by Andrew Ly
WARNING: THIS SHORT STORY CONTAINS MATURE THEMES
The bell at the door chimed immediately as I walked into the Moonshine, my body soaked down to the socks from the sudden downpour. Automatically, I wiped the soles of my boots on the floor mat, the black leather squeaked against friction of the vinyl. I briskly stomped passed the coat rack to my usual seat, position the side furthest left of the bar. It was more of a comfort and routine thing than anything else. In any public location I always preferred a seat where I could react swiftly should the need arise while also having a clear vantage point of people walking in. You see, in my line of work you could never be too careful.
I had been coming into the Moonshine every Friday night at nine on the dot without fail for the past two years and for a very good reason. It was a hidden bar tucked away in a bad part of town, an escape from the troubles of the world, a place where the denizens of the underworld could come out to play. At least that’s what I figured when I first stumbled in here and no one batted an eye at the Asian man in his late-twenties (the uneven beard and poor dietary habits made me appear to be my early thirties) covered in someone else's blood.
Tonight the bar was emptier than usual, with only a group three older men and myself. They occupied a booth on the opposite side of room and must have been here for some time. Judging from the pungent smell I was positive they were already drunk, or perhaps they bathed in rum. They wore huge grins on their faces, which were flushed bright red and the proof of their consumption on wide display in the form of several shot glasses scattered across the small, circular table amongst them.
Business was never exactly booming since bars like the Moonshine depended on repeat customers, but the fact that the general life expectancy of its customers were often cut very short meant business took a blow as well. To say this bar dealt with lowlives was an understatement. The typical clientele consisted of criminals, perverts, politicians, and other scum who came to congregate over cheap drinks and the promise of a shady oasis to conduct whatever business they had. The bar operated without bouncer and no one every asked for an I.D. card check. Instead, they relied on basic criminal honor system, in the sense there was a certain hierarchy where you had to act a certain part and speak ta certain language. Kind of like a pack of dogs who followed an alpha male: you have to stand your ground or face the brutal consequences. How you handle yourself in a tough situation determines the longevity of your visit in the Moonshine.
For example, before I started coming here regularly there was another man who occupied my seat. The three other men here tonight should remember the details clearly, I’m sure of it, just as sure as their jovial conversation shriveled into whispers when I sat down. They knew who I was, or at least what I was capable of doing. But they didn’t know I was a bounty hunter, and one with zero patience at that.
Two years ago, I had just gotten off a job and was already in a real foul mood before I walked into Moonshine. Roughly twenty minutes before this I had just taken of this wife-beating bastard. It was a long time dispute and the ex-wife who hired me had finally reached her breaking point. Easy mark, but I failed to notice he concealed a knife on him, and before I shoot a whole into his brain he sank his knife into my abdomen. It was a clean cut, but nothing too be overly worried about.
Anyway, I approached the only available seat in sight (my current usual spot) before a man who announced himself as Big Beck decided to step into my personal space. I hated when people got too close, especially if they weren't female. Silence descended upon the raucous crowd in the bar as all the eyes survey us, waiting to see this sudden turn of events.
Big Beck was an apt name, if not the only way to describe him. He was of Caucasian descent and an accent that was unfamiliar to pinpoint. Big, bald, and smug looking and at least a head taller than me with tacky dragon tattoos running up and down his arms. He puffed his chest threateningly and though I don’t quite recall what he had said exactly, I recalled him saying something to me that was both an attempt to insult and rattle me. I didn’t budge. I wasn’t in the mood tonight. As a result he raised his fist to strike me, and in response I whipped out my trusty blaster and burned two holes into this prick’s face.
His body hit the floor with a cracking thud. I quickly looked over my shoulder in case he had some goons to back him up, but no one else dared to make a move. The place returned to its original vibrancy and I became to the successor to his seat. Juliette the bartender coaxed some men to dispose the body into a nearby dumpster on the adjacent street. Fast-forward two years later and no one has challenged me for the spot since.
As usual, Juliette was bartending tonight. She was cleaning a glass that smelled like it used to carry an Old Fashioned when I parked myself on the stool. She smiled sweetly my way, as she had always done to every male patron who walked in from seven to one in the morning (her shift). She gently stacked the now cleaned glass on a tray next to other pristine glasses and came back over to hug me across the bar table.
