Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge – Paul Krueger

Bailey Chen was taking care of some serious business. “Hello?” She plugged a finger into her non-cell-phone ear. “Jess? Are you still there? I was just saying that I think Divinyl’s doing some really interesting things with their business model—” “Yup!” said a perky-sounding female. “That’s great! So you probably know we’re—” “ ‘A revolutionary return to revolving music,’ ” Bailey recited. “ ‘The company that’s bringing the retro sound of vinyl to the convenience of a mobile platform.’ I think that’s really, uh—” She cast around for the right word. Cool? Awesome? What could you really say about an audio-filter app that took sharp, clear mp3s and re-rendered them into record-styled hiss- and pop-filled playback? Anything, she reminded herself, anything as long as it landed her an interview. “… really innovative,” Bailey said. “And I’d love to come in and talk with you.” She heard a crackle on the line, and Bailey wondered for a split second if it was an intentional throwback designed into Divinyl’s corporate phone system or just a side effect of her shitty cell reception. “Totally!” Jess said. “God, can you believe we haven’t talked since, like, high school? We have so much to catch up on.” “Oh,” Bailey said. “Um, yeah!” Bailey could believe they hadn’t talked since, like, high school because they hadn’t talked that much in high school. But maybe Jess was one of those people who had dramatically changed in college.

Besides, if Bailey landed the job, Jess would probably be her first office friend. They could do business-lady things, like go out for chopped salads. Or, even better, make an intern bring them chopped salads, which they would eat in their spacious, window-filled corner offices while planning total domination of their market sector. (And maybe online-shopping for statement necklaces, because it was, after all, their lunch break.) Bailey smiled. If she’d ever had a mental picture of success, that was it: lunch delivery, ruthless business sense, and power jewelry. “Bailey?” “Sorry, Jess, I’m here. So do you have any time coming up this week or—” “Bailey!” This time her name was not coming from the phone. Zane Whelan’s shaggy-haired head appeared over the end of the bar, his square eyeglasses gleaming. “There you are!” Shit.

“Um, gotta go,” Bailey chirped into her phone, “but callmebackwhenyougetach—” Zane frowned. “Are you … talking to someone?” “Hydrangeas,” Bailey said quickly. “Huh?” “Hydrangeas, wisterias, oleander, rhododendron, and anthurium,” Bailey said, nodding to the trivia emcee gamely grinning down at a clipboard from behind her microphone. “Five of, uh, the most common poisonous plants.” “Anthurium?” Zane blinked. “That sounds like something from a B movie.” Bailey pocketed her phone. “Well, it’s real.” The emcee paced the bar floor, shooting pleading glances at each team. “Come on, guys,” she said, with microphone-added reverb.

“I only need five. You’ve still got twenty seconds left to—yes! You.” The captain of a team of yuppies had leapt to his feet. “Oleander, poinsettia, dandel—” But just as he said “dandelion,” a buzzer drowned him out. “Duh,” Bailey said under her breath. “Dandelions are edible.” “Really?” Zane said. “They’re good in salads.” “Sorry.” The emcee shook her head like a rueful gameshow host.

“Dandelions may not taste great, but they are not poisonous. They’re actually—” Bailey mouthed the rest of the sentence: “—edible and good in salads.” “Wow.” Zane tapped out a few polite claps. “I’m impressed.” “Oh, um, don’t be,” Bailey said, praying he wouldn’t ask about the phone call. “Poinsettias aren’t toxic to humans unless you eat, like, five hundred leaves. She should have called him on that one.” “Hey, ease up. Not everyone in this bar’s an Ivy League graduate.

” Bailey flushed. “I didn’t mean—” But Zane was grinning. “Because that distinction is the exclusive territory of our smartest barback.” He patted her shoulder, and Bailey tried not to cringe. “Right,” she said. “Thanks.” “And as the smartest barback at the Nightshade Lounge”—Zane went on—“you really should know better than to go sit on the floor during a busy shift.” “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Bailey rushed to say. “I just had to, uh, the music—” “Music?” Zane shook his head. “Bailey, that jukebox has probably been here since the sixties.

