tables, and dropped into one of the four rickety chairs that surrounded it. A hanging brass light fixture seemed to deconstruct his face into pale slivers of flesh and harsh shadows. Otherwise, he looked unremarkably ordinary in a green and tan Rugby shirt, dark jeans and black running shoes. One heel beat an insistent tattoo against the warped floorboards, as if he were keeping time with a frenetic drummer.
About ready to vibrate out of his skin.
Wearing her customary red-and-white-checked blouse, jeans, a beer-stained apron, and calf-high leather boots, Shirley strolled over to the table to take his order. She gave him a one-second appraisal. “There’s a law against serving minors.”
The young man looked at her, gauging, challenging. “Is that so?”
“That’s what they tell me,” Shirley said, punctuating the comment with a little chuckle. “So what can I get you?”
“Whatever you’ve got on tap.”
“Gotcha. Back in a jiff, hon.”
I shook my head in disbelief. She’s flirting with him! Ben finds out, he’ll break that kid in half.
“Thanks.” He tapped both index fingers against the side of the small bowl of pretzels in the center of the table, ran one hand through his hair, then heaved a sigh.
I drifted back to my regular booth, first one on the left, and picked up the well-worn baseball I’d snagged at a Phillies’ game over a year ago. Foul ball, unsigned, no sentimental value, but it helped me think. And I needed to understand what was happening.
From my booth, I could observe the entire front half of the tavern, and peek down the short hall to the back room, with its side-by-side pool tables. Only the modest kitchen, with its small grill and deep fryer, was hidden from me. Although, occasionally, through the porthole window in the scuffed kitchen door, I caught a glimpse of the bald head of Oscar, our night cook. With Ollie gone, the place was relatively calm, but I sensed trouble brewing, an inexplicable prickling of the short hairs on the back of my neck. Wasn’t sure from which direction the trouble would come. But I knew its target. Had since the moment he bumped into me.
I scanned the crowd, seeking anything or anyone unusual. The tavern was less than a quarter filled, all regulars, fewer than twenty people, huddled in the booths that lined the walls. A few pairs quietly conversed. Some loners scanned the sports pages or worked crosswords, while others watched the muted TV over the bar, tuned to ESPN’s continual stream of scores and highlights. Steady night, not too busy. Sometimes the back room could get rowdy. Tonight, there was a companionable game of eight ball in progress. Nothing more. As the Thorogood tune faded, the only sound rising above the whispered conversations was the muffled thwack of billiard balls colliding. An expression came to mind….
The calm before the storm.
Shirley delivered the young man’s draft in a stein. He paid attention long enough to hand her a five and tell her to keep the change. Instead of drinking the beer, he traced his fingertips along the surface of the glass, creating parallel trails in the condensation.
I was the Willowbrook Tavern’s resident bouncer. At six-one and less than one-hundred-seventy pounds, I hardly looked the part, but I maintained order with the fairly rough trade that frequented the place. I’d needed a job and convinced Quentin Avery, the owner, that I had mastered some inscrutable far eastern martial art whose name I’d made up on the spot and had since forgotten. Self-defense came naturally to me, on some instinctual level I was reluctant to question. In my first two weeks on the job, I proved I could handle the bullies and belligerent drunks, as well as the occasional knife wielders and those making death threats with the borrowed courage of a tire iron or baseball bat. Compared to them, Ollie Janks was a cream puff. Since then….
How long had I been rubbing my arm? Where the young man had bumped into me, my skin felt as if it had been charged with a current. The sensation was spreading, as if he had infected me with his nervous energy. I debated leaving my booth to have a little chat with him, to determine what the hell was happening, when the front door burst open.
Cloaked in shadows, I settled back into the booth and watched as three burly men in black leather garb strode down the length of the tavern, their boot heels striking the floorboards like a succession of hammer blows. Could have been bikers, but I would have heard motorcycles arriving. Two took positions around the nervous young man, one to each side, while the third, presumably the leader, stood in front.
Here comes the storm.
Behind the bar, Shirley tucked a bottled-blonde strand of hair behind her ear. Nervous gesture. She cast an expectant look in my direction. Hank, the greying bartender, stood by the cash register, drying glasses with a frayed cloth. Despite his casual pose, I noticed a slight tremor in his hands. Oscar cast a wide-eyed look through the porthole window, decided it was none of his business and ducked out of view. Most of the bar patrons darted curious but discreet glances at the three men, careful not to draw unwanted attention to themselves. Dan and Elaine, a young couple in thrift shop clothes but with no shortage of common sense, slipped from their far corner booth and practically tiptoed out the back room exit. Resigned to witnessing whatever mayhem ensued, the rest or the crowd seemed to lean a bit further away from the leather-clad trio. The instinct for self-preservation had begun to assert itself.
I leaned forward, my right hand pressing the baseball hard against the tabletop as I studied the new arrivals. All three stood several inches over six feet, had reddish hair and fine facial features, almost delicate in an odd way. Brothers, I thought. Though the leader’s hair was cropped short, the other two sported locks halfway down their back. Belatedly, I realized they were twins. All three had knives in scabbards looped through their belts. I wondered about concealed weapons.
“Well now,” said the leader to the seated young man. “Look what we have here.”
“Do I know you?”
Genuinely puzzled, I thought, surprised. He really doesn’t know them.
“Name’s Darius,” the leader said. “My brothers, Maleck and Mortenn. And you would be Kevin. Kevin Robb, to be precise. Correct?” The young man nodded nervously, as if confessing a felony to a police officer. “Don’t expect you know us, but….” He reached into the chest pocket of his jacket and took out a snapshot. After a quick glance, he nodded and tossed it on the table in front of the young man. “Bet he looks familiar.”
As the three brothers leaned forward, into the pale cone of light, to witness Kevin’s reaction to the photo—my breath caught in my throat. “What the hell—?”
At first I thought something dark and slimy crawled along their skin and clothes, but then I realized it was some sort of dark light or energy rippling around them, a visible aura, something malevolent, if my gut reaction were any judge. I scanned the bar, wondering if anyone else could see the strange phenomenon enveloping these men. Everyone seemed oblivious to it—
—except Kevin Robb. Something had rattled him. Sweat glistened on his brow. His lips trembled as he said, “That—that’s a picture of me. Dead. But that’s impossible.”
John Passarella co-authored Wither, which won the Horror Writer Association’s prestigious Bram Stoker Award for best first novel of 1999. Columbia Pictures purchased the feature film rights to Wither in a preemptive bid. Passarella’s solo novels include Wither’s Rain, Wither’s Legacy, Kindred Spirit and Shimmer and seven media tie-in novels: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Ghoul Trouble, Angel: Avatar, Angel: Monolith, Supernatural: Night Terror, Supernatural: Rite of Passage, Grimm: The Chopping Block and Supernatural: Cold Fire.
He lives in New Jersey with his wife and children. Please visit him online at www.passarella.com.