A Little Night Magic (Chapter 3)

Happy Larry's is exactly the kind of windowless pit of doom you'd expect from a dive called Happy Larry's, but there are days when a girl needs to match her bar with her mood, and that day, Happy Larry's was a match.

Happy Larry, scruffy and growly in his mangy, sleeveless MANAGEMENT RESERVES THE RIGHT TO KICK YOUR ASS T-shirt, did not appear to be very happy with my appearance in his establishment. You could never tell with Larry; between the untamed beard and Coke-bottle glasses, he was a hard man to read on facial expression alone.

"What the hell are you doing here?" he growled, confirming my original suspicion.

I took a stool and leaned over the bar. "I'm here for the same reason that everyone else is here. Too miserable to be anywhere respectable, not quite ready to jump off a bridge."

Larry stared at me.

"Fine. Be that way." I reached into my front jeans pocket and slammed a twenty down on the bar. "Serve me whatever is going to get me drunk the fastest. What do I want? Vodka? Tequila? You got anything in an IV drip?"

Happy Larry's expression remained unchanged. "Go home."

I drummed my fingers on the bar for a moment while I deliberated, then made the call. "Make it tequila."

Happy Larry grunted something, but he took the twenty, then set a salt shaker, a shot glass, and a slice of lime in front of me. He pulled a bottle of tequila out, and filled the shot glass. I stared at it for a moment, then glanced up at him.

"How many calories are in this?"

Happy Larry stared at me blankly.

"I'm going on a diet," I said glumly. "Starting today. When I get on that plane, I'm going to be svelte."

Nothing from Larry. Jesus, it was tough to crack this guy.

"Okay. Maybe not svelte. But I wanna wear my skinny jeans. I figure fifteen hundred calories a day ought to do it, and you know what that is, Larry? That's two pieces of lettuce and a whiff of a chocolate-chip cookie. So, what I'm asking you, Larry, is … how many calories?"

Happy Larry continued to stare at me.

"So you don't … know? Then? The calories?"

Slowly, he shook his head.

"You know what? That's okay. No, really. Don't apologize." I bet Stacy never asks about the calorie content. "It's early in the day, I'll look it up and adjust for it later. Or, you know. Maybe start tomorrow. You gotta work your way up to these things."

Then I salted my hand, licked it, downed the shot, and sucked the lime.

"What?" I said as I nudged the empty shot glass back at an obviously surprised Happy Larry. "I went to college. I know how to drink tequila. Give me another one."

He shook his head as he poured. "You puke on my floor, you're cleaning it up."

"God, Happy. One time, I puked on your floor. I was sixteen. Let it go, man." I salted my hand, did the shot, then shook my head. I may not have gotten rid of the tingling in my hands, but now the rest of my body at least matched. The sharp edges of agitation that had been poking at me seemed to soften a bit, and I felt my spirits lift.

"You know what?" I said. "Tequila's good. Gimme another."

"You bet." He stuffed the twenty in the till, gave me two fives and three ones in return. "In twenty minutes."

"Grudge holder." I swiped my money off the counter and shoved it back in my pocket, then swiveled around on my seat to take in the place. The only other customers were Frankie Biggs and Doug Holt, playing a game of pool in the back, and some guy sitting in a booth in the dark corner opposite, scraggly hair hanging down as he leaned over his glass. I let my gaze wander back to the pool table, and Frankie Biggs. Another man who couldn't keep his hands off of Stacy Easter.

They were everywhere.

"I'm gonna go play pool," I announced.

Happy Larry motioned toward the pool tables. "I care deeply."

I got off the bar stool with a little trouble – Wow, I'm a cheap date – and when I looked up, my eyes locked with the guy in the corner. Or, at least I think my eyes locked with his; I couldn't see him very well, the combined effects of the dim lighting and the eighty-proof tequila in my bloodstream. In a knee-jerk response of vigilance after a thousand cautionary tales from my mother based on True Stories from Reader's Digest, I took in little details about him for the police report I'd probably never have to file – tallish, dirty-blond hair, midthirties, beat-up work boots, jeans, dark T-shirt, a few days' of beard growth on his face – and then I looked away and made my way over to the pool table, where Doug was chalking his cue.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Doug said.

"You know what I love about this place?" I said. "The way everyone makes a girl feel so welcome."

Doug's eyes went from me to Frankie and then back again. "Did Amber send you here to check in on Frankie?" He looked at Frankie. "I'm telling you, man, you need a restraining order."

I shook my head. "Amber didn't send me." I turned to Frankie. "But I've seen her recently in CCB's, and I think the restraining order could be sound advice. She's really pissed off."

