On a Monday
The subtle touch of a flame-spitting combustion nozzle, much like that of a high-pressure geyser tube sucking water from the bay, is remarkably adept at clearing away cobwebs, cleansing the immediate environment, and encouraging non-paying customers to move it right along.
Following her most recent travels abroad, Junie Ginsburg, co-owner of The Gangplank, set hers to good use. It took a fair amount of digging through the supply closet to locate fuel, but there it was, right where she had left it: next to a box of boxes and beneath a sack of rocks. She found comfort in these familiar things. The dusty store room off the Gangplank kitchen contained everything from potatoes to fishing lures, stacks of completed crossword puzzles, old event posters, turnips, and at least one mummy, known as Sylvester. She didn’t linger over these items, however, given her mission of cleansing the Gangplank of lingering smells and clinging dust babies.
It takes a practiced touch with the combustion nozzle to execute seasonal housekeeping without igniting an inferno, and she relished the task. Most customers were likely unaware that she had gone to such lengths in years past to keep The Gangplank fit for company. It was one responsibility that she took quite seriously, as opposed to most of her other responsibilities, about which her approach was notably more flexible. Today she was determined to have a floor clean enough to eat off of.
It was following her pass through the main bar, and after replacing all of the liquor bottles, hanging lamps, curtains and other flammable objects, that the young barkeep, Milo, arrived for his shift.
“You’re back!” he exclaimed. He hung his jacket on the coat rack near the door.
“I’m back,” she replied. “I got your letter.”
“Oh, yes.” He looked glum as he reached behind the bar for his apron. “I wasn’t sure if you’d heard about Mumsy, and I thought you would want to know.”
She sighed, with more than a few mixed emotions about what sounded like her aunt’s imminent demise. “Is there anything that can be done?” She knew she had to ask. It was an obligation. Milo shook his head.
“We’ve had doctors visiting from everywhere, but they all say the same thing. It’s just time.”
“And it’s about time,” a voice said. Squire Martin Malus, longtime manager of The Gangplank’s affairs, arrived in the room carrying a crate of rattling bottles. He wrinkled his nose at the scent of kerosene still hanging heavy in the air.
“Martin, you shouldn’t say such things,” Junie chided, although in truth she shared the sentiment. Malus scoffed, and shot a characteristic sneer in her direction.
“You have no idea! My life has been hell!”
“Oh, here we go,” Milo said. “Your life is always hell. Maybe you should just get a life, go to a party once in a while. Enjoy yourself.” He started writing the daily specials on a chalkboard he’d laid on the bar.
“If I enjoy myself this place falls apart,” Malus said, adding, “while Princess Snottercup here gallavants around the world for months and years, only occasionally stopping by to throw a party and then bugger off again.”
Junie’s mouth fell open so abruptly that her cigar fell. “You take that back!”
Malus smirked, apparently proud of himself. “No.” He slammed the crate of bottles down by the piano.
Milo snapped a piece of chalk at Malus’s head. “Take it back!”
Laughing, Malus caught the chalk, dropped it on the floor and stomped it to dust. Junie squealed in protest.
“Hey, I just burned that! Now there’s chalk everywhere!”
Malus sauntered back to the kitchen, raising his arms in a sarcastic gesture. “Ding dong, the witch is dead! Welcome back!”
Junie frowned, and there was silence for a minute at the bar. They could hear the Squire moving crates up from the canal through the store room.
Milo whispered, “don’t worry Junie, she’s not dead yet.”
“Oh, Milo, you’re so sweet.” She patted his back. He reminded her of a puppy, even now that he was growing into a fine young man and not the shy boy that had begged her for a job. He just had no idea the predicament she was in when it came to her elderly aunt.
Just then, a medium-sized octopus landed with a loud and distinct SLURP against one of the windows. Junie and Milo looked up suddenly and saw Petra, the young head of Gangplank security, holding it against the glass, laughing and giving the thumbs up. Then she was yelling with excitement, gesticulating wildly with her other hand as the octopus’s legs wriggled and ink flowed down the pane, but neither of them could make out what she was saying.
“That’s going to stain,” said Milo.
“Oh yeah,” Junie replied, and just a moment later Petra threw open the door and brought her drippy, squirming prize all the way across the clean floor, behind the bar, and tossed it into an empty mop bucket. She slammed a board across the top and sat down on it.
“You hafta keep ‘em from escapin’, ya see,” she said. “Tricky little buggers, they can escape anything! Why, my pal One Eye’d Harry had an octopus named Leopold and he kept it in an old lantern, but in the middle of the night it found a way out, squirted Harry in his good eye and then slid right down a sewer grate!” The octopus beneath her extended an arm from a gap between the edge of the bucket and the board on which Petra sat, reaching desperately to understand its surroundings. She poked at it until it pulled the arm back in.
