The high tinny sound of old country music filled the dingy bar. No one seemed to pay much attention to the aging jukebox in the corner, minus the drunk next to it humming along to whichever song of heartbreak and loneliness it played. Above it stood the Union emblem burned into wooden planks, covered nearly entirely in photos of those lost to the vigil.
The rest of the bar’s patrons certainly were of a type: roughneck. These were men and women who made a living by sweat and pain; the sorts that built this great nation and were generally invisible to the rest of it.
A man and woman stood behind the wraparound bar in the center of the room, clearly related. They moved with easy comfort from years of the trade, a well-orchestrated system of bottles, glasses, and just the right word or look at the right time to help those not lost in their cups. Above them hung a series of party lights from the back-stock cabinetry, burned out long ago.
A welcoming smell of grilled food floated in the air, barely covering the smell of cigarette smoke outlawed years ago. It was late afternoon; neon light from the sign outside declaring “Johnnie and Connie’s” floated in between the old wooden blinds with the sun’s dying rays.
The sound of wood creaking and cracking cut through the music as the door to the bar shifted in the frame, the light of the East Texas sun through the small window in the door going dark as small thorny vines crept around the frame. With a sound like a splintering frame, the door opened the wrong direction, revealing a narrow path through an overgrown forest, and a wall of a man with strongly Nordic features and blond hair pulled into a ponytail. The room fell silent as Dain’s penetrating eyes swept from side to side, looking for threats. ‘Predator’ radiated from him, and no one dared to move.
“Room’s clear,” he called out, stepping out of the doorway and to the left. Several of the burned-out bulbs in the party lights flared red as he entered the room.
Moonlight flooded in, along with the smell of flowers and spring. The party lights continued to twinkle red and then green as three additional figured crossed the threshold: a Latina in road leathers carrying an assault rifle, a tiny pale-skinned girl with technicolor hair, and Ed McLaughlin.
Ed’s appearance broke the spell of silence. Suddenly the room filled with whispers and mumblings, shock and disbelief on many of their faces. “Holy shit, it’s you,” exclaimed Johnnie. “We heard rumors you were out of the game.”
Leanna closed the door gently, patting it like an old friend as the vine retreated from around the door and the sun began to shine through the window once more. Dain and Victoria stalked through the room, closing blinds and peering out at the cars in the lot.
“I thought so too,” Ed replied, taking Johnnie’s extended hand in a warm handshake. “But you saw Skaar on TV. You know he’s telling the truth. You can feel it. Something bad is on the horizon and we can’t wait for it to get here.”
Connie sat down the glass he’d been cleaning. “So what do we do? I mean, that sounds great on a billboard, but what do we actually do?”
“I know what we do!” came the drunken exclamation from someone at the bar. “We pop us some freaks! Don’t matter which ones, fangers, furries, dandelion eaters, whatever. Plug ’em all and let God sort it out.”
A low growl, more felt than heard, rumbled from Dain. Ed, hackles raised, pinned Dain in place with a glance that said Let me handle this.
“And just what good do you think will come from fighting each other?” Ed thundered in reply. “You think they’re not just as fucked as you are if this goes down? No one wins, everyone loses. That’s what happens if we all start fighting each other. This is not our way!”
Ed slammed his hand on the bar to punctuate his point. Mumbles of agreement spread throughout the bar. Running his hand through his hair, Ed composed himself. It would be so easy to let the anger win, Ed thought. Always right there, just under the surface…
Ed pulled a brown folder from his jacket pocket and dropped it on the bar. “This is a list of Gestalt sites in the region.” he said, jabbing his finger onto the folder. “They’re in the thick of whatever’s going on and we need to shut them down. Show everyone that we can make a difference. Right now, there’s a lot of fear out there and not much hope. It’s time to change that.”
Victoria had paid little attention to the room’s antics, regularly peeking through the blinds into the parking lot. Something caught her attention. “Ed, we have to leave — now,” she said, forceful and stern.
Ed sighed. “There is never enough time. I’m sorry for what comes next,” he said.
Dain placed a hand on Ed’s shoulder and steered him back towards the entrance, barking a command behind him. “Leanna, the door.”
She nodded before kneeling down and whispering into the lock. Standing, she pushed it open the wrong way with the sound of cracking wood, revealing a moon-lit pasture choked with nettles instead of the sunny parking lot. Victoria was the first through, rifle at the ready, followed quickly by Dain and Ed. Leanna gave the room a wide smile. “You can do this—I just know you can,” she said, pushing the door shut.
Moments later, the same door swung inward, hitting the bell at the threshold. The bell’s tone seemed to break the moment, bring things back to the now. In came a trio of men, clearly not the type to spend their time in out-of-the-way dive bars. Everything about them screamed “cop”, from the mirrored shades to the arrogant swagger in their walk. The leader walked directly to bar while the others fanned out throughout the room. “We’re looking for someone,” he announced, pulling a photo from his breast-pocket. “Ed McLaughlin. Answer all of our questions and there won’t be any trouble.”
Johnnie glanced just above the newcomer at the string of party lights now burning bright blue. Other bulbs came to life as the other two men neared the bar. To one side, Connie reached between the ice chest and liquor rail to pull a sawed-off shotgun from its holster.
“Lock the doors,” Johnnie called out to his patrons, then turned to address the newcomers directly. “You boys just found a whole heap of trouble.”