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9. Familiar Territory

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I was 16 when this started.

The introductions I’ve already made aren’t very helpful along the way. But they were written before…this, from the mind of a pure 16-year-old freak. Before all this. They were my honest opinions when I had them. Imagine that – I used to have a mind of my very own.

Mr. Krowley is my uncle. I talk about him as if he’s someone else because it’s just easier that way. Max is more of a role model. My uncle…he drinks a lot but means well. He’s not completely impossible to deal with. Family’s family. Until times changed.

And I got a new family.

Sit back. This might take awhile. To explain two years anyway.

Two years. The transitional period between 16 and 18 – when you decide exactly who and what you are. Or the choice is thrust upon you.

The only thing constant is change.

Summer job at the bar, dealing with the regulars, the typical mob. Every so often, the interesting sort came around. The freaks, the dark brooding forms. My favorites were Layne and Serkis. They were great, always nice to me, making idle conversation. Serkis more-so, but Layne warmed up eventually.

Time. Patience. Effort.

The key to dealing with anybody.

My uncle came and went. He left other people in charge, depending heavily on the other employees. Not many stayed long – there was just too much madness sometimes. There were a few good ones. My favorite bartender was Pandora. She was 18 then. She had connections of some kind, her father was close with my uncle – hence she had a job. A slightly illegal job, but what wasn’t slightly illegal about the place? Max, our resident cop, kept us legit as far as the city was concerned.

I couldn’t call it corruption.

Business is business.

Pandora was hired before I was; she seemed to belong there. She was the good kid, the shining angel amidst the shadowy depths. The bartender – and she was one of the most responsible ones around. She looked out for me, warning how close was too close. There was something more to her, hidden deep down. Pain flashing in her eyes. And there was always that glare of hers – reserved for Layne and Serkis.

Or maybe only Serkis. Maybe.

Let’s do this again in slow motion –

Myself.

Art – who would later give himself a new name. He spent more time in the bar since Layne brought Serkis.

Max, our resident cop. Routine, bent rules just so.

His son – Layne, and his amazing girl – Serkis.

My uncle – Mr. Edward Krowley. Current owner and primary operator of the Drowning Raven – the bar.

Pandora – our primary bartender and my uncle’s right hand girl.

That’s almost everybody. But for the record, a few names you’ll hear along the way, for reference:

Draven Riddle – Pandora’s father.

Doyle Merrick – retired street boss.

And there was Requiem; the outsider. Serkis’ fellow drifter of sorts.

All the parts, basically all the players, right up front. With some other interesting cameos along the way. The most recurrent of them being the great Vagrant Ransom. Back corner table, the seat furthest into the shadows.

In the end, we’re all drifters.

Everybody was opposite of someone else. Usually themselves.

You’ve got all the names up front. Now I can do as I wish.

Rules weren’t just made to be broken; they were made to be obliterated.

Looking at things in retrospect, the details are still kind of fuzzy. Here’s to moving backwards, it’s necessary to retrogress. It’s a vital part of the process.

Then again, as an accomplished illusionist, it might not be backwards at all.

I learned from the best. Case and point.

A cast of a dozen, mere names on a page for now. Until the show gets moving. Then the rules were changed. Whoever said that one event can not change your entire life was on some serious stuff…or they were never 16 and working in a bar.

Another name you should know – Hadrien.

My cousin, my uncle’s son. This place was his dream – my uncle merely provided the means. After his untimely death, and Morgan’s, my uncle merely drank more and depended on the staff heavily. The only person he abused was himself.

The legends are long gone – my cousins with them. But one must acknowledge that they existed, and due to their absence, I got a job. Ultimately, things worked in my favor. But the fact remains – never forget where you came from.

With death comes opportunity.

My uncle sat, oversaw operations, but mostly just drank and ranted. My denial-induced vision of him is no more. Yes officer, he’s mine. And I’m his. He’s just a very sad man.

It’s only human.

I can vividly remember the day that I met Serkis. Pandora watched her come in; Pandora didn’t miss a beat. She was drying a glass absentmindedly. We both stared as she swept past, barely out of Layne’s reach. He kissed her once then came to us for his order. He had to repeat it at least half a dozen times before we got it for him.

“You two okay? You look like ye seen a ghost.”  He had a subtle accent to his tone. Pandora coughed, handed him the glasses, and walked away. He shrugged and returned to his other half.

I went and tapped Pandora on the shoulder. She didn’t respond.

“Pandora? What’s wrong, you’re not okay.”

“Nothing.” She continued to clean glasses.

“That’s bull. Come on.”

“She just reminds me of someone I once knew.”

“Who?”

“An old friend, a legend long since dead.” Her voice grew softer, more reserved.

“What was her name?”

Pandora grew silent and walked away, left to her own thoughts. I let her go.

Sometimes you just have to let go.

I watched the two of them for weeks, oblivious to everyone else. Max’s tensions were impossible to ignore, at points not coming in at all. Our crowd changed the longer they stayed. They were going to take over. Eventually.

Sometimes you can feel greatness coming a mile away.

And sometimes they steal the chair out from under you to get your attention.

I tried to talk more with Pandora, but she refused. I kept at it for weeks, earning a little more each day. She started smoking; I did too so we could bond more.

There came a day when Pandora had a fight with her father and he hit her. She came to work, bruised and broken, silent tears streaming down her cheek. She started drinking.

