“Open for business,” he says, dragging a weary hand through his hair. It’s getting overlong, and Jared reminds himself, again, that he should probably ask Jim for a haircut, but the man has been busy of late. They both have been.
The staircase is steep, and it creaks under his feet as he descends. He's careful to set the lock on the door separating the store from the private quarters above, and tucks the key safely into the small pocket in his vest.
Light from the street lamps outside glints off of the rows and rows of jars and bottles lined up neatly on shelves behind the counter. Potions and compounds. He ducks under the counter, runs his fingertips along their smooth, curved glass surfaces, their labels unreadable in the dim light. He picks one from the shelf and works the cork free, holding it beneath his nose. It’s the good stuff, grade A and government sanctioned, clear and golden, the color of a liquid sunrise. Not at all like the rotgut they sell downstairs. Jared takes a tentative sip, straight from the bottle.
“Hands off the inventory.”
Jared startles at the sound of the voice, sputters on his second sip and wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand. Chris emerges from the shadows, ducking beneath the soda counter in the back and knuckling his hat up and away from his forehead.
Jared flashes a grin. “C’mon. It’s medicine.” He tips the bottle in Chris’s direction. “I have it on good authority.”
“Make sure you tell Jim that," Chris says, taking a small sip and then another before handing it back to Jared, who snugly plugs the cork in again. “Boss wants to see you by the way. Reckon he’s got an errand for you to run.”
“Another one? As if keeping all of you in line isn’t enough.” Jared pulls a face.
“Least we got a job,” Chris reminds him. “I wouldn’t go complaining about yours. Not too loudly, anyway.”
Jared gives him a wry half-mile. Chris is right. Most aren’t that fortunate. “Did you hear about old man Reynold’s place?” he asks.
Chris nods. “A dozen cases of hooch, smashed in the street for all to see. I’m surprised the drunks weren’t out there licking the sidewalk. Goddamn shame for Reynold. Made the front page of the papers.”
“He’s got a kid, too.” Jared shakes his head. “Little girl. Still in pigtails and she saw the whole rotten thing. Watched them drag her daddy out into the street. Betcha that didn’t make the front page.”
“He talks about a sister in Jersey. She’ll take the girl in. Hopefully.”
“Like I said, goddamn shame.” Chris makes for the door and Jared moves to lock it behind him. “What’s the password tonight?”
Chris snorts a laugh. “Jibber jabber. You make that up?”
“It’s Latin.” Jared shrugs. “Be careful out there. Anything doesn’t feel right and we’ll close up for the night. Reynold last week. Mercer’s joint a week before that. They’re getting closer.”
“Revenuers,” Chris spits, gives Jared a salute and heads out into the night. Jared watches him as he takes the corner, jogging around the building and toward the back door which will be his post until the early hours of the morning.
Jared heads down a hallway so narrow that his shoulders brush it with every other step, then into a storage closet. Its back wall is cedar paneled, and Jared’s fingers find the latch with practiced ease. There’s a quiet click, and the panel moves forward a fraction then slides to the side, silently on well-oiled runners. He enters a small alcove with a door at the back, two cases of rum on his left and an open case of gin on the right. The stock’s getting low. Rumor says the last shipment slated for town got hijacked by some outfit operating out of Chicago right at the state line a few days back. The whiskey ran dry last week and Jared guesses the gin might not last the night. It’s a good thing their clientele isn’t all that particular. Not much room for refined tastes nowadays.
Soft voices murmur from behind the door, and music starts, seeps up through the floorboards beneath his feet, a bright tinkling of notes. Jared smiles. Lily’s at the piano again. Jared taps on the door with two fingers. Three knocks, a pause followed by two more, then he enters without waiting for an invitation.
Three men occupy the small, windowless space that had once served as a storeroom before the eighteenth amendment became the new law of the land: Jim sits behind his desk and Misha sits in front of it. Jared doesn’t recognize the third man leaning against the wall. Everything about him says money though, from the clean, tailored cut of his pinstriped suit to the polish on his wingtips. Most of his face is hidden behind a brimmed hat that's pulled down nearly to his nose, his chin tipped down toward his chest, but Jared catches a glimpse of pale skin, a strong, smooth jaw and a full mouth, pursed in thought.
Each of them holds a glass, and Jared’s nose says that it’s probably the last of the good scotch, straight from Jim's personal stash. Not the kind of thing that Jim would crack open for just anybody. He's pulled it out to prove a point. Broker a deal. Immediately, Jared's on edge.
"There you are, kid," Jim says, waving him closer.
Jared rankles at the nickname but lets it slide. Jim's an old friend, more like family. He's known Jared since before he took his first steps, took him in and gave him a job when things started to go south. Two years of medical school to his name and now Jared's an apprentice to a pharmacist who sells hooch on the side. Strange days they’re living in. Such strange times.
“Allow me to introduce you to Mr. Jensen Ackles,” Jim says. “A gentleman of dubious intent and the finest purveyor of whiskey this side of Canada.” Jim’s tone is devoid of sarcasm but his smile isn’t. It’s sharp, a man could get cut by it if he found himself standing too close.
