Barman Skoob placed a dark brew on the table, a slight swirling froth on the surface momentarily formed into an image of a man with military bearing. As I watched, the image winked and was replaced with the words Number Juan Awaits.
Startled I glanced at the barman, his moustache twinkling he flicked an eyebrow at me.
The froth had gone from the drink, and the drink had gone from the glass. I do not remember any of the liquid passing my lips, and if anything felt thirstier now than I had when I arrived. I slid the glass back to the barkeep and peered into the gloom of the room. A haze of smoke hung around the periphery of vision, a hangover from the pre-smoking ban days telling me how long this room had remained airless.
"Perhaps it needs a breath of fresh air in here," I muttered to myself.
"I tried that," said a sultry voice from the shadows. "They quickly break you."
Her face moved out from the shadows into the light of the single solitary bulb. "They call me Charpa," she said, offering the hand of friendship. "I don't know why, my name is..."
She was interrupted by a bell ringing deep within the bowls of the building. Its toll was heavy, ponderous. Pulling back into the shadows, Charpa muttered something, and as I peered to try and see her reassuring countenance once more, I saw nothing. Shuddering I turned to the bar, but Skoob had gone. He was replaced by a second man, who wore a badge that said "Incredulous", he looked similar but different to Skoob. There was a slight smile, and a twitch of an eyebrow, he nodded in acknowledgement.
A noise beside me made me turn, to see #3 emerging from the gloom. I glanced back at Incredulous, and he too had vanished, leaving the bar empty.
"No point looking for him," said #3. "He's back on shift at the whorehouse. Warehouse. Damn, I always get those two mixed up."
"What was the bell?"
"Mark's on," she replied. "It is time to write."
"I have some ideas," I replied.
"No you don't," #3 told me. "Your ideas are worthless trash. Follow me."
She led me through the gloom to a table with a single piece of paper and a pencil. There was no seat. I could see no other writer. From underneath the table, #3 brought out a cage containing three gerbils.
"You will write a humorous article about the X-Factor."
"What are the gerbils for?" As I watched, one of the gerbils mounted another. I was no gerbil expert, but they all looked male to me.
"If you're article is not funny, you will see."
#3 started to leave. I called out: "What happens if my pencil breaks?"
She paused and looked over her shoulder, took out a cigarette, but did not light it. "Whatever you do, do not let that happen."
I gulped and stared at the white sheet before me. I wanted to write about a black hole in the large hadron collider being used as a rubbish receptacle. I knew not of the X-Factor. A clock started ticking, each tick and tock separated by just slightly more than a second. I felt a presence at my shoulder, but when I looked, nobody was there.
"I am Juan," said a voice from the darkness.
"Like Carina is three?" I asked.
There was a menacing chuckle. "After a fashion, I am both Juan and number one. Write your collider story; leave the X-Factor to me."
His voice trailed off, and I wrote my piece, as I finished, the room was plunged into darkness.
A gerbil screamed.