"Not just ANY hang-over cure, my friend..." The bartender with the face like the wrong end of a cat leaned closer and repeated, "...but the hang-over cure of the GODS." He exhaled long on "gods", long enough that Harry could smell every dental visit the man must not have made in the last fifty years. It was a lot.
The place was empty, just another juke-joint like any other in Peoria, a stop on the main drag which ran between the yards on the edge of town all the way down to the river. The city lay in a valley, split by a wide river. The valley trapped all the exhaust and fumes of all the automobiles, the stock yards, the dumps, the train depots, all the factories for miles around, all of that life and exhaled breath of industry, it held it there to its bosom. It gave the bar a sulfurous stench, even with the doors closed. The late June blanket of thick humidity and stifled misery was only the cherry on the miserable sundae.
The lone metal fan at the end of the bar did nothing but make the smoke swirl slightly. The air was simply too heavy for mechanical measures to affect.
Harry was drinking mostly as anesthetic by then, countering the smell by numbing all his senses to the point where he could simply exist. He'd just gotten to a solid enough level of drunk he could pretend he was somewhere with better natural airflow when the bartender continued his speech.
"If I had a bottle, I could wake up the dead. My bar, my wife, whatever. Bring it all back."
Harry shifted on his stool. A lone fly was heroically attempting to circumnavigate the light fixture overhead. The radio was cutting in and out on the Dodger's home game. They'd just moved to LA and were having a bad time of it.
"Two parts Cognac, straight from France." The bartender slammed down a squat bottle covered in silver filigree, fancy, like a prostitute putting on airs. "One part apple brandy. One part sweet vermouth."
He pulled another bottle from behind the counter, green, dusty. Vermouth. It looked like it had never been opened.
Silence stretched out. The fly had given up on the light and had landed on a bowl of peanuts. Judging by the ashen color and dust on those, they'd been laid down some time during Prohibition. The door opened briefly as the only other patron, a man with a beard down to his gut and a wife-beater so stained it looked like an art project, left. The air, already thick, failed to stir.
The bartender was staring at Henry like he was waiting for a punchline. Harry wasn't much inclined to give it to him because he was sobering up alarmingly fast now and could smell the city again. He could smell his own sweat, could smell that it, too, was beginning to be tainted by the smell of sulfur and spoiled meat, just like this city.
"Not just any apple brandy, my friend."
"Oh, we're friends now?"
The bartender failed to read the sarcasm. He was on a roll.
Somewhere in a better part of the country, somebody hit a homerun.
"Only the best. Legends tell of one brandy, casked in 1821, early May, the day Napoleon died. Pierre Ferrand Magnifique 1821. One cask survives."
"It's the Hope Diamond of brandies. I wish I had it." He shook his head.
"The Hope Diamond kills people."
"They say a fever will cure a fever. I want it. It's in town. I'll give you all the cash I have left if you can acquire it."
"And what makes you think I can or will do that for you?"
The bartender eyed Harry with an unpleasant gleam in his eye. He scanned Harry—the battered Fedora, the holes in his elbows, the hard muscles going to seed which spoke of a life recently spent in the military, but not any more.
"You own a bar in this town, you learn to tell what people can get things done and what kinda people can't. Connected people, you see 'em all the time. You ain't one, but you've got that look. $2000." And he jotted something down on a napkin. It was a name and an address.
Harry slid it over, through a puddle of spilled Jim Beam, and eyed it dubiously. It was in the only thing that really passed for a good part of Peoria, up out of the valley, where the judges and old money lived.
$2000 would pay for a pretty big ticket out of here.
Harry sat across the street, trying to be inconspicuous as he changed. The air, a trifle cooler, a trifle less smelly, was still damp and odorous. The sun was setting fast, casting a sullen red glow down the street, lighting the sprawling houses which lined this part of town blood red.
The address on the napkin led him here. The house connected to said address was a big one: three stories high, probably another one or two deep, a gingerbread house of towers and unnecessary buttresses, all surrounded by a sprawling and under-used lawn.
Harry had a plan.
The cask had to be in the basement. They couldn't keep it anywhere else, because the heat would kill the brandy, as sure as corking kills wine.
You'd think a house like this would be a fortress, and it is. They had security. The police were, if not on their payroll, then as concerned as any police force could be about a wealthy local taxpayer.
