Chapter One – Serendipity
The flickering neon light seemed to pulse in time with my headache. A near strobe of blue and red that seemed to crackle down my optic nerve and stab directly into my brain. I was trying to sip my whiskey in private in the back of the near empty bar and hold back my urge to vomit. The only lights were neon or the three, possibly original Edison made, bulbs behind the bar. The smell of sour alcohol and haze of cigarette smoke did it’s best to give an air of unwelcome to any who stepped in. This is my favorite place to hang out because of that feeling. No one who accidentally walks into here tends to stays for more then the time it takes to realize this is not the happy bar they hoped for. It isn’t one of those trendy dive bars either. This is the real deal definition of dive bar. The kind in steep decline in this day and age if you ask me.
So when the front door opened and flooded the bar with that god awful natural sunlight all four of us turned towards it with squinting scowls. Brad, the bartender and proprietor of this decidedly un-fine establishment slipped his hands beneath the bar. I couldn’t see them, but knew his hands had found the well worn grip of the shotgun he had rigged to face the door. It was an automatic action. Like I said, this was not a playful bar in the trendy section of town. You came for three reasons. You were looking to get blind drunk, do business or cause trouble.
When my eyes adjusted and saw the three thousand credit suit and fancy Italian leather shoes, I had a good notion the new guest was after one of the latter. I hunched down in my booth, doing my best to become invisible. And failing. My shiny bald head stood out against the dark wood grain and layer of filth surrounding me. So I also put on my best scowl. That was a bit more convincing than my blending in. I shot the remaining whiskey down with the warm burning only a bottom shelf liquor can give and refilled my glass from the bottle on the scarred table in front of me. I traced my fingers over the carvings, some my own and others as familiar as the callouses on my own hand. This was my seat, my table, as carved in the wood in front of me.
I could feel the eyes of the stranger on me as he took stock of his surroundings. Besides the newcomer, Brad and myself, the only other two in the bar were a couple that came in everyday. I heard their names hundreds of times but referred to them as the Shrew and the Dullard. If you stick around long enough you’ll understand why. Trust me when I say that you don’t want to stick around along enough for that to happen. As the stranger went to talk to Brad, I assumed asking for directions to the nearest delousing center or sanitizing center, I set my book on the table next to me. I broke one of my cardinal sins by setting it down open to my page and said a silent prayer for forgiveness to whatever gods watched over book bindings. And waited to see what happened next.
As if on cue, Brad pointed to my table and the stranger shook his head in thanks and began to approach me. I sighed and took a long drink from my glass and stared at him. It was a nice suit, clearly custom made. I could almost make out the nanoweave in between the delicate platinum pinstripes. I reevaluated my previous total to ten thousand credits for the suit. And those shoes were real leather, not the synth garbage most of the pseudo-rich wore. Interesting. Probably meant this was the real deal and not one of the pissants that thought they were higher on the food chain than they really were.
He crossed the twenty or so feet and stopped about a foot or so from the opposite side of the booth. If he was waiting for an invitation to sit down he was going to stand there for a while. I did my best to appear bored and angry and pointedly ignored him. I have found that people in a place of power hate that. Having never been in any sort of position of power, I didn’t really care.
He stared for a long moment without speaking. I guessed he was trying to judge if the reputation he heard and the person he saw could possibly be the same. I did nothing to persuade him in either direction.
“Mr. Dreary?” he asked, the hint of an accent I couldn’t quite place nearly scrubbed from his voice catching my ear. Odd.
“That’s what the barkeep said,” I returned, shooting a glare at Brad. He just smiled that goofy grin of his. I noticed his hands still beneath the bar though. Another reason to come here, good customer skills and two loaded barrels he didn’t mind unloading.
“Allow me to introduce myself…” he began.
I interrupted him, “Let me guess, you’re a man of wealth and taste?”
He blinked in confusion, not getting the reference. And why would he? Not many people listened to the oldies anymore, especially ones that were over a hundred years old at this point. I only knew it because of the old fashioned juke box on the back wall. It was off now but come back on a Friday or Saturday night and it would be turned up to near full volume. Scratch that, don’t ever come here on a Friday of Saturday night. It only gets worse on the weekends when the full crew of criminals and ne’er-do-wells were in.
He smiled and when I didn’t explain continued, nonplussed, “I have an opportunity for you Mr. Dreary, a lucrative one. May I sit?”
“Sure. Why not?”
He nodded and with only a precursory glance at the stained red booth sat down. “Your reputation precedes you Mr. Dreary,” he started. I just stared. If he knew my reputation, he knew that I didn’t cater to sycophants and ass kissers. He cleared his throat and continued, “My name is Faust, Franklin Faust. And I am in need of your particular brand of service Mr. Dreary.”
