by Darren Atherton and Stephen Gibson
The place was half full of card tossers and tab runners. You might have described a few of ‘em as smooth, but none as tender. The warped board and batten walls were sorely lacking in windows, concealin’ the knowledge of whether it was day or night. And up ‘round the rafters swam a commingled haze of smoke and bodyheat, a graduated spectre suspended above the stolid patrons.
Now, there was one among the lot of ‘em with the features of a more or less idyllic westerner. He had a well cut jaw, finely stubbled, accented by a prim mustache. He had deep ocean eyes and a thick head of wavy, titian hair. Boastin’ the form of a rough hewn Olympian with nothin’ to prove, he dressed in a grey, well-tailored suit.
He seated himself beside an enticin’ little specimen at the bar.
“Darlin’,” he started, “a creature like yourself doesn’t belong in a hole like this.” He smiled and tipped his hat, even though she didn’t raise her eyes to see it.
He placed a limp cigarette between his lips. Thin wisps of smoke ascended from the end, risin’ up to join the high grey haze.
The orange wash of little candles seemed to fight a losin’ battle with the general dimness of the room, and the woman, to the westerner, seemed to side with the shadows. Behind her the wall was a vague smear of relics - retired rifles, a captain’s sword, mediocre taxidermy.
She didn’t look up from her drink. She swirled the liquid ‘round hypnotically, candlelight glintin’ weakly off the brim. It was as if he didn’t exist. And that didn’t bother him nearly as much as it should have.
“Word of advice - brandy’s for drinkin’,” he said with a smirk, a half-resentful attempt to break the ice. She stopped swirlin’ the glass.
“Sorry darlin’,” he tried again, “I’m playin’ the rascal aren’t I. Didn’t mean to interrupt your evenin’.”
“No, please, sit,” she said.
He was a little thrown off by the sudden welcomeness, so he spouted without much thinkin’, “We don’t get a lot of women out this way.”
“They don’t seem in any short supply.” She motioned her head back and forth to draw attention to the other gals in the saloon.
He took a moment to collect himself, blowin’ out a cloud of smoke and pinchin’ his cigarette between his index and thumb before dousin’ it in someone’s abandoned whiskey. The barkeep glared with disapproval.
“Well,” he leaned in to speak somewhat quietly, “most of these here are from the brothels, and there’s somethin’ keepin’ me from callin’ ‘em women proper.”
She snorted, “I see. So you don’t visit the brothels, then?”
She turned slightly towards him, her long, dirty black hair hidin’ her face. The man really didn’t know whether she was beautiful, but her figure seemed to imply it was so.
“Oh, not in the traditional sense I suppose,” he said, squintin’ his eyes with suspect kindness.
“How does one visit a brothel - untraditionally?” the woman asked. It suddenly began to unnerve him that she wasn’t facin’ him directly.
“Reasonable question. I’m not sure I want to share that with a perfect stranger, though. You see, we all have our secrets here.”
It was then she revealed those piercin’ blue eyes, shinin’ like a doublet of icy planets among a sky of soft orange stars, “Oh, I already know yours,” she said through a wide grin.
He nearly leapt back and away from her, ridin’ an instinctual wave of fear, which then segued through disbelief to admiration.
“So the legends are true. What an unfortunate way to end such a promisin’ relationship.”
“Moondance,” she spoke his name sharply, “how a fool like you could elude me for so long is truly a mystery for the ages. Perhaps if I wasn’t going to drink every last drop of blood in that deliciously rugged body of yours we could have been lovers.” It was straightforward, twisted, seductive.
Part of him wanted to bolt for the door, but he knew better. The barkeep, however, had quickly resigned himself to the back room after overhearin’ the woman’s confession.
“Ah, six hundred, seventy-three years. I had a good run,” he laughed half-heartedly, “But somehow it never gets borin’, does it.”
He continued, “I shouldn’t suppose you’d let me live if I asked, knowing that, well, you gotta feed. My life ain’t worth more than its weight in blood to your sort. And of course I can relate to that entirely.” His words were becomin’ counsel for himself, so he redirected his attention toward her, “But it doesn’t need to end tonight. Can’t we muse a little while longer? I meant it when I said we don’t get many women out this way, not your sort. Humour me, won’t you darlin’?”
He had since sat himself straight again. The ladies man was all but gone now; there was only a humble creature who knew his time was up.
“Well I’m awfully hungry and I don’t much prefer long conversations with my meal. As charming as it may be,” she winked cruelly.
Suddenly an aberrant, uninvited baritone sounded, breakin’ their concentration. It warbled and croaked, impossible at first to identify as the voice it turned out to be.
“Pardon me,” it interjected. Moondance and the woman turned quickly to face it.
There was a very tall man reclined in a chair at the back of the saloon. The place was now empty, and he sat alone. He was draped in a ragged overcoat, a fan of night black feathers stickin’ out from behind his shoulders. Beneath it all was a simple suit with no distinguishin’ features. His hood cloaked his face in shadow, and his raised collar lent further concealment. And he stood, showin’ himself to possess a figure neither menacin’ nor harmless.
As he approached them the flickerin’ candles seemed to steady before bendin’ in his direction. The ceilin’ haze started clearin’ up, the saloon air turnin’ crisp and clean in his presence.
Finally he came so close that they could somewhat discern a shadowed, metallic face. But aside from the blazin’ triangular eye dead centre, there was somethin’ inscrutable about it, stupefyin’ to the both of ‘em.
He cut in between, forcin’ Moondance to stand up and step back, “I’m afraid miss Barceline shall have to wait,” the stranger said, reachin’ for her unfinished brandy.
Still in awe, she permitted his movements, watchin’ as the glass frosted over before he handed it back to her.
“You see,” he continued, “I’ve had my eye on Moondance for awhile, and I’ve decided he’s far too interesting to simply perish silently in some back alley.” The man’s voice was austere, stern, confident. He was indeed a dauntin’ character in her eyes, but she figured she’d seen worse.
Shaking off her bewilderment, she took a sip, “My dear, I don’t know who, or what in the hell’s name you are, but I doubt you’ve had your eye on him as long as I have. That man there,” she said, noddin’ at Moondance, “he’s mine.”
Moondance sat somewhat tensely behind his mysterious defender, amused at the exchange, puffin’ on a new cigarette he’d lit while watchin’. It burned a little faster than normal.
She saw nothin’ in the man’s pistol-fire eye. He conveyed no emotions. She tried to reflect the same immovable, stoic manner, but her own piercin’ gaze failed to mystify or intimidate on this particular occasion.
Slowly, the whole saloon started rattlin’ and shakin’, the floor beneath them contortin’ with some subterranean force which threatened to break up and through. Glasses and bottles danced their way off the shelves, doomed to shatter on the hardwood floor below. The darkness took over as candles fell and snuffed themselves out in their own wax.
In the midst of the commotion the saloon doors slammed and swung back and forth. Moondance was gone. Barceline felt she had no choice in that moment, musterin’ her superhuman speed and makin’ for the exit. But she had to cross the stranger first.
He grabbed her arm and she fell hard to her knees as a searing shock ran through those ancient bones of hers. When he let go and stepped back, her wounded arm began returnin’ to its unmarred tone, and she recovered, bringin’ herself to stand once again.
She was all adrenaline, all hunger. Once the rumblin’ subsided the stranger stood firm, as did she. Their eyes were aglow in the near-full darkness, and the two stood like gods, set to wrestle over the uncertain fate of poor Moondance.
To be continued...