It totally doesn’t work. You know that.” “Right,” Bailey said. Sometimes it felt like nothing worked at the Nightshade Lounge except Bailey. And Zane, of course. Zane gave the jukebox a fond pat on its cracked glass. “Anyway. Don’t slack on me, okay?” “I’m not,” Bailey protested. If there was one thing she wasn’t, it was a slacker. “I’m just—” “Look, Bailey, I told my uncle you could do this job with no experience,” Zane said.

“And you can do it. But if you don’t …” He cleared his throat and continued in a low voice. “I don’t want to have to fire you the first week.” Bailey could only nod. She wanted to explain—Sorry, Zane, that I’m not only looking for the first opportunity to ditch the job you pulled major strings to get me but also doing it while on the clock—but instead gave him the truncated version: “Sorry. Yup.” “Good.” Zane smiled. He’d shown up to work wearing what he always wore: a slim old threepiece suit, complete with loosely knotted tie and rumpled dress shirt, which made him look like a Swinging London modster about to zip off on a candy-colored scooter. “And in return, I’ll continue to pay you and act as your beneficent overlord.

” “More glasses!” Trina, the redheaded bartender who was Zane’s counterweight that night, yelled at them from the other end. “Sometime this century, please?” she added. “Not those glasses, Zane. You already made that joke, like, five minutes ago.” Zane crammed his spectacles back onto his face. “I still think it’s funny.” “On it,” Bailey said, glad for the abrupt end to the conversation. She scooted along in the narrow space behind them, calling out, “On your back! On your back!” as she passed. After depositing a freshly cleaned stack of old fashioned glasses by Trina’s side, she glanced at the garnish tray. “Thanks,” Trina said.

“I’m low on—” “Cucumbers,” Bailey said with a nod. “On it. On your back, on your back …” “Bailey—” Zane said as she passed. “More towels?” Bailey knew Zane could never have enough towels. “Damn, you’re good.” He plunged a spoon into his shaker and stirred the contents into a froth. On the one hand, Bailey was well suited to the job of barback. Her small stature meant she could navigate the cramped bar with ease. Her sharp eye for details and logistics allowed her to solve problems before they became problems—a shortage of cucumber slices, for instance. Her Ivy League education … well, the really nice UPenn bottle opener she’d gotten sure came in handy.

And though she liked people well enough, she wasn’t always the best when dealing with them. But as a barback she didn’t have to. She just had to keep shuttling supplies and ensuring the line moved smoothly. On the other hand, barbacking was a terrible job. The Ravenswood neighborhood had plenty of bars, but the Nightshade was an institution (which, in Chicago, more or less meant a place that stubbornly refused to close). The dark drapes, low lights, and worn-down emerald-colored booth cushions evoked a kind of comfortably faded Second City swank—emphasis on faded, because Bailey was pretty sure the cushions hadn’t been replaced since at least the Carter administration. But while the place wasn’t trendy enough to serve fourteen-dollar cocktails, it wasn’t crappy enough to sell only cheapie cans of light lager, either. Even though it seemed to Bailey like Garrett Whelan had no business savvy whatsoever, the Nightshade did a brisk business selling mixed drinks to mixed company. So in theory her duties as barback should have been: 1. Keep bartenders supplied with a steady stream of clean glasses while removing the used ones.

2. Make sure each garnish tray is well stocked at all times. 3. Regularly check the garbage, taking it out before it overflows. (Bailey did her best work when she could prioritize everything, preferably in list form.) At the height of a rush, however, her list was far more likely to look like this: 1. DO EVERYTHING. 2. RIGHT NOW. 3.

OR ELSE. All night, every night she never stopped moving. No matter how on top of the situation she was, there was always another fire to put out. And then there were the customers. They started the evening pleasant enough. But a few rounds had the same effect as a trip to Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island: anyone could turn into an ass. “So that’ll be a martini for me,” one of the hard-core trivia enthusiasts slurred at her awhile later. She leaned over the bar and gazed down at Bailey with glassy eyes. Bailey greeted the girl with a patient smile. “I’m sorry, but I’m just a barback,” she said.

