FULL STORY | "Ain't We Got Fun" by Paul C.K. Spears

 Illustration by Sam Rheaume

Illustration by Sam Rheaume

Gus Henderson sucked down the last of his beer. It tasted like sawdust. Over the bar, he saw his reflection in the polished sheen of an old Union sword. He didn’t look so good tonight.

Six feet of hairy, hardened criminal in suspenders and a stained shirt, he was slumped over the bar inside an underground speakeasy. The whole place smelled of timber and piss--“Earl’s Place,” or something like that. He should’ve gotten the name down, he reflected… since he intended on robbing the joint, and all.

It was only polite.

The time was three hours to midnight, January the sixteenth, 1920. In a few hours, the Eighteenth Amendment would take effect, and the Great War’s afterglow would be over. The joy around him--laughing students, giggling flappers--would fade to sobriety, and the long night of Prohibition would begin.

Gus wasn’t looking forward to it. Crime families had cashed in, prepping for an impending black-market. The mysterious Humours behind the bar and their alcoholic variants, the Draughts, were suddenly valuable. No longer curiosities and military experiments, those ethereal drinks would be contraband. Forbidden… and therefore, expensive.

As a hired tough for the Irish mob, Gus suspected his business would increase… but it would be dangerous, unstable. No more jobs behind saloons, chasing off Temperance Society dames. No, the positions opening up would be more deadly. There would be shootings, and gang wars, and though he was opposed to neither, he sure did hate the mess of it all. The sloppiness. A quick, clean snatch-and-grab--now, that was the ticket.

Speaking of which…

“Earl,” he said, swiveling back again, “whose place we in, anyway?”

The lanky bartender looked down his nose at Gus. “I have already informed Sir where Sir is. Several times.”

Gus waved away the sarcasm, alcohol clouding his logic. “Yeah, yeah, you told me who owns the building. One of Curley’s buddies. But who owns the speak? You know. Just wondering.”

Earl raised an eyebrow. “That would be Master Macauliff. Jack Macauliff, to be precise.”

Damn. Jack was the son of Garfield Macauliff, a state senator. Merely by sitting in the speak, Gus had allied himself against Jack—a young financier who had strange dealings on the side. The rich brat was across the room, balancing a champagne flute on his nose to the delight of the girls around him.

Jack wouldn’t appreciate a hired thug robbing his bar. He’d chosen a side for himself, and Gus hated taking sides. He preferred to let the big boys—politicians and criminals alike—slug it out without him, but that plan was no longer viable. War was brewing, from Lynn all the way down to the Cape. Massachusetts was a smuggling zone already, and adding Draughts to the mix would just make things worse.

And here I am, in Mad Jack’s basement… I must be crazy. Why didn’t I stay home and listen to the Sox?

He sipped his beer.

“Give us some Grief! Give us some Grief!” The youths chanted towards a thick wooden door in the back of the basement. A slot opened to hear their cries, the distiller shrouded in darkness.

It was a feeding frenzy. Teenagers and wannabe-gangsters, all yelling for condensed human emotion, bottled and distilled for their pleasure. People kept trickling down the stairs, types from all over—Boston Brahmins, local kids, even some black folks. Tonight, all the lines were blurred. Boston had just a few more hours to party, and the city intended to do so.

Gus took his next drink out of Earl’s hand before the man could put it down. “Thanks.” He made to reach in his pocket for some greenbacks, but a shadow beside him made him pause.

“That one’s on me,” said the shadow.

Gus recognized the man. He’d known him in the trenches, and even in the boxing ring. This guy was the most relentless person he’d ever met—an obnoxious, preening, high-minded son-of-a-bitch called Mick Vance.

And that preening son-of-a-bitch had saved his life before.

Of all the bars in the world… He just had to walk into mine.

“Vance, pal! Good to see you!” Gus stood, and shook the guy’s hand. Mick was comically tall, with prominent ears and a long, aquiline nose. But despite his odd appearance, Mick was the sharpest cop with the Boston Police and the glinting badge on his chest reminded Gus he had two tight-ropes to walk now. One involved dodging the rich kids in the corner, whose parents could make his life hell with a single phone call. The other was not getting arrested for the five hijackings he’d committed this year… and the heist he was about to pull off right under everyone’s nose.

