JP cleaned the bar over and over again that evening. It wasn’t that dirty, to be honest. But it was a good excuse to keep his eye on the stranger in the corner.
The man was their only client, even though it was the summer holidays, high season for mountain tourism. Ever since Dad died, the Obertass’ flow of clients had slowly been shrinking. It might also be since Tendos rolled into town, but JP didn’t want to think about that tonight.
Since Mom wasn’t there to whack him upside the head for gawking at a client, he stared and stared and stared. Wiping and polishing, he went back and forth across the smooth surface, covertly watching the man from the corner of his eye.
He’d served the man two suppers. Two solid, filling plates of traditional Nacubi food. Rice, meat, potatoes, deep fried beans and strips of bacon, sweet carrots and bread. It had all disappeared into the man’s thin body at an alarming speed.
JP was impressed, to say the least.
The guy’d arrived at sunset. Since that time, JP had studied him carefully. Numerous times.
The first thing he had noticed, when the man first stepped through the door, was that he was short. Extremely. As in only a few inches taller than JP himself. Knee-high to a grasshopper, you might say.
And the second thing JP had noticed, was that this was a man who didn’t need height to make him formidable. Despite his small stature, his body was muscular, moving with a strange kind of leisurely contained energy, like a purebred racehorse at pasture. And he had the scariest pair of eyes JP had seen in a long time. Green eyes, cold and deep underneath golden brows. They were hard eyes, like twin rocks that had been battered by sea and wind and storm and had not been found wanting.
The stranger hadn’t said much. He ordered food and sat down. In the corner, where his back was against the wall, and he could see both doors and the big window to the street.
And that was when JP noticed the third thing.
The small man was tired. Despite the strange energy he walked with, the minute he sat down he seemed to melt. His shoulders slouched, his eyelids drooped, his hands seemed to shake. Even the fiery hardness of his eyes seemed to burn lower and die.
JP had given him coffee, laced with sugar and condensed milk. It always helped for Mom, when she was worn out with stress and worry.
Four cups later, the small man was still flickering. With his head leaned on his balled fist, he sipped at the remains of the last cup.
JP blew a deep breath on an imaginary spot on the counter, rubbing earnestly at it with his washcloth.
Normally, he’d be nose-deep in one of the books he stashed behind the counter by now. But the stranger bothered him.
Going by his washed-out denim, flannel shirt and sheepskin jacket, you could easily take him for a lumberjack. But JP had grown up in Echo Hill, seeing lumberjacks and King’s foresters passing almost every day of his life. This man was many things, but he wasn’t a lumberjack. They were, in JP’s experience, loud and sweaty and human in a way this man almost wasn’t.
Outside, JP heard the hum of motorcycles. He straightened, half hoping that he was mistaken. Moments later, headlights played across the hotel’s porch. The roar of Harley Davidsons made his ears ring for a moment, before the engines were cut.
JP put down his washcloth carefully behind the counter.
Loud voices crossed the porch, heavy boots stamped and chains clattered. A moment before the swing doors were bumped open, the smell of sweat and leather and strong Cuban cigars crashed into JP’s nostrils.
There were four of them. Big, ugly bikers with Manuel Tendos’ flame embossed on their jackets.
JP didn’t lick his dry lips, no matter how badly he wanted to. He did spare a quick glance at the corner however, to where the stranger still sat motionless. He didn’t even lift his head, but JP though he saw those hard eyes flick over the bikers for a short moment.
Tendos’ guys didn’t notice him. They were on their way to the good stuff, and JP could almost see them drooling.
They leaned over the bar, sweaty, hairy arms like gammons deleting his hour of cleaning from existence.
“Evening,” JP said sourly.
A big fingered tapped his chest. He looked up, straight into a pair of unfriendly brown eyes.
“How about we all play nicely, boy?”
The guy’s name was Bull Labuschagne, JP remembered. Once, not long after Tendos had arrived, Bull had fought a trucker over at the Drift. He had killed the man with his bare hands.
JP gave him a sickly smile.
“Can I offer you something to drink? Sir?”
“That’s better.” Bull grinned. “Four beers. Big ones. And move it!”
JP did, scurrying around behind the counter. The man on the right was telling a crude joke, his friends bellowing with laughter.
They took and swallowed, when JP pushed the glasses across the counter, not sparing him another glance.
Taking his washcloth, JP began polishing again. He started at the far wing of the counter, putting as much distance between him and the bikers as possible.
In the corner, the stranger still sat like a man in a dream.
JP could feel the bikers’ loud voices and his own frightened obedience burning at the back of his neck like a tiny hot coal. He hoped, from the depths of his heart, that he bikers wouldn’t notice the small stranger.