“I can’t make—” “—two glasses of whiskey with ice,” the girl continued. “And for Trev—hey, Trev! What do you want?” A few paces away, Trev muttered. “Oh, yeah,” said the girl. “A Long Island iced tea.” With her lazy, boozy diction, the order came out lawn-ilan-icy. Bailey doubled down on her outward customer friendliness, even as her internal patience evaporated. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” she said again, “but I—” Zane appeared like magic. “Ladies,” he said smoothly, positioning himself between his barback and members of the “Wreck Your Privilege” trivia team. “I know a thing or two about making a decent Long Island. Why don’t you leave it to me?” His performance felt increasingly unreal as Bailey watched.

The Zane she’d always known had been clumsy and awkward, but apparently a lot changed when you hadn’t seen someone for five years. This version of Zane effortlessly charmed his customers, entertaining them while he mixed their drinks with the showy vigor of a stage magician. Speaking of people who’ve changed since high school, she thought, and then squashed the notion as quickly as it appeared. Yes, high school Zane had been the kind of guy who couldn’t admit to his feelings for his best friend Bailey until a couple of beers at Luke Perez’s graduation party had loosened his tongue … and Bailey’s pants. Yes, talking to Zane two weeks ago had been a catch-up session even more awkward than her theoretical upcoming “please give me a job” chat with Jess. But no, overall, things were fine. Zane and Bailey were friends again, and it wasn’t too awkward (which was good). He’d even given her a job to help get her parents off her back (which was even better). And if the only side effect was her own sudden, terminal uncoolness, well, so be it. She probably deserved it.

“You know,” Bailey said, “it’d probably help if you taught me how to make drinks. Just for when you or Trina are too busy.” The bar lifestyle had wreaked havoc on her sleep schedule and her social life, and the pay truly sucked, but calling herself a bartender was at least kind of cool and would sound less embarrassing when she got around to having friends again. Zane shook his head. “No dice,” he said. “No offense, but you’re not ready.” “Not ready?” Bailey was incredulous. “What happened to smartest barback?” “You’re also our only barback,” Zane said. “And right now that’s where I need you. Okay?” Bailey tried not to scowl.

“Okay.” Zane nodded his head toward the blank spot behind him that Trina should’ve been occupying. “It’s gonna be a little busy for a bit,” he said. “Trina’s stepping out for a smoke.” Ah, yes, Bailey thought. Wouldn’t be an evening at the Nightshade without one of the staf taking a suspiciously long smoke break right at the height of the rush. All the bartenders, even Zane, usually excused themselves during shifts, leaving Bailey and the remaining bartender to hold down the fort—which, fine, drinking and smoking did kind of go hand in hand. But as far as she could tell, none of the lounge’s staff smoked: no tobacco smell, no yellow teeth, no pack-size faded spots on their pockets. “Zane,” she asked slowly, “do you have a light?” “Huh? No. Why?” Interesting, Bailey thought.

“No reason,” she said. “What do you need me to do?” Zane winced. “I’m sorry to ask—” Bailey’s heart sank. Zane had no poker face. Whatever he was about to say, it wasn’t going to be pretty. But unfortunately, “not pretty” was her job. “What is it?” she said. “Spit it out.” “Funny you should use that phrasing,” Zane said. “Someone must’ve been feeling a little, ah, softboiled.

Women’s bathroom—” “How bad?” Zane smiled weakly. “She almost made it.” “Hey! Suit guy!” yelled a Cubs fan. “We’re thirsty over here!” Zane nodded to him. “Sorry,” he said. “Really, sorry.” And then he was off, grabbing a shaker and glass of ice as he went. Bailey spent a half hour scrubbing the bathroom to a serviceable shine, though she knew full well someone would undo all her work the second she put the mop and bucket away. She probably could’ve gotten to the bar faster by half-assing the job, but being detail oriented was so entwined in her DNA that she couldn’t leave things unfinished, no matter how stupid or gross they were. By the time she rejoined Zane on the line, that goddamn bathroom sparkled.

