by Druur Monakh
The man reached out his hand to knock on the counter of the bar, but before his knuckles had even made contact with the surface, the Bartender was ready for him, having seen the beginning of the gesture out of the corner of his eye. Smoothly, he picked up the bottle of Amarrian Brandy and refilled the two shot glasses on the counter, nano-electronics in the filler cap adding the cost to the tab, almost even before the second knock had rung out. He relished the surprise in the face of the patron, and not just because it would likely translate into a larger tip – this was what the Bartender lived for.
He had a real name, but the Bartender doubted that anybody in the bar would know it, and that was fine by him. His nickname had started out as not exactly well-meant ribbing from his coworkers, who preferred to do the least amount of work possible to earn their wages, but over time the name stuck, if not turned into grudging admiration, as with quiet insistence he continued to run his bar shifts with the best service he could offer. He was The Bartender.
Right now, it was early in the evening, and traffic was slow, which the Bartender considered his warm-up phase. He liked this part of this shift because it gave him some time to sample the patronage, and practice his skill of reading people. Reading people meant knowing people, and knowing people meant he could (usually respectfully) offer them those drinks they didn’t know they wanted, but were happily willing to pay for.
His eyes scanned the sparsely populated room, dismissing the obviously average patrons, seeking out the noteworthy ones.
For example, the guy who he had just topped off. He and his wingman were obviously looking for some company, but their demeanor was too loud and brash to promise much of a success. Which could spell trouble. Fleecing them with expensive drinks before throwing them out might be the order of the day. While customer was customer, the Bartender preferred some customers over others.
Back in the right, group of Matari had pulled together some tables and were starting what would certainly turn into a boisterous party. In their midst, a fresh-faced youngster, eyes glowing with excitement – obviously the guest of honor. The Bartender made a mental note to keep their supply in drinks at a certain level of quality – doing otherwise would be disrespectful.
At a table in the middle of a room, an odd combination of a Minmatar mohawked punk and a Khanid woman, butch cut hinting at an ex-military background. Both were pod pilots, but unlike many high-and-mighty podders, these two acted is if it they were in their natural habitat. And – the Bartender was almost sure – they were an item of sorts, though it was a puzzle what they saw in each other. These two were hard to read – the Bartender would have to keep an eye on them to figure out what they might want.
On of the booths was claimed by a group of business folks. Not the kind in high-powered bespoke suits, who discussed government coups over a champagne breakfast; instead, it was the crumpled suit variety negotiating minor deals of the borderline legal variety. Still, they had a localized jammer activated, making both audio and video recordings useless for eavesdropping purposes, which meant that a large amount of money was involved, as also evidenced by the passionate gesturing. Eventually, however, they’d come to an agreement and wish to celebrate it – considering the mixed background of the group, a nicely aged Lebenswasser should just fit the bill.
Noise from the door interrupted his survey – something somewhere had ended, and whoever the participants were, they had decided to stop by for a couple of drinks before hitting downstation. The Bartender slipped his rag from his shoulder and polished up a few spots on the counter – it was his intent to make them forget that other bars even existed. For as long as possible.
A couple of hours later, traffic had picked up considerably, and reluctantly the Bartender had to press one of the waitresses into bar service. Not that she wasn’t a nice kid, but that’s all she was: a kid, looking for a future beyond running a bar. But being a bartender meant keeping the economical side of a bar in mind, and that meant that at peak times, volume beat service.
But peak traffic or not, the Bartender took the time to scan the locale for the groups he had pinpointed earlier.
The business group was making progress: they weren’t quite ready to celebrate yet, but the gestures were less emotional now, and they had lowered their privacy jammer once already to order bar food and light drinks. They were hammering out details now, and soon they’d toast.
The Matari group had evolved into the party he had expected, and were too happy to be presented with bottomless pitchers as far as their cumulative credit allowed. One of the bouncers had openly planted himself near the Matari, to make sure that the party wouldn’t get too much out of hand, but the Bartender didn’t really expect much trouble there.
Amarrian Brandy guy – the Bartenders eyes narrowed as he couldn’t immediately locate him – was now talking to the butch Khanid, while the Minmatar punk – again the Bartender’s gaze scanned the crowd – was openly flirting with another patron.
Three out of four – not bad for a slow night, the Bartender thought.
Only… apparently Butch wasn’t happy being talked to by Amarrian Brandy – her body language was clear, as was the look of disgust on her face when Brandy grabbed her arm. The Bartender moved towards where he kept the Neural Pulser under the counter. While the bar accepted that certain disagreements between patrons would inevitably happen, there was a line which patrons couldn’t be allowed to cross. The Neural Pulser was there to enforce that line. Technically non-lethal, getting hit hurt enough that people usually wished that it was lethal. And it was definitely preferable over getting the bouncers involved, who would turn any situation invariably messy.
The argument seemed to grow fiercer, and the Bartender closed his right hand around the butt of the pulser, when suddenly Butch’s demeanor changed: she relaxed, leaned backwards even, and her left hand came up to stroke Brandy gently around his ear and neck. Brandy relaxed in return, and when Butch started to tilt her head forward to whisper something to him, he leaned towards her as well.
Which made his nose the perfect target for when Butch, with a quick chopping motion, slammed her forehead into his face. Brandy shrieked, blood exploding from his broken nose, but his grip tightened around her arm. Yet the Bartender relaxed and let go of the pulser: he had an inkling of how this would end. Because Butch wasn’t done yet: her hand, which just moments ago was teasing Brandy’s hairline, was now gripping his neck with four fingers, while her thumb was pressing in on his larynx. Not strongly enough to crush it, but enough to make him cough and choke, and to reflexively move his hands to his neck in defense. Taking the opening, Butch stood up, took half a step backwards, kicking over her stool in the process, and landed a quick one-two jab against Brandy’s liver and solar plexus.
It was clear to the Bartender that this woman was no experienced fighter – she was focusing too much on her opponent, and the execution of the jabs had been sloppy. But she did have lightning-fast reflexes, and he was now sure that she had received previous training. And in this case it was Brandy who was the one hunched over in pain, while Butch was the one winding up for a kick to fully take him out of commission.
That left Wingman, the Bartender remembered suddenly. Reluctantly drawing his attention away from the humiliation of Brandy, it didn’t take him long to find Wingman: standing nearby, face red, itching to come to his friend’s help. But he was stopped by a shard of glass only a centimeter from his eye, held unwaveringly by Punk. Her body language was non-aggressive, but resolute: As long as Wingman wouldn’t interfere, nobody else would get hurt.
It was one of those moments where the Universe seemed to hold its breath. The Bartender remembered many of such moments – the Universe apparently had good lungs – yet each of one was somehow unique. This one, he would later remember, had even the Matari party fall silent – maybe because one of their own race was involved, if only by association.
But good lungs or not, eventually the Universe would exhale, and so it did this time as well: Brandy lying crouched on the floor, about to be manhandled out by the bouncers. Wingman’s common sense returning, convincing him to vanish in the crowds without further muss. Punk and Butch, both still running a high, grinning at each other, then sharing a brief, passionate kiss before heading to the exit. Everybody else returning to their own entertainment.
“What are you smiling at?!”, asked the waitress cum co-bartender.
The Bartender minutely shook his head. She wouldn’t understand.
Four of four.