“Pandora, I got this – go home.”

She ignored me, cleaning faster. I beseeched her further, but she heard nothing. I got someone to cover and dragged her into the back by an arm. She didn’t resist. Her skin was cold. It hurt to touch her.

“What the hell is wrong?”

“Let me go. I have work to do.”

“Pan! Quit this. The whole place sees a problem. Let it out. Why did you fight with your father? Please, give me something.”

She looked at the ground, her eyes focused intently.

“All you lose is you,” she whispered. And she went back to work. I stood in the back alone, helpless – useless. I heard steps but ignored their sound.

“There might be a riot if you don’t come out. That girl’s presence here is a sin. Her father’s here.”

“Well, it’s not my…” I shouted, wheeling around. Layne looked at me sincerely.

“Help?” he whispered.

I swept past him quickly, hearing glass shatter as I went. Pandora was on a table, yelling at her father, who was restrained by Max and my uncle. Serkis stood in the middle, debating her loyalties.

“Get the hell out, Father. Go on. Damage someone else. It’s all you know how to do.”

Draven grinned wide. He shook the men off him, straightening out. “You’ll see kid. You will. Your aunt wasn’t the saint you remember.”

“And you have a right to speak of her? Where were you?”

He lunged at her but they held him. “Whore!”

“Murderer.” The world rolled off her tongue smoothly. He stopped fighting and stepped away. The whole place watched his movements as he snuck out the door. My uncle followed him out.  The rest of us watched Pandora creep down. She smiled.

“Show’s over.” And she almost floated to the back. I kept pace behind her.

“What the hell just happened? The truth, Pan!”

She smiled ironically. “Your new friend, Serkis, she reminds me of my aunt. My father doesn’t like to talk about her.”

“Why?”

“He killed her.” She laughed. “Assisted suicide.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I don’t expect you to.” She pulled her shirt up, showing a carefully made tattoo, centered on her lower back. It read simply –

“Raine & Darius: Always & Forever – If Love Proves Real”

She pulled her shirt back down, curling up on the floor. This wasn’t a recent issue – this was an ongoing dilemma. Pandora’s family history was long and complex – she never spoke of it until now. Everything I knew came from other sources. Second or third parties. It’s proper courtesy not to pry into people’s lives.

The right to privacy.

You have the right to remain silent.

Anything you say can and will be used against you.

I curled up with her. She held onto me, crying quietly. I stayed there the rest of the night with her – the bar had mostly cleaned out anyway. Max went off to take Draven home. My uncle drank a bit and trudged off, muttering about bad business. She wouldn’t go home. I told her that I’d go wherever she did. She got up, dusted herself off, and shot me a look.

“Well? We better go then.”

And we set out on foot. I kept my coat closed tight, shivering from the physical and emotional cold. I fell in step behind her, briskly keeping step for a few blocks. I almost lost her when she turned abruptly into a building and climbed the stairs. She trudged all the way up, knocking resolutely on the door. A man in his mid-twenties answered, obviously awakened by Pandora. He yawned, stretched, and let us in. We swept by.

“Hello to you too. What’s doin’?” His words were long, slow – muttered between yawns. Pandora waved an arm at me.

“Doyle, Harley, Harley, Doyle.”

Everybody calls me Harley now.

He nodded at me casually, watching Pandora. He stepped forward and grabbed her shoulder, spinning her around. He held her face by the chin, using the light to see better.

“Now those are some hits. Daddy?”

She nodded while he examined her more carefully. She tried to pull away.

“You know how Daddy likes to hear about Aunt Darius.”

Doyle laughed. “You are something wicked, girl.” And she smiled her reply. He let her go and motioned to a room. “You two take mine, I’ll sleep on the couch. You know where everything is.”

Pandora nodded and we set off toward the bedroom. I looked around nervously, trying to feel at home. Pandora eyed me closely.

“This what you want, kid? To shuffle place to place? Stay straight.”

And we went to sleep – her in his bed though seeming too familiar for my mind, and I on the floor. Sweet dreams, right?

Or pleasant nightmares. Whatever came first.

Never follow blindly. You can get yourself into worlds of trouble by association alone. Some people are trouble from miles away. Others, like Pandora, hide it very well.

There seems to be a bit of that going around.

The apartment we were in belonged to Doyle Merrick, one of the first and only street bosses to survive his trade. And to live in retirement.

But like they say – no rest for the wicked.

And he was born wicked, through and through.

Born and bred. Fun right?

That takes talent – to live so long in this game, to retire from the streets successfully. Respect is involved as well. He still did business, the money won’t make itself, but he was perfectly clean to the observer.

All things considered – I couldn’t sleep regardless. I needed familiar territory, my own surroundings. But I told Pandora I’d come. And I’d stay.

My word is gold.

I crept from the room, pacing around quietly. Doyle stood at a window, smoking idly.

“Shouldn’t you be asleep?” he said softly. His tone was natural and even, not condescending or arrogant. I shrugged my shoulders.

“Not tired.”

He smiled and stepped closer. “I bet I could find something to fix that.” He took a pull, looking me up and down. “Go sleep, you never know when you’ll have another chance.”

“Tomorrow.”

Doyle laughed loud. “When’s that? You must really be new to this. In life, there are no tomorrows. Ever. Go on, sleep,” he whispered. And I left him there, still chuckling.

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