Limbus Lounge

By: A. Wise

I’ve said, ‘How did I get here,’ more than a few times in my life, but I never meant it more than when I found myself being led into the Limbus Lounge by a couple of brutish bouncers.

Seedy bars were a common setting in my life. I got my first job as a bartender at the age of twenty-one, and I’ve been sneaking drinks on someone else’s dime ever since. My habit of ‘borrowing’ drinks from my employer led me to collect quite a lengthy work history. But one good thing about my industry, bar owners rarely check references. Especially not mob-affiliated bars, like my last gig. Unfortunately, my ‘tenure’ at that job got revoked when the boss caught me stealing a case of single malt scotch.

That’s what led me to Raven Delacourt’s joint, Limbus Lounge. I needed a job, and she was willing to give me an interview. Actually, it was more of a contest. There were three applicants, including me, and I was the last to arrive.

Raven was a sultry creature. She was around forty, thin except in the places that counted, and had a raspy voice that I’d love to hear singing. “You’re late,” she said, her long, thin cigar pinched between her index and middle finger. She bit off the tip of the cigar and spit it to the floor.

A single musician sat on a stool, strumming an acoustic guitar and mumbling something that might’ve been a Dylan cover. His black hat dipped low enough to cover his face. Tendrils of smoke climbed from the tip of the cigarette pinched in place beneath a guitar string at the headstock.

“I’m sorry?” My apology to Raven sounded more like a question than I’d intended.

The two bouncers had led me to the bottom of a slick stairwell that’d been painted black. The bar’s wood panel walls and mounted animal heads would’ve given the Limbus Lounge a western feel if it wasn’t for its other modern accents. The bar top was a concrete slab that’d been lacquered over. White Christmas lights dangled from the rafters. Behind the bar were long shelves loaded with hundreds of bottles I recognized, and even more that I didn’t. A blue light glowed faintly behind the bottles, imbuing their liquids with a ghostly hue.

The two, beefy bouncers nodded at their boss, and then headed back upstairs to their post at the entrance.

“Don’t be sorry,” said Raven as she lit her cigar. “Be on time. Get behind the bar. Crystal, David, this is Tom. All three of you applied for this job, and tonight you’re going to have to fight to get it. I’m not going to just hand it to you.”

This was an interesting change of pace. I’d never been in an interview like this before. I sized up the competition.

Crystal was a spritely thing, but she looked like the type who wouldn’t take ‘cute’ as a compliment. Silver studs sat in the dimples on both freckled cheeks, and a myriad of other decorations adorned her face. Her blonde hair was shaved on both sides of her head, revealing thick-lined black tattoos of fearsome lionesses. Her ears were gauged, and her ice blue eyes had to be the work of colored contacts.

David was a somber fellow, tall and thick, but not fat by any means. He had dark skin, though I didn’t think he was black – perhaps Mexican, though it was hard to tell in the Limbus Lounge’s dim light. He wore a tight, black v-neck that would’ve looked more appropriate on a bouncer than a bartender. He side-eyed me, and I sheepishly looked away.

“We’re going to skip the bullshit,” said the owner as she straddled a bar stool in front of Crystal, with me to her left and David to her right. “We’ve got a flood of folks on their way in, and I don’t have time to fuck around.” She sucked in a long drag, and looked at each of us as she did, her lungs gathering more smoke than any human should be able to. When she finished, she ashed on the floor, and then let the smoke drift from her nostrils before she spoke again. “Make me a Moscow Mule.”

“Excuse me?” asked Crystal.

“Strike one, cutie-pie,” said Raven. “Don’t make me repeat myself. I hate having to say things twice.”

“How’re we supposed to find anything?” asked David as he looked around. “I’ve never been back here before.”

The limes were right in front of us, on the lower shelf beneath the bar top. I grabbed one at the same time as Crystal. We locked eyes, and the fire of her competitive spirit might’ve torched me on the spot if possible. I got a paring knife, slit the fruit in two, and slid my spare half across the bar to David.

“Strike one, Tommy Boy,” said the owner. “Don’t help anyone but yourself or you’ll get taken advantage of around here. And when my bartenders get taken advantage of, I get taken advantage of.” She glowered at me and added, “And I don’t like getting taken advantage of.”

My heart thundered, and I couldn’t help but smirk a bit. I love a good competition. I grabbed a pint glass and squeezed the lime into it while reaching for a bottle of Grey Goose.

