by Spidey

The early hours of The Blue Shack were a bustling affair. Longfellows in their musty waistcoats flittered through tanks of brinemuck, yodeling on about the changes to military and the mayoral race. One man claimed to have seen the candidates for himself, stumbling on his words as his comrades chuckled. He dialed back on the tale, knowing, perhaps, how spectacularly absurd it sounded. In the corner, a gaggle of old vagabonds threw dice against the wall. Another gentleman of the gun, chest-thumper he was, spoke of a curvy village fawn he met in his travels. This too was waved off as another story for the masses - women had the good sense to migrate between the defense forts between here and San Antonio. None would allow themselves to go free range these days, not if they were smart, and just a quick glance at the proud soldier was enough to estimate how often he was allowed to enter said furnishings.

I sat at the bar, my eyes pouring over The Shack's selection of brinemuck, brinemuck, and more brinemuck. I swirled what slosh I had left, a shade of grimace traveled my face. The drink fell on my tongue like stagnant water. A seat away from me, a young man with a torn driver's cap gave me a wry grin.

"Excuse me, brother. Can't help but notice you're not courting your brine."

My tankard was almost drained. "Beer does not a bar make," I said fuzzily to what I assumed was a Northerner. Locals just called it muck. To its credit, the drink was doing its job wrapping me in philosophical toga, but the taste was sewage copper. I began to spin the common yodel. "There was a time, not long ago, where a man could come here for the burn of whiskey, or the stab of vodka. Hell, even the hypnotic dance of wine! But now all there is is the bread water. I drink, because it is nature to do so, but to drink with joy is a lost art."

He smiled, flashing near-perfect teeth. "You have a point, friend. This is not the cocktails of old. This is not masmado."

I raised an eyebrow. The man in the funny hat spoke openly about the rare concoction. I gave him a searching gaze. He did not wear the coats of the national guard. Talking about the delicacy was enough to follow him home, kill him, and look for it. Sensing my suspicion, he chugged his beer and continued.

"Troubled times, troubled times when a couple of blue collars can't get decent alcohol. Say what you will about our politics and history, but at least an American could order a good goddamn beverage when he goes out about town."

I concurred. He stared into his tin cup, letting the words hang like clouds above our heads.

"Masmado," he said with conspiring zeal, "was my favorite, and it wasn't that hard to make. A little milk here - best not to question where that milk came from, seeing as there aren't any cows no more, mom used to say," he laughed nostalgically. "Some synthetic orange bitters there...who am I kidding? A lot of bitters, and of course rum. You can only get that in Mexico though."

"I know the drink," I stated with more gruff than I intended. He saluted me and finished his beer.

"Favorite of yours too, eh?" he asked. I shrugged. I had only tasted masmado once before, during my 21st. It stayed with me in the back of my head whenever I asked for muck on tap. "You speak pretty colorful about such things."

"That's because I have some."

My hands clawed nervously at the wooden counter. I stared at him, anticipating a booming chuckle followed by another round of tavern bullshittery. Instead, the man tugged at his driver's cap and ordered us another tankard of well spew. He droned on about how today was his deceased father's birthday, and he wanted to share the experience with a bar hop because he did not drink alone. He was renting a room in The Blue Shack tonight for the occasion. A few more rounds of brinemuck convinced me to accompany him upstairs.

As we entered through the doorway, a lead pipe came down on my skull. I stifled a cry and collapsed on the floor.

When I came to, the room was a blur of browns and ambers. The young man that promised booze was gone; two men sat on the twin-sized bed, staring down at me. My neck ached, and as I went to touch the sore, my fingertips felt cold iron. Instincts kicked in and I bolted upwards, sitting on my haunches. I grasped the collar that hugged my neck, and I panicked.

"Why!!?" the stupid question escaped my mouth.

The one in the tattered business suit spoke to me, his voice a nasal, congested headache to my additional hangover.

