To The Nines - Hazelnut

To The Nines - Hazelnut

O'Fenwick's Bar is visited on a special day.


Frank, Hazel

South Chicago
30 December, 2022

Two fellow travelers in the darkness meet in a place of dim light and strong shadows.

Today Frank looks like another person, nobody of value nor importance. Rather, he looks like he could be a cashier from a gas station, or a guy who sells brake pads at the local auto parts store, maybe even someone who buys and trades collectible card games at the somewhat-iffy comic shop two blocks downtown. Regardless, he's wearing a hoodie, jeans and sneakers, flagging the bartender's attention enough to order.

"Shot and a brew," he says, then presents a folded five and three singles, all of them creased lengthwise, gesturing vaguely to the emptied bowl of peanuts and popcorn. To this the bartender, a man in his fifties and looking very much the part of a retired knee-smasher, gives a grunt of affirmation and presents a fresh bowl from beneath the bar, the money vanishing with the old bowl in one deft move.

Sighing, Frank looks to the distorted reflection in the dusty mirror behind the bar, raising the shot glass in silent salute, exhaling slowly. "To the nines," he says, and downs his shot of what may be whiskey, probably isn't expensive, and definitely looks like it fixed whatever was broken.. for now.

The door opens not long after Frank starts to down his drink, a girl who does not look like she belonged even with a denim jacket covering the tattoo sleeve and her bare arms. If she got any looks, Hazel didn't pay them any mind as she heads to the bar and orders a glass of Rum mixed with Coke as she places some cash onto the bar to pay for it. Frank next to her caught her attention, "You look like you're trying to drink something away," she takes a drink of her own mix. "Or trying to drink something back?"

"Sort of sidestepping an inevitability," Frank says, looking down to his beer's glass, its coating of condensation marred by some of the ancient fingerprints long-since part of the grip and barrel of it. "It's an anniversary of sorts, so I'm staying away from my usual spaces, both literal and metaphorical." He gestures around the bar, then looks to Hazelnut. "I've not been in here in almost fifteen years."

The bartender, a dour and taciturn creature with ragged scars dulling to waxy-white and pink, angles his head as he raises a hand-polishing wine glass and snorts softly. "Sixteen years, eleven weeks and this morning, Frank," the man says, his voice soft yet carrying a sense of darkness to him. "It was your girl's birthday the day before, and I remember the smile on her face before you left town." He glances to Hazelnut and gestures to her drink, indicating: refill, yes-no? Either way, he'll abide her choice, then retreat to his corner at the other end of the bar, leaving Frank to stare at him in consternation.

Hazelnut taps her glass and nods and lets the barkeep refill it, "Seems I can guess what that anniversary you're avoiding is." She raises her glass in a cheers motion but nurses this drink instead of downing it in one shot. "Sixteen years though...The bartender really has your number down." She grabs a peanut and cracks the shell open. "I'm not here to make you talk about anything you don't want to, but sometimes the talking helps. My name's Hazel, Frank."

Tossing back some popcorn, Frank gives a small glance to Hazelnut. "Hazel," he says, "That man," then he gestures to the bartender, "Used to be a bona fide 'bad guy', once upon a time." He then watches as the bartender gives a cold, empty-eyed gaze to Frank before picking up a bottle of wine, pouring out a glass, never straying an iota with that withering stare. "His name was Louis, worked for a sort of 'queen bee' of the underworld. Irish Mob widow, she ran the rackets, and he.. he was the monster under everyone's beds." He takes a soft smile, raising his glass to the bartender, apparently Louis, nodding his head with respect.

"He can't stop remembering things since she passed, because every day he worked for her, all he could do was forget. 'Where did Jimmy Two-Hats go, Lou?' and all he could do was say his magic words." And then he makes a finger-guns motion to the bartender, who gives a cool, creepy smile. "Don't know, wasn't lookin', who could tell?" comes the reply, and to this, Frank smiles and turns to Hazelnut. "On the first of the year, it'll be three years since I had to restart from a naked, running nobody to.. well, who I am now." He drinks more of his beer. "Literally, naked." He shrugs and gestures to Hazelnut.

There's a few moments of silence and Hazel drinking from her glass. "The underworld, an Irish Mob. What happened when the queen bee died?" She resisted the urge to fish out a notepad to make notes. "Think they're still around or did they scatter to the winds like you?" There's one more pause, "What do you mean restart?"

"Feds took about half of them, street did the rest," Frank says, motioning to the bartender. "Him, they kept alone. Mostly, it's because anyone who ever tried something, well." He then gestures around the bar, then looks back to Hazelnut. "Some of the things Lou used to do guaranteed nobody ever found dumb people again. And anyone who wants to make a run at that guy?" He shakes his head. "Dumbest fucking form of life to ever breathe and regret, of that there is no doubt."

