Yesterday was a sazerac day. One of my clients had a full-on PR crisis and my team went into overdrive to help them contain the damage. By the time we got everything squared away and I was in a place where I could call it a day, it was nine o’clock and I knew what I needed.
The Oracle was pretty dead when I walked in. Two men – local, small-time attorneys and regulars at the bar – were having a quiet conversation about a case at the corner table and a tall fella was studying the jukebox as Pete Fountain’s Darkness on the Delta played over the speakers. As I dropped to my usual bar stool in exhaustion, not even bothering to take off my jacket, Dianne put a sazerac in my hand.
“You’re an angel, you know that, Dianne?” I said with a weary smile.
“Darn right, I am,” she replied, returning my smile. “Rough day?”
“You have no idea,” I said as I took that first, magical sip.
“I might,” she said, taking a draw of her cigar.
Pete Fountain faded out and there was a moment of silence in the bar. The man leaning over the jukebox uttered a quiet “ah” into the silence, punched in a selection, and straightened as a slow stomping and clapping faded in over the speakers.
“Oh, the devil’s gonna make me a free man. The devil’s gonna set me free…”
Dianne frowned as the man made his way across the room and sat down next to me at the bar.
“Hello, friend,” he said, facing me, “mind if I sit here?”
His voice had an odd quality to it – flat, low pitched, and oddly accented – that made me look up from my drink and study him. He was very thin and almost translucently pale with sunken cheeks and deep-set eyes that didn’t seem to blink. As I looked up, he smiled at me – one of those weird, closed-lips smiles that people give you when they’re not actually happy but want to seem friendly. I’m sure it was meant to look inviting but it just gave the impression of a skull. He was wearing a black t-shirt under a black blazer with black slacks and shiny black dress shoes.
“Uh, no,” I replied after a moment, “no, go right ahead.”
“Thank you,” he said, and asked Dianne for a soda water with a lime. Dianne nodded and, without saying a word, slid the man’s water across the bar to him before waving goodbye to the two lawyers as they left for the night, the door jingling as they exited.
“Ah,” the man said after taking a sip, “there’s nothing quite as refreshing as a soda water with lime. Just perks the palate.”
“Sure,” I replied and lifted my drink to him. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” he replied. “You should really try it. You’ll be surprised at the difference it’ll make for you.” I started to tell him that I was good with my drink but he ignored me and asked Dianne for another soda and lime “for my friend here.”
Dianne frowned but made another soda with lime. She made to slide it across the bar past the man to me but he intercepted the drink and held it up to the light for a moment.
“Water,” he said quietly. “Water is life, is it not? It’s elemental. It’s magical.” He tapped the glass with a fingernail and the bubbles suddenly rose in a fury like a thing come to life. He held the glass out to me. I had to admit, it looked incredibly refreshing and I found myself dry-mouthed and extremely thirsty.
“Here, friend. Drink.”
And, this time, when he smiled, he showed his teeth.
Ragged and jagged, his teeth were strangely twisted and pointed. The way that they overlapped each other reminded me of a gator about to strike and I suddenly remembered that first conversation with Dianne seven years ago.
He’s gonna come for you and when he does, he’s gonna offer you a drink…You listen to me and don’t drink it because there’s a monster in that water, Robert. A gator… You don’t want that water, trust me.
I glanced at Dianne standing behind the bar. She was staring daggers at the back of the man’s head. I swallowed with a suddenly dry throat and shook my head.
“No, thank you,” I replied, hoarsely, “I’m good.” I drained the rest of my sazerac in one gulp. I slipped one hand into my pocket and began running my thumb along my good luck spike.
The man set the glass down in front of me, continuing to smile that gator grin.
“Friend,” he said quietly, leaning in, “Can I be honest with you? I need your help. I need you to tell me where she is, Robert.”
I pulled away from him in surprise. “How do you know my name? Who the devil are you?!”
“Robert,” he shook his head in mock sadness, still smiling, “Robert, let’s not play games. I need to know where she is and I need you to tell me.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, mister, but I’m done with this conversation.” I turned away from him, pointedly looking at my glass. He leaned in even more closely. Way too close for comfort.
