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Old 28th May 2003, 13:40   #1
Palimpsest_Features
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Default 100 - a short story, part 2 - by Norman Clature

100 (part ii)

He slips into the bar unnoticed. The place hits rush hour and the staff are working hard for their pay. Baceolus works his way to a table in the corner and sits down resignedly. A young woman wearing the tatty Barracuda uniform takes his order and returns with a full bottle. He whispers something in her ear. She nods and walks away.


***


Baceolus became a regular. Copa enjoyed his company and the ability to reminisce without fear of being misunderstood. One or two more drinking games enhanced the pub’s reputation for barely controlled disorder and it soon became the most popular bar in the area. A few weeks after they met, the place closed and just a few dim lights to talk by, the two old soldiers began to share secrets over yet another bottle. Baceolus spoke of his wife, his kids, the mistress that helped him ruin everything. Copa described his years abroad, the number of men he’d killed and the friends he’d lost to the Fadiq and his vicious legionnaires. Baceolus described the mopping up operations, the petty sniping war that followed the so-called peace, the endless executions. Copa asked how he kept sane.

‘I don’t know that I do. Anymore. It sounds stupid, but I had a project, a hobby you might call it, which kept me going. Something my talent for the booze helped me think up. It’s completed now. You helped there in fact.’

‘I don’t understand, how could I help you?’ said Copa.

‘Easy. I did the Ninety Nine. I finished it off in here.’ There was a silence as the older man looked at his friend. They drank some more but no-one broke the uneasy still that now lay between them.

The Ninety Nine.

It was virtually impossible. Traditionally, the City had always had ninety nine pubs. Over the years, as the streets were built and extended and fell down and rebuilt, as the city rose and fell, as the aeons passed through the guarded walls, the guidebooks had abandoned the taverns and the whole concept of the Ninety Nine had disintegrated. It was thought, if anyone thought about it at all, that most had been taken over as shops or been destroyed by fires or disputes or other events. Some remained, of course, like Barracuda, some passed into private hands and became exclusive clubs, some were as rough as Kullan tribesmen. But for someone to say they had ‘done the Ninety Nine’ was a hugely suspicious and almost certainly fraudulent claim. Copa didn’t believe it for a moment.

‘The Ninety Nine died as a viable option fifteen, twenty years ago. Some of those places don’t even exist anymore. You wouldn’t even be able to find anyone who could help you.’

‘Wrong,’ said Baceolus. ‘City rumours, that’s what’s destroyed the Ninety Nine. But only as an idea. In reality they’re all there. The Cups, The Apricot, The Cloud before the Moon, everything. Even Shadow still stands, but you risk your life going in there, I tell you.’

‘How about The Two Pheasants?’

‘Best lobster bisque in the City.’

The Pot and the Bear?’

‘A basement dive in the Silver Quarter, the oldest and ugliest barmaids I ever saw.’

At the Three Little Fiddles?’

‘On Assassin Street? Horrible place, full of the worst drifters from the furthest ports. A hole. What is this, have you done it? The Ninety Nine? Have you?’ Baceolus leaned into the table and fixed his companion with a steely gaze. Copa sighed, as deeply as if he was back in the archipelago.

‘No, mate, I’ve not done it. And neither have you. I thought we trusted each other. Soldiers in a world of tars, traders and tarts, remember? Now this, you disappoint me.’

Baceolus continued to argue his case, but Copa dismissed it. Eventually, he left, unable to break through the man’s determined denial that he had actually achieved the goal of the Ninety Nine.


***


Copa walks through the crowd with not a little disdain. They are all too busy drinking to notice his contempt. He sits next to Baceolus and pours himself a whiskey.

‘Anything?’ he asks.


***


Baceolus returned to the bar the next night and waited for the customers to leave before talking to Copa. The couple discussed the events of the previous evening and it was clear that Copa believed he had over-reacted. Once again, a bottle was drained and old war stories swapped. Carefully and respectfully, Baceolus brought up the subject that had brought their last meeting to such a premature end. Copa smiled, but his heart wasn’t in it, it was merely a sign that he wasn’t about to throw him out.

‘I didn’t believe you Baç. But that doesn’t mean you didn’t do it, just that I have a problem coming to terms with it. You see, the Ninety Nine doesn’t exist - no, calm down, let me finish - the Ninety Nine doesn’t exist because there’s one more to consider. There are a hundred pubs in the city. You’ve missed one and you’ll never make it, No-one ever does. Yes, I did try. For seven years. It can’t be found. That would be your achievement.’

Baceolus leaned back in his chair and rubbed his face, his tired, war weary, world weary face. ‘Go on,’ he said.

The Imp lies in the very centre of the oldest part of the city. Some people say that it was the first building that was built here, that the city grew around it. Some people say that it was a trader’s caravan that stopped and took root, taking in the travellers off the spice road. The City built up gradually from there. Apparently, generations ago, The Imp was the Emperor’s hideaway when he needed to escape the rigours of office, but that’s too fanciful. More likely is that during the First Overthrow it acted as a meeting place for the Conspirators, even Prudo drank there, so they say. But as the city got bigger, so The Imp got smaller. Well, insignificant. So insignificant it vanished. The centre of the City has shifted and now, well, I don’t know. Last year a man came in here. Odd chap, told me his name was Appotus, or something similar. He wouldn’t shut up. Eventually he mentioned it. First time I’d heard the name in ages. I’d kind of hoped I’d never hear it again. You see, The Imp, or at least the idea of it, is what stopped me finishing the Ninety Nine years ago. I dropped the idea of the final dozen and instead searched high and low to find it. Just that one place. Nothing. I gave up, Baç, and so will you if you have any sense. Your idea about a project that’ll keep you occupied and sane will do just the opposite.’

Baceolus considered the older man’s testimony. His heart went out to him, but he knew that he would never stop, despite his protestations.

‘Listen, I have an idea.’

.
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