Doug gave Frankie a told-you-so look, and Frankie shook it off. I stood there, one hip jutted in what I thought might be a sexy manner, maybe, and wondered what Stacy would do in this situation, what it was about her that made her so instantly irresistible to every man walking the planet. The truth was, even though I'd been with her in a ton of bars and watched the men come streaming over, I never noticed anything in particular that she did. It was just something she was.

"You want something?" Frankie asked finally.

I thought about all the sassy, sexy, alluring responses I could give to that question, but as I looked at Frankie, all I could see was the ferret attached under his nose, and I just couldn't do it. Try as I might, I was no Stacy Easter, and I had to accept that.

"No." I sighed and unjutted my hip. "I just came over here to see if you would try to sleep with me."

Both guys looked up immediately from the game. Seriously, it was like dogs with a whistle.

"We'd have a shot?" Frankie asked.

"No," I said quickly. "Nothing personal. I just kind of wanted to see if you'd try. You know. Medicate my wounded pride. It was either you or that guy in the corner – " I motioned to the corner booth and paused. "Oh, he's gone."

"For what it's worth," Frankie said, chalking his cue, "if I thought I had half a chance, I'd try." He took his shot, missed, and Doug started casing the table.

"Really? You're not just saying that?"

Frankie examined me for a moment, then shrugged. "Sure, I'd give it a shot."

I have to say, that was much less comforting than you'd think. But still. It was nice of him.

"Thank you, Frankie." I stared at his Magnum, P.I. moustache for a moment. "You ever think of shaving that thing?"

Frankie ran his hand over his mouth. "Are you kidding? You wouldn't believe what this does to girls in the sack."

"Gross," I said. There was a moment of awkward silence, and I added, "Well. I'm just gonna go back over there, then."

Frankie smiled and nodded at me, and Doug grunted something and took his shot.

I stepped away from the pool table slowly, cheeks flush with embarrassment, and started back toward the bar. Before I got there, I could hear Doug saying something about, "crazy fucking chicks," and I poured myself onto a stool and rested my face against the bar.

"Let me ask you something, Happy," I said. "If I find out a guy I know has slept with one of my best friends, and it bothers me enough that I go confront him and then come here to get drunk, that means I should move up my trip to Europe, right?"

"I'm not pouring anything for another fifteen minutes," Happy said.

"Yeah, that's what I thought, too." I raised my head and gave him a grim look. "Serve me now, and I'll leave immediately."

Happy grabbed the bottle and poured.

* * *

When I stumbled sideways into the alley beside Happy Larry's, I thought at first that it was the tequila making me lose my footing. I didn't realize I'd been pulled into the alley until my elbow hurt from someone's stone grip, and my face smacked into someone's hard chest.

"Ow!" I said, touching my left cheek as I pulled back from him. "That's still sore!"

"You Olivia?" His voice was rough and scratchy, layered with deep country and, unless I was mistaken, whiskey. I stepped back and squinted up at the guy, immediately recognizing him as the guy from the booth in the corner. In addition to the details I'd taken in at the bar – your paranoia has finally paid off, Grandma – I noticed that his eyes were slightly red at the edges, likely the result of Happy Larry's cheap whiskey and refusal to adhere to state indoor smoking laws.

I wrenched my arm from his grip and took a step toward the street, but he blocked me, and so I ended up stepping farther back into the shadows of the alley.

"Are you Olivia Ford?"

"No," I said.

He advanced on me, and I stepped farther back into the alley.

"Was your father Gabriel Ford?" he asked.

"Far as I know, he was Some Guy Named Dave." I stepped back and my thigh hit the metal trash bin. "I'm leaving now. Touch me again, and I'll scream."

He held up his hands, but I could see annoyance and tension on his face, and it was not comforting. "I just want to talk to you."

"Sure, because men pull women into alleys all the time just to talk." I glanced around and thought, What would Stacy Easter do? Puke on his shoes, probably. Not much of a help. Then I caught the trash cans in the corner of my eye, and I pulled the lid off one and held it between us like a shield. "Stay back."

The guy advanced on me another foot, which freaked me out a bit because while I was okay acting like I would hit him with the lid, I wasn't entirely sure how I was going to hit him with it. Straight-on in the face, I guessed. Maybe? While I had the standard waitress's upper body strength, I sadly lacked the standard waitress's thirst for blood.

"Put that damn thing down so we can talk."

"I don't want to talk to you. I've had a very bad day, and I just want to go home!" I waggled the lid in front of me, trying to look threatening, but I probably just looked like an insane, drunken waffle waitress who had stepped tragically out of her element.

That was when I noticed how hot the trash can lid felt in my hands. I glanced up to see if maybe there was a ray of sunlight on it or something, but we were in the complete shade of the alley. I shook my head and tried to focus. "Get out of my way!"

