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The Gravedigger's Brawl, Page 2

Abigail Roux

  Wyatt gave the surroundings a wary glance. It wasn’t dirty or greasy like he had expected from a place an acquaintance of Noah’s worked, but it looked . . . well-used. In fact, Wyatt liked the vintage feel of the place. The walls were dark and rich, covered with black and wine-colored brocade fabric, and there were antique sconces along the walls that filtered soft light into the room. The ceiling sported tin tiles, and all the woodwork in the place seemed to be original to the old Victorian structure. At night it would probably be quite intimate. The dark wooden floor appeared to be original as well; it was smooth and dull from years of use, any wax or lacquer long worn away.

  Noah waved to the bartender and slid into the nearest booth. The man nodded at Noah and smiled as he wiped out a glass with a dishrag.

  “Is that the guy?” Wyatt asked as he sat across from Noah and shifted on the leather seat. It was real leather, he was surprised to find, worn and smooth from age and use.

  “That’s Ash. He’s hot, right?”

  Ash was a good-looking guy: dark curls, darker eyes, tall and wiry. Wyatt tried not to smile. “Not what I was expecting.”

  Noah raised an eyebrow.

  “Big muscles, braided ponytail, goatee with beads in it.”

  Noah snorted and rolled his eyes, looking away with a smile and shake of his head.

  “Sleeveless leather vest and patches that say ‘The bitch fell off’ on the back.”

  Noah laughed, holding out his hand to make Wyatt stop. “You have a low opinion of my taste in men.”

  “Not low. Just . . . you know, leather-bound and hairy.”

  “You suck,” Noah said as a woman with purple hair came up to take their orders.

  She must’ve caught Noah’s words, because she grinned at Wyatt and said, “You’ll be popular in certain circles then.”

  Noah threw his head back and cackled. Wyatt could feel himself blushing, thankful for the low light and the heavy curtains on the windows.

  “What can I have Ash make for you?” the woman asked as she rested her hands on the edge of the table.

  Wyatt fought the urge to lean away from her. She had piercings everywhere: in her eyebrow, in her nose, one in the side of her lip, and so many in her ear that she probably picked up NPR on clear nights. Her long hair was done in a beautiful array of old-fashioned curls and loose braids, only it had royal purple streaks and white feathers through what appeared to be natural black. She was wearing a corseted dress over fishnet tights, outrageous heeled boots, and velvet gauntlets on her wrists.

  “What’s good?” Noah asked, unperturbed. They hadn’t been given menus.

  “Oh, you’re fresh meat?” the waitress asked with something like unholy glee as she turned and pointed them out to the bartender. “Hey, Ash, is this the guy?”

  The bartender nodded and pointed a dirty glass at them. “1951 tan Indian Chief. Hey, Noah.” He offered them a small smile.

  Noah nodded in return, the smile on his face threatening to become permanent.

  The waitress whistled and looked back down at Noah, impressed with the mention of the motorcycle. Wyatt felt distinctly out of place, and he took up his customary post in the background as he listened.

  “I’m Delilah Willis,” the waitress said. She offered her hand to Noah, then crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the side of Wyatt’s booth. “Nice to meet you. You got it with you?”

  It took a moment for Wyatt to decide that she was asking about the motorcycle.

  “Not today.”

  “We better make sure your food’s good enough to get you to come back. That means I’ll be cooking it,” Delilah said, loud enough for the bartender to hear.

  “We’re not up to fire codes right now,” the bartender replied.

  “Caleb’ll cook it then,” Delilah said without missing a beat.

  Wyatt couldn’t help but smile. Noah always managed to find some real characters. God only knew how.

  “What would Caleb recommend?” Noah asked.

  “You want meat, non-meat, or other?”

  “Cheeseburger?” Noah asked.

  “Meat, gotcha.”

  “Club sandwich?” Wyatt ventured.

  “Other. Coming right up,” Delilah promised, and turned away.

  Wyatt frowned at Noah, who was laughing silently. “How is a club sandwich ‘other’? What have you gotten me into?”

  Noah waved him off and shook his head, still chuckling.