Crystal beat me to it. Not only that, but she’d found a copper mug somewhere behind the bar. I knew that was the proper way to serve the drink, but hadn’t seen one around before getting started.

Time was of the essence, and I didn’t want to wait for Crystal to finish with the high-end vodka. I grabbed something I deemed good enough, hoping that the third and final ingredient of the drink would mask the harshness of my vodka choice. Besides, the Limbus Lounge didn’t strike me as the sort of place where the patrons had discerning palates.

I dropped the squeezed lime half into my glass, and then filled it with ice. I poured the vodka, careful not to let the spout shoot the liquor past the glass. I saw Crystal measure her portions, but I didn’t bother. A seasoned bartender should be able to count out the shots instead of measuring them. Despite my glass choice, I felt like I might have a leg up on the nymph beside me.

David was lagging far behind. He watched Crystal, and made a mess as he tried to copy her. He didn’t drop the lime half into the bottom of his cup. A rookie mistake. I heard him curse as he spilled vodka on himself.

The last ingredient was ginger beer, but there was no telling if that was even an option. I opened the mini-fridge under the bar and found it stocked with soda, beer, limes, lemons, and finally ginger ale. “Fuck,” I muttered as I moved some of the bottles aside in search of the perfect ingredient. No such luck. It didn’t look like the Limbus Lounge stocked any ginger beers. I’d have to settle for a can of ginger ale.

As I rose from my squatted position, I saw Crystal pouring a bottle of ginger beer into her copper mug. Where’d she find it? I was pissed, and she knew it. She smirked at me, and then dumped the remainder of the ginger beer into the sink before finishing her cocktail by dropping in a metal stirring stick. She slid her perfect drink to the owner several seconds before I managed to finish mine.

David was dead last, and when he slid his copper mug over to Raven there was a trail of wetness behind it. He cursed, glowered, and then folded his hamhock arms like a petulant child.

“Good job, Crystal,” said the owner. “Let’s give it a try.” She set her cigar down on the countertop, not bothering to reach for the ashtray a foot to her right.

David retrieved the ashtray, and then placed the owner’s cigar in it, eager to show how he would care for the place if she hired him. She watched David, either intrigued or appalled, I couldn’t tell which.

“Point to Davey for that move. And then we’ll go ahead and take that point right off again, because… Don’t ever touch my fucking shit again.”

She stirred Crystal’s drink, smelled it, and then took a long drink. A very long drink. A ‘holy-shit-she’s-going-to-finish-it’ long drink.

“God damn,” she said, and then repeated the curse like it was a cheer. “God damn, Crystal!”

Crystal laughed.

“That’s fucking delicious. Ten out of ten. Good job.”

She turned to me. “Wrong glass, Tom. And a Moscow Mule should be made with ginger beer, not that fake ass ginger soda crap.”

“I know.”

“If you know, then why’d you fuck it up?”

I shrugged, resigned to the fact that this interview was going south fast. I was getting a bad feeling about this place, and its owner. I felt like she was trouble – which was a familiar feeling. It was as if I’d met someone like her in the past. She seemed like the type who measured liquid levels and weighed bottles. I hate working at those sorts of joints. I never last more than a couple weeks at them.

The owner took a sip of my Moscow Mule – only a sip. She didn’t chug my offering like she did Crystal’s. She looked at me and said, “It’s fine.”

She swiveled on her stool to face the third competitor in our little battle, “On to you, David. What’s this swill you’re shilling?”

“Only the best,” he said, though his powers of bullshitting were woefully slight.

“Yeah right,” she said before taking a sip. “Oh Christ.” She grimaced, held the drink far to her side, and poured it out onto the floor. She even dropped the mug. It clanked on the wood. “That’s a hot take on cold ass, Davey. Fucking hell. Is this your first time?”

“No ma’am.”

“Are you sure, because that tasted like a four-year-old made it. Seriously, up your game or you can take the southbound train.” She wiped her tongue off on a napkin, and then said, “On to round two. Make me a…”

“Let’s get this party started!” A young man’s voice bellowed from upstairs. It was a young man, probably barely twenty-one, in a ripped t-shirt and jeans that were tattered and dirty. He wasn’t an ugly kid, but it looked like he’d been strapped to the bumper of a Jeep and dragged down a dirt road for a few miles. “I’ve been trying to get to this place forever. I’m thirsty. Haven’t had a drink in… Shit, who knows how long? Someone get me something to drink.”

