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This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Muted candlelight glinted off rows of freshly-rinsed martini, coupe and wineglasses. Blocks of ice slowly melted in the bustling warmth of the candlelit lounge, pooling at the bottom of the wide metal tub behind the bar. Above the hum of conversation, live jazz music thickened the air, courtesy of a pianist hammering away at the 1948 vintage baby grand in the back corner.

This late into the evening, patrons had begun to peel off and head home - or wherever their next destination was that night - but plenty of hand-carved mahogany tables were still full with those who weren’t in any hurry, or those who could handle (and afford) multiple drinks. Although Daphne wasn’t usually one for people watching, she found her gaze flitting from face to face, taking in expertly styled hair, outfits straight out of designers’ sketchbooks, precious metals flashing on wrists, fingers and throats. It wasn’t that Daphne resented the patrons, exactly, or even envied them. At first, she’d found them a little bit pathetic - these people who had it so easy, who wanted for no material comforts, still so unsatisfied that they flocked here in droves, night after night, to drink away their most superficial problems. And they did it so shamelessly, too, laughing, flaunting, showing off for their friends or dates or colleagues. 

Now, thousands of shifts later, she understood why so many relied on places like Fountain to make their lives the tiniest bit more bearable. She understood that the ones with the most expensive-looking clothes were often the emptiest on the inside; that loss and grief and the inevitable encroachment of death spared no one. 

The slender blond woman sitting alone at the opposite end of the bar tapped her rocks glass, indicating she wanted a refill. Daphne nodded, pulling another glass off the shelf and selecting a half-empty, slender-necked bottle from the bar: Arabian aloe leaf syrup, which Daphne had distilled during the previous new moon. She measured half an ounce and added it to a clean cocktail shaker, along with rosewater, lemon juice, and a healthy drizzle of honey. She closed her eyes, feeling the familiar warm buzz flow from her chest, down her arms and fingertips, and into the mixture inside the shaker. With a practiced flourish, she agitated the shaker for a few seconds, then strained it into the glass. She set it on the bar in front of the blond woman, who hurriedly sucked it down. She closed her eyes, bracing for the jolt of energy that flooded her veins as the drink’s effects kicked in. Sure enough, within moments the creases in her forehead and around her blue eyes softened, all but disappearing entirely. Her lips grew fuller, her hair shone, and a vigorous pink flush bloomed across her cheeks. 

She signaled to Daphne that she was ready to settle up. She’d spent more on the three youth restoration brews she’d had that night than Daphne usually made in a week. She wondered if she’d be back in a few days when the effects wore off, or if she just wanted to relive her glory days in a body three decades younger one more time. 

Malcolm appeared at Daphne’s side, propping himself up against the bar on his elbows. The gold chain around his neck glinted in the candlelight. 

“Table eight wants a performance enhancer. He asked if I could make it a double; I told him that isn’t how it works here.”

Daphne suppressed a grimace. She glanced over at table eight, where a hawk-nosed man with silver hair and a slightly too-snug suit was gesticulating emphatically to a younger-looking woman. His eyes sparked with typical male confidence, although the woman’s crossed arms and blank expression suggested she wasn’t buying it. 

“Got it.” Daphne plunked down a rocks glass with a little more force than necessary. “Anything for his date?”

“Nah, she’s sticking to water, even though Mr. Silver Fox told her to get whatever she wanted.”

“How generous of him.”

Malcolm smirked. “She probably wants to get this over with as quickly as possible. Someone ought to tell her there’s no shame in needing a little extra help.”

“Maybe I should give her an anti-anxiety draught on the house.”

He laughed softly. “An immunity quaff might be a better idea. I’ve seen that man in here four different times in the past month, always with a different woman. God only knows what nasties he might be carrying.”

Daphne smirked, but mostly she just felt sorry for the woman.

“Hey, you’re closing tonight, right? Need a ride home?”

“I - “ For a moment, she considered his proposal, then shook her head. “That’s ok, I can take the bus.”

“You sure? It’s no trouble.”

“I’m sure. I need to stay late to do inventory anyway.” This wasn’t entirely true; she could’ve waited to do inventory until her next shift, but it was as good an excuse as any.

Malcolm nodded across the room at another table flagging him over. “Ok, well, don’t stay too late.” He rapped his knuckles against the bar. “I’ll be back in a sec for the dick stiffener.”