"My name is Phillian, and you work for me now. When you respond, the only things that should come out of your mouth is a 'Yes, boss' or a 'No, boss'. If you do not do as you are told, I will instruct my friends to push a special red button. That button will trigger the blades cramped up in that neckbrace of yours. I'm sure you know what the word decapitation means. Do you comply?"

"...yes, boss."

"Good. You'll live longer if you obey. Stand up."

I did as I was told. My vision was clearing. Phillian was no older than I was, but his hairline receded. He was small framed, and his nose was particularly long - his most noticeable feature. The person next to him was dressed like one of the many longfellows that were downstairs...

My back stiffened. I could hear nothing downstairs. I wasn't in The Blue Shack.

"You're going to kill someone for me. You and a dozen like you. The slave trade, as I'm sure you've discovered, is making a comeback this year. Paid soldiers are going the way of the dollar. Obsolete. It was good enough for Texas before and it'll be better with today's tech. I'm an easy businessman to work with, though. Cooperate and we'll find something more pleasant than a Cone of Shame for you."

I nodded with dead compliance.

Phillian smiled, and handed me the lead pipe that still had my blood on its head.

It was and wasn't a mansion. Something suburban in a rural area with empty pastures. If Phillian's residence was anything to go on, he was low on the criminal food chain. Reynauld, our target, was royalty.

We did not talk - Phillian's men applied a device to our collars that had a small recording component and a black and white screen where Phillian could watch us. It reminded me of a video game I played when I was little, before the bombs dropped.

There were cameras around the compound. Two of my brothers in captivity clutched at a foreign box of sorts, tinkering with mechanical machinations too advanced for my understanding. They wiped at their sweaty foreheads and said the surveillance equipment should be on a loop, a frozen image that would allow us to enter the domicile. I gripped my lead pipe tightly; others were armed with sticks and other bludgeoning objects. We crept into the vicinity.

The windows were unlocked. We silently stepped into the housing, helping each other enter the hallway. It was all beautifully decorated: a rug stretched out into the den, where a half-burnt US flag was draped over a long expired fireplace. On the walls were pictures of a president with prominent crow's feet and a fat roll of platysma under his tan chin. I did not recognize him at first, but I grew up hearing his name everywhere.

On the ground was a bizarre sight. A brunette maid was sprawled half-naked with her sexwear ripped and chest punctured repeatedly. Where there should be blood was a metallic, battery blue oil puddle. Her jaw opened and closed, the gears at a perpetual grind. She looked like a fish thrown onto dry land.

Our wonder turned to quiet knowing as we ascended the staircase. Another body, a suited henchman I figured, was shot in the head and now resided at the foot of the steps. His hands twitched, sensing our thermal pattern. Several more littered the daftway.

The house was a warehouse grave with decor. I carefully lifted the lead pipe above my head, expecting the perpetrator at a moment's notice.

As we stepped over the lifeless bodies, a deafening gunshot rang through the upstairs area. We followed the source of the noise and came to another room: an officelike study with a desk full of ledgers and various paperwork. Behind the chair a collection of expensive bottles and shakers. Beside the desk on the wooden floor, an antique Sig Sauer. Our target sat in a chair with a large gaping hole in the side of his cranium.

Right next to his head was a half-empty cup of masmado. Barely a tincture's worth. I chuckled.

"Reynauld is dead," a fellow slave said, wringing his baseball bat. "Phillian will want us to go back."

They agreed and left the room.

Whether they noticed or didn't care, I wasn't sure, but I stayed, eyeing Reynauld's body and cocktail. Without giving it another thought, I lifted it to my nose and sniffed. Something buzzed underneath my chin.

The scent reminded me of fresh oranges merchants sold inside security malls in Austin. Like a dreamsicle with bite, the aroma stated. I dropped the pipe, pushed the mob boss out of the chair, sat down, and kicked my feet up.

Taking my time, I emptied the cognac glass. The masmado was revolting, putrid to my amateur tastebuds. I licked my lips and rested the snifter in the crime boss's brain matter. It caused a ripple, leaving blood to drip along the edge of the desk. The sight made me think of guillotines after they drop.

I reclined in the seat, closed my eyes, and savored the libation.