“Life is, as it were, defined by death. If there wasn’t death of things, then there wouldn’t be any life to celebrate.”
I reread the quote scrawled in spidery silver paint above the black velvet and neon red façade of the restaurant’s bar and frowned. Norman Davies was credited with the quote, but for the life of me I couldn’t place who he was or why what he had to say was of particular importance.
“Can I help you?”
I turned at the sound of the man’s voice inches away from my left shoulder and quickly turned my frown into a small pleasant smile. “Actually I was hoping to help you.”
Dark eyebrows rose quizzically and he hastily stuffed the cleaning rag that he held in his left hand into his back jeans pocket. “Look, uh if you’re selling anything, we’re pretty well-stocked when it comes to the funerary and memorial regalia. Lazlo’s Funeral Parlor already has exclusive advertising rights with us.”
My own eyebrows rose in question. “Er, no I’m here about the job.” I indicated the Help Wanted sign laying on the top of the bar. “You are still hiring, right?” Hopefully my voice didn’t indicate how desperate I was. I really needed the job and all the other places that I’d been to had been a bust.
“Oh.” He tugged absently at his ponytail. “Yeah, hell yeah I—we—still need help filling that position.” He reconsidered. “Actually, we need help filling a few positions; do you cook?”
I felt my spirits plummet. “Not exactly.”
“Ever been a waitress? A hostess?” he asked as each time I shook my head no. He sighed and indicated the bar behind me. “So what can you do? I mean, can you at least cut limes, wash glasses, bus tables and keep the ice bin filled up? ’Cuz frankly that’s what Luz has trouble with even if she can slum drinks like no one I know.”
“The head bartender. Her twin brother Celestino is the DJ here and we share ownership of the place.”
“It is a nice place,” I offered. And it was, even if the location was a bit…off. Six Underground was a brew pub located directly across the street from the largest and oldest still-operational burying ground in the city—at least that was how the literature and advertising lines put out for the tourists worded it—and aside from being the only type of business in the area, it did have a reputation for serving some of the best burgers and microbrew in the state.
He grinned and I caught a flash of silver lining the bottom row of his teeth. “Yeah, well you know what they say: location, location, location.”
“At least the neighbors won’t complain about the noise.” Besides the food, Six Underground had an impressive roster of live bands who played there every weekend.
He cackled laughter and it quickly turned into a dry, rattling cough.
“Hey, are you okay?” I reached over to try and assist him and he waved me away, his face flushed.
“I told him to quit smoking years ago, but did he listen?”
I turned as a tall, slim woman in a dark blue tank top and black jeans strode from the Employees Only doorway behind the bar. She reached under the counter and uncapped a bottle of what looked suspiciously like tequila and raised it to her lips. “He never listens to me.”
“Oh, and like you do?” He fished a handkerchief out from the depths of his shirt pocket and dabbed absently at his forehead. “How many times have I told you not to treat the top shelf stock like your own personal mini-bar?”
“This many times.” She offered him a one-fingered salute and I hurriedly hid a grin as she took a long swig from the bottle. “Besides, smoking makes you look like shit—drinking makes me look better to the regulars.” The bottle paused mid-way to her lips. “Actually, I already look good—you look like shit all the time.”
I snorted back laughter and tried—unsuccessfully—to hide my reaction behind my hand and she flashed me a warm grin. “Who’s this?”
“She,” he tucked the handkerchief back in his pocket. “Is the new assistant bartender slash table busser at least until we get her trained as a waitress or either a whole busload of people shows up to fill the other positions.”
I nearly fell off the barstool. “I’m hired? Just like that?”
He held his arms out and indicated the otherwise empty room. “You see anyone else around? Besides, you never actually said you couldn’t do all that stuff regarding the bar, so I figured what the hell, why not?”
I actually hadn’t said yes either, but that was beside the point. I looked at Luz when I spoke next. “Of course I can do all those things, only I don’t have much experience actually tending a bar—the only drinks I ever mixed or served was during high school when my best friend and I raided her dad’s liquor cabinet.”
The corners of her mouth quirked up in amusement. “I’m pretty sure that’s how everyone got their start. If you’re willing to learn I’m willing to show you the ropes.”
