I do not own anything. Except of one million thanks to my wonderful, encouraging beta Eora.

Glossary:

Bundaberg Rum – Alcoholic beverage produced in, err, Bundaberg, Queensland. I never got my hands on it, though due to Lonely Planet travel guide the hangover is quite devlish.

Language-wise:

Boshe moy – Russian: My God

Nye plokho – Russian: Not bad

Fifty pence: I was surprised to learn that, up to 1966, the Australian currency consisted of pounds, shillings and pence (though distinct from the UK´s). I say, you live and learn!

Probable blunders: I´ve just realized that, after Fletcher has been sacked by Lady Ashley, the movie doesn´t mention there´s an employment relationship between him and King Carney. On the other hand it doesn´t explicitly say the opposite either. Sooo... say hello to artistic license! :D

Beat the Barman

Ivan likes the calm hours around noon. It is then when he finds time to check the invoices or clean the tabs or write one of his few letters home. The hours when the bar is almost empty are good for business. If there is no one drinking, there is no one to pick up a fight; if there is no one picking a fight there is no need to worry about the furnishing. This time of day all men are busy at the cattle stations, in their offices or the military base, and Ivan is grateful they leave him alone.

Except one. The man who now pushes open the swinging door is the last one Ivan expected. He is also the last one he would be happy to see – unfortunately his position as the keeper of a public inn does not give him much of a choice. If he had one, Ivan would gladly prefer a dozen hard-boiled sailors whose idea of a great night out consisted of smashing the chairs and puking on the porch. After all they are at least predictable. It is men like this one who mean trouble, trouble of a subtle kind, which is far worse than a cracked mirror.

For as long as Ivan can think back, Neil Fletcher has never entered the pub this time of day. To be honest he does not drop in very often in general. It is not at Mr. Fletcher´s leisure to mingle with the crowd and the crowd notes it with relief.

Nobody has ever heard of him hauling out a knife after the second beer or bursting into a boozed up version of "Waltzing Mathilda" – the latter an absolute no-go in Ivan´s opinion – not even in the state of the pitch-blackest inebriety. And yet there is a certain aspect in his presence that makes people take a step back as if they had come across a copperhead snake dozing in the sun; quite peaceful and pretty to look at but you never know. The man is a slowly burning fuse and there is no doubt that one day he will reach his barrel of dynamite.

But obviously not this day. This day all he does is sit down on the bar stool closest to Ivan. The white Stetson shades his eyes which does not make the situation any more comfortable.

"Got something to eat?"

Of course Ivan has. One dish a day, available from noon to midnight, plus the usual food people order when they are back from work and need a solid base before they start drinking.

"Sure mate. What do you want?"

Fletcher shrugs vaguely. It is impossible to recognize whether he is either clueless or simply does not care. Ivan, who is used to guests having trouble making up their minds, takes a plate and disappears into the adjacent kitchen. This is quite unusual. He cannot remember Fletcher having ordered any food ever. Generally the man takes his meals with the Carney family; not too uncommon for the soon-to-be husband of young Miss Catherine. Heaven knows what made him exchange a pristine table cloth and roasted turkey with a greasy bar counter, but at last this is not Ivan´s business. He fills the plate with a good portion – no, a generous portion, again, you never know – and returns to the taproom. As he puts the plate down in front of his guest Fletcher nods absent-mindedly and murmurs a thank you. That is another irritating aspect of his personality that marks him off from the rude, sweaty blokes a cattle town like Darwin seems to draw like a scruffy meat-pie in the sun attracts flies: his soft-spoken politeness that has nothing to do with benignity and even underlines the twisted element in his appearance. Secretly Ivan is convinced the man has read a lot more books than he admits, most of them containing words the bigger part of his customers would need a dictionary for. Still, not his, Ivan´s, business either. So he withdraws and starts rinsing glasses. A barkeep with a towel in hand is what people expect to see and giving people what they expect makes them feel better. At least that is how things are supposed to work.

Fletcher has picked around at his lunch as if he was checking the vital functions of a roadkill. Finally, after making sure it will not crawl away, he pushes it toward Ivan and points at his plate:

"What do you call that?"

He has spoken as quietly as always. His lazy Territory drawl does not reveal any suggestion of anger; to tell the truth it does not reveal any expression at all. The indifferent tone is not apt to improve Ivan´s mood.

"Shepherd´s Pie. With vegetables and mash potatoes. Anything wrong with it?"

"You sure it´s actually dead?"