“You’re too kind, Mr. Beaver,” Jensen says, then pushes off of the wall and turns toward Jared. Now that he’s come out of his hunch, Jared sees that he’s tall, broad shouldered. His eyes are an incredible shade of green and lit up by a spark of humor. “Although ‘purveyor’ seems somewhat high brow, don’t you think?” He reaches out and takes Jared’s hand, his palm warm and his handshake solid. His voice is deep, a little raspy, and there’s a slight lilt to his speech that makes Jared think that he’s the son of a Scottish mother. If he had to venture a guess, Jared would say Appalachia.
“What should we call you, then?” Jared asks.
“I prefer ‘smuggler.’ It lends a certain air of adventure to the whole enterprise,” Jensen says around a broad gesture of his hand. “I am the finest, though. I’ll give you that.”
Not only is he a dandy, but he’s got an ego to match. Jared should have known. “Then how come I’ve never heard of you?”
He chuckles, gives Jared a sly, sideways glance. “Doesn’t do a man any good to have a reputation in this particular line of work.” Jensen raises his glass to his mouth but it’s just for show. He doesn’t take a sip, only wets his lips.
Misha rises, snapping open his cuffs and rolling his sleeves up. “That's enough, gentlemen. “ He takes a starched, white apron from the shelf behind him and ties it snugly around his waist. “I have a room brimming with lawbreakers to facilitate below decks.” As he brushes past Jared, he pauses, a hand on Jared’s upper arm. “Agree to the terms, whatever they are,” he whispers low, lips barely moving. “If you don’t, we might all be out of a job by the end of the week.”
Jared lifts his eyebrows in a question, but Misha has already moved on, sliding the door closed behind himself. He turns to Jim, just in time to see the man empty his glass and hiss a breath between his teeth. He holds the highball up on tented fingers, watches the way the light refracts in the cut of the crystal, then inexplicably shakes his head.
“Let’s just cut to the chase,” Jim says, leaning back in his chair and regarding each of them in turn. He stabs a finger in Jared’s direction. “Our new acquaintance here is going to be making a run for us, and you’re going with him.”
Jared opens his mouth to speak, but whatever he’s about to say gets drowned out by Jensen’s similar protest. The two of them stop simultaneously, and after a beat, Jensen continues in a mollifying tone. “I understand that you would want to keep an eye your investment, but these dealings can be very...delicate. Folks get a little jumpy around strangers.”
“You’ve proven my point,” Jim says with a shrug. “You waltz into here with a bucket full of promises that sure sound nice. You want me to hand over all our liquid assets on a handshake and a pretty smile, with absolutely nothing to back it up? Put yourself in our shoes for a minute. The world ain’t what it used to be. I’m gonna need a little more than that. Jared goes with you and we have a deal. If you refuse, then we don’t.”
“Do I get a say in all of this?” Jared asks, although he knows the answer, knows it’s his place to ask how high whenever Jim says jump.
“Not particularly.” Jim runs a hand through his thinning hair. “The world ain’t what it used to be,” he repeats, “and the folks I trust are few and far between.”
It’s a neat little trick, nice and tidy, pulling the trust card out of his deck at this point in the game. Jared almost laughs. Instead he curls his tongue around his canine tooth to stave it off, and gives Jim the smallest nod. It’s best not to make waves, makes it easier on Jared if he keeps it toned down to small ripples.
Jensen’s chewing on his bottom lip, eyes narrowed down to slits as he swirls the liquor in his glass, staring into it like he’s some kind of fortune teller looking to divine his own future hidden inside a crystal ball. After a long, drawn-out moment, Jensen sets his glass on the corner of Jim’s desk with enough force that some of the booze splashes over his fingers. “Fine,” he says, “you have yourself a deal, but only because you said that I have a pretty smile.” Jensen flashes a grin at Jared and continues, “We leave in the morning. Six sharp, and don’t keep me waiting.”
Warmth smacks into Jared when he enters the basement bar. It’s crowded, close quarters, upper echelon businessmen rubbing elbows with dock laborers and the maids that made their beds this morning. Some folks steer clear of this place because of that, but Jared’s always believed that a rich man’s money is just as green as a poor man’s. Jim’s of a similar frame of mind, has always said that he’s more concerned with not getting caught than with how his customers occupy their daylight hours.
Behind the piano, Lily switches from the rousing Irish folk song she’s playing into a few quick measures of ‘Here Comes the Bride’ when she catches sight of him, and then winks at him once she knows she has his attention. Jared dodges through the crowd, steering clear of people huddled around the tables and hunching over their glasses like a bunch of dogs protecting their bones. He comes to a stop beside Lily’s upright and straightens the strap of her dress where it has fallen off of her shoulder. A slip of a dress for a small slip of a woman.
He waits for her to wrap up her song before speaking. “I don’t know what you’re doing in a place like this,” he teases as she folds her sheet music. “Talent like yours, you could be playing sold out shows at Carnegie.”
She tips her stemmed glass in his direction, thick red wine with citrus floating on the surface, takes a sip and smiles up at him with red stained lips. “What? And miss out on my nightly dose of your charm? I wouldn’t dream of it. Anyway, I’m not much for tall buildings. You’re about as high up as I wanna go.”
