Now, the room truly does go quiet. I notice one guy let his beer bottle slip down in his hand so he’s holding it by the neck, all the better for swinging. A couple of burly guys at a back table exchange looks and stand up, eyeballing us. For a moment, I think the whole bar might try rushing us. That would end badly for them, and I try to communicate that with my stare. Nine, who with his tangled black hair and dirty face fits right in here, cracks his knuckles and lolls his head back and forth, watching the crowd.
Finally, one of the other hicks at the pool table hoots. ‘Mike, you dumbass, say excuse me and get over here! It’s your shot!’
‘Sorry,’ Mike whimpers to Marina, his arm turning blue where she’s touching him. She shoves him away and he goes to rejoin his friends, rubbing his arm and trying to avoid looking at us.
Just like that, the tension breaks. Everyone goes back to what they were doing, which pretty much means guzzling beer. I figure scenes similar to that – little fights, stare downs, maybe a stabbing or two – must happen in Trapper’s all the time. No big deal. Like I figured, this is one of those places where nobody asks any questions.
‘Keep it under control,’ I tell Marina as we walk to the bar.
‘I am,’ she replies.
‘Didn’t look like it.’
Nine reaches the bar a step ahead of us, clearing a space between two hunchbacked drunks and slapping the chipped wooden surface.
The bartender, who looks just a tad more alert and cleaner than his customers, probably because he’s wearing an apron, looks us over with weary disapproval.
‘You should know I keep a shotgun under the bar. I don’t want any more trouble,’ the bartender warns.
Nine grins at him. ‘It’s cool, old man. You got anything to eat back there? We’re starving.’
‘I could fry you up some burgers,’ the bartender replies after a moment’s thought.
‘It’s not possum meat or something, is it?’ Nine asks, then holds up his hands. ‘Never mind, I don’t want to know. Three of your finest, my man.’
I lean across the bar before the bartender can retreat into the kitchen. ‘You got a phone?’
He jerks his thumb towards the bar’s darkened back corner, where I notice a pay phone hanging cockeyed from the wall. ‘You could try that. It works part of the time.’
‘Looks like everything in here only works part of the time,’ Nine mutters, glancing at the TV mounted above the bar. The reception is bad at the moment, a news report swallowed up by static, the crooked rabbit ears emerging from the set not doing their job.
As the bartender disappears into the kitchen, Marina sits down with a couple of stools buffering her from Nine. She avoids eye contact, engrossed by the popping static on the TV. Meanwhile, Nine drums his hands on the bar, looking around, almost daring one of the drunks to say something to him. I’ve never felt so much like a babysitter.
‘I’m going to try calling Chicago,’ I tell them.
Before I can go, the scrawny chain-smoker from outside squeezes into the space at the bar next to me. He flashes a smirk that’s probably supposed to be charming, except he’s missing a couple of teeth, and it doesn’t quite reach his eyes, which look wild and desperate.
‘Hey, honey,’ he says, obviously having missed Marina’s demonstration about what happens when drunks try flirting with us. ‘Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you my story. It’s a doozy.’
I stare at him. ‘Get away from me.’
The bartender returns from the kitchen, the smell of cooking meat coming with him and making my stomach growl. He notices the scrawny guy next to me and immediately snaps his fingers in his face.
‘Thought I told you not to come in here if you don’t have any money, Dale,’ the bartender barks. ‘Go on, now.’
Ignoring the bartender, Dale fixes me with one last pleading look. Seeing that I won’t be budged, he slinks down the bar to beg one of the other patrons for a drink. I shake my head and take a deep breath; I need to get out of this place, I need a shower and I need to hit something. I’m trying to keep it cool, to be rational about things, especially considering my two companions aren’t acting all that stable, but I’m angry. Furious, really. Five knocked me out, practically took my head clean off. In that time I was unconscious, the whole world changed. I know I couldn’t have seen it coming – I never expected one of our own would turn traitor, even a freak like Five. Still, I can’t help but feel it would’ve been different if I’d had my guard up. If I’d been fast enough to dodge that first punch, Eight might still be alive. I didn’t even get a chance to fight, and it makes me feel cheated and useless. I bottle that rage up, saving it for the next time I see a Mogadorian.
‘Six,’ Marina says, her voice suddenly fragile, not so distant and cold. ‘Look at this.’
The TV over the bar has started coming in, a rolling band of static disrupting the picture now and then, but a news broadcast is otherwise clearly visible. On it, a windblown reporter stands in front of a line of police tape, the John Hancock Center looming in the background.
‘What the hell?’ I say under my breath. The roof shakes from a sudden peal of thunder outside. That was me, letting some of that rage slip.
The newscast switches over from the reporter to taped footage of the top floors of the John Hancock Center in flames.
‘This can’t be happening,’ Marina says, her eyes wide, looking to me for confirmation that this is just some sick joke. I’ve been trying to be the stable one, but I can’t find anything reassuring to say.