“Petra,” said Junie calmly, “what do you plan on doing with your octopus?”
“It’s for you, Miss Junie! On account of yer bein’ back and all. I thought maybe you could fry ‘im up later. But don’t ya let that pinhead Malus cook it ‘cause he don’t know how to do it right and this guy here’ll taste like one a’ them steam buggy tires.”
Malus called from the kitchen. “I heard that!”
“GOOD!” shouted Petra. “If ya had anything in yer head besides numbers and mummification maybe you’d cook somethin’ worth eatin’!”
“Multiplication,” Milo whispered. “She means multiplication.”
Junie squinted at Milo. “Are you sure?”
“That’s what I said!” Petra exclaimed.
Junie smiled. She had missed this familiar chaos. “You bet, Petra,” she said. “We’ll cook him up later if you can keep him from escaping.”
Petra nodded with finality, then glared sternly at Junie.. “I’m gonna sit on this here bucket all day, me and Mr. Stretchytrousers here. Hafta make sure nobody wanders away before supper time.” She made a gesture to point at her eyes and then at Junie, back and forth, to indicate she would be watching.
“Yes ma’am,” said Junie, giving Petra a crooked salute. She picked up a mop to attend to the ink splatters across the floor, the dust chalk, and her dropped cigar. The octopus was in the mop bucket, so she made her way back toward the kitchen to find another. Milo hung the daily specials chalkboard, then opened the till to make a morning count.
“Right then,” said Petra. She patted the bucket proudly, and as Mr. Stretchytrousers extended several silent, tentacled pleas for help, she folded her arms across her chest and leaned back to watch over the happenings of the day.
The day, as it happened, proceeded in a thoroughly typical fashion for all involved. A ship came to port carrying a herd of pigs, which, as a complete surprise to no one, escaped their containment and got loose in the city. To her credit Petra continued to guard her bucket through all of the commotion, at one point holding the board down with one foot while she stood and craned her neck to see across the bar and out the windows as they ran squealing up Prince Dakkar Boulevard and deep into Clockhaven. She sighed with disappointment once the situation died down to only an occasional grunting pig rooting around between the paving stones outside the front door. As she sank back down to sit on the bucket something caught her eye. It looked like a shadow, slipping between bar patrons. There were sailors arguing and laughing loudly, townfolk greeting one another over a warm lunch, and nervous tourists carrying suitcases, but none of them seemed to notice. The shadow wound its way through the crowd silently, but Petra saw it.
“Milo! Hey! Hey, Milo!” she shouted, pointing excitedly.
“Huh?” he asked, uninterested as he pulled a pint at the bar for a waiting longshoreman.
“Milo, there’s a…” She trailed off as she stood up again, foot on the board, stretching this way and that as she surveyed the crowd. “I thought I saw a…”
Milo shook his head as he worked. “What? I don’t understand you,” he said. “I’m busy.”
The hair on the back of Petra’s neck bristled. Something wasn’t right and she knew it. Protecting the bar was her job, but here she was babysitting a daft octopus. She fidgeted uncomfortably.
Junie came around the bar carrying a tray of glasses, quickly moving past Petra and started to stack them on a shelf. “Petra, I saw something strange just now,” she said. “Did you notice it?”
“YES!” Petra exclaimed. “I tried telling the poet over there but he didn’t know what I was talkin’ about.” She jerked her thumb at Milo.
“Because I didn’t know what you were talking about,” said Milo impatiently. “If you made sense I would listen.”
“You sound like Pinhead!” she said, accusingly.
“Well maybe he’s right for once,” Milo shot back, punching buttons on the cash register until the drawer shot out and rang the bell. From somewhere in the kitchen Malus called, “I heard that!”
“How does he do that?” asked Junie.
“Pretty sure he’s not entirely human,” said Milo, sarcastically.
Petra shivered. “He don’t mean it, Miss Junie. The Square just don’t have good manners like me ‘n’ you.”
Junie turned and gave Petra a playful grin. “Are you sure?”
Petra scowled, still scanning the people lingering around the Gangplank, watching for whatever it was that she didn’t yet understand. The octopus in the bucket shot its leg out of a gap suddenly, wrapping it around her ankle. She yelped and knocked loudly on the metal. “You there, mind yer own business! This is an official Gangplank situation and it don’t need no squiddy arms involved.” The octopus retracted its arm into the darkness of the bucket.
“I don’t know what it is, Petra,” Junie said, more serious now as she worked to stack the glasses. “It looked like a shadow but didn’t seem to belong to anyone. Anything on the loose in New Babbage these days that I should know about?”
