It was an ordinary night in Callahan's Place, by which I mean that Long-Drink McGonnigle was balancing sixteen shot glasses on his nose while reciting "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and being tickled by Susie Maser, Fast Eddie was managing a credible imitation of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington's duet "Tonk" by playing with his feet as well as his hands, and Doc Webster was holding forth by the fireplace. "Winter nights like this," he said reminiscently, "always put me in mind of an ungulate breeder I once knew, fellow named Critt--"
"Wait, slow down," Noah Gonzalez said. "A what breeder?"
"Ungulate," Doc said as though it were the sort of word one used in everyday conversation. "Hoofed mammals. He specialized in the kind with antlers. Bred the damnedest moose I ever saw: they were small, about the size of a deer, and so smart that he taught them to talk. You think a horse laugh sounds funny? You never heard a moose laugh! One of the stablehands even managed to give some of them religion, though I never did find out how he baptized them.
"Critt had deer too, of course, and managed to breed some that were naked like those funny-lookin' sphinx cats, not a single hair anywhere on their bodies. So the moose and the deer would play together, and on chilly nights they'd cuddle up to stay warm, because of course the deer got cold easily without any coats."
Isham Latimer nodded. "I've seen horses do that."
"Just so," Doc agreed. "But the problem with these specialty breeds is that there's always some flaw. To begin with, the moose died awfully young. They'd seem to be in perfect health and then wham! Keel over dead as a doornail. The deer were almost as bad: they had awfully brittle bones that broke if you looked at 'em funny. And one day a moose snuggles up a little too close to a deer, knocks it over, and breaks its hip." He paused to take a sip from his beer while we all absorbed the deep tragedy of the moment.
"Now usually that would be the end of an animal like that. It's almost impossible to get them to rest the way you need to for a hip bone to heal, so the kindest route is euthanasia. But the moose hated to see his friend go, and he knew he was almost six years old and nearing the end of his own short life. And he looks up at Critt all pleading-like and says, 'Can I donate my hip? I won't be needing it.' Oh, it was heartbreaking!"
Callahan's Place trains your nose so that you can smell a punchline coming a mile away. I braced for it.
"Critt stroked the kindly fellow between the antlers and asked, 'Are you sure?' But the moose solemnly told him, 'I'm a good Christian and I'm supposed to give 10% of what I have to the Church. All I have is this body, and I'm sure my friend can make better use of it than the Church can.' And Critt said 'Well, nothing to lose,' so he got a vet in to perform the transplant and damned if it didn't take."
"You mean..." Isham breathed.
"That's right," Doc said. "It was good tithings from Critt's moose and a hip for nude deer."
If it hadn't been so cold out, I would have held my nose and run screaming into the night. I settled for picking up a nearby bowl of peanuts and dumping it over Doc's head. Isham followed it with a double handful of crumpled bar napkins. Noah shuddered and backed away. "Mike," he called, "I think I need a stiffer drink if I'm going to spend any more time listening to this evil, evil man."
There was no answer. We turned and looked at the bar. Mike Callahan was, most uncharacteristically, nowhere to be seen.
"Hey," I called into the general mayhem. "Anyone see where Mike went?"
That caused a few heads to turn, and then a few more. Conversations faded. We all regarded the empty Irishman-shaped space behind the bar. Finally Long-Drink cleared his throat, nearly dislodging the tower of glasses. "Perhaps," he suggested, "he simply decided to leaf."
Tommy Janssen immediately picked up on it. "You can't make that charge stick!" he protested.
"Then we'll have to root out the answer," Noah said firmly.
"Maybe he had a hot date," Susie suggested.
Her co-wife Suzie laughed and said, "What, with his palm?"
Their husband Slippery Joe retorted, "I doubt any man married to Lady Sally McGee would feel a need to branch out."
Ralph Von Wau Wau grinned--always a slightly unnerving expression on a German shepherd, especially when he drools--and chimed in, "Ja, if he felt any frustration, you know she would nip it in the bud!"
"Now now," Doc Webster said. "I'm sure he would have told us if he had another engagement tonight."
He paused, with the air of a man waiting for a straight line. I was feeling mellow and decided to oblige him. "Yeah?" I asked. "Why's that?"
He tipped an invisible hat in my direction. "Because Mike's the sort of gentleman who always checks his calendula."
He was answered with a communal roar of mingled appreciation and outrage. Eddie was tying his shoes with one hand but managed to toss off a bit of "The Maple Leaf Rag" with the other. Several glasses shattered in the parabolic fireplace, and Doc beamed as he was showered with napkins and peanuts. I'm told he rates his evenings by how many peanuts he shakes out of his shirt when he gets home; tonight looked fair to get past fifteen if he kept going at this clip.
