Brenda's suggestion of heading to the bar had gained life in Jacob's brain, despite his reservations. While he was sure she would take him to town, he didn't want to put her out. Nor did he want to hail a cab. Each of those choices risked drawing more attention to any arrival he might make in town than he wanted.
Besides he was perfectly capable of getting himself there.
With that in mind, Jacob waited until Brenda retired to her room for the night, before changing into a different outfit and donning his winter gear. Leaving the house, he stepped off the road into the scrub around Brenda's house.
Once he was out of immediate sight of the road, he tested his legs – something he'd yet to try since the Tarry. There really wasn't an opportunity between then and now. Not when he was trying to lay low and pretend he'd committed sun induced suicide after his turning.
"Well," He drew a deep breath and let it out again. "Let's see how this works out."
He started slow, breaking into a jog, and then accelerating, even as he wended his way between deeper drifts between the low bushes and tundra adapted growth. All too soon he was unable to avoid the deeper snow, and found he had to be careful. All the speed in the world would do him little good if he couldn't lift his legs free of them.
The thickness of the winter gear wasn't doing him any favors either. His joint movement was hindered by the thick insulating layers, giving him less freedom of movement. The overall effect left him feeling clunky and slow.
"Certainly isn't an Augsuit," he grumbled watching his breath wisp into the cold air. It was followed by a quote running through his head, how the mighty have fallen.
Despite it all, the test of his speed and agility was a success. He took no tumbles even in the moonless night, his eyesight seeming to adjust perfectly as the lumens waxed and waned along the way. He made town in less than fifteen minutes, putting him at the main road around nine-thirty pm. Slowing to a normal pace, he stepped out of the shadows and into the hurricane lamp's glow.
The streets were empty of people and nearly so of vehicles, but he could hear the raucous sound of the bar from where he stood two blocks away, and he wasn't even trying hard. A grin moved over his lips, and the ice gathered in his beard and mustache crackled with the movement.
That led him to take a few moments to get the droplets out of his facial hair before he came close to the establishment. He didn't want to look like he'd walked, or rather run, here.
When he had adequately cleared the ice off his face, he resumed his trek towards the bar. He stalled again shy of opening that door and stepping in. Nerves cropped up immediately. Despite Brenda's assurances he would go unnoticed, or taken for a newbie (again), he worried that he'd run into one of the few people who were here this time last year that he associated with. They can't all have jumped ship.
He startled as the door cracked open and a patron weaved out the door. Jacob sidestepped the man, nodding nervously, even when the guy didn't bother to look up. Probably trying to make sure the floor didn't move out from under him considering the strong odor of beer on his breath.
Noticing that, he then became aware of the stench of the bar. Mostly alcohols of various makes, the menagerie of smells included "sweating in my winter gear despite the cold," "I haven't washed in four days," "I just came in from the tundra and smell like the bush," and the acrid afterbite of urine, bile, and vomit. Purposefully, he steeled his senses, trying to ignore how much his nose and ears were illustrating to him about this den of iniquity.
He caught the door before it closed and stepped in before he talked himself out of the excursion. He swept the interior with a casual gaze, one that picked out much more detail than suggested. That he could proudly say had nothing to do with the vampiric blood now in his veins. Victor Sierra had gifted him a lot of talents too, through practice.
He doffed his outerwear, noticing the pile of like items stuffed in a corner just inside the door, the clothes hooks long since filled up. With a shrug, he topped the pile with his own, and turned to face the crowd once again.
The place was pretty packed considering the limited access to above ground establishments. It was then that he noticed the elevator at the back of the place taking patrons to the tubes below the town.
Finding it hard to find a seat with space around it, Jacob finally settled for a seat at the far end of the bar. There was only a single barstool between him and the next patron, and he held no hope that it would remain empty as the night moved on. As he moved through the bar towards it, he was listening for any gossip regarding the strange caribou killings happening on the outskirts of the settlement. He was a little disappointed that the banter didn't include what he needed immediately.
"The night's still young," he muttered.
He settled into the barstool, and was surprised when Markus trundled over to his section of the bar. "What'll it be?"
Jacob smiled up at the man. "Scotch, please."
"Huh. Not a typical newbie drink there, son."
He laughed a little. "Reminds me of home."
Not necessarily in a good way. A bitter feeling worked its way up from his middle, and he tamped it back down again before it took root. He wouldn't accomplish anything if he went down that road right now.
Jacob was heartened at the way Markus addressed him. "Newbie, eh?" He whispered, before a smile turned up one corner of his mouth. So, Markus didn't recognize him. That was a good sign. Not that he frequented bars, ever, but he had accompanied some of the other men and women here a time or two while he was under cover as a plant worker.
Jacob picked up the glass and took a sip of the scotch. The flavor of it nearly overwhelmed him, and the burn as it slid down his throat was more intense than he remembered.