The bartender, Louis, approaches for long enough to place a pitcher of fruit juice in front of Frank and nudge it at him. "To the nines, yeah?" He waits until there's a dry, croak of a reply from Frank, who nods. "To the nines." A twenty is dropped next to the pitcher of reddish apple(?)-smelling juice, and the bartender retreats. Behind his back, beneath the knot of his stained apron, the man has a bulky, irregular object under his shirt. Anyone familiar with the darker world would recognize a medium-caliber automatic pistol.

"As for the restart," he says, looking to Hazelnut, arching an eyebrow. "I used to have a strange job, finding out answers to questions. Wanted to keep my family name out of people's mouths, so I used a fake one. Then.. well, I got an answer to one of those questions and it didn't work out so great for me." He looks to the pitcher, then sighs. "Which is what today is all about, really."

Hazel recognizes the shape at least, she's trained for firearms herself and doesn't make too much note of it beyond it's existence. "All makes sense to me, that kind of crowd is live or die by loyalty. At least that's what I've heard. Wait, nines?" she looks at the juice and wonders why it's so expensive. "...can an answer really have that much of an effect? To put you in such dire straights? Because I've heard people that some people in Chicago just disappear."

Sipping from his beer, Frank nods to her. "Yeah," he says, "People /do/ vanish, sure. Ask the wrong question in the wrong place, someone will correct your life choices and turn your birth certificate into speculative fiction." He chuckles, perhaps a little darkly. "And, also, yeah. There's questions that aren't meant for publication, even if you wanna tell people." He pauses. "Think of it this way: earlier today, someone handed you an envelope, said, 'inside of this, there's a picture of your birth father'." He takes another swallow of his beer, belching softly before continuing. "Now, the 'fast answer' is, well.. open it. You already know what your dad looks like, yeah?" He smiles, shaking his head. "Then again.. think about the idea for a second. Who, out of everyone you know, would want to /remind/ you what he looks like?" He raises his eyebrows. "What do you do then. Think about how much you know so very many things about the world, that the shadows are just that, that the noises outside at night are 'just the wind' and that nothing bad can happen because you're just getting an answer to a question you 'know' already." He chuckles, sighing. "Tell me, although you've already told yourself, whether you open the envelope or not." He drinks his beer dry, smiling enigmatically.

The hypothetical almost has Hazel answer, but the added context makes her take a few more moments. "The contents of the envelope don't matter. Whether you open it or not, if they know who my dad is or not, the contents of the envelope won't change. So you open it. Best case scenario is it's someone you've never even seen and they're just some crazy person...unless I'm adopted which I don't think I am." She puts it matter of factly as she finishes her drink, asking for just coke this time while skipping the alcohol. "What are the nines? Are they a part of your religion? I know we're talking about questions and answers and people disappearing but I've never heard someone speak like that."

"Everyone says that, Hazel," Frank says with a smirk before he pours some of the odd-smelling juice into his now-emptied beer glass, never looking away from her eyes. "Until they're holding the envelope. Which is why life gets wrecked so quick by some questions getting answered." He looks to the front door and then a side entrance before he leans in slightly. "The nines, though."

He lights himself a cigarette, exhaling gun-metal fumes toward the No Smoking sign over the register, gesturing to Hazel. "It's an industry term. It means, getting all of it on film, recorded in such abundance that the little counter on the camera is all nines - 'cause you're filled to the brim with footage." He gestures to himself. "I used to be a cameraman. Couple of documentaries, a reality show that went nowhere, and then.. well, something big and filled with cash." He smiles, his eyes a little saddened. "It's not really a religion as much as what I have left of one. We used to come into places like this, everyone ordered a different fruit juice and we'd pour it into a pitcher.. and drink it dry before we'd have our last night before a mission." He wipes his eye, shaking his head. "This was the last port of call for us. Two days later, three dead, one missing.. and me."

"I don't get it. Why would you not open the envelope? It won't change anything," she seems to just have lost the train of logic at some point. "Cameraman, I don't think I've ever met one of those. I can understand how that least, somewhat." She takes a breath. "I've got someone missing, too. Someone who just disappeared one day. I know how that hurts."

