Professional Courtesy (November 2021)
By Trey Dowell
“Another water?” the bartender asked.
Her customer didn’t bother to look up from his smartphone. He only pushed his empty glass toward her.
When the bartender responded with crossed arms and clenched lips, the young man said, “I’m not trying to be cheap — it’s the only thing I can drink!” He brushed his sandy-blonde hair back to reveal ethereal blue eyes, but instead of the usual swoon his appearance induced, he saw nothing but disgust.
“Ugh! Another goddamn water sprite.” She snatched the empty glass and filled it from the tap, rather than the pitcher of ice water on the counter. “I don’t understand why you bother coming in here.” When she plunked the glass back down, a third of the contents sloshed onto the mahogany surface of the bar.
He reached for the napkin holder and mumbled, “Nice.” He considered calling out her blatant racism, but stopped short.
Easy, Nico. After this morning, now isn’t the time, he thought.
“Look, I’ve got nothing against you people,” she said. “Just not fond of somebody hogging a stool. For free.”
His eyes widened. “I’m sorry!” He reached into his sweatpants and fished out a ten dollar bill, plunked it down. “I’m just meeting someone here …” While she palmed the bill, Nico pivoted and looked around. Though he was the only patron at the bar, a smattering of customers sat at tables and booths behind him. None were solo, though. “He must be running late.”
“Is he a regular?” the bartender asked, mood now ten dollars improved. “I might know him. What’s the name?”
Nico hunched down, lowered his voice. “I don’t know if it’s his name or what, but he calls himself ‘Fix.’”
The bartender arched an eyebrow, appraising her customer in a new light. “So you’re in trouble.”
“Why do you say that?” Nico asked, too quickly.
“Because happy people don’t ask for Fix.” She laughed, too loudly.
“Jeez, can you keep it down?” Nico whispered.
The bartender sneered.
“Please! See that Japanese guy at table two … in the plaid shirt?” When Nico looked, the man glared back. The two men seated with him didn’t look any friendlier. “That’s Kazu. Part-Satori — a mind reader. He knew your problems before you stepped through the door. If you’re looking for ‘discrete,’ you’re in the wrong place.”
Nico whipped around as though a spotlight now focused on him. His posture melted in the attention’s heat, until his forehead touched the cool bar. The bartender tap-tap-tapped an index finger on the wood next to his head, breaking through Nico’s haze.
“Your knight in shining armor has arrived.” She called out “Hey, Fix!”
Nico turned and squinted at a silhouette, framed by sunlight streaming through the door. The silhouette raised a hand and a gruff voice emanated from the shadow.
The door squeaked shut. Dingy yellow bulbs overhead reclaimed their tenuous hold, and the shadow walked into light.
Fix was nearly as wide as he was tall — a refrigerator of a man — draped by a grimy khaki raincoat, with a belt cinched around the paunch at his waist. His thick neck stuck out of a soiled white dress shirt whose lonely top button had probably never seen its mate on the other side. Atop the tree-trunk neck sat a square head, made more blockish by a salt-and-pepper crewcut — one with a flat-top so precise, it could’ve been carved by a laser.
The large man’s bright green eyes beamed out of a face with craggy lines and a thick mustache. The eyes didn’t look at Nico as Fix slid onto the barstool next to him.
Before her new customer even settled, the bartender had a full shot glass waiting.
Fix said, “Thanks.” His gravelly throat sounded desperate for lubrication. He scooped up the shot and gulped the amber liquor. After savoring the taste for a three-count, Fix finally gave Nico the once-over.
“Well, look what we got here. An honest-to-goodness celebrity,” he said, crow’s feet at his temples deepening. “Jazz, we’re in the presence of greatness!”
The bartender turned away, mumbling “I’m honored …”
“Don’t mind Jasmine,” Fix said, clapping a meaty paw on Nico’s shoulder. “She’s an acquired taste. Most Fachan fairies are.” He dipped a giant hand into the recesses of his raincoat and pulled out the greasy stub of a cigar and a match.
Nico summoned enough courage to speak. “Mr. Fix, I wanted to thank …”
“Just plain ‘Fix.’ And don’t thank me yet.” He lit up and exhaled a blue-gray cloud of pungent smoke, then jabbed his cigar in the direction of Nico’s smartphone. “Well, c’mon kid, I know you got it queued up.”
Nico bowed his head. He unlocked the phone and placed it in Fix’s waiting hand. Nico watched the YouTube page refresh — and saw the number.
When the Council had called two hours ago and ordered him to meet Fix at the bar, it’d been 240,000. By tomorrow, it’d be four million.
Nico, he thought, you are so SCREWED!
Fix hit ‘play.’
