From the author: Lilith is one of those characters that is so multifaceted she can appear anywhere.
Den of Iniquity
Since mankind first started recording such things, it has been a universal truth that taverns, bars, brew houses, etc. are all dens of iniquity. They promote drunkenness, irresponsibility, brawls, prostitution, and any number of other sins.
They are also necessary. People need places to gather to exchange news (gossip), to meet friends (or lovers, paid or otherwise), and relax (become lazy). Pick your argument, for or against, and someone will argue with you.
But there is one Den of Iniquity that has become quite essential in the continuation of humanity. My Den of Iniquity. At least that’s what the sign reads on the little placard by the side of the road, precisely three feet outside of town, whichever town wherever I need to set up shop to fill a need—therefore any problems with my little establishment are mine and not the town’s. And my name is Lilith—Lily to my friends, which are legion. I cook and run the place. We don’t offer much, basic pub grub of fish and chips or hamburgers and fries with doughnuts or pies on the side. The crude cabin with extensive outbuildings—updated equipment as required or desired—has been at this location for as long as anyone cares to remember, or recordkeeping has bothered to keep track.
Raphe performs daily miracles as my brewmaster. Gabe tends bar and acts as the local psychologist. Ariel waits tables with near-innocent grace and charm. And Michael, lovely, lovely, big Mike keeps rowdy patrons from becoming too rowdy.
Mike’s usual station was in front of the hearth. He’s been known to divert a suicide or two from throwing themselves into the flames. Actually the fireplace is one of the major draws to my little tavern. It looks like sculpted plaster in the shape of a demon head with the open mouth framing the fireplace. It has a Nordic feel to it. Remember the Vikings? Kind of bloodthirsty. That’s where that particular demon came from. Interior decorators and movie producers love it.
As I thought that, Willy Frost jumped up from the bench he straddled beside a round table toward the back of the room. “Take that back, you lying, cheating iguana!”
Willy was the town plumber and he once found an iguana, escaped from its terrarium curled up behind the water heater of the mayor’s house. The reptile had made a nest of house insulation and proceeded to chomp on wires and such leaving the mayor to cold showers. Ever since, Willy used the word “iguana” any chance he got.
“You stole my 3/8ths socket wrench and that’s a fact!” replied Johnny the auto mechanic.
“Then how come your wife found it in her make up case an hour later?” Willy returned.
“Because you put it there!” Johnny accused.
Willy threw a lopsided punch across the table and stumbled.
Johnny pushed his bench backward, awkwardly. He wasn’t quite as drunk as Willy and had better reaction time.
Big Mike by the demon hearth loosened his billyclub and took a wary stance as Johnny’s fist connected with Willy’s jaw.
I slammed a rolling pin on the bar. Most of the patrons looked up and silenced their babble.
Willy and Johnny paid me no heed as they wrestled into the open space between their table and the hearth. They wobbled and reeled inevitably toward the demon mouth. The flames flared high, eager for new sinners to fall to their doom.
My heart leapt to my throat. My aging minivan needed a tune up and the sink trap in my bathroom showed signs of clogging. If either one of these men gave way to their baser natures I’d have to fix the blame things myself.
Mike saved the day, again. He pushed his way between the two combatants and held them apart with a firm grip on the collars of their shirts. They continued swinging blindly without connecting until Mike stepped on toes. I heard bones crunch. That shifted their self-absorption from destroying a good friend to nursing hurts. Gabe called their wives to retrieve them.
Just another normal night at the Den of Iniquity.
Or was it? The winter solstice had passed three days ago, the crowd was loud, singing seasonal music in a raucous and off-key competition. They swayed in unison in their seats, danced wildly, or banged their tankards—I use pewter vessels, some old enough to be considered antique and newer replacements as necessary. Gabe loves washing them and polishing them with a pristine white towel as he listens to problems and dispenses advice.
Right now the mayor poured out his campaign woes. Come the equinox he faced some stiff competition in his election campaign. He also needed about a dozen hefty “donations” from the bar to offset what a local church was raising to run a candidate against him.
If the world knew where the donation came from, it wouldn’t help his cause.
“Six more specials,” Ariel said, slamming her serving tray on the bar to pry Gabe’s attention away from the mayor.
Gabe nodded and smiled, threw his inevitable towel over his shoulder and drew the beer from the tap, never once taking his eyes off the mayor who kept prattling on between longer and longer quaffs of his unspecial ale.
Ariel looked a little frazzled, her blonde hair drooping into her eyes and tendrils escaping her French twist. The diamond encrusted gold comb that kept it all in place failed miserably in its job tonight. A sure sign that something strange lingered around the edges of our domain.
I checked the fireplace. The demon eyes glowed red.
Big Mike stood stalwart again in front of the low hearth, feet braced apart, arms crossed over his chest. Easier to move a mountain than him when he was in a mood. And he was in a mood after ejecting Willy and Johnny into a snowbank outside the door.
His white duds nearly pulsed in their radiant glow. Of all my comrades-in-arms, he alone kept his whites clean and pristine. Gabe’s were perpetually stained by spilled beer, likewise Ariel’s and Raphe’s. I always wore red that didn’t show much of the grease and batter I dealt with all day every day.
