art by Steven R. Stewart
Paying the Tab
by Brian K Lowe
"I guess it's true then, Santos. All things come to he who waits."
I sniffed and wrapped a claw-like hand around my glass and took a healthy sip. It burned going down, and I inhaled in surprise.
"But they didn't say I'd have to wait this long," I replied. "I've been trying to kill you for almost forty-five years." I was having trouble catching my breath.
"Better than you're used to?" he asked, ignoring my comments in favor of my reaction to the booze. There was a sense of affectionate irony in his question, but I suppose he could afford it.
"You're not drinking." His glass was still full. His drink was blue over yellow, with a little umbrella in it. Most guys would be too self-conscious to order it, but apparently not Barnard. It jibed with what I knew of him. He toyed with the glass.
"I was just remembering. We've had a lot of good times. A lot of adventures."
Only the fact that my fingers could barely grip kept me from smashing the glass in my hand.
"You probably remember them better than I do," I said in a controlled tone. "Forty-five years might as well be forty-five months to you."
Barnard nodded. "True. I was running circles around hunters when you were a babe in your mother's arms. And look at us now. You're an old man whose fingers can't even hold a gun, and I haven't aged a day."
I glanced sidewise at him, speculating. He saw me looking.
"What? What's on your mind?"
I thought I might as well ask him. I wasn't going to get another chance. I had no illusions that he wasn't going to kill me before the night was over.
"Is it worth it? The wolf bite, the curse, the turning into a beast every month?" I turned to face him head-on. The bartender, who looked near retirement himself, refilled my drink automatically while distancing himself from us with professional indifference. "Is immortality worth all the people you've killed?"
Rather than answer, he drained his drink and signaled for another. I was already fuzzy around the edges, but he could go at it until closing time and feel nothing. He was silent for a long time until his new drink was set down in front of him.
"It's what I do. It's not like I have a choice. They call it a curse for a reason."
I snorted. "Don't give me that. Don't bullshit an old man. You love the chase. It's all a game to you. You used to hang around town until somebody like me came looking for you. Then you'd either leave your last kill where we'd find it, or lie in wait for us. You can blame the curse for what you did on the full moon, but not for all the others."
Barnard shrugged. "We are what we are. How about you? You and I have been dancing around each other for almost half a century, but this is the first time we've ever laid eyes on each other, let alone talked. Why are you are in this business, Santos?"
"My wife was killed by a werewolf in San Francisco in 1962." It was surprising how easily the words came now.
"I lived in San Francisco in 1962." The way he said it you might almost believe he thought it was a coincidence. "So why did you put out the word to meet here, old man? You had to know how dangerous it was."
My drink was gone. I raised my hand to signal the bartender, and he looked our way alertly, but then I dropped my hand and shook my head.
"I think two's enough."
"Yeah, that should do."
I squinted at him but let that go. It didn't matter.
"I wasn't even sure you'd come. I wanted to ask you a favor. I'm done, I'm finished hunting. I wanted ask you to leave me alone. I'm retiring. You win."
Barnard put his hand on my shoulder. "Well then, son, you're in luck. Because I've already done you a favor. I stopped in here earlier and persuaded our bartender here to spike your drinks. In about five minutes you're going to be too dizzy to stand up. By the time we get to my car, you'll be out on your feet. And by the time I cut your throat and leave you in the woods, you won't feel a thing." Already he was helping to keep me upright. "Don't worry, I'll cover your drinks. You can pay me back later."
I tried to keep my eyes focused as the bartender swam into view.
"Here you go," Barnard said, handing over a bill. "Keep the change."
My tongue was too thick to speak. Too bad. I wished I could tell him that almost everything I'd said was a lie. I wished I could tell him the only part that was true was about my wife.
Barnard did not notice my face as I caught the eye of the bartender, the man who had recruited me to play this part, the man who had laced the werewolf's fruity drinks with silver salts, the man whose name, unlike mine, really was Santos.
I wished I could tell Barnard that I had already paid him back all he was owed.
This story was first published on Wednesday, July 20th, 2011