"Oof," he huffed. His gut protested somewhat for trying to substitute blood with the paltry alcohol sitting in the tumbler. He was going to have to nurse the drink, it seemed.
He had to make an effort to look human, after all. Someone coming into a tundra town bar and not drinking would appear highly suspicious. So, he would go through the motions, pretend to drink what he used to love, and suss out the information about the slaughter of the local herds.
Experimenting, Jacob found that if he focused closely on a person, he was able to ignore the surrounding noise and hear clearly, even if the person was across the breadth of the bar. That was a comfort, because he didn't want to be wandering the bar like a fool all night just to get what he needed. Scanning was a little bit harder, with so many voices talking at the same time plus the ambient noises and the music, he had difficulty finding a point to start. As a compromise, he sought out key words and phrases as a way to cut to the chase.
He started at the far end of the place, gleaning snippets of conversations as he slowly scanned closer to where he sat. As different voices floated to his ear, he was surprised to realize he could not only listen to, but distinguish between conversations each ear picked up without muddling their threads.
He was so engrossed in this effort, that when a body plopped down in front of him he became annoyed that the person's presence muffled what he had thought was a promising start on a clue.
Focusing on the intruder, he startled heavily to find himself face to face with someone familiar. And while he had schooled himself not to say anything incriminating for such a situation, his mouth defied him.
"T… Tasha!" he blurted.
She leaned closer, slapping a hand on the table and squealing enthusiastically, "I knew it! I knew it was you, Jacob! What the hell? I thought you washed out last year?"
"I… I…" he stammered, completely thrown off guard. His team would have been so embarrassed for him at this lack of acting prowess suddenly.
"When the hell'd you get back into Qaanaaq?" She asked rapid-fire on the end of her previous question.
Tapdancing he said, "I… uh… came in with the newest replacement team. And I didn't wash out." He finally located his mental footing. "I had to take care of an emergency back home. It took me a while to get through it. But that's finished and now I'm back. I told you guys I'm made of tougher stuff than you ever gave me credit for."
Thoughts of home brought the acid from his protesting stomach up into his throat. He was saved thinking about it too deeply as Tasha went on.
"And you didn't stop by the store to say, hi?"
Instead of answering, he took another drink of his Scotch. Hiding the watery eyes and the urge to cough because it stung so badly. His gut roiled on him moments later. He told himself to stop while he was behind, or he was going to draw loads of attention. Puking all over Tasha was not going to go over well at all.
"I haven't made it that far yet, sorry."
She grinned widely, slapped him in the bicep and said, "Well, it's good to see you back."
He lifted his glass to her. "Thank you. It's good to be back." He found that the answer was an honest one. While he hadn't considered it before, this was probably the one place he'd felt the most at home since leaving home.
"Is it just me or are your freckles faded?" She leaned obscenely close to stare at his cheeks. Pulling a face, she said, "Maybe it's just the lighting in here. Or that… scruff."
"Well, I've not had reason to be in the sun in a good long while. They might be paler than they were." Inwardly, he grimaced, wondering if it would tip her off in any way about what had happened to him. Quickly he added. "Been on a lot of ships lately."
"Oh…" Tasha replied, lifting her chin and then allowing it to drop. "The facial hair makes you look older." She paused, seeming to think she'd insulted him because she added, "In a totally fine way."
Tasha was much like Brenda in she didn't mince words. Jacob smiled and even laughed a little. "Funny, Brenda said the same thing."
Tasha didn't miss it either, which left him cursing himself between his ears. "Wait, you've seen Brenda already?"
He dropped a very heavy sigh, but didn't try to deny it. "After what happened last year? It was the first place I wanted to go… to… you know… see how she was faring."
Her face pinched, but she nodded. "Yeah, I can see that, you were pretty tight with her when that all went down."
Another sigh fought to be dropped, this one of relief. He quenched the desire.
"So, where you staying this go round. Bet it's those new bungalows they put up over the spring and summer."
"They've got new ones now?" Jacob asked.
"You… would have to walk right by them they're closest town." Now she looked confused and suspicious.
Jacob started twisting his glass on the counter, grimacing and not hiding it. Why was he no good at this game anymore? Was it because he didn't have a ready-made story to tell? Or was it because of Tash's frenetic energy? He gave up on a possible answer after microseconds.
Finally he managed, "Well, that's kinda the reason I haven't been by the store yet. Brenda let me bunk up with her for a bit when I arrived."
Tasha's eyes got huge. "She… wow."
"I take it she doesn't allow that very often?" It was Jacob's turn to be confused.
Adamantly, Tasha was shaking her head side to side, hard enough that he heard one of her vertebrae pop. "Ne-ver. She must really be fond of you, then."
"I will consider myself supremely lucky, then." Once more he lifted his glass, brought it to his lips and pretended to drink. He knew how lucky he was, Tasha hadn't the foggiest notion of how lucky he was that Brenda allowed him the privilege. "Can… I get you something?"