The front door opened, with a tinkling of silver bells. All eyes turned toward the glittery figure of a stunning blonde with cherubic cheeks. Snow dusted her hair and shoulders. She carried a fat portfolio.
“Hi, Angela Halleule,” I called from the kitchen pass through.
She draped her pink wool coat over a barstool and sidled onto another, then planted her papers on the bar. A company logo sprawled over the cover. It looked very official.
“Who are you tonight?” Gabe asked in a stage whisper that reached all the way to the depths of my kitchen.
“I’m a private investigator over in the city and I’m looking for this guy.” She opened the portfolio to reveal a mug shot of a scrawny man with a permanent black five o’clock shadow.
I shook my head. So did Gabe and Ariel. “Can’t say I’ve seen him around,” I said.
Angela heaved a sigh and even Mike spared a glance in the direction of her chest.
“Why are you looking?” I asked.
“He missed his parole hearing and his family is very worried. They say that he’s seen the light and is trying to rebuild his life after running over a child while drunk.
“Well, if he was going to stray, this is the place he’d come to. But I haven’t seen him.” I motioned for Mike to desert his post to examine the photo. “Did the child live?” I asked. That might make a difference in the direction the man in question fled.
“Unfortunately no.” Angela closed her eyes and her lips moved as if reciting a prayer for the departed.
Mike’s eyes widened in recognition. But he said, “No. He’s not been around here lately.”
Angela opened her eyes, but not in time to see Mike’s reaction. “What about her?” Another photo, this one of a smiling teenager with an infant in her arms. Her mouth smiled but her eyes looked haunted.
Mike and Gabe both shook their heads.
“She came to the back door begging for milk for the baby. I gave her some and called social services. They came and got her and found a warm shelter with food for her and the baby,” Ariel said. “She never crossed the threshold.”
This time, I sighed in relief.
“And these?” Angela spread three more photos in front of us, all men, different ages, different races, different economic groups determined by expense of haircut and clothing.
“Sorry. We get a lot of people through here, regulars as well as strangers. I don’t remember any of these men.” But the ancient Asian man wearing elaborate silk robes brocaded in gold resembled someone who stumbled through the door and straight into the fire without bothering with a drink. He’d been convicted of raping eighteen children, five of them died. He couldn’t live with his crimes (addiction) any longer and sent himself straight to Hell. Almost a redeeming act, except he’d taken control of his death and not left it to the big man upstairs.
The middle-aged black man in a well-made off-the-rack suit had drunk his fair share of special beer, sobbing about the people he’d made homeless by embezzling their mortgage payments to the bank he worked for. Gabe had set him straight and told him how to set up a trust fund to repay those he’d duped.
Ariel had taken care of the blond man with slightly up-tilted eyes suggesting Slavic origins, who’d fallen into the trap of selling drugs to young teens. She’d found the right rehab and job training for him and ordered him into volunteer work helping the people he’d lured into the downward spiral of drug addiction and escalating crimes to pay for them.
“And one last one.” Angela pulled another picture from her coat pocket. The paper looked old and had been folded and refolded many times. She smoothed it flat on the bar. A charcoal line drawing of a woman in the first flush of love stared back at me with my own face. Lilith, first wife of Adam, the original sinner who had been cast out of the Garden by the Archangels for the sin of wanting control in her relationship with Adam and with God.
Angela’s eyes narrowed as she peered at me. “You haven’t changed much,” she whispered.
I carried a few thousand years of care lines around my eyes now, but no, I hadn’t changed much in form or in attitude.
“What’s He want me for this time?” I asked, as if I didn’t care. Gabe and Ariel edged closer to me.
“The usual. Submission and repentance. Closing the bar would be a start.”
“Let the old guy have control over who goes to hell and who doesn’t?” I asked sweetly.
“Something like that. Redemption is a fine goal, but He determines who is salvageable and who isn’t.”
“Tell Him if He wants to talk, He knows where to find me. The door is that way?”
Angela gathered up all her photos and papers and returned them to the portfolio with the angelic logo on the front. She tapped them into a neat pile and reached for the drawing.
I kept my fingers on it, anchoring it in place. “I’ll keep this. It’s the only likeness of me. Somehow I don’t photograph well.” Or at all. Cameras recorded only static in my presence. The same for my crew.
“He told me to keep it safe.”
“Oh, I’ll keep it safe.”
“You won’t consign it to your master?” She looked meaningfully at the fire.
“That one is no more my master than the old man.”
“He won’t like it.”
“Then He can retrieve it Himself.”
Angela donned her pink coat and left the same way she came in, still glittering with sparkling snow.
“We’re out of special ingredients,” Raphe said on a panting breath. He looked as if he’d run around the property six times while looking for hidden stashes.
“Kitchen?” I knew I’d used some in the fish batter and the dough for the hamburger buns.
“Checked. We’re out!” Raphe panted harder, suppressing panic.
The fire shot higher and a distinctive bass rumble that might be mistaken for thunder but wasn’t, filled the room, echoing and compounding.
“I’ll call Three Kings Distributors and tell them you are on your way.” I whipped out my cell phone and speed dialed TKD.
