The two men headed straight for my table, tucked back into a corner at the back of the bar.
I felt my unease growing as I sized the pair up. I’d assumed that my watchdogs would be normal men. Mercenaries, maybe, or ex-military. A couple muscle-bound toughs, easy to dispose of when I no longer wanted them watching me.
But when these two men entered, their eyes immediately found mine, not even bothering with the rest of the bar’s patrons. The bigger of the pair showed no change of expression, but the little one flashed a brief, smirking little grin at me.
I’d picked the table at the back so that I wouldn’t be interrupted. Now, I found myself casting longing glances towards the bar’s rear exit. Maybe I should have sat closer to the door.
“Well, well, Mr. Check,” the short little man greeted me, his toothy smile appearing once again on his face. It seemed to come and go with little warning; one moment it would be absent, and the next second it would appear in full bloom. But even as his mouth twitched into a little grin, his eyes remained constant, glazed over with treacherous ice. “Is good to meet, you might say.”
I nodded to the little man, although my eyes darted to the larger of the pair. He’d sat down at the table as well, although he barely fit in the space between the booth and the table’s edge. Huge and corpulent, his expression remained utterly blank.
“Oh, don’t mind Mr. Rook,” the little man said to me, flapping one hand at his acquaintance. “He doesn’t speak much. All the better for you, too, if he doesn’t open his mouth.” The little man chuckled heartily to himself, as if he’d just made some sort of joke.
The Rusty Tap didn’t have waitresses. The bar only had a single, grizzled barkeep standing behind the shelter of his counter, bottles at the ready. I liked it that way. But now, the little man raised his fingers up and snapped, and the old man tottered out from behind his shelter, bringing several dirty glasses over to us.
“Now, Mr. Check, my name is Bishop, and this master of poetry beside me is Mr. Rook,” the little man went on, his eyes remaining focused on me as the barkeep set drinks in front of us. “We, for our sins, are to be your guardians.”
I nodded again. I’d expected this. When I took the job, there had been a comment about “monitors.” This pair, however, wasn’t what I’d anticipated.
Bishop lifted up his glass, examining the strangely reddish liquid inside. He took a sip, and closed his eyes in appreciation. “Ah, that’s the stuff.”
My eyes, moving almost of their own volition, tracked over to Rook. The barkeep hadn’t poured him a drink, but had simply deposited an entire bottle of some dark alcohol on the table in front of the big man.
As I watched, Rook picked up the bottle by its base and, without any change in expression, bit off the cap and neck. I could hear the glass crunching into shards as he chewed.
Beside him, Bishop shook his head with a little smile. “Oh, Mr. Rook, where are your table manners?” he asked, clucking his tongue like a mother at a child.
“Ate ’em,” Mr. Rook replied, spitting flecks of cork and glass.
Bishop returned his focus back to me. “Now, Mr. Check, you understand your role in this little plan, yes?” he asked. “It has already been explained?”
I had to lick my lips before I found my voice. “Yes,” I said. “You’re going to remove the guards, and I swipe the case while everyone’s distracted.”
The little man nodded, smiling once again. I could see extra redness on his lips from his drink. “And then, you will bring it to us, and you’ll receive your payment,” he finished.
“Hold on. I thought I was bringing the case to whoever hired me? The brains behind this heist?”
Bishop tutted, shaking his head. “Ah, Mr. Check. When an ant finds that a boot blocks his path, he does not speak to the boot’s owner. No, he shakes his little ant head, adjusts to his new course, and thanks his lucky little stars that the boot didn’t crush him.”
For a moment, the little man’s smile vanished, and he looked as wooden and emotionless as his partner. “Do you understand my little metaphor, Mr. Check?”
I understood him. Still, I had to know how much of a leash I’d been given. “And what happens if I disagree with it?” I asked. Surely, they wouldn’t try anything here, in public, before I’d even pulled off the snatch for them. They still needed me, needed my talents.
“If you disagree?” Bishop looked as though the idea had never occurred to him. “Why, Mr. Rook, perhaps you can suggest what we might do in that situation?”
The big man’s eyes tracked over to me. “Eat ‘im?” he asked hopefully.
Bishop reached over and patted the arm of his partner. He might have wanted to pat the man’s cheek, but he couldn’t reach that high. “Only if he disagrees, Mr. Rook,” he corrected gently.
Mr. Rook’s eyes remained fixed on me. “Looks tasty,” he said, taking another glass-shattering bite out of the bottle. “Crunchy.”
“I think we make our point, Mr. Rook,” Bishop took over, smiling at me once again. “And I’m sure that Mr. Check agrees with me when I say that this will be a routine and civil affair. We will provide a distraction, he will snatch the case that our employer desires, and he will then pass it over to us in exchange for payment. There will be no issues.”
I nodded, but Bishop kept his eyes locked on me, his smile looking more and more out of place on his face by the second. “And if he fails, or takes a single step out of line,” Bishop continued, his voice dropping into a whisper, “we will chase him. He may run, he may flee halfway across the cosmos, but we will always follow, will always find him.
“And then, Mr. Rook will eat you alive.”
For a moment, Bishop’s face was twisted and filled with snarling, endless fury as he glared at me. A second later, however, he blinked, and was as smiling and genteel as ever.
“Now, you will be at this address in two days’ time,” he said, passing a small, grubby slip of paper over to me. “You’ll see the distraction, and you can make the snatch. Once you have the case, we will contact you for the exchange.”
Bishop stood up, straightening the lapels of his black jacket. “And now, we have other errands to run, Mr. Check,” he said, giving me a slight little mocking bow. “Come, Mr. Rook. Let us be off.”
As they stood, the barkeep perked up, light coming into his sunken eyes. “Hey, youse two haven’t paid,” he called out, once again daring to emerge from behind the safety of his bar.
This was a mistake. As he stepped over towards Bishop, Mr. Rook’s hand shot out, closing on the bearded man’s throat. I saw the barkeep’s eyes go wide as the big, black-clad man dragged his head down and in.
With a crunch, Mr. Rook bit a chunk out of the man’s head, swallowing as blood ran down his chin. “Mmm,” he grunted, before diving back in for another bite.
As his partner chewed with gusto on the barkeep’s exposed skull and brain, Bishop reached out with a long, skinny finger, dipping it into the dripping stream of blood. “A bit too aged and bitter,” he observed, licking his finger clean. “Not entirely unpalatable, however.”
From the sound of Mr. Rook’s crunching, he would happily devour the rest of the barkeep’s twitching body, but Bishop snapped his fingers. “Come, Mr. Rook,” he called out as he turned towards the door. “We have no time for dalliances.”
With a grunt, Mr. Rook dropped the now mostly headless corpse down to the floor. Wiping his mouth with one sleeve, he followed after his smaller partner.
For a minute, I just stared down at the corpse lying nearly at my feet. Some of the bar’s other patrons were finally recovering enough to scream, but I kept my mouth tightly shut.
No, these definitely weren’t the normal guards I’d been expecting. Whoever wanted this case was willing to go to extreme lengths to ensure they received it.
I could feel foreboding bubbling up inside of me, but I knew that I couldn’t escape.