A Silent Game of Spies

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Mister Ulmerton stepped aside as he walked in the door to let in the Captain. The Captain strode in with a jaunty step, his tail raised high in the air behind him.

“Oy, the Captain’s back!” called one customer. He raised his pint to the Captain.

“Everyone salute the Captain!” called another. Most of them yelled “Cheers!” and held up salutes to the grey striped tomcat.

Ellia loved watching The Brew House customers salute the grey striped tomcat whenever he walked about the floor. They dropped pieces of bread for him or gave him a bit of a pat, while the Captain rubbed up against some of them. The Captain was something of a mascot for The Brew House and Tavern.

Ellia remembered when she first found him sitting outside. As soon as she had lifted him up, he had begun purring. Ellia knew her father was not fond of the dogs his patrons often brought inside with them, for they often occasionally made messes inside, or worse, fought with each other. But this was a cat, and it was cold outside….

She had hugged the cat close and brought him inside. “Please, Pappy? It’s cold outside.” And both of her sisters had held their breath and pet the cat, looking up at Pappy as well.

Pappy’s glare softened, as it always did when Ellia begged him. “Fine. But make sure he’s fed. And keep him from messing in my brewery!”

Magpie had snorted as she always did when Pappy gave in to Ellia, and Mum just smiled and shook her head up at him. Mum recognized how powerless he truly was, for whenever Ellia put her mind to something, she usually got it. Although it usually came with a “Ah, bloody hell! Fine, then! Now get out of here before I change my mind!” And Ellia would laugh and hug him tight and tell him how much she loved him.

Ellia and her sisters had squealed with delight, which alarmed the cat. Ellia had held him closer and crooned to him to calm him.

“What are we going to name you, cat?” she had questioned him as she held up the cat before her and looked into his green eyes. He had stared back at her doubtfully.

Pappy had then spoken up. “I’ve got the perfect name for him. Call him Captain.” He grinned just a bit as if a private joke had struck him. Mum smacked his arm. Pappy had looked down at her and spread his hands out in feigned innocence. “What? I think it’s the perfect name. Why not?”

Mollie had objected and offered up Fluffy for an alternative, and Hasley had suggested Stripe.

“No,” Pappy’s tone had been firm. “He may be your cat, but it’s my bar. Captain it is.”

Magpie had leaned over and scratched the cat on the head. He had immediately started purring. “Well, and why not. He’ll make the rounds, and he’ll keep the rats away.”

Pappy had snorted and glanced at Mum. “Ain’t that the truth.” Then he had waved Ellia and her sisters out. “Well, go on, go on, out of my kitchen! And take that bloody cat with ya!” But Ellia and seen a faint smile on his face as he turned back to kneading his bread.

Ellia didn’t know his name, but whatever it was, he stumbled with his empty pint up to the bar. He was in no condition to order anything but water. And she had a headache – tonight just seemed louder than usual, though for a busy night, it was no different than any other.

He made it to the bar, glad to have arrived so that he could lean on it. Ellia watched the drunk open his eyes as wide as he could. Likely he was seeing two or three of her right now and was trying to focus on at least one of her so that he could order. Ellia sucked in a breath for patience and presented him with her usual how-nice-to-see-you smile.

“What’ll it be?” When Ellia was at her worst, her conversational tone and smile was at its best.

The drunk slapped the bar with his hand, and a cloud of ale breath drifted toward her. She held her breath in as she had countless times before.

“I’ll have another ale!” He slammed his pint down on the bar. As with so many customers when drunk, he did not realize that he was shouting rather than ordering in a normal voice.

Ellia nodded and took the pint from him. “Mister, I think some tea might be best for you. Maybe you’d like some cider.” She gave him a winning smile.

He frowned with confusion as he tried to decipher her suggestion. Too ale-sodden to process her gentle recommendation that he had drunk enough for the evening, he felt about on the bar for the empty pint glass he’d brought her.

Ellia flicked a quick glance about but did not see Tank. She sighed. He must still be upstairs helping Mum get rid of a belligerent customer. And she didn’t hear Pappy behind her in the kitchen, which meant he was down in the cellar to get more ale. Well, then. She’d take care of the drunk herself.

“I said… I wanted me some… more ale!” The man’s insistent tone implied that the worst was yet to come.

Ellia leaned across the bar, mindful of his stinking breath. “Listen, my friend. It’s tea, or water. Choose.”

Outraged, the drunk slurred, “You… don’t get to decide… decide… what I… get to drink! And I! Wants me some ale!”

Ellia glared at the man. She looked down at the pitchers full of ale waiting to be distributed by Mollie and Hasley.

Then she picked up a pitcher and threw its entire contents into the drunk’s face. “Good! You got ya some! Now get out of our bar!” Ellia spat.

Ice cold ale cascaded down the drunk’s face. He tried to keep his eyes open, while his mouth gaped like a fish. His wet hair hung in wet, dripping, streams. Ellia stood with her hands on her hips, incensed and waiting for him to leave.