Carney´s son-in-law or not, there are still some things you just cannot let pass. Besides, it is his bar. Ivan puts his glass down and builds himself up in front of his guest, arms akimbo.

"Look, mate, if my food´s not good enough for you, why don´t you..."

"Aye, alright." Fletcher puts him off, so obviously unimpressed it is close to offensive. "Just asking." He takes a forkful of the pie and chews rather listlessly, then turns to the barman again.

"You´re Russian, aren´t you?"

"Now what´s that got to do with..?"

"Then why don´t you try anything you know? Yeah, like... blini or something?"

This is not unusual, this is eerie. Most of Ivan´s patrons would have difficulties in finding his country on a map without a caption saying " A" in metre high letters. Some would fail even then. However, he would not keep this place if he was so easy to catch off-guard.

"Blini? Hah! People don´t know what is good in this cursed land!" He raises his arms in a dramatic gesture. "Pies! Always pies! This country is full of good things and all you want is pies! What can you expect from a fifty-pence pie?"

The man watches him with slight amusement, cupping his chin in his hand.

"Perhaps people would agree to pay more and get something decent?"

"Perhaps people have become inflated since dining at Mr. Cattle King´s table!"

That is actually a little over the top and normally Ivan would now grab any flimsy putoff to retreat, preferrably to the next district. However, the sarcasm passes Fletcher like a warm shower in the wet season; hardly noticed and without causing the slightest reaction. Ivan cannot get rid of the feeling the man is not really in this talk. His voice is the same as always, a soft, slurred cadence, slithering across the rocks of conversation like the snake´s skin his boots are made of. The flow seems gentler today, the threatening undercurrents less venomous, as if the whole chat was only a finger exercise to keep the body busy, while the mind was consumed by something entirely different.

He puts down the fork and watches Ivan wiping his glasses. The barman feels his hackles rising under the intense gaze. This is not the typical Fletcher look. The typical Fletcher look is a lopsided glance from below, as hard to pin as the man´s speech: never straight, never directly addressing anybody.

He must have noticed Ivan´s uneasiness. A faint smile creeps into the corners of his mouth. He enjoys this, it occurs to the barman. The filthy bugger enjoys setting my teeth on the edge. He snorts derogatively and points to the abandoned plate.

"You´re still gonna eat that?"

"Perhaps. Just leave it there."

Ivan nods.

"Shall I charge Mr. Carney´s tab?"

"What? No." For an instant he looks irritated, like a man who has to get along with new conditions. "Put it on me."

Maybe Carney has sacked the ginger bastard. That would explain why he is so out of it. But then again it would not explain his unusual talkativeness. He has seen guys who have just lost the source of their income; their tendency is for booze-cruises and hate tirades against their former employer. Jauntiness and unexpected affability are commonly not on their menu.

Stealthily he looks at his guest again. Blue eyes, it comes to him. I´ve never noticed he´s got blue eyes. No-one has, probably. Little wonder, since he never looks anybody in the eye. The idea of being in a privileged position pleases the barman and he uses the opportunity to look a little bit longer. Neil Fletcher´s eyes are slightly slanted, not slanted enough to suppose an Asian element among his ancestors, but enough to attract attention. Almond-shaped, that´s how they call it. Though probably that only counts for women.

Speaking of women... now that he has time to observe the man people like to call Carney´s bloodhound – with "bloodhound" sometimes replaced by "cockroach", depending on temper and character of the speaker – he is surprised by the gentle appearance. Soft lips, even soft looking, stubble at exactly the right length to feel rather fluffy than scratchy. A touch of freckles and tiny creases around the eyes emphasize the impression of a merry little secret only he knows. Nye plokho, Ivan thinks, and he literally thinks it Russian, I wonder if he´s deliberately hiding how pretty is is. Pretty, another word actually meant for women.

Fletcher leans back on his stool in order to get into his trouser pockets and brings a handful of banknotes to light.

"Got a drink for me?"

Now here we go. Practically all men drink and those who do not are not necessarily the better ones. Neil Fletcher is no exception there and though he is not known for any greater drink-related blackouts, adding booze to his current state does not seem to be the best idea.

On the other hand this is a bar. Giving people the opportunity to get officially drunk is what a bar is made for. And then, guys getting boozed are Ivan´s daily bread. He knows how to deal with that.

"No problem, mate. What´s it gonna be? Beer? Whiskey? Bundaberg Rum?"

Fletcher has obviously found some coins in his pockets and counts them onto the sticky wood.

"Too washy," – Number one – "too shitty," – Number two – "too sweet." – Number three. "Got anything decent?"