I smiled back. “I’m willing.”
“Okay, then. Consider yourself hired.”
I was so relieved I nearly laughed out loud again. Finally, after all this time perhaps a second chance was within reach. I slid off the barstool and shook the man’s hand. “Thank you, uh….” It just now struck me that I knew his name no more than he knew my own.
“Dani.” He pumped my hand vigorously.
“Kara Marlowe.” I returned the handshake with a firmness to match his own and the woman stepped out from behind the bar.
“Luz Alvarez, nice to meet you.”
“So when can you start?”
“How about tonight?” I hoped that neither of them could tell just how desperate for money I was, but I also wanted them to know just how thankful I was for the opportunity.
Dani slapped the bar with his palm. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about! We need go-getters around here, not slackers like mujer over there.”
“Up yours, Dani.” The grin tugging at the corners of her mouth let on that she was only kidding and he returned it.
“Don’t let Luthor hear you say that—you know how jealous he gets.”
Luz nodded sagely and then turned to me. “Luthor’s the bouncer. He and Dani are,” she leaned forward and replied in an exaggerated stage whisper. “Together.”
“Ah.” I nodded in understanding. I liked them both immensely and felt touched at their candor given that I was still a relative stranger. “So, how do we do this?”
“It’s easy: just smile and chat up the customers when they approach the bar and get their drink orders. I’m pretty sure that you can handle the bottled beer and can fill a mug with our house brew, but if they happen to order a Cherry Whiskey Sour or some other frou-frou shit, let me handle it. If you’re really personable they’ll keep coming back and will hopefully open up a tab.” She took another swig at the bottle and then capped it before returning it to its customary spot under the counter. “Just be sure to keep an eye on our stock of limes, olives, clean glasses and whatnot. Most times I get so busy slumming drinks and visiting with the clientele that I tend to run out.”
“You mean flirting with the clientele if your track record is any indication.”
Luz ignored him and walked around to the back of the bar, the heels of her steel-toed boots clacking against the polished wood floor.
“I can definitely do that.” I indicated the shelves of glasses and their impressive stock of shining liquor bottles in every color of the rainbow. “Do you mind if I take a look around? You know, just to get my bearings.”
Dani cleared his throat awkwardly. “Actually, there’s some paperwork that needs to be filled out and then the processing before you start—the whole background check and liability thing. I was just so relieved that you showed up when you did that I got carried away and said you could start tonight.”
“No problem.” I had no idea just how long the official process would take and I did a mental count of funds minus my steadily growing expenses just in case I had to stretch things out a bit in the interim.
“Aw come on, Dani I’m sure Kara’s on the up and up. Besides, that paperwork is not going anywhere and we open in about four hours. The past couple of weeks have been hell and I need all the help I can get.”
He tugged absently at his ponytail again and sighed. “Alright, fine. Just start her off on the easy stuff until we get her properly trained and as soon as you’re done, send her to my office.”
“Thanks again for hiring me and all on such short notice.”
He nodded and retrieved the cleaning rag from his back pocket as he disappeared through the double doors to the kitchen area.
“Ready for the five dollar tour?”
I followed Luz behind the bar and began to take stock of things to see where everything was located. Tucked far in the back and hidden from the angle of the stools where patrons sat to order drinks and drown their respective sorrows, was a small altar set up with candles, flowers, and photographs varying from Polaroids to digital prints showing people of all ages. I recognized the altar as an offrenda, a traditional way of honoring deceased loved ones among the Latin community. A red neon clock in the shape of a crucifix presided over the bar and cast a faint glow over the area.
Top shelf liquor was located unsurprisingly on the top shelf, a small refrigerator held cans of Redbull and limes, pint, shot, wine and Martini glasses were arranged neatly on racks or back shelves, and the taps displayed a decent array of brew. The bar top was black lacquer and was so finely polished that it reflected everything around it like a mirror. A row of red leather barstools ran the length of the bar and a red neon strip illuminated the floor. All in all it was tastefully decorated and spotless.
“Catch.” Luz lobbed a couple of limes at me and I caught them one-handed.
