The Lion’s Head Hotel was not a hotel. The word “hotel” typically evokes the mental image of one of those swanky, New York City high-rise hotels, with red velvet carpeting in the lobby and clean-shaven, handsome young bellboys. The Lion's Head had none of those things. Rather, it had a stuffed lion’s head, which, with a Sphinx-like expression of purest serenity, overlooked the bar from its fixture on the wall, the Winchester which had brought it down mounted just below it.
More appropriately, the Lion’s Head would be called an inn. In its supreme Victorian elegance, it stood proud at the corner of High Street and Jackson Avenue, at the very heart of the small town of Sloth’s Pit. Despite the building's apparent dignity, however, the Lion's Head was infamous to the less-young residents of Sloth's Pit as one of those ghastly places where the youth would congregate. For, with three private rooms upstairs and readily available alcohol below, the Lion's Head was most accommodating for midnight dalliances.
If the Lion’s Head were owned by a corporate franchisee, instead of the inexplicably rich Russian migrant who bought the building from Jackson Sloth’s penniless grandson, there would have been board meetings. Conferences. Conferences with graphs. Graphs that, instead of indecipherable squiggles, would have featured thick red lines rising across steady gradients, demonstrating the hotel’s rising profit margins through its century-and-a-bit of existence.
There would have been a board meeting last Thursday, as per what would have been tradition. It would have had a particularly impressive graph. But the exec, who would have stumbled through his presentation like a lame giraffe, would umm and ahh and nervously tug at his collar. He would keep his arms soldier-straight by his side, concealing the slowly spreading sweat patches, and pray that nobody noticed the cutoff date — June, Anno Domini 2014 — beyond which the data plunged terribly.
It was the… Something. The somethingth of June, and the Lion’s Head was empty. The bastard had driven them off. The bastard had driven them all off. The men, which on most days circled the bar like so many vultures, had been scared away. He’d talked with the barman, who’d asserted that though they startled easily, the men would be back, and in greater numbers.
Bellincioni doubted that. Sitting in his booth in the furthest corner, sipping his vodka on the rocks dejectedly, he eyed the instigator with a malicious glare. Even now he was chatting up women by the bar! Bellincioni hated him. No, he despised him, him and his… perfection. It was impossible. Quite literally impossible. His hair was spun from the golden fleece itself, and his jawline was carved from pure granite. His nose sloped at a cute angle. His lips were full and luscious, and when they parted they revealed two glittering rows of white teeth. Every inch of him shone gold. The sun.
“So,” Bellincioni heard him say, as he flashed his perfect smile at the perky blonde he was seducing. "Your place or mine?”
The girl swooned, and Bellincioni hated him even more. The way he glided from one girl to the next, with the same easy confidence of a bird taking to wing… The sun. He had been the sun, at least. But then something awful had happened. Something terrible.
A localised anomaly.
Trapped in a perpetual darkness, the town of Sloth’s Pit was freezing over. It was for this reason that even if the sun (which Bellincioni’s superiors had designated SCP-3014, codename “Solar”) was not present at the bar, the Lion’s Head would have remained empty. Everyone kept inside, rugged up in blankets like eskimos and doing stereotypical things like sipping hot chocolate and cuddling by fireplaces. Most businesses were closed. The Lion’s Head, however, remained open, and Igor — the immigrant barman / proprietor — viciously beat anyone who claimed it was cold. “Bah!” he would exclaim, shooting out fat globs of saliva in disgust. “You think this is cold? In Siberia, we call this summer!”
By the bar, another girl had already swooned. Solar was working fast tonight. Far, far, far too fast. He’d already outstripped the initial projections.
Bellincioni swallowed down panic. “Reader,” he whispered, leaning forward across the table. Sitting opposite, Reader remained oblivious. A faint hint of urgency now. “Reader!”
Reader was Bellincioni’s partner. At his insistence, they wore matching suits, despite Bellincioni’s objections that tuxedos are not attire suitable for a bar setting. “It’s a hotel,” Reader had rejoindered. “It’s right there in the name.” Reader’s figure and features, of course, lended themselves to suits; trim and tall, dark and handsome, suits were the name of Reader’s game.
