Night after night, the bar counter at Acevo’s supported the weight of a steady number of customers, many of whom seemed intent on slipping to the floor where downward-pointing bottle spouts directed them. Acevo’s was attached to the local installment of the Clifton Inn hotel chain, which meant that it was relatively clean, and most nights the manager played eighties pop-metal hits over the sound system, which meant that it was fairly generic and anonymous. It was the best place that Rory and Mary could think to meet whenever they had shadowy matters soiling their palms and needed to share some dirt.
“What gets me,” Mary said over her martini glass, “is that it’s not like Jules got that big, you know? He got some attention, sure.”
“He could probably be huge,” Rory agreed.
“Sure. The song’s great. But he isn’t. Not yet. So why waste all that First Song Magic when he could be so much more popular?” Mary tapped a fingernail on the tabletop. “And richer?”
“Maybe this is all he wanted.” Rory tossed back the last of his gin and tonic, but the drink had gotten watered down with melted ice and was about as satisfying as his answer. “Suppose we can always ask him when we get him cornered.”
“Okay, and how do you suppose we go about getting this guy in a corner? Especially if he’s the local It Guy at the moment?”
“Don’t know. Figured you could just turn your charm on him and we could go from there.”
“You know,” said Mary. Anyone else watching her hands might have thought she was doing nothing more than idly pushing a bead of condensation across the table. But Rory saw the minor rune forming in the pattern she was drawing. He gripped the edge of the table and braced himself for a headache at the very least. “Maybe I don’t want to be the charm ambassador all the time. Maybe I just want to be angry.”
Rory said nothing but kept staring at her fingertips.
Mary stopped drawing and sighed. “It just really grates my nutmeg, having to fight all the time.”
“And the people who do this—I still haven’t forgiven Sergio Sequin for that shit he pulled in seventy-eight, you know.”
Rory nodded. Even now, he would meet some listeners who insisted that every disco song sounded the same. They had no idea of the dark bargain that Sergio Sequin had struck to hold the top five spots on the chart at the same time with the same song. They also had no idea of the other battles that Mary had fought.
The two sat quietly beneath the low-lying blanket of bar light. Rory could imagine that, to anyone else, they were just two people in their late fifties or early sixties surveying the patrons who hung like ornaments from the bar counter beside them, but he knew that Mary’s mind was wandering the same path as his—listening to the music, parsing it for clues or ideas. One song ended; the next began. Rory heard the opening chords of “Halifax Busker” and turned to Mary to trade frowns.
“Wasn’t this playing when we came in?” she asked.
Rory nodded. “Someone in here trying to spin a pattern?”
They both had started to stand when a hiccup in the song brought it back to the beginning of the track. They sat down, Rory letting go of a knot that he hadn’t realized he had tied in the muscles at the back of his neck.
“And that, folks,” he said, “is why everyone streams their playlists now and saves their CDs for making tacky wall art.”
Mary chuckled. “So much for No-Repeat Sundays,” she said, her voice sliding down into the gravel-packed depths of the classic rock deejay’s realm on the last words.
One of the bar patrons turned. “Hey. You Mary Midnight?”
Mary straightened her back. “The one and only, baby.”
“No shit. Used to listen to you on The Force back in high school. You know.” The man cleared his throat. “Back before you…”
Mary pulled her smile tight like a drum skin. “What? Before I got this fabulous pair of tits?”
The man looked back and forth between Rory and Mary. “I was going to say, ‘before you transitioned,’” he whispered.
“She knows,” said Rory. “She’s just fucking with you.”
“Oh, am I now?” Mary blinked. “How kind of you to inform me.”
They both turned back to the bar patron, who regarded them as if they were sharks he just realized were swimming around him in his pool. Slowly he slid off his stool and tightrope-walked toward Mary.
“Look,” he said, “um, my daughter was doing a report on local moment in culture for her sociology class or something, and when I told her I had listened to you, um, before, and we started talking about what it must have been like for you…” He looked straight at Mary. “It was the first time she’d really talked to me about anything in months.”
“Oh,” Mary said. Rory had forgotten how rare it was to see Mary taken aback. “Well. Thank you. I’m really glad for you two.”
“Could I ask you to, I don’t know, sign a napkin or something?”
Mary smiled. “I’ll do you one better, baby. You got a phone, right? Rory, could you?” The man got his phone from his pocket and passed it to Rory, who took the picture as Mary puckered her lips an inch away from the man’s cheek. “There, is that okay? She’ll have a good time with that one.”
The man looked at the picture and laughed. “Oh, man. She wouldn’t have believed me. This is perfect.” He shook both Mary and Rory’s hands before heading back to his bar stool.
“Sometimes I wish I didn’t know how good a charm ambassador I was and didn’t like doing it,” said Mary, sitting down.
“For sure. I thought the part about your boobs part was especially charming.”
Mary smiled, leaning in close across the table. “So. You know when the next Jules Horace show is?”