Friday 1 January 2010

The First Strangers...

There had once been a lake that drowned this piecemeal slum on the edge of the Metropol - or rather, drowned the what-will-be of the place. The place now was dry and dustbowl in the summers, bleached and copper-red... pissing tar and acid into your lungs every time you stepped outside. Even in the winter the place whined with heat, except for the nights like tonight, where a year of rain came in one day and drowned you in tarmac-thick cistern water, or close as seems like it. The lake's memory had left a skyscraping bridge section bare and lonely across from the single-line railroad that fed the place; at least, whenever the city remembered its lost kinsmen out on the edge. No-one living under the brick-shadow of the bridgepiece blamed the city for that, though. Even the people who lived here tried to forget they did. That's as good a reason as any for Harvey's Bar being smack under the bridge, by the railroad, and in the middle of the steel-drum shacks that dotted the desert here. Tonight the tin gables sang lonely tapdances under the rain. Thunder now: or... no.

A dirt-freckled '71 Cutlass Supreme was sheltered like a stormdrenched rat in the foundations of the old bridge, and its engine played Norse ventriloquy - mimicking a thunder god yet to shatter the clouds above. It growled a path toward Harvey's, where the chrome tailpipe caught splintered light, prismic via the glass of the windows, squeezed from fly-bothered neon inside. The car emitted humanity in the shape of a dusty black coat, cold shoulders, and a single, ready, gloveful of finance. The man inside seemed only a penumbra chipped from the greater dark about him. The rain sluiced away from a traveller's tangle of dark hair.

It entered - the door clicking softer than it should've. The eponymous Harvey was hunched behind the bar, absently minding the depressed rag-bundle of characters slouching home from vinyl alcoves. The stranger was worth a nervous glance, despite the readies clenched fiscally in that gloved fist. No 'strangers' came here by choice. So either this fucker - sorry, customer (here Harvey post-edited the thoughts squirming in his beer-fat brain) - has come here to find friends... or make enemies. Harvey's fingers twitched toward the stout cudgel taped to the underside of the polyvinyl bartop. It was then that the green paper jumped across the plastic toward him. A harsh cough, and then a crypt-cold gravel-thick voice:

"... whisky."

Some of the tones of that voice had crept through Harvey's synapses before his ears, he was sure of it. Nonetheless, the sweating barkeep mused, here was nowhere, and nowhere needs money more than anywhere. He started to pour some of the usual cocktail of battery acid and vinegar into a spittle-grimed glass but his hand was stopped in a moment by that hand. Harvey noticed the red veins creeping from under the black glove and shuddered involuntarily. Again the stranger pelted dry oxygen against the back of his throat - interjecting with all the solidity of lead and earth:

"... bottle."

A merry dance now played out in Harvey's stoutly greed-driven mind. Better to give the bottle, right, and tell him - no, no, tell him after he'd drank all he could, he knew the type, and the billyclub would ensure more of those fine green politicians were paid. The chipped bottle slid across vinyl, caught by that hand again... red under the glove's lips. It was then that rules were broken. No man alive should have been able to finish the whole bottle as quick as it disappeared into a shadowy throat. Harvey grimaced in fearful apoplexy and reached for the cosh his fingers had been itching against just two minutes ago. His fat fingertips met air. Air and tape. Then, from that tangled and shaded stranger's face... a horrible thin smile emerged like a half-conceived, half-aborted phantasm. Empty alcoves hid more darkness, seeming to grow and stretch towards the fat, sweating bar-owner. The neon behind him whined and snapped glassily outwards. It was in the last showered sparkstorm of light that Harvey noticed what that hellish right hand now held, and silently pissed himself.

In the dark, a red hand and a blackjack scythed a life away. Outside the storm broke, and the rain spoke of a cleansing that would never come.


The sky bleeds mercury outside of the Metropol, gutters tipping cold cataracts over the come and go of Harvey's. The rain hits the neon hissing, and cracked glass spits sparks. Rats of both species cower behind the thin and huddled indoor heat. No tympani to this weather - all ice and acid. For a month or more the thick, angry air above the abandoned outskirt's bridge has wept bitterly over this nameless slum. Old and superstitious degenerates blame the influx of acridly strange characters from behind their corroded shopping trolleys. It's certainly true that Harvey's has been home to more population than the tin alleys seem capable of oozing. Tonight more than any night has sucked a strange crowd from the walls to spill their drinks and opinions. And there is entertainment.

A stage has been suggested by the presence of microphone sat upon a chair in one dim corner. The audience arranges itself accordingly: even now chairs are skittering into rows and bar stools tilting into place lest some free show escape behind a pillar or overcoiffed hairpiece. As if in recognition of efforts made, one of the pale new bartenders peels scablike from his colleagues to announce tonight's special... a woman.
"Please give a, a, a big hand," he wheedles drily, "and a warm welcome," spittle congeales at corner of mouth, "to Esther Roth."

The barkeep shrugs from the stage as a hitherto hidden door opens, spilling sequins and stilettos and seduction into the room. Miss Roth isn't beautiful - beauty is thin and wilting, all posies and dull flutters. Esther is no flower, unless you thought flowers were slick, and sexy, and cruel. Roth's wrapped in gold leaf, and the first husky vowels that unfurl from her shivering throat render the attentive male fraction immovable with erection. Nonetheless, it is vitally clear to all observant that the shimmering harlot is Not Beautiful. Instead, she is more. Esther is coarse guttural rhythm and ragged consonance sweating from illicit affairs in hot hotel rooms. The friction of her silken auburn voice and dress floods blood to the most flaccid of audience members.

"I want..."

The lingering and caramelised pause drives the watching minds deficient via unparalleled apices of longing. Desire is reformatted, becomes inhuman, and devours all present.

"... I want, girls and boys..."

There are no wives in Harvey's. Girlfriends have inexplicably vanished homewards. The stress on Esther's sirenic last syllable rips zips and grasps at rust pelvic tendons roomwide. A wink, after the echoing applause, pivots strong men over abysses of ecstasy.

"I want to tell you a story."

And thus you begin - bring me thrilling and horrible and darkly comic morality tales to fill in the gaps. Harvey's is under new management of a thin-blooded and demoniac nature, and there is one thing the bookings are terrifically fond of... telling stories. Each is told by a different infernal entertainer... and therefore appeals to, or soul-snatches from, a different audience. Your task, if you feel so willing, is to fill in the gaps. Esther Roth requires a lusty tale, appropriate to her nature, but there can be a new storysmith for your fiction, to any new end.

Pick a hell, pick a demon, pick a theme, and ice my blood with something black and evil and wrong and hilarious.