© Charles Vess 2019
A light rain began to fall as Thomas pulled his bike into the loading zone in front of a busy downtown music club. As she hopped off, Janet whispered into his ear, “Meet me inside, okay?”
Tom nodded and then as he threaded his bike through the busy traffic looking for a place to park, he began to wonder why he’d allowed himself to spend so much time with this mortal woman.
May The Queen forgive me for shirking my true duty.
Janet had chosen the Club 320 because she was reasonably certain the only kind of monster that might lurk inside was the human kind, and she’d had more than enough experience handling those. Also, its owner was a good friend.
Inside, the beamed ceiling was low and there were no windows save for the two on either side of the club’s entrance. An old-fashioned oak bar extended along the wall of the long room back into semi darkness where it ended, leaving just enough room for a well-lit stage that had, over the years, seen its fair share of performers. Two dreadlocked young men with high, penetrating voices that carried easily over the raucous audience led the small band now playing enthusiastically from it.
Relaxed, Janet leaned comfortably against the bar listening to the song, idly studying the crowd. Directly in front of the band, its more enthusiastic admirers were on their feet, gyrating to the intense rhythm of the music. The rest of the floor was closely packed with tables, most every chair filled with young people of every shape, size and color. Right away Janet felt herself relax.
Never get any bollocks about the color of my skin from folks here.
Wonder if Tom even noticed how many bloody people were staring at us back by the Ness?
Then she heard a familiar voice and eagerly turned toward it. Standing behind the bar, cleaning a pint glass, the owner greeted her with a warm smile, “Couldn’t keep away, cud ya?”
Janet grinned. “No. Easy company, good tunes. What’s not to like?”
The owner of the bar was in her early 30s with tats trailing up the black shining skin of both arms, disappearing under tightly rolled sleeves. Her head was an explosion of hair, dyed in various shades of pinks and blues.
“Like the band?”
“Good lyrics. What do they call themselves?”
“The Waydown Wanderers. They’re over from the States making a quick tour around the isles. Lots of chatter about them on the net, so I thought I’d snag ‘em before they get too famous for the likes of this place.”
On stage there was a lengthy pause between songs as an instrument was being tuned. The blondest of the dreadlocked singers filled it with idyll chatter. Throwing back his long dreads, he spun out a cheeky story about a banjo and a mandolin going on a date. When he reached the punch line, both women grinned.
“Cute boys, those two…”
Janet’s smile grew even wider at her friend’s comment but quickly disappeared as she continued, “Just so ya know, had to nail the window in the loo shut after your escape act th’ other night. You bunged up the lock something awful…”
“Sorry. You need me to pay for that?”
“Wouldn’t hurt. Not much cash to be made these days from bands that don’t get at least a bit of radio play. Me Da ran this place for years on a hope an’ a prayer and now I’m followin’ the same tradition. They can’t kick us out, cause we own the damn building.”
“Da and me. That’s him down at the other end. “Hey old man, say to my friend Janet.” Fifteen feet away, a thin gray-haired older man was too busy serving up pints to stop to say hello, so he waved enthusiastically in their direction without pausing.
“If we weren’t so slammed tonight, I’d give you a proper intro, but without the drinks we’d be out of business in double time. Speaking of which, need something…”
“A tonic then.”
“Hittin’ it heavy tonight, are we?”
“Want to be careful, I’ve a bloody date. Well… sort of.”
“Right you are then.”
Drink in hand Janet leaned back into the bar and considered where she was and the day that got her here.
Don’t see anyone from my father’s private army here tonight.
Wonder if any of them could actually take down that troll or the creepy cat thing?
Probably. But not without a lot of damage happening first.
At the far end of the bar, talking casually to the young woman sitting beside him, was an affable looking young man, Tad Lockerby. He was new to John Ravenscroft’s security force, so his face was unfamiliar to Janet, which was why he had been assigned this job tonight.
All over downtown Inverness there were recruits just like Tad waiting for Janet Ravenscroft to appear, but she’d walked into his particular stakeout, and that pleased him.
Earlier, a quick Google search for the club had clued him on how to blend in with the crowd that hung out there. Dressed now like most everyone else in ragged jeans, a black ‘t’ and Nikes, he was just another warm body at the bar nursing a pint and keeping up a flow of casual conversation.