“Hey Zan, it’s good to see you!”
“The usual, darling?” she asked.
I nodded and pulled out a pack of smokes tucked away inside pocket the of my coat. I placed a single cigarette between my lips and awkwardly fumbled through the built-in lighter that also functioned as the tip of my new index finger. What a bothersome contraption of a hand, it's been a about a week and I was still adjusting to the weight and complexity of its design.
“Johnnie Walker on the rocks. Coming right up.”
I nodded again this time as a sign of thank you, before being blessed a generous view of her backside in a body hugging miniskirt as she went to fix my drink. What a lovely piece of ass. If I wasn’t preoccupied with other matters, you could bet some serious money that I’d make a pass Juliette, or try just the right combination of words that would result in taking her to bed. Hell, I'm sure most of the men that stepped foot into Moonshine tried. As far as I knew, none succeeded.
Juliette had all the makings of what you’d want in a bartender from a heterosexual male perspective: a pretty face, long blonde hair, and an ample pair of tits which always seemed ready to burst from the seams by the way the buttons pressed outwardly on her white blouse. Whether or not she decided to wear a smaller sized shirt to accent these “features” were of no consequence. Men would undoubtedly tip her regardless. Indeed, there were always multiple jars stuffed to maximum capacity with several bills of varying types each night. She probably lived solely off tips, and the rest she would take home to spend lavishly on herself or share with a boyfriend or lover. She couldn’t possibly be single, and if she was then that was of her own volition. It had to be.
She had a peculiar quality in her bright blue eyes, which remained untainted by the environment she worked and the things she saw. Adorned over her face, square rimmed spectacles that added more sexual appeal in the same way some men envisioned a seductive schoolmarm.
Shortly, she came back with two glasses filled to the brim and slid one to me. The condensation from the cup formed a little bridge between the vacant spaces in my hand, latching onto me like lover demanding attention. This must be how alcoholism felt. The constant need to fill the void.
She took a sip from the drink, and let out a satisfied breath of air.
“Delicious, isn’t it?” I asked, following in suit. This wasn’t the first time we drank together, but it was the first time she matched drinks with me.
“You know it’s funny, you’ve been coming here as long as I’ve worked and you’ve never asked me out,” she said, gazing into the bottom of the cup like a schoolgirl on her first date. “Not even once.”
“I suppose a beautiful girl like you would have had enough men drooling over you. I didn’t want to be just another number. Another notch on someone's belt.”
“Depending on the man, it can be quite flattering. But you’re right. I’d prefer not to date a man who was a regular here. No offense.”
She threw her head back for another sip, a few droplets of water slid down into her cleavage. Whether that was on purpose was open for debate.
“It’s always the same, you know. Working as a bartender you hear all kinds of things—everyone airs their dirty laundry after a certain amount of alcohol fills their system, like a form of catharsis. Except you. You’ve never told me anything about yourself since I’ve met you and suddenly tonight you show up with a brand new hand as if it were the most normal thing in the world.”
The mechanism in my iron hand whirred, as if acknowledging her comment. I took a long drag out of my cigarette and passed it over to her. She hesitated for a moment.
"Come on, I've seen you smoke on your break."
With a sigh she relented and took the cigarette from my hand, like an olive branch of peace.
“Anyway, I don’t like talking too much. It always leads to trouble.”
"I have the opposite problem, I talk too much," she laughed.
The way she held the cigarette between her fingers, rolling and spinning back and forth suggested there was something on her mind. Then suddenly she asked.
“You know, you’ve never even told me your real name,” she said, her voice lowering. "Zan is short for something, is it not?"
“It’s short for Alexander,” I reply, matching her volume as I receive the cigarette. “Besides, I’m sure your name isn’t really Juliette.”
It was common practice for those who work in industries of ill repute, a name change was necessary in order to provide both safety and anonymity for all parties involved.
“Good observation. I keep my real name a secret to avoid unwanted conflicts with men. In the past, I’ve been stalked and I had to jump towns just find some peace.”
“And you did it by working at the most rundown joint you could find.”
“Ironic, isn’t it? But it works. I haven’t been pestered so much since then.”