Jared bows his head and draws his shoulders up, trying to hide the blush that Lily’s harmless flirting always seems to bring out in him, and grabs the wine glass from her hand. He takes a sip and puckers his lips. “Sweet,” he says.
“The best way to stretch a bottle of wine is to add rum to it.”
The door bangs shut behind him and a hush ripples through the crowd, raucous chatter simmering down to a low murmur. Lily looks past Jared’s shoulder, her dark eyes suddenly as hard as diamonds. “Stranger,” she whispers.
Jared cautions a backward glance, turns back fast when he sees who it is. Jensen’s standing in the doorway, a small twist to his mouth as if their little establishment isn’t quite passing muster, then makes his way through the room in an obvious swagger, like the whole world’s a stage and it’s his name on the top of the playbill.
With a shake of his head, Jared says, “Not enough of a stranger, if you ask me.”
“There’s a story behind that, and I hope it’s a good one.” Lily jabs him in the side with her elbow and steals her glass back.
“It’s not good at all. Jim’s sending me on a liquor run. With him.”
“Pharmacist turned bootlegger.” Lily frowns as she considers it. “Could be worse. I wouldn’t particularly mind being crammed into a car with nothing to look at but that for a couple of days.”
“Yeah, but you’d probably mind having to listen to him.”
Jared shrugs. “Something about him just rubs me wrong. The guy’s got an ego on him. ”
“When I was in school, when I was just a little thing, there was this boy who always yanked on my hair and put frogs in my book bag. You know what happened to him?”
Jared shakes his head. “Not sure I want to know.”
“I wound up marrying the poor son of a bitch.”
Lily’s hair tickles Jared’s nose as he leans in close to whisper in her ear. “Sweetheart, you know I’m not really the marrying type.”
“You make me wish I was a man,” she says with titter of laughter and a small pat to his cheek, “and it ain’t because I want to run for office.” She smoothes down the front of her dress and settles onto her piano bench. “I’ll hold down the fort for you while you’re gone. And honey?”
Lily takes his hand and gives it a brief squeeze. “Don’t get caught. I don’t wanna be the one to have to tell your momma that her son’s wound up in jail.”
Jared smiles tightly at her and hopes it looks a lot less painful than it feels. “You and me both.”
“Judging from that hangdog look on your face, it would appear that our fortunes have taken a turn for the better,” Misha says when Jared takes his place beside him behind the bar.
Jared holds back an irritated snarl, but it’s a close thing, and thinks about how a small grain of autonomy might be nice for a change. He’s been pulled in so many directions for so long, hardly knows what a day off feels like anymore. “What do you know about him?” he asks.
Jensen’s leaning against the bar, elbow bent on the edge of it, fingers loose around a glass. Everyone in the room is giving him a wide berth, like he’s dug himself an invisible, impenetrable moat. And damnit if Jared can’t force himself to keep his eyes off of him for more than a few seconds at a time, as if Jensen is the only goddamn source of light in the room.
“He’s a friend of a friend of a friend,” Misha tells him. He pours three cocktails and slides them down the length of the bar in quick succession. “Contacted me through the usual circuitous channels. Seems legitimate.”
“Seems? That doesn’t particularly inspire confidence,” Jared says.
Jared’s scared of getting caught, of his face turning up on the front page of the local papers and of losing what small chance he has of putting his life back on the rails. He’s a victim of his own optimism, still opens his mailbox to find the New England Journal of Medicine delivered every three months like clockwork, and tries to not feel too much resentment when he reads the published lectures from his former professors, skims the headlines of medical breakthroughs made by the people he once considered peers. Many nights he lays flat out on his back in bed, too tired to sleep after the doors to the speakeasy have been locked and the glasses are washed and the floors are swept, cooking up lunatic schemes, visions of his own life with impossible fairy tale endings.
“Way I see it, the less we know the better,” Misha tells him.
“Easy for you to say when it’s my ass on the line.”
Misha slides behind him, a hand on Jared’s hip for one glancing moment before he reaches over Jared’s shoulder for a fresh bottle. “Trust me, I wouldn’t hand something so precious over to just anybody.”
Jared darts a look up and down the line of people in front of them, a sinking feeling in his stomach, before he zeros in on Jensen again. There are exactly two people in this town who know the truth about Jared and they’re both within spitting distance. Unfortunately for him, so are about seventy other people.
Clearing his throat, Jared says, “About what you said upstairs. Are we in trouble?”
Misha’s expression goes carefully blank. “You’re going to do your part. We’ll take care of the rest.”
“Candy coating never did anybody any good,” Jared reminds him. “It still tastes like medicine on the inside.”
Misha’s got a rag in his hand, polishing an already spotless stretch of the bar. He pauses, turns to Jared and looks at him with a very rare sort of sincerity. “I suppose you’re right. It’s fair to say that you’re in this just as deep as the rest of us at this point.” He shifts his eyes toward the line of customers, all deep in rowdy conversation. In a whisper, he say, “Simply put, we’re broke.”
“But the pharmacy does alright, and--” Jared starts before Misha cuts him off.
