Lori Meeker pushed her hair out of her eyes and leaned back against the sink. She squeezed the cold porcelain edge to still her trembling hands and focused on the pair of plainclothes cops shoehorned into the women’s can with her.
The space was hardly bigger than a closet but the restrooms were the only private spaces in the bar, and the detectives had insisted on questioning her alone.
“The restrooms always this clean?” Detective Gayle asked.
“Yeah. Augie’s bat-shit crazy about dirt and germs.”
Gayle raised an eyebrow. “Bat-shit crazy, huh? Is that your professional opinion?”
“Pardon my French,” Lori snapped.
Lori had met women just like Gayle. Always judging, always pretending they could do anything a man could do. Always looking down their perfect nose at girls who had to work in joints like Augie’s Bar & Grill.
And Augie was bat-shit crazy about germs. A damned phobia, that’s what she should have said. It was a bar, for god’s sake, not some fancy restaurant. The place was cleaner than it had any need to be.
“Tell us what you saw and heard,” Detective Osbourne said.
Osbourne looked like a nice man, the kind of guy who would listen without judging. Lori decided to talk to him. She weighed how much to tell him, though. She was afraid he might call her crazy, might laugh and stop listening to her, if she said she didn’t think the dead body out on the bar floor was human.
Lori fished her cigarettes from her sweater pocket, shook a fresh one from the pack and sparked it with her butane lighter. Gayle turned her head away and coughed. Lori smiled.
“You going to talk to us?” Gayle asked.
Lori blew more smoke toward Gayle and focused on Osbourne’s big, brown hound-dog eyes.
“I unlocked the door at eleven,” she said. “Right off, this little guy strolled in, just like he owned the place. Augie gave him the once over, went back to stocking the cooler with a case of Red Hook.”
“What did you make of him?” Osbourne asked.
“I saw right off that he was slumming. I can tell the type. But Augie always says it doesn’t matter where a customer is from or what they look like, long as they have money.”
Gayle jumped in. “And this guy had money?”
Lori nodded. “A wad of bills would choke a horse.”
“Did he sit at the bar?” Osbourne asked.
“Uh huh,” she said. “He crawled up on one of the stools. Could barely see over the edge. If we had booster seats I think I would’a offered him one.”
Her cigarette had burned down to the filter. Lori flipped it into the toilet, listened to it hiss, and popped her butane lighter to spark another one. A skinny job with lots of filter and not much tobacco. Her mother called them coffin tacks.
“What did the fellow look like?” Osbourne asked.
“Bald, a big head. Glasses on a little nose, not much chin. He ordered one drink. Straight-up scotch. Never touched it. Most times, that sets Augie off. This time he never say a word.”
“Any idea why?” Osbourne asked.
“They told each other jokes.”
Lori nodded. “Augie loves jokes, can tell them all night and not repeat himself. This little guy could tell them, too.”
“What sort of jokes?” Detective Gayle asked.
“All kinds. The one about the farmer’s daughter and the salesman. The golfer and the dead priest. The special pig. That one makes me laugh, but I can’t remember it to save my life.”
Gayle leaned in close now, ignoring the cigarette smoke. “Tell us what happened at the end.”
“I’d almost finished setting up the tables, when I heard the guy say, ‘Augie, you ever heard the one about the little green man that walked into the bar?’”
She could feel tears welling. She tried to push them back.
“Go on, Lori.” Osbourne said, kindness in his voice.
Lori closed her eyes, held on to his words. “Augie yelled, then I heard the shotgun. Almost peed myself. When I looked, the little guy was on the floor, his face shot all to pieces.”
Nothing fancy to the joint, but Augie March had always been proud to say he owned it.
Low-ceilinged; long and wide. Tables on the side walls, a bar across the back. Framed posters of country-western singers on the wall around the jukebox. Expensive neon signs above the bar to light the way back to the restrooms.
Pointers to the left. Setters to the right.
With the lights dimmed, after a few beers, the place had a certain charm. But this was middle of the day, the house lights full on, and Augie was stone-cold sober.
The joint was clean, of course. Augie wouldn’t have it any other way. But he had never paid much attention to the way his place smelled, and just now, perched on a stool at the bar, he felt like he might drown in the reek of tobacco and hot grease.
“Wanna beer?” he asked the street cop standing watch at the end of the bar.
The street cop shook his head. “Can’t drink on duty.”
Augie nodded. “Just thought I’d offer.”
The cop frowned. “Just sit there and keep your mouth shut.”
“I can do that,” Augie said.
The door to the woman’s john opened and Lori walked out, followed by the two detectives. Osbourne and Gayle. Augie had dealt with both of them before.