“And so it begins,” said Raven with a bored expression.

“We’re doing shots tonight. All night, all night, all night.” The newcomer started chanting as he approached the bar.

I took the initiative and poured a shot of the cheapest whiskey I could find. He downed it as if in a race, and then slammed the shot glass upside down on the bar. I hate it when people do that. As if I want to wipe up your leftovers and spit.

“Should I start you a tab?” I asked.

“It’s on the house,” said the owner before shooing the guy away. He asked for some Natty Lights on his way to a booth in the corner. We ignored his request.

“It’s only going to get busier by the minute,” said the owner. “We should hurry this up. How about you guys make me a…” She thought about it for a minute, and then with a burgeoning smile she said, “A daiquiri.”

“What kind of daiquiri?” asked David, but Crystal and I were already plowing ahead.

“Whatever sort of daiquiri you want, my dear,” said the owner.

David reached for a blender, and I grimaced in regret for him. This lady knows what she’s doing. Asking a bartender for a daiquiri is the ideal way to test their basic skills. While there’ve been a thousand different concoctions devised to blend rum, sugar, and some sort of sour fruit to create what might be deemed a daiquiri, the real thing is simple yet divine. It’s a test of perfect balance, blending just a few ingredients into a swirl of notes, each complimenting the next. I make good daiquiris. Damn good daiquiris.

I start with fresh limes squeezed with a hand juicer into a tumbler. This gets a good amount of the oils from the skins without getting any pulp or seeds in the mix. Next comes the white rum.

At this point in my mixing, I heard poor David start blending his icy mixture. Again, I grimaced and shook my head. The owner chuckled, and I casually looked up at her, offered a wry smile, and then got back to work. Both of us knew David wasn’t going to make the cut.

I found the simple syrup, added a shot to the tumbler before a few cubes of ice, and then gave it a rigorous shake. Crystal was already pouring her similarly made daiquiri, but I took my time. I shook my drink until the chill on the tumbler stung my palm. Then, finally, I poured my daiquiri.

Crystal’s drink looked nearly identical to mine, but her martini coupe was colder, and it was decorated with a thin slice of lime and cherry as a garnish. I was captivated by it. She’d outdone me. I realized that she’d plunged her glass into ice before serving, which gave her a frosty edge over me, not to mention the garnish, which put her over the top.

I cursed under my breath.

David was fumbling with his strawberry nightmare. It fell in clumps from the blender into the mug he chose to serve it in. He even had a tiny umbrella waiting to add.

“Just stop, David,” said the owner. “Go ahead and dump that out. I’m too old and tired to even take a sip of it.”

“You’re missing out,” said David, desperate to save his chances. “It’s delicious.”

“Wait, don’t pour it out,” said the owner as she turned to look at the newcomer in the corner booth. “Give it to him.”

“You should really try it,” said David.

“I said give it to the kid.”

“Does this mean I didn’t get the job?” he asked, dejected and on the edge of anger.

“Did I say that?” asked Raven. “Go take that shit to the shithead, and then get back here. I’ve got one more drink I want the three of you to make me.”

Crystal and I watched David pour his frozen strawberry daiquiri into a glass, and then walk it over to the corner booth.

Crystal whispered, “His mess is leaking all over the place.” She used a towel to wipe off the bar in front of her, and then she left it in David’s mess for him to clean himself.

Raven tried my daiquiri and gave me an appreciative nod. Then she sipped Crystal’s, and I knew I’d lost by the way Raven’s eyes sparkled. Yet again, the owner finished Crystal’s offering while leaving mine mostly full.

“How long have you been bartending,” asked Raven of Crystal.

“Three years.”

“You’re damn good,” said Raven. She had no such compliment to offer me.

David returned and said, “He liked it.”

“Good for him,” said Raven. “Now clean off the bar and get ready for your last chance at getting this job.”

“Maybe I don’t want this job,” said David, petulant.

“Oh really?” asked Raven. She crossed her arms and leaned back as if enjoying this. “And what’s your back-up plan if this falls through for you? Where’re you going to go next? Where are any of you going to go if you don’t get this job?”

The three of us were caught off guard by the question. None of us offered an answer.

“I’m the only place around.”

