The Nightlife was packed that night. A flood of warm young bodies, gyrating to the pulse-pounding music, filled the dance floor from one wood-paneled wall all the way over to the polished brass railing which separated that province from the bar area. Near the bar, carousers filled the sea of tables - those who had tired of dancing, those who preferred to drink and shout at each other over the music, and those who simply came to admire the atmosphere. The bar itself was massive, built out of solid oak and topped off with a single continuous slab of gray and black marble. The whole thing had been liberated years before from an old shut-down men's club just before the wrecking ball turned it all to rubble.
The man behind the bar was not massive, but he managed nonetheless to fill the space. Sam was known to all comers, and was personable enough and dexterous enough to keep all the patrons happy. He was blonde and well-muscled, and older than he looked. Nobody but Sam himself knew just how old he was, but a few of the more faithful patrons of The Nightlife knew firsthand that Sam had been there for many years and through several renovations ever since the club had first opened as Scooter's back in the sixties.
It was around 11:30, in the middle of one of the infrequent lulls in drink traffic, when a tallish dark-haired man came innocuously through one of the doors behind the bar. He approached Sam, touched him lightly on the shoulder, and spoke into his ear. It was nothing anyone else could hear over the pulsing sound. Sam looked at the man questioningly for a moment, then spoke, and the man nodded his head in reply. Sam began to speak again just as the song was ending, and as the new beat set in, the man's second response was just barely audible: "I'll be alright." He then turned and walked quickly to the back office, as Sam resumed his bartending duties.
"He is so hot!" Rita cried, her voice wild with giggles and breathlessness.
"Ohmigod, Who?" another asked excitedly. A chatter of under-eighteen voices ensued, punctuated by random gasps and giggles. "The one over there playing pool?"
"Oh God, no. The bartender."
One of them started to laugh, and was quickly elbowed by Laura, who happened to agree with the estimation.
"I like him too."
"I dunno, guys," Sara said, laughing. "Even if he wasn't too old for you, he's probably got a life, you know?"
Rita grinned evilly. "You're never too old for what I've got."
There was an explosion of laughter, and a shrill "I don't believe you just said that!" from Laura. Nervous glances broke from their huddle towards the rugged man behind the bar.
"Well at least he's got money! He owns the club."
"Whoo-hoo! Free drinks for the rest of us if you do!"
"I hate to burst your bubbles, guys," Christine said, "but I don't think he owns the place."
"What do you mean? Sure he does."
"Who does then?"
Christine leaned forward. "Well," she said conspiratorially, "did you see the guy who was talking to him a minute ago?"
Rita snapped her fingers, pointing at Christine. "Yeah! His name's... Thomas, or William, or something. I don't know, one of those formal names."
"That's it! James! I mean, his name is James I think!"
"That guy is a wimp! He doesn't own the place!" Laura cried.
"He sure does," said Christine.
"He must do something here," Sara said. "I mean, have you ever seen him leave? He doesn't! He lives back there."
"He probably just slips out the back and stalks people," Rita suggested. There was a second burst of laughter, and somebody muttered "James the Ripper strikes again!" while choking back a giggle.
"Sucks, doesn't it?" Christine said. "I mean, look at Sam, and look at 'James'" - she affected her best aristocratic English accent for the pronunciation of "James" - "I mean, why the hell is someone like Sam working for someone like him? Sam could kick his ass any day!"
"Maybe they're doing it in the back room."
Sara sputtered, failing not to laugh, and Laura glared at Rita.
"How can you say that?" Laura said reprovingly. Then she rolled her eyes, smiling. "I mean God, what a waste of a warm body."
Laughter rose, and the music played on.
It was late. Sam put the last of the glasses in the machine and pushed the "on" switch, and the sudden hum of the wash cycle acted to lessen the pervading silence that filled the recently packed club. Glancing at his watch - 5:14 a.m. - he walked over to the front door to double-check that it was locked. It was.
Sam turned and surveyed the room. The glasses were being cleaned, the chairs were on the tables, the floor was swept, and inventory had been taken. Shadows filled the place, cast at odd angles from the only two remaining light sources: the light coming through the open doorway to the back hall, and the neon sign outside one of the small raised windows on the front of the building. James had not returned.
