The car started. “Trampled Under Foot” blasted from the speakers.
“Agk, sorry!” Mary-Ann twisted the volume dial down. She waved at the figure in the living-room window, put the car in reverse and pulled out of the driveway. She was off the property, she could now officially relax. Di had everything under control at home, this was now date night. Just her and Salah out for dinner and some well-deserved time away from the house. Those months felt like ages now. Time to make sure that the night wasn't wasted.
"So, where are we going, exactly?” Salah asked.
Di looked at the books she had spread out on the dining room table, satisfied with the selection. All the proper things for the growing toddler. There was Cat in the Hat and Goodnight Moon and the Eclectic Diatribes of Duke Grangermont of Upper Ligzenworth. This last book weighed more than Naomi did, concerned various political topics and the growing patterns of cabbages, and had no pictures.
Oddly enough, this last one had not been very popular with her nieces and nephews. She presumed that Mary-Ann and Salah had raised Naomi to have better taste than that.
The bar was called Vladimir’s. Vladimir didn’t call it Vladimir’s, though he didn’t call it anything. So it was really a nameless bar called Vladimir’s, and Vladimir was fine with that. What was more important was the fact that it Existed. It Existed, and if it did not Exist, or even if it did exist, the universe would most likely collapse. The existence of the universe requires the Existence of places like Vladimir’s. Something had to fill the holes that formed in the walls.
It was a converted space, an old warehouse of some long-forgotten Cold War bunker, one of those places that could only be found if someone looked in the right places. The bar itself was in the center of the floor, surrounded by the freestanding tables. The walls were lined with booths, or tables on the upper level. Decoration was sparse: no tablecloths, scuffs on the tabletops, dim lighting from the hanging lamps. The air was thick with tobacco and alcohol fumes, to the point where everything seemed coated in a grey, greasy film. The hushed conversations and smooth jazz made for a sea of soft background noise. The sign by the door said “Seat Yourself” in a dozen languages.
A man in a khaki pea coat tipped his fedora to Mary-Ann and Salah as he passed them and exited. Mary-Ann eyed the other clientele as they walked to their usual seat. It was always interesting to see who had arrived at Vladimir’s, because sooner or later, everyone arrived at Vladimir’s.
“And this is the first declension.” Di pointed to the noun endings she had neatly written out, balancing Naomi on her knee. “Now, most of these are feminine nouns, but you can always remember that farmers, poets and sailors are always male. Romans were funny like that.”
Mary-Ann and Salah sat down, some distance away from the other occupied tables. A quick glance around showed a lot of the regular in-fill: GRU-P, Serpent’s Hand, Librarians, Manna Charitable Foundation, and those who paid allegiance to none. After only a few brief moments a lurching automaton in the form of a young woman approached the table. It wore a name tag proclaiming “Welcome to Funland! My name is Daisy”.
“Good evening. Can I get you something to drink?” it asked in a tinny voice as it handed them the menus. A redundancy: when people came to Vladimir’s, they already knew what they wanted. They ordered quickly, and the waitress departed.
“To be honest, I really don’t see what you see in this place, Mary-Ann.”
“It's got a lot of atmosphere.”
He waved his hand, smoke rippling about it.
“Yes, I believe it does.”
"I mean, if you don't like it we could always go somewhere else next time."
"No, no, it's fine. It's fine. It's not the seediest place I've been too, it's just not a favorite of mine, but if you like it here, I am perfectly fine with eating here."
"So, where was the seediest place you've ever eaten?"
"A pub in Bromley. The place was positively foul. You could barely see through the windows for the grime, there was no ventilation at all, I swear I saw a cockroach scuttle into the kitchen, and the toilet didn't look like it had been cleaned since the Blitz. And there was a hair in my soup, which tasted like donkey piss. At the very least, the food here is good."
“Hold that thought." Mary-Ann stood up. "Have to go use the restroom.”
“The rest of this speech was cut off, as Duke Grangermont came down with a serious case of the kittens while arguing his case. No one’s really sure how he ended up with nine kittens in his stomach, or why they chose that exact moment to burst out of his stomach, but that’s history for you.”
The bathroom was past the bar, which was populated by a bunch of grizzled grey GRU-P ex-pats in faded, threadbare uniforms and a trio of black-clad police officers with cloth masking their faces. A drunken hand swung out, not so much a punch, or even really an intended strike, just the exaggerated swinging of hands for argumentative emphasis, but it nonetheless hit Mary-Ann in the shoulder. She glared at the man in question.
He was a pallid, overweight man with burnt-out eyes, a few flakes of blackened crust lining the sockets around the two orange spheres that glowed in their depths. His shaved head was tattooed and trepanned, in the fashion of the old Star-Paths, though this particular man had botched his eldritch enlightenment. The hole was too big, and was misaligned.
After a moment of mental computation, he slurred something angry at Mary-Ann in Russian.
“He doesn’t like you,” the old Soviet agent sitting next to the star-mind translated.
“I don’t like him either.”
There was a short, rough exchange in Russian between the two.
“He says he wishes he could kill you personally, but circumstances prevent this. However, he despises you with such utter hatred that he will nonetheless take great joy in burning your dust into nothingness.”
Mary-Ann cupped a hand around her ear.
“What was that? Can’t hear you over all the hot air you’re blowing. And by hot air I mean penis. I’m insinuating that you suck cocks.”
She walked away, nodding to Vladimir as she passed, and that was that.
Di wrinkled her nose as she dropped the diaper in the trash, and considered whether The Tale of Desperaux or Jason and the Space-Argonauts would be a better bedtime story.