“Only pigs,” said Milo, as he cleared dishes away from the bar and wiped it down quickly.
Malus arrived at the bar then. “Make me something new,” he said to Milo. “You haven’t created a new drink for a year, it’s your turn.”
“I’m busy,” Milo said. “I’ll do it later after the rush dies down.”
Malus scoffed. “You should be able to do it and still wait on customers. What if a big, fat, rich tourist wants something special?”
Milo sighed and ignored him, turning instead to swap out an empty keg beneath the bar.
“What’s this about a shadow?” Malus asked no one in particular.
Junie started wiping down bottles and mopping up spills with a cloth. “Petra and I saw it,” she said. “Looked like a shadow slipping between people. So fast you can’t really notice it until it’s already gone.”
“Maybe it’s Mumsy’s ghost,” Malus said with a sneer. Milo, Junie, and Petra groaned at once. “Maybe,” he continued, “the old bird finally gave it up and now she’s arrived to haunt us for the rest of eternity.”
At that moment a pig bolted in through the front door as some dockhands were leaving, knocking both of the men off of their feet. The resulting cacophony of shouts, snorts, squealing, and clattering dishes set Milo, Malus, and Junie in motion. Petra, however, resisted her urge to leap into the fray. Her face contorted into a series of cringes that registered her discomfort with the commitment she’d made to sit on the bucket all day, lest Mr. Stretchytrousers escape. She wanted fried octopus so much, and she knew Junie would make it just the way she liked it. But these were extraordinary times. A pig AND a shadow man on the loose in the Plank!
The crowd that just moments before had been enjoying a jovial afternoon funneled out the front door without paying as the carnival of errors with the pig unfolded. Petra put her hands on her head in desperation.Then, in the blur of general pandemonium, she saw it again: the shadow, slinking along the wall, almost imperceptible.
Her eyes darted between the chaos unfolding around her and the bucket beneath her. She stood, and Mr. Stretchytrousers wasted no time in making a daring leap towards freedom. In that split second, her instincts as the protector of the Gangplank, the defender against all things threatening and irregular, spurred her into action. Without another thought, Petra grabbed the octopus, and holding it aloft like a hand grenade packed with low tide and woe, eyed the shadow with determination.
“OY! SHADOW!” she yelled, causing Milo, Junie, and Malus to pause and turn. “CATCH THIS!”
Petra swung the the octopus around by one of its arms a few times, spraying seawater and ink in a wide radius around her, and with a mighty throw launched Mr. Stretchytrousers all the way across the bar directly at the shadow. It momentarily took shape as a startled figure trying to dodge the wretched cephalopod, but it was too late. The octopus hit the shadow squarely, its many arms wrapping around what seemed to be a solid form.
Junie, quick on her feet and ever the opportunist, grabbed her combustion nozzle, now refilled and ready after her morning cleaning spree. “Stand back, everyone!” she shouted, igniting the nozzle with a practiced flick of her wrist. A jet of controlled flame burst forth, aimed precisely at the entangled mass of octopus and shadow.
The shadow let out a hiss, not unlike steam escaping a kettle, and began to evaporate under the intense heat. The Gangplank’s patrons who hadn’t yet fled the bar watched with piqued interest as the shadow disintegrated into nothingness, leaving behind only the octopus, fried to a crisp.
As the last wisp of shadow vanished, the room fell silent, save for the pig, which, apparently feeling out of its depth, made a hasty retreat out the door. Junie lowered the nozzle, and Petra, with a broad grin across her face, sauntered over to the octopus that lay steaming on the floor. There were char marks all around it, and ink splatters that seemed to now be permanently imbued in the wood. She reached out quickly and tugged at one of the arms, which broke crisply in her hand.
“Oh no, Petra… you’re not…” Milo started, but stopped short when she bit squarely into the octopus. She chewed and then shook the crispy arm in Junie’s direction.
“You done it again, Miss Junie,” she said. “There’s nothin’ you can’t cook! ‘Cept maybe shadows, but I doubt he’d taste right anyhow.” She grabbed the bucket up from behind the bar, scooped the remains of the octopus into it and fell into a chair to enjoy the rest.
Malus rolled his eyes, shook his head, and turned to the remaining patrons. “Pay up!” he shouted. “Let’s call it a day.”
As Milo settled everyone’s tabs and stragglers filed out, Junie stood over the diffuse, charred outline of the shadow where Mr. Stretchytrousers had met his untimely demise. She scuffed at it with her boot, resulting in a smudge of persistent, inky soot on her sole that left a mark wherever she walked for the rest of the night.