Speakeasy (True North #5)(2)

“Do you, now?” She gives me a hot glance.

Hamish bursts out laughing.

“To a party. Here.” I hand her the card.

“Oh, cool.” She gives Hamish a smile. “You’re the woodworker, right?”

“Indeed,” he says. “I’m retiring. Well, sort of. Can’t imagine quitting altogether. But I’m cutting back so I can travel. Alec is helping me throw a showing and a party.”

“Sounds fun,” she says, pocketing the card.

“I need an extra keg that week,” I tell her. “Hamish asked for Goldenpour. Would you check if we can score an extra?”

“Sure!” she says in her very bubbly way. Chelsea and I are a lot alike. Always looking for the next party. “You free later?” she asks, shaking her butt to Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” which is the next tune on Becky’s playlist.

“Of course.” I’m always free for Chelsea. “I have to close tonight, though.” That means I won’t be done here until about one, and sometimes she doesn’t like to wait up for me.

“Hey—I can close for you,” Smitty volunteers as he pours another pint of Goldenpour at the tap.

“Awesome!” Chelsea beams. “Thanks, Smitty!” She bounds off to open the rear door for her delivery guy.

Hamish watches her go. “You just got shaken down by your bartender,” he points out.

“I noticed that, too.” I shouldn’t be paying Smitty the overtime just so I can get horizontal with my beer distributor. But Smitty knows I don’t like to say no to Chelsea.

Smitty is a decent bartender. Mostly. But he’s sometimes pushy and kind of a flake. Lucky for him, I have a lot of empathy for the flakes of the world. And, hey, it’s already decided. So I’ll roll with it. “I guess I’d better make the most of the night, then.”

“Oh, I’m sure you will.” Hamish drains his beer. “I’m gonna roll. What’s the tab?”

“There isn’t one,” I tell him. “Tonight’s your free night.” Hamish is literally the only person who gets regular freebies from me. But when I bought this place, he was a huge help. He just showed up one day when I was inspecting the heap of a building I’d bought and feeling panicky. I’m not the best business person. But Hamish offered me tons of information and helped me get contractors at good prices during my renovation.

“Night, man!” I call after him. “Thanks for keeping me company while I open.”

“Thanks for never running out of beer,” he says with smiling eyes.

Chelsea reappears behind me with her truck driver lurking in the background. “Alec, you gotta put this one on tap right away, okay? I told the brewmaster that you’d give it a try and talk it up.”

Did you, now? “I’ll swap it out tonight,” I say, even though it’s an inconvenience. “Set ’er down anywhere, Kevin.”

Chelsea smiles, dancing along to Ed Sheeran, then ducking under the bar again. “You love this song, don’t you Alec?” She’s teasing me, since she knows I don’t go in for crooners.

“I love it so hard,” I lie, just to amuse her. “This song gets three snaps in a Z shape.” I snap my fingers and swivel my hips. It’s a little thing I do sometimes, spoofing In Living Color. Chelsea is too young to get the reference, but she doesn’t care. She gives me a throaty laugh that suggests we’re going to have a good time later. “Now let me get my prep work done, so I can beg off early for you tonight.”

“Can’t wait,” she says, flipping her hair. “Sign here and I’ll get out of your way.”

I take the clipboard and sign for the delivery. “Later, hot stuff.”

“Later!” She leaves.

Down the bar, Smitty is already deep in conversation with another female customer. He’s pointing at the beer list and describing something with hand gestures designed to show off his tats.

Work hard, play hard. That’s how we roll at the Gin Mill.

A half hour later, though, I’m not dancing anymore. As the tables fill up with the happy-hour crowd, I am pouring drinks at top speed, just trying to keep up with demand.

A bartender’s job is simple enough—sell booze and keep everyone happy. A bar owner’s job, on the other hand, is a little more fraught. Lately, the partying-to-worrying ratio is a little lower than I wish. Business is good, and the bar is full of people. But my profit margin is shaky, and I don’t have enough cash to reinvest in the business.

Most nights I spend a fair amount of time watching the crowd, trying to guess what changes would make a key difference. If I take out the pool tables and put in a little stage for music, would that help or hurt? Am I charging too much for the premium beers? Or too little?

None of it will be solved tonight, though. I scan the faces in the crowd, and my gaze snags on a couple in the back corner booth. It’s two women, staring deeply into each other’s eyes. They were in here last week, too.

One of them is familiar to me, and I can’t figure out why. And a good bartender never forgets a face. So for the second week in a row, this is gonna bug me.

I mix two margaritas and pour a half a dozen beers. Between each one I glance into the corner again. The pretty, dark-haired woman is lip-locked to the shorter woman. She has a salt-and-pepper buzz cut, and I’ve never seen her before. It’s the dark-haired woman who’s familiar. I just don’t know why. But watching her make eyes at the other woman bugs me. It’s wrong, somehow.

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