“Jared,” he says, placating, “the business upstairs is keeping this particular endeavor above water, and only barely. At last count, Jim employs about a quarter of the population of this town, in one capacity or another. From politicians to the paper boy. He’s got his spoon in a few too many pots, if you ask me. There’s a lot that goes on in that back room of his, and you don’t know the half of it. Hell, I don’t even know the half it. I don’t want to.”
“We have a full house every night we’re open,” Jared points out, tilting his head toward the room in general. Folks are lined up at the bar, three people deep in a couple of places. Someone new comes in the door every few minutes, and Chris is going to have to start cutting them off soon enough.
"Think about it. Before Volstead, a man could walk into any bar in the land and order a drink and not have to break the bank to do it."
"Yeah," Jared agrees. "I remember when I was in school and a beer used to cost a nickel. Shot of whiskey fifty cents."
Misha snaps his fingers. "Exactly. Ten miles up the road there's this place that’s selling it for five bucks a shot, and from what I've heard, that's not unusual. What's worse, they're cutting their stock with anything they can get their hands on. Machine grade alcohol or formaldehyde. People are getting sick left and right, and the politicians aren't saying a damn thing about that. All these unintended consequences."
"And here were are, undercutting ourselves. Selling the straight stuff for a couple of dollars a hit."
"Depends on how you wanna look at it. We didn't start this to make money. I saw this as a ripe opportunity to fuck over Rockefeller and Henry Ford."
Jared nods. Misha's yet to meet a conspiracy theory he didn't like.
Kate comes up beside them, throws her tray on the back counter and pushes her hair away from her face. "Mr. Walker's at it again. He's all hands tonight. Son of a bitch thinks because he tips me a dollar he can grab my ass all he wants." There's a revolving door of waitresses in the place, but Kate has been around since they first opened their doors. She's a hard worker, possesses one of the foulest mouths Jared has ever come across, and has a no-nonsense heart of gold.
"That didn't take long," Jared says. They've only been open an hour or so and the liquor has already gotten the best of the guy. "I'll get him."
Kate snorts. "I can take care of myself," she protests.
"That's the one thing that I have no doubt about," Jared says. "But you shouldn't have to."
John Walker is bent over a fan of playing cards in the corner, his tie loosened and the top button of his shirt undone. He still has his hat on, cocked crookedly on his head and his face is flushed, broken capillaries on his nose shining like a light bulb. He’s a regular, and after all these years, Jared figures that he'd have a better tolerance.
"Jared, my boy," Walker slurs. He holds up his glass, spilling most of it over his fingers. "Here, have one on me."
Jared takes it and downs what’s left of the drink in one gulp, more to put the brakes on Walker than anything else. "It's time you call it a night."
"Sounds like blondie over there has turned you against me again," he says, offended.
Jared straightens to his full height, plants his feet shoulder-width apart and puts his hands on his hips. "You do that just fine on your own, sir. Now, are you gonna make this easy on me? ‘Cause I’m happy to go either way."
The guy is all knees and elbows as Jared jostles him out the door, nothing but clumsy and sloppy indignation, pulling at Jared's collar and tangling their feet together. Jared tosses him out of the door and Walker staggers, comes to a stop on the sidewalk, toes to the edge of it, comically pinwheeling his arms to keep his balance.
Chris is leaning against the wall beside the door. A cigarette is stuck in the corner of his mouth and he’s squinting through the smoke. "Huh," he says. "That didn't take long at all."
"My thoughts exactly," Jared says with a quick grin.
The narrow alleyway is deserted and dark, the air heavy with a mist that makes it hard to take a deep breath. The walkway between the buildings is rounded cobblestone, dipped in the center and shiny with freshly fallen rain.
Walker is trying to regain some small shred of dignity, straightening his lapels and tightening his tie. He squares his hat on his head and puffs his chest out. "You'll regret this," he says, winded, his breath wheezing loudly in the still night.
"Eh, just like the other dozen times you've wound up on your ass out here," Chris says, dismissive. “I’m still not impressed.”
"You're just as guilty as the rest of us," Jared reminds him. This happens about three times a week and three times a week Jared tells him the same exact thing. Nothing's ever come of it, and Jared has no reason to believe that this time will be any different.
Walker makes a quiet, pathetic hmph sound, and starts in on the zigzagging march that will hopefully get him home and in his bed in once piece.
Jensen's eyeing him when Jared goes back inside, and beckons him over with a curl of his lip and a tilt of his head. Jared frowns but heads over anyway. "Shoulda figured you for the muscle of the operation," he mutters, then slowly drags eyes all along Jared's body, taking in everything from his head to his toes. Jared fights a flush, suddenly warmer than he has any right to be.
Jensen licks his lips slowly, and Jared busies himself fixing his clothes and trying to tame the unruly mop of his hair. Jensen reaches out, hooks his fingers in the waistband of Jared's trousers, setting them to rights, then moves to Jared's collar next, fingertips brushing along Jared’s neck as he stands his collar back up and fastens the top button of his shirt. When he takes a step back to admire his handiwork, he seems satisfied, which leaves Jared feeling flushed all over again. Jensen claps him on the shoulder.