“Perhaps there’s a guardian angel on your shoulder”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps there’s a devil waiting for me to drop my guard.”
Her eyes flickered to the clear windows outside into the scene of a stormy night. The droplets of water cascaded down in long lines, running into each other before splitting apart into separate directions like a stream broken off its course. It was raining even harder than before now, sounds of splashing against the streets were almost deafening. The music was barely audible now. Time seemed to stop and she was locked in a trance, trapped in the thoughts of her mind. I followed her line of vision with my eyes, past the flickering bar logo and white neon sign in the shape of a crescent moon, and for a split second I think I see something: a shadowy figure stands there unmoving like a stone statue. I narrow my vision but the features of this individual are still distorted by a heavy veil of darkness. I blink and whatever it was vanishes. What the hell was that?
I gauge her reaction and she stays exactly the same, listlessly staring into the void. Did she see the same thing and chose to ignore it? Or was I simply too tired right now? I did have almost five drinks.
Soon after, the three men pay their tab and leave. No one has entered the bar since, quite strange but I shrug it off and steadily drink my beverage. Suddenly she spoke again and despite the bar being empty she kept the same low pitch.
"Do you believe in love, Zan?"
"I can't say I'm a fan of it. Never seems to work out the way we want it to."
“Who'd have thought?”
She chuckled lightly, and became quiet again. She poured herself another drink and topped off another Johnnie Walker for me, which she assured me to be on the house. I glanced around and the place has stayed empty for some time. There has been no one in for at least thirty minutes. What time was it?
"You know the owner of this bar died. It happened on a night just like this. He was my boyfriend."
The way she said it was in such a sudden matter-of-fact way, that a part of myself was unsure what I had heard. She could tell from my expression that I was taken aback and continued to elaborate.
"One day, while we were arguing he left out to go for a long drive. It was something he'd do to clear his head. Apparently, I was always giving him a hard time because he couldn't stand the way other men would look at me. He said their eyes were filled with 'lust' and 'dirty' thoughts. It made him sick, you see."
"I can't say I share the sentiment. I mean, women are always gawked at. It comes with the territory of being attractive."
“Exactly,” she replied with a thumbs-up. “But he couldn't stand it when men did it. It drove him crazy. Which is why he thought it would be best to work together at this bar. He made an excellent moonshine and thought that if I worked here then at least 'he could keep an eye on the men.' He didn't say those exact words, but I saw right through it."
"He wanted to make sure you didn't get into any type of trouble."
"Yes, he was overprotective of me." The words seemed to trail off into the distance as if she were lost within a memory.
"How did it happen?"
"Oh right," she said, snapping back to reality. "I got a call in the middle of the night from a police officer telling me they found his car torn in half. Right down the middle. From their description, he swerved off the highway and crashed into a big protruding rock along the mountainside. The point of impact would have killed him instantly. But the remains must have fallen over the cliff and into the sea. They couldn’t find his body. It simply vanished."
“That’s a terrible way to go.”
“It is, but...” she stammered as if trying to find the right words, “...a part of me thinks he’s still alive. I don’t know how to describe it, but I feel that he’s still around. Whenever I go out, or lounging around at home, or even when I'm here at the Moonshine. His presence is always there, like he's still over my shoulder. Does that sound crazy?”
"Not at all, people have a weird way to cope with death."
"Listen, I've done things ever since his death. I've slept with a few men, and just the thought of what he would do puts me at ease, you know?"
"Revenge from an ex-lover," I muttered to myself. Before she could reply, a customer motioned her over for assistance.
Where had I heard that story before? My thoughts flashed back to the day the women hired me to kill her deadbeat husband. The funny thing was, the thing that didn't drive her over the edge wasn't the constant physical abuse, but rather the fact that he had a secret mistress. From my research I came to the conclusion that he had a second life, complete with a different personality and child on the way.
But how could one do such a thing? Duality was something I couldn't grasp. The idea that someone could wake up each day and put on a different mask made me uneasy. When someone plays a role, how long does it take before you become the character that you play? What happens when the mask you affix to yourself becomes a part of you?
An hour or so passes by and the three men have long since paid their tabs and left a large tip. Another group of four come in and have their drinks before leaving onto more debauchery. Again, these men leave, but just before they drop several hundreds into the mason jar on their way out. Even on a night as slow as this Juliette’s tip jars are almost full.