Another new patron came into the bar. He stumbled his way down the steps, disheveled and uncoordinated. He was a businessman who looked like he was already ten shots deep in his drunken stupor before getting here. He tugged at his red and white striped tie, loosening it as he approached.

“Can I get a…” he started to order a drink, but Raven interrupted.

“You can get a martini,” she said. “Guys, the next drink I want you to make is a martini.”

“I don’t want a martini,” said the businessman as the three of us got started.

Raven took a drag while sizing her customer up. She blew smoke in his face, and then asked, “Do I look like I give a flying fuck what you want?”

“What sort of place is this?” he slurred his words.

“The last bar this side of hell,” said Raven. “Go find a seat.”

David, Crystal, and I were already in the process of making our drinks during Raven’s conversation with the patron. What she said to him gave me pause. I had a bottle of dry vermouth in one hand, and my tumbler of ice in the other, and I froze in place.

I looked at the black stairs at the entrance and tried to recall what brought me here. How did I end up at the Limbus Lounge?

I lost my last job when my boss caught me stealing a case of expensive scotch. The owner of that bar wasn’t the sort of guy who sent thieves off with a slap on the wrist.

“Holy shit,” I said as I set my tumbler on the bar.

“What’s the matter?” asked Crystal. “Did you forget how to make a martini?” She had already splashed vermouth on her ice, and then dumped out the excess from her tumbler. This was the same way I usually made martinis, because a nice touch of vermouth on the ice helps harshen the delicate flavor of the gin, but too much sours the drink.

“I’m dead,” I said.

“Dead last,” said David, enjoying the fact he was going to finish his drink before me. He was shaking his martini vigorously, proving that he didn’t know what he was doing. Despite what Bond said, you never shake a martini. You stir them. Shaking a martini bruises the gin and causes chips of ice to break off in the tumbler, which waters down the alcohol. Of course, he was using vodka instead of gin, another mortal sin as far as I was concerned.

But none of that mattered, because by the look in Raven’s eyes I knew I was right.

“I died last night. They…” It was all coming back to me now. “They shot me in the head.”

My purloined case of scotch ended up being the most expensive drink I’d ever stolen. My boss and his goons had been hiding in the back of the van that I was supposed to deliver the scotch to. It’d been a set-up, and there was no explaining my way out of it. After pleading for my life, I remember the cold metal of the gun being pressed behind my ear. There was blackness, and then…

The Limbus Lounge.

“Are we all dead?” I asked Raven.

Crystal had finished her martini, but froze as she held the glass by its stem. I saw the glint of realization lighten her features – the creep of terror in her eyes.

“Oh my God,” said Crystal. “He’s right.”

“What’s going on?” asked David, as clueless as ever.

“We’re fucking dead,” said Crystal, the scant color fading from her already pale face. “I… I’m dead.” She grasped at her throat, feeling for signs of injury. “I hung myself. And now I’m here. I don’t remember how I got here.”

“All right,” said Raven as she stood up. “Let’s cut the bullshit.”

She took a moment to straighten the wrinkles in her dress with a quick swipe down the front, as if she was a salesperson preparing to launch into a pitch. “Yes, you’re dead. Yes, this is the afterlife – sort of. More specifically, this is limbo. Normally you would’ve been given a chance to float around out there and contemplate a bunch of existential nonsense, but my last bartender took a flying leap into forced retirement, and I need a replacement.”

“Wait, are you for real?” asked David.

Crystal had her hands on her head and backed up until she collided with the shelves of liquor. She was cursing, and on the verge of tears.

“Stop it,” commanded Raven. “All three of you led shitty lives. Let’s face facts. You were garbage people. You weren’t bad enough to get tossed down there.” She pointed to the south door, on the opposite side of the tavern from the entrance. “But you sure didn’t deserve a spot up top either. So now you’re here, in between. And…”

David began to say something, but Raven was quick to shut him down.

“Wait, wait,” she said while holding her hand out at him. “Listen to me. I’m giving you a once in an afterlife shot here. A shot at something that’ll make your time here tolerable. You three are stuck in limbo for a few thousand years or so. Without this job, you’ll be sent out into the real limbo. Out with the nothingness, where you’ll float around confronting all the worst memories your brains can conjure up. Trust me, that’s not what you want. A thousand years of nothing but your own demons to keep you company. You can have that, or you can work here, where limbo touches the other side. You’ll help decide who stays, and who goes.”

