The gangly youth scurried on long legs and over-sized feet. He stumbled on a cracked tile, but righted himself. Shoulders squared, Daniel Hollar ran a hand through his long orange hair, finger combing the frizzy mess. Hundreds of freckles peppered his pale face, and his green eyes were bright behind wire-rimmed glasses.
He slapped on a polite smile for the middle-aged man crouched on a stool at the end of the L-shaped bar. The customer’s arms rested on the counter, the diamond frame forming a protective barrier about the shot glass cradled between his hands. Sweat bullets lined the customer’s blotchy red forehead. A scraggly crown of damp hair stuck to the collar of his white dress shirt. His gut overhung belted dark trousers. He wore a clean gold band on his left ring finger and his clothing was made from fine fabric.
“Evenin’, sir. What’s your poison?”
The customer’s lips bowed in a fearsome grin, revealing yellowed teeth. A hint of jaundice touched the sclera of his eyes. “Belladonna,” he said softly. “Oh deadly nightshade, beautiful woman.”
“Wha– Sorry?” Daniel dipped his head, trying to make out the man’s words, and got a good whiff. A malignant scent circled the man like a coiled serpent, the combined cologne of booze, cigarettes, and body odor. Gagging, he jerked back and turned his head to the side.
The man lifted his shot glass in toast. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
Daniel’s eyes bulged. What a total nut! Biting his lower lip, he spoke at a pace suited to fools and madmen. “I’m sorry? Would you like something to drink?”
“Daniel. Pleased to meet you.” He stuck forward his hand, held straight out and rigid.
Wicked humor lit the man’s gray eyes. He refused the proffered hand. “Jack Daniels. Neat. Leave the bottle.”
“Oh.” Cheeks burning, Daniel fumbled through the bottles of booze on the back wall until he located the correct bottle. He poured the man’s drink, sloshing amber liquid over the rim of the shot glass.
The customer dug into his pocket, extracted his wallet, and deposited a hundred dollar bill on the bar.
“You want change?”
“Nah, just put it toward my tab.”
Daniel retreated to stand beside his boss. Patrick Whalen, a grizzled Irishman and owner of the Albatross Tavern, was known as Twitch by the hardened sea-faring locals who frequented the Portsmouth, Maine wharf side bar.
The youth shoved his hands into the pocket of his navy windbreaker, striving to appear nonchalant. He tipped his head toward the customer. “Odd duck, that one.”
Twitch’s round head rolled on the long stalk of his neck toward the end of the bar. The old man’s eyelid pulled in a constant facial tic–wink wink wink. His stretched taut in a sardonic smile. “Arrogant bastard, ain’t he, Danny me boy? But he pays his tab ‘n comes in regular, so I ain’t got no problems with ’em.”
Doing his best to appear disinterested, Daniel picked up a white rag and wiped down the scratched oaken bar counter. He cast a surreptitious glance down the length of the bar. “Who is he?”
“That?” Twitch tilted his head. “That’s Jack. Jack Thorn. He’s a local author. Horror fic, like that King fellow.”
“Is he famous?”
“Meybe. Yer an English major, ain’tcha?”
“Yeah, but I’ve never heard of ’em.”
The old man sniggered and picked up the ice bucket, limping toward the machine. “His stories got less cursin’, so I reckon that makes him more of a literary figure.”
Too curious to resist temptation, the young man trailed Twitch, hoping to glean more information.
“Are his books movies?”
Twitch shot Daniel a long look as if considering a moron. He sneered. “Course not. His books are books. Movies is movies. The one ain’t got nuthin’ to do with the other. Everyone with a lick o’ sense knows that.”
Wink wink wink…
Danny hung his head. “Sorry.”
Twitch slapped him on the back, knocking him off his feet. “Don’t worry your wee head ’bout it. Ain’t your fault that you’re greener than the titties on a leprechaun.”
The boy’s face lit like wildfire, drawing another cackle from the old man. Cursing the pale complexion that went with his ginger hair, Daniel tried and failed to keep his speculative gaze averted from Jack Thorn.
The author sat twisted on his stool, engaged in an animated conversation with the empty seat beside him. There was no one else at the bar in either direction.
Twitch filled the ice bucket to the brim, and thrust the container into the boy’s hands. “Here, go dump this in the bin. My leg is achin’ somethin’ fierce.”
Obediently, the young man trotted to the ice machine. He emptied the bucket, and returned to fill it again. “Who’s he talking to?”
“That one’s crazy as a loon.” Leaning forward, Twitch tapped his temple and spoke in a hushed voice. “Talks to himself ‘n lives all alone in a big house out on the promontory.”
Jack Thorn’s disquieting gray eyes pinned him. A chill tore through Daniel’s soul. Hastily, he averted his gaze. He swallowed convulsively, Adam’s apple bobbing. “I’ve seen it.”
The old man’s thin lips stretched to reveal cracked, yellow teeth. Wink wink wink… “Jack over there used to have a wife and daughter. Wife was a real beauty and the little girl was an angel. Four years old with blonde pigtails and big blue eyes…”
Danny shivered. He dropped the scoop back into the ice machine and closed the flap. “What happened to them?”
“They ain’t been seen for years. Some says they left ’em, others that he killed ’em. There was a police investigation, but no bodies ever been found. No one knows.”
Danny leaned in close so the old man’s sour breath scoured his nostrils. “What do you think happened?”
Twitch’s predatory smile swelled. He threw up clawed hands and shouted, “He ate ’em!”
Heart slamming against his breast, Daniel leapt backward. He dropped the bucket and ice cubes scattered across the floor. His foot slipped on wetness and his knees locked. He slammed his elbow against the counter. Sharp pain lanced through his entire arm.
Twitch roared with laughter.
Humiliation stung Daniel’s pride worse than his injured elbow. A cold sweat broke out across his body. Staggering, he retreated toward the bathroom, heading toward the smirking author.
Jack Thorn grabbed the boy’s arm as he stumbled past. That ghoulish face, leered at him. “They tasted real good!”