I’m babysitting my sixth Johnnie Walker and the only person left in the room aside from Juliette. I’m slightly drunk, but I have an overly high tolerance so I'm fine. My eyes move toward the built-in clock on my new arm, which blinks the time at me. Almost time to close up. As I go for my wallet to pay the bill, Juliette’s face is suddenly right next to mine. Her soft hand rests on my mechanical one. Even though it's robotic, the sensors indicate that she's trying to grab me roughly, or at least attempt to.
“Listen, Zan I know what you are. I mean, I know what you do for a living.” She pulls up closer to me; her black painted lips almost graze my own. Her voice is laced with urgency mixed with dread.
A set up? Instinctively, my flesh hand reaches for the gun hidden in the holster underneath my overcoat, but she reaches in at the same time in a feeble attempt to stop me. I could easily shake her grip and snap that delicate hand into pieces, but the frighten look in her eyes prevents me from doing so.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
“Please don’t cause a scene.” She's centimeters away from my face, we're practically kissing now. The trembling in her voice sobers me enough comply. This was genuine fear.
“What do you want?” I asked. Cautiously, my eyes do a slow trace around the room and back on her.
"Roman. My boyfriend."
"No he's not!" She was on the verge of tears. "He's alive and he's trying to kill me. I know it!"
I looked over my shoulder to make sure we were still alone. I didn't like unnecessary attention drawn to me.
"Listen, he's dead. You just told me he crashed into the see, never to be found again."
"He could be an android or a cyborg like you!"
I considered this. With the new age of technology, many things have changed in the society. It was entirely possible, with enough money, to recreate your body thanks to advancements in science. I was living proof of this as were many people in the world. But a high-tech boogeyman seemed a bit to fantastical even in this crazy world of ours.
"I'm moving out of here this weekend. I sold the Moonshine and the buyers are closing it down permanently," she said. "I'm going to take the money and start a new life, but I just need one more night of peace. I don't want to be alone right now."
"My services require a fee. It's not cheap."
"From what I made turning over this place, I'm sure I can afford it. Just give me protection through until the morning."
I agreed to her terms and waited for her to close up shop one last time. Her apartment was nearby, less than two miles in walking distance. She huddled close to me on the way there, shielding herself from the cold weather and perhaps the gaze from past ghosts as we made our way to a decrepit looking building. Inside was completely remodeled to match the current generation of technology with keycard entry way into the elevator. She clicked the button for the top floor. Her place was situated on the twentieth floor and was the only room there, like a penthouse-styled suite reserved for only the fanciest of Las Vegas hotels. She unlocked the door steel double doors with cutting edge palm password recognition, and upon entering I noticed everything inside was perfectly immaculate in every way. It was like walking into a high-end catalogue set piece for celebrity homes. The furnishing was modern with a very deliberate choice of industrial elements splashed into the design.
"Please, make yourself comfortable," she said. She showed me into the living room, which was directly connected to dining room. "There's food in the fridge or if you feel like drinking some more, I have almost every kind of alcohol."
"Thank you, but I think I'll just unwind for a bit." I shook off the water from the umbrella and left it by the door. "It's been a long day."
"I'm going to get freshened up." Then she disappeared into the other room, the door clicked shut behind her. The sound of a muffled shower head went off in the background.
For a girl scared for her life, she seemed to have absolutely no qualms with letting a complete stranger into her home with no supervision. Better for me, it gave me more time to investigate "Juliette" a bit more.
Despite being so lavishly decorated, her apartment somehow seemed hollow, as if it lacked the proper personal qualities to make it feel like a home. It was more like a sterile jail cell, just being in there for too long made you feel sad and empty. There were no pictures of the former couple, her family, or even of herself. The choice of painting their apartment with a subdued color palette didn't help either, as they went for a combination of white, black, and grey. The paintings adorned on the walls also followed in similar suit, and were all abstract in their depictions. Maybe it was because she was moving soon and everything had already been transported, but there was nothing to give a glimpse of her life outside the bar. What type of girl was she? What did her Roman look like? How did she know I was a bounty hunter? Was she really running away from his ghost, or was there something more to the story?