He barely noticed as the loud thumping bass line of the band’s current tune traveled up his legs from the polished wooden floor at his feet. Lockerby looked at the faces clustered around him at the packed bar, all a part of the vibrant multi-cultural ethnicity that in recent years called Inverness home. He smiled to himself, enjoying his job tonight. Turning his body away from Janet’s sight line, he carefully tapped out a message on his mobile letting his boss know that he’d located their quarry. Then he settled back to wait for his backup to arrive.
Fifteen feet away, Janet was deep in thought, oblivious to her secret escort, doing her best not to freak out.
Tom just shrugs off these bloody nightmare creatures as casually as I go shopping, and he appears to be on speaking terms with the bloody bitch that wants to trample through my head whenever she pleases.
Who exactly are you, Thomas?
Unable to stop herself, she pictured his handsome face, easily recalling the small laugh lines around his mouth and eyes.
Just then she saw Thomas step lightly down the three short steps that descended from street level. He paused for a moment inside the front door, his eyes adjusting to the dim light in the club. Watching him, Janet realized just how out of place he looked standing there. It wasn’t just his ornate leather coat, but also apart from the members of the band, he was practically the only white male in the club.
The bartender gently rapped on Janet’s arm, “Whoa! That him? He looks like a real find.”
“Hey, don’t get any ideas. He’s mine, okay?
After he slipped through the crowd to the bar, Janet shyly introduced Thomas to her friend. “Lottie, this is Thomas. Tom, this is Charlotte. Say hello, the both of you.”
Barely listening to their conversation,n Janet was completely distracted by the fragrance of sweet herbs that always seemed to cling to Thomas. What was worse was the effort she had to exert to stop from stroking her fingers through his long, glossy hair.
After a moment, Tom ordered a whiskey, a single malt, and turned his attention back to his companion.
Under his scrutiny Janet grimaced, then murmured, “I thought you might have driven off…”
Her obvious discomfort caused Thomas’ face to grow serious. “No, now that I have met your enemies, I was curious where you would feel comfortable and who you might consider friends.”
Flustered again, Janet quickly asked, “And music? What do you think of the band?”
“They are loud for cert.”
Gesturing at the pulsating crowd pushing in close to the stage, she glibly suggested, “We could always dance?”
“Is that what you call dancing in this world of yours, Janet Ravenscroft?”
Janet shouted back over a crescendo of applause for a just finished tune,“What would you call it then?”
“A dance is a formal courtship between two people. Their hands touch. Their bodies touch. So that they can feel each other’s blood moving as one. Nothing I see out there suggests anything close to that intimacy.”
Janet looked intently at Tom for a moment before asking, “Are you for real?”
“I am as human as you. I laugh. I cry. I will grow old and die. What more do you need to know?”
“Oh, lots and lots of things. In the last few days I’ve seen creatures that should only exist in a bloody fantasy film, and I’ve had some bitch tap dancing through my skull without any invite from me. So what the fuck is happening?
“Am I going stark raving bonkers?
“Janet, you are not moon-mad, only, for the first time seeing a world that has always been here, all around you, only hidden from sight until now. You must forgive me my part in revealing that world to you, but does it not make you even a little curious of what more it has to offer?”
“Curious? No, not when all I’ve seen of it are grotesque monsters.
“But there is more… so much more that I could show you…”
The eager, guileless look on his face at that moment made Janet slowly shake her head. Her rational mind was already working overtime, trying to turn everything that she’d experienced in the last few days into some kind of crazy fever dream.
Suddenly, she grinned at her companion and slipping her hand under his arm, nodded toward the dance floor,“I don’t want to think about any of that right now, so why don’t you show me what you mean by real dancing?”
“If you wish.”
A warm smile lit his face as Tom put his hand gently behind her waist and began to walk with Janet across what little space there was on the crowded dance floor. There, he led her to an entirely different beat than anything coming from the band. Looking back, she saw Lottie watching them and mouthing, “Go for it!” Laying her head on Tom’s shoulder, she determined to do just that.
Its as if we’re totally alone out here.
How can that be?
Just as she surrendered to their shared pleasure, Tom’s eyes snapped open and his body grew rigid with tension.
Looking past him Janet saw five huge, cat-like beasts sliding through the mass of pulsing bodies as if the dancers weren’t even there. Keeping pace with the stalking creatures was a dark, olive-skinned figure, dressed in elegant black leather. The stranger’s eyes flickered deep red in the stage lights, and he held a drawn sword in one gloved hand.