A perfect California morning.
The Santa Rosita pier — a twenty-foot-wide walkway, stretching 100 yards into the sparkling Pacific.
At the end, an observation deck the size of a basketball court looks out over blue water. Fisherman dot the platform’s edge, their lines descending into swells below. A stone’s throw from the pier, two lifeguards race toward an outer buoy with high, looping strokes. Along the rail, a spectator videos the scene: beautiful, calm … ordinary.
Then, anything but.
“Holy crap, shark!” someone calls from off-camera. The frame bounces, struggling to find focus. The video centers on a blue-gray blur, then zooms as the image clears: a large dorsal fin, moving past the pier. The fin slices through the water, headed toward the buoy. Toward the lifeguards and the splashes of their pounding arms and legs.
One swimmer is four body-lengths ahead of the other, twenty yards from the buoy, when screams from the pier stop him. He turns back for the beach with newfound energy. His rival hears nothing … only pushes on for the buoy. The camera shifts to the fin, moving faster now. Within seconds, the camera no longer has to switch between swimmer and shark — they’re in the same frame.
The voice behind the camera says, “Oh G-d! This is gonna be bad!”
Then things get weird.
From the bottom of the frame, something comes hurtling through the water. A swimmer, moving impossibly fast, churning the surf like an outboard motor. More torpedo than swimmer.
It zooms past the second lifeguard. The powerful wake flips the man over — thrusts him into the buoy with a clang — ending his race in an instant.
The torpedo decelerates just before it hits the shark broadside, driving the great fish through the water, ten … twenty … thirty feet beyond the buoy. The shark, dazed and no longer interested in prey, spasms violently then darts for the safety of deeper water.
The torpedo-swimmer stops, watches the shark retreat, and everyone on the observation deck realizes at the same time: it’s the first lifeguard … the one who moments ago headed for the beach. The man treads water, then notices the second lifeguard, now slapping at the waves near the buoy, injured, struggling to stay afloat.
The savior plows through the water. He gathers the drowning man and the joined pair starts back toward shore.
The view bounces. The cameraman is sprinting down the pier, trying in vain to keep the swimmers in frame as he goes. When he reaches the beach, the men are coming out of the water.
The injured, confused swimmer drops to the wet sand. “What … what the hell happened?” he says through strained deep breaths, but the camera only hears the words, because it’s not pointed at him — it’s trained on the man who pulled him from the surf.
And his gills.
Bent over, struggling for breath, the lifeguard doesn’t notice the camera, focused on the four slits across each side of his neck. Slits that pulse and change color with each chest heave. He also can’t see the camera pan down to the webbed hands and feet. When the lifeguard does recover enough to stand upright — and identify the camera — his astonished eyes glow like vivid sapphires.
In an instant, the lifeguard’s gills shimmer in the morning light and disappear. The glowing eyes fade to a normal light blue. The webbed hands move to cover the lifeguard’s face, but as they rise, the webbing seems to dissolve, leaving nothing between the fingers but dripping saltwater.
The cameraman says: “What the fuck?”
But the lifeguard is already sprinting away across the sand.
Fix returned the phone. Nico slumped on his stool, numb.
“Aaaaand … boom! A million freakin’ people believe in supernatural creatures,” Fix said. “You know you screwed the pooch, right?”
Nico gaped at Fix’s understatement. “Uh, yeah, I’m pretty aware ...”
“I mean, I’m surprised they haven’t found your name yet. Tagged it to the video.”
Nico massaged his temples. “They will.”
“Yes, they will.” Fix blew another fetid cloud of smoke into the air and smiled. “On the bright side, you’re about to have more Twitter followers than Beyoncé.”
“That’s not funny!”
Fix’s smile vanished. He leaned into Nico’s personal space. “No,” he hissed. “It’s not funny. What’s the one law, the one rule parents hammer through every daemon child’s thick little skull?”
“H.Y.N.,” Nico recited, with the zeal of a sullen ten-year-old.
Fix jabbed his head up and down. “Hide your nature, all the time. Hide. Your. Nature. No metamorphosis, no powers in view of humanity, period. We all live that way — fairies, elementals, lycanthropes, centaurs … hell, damn near 70 species. Today’s screw-up puts all of them at risk, not just you. Because if water sprites are real, what the hell else is out there? Human beings are annoyingly curious. Not to mention dangerous. And there’s seven billion of ‘em.”
Nico winced. “I know. I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s just …”
Fix settled down enough to take another puff. “Just what?”
“Man, I don’t even like that guy,” Nico said, shaking his head.
“The other lifeguard?”