My throat felt dry from all the drinking earlier, so I went to the cupboard and pulled out a clean glass and filled it with ice and water. While on a job, I preferred to have my wits about and sobering up quickly would be the best way to do it. After a short time the door creaked open and Juliette came out in a loose white t-shirt which extended just above the curve of her ass, with black laced panties peeking underneath. The cold air from outside seeped its way into the apartment made her nipples hard and almost visible as it pressed up against the thin fabric of her shirt. She rubbed white towel harshly into her hair, her head tilted to the side as if it would help wring out the moisture that much quicker.
"That feels so much better," she said, steam radiating off her glistening skin. Her face warmed back up to its natural color. The look of fear and dread and thing of the past.
"There's still the matter of my payment," I said, taking a sip of the ice cold water.
"Of course." She went back into the room and came back out with a sizable stack of bills and a brown mini notebook. Untraceable currency made business easier for me. I counted them once over to make sure it was the correct amount and slipped them into my coat pocket for safe keeping.
"Now tell me, how did you know what I was?"
Juliette motioned me to the couch and we took a seat across from each other. She gently pressed the notebook towards me and positioned her knees in her chest, her arms wrapped around her ankles like a timid child who just showed their parent a bad report card.
"Roman told me. It was the first thing he said when you came into Moonshine that night. 'That guy there? He's a bounty hunter, no doubt about it,' were his exact words. From then on he made me keep an eye on you just in case you were on to him. This is his notebook."
"He was there?" I said as I sifted through the pages. It looked to be composed of drawn pictures and notes written down of the people who entered the bar. "I would have remembered his face if he was there."
"Actually he was sitting across the counter. He always did. He liked to blend in with the patrons, said it gave him a different perspective on things."
"This notebook has a lot of people written down."
"They were all men who at one point came into contact with me. They wanted something on the romantic side and a few days later they disappeared."
"How do you know?"
"I watch the news just like everyone else. Of course, nobody would care about the dregs and lowlives of this city so the media never covered them extensively. These guys were convicts and bums, regulars who came in often to see me just to end up in the obituaries."
"And now you think he wants to kill you? After all this time?"
"To be perfectly honest, I don't know. Even through the time we dated he was always a mystery, like there was an invisible barrier keeping him from being his true self around me. But I do know he had a darker side to him, something he would hold back. Maybe now that he died once, the humanity went with it. They say that's what happened to people who have unfinished business."
"Do you mind if I smoke?" I asked. I needed some time to wrap my head around this whole situation.
She shook her head.
"Not at all."
"Thanks Jules." I took a cigarette out and lit it. Smoking helped me think. It was like with each puff I took, I filtered out all the cobwebs and only the pertinent information remained.
"Actually, my real name is Neoma. It stands for 'full moon' in greek."
"That's a beautiful name."
"Thank you," she said, smiling briefly. "That's another reason why Roman named the bar Moonshine. He told me I was like a star that never stopped shining, a perfect glowing angel that could always brighten him even in the night. I shone like how the moon should."
"He's a poet, that Roman."
"Yes, but he was also an enigma, and a part of that was the attraction on my part. I wanted to peel the layers away like an onion, but the more I tried the more confusing it all became."
"You know, sometimes when you want something bad enough you'd do anything to get it." I took a long drag from my cigarette. "Like maintaining a certain lifestyle."
Her eyes widened at the realization of my meaning.
"You aren't suggesting I tried to kill him?"
"It wouldn't be the first time a woman tried to erase her boyfriend or lover. Relax, given my line of work I'm not one to judge."
"No, I swear this isn't the case. But now that you're involved I think you'd be next on his list."
"Because you hired me?"
Neoma closed the small gap of space that separated and nestled herself into me like a big teddy bear. I didn't fight it.
"Because every time I warm up to a man he's end up dead," she said, her voice was melancholic. "But none of those men could protect me. Not like you."
The perfume on her neck ignited something inside of me, and I'm unable to think straight. It had been building for two years, that spark of fire that burns between two people who can't stop their baser instincts.
