A man in a suit and tie walked into a bar. The suit was rumpled; the tie was half undone. He'd carried the jacket in with him and discarded it on the floor beside the stool he'd chosen for his perch. He had his sleeves pushed up past his forearms and pushed them up a little further as he slumped against the counter. One elbow unerringly found its way into the only wet spot on the bar, which had just been wiped down. The elbow skidded. His face hit the counter. He stayed there.
Susie, the bartender, knew trouble, and this guy was trouble with a capital T.
He mumbled something that sounded like "mayhem" into the fake wood. Susie ambled over, already regretting the dearth of her usual day-drinkers.
"Sorry?" Susie said.
"You shouldn't be," he said more clearly. Was he sulking?
Susie gave a smile that she knew came out as more of a grimace. "Welcome to Joe's. Can I get you anything to start?"
He straightened. "I," he stated in dour tones, a grim expression on his face, "am a newly single man out on the town." Just got dumped and looking to get shit-faced, Susie translated. "One who intends to down cheap vodka until he starts seeing double."
"I'm cutting you off before you get that far," Susie warned. Joe's was not that kind of bar, and Susie did not trust this wreck of a man not to get into a wreck if she left him to it. As if sensing her urge to already demand his keys, he glowered back at her. Susie still thought it looked an awful lot like sulking.
"I'm a man who was dropped just as he tried to pop the question." He glowered at the discarded jacket littering the bar's floor now. "I tried to put a ring on it, and he gave me back the ring."
Susie sighed. She grabbed a bottle from the bottom shelf, because he didn't look like he was in a state to appreciate anything better and because Susie was not made of money, but she was moved by something akin to pity and which was much closer to understanding than she'd like.
"First round's on me." He gestured for her to leave the bottle. She rolled her eyes and poured him a second—not on the house, this one—and slid it in place next to the first. He downed them both in quick succession. He pointed at the bottle. "At least order an appetizer."
Susie pointedly poured a glass of water to go with the third shot and placed it by the quickly mounting little mountain of shot glasses. He just as pointedly ignored it. She kept her peace, because it wasn't really her business, and pity only took her so far. What was her business, though, was holding out an expectant hand. He gave her a blank look. She raised an eyebrow. He raised both his. She frowned. He shrugged a shoulder and leaned over to scoop up his jacket. He fished in the pockets for a moment, then pulled something out. He threw the jacket to land on the floor behind him. He dropped the something into her open palm.
It was not a key ring. It certainly was a ring, though.
Susie mustered her most unimpressed look. He frowned back at her. She sighed. It wasn't long enough for the alcohol to have hit him this hard. She dropped the ring—a plain little thing, to hold such hopes—in front of him. "Your keys."
Flatly, she said, "Three on an empty stomach is going to put you over. Even if you lived next door, I wouldn't let you drive. You can stay long enough to get sober again or you can call a cab."
"I don't have a car to drive," he clarified. "I left it with my insurance guy." He looked forlornly at the abandoned ring. "It's in good hands."
A car accident and rejected proposal in the same day? Susie sighed and poured another shot. Before he could grab it, she covered it with her hand. The pity and understanding had returned full force. "Drink the water and order a sandwich, and I'll keep these coming. Deal?"
"I," he said clearly, "am a newly single man, out at a bar, being mother-henned by my bartender."
One of her regulars had wandered in and had been happy to hover in the background, eavesdropping shamelessly. "Get the ham and brie, sonny. And you haven't seen this one mothering yet. Wait until she carries you up three flights of stairs because the elevator's broken and you tied on one too many."
"As he's not a terrible friend of my grandparents I seem to have inherited along with this bar, I can confidently say I won't be going that far."
"No, you can't," Ben said.
She sighed and agreed, "No, I can't."
