It was a private club. The kind you might find down a dark alley in the warehouse district of San Francisco, but not as outwardly flamboyant as the Trocadero might be on a Wednesday night. Members knew it only as the "Skoob and Thistle", slightly reminiscent of a small Scottish pub replete with solid brick exterior walls and a single, windowless, hardwood door stained in walnut brown. It was adjacent to the train station at Etterbeek near Brussles, and down the cobblestone alley way by a count of three doors, quite commonly known to be owned by reputed bare knuckle pugilist, Mark Lowton.
The Politie Bruxelles had been surveilling the establishment for years, but the Skoob and Thistle patrons had been very good at hiding both good and bad intentions, as well as slipping away undetected. It helped that Lowton had fashioned an escape door out of rotting tomato and cabbage crates that led to a secret tunnel below the street. One could get away easily through the secret exit, but only after a 10 pound tip in Lowton's pocket and an expectation to clean the stinking clothes they exited in. Lowton's doorway was never found, but the smell of rotting cabbage was enough to deter the nosey from coming too close.
People here didn't use real names, but used names tended to indicate a particular service or a line of work that individuals were noted for. To even enter the door a potential patron would need to know the pass code, which changed weekly. Tonight it was "Cantona 7". Using last week's password , "Lynton" would afford you a quick trip to the alley with no less than a broken appendage. Penalties were stiffer for the men, having an extra appendage to break.
The ample door was guarded by a man the width of an Oak tree with arms as long as an ape. Entrants would fist bump the man known only as Monkey Woods, following the drop of a 5 pound note in Woods' shirt pocket. Everybody needed a "taste of the action" at the S&T.
Three people dotted the rail of the Skoob and Thistle this evening, while a poorly lit table in the far corner of the pub found three more quietly negotiating a price for an unknown commodity. I sat next to a short round cherub of a man with a face that could pass for early teens. He called himself Jesus Buddha, a self admitted bastard child from parents with diametrically opposed religious views.
He leaned towards me while shaking as if chilled to the bone, and asked, "Got any points? Can you hook me up?"
Not completely comfortable with the S&T procedures or nomenclature yet, I replied,
"No man, I'm looking for some myself." So as not to appear like the complete outsider I was, I added, "And I'm looking for other stuff too."
Creaking noises followed the swing of the exterior door as another patron was granted access. Taking a stool to my right, the unknown man motioned to the bartender with an outstretched palm followed by a finger point. I remember thinking it was a little assertive unless he knew the white robed figure behind the counter, but the man dressed in papal robes and crimson sash approached us all.
"What's up Tryhol?" the bartender asked.
"Nothing much Fergus, how are your avocados hanging?"
"Low and to the left", the man known as Fergus McCarthey replied. "Will you be havin' the Absinthe on special this evening? It's especially woody with only a hint of lead."
"We'll take three."
Removing his jacket the new addition to the rail extended his hand to both Buddha and me, "Call me Bargis", he said. "You boys wouldn't be interested in some fresh points, now would you?"
Buddha spoke first, "How much and how many? I need at least another thousand to break the top ten".
"I've got than much, but the price has gone up", the shady figure named Bargis said. "It will cost you five complete stories or 60 minutes with Bitters."
Buddha backed up and laughed hard enough to shake his ample belly. "You know the Madame only schedules the girls, she doesn't offer personal services any more."
"That's your problem, isn't it", Bargis replied.
"I'll take the thousand for the five stories, but in the business section." Buddha bargained.
"Entertainment section at a minimum", Bargis replied.
"Done", said Buddha.
Tryhol looked my way. "And what about you. You need a few?"
"Ah, I just came in for a beer and a burger", trying to sound like I was a regular at the S&T. "But thanks".
As the man called Tryhol walked away, Buddha turned my way. "You don't need any points man? Everyone needs points. How else are you gonna buy any Henways?"
"What's a Henway?" I asked.
"About three kilos", Buddha replied while making eye contact and waving at Monkey Woods by the door.
"WOODS", Buddha yelled. "We got an outsider here".
Thick furry arms quickly wrapped around my neck while Buddha stood there and smiled. "What's the password?" Mr. Woods asked.
"Cantona 7", I screeched.
Bargis saw the scuffle and reached for the bar phone. "Let me call the Queen Mudder and see if he's on the list. What's your name boy?"
"Wortham", was all I could squeeze out of my throat given Woods' headlock and the smell of his arm pits. There was a distinct and lengthy pause while I dangled off the floor like a cheap, carnival rag doll.
"He's clean, she says. Drop him", and Woods did just that.
McCarthy must have felt bad for me. He leaned over the rail and patted me on the shoulder. "No worries mate" he said. "Next time remember the answer is always three kilos whatever the question. Now how about a burger, eh? Jalapeno Man is on the grill tonight. I'll make sure he makes it special for ya."
"Maybe a burger and a piece of cheesecake", I said.
"That would be a Jalapeno Burger and Jalapeno Cheesecake", McCarthy replied. "I'd pass on ordering the Chocolate shake."
While waiting for my flaming piece of beef by-product on a bun, I casually strolled over the table in the dark corner of the pub. There I met Morse and ex-navy man, Aspertame Boy who apparently enjoys everything with only natural brown sugar crystals, and a proper gentleman known as Philbert of Macadamia. They had seen the ad-hoc security check at the rail and knew that I was legit. "Want to get in on this?" Philbert asked.
The three were surrounded by a number of pieces of paper with notes written everywhere. The writing continued onto bar napkins and even a small roll of toilet paper that ran onto the floor. There was a brown streak down the middle of one section and I feared the worst. Morse explained, "Wednesday is story idea exchange day here at the pub. You bring one, you share one, and you work on one with the boys. No need to buy points, lad. But be sure to bring extra paper, we're running a little thin tonight."
"That actually sounds good", I replied. "The paper I mean. I'll see you fellas next week then".
I nodded in appreciation and turned back towards the bar only to see Monkey Woods jump from his chair and bolt the door. "Brussels cops are at the door, anyone who needs to make a hasty exit better see Lowton at the back office… NOW"
Half of the pub left their seats and were reaching for their wallets. I had heard about the cabbage door and didn't feel like smelling of sulfer. Besides, I had a J-Man burger on the way. Frankly, there was nothing for me to hide. Those skeletons were neatly locked up a half a world away.
We were rousted, and forced to show proper passports, but the questions asked were about as lame as you might expect from beat cops not smart enough to hold a desk job. They flexed their para-military muscles and launched a few idle threats, then left without any further trouble. Lowton just stood there, arms folded, wondering if the harassment would ever stop.
The burger removed much of the first layer of skin from my throat, which was tempered a bit by the cheesecake, thankfully not nearly as hot. On my way out, I tipped McCarthy an extra five for his kindness and asked for directions to the Bitters House of Ill Repute.
"It's easy son. Two doors down the alley on the left. Look for the neon sign in the shape of the State of Texas. It's the best little whorehouse in Etterbeek."