“Knives are located here in this drawer,” she took one out and handed it to me along with a glass cutting board. “The layout of the bar is pretty self-explanatory as you can see, and I really just need an extra set of hands. Until we hire more wait staff, Dani might even have you serve appetizers or bus tables afterwards. Is that okay with you?”
I nodded and set about quartering the limes on the cutting board. “Seems easy enough; I’m just grateful for the income.”
She nodded. “We normally get here around six or seven in order to prep for the lunch rush which begins at eleven to two and then we temporarily close at that time to prep for the dinner and late night crowd and re-open at around five and run till eleven Monday through Thursday and one a.m. Friday and Saturday. Despite what the locale and running theme is around here, we’re closed Sunday for family and worship, which applies more to my brother and me than Dani as you can see.” She swept her hand in the direction of the offrenda. “Tino and I set this up to honor our family members who have passed on, but occasionally a customer may ask to have something displayed as well. If that happens just go with it, thank them and leave the rest to me.”
“A lot of people put these up in their homes back where I’m from, so it’s cool with me.”
She tapped the counter with a silver-tipped nail. “Generally the bar is not all that busy with the lunch crowd, and we would really need your help more in the evening and especially on the weekends.”
“Good thing I’m a night owl then.”
Luz glanced at her watch. “I’m really glad that you stopped off when you did, but truthfully Dani’d just made that Help sign two days ago and I haven’t gotten around to putting an ad in the papers or even on the local radio station. How’d you even know that we needed an extra set of hands around here?”
A faint chill crept along my spine and settled in the space between my shoulder blades. I hadn’t actually known that Six Underground was hiring, but having woken up this morning after nearly two weeks of fruitless searching for a job…something had compelled me to get up, get dressed and drive over to this side of town. There was no valid reason for me choosing this particular location. Other than the cemetery there really was nothing else across the river for anyone to go to, but I had had such a nagging sense of urgency and certainty that it could not be ignored.
I shrugged, hoping to shake off some of the disquiet that had settled in my gut and put on the appearance of being indifferent. “I heard some guys talking about ya’ll being short-handed around here last night at a club.” At her dubious expression, I added. “It was that Goth club called R-Kane. I just happened to overhear their conversation at the bar—which wasn’t hiring by the way.”
For some reason that seemed to satisfy Luz and she nodded. “Figures. Anyway, I’ll be right here with you tonight in case you need anything or aren’t sure what to do. Any questions?”
For starters, why all the rush to fill this job when the popularity of this place alone would almost certainly guarantee a steady stream of employment?
I wisely kept my mouth shut and settled on the one that had been percolating in the back of my mind since I’d entered the building. “What’s with the quote above the bar?”
Luz turned to stare at the quote scrawled above the bar’s florescent red and black velvet exterior. “Dunno. Dani found it online and for some reason it seems to remind people that life is too short not to have a good time—responsibly, of course. I always seem to get more drink orders—not to mention tips—whenever they read that. Works like a charm.”
And what else works like a charm, I wondered as my eyes scanned the rest of the place and settled on the doorways leading to the Employees Only lounge and the men’s and women’s toilets. Small, barely-visible symbols had been drawn around the perimeter of the black-painted doors in pencil and were for all intents and purposes invisible to the casual observer unless the light hit them just right. Seems Luz, Dani, and Celestino were more attuned to the other side than they initially let on, but given the relative location of the place—not to mention the discreetness of the symbols and altar—I was betting that they served a purpose that went beyond mere decorative aesthetics.
I cut another lime into quarters and set them in the iced bucket to my left. “Yeah, it must.” The strobe lights facing the dance floor began to flash and the trance-like discordant strains of the Kidney Thieves’ “Invisible Plan” began to filter out of the hidden speakers set in the walls. Behind the bank of equipment that served as the DJ stand, a figure in profile moved about and Luz brightened.
“Tino’s here; I’ll go get him and introduce you two.”
And how appropriate is a song title like that? Here I was just musing on how the current proprietors seem to be playing things close to the chest when it concerns current hiring practices and now a song comes on about a hidden agenda.
Maybe it was all just a coincidence, but my inner voice loudly declared that the universe was rarely so lazy.
