Bib pushed the night’s take away from himself at the worn oak desk and ran a large gnarled hand down his face, the dim gas light was getting to him. Blinking, he rubbed at his eyes. He wasn’t made for this type of work. Numbers, columns, slinging drinks and breaking sku- well, actually, breaking skulls was entirely his type of work. That was the problem, even in a joint like the Bucket of Blood, that sort of work came too rarely. Underby had met Bib Blackrain as a strong man at a carnival, but he had grown up as a bushwhacker. Violence had always been his strong suit. He was built for it.
He sighed, pushing out the squeaking chair, about ready to leave the ledgers for the morning. What did it matter? Underby had gone and been stupid enough to sign over the bar to the Bucketheed lad, and now seemed content to leave his debts to the fool as well. His boss had cooked up some lowdown rotten schemes in his day, but in Bib’s mind, this one had to be the worst. He did not trust that Ravilan taheen one bit. The tone it had used when collection time had arrived sent a chill up Bib’s usually stoic spine. He had used the same threatening words with him that he would later use with Underby himself: “I will be back here to receive payment. In gold or blood.”
He knew the taheen meant it.
As he thought that, a scratching sound out in the hallway aroused his attention. Striding to the door on long beefy legs, he opened and looked out, but the hallway was empty. “Deuce, that you?” he called out. No sound from either up the stairs or down. “Boss?” he called. “Bucketheed?” Stepping out into the hallway, he thought he heard another sound on the floor above him. “Maggie, that you?” he asked, hopeful.
There was no answer.
Rumors of the Bucket of Blood being haunted never frightened Bib; the dead didn’t worry him, the living did. Bib walked up the stairs toward the third floor, looking in all corners, but still seeing nothing. “Boss?” he called out. “Ozzie?”
Another scratch, from the half flight to the roof. Bib’s eyes narrowed. He climbed up and pushed open the door to the roof, the grey smoggy air thick this high up. Small footprints lead away from the door, toward the front of the building. Pulling the collar of his shirt closed, he stepped out onto the roof. A four foot tall grey tabby cat in a black suit and bowler hat stood smoking a cigarette at the edge of the roof.
“Hey there.” Bib said. “This’s private property.” Then, he added: “Shoo.”
The cat observed him. “You work for Underby, dont’cha?” it asked.
“I said, this is private property, ya wanna leave the civilized way, or the express route? I’m interested in seein’ iffin ya land on yer feet, like the stories say.”
“I would.” said the cat. “But I believe I shall be taking the stairs in this case. Though, you might not be so lucky.”
Bib smirked. “That a fac- guuurrrrrr” he asked, as the garrote squeezed tight around his throat. He had never heard anyone approaching from behind. He’d been stupid to investigate this by himself, that seemed clear in retrospect. Just his luck… in his time he’d been stabbed repeatedly, shot several times, clubbed over the head a couple, dropped in rivers, entombed behind bricks, and poisoned, but he was going to end up strangled by a crow.
The quivering whispery voice said, very close to his ear: “Gold or blood, sai; I told you I would be back to collect.”
He turned slightly, as some foam trickled through his clenched teeth, staring briefly into the depths of an inky black eye before the entire world swiftly melted into the identical color scheme.