Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge - Paul Krueger

PROLOGUE

It was another Friday night, not that it mattered to Officer Jim Regan of the Chicago PD. There were fifty-two Fridays in a year, and he’d been around for fifty-two years. That meant the number of Fridays he’d lived through was … was … The hell with it. He wasn’t gonna do the math.

After all, it was Friday.

His usual routine was to get off his beat, squeeze back into his civvies, then head down to the Loose Cannon with the rest of the Twentieth Precinct and drink the night away. But tonight he’d gone solo and wandered south into Ravenswood, to the Nightshade Lounge. It was a neighborhood joint his partner mentioned once upon a time, a place where no one would give a shit that he’d flunked his sergeant’s exam for the fifth time.

Jim slurped down the last of his boilermaker and slammed the entire thing on the counter, the empty shot glass rattling inside the equally empty beer glass. “Good stuff,” he boomed to everybody within thirty feet, which was pretty much nobody. It was past one a.m. and the bar had mostly emptied. He clapped a meaty hand on the counter. “I’ll take one for the road.”

The bartender studied him from behind a pair of square eyeglasses. “I think you’re good, man,” he said.

Jim studied him back. He was young—practically a kid—and wore a white dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a tucked-in tie like an old-timey barkeep. Little punk.

“Come on,” Jim said, pulling out his wallet. “It’s for the road. Give me a break, huh?”

The bartender shook his head. “Our drinks aren’t going anywhere. How about you come back tomorrow night, and your first one’s on me? I’ll call you a cab.” The kid whipped out his phone before he was even done speaking. Jim waved him off.

“S’all right,” he said. “Don’t hafta worry about getting busted. I’m a cop.”

The kid grinned. “Knowing what the city pays you, I’ll make it two rounds then. But for now, let’s get you that cab.”

Jim waved him off again. “Keep the damn cab,” he said, scowling. “I can walk.” He lurched to his feet, then looked back. Maybe because he’d been pickling his brain in bourbon and beer since getting off work, but he only just noticed that Mr. Shirt-and-Tie was alone behind the bar. “Hey,” he said, “what happened to the girl?” The friendly-looking redhead with a pretty face and not too terrible figure had been happy to serve him.

The kid mimed smoking an invisible cigarette.

Jim grimaced. Now that was a bad habit he’d never picked up. Walking the beat was risky enough. He dropped a fiver on the bar but couldn’t focus well enough to give the kid the dirty look he deserved. “Well, tell her thanks for doing her job.”

“Get home safe, Officer.”

And so Jim Regan staggered out, muttering darkly with each step.

Officer. It wasn’t like he was gunning to be the next commissioner, for chrissake; he just wanted the stripes on his sleeve. But these days everything was run by up-jumped little shits like that punk bartender.

Summertime Chicago was sweltering. Jim got only three blocks before blotches of sweat darkened his shirt. He stopped and reevaluated. New plan: screw walking and take the bus. The nearest stop was just over the Montrose Street Bridge in Horner Park, a quick trip even for him.

As he heaved across the two-lane bridge, Jim eyed the rusted pedestrian railings. What a goddamn surprise, he thought; something around town needed fixing up. He’d seen six mayors come and go since he first put on the uniform, and if there was one thing each generation of paper pushers downtown was good at, it was coming up with new ways to fuck up something that was already pretty thoroughly fucked.

The streetlights flickered overhead. Something was rustling behind him—not a car; didn’t sound like wheels. More like footfalls.

Jim turned and froze.

God, no. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, no.

Not the DTs. Not now. Jim might be a drunk—an alcoholic, he was supposed to say—but he knew when to stop. Stopping was all that kept him from turning out like his old man, a real drunk’s drunk: the thrashing, then trembling, sweating through his undershirts. Moaning and clawing at the air, at things that weren’t there. Things like this.

Jim blinked, but the thing didn’t go away.

It wasn’t huge—the size of a big dog, maybe—but it was a horrible skinless pink color, as if made of flayed muscle. And it was crawling forward.

Jim glanced around wildly. “Stop,” he said