"I do what I have to do," Jared says, offhanded. "It's a good bunch of people, we don't have much trouble here."
“Lucky,” Jensen says, then nods, lifts his glass to his mouth and still doesn't take a sip.
"I heard the stuff works better if you actually swallow," Jared tells him.
Jensen laughs, and Jared feels like he's on the outside of an inside joke. Jensen lifts the glass and holds it up toward the light, as if he's testing the color. "You caught me. It's a prop. No one trusts a sober smuggler."
"Don't tell me you're a teetotaler," Jared says around a chuckle. "That'll be a first."
"I’ve read the pamphlets the ladies at the Temperance League hand out,” Jensen teases. “Don't you know that this stuff will kill you? Besides, a business like mine requires that a man keeps his wits about him."
"You gave up pretty easily up there. Thought you'd put up more of a fight."
"Your employer had his heels dug in pretty deep from the looks of it. If I thought I stood a chance in hell I might have. Times are tough for a freelancer. All the big cats are moving into town, and they’re treating the whole east coast like it’s New York or Chicago. Jim seems like a stand up kinda fellow and I could use the job. Keep in the game," he says, affecting a lofty tone. “I’ve had a strange string of bad luck of late, but who knows, maybe you could be my good luck charm.”
“You’re a gambling man, then.”
“Who isn’t, when you stop to think about it? Anyway,” Jensen says with a wave of his hand, “I believe in luck.”
“Luck?” Jared shakes his head. Luck has never done him any favors. Take his current predicament, for example. “Seems like a bad idea to put so much stock in such a fickle thing.”
“Maybe,” Jensen says, “But a man’s gotta believe in something.”
Barely five hours later, Jared stands on the corner, knapsack slouched at his feet and his hands shoved in his pockets. His teeth chatter against the chilly breeze that whips at his jacket and sneaks in beneath his shirt. It’s getting cold; a couple of weeks and there will be frost in the mornings.
The city is just beginning to wake up, the streets quiet and mostly deserted. A small gang of day laborers are gathered a few blocks down, kicking at stones in the street with their dirty boots, waiting to be picked up, and the sun is only now starting to make its presence known, peeking above the horizon and between the buildings.
It’s no secret that Jared doesn’t want to do this, but he has to admit that he’s warmed up to the idea, and warmed up to Jensen after their conversation last night. A day or two away from the routine of the pharmacy and the bar might do him some good, and gives him a chance to see some places he might not be able to otherwise.
A low pinging sound approaches and Jared looks up in time to see a car taking the corner, smooth and slow, Jensen behind the wheel. Jared, not much of a gearhead, still can’t deny that Jensen’s car is pretty as a picture, bright and shiny, so slick looking that any speck of dust would probably slide right off of the thing. It’s some late model Buick, fresh out of Detroit and fresh off of the production line by the look of it. The body of the vehicle is the rich color of cream, the fenders and foot rails a deep brown, and when Jensen gets out of the car, Jared wonders if he’s matched his shoes to the color of the car or if it’s the other way around; both options seem equally plausible.
Jensen has changed from last night’s suit into a set of loose fitting pants the color of sand that Jared thinks he wears a little too low, and a pale cotton shirt rolled up to his elbows and unbuttoned at the collar. He’s got his hat in his hand, and his hair stands up in soft-looking spikes, highlighted red by the rising sun. He flips his hat onto his head with a small flourish that Jared finds endearing, despite his better judgment.
“Howdy, sunshine,” Jensen says with a finger to the brim of his hat. He circles his car and grabs Jared’s bag from the pavement, tosses it in through the open window where it lands unceremoniously in the back, then opens the door and makes a grand sweep with his hand.
“Not what I’d call inconspicuous,” Jared says as he ducks into the car.
“Hey,” Jensen says, “you should know as well as anybody that everyone’s got to give in to a few vices. I happen to have a weakness for very pretty things.” He lowers himself into the driver’s seat, shifts and squirms until he finds the right position, getting ready for the long haul. He offers Jared some coffee from his thermos, then takes a sip and hisses through his teeth at the heat of it.
“How long to get there?”
Jensen leans forward to look at the sky through the windshield like maybe the clouds hold the answer to the question. “Maybe a day to get there, half a day back.”
“Why the difference?”
“Up the hill is slower going than on the way back down, and it’s been awhile since I was last in that neck of the woods. Thought you might like it if I took you to see some of the local color.”
Jensen gets them rolling, and Jared leans back against the seat, stretches out as best he can, legs diagonal in the footwell. He keeps one eye on the sky beyond his window and the other on Jensen, who drives through the city like he was born behind the wheel, negotiating the narrow, twisting road ways as if he’s got a map of them etched into the backs of his eyelids.
Jared might have put up a bit of a fight over this venture, but his heart wasn’t really in it. It’s been two years since he was last outside of the city limits, and for the entirety of that timte, he’s lived off of coffee and catnaps and a constant dose of nervous energy, always wondering if the next person to come through the door won’t be a customer at all, but a law man with a set of handcuffs tucked into his belt.