With a small sigh he reached over and turned out the neon sign. The Nightlife was now closed and invisible. Without the sign pointing it out, the club was relatively unnoticeable among the line of old turn-of-the-century buildings. Sam walked quickly across the room, his footsteps echoing softly in the quiet darkness. He reached the back hall and closed the door to the main room behind him, before proceeding to double-check the back door. It was also locked; that was all the doors except for the emergency exit in the club. He threw the heavy bolt and switched off the bare light in the hall, since the switch was near the outside door instead of near the office or the stairs where it would be convenient. It didn't matter. Sam knew his way in the dark.
He proceeded back to the office in the pitch darkness and unlocked it with a key he'd produced from his pocket. As he did so, he saw the desk light switch on through the foggy glass panel in the door. Someone was in there, and they had to know he was there in the hall.
A voice answered almost immediately. "No. It's me, Sam."
Sam opened the door, and a dark-skinned face peered out of the half-light. Letting out a breath, Sam relaxed. "Michael."
The other spoke quietly. "I must talk to James."
"Not now, Michael."
"Where is he, Sam?" He rose from the chair, casting his face into the shadows above the low lamp.
"He's not here," Sam replied. "He left hours ago." He reached to turn on the overhead light, but something stopped him. A sense of.... He lowered his hand slowly. "Are you sure seeing him is a good idea?"
"Have you watched the news?" Michael seemed very reserved tonight; even for Michael.
"No, I haven't."
Michael shook his head slowly. "It's better if I find him before the others start looking." He stepped away from the chair and pushed it to the desk. "Tell him I was here."
Sam noticed something glisten on the other's cheek. A tear? Michael? It was hard to tell in the concealing darkness. He moved forward, and Michael countered around the desk, moving to the door. "Michael, what happened?"
"Tell him." With that, Michael disappeared into the hallway. The next sound Sam heard was that of a car starting up and pulling away.
Sam stepped back and sat on the corner of the desk.
A moment later he jumped when the light clicked on. James stood before him, stooped with exhaustion. Then he spoke. "I'm sorry, Sam. I waited until he was gone. I don't want to face him right now."
"Sir!" Sam cried, louder than he expected. "What happened? Are you all..." The front of James' coat had fallen open, revealing a dark stain which covered most of his chest. Sam stared for a full minute, during which his companion did not move. It was finally Sam who broke the silence.
The bare light bulb hung loosely from the streetlight that arched just a few yards away from the portals leading to The Nightlife. There was no traffic on the street, and the sounds of the surrounding city seemed distant and removed. The door to the club opened silently, and James stepped out into the pre-dawn, holding a wooden folding chair under one arm. He had changed into an old suit - a relic from years past, right down to the cardboard shirt collar - and wore an open trench coat over that. There was a clacking of wooden joints as he opened the chair and set it on the sidewalk, facing down the street to the east. He sat down heavily, and was answered by a groan from the chair.
A moment later, Sam came through the same door, carrying a heavy blanket and a corked wine bottle. He wordlessly placed the bottle on the ground next to James and unfolded the blanket, gently tucking it around James' legs. "There you are, sir. Nice and warm for you." James made no move to respond, so with a small nod, Sam turned to go back inside. Then James spoke.
"Thank you, Sam."
Sam hesitated for a moment. Then, "Is that it for tonight?"
"Are you in a hurry, Sam?"
"Um, no, I was just wondering if that was all." He licked his lips dryly in the brief silence that followed. Then James looked at him directly.
"Go fetch a chair for yourself, Sam. Sit with me a moment."
"Yes sir." Sam went quickly to the door and disappeared inside. James reached his hand down slowly and picked up the bottle. Pulling out the cork, he took a long drink and set the bottle back down. For several minutes he did not move, gazing at the reddish light rising over the buildings in the distance. The door behind him opened again, and Sam stepped out holding a second folding chair.
James raised the bottle slightly and said, "This is good. Where did you get it?"
Sam unfolded the chair and set it down, facing the narrow street. "Down on Wells. An old Chinese woman."
"There should be more like her."
Sam almost cracked a smile. "There are. Billions." He was surprised when James actually chuckled.
"Yes." James took the bottle again and drank, savoring the flavor. It tasted sweeter than usual. A moment later his attention turned to Sam, who was shifting uncomfortably.