Celestino—or Tino for short—was slightly taller than his sister, and according to him, was twelve minutes older and twice as smart as she was.
She laughed and swatted him playfully on the arm. “You’re always saying that but have yet to prove it. May I remind you whose idea it was to open up a restaurant across from a cemetery?”
“Alright, to be fair it was a terrible idea for at least the first six months,” he conceded. “Luckily for us that group of tourists said they saw something near the bar, managed to capture it on their phone, and put it up on YouTube.”
“They saw ‘something’? Like what?”
He made a face and took a long pull on his Heineken. “They swore that they saw a ghost or something—a dark shadow. I know, I know, we’re right across from a cemetery so sure, why not see ghosts everywhere? Next thing we know some paranormal group called P.A.R.—Phantoms Are Real—shows up, does a documentary on the history of the area with a few choice shots of Six Underground along with an interview of one of our ex-waitresses and just like that,” he snapped his fingers for emphasis. “Business is booming.”
He set the empty beer bottle down on one of the speakers. “Hard to complain. As long as some people are willing to buy into all that stuff Luz, Dani and I can retire with a comfortable little nest egg.”
“You don’t believe in ghosts and ‘all that stuff’?” I tried to sound casual and at best, mildly interested. I’d had my fair share of otherworldly experiences growing up, and until I knew how my new employers felt about such things, I didn’t want to let on that I did.
He offered me a sardonic grin. “Believe me, we see enough weird shit around here without the benefit of ghosts or unexplained shadows. Isn’t that right, Luz?”
She scoffed and kicked absently at an extension cord with the toe of her boot. “Let’s just say that some of the regulars who stop by for a drink or the music are a bit eccentric, but harmless. We have our fair share of Goths, Emo, Steampunk and vampire groupies, along with some average Joes who just like the atmosphere.”
“Like that guy Kyle…Kiran?” He ticked names off on his fingers. “The one who comes in and sits all by himself at the bar and only drinks caffeine-free diet lime soda.” Tino made a face. “The one who secretly has the hots for you.”
“It’s Kyrian, and he does not have the hots for me—he’s just one of those lonely people who needs company is all.”
Tino mimed making exaggerated kissing motions and Luz flipped him off. “Yeah, you’d never know it from the looks of it, but Six Underground actually has quite a successful track record for hookups, ninety percent of which come compliments of mi hija over here.”
She flipped back a strand of ebony hair. “That’s sex appeal for you.”
“More like the opposite of being picky,” he muttered and she smacked him on the back of the head.
“You started that shit, not me.”
He sullenly rubbed the back of his head. “So what about you, Kara?”
“What about me?”
“Do you have a boyfriend or significant other?” He whispered that last part and his eyes darted towards what I assumed was Dani’s office. “We’re pretty open around here what with Dani and Luthor being a couple.”
I shook my head. “No, no boyfriend.” Which is not likely to change anytime soon seeing how disastrous my last and only relationship ended. I shifted uncomfortably in the wooden chair that I’d pulled up to the DJ station and willed my thoughts to go in a different direction. Jason and everything else that I’d hoped to leave behind me were miles away and that’s where I intended them to stay.
“Maybe you’ll meet Mr. Right here one night. Six Underground is real popular with the college crowd if you like ’em young, and even some older guys hang out here if you’re into the whole silver fox thing.”
I smiled tightly. “Maybe.”
If Tino noticed that the subject was a prickly one for me he had the good grace not to show it. Luz I noted, seemed to sense that something was amiss and shrugged her shoulders as if to say, don’t mind him; he means well but is otherwise clueless.
She stood up and stretched. “There’s still some paperwork that you need to fill out, so best not to keep Dani waiting—he’s doing the books right now and that tends to put him in a mood.”
Tino shuddered dramatically. “Ooh, ’the books’—I’ll be sure to play something soothing like Yani instead of Five Finger Death Punch while I finish setting up.”
“I’d think that would actually piss him off more, not less.” I deadpanned and both Tino and Luz burst into laughter.
I grinned. Working here should be a snap seeing as how easy going everyone had been so far. I stood up and shook Tino’s hand again. “Nice meeting you.”
His grip was firm. “Likewise. Welcome to the Dark Side.”