"Dat's all fine," Eddie said when the clamor had subsided, "but it don't tell us where de boss got to."
Long-Drink carefully removed the stack of glassware from his nose and set it down on the bar. "Did anyone see him go out?" he asked. We all shook our heads.
Just then, two things happened very quickly. The first was that the lights all went out at once. The second was that the door slammed open.
"I'll save you!" a shrill voice cried.
There was a pause. Then Mickey, who's less likely to need saving than anyone else I know, said, "Thank you... but from what?"
"From the demons of the night!" the stranger intoned. "I invoke the powers of light to keep darkness at bay!"
This would have been more impressive had the voice not cracked nervously halfway through.
There was a snap and the lights came back on; I figured Eddie had found the breaker box and flipped the switch. We all blinked a bit and then turned to look at the woman in the doorway.
Perhaps "woman" is a bit of an exaggeration. If Callahan's Place had been the sort of bar that carded people, she couldn't have gotten within half a mile of the door. Bright red stiletto-heeled pumps added at least four inches to her otherwise negligible height and clashed brilliantly with her spangled fuschia jumpsuit and turquoise eyeshadow. Her hair had been bleached and blow-dried and sprayed and tousled and teased until it floated above her head like a cloud of sticky dandelion fluff. A floor-length shimmery gold cape, somewhat mud-stained and ragged at the hem, was clasped at her throat with a tarnished buckle; its stranglehold was broken only by a studded leather collar that any self-respecting dog would have been embarrassed to wear.
In one hand she carried a broken broomstick, which she brandished like someone who isn't entirely sure what the word "brandish" means. "Even now," she proclaimed, "the forces of darkness conspire against us!"
I looked around. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, which didn't mean that the forces of darkness weren't conspiring against us but did probably mean that we had time for another drink before we took them on. Several people shrugged and went back to their conversations. I turned back and gazed inquiringly at her.
She held her pose a moment longer and then her face crumpled. "Oh, it's no good," she said despairingly, and began to cry.
Tommy Janssen gently drew her inside and shut the door, which we all appreciated. Long Island gets mighty cold in December. He sat her down in a chair not far from the chalk line. I remembered Mike's absence and hastily ducked behind the bar. After some consideration of the newcomer's age, I made a mug of hot cocoa; after some consideration of her state of distress (she was still sobbing, her cheeks and hands painted with damp turquoise streaks), I spiked it with a bit of Tullamore Dew. I handed it to her and beat a hasty retreat.
Eddie swung into "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" and we all took the hint. I picked up Lady Macbeth and strummed along for a couple of choruses. Long-Drink added a seventeenth shot glass to the tower and balanced it on his chin; Susie seemed to be sprinkling pepper under his nose. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Tommy hand the girl a napkin, which she scrubbed over her face. Eddie was keeping a close ear on their quiet conversation, but I knew we could trust Tommy not to pry. He'd come a long way since his own stormy entrance into the Place.
Finally she nodded and stood up, her empty mug clutched in one shaky hand. I noticed that she had kicked off her high heels and seemed a lot more comfortable without them. Not bothering to wait for conversations to stop, she stepped to the chalk line, announced, "A toast to... identity," and hurled the mug into the fireplace.
We did what we do best: shut up and listened.
"My name," she began, "is... well, you can call me Mary Sue."
Behind me, Suzie Maser snorted and whispered something to Slippery Joe. I shushed them and went back to paying attention to the newcomer.
"For as long as I can remember," the girl said, "I've been wanting to fight the forces of evil. I won't go into my family background, but let's just say they set a lot of bad examples. I took refuge in my books, especially the ones with a strong moral compass. It was so thrilling to think of noble paladins hunting down dastardly villains and valiant wizards destroying wicked sorcerers. I wanted to be one of them so badly I could taste it."
She stopped and looked around. Her voice had gotten hoarse and tight, though she didn't seem inclined to cry anymore. Tommy poured a glass of water and handed it to her, and she sipped gratefully before continuing.
"So I decided I was one of them. A changeling, maybe, an elf-child raised in the human world. Maybe I had the spirit of a fairy or an angel that had mistakenly been born into the wrong body. I knew I could reach my inner magic if I just tried hard enough or got in the right situation. I dressed up in these stupid clothes, grabbed my learner's permit, and started driving around looking for trouble." She took another gulp of water. "And of course, I found it."
