The Rock wasn't the name of the bar, though that's what the locals called it. When the milk went sour, when the babes were born wrong, when there was a brief shower of blood at 2 PM on a Wednesday, so the Studebakers were splashing crimson puddles up onto the sidewalk, The Rock is where the flatfeet would go and turn over. The locals didn't mind; the filth left them to their devices the rest of the time. The clientele in The Rock took it in stride as part of the cost of doing business.
It was "the bar beneath the bar" - there were three other drinking establishments on the block, and every one had a small door and a set of stairs at the far back, near the restrooms; the three doors each led to a long, arched chamber like an abandoned subway station, recessed lighting and white tile walls, and about sixty feet of polished redwood with a brass rail in front of it. The dozen or so tables were wrought iron and fixed in place by screws, like park equipment. No music, though the tramp of feet and scuff of chairs overhead tended to filter down to a quiet, constant level of noise, good to cover a whispered conversation in the dark.
Clinton behind the bar had been in the war; although the stories varied about which side. Lean and tall, with greying hair always meticulously parted, perpetually sad eyes that would listen to a man's fingers being broken without shedding a tear. His bar was as close as he had to a religion, and he enforced the rules with all the quiet passion of Torquemada. Regulars could have a tab, if they paid every week. Regulars could get their mail there, slotted into the wooden cubbyholes of a converted wine rack behind the bar, provided they picked it up every week. Everyone else paid cash. No serious business.
Jack came down the central stair alone, badge on a chain around his neck. A professional courtesy: Clinton would see him coming, even if he hadn't known the detective was en route from the bar above. No sneaky business. The forty-something detective cracked an ugly smile, exposing healthy pink gums and yellowed teeth. He favored a black trenchcoat and brown pinstripe suits, with black shirts and dark brown ties that matched his eyes. The overall effect was somber, and nobody's idea of fashion, but it hid stains well. Time to turn the Rock over once again, and see what was crawling underneath...
"Clinton," he rasped, as he stood up to the bar, staring up at the grey-haired, sad-eyed man in his letter red vest and long white sleeves. The pale blue hint of tattoos peaked out at wrist and collar, vibrant against the ashy skin. The bar was empty; officially wouldn't open for a few more hours.
"We get by, Detective. The usual?"
They went through the ritual. The long, tapered fingers tapped a dash of dark red bitters into the glass, gave it a little spin to coat it, and then added the gin. The lemon appeared by a little touch of sleight-of-hand, and was set before him on a napkin without a flourish. Jack laid down a bill, and sipped the drink.
"We could start you a tab." the sad-eyed man pulled the bill towards him.
"Appearances," Jack smacked his lips and set the glass down. He turned an eye towards the wine rack which held the mail. "Lot of mail lately."
Clinton said nothing, but poured a shot of tonic and set it in front of Jack, which he dutifully sipped.
"Are you holding for Bill Smalley?" he asked. Clinton didn't even raise an eyebrow, the sad eyes staring into the detective's own.
"He gets his mail here. Picks it up Saturday, or it goes in the furnace."
"Bill Smalley's been fitted for a toe tag." A finger doodled in the condensation on the bar. "Not an accident. An unnatural death."
Clinton had a hell of a poker face, although if that was one of his vices, Jack had never been able to find out.
"Smalley had some gifts, in a small way. Got in too deep with the wrong crowd, maybe. I never did figure what drove a man into black magic..." the detective began. Then Clinton gave one of those rare, small smiles, all sadness. "But you have a theory."
"That's right. The Black Magic Theory. The world has systems. You go through life, you get processed through them. Birth certificate. Baptism. School. Catechism. Work. Processes that shape you, that try to define you, that stick labels on you and decide where you go. Credit scores. Intelligence quotients. Percentiles. Age groups. Most people, they slide through those systems like grits through a colon. When they finally cross that final threshold, what's left has been masticated, processed, ready to digest by whatever there is afterwards. Most people, I'm sure, go down easy. Some people though, they fall out. Then they find out there are other systems. Alternatives to the prevailing system. Parallel processes. Kind of thing that makes you into something different." He tapped the glass, and Clinton obliged with a bit more tonic. "To people in the normal system, that looks like black magic. They can't understand how folks can end up in those states, can't see how to get there from whereever they're at. But these...other processes. Not easy. Mortification of the spirit and flesh."
"There are some that enjoy that." Clinton turned away from him, to fiddle with something behind the bar. For the first time, Jack saw the pale blue eye tattooed on the back of the bartender's neck, right above the collar. "Of course, part of the reason there is a...as you put it...'prevailing system'...is because there are agents that work to impede and halt some of the 'parallel processes.' And of course, there are places and persons which facilitate the interaction between systems. They might be wary about working with such agents."
"They found what's left of three missing kids in Bill Smalley's stomach, Clinton." Jack's voice took a hard tone. "Kids are serious business."
Clinton turned around, sad eyes staring into Jack's own. "Yes, I would agree." He laid a few envelopes tied together with a rubber band on the bar. "Do see that Mr. Smalley's next of kin get his mail, won't you?"
Jack laid a hand on the envelopes. "Thanks for the drink, Clinton. I'll try not to be back too soon."
"Good luck, detective." Clinton said, and Jack felt those sad eyes on him as he left the Rock, back up the long steps towards daylight.