When they pass beyond the city line, exhaustion smacks into Jared all at once. He settles into a near-doze, half listening to Jensen’s consistent monologue, all these tales of adventures and near misses that are just far-fetched enough to probably be true. It’s fair to say that he likes the sound of Jensen’s voice, the smooth timbre of it, and the way Jensen lets his mountain twang roll on out when he starts to talk real fast.
They’re in the foothills before they stop, the mountains a hazy, indistinct shape in the distance. Jensen pulls into a gas station, a real ma and pa type establishment with huge tin signs hammered onto the building advertising Valvoline and Coca-Cola, clean restrooms and Camel cigarettes. The attendant emerges from the door to the garage, wiping his greasy fingers on a rag, then nods appreciatively at Jensen’s car. Jensen hands him a couple of bucks, tells him to fill it up and keep the change.
The place is a sort of catch-all, garage and general store and diner all rolled into one. Inside, it smells like an odd combination of rubber tires and fried food. A woman stands behind the long diner counter in the back, about Jared’s age and fair, her red lipstick almost matches the bright color of her hair. She glances in their direction when the bell above the door announces their entrance, then does a double-take, her face brightening with a smile when she sees Jensen.
“Alice,” Jensen says, opening his arms to her as she circles the counter and dashes in their direction.
“Jensen Ackles,” she says, “it’s been so long that I thought you’d forgotten about us.” Alice gives Jensen a playful smack, right in the center of his chest, then throws her arms around his neck, laughing as he picks her up and twirls her around.
“Never, Alice. You are unforgettable.”
She laughs again, this time surprisingly deep and wicked, then gets them situated at the counter with steaming cups of coffee and handwritten menus. Jared’s eyeing up the glass case behind the counter, piled high with cakes and pie, and Jensen nudges him in the ribs with his elbow.
“Dessert first, huh? A man after my own heart. Try the strawberry-rhubarb. My treat. I promise you won’t regret it.”
And Jared doesn’t know what to make of any of this. He’s been ordered to keep an eye on Jensen, make sure he stays on the straight and narrow, not to let Jensen buy him pie and take him to meet old acquaintances. Now that they’re on the road together, though, much of Jensen’s cockiness has melted away, leaving a sort of genuine charm behind that Jared’s finding hard to resist.
Alice takes their orders, disappears into the back for a minute and returns with two plates entirely taken over with pie and a couple of scoops of vanilla ice cream. It turns out Jensen is right. Jared moans embarrassingly at the first bite, sweet and tart, hot and cold all at once, hands down the best thing he’s put in his mouth in a very, very long time.
As they eat, Alice comes by again and chats with Jensen about which roads are passable and which aren’t, the places Jensen’s been and the things that he’s seen, all while Jared scrapes his plate clean and seriously considers licking it once he’s done. She fills the thermos with fresh coffee, on the house, packs them up another slice of pie apiece and waves Jensen away when he tries to settle up the bill.
“Your money’s no good here,” she says. “You know that.”
He tries to talk her out of it, but she just leans over the counter and presses a kiss to the corner of Jensen’s mouth instead, and gives him one more flirty look over her shoulder before helping another customer.
“Sweet girl,” Jensen says, pulling a five-dollar bill out of his wallet anyway and folding it beneath his empty coffee cup.
“A girl in every port, huh?” Jared asks. He knows the question is leading Jensen in a certain direction, and hopes like hell he takes the bait.
Jensen produces a handkerchief from his back pocket and wipes the smudge her lipstick left behind before trailing Jared toward the door. “Not exactly.”
When they get out of the car again the air is thinner, more crisp, and each time Jared swallows his ears crackle from the elevation. Jensen had taken a fork in the road about a mile back, hit the clutch and popped he transmission into neutral, coasted downhill until the pavement turned into twin wheel ruts and finally became hardly discernable indentations in the ground.
“End of the line,” Jensen tells him, nosing the car into a space between two trees, cutting the engine and reaching across Jared to dig around in the glove compartment. He comes up with a small brown envelope, tied closed with twine. He thumbs it open and Jared isn’t surprised to find it stuffed with cash. Jensen counts out about a third of the stack before leaning over Jared again to replace it.
“That’s a hefty cut,” Jared observes. He’s never seen that much cash in his life.
“I got a lot of overhead,” Jensen says, and gets out of the car without further explanation. He walks a couple of yards away, and then looks at Jared over his shoulder. “Are you coming?”
Jared scrambles out of the car, takes a few seconds to stretch the kinks out of his back from the long hours spent shoehorned in the passenger seat. The ground beneath his feet is soft, loamy. It gives a little as he walks across it.
“The man we’re going to see is called blind Willie,” Jensen says in low tones. “Ancient as these hills all around us and cooks up the best ‘shine I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. Pure corn whiskey. He’s cagey though, so you just let me do all the talking.”
“Is he really blind?” Jared asks.
Jensen shakes his head. “Not completely. He’s got one mostly good eye.”
