The rush drowned his thoughts for the rest of the night. If there was one thing to be said for bartending, nothing kept the bugs in your skull at bay better than fending off the thirsty masses. Not half a second’s break to think; Jess poured drinks with a desultory doped-up hesitance, but Casper threw himself into the whirlwind with relish. When the crowd broke about five, it was like surfacing from a murky pond with gasping breaths that felt like being reborn.
For the first time since he’d come back from his smoke break, no one stood at the bar when he turned around. The music didn’t bang so loud, eased down to a conversational volume. Patrons slumped over the dim tables, a low buzz of conversation in the air and the glow of embers crowning cigarettes and joints alike.
Some distant cousin of adrenaline trembled beneath his skin, sweat thick through his hair and sticking his still-damp t-shirt to his back. Jess stood vacant, her eyelids drooping in slow blinks. Nona had long gone – the boss liked her too much to give her the late shifts.
Casper tapped Jess on the elbow and told her to go, to watch out for herself and to make sure she carried the pepper spray in her hand when she walked home.
“Text me when you’re back,” he said, “okay?”
Something like a smile crossed her lips. “You’re gonna be the one to need the pepper spray, sweetie. All the bad guys are already in here.” It was the first joke she’d made in two weeks, so Casper smiled against the scream that clawed up his throat.
With Jess gone, it was just him, the smackheads, and the booze.
The whiskey bottle coughed up a triple into a murky glass, and he tipped it down his throat. Gross. Casper lifted the bottle to the light and snorted. Watered. Barely even that cheap alcohol burn. Why did it even surprise him anymore? But another double, and a tingling warmth touched his fingertips anyway. The fumes off the petrol-heat in his stomach muddled his brain. Sighing, he planted his elbows on the bar.
Then Casper saw him, and he couldn’t quite believe he’d managed to miss him the whole night.
Casper didn’t know what it was about expensive clothes that made them look expensive, but no matter that all he wore was black slacks and a loose white shirt, the scent of money just rolled off them. Perhaps it was the way the watch on his wrist hung real-gold heavy and posed like a work of art all at once. Perhaps it was just the way he wore them – even leant against the end of the bar nursing some of that watered-down whiskey, his posture was a billion dollars. Straight back, easy hips, loose shoulders.
The alcohol warmth lifted into Casper’s chest and spilt over into his groin.
Absolutely fucking gorgeous.
A crooked smile touched the stranger’s lips, one that failed entirely to hide that something breathless in his features as Casper met his gaze.
The man lifted his glass to Casper and tipped the last down his throat. Even though the music slid too loud in the air between them, the clack that went with that precise placement of the glass on the bar came clear as if it weren’t there.
Casper went over like a well-trained dog, the empty glass his owner waggling a treat at him, and picked up the whiskey as he went. Could be anything brown, but he looked like the kind of man who drank century-old single malt in a wood-panelled study, not rum. No one who looked like that had any right making Casper’s mouth this dry. No one who looked like that had any right leaning against his seedy bar making eyes at him.
His hand settled over the glass before Casper could pour another out, long, slender fingers curling over one by one with the elegance of spider legs. A fall of glossy dark hair caught the low light as he tilted his head, that same sly, crooked smile on his lips.
He had a voice just like as the rest of him. Like black-gold sin.
“I don’t suppose you have anything less ... watery?”
Of course they didn’t have anything less watery. If he’d been looking for something less watery, he should have gone anywhere in the city but here or any other bar Casper had ever worked in. Men like him didn’t belong here. Men like him came here to pick up a hooker that they’d leave bloody on the side of the road when they were done, with a clip of fifties like it’d wash away the memory of a wire coat hanger worming under her skin.
It didn’t. Jess would tell you that.
Casper leant his elbow on the bar and curled his lip. Just the way that lifted the scars slicing through his cheek to the light. “Bring your own bottle and I’ll pour it for you for a tenner. I’ll even lean in and pull my top down – really make it worth your while.”
Laughter hadn’t been what he’d been going for. Especially not the kind of laughter that made this man smile like that. His hand flew from his glass to shield his mouth and his eyes danced with neon light. How long had it been since he’d seen someone that happy? No one in this place, that was for sure. No one outside either. Maybe not even Jack.
The stranger leant in, hand cradling his jaw and his head tipping further sideways. Still smiling. Perhaps it was the booze tinting his cheeks pink. “If I unbutton my shirt too, can we call it five?”
For fuck’s sake... Rolling his eyes, Casper grabbed the bottle off the side, the neck warm under his hand. A smile twitched his lips. “You want one or are you leaving?”
“Are those the only two options?”
“I’m sure one of the girls in the back are free.”
“And I’m sure they’ll change their mind when I can no longer change mine. Very well—“ the man pushed his glass toward Casper, smiling— “make it something with a bit more kick this time.”
Casper snorted and turned around. “What, do you want me to piss in it?” Tens of bottles of the same budget-brand spirits lined the wall, all of them already cracked. The liquids gleamed dull cream, a dying sun caught in the murky depths of each little universe. Nothing with a kick bar that vodka, so he plucked that back off the splintering shelf.