The doors had locks, but a house that big, they had staff, contractors, delivery boys. There were people constantly trickling in and out of the building. The place was leaking people, every second of the day.
And that's where his plan came in: he was, simply and to the point, just going to walk right in.
He finished changing and went to the back of his new truck. He'd acquired it some minutes ago, by the simple expedient of knowing where all the local coal delivery drivers liked to drink. About three dollars worth of whiskey later and some clever redirection, he had control of some unlucky sap's—Marvin, the name stitched on the coveralls said—truck, spare uniforms and roughly half a ton of coal.
Harry grabbed a clipboard and strolled around to the back of the house, where the servant entrances were, waved the clipboard at the first man in a suit he saw. Moments later, he was alone in the basement, ostensibly on business. Instead, he went exploring.
The place was dingy, filled with shadows and alarmingly huge pipes. The furnace took half the place, a frowning octopus of pipes, gears and bare teeth. It was quiet this time of the year, but it still occasionally needed to be fed, if only to keep the wealthy in hot water.
In the back, behind a better class of doors than the ones he passed through in the servants' side of the building, he found a section of the basement which was better appointed. Smelling success, he followed the money, passed into rooms which were progressively more lavish and better lit. Finally, he came to a door nicer than the others, which was locked.
Scoffing, he pulled out a pick and, within moments, was inside.
He could tell right away which cask the brandy was. The oak was aged to a jet black patina. It was labelled in gold filigree—Pierre Ferrand Magnifique 1821—and it was padlocked to the floor.
"If you're the coal man, I'm Jayne Mansfield."
Harry started, turned.
There was a huge man here, a bruiser with a face like a sack of potatoes, easily two bills of bone and muscle. He was braced sturdily against the ceiling, holding a timber against one shoulder. The ceiling creaked dangerously as he spoke.
"I'm not." Harry frowned. This man was going nowhere. "I'm a thief."
"Good luck with that. I move, this whole place goes down. And that's padlocked."
"Granted." Harry eyed the man, then the brandy cask, speculatively.
There was a long silence and then Harry made up his mind. He couldn't pick the lock, but maybe brute force would do. He'd worry about the thug later.
"Wait. How's about a deal?"
Harry turned back.
"I hate these bastards. They chisel me for money every time I get paid. What say I help you with this?"
"You got my attention."
"Hold this and I'll unlock the cask. We'll split it, 50/50."
His eyes were gray and earnest, like a child's, except twice as innocent. Harry distrusted him instantly.
"You try to pick that lock and you'll regret it. Can't keep you from trying, not without setting off the ceiling, but I can warn you. It's cursed, seven ways to Sunday. Got a demon in it. If you don't know the trick, it'll eat you."
Harry looked at the floor and, indeed, there were dark stains in the paving stones, bits of what looked to be gristle lodged between the stones. The lock itself looked dangerous. He'd heard stories of contraptions like this, warded by the dying wishes of necromancers and hoodoo men. This one was inscribed with skulls and nether runes. Moreover, it looked suspiciously unpickable, even without any putative magic.
He weighed the options. On one hand, he trusted the man about as much as he did a three dollar bill. On the other, he wasn't getting through that lock, demon or no. Finally, he nodded and spelled the man.
The timber was heavier than it looked, and it looked heavy.
Harry swore. "This is damn heavy."
"Yeah, you tell me, brother."
The thug went to the lock, producing a key from some pocket in his dusty trousers. And then he did something with his other hand. He mumbled some words and the padlock fell apart. There was a distant scream, as of something crawling its way out of Hell, but interrupted at the last moment. The floor shook, just a little, and then subsided. The thug grunted and grabbed the cask.
"Well, so long, sap."
He was heading out the door. Harry cleared his throat.
"We're not friends, but we're not enemies either. This timber's killing me."
"Cry me a river."
"Just hold it up for a second so I can put my jacket between my shoulder and the wood. It hurts something fierce. I can already feel blood."
An expression swept across the thug's face, fast and unreadable. He nodded finally. He knew how cruel that timber was.
As he took some of the weight off of Harry's shoulder, Harry ducked, fast, grabbed the cask and hauled ass out the door before the thug could do more but flail at his jacket.
Behind him, he could hear the thug yelling. The ceiling didn't collapse, though.