“Yeah. Todd. Guy’s been a royal dick since the day I met him. Always bragging about how fast he is. Figured I’d shut him up for once. But that shark comes along …”
Fix tapped his cigar on the bar’s edge. The big man lowered his voice. “You could have let it happen, y’know. Maybe that’s how it was supposed to go.”
Nico looked away. “Maybe. But here’s the thing: we’re lifeguards. No matter how we feel personally, we look out for each other. Todd might hate my guts, but he’d never let me drown — so I wasn’t gonna let him get eaten. Saving him was automatic. Professional courtesy, I guess.”
Fix considered Nico’s words for a moment, then nodded. “Professional courtesy. It’s a hell of a thing, ain’t it? No matter the outcome, I gotta admit — I respect your decision.”
The two men sat silent. Eventually, Nico asked the only question that mattered. “What’s gonna happen to me?”
Fix chuckled. “Relax, kid! It’ll be okay.”
The invisible weight on Nico’s shoulders eased. “How?”
“Here’s the thing about mankind, Nico. Their defining trait isn’t curiosity. It’s cynicism. Their self-worth depends on it. Humanity wants to believe in the wonders of the supernatural, but they need to believe they’re the most powerful creatures on Earth. That they’re in control of their world, their destiny.”
Nico frowned. “Which means what?”
Another gravelly laugh rumbled out of Fix’s throat.
“They’re easy to fool. We shoot a little video of our own … a how-to. Show the whole thing was rigged. A stunt. Strap a hydro-impeller between your legs, glue some prosthetics on your hands and neck. The Council sends a fugue imp to change the way witnesses remember things.”
Nico glanced at Fix sideways. “That works?”
“Trust me. Within a month, the how-to video will have twice as many views as the original.”
“So that’s it? I’m cool?”
Fix wagged a finger. “Easy, Aquaman. There’s still a price to pay. First, your career as a lifeguard is over.”
Nico nodded. Figured as much.
“We gotta relocate you; new identity, new place. That’s the price of Council assistance.” When Nico sighed, Fix added, “Could be worse. This is a first offense … those gills of yours show up on Facebook or Instagram a second time, the next guy the Council sends won’t be as cuddly.”
Nico shuddered at the thought of someone as imposing as Fix, but with far less civility.
“And relocation ain’t the biggest pain you got coming, either.”
“What do you mean?” Nico asked.
Fix looked over his shoulder, hunkered down. “Humanity might forget about ya, kid,” he whispered. “But our kind won’t. A big part of the community gets touchy about their privacy. Don’t get me started on the vampires and the damn sasquatches. Point is, your little unveiling makes you … unpopular. It’ll fade in time, but for now — keep a low profile, got me?”
Nico felt the spotlight again. Before he could panic though, Fix clapped a hand around his neck, gave it a squeeze. “Go home. I’ll call ya later about a pickup.”
He tapped his empty shot glass on the bar. “And after Jazz pours me another drink, she’ll let you out the back.”
Jasmine rolled her eyes, but followed Fix’s lead. Ushered through the stockroom, Nico stepped into the alley to confront harsh sunlight.
New city. New life. Damn, I need a new name …
Before one came to mind, though, Nico found he wasn’t alone. The mind reader, Kazu, and his two friends from the bar waited. None of them looked happy.
“Stupid little slurp!” Kazu said, eyes angry. His friends broke off to either side, boxing Nico in. Both looked bigger than before. And hairier. Canine teeth peeked out from behind their lips.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t …”
“See, that’s the thing. You’re not sorry!” Kazu said, brushing him off. “I know your thoughts. New life, new name … exciting times! You haven’t learned anything. So we’re gonna teach you.”
The lycan on Nico’s right held a length of iron pipe. “Don’t worry, slurp. We’ll only bust a flipper or two,” he said.
No good deed goes unpunished, Nico thought.
All three came at once.
They made it halfway before Nico saw their expressions change. Anger to surprise. Surprise to fear.
Nico registered a presence behind him and a thunderous blast sounded. A shock wave passed through him and radiated outward. The wave struck his attackers and drove them airborne — ramming them against the far wall of the alley. All three slumped to the pavement, unconscious.
Nico turned to find Fix behind him. The big man shrugged, adjusting his ill-fitting coat.
“No worries, kid. I got your back. One guardian to another,” he said.
As he walked away, a single brilliant white feather curled out from the confines of Fix’s raincoat and floated to the ground …
Leaving Nico to agree that professional courtesy was, indeed, a hell of a thing.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Trey Dowell (Twitter / website) is an award-winning author of both short and novel-length fiction. His short stories have been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Intrinsick, and Abyss & Apex, as well as several anthologies. His debut sci-fi novel The Protectors was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014.