“Unit 10, Unit 10. Disturbance involving injuries call. Crossroads Club, intersection of Route 52 and State Road 9. Ambulance has been dispatched.”
I’d been sitting along 9 for the last half hour on ‘traffic detail’, in other words, waiting with my radar gun for some fool in a hurry to come past. So getting a call for anything, even a potentially violent confrontation with a drunk, was a relief from the boredom I’d been suffering through. And I knew it would be something involving a violent drunk if I was being sent to the Crossroads. The police rarely got a call to go to the only strip club in the county if some serious violence wasn’t involved.
The Crossroads was something of a legend. It’s first owner had gamed the county business license process to get a ‘special use’ permit that allowed him to open an “adult” business in our deeply conservative county. When it became clear what type of “adult” business he was going to run, there had been a major uproar, but he was clearly within the limits of the regulations, so there was nothing that could be done. Since then, there had been efforts to close the club, and the business regulations been rewritten to make sure no other strip clubs could open, but an uneasy sort of truce had existed between the owner of the club and county law enforcement. The club kept a series of bruisers who acted as ‘security’ to keep the customers from becoming too rowdy with the dancers (or each other). And given its location in the middle of nowhere, if a patron appeared to be too drunk to be trusted to drive home, a discrete call would see myself or one of the other county sheriffs waiting near the club to arrest the offender before they could get involved in an accident.
“Dispatch, Unit 10 responding. Any information on what the call involves, Tammy?”
I knew the night dispatcher, we’d worked together through the long nights for several years now, and I knew she’d give me any information she could if I asked.
“Unit 10, sorry, no other information. Just the call that there’s been some sort of incident that ended with one of the patrons injured and in need of medical attention.”
“Rodger, Dispatch. Unit 10 enroute. ETA about ten minutes.”
I wasn’t even technically enroute, having not started the engine of the cruiser, but I soon remedied that. It was close to one in the morning, so I gave only a cursory glance to the road before pulling out. Once I was rolling, I flipped on the lights and siren, floored it, and accelerated quickly to near 90. At that speed, and with no traffic to slow me, it was only eight minutes from the time I’d notified the dispatcher I was on my way to my arrival at the Crossroads.
The battered old structure looked even more disreputable in the flashing lights of the ambulance. No one was in the cab, so I knew the EMT’s were already inside. I parked the cruiser at an angle to the front door of the club, blocking in most of the few customer vehicles parked outside, and grabbed the radio mic.
“Dispatch, Unit 10 is on scene at the Crossroads Club. Emergency services is present and I am entering the business.”
“Rodger, Unit 10.”
I exited the cruiser, checked the hand-held on my belt, and with a final check of my sidearm, entered the club. I’d never been in before, and the first impression was of a place that could stand a thorough cleaning and a lot of TLC. Peeling paint covered the front door, while inside, worn floors and a corridor with walls the color of spoiled milk led into the main room. This dark space was dominated by an oval-shaped stage sporting a bright,brassy pole at either end with several small tables scattered about in the open space between it and a long bar. The darkness was relieved by randomly flashing lights and filled with a pounding sound track that seemed designed to split the average skull. Two EMT’s were crouching on either side a man who was sitting on the floor with his back propped up by the front of the bar. The rest of the occupants, half a dozen men and a nearly equal number of women in scanty costumes, clustered as far down the bar as they could get from the injured man. Behind the bar, another woman stood talking to a pair of bulky men in dark t-shirts emblazoned with “Security” on their backs.
First, to find out the status of the injured man. I move to the EMT’s and crouch down beside them.
“Carstairs, county sheriff’s office. How’s he doing?”
I could see blood, dark on the man’s shirt front and shoulder, and one of the medics was checking the side of his head while the other held a flashlight. The one doing the examination answered without pausing in his work.
“Laceration to the scalp, probably going to need some stitches but no sign of a concussion. He’ll live, but he’s going to have one hell of a headache tomorrow morning.”
“Any idea what happened?”
“If I had to guess, from the remains of the beer bottle, I’d guess someone smashed it on his head. He hasn’t said a word, though, and the patrons haven’t exactly been chatty with us, so I guess it’s time for you to do your job.”
I stood and took the two steps it took to bring me to where the club employees were standing behind the bar. All three of them were watching me as I approached, but none of them volunteered to say anything, so I broke the ice.
“Hey, Larry, Moe, did either of you see what happened?”
The muscle-bound lumps looked at each other, then back at me before the bigger one answered me.
“No officer, we didn’t see anything…and I’m Pete, and this is Charlie.”