Unfortunately, he took a step and then slipped and fell on the floor. When he didn’t get up, Ellia knew he had either passed out or hit his head. Either was fine with her, she thought as she took a towel and sopped up the ale that had landed on the bar.

Just then, Pappy burst through the louvered kitchen doors. “What was that? I heard a splash!”

Ellia turned and smiled brightly at him with all the innocence she could muster. “Just some ale that spilled on the floor, Pappy.” She hoped he wouldn’t walk around the bar to investigate. And that the drunk wouldn’t suddenly stand up….

Pappy’s brow furrowed and his head bowed. Those dark eyes of his regarded her, fixed and unblinking as he looked down his nose at her. He always seemed to know when she was hiding something. Ugh! Ellia loved her Pappy dearly, but she hated that look so! It was if he was peeling her apart like the layers of an onion, looking for the actual truth.

Just as Ellia wondered if he was going to question her further, Pappy’s eyes narrowed and he sighed. He nodded and backed his substantial frame through the kitchen doors. Just as he had so many times before, Pappy was capitulating, preferring oblivion and ignorance to the actual truth.

Ellia let out her breath and glanced around. Still no Tank. So she rolled the slops bucket over and nudged the drunk out of the way.

“What’s this?” Mags asked. She had come from downstairs and seen the drunk lying on the floor. Then she watched Ellia’s face as she attempted to formulate a plausible excuse. She put a finger to Ellia’s lips. “Never mind, pet, I don’t want to know. Let’s just get him out o’ here.”

They each picked the unconscious drunk up from beneath a shoulder and tossed him into the muddy street.

Mags clisp-clasped her hands. “You can mop up after ’im though, I’ve another kettle of stew to start up.” She winked at Ellia. “You be more careful, girl.” And she disappeared behind the kitchen doors.

Later into the evening, the noise level had risen substantially. Pappy was, of course, quite pleased, for they even had two exhausted customers staying in the attic tonight after a five-day trip from Hardewold.

It was rowdier than usual, and even Mum was working the floor tonight. Usually, Pappy had stopped making bread by now, but he decided to make several more loaves to feed the extra tenants who were going to be sleeping on the floor passed out later.

Ellia was tired. The drunk they’d thrown out in the street earlier had only served to sour her mood, though of course she kept her expression and voice cheerful, as always. It seemed that half of South Fairview had visited tonight at some point….

And then another drunk stumbled up to the bar, right to the seat where the last customer, a long-time patron, had just vacated. Ellia watched him warily. She’d already dealt with one drunk tonight, she was in no mood to exchange pleasantries with another. She glanced around for Tank but did not see him.

“Ah. A little one, aren’t ya. Even better,” called the man in an accent she was not familiar with. Mostly, only South Fairview folk came to The Brew House and Tavern, and occasionally, travelers from Shaw, even as far away as Hardewold. Was he from the North, then?

He stumbled up to bar. “You go on and head up to my room, little girl.”

Some of the customers at the bar glanced over at him, and then at Ellia. Not all of them were long-term customers, but most of them knew that she was the innkeeper’s daughter. Which, she sniffed, made her off limits. All of them knew that, and if her Pappy, or Tank heard this… asshole, now….

Ellia said evenly, “I’m the innkeeper’s daughter, and this isn’t a brothel.”

Naturally, Ellia and her sisters were accosted in such a manner by men upon occasion, since it was, by definition, a pub where men drank large quantities of ale that caused them to act fearlessly. Men often believed that the barmaids of The Brew House and Tavern were available for sport and personal enjoyment, as in other pubs, winesinks, taverns, and brothels, though Pappy and Tank discouraged such behavior immediately. On such rare occasions as when Pappy and Tank were unavailable to protect them, however, there was little recourse but to fend for themselves.

“I don’t care… who you are. I said, get up in my room, girl, and wait for me there.” The man’s brown eyes stared expectantly at her. He was a man who was accustomed to having his orders followed. Then he grasped her forearm, which lay on the bar.

Ellia’s mouth fell open as she stared at his hand. She jerked her arm free as if a snake had crawled around it.

“And I don’t care who you are!” A boiling bowl of stew that Mags had left on the lower counter to cool was sitting in front of her, and she picked it up and threw the stew in the man’s face.

He screamed in pain, clawing at his face. The other men sitting at the bar said nothing, though all their eyes grew wide. They each picked up their tankards and took a drink, and a few of them nodded, though the customer sitting nearest Ellia brushed a piece of carrot and celery off of his shoulder before he took a drink. None of them said a word, and they all ignored the man shrieking in pain behind him.

Ellia still did not see Tank or her Pappy, and the men were singing on the other side of the bar, so the man’s shrieks were drowned out by their raucous song.

