CHAPTER 36: A MAN WALKS INTO A BAR
Picture it now.
Above, the great dome of the stone sky.
Beneath; tents, shanties, caravans and the like stretching like an ocean as far as the eye can see. Closer to the centre they harden, tents become huts, huts become inns and cabins, which become tenement buildings.
This is his army.
To the west, the medical tower, a jagged stone nightmare clawing upwards like a demon’s paw. That is Groethuis’ kingdom, where he patched up Thomas and countless others like him.
To the east, the combat tower, a perfectly rectangular slab; two thousand stories of arenas, armories, sparring rings, training rooms and shooting ranges. Where every brick stinks of sweat and blood. This is where Mabus’ army trains every day. This is where they keep their brutal skills at their peak, ready for the day Mabus will call on them to be used.
To the south, Xanadu, the pleasure dome. Like nothing so much as the great shell of a turtle a mile across, this is where the troops go to unwind. Pretty much any entertainment you can think of is provided for here.
And the elegant black needle in the very centre. It is known as the Chamber. And the soldiers do not speak of it in hushed tones. They simply do not speak of it at all. This is where Mabus floats in his emerald pool. It is where any soldier who has displeased him is taken. It is not spoken of.
Picture it now. Mabus’ great army, the medical tower, the combat tower, the pleasure dome and the Chamber. The great stone sky and the endless tenements, tents and huts.
This is his kingdom.
This is New Gomorrah.
And every night, every single night, Thomas stands staring at it from the window of his tiny, sparse apartment and imagines the whole stinking mass catching fire and flying to the dome as black smoke.
Madness knows madness, is drawn to it even. And Thomas could feel sheer red-hot insanity bubbling through this entire place. Millions of murderers, thugs and killers gathered and imprisoned under one roof. And they were imprisoned. No matter that the pleasure dome provided them with anything they could desire, no matter that their cell was larger than many countries, they were still caged. How had this city not torn itself apart? Why were these men being so…well behaved? Was it Mabus? Could one man really inspire that much fear? Did he really have that kind of power? Or did he have other means of inspiring loyalty? Just how close was this city to a full scale riot? Would it take much to set it off? Would it be fun to find out?
Well, Thomas knew the answer to that last question at least.
It had taken a great deal of time for Thomas to actually commit to the idea of blowing Mabus’ kingdom to pieces. After all, he had an obsession to feed. If you asked him why he felt such a need to kill the Hangman’s daughter, he probably could not tell you. He would probably say that he had sworn to kill the daughter as he had the father, but that wasn’t it. It was something deeper, coiled around his bones, slowly growing into his brain like black ivy.
But now, finally, the grip was loosening and his vicious, tenacious brain had gotten to work on a new problem. And it was simple. How to make Mabus beg? How to break him?
He toyed with various notions, turning them over and over like chicken bones, stripping them and then discarding them. He thought about setting Groethuis’ angel free, and letting it rampage wild.
But then it hit him.
And he laughed so hard he fell down and began to writhe on the carpet.
He would destroy Mabus’ kingdom with a joke.
Leonard Snebbit had long known that he didn’t belong in New Gomorrah. He had never, that he could recall at least, pillaged villages in the far northern reaches of Europe. Nor could he truthfully claim to have ever run down a merchant ship in the Caribbean, massacred the entire crew, tossed their bodies overboard to the waiting mako sharks and absconded with all the filthy lucre he could load onto his vessel without it actually capsizing, he had never done that. And yet…well, here he was.
It was a strange story, and even he didn’t understand a lot of it. He had lived an extremely, even painfully dull life. He had grown up in Chicago, had fought in the war, had gotten shot in the leg and shipped back after around a month and had opened a bar which he then ran for the next thirty years. He had gotten balder and fatter, but other than that the years that had followed had been the same one repeated over and over like a tossed coin rolling round and round on the floor until finally it would come to it’s last, final stillness. Except that for some reason, in the last five years of his life, Snebbit had started to poison his customers. He didn’t know why, even now. Sometimes he would actually wake up in the middle of the night, scratch his forehead and mumble “Well golly, did I really do that?”
It felt like it had been someone else. And yes, he had enjoyed slipping rat poison into the drinks of loud obnoxious drunks, and watching them stagger off home, only to react in dumb silence to hear that they had passed away in the night. No one could suspect him. He didn’t look like a killer. He had a face like a cod with stubble.
They’d caught him in the end, of course. The cops interrogating him had asked him what it felt like to have killed thirty five people. He had simply blinked in surprise and said “It was that many? Really?”
They asked him why he did it.
Again the blink. And he had spread his hands helplessly and said “I dunno…I just felt like I had to do something.”
And that would have been that if the police van carrying him to the courthouse hadn’t swerved to miss a cat and gone head first into Lake Michigan.
Next thing he knew he was standing dripping wet in front of a big green tank of fluid. Which was talking to him.
Mabus had explained that he was raising an army of killers from throughout space and time.
Snebbit had explained as best he could that he wasn’t that kind of killer, that he was out of shape, and sure, that he had seen some action but that he’d been a young man then and besides, all he’d gotten out of it was a trick knee…
Mabus told him to shut up.
“Don’t be stupid. I don’t want you to join my army.”
“Then why am I here?”
“I need a bartender.”
Leonard did not need to be told not to poison the customers. These were not the kind of customers you pulled that kind of thing on. Pull that kind of thing, they’d pull another kind of thing.