“I need time to think,” said Crystal as she wiped tears from her eyes.

“No time to think, darling,” said Raven. “It’s time to fight.” She started to reach towards the martini, but Crystal snatched it away.

“No, fuck you,” said Crystal, finding inner strength despite the daunting circumstance. She dumped her drink out into the sink. “This isn’t fair.”

“You’re right, it isn’t,” said Raven. She snapped her fingers, and the bouncers from the entrance came down the stairs. “If life’s not fair, you can bet your ass the afterlife’s worse. Guys, show Crystal out.”

“No,” said the feisty bartender as she moved behind David. “Fuck you. You can’t just throw me out. You can’t expect us to just do whatever you tell us.”

“Yes I can,” said Raven, as relaxed as ever, smoking the way a dame in a noir film might in midst of seduction.

One of the bouncers came behind the bar, and the other skirted the outside, behind the stools. They both looked similar, about six and a half feet tall with chests thicker than kegs and arms as wide as my waist. Their heads were shaved, and their noses looked like they’d been broken a few hundred times until they achieved the perfect lumpy pancake appearance. They looked like mirror images of a mob hitman, each focused on the waifish girl retreating to the other side of the bar.

“Crystal, don’t make this hard on yourself,” said Raven, though I doubt she cared.

The spritely bartender wasn’t going down without a fight. She leapt over the bar, taking a few mugs with her that she tossed at the closest bouncer. “Fuck off!”

The musician paused his lazy strumming, and watched the battle commence in front of his triangle stage in the corner. He moved his beer when it was threatened by Crystal’s calamitous attempt at an escape.

Crystal tipped over a table and kicked a chair at the bouncer as he came for her. She ducked when he lunged, but her nimbleness was no match for the trained fighter. As she tried to crawl past him, he caught her by the belt. There was no compassion on his part, despite the size difference. The bouncer tossed Crystal hard against the wall, shaking the mounted animal heads above. She crumpled and whimpered.

“Hey, come on,” I said, disturbed by the violent scene.

“Don’t get in the middle of it,” said Raven. “Trust me. Once the bouncers get going, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them.”

“They’re going to…”

“What?” she asked. “Kill her? Too bad, she already beat them to the punch on that one. Don’t forget where you are, Tommy. You can’t die when you’re already dead.”

Crystal wasn’t tapping out yet. She still had a little fight in her.

When the nearest bouncer reached for her arm, she struck out at his neck with a broken bottle she’d been hiding. The shard nearly stuck in the man’s throat. He avoided the potentially lethal blow by twisting away from the strike, but the attack gave Crystal a chance to make a break for the entrance. She scurried away, slipping on the slick floor as she went. Her haphazard escape was halted by the second bouncer, and this time there was no breaking free. He clasped his tree-trunk arms around her tiny frame, and squeezed until she was gasping for breath as her ribs compressed her lungs.

“Let’s go, baby girl,” said the brute that held her.

“Where’re they taking her?” I asked.

“Well, I was gonna send her south, but maybe you can change my mind. You tell me where she should go. Out into limbo,” she leaned her head towards the entrance. “Or out the south side door?” she leaned her head the other direction, to the door that I hadn’t seen open yet.

I stammered, and then said, “Limbo, I guess.”

“You sure?” asked Raven, sadistic enjoyment lighting her expression. “Because if we throw her out that way, she’ll eventually circle the drain until she drops back in here. If you’re my new bartender – my liquor stealing bartender,” she gave me a wry smile and winked. “I might just find myself tempted to replace you with her. It’d be in your best interest to send her that other way – where there’s no coming back.” She looked at the black-painted south door. It wasn’t just barred shut. There were several other silver locks adorning its edge, keeping it in place, and keeping out whatever might be on the other side.

“No,” I said, eager to hurry up the decision-making process. Poor Crystal was starting to turn a light shade of purple in the python-grip of the bouncer. “Send her back up there.” I motioned to the entrance I came through. “Wherever the hell it leads.”

“What about you, Davey Boy?” she asked of my newly sole competitor. “Which door?”

He looked at me, as if he was a jock looking for an answer from the nerd in class.

“Come on, man,” I said. “Send her that way.” I motioned at the entrance to what I assumed was limbo versus the barred door to hell.

“I… uh…” He stammered.

“Tick tock, Davey,” said Raven.