“Everything okay out here?” Gayle asked.
“Sure,” the street cop said.
He handed an evidence baggie to Osbourne and pointed down the bar to where Augie's sawed-off shotgun rested; breach cracked and shells gone. “I figure the shotgun for the murder weapon. It’s unloaded now.”
“Any word on follow-up?” Osbourne slid the baggie, with the two spent green shells inside, into his pocket.
The street cop nodded. “Squad's outside. Crime scene crew’s stuck on the West Seattle Bridge.”
“Thanks. Take the girl outside, will you?”
“Can she leave?”
At the door, Lori turned and looked at Augie, then she was out and gone.
“When you gonna tell me I can have a lawyer?” Augie asked.
Osbourne shrugged. “We don’t have to read you rights, not unless we arrest you. You want us to do that?”
“No. I’ll tell you everything that happened.”
“What did happen?” Gayle asked.
Augie didn't much care for the sound of her voice. Loud and too aggressive, even for a cop. Too back east for her own good. He glanced at Osbourne. The detective dipped his chin in approval.
“I know I didn’t murder anybody,” Augie said. “I saved the planet, that’s what I did. That little creep ain’t human.”
He tipped his head toward the body sprawled on the floor in the center of the room, feet stretched toward the bar, toes up. Most of the stiff's head had been blown away by the point-blank blast of the twelve-gauge. Blood everywhere.
“Gonna take one of those professional services to get the place clean again,” Augie muttered. “I swear, it’s enough to drive a fella crazy.”
“What was that?” Osbourne asked.
“Nothing.” Augie shook his head. “Just talking to myself.”
Gayle took a step closer. “What do you mean when you say not human?”
“What do you think I mean? He’s some sort of alien, like you see in those supermarket papers. Ready to invade us.”
“Why would aliens invade White Center?”
“Not here; not Seattle. I mean the world. Earth.”
Gayle leaned even closer. Augie eased away.
“You expect us to believe that crap?” she asked.
Augie folded his arms across his chest. “It ain't crap.”
She was in his face now, one corner of her lip curled up. Augie wished the bitch would go away, let him talk to Osbourne.
“Some Martian comes to Earth and walks into your bar, for no other reason than to swap jokes?” she sneered. “Come on, Augie. Why wasn’t he three thousand miles east of here, parked on the White House lawn?”
“I never said he was Martian.”
“You even sure he was an alien?” Gayle said.
“Check the stiff, you’ll see.”
Gayle glanced at Osbourne. He watched as she went to the body and knelt beside it. With one blue-gloved finger, she pushed at the expensive-looking mask the stiff clutched in one hand.
“Never seen one this realistic,” she said.
“Maybe from that effects shop in L.A.,” Osbourne said. “The place that made the mask used in the Ohio bank job.”
Gayle continued to inspect the corpse. Osbourne turned back to the bar. “What happened after he came in?”
Augie shivered. He’d never felt so cold. Coming down with something, had to be. The little creep must have infected him with some alien disease, not to mention how bad he messed up the bar.
“Augie?” Osbourne said.
Augie twisted his shoulders. The muscles popped in protest. He continued. “I try not to pay attention to what customers look like. I get all kinds in here. This one was funny, though, I’ll give him that. He knew jokes I ain’t never heard and that takes some doing, let me tell you.”
“Stick to the story, Augie.”
“Sorry.” Augie mopped at his forehead with a fresh bar rag. Too hot now. No doubt about it. He'd been infected, probably those nano-things. He’d seen too many movies not to recognize it. If he didn’t die in some nasty way, he’d probably turn into a zombie. He drew a deep, shuddering breath. He wouldn’t let that happen, no matter what he had to do.
“Talk to me, Augie.” Osbourne sounded impatient now.
Augie spit a wad of green-black phlegm into the bar rag.
“The little creep leaned at me and said, ‘You hear the one about the alien that walks into the bar?’ I leaned on the bar, our noses almost touching. He grinned, then –”
Augie couldn’t swallow, couldn’t catch his breath.
“You okay?” Osbourne asked.
“I’m burning up.”
His toes and fingers tingled. His head throbbed. He focused on Osbourne’s hound-dog face and choked out the words. “The creep grabbed both his ears and pulled his face off. Tried to hand it to me, kid you not.”
“Hey, Oz,” Gayle said. “come look at this.”
“A second,” Osbourne said. “What did he look like, Augie?”
“Without his face? Some kinda green-skinned robot. No nose, no ears. Two beady eyes.”
Augie’s stomach was in knots. “He leaned close again and said, ‘I’m going to take over your damned dirty planet and I think I’ll start with you.’”