Raphe looked at me askance. “That will take an hour at least. Do we have that kind of time?” His gaze shifted toward the fireplace. The eyes gleamed with avaricious hunger.
“We’ll make that kind of time,” I insisted.
For the first time since we’d established The Den of Iniquity, Michael flipped the open sign in the window to Closed and threw the deadbolt on the door.
The patrons kept singing and dancing. Ariel passed around the un-special ale, encouraging people to seek their homes and snug beds before snowfall trapped them inside all night. A few left. Most just kept up the party.
Then our impeccable and unimpeachable D.A. sauntered over to the mayor on her three-inch high heels and tighter than tight short skirt. Somehow her blazer had fallen to the floor revealing a sheer white blouse that dipped way too low between her boobs. She planted a big open-mouthed kiss on the married-to-someone-else mayor. While they played tongue hockey, he slapped her well-rounded ass.
Maybe Willy shouldn’t have fixed his water heater.
I sniffed the air three times, seeking the source of this unusual behavior. Yep, a distinct flavor of brimstone emanated from the fire.
“Hurry!” I urged Raphe out the door.
Mike looked as if he wanted his flaming sword to set up a stronger barrier between our not-so-innocent sinners and the Hell Mouth.
An opening straight into the arms of the Dark Prince himself.
Raphe dashed out the back. Gabe took up a seat in the center of the crowd and put on his professional advice-giver face.
I started scrounging for spilled crumbs of the specials in the dough.
The front door opened, despite the deadbolt.
Angela returned, still glittering, this time she helped a shivering short man with Mediterranean coloring hold up a heavily pregnant woman. She too had olive skin and a dark, exotic beauty. She waddled with the peculiar gate of someone about to give birth.
The room grew preternaturally quiet. Even the fire tamped down to a dull, red, glow.
“This is Jose and his wife Maria,” Angela said. “I found them in the parking lot. Their car died on the way to the hospital. Can you help?” She looked up at me with pleading eyes.
This time there would be room at the inn.
All the patrons leaned forward watching avidly. Even the mayor and the D.A. roused from their lustful explorations of each other to watch.
“The brew house is warm and clean. Private,” I said. “Through here, don’t even have to go outside again.” I looked askance at the soaked blankets Jose and Maria had draped around themselves and wondered if they even had coats. “Ariel, towels, first aid kit, blankets. Gabe, a round of beer on the house. Mike… you keep doing what you’re doing.” And pray that Raphe returned in time with the special ingredients.
And it came to pass that this baby was born in the way of all babies, when she determined the time was right, about two minutes after we got Maria settled on a crude pallet of piled blankets. She came into the world whimpering and pale. I worried for her, and for her parents. None of them looked overly healthy.
Ariel, bless her heart, knew what to do. She gave Jose a foaming tankard of beer from the tap—the last of the special—let Maria have a sip or three, and dropped three drops on the baby’s tongue. They all perked up immediately.
I was too busy delivering the afterbirth and cutting the cord to partake. Good thing I always wear red. The blood stains didn’t show any worse than the grease and the batter and the beer already there.
I’d sat back on my heels and covered Maria with another blanket, this one had been heating by the fire beneath the mash. Ariel washed the baby with warm water from the Jordan River that provided one of the essential ingredients in my brew, then set the child to her mother’s breast.
A blast of cold air from the outside announced Raphe’s return. He shook his head with his dismal news. The Three Kings were totally out of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. None to be had tonight.
My heart sank. A lot of sinners would suffer needlessly, without a chance at redemption tonight.
I stared at the mess around me. Something old, something bizarre, and something oh so very wonderful tickled my brain.
I gathered up the afterbirth in a clean towel, poured the last of Jose’s beer over the bloody mass, and cradled it gently between my hands. “Jose, you need to be a part of this. Ariel will stay with Maria and the baby.” A girl child at last. I’d had enough of men mucking up my life.
We trudged through the connecting door into the storeroom and thence into the main room of the bar.
The fire roared and laughed with delight as frolicking patrons drank more and more, losing contact with their restraint and moral core. They danced closer and closer to the fire. Mike had his flaming sword out, beating back the drunken dance with the flat of the blade, much as he’d driven me out of Eden long ago.
I thrust him aside as I hadn’t dared do then. He obeyed.
With a prayer on my lips and reverence in my heart, I held up the now bloody towel and its contents and threw them both into the heart of the flames.
The fire died, leaving the bundle intact. The demon eyes went flat and black, just two more indentations in the surround. With a loud creak and groan, plaster shattered and the demon mouth snapped closed. The room grew chill but not cold. Silence reined.
The patrons gathered their things and trooped outside into a still night. The little bit of falling snow remained light and fluffy, easy to drive, or walk over.
“You closed the Hellmouth,” Gabe whispered in awe.
“For now,” I replied suddenly exhausted. “There will always be another one. Always those who are not wary. Probably time to move this Den of Iniquity to where it will be needed most.”
“Always more who need your help than those who don’t,” Jose reminded us.
Outside Angela started singing in a clear and sweet soprano:
This story originally appeared in How Beer Saved the World II.