Daphne glanced after his retreating back, then focused on the drink in front of her. She carefully added ingredients to the cocktail shaker, gripped it tightly, concentrated, felt the warmth flow into it. She poured everything into the glass and slid it across the bar for Malcolm to collect.

She straightened and twisted her shoulders in an attempt to relieve the tension in her back. She grabbed a bar mop and began wiping down the surface of the bar. Rhonda, the only other brew artist on shift that night, had stepped out for a smoke break, promising she’d only be a minute. That had been two hours ago, so Daphne figured she was on her own until closing. Like Daphne, Rhonda resented the fact that she’d been reduced to slinging quick fixes to rich urbanites with saggy jawlines and erectile dysfunction, but Rhonda seemed to have lost enthusiasm for the natural arts entirely, while Daphne still poured as much effort and passion as she had to offer into her craft. Granted, Rhonda was nearly twice Daphne’s age, which meant she’d been a grown adult when the U.S. v Jameson decision was handed down - she’d gotten a taste of real power before having it ripped away by non-practitioners who thought they knew better. Daphne’s grandmother had described the feeling like losing your ability to read or write - thoughts and feelings and impulses trapped inside your head with no way to express them. For her generation, the natural arts had been paramount to the way they experienced and existed in the world. Without the ability to practice, they were never able to regain their sense of identity. In the end, it had been too much for her grandmother. Rhonda had at least attempted to make something of her life.

The door to the lounge swung open, then slammed shut with a conversation-stopping crash. Every head in the room swiveled toward the entrance, where a man carrying a brown leather briefcase stood, narrowed eyes scanning the crowd. Compared to the rest of that night’s clientele, he looked extremely out of place - he wore ill-fitting jeans and a flannel shirt buttoned over a prominent gut. His greasy black hair was scraped back into a ponytail. Judging by the lines and pockmarks etched into his tanned skin, he was clearly unaccustomed to the expensive skincare products and treatments enjoyed by the majority of Fountain’s patrons.

“Excuse me.” Sheila, the hostess, had rushed over from the table she was attending to confront the newcomer. “Sir, I’m sorry, but here at Fountain we have a very strict dress code —“

“I’d like to sit at the bar, please and thank you.” Sheila was at least a head taller than Daphne, but this man towered over her, staring down at her expectantly.

Sheila held firm. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave. This establishment caters to a very… particular kind of clientele, and you —“

“Listen, I don’t want any trouble. I’d just like a seat at the bar, if that isn’t too much to ask. Maybe this —“ the man hefted his briefcase onto the nearest table and undid the clasps — “will help persuade you.”

At the sight of the contents of the man’s briefcase, Sheila’s brows shot up. She coughed. “Y-yes sir, right this way.” She ushered him to the bar.

The man sat down in front of Daphne, who averted her eyes and continued wiping down the bar. He placed his briefcase on the floor beside him and began to peruse the menu.

“You make all these?” He asked.

Daphne glanced up, and the man met her gaze. He stared intently through beady brown eyes, mouth downturned in a slight frown. 

“Yes, I can make anything on the menu.”

“No, I mean — “ he leaned forward. “Did you make these.”

Fingers of ice crept up Daphne’s spine. “Everything we do here is legal under the Minor Libation Exceptions Act —“

The man chuckled, barrel chest heaving. “Relax. I’m not here to bust you. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m an admirer of your work.”

Daphne’s eyes widened. “You’re not… are you ANA?”

He clicked his tongue. “Bingo. Card carrying member, mid-Atlantic chapter.”

Daphne had heard whispers about the Advocates for Natural Artists, an underground society that had sprung up in the wake of the Jameson decision. Both artists and non-practitioners had united to preserve the old spells and rituals, practice in secret, and stage the occasional public protest. All of which was explicitly illegal. Just talking to this man could get Daphne fired, or worse.

“You need to leave. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”

“Actually, I was hoping I could help you, Daphne Everwood.”

She froze. “How did you —“

“I’ve known you for a long time, Miss Everwood. I know what you’re capable of.”

Daphne held the man’s gaze, searching his weathered face for any sign of familiarity, replaying his words in her head… remembering the stories her grandmother had whispered to her, alluding to rebel groups, vigilantes, members of the natural artist liberation movement decades ago — the movement that had led, once they’d taken their activism a step too far, to the Jameson decision and the prohibition of practicing the natural arts across the country, save for a few exceptions that allowed for places like Fountain. Had this man been a part of that movement? Had he known Daphne’s grandmother?