Yet something seemed… off, tonight. Under normal circumstances, Reader’s features naturally assumed an expression of sly cockiness, the sort of easy, knowing arrogance of a man who knew he was attractive and made sure others did too. But Reader, in the place of that smug smirk which Bellincioni knew so well, had been positively glowing with admiration for the entire night, staring off towards the bar where Solar stood.
The tinkling of ice and glass.
"Christ!" Bellincioni exclaimed. Where an instant ago there was only empty space, there was now a tall, aproned man towering over Bellincioni, another two glasses of vodka on the rocks in his huge hands.
"You wanted more vodka," Igor said. His eyebrows were thick and dark, like stormclouds.
"You surprised me.”
One of those stormclouds arced. "In Motherland, you move silently. That or starve."
Bellincioni nodded, avoiding Igor's eyes. He pulled out a fistful of dollar notes from his pocket, and traded them for the glasses. "Keep the change," he said. Igor eyed the currency suspiciously, eyed Bellincioni suspiciously, and then the currency again, before turning his back and stalking away.
Bellincioni watched him go, and sighed with relief as he disappeared into one of the back rooms. He tipped the ice from the empty glass into his new vodka, and slid the other across the table toward Reader. Inexplicably, it escaped his notice. It simply did not register. Vacant as ever, his eyes looked only toward the bar, as they had the entire night.
For fuck’s sake, thought Bellincioni. There was only one thing to do for it. It was time to take drastic action. Surreptitiously, he slinked his hand into his coat, and drew from the breastpocket his .44 Magnum.
I’m sorry, Reader.
He squeezed the trigger.
“What the fuck, man?!” Reader cried, clutching his chest. The other patrons stared, frozen in horror.
“Oh, quit fussing,” Bellincioni said dismissively, both to Reader and the now silent hotel. He took the knife — the crocodile skinner — from his hidden trouser sheath, and handed it to him.
“This was a new suit,” Reader lamented. “I paid a lot of money for this suit. It was a good suit.” He took the knife and cut it open, slashing through the cashmere to reveal a silver bullet glinting inside an inch of kevlar.
“You were catatonic.”
“A bit higher and I would’ve been. Goddamnit, man. What the hell?” he said, dislodging the bullet with the tip of the knife and peering, shocked, into the quarter-sized hole where it had been buried.
“What do you mean, ‘what the hell’? What’s the hell with you?
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
Bellincioni gestured wildly, toward the bar, toward Solar and toward the congregation which worshipped him. “He’s stealing your thing, man! This is your turf! And you’re just going to sit here and take it? Man up! You’ve got a gun, I’ve got a gun, we can take him!”
Reader frowned. “No.”
“You used to be a lion, man! You ruled the jungle! What happened to you?”
“Lions don’t live in the jungle. That’d be a tiger.”
“Fine! You were a tiger! You were a king, with a whole pride of tigeresses! And you could have had any you wanted! What happened? You should be like, ‘grrrr’, you should be grrring!” Bellincioni spluttered helplessly. “Do you understand what I’m saying, here? Why aren’t you grring? This is unlike you, man. It’s weird.”
Reader’s frown deepened. “Ahhhh,” he said, taking the glass of vodka and draining it. He paused, gathered his thoughts, and continued. “I couldn’t be upset, you know? It’s like… a painter being jealous of Van Gogh, or a composer being jealous of Mozart.” Again, he looked with awe toward the bar. “That man is my Mozart. He’s not just a pick-up artist; he’s a pick-up artist.
“I could learn a lot from that man,” he said, and sighed.
Bellincioni almost choked on his vodka in alarm. “Reader! Man! He’s not a he, he’s an it; he’s an anomaly. You can’t idolize it! It endangers… everything!” He kneaded his eyes. “Look, I won’t tell King. I won’t recc you for a psych eval or anything — as long as you drop it, OK?”
Reader cocked an eyebrow. “You shot me.”
He did, and they sat in silence; Reader, meticulously analysing Solar’s every move, Bellincioni, sipping his vodka on the rocks as dejectedly as he had been all evening. Eventually, his second glass of vodka was drained and joined the first, and in time the two crystalline cups were joined by a third and then a fourth. Reader lost interest in alcohol, claiming it would impair his scientific pursuits in seduction, and by midnight Bellincioni was as drunk as he had been at his sister’s wedding, a night he did not remember and lead to him waking the next morning with a black eye and extensive bruising to his hands. His brother-in-law, too, sustained some spectacular injuries; the wedding photos were ruined. For some reason, he was never that friendly to Bellincioni after that night.
