"Last call!" I rang the bell above the bar with a little more excitement than I normally would. Tonight was a special night. I had a date, and he was cute.
The first part was so rare I could qualify as a write-in candidate for the closest nunnery. The second part? Well, that was just bonus. So much bonus.
"I don't care where you go, but you can't stay here." I banged my hand on top of the bar a few times for good measure, but most of the regulars had already started to move toward the door.
It was just Mr. Malone nursing his beer. The cantankerous old salt had been a fixture around this place since long before I started. He was an odd duck, but I liked him. Naval tattoos covered his hairy forearms. I knew as much because the drunker he got, the more likely he was to tell me about them all over again.
Mr. Malone got drunk a lot.
"Clearing off the riff-raff a little early, aren't you?"
I pointed to the clock above the bar, an antique timepiece that fit perfectly with the person questioning me, as well as the rest of this place.
Artifactual was a terrible name for a bar, but it fit the motif.
This place was a junk magnet.
License plates for eras long past dotted walls already smothered in odd-ball memorabilia. We had old tennis racquets, a disassembled sewing machine, and all sorts of yellowed pictures of people that didn’t appear to know how to smile. We even had a full diving suit from the fifties, which, while cool-looking, had never been sufficiently cleaned after an unfortunate vomiting incident. To smell inside its sealed facemask was to take a whiff of death itself.
Still, that diving suit wasn’t even the worst of our crazy—that award was reserved for Gomer.
Gomer the taxidermy bull shark hung from ultra-thin wires above the bar. The massive fish was supposed to look intimidating, but ever since someone knocked half his teeth out with a pool cue, he had a decidedly less terrifying smile.
I couldn't fault Ron. He'd at least tried to fix it, but my boss was not much for fish dentistry.
Gomer looked like a denture ad, and given the clientèle that frequented Artifactual, it was fitting.
We liked them old.
'They drink more, are less likely to start fights, and prefer cash. What's not to love?'
I wiped the condensation rings off the glossy wood and replayed Ron’s words in my head, all while Mr. Malone continued to nurse his beer at the end of the bar. This was a nightly occurrence, and while I had a date, I wasn't going to rush the old guy out—not yet, anyway.
"What are you doing here, Macey?"
I smiled. Mr. Charlie Malone was nothing if not punctual.
"Wiping the counter."
"Don't sass me, girl. You know what I mean."
I folded the rag over, then scooped up a few of Reggie's limes. I was convinced Malone's eighty something drinking buddy was using our bar to prevent scurvy while at the same time spending the tiniest amount of money on vodka as humanly possible.
I found his tip under a cocktail napkin. The dollar would help, but there was still a long way to go. "I'm making money and keeping you from taking your business to Klub Kaos up the street."
"Bah!" The old man brushed me off with an uncoordinated hand before returning both of those wrinkly meat-hooks to what remained of his beer. "That's one of them dancing establishments. Do I look like someone who dances?"
I tossed the rest of Reggie's limes in the trash. "You do, in fact. I bet you were quite the dancer in your prime."
Malone sucked down a little more of his beer. He knew the drill. He had to be at zero by the time I reached his seat. That was the rule, and we never deviated. Honestly, it was rather impressive how he managed to do that every single night, even with a liver that probably resembled charcuterie at this point.
Yeah, and how does your liver look?
I snapped out the rag and dumped its contents, as well as that thought, into the trash can.
That was before.
I brushed aside a few stray red-brown hairs and got a good look in the mirror. The person who stared back at me barely resembled the one that had first walked in the door a few years ago.
I tucked my hand into the almost useless jeans pocket until I found the over-sized coin.
My name is Macey Elders, and I’ve got a problem.
I rubbed the metal disc's ridges a few times before letting it go. Taking a job at a bar had to have been one of the dumbest decisions of my life, but somehow, against all odds, it had worked out, at least so far.
Ron wasn't perfect, but he ran a clean place. He paid fair and gave time off when I needed it. My boss did one other thing too, he kept an eye on me, and not in that creepy old guy way. I had enough of that thanks to the early bird crowd. The post-golfing slosh-heads were great at being extra handsy.
Speaking of Ron, the gray-bearded wonder emerged from the back office with papers in his hands. "Charlie, could you make sure Macey gets out okay?"
Mr. Malone saluted him.
Great. Thanks, Ron.
"Actually, Ron, I have a—"
"Sorry, Macey, no time. I've got to run. Investor meeting."
It was hard to suppress my smile, but I fought those lips down into a half-frown all the same. Investor meeting was code for a hook-up with Kellie.
Ah, Kellie, Ron’s current girlfriend and former contestant on some reality fight sport show from the nineties. Kellie was petite, tough, and absolutely smitten with Ron and his doughy bod.
They were a cute couple and having Kellie drop by the bar meant I had someone to open jars.
I slapped the rag on the counter and shouted after Ron. "Go get em, Tiger."
He paused long enough to point at his eyes and then mine. "Investor Meeting, Macey. Important investor stuff."
"She likes it when you kiss her neck."
I wasn't positive, but I think Ron turned a completely new shade of red beneath that snowy facial hair.
"You know, on second thought, I'm extra worried about Macey tonight, Charlie."
My boss’s mischievous eyes said otherwise.
The old man set his almost empty beer on the counter. "What can I do?"
The bearded one ignored me. "I would consider your tab paid-up if you made sure she got all the way to her date."
"Date?" Mr. Malone rolled the word over with his tongue like it was some fancy French term.
"Yes. She's meeting a boy. In fact, I'm actually not sure about this gentleman either. He's young—"
Ron raised an eyebrow. "And he has a piercing."
Charlie’s shoulders drooped like someone had let the air out of a human-sized bag of party balloons. "Macey... really? An earring?"
Don't you dare…
"Actually, a nose ring."
Ron was really lucky his girlfriend could tear me into two neatly proportioned pieces, because otherwise I'd have launched myself over the counter at him.
I settled for throwing the nasty dish rag.
"Go! Get out of here."
He chuckled and slipped out the door, a spring in his step I knew would be twice as pronounced tomorrow—provided he took my advice.
"Okay, you," I pointed to Mr. Malone and his lonely beer, "time to wrap it up. I have a date and you walk so damn slow."
"I have a bad hip."
"Stow it, sailor, and any choice words you have for me regarding nose rings."
Mr. Malone opened his mouth to speak, but I shot him down before he could get past the wind-up. "Not a word."