ONE NIGHT, in a place whose name didn’t matter, a local bartender witnessed something rather strange.
Specifically, he saw a man—a solitary drunkard.
This man had probably been barhopping for a while before he reached the bartender’s establishment. He was already drunk by the time he walked in the door. But he kept on drinking anyway, until he was totally plastered. And then he still kept on drinking, until he vomited repeatedly in the bathroom.
Of course, this bartender had seen his fair share of alcoholics. He’d watched a few people drink themselves to death right in front of him, in fact. A drunkard like this was nothing out of the ordinary.
However—something odd happened late that night.
There were few customers left in the bar at this point. The bartender had been washing plates and thinking about closing shop for the evening. All of a sudden, the drunkard lifted his head as if he’d noticed something. His eyes were totally unfocused, and he looked half-asleep, but for some reason, he turned to face the seat beside him.
There was no one sitting in that chair.
“Hey there, man! It’s been a while!”
The drunkard croaked out a greeting and tried to slap his invisible friend on the shoulders. His hand moved smoothly through the empty air, but he didn’t seem to notice. He just kept right on talking.
“Aw, what’s the matter, chief? You’re lookin’ pretty gloomy today. Go on, tell me aaall about it.”
Deciding the man was just blathering like an idiot, the bartender shook his head and turned back to his dishes.
“What the… Hey, barkeep!”
The bartender glanced up again. The drunkard’s bleary, unfocused gaze was wandering all around the bar.
“How’s about you get this guy a beer too, huh?”
The bartender had no idea who this guy was supposed to be, but he wasn’t going to refuse an order. He was just about to reply, when—
“The hell? Guess he wandered off somewhere. What kinda customer service is that, huh?”
The drunkard just decided he was nowhere to be found, and began loudly badmouthing him to his non-existent buddy. The bartender heaved a heavy sigh. He dealt with rambling drunks on a regular basis, but the ones who talked total nonsense could get violent sometimes. This man didn’t look like much of a fighter, but the last thing he wanted at the end of long night was to spend an hour mopping blood and teeth off his floor.
Rather than flailing around at random, however, the man went right on speaking to the empty chair beside him. And as he listened, the bartender began to feel a bit unnerved. For the rambling monologue of a drunk, this…sounded a lot like one half of an actual conversation.
“Oh yeah? So, what… someone wants you dead?”
“Hah! Yeah, I bet you make yourself plenty of enemies. Hell, I’d probably hate your guts myself if I was seein’ things from a different point of view. Good thing I’m such an easygoing guy, huh?”
“…What? You’re asking me for a favor? Now that’s downright unusual.”
“Uh-huh. Look, the last time I did you a solid, things went real bad for me. You do remember what happened to my hometown, right?”
“You’re sorry? Hahah! Man, that sounds weird coming from you. Must be a cold one in hell tonight!”
“Oh? It really that bad? Bad enough you need my help?”
“Well, sure. You’ve saved my bacon plenty of times. I did appreciate that heads-up in the labyrinth earlier, for the record.”
“Yeah, didn’t work out that great in the end, but that’s on us. We just weren’t cut out for the job, I guess.”
“Oh brother, here we go. I try to be nice, and you think I’m showing you my belly…”
“Fine. If there’s something I can do, I guess I’ll hear you out.”
“Knowing you, that ain’t surprising in the slightest.”
“So who’s this guy who’s after you?”
“Whoah! Now that’s a scary name. Come on, man… are you pulling my leg or what?”
“Huh? What? How is he nothing special? Damn. Small fry, huh? Listen to you!”
“So what’s the problem, then?”
“So that’s how it is. Him too, huh? Hmm… yeah, that explains a lot, actually.”
“Hm? Am I gonna help or not?”
“Well, I dunno… I kinda liked the kid, honestly…”
“…Whoa. Somebody’s awful cranky all of a sudden.”
“Damn, you’re desperate, aren’t you? I thought I was a worthless piece of trash. You want my help that bad?”
“Fine! Fiiiine! I’ll help you out, man.”
“So? What’s the plan? I haven’t seen him in a while, but he’s damn good at what he does.”
“Ah, let’s hear it… Uh, a team? So you wanna gather up a bunch of guys like me?”
“Okay, right. Then what?”
“…Yeah, I think I get the idea. Dunno if it’ll work out or not, but hey. Guess we’ll give it a shot.”
At this point, the man collapsed forward onto his table and started sleeping like a log. And the bartender, who’d heard every word of his “conversation,” found himself thinking some unsettling thoughts. Had this man just made a deal with the devil? Was there some sort of profoundly evil thing sitting in that chair that only he could see? And was that thing going to creep up behind the bartender and whisper “You should’ve minded your own business” in his ear?
“Ridiculous.” With a firm shake of his head, the bartender approached the sleeping drunkard and shook him gently by the shoulder. “Hey, buddy. We’re about to close up for the night. Mind heading somewhere else to get your beauty sleep?”
After a few more vigorous shakes, the drunkard twitched and slowly pushed himself up off the table. “Muh…? Mm.”
All of his manic energy seemed to have disappeared completely. Rising unsteadily to his feet, he took a few copper coins from his pocket and tossed them on the table. And then he staggered off toward the exit, zigzagging erratically as he went.
Almost looks like a puppet, the bartender thought as he dropped the coins into his pocket. Turning away, he headed back toward the kitchen…and then stopped as he heard the drunkard mutter something to himself. The man’s voice was soft, but somehow the bartender heard him very clearly.
“Man, this sucks. But I owe him a lot, and the kid owes me… so if I have to pick sides, I guess this is how it’s gonna be.”
It wasn’t the voice of a demon. But it was a much colder voice than you’d expect from a drunk.
A shiver made its way down the bartender’s spine. When he turned back toward the exit, however, the only sign that anyone had even been there was the faintly tinkling bell on the inside of his door.