“Send her that way,” he said, and I could hardly believe which direction he pointed. “Send her to the south door.”

“You fucking asshole,” I said.

“I’m with Dave,” said Raven. “Let’s send this bitch packing. Peter, open the door.”

The bouncer that Crystal had nearly stabbed was more than happy to comply. He nearly jogged to the door with glee, and started undoing the numerous locks that kept it closed.

“Hey, come on,” I said, feeling helpless, but uncomfortable with what was happening.

“Keep your mouth shut, Tom,” said Raven. “Or you’ll get the boot just the same as her. Don’t test me, Tupello.”

That was something I’d heard before.

“What’d you call me?” I asked.

“It means honey,” she said. “I heard it somewhere. Not sure where. I like the way it sounds.”

A recollection of my final night alive swam through the muddy waters of my brain. I watched the scene play out from above, like a spiritual interloper spying from a window in the wet, smelly, midnight alley.

There was a van parked behind the bar where I worked, its fiery brakes providing the only light to the scene. I was carrying a case of scotch up to the back of the van.

“No!” Crystal managed to get out a plea for mercy as the bouncer eased his grip on her. “Please.”

“Too late, kid,” said Raven. “Tell your devils I said hello.”

The south side door was open now, and within it I saw the depths of depravity, sorrow, and anguish that might be my future as well if I wasn’t careful. There wasn’t hellfire spewing from its edges, nor scenes of torture being played out for us to bear witness to now that the door was open. Instead, there was an emptiness laid before us, so vast and hypnotic that you dare not stare too long. Its depths were maddening, blackness and suffering, emerging from the void like the vacuum of space threatening to pull one in. The certainty of everlasting pain and anguish so apparent it need not show such things with base visual renderings of bloody chains, gnashing teeth, or crackling flames.

I gazed into hell. Into nothingness. Into pain the likes of which I’d never conceived.

And staring back at me, from the yawning expanse of darkness, was an eager torturer. He wasn’t there to be seen, but I knew he was there – waiting for me to take my turn stepping through the south side door. Oh how eager he was to pull me in.

“Please, no,” said Crystal, terror quaking her pleas. She saw the same sorts of devils I saw in that blank canvas. They were all the devils we brought with us, set free to tear us limb from limb if that’s what we deserved.

Upon staring into Hell, David, Crystal, and I knew what Hell was. It was what we brought with us, and it was ready to torture us for eternity.

Crystal was thrown in, and the south side door was ready to be closed again. I could hear her screams as she floated away, cast into the darkness I hoped to never see again. There was a screeching whistle of air as the bouncers tried to force the door closed. It pulled at the furniture in the Limbus Lounge, and several chairs fell to the ground. All of us were affected by the gale, except for Raven. She sat across the bar from me, calmly smoking her cigar.

Her long, thin, familiar cigar.

I was again transported to my own memory. That final night out behind the bar, with a case of scotch in my arms. I knocked on the back of the van, and then waited for it to open.

This case of scotch wasn’t for me. I’d stolen my fair share of liquor from the bar, but never this much. My addiction was better handled one bottle at a time. This scotch was to be sold.

“Let’s start round three over again,” said Raven, breaking me of my momentary recollection. “I want the best damn martini you’ve ever made. Remember, your afterlives depend on it!”

She was more animated now than earlier, as if the sight of Crystal being tossed into the pits of hell reinvigorated her.

I put the ice in my tumbler, as if on auto-pilot. Next, I splashed the ice with dry vermouth, and then drained the excess so that only a kiss remained. I got the gin, and saw that David was sticking with vodka.

I felt confident the game was mine.

I stirred until the tumbler frosted, and then strained the martini free of its ice as I poured it into the glass. A couple olives later and the perfect martini was complete. I slid it towards Raven right before David finished his.

Raven reached for mine first, and said, “Thanks, Tupello.”

And then I remembered how I died.

I saw myself carrying that scotch out to the van to send it off with the person who’d promised to pay me two hundred dollars for it. The woman with the sultry voice and the devil-may-care grin.

“Thanks, Tupello,” she’d said to me as wisps of smoke drifted from her long, thin cigar.

I recalled the back door of that van opening, and the mob thugs reaching for me as I tried to run. And then the cold metal of the gun touching the skin behind my ear.

Now I stood there in the Limbus Lounge and stared at my captor. My gaze grew increasingly severe.

“What’s the matter?” asked Raven.

