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Hugh stared at the polished mahogany countertop of the bar, and swirled his whiskey tumbler. The single ice cube inside clinked lightly against the sides of the glass; he took a sip, clenching his teeth and pulling his upper lip backwards to bare his teeth as the whiskey burnt his throat and tongue.
Johnny Cash’s Hurt played lowly in the background, providing a melancholy counterpoint to the gay atmosphere in the bar. He swigged another mouthful of whiskey, and chased it with a lungful of smoke. His heart was beating slightly faster with the combination of alcohol-nicotine-caffeine that was flowing through his arteries, and his senses felt elevated. He could taste the ammonic odour wafting from the toilets, and Cash’s crooning voice seemed to be pouring directly into his ear, caressing and stroking his earlobes, swimming around the sinkhole of his pinna before dropping into, and vibrating on, his eardrum.
His vision swam slightly as surges of nicotine reached his bloodstream at irregular intervals, provoking momentary sensory overload. The blonde sitting on the opposite side of the bar shifted slightly from side to side as his eyes struggled to adapt to the stimulatory effects of multiple agitating chemicals. His hands trembled slightly as he lifted the tumbler for another mouthful, and he couldn’t prevent his knee from bobbing up and down—a nervous tic-hangover from years gone by.
“How we doing with that whiskey?” asked a voice from behind the counter.
Hugh gazed up, eyes glazed over, jerked out of his trance. The bartender looked at him with a questioning look, casually polishing a wine glass as he waited for Hugh’s response.
“Yeah, I’ll take another one. Make it a double,” replied Hugh, fishing in his pocket for a ten euro note. He paid for the whiskey, and left the change on the counter, where it was quickly (yet subtly) swiped away by the barman and sent clanging into the tip-jar.
The soundtrack changed to Chris de Burgh’s The Tower, and a man sat down on the stool next to him and ordered a vodka on the rocks; lifting a pack of cigarettes to his mouth, he extracted a protruding fag with his mouth, lit it, took a drag and exhaled through his nostrils. The epitome of cool. He turned to talk to Hugh.
“Sorry,” preëmpted Hugh, “not interested.”
The man looked disappointed and moved away. Hugh felt bad, but that was the way it was; he wasn’t here to make other people feel good, he was on the lookout. His phone vibrated, a text from Eva:
“Out for target practice tonight?” followed by an emoticon with its tongue sticking out. Hugh ignored it. He was working, he didn’t have the time to be bothered with her tonight.
His eyes drifted back to the blonde on the other side of the counter, who was sipping a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and smoking slim cigarettes. Smoke drifted around the blonde’s head, creating an alluring curtain of dull grey fabric, behind which only a lucky few were ever invited. The blonde lifted his head back and laughed at a joke made by his companion, the heavy-set woman sitting on his left; her jowls jiggled as she delighted in the mirth unleashed by her joke.
Hugh, in his working profession, was used to reaching snap judgments on people—it was the only way to survive, really. Slow or inaccurate judgments were often a death sentence for people in his line of work. The woman on the blonde’s left was an easy one: probably intelligent, but never fully accepted by anyone because they couldn’t see past her aesthetically displeasing countenance; this had led to a fuck-you-world attitude, in which she ceased caring about how she looked: she put on weight, wore baggy clothes, wore her hair in a severe bun on top of her head. This move appeared confident and liberating to the casual observer, but trained eyes would easily spot that this was yet another desperate cry for approval clothed in new fabric.
Hugh sighed inwardly: a boring analysis. The blonde, on the other hand, was a more interesting character. He wasn’t particularly attractive, but something in his carriage—the way he moved, the way he surveyed a room as though he owned it, owned everything and everyone in it—made you look twice; he still wasn’t good-looking per se, but there was something irresistible in his visage which couldn’t be ignored. Outside of the bar, he was a minor artist who had achieved momentary fame for painting some controversial tableaux on the Arab Spring. There was nothing particularly special about him, his acquaintances or his work which warranted anything more than a disinterested second glance.
And yet, none of this warranted the interest that Hugh had in him. He had never talked to this blonde. His interest in him had started professionally, after he had been approached by a jealous former lover of the blonde and been engaged to follow the blonde in an attempt to discern his movements. Pretty petty work, but things had dried up recently and Hugh couldn’t afford to be picky anymore: God be with the glory days when he could have laughed and sneered at such a pathetic, demeaning job proposal.
However, that engagement had ended months ago when the jealous lover had been slapped with a restraining order; Hugh now followed him out of a more personal interest. Partially, he wanted to unravel this enigma and tease out its implications. That part of his interest was purely professional: being able to understand a person like this would be a huge leap for his skill-set. Another, larger, part of him was fascinated by this creature sitting in front of him. His loins stirred involuntarily whenever he saw the blonde, a feeling that he hadn’t felt since his last divorce. He’d thought that all sexual excitement was dead for him: Miranda had made it clear in her parting words that he had been about as exciting in the bedroom as a wet sock.
The blonde smiled again at the fat woman’s comments, and Hugh’s heart stirred momentarily. He had never talked to the blonde—first, for professional reasons, but now for fear of what might happen. He stared into his whiskey glass and wondered what to do: sit in safe, agonising placidity, or take a risk?
He slugged back the last of his whiskey, took a final drag on his cigarette and crushed it out in the ashtray nearby. Pushing back his stool with a loud scrape, he stood up from the bar.