“Whatever. So you’re telling me an ‘altercation’ took place, in the club you’re supposed to be providing security for…and neither of you see anything? Excuse me if I don’t buy that. Where’s your boss, maybe they can answer my questions.”
Another shared look, then both of the meat-heads turned towards the woman. She held their stare for a moment, shrugged, and turned to address me.
“Boss isn’t here tonight. I’m the bartender, and, well, I guess I’m as close to being in charge tonight as anyone.”
“So, did you see anything, or are you going to take the same ‘See no evil’ approach these two did? And could you PLEASE turn that fucking noise off?”
She motioned towards the security guys, who walked away towards the DJ booth at the far end of the club. Then she turned towards me again, and I got the distinct impression she was sizing me up, like she wasn’t sure she could trust me. The music died in mid-thump, leaving the EMT’s quietly discussing their patient the only sound in the room. The woman bartender moved to stand against the bar opposite me and leaned forwards. When she spoke, I had to lean towards her to hear everything she said.
“I saw what happened all right…but I’m not sure you’ll believe me if I tell you what I saw.”
“Why don’t you just tell me everything, and let me decide whether or not I’m going to believe you.”
She hesitated a moment longer, then continued.
“I was tending the bar, getting a drink for Amber, one of our dancers, and one of the regulars decides he isn’t getting enough attention. He grabs Amber by the arm and starts yelling at her. One of the security guys was on door duty, waiting to collect the door feel from any customers that might show up. The other was in the private dance area, checking to make sure the dancers and the customers weren’t getting too friendly, if you know what I mean.”
I knew precisely what she meant. There had been rumors that the dancers would pad out their earnings on a slow night by giving customers blow jobs and offering other sexual favor. There had never been enough evidence to make a raid, and the county prosecutor had made enough noise about one to get the message across, so the rumors had died away. Now you know why. I thought to myself.
“So, your security was busy elsewhere and really didn’t see anything, is that what you’re saying?”
“Yeah, I am. I was just getting ready to yell for the guy at the door when…I saw it come flying in from nowhere.”
“You saw what come flying in?”
“The damn beer bottle, that’s what! The regular with the bad attitude had left it sitting on the bar behind him, then…it just came off the bar and flew into the side of his head!”
I’d expected some half-assed excuse, maybe even a justification that she’d picked the bottle up and used to to stop a customer who was getting too rough with one of the dancers, but this…?
“So let me get this straight, you’re saying that the bottle lifted off the bar, by itself, and slammed into the side of that guy’s head?”
She nodded as she answered. “Yeah, that’s precisely what I’m saying! It hit him hard enough to knock him down…I’m telling you, officer, I’ve seen all sorts of shit working here, and I’ve never seen anything like that!”
Part of me didn’t believe her, but she was plainly scared, her eyes were open wide, face pale, like someone who’d narrowly avoided a car accident. The club muscle came back, looking deeply uncomfortable to be in my presence. I didn’t care, they could suck it up.
“So, you two weren’t here when this happened, what did you see?” Again they looked at each other, clearly worried about talking to the police. I did what I could to forestall their worries. “Look, I get you can’t be everywhere at once, so I’m not going to say anything about you not doing your jobs. Just tell me what you saw.”
The shorter one, Charlie, spoke up.
“Well, I was over by the door, watching for customers, and I hear Sandy here yelling like crazy. I look over and that guy’s on the floor. I didn’t see what happened to him, I just came over, helped him sit up, and got Sandy’s bar towel to put against his head. He was bleedin’ like a stuck pig, so I told Sandy to call and get an ambulance out here to look at him.”
“That’s all you saw? You didn’t see someone moving away from him? One of the dancers, maybe?”
Charlie shook his head. “No, the closest person to him was Amber, and when I looked, she was backin’ away from him like he was on fire or something.”
“So she didn’t have, say, the neck of that beer bottle in her hand?”
Charlie must have picked up on what I was driving at, because he gave me a hard look and shook his head again. “No way, she didn’t have nothin’ in her hands. Hell, she was white as a sheet when I saw her, like she’d seen a ghost or somethin’!”
I turned to the bartender. “Which one is Amber?” She didn’t have to say anything, because a slightly overweight woman with huge tits stuffed into a bra that looked three sizes too small stepped out of the crowd at the far end of the bar.