Augie shuddered. “Dear God, he breathed into my mouth.”
“Oz, you got to see this.”
“I heard you, Gayle. What did you do, Augie?”
Augie glanced down the bar.
“Answer me, Augie,” Oz said.
“What do you think?” Augie tipped his head toward the gun. “I keep that sawed-off twelve-gauge under the register ‘cause I been robbed twice. I grabbed it and blew the little creep away.”
“Oz, I need you now,” Gayle said. “This body’s so hot it’s almost glowing. We could grill a steak here.”
Osbourne poked his finger into Augie’s bicep. “Stay where you are. You hear me? Not a step, not a single step. If I got to come after you, you’ll be sorry.”
Osbourne hurried across the room. Before the detective reached the body, it sat up, turned at the waist and looked at Augie. It stuck its thumbs where its ears should be and wiggled all its fingers.
“What the hell!” Gayle jerked away and scuttled backwards on her butt, putting distance between her and the moving stiff.
Across the room, the jukebox kicked to life. Johnny Cash belted out Ghost Riders in the Sky. With a nasty-sounding puff, the corpse burst into flames. Osbourne dived through the fire, grabbed Gayle and rolled with her all the way to the far wall.
Augie felt his bladder go, felt warm piss trickle down his legs. The least of his concerns.
“Ain‘t gonna be infected by no aliens,” he muttered. “Ain’t gonna let that happen.”
He quick-stepped around the bar, scooped up the shotgun and pulled two fresh shells from his secret stash clipped to the belly of the beer dispenser. He braced himself and snapped the breach shut.
“Don’t do it, Augie,” Osbourne shouted.
“Hell with that.” Augie pressed the shotgun barrel into the juncture of his neck and jaw, and pulled both triggers.
Pilch extruded a dorsal tendril and keyed a communications link to the control shell of the little silver ship. “Did you get it all?”
“Every nuance,” Runk replied. “So intense it almost made me vacate my ventral sleeve.”
The ship rode a geostationary orbit, twenty-two thousand miles above the surface of the Earth, tucked in among a string of communications satellites.
Alone in the contact shell, Pilch shed the delicate remote- sensor harness and wiggled away from the control array. Grit and abrasion! It would be difficult to shed the input data from that damned avatar; might take a full cycle in stasis to filter out the images and sounds. There could even be psychic scarring.
“The rhythmic noise at the end was a nice riff,” Runk said.
“The locals call it music,” Pilch said.
“Whatever. I think this is your best work this trip.”
Pilch’s own ventral sleeve sphincter tightened. “Kind of you to say. The peace enforcers were a little hard to figure.”
“You played them perfectly. The reanimated, exploding corpse is a classic comedy routine.”
“Thank you. I think so, too.”
“I should thank you. A pleasure to record it all. I almost split a membrane when you pulled the avatar’s face away and the barkeep shot you.”
“That always gets a good response.”
“It never does get old. What do you say? You ready to go home or do you want to record another gig?”
Pilch’s eye stalks quivered and contracted. An involuntary gland secretion wasn’t far away. “Head for home. I’m exhausted.”
“You should be, after a performance like that. When these immersives play to the crowds at home, the emotive fluctuations from experiential transfer will flush the mucus out of them.”
“You really think so?”
“They'll beg to sit through it again and again. We’ll make a fortune.”
“Good,” Pilch said. “I need a break.”
“Loyon, Grimik and I took a float through the outer islands last trip home. The feeding ― ”
Runk’s reminiscence became a withdrawing tide of sound. The nodal lights in Pilch’s contact shell shifted to ultraviolet and body-temperature liquids began to ooze into the space.
Pressure in the shell increased. Runk must have initiated the acceleration field. They’d be home in a quarter-cycle, and not an instant too soon.
Pilch had gotten too close to the audience this time, had even snickered at some of Augie’s jokes. And when the barkeep committed suicide – an unanticipated first in Pilch’s one-hundred-seventeen cycles of improvisational performances – Pilch had lost ventral sleeve control.
The last of the cushioning amniotic fluid filled the shell. Pilch drifted into stasis, whispering the mantra a crèche parent had offered as absolution so very long ago.
“Sluice the untagged slime-worms, kid, if they can’t take a joke.”
K.C. Ball lives in Seattle, with her wife, Rachael, and two fussy cats. Her fiction has appeared in various online and print publications, as well as a short-story collection, Snapshots From A Black Hole & Other Oddities, from Hydra House Books, and a novel, Lifting Up Veronica, from Every Day Publishers. She is a 2010 graduate of Clarion West writers workshop and received the Writers of the Future award in 2009 and the Speculative Literature Foundation's Older Writer award in 2012.