“Listen,” he continued, “what I’m about to say is very important. ANA’s numbers are growing. We’re getting stronger by the day. In the next four, five years, there’s going to be a rebellion. If every natural artist in the country joins forces, along with allies and sympathizers, they won’t be able to stop us. But we need all the help we can get.”

For a moment, her brow remained furrowed. Then she understood.

“No. I can’t. It’s too dangerous.”

He sighed. “I figured you’d say that. That’s why I brought this.” He hoisted his briefcase onto the bar, undid the clasps and propped it open.

Daphne stared inside. The case was filled with dozens of stacks of crisp hundred-dollar bills. “Are you trying to bribe me?”

He followed Daphne’s gaze. “Ah. One moment.” He moved the stacks of bills to the side, revealing a leather-bound book as thick as Daphne’s forearm. Scrawled on the cover in flaking silver paint were the words The Natural Artist’s Codex: A Complete Guide to Modern Magick.

A gasp escaped Daphne’s throat, which she tried unsuccessfully to disguise as a cough. The blond woman at the other end of the bar glanced at her.

“Where did you get this?”

The man winked and opened the book. On the inside of the leather cover, Daphne could make out the name Cassandra Everwood, followed by a date - 6/23/68. She gripped the bar to steady herself. The book had belonged to her grandmother.

“Judging by your reaction, I can tell you know what this is,” the man continued. “The Codex contains the entire body of knowledge of the natural arts. Study this — commit every last page to memory, like Cassandra did — and you’ll know power greater than you ever imagined.”

For the second time that night, the door to the lounge banged open, and every head in the room turned to stare. Two uniformed policemen with pistols strapped to their waists stepped through the entryway. Sheila hurried over and began speaking to them urgently. She turned and pointed to the bar.

“Shit.” Daphne pushed the briefcase back towards the man. “You need to leave. Now.”

“No. You take it.” He refastened the clasps and held the case out to Daphne. “Read the Codex, don’t read it — the choice is yours. But it rightfully belongs to you.”

The cops started for the bar. Daphne’s heart leapt into her throat as she snatched the briefcase and stashed it beneath the register. The man turned and rose from the stool.

“Hands where we can see them!” One of the cops drew his firearm; the other brandished a pair of handcuffs. 

The man raised his arms above his head. “There’s no need to get violent —“

ANA rises!” Daphne’s head snapped toward the opposite end of the lounge, where a woman in a floor-length black dress stood abruptly, knocking her chair to the floor. She drew a handgun from her purse and aimed it at the cops. All of a sudden, half a dozen other patrons rose, echoing the first woman’s refrain, brandishing their own weapons. Daphne gaped.

Bang. The woman in the black dress fired at the cop with the handcuffs, who let out a scream and doubled over. The cop holding the gun shot back, and before Daphne could register what was happening, the lounge had erupted into a fully-fledged firefight. Patrons screamed and ran for cover; glasses exploded; a candle toppled over and lit a tablecloth on fire. A bullet hit the jazz player in the back of the head; he slumped forward onto the piano, then slid to the floor with a final discordant glissando.

The man whipped around to face Daphne, who had clamped her hands over her ears to muffle the sounds of gunfire. “Run. Now.” He tilted his gaze to the ceiling. “ANA rises.”

A bullet whizzed past, missing her face by an inch and shattering a bottle on the shelf behind her. Run. She dropped to the floor, grabbed the briefcase and blew through the door leading to the kitchen. Gunshots echoed behind her as she made for the exit at the back. 

She burst out into Fountain’s back alley, frigid night air ripping through her thin uniform. She ran, putting as much distance between herself and the bar as possible. When she turned onto the main road, she paused. She couldn’t go home, could she? The cops were probably already at her apartment. What was she going to do?

“Daphne!” At the sound of her name, she jerked back, ready to turn and flee in the opposite direction. Then she saw Malcolm hurrying towards her. “Are you ok? What’s going on? I heard gunshots! What’s that?” He pointed to the briefcase.

She studied his face, still struggling to catch her breath. Could she trust him? Judging by the way he was looking at her, she figured she could.

Stepping closer, she took his hand in hers. “Let’s get out of here.”

January 20, 2024 04:57

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1 comment

Tricia Shulist
03:53 Jan 25, 2024

Great story -- screaming for a next chapter! Does she get away? Is Malcolm trustworthy? Is Daphne able to utilize the contents of the briefcase? So many questions! This was fun! I liked the way you gently wove the new status quo into the narrative without taking away from the story. I truly enjoyed your story. Thanks for sharing!


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