There's an electricity between us, the kind that couldn't be ignored any longer. No more professional courtesy, just a raw, animalistic desire to fuck each other. I pull her into my lap and without another word, we began kissing and caressing each other's bodies. She quickly pulled off her shirt and I shed my coat and pants. Greedily I explored her soft skin with every inch of my tongue vigorously, lapping like a man dying of thirst shaking the final droplets of water from a canteen. My hands envelop her perfect breasts, playing with them slowly and methodically as ecstasy spreads across her face. By the time my fingers reach down to her black laced panties, she's already soaking wet.
I carried her into the other room and tossed her onto the bed, not bothering to turn on the lights. I pulled off her panties and entered her. Her acrylic nails sank into my back as she moaned loudly. Again and again, all through the night and in every position we made love. I had no idea when we finished because the next thing I knew I was awoken by several sharp thuds at the front door. At first I thought I was dreaming, my mind was in a haze. Then the knocks came again, booming through into her bedroom.
"Zan, Zan!" Neoma whispered. She shook me hard. "Someone's at the door!"
I snapped into alert mode. My head was pounding, a marginal side effect from a night of drinking and pleasure. Again the knocks occurred, even harder now, as getting angrier. Someone was at the door, someone else who had access to the top level. Roman? It couldn't be. But there was only one way to be sure.
I slowly walked into the living room and quietly dressed myself, making sure my gun was loaded and ready to go. I tiptoed quietly to the steel doors and gazed through the peephole (an ancient method to check on strange visitors when the cameras were down), but found nothing. The hallway was completely empty. But the access leading to the roof appeared to have been recently opened.
I heard tiny footsteps and I turned around to find Neoma standing behind me, her naked body now draped in a white bed sheet.
"Wait here," I said softly. "I'm going to check outside. Don't open the door for anybody."
She nods her head quickly.
I went through the front door and made sure it locked behind myself before I trudged through the roof access. It housed a spiral stairwell which lead to the outside world. I checked all corners of the room before From the howling wind, the rain still hadn't let up. I cautiously made my way up step by step, blaster drawn firmly at my side. Outside, the wind howls like a banshee, the roar in the distance signaled the coming thunderstorm. I peered as best as I could but found nothing. I traced the area with my mechanical arm, scanning for anything human. Though it was faint, my arm registered the heat signature of a living organism. Standing still a few yards away was a person and it had to be Roman.
But before I could speak or react, a a flash appeared at the right corner of my eye and the shot rings through the falling droplets. A warm sensation trickled down shoulder. I returned fire. No scream or any indication that I struck anything.
Another shot flies right at me, the light of energy my flashes and I throw my armored hand to block it. The stupid gizmo bursts into a million pieces, knocking me off my feet and onto my ass. Fuck. I quickly rolled over onto my stomach, take aim and fired randomly into the direction I was shot, hoping to hit any body part. I heard a shriek from a women's voice as I get to my feet, and wander cautiously to the edge. Several stories below I see her, a blonde angel soaring into the abyss.
By then time I got down to the alley, the rain had already stopped and the sun was beginning to rise in the east. Lying there lifelessly in a shallow pool was Neoma, her eyes opened with a permanent shock of horror stuck on her face, almost like a mask. Her beautiful naked body and perfect breasts pointed into the sky, like a gorgeous sacrifice to appease the devil himself. I leaned over to check her pulse and confirmed what I already knew. From the broken glass and the weird contorted way her body was now shaped, she must have been thrown from the top floor. She must have died on impact. In one of her hands, she clutched Roman's notebook. Some pages had been torn out. Was she killed by a specter or memory of her past, I'll never know. It remained a mystery.
After that incident, I tried to take on more jobs, but it just didn't feel right. I finished a few more, but there was some type of freak occurrence that night, something that stripped the killer instinct from my mind and soul. I couldn't bring myself to perform my job ever again. It the only bounty I couldn't fulfill. The singular blemish on an otherwise spotless record. It ate at me in ways I could never put into words, and soon I retired.
That was six months ago. Currently, it's nine on a Friday night and I'm sitting in a car parked in front of an empty building that used to be the Moonshine. Some of the windows are broken, there's spray painted graffiti smeared across the boarded up walls, and the lights haven't been turned on in some time. There's no telling what it'll be next or when it'll open up again, but I hope it does soon. Until then I'll keep driving by once every week, on the off chance I catch the glimpse of a full moon.