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David descended a few quick stairs into the dining room. It was narrow, stretching the length of the inn. And empty. Beyond tall windows, bushes in the courtyard glowed with squares of inside light. He counted his steps for no good reason.
On the other side, he turned into an open parlor. Familiar, he thought. Perhaps the room in the photograph. Chairs angled into little circles, no longer filled.
Through a last doorway, he spied the bar.
"Here we are," he muttered.
Inside, everything darkened into a brooding blur. The carpet. The curtains. The fanning wallpaper. But not the dazzling light behind the bar. Its shine seized all attention. Where it shattered on the liquor, countless colors sprayed, each a unique slice from a thousand tiny prisms.
David took a stool, and moments later, soft footsteps joined him in the room.
"Hello," David said, turning. "Great timing. How are you this evening?
"Fine, sir. Fine. I apologize for the short staffing tonight."
David smirked. "You look tall enough to me."
The bartender chuckled and shook his head.
"Sorry," David said. "I can't help myself sometimes. I do appreciate you for breaking away for a minute, though. Got a rowdy bunch back there?"
"They're well enough behaved," the man said, taking his position behind the bar. "For now at least. What can I get for you?"
"Normally I'm a gin and tonic man, but the gentleman at the front desk mentioned you have some interesting cocktails."
"Yes. Our vintage cocktails are very popular."
The bartender flipped open a drink list and extended it in the same motion.
"Any recommendations?" David asked, not looking.
"For a gin man, absolutely. I have just the thing."
David smiled. "I'm in your hands."
David tried to watch the ingredients, but he found his mind wandering. Far off, individual voices in the wedding party pressed to the surface, but fell back before they emerged.
Ice clattered in the shaker. A quick rhythm. Then, the bartender strained a concoction into a glass. He slid it to David, who sipped and let it play on his tongue.
"That's a fine drink," David said after swallowing.
"Thank you. One of my favorites too."
David tasted it again.
"Shall we go with that one, then? Or would you prefer something else?"
"No, no. This is very good."
"If you don't mind, I'll let you have some privacy then," the man said. He motioned over David's head. "They'll be raiding the bar if I'm not back right away."
He started to leave.
"Whoa. What do I owe you?" David asked.
"Our compliments, sir. For our short, um, under staffing."
"Really? Thanks. I appreciate that. But let me give you something at least."
"No, it's my pleasure. I'll try to stop back again in a little while."
"No need," David said, "I'm set. Thanks anyway."
The bartender wished David a good night and circled behind him. David watched him leave in the mirror. His outline melted away in the distant doorway.
David drank again and enjoyed the heat in his throat. The sound of the crowd swelled to greet the returning bartender.
Long minutes passed. David's gaze strolled around the room. In such muted light, details seemed uninspired. Drab. For a while, he stared into his own eyes in the mirror. No clear thoughts unfolded as he did. Just fascination. And curiosity. He stopped when he no longer recognized the face.
More of the hour ticked away. David slid his drink along the bar, back and forth, back and forth.
His mind was drifting towards sleep when the feeling struck him.
A warmth. A breath of fragrance. He turned and started. A touch of his drink darkened on his pants. Someone had slipped into the room behind him.
He didn't register her face at first. Only her eyes. He stared down at them. Blue as the winter hills before dawn. Brilliant as candles shining in dark windows.
"My God," he whispered aloud. And it wasn't just the gin talking.
The small face smiled, a work of art in flesh. Long sweeps of hair, nearly black, framed the breath-taking portrait. David guessed the girl to be around eight or nine.
For several seconds, David was speechless. At last he managed to ask, "are you from the party?"
She stood motionless, giving no indication she heard him.
Never had he seen eyes like those in a child. Anchored onto him. Penetrating. Although impossible, those eyes were sharpened by many, many years.
Indeed, she was dressed for a party.
"Are you looking for someone?" David asked.
Her lips parted. David's breath caught in expectation of the voice.
"My father left me here," she said. "For a little while. He'll be back soon."
An Earthy voice. Not the slightest apprehension.
Didn't sound right. "You're alone? Maybe we should go find him."
"He's coming back."
Between the drink and the atmosphere, the moment suddenly didn't sit like reality. He tried to untangle his confusion.
"Could I stay with you?" she asked. "For a few minutes?"
Her voice dropped. "I'd rather not wait alone," she said.
On to Part 4
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