“That’s me. I heard what they said, and it’s all true! Fred there, he’s a regular and a decent guy, but sometimes he drinks too much and gets a little rough. Charlie and Pete usually step in before things get too bad, but tonight they didn’t. I was talking to that old guy down there in the leather cowboy hat when Fred grabbed my arm and started yelling at me. He was angry because I’d been talking to him, but he wasn’t interested in getting a private dance, so I decided to see if the new guy might be interested. I guess he got jealous…maybe he thought I should keep paying attention to him. Next thing I know, there’s beer splashing everywhere and Fred’s going down…and there wasn’t anyone around us!”
I looked past Amber, towards the small crowd of people she’d left, and saw what looked like the brim of a hat partially hidden behind a couple of dancers. I focused back on Amber. She too had that half-scared-to-death look on her face, and I wondered if this mysterious ‘old guy’ might have been the one who smashed the bottle against Fred’s head. I asked her as much. “Amber, are you sure that’s the story you want to tell me? If you lie, if you give a police officer a false statement while he’s investigating a serious crime, that’s obstruction of justice. You can face jail time for that. Didn’t this ‘old guy’ smack Fred with the bottle? I can understand you wanting to protect him, hell, he saved you from what might have been a violent confrontation…” I didn’t get a chance to finish.
“NO! He didn’t do anything! After Fred grabbed my arm, he pulled me a good five, six feet this way from where I’d been talking to the other guy. He wasn’t anywhere near us, honest! Sandy saw it! Ask her!”
I looked at the bartender, who nodded in agreement. “Yeah, it happened like she said. That’s what got my attention, Fred pretty much dragging her away from that other guy.”
I looked at Sandy, then back at Amber, and neither of them looked away from me, the classic ‘tell’ for someone who was lying. So I turned and walked down the bar to where everyone but the DJ stood. The small crowd parted before me, leaving me standing in front of an elderly man seated on his bar stool. The hat on his head might have been made of leather, but it looked nothing like a cowboy hat to me. The brim was broad, far wider than any cowboy hat I’d ever seen, and the central part had no real shape, looking more like it had collapsed from some more voluminous form than having been actively shaped. Long white hair trailed from underneath the hat, and the man’s head was tilted forward so his face was obscured by the broad brim.
“Hi, I’m Officer Carstairs, and I have a couple of questions I’d like to ask you. I hear you were talking to Amber there when the injured man grabbed her. Is that so?”
He didn’t raise his head right away, but just when I thought I might have to repeat myself, he tilted his head back, giving me my first look at his face. Damn, he isn’t old, he’s ancient! The face in front of me was dark, like he’s lived his life someplace where the sunshine was far stronger than it ever got on earth, and etched with deep lines. A neatly trimmed white beard and mustache framed his mouth, and surprisingly bushy white eyebrows seemed almost to overhand deep-set dark green eyes. For all the age reflected in his face, those eyes had a life to them that seemed almost to belie that impression. Those eyes now fixed on me, and I had the strong impression it wasn’t me who was learning something from our encounter, but him. I shook off that feeling, trying to gain control of the situation.
“Sir, is that what happened? Did the injured man grab the young woman who was talking to you?”
He favored me with a lopsided smile and slowly nodded. Then he answered, and the voice that came out of his mouth had none of the querulousness of an elderly man. No, it was a strong, almost commanding voice, one you might almost expect from some elder leader.
“Yes, he did. She had been speaking to him for some time, but I was under the impression that he was boring her, so she came to speak to me. We were having quite a nice conversation when he interrupted us and began to act very harshly towards her…so I disabled him.”
“So you’re admitting you smashed the bottle against his head?”
I half turned towards Amber, who I saw was standing where I’d left her and looking like she wanted to come no closer. “So, Amber and the bartender lied to me, is that what you’re saying? They told me you weren’t anywhere near Amber when the injured man was attacked.”
Now he openly smiled at me, and I got the impression he thought what I’d just said was immensely funny. “No, they told you the truth, I wasn’t standing anywhere near Amber when that loud, rude man got what he deserved.”
“Wait, you just said you smashed that bottle against his head…so how did you do that if you were nowhere near him?”
“Oh, that was easy…I mean I’ve been doing simple levitation spells since, oh, long before you were born.”
“Yes, officer, you heard right, levitation spells. That one wasn’t terribly elegant, I just needed to be accurate enough to hit him in the head, and I had to put enough force behind the movement to make sure he’d be rendered unconscious, but beyond that…yes, quite simple.”
Oh, great, I’ve got a nut on my hands! The thought flashed through my mind, and I saw the mirth leave the old man’s face.
