Watching the people laughing and talking below, I felt as small as a dust mote glimmering in a shaft of moonlight.
And about as connected to the world.
“Well, get connected,” I muttered to myself. “You’re Alina’s only hope.”
At the moment, Alina’s Only Hope was hungrier than she was tired—and after three layovers and twenty hours of travel, I was dog-tired. I’d never been able to sleep on an empty stomach, so I knew I would have to get something to eat before I could turn in. If I didn’t, I’d just toss and turn all night, and wake up both hungrier and more exhausted, which wouldn’t do. I had a busy day tomorrow and needed my wits about me.
It was as good a time to get connected as any. I splashed cold water on my face, touched up my makeup and brushed my hair. After changing into my favorite short white skirt that made the most of my sun-kissed legs, a pretty lilac camisole and matching cardigan, I swept my long blonde hair up into a high ponytail, locked up, and slipped out of the inn, into the Dublin night.
I stopped in the first pub that looked inviting and boasted authentic Irish fare. I selected a quaint Old World place over the flashier urban ones in the district. I just wanted a good hot meal without a lot of fuss. And I got it: a bowl of thick, hearty Irish stew, warm soda bread, and a slice of chocolate whisky cake, washed down by a perfectly stacked Guinness.
Though I was pleasantly sleepy after the filling meal, I ordered a second beer, sat back and looked around, drinking in the atmosphere. I wondered if Alina had ever come here, and indulged myself in a little fantasy of imagining her here with friends, laughing and happy. It was a beautiful pub, with cozy high-backed leather booths, or “snugs” as they were called, lining the brick walls. The bar occupied the center of the large room, a handsome, stately affair of mahogany, brass, and mirrors. It was surrounded by tall café tables and high stools. It was at one of those tables that I sat.
The pub was filled with an eclectic mix of patrons, from young university students to retired tourists, from fashionably attired to sporty-grunge. As a bartender, I’m always interested in what other clubs are like: what they offer, who they draw, and what soap operas unfold in them, because they inevitably do. There are always a few gorgeous guys, always a few fights, always a few romances, and always a few weirdos in any given bar, on any given night.
Tonight would prove no exception.
I’d already paid my tab and was just finishing my beer when he walked in. I noticed him because it was impossible not to. Though I didn’t catch sight of him until he’d already passed me and his back was to me, it was the backside of a world-class athlete. Tall, strong, powerful muscle poured into black leather pants, black boots, and—yes, you guessed it, a real drama king—a black shirt. I’ve spent enough time behind a bar that I’ve formed a few opinions about what people wear and what it says about them. Guys who wear black from head to toe fall into two categories: they want to be trouble, or they are trouble. I tend to steer clear of them. Women who wear all black are a different story, but that’s neither here nor there.
So I noticed his backside first, and as I’m scoping it out with a connoisseur’s eye (trouble or not, he was serious eye-candy), he goes straight to the bar, leans over it, and filches a bottle of top-shelf whisky.
Not a soul seemed to notice.
I stiffened with instant indignation for the barkeep; it was a good bet it was his pocket that the sixty-five-dollar bottle of single-malt scotch was going to end up coming out of at closing time when his accounts didn’t zero-out.
I began to slide down from my stool. Yes, I was going to do it—stranger in a strange land, no less—I was going to rat him out. We bartenders have to stick together.
The guy turned.
I froze, one foot on the lower rung, halfway down. I think I even stopped breathing. To say he was movie-star material didn’t cut it. To call him drop-dead gorgeous didn’t either. To say that archangels must have been graced by God with such faces couldn’t even begin to begin describing him. Long gold hair, eyes so light they looked silvery, and golden skin, the man was blindingly beautiful. Every hair on my body lifted, all over, in unison. And I got the strangest thought: He’s not human.
I shook my head at my lunacy and backed up onto the stool. I still intended to tell the barkeep, but not until the man moved away from the bar. I was suddenly in no hurry to get close to him.
But he didn’t move away. Instead he leaned back against it, broke the seal, unscrewed the cap, and took a long swig from the bottle.
And as I watched him, something utterly inexplicable happened. The fine hair all over my body began to vibrate, my meal turned to a lump of lead in my stomach and I was suddenly having some kind of waking vision. The bar was still there and so was he, but in this version of reality, he wasn’t gorgeous at all. He was nothing but a carefully camouflaged abomination, and just beneath the surface of all that perfection, the barely masked stench of decay was rising from his skin. And if I got close enough, the foul odor might choke me to death. But that wasn’t the full of it. I felt as if—if I could just open my eyes a little wider—I would see even more. I would see exactly what he was, if I could only look harder somehow.