The Stray Sheep didn't seem much like a woman's kind of place, thought Freddie. He resisted getting too close, but there were still times when he was away that he started to miss it. In that sense, it could be said that Stella's selection of this bar was inevitable.
He walked inside, the gloomy bell ringing as he did so. It was late at night, meaning that there were only a few groups of figures sitting at the tables, the counter vacant.
"Why, hello there," the sunglasses-wearing bartender said in greeting. As usual, it was impossible to tell what the man was thinking. Stroking his beard with his fingertips, he watched Freddie sit down on his usual stool.
"It has been a while, hasn't it?"
He couldn't really remember how long ago it had been that he'd last come here. So much was happening lately that he had no sense of chronology with regards to anything that took place anymore. He felt like he'd been there the night before, but also as if he hadn't been near the place in months.
"Beer, please." There was nothing in particular he felt like drinking, so he simply said whatever came to mind.
"Yes, yes. Coming right up."
As the bartender took out a mug, he looked over his shoulder and surveyed the bar. Stella didn't seem to have arrived yet. Checking his watch, he saw that it was 10:03. The time she had arranged had passed.
He wondered how long would it take to get from Stella's house to this place, but suddenly felt foolish and stopped. She hadn't necessarily called him from home. Part of him was irritated that Stella would summon someone and keep them waiting, but another part was also secretly relieved that she wasn't there.
The weird things she'd said about the dream on the phone. How did Stella know about that? He was scared to ask. She'd never forcibly called him out like this before, either. He couldn't help but feel like everything about the world and those in it was warped and abnormal.
And then there was Catherine. She had suddenly vanished while he was on the phone with Stella. He had waited for a while, assuming that she must have gone to the bathroom or something, but she had never returned, and upon going to check out the women's toilet he found it empty. He tried messaging her, but there was no response. Something must have come up that caused her to leave, he tried to convince himself, but it bothered him that she'd mentioned nothing of the sort. Freddie wanted to believe that their relationship wasn't superficial enough for her to leave without a word.
He wanted to see her. Urgently. He wanted to wrap his arms around her slender waist and exchange passionate kisses with her right now. He had already decided that he was going to be sleeping with her tonight, in any case.
Freddie tried to picture Catherine's supple, curvy body, but her devilish little face suddenly turned into Stella's blank one. Now she was even invading his daydreams. Freddie put his head in his hands and prostrated himself on the counter.
"Christ. What's happening to me?"
Is it me who's going crazy, or is it the world?
"Sorry to keep you waiting."
A mug was placed down on the counter. Freddie grasped it, mostly unconsciously, and gulped roughly half of it down in one go. The cold alcohol passed through his throat, seeping into the core of his body. It tasted of nothing, but that didn't matter at this point. It was more than enough to moisten his dried out soul.
"My, my. Are you sure you should be drinking it all at once?"
"Leave me alone, would you? Another beer."
He drank down the remaining half, then slammed down the empty mug before the bartender. The bartender shrugged lightly, but poured out a second beer as Freddie had ordered.
"You look quite fatigued this evening. Is something the matter?"
The bartender's probing tone got his back up. He ignored it, picking up the fresh mug and once again drinking about half of its contents, then began to stare at the screen of the cable TV that sat on the counter without really seeing it. A news programme on the TV was playing a report about the mysterious deaths from weakness.
"In the early hours of yesterday, a man was found dead in the bedroom of his residence at 7 Gilman Street. The deceased is Roger Greenwood, 36. According to the police, his condition resembled that of the deaths from weakness that have been epidemic amongst middle-aged men as of late, and a post mortem is to be performed in order to ascertain whether there is any connection in this case."
What awful news. Men dying. It was always men of Freddie's age who were dying suddenly under mysterious circumstances these days. The photograph of the victim displayed on the TV screen began to look just like his own obituary portrait.
"This is all you see on the news these days," the bartender murmured. "Still so young - but life is not something that one can control. They must have had their own quandaries."
Freddie tutted. The bartender seemed to be talking to himself, but he knew that he was speaking to him. He became more and more irritated, but decided that perhaps it would be better to go along with the meddling barman than to watch such awful news.
"You seem like you know a lot about it, huh? Do you know something about these incidents, then?"
"Certainly not." The bartender gave an exaggerated shrug of his shoulders. "When one stands here all night long, one cannot help but hear snatches regarding what they say on the news. That is all."
"Like what, for example?"
"Hmm, yes. It seems as though the victim from the other day was in the midst of messy divorce negotiations with his wife. I understand that he had found himself a young lady friend. Quite."