Mick saluted him mockingly. “At ease, soldier.” They chuckled; Mick and Gus had been in the same squad, in France. When Gus looked at his friend, he heard the booming of shells in his mind. Strange world—we’re marching to different drumbeats, now.

Just hope they don’t turn into gunshots.

“You sure about that drink?” he said, hoping Mick would pass. Maybe he was just checking in, or taking a bribe from Earl. Nah, not possible—Mick didn’t take bribes. The big idiot was damn near incorruptible. The only vice Mick Vance possessed was a fondness for James Joyce, and to his credit, Gus had never allowed him to forget it.

“Of course I am.” He eyed Gus, glancing at the worn suspenders, the haggard face. “Seems like you need it.”

“You’re damn straight.”

Together they sat, and Gus drank his sixth beer of the evening, slurping at the foam. Across the room, giggling youths and sequin-clad girls stared at them. Mad Jack was eyeing Mick with indignance; he didn’t like a copper coming down here, even in plainclothes—and he made no secret of it, giving Mick the finger once his back was turned. Well, suck it up, you wannabe Valentino, thought Gus. Your daddy ain’t God, and neither are you. We’ll drink if we feel like it.

“What brings you down here, ‘Mick the Nose?’ You doing health inspections, now?”

“Cool it with that nickname, would you? Someday I’m gonna sue the papers...” Mick ordered a glass of water—much to Earl’s amusement—and picked a dead fly out of it before sucking it down. “I’m not here on police business. They fired me.”

“Fired you? Their golden boy?” Gus frowned, staring into his beer. “You weren’t even a striker.”

“Doesn’t matter to Curtis. He made a clean sweep—all new men in every precinct. Not a single fella’s left from the old guard.”

Gus took in the long coat and badge. “Hmm. But you’re still wearing the shield… and dressed for the beat.”

Mick’s face clenched. “They can pry this badge off me, if they like. I’m reporting for duty until the bastards throw me out.”

Gus laughed, his misery cut by the sheer absurdity of this. “What a gas! You know they’re not gonna pay you. You’re walking their beats for free! Never do anything for free, Mick—not for anybody.”

Mick ordered another glass of water. Earl gave him a dark look—anyone who didn’t order drinks was, in plain English, a wart on his ass. But Mick didn’t flinch when Earl gave him more water, this time with a clump of hair in it. Plucking out the clump, Mick shook his head.

“Easy for you to say. This city went through hell because of those strikes. I worked seven days a week before that, and I was proud of it. But the public servant does not have the right to endanger the public good, and I’m not going to give up my duties when…”

Gus pretended to fall asleep on the bar, his fake snoring making Earl turn away in annoyance. “Blah, blah, blah. You can’t save Boston. It don’t want to be saved—just look at these kids. Look at what they’re drinking.”

They turned to regard the crew of teens, who had been joined by others and now filled most of the speak. Jack was in the center, chugging from a brown-glass bottle of Grief. His eyes bulged, quivered—and sprayed tears in a fire-hose blast of saltwater. The others laughed and wept as Jack sobbed in a paroxysm of emotional agony, brought on by the Draughts. His skin was half-purple with Grief now, and Gus thought he might go Mythical at any moment. Too many of those drinks turned anyone into a freak, something Gus knew from experience.

But Jack wasn’t slowing down. Taking a fresh bottle from his friends, the rich heir poured it over his face. It was Lust--mixed with a fine Prosecco, according to the label—and it was strong stuff. Pale tentacles sprouted from his face, reaching for a nearby woman in pearls and lace. She shrieked, slapping at him playfully.

“Don’t be unfriendly, missy!” Jack puckered his lips, cackling. “Give us a kiss!

Unnerved, Mick and Gus shared a glance. They’d had their share of Draughts during wartime, but it had been for their country—drinking Rage to storm machine-gun nests, bayonetting Krauts while high on Joy. There was no higher purpose here tonight.

“You know,” Gus said, pulling a cigar tin from his pocket, “those kids ought to lay off that stuff.”

Mick eyed him. “Didn’t Moira tell you not to smoke those?”

“Moira left me three weeks ago.” Gus clipped the end and lit a match. “She liked her fine things too much, and I wasn’t one of them.” He noticed with interest that Earl had moved into a supply closet, presumably to tap a fresh keg. Out of sight, and ideally, out of earshot. “Now it’s just me.”