  Wyatt watched Delilah as she headed for the little door at the end of the bar that led to the kitchen. Another waiter came almost at the same time, nearly running her over. He was at least a foot taller than she was, broad in the shoulders and lanky. He grabbed her and spun her around to keep from toppling her over, then smacked her on the ass as she continued into the kitchen.

  “Dammit, Ryan, every time you do that I end up with a hand print on my ass for a week.”

  “You love it.”

  “I know I do,” Delilah said before disappearing behind the swinging door.

  Wyatt couldn’t help but stare. He found the casual attitude fitting in the quirky establishment, but it still shocked him. He was also shocked to find that he was feeling more at ease, despite this not being his type of place.

  Ryan the waiter waved at them both. “This the guy?” he asked Ash, and the bartender nodded.

  Wyatt would never say anything, but he thought the burly waiter was much more Noah’s speed than the man behind the bar. Though both had dark hair and eyes and the same easy way of moving and smiling. Wyatt wondered if they might be related somehow.

  Ryan came over and shook their hands. “Ryan Sander, nice to meet you. Talk later.” Then he left for the front door and the patio.

  Wyatt found Noah looking at him with a crooked smirk. “What?”

  “What do you think of the place?”

  Wyatt narrowed his eyes. He leaned over the table and pointed his finger in Noah’s face. “I don’t want to be set up.”

  “He’s your type, though, right?” Noah asked with a glance at the bar.

  “Are you kidding? I don’t go for guys more than half a foot taller than I am, thanks.”

  Noah barked a laugh and shook his head, edging closer. “I’m talking about Ash. The tender.”

  Wyatt’s brow furrowed, and he risked a longer look at the man behind the bar. Ash was leaning both elbows on the bar top and talking with one of the men seated there. He wore a long-sleeved white dress shirt, sleeves rolled up to his wiry biceps, with black suspenders and pin-striped black trousers. His eyes were lined in heavy kohl, and when he spoke, Wyatt caught glimpses of metal on his tongue. His black hair was slicked back, long enough that it ended in riotous curls behind his ears and at the nape of his neck. He looked almost like an Old West bartender in his getup. As unusual as the total package was, it was appealing on that particular man in this particular setting. There was something very pseudo-Victorian about the whole thing.

  Was it a uniform or just personal style? Ryan had been wearing something very similar, sans the suspenders and tongue ring.

  Wyatt studied it for too long, and when he looked at Noah, he once again found his companion grinning. “Your type, right?”

  “I don’t have a type.”

  “Yes, but if you had a life, he’d be your type, right?”

  Wyatt rolled his eyes. “I thought we came here for your eye candy.”

  “We did.”

  Sure we did. “If that’s the guy you came to see, why are you trying to set me up with him?”

  “I met Ash a few weeks ago, just like I said,” Noah said quietly, leaning closer. “We hit it off, but he’s not my type and I’m not his. He told me he wanted me to meet the guy he worked for and I thought, ‘Hey, I’ll toss him Wyatt in return.’”

  “Real stand-up of you.”

  “He’s a sweet guy. Don’t let the gaslight bent throw you off.”

  “The what?”

  “Gaslight. It’s like steampunk without the st
eam. Or the punk. Victorian throwback, gothic without the emo?”

  “Are you speaking English right now?”

  Noah laughed.

  “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

  “He’s quirky and he likes things like suspenders and top hats and riding crops. And I didn’t tell him you’d be coming to meet him so you can play it . . . however it is you academic types play it.”

  “Noah. You are an academic type.”

  Noah waved that off with another mischievous grin. “But I’m the awesome kind who tends to get laid a lot.”

  Wyatt pressed his lips together, trying not to smile.

  “If you don’t like him, you don’t have to do anything. Just eat with me and we’ll go back to work. But if you have the hots for him, then I think maybe you two would get along pretty well. And here’s your perfect chance to get to know him.”

  Wyatt glared at him.

  “Did Delilah get y’all’s drinks?” Ash asked from behind the bar, and Wyatt and Noah both jumped guiltily. The patrons at the bar had all left.

  Noah glanced at Ash and then back at Wyatt, giving his head a jerk as he slid out of the booth. He walked up to the bar and reached over, shaking Ash’s hand.