She gave Ben his Guinness along with a ham and brie on rye, and he winked at her before turning to the new guy. Ben had never been a bartender, but he liked to take on the stereotypical role of careful listener dispensing the occasional sage advice. The advice was usually terrible, but he was good at listening—mostly because he was the most unrepentantly nosy busybody Susie'd ever met. Susie left him to it. She had other customers coming in, and Jeff, who was supposed to be working the bar today, had flaked.
It should have been a slow day. It was raining, which was always hit or miss, and it was a Monday. In truth, she probably wasn't that much busier than any other mostly slow day, but between taking orders, pouring drinks, and working the kitchen, things were getting away from her a little. Cathie was a no-call, no-show, and when she did crawl back out from whatever rock she'd hidden under, she'd also be a no-job. At least Jeff had sent a text message—"Other job emergency, sorry!"—even if she did want to shake him for the two hours' notice.
So when Brad, her best friend's ex and a truly awful person, not fun-awful like the majority of her friends, walked in, Susie figured things could not get worse. He strode over to the bar like he owned the place, practically bowling over poor Ronnie, who looked like she was seriously considering lodging her cane up his ass. "Susie, babe, I've come to let Jeff take me back."
Jeff wasn't here to tell Brad to fuck off, and Susie knew Brad was going to accuse her of keeping Jeff from him. Maybe go on another rant about how she was trying to steal Brad for herself. Yep, this was the worst it could get.
"I won't even make him beg." Brad flashed a smile he probably thought was charming. Susie had once thought it charming herself, after all. She knew better now. She was suddenly and overwhelmingly glad Jeff wasn't here, after all, because he was a sentimental sap who never learned. "Not much, anyway."
She grimaced, and it was not her usual attempt at a customer service smile. "Get out."
"Don't be like that, Suse." He grabbed for her wrist, and she stepped back. She was near Ben, who practically leaped from his stool to get in between them.
The new guy, whom she'd fetched a sandwich and three more shots over the last few hours, remained slumped against the bar. She'd have thought him passed out if he weren't muttering to himself. "I'm a newly single guy, who just drank his weight in cheap vodka." Mournfully, "I don't even like vodka."
Brad loomed over Ben, but Ben was having none of it. "Leave it alone, old man. This doesn't concern you."
Brad still talked like a high school bully right out of an after-school special. Susie thought the mortification might kill her. Ben had seen her in diapers and during her Captain Underpants phase, and introducing Brad and Jeff easily remained her most embarrassing public mistake. This was the worst. Susie was the worst. Why had she ever been friends with this asshole? (She resolutely ignored the memory of her own rejected ring and how she'd thought at the time, At least someone can be happy.) Everything was. The. Worst.
Brad stabbed at Ben's shoulder with his pointer finger. Ben clenched his fists like he was channeling his boxing days and about to go a few rounds. Ronnie had a death grip on her cane and was staring at the scene with a gimlet eye. Susie was pretty sure that if this broke out into violence, Ronnie was going to break some bones, and they wouldn't be hers this time around. (What an eighty-year-old woman had been doing in a bar fight, Susie didn't know, but apparently that was how Ronnie broke her hip three Christmases ago. Ronnie didn't start shit, but she sure as hell finished it.) Susie was resigning herself to replacing half her glassware and having to call the cops on her own establishment when Mr. Trouble made a sudden, unhappy noise.
He leaned over and vomited all over Brad's shoes. Ben, a veteran of crowds who couldn't hold their drink, didn't flinch, even as he came within millimeters of being spattered with partially digested brie and bottom shelf liquor. Brad, who was wearing three hundred dollar shoes, took a sharp step backwards as he screeched, "What the fuck, man?"
Susie had spent the afternoon and evening trying to do the job of three people. Normally, the instant a mess was made, she was there to clean it. She really had meant to pick up Mr. Trouble's jacket, but she'd gotten distracted—first by his woes, then by her own. It was a tripping hazard. Brad's shoes were already slick. His heel caught on the hem of the jacket and slid.