Ivan is intelligent enough to ignore the washy beer. The whiskey is not his business, it comes from a distillery in Jabiru and Bundaberg is beyond any doubt. He looks up and down the row of bottles, figuring out what might fit this patron´s extraordinary taste.

Behind his back he can hear Fletcher talking, sleepily and to nobody in general:

"Funny thing, that Bundaberg stuff. They only founded the distillery because the guys in the sugar cane business had an over-supply of molasses and no idea what to do with it. Yeah, perhaps you should found a steakhouse. There´s enough cattle around in Darwin, aye?"

Small talk, it comes to Ivan. The last straw of a man who clings on to normality. Because if he lets go, he would fall apart or the world will or what do I know.

Perhaps the man is right. Perhaps he should be more careful with the water.

Perhaps this is worth a try.

"Wait a sec."

Ivan leaves through the kitchen door and walks downstairs into the cool cellar where the supplies are stored. On his return he carries something wrapped into a soft cloth. The carefully removed fabric reveals a bottle of liquor with no label on its face. It gives a soft clink when he puts it onto the counter. Unlike the other bottles behind the bar this one is cold.

The man on the other side of the counter raises his brows in vague interest.

"What is it?"

"Vodka. You want Russian stuff, you get it."

The bottle has not seen much of the taproom yet and most of that after midnight. Ivan brings it out whenever there is a request for something special... or for his own pleasure, when he catches a couple of young blokes on a dare. A faint shake and the crystal clear liquid laps against the glass. On the convex bottom a little worm is cringing lazily, ready to unroll its coils and come back to squirming, writhing life. Fletcher returns the barman´s gaze and Ivan has seen cossacks less death-defying.

It is barely the wave of a hand, actually not more than a short flick of middle and index finger; a crisp, demanding gesture, unused to refusal. This is not how Mr. Fletcher used to move, not at all. This is... different.

The barman puts a glass on the counter – sheer incidence he has grabbed a double shot one – and unscrews the lid. Inertia keeps the worm in its place as the bottle tilts. Fletcher reaches out for the glass and pours its content down at once. Ivan cannot help but watch him, fascinated. Everybody knows Carney´s foreman is accustomed to quite a lot though Ivan´s home-distilled moonshine is legendary for giving even square rednecks a turn.

The burning liquid sends a shiver through the man´s body. And this is it. No more reaction. Alright, maybe Carney´s foreman is used to quite a lot. However, the limits can still be pushed, Ivan decides and shakes the bottle again, this time questioning. Fletcher holds out his glass, murder in his eyes. The second drink disappears as quickly as the first one.

Over the bar counter their gazes are locked. Ivan is the first one who backs down; he recognizes a possessed man when he sees one. Carefully he takes the glass out of the other man´s hand – there is only a tiny step from a whiskey glass to skin-slicing splinters – and screws down the bottle with the ominous content. Congratulations to yourself, his inner voice whispers. Now you are most likely the only person in town who has met the real Neil Fletcher.

The alcohol has painted red stains on Fletcher´s cheeks, though the blue gaze does not waver. Ivan could swear he sees a tiny laugh dancing in its depths. He´s amused, it comes to him. And nervous. And afraid, but not dominated by fear. Something has grabbed this bloke by the collar and turned him inside out. Boshe moy, I would not be in his stead.

There is the sound of hoofbeats coming from outside and right afterwards, in the bright rectangle of the door, they see a herd of cattle thundering down the street with the Drover galloping in the forefront. At the sight, a change overcomes Fletcher; Ivan is almost sure he sees the man blanching. He empties his glass, puts it down harder than necessary, and gets up. At the same time the herd comes to a halt, and a horse that has already passed is turned and driven back to the drinking trough in front of Ivan´s bar.

So this is it. After all, so simple. There must have been a quarrel between Fletcher and the Drover, obviously a serious one, that is now to end in an ultimate showdown. Ivan curses under his breath as he hastily puts away the more expensive bottles while the slow heavy pace of the Drover can already be heard on the wooden porch. When this conversation began he could not have guessed it would end up with him scratching somebody´s guts off the floorboards.

Fletcher has turned and walked a few indecisive steps towards the door. Ivan cannot see his face though a look at the man´s shoulder blades suffices to see his tension. The squeak of the swinging door is far too loud – I need to grease this goddamn hinges – and then they meet in the middle of the room and in the sudden silence Neil Fletcher´s voice sounds hoarse and timid and very, very young as he asks:

"Do you think we can do that thing again?"