So Ellia left the bar and placed her hands on the man, who was dripping with hot stew. She turned him around and marched him toward the door. “And don’t come back!” Ellia called after him one she had shoved him outside.

Ugh. Now she had stew on her arms and there was a trail of stew leading from the bar. She sighed. The slops bucket, twice in one night.

She was nearly finished swiping the mop back and forth when Tank sidled up next to her. He frowned at the floor, then at Ellia. “That’s my job.” Tank took the mop from her. He said nothing, but his face demanded an explanation.

Ellia did not feel like explaining. “It’s just – flat out.”

Tank rose an eyebrow and turned to look at the man who sat out in the street, crying and picking at his burned face. “Anything to do with him?” He jerked his head in the direction of the front door.

Ellia smiled faintly. “Maybe…?” Tank was someone else who was impossible to lie to.

Tank eyed the burned man in the muddy street, then looked at Ellia. “That there is not a returning customer.”

“He better not be!” she flared.

“Like that, was he?” Tank dipped the mop in the slops bucket to rinse it. “Ellia, what did I tell you about that?”

She stared at him for a moment, then gave up. “He started it. He did, I promise.” Tank had a way of drawing the truth out of you, even when you didn’t want to say a word.

“But I’ve told you. If you can’t handle a customer, and your Pap or me ain’t around, then you just go –”

“Inside the kitchen,” Ellia and Tank said in unison. “But I handled him just fine, didn’t I? And at least I didn’t punch him.” She smiled a little at him. Tank had showed her how to hit, just in case she was ever in the Market Place and she needed to fight back.

Tank shook his massive head at her. “You go inside the kitchen. I’ve known you girls since you were all babies and I’m not going to see something happen to you now. What would you do if your ran your mouth and a customer had a knife?”

Ellia stared up at him. “Yell for you?” She smiled a little, hoping to coax Tank into a less serious mood.

He glared a little at her, then looked down at the floor he’d just swabbed. Then he leaned on the top of the mop handle, gazing out at the man sitting in the street. “Boiling hot stew. Wow.”

“Yeah,” Ellia sniffed. “Waste of good stew.”

Tank rolled an eye at her and shook his head. “Well,” he took in a big breath, “at least it wasn’t ice cold ale. Hate to waste ale.”

Ellia remained mute to that remark.

As Tank rolled the slop bucket about, something on the floor caught his eye. His eyebrows raised up. “That’s a lot of ale here, stuck to the bar here.” He cocked his head.

Ellia smiled and said, “Hate to waste ice cold ale.”

Tank rolled his eyes at that and mopped up whatever ale she had missed earlier, then disappeared with the slops bucket into the kitchen.

Near the end of the evening, as the pub was emptying out, Ronnie sat down at the bar. Ellia genuinely liked Ronnie, for he was around her age.

“So,” and he smiled. “What’s with that gent?” He tossed his head over his shoulder in the direction of the street. Was that arse still out there? Why wouldn’t he just leave?

Ellia rolled her eyes.

“Heard he got burnt a bit.” Ronnie snickered and shook his head.

“Yep, well that can sometimes happen when you piss off the barstaff,” Ellia announced airily.

Ronnie’s eyebrows shot up. “Is that right?” He stared over his shoulder for a bit, then looked back at Ellia. “He’ll have some boils for a bit, but he’ll get past it. His pride, though, can’t speak to that.”

Ellia sniffed. “I could have punched him.”

Ronnie stared. “Punched him? You? A girl?”

“Tank’s a veteran and he taught me how to punch if I ever get into trouble,” Ellia confessed.

“Well, forgive me, but isn’t that what Tank’s for, to make sure you don’t get into trouble?” asked Ronnie.

“Aye, he is, but he was upstairs and Pappy was downstairs, and him –” Ellia nodded in the direction of the jerk sitting in the road – “he was sitting right where you are now.”

“So, this barstool is sort of consecrated, a holy barstool of sorts.” Ronnie glanced down beneath the bar to study the stool, then his head popped back up above the bar. “No stew here.”

Ellia laughed. Ronnie always made people smile. She needed the laugh.

“And remind me never to piss you off! Punching people and such,” Ronnie whistled.

Somewhat embarrassed now, Ellia confessed, “It was only once. The Captain was sitting on the bar up here, and a man sitting next to him said he wanted to make the Captain part of his stew. He even put a knife out on the bar. So I punched him.” Ronnie was laughing. “Pappy made me apologize. But he’s not allowed back here, either.” Then she held up her right hand and flexed it. “I had to ice my hand for a week!” They both laughed.

“Well, darlin’, I’m glad to see you smiling. You know, blow out the light with a light heart.” He smiled. “But I’m actually here to pay up tonight’s tab, so….” Ronnie laid out all of his coppers for the evening with a few clinks onto the bar. “I shall depart with a light heart.”

On his way out the door, he winked and waved. Ellia felt much better now that she had talked to him.

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