She reached for the buckle at her throat and slowly fumbled it open. The cloak dropped and we all gasped. The back of her jumpsuit had been torn open from collar to waist.
Tommy picked up the cloak and started to drape it over her shoulders, then obviously thought better of it and handed it to her instead. She wrapped it around herself and took a deep steadying breath.
"I got away before he could do more than tear it. I was lucky, I guess." Her voice was low and bitter. "And then I drove around in the dark for a long time. I think I was kind of crazy. Maybe I still am. And somehow I found this place, and you all took me in. But I don't know who 'me' is anymore!" She sat down again, abruptly, and buried her face in her hands.
"If it helps," Ralph said gently, "you don't sound crazy to me."
She looked up, located the source of the voice, and blinked. "Then why," she inquired with the calm of someone who is suppressing hysterics, "am I having a conversation with a talking dog?"
He grinned, then hastily stopped when she flinched. "I vas the result of an experiment," he explained. "A hyperintelligent mutant who just happened to end up outfitted with speech apparatus. People vouldn't talk to me; dogs ran avay from me. It took a long time to find this place vhere nobody cares as long as you pay for your drinks and don't pry into other people's business. Sure, being alone for that long can make you a little crazy, but it's got an easy cure."
"Vhat--I mean, what's that?" she asked.
"The company of people who are crazy the same way," he said. "Like here."
She looked around, really looked, for the first time. We looked back, projecting understanding and compassion as hard as we could.
"I battled the forces of evil," Tanya Latimer said wistfully. "I was a cop, and a good one too. But there ain't no room on the force for a blind woman, no matter how good her heart is. Some kinds of darkness you just can't fight."
"I wanted to get away from it all," Tommy chimed in. "I didn't want to fight evil, just pretend it didn't exist and couldn't hurt me. That's how I ended up hooked on smack."
"And I served the forces of evil for many years, having given up on good." Mickey Finn's voice was quiet, but it cut easily through the rising hubbub. "I did not find hope again until I came here, and these people showed me that there was more to life than despair."
Eddie nodded. "Like de boss sez, 'We raise hopes here until dey're old enough to fend for demselves.'"
"And we're no strangers to the fight against evil," I added. "Hang out here and you just might get a chance to whack a few demons of the night over the head with your, er, wand there. You never know."
The girl who called herself Mary Sue looked down at the broken broomstick and laughed. "This thing? I picked it up behind a Dumpster." She underhanded it neatly into the fireplace, where it burst obligingly into flame. "I don't think I need it anymore."
We sent up a cheer and several glasses followed the broomstick. In the sound of shattering glass, I almost missed the door opening. Mike Callahan strode in, dusting snow off of his shoulders. "Finally got those damned lights working," he boomed, and then stopped, taking in the sight of the newcomer in all her bedraggled finery and the rest of us gathered in a semicircle around her and the fireplace. "Looks like I missed something," he said, raising one bushy eyebrow.
"This is Mike Callahan," Tommy told the girl. "He's the barkeep and owner of the joint. Mike, this is--"
"Emily," she said quickly. "My name is Emily."
"Pleased to meet ye, I'm sure," Mike said, shaking her hand warmly. "Welcome to the Place."
"Oh, these fine folks have already given me a very nice welcome," she said with a smile.
"Sorry I wasn't here to join them," Mike said. "I was trying to get the Christmas lights up, but the fuse blew. Guess one of you guys reset it, 'cause they're working now."
I looked at Eddie, but he shook his head. "I t'ought you got it," he said.
Everyone looked baffled. Then Emily blushed. "I, uh, did invoke the powers of light," she said. "Do you think maybe...?"
Mike beamed at her. "Then ye're a very handy person to have around tonight. Come outside and take a look, folks!"
We all grabbed our coats, piled outside, and found places to stand amidst the scattered cars. Mike found the end of the cord and plugged it in.
All the lights in the bar and the four streetlamps down on the road went out.
The big Irishman harrumphed in the darkness. "Emily, could ye lend us a hand here?"
I heard her take a deep breath. "Sure," she said. "Sure I can." There was that snapping sound again, and everything came back on (including, I noticed, the streetlamps). Hundreds of multicolored lights twinkled through the falling snow. We oohed and ahhed appreciatively and then hurried back inside.
Soon Mike had a fireman's brigade of God's Blessings going around to warm us up. Emily drank hers down and then stepped once more to the line. "To light in the darkness," she said, "and to new friends!"
I couldn't swear to it, but as her glass hit the flames, it seemed to me that they burned just a little more brightly than usual.