When they finished the first round of beers JP jumped to refill them without being asked. As long as they were drinking they weren’t doing much else. But as Bull Labuschagne lifted his second glass to his lips, he noticed the man in the corner. His glinting eyes zeroed in on the man, his mouth curling into an interested sneer.
“Well, well, well. Lookit, boys! We have stranger in our midst.”
“We’ll have to welcome him, huh Bull?” It was the biker on the left speaking, a tanned guy with an offensive tattoo on his bicep.
“Of course, old buddy, of course! No two ways about it, as my aunt Becky would’a said.”
They were talking louder than necessary, but the stranger didn’t look at them. He continued staring at the opposite wall, a faraway look in his eyes.
The bikers shared a loaded look. Then they closed in.
The one on the far left, who hadn’t spoken since they came through the door, crushed out his cigar lazily before he moved off. As he went, JP saw him slipping a knuckle duster from his pocket.
JP wondered if this was the moment to fetch his mother. But, he realised, by the time he’d run up to the third floor to her office things in the bar would already be past repair. So, he stayed and prayed.
The bikers stopped a few steps from the corner table. Still, the stranger showed no sign of life.
“Hey, grandpa,” Bull said. His friends roared with laughter.
And, a moment later:
“I said, hey, grandpa!”
For a moment all was quiet. JP could hear a tall oak scratching against the Obertass’ roof.
Bull stepped closer. Hitched his hip onto the little table.
“Are you deaf, grandpa?”
Finally, the stranger looked up. Slowly, as if the simple movement was draining his energy reserves.
He studied Bull for a few long moments. Then he dropped his head back to his fist with a sleepy sigh.
A small nervous wave rippled through the bikers.
His cigar spluttered softly as he dumped it into the stranger’s coffee.
At the bar, JP held his breath.
The stranger stretched his neck slightly to glance into the mug.
Then he shook his head slowly.
“You know,” he said softly, his voice a little raspy. “I still wanted to drink that. Best coffee I had in a long time.”
He folded his hands primly on the table in front of him. Tilted his head back and gave the towering biker an earnest look.
“I’ll make you a deal. If you come tomorrow night…I’ll beat you up with pleasure. But tonight I’m a little tired.”
A disbelieving laugh spluttered from Bull’s mouth.
“You? Fight me? Do you hear this crazy guy, boys?”
His fist thundered down on the table. JP jumped, blood rushing into his ears. This is it, he thought.
“I don’t know who the hell you think you are, grandpa, but me and my boys? We run this town. And we’re gonna break you.”
The stranger still watched him, seriously, like he was trying to figure out a difficult puzzle.
“Look, friend, I’m a simple man.” He smiled crookedly. “You keep on calling me grandpa and I might just lose my head and make it official. Adopt you legally and everything.”
Bull growled. Grabbing the mug, he threw the remaining contents into the stranger’s face.
It was so quiet in the bar, JP could hear coffee dripping off the stranger’s beard. Then the small man blinked a couple of times.
“Thanks,” he said pleasantly.
He left his chair in a sideways leap. Kicked the table out the way and grabbed the opposite chair. Each leg went in a different direction as he swiped Bull’s booted feet from under him.
The biker fell heavily. JP could feel the floor shaking under his feet.
Stepping closer, quickly shifting his grip on the chair, the stranger hit Bull a few fast blows against the skull.
The rest of the bikers were slow on the uptake. Their leader’s sudden fall seemed to puzzle them, as they moved uncertainly towards the stranger.
And the stranger didn’t give them time to recover.
He didn’t seem tired anymore. Energy lit up his whole body, and he moved like a miniature hurricane towards the bikers.
His outstretched arm, with a flat, hard palm at the end of it, hit the biker with the knuckle duster between the eyes. He didn’t look at him, as the biker walked in a groggy circle before collapsing.
Growling, the guy on the right jumped at the small man. He swung a punch, but received a swift kick in the pants for his trouble. As he doubled over, the stranger caught him a hook across the face. JP could hear bone crunching.
Last man standing was the biker with the crude tattoo. Somehow, he managed to catch the stranger in a bear hug from behind. There was a flurry of energy, a surprised grunt, and then he, too, hit the ground.
It was quiet again in the bar. The stranger backed away, his hands protectively in front of his face. He gasped for breath.
JP was positive that he didn’t make a sound, but the stranger turned to glare at him.
His face was grey, JP saw, and there was something close to despair in his eyes. For the first time he realised that the man was bleeding. From the second button, all the way down to his belt, his flannel shirt was wet and dark with blood.
The short man gave another wavering step. For a moment, his hard eyes went wide. Then he hit the ground with a wet, sickly thump.
JP left the room at a flat-out run.