“I… see. I’m sorry.” Mick followed Gus’ eyes as he stared at the door to the mixing room. “But if you pull a fast one on this kid, his daddy will send you to prison. Just leave this place alone.”

“If someone doesn’t take that Grief, these kids are gonna hurt each other. I’ve seen it before.” Gus pulled on the cigar, rich fungal smoke filling his lungs, and exhaled. “And I could really, really use the scratch.”

Mick stood up, his hand creeping inside his pocket. “Stay in your seat, old buddy. I don’t want any arrests tonight, okay?”

Gus rounded on him, blowing smoke through his thick nostrils. “Arrests? You’re fired. What are you gonna do—call the cavalry?”

Mick froze. Gus chuckled, tapping ash onto the bar. The embers glowed, sizzling on stray drops of beer.

“Gus. What are you up to?”

“I think you ought to sit down, old buddy. I’m doing these kids a favor—you’ll see.” And Gus pulled the lapel of his ratty evening jacket aside to reveal a .44 revolver, which he’d easily snuck past the distracted bouncer. Its weight hung heavy on the inside of his belt, the trigger-loop the only thing keeping it from crashing to the floor.

“Jesus…” Mick sat down, his eyes flat and hard. “You really think you can rip off a distilling rig, in Beacon Hill? You dunce--you’ll get nabbed!”

Gus chewed his lip. “Now, let’s not use name-calling. You know how this goes. I hear anyone opening that back door, and there’ll be hell to pay. You got me?” He patted his jacket, just in case the ex-cop didn’t grasp his meaning.

Mick’s mouth settled into a thin line. The two men stared at one another, under the suffocating glow of the ceiling-light. Gus, with his slicked-back hair and wild beard, had a belly full of liquor and no qualms. He wanted this—he needed it. After Moira and his stomach cancer, the world owed him this. And no one was getting in his way, least of all a Boy Scout with an axe to grind.

Mick, with his clean-shaven face and useless badge, seemed to count the odds in his mind… and came up short. His gaze faltered, and he turned his eyes towards the Draught bottles, behind the bar. “Like you say, they’re not paying me. But if you hurt these kids, I’ll put you in the ground.”

“Save it. This ain’t no funny-book.” Gus stubbed out his cigar just as Earl came back, relishing the man’s scowl. “I’ll make it quick—you know I don’t fuck around. See you on the other side.”

And, rising from his chair, Gus pushed towards the back door with dollars on the brain and a hungry, pounding heart.

The room beyond was dark, smelling of cobwebs and mold, and made the cramped speak seem like a ballroom. Fifteen feet wall-to-wall, it contained one large bald man on a milk crate, several boxes, a series of jugs, and the Humour rig.

Inside the rig was a girl. Maybe twenty, black, with ropes around her wrists. A tiny locket was open on her lap, but Gus didn’t have time for details. The second he entered, the bald man--a distiller, by the stains on his jacket--jumped up and swung a pipe at his head.

“Damn drunk kids—I said stay outta here!” The pipe missed him and scored off the door, leaving a jagged scar of splinters. In one fluid motion, Gus sprung aside and pulled the door shut behind him. The latch clicked, and he was alone against a very big and very angry man who looked like he practiced distilling between bouts of chopping at a North End butchery.

“Woah, there!” But the pipe came again. Gus took the strike on his right forearm and felt searing pain shoot up his arm—this damn palooka had fractured his arm! Did he have any idea how much a doctor cost?

Luckily, he was a southpaw. Fumbling in the dark, Gus raised his fist and popped it at the heavy man’s neck. He’d been a fighter before France—never made it to the Olympics, but he’d laid out plenty of assholes like this. The jab connected, and sent the guy reeling against the wall, gagging.

The lights flickered—power fading, juice going to the rig. He heard the sound of a body hitting the sawdust floor. And when Gus lit a match to see, there was a bloody stain on the bricks, and a matching splotch on the man’s scalp.

Whether he was dead or stunned, Gus didn’t care—and given how much noise they’d made, he didn’t have time to find out. Panting, he turned toward the distillery.

The girl was still sitting inside it, watching him. He noted she hadn’t screamed—in fact, she hadn’t made a sound. The copper cage of runes and wires around her hummed softly. The bottles under the runes were vibrating, filling with smoky-purple Grief.