“You might also wish to know, officer, that I possess the ability to hear your thoughts, and I find it exceptionally rude of you to assume I am mentally unbalanced. I am nothing of the sort. I am, in fact, a mage, a wizard, a practitioner of magic. Use what ever term you find suitable, but I must warn you: if you continue to think of me in such disparaging terms, our relations will take a decidedly…unfriendly turn. Do I make myself clear?”
Now there was real iron in his voice, and I knew the old man was serious. He honestly believed he was a magician. Almost as if he really could hear my thoughts, the old man sighed and his gaze sharpened even more.
“I see you still doubt me. Very well. If I’m a fraud, a charlatan, mentally deranged, how do you explain this?”
I felt a tug at my uniform belt, and as I watched, first my spare clips, then my side arm, slowly floated in front of my eyes. Those around him gasped and drew back, but I found myself unable to move, to even speak. All of my possessions settled on the bar in front of the old man, and he gingerly picked up my Glock. Turning it over, he examined it minutely, almost as if he’d never seen one before.
“Why no, I haven’t seen one before officer. A very ingenious toy, and quite lethal, I’m sure…against ordinary humans. Not nearly so with me, I fear, especially when you can’t move a muscle to use it. Another simple spell, one to freeze your limbs in place and deny you all voluntary muscle movements. Humans have advanced quite a lot, it seems, but as usual, they’ve advanced in all the wrong fields of endeavor. When last I walked among you, men killed each other with things they called ‘Colts’, though they were ugly things that bore no resemblance to a young horse. Before that, they still used bows and arrows when they weren’t spearing each other or trying to hack each other to pieces with swords and axes. I had hoped humanity might have improved, even slightly, but I see my optimism was misplaced.”
He shook his head and put my side arm down before rising. The dancers and patrons moved even further from him, crowding away with staring eyes and chalky faces fixed on his every movement. I hear movement behind me, and Amber stepped into my peripheral vision.
“Mister…ummm, I don’t know your name, but thanks. Fred probably wouldn’t have hurt me bad, but you stopped him from hurting me worse than he did. I appreciate it. Most guys would just think I was a ‘dirty stripper’ getting what I deserved, but you…”
The old man held up a gnarled hand to silence her. “Child, you need not thank me. You remind me of her, did you know that? You look so much like her, that’s why I was glad when you came to talk to me. I have so missed Morgaine, for all the trouble she caused me.”
The name tickled some memory in me, one I couldn’t put my finger on, but Amber seemed to have no such problem. I saw her take another step forward and her mouth opened in an ‘O’ of amazement.
“You’re him, aren’t you? You’re Merlin, aren’t you?”
“Yes, child, I am.”
Merlin rose from his seat, walked to Amber, and in a stunningly smooth motion for someone as old as he had to be, took her hand and bent over it to kiss it. Amber blushed visibly, but said nothing. “I thank you for your time, my dear, but I fear I must leave now. Tomorrow is All Hallows’ Eve, when my short time in the mortal world comes to an end. So I must leave to prepare again for my long sleep.”
Amber surprised me by flinging her arms around Merlin and hugging him close. The greatest mage of all time hesitated a moment, the put his arms about about the stripper to return the embrace.
“Will you ever be free?”
“Someday, my dear, someday. But I fear the next time I am allowed to walk among mortal man, you will be long in your grave, and your children’s children will be ancient indeed. I am sorry will never see each other again…but I promise to carry a message of your kindness to an old man to them.”
the two of them separated, Amber to wipe her eyes, and Merlin to walk towards the door. I felt my spine relax, and realized I could move again, but I felt no desire to.
Merlin turned his ancient gaze toward me, and he favored me with a rueful smile. “You may not be one of Arthur’s knights, but I can see a good heart behind all that rudeness. I have no desire to hold you prisoner, sheriff’s deputy.”
Knowing who I faced now, I did my best to be civil. “Thank you, but if I might, can I ask you a question?”
“Of course…as long as it’s not something silly like ‘Can you tell me my future?”’
“No, I…I’d never ask that. I don’t want to know my future, where would the adventure be in knowing how my life will go?”
Merlin inclined his head to me. “I see wisdom is not unknown to the officers of the law, and that is a good thing I think. So, what would you know?”
“When you disabled that man, why didn’t you just do to him what you did to me, just take command of his muscles?”
That brought a deep, warm laugh from the lips of the greatest magician of all history. “I didn’t freeze his limbs because, well, I guess being around Arthur and his knights, I took on some of their notions of a ‘fair fight’. If he’d been paying attention, he could have ducked the bottle and saved himself the blow. But freezing his limbs…that would have been too unfair an advantage for me!”