"Uh, sir?" Sam said finally.
"You know, it's almost morning."
"It is morning, Sam." James spoke without moving.
"I mean, almost daybreak."
"I know," James said, nodding finally. "Thank you." He picked up the bottle and took another drink. After a pause he said, "It's going to be a hot one today."
"The weather. It's going to be hot."
"Yes sir." Then Sam stood up. "We ought to go in, sir."
With a languid motion, James waved for him to sit. "Did I ever tell you about my grandfather, Sam? James Leland the first?"
Sam sat down. "Don't you mean 'great-grandfather'?"
James thought for a moment. "Yes. You're right. I'm James IV, aren't I?"
"Back in 1814 he saved a boy from a barn fire. Fire was one of the only things he truly feared. That and the thought that God was watching over him, and judging him. It was late one summer night, and we hadn't had rain for weeks so it was very dry. But when he heard that boy's scream he didn't think twice but ran headlong into the blaze." James closed his eyes. "He stayed low once inside until he was able to locate the child up in the hayloft. He managed to climb up to the loft, he grabbed the boy and took him to the open doors off the front. They jumped..."
Sam finished the sentence. "...And he broke his leg in the process."
"Yes," James answered. "Though he did not realize it until later. They hit the ground with the boy on top of grandfather. The boy laid there coughing up smoke, and grandfather just rested, trying to regain his composure. It was a minute or two before the woman saw his face and screamed."
Sam wasn't sure where "the woman" had come from, but he didn't interrupt.
"There was something in that frenzied moment that made him something horrible to see, and at the sound of her voice he broke from the crowd and ran. The heat off his face rose quickly as the blood rushed through him. He ran for several minutes without stopping, and it was not until he finally did stop that he realized that his leg was injured."
Sam spoke quietly. "How did he run?"
James response was instantaneous and energized. "Adrenaline. Perhaps simple strength of will. The fact was he ran. It frightened him that he had lost control again. He hated himself for the fear that woman had shown. The woman said later that he was the devil himself. Grandfather said that if the devil saved people from burning buildings, then maybe the devil wasn't such a bad thing to be - as long as, of course, he stayed out of God's sight."
"Yes sir." Sam paused before continuing. "Speaking of which, sir, it's only a few minutes until..."
James reflected for a moment, then asked, "How long have you been working for me, Sam?"
"Well, your father hired mine about... fifty years ago, I believe."
James smiled gently. "You've served us well, Sam."
"Thank you sir."
"And I'm sorry."
Sam frowned. "Sorry, sir?"
James' pause was almost imperceptible. Then he turned slowly and looked Sam directly in the eyes. "The time has come that I must relieve you of your service to me."
Sam almost fell out of the chair. "W-what? But sir...."
"It's not you, Sam." James' voice suddenly became a whisper. "It's time for me to go, Sam. I'm waiting for the dawn."
"Sir! You can't..."
James silenced him with a gesture. "It's already decided Sam. You'll be well cared for. I've left you the club."
Sam stood up. "But sir!"
"Stop." He raised the bottle again and finished it off. "Call Michael if you need help, which you will eventually."
Sam started to speak, then stopped, composing himself. He looked at James. "Are you... are you sure of this?"
James was calm. "Yes. It's been far too long since I've seen the sun."
"Call me James, please."
"Yes si... James." Sam took in a long breath, and let it out slowly.
"Perhaps Michael will give you the gift some day. I hope you are ready if that day comes. There are two letters on my desk. One is for you, and includes the papers for the club and my belongings. The other is for Michael. Please see that he gets it."
Sam regarded James, who sat completely still and relaxed in the low chair. It took him a moment to answer. "Yes sir."
Sam smiled sadly. "James."
"I believe it is time. You'd better get inside."
"Alright... James." Sam stepped closer to the door. "Good-bye sir." He leaned down hesitantly and put his arms around James, in an awkward hug. James acknowledged it by placing a hand on Sam's arm. Sam stood up and composed himself. "Good-bye."
Just as Sam reached the door, James spoke again.
"Don't forget to spread the ashes."
Sam took one last look and went inside, as the sun came over the tops of the buildings. James stood slowly, hesitating only for a moment, and spread his arms wide to welcome the glory of morning. He opened his eyes and gazed longingly at the sun's radiance...