Jared pauses, peering down the path with its canopy of tree branches. At this elevation, the leaves are already starting to turn, smoky oranges and brilliant yellows that paint Jensen’s skin a warm, vital color. Jared feels a ribbon of heat uncurl low in his stomach. Looks like Jensen isn’t the only one with a weakness for very pretty things. “Really?” he says, chewing on his lips to contain his laughter. “One-eyed Willie? You gotta be joking.”
“No, and I wish I was. His still blew up on him ‘round about four years ago. Nasty piece of business that was.” Jensen stops, shades his eyes as he looks westward into the setting sun, gets his bearings and turns toward the south. “Willie staggered out of the woods with his hair still smoking. Lucky enough that it was raining that night, or half the mountain might have burned. Folks say that he went a little crazy after that. The man was already more than half the way there anyway, if you ask me.”
“That’s comforting,” Jared says.
“I live to serve.” Jensen quickens his pace. “We’re getting close,” he says, tapping the side of his nose.
Jared breathes in deep, catches the faintest hint of wood smoke in the air. Signs of humanity start to appear within a few minutes: the staves of a busted up crate rising out of the soft forest floor like bleached bones of an unearthed grave, the iron bands of a whiskey barrel left out to rust, cracked ceramic handles and the jagged mouth of a bottle stuck into the crux of a couple of tree limbs.
The trees open up to a clearing with a listing wood shack in the middle, little more than roof on poles really, made of roughly hewn boards that twist and warp. A man is hunched beneath the shelter, hovering over a set up that reminds Jared of something that HG Wells might find interesting to write about. His pants are mud-stained, hanging limply from his skinny hips, and his shirt billows around a chest so thin that it almost seems to be concave and makes his shoulders seem twice as wide. His hands are calloused, the size of dinner plates, square palms and crooked fingers, and he wears a scraggly thin beard, singed at the ends like his still blew up on him last week instead of a couple of years back. He stares at them with his one good eye, a blue that’s deeper than the sky, it’s companion clouded over white, the lid drooping and scarred. When he speaks, his accent is so thick that it takes Jared a few seconds to cotton on to what he’s saying.
“Three years in the city have turned you soft, boy. Look at you there, with your fancy shoes and your fancy shirt, thinkin’ you need a bodyguard to come on up here and see me.”
“He’s not my bodyguard,” Jensen protests, but he’s got a smile on his face, the most genuine smile that Jared’s seen out of the man yet.
“Uh-huh,” Willie clicks his tongue on the inside of his cheek. “Then who is he?”
“He’s my valet,” Jensen says dryly. “He’s here to do all the heavy lifting.”
“Suppose it’s best if I don’t know too much anyhow. Not that I’m planning on turning snitch or anything,” Willie says and then he cackles like he’s made some kind of joke.
They exchange pleasantries for a few minutes, working within the confines of some moonshiners’ code of conduct. Jensen asks how his season has been going, whether he’s had any trouble with the revenuers, they both bemoan and lay curses upon the name of the local deputy sheriff, nastier person never drew breath to hear them speak of it, and then it’s time to get to business.
“Ol’ man Willie here can tell the proof of the liquor just by looking at it,” Jensen tells Jared, and Jared nods, thinks about how everybody is good at something, and about how talents can come on all shapes and sizes.
Willie leads them over to a stack of wooden crates, slats nailed across it on the inside so that the bottles won’t clank and jostle during transport. Jensen takes a bottle from the top crate and loosens the cork, holds it under his nose while Willie looks on expectantly, shifting his weight from foot to foot and wringing his fingers. Just looking at the guy is making Jared nervous, tickling some warning sense at the base of his skull.
“It’s pure. Good. Corn mash made from my very own recipe,” Willie says.
Jensen takes a sip and barely has the bottle away from his lips before he’s spitting it out onto the ground and wiping at his mouth with this sleeve. The look he directs at the old moonshiner is dark, like he’s trying to think of a way to bring the mountain down on top of him. “Who do you think I am? Some two-bit hustler still wet behind the ears? What did you cut this stuff with? Tastes like fucking turpentine.”
Willie throws up his hands in a placating way. “I--I was just testing ya. Seeing if you still had the knack. I shoulda known that you’d see right through it. You’re a professional,” he placates. “Best in the business, you are. Just making sure you were still on your toes. Here’s the good stuff.” Willie starts rummaging around behind the still, moving a sheet of corrugated aluminum and pushing aside a medium sized boulder. He goes down on his hands and knees and digs around in the ground, lugs up a bottle about the size of a pint. “Here, try this one on for size.”
Jensen, suspicious, holds the bottle up to his nose and takes a cautious sip, licks his lips then grunts.
“Good, isn’t it? Real good, first run from a still I have a mile or two from here, and plenty more where this came from. Come back tomorrow and I’ll--”
Jensen carefully replaces the cap on the bottle and slips it into the inside pocket of his jacket. “Tomorrow,” he says with a shake of his head. “You’ve already wasted enough of my time. No way in hell I’m letting you waste any more of it.”
Jared stands there for a moment, mouth open and staring back and forth between the two of them, then scrambles to follow Jensen.
As they’re hiking away from the still, Jensen mutters, “The people I can trust in the business are few and far between. A very short list, and damned if it didn’t just get a little shorter.”