I must be drunk, Bellincioni realized as his brain staggered clumsily from one train of thought to the next.
He was, indeed, very drunk.
On most nights, Claudia avoided bars; being awkwardly hit on by strangers was not her idea of a good time. But, she noted with glee, this night was decidedly unlike most nights; for a start, the only thing that distinguished night from day nowadays was the moon. And, she knew, most people had voluntarily imprisoned themselves inside their own homes, not going out for fear of frostbite.
Secondly, Claudia needed a drink. It was a biological necessity; three stacks of paperwork, relating to the godforsaken Anomaly, had already clobbered her wits into submission. She needed to forget; forget about crossing the i’s and dotting the t’s, forget about stamping pointless forms demanding plutonium, ostensibly for “containment”, and forget about King’s ludicrous schemes to cut costs.
To work a desk job at Site 87, Sloth’s Pit, was to receive twice the workload as any other site in the Foundation — guaranteed. There were two essential factors which doomed Claudia to working from 6 to 8 each day, or longer: one, Sloth’s Pit was a Nexus. She did not know what a Nexus was, but she knew what it meant; Sloth’s Pit endured more anomalies than any other city in continental North America. And, she noted with a sour taste in her mouth, more anomalies meant more paperwork. At least, she reflected, the civilian population did not notice; they, apparently, were accustomed to it.
Two, Site 87 functioned not only as a Foundation base; it, inexplicably, was also a plastics factory. For the sake of keeping up the appearance of being S & C Plastics’ biggest and only manufacturing plant, Site 87 made plastic. The stupidity of the entire affair was appalling. Underneath a fully operational plastics factory, which employed over 500 workers, hundreds of reality-threatening objects and entities were imprisoned; contained. What would happen in the case of a breach she hated to contemplate. All for the sake of keeping up a front company's appearance of existence.
She’d brought up the galling idiocy of it with Dr. King, the Site Director. He dismissed her concerns. He did not care; to him, it was no longer about saving the world. He’d gone full plastic king. Under his patronage, S & C plastics kept more than half of the population of Sloth’s Pit employed, in one way or another. It was an achievement of which he was immensely proud; and it was not without its benefits. In the mindset of the townsfolk, he was not a mere plastic tycoon, he was a local celebrity on par with the Mayor, or Jackson Sloth’s penniless grandson. He soaked in their adulation with a modest nod and a tip of his hat, as he gave speeches opening new libraries and schoolbuildings, projects which he’d funded out of his own pocket.
Hail King King of Sloth’s Pit!, she thought miserably, kicking a discarded can of soda off the curb, walking down Jackson Avenue. On all sides, closed shopfronts stared at dismally. She hugged herself tighter. Ahead of her, she saw the dim outline of that regal hotel, silhouetted against the night. By the light of a flickering streetlamp, she could make out the sign which dangled above its doorway; the painted image of a golden, roaring lion, on a field of green.
The Lion’s Head.
She needed a drink.
Reader sat in the booth in the farthest corner of the bar, alone. Bellincioni, perhaps a quarter of an hour ago, had staggered off to the restroom, never to return. It was, admittedly, somewhat concerning. He dismissed the mundane explanation of constipation; it was far more likely for Bellincioni to have fallen into the toilet bowl in his inebriation, and subsequently drowned. Or to have slipped on a piss-puddle and broken his head open on the floor tilings. But, Reader conceded, this was Sloth’s Pit; it was even likelier still a freak wormhole had opened up beneath Bellincioni’s feet and swallowed him whole.
He would go and check on the poor fellow, but, alas, it would endanger his observations. Oh, what a cruel mistress fate was!
The sudden ringing of the entry bell pierced Reader’s musings. He twisted in his seat, around to face the door.
Oh, fate is a cruel mistress indeed, he thought with a twinge of sadness.
Framed by the doorframe, sure enough, was the slim, delicate figure of Bellincioni’s fancy; Reader’s desk-jockey co-worker, Claudia.