“Uh…” He waved, as curious murmurs came from the other room and someone knocked on the door. “You there? Hey.”

The girl waved at him, scared… but not stupid. No, she was watching him with uncanny large eyes, her curly hair half-over her face.

“Is the shift over?” she asked, her voice flat.

He glanced at the locket in her lap. It contained a faded, miniature photograph, so old it was yellow and peeling at the edges. It’s her, he thought. They’re making Grief out of her. He wondered what she’d seen in life, to be so full of that stuff.

“Do I get my payment now?”

Gus looked at the man on the floor. “I doubt they were really gonna pay you, lass. I see more Drained folks than paid ones in this biz.”

“Ah. So that’s the way.” Her Southern drawl was long and slow, and he watched with surprise as she slipped her hands out of the rope bindings. Stepping out of the rig, she adjusted her frock. “I take it y’aren’t here to replace me.”

“No.” Gus sighed. This was an unholy mess—one victim, and one witness already. But witnesses could be dealt with. “I’m actually here to relieve these boys of your sorrows .” He nodded at the bottles, which had stopped filling and sat bubbling in the rig. Underneath them, miniature nests of ice dangled, keeping the otherworldly liquids cool and preventing them from cooking off explosively.

The knock on the door grew more insistent. “Benjamin, where’s our Grief? Benjy!

It was Jack. Gus hurried to block the door--one dead-bolt wouldn’t hold the crowd for long. But there was no way out now, nothing but a tiny window, which led to Beacon Hill’s quiet streets.

Think fast. Think, dammit, before they wise up and call the coppers—or Mick does. Assuming he hasn’t already. “What’s your name, girl?”

“Rose. Rose Sweetwater.” She kicked the prone figure. “Y’all did a number on this one. He’ll need a hospital.”

“You’re a savvy customer. You get in pickles like this often?”

“Only on weekends.”

“Heh. How’d you like to make a few bucks?”

That got her attention. “Yeah?”

“These people, how long have they been Draining you for Humours?”

She shrugged. “Few days.”

Sweet lord Jesus. Anyone who’d been inside a distiller that long should be a husk—emptied of all emotion, a shallow shell. And yet… she wasn’t lively, but Rose certainly had her wits about her. This one was strong, and looked tiny enough to sneak out that window. “Alright. There’s no way we’re getting past the bouncer—we’ll have to be smart. Here’s what I want you to do.”

Just a scant minute later, the pair had stolen every drop of Grief in Mad Jack’s basement. Rose had slipped out the window, taking ice-cold bottles from Gus, who’d tucked them into potato sacks from behind the boiler. Every so often, Gus passed her a handful of ice-slush, to scatter over the stuff. They didn’t want to get Mythified by thawing Humours—that would get him jail time for sure. Not to mention being embarrassing.

“Okay. That’s all of it.” Rose peered at him from the gap, curious. “What now?”

“Head up Mount Vernon Street, to the bridge. You can’t miss it—it’s the granite one, with Viking carvings on it. Load the bag with rocks, and hide it in some river-mud. Gotta keep those things cold.”

A heavy thud sounded from the door. “Ben-ja-min! We’re thirsty!” Angry shouts came from the speak. Gus felt a chill pass down his spine; those kids didn’t sound happy-go-lucky, anymore.

They didn’t even sound human.

“What about you?” Rose asked.

Gus caught a hint of concern in her voice. But only a hint--she had quite the poker-face. He made a note to recruit her for a card scheme.

“Not your problem. I dug this hole. I’ll find a way out of it.” He waved her off. “Meet me on the Esplanade, when the sun comes up. We’ll make a mint off this stuff.”

Assuming I don’t get eaten by a Myth.

“All right.” She paused. “You might be crazy, Henderson, but you’re not half-bad.”

“Likewise, doll.”

She disappeared from the window, skirts whirling out of sight. Gus turned toward the door, Adam’s apple heavy in his throat.

Time to pay my tab.

“BEN-JA-MIN!” That sounded Jack, alright. Hopped up on several different Draughts and much stronger than before—his fists pounded the door with the force of a rail-worker’s sledge. “I need me a refill, bucko! Let me in!

Shit, shit. Gus scrambled through the room, looking for a weapon. His gun was empty, of course—his threat against Mick had been a bluff. After his last visit to Doc Druthers, he couldn’t afford toothpaste, much less any bullets. But there might be another way….