“You set me up.”

“Set you up for what?” she asked.

I glared at her and reached down for the paring knife below the counter. “That was you in the van.”

Raven stood suddenly. She whistled, sharp and piercing, and then pointed at me. “Send him out with the other one.”

“You fucking set me up,” I shouted at her, and then turned my attention to David. “She probably set you up too. She’s the reason we’re dead.”

“You need to shut your mouth, Tom,” she said with a snarl of hatred. She dropped her cigar and tried to reach across the bar, her long nails grasping unsuccessfully at me like the talons of a swooping hawk barely missing a mouse. “Get out of my bar.” She reached again, and this time I swiped at her with the knife. I caught a corner of her palm, and instead of blood there was a jet of flame that exited her wound. She clasped her other hand over it, extinguishing the hellfire escaping from within her.

“Get the door back open,” said one of the bouncers to his doppelganger. He was behind the bar, coming my way. I tried to plan an escape.

I planned to leap over the bar, push Raven aside, and then head towards the entrance, but David decided this was his chance to secure his job as the new bartender of the Limbus Lounge. He grasped me in a headlock. His meaty arm squeezed at my throat, immediately causing me to become dizzy. I tried to stab at him, but the bouncer had closed the gap between us. He crushed my hand in his, and the knife fell to the floor.

“Get him the fuck out of here,” said Raven as she continued to clasp her wounded hand.

The bouncer in front of me said to David, “Hold him up.”

David did as he was told, and the bouncer punched me so hard I felt my ribs break. He hit me again on the other side of my chest, doing just as much damage there.

I heard the sucking sound of the door to hell pulling in air as the second bouncer finished unlatching the locks. My fate was assured. I couldn’t break free of David’s grasp, and even if I could, I was too wounded to fight any of them.

Raven held the martini David had made for her, and grinned wickedly at me as she said, “I gave you a chance, Tommy, but you fucked it up. Just like you’ve been doing your whole life. You fucked it up.” She took a sip, scowled, and then set David’s martini back on the bar.

“Time to go,” said the bouncer in front of me. “Take this piece of shit and throw him out with the trash.”

Raven sat down at the bar, sneering at me as David dragged me backwards, towards hell.

“Idiot,” said Raven, and then reached for the second martini waiting for her to try at the bar. She sipped my drink. Her scowl softened.

I heard my devils eagerly calling me from behind. I felt the air being pulled past my cheeks as we got closer to my infernal prison.

Raven looked down into the martini, and then at me. She lifted it to her lips, and took in a nice, long whiff of the delicate gin.

She commanded sudden and loud, “Wait.”

David and the bouncer paused.

“I think I’d rather send him out the way he came.”

“Why?” asked the bouncer.

Raven got up from her seat and walked down the bar to get closer to us. “Don’t question me, meathead. Do as you’re told.”

“I say we toss him,” said David, still trying to make sure to secure his job.

“And I say shut the fuck up, newbie, and do what you’re told. Let him go.”

I crumpled to the floor when David released me. It felt like there were swords in my chest stabbing at my lungs.

“Come on,” said the bouncer as he started to drag me across the wet rubber matt behind the bar.

“Stand him up,” said Raven once we reached the black stairs that led to the entrance.

The bouncer lifted me from the floor, and it felt like all the bones in my chest rattled against one another. I cried out in pain.

“Listen here, shit for brains,” said Raven as she put her hand on my cheek. I could feel the intense heat emanating from the wound I’d caused on her hand. “You’re going to spend an awful long time out there in that toilet bowl of existence, swirling round and round in limbo. But one of these days you’re going to find your way back here. On that day, you’d damn well better be ready to make me another one of your martinis. And who knows, if David hasn’t learned to make a better one, maybe I’ll give you a second chance.”

And with that, I was tossed out through the entrance to find myself in a dark alley with a gun pressed to the back of my head, just under my ear.

“Don’t kill him,” said a sultry female’s voice from the front of the van. “He’s too good a bartender to waste.”

My chest no longer hurt. I was as I had been in the moment before I was murdered. Yet I felt no relief.

My mind was spinning as I tried to comprehend what I’d just lived through, but my experience at Limbus Lounge was fading from memory as fast as a dream. Soon, I’d forget everything about Raven and her bar, but I’d be left with a nagging question that would haunt the rest of my days.

Is life Limbo?

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