The trivia game was winding down as Bailey slipped behind the bar, and even though she’d flitted in and out all night, she still mentally answered more questions than most of the teams, faltering only in classic literature. So I haven’t read every book , Bailey thought. Trivia was just a test of fact retention, and her brain was as absorbent as a sponge. Also, she thought as she replenished the plastic straws without being asked, I’m a self-starter. Think of what I could do in the right environment. With a bang that rattled the glasses on the shelves, Trina returned from her smoke break (decidedly not smelling of cigarettes, Bailey noted), and more people filtered out. By a half hour from closing, only a few customers remained. Zane sent Trina home early, leaving just him and Bailey to close up. “That was fun,” he said, as if they’d just stepped off the best roller coaster ever. Bailey looked at him sidelong, estimating whether sufficient distance separated her from his insanity.

“Oh, come on,” he said. “You didn’t have a fun night in the trenches?” He playfully dropped into a boxer’s crouch and swiped at the air. “They didn’t box in the trenches,” she said. “They used long-range bombardment weapons. Can you mime a howitzer?” “As soon as I learn what that is,” he said. “You’re telling me you don’t get anything out of the rush times? Not even a trickle of adrenaline?” “Zane, adrenaline’s something your body makes to stop you from dying horribly.” She plunked down a martini glass, which he snatched right up and dried off. In tandem they worked with assemblyline efficiency. “And no,” she said, “it’s not fun. Jobs aren’t supposed to be.

That’s why they’re jobs.” “They’re not supposed to be, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be, right?” Bailey grunted. “Well, hey,” he said. “You wanna come out tonight? Me and some of the other bartenders around town like to stop in at Nero’s Griddle—you remember Nero’s, right?” Bailey barely had time to nod. “And you’ve gotta meet this buddy of mine who works down in Boystown, and, more important, my girlf—” At that Bailey snapped to attention, but Zane was frowning at his phone. Whatever he was reading had snuffed out his smile. “What is it?” she said, more curious about his trailed-off sentence than whatever was on his phone. Only one word started with girlf, and it wasn’t one she’d ever heard Zane use about himself. “I have to go.” Zane crammed his phone back into his pocket.

He looked serious, even grim, as if he were barely aware that Bailey was still there, and then reached for supplies: lime juice, triple sec, a bottle of tequila that he produced from under the counter. “Hey!” Bailey cried. “We just cleaned those—” “I need you to close up, Bailey.” Zane slapped the lid on his now-full shaker, which he started to shake with a weirdly exact rhythm, rattling the ice cubes against the metal sides in a seven-point beat. He grabbed a margarita glass, dipped the rim in water, and then jammed it into the salt dish and twisted. He strained the contents of the shaker into the salt-rimmed glass, then dropped in one of the last remaining lime wedges. The lime bobbed a bit against the cubes, and in the low bar light, the glass seemed to be glowing green. Zane snatched up the drink, took a few deep gulps, and squeezed his eyes against what looked like a brain freeze. “You know the drill,” he said. “Set the dishwasher, clean out the trays, and give the counters a good polish.

The rest of it we can handle when we open tomorrow night. Just lock up when you’re done and get home safe, okay?” Bailey frowned. “What’s going on?” “Don’t worry about it. We’ll do breakfast another midnight.” “But—” Zane was already vaulting over the bar and headed for the door. When he yanked it open, Bailey caught a glimpse of someone standing outside, an angular woman with dreadlocks. The moment the woman saw Zane, she took off running, and the two of them sped off into the night. The doors swung shut again, leaving Bailey alone in the quiet, empty bar. Confused, a little pissed off, and realizing it was too late to call Jess to pin down an interview, she slammed the dishwasher shut, rattling every glass and cup inside. She trudged back to the front to polish off the counter, seriously ready to call it a night.