I didn’t say anything for a moment just took another sip. Had he caught my reference he would have probably chosen a different fake name to give. The eerie coincidence set my hackles to raise though. I don’t like serendipity all that much. Too many syllables and it tends to show the hands of larger forces at play. In my experience that was not a good thing. I chewed on the repercussions of it for a long second.
Then I looked at him and muttered, “Was die Welt im innersten zussammenhält.” A fancy way of asking for the meaning of life.
The look of shock on his face was worth the mangled German. Whatever he came in here expecting and what he found were now at odds. I just wanted to point out that his nom de plume was obvious.
“A scholar as well? You are a man of many surprises it would seem Mr. Dreary. Many surprises indeed.”
I nodded without any real meaning. “I have always preferred Bulkagov to Goethe. I find Goethe to be too poetic, and everyone at that time seems to believe they were a poet. Bulkagov never took himself or the subject so seriously.”
“Yes, but Bulkagov infused humor into a subject that needs be taken seriously.”
“I find the idea of Russian literature that can see humor to be a relief from the normally dour subjects of death and famine that normally permeates them.”
“But that is the soul of the great Russian authors, is it not? The ability to distill the suffering that was their way of life into poignant terms. The poetic nature of pain is the greatest use of language.”
There was something to his tone that bothered me. As if he were speaking down to me. I ignored it as best I could and finished my drink. I saw him looking at the bottle and noticed he saw the second glass. This was not just my booth, but my place of business as well. As I refilled my glass I offered him one as well.
“Thank you,” he replied and I poured three fingers into his glass. We both pointedly ignored the large cockroach that scurried across the table as I did so. Silence fell as we both drank.
“So what is it you believe I can help you with Mr. Faust?”
“Please, call me Franklin,” he choked out as the burn caught the back of his throat.
I nodded but didn’t offer for him to call me Gear. Only my friends called me Gear. And the Silence knew they were in short supply these days. I felt the wash of sadness come across me and immediately strangled it back into a ball in the pit of my stomach. Back where it belongs.
He continued, “Have you ever had dealings with the organization known as The Pride?”
I felt the ball of sadness turn ice cold at his words. Everyone in the City knew who The Pride was. They ran things here in the Eastside. I kept my face neutral and nodded.
“They have taken something very near to me Mr., Dreary and I am hoping you can get it back for me,” he watched me carefully, looking for any signs of the fear that was welling up inside of me.
“If The Pride has it you should most likely consider it is now theirs Mr. Faust. No one on the Eastside dares tell them differently and finds themselves still alive after.”
He looked down at his glass and I saw his hands were shaking despite his best effort to remain outwardly calm. He looked at me with glassy eyes that weren’t because of the near diesel concoction he had drank. “They have my daughter. My only daughter, Rachael. I simply cannot let her stay in their company Mr. Dreary. She is my world.”
Shit. Of all the things I would have guessed and not cared about, a child was not in the top one hundred.
“What are they asking for Mr. Faust? You clearly have the credits to pay any ransom they want. My suggestion is pay them the creds and chalk it up to a lesson learned.”
He stared at me for a long moment, anger and sorrow warring in his eyes before the air deflated from him and his head hung down. “That is the issue, they haven’t asked for anything. You’re right, I could pay them any amount of credits they may require. But they don’t seem to want that. They laughed at me when I spoke to them. Laughed. The big one with yellow eyes told me to leave the City. That my daughter was theirs now. They killed my driver and threw me out of their building. The police will do nothing for me. I’m desperate Mr. Dreary, I need your help.”
I looked over at Brad and saw his hands pushing a wet clothes over the bar top. He gave a miniscule shrug that said he was listening but didn’t have any opinions on how I should handle this. I sighed loudly. “Why me? Everyone knows The Pride and I have, history let’s say. It isn’t like I can just go to them and ask nicely for your kid back. They aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy when it comes to me.”
“I am aware that there is a sordid past between you. But everyone I asked said you were my best, my only chance at seeing Rachael alive again. I’m begging you, I will pay whatever fee you ask. Please get my Rachael back from those savages,” and then he began to weep.
Silence be damned, the last thing I needed was to have a run in with The Pride. My every instinct said to tell this poor bastard to move on. Have another kid. Eventually forget.
So I was surprised to hear myself say, “Let me ask around and see what I can find out.” What in the hell was that. Tell him no. It isn’t worth it no matter how many creds than has.
He looked at me with teary red eyes and grabbed my hand. “Thank you Mr. Dreary, Silence praise you for this.”
“I’m not saying I can get her back. Slow down Faust. I said I will ask around. I’ll need a way to contact you. And a couple days.”
He nodded excitedly and reached into his pocket. I saw Brad’s hands fly under the bar as mine twitched to the open book on the table between Faust and I. He pulled out a phone and slid it over to me, unaware of the hailstorm of bullets he nearly got. I relaxed and said, “I have a phone already.”