"Not until I get some answers," he said, shaking his head slowly, and freaking me out even more. The lid handle was getting hotter, and the tingling in my hand was getting worse, making my arm shake, which made the lid shake.

"I'm looking for a – " His expression went from irritation to slight concern. "You okay?"

Ow. The heat in my hand was beginning to hurt, and I felt a little dizzy.

"I'm fine," I said, catching my breath. "Why?"

"You look like you're going to vomit."

"It's not out of the question." I whipped the lid up, but my arms were so weak and tingly that it just kind of wobbled in my hands. The lid wavered a little in the air and I tried to steady it. "Now get out of my way."

"I just need to ask you if – "

I didn't hear anything he said after that; the tingling heat in my fingers escalated into an electric buzz running up my arms and into my shoulders that distracted me too much. I could almost feel it in my teeth. What the hell was up with this damn lid? Was it electric or something? I tried to tighten my hold on the handle as best I could, but then … I don't know if it was the glare of the sun bouncing off nearby windows or what, but despite the shade, something that looked like electrically charged strings of yellow light danced over my hands, and spread out to the rest of the lid, and I screamed and dropped it to the ground with a clang.

Only when it hit the ground, it … changed. Slowly, the lid curved into a saddle shape, the metal creaking loudly and little sparks of yellow light shooting out of it as it morphed. It rolled around on its … back, I guess … for a second, and four short legs squealed out of the edge of the lid. Then, under its own power, it righted itself onto its feet and a short, straight stub of a tail formed at the side facing me. At the side facing the guy, the shape of the top of a terrier-looking dog head formed and then it sort of … well, for lack of a better term, I'll say it growled at the guy, although that could have been the sound of the mutating aluminum. I don't know. I've never heard aluminum mutate before. Apparently, neither had the guy, because he jumped back a bit, staring down at the thing.

Do you believe in magic? I heard Davina's voice say to me from the far reaches of the night before.

No, I thought back at her.

The aluminum dog growled again, going for the guy.

"Son of a bitch," the guy grunted, stepping back. That's when the dog jumped up into the air, heading for the guy's kneecaps. The guy darted to the side, and in the air, in midjump, the thing turned back into a lid, and it landed on one edge on the asphalt. We both stared at it for a moment as it wobbled like a twirling coin until it finally stopped, flat and dead and still on the ground.

My voice was weak and strained even to my own ears. "Did that trash can lid just turn into a dog?"

There was a flash of something on his face – anger or terror, I couldn't tell, the break was so brief – and then his lips tightened together and his face was stone again.

"Yeah." He swallowed, then met my eyes. "That never happen to you before?"

"Are you asking me if I've ever seen a trash can lid turn into a dog before?"

"No," he said. "I'm asking you if you ever turned a trash can lid into a dog before."

"No," I said. "That was you."

He stared at me, confusion on his face.

I pointed at the lid and repeated myself. "You did that."

More silence.

"Well, it certainly wasn't me," I said, my voice almost making it into screech territory as I said the words. My memory flashed on the tingling in my arms, the weird yellow light that had seemed to come from my fingers …

"It wasn't me," I said again, trying to sound more forceful, to convince myself. I was almost able to do it. For his part, he just stared at me, seeming just as stunned as I was. After a moment of this odd silence, I remembered that I needed to escape from the crazy guy who just turned a trash can lid into a dog – it was him, it had to be him – and I took a few wobbly steps back, and pointed toward the street.

"I'm going to go home now," I said carefully, "and you're going to go wherever it is you go, and leave me a – "

"No!" He grabbed my arm, his grip tight on my wrist, hurting me. "I need to know if you've seen her."

"Seen who?"

And right then, seemingly out of nowhere, another trash can lid flew over my shoulder, knocked him in the head, and sent him spiraling against the brick wall, where he hit his head again and went down, out cold.

"Okay, I know I didn't do that." I turned around, stumbling a bit as my shaking legs tried to hold me up, and I looked into the shadows. "Hello?"

Silence. No one was there. I must have been really drunk, except I didn't feel that drunk. Maybe none of this was real. Maybe I was hallucinating.

"Oh, god." I gasped, putting my hand to my mouth, remembering how my mother's sickness had first presented with an insistence on putting the milk under the sink in the bathroom. "Brain tumor."

I felt a roiling in my gut, and the next thing I knew, I puked.

Right next to the guy's work boots.

I'm no Stacy Easter, my ass, I thought.

The guy grunted as he started to come to. I glanced around, saw no one there, and did the only thing that made sense at the time.

I beat it the hell out of that alley, and ran the rest of the way home.