"Whoa, let me help you," Mr. Trouble said as he stood, swaying. His arms went right into the space Brad needed to stabilize himself. Mr. Trouble's legs somehow ended up in just the wrong (right) spot and a foot hooked behind Brad's stable one. Brad hit the bar counter on the way to the floor, jostling Mr. Trouble's lopsided pyramid of shot glasses. The pyramid's capstone was still full. The empties landed on Brad's head. The full one went straight into his eyes. To himself, Mr. Trouble said, "I'm an obnoxiously drunk klutz who really shouldn't be helping anyone."
Mr. Trouble put a hand on the bar to steady himself. There was a half-full bottle of vodka next to an empty one. Susie had no memory of grabbing either. Mr. Trouble's hand slid into some spilled liquid and ended up sweeping both bottles onto Brad, who was snarling and struggling to stand up.
"Sorry," Mr. Trouble said. "Sorry." He did not sound sorry at all.
Ben, shameless, terrible Ben, clapped Mr. Trouble on the shoulder. "No worries. There's more where that came from. This time, let's get you the good stuff."
"Nah," Mr. Trouble said. "I think I've had enough."
"Next time, then," Ben said, ignoring the cursing, sputtering mess that was Brad sprawled out at their feet. "I'll stand you one anytime you'd like."
Mr. Trouble grabbed his jacket from where it was tangled with Brad's feet. It looked like an unsalvageable mess to Susie, all shoe prints and unsavory spots on their way toward becoming unsavory stains, but Mr. Trouble just draped it over his arm after pulling out his wallet. He dropped a few bills on the counter and accepted another clap on the shoulder from Ben. He dodged a wild swing from Brad and sauntered out the door, his gait gone steady and his eyes unexpectedly clear. Susie glanced at the counter and raised her eyebrows, half at the tip, half at what was left beside it.
She grabbed the ring and ran after him, leaving Brad to the tender mercies of her regulars. Lana, newly arrived and seven feet tall in her platforms if she was an inch, was insisting very firmly on helping Brad find his way out. Ben was on Brad's other side, helping haul him to his feet. Ronnie was supervising, which she seemed to understand to mean prodding at the back of Brad's knees when she felt he wasn't moving far enough fast enough—Susie half-suspected Ronnie had plans to drive him down the block.
Mr. Trouble hadn't gone far. Susie found him in the parking lot, despite his lack of car, near the employee parking. Cathie was also there, standing next to her beat-up old clunker, which had a few extra dents to add to its many long-existing dings. She was in earnest conversation with a tall, well-built black man, whom Susie recognized from when a storm last year blew half a tree into the bar's front-facing windows.
"Fuck conflict of interest," Cathie was saying. "And yeah, it was probably really, really inappropriate of him to propose when I hadn't even crawled out of my car yet, but I don't think he really gets professionalism."
"Hey, Trouble," Susie said, and he reluctantly tore his attention away from the pair to stare at Susie. She held up the ring. "You forgot this."
"I'm not mad, and it's not like he can propose twice, or at least not after you're already married, and you love him, don't you? I think it's romantic, and if you want to make it work, I have faith that you can make it work."
The insurance guy had the long-suffering expression of someone who had been on the receiving end of one of Cathie's rants on romance for several hours already and was concerned they would be there for hours yet. Cathie had the happy expression of someone who could obliviously prattle on for hours, but Susie knew her secret: for some unknown reason, this was Cathie exacting revenge.
"Yes," the insurance guy tried to interrupt. "I agree that—"
"And who cares about a few more dents, anyway, right? The important thing is we were all okay, except for my baby's tires, and you fixed that." She paused for a quick breath, but carried on before the insurance guy could continue his attempt to draw their conversation to a close. "Thanks again, for getting my darling up and running again! I was worried I'd never make it to work, and with my phone dead, there was no way to call and let my boss know I'd be late. Anyway, if I'm not angry, then I don't see why—"
Mr. Trouble plucked the ring from Susie's palm. He winked. "I told you. It's Mayhem."