  Wyatt followed, uncertain of how he would handle this. If he blew off the informal introduction, Noah would poke fun at him for the rest of the day for being a prude or antisocial or any number of other things that were partially true, and then he would forget it and life would go on. Noah was anything but overbearing or nosy. Usually. But the bartender—Ash—was an attractive man who seemed to have earned Noah’s approval. And it took a lot to earn Noah’s approval.

  “What can I get you?” Ash pulled up two glasses and set them on the lower shelf on the inside of the bar.

  Noah slid onto a stool. “What do you have on tap?”

  “Sarsaparilla.” Ash had a nice drawl that Wyatt thought may have come from the Gulf Coast, dulled by years away from home.

  Noah sighed in mock disappointment and shook his head.

  Ash filled up one of the beer mugs with what did appear to be root beer, straight out of one of the taps. “You’re educating the city’s youth, you can’t drink until noon.”

  “It’s past noon.”


  Wyatt claimed a stool. “Is that really root beer? On tap?” he asked, despite his inner filter telling him to keep quiet and observe rather than interact just yet.

  “Best in town,” Ash said with a hint of amusement. “Make it two?”

  “Sure. What sort of bar serves root beer on tap?”

  “The kind that encourages designated drivers,” Ash said wryly. He nodded his head at Wyatt. “Who’s the critic?”

  “Oh! Shit, I’m sorry. Ash, this is my colleague, Dr. Wyatt Case. He’s the head curator at the museum. Wyatt, this is Ash Lucroix. Gravedigger extraordinaire.”

  Wyatt and Ash shook hands, then Ash placed the two glasses of root beer in front of them and smiled crookedly.

  “Gravedigger?” Wyatt asked with a hint of wariness. He wasn’t certain he wanted to know the story behind the name, but he just couldn’t help himself.

  Ash nodded. He popped a stirring straw into his mouth and grinned.

  “Is this some sort of slang I’m not aware of?”

  “As opposed to slang you are aware of?” Noah teased.

  “Touché. Is it?”

  “No,” Ash said. He pulled the straw out and gave Wyatt a disarming smile. He had beautiful teeth, save for a small chip in one of his canines that gave him an impish quality. It was the only imperfection on his otherwise stunning face. “The barkeeps are all called Gravediggers here. The current rumor is that it’s because we make the best drinks in town.”

  Wyatt shook his head. “I don’t get it.”

  “Their drinks are so good that people stay until they can’t go home,” Noah said.

  Ash smiled. “Something like that.”

  “Is that where the place got its name?” Wyatt asked. He could never help it; history always pulled him in.

  “No.” Ash leaned his elbows on the bar. “It was originally called Fossor’s Tavern. This house was built by a family called Fossor.” He pointed over his shoulder at the back of the bar. Most of the wall was lined with shelves, but near the center was an old marble fireplace, just like many of the other houses in the Fan.

  The mantle was well polished and empty, and Wyatt wondered why they didn’t use it as a shelf to store bottles or glasses on, or at least some sort of decoration. The gilded mirror above it was showing signs of age, with black spots and the occasional crack around the edges. It was clean, though, and appeared to be original.

  Etched into the marble of the fireplace beneath the mantle was the name Ash had mentioned: Fossor.

  “When Caleb bought the place, he called it Fossor’s as a tribute.”

  “And this Caleb person knew that fossores were what the Romans called gravediggers?” Wyatt ventured with a knowing smirk.

  Ash cocked his head and blinked, his story derailed. “Yeah.” He laughed, looking back at Noah. “Museum set, huh?”

  Noah shrugged immodestly.

  “Well. Anyway, Caleb knew what the word meant and he called us his gravediggers. Most people didn’t even get why the tenders were called that, but they went along because that’s what people do. It got so popular that we changed the name of the tavern a few years ago.”

  “Fascinating,” Wyatt said in earnest.

  Ash smiled and nodded, still looking like he was a little thrown off his game. When he turned to begin putting away the glasses he’d cleaned, Noah waggled his eyebrows at Wyatt. Wyatt snorted.