Mary-Ann sat back down. The drinks were already there: A beer for Mary-Ann, tea for Salah.
“Do we have any idea at all how stars work?”
"No, not particularly. I believe the Fifthists are unstable enough that none of the Scribes have really managed to get anything coherent written down. Something of a pity, if you look at it in the right way.
"I mean, they can communicate across lightyears, so they've got to have some sort of quantum-entanglement telepathic mumbo-jumbo going on and…wait." She sipped at her beer. “That reminds me. Were you able to hear Brother Kowalski’s talk on cosmology from last week?”
“No, though I heard it was interesting.”
A young Asian man walked past their booth, his legs moving automatically with jerking, stilted motions.
“Yeah. Well, let’s see…” Mary-Ann unfolded her napkin on the table. “You have a pen?”
Salah fished in his pocket for a moment and handed a pen across the table. In the background, a chorus of laughter went up from the young men and women in the cheap, sweat-stained Dial-a-Llama t-shirts.
“So we’ve got God up here…creation down here…then the Library right here in the center of that as….well, sort of the physical version of the operating system of everything, keeps everything running, links everything together…and expands to what we consider supernatural or paranormal…just manifestations of some of the more obscure and finicky universal narrative principles…the more regular principles would be classified as magic to the unenlightened among us, and the immovable ones are physics…whoops, look like Dan and Sami forgot to pay their tab again.” She pointed over to where Vladimir was dragging out a bored-looking Indian man and a grey-haired man wearing a pointed magenta hat by the collars. The older man was waving about a brightly-colored snuggy with stitched on stars and yelling drunkenly.
“No, no, see, this is the Robe of Magnanimous Luster, guaranteed to increase your appeal to the opposite sex! Nevermind that fact that it also attracts dogs, that’s just an added bonus. Come on, since when has any of our products let you down?”
Vladimir did not respond, even to the trail of pugs that followed them. He kicked open the door and tossed the two outside, followed by throwing the dogs out one by one. He shut the door, re-adjusted his eyepatch, and went back to the bar.
“Those two…” Mary-Ann shook her head. “Anyway, he’s supposed to publish his book on all of this by the end of next month.”
“I look forward to reading it.”
The waitress returned with their food. Mary-Ann had gotten a steak with a baked potato. Salah had gotten curry. A ragged woman and her two sons, wearing clothing that with patterns a bit too bright and a bit too clashing walked past the booth.
“How’s the food?”
“Yeah, Pyotr and Ila do a really good job.”
"Vladimir's son and daughter in law. They run the kitchen."
"Oh, right, right."
"Between you and me, Vladimir can't cook to save his life, except when he's trying to kill someone."
The front door opened, and a wave of silence spread out across the bar. The band stopped playing. The spiders stopped discussing ways of overthrowing the bourgeoisie. The teddy bear stopped waving its knife around.
Four individuals walked up to the bar. One wore flannel and glasses with no lenses, one had lamprey mouths where her eyes and nose should have been, one was nude save for a full-body animated tattoo reconstructing the Fall of Daevon, and one was wearing a unitard made of fetuses with a cape of knitted pubic hair, identified as such by the “This cape is made out of knitted pubic hair” stitched into it.
“Oh come on…” Salah groaned. “Right when we’re trying to have a nice dinner here.”
“Eat your curry, Salah.”
“Just keep eating, I'll handle this.” Mary-Ann stood up. Lousy punks, trying to ruin her dinner. Nope. A hundred times nope. She was not having this. Cold food would be better than them fouling up the air.
“Please, Mary-Ann, sit down. There's no need to cause a scene. That's just falling to their level. Let Vladimir take care of it.”
“This is generally how he takes care of it. I'm not letting them mess up our dinner.”
Mary-Ann walked over to the bar, sending sideways glances to some of the other patrons. The teddy bear with the knife. The salt-grimed, sun-darkened man with the harpoon and the “Selachiosk Pugnix Combin” tattoo. One of the blue-clad band members, with his shiny SYNCOPE saxophone. Bigfoot.
She could hear the conversation clearly now.
“And I will repeat myself: I do not serve your kind here,” Vladimir said, not looking up from the glass he was cleaning. “And do not try to tell me that you are not them, for you are obvious as dead cow on highway. Leave, or be made to leave.”
“Look. Old man,” the one with the glasses said. “We’re trying to be reasonable here, but we’ve received complaints that your bar is not friendly towards transfurry five-dimensional-gendered neoneanderthal polyamorous omnitapirsexuals without beards. And we’re not happy about that. That is a completely unacceptable phobia, and we demand that you open your services to transfurry five-dimensional-gendered neoneanderthal polyamorous omnitapirsexuals without beards, or we will be forced to use forceful coercion. Are we cool yet?”
Mary-Ann tapped the one with the glasses on the shoulder.
She then punched him in the face.
“Night, Di. Thanks again for babysitting.”
The door shut, and Mary-Ann let out a sigh. Her knuckles were sore. Most of her was sore. Her conscience been lecturing her on how she shouldn't have enjoyed pummeling four hipsters senseless, but she let it slide. They hadn't been roughed up very badly, just enough to scare them off. More bothersome to her was the idea that Salah might not have had a good evening out because of it.
"Sorry about all that. Got carried away a bit."
"Yeah, you did. But, it happens to all of us at one time or another. Just try to rein it in a bit next time you want to let off some steam." Salah picked up a sheet of paper from the dining room table. “On another note, it looks like Di was trying to teach our daughter Latin.”
“And knowing her, she probably succeeded.”
Salah put an arm around his wife.
“Come on, let’s go to bed.”