That cultured murmur sounded as soon as Casper turned back, the same note of humour lifting the edges. “How much does that cost?”
“Fifty if you want me to watch you drink it.”
The man laughed, still with the same exultant smile on his lips. Really, this guy was a fucking fool. Something other than alcohol had to be tainting his veins for him to come here and flirt with Casper. In this muck, the guy shone. Call it cliché, but against all these degenerates and the dirt, his energy just glowed. For one, no one came here to fucking glow, and for two, Casper was as much a cockroach in this shithole as the rest of them. Ruined surly face, black clothes, rain-ratted hair already cut like shit. Like he ever tried to be anything different.
But those bright eyes were too clear on Casper for his mind to be addled, nothing but a whiskey-kick in that half-glazed grin.
Casper shook his head and tugged the cup toward him to pour out a glass. Another for himself followed, a generous helping. Maybe enough to make this flirting seem like a good idea. Barely enough swilled about the bottom of the bottle to make it worth putting back on the shelf, so Casper topped both the glasses up with the last and binned it.
“And how much is that?” the man asked. He pulled both glasses toward him with two fingers, some blue steel pout on his sinfully perfect lips. “Considering I’ve had nowhere near enough to miss you nabbing that one.”
As if Casper was stupid enough to try that with a guy who looked as if he could fund his jailtime out of pocket. A flick of his fingers chinked off one glass. “Two-fifty for that one. And this one—“ Casper pulled free the other glass— “is a thank you for running my entire fucking bar from my boss.”
The man’s eyes didn’t leave Casper as he reached into his pocket, a careful kind of consideration in that gaze. The ten he slid across the bar was crisp, straight off the press and into this yuppie’s pocket. He trapped the end with his finger as Casper grabbed it, and spoke before that scratch of irritation could take hold.
“How much for you to tell me your name?”
And the way he trapped Casper’s gaze on his... Fingers still pinched around the end of the bill, Casper took a long drink from the glass. The burn didn’t make it hit less intimate. Eyes like that question was murmured with them both naked beneath satin sheets, his hair tickling Casper’s cheek as he whispered, breath sultry warm against his throat.
Keep it easy, Casper. You can fuck Jack when your shift ends. No matter that Jack would be long passed out, probably not even in his own bed.
How much for his name?
“Seven-fifty,” Casper said. Shit awful hard to keep the breathy out of his voice.
Not even a flinch. Nothing but that bedroom voice and that bedroom smile. “How much for you to let me tell you mine?”
Was he actually serious? The corners of Casper’s lips twitched and he tapped his finger against the bill. “Double it.”
Somehow that bastard just kept on smiling. He released the bill and, with a grin, slipped another out of his pocket. One more crisp ten. “Keep the change.”
Shit, he was actually serious. Just the same as fucking always. Casper slapped the note back on the counter and grabbed the prick’s drink from his loose fingers. The fall in his face might have been comical if Casper hadn’t been enjoying the smile so damn much just a moment ago.
“Casper.” He bit out the words, tightening the scratch of his voice down to a growl. “Free. You can fuck off with your—“
“Casper—“ The man straightened, hands held up in the air with the white flag of surrender flying in the way his eyebrows drew together like some kicked puppy. The way the stranger said his name sounded like a well-worn trail. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m an absolute idiot at this. I really just wanted to buy you a few drinks. I truly am sorry if I insulted you.”
The music slid into a softer song, something to sway to at the end of the night, and the buzz of conversation infiltrated his ears again. For a moment it had been quiet. For a moment, it hadn’t stunk of piss and booze and old smoke while he tumbled into that zen trance, but now he’d plummeted out the other side of that mist in a cloud of hallucinogenic fractals.
The bleak reality was his clothes stuck to his skin and this rich cunt who at best wanted to pay him for sex and at worst wanted to throw his money around to make himself feel big. Casper slammed both the glasses back on the counter, the liquid raising a chill on his fingers as it sloshed over, and stalked away.
A pair of regulars, one with a sharp red mohawk, waited for drinks. Any other night and Casper would trade the same old lines while he took his time over it. Any other night it wouldn’t be so damn hard to keep his eyes off the cunt at the end of the bar.
For a long time, the stranger just stood there, head in his hands, and his fingers working against his scalp. Right up until Casper had slapped together the drinks and taken Redhawk’s money. The stranger’s throat bobbed as he tipped back both vodkas, and then he was gone, a spectre in the hazy darkness of the club.
Two notes lay crisp on the bar, a window of pale hope against the dark grime behind them. A window just like the sky between the tower blocks on a clear day – nothing but a dream.
Redhawk hung back while Casper pocketed the notes, something uncomfortably tight in his chest. His rough fingers brushed Casper’s jaw as he slid over eighty in crumpled fives and tens.
It took the rest of his shift and the time until Redhawk fucked against the wall in the back alley to realise the feeling was regret. But he kept moaning anyway, and maybe it felt all the better knowing he deserved it more.
Knowing that chemical release waited at home for him like the sweetest lover laid out on the sofa with brown powder spilling from between her legs.