Conspicuous silence was broken by a sudden, polite knock. “Gus, buddy? It’s Mick.” The cop’s voice was strained. “I’m afraid these kids are a little… off the rails, now. I’ve explained your situation to them, but ah... they don’t seem interested in negotiating.” A pause. “Turns out they’ve got lots of knives.”

Gus turned on his heel, kicking the wall. “God dammit!” Now they were in the shit. Of course that do-gooding idiot had stuck his nose in it, and tried to reason with half-monstrous Myths.

His eyes fell on a leftover box of Draughts, surrounded by packs of slowly melting ice. I guess one drink for the road ain’t a sin. Or two, or three….

Outside, Mick Vance stood next to the distilling room door, his hands up. A shaving straight-razor was pressed against his neck by the thing behind him, something that had once been Mad Jack Macauliff. Now it was… well, he didn’t know what it was, exactly. Some kind of beast out of the old stories, the Mithras-cult that had brought Draughts to America in the first place. All he knew was, he didn’t want to turn around and look at it.

“Boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen,” said Jack, his voice warped and twisted by the substances inside him, “this man and his associate have gotten between us, and our evening’s entertainment. Time is… ticking. Two hours to midnight. Two hours to have fun. Are we gonna let these folks stand in the way of fun?

Some of the crowd stayed silent. These were the ones cowering in corners, holding their lovers close, fearful of what Jack had become. Others stood around him, swaying drunk, near-empty glasses of Joy and Rage in their hands. The Draughts frothed and fizzed, crawling around the inside of the cups as if alive.

“No!” they chanted together, whooping and stamping their feet. “We want fun!

Mick felt sweat trickling down his neck.“Easy, folks...”

Jack raised the razor to the level of Mick’s eye. The reflection in it—the boy could polish a razor, for sure—was a spreading flower of distorted flesh, which had once been a face. Weeping with salty sores and flickering with Lustful grins, the creature’s body was pressed up against him.

“Just… take it easy, Jack. Nobody needs to get hurt.”

“But don’t they, though?” Jack hissed, giggling. “You old folks sign your little laws and want to take our fun away. Tell my daddy he can’t pay for our clubs. What do you expect us to do, old man? What do you expect us to do, but take a pound of flesh?”

The distilling-room door swung open.

Mick blinked. Gus was standing there, his hat pulled down over his face, his fists clenched. A lit cigar smoldered in his mouth.

“Jackie,” he said, “let the flatfoot go.”

Mad Jack snorted, acid bubbling from the wreckage of his lips to eat into the floor. “Who the hell are you, anyway? You’ve disturbed our fun. I don’t like that--it’s not proper at all!”

Gus sighed, and raised his head. Mick blanched at the sight of him—this wasn’t the man who’d entered the distillery minutes ago.

Gus was a monster.

Yellow scales coated his face and the edges of his knuckles, forming a rudimentary second skin. Nictitating membranes flickered across his eyes. In his left hand was a lead pipe—in the other, an empty bottle of Greed.

“You know,” he said, raising the pipe, “you really screwed me on the drinks. This Greed shit was mixed with vermouth. And I hate vermouth.”

Mick saw his chance. While the young Myth was distracted, he raised his right leg--wooden, blasted off during the war--and bashed it into Jack’s knee. The bone there was mutated and warped, but still fragile enough for his purpose. The oaken leg crushed Jack’s kneecap like an eggshell. The mutant reeled back, shrieking and howling, and Mick pulled away from him.

“Earl,” said Gus. “If you’re not using that antique, we could use a hand!”

Behind the bar, Earl raised an eyebrow. If he’d had opinions about all this, he didn’t show it. But he reached over the bar, gripped the old Union sword, and tossed it to Mick. Then he watched the chaos unfold.

There were only two of them against Jack… but now one of them was a Myth. The twisted, deformed youth shrank away, his face opening and closing like some deep-sea anemone, flexing and pulsing.

“Not proper… not proper!”

“Maybe not. But it’s Prohibition, now.” Gus raised the lead pipe up towards the single, swaying ceiling bulb. “Party’s over, kids.”

There was the sound of breaking glass. And then came the screams.

-Continued in “Spirits of the Charles,” by Paul Spears, available on Kindle, June 2018.-