They make it back to the car, all of Jensen’s mirth and good humor completely wiped away. The sun is a bright disc low on the mountain ridge, premature shadows falling across the road.
Jensen leans against the hood of his car, takes a long pull on the bottle, his throat working as he swallows. The liquor leaves a wet sheen on Jensen’s lips, a pink flush to his face, high along his cheekbones. He passes the bottle over to Jared.
“I thought you said this stuff would kill you,” Jared says, chiding, before taking a sip. It’s strong, burns his throat on the way down and settles warm in his stomach.
“I’ve been known to make an exception when the situation warrants.”
The booze is good, packs a punch that’s damn near anesthetic, leaves Jared’s mouth tingling and his tongue mildly numb.
Jared’s a fixer by nature, and not at all happy with this downswing in Jensen’s mood. "We can go back to the shop," he suggests. "Probably get there a little after midnight. There's a spare room above the pharmacy. It's small, only half the size of mine, but it’s got a bed in it that's comfortable enough. It'll give you a few days to find another contact, maybe build that list up some. Give you enough time to find another job."
"No, Jared," Jensen says with a distinct shake of his head. He gets into the car, and Jared’s obliged to do the same. Jensen takes another knock off of the bottle and stretches backward across the seat. Jared can smell the leftover traces of his cologne and the distinct scent of Jensen's skin beneath it, and the liquor must have taken hold of him quickly, because he wants to lean into Jensen, bury his nose in the spot where Jensen's neck meets his shoulder and figure out what he tastes like. Instead, he digs his fingers into the meat of his thighs and brings himself in check. Jensen raps his knuckles on the seat back behind him, and Jared can feel the reverberation when it comes loose. He drops the bottle into a hidden compartment and latches it closed again.
"No," Jensen repeats, getting squared in his seat again, shoving the key in the ignition and flipping the switch. He pulls in a deep breath, chest expanding and pulling at the buttons on his shirt, lets it out in an explosive rush of air. "I'm not gonna go back with my tail between my legs. As much as I appreciate the offer, I'm not gonna take any handouts."
Jared feels like he's getting to see another side of Jensen; the man who has doubts, someone who doesn't always have all the answers on the tip of his tongue with a wry smile and a heavy dose of sarcasm. But just as fast, Jensen's calm mask reasserts itself and he grins at Jared, nothing but mischief through and through.
"You have a better idea?" Jared asks, a little wary.
"One thing you need to know about me is that always have a back up plan, and in most cases, a second or a third. With enough luck and careful planning, one of them might even work out."
"There you go with luck again," Jared says. "Well, the law of averages states that something has to work out eventually."
"And everybody's a comedian," Jensen says under his breath. He thumbs the headlights, weak and yellow against the gathering darkness, grinds the car into gear for effect and plots a course back down the mountain.
“How did you wind up doing this, anyway?” Jared asks.
“I found myself at a crossroad of misfortune, you could say. How does anyone end up doing anything?”
“Smells like rain,” Jensen says, and leans forward to peer at the sky through the windshield. “Looks like it too.”
He’s coasting, downshifting and pumping the brakes around the close-angle turns, and Jared’s holding his breath in the passenger seat, hands balled into fists although everything in him is telling him to find something in the car to hold onto. Negotiating switchbacks is bad enough in the day, twice worse at night, and Jared doesn’t even want to think of the possibilities that open up once the road gets wet and slick.
“We should find a place to stay for the night,” Jared says, “and something warm to eat.” His stomach feels like it’s sticking to his backbone.
“Don’t reckon the Waldorf-Astoria has branched out into this neck of the woods,” Jensen replies. “It’s mostly mining towns for the next hundred miles. Hey, speaking of...”
They’re coming up on a few rows of houses, identical shacks really, evenly spaced apart on the muddy street. Theirs is the only car on the road, none parked in front of the homes. A few have electricity, bare bulbs hanging from sparse main rooms, shining through windows without curtains.
"Company housing," Jensen says without being asked. "The people here all work for the mining company. Live in the houses the company gives them. They don't get paid except in company vouchers, which can only be spent at the company store, and the store charges two bucks for a pound of sugar."
"Doesn’t hardly seem legal,” Jared says, rubbing his sleeve on the foggy window.
"It is, though. How I don't know. Makes you think about a lot of stuff. I mean, even indentured servants were given a fair hand when their time was through. Folks here can work a lifetime and have nothing at all to show for it."
A set of train tracks cut through the center of the neighborhood, the road rising up slightly to meet them, and as the tires of the car thump over iron rails, Jared tells Jensen to slow down.
“See that?” he says, pointing at the first in a line of telegraph poles that run parallel to the tracks. Someone has carved a circle with an X in the center into the wood, and fairly recently by the look of it.
Jensen squints into the night, angles his body toward Jared and bends his elbow over the steering wheel. “What is that?”
“It means that there’s someone ahead who will welcome travelers to their supper table. It’s a hobo sign.” When Jensen gives him a doubtful look, Jared continues. “There’s this jungle back home, on the edge of town. A hobo camp,” he clarifies. “Jim sometimes sends me down there with medicine. I’ve picked up a few things over time.”