Joe landed with a thud against the asphalt of the damp alley. His outstretched palms and right knee had taken most of the impact but his left cheek had still hit the with ground with enough force to later bruise and abrase it. He slowly relaxed his clenched eyes and allowed them to open into ‘squints’. For a moment there was quiet. Then he became gradually re-aware of the commotion behind him. There were voices yelling angrily -two were much louder than the others and seemed to be in direct communication with each other, voluminously and aggressively. The twin logos thundered back and forth and over top of each other. Within the interminably long half a second of regaining clarity, Joe noticed that at times the voices were more clear and sometimes less clear -muffled as if by exertion.
There were other voices too -probably 2- but in that instant Joe couldn’t be sure because they blended together into a consistent, supplementary whine of pathetic indignance. Still, even in that brief instant of recovering from near-semi-consciousness, Joe was certain that these were the voices of enemies.
Alertness fully restored by the sound of bells ringing internally, Joe pressed up off the ground with his hands, only slightly fumbling the attempt to hop right to his feet from a prone position. Steadying himself for only the briefest of moments and satisfied that his motor function was at least commensurate with his technically functional mental clarity, Joe whirled around with what he reckoned to be a sufficient amount of coordination and aggression to convince any adversaries present and watching that he was still a force to be reckoned with.
Casting eyes on the situation that he had been cast from like a chick being pushed from a domestically-abusive nest by sociopathic cuckoos, Joe quickly confirmed that which he’d never actually forgot; He and Elijah were in a scrape with the bar owner and two of his employees.
“I DON”T GIVE A FUCK WHERE YOU”RE FROM! YOU DON”T SAY THOSE WORDS IN MY PLACE!” screamed the bartender, grappling with Elijah, his hands hooked around the shoulder straps of Elijah’s patrol rig.
“DON’T PRESUME YOU CAN”T ‘GET GOT’ FOR SPEAKING TO YOUR BETTERS IN SUCH A MANNER!” Elijah responded, indignant and surprised that this ‘peasant’ would imply ending his life.
The two employees, who were feebly trying to wrest Elijah’s hands from the bartender’s blazer (seemingly unaware that their boss was still very much holding onto their quarry), looked at each other shocked at Elijah’s words (and then at their boss) before giggling nervously.
For his part, the bartender froze, eyes widening into an incredulous stare. The stare intensified and the faintest glimmer of a condescending smirk began to appear near-imperceptibly at the corner of his mouth
“My betters?… Are you fucking joking me, old man? Elijah looked at him for several seconds and then wearily began to feel admonished. Respect-lacking assholes like this barkeep used to never have the audacity to vent their resentments to such as him. For years and years after the beginning of the armistice, Elijah and his buddies would have gone to dumps like this and been treated like royalty.
But that was just it, he didn’t have buddies anymore -not really; every other contemporary of his he knew of -survivors of ‘the Rad-lands’, had raptured. Any damn fool who hadn’t was dead. Except him.
Your ‘great war’ was a long time ago,” the barkeep continued, tauntingly, menacingly. You had a chance to go up in the world, so WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU HERE?!”
Elijah’s eyes widened in anger, and his indignance remembered, he screamed at the barkeep, “You SONOVABITCH! I MADE my chance!”
With his exclamation, Elijah threw his left hand from the barkeep’s chest, out laterally in the direction of the approaching Joe, and bent at the elbow to reach to the back of his belt, where he carried a concealable -though still needlessly large- combat knife.
“Fuuuuuck…. here we go again…” thought Elijah as he lunged in the direction of the fray, reaching around behind Elijah to grab and stay his forearm, and placing himself between the two quarrelling men. At his return to thick of things, the two employees of the barkeep (who had been the ones to bum-rush Joe pout onto his face in the first place) turned some of their attention toward him but remained mostly devoted to holding back the much larger (and seemingly more unreasonable…also drunker) Elijah.
The stalemated human knot lingered in stasis for an instant and Elijah allowed Joe to pull his knife-less hand back out to his side just under the notice of the three adversaries, who were none-the-wiser about nearly needing to increase their weekly dry-cleaning budget. Satisfied for the moment that the situation was effectively de-escalated, Joe slowly turned about to face the barkeep.