Starting at Zane’s end, she moved her rag in small circles, systematically eliminating any hint of grime or spillage. Everywhere her towel went, it stayed until the surface beneath was a varnished brown mirror. As she made her way to Trina’s end, something caught her eye: a small hole in the space beneath the counter. As she approached, she realized it wasn’t just a hole; it was a gap between panels that looked like it could slide open. She pushed it wide open—it must have been designed to stay flush with the wall when closed—and found a row of six small bottles: four clearish, two pale browny. All the elementary liquors—vodka, tequila, gin, rum (light and dark), and whiskey—and all with the same label—not Jack Daniel’s or Seagram’s or anything she recognized, but one with no name and a logo of two interlocked Cs. She reached for one, popped the cork, and took a sniff: vodka. The good stuff as far as she could tell. Her first instinct was to put it right back; after all, it was Nightshade inventory, and hidden in a secret compartment besides. Instead, she grabbed a spare glass, some ice, and the carton of orange juice in the mini-fridge under the sink.

Zane had a strict no-drinking policy while on the job, but this hardly counted. And after tonight she’d fucking earned it. Not ready yet, she thought as the ice cracked under her measured shot of vodka. What was to be ready for? Look at me now, Zane. I’m making a drink, and I’m managing. Having filled the glass with orange juice, she stuck in a straw, gave it a quick stir, and replaced the bottle, shutting the secret compartment and promising herself she’d ask Zane or Trina tomorrow what the hell that was about. Then she turned and admired the fruit of her labors: a freshly made screwdriver. The drink gleamed cheerfully on the counter, just as Zane’s margarita had. Bailey squinted upward. Maybe a bulb was out or one of the neon signs was leaking (could they leak?), making the tainted air cast everything in an extra-glittery glow.

Whatever. Drinks were for drinking, not for gawking at, and so that’s exactly what Bailey did. Bailey had had screwdrivers before. Usually they were slapdash concoctions, little more than orange juice and vodka splashed together inside a red Solo cup. But this one was no dorm room special; rather than clash, the vodka and orange juice harmonized. The drink was sweet and tangy and cold, and the liquid burned just the right amount on the way down. Bailey had intended to take only small sips, but when she pulled the glass away from her lips, she was surprised to see she’d already downed half. Well, she thought as the delicious feeling spread from her stomach to her toes, I’ll have to drink more screwdrivers. When she swung out the front door ten minutes later, she felt even warmer inside. Warm, but not tipsy or clumsy.

Refreshed. Curiously refreshed. Probably the best she’d ever felt postshift. She jammed her key into the door to lock up like the dutiful employee she was. Except somehow she really jammed it because when she turned the key, it stuck. She’d completely bent it. “Shit.” Bailey stared at her hand, wondering how she’d manage to warp a solid piece of metal when she had trouble opening twist-off beers. Prepared to struggle, she dug in her heels and yanked, but the key came out so easily she stumbled backward. Stunned and a little woozy, she stared at the crooked key in her palm, then daintily took it in her fingertips and slowly, tentatively, bent it upward.

The metal yielded to her hands. The key was utterly straight and good as new. No harm done, Bailey told herself. She dropped her keys into a jacket pocket and started to stroll home, wishing she knew how to whistle so she could complete the picture. Ravenswood had been a rough little neighborhood on the North Side when her parents moved in, but gentrification set in during the twenty-odd years since. Now it felt like a suburb that had been swallowed, whole and unchewed, by a big city. Damen Avenue, where the Nightshade Lounge sat on the corner of Leland, was as business district-y as the neighborhood got, lined with closed-for-thenight shops, a few parked cars, and the occasional tree. In the distance a late-night Brown Line train trundled along its elevated track. Sunnyside Avenue, where she was headed and where she now lived —again—with her parents, was quiet, with squat houses set behind small well-kept lawns and raised front porches. Everywhere, people hung up the city flag of Chicago—two blue stripes on white, with four red stars in the middle—as if city hall was afraid that people this far north would forget where they were living.