Probably your kidneys through your nostrils.
He glanced nervously up from the glass he had been cleaning for a good half hour to take in the bar. Vikings in the corner laughing and sharing songs, stories, filthy jokes and long, bizarre Norse amalgamations of all three that had no precise equivalent in non-Viking cultures. On the other side of the room, a coterie of ninjas sipped saki in total silence. Leonard liked the ninjas. Never any trouble. Good tippers.
The rest of the clientele were just the usual; a few pirates, one or two Egyptian royal guard.
And then there was Holtz.
He was at his usual place right at the front of the bar. Most of the men wouldn’t sit alone. They wouldn’t go anywhere without at least two others, one to watch the left, one to watch the right.
Holtz, it was understood by unspoken agreement, could go where he liked.
He was slumped over the bar, seemingly asleep, his hand holding on to a half empty bottle of whiskey like it was trying to swallow the thing.
Leonard reached to take the whiskey bottle and felt the cold muzzle of a Colt .45 pressing a kiss on his forehead.
“Leonard, Leonard why do you want to die?” Holtz murmured quietly, as if in his sleep.
“I don’t, Mr. Holtz sir.”
“So you took a hold of my bottle by accident, did ye?”
“My. That was a close one, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, yes, it was.”
“You need to be more careful, friend.”
“That could have been a nasty accident.”
“You could have gotten yourself killed.”
Leonard was sweating like a mule.
“You poor boy, you must have had quite a shock. Pour yourself a drink. Calm your nerves.”
Holtz appeared to go back to sleep, and Leonard took his excellent advice. He felt the old twinge in his chest. There it was again. He couldn’t take much more of this. Either the patrons were going to end up killing him or his heart was. He glanced up as he heard someone entering the bar.
And his heart sank.
Leonard, when he not been poisoning the clientele of course, had been a perfectly competent barman and had developed the publican’s instinct of knowing when trouble has just walked through the door.
Trouble, it turned out, was a painfully thin young man, with his hat tilted over his eyes, a definite swagger to his walk and a smile on his lips that served as immediate warning to the sane.
No, thought Leonard.
Please, whatever it is you’re thinking of doing. Don’t.
“Gentlemen! Your attention PLEASE!” Thomas roared and leapt easily on top of the nearest table, startling the Assyrian mercenaries gathered around it, and sending their pork rinds skittering across the floor.
“Forgive me, we haven’t been properly introduced. My name is Thomas Hieronimo, and I am only recently arrived in your fair prison. Sorry, city. Did I say prison? Hmm…very odd. Can’t imagine why. We’re all free, aren’t we? But anyway, I digress. I realise I haven’t been acting very neighbourly since I arrived here, locking myself up in my room for days on end. So I have come down here to make amends. And I intend to start by telling you all a joke.”
Total silence had descended on the bar.
The patrons didn’t know who this character was, but they knew they didn’t like him.
They didn’t like his attitude.
They didn’t like his interrupting their drinks.
And they were pretty damn sure they weren’t going to like his joke.
“It begins, as these matters so often do, with three men walking into a tavern. The first is a Viking, his companions a Ninja and a Spanish pirate.”
The Vikings, Ninjas and Pirates, who formed the vast majority of the assembled drinkers were now listening very closely indeed.
“And the bartender says to them, “Get out I’m not serving you”. Aghast, our three friends ask why not. And the bartender says “Because I fear the end of days.” Puzzled, they ask the bartender what he means by that. “Well” says the bartender to the Viking “You’re so fat that you’re sure to eat all my food, which’ll bring me famine.” And to the Ninja he says “You look so much like a woman that my patrons will fight over you, bringing me war. And as for you…” he says to the Pirate “Well look at you, you’re obviously riddled with every disease and pox that man can lay claim to as his heritage, you’ll bring me pestilence.” All I need is for one of you to belch and the stench will must likely kill off everyone in here and that’ll bring me death. And once I have all four I’ll have the apocalypse breaking out in the middle of my bar. And I don’t need that, this is a respectable business. And the Viking says…”
A bar stool flew at his head.
Thomas ducked as easy as breathing.
The crowd was on it’s feet and drawing it’s first breath for it’s first roar of rage…
A shot rang out.
The Viking who had thrown the stool fell with a blood bindi on his forehead.
“Let the man finish his joke!” Holtz barked, a smoking gun clutched in his hand “I ain’t heard this one.”
“You are a gentleman, sir. Thank you.” said Thomas politely “Now, as I was saying.”
“Oh Holtz.” Leonard mumbled “What have you done?”
“Just killed a man, I do declare.” said Holtz, taking a swig from the bottle.
“You’re not supposed to…”
“That’s the rules.”
“They’re coming, they’re coming here!”
“Len. I stopped caring half a bottle ago.” said Holtz “Let them come.”
“Who?” Thomas asked “Who are coming? Who’s got you so scared? How do you get a billion killers together in the same place and keep them from killing each other?”
“Well that’s easy, friend.” said Holtz “You take the very worst ones, the very, very worst ones. And you give them uniforms.”
There was a crash. The roof peeled apart like banana skin and thirty figures dropped to the floor. One was golden, the rest were red. Otherwise they were identical.
“Red Scorpions, fan out!” Cole roared “Everyone else on the floor! I’m not asking, I’m telling and I ain’t telling twice!”