Raising his eyebrow, Frank regards Hazelnut before giving a solemn nod to her. "See, you're not 'dwelling' on the meaning," he says, "Of what the envelope represents. It's potentially full of lies as much as it is full of truths. Those lies?" He shakes his head. "If the name and face aren't expected, it means.. your mother lied. Or your father knew. Or that they both knew. Or that maybe she isn't your mother. Maybe tomorrow, another man with an envelope and such an amazing question is going to make your acquaintance, because.. you guessed it.. you had to know." He shrugs, then drinks some of the fruit juice, wincing slightly.

"Pineapple, strawberry, apple, orange and lemon. Jesus, this is fucking foul." Still, he drinks his glass to half-empty, then motions to Hazelnut. "I don't question where they went. I know where they went. The dead are.. dead. The 'missing' is locked up in an asylum just outside of town." He pauses. "And then there's me, drinking juice and smoking my cigarettes." He chuckles softly.

"My life isn't going to be shaken up or disrupted if it turns out my parents aren't my parents. I'd be mad at them, but my life doesn't revolve around them anymore. Haven't for a while. (Not that I ever really cared about either of them)" the last part is more a whisper of an idea against her glass, leaning away from the strange concoction that Frank was working on. "I'm looking for my missing. I guess it's a question I can't let go of, even when it happened a couple years ago now. A scar that won't go away."

"Scars tend not to go away," Frank says, drinking down his glass of juice, wincing yet again, refilling as he continues to speak to Hazel. "Chances are, the one who is missing, you'll see footprints long before they vanished." He gestures to her vaguely. "The 'ten thousand things' theory, as it was described to me, by .." And then he gestures to the back of the bartender as he carries in two kegs, one on each shoulder, barely breaking a sweat.

A skinny, nervous-looking man in his late twenties, at seeing that, abruptly stiffens and walks away from the edge of the bar, hands no longer in his pocket. To this, the bartender exchanges a glance to someone seated by the door, who then immediately guides the fleeing man to kitchen, courtesy of a heavily-gripped elbow-and-bicep.

"..that guy. Not exactly a mentor, although he's got his pearls of wisdom." As the bartender gives a muddled glance to the now-abandoned kegs, he furrows his hairless brow before approaching Frank and muttering aloud, "Pearls form from irritants, Frank, and you know that, dontcha?" He then walks into the kitchen, a man with an apron emerging, a sort of fellow who looks like he plans to have never been in that kitchen and was, for sure, most definitely, tending bar all day and never saw some sweaty junkie get dragged back there, nope.

Hazelnut says, "No, that's not how things were between us. I just know it. She wouldn't have disappeared like that if she could help it at all." The refusal is immediate, not allowing the idea to even enter her head. She watches curiously as someone gets dragged and decides to make no comment about it. "I don't know any other pearl metaphors, except for pearls before swine. I never got that one though, why is it 'before' instead of in front of or for." Hazel starts to mutter and derail, lost on some tangent in her mind. "Why use the word 'swine' anyways, instead of just 'pearls before pigs'. 'Sapphires before swine?" she keeps muttering until she blinks and snaps from the tangent, finishing off her coke. "I'm going to heal the scar, find out what happened.""

Raising his eyebrows, Frank says, "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." There's a brief pause. "King James Bible, Matthew, chapter seven, verse six." He taps the side of his head. "Anyways, it's about keeping what is holy to those who'd appreciate it, and not, as stated, tossing metaphoric pearls into the path of even literal pigs."

More juice is drank and he winces slightly, muttering below his breath. "Should have had our last drinks at the Waffle House parking lot, 'cause nobody there would have remembered a fuckin' thing." He shakes his head, then rallies, looking back to Hazelnut. "What I meant to say is: people tend to leave cues and clues of their destinies ahead of them being 'vanished'. A journal you never found, a friend you never connected to them, or maybe just a store they bought stuff at, and you never noticed." He then gestures to the kitchen door. "If anyone watched me for the last sixteen years and eleven weeks, they'd never see the connection between him and me. And if they did, never know what it meant." He motions to Hazelnut, stepping to his feet. "Tell you what, though. I'm.. pretty solid at finding stuff. Very little stays hidden. Secrets rarely die in darkness, Hazel." He extends his hand to her and there's a .. brochure. Not a business card. It's a three-panel brochure. What.

The full context of the line makes her pay attention, a few mental notes being made and setting that aside. "I've scoured everything I could to look for her after she was gone. A lot of time spent trying to find out what happened." She lets out a sigh which breaks her facade, revealing just how tired she was. Someone who hadn't gotten good rest in a while. She takes the brochure and stuffs it into her pocket. "I'll reach out to you in a bit. For now I think I'm gonna duck, probably drop by a secret spot. Finding places to stay is hellish in the city." she puts a nice tip down for the bartender and gets to her feet and heads for the door. "Talk to you later, Frank."