"Sure!" Tasha bounced once on the padding of the barstool. "Vodka, on the rocks."
"Oof, gonna outdrink me tonight," Jacob teased as he lifted his hand to get Markus' attention.
"Hey, the women out her can hold their liquor, bub."
"I have absolutely no doubts," Jacob answered, grinning.
Jacob relaxed some as the night wore into morning. Tasha had been pleasant company on the few times he came into the store when she was around. She proved more so now that she was away from her retail position. Her personality was bright, and forward, and she was really easy to talk to.
Which must be why he'd been unable to keep but a single secret this night. And that one, no matter how charming Tasha was, was not going to get aired. If he had to sew his own lips shut she was not going to be privy to what happened on the Tarry.
Still he was enjoying himself, and the time was flying by. He hadn't forgotten his true purpose here, though.
He was proud of himself for being able to keep up with he and Tasha's conversation and keep an ear out for the information he'd come here for.
That ability to listen to and process multiple conversations was a blessing, because he didn't even have to interrupt what Tasha was talking about when the clue he'd been seeking finally caught his ear.
"G'damn it," a gruff voice swore, somewhere towards the far-right corner of the bar. "Found another fucking carcass on my property. Them wolves is getting too close to the homestead for my liking.
"So, then Brenda says, 'you get your god damned, ignorant, slack-jawed ass out of my store!" Tasha enthused in his other ear.
He laughed for her sake, uttering, "That sounds like Brenda, for sure." And then, he focused on the follow up to the conversation across the way.
"There ain't no fucking wolves left in Qaanaaq, Swede. You been drinking too much again?"
"Fuck, you, Grange, I know what the fuck I saw out there! Pile of bones, picked clean! Must be a pretty big pack of em. The left it right outside my northern perimeter!"
"You have no idea what you're talking about! You see tracks? You heard any damn howling?" The guy Grange added, clearly no buying Swede's story.
"Well, no… but what else coulda done it?"
"Yer imagination!" Grange guffawed.
"I'll take you there, you asshole. I'll show you what's my imagination!"
"Jacob?" Tasha cut through his eavesdropping. "Earth to Jacob?"
Blinking, he brought himself back to the immediate surroundings. He never realized he'd allowed himself to go so wholly into that convo. "I'm sorry, Tash, I was just thinking."
She had her cheek perched on one fist. "Well don't let me bore you."
"No, not at all. What you said reminded me of something, and I chased it down a rabbit hole. Sorry about that!"
She grinned and shook her head. When she looked at her chronometer, her face fell in shock. "Damn, is that the time?"
He checked his own, realizing it was nearly two thirty in the morning.
"Damn, damn, damn," came Tasha's mantra. "I have to open in the morning! I promised myself I wouldn't do this tonight."
"Sorry for distracting you," Jacob immediately responded, knowing he was the reason for her getting so off track.
"It's fine," she waved it away. "Though you… could… walk me to the tube?"
It was only about fifteen feet away and down a level, but Jacob smiled and rose from his barstool. "Sure."
Paying their tab up front earned him an appreciative look from Markus. The man saluted him with two fingers before swiftly move off to service other customers.
They walked side by side to the lift and then rode it down together. When the arrived at the platform the marquis stated that the train was two minutes out.
"I'd…" Tasha started, "invite you over, but I really do have to get some sleep."
Her intent and future invitation was obvious.
He grinned even when his gut dropped to his feet. Still he said, "Well, some other time then."
She smiled somewhat coyly as the trained pulled into the station. "I'll see you another time, Jacob. Thanks for the drinks and the conversation. I had fun."
"Same," he answered simply.
Stepping onto the train she turned and waved a goodbye. He sketched a wave as well and waited for the train to depart before heading back up to the bar.
He grabbed his gear and donned it before stepping out into a bitter, bitter cold. Snow flakes were falling softly all around him. He walked only until he made it to the edge of town where the lights were absent. He took the road this time, not daring full speed with the added snow on the ground. If a vehicle appeared this time of night, however unlikely, he would simply jump off the road and hide until the driver was past. He would certainly hear their noise well before he saw even a glimmer of headlight anyway.
He was back at Brenda's before three am, allowing himself in as quietly as possible. Once again, he stripped out of his winter gear and hung it near the door, his boots tucked in below it.
As soon as that was accomplished he padded on stocking feet over to a small desk on one side of the main area, grabbing a piece of paper and a pencil. Swiftly he wrote a note to his host. He set it on her coffee pot, a place he knew she'd see it in the morning.
Despite that daytime was still a way off, and he wasn't sure he was going to be awake for a face to face with Brenda.
The note set, he retired to his room, undressed and crawled under the covers. Sleep was almost instantaneous.
A/N: Here we go fresh off the presses!