“This is a new prototype my company has been working on. My information is already stored in it. Use it and I will answer immediately.” He also slid a credstick next to it. “This is to get your investigation started. It should have suitable creds for now but message me and I can add more as needed.”
I tapped the credstick on the phone as he rose from the booth. He reached out his hand and I extended mine as well. He shook it vigorously and kept repeating, “Thank you Mr. Dreary. Thank you for this.”
I pulled my hand back and nodded, “I will contact you as soon as I know ow something, one way or the other Mr. Faust.”
Franklin thanked me again five or six more times and nodded to Brad as he walked towards the door. After the door shut behind him and the dark acclimated itself to the bar I stood and walked to the bar. Brad was looking at me with confusion on his face.
“You’re going to take the job Gear? The Pride doesn’t like you much my man and they never forget.”
“I know Brad. Shit. I didn’t mean to take the gig but then he started crying and…”
“And you’re just a softie. Gear Dreary, hopeless romantic and righter of injustices. Champion of the little man,” he said barely able to keep the laughter out of his voice.
“Real funny Brad. You re kind of an asshole for an AI, you know that? Do you think you can scan these for me? See if there is anything I should know? Maybe some kind of hint as to what is going on?”
He grabbed the phone and the credstick and socketed them into the dock on the back counter of the bar. He let out a whistle and then an even longer one a moment later.
“What is it?” I asked, curious at what could get a reaction out of the normally stoic barkeep.
He slid the credstick back to me and quietly murmured, “Five thousand.”
I nearly gasped out loud. I hadn’t had that many creds in the last three months combined and this was just to get me started? I casually slid it back into my pocket.
He arched a silver eyebrow at me, “Don’t forget your local bar tab now Gear.” He laughed at his words, but he was right. I had been drinking for free for a while now. We had an understanding of sorts. My reputation around town kept the real scumbags out of his bar. It also stopped the people who tend to pry into little things like how did one man own and operate a bar for the last seventy odd years without aging. He let me drink and eat for free and crash in a spare room upstairs. But eventually I had to be more than a boogeyman and start to really contribute something other than a failing liver and flatulence. I owed him that at least.
“Now this is unusual,” he muttered as he looked at the display. “This is cutting edge tech, the type only people higher up in the Rising Sun would have access to.”
That made my head spin a little. The Rising Sun was the de facto ruler of Downtown. Unlike the Pride who ruled by fear, the Rising Sun had no qualms with erasing an entire family from existence. Top tier tech combined with ambiguous scruples made them a group to be feared. I didn’t want to have a run in with them at all. “Do you know who he is, who he really is?”
Brad stood still for a second, anyone who would have been watching closely would have seen his blue eyes seem to glow a bit as he did. When he snapped out of it he shook his head no. “His accent was Eastern European but well hidden. Sounded slightly Germanic to me. But I don’t show anything regarding a Franklin Faust.”
“Can you search using his face instead of his name? It was clearly fake, or his parents wanted him to grow up to be a comic book hero.”
“That will take a while longer.”
I nodded. “Let me know when you find something. I need to step out and see if anyone has heard about a kidnapping recently. Rattle a few cages and such.”
Brad nodded and went back to cleaning the bar with the same dirty rag he always used. I figure it just made a bigger mess than leaving the alcohol on the varnished wood. I went back to my booth and picked up my book, kissing the worn spine in apology and put the gun that had been laying beneath it back into the holster in the small of my back. I finished my drink in one long gulp and took the bottle and two glasses to the bar. Brad efficiently put them away without a word and I saw him put Franklin’s to the side. Maybe he could find some DNA to scan on it, anything would help. And I made my way to the door.
As I reached it, the sounds of the Shrew getting worked up began to rise from their table. Thank the Silence I was on way out the door before she really got going. I chuckled at the thought of Brad having to deal with those two going at it and made my way outside into the City. My City. As I did the wind picked up, sending a chill down my back. I shivered as it hit me and couldn’t stop from thinking that it seemed ominous. As I shook it off and tucked my hands into my pants pockets and fell into the City wondering what I was getting myself into. I didn’t notice the black slab parked across the street from the bar as I walked out, nor did I see it pull out and begin to follow me down the street. Oblivious, I started walking with no set destination as I thought about The Pride. We had a history from the second we first ran into each other. And it wasn’t pretty, for me at least. This was a door I didn’t want to open back up. A flood of images rushed through my head, things I had thought long buried. Faces that only haunted my dreams flickered, opening wounds long since scabbed over. Suffering and pain just beneath the surface came boiling back up.
note from me – this is a fresh restart to something i wrote 50000 words on only to decide it was garbage with a smattering of good ideas. it has percolated for a long time and finally began to sing again today. hopefully it sucks less. or i have gotten better. or something.