  Delilah stepped back through the narrow door beside the end of the bar and planted her hands on her hips, glaring at Ash as the man restocked glasses on the back wall. The motion drew Ash’s attention and he did a little double take that Wyatt found kind of adorable.

  “What?” Ash asked when Delilah didn’t say anything.

  “Did you bang on the wall again?”

  “No.” When Delilah’s eyes narrowed, Ash held out his hands, each clutching the handles of four beer mugs. “No!”

  Delilah glanced at Noah and Wyatt and both men shook their heads in silent answer. She muttered and disappeared back into the kitchen.

  “What’s that about?” Noah asked as soon as the door had stopped swinging.

  “I think she’s trying to freak me out in retaliation for scaring her with a broomstick last month. She’s got the others in on it, I can feel it.”

  “Scaring her with a broomstick?” Noah asked, laughing.

  “It was elaborate and brilliant.”

  “If you say so.”

  Ash finished setting the glasses up on their shelves and turned back around. Wyatt admired the way the wiry muscles in his shoulders moved under the thin white shirt. The suspenders were . . . intriguing.

  “The place is supposedly haunted, but I’ve worked here five years and I’ve never seen anything. They’re trying to make me think there’s a ghost.”

  “So, what, October comes calling and they’re trying to get you all spooked?” Noah asked with obvious enjoyment.

  Ash flopped his dishrag in the direction of the beautiful Victorian glass door. Outside, the chalk sign advertised ghost tours. “October is our bread and butter. Have you heard of the Gravedigger’s Brawl?”

  Noah nodded, but Wyatt shook his head.

  “It’s . . . huge,” Ash said, obviously struggling to find a better word. “Hottest Halloween party in town every year. Costumes are required; it goes until dawn. Caleb rents all these props and gets pros to come in and do our makeup.”

  Wyatt nodded, smiling at Ash’s obvious excitement but inwardly cringing at the thought of such a crowd. “Sounds . . . awful,” he admitted with a laugh.

  Ash grinned crookedly. When Wyatt looked into his nearly black eyes, his stomach did a little flip.

  “Anyway,” Ash said with a sigh. “
I think they’ve got some sort of scheme brewing, ’cause they won’t stop talking about hauntings and seeing things and hearing noises upstairs. They’re using me as the guinea pig ’cause ghosts freak me out.”

  “How do you know the place isn’t just haunted?” Noah asked.

  “Because I refuse to be scared at work.”

  “Mind over matter,” Wyatt said.

  “Technically,” Noah countered, “it’d be mind over non-matter.”

  Wyatt shook his head, trying not to laugh.

  Ash leaned against the opposite shelf of the bar and began cleaning another glass. The panel that held the mirror above the fireplace lifted up with a swishing sound, and Noah and Wyatt both jumped. Through the hole where the panel had been, they could see the gleaming stainless steel kitchen on the other side of the wall. That explained why they didn’t keep anything sitting on the mantel.

  The panel hit one of Ash’s cleaned glasses that he’d placed on the mantel and sent it tumbling off the shelf. Ash caught the glass as it fell, flicked his wrist, and let the glass roll up his forearm to his elbow, where he popped it into the air and caught it again. He placed it on the proper shelf and then turned around to peer through the open panel.

  Wyatt and Noah gaped.

  Delilah was leaning over, smirking through the panel from the other side. She pushed two plates of food through the opening. “Soup’s on.”

  “Evil bitch,” Ash singsonged. He set the plates down in front of Wyatt and Noah and the panel whooshed shut again.

  Wyatt stared, mouth ajar, as Ash walked to the far end of the bar and grabbed some rolls of silverware. He cut his gaze to Noah, who was looking at him with wide eyes.

  “Wow,” Noah mouthed to him.

  Wyatt nodded and glanced back at Ash Lucroix. He wasn’t just attractive. He was interesting.

  Ash pressed his lips together and watched them for a moment. He had the distinct look of someone who wanted to say something but couldn’t figure out how to do it. Noah looked up at Ash as he picked up his hamburger and then glanced at Wyatt.

  Wyatt poked at his sandwich, wondering if he should excuse himself to go wash up or take a piss or something so Noah and Ash could talk about the man Noah had come to meet.