“Senor Gravacci.” he intoned with deliberate respectfulness. “I apologize the this misunderstanding…” the barkeeps eye’s narrowed but before he could protest this appraisal, Joe continued: “…that we caused. I pray you: allow us to leave. My man is unwell, but has not not had an outburst in some time. If you allow us to leave I swear we won’t return.”
Gravacci looked from Joe to Eli and back to Joe.
“You know if I kill him he wont come back either…” As Gravacci said this he pulled a stiletto dagger with a mother of pearl handle out of a forearm sheath hidden under his sleeve.
“Sir!” Joe continued, his calm tinged with urgency, “Death comes at every moment…”
At this utterance, one of Gravacci’s flunkies nodded in assent unconsciously. Joe Continued:
I just saved the life of at least one of us here. I pray thee to give me the benefit of the doubt, and assume it was you or one of yours.
At this point, Elijah and Gravacci, locked in a tense stare-down, both allowed their eyes to move in the direction of the Joe. Their faces stayed tense, teeth clenched in alert malice. Gravacci, with a view of Joe’s anterior aspect let his gaze fall from the boy’s eyes, down past his chin and to his neck. There, just barely peeking above the top button of a collared floral shirt, Gravacci could see the top of a tattoo; cursive script. Slowly he moved his dagger, pointed over Joe’s left shoulder at the face of Elijah down in front of Joe’s face, dragging the tip across his left cheek. Joe didn’t flinch, and after resting the dagger a moment near the corner of Joe’s mouth, Gravacci brought it slowly and deliberately down to his neck, and brought the length of the blade laterally across his throat.
Joe was aware of the precariousness of his position but he wasn’t afraid. Gravacci pulled the top of his collar down with the blade revealing the word truth tattooed across Joe’s neck.
“I don’t like speakers in my bar. They’re trouble. I don’t deal in spells; I deal in potions.”
” I don’t deal in spells either, sir.” Joe responded.
“You better fuckin’ not; not anywhere around here, because next time, I won’t give a shit what God it offends…”
Joe steeled himself to maintain equanimity during the imminent blaspheme.
“…I’ll kill you … both.”
Gravacci watched Joe’s face as he said the words slowly and even his perceptive eye didn’t catch anything approximating a flinch. Satisfied, he quickly FLICKED the blade away from Joe’s throat, prompting Elijah to resume gazing at him, and popped it back into his sleeve with an elegant flourish. His left hand released Elijah’s shoulder-strap.
“You two are free to go.” Gravacci said with a sweet, ambiguous familiarity.
Joe maintained his gaze at Gravacci and spoke: “Eli. Take your hands from Senor Gravacci.” Eli complied and Gravacci looked to his men. They abruptly shoved Eli and Joe out into the alley, causing them both to stumble, but neither fell.
Gravacci moved between his two flunkies who stood at something approximating goombah attention, and took up an imperious and regal posture. He spoke:
“Good sirs! I thank you for your patronage this evening. Until there is not, there is always tomorrow.” As he spoke, Gravacci took a an exaggerated bow, and Joe, who had quickly recovered after being ‘rushed’ once more into the alley, had also taken up a regal posture and returned his bow, except Joe’s bow was deeper. He replied to Gravacci:
“The Gods and your ancestors doubtless smile upon the hospitality you have shown two weary travelers, this eve.”
At this, Gravaccinodded, whirled about and re-entered the bar followed by his jabronis. Elijah, who had recovered from the shove and turned his body away from the assembled three adversaries to face down the alley, looked at the closing door they had just passed through and spit. Joe whirled on him.
“Don’t!” he commanded.
Elijah scowled. “Now you presume to command me? YOU are not my better!”
“No…” Joe responded, stepping more into Elijah’s personal space and piercing his soul a gaze whose intensity belied his youthfulness. “…but I will be.”
He gazed at the arrogant, foolish, troubled old warrior for a few moments longer, and Eli, for his part, looked down.At this, Joe began to slowly turn his body away but kept his eyes stuck to his companion. As he began to walk down the alley away from the scene of the conflict he gradually pulled his gaze forward, and when he did so Eli let out s sigh.
Joe neared the end of the alley and turned right. Elijah watched him disappear and contemplated going a separate way for a moment before continuing after him.