Henry listened to the pitter-patter of rain on the roof while he dried himself off with a fluffy white hotel towel. He took his time. The lights were dim, and it was silent but for the steady beat of the storm outside lulling him to bed. But this was his first night in Tortus Bay, and he wanted to make a positive impression. Besides, a free drink was a free drink.
He wrapped his shoulder with fresh bandages, pulled on some dry clothes, and made his way down to the Hell on a Shell Bar. It was a dark, cavernous room with curved matte walls that gave him the impression that he’d walked into an underground bunker. Lanterns placed in regularly spaced alcoves along the crest of the ceiling cast dancing shadows on the floor, and there was everywhere the scent of stale tobacco. Three older men in flannels occupied a table near the door, but the place was otherwise empty.
Henry took a stool at the bar, and was quickly joined by a beaming Jamal. “Taking me up on my offer, eh?”
“If it’s still good.”
He laid his palms flat on the bartop. “What’ll you have?”
Henry cast his eyes around for a menu, a sign, or a blackboard, but came up empty. “What do you have?”
Jamal arched his eyebrows, and jerked his head at the shelves of liquor behind him. “Beer,” he said, “or I can pour you a couple fingers, if you like.”
“I’ll have a beer.”
He grunted, retrieved a sweaty black bottle, and began pouring it into a frosted glass.
“If I went into a bar back home,” Henry said, accepting the glass when offered, “and asked the bartender for ‘a beer,’ it would have been me who was the asshole.”
“Sounds like you and I come from different places.”
He took a swig off the top, found it to be perfectly acceptable, and was real close to thinking of something clever to say when the front door clattered open. A rush of rain and cold ushered a woman with a shock of wild, auburn curls into the premises. She shook herself off, becoming—for an instant—an image of flailing hair and spraying water, earning a few jeers from the flannel-clad men. These she ignored, heading straight to the bar to hook a stool.
“Got a beer for me?” she asked.
Jamal frowned. “Got any cash for me?”
The woman side-eyed Henry as she threw a couple dollars down on the bar. “You believe this guy?”
“A bartender asking for money?” Henry rolled his eyes. “What has the world come to?”
She laughed, and stuck out her hand. “I’m Clair.”
Clair’s palms were leathery tough. “Henry.”
Jamal served her the beer, which earned him a sloppy salute, and then rounded back on Henry. “There’s food, if you’re hungry from the trip.”
Once again, he found himself looking up, fruitlessly, for a menu. “I would take some fries.”
“Yeah, we can get you that,” Jamal said, and promptly disappeared through the back door.
Clair took a long drink. She’d neglected to remove her raincoat, and a large puddle of water was forming beneath her stool. “So you’re the new guy.”
“So I’m told.”
“Why does everybody think that?”
She laughed again. It seemed to come naturally and often to her, and Henry was irked to find it endearing. “A gossipy old man who bought a new computer two years ago,” she said, “and only learned how to Google last week. Oh—speak of the devil. Hey, you’ve been spreading false information!”
Jamal emerged from the back with a long-suffering grumble. “Fries will be out in a few.”
“That’s not the news anymore,” Clair said. “Tell us: how long have you owned this place?”
“And you think you have time to run around pretending to be a journalist yourself.”
“I am plenty busy.”
“Oh? What am I, the fifth ass on a seat of yours tonight?”
“There was a funeral. I spoke before the burial, which you would know if you’d bothered to attend.”
“You know very well that…”
Henry lost track of the argument swirling around his head. His attention was caught instead on the narrow window behind the bar, through which could be seen a thin slice of the kitchen beyond. Therein, a man was pulling a bag out of a freezer and spinning a knob on a fryer. He had light brown skin, a sharp jaw, and an untidy tumble of dark hair that bounced along with his steps. There was something arresting about him. Henry shook his head. He wasn’t normally the type to stare.
“You been drinking somewhere else tonight?” Jamal was asking. His previously implacable demeanor had begun to crack.
Clair scoffed. “What does it matter if I have?”
“You’re making a mess!”
She made an exaggerated ordeal of looking beneath her stool. “That’s the cost of doing business.”
“No, the cost of being served is having the common courtesy of using a hangar.”
“The cost of service is money, Jamal. I know you haven’t forgotten that. Is this water really your problem? Yeah? Then bring me a mop.”
“You want a mop?”
“Yes, I do. Head on back and fetch me one. I’m serious—I don’t want to see you again unless you’ve got a mop for me!” It ended with Clair on her feet, staring down Jamal’s retreating back, red in the face but smiling.
Henry leaned over to her. “Who is that?” he asked.
She followed his eyes to the kitchen, and her flushing expression shifted from triumph to confusion to, finally, land on a knowing grin. She slid smoothly back onto her stool. “That’s Niles Homer. Strange name, solid guy. Baker extraordinaire. Works at the cafe in the morning to keep ‘em stocked on muffins and then books it over here for lunch and dinner service. Why do you ask?”
“Right. You taking it easy, there?”
Henry was surprised to find a second beer beside his first, and even more surprised that the first was empty. He took a deep pull, and wondered if he was paying yet. “Is that what you have for entertainment around here?” he asked. “Getting drunk and abusing bartenders?”
“He acts like my dad. Probably because I’ve known his daughter since we were both in Elementary School.” She rapped her knuckles on the side of her glass. “But you want to know how we have fun? All you have to do is stick by me.”
Jamal never did re-appear with a mop, but he did deliver a delicious basket of fries. Thick, heavily seasoned, and drowning in vinegar. Henry and Clair relocated themselves to a table, where she finally bowed to societal norms and hung up her coat. Underneath she wore a ratty t-shirt that fit awkwardly around her broad shoulders. From head-on her face was square. Strong. She certainly drank like it—five empty glasses sat beside her, to his three.
Their conversation chewed away the night, as around them the Hell on a Shell Bar gradually filled in. Everyone there seemed to know everyone else, and everyone seemed to have something to say, but Henry and Clair were allowed their bubble of privacy
“What if you need a CD?” he asked.
“Replacement frame for a photo of my mother?”
“Your answer to all of these questions can’t be to go to a General Store.”
Clair raised her sixth glass to him. “It can! Because it is. Or you can just use the internet. It’s the future everywhere, you know.” In the growing din she paused for a moment, and closed her eyes. “Listen. It stopped raining.”
“So you can’t talk mess about a town you’ve never properly seen.” She pulled on her coat. “You’re coming to get a look.”
Henry’s shoulder still ached. His eyelids itched with sleep. “I don’t know.”
Clair leaned forward and fixed him with a smile that might have been charming, if not for its fire. “Come with me, and I’ll show you some magic.”