"Young lady friend..."
"Precisely. The wife, angered by her husband's unfaithfulness, flew into a jealous rage and thrust the knife in deep... Oh, but I suppose that the actual cause of death is still unknown. This is what they say on the gossip shows, in any case."
The bartender readjusted the position of his sunglasses, giving him a dry smile.
Jealous, a woman killed her cheating husband. Was such a thing possible in the real world? With the women Freddie knew, instead of being jealous they seemed to find it an act of convenience to be broken up with, jumping straight onto the next man. And yet, on the other hand, they would also play the victim. There had been times when they had openly demanded money from him. Women must have 'shameless' etched on the inside of their skin, thought Freddie.
"If it turns out that the cause of death was really being killed by his wife, rather than illness or something like that, maybe he was happy."
Even just once, he wanted a woman to love him enough to kill him. Ever since the day he'd witnessed his sister's stupidity, Freddie had viewed women as nightmares in the flesh. He had fled before he got in too deep, living like this for more than a decade. And now here he was, one foot - or perhaps both feet - deep.
Stella and Catherine. One woman cold and logical, the other devilish and uninhibited. He had thought that his time with Stella was almost up, but something emotional and illogical inside wouldn't let him ignore her completely. Otherwise, he would never have come to the Stray Sheep when she had called him out of the blue like that. The dream talk creeped him out, and his heart was still heavy with suspicions about her and Georg. He could've been done with all of this just by ignoring her, and yet Freddie realised that Stella had something that wouldn't allow it.
Stella Simmons, the woman who burned coldly in bed. Each time he made her gasp for breath, her long, golden hair tangled their bodies together like a spider's web. Was she capable of jealousy? What about Catherine? Had either of them experienced being so into someone that they wanted to kill them?
I haven't, at least.
"My. Is sir the type to make the girls cry, by any chance?"
"Nah. If anything, it's the other way around." Freddie polished off his second beer. "Do I look tired to you?"
"Yes," the bartender answered immediately. "I believe I have already mentioned this."
Nothing about this guy was considerate at all. Shouldn't he have been saying, no, sir, not at all, even if it was nothing more than empty flattery? It was amazing that he could make it in the service industry at all.
"You're not bartender-like at all, huh?"
"What ever could you mean?"
"I can't see you doing this as anything other than a side job. Isn't there something else you do the rest of the time?"
"Hahaha, ha. Such an amusing joke."
The bartender adjusted his sunglasses once more, chuckling awkwardly. Making it so obviously forced was like some kind of art.
"I unexpectedly took quite a liking to this line of work. Um, what I mean to say is, uh, I can't believe you would say such a thing. Hahaha."
"Haha," Freddie echoed, but wasn't finding anything amusing. The bartender, seemingly growing more and more flustered, used a handkerchief to dab sweat from his brow.
"Oh my, your mug is empty. I shall bring you another - my treat. Please don't pick on me so."
"You think you can bribe me with just a beer? Ah, screw it. It's enough to get you off the hook."
"You are too kind."
The reflection of the bartender's face in the mug as he filled it to the brim was more shaken than he had ever seen him before. Even still, he apparently managed somehow to pull himself together, and this time it was his turn to interrogate Freddie.
"By the by, what is sir's area of employment?"
"Mine? Nothing special."
"I really must know, yes."
The bartender moved his face closer. Feeling a sense of intimidation that had been completely non-existent just moments before, Freddie began to talk despite himself.
"I make shitty games for a crappy little games company."
"Ahh, games, is it?"
"And to think I was so full of hopes and dreams when I started working there. I was so sure I'd make a great game that would set the world on fire. But the division I got assigned to was godawful, and I had this moron for a boss..."
Halfway to insulting Daryl, he held his tongue. Even if drunkenness was starting to take hold, Freddie still wasn't senseless enough to speak ill of the dead.
"Anyway, there was a bunch of dumb shit and it didn't work out too well."
"I see. No, I understand."
"Is that so?" He fixed the bartender with a steady glare.
"Hahaha. But of course. It does appear as though you truly do have a talent for creating games, however."
"And you can say that how? The hell do you know?"
"Oh, no. It is mere intuition, yes. Might I ask you to kindly refrain from such truculence?"
The barman spoke ambiguously, then clapped his hands as if suddenly having thought of something.
"Oh, yes. If it would be agreeable for you, would you perhaps think of a game to have in the bar? I may not look it, but I am actually a rather big fan of video games..."
"You're not just messing me about again, right?"
