To no one’s surprise, I had been drinking.
I started when the sun was at its highest point and decided I wouldn’t stop until I was forced to, either by a fist to the jaw or the welcome intrusion of the night sky into the dimming passage of my skull. Basically until I passed out in the passageway behind the tavern.
That night the odds were balancing on the rim of my cup. I gripped the stein tightly by the handle and lifted it to my dampened lips, my hand was shaking so wildly that I spilled most of the ale on the table and the sweat-sodden flank of my thigh. Stupefied, I let my eyes move lazily about the tavern. The barmaid, Merla, was being harangued by some drunkard (not me, I would never do such a thing). As she caught my eye over the yobbo’s shoulder, her nostrils flared as if to say No more free drinks, Garret. I hadn’t even said anything, but my lips were already twitching into a small grin. I covered my mouth with the rim of my cup.
To my left, a set of round tables. The only difference between my table and theirs was that I was alone while their tables were crammed. Men without chairs hunched over their cards, threw dice and moved wooden pieces. One man kicked his chair out and swept his piece off the board. I didn’t let my gaze linger long enough to read his lips and find out what he was saying, but to my ear it sounded like “You fucking cheat!” Personally, I couldn’t stand playing Arc. Card games were more my forte, but unfortunately my reputation preceded me and I found that I was most unwelcome at the card table. On my right, a small stage where the house band played a slow dirge. No one was listening, but if the music were to stop, every head in the room would turn. The ambience had to be just right, and that’s why I was there; to shift the balance.
I was about to rescue Merla from her obnoxious client, when I felt two shovel hands grasp my shoulders. My arse hovered above the seat, but those hands pressed me firmly back down.
“Jan Garret.” There was no question to who it was, only one man pronounced my name Y-aw-n instead of Y-ah-n.
My fingers twitched for another drink, or perhaps a weapon, but his vice like grip held me in place.
“Bjarni!” I said in mock delight, “What a pleasant surprise!”
The acre of a man grabbed the back of my chair and turned me to face him, wooden legs scraping loudly against the floor. A few regulars had already given up on their games to offer us their full attention. How kind, I thought.
“Oh I’m sure it is, Garret. I’m sure it is.” Bjarni slapped my left cheek lightly with his palm, almost as if he were admiring a freshly caught trout.
I knew why he was here, of course, but I feigned innocence.
“Everything okay? I heard you caught a nasty windfall.” I fluttered my lashes.
The brute had yet to blink.
“Oh you heard, did you?” Bjarni smiled his shark smile and I saw a glint of silver. “Funny how you avoided me though, isn’t it Garret? What was it you said to me last week, when the bets were being taken?”
I said nothing, leaning back in my chair.
“Come on, Jan. You remember, don’t you?” He put his heel on the front stretcher, bringing me back down to Earth. “Or do I need to remind you?”
Okay. So maybe I wasn’t telling the whole truth when I said I was no longer a gambler. It was true that no sane man would let me join his table, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t speak to folk on their own, convince them of the worthwhile nature of my proposal. And what exactly was I proposing? Well, the men had seen me observing their games, but what they hadn’t realised was that I now knew each of their “tells”, the little twitches or gestures that gave them away. It was easy for me, but the men were none the wiser. They were constantly duping one another, which often resulted in a fist fight or at the very least a shouting match. Something had to be done. I started giving them individual advice, offering up the specialist information I had acquired, for a sensible fee of course. I prophesised the winner of each game, even if that meant revealing the harsh truth that the man who had approached me would himself bear the loss. If he listened to me, I said. he might lose the match, but he would claim back his loss with interest by putting his faith in me, in the system. The first few times, I delivered on my word. But after that I let my expertise slip. I let it slip with Bjarni.
“You might need to remind me.”
Now I’d gone and done it.
The beast was livid. He snarled, barely an inch away from my face and the stench of his breath was almost enough to knock me out.
“That’s it, Garret. Outside. Now.” The last word carried with it a pellet of spit that hit my cheek and trickled down to the slant of my jaw where it hung like hot wax.
This was what I had been waiting for. I didn’t stand a chance.
Bjarni grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and peeled me from my seat. I smiled unabashedly now as my blood turned to steam.
Outside a crowd of stars were gathering.
“Nice night for it, hm?” I grinned, my head lolling back on the hinge of my spine.
By the time I looked back, Bjarni’s fist had already collided with the bridge my nose. The pain was bright and turned the stars into stripes of perfect white. They were applauding us. What a show.
I could see him if I squinted, his fists were raised by his chin. I didn’t know who he was defending himself against. He hit me again with equal force and my bottom lip splintered.
“What’s wrong with you? Fight back!” Bjarni cried, kicking me in the stomach.
The blow winded me and I doubled over, but the pain was sobering. Fight back, he had said, but I hadn’t an ounce of fight left in me.
Another strike. My jaw this time.
“We’ve had enough of your tricks, you dirty…stinking…WEASEL!”
This time I went down.
I wanted this to be it. I let my eyes fall shut, the stars pooled there. My hands pulled fistfuls of grass. Please, I thought. Deliver me. Don’t deliver me. Just get me the fuck out of here.
His shadow covered me, it could have enveloped me for all I cared. But then, just as I held what I hoped would be my final breath, the shadow receded.
“You’re not worth it.” I heard him whisper.
Bjarni spat, aiming for my shoe. He missed. Then there were footsteps, he was leaving. My heart sank, much too deep for me to retrieve it.
“C-Come back…” I croaked. “Come back, you…coward!”
Silence. The wind sent shivers through the grass, and the blades feathered between my fingers.
Then the footsteps returned.
“Ha!” Something gargled in my throat. “I knew that would…convince you. Pride comes before a f-fall!”
The man was silent, he wasn’t breathing as heavily as usual.
“Bjarni?” I tried again. “Is that you, you spineless bastard?”
A voice hung from the starlit sky, soft as the wing of a raven.
“No.” It said. “If I were, you would be dead by now.”