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Two O'Clock at the Bell and Lyre

By RRButler All Rights Reserved ©

Humor / Fantasy

Blurb

An inveterate liar recalls a run-in with a legendary creature of myth, but gets more than he bargained for when the story catches up with him. A tall tale of skewed perspectives.

Two O'Clock at the Bell and Lyre

Friends, I gather you here for my time grows short. Do not mourn for me - I have led a fine and rich life, and I pass from this world a happy man. No, I have summoned you here to relate a specific tale, one which I have never related to anyone. You can assume that this is a product of my softened brain if you wish - my only defense is that I am no fabulist, and never have I had the ingenuity or madness to dream of such a thing.

In my younger days, not long before the end of Prohibition, I worked at an illicit seafront tavern known as the Bell and Lyre. Set aside your romantic images of the speakeasy - this was a dingy little hole, peopled by degenerates eager to spend every dime they made on whiskey or gin distilled in the owner’s basement. The bar had the distinct odor of mildew, and the tables and chairs threatened to splinter from rot. The clientele consisted, without exception, of criminals and swine, classless and conniving devils who tried to steal everything that passed within arm’s reach.

I despised the Bell and Lyre, and yet even in such an awful place I found something that gave me joy. There was a table in the corner that the owner kept aside, running off any filth that tried to sit there. In time, I learned that this table was set aside for a group that the regulars jokingly called “The Lyre’s Club.” There were four of them, men who had explored the dark corners of the world and yet found themselves drifting back to this place. There was Peter, a rough and rugged sort - he had been an honorable soldier once, until he left his post to become a blood-money mercenary, wielding his rifle for any petty warlord with the gold to hire him. Next was the sailor Chance, a man probably born with the salt spray in his face. Though he spoke of his love for the sea, his true passions were for cards and cheap liquor. Then there was the smuggler Oliver, who trafficked in everything from black market morphine to human lives - a true villain who turned into a hero when we were in need. Finally there was Abe, the most unlikely of the group. An outdoorsman of a world long since past, he would ride the rails in search of a new frontier beyond the machines of the modern world, returning after every failure to drown his regrets in rye.

These men were seldom in the area in the same time, but there was a special game they played when all four were gathered at that table. One of them would call for me and place an order for a full bottle of whiskey or gin. He would then regale the table with a story, something he had seen on his most recent excursion. These were always the most preposterous of lies, but this didn’t matter. If the storyteller could convince the others, even for a moment, that his story was the undiluted truth, they would pay for his bottle.

On this particular night, it was Chance’s turn. Everyone was expecting a great lie - he had recently returned from Europe, where the specter of war hung over every street. None of them expected what would issue from his mouth.

Chance poured himself a shot and leaned in over the table. “All right, so you know it’s a mess over there in Europe, right? Everything’s falling apart, everyone’s scared to death. ’Course, we’re all used to that.”

“Of course.” Peter had this wry little expression on his face, like he was already formulating his own story. “Sorry to interrupt you, friend.”

“No sweat at all. Believe me, you’ll all be breaking in ’fore I’m done.” Chance tossed back his first shot and prepared the second. “Now, point is, a lot of the boys are too scared to go out on the town. But not me. You all know how I love a game, and I was saving nickels and dimes out of my pay for weeks hoping I’d find a good gambling joint. Finally, the last night I’m in France, I find one. A secret little place, but real, real nice - lot more than you’d think. Now, I don’t belong there, not one bit, but I got my bankroll, and I’m bound to spend it. Well, I hit a real bad streak, and next thing you know, I’m down to my last five bucks.”

“Which you spent on a bottle, no doubt,” said Oliver.

Abe laughed - a rough, guttural chuckle. “No way this boy gonna spend five on booze.”

“Can I tell the story?” Chance was growing animated, frustrated with his friends. “Now, I know I gotta get out of there - that five dollars has to go a long ways before I get home. But just as I’m leaving, everyone gets really tense - you know, there’s all this movement in there, all this activity. So I turn around, and standing in the doorway is none other than Count Dracula.”

There was silence at the table as three sets of stunned eyes fell on Chance. Oliver was the first to speak. “...From the movie, you mean?”

“Yeah, just like the movie! He was real tall, with a face like an animal’s and really pale skin - you could almost see his bones! And he had the accoutrements, too - those little medallion things, and that long cape and everything.”

Peter suppressed a groan. “Chance, do you really...”

“Oh, I know what you’re thinking!” Chance was waving his arms now, flinging big drops of whiskey all over the table and himself. “You’re thinking that could be anyone. I mean, there’s all these nobles over there, even after all this, they still have more money than God, right? And they’re all inbred to hell, so they’re all crazy, right? So you’re thinking this must be some loopy nobleman, likes to dress like Dracula. Then I see that the staff, they’re covering all the mirrors, but not fast enough. This guy didn’t have a reflection! Not at all! This was the real, honest-to-goodness Lord of the Night!”

“This is why you never win,” said Oliver, shaking his head. “You couldn’t have just met Bela Lugosi in that parlor. No, it had to be Dracula.”

Abe, on the other hand, was terribly amused. “So Chance, why didn’t you run? I’d have run like my feet were on fire.”

“Well, I was frozen!” said Chance. “I don’t know if it was his powers, or if I was just in awe, but I tell you - I could not move. Then he looks right at me, and I’m terrified - I mean, I’m dinner to this guy, right? He could rip my throat out right there, and I bet the staff would just clean up and go about their business. But all he does is extend his hand and say, ‘I would like to borrow five dollars.’”

Peter broke out laughing. “Dracula borrowed five dollars from you? That’s the story?”

“Well, yeah,” said Chance. “See, it turns out that the count is real superstitious. Swears that he always wins bigger when he plays on someone’s behalf, you see. So the first bet he places, he borrows five bucks from someone there and puts it in the pot. Tells me that win or lose, he’ll give me ten as soon as he’s done.”

Again, there was silence at the table. This time, it was Peter who spoke. “So did he win?”

“Yeah, he won the first bet! On roulette, too - and no one wins that, so maybe there’s something to it. But he stiffed me! Didn’t give me the ten or even my original five back. He said one of his ‘agents’ would find me and give me the money. Some people, right?” Chance emptied his glass. “So?”

“So I hope you ain’t broke, because that bottle’s on you,” said Abe.

Oliver nodded. “Yeah, I’m not pitching in a penny for that.”

“Nice try,” said Peter, still chuckling quietly under his breath. “But that makes three. Better luck next time.”

Suddenly, a shadowy figure burst through the main door of the Bell and Lyre. It moved with an unnatural speed, but I could swear that I caught the outline of a wolf, snarling with hunger. Some of the other patrons must have seen it too, for they dove for cover - dangerous criminals reduced at once to scared children. And then the figure was gone, replaced by a more familiar terror. He was a man, or at least he held the visage of one. He stood close to seven feet in height, with great sinewy arms like those of a gorilla and a face like an untamed beast. Everyone at the table froze, staring at this mysterious intruder, this creature that looked as much animal as man.

It felt like an hour passed before the beast-man spoke - or, more precisely, growled. “Chance.”

The other three men backed away from the table, leaving Chance alone before the beast-man. “That, uh...That’s me.”

The beast-man stared chance down. “The master has sent me on an errand.”

“An errand?”

“Yes.” The beast-man extended his hand to Chance, palm held open. “The Count wants the five dollars you borrowed from him.”

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