"Preposterous. I am very serious indeed. I would like to ask you for a game that my customers would enjoy. You will be compensated accordingly, of course. I will let you drink here on the house for the rest of your life. What do you say?"
"Doesn't sound bad."
"Don't you think?"
"Oh, dear." The barman's shoulders slumped and he reeled, then added bitterly, "I don't think that is what you ought to say here."
"Give it a rest, would you? There's something I gotta do."
Until he was able to work on a game together with Catherine, he had no interest in taking on any other work.
"She is late, though."
The hand on the clock had already passed 10:30. This was unthinkable for Stella, who always turned up to meetings on time like clockwork. He had tried to downplay his rising anxiety during his chat with the bartender, but he was reaching his limit.
He took out his phone and dialled her number. It rang twice, then went to voice mail. He briefly explained that he was waiting at the Stray Sheep, then hung up. He tried texting her, too, but still no reply.
Wasn't this the same as with Catherine? He had lost contact with both of them at about the same time - could something like this happen?
He tapped his fingers on the counter. As he stood up, unable to hold himself back, to take a look outside, the bell on the door rang.
No. It was a group of men he recognised. Vincent. Orlando. Jonny. They had a young man he hadn't seen before with them, too. Vincent, apparently noticing Freddie's stare, held up his right hand in greeting.
He was the same tired-looking guy with the same sullen expression as always. Freddie left his spot at the counter, walking straight over to Vincent and the others.
"So you're here too, huh?"
Ignoring Orlando's whistling, he asked the men if they had seen Stella.
"She's a young woman with long, blonde hair. You didn't see her on your way here, did you?"
"Can't say I did," Jonny replied. Of the four, the man with the Asian features looked like the most together and trustworthy. "I didn't see anyone on the way, and there wasn't anyone out front, either."
"Alright... sorry. Could you just let me past?"
He had no reason to doubt them, but Freddie opened the door and went outside. He surveyed the street in front of the bar. Dim streetlights. A cloudy sky. There was nothing except for the distant howling of a stray dog.
"What's wrong? Did something happen?"
As Freddie re-entered the bar, Vincent shot him a concerned look. Somehow soothed by the timid expression, he explained that he was waiting for Stella, who hadn't shown up.
"You tried callin' her?" the young man who called himself Toby asked brightly.
He answered that something about her seemed strange lately, and that she wasn't answering the phone. As he did so, the man's face suddenly turned grave.
"You must be pretty worried."
He looked like a joker, but didn't seem to be a bad kid. If anything, he simply wasn't as jaded by life as Vincent and the others, and seemed to be the warmest and most concerned of them all.
"Do you know where she lives?" asked Jonny.
"Yeah. It's not too far from here. That just makes me more worried. She should've been here ages ago."
"Maybe you should go and have a look? We can come with, if you'd like."
Orlando nodded, fiddling with the brim of his hat. "I hope nothing's happened to her."
"What d'you mean by that?"
Freddie was surprised by how emotional his own voice was. He probably wouldn't have felt a thing were it any other woman.
Am I worried about Stella?
Becoming aware of it made him even more restless. Orlando resettled his hat low over his eyes, as if embarrassed by his careless remark.
"Sorry. I didn't mean anything weird by it. I'm just wondering."
Vincent, who had been silent up until now, cut in quickly in an attempt to dispel the unrest that filled the air.
"Sitting around here talking about it like this won't do any good. Let's take a trip over to her house. That's okay with you, right?"
Despite feeling somewhat hesitant about the endlessly good-natured Vincent's proposal, Freddie nodded.
"Then it's settled."
Vincent called over Erica and briefly explained the situation.
"So we're popping out for a bit. Sorry for not ordering anything."
"That's okay, but..." Erica, who also seemed worried, put her hand to her cheek and looked between Vincent and Freddie. "Call me right away if something happens, alright? I'll help out in any way I can."
"...Sorry. And thanks."
Freddie bowed his head to Erica. How many years had it been since he had last uttered thanks not out of workplace obligation, but from the bottom of his heart? He had believed this to be the dullest, most boring, shitty little town, but felt truly grateful for having met Vincent and the others.
"Alright, off we go."
Jonny opened the bar door, and a sudden night breeze blew in.
"Brr. It's cold as hell tonight," Orlando grumbled, putting up his jacket collar, but Freddie didn't feel the cold. For some reason, his body was filled with an urgent sense that if he didn't find Stella right away he'd be too late, making him feel as hot as if flames were licking at his skin.
"What the hell's going on with you, Stella...?"
Forcing out the words through a bitten lip, Freddie murmured her name.