As Bailey turned onto Leland, she felt the hairs prick on the back of her neck. She wasn’t weird about walking by herself—this was her home turf after all, and she possessed an above-average amount of street smarts thanks to a mandatory girls-only session during orientation week called “Sisters Self-Defendin’ It for Ourselves.” But while Damen was the main drag, with streetlights and shop windows and potential witnesses, Leland was more secluded, especially after last call. Despite the warm September night, she shivered and quickened her pace, glancing over her shoulder. No one’s there, she told herself. Just a few more blocks. But the more she walked, the more certain she was that she was hearing something: a skittering noise down the block, something rustling through the leaves on the ground. Bailey thought it was probably a rat or a raccoon, but then again, she wasn’t sure she knew this neighborhood anymore. Maybe there were muggers now. Vaguely recalling her instructor’s method for self-defendin’ it, Bailey whipped out her keys, brandishing them like tiny daggers between her knuckles.

“I can hear you,” she said a little shakily. “I know you’re there.” Confidence lets your attacker know you’re not an easy target! the instructor had told them. Remember the acronym S-A-F-E: stay alert, announce, f-something. Shit, what was F? Focus? Well, she was trying to. Bailey pivoted but saw nothing distinct enough to focus on. But she could hear it. And then it came out of the darkness. Whatever was following her wasn’t just another hungover coed in gym shorts. It didn’t even look human: too low to the ground, eyes too yellow.

Glowing yellow. “Good boy,” Bailey said, keys held high. “Nice b—” But it wasn’t a dog. It was something awful that she’d never seen before. Before she could scream, something rammed into her, hard and dense, like a cannonball to the ribs. Her head smacked the pavement, her elbow skinned across asphalt. The not-a-dog was heavy on top of her: a horrible, squirming, four-legged thing the size of a German shepherd, with a head like a protruding tumor and limbs covered in naked ropes of salmon-colored muscle. Bailey scrambled under it, the world spinning from alcohol and adrenaline. The thing was pawing at her with stubby feet and she couldn’t keep it off, couldn’t wrestle away, couldn’t escape. Oh, God, she thought.

I’m going to die. Here, on the streets of Ravenswood, less than half a mile from where she’d grown up, less than half a block from where she’d just scrubbed a toilet. No, Bailey thought. No. No. The slimy weight on her chest was too heavy for her to draw breath for a scream, and the world was going fuzzy around her. God, no. This was how it ended, not with a bang but with a minimum-wage job and a heap of student debt. Bailey cringed, and with all her dizzied, nauseated might, she mustered up one stupid, single, and probably final thought: Fuck. That.

Shit. And she kicked. Hard. It worked. She pushed the thing away with the soles of her sneakers and, before she had time to think, sprang to her feet, closed her eyes, and threw the hardest punch of her life. It was ugly and clumsy, and her fist hooked around the thing’s side instead of slamming it head-on. But her knuckles met flesh, and in a spray of black blood, its head caved in like a rotted pumpkin. “Shit!” Bailey yelped, and leapt back. The remains of the animal-thing’s body splatted to the concrete. Smoke curled up from the edges of its limbs, as if it were a leaf catching fire, and the night air filled with a thick chemical stench.

Bailey coughed, shielding her eyes, and before she even had time to worry about how to scrape the nasty mess off the pavement, the thing’s body collapsed with an abrupt squelch. Bailey jumped back from the puddle, out of the street, and glanced around wildly for something else: A pack? A flock? Another pair of yellow eyes? But she saw nothing. Just a quiet street and a fizzing pool of dead-smelling … something. She clamped her bloodstained hands over her mouth and smothered a scream. The screwdriver roiled inside her. Her arms and legs shook like it was below freezing, and her heart squeezed painfully with every breath. She wasn’t safe. She wasn’t safe, and she was going to be sick. Terrified and trembling, Bailey did what she apparently did best: she fled back home.

.

.

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