Mayhem—and how was that any better a nickname than Trouble?—sauntered up to the pair like a cat about to present its owner with a dead bird, possibly one that the owner had also been keeping as a pet. His smile was oddly uncertain.
"You!" Cathie said.
"You," the insurance guy said resignedly.
"Me," Mayhem agreed, smile a little sharper, a little more genuine.
Cathie smacked him in the arm. "You nearly totaled my car, and you couldn't even seal the deal! Do you know how long I've been keeping him here waiting for you to come back? What have you been doing? Don't answer that!" She smacked him upside the head this time. "Do it again, and do it right this time! And you had better invite me to the wedding!"
"I know, I know, 'Chatty Cathie, you and your three sisters will talk through the whole wedding.' I didn't say to invite all your cousins, just me." Cathie looked over at Susie. "And my plus one."
"You're fired," Susie said.
"Susieeeeee, why, why would you do this to me, after all I've done for you," Cathie said as she grabbed Susie by the arm, steering her back toward the bar.
Behind them, Susie could hear Mayhem clear his throat and say, "I'm a truly repentant man who'll never engineer a situation where he can propose while his boyfriend's on the job ever again."
"Besides, you're a sucker for romance, don't even front," Cathie said, obscuring the rest of what Mayhem said.
"Mmm," Susie said noncommittally.
In that lull, she heard the insurance guy correct, "Fiance. You're a repentant fiance, now, though I'm finding it hard to picture the repentant part," before Cathie pulled her around the corner in time to watch Brad being pushed out of the bar.
"You!" Brad said.
Cathie grinned, sharp and wicked. "Me." Then, "I warned you about fucking with my friends. Be glad my cousin stopped at the totaled car and a little bit of public embarrassment."
"You call this a little—wait, what did you do to my car?"
Ronnie prodded him sharply in the back with her cane. "I said keep walking, bucko."
Cathie hooked her arm together with Susie's and pulled her into the bar, pointedly silent for once, and utterly serene. Once they were inside, Cathie pulling out cleaning supplies from the supply closet for her, Susie couldn't help but ask, "What did you do?"
"Called in a favor from my family. If that jerk thinks it ends with a trashed car and an unfortunate incident or two, he is absolutely, utterly, 100% wrong." Cathie looked entirely too proud of herself. "If he doesn't want to deal with fallout, asshole had better move."
"States?" Susie asked wryly.
"Countries." Cathie looked vicious and self-satisfied. All of Susie's friends were terrible people. It would make sense that their families were, too.
"Still fired," Susie said.
Cathie affected a stricken look. Susie was not impressed. Cathie's lower lip wibbled. Susie held strong. This day was terrible, and even if the opportunity to watch someone kick Brad while he was down almost made it worth it, she was a woman of her word. Cathie shed a crocodile tear.
"Fuck." Cathie's sudden grin was blinding. "You're on probation."
"You won't regret this!"
They both knew this was a lie.
Susie did not get an invite to the wedding. Cathie dragged her along, anyway.
"Why," Susie said blankly, staring at the burning reception hall. "Why would they choose to have all those candles with all those dried flowers? Why would they want the guests to preserve them with hairspray? Why would they do this next to the open bar?"
"Don't forget the faulty wiring," Cathie said.
"I want to say that's not their fault, but—"
Cathie patted her hand. "You don't need to say anything at all."
"Why do I get the feeling you find this romantic?"
"Shhh. Shhh. This once, no talk. Only weddings and the light of a warm fire, now."
Over the crackle of the flames, Susie could hear Mayhem shouting, "I am an angry Groomzilla!"
Mayhem's groom had a firm grip on Mayhem's shoulders, preventing him from running back into the building.
"What a beautiful ceremony." Cathie sniffed and wiped at her cheeks. "At least—"
"No," Susie said.
"At least I know that—"
"Don't say it."
"—he's in good hands."