“I think you do know who I’m talking about, Robert. I think she told you some things. Some things that stuck with you. Maybe she gave you some good advice? They can’t seem to resist giving advice and ‘helping’ people. Yes, that’s what she did, didn’t she? She ‘helped’ you through a particularly tricky spot in life?” His voice lowered to a hissing whisper. “I know she did. What she gave you leaves a… a mark on people. An impression.” He moved even closer. “A scent.” He inhaled sharply.
“I can smell her advice on you, Robert.”
My throat was so dry. I raised my cocktail glass with shaking hands to take another sip of my sazerac before realizing that the glass was empty. I stole a quick glance at Dianne again. She stared back at me with wide eyes.
“I know you’re thirsty, Robert,” the man whispered in my ear as he pushed the soda water glass towards me with one finger. “Just have a drink and we’ll talk.”
“I said ‘no, thank you’ mister,” I replied, but my mouth felt like it was full of ashes.
“No? How about something a little stronger, then?” He tapped the glass twice and the soda water turned the deep golden brown of good rye whiskey. I clenched my fist around the spike in my pocket to keep from reaching for the drink. This was wrong. Everything about this situation was wrong but I was so thirsty.
“DRINK.” The man’s voice seemed to rattle around inside my skull, demanding that I drink. I almost did before I caught myself.
“I… I gotta go,” I mumbled and hastily stood to leave. His hand shot out like a snake, grabbed my sleeve with startling strength, and yanked me back down into my seat. I stared at him in surprise as his face twisted in rage.
“Don’t you dare run from me!” For a moment, his face flickered and was replaced by a nightmare. In the place of the pale, skeletal face, was a blackened, cracked ruin of a skull with glittering, glassy black eyes. Two short, black horns protruded from the sides of his head and teeth bristled out of his mouth like a jumble of knives.
I ain’t ashamed to say that I screamed like a girl. You would have too, trust me. I screamed and jumped back, trying to pull away from the monster but he was unbelievably strong and he held on tight.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Robert,” the nightmare said, “I just need to know where she is. Give me what I want and you can go. We’re going to find her eventually, Robert. We’re going to find them all and stop them! You can’t stop us. The twisted life of one anzillu – one abomination – isn’t worth your life, Robert. Give me what I want and you can go.”
“Oh, I’ll give it to you,” I said, anger burning away the fear at the thought of this… thing… coming into The Oracle and threatening people. My people. This is my place. This place is home. Without thinking, I pulled my hand out of my pocket, still gripping that smooth black spike, ready to fight. Only the spike wasn’t black anymore. It was a gleaming ivory, like polished bone. And it wasn’t smooth anymore. It was covered with a pattern of raised lines – an intricate design that looked like it had grown out of the bone.
The monster’s eyes went wide and he let go of my arm hastily, hissing, “iskakku” as he stared at the four inch bone spike in my hands. I held in front of me like it was a sword and took a step towards him.
“Now you listen here, mister… whatever you are,” I took another step and he stepped back from me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about or who you think you are but if you ever touch me again, so help me God, I will put a hole in you big enough to drive a shrimp boat through.”
The pale human mask settled back onto the man’s face and he raised his hands like I had pulled a gun on him.
“It doesn’t have to be like this, Robert.” He gave me another tight-lipped smile. “We can make a deal. What do you want, Robert? Success? Fame?” As he spoke he inched closer and closer to me, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “Women? What is it that you desire, Robert? I can make things happen for you. Good things! Amazing things! You just need to tell me where she is. That’s all I need. Just a little information in return for your wildest dreams! Just put the iskakku – that spike – away and we can talk about this. Just… put it down.”
His voice was mesmerizing. Hypnotic. And I hesitated. So help me God, I hesitated and I let him get too close. In a flash of glittering eyes and teeth, he knocked my arm away with one hand and reached for my throat with the other, wrapping long, bony fingers around my neck.
“TELL ME WHERE SHE IS!” he screamed in my face and then screamed again – in pain this time – as I brought my hand around and slammed the tip of that ivory spike into his arm, jamming it in and rotating it, screwing it into his flesh as hard as I could. His skin started to bubble and turn black where the spike bit into his arm and he threw me – hard – against the bar before taking off out the front door.
I blacked out.