First Chapter: Speakeasy
“Which beer do you think I should try first?” the attractive woman leaning on my bar asks. “The Goldenpour or the Barclay Stout?” She’s pretty. Early twenties, probably. Tight sweater and tighter jeans. I’ve never seen her before, but she gives me a big smile.
Then she shifts her body slightly and bats her eyelashes at my bartender, Smitty.
Beside me, Smitty grins with amusement. Because this girl isn’t just choosing between two beers. She’s what Smitty and I call a waverer—she’s mulling over her choice of bartenders, too.
“Well,” Smitty says, propping an arm on the bar. “Goldenpour is crisp and yeasty with aromas of pear and citrus.” He’s rolling up his sleeves, that fucker, purposefully showing off the colorful tattoos on his forearms.
“On the other hand,” I break in, “the Barclay Stout has hints of cocoa powder and vanilla, a creamy finish, a lengthy tail, and nice head.” I actually flex my pecs as I say this, while Smitty tries not to bust out laughing.
“Wow.” She blinks back and forth between us. “Tough decision.”
Competing for women is our little game. I get the girls who want the fit and clean-cut type, and Smitty gets the ones who like ’em tattooed and dangerous.
There’s plenty of female attention to go around. We just enjoy this bit of nonsense.
“Hmm,” the girl says. “I think I’ll try the Goldenpour first.”
“Ah, well,” I say quickly as Smitty snorts out a laugh. “He can tap it for you.” Smitty gives me a grin and reaches for a glass. She moves down the bar to wait for her beer.
“Can’t win ’em all,” Hamish—my best customer—says from a barstool in front of me.
“But the night is still young. As are you, whippersnapper.” Hamish is a carpenter. His studio is a hundred yards down the road. In fact, he and I own matching old brick mill buildings on the Winooski River, where we each spend a lot of our waking hours tending to our respective businesses.
His is a high-end woodworking operation, while mine is devoted to mankind’s greatest accomplishment: craft beer.
“Plenty of fish in the stream,” I agree. And right now I’m more worried about serving all the fish than banging them. It’s Thursday night. The weekend onslaught begins now, and I’m more or less ready.
Becky is working the tables tonight, which means Ed Sheeran is playing on the sound system. We have a rule—the waitress controls the playlist. She’s making her way around the room right now, stopping to light a candle on every table. The reach-in coolers are stocked. The empty tables are clean.
It’s November, so tonight’s crowd won’t break any records. The Gin Mill is the busiest during ski season and leaf-peeping season. Summers are pretty good, too. But there’s a lull during November until the ski resorts open.
Tonight we’ll be serving two kinds of customers—locals and foamies. A foamy is a beer tourist—a crazy soul who has come hundreds of miles—or even thousands—to sample Vermont’s hard-to-find craft brews.
This year they’re all dying to drink Goldenpour by the Giltmaker Brewery. Rated 99 by Beer Advisor, it’s the new Heady Topper—terrific yet impossible to buy. You can drink pint after pint right here at the Gin Mill, or you can wait in line for two hours on Tuesday morning outside the brewery in Waterbury. They’ll sell you exactly two six-packs.
Lucky for both me and the foamies, I serve Goldenpour six days a week, along with a dozen other rare Vermont craft brews. To get the word out, I’ve spent the last year writing to every beer blog and travel website in the world, making sure they know that the Gin Mill is the place to be if you want to taste the best.
And it’s slowly beginning to work. My bar is always crowded on the weekends and often on the weeknights, too.
I opened a bar because I wanted my life to be a seven-day-a-week party. Turns out owning a business never really feels like a party. But I love it anyway.
“Need a fill up?” I ask Hamish.
“Nah, I’m good,” the carpenter says. “Thanks, kid.”
“So what beer do you want to serve at your party?” I ask. He and I are planning a retirement shindig for him next month.
“Goldenpour, if you can swing it. But if you can’t, that’s okay, too.”
“I’ll ask. If they say no, I’ll bring something good.”
“I know you will.”
The door of the bar swings open, and I glance up out of habit. I make seventy percent of my receipts Thursday through Sunday. If I served food, too, that would even things out a bit.
The new arrival isn’t a customer, though. It’s Chelsea from NorthCorp, my beer distributor. “Happy Thursday, hot stuff,” she says. “I brought you a new IPL.”
“Yeah? Awesome.” I lean over the bar, grab Chelsea into a one-armed hug, and plant a kiss right on her jaw. Chelsea is a great girl. Not only does she keep the Gin Mill stocked with trophy beers, but she also really likes to fuck me. She’s my BDWB. Beer distributor with benefits.
Am I living the dream or what?
“Chelsea—Hamish and I have an invitation for you.” I pluck a card off the stack on the bar.
“Do you, now?” She gives me a hot glance.
Hamish bursts out laughing.
“To a party. Here.” I hand her the card.
“Oh, cool.” She gives Hamish a smile. “You’re the woodworker, right?”
“Indeed,” he says. “I’m retiring. Well, sort of. Can’t imagine quitting altogether. But I’m cutting back so I can travel. Alec is helping me throw a showing and a party.”
“Sounds fun,” she says, pocketing the card.
“I need an extra keg that week,” I tell her. “Hamish asked for Goldenpour. Would you check if we can score an extra?”
“Sure!” she says in her very bubbly way. Chelsea and I are a lot alike. Always looking for the next party. “You free later?” she asks, shaking her butt to Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” which is the next tune on Becky’s playlist.
“Of course.” I’m always free for Chelsea. “I have to close tonight, though.” That means I won’t be done here until about one, and sometimes she doesn’t like to wait up for me.
“Hey—I can close for you,” Smitty volunteers as he pours another pint of Goldenpour at the tap.
“Awesome!” Chelsea beams. “Thanks, Smitty!” She bounds off to open the rear door for her delivery guy.
Hamish watches her go. “You just got shaken down by your bartender,” he points out.
“I noticed that, too.” I shouldn’t be paying Smitty the overtime just so I can get horizontal with my beer distributor. But Smitty knows I don’t like to say no to Chelsea.
Smitty is a decent bartender. Mostly. But he’s sometimes pushy and kind of a flake. Lucky for him, I have a lot of empathy for the flakes of the world. And, hey, it’s already decided. So I’ll roll with it. “I guess I’d better make the most of the night, then.”
“Oh, I’m sure you will.” Hamish drains his beer. “I’m gonna roll. What’s the tab?”
“There isn’t one,” I tell him. “Tonight’s your free night.” Hamish is literally the only person who gets regular freebies from me. But when I bought this place, he was a huge help. He just showed up one day when I was inspecting the heap of a building I’d bought and feeling panicky. I’m not the best business person. But Hamish offered me tons of information and helped me get contractors at good prices during my renovation.
“Night, man!” I call after him. “Thanks for keeping me company while I open.”
“Thanks for never running out of beer,” he says with smiling eyes.
Chelsea reappears behind me with her truck driver lurking in the background. “Alec, you gotta put this one on tap right away, okay? I told the brewmaster that you’d give it a try and talk it up.”
Did you, now? “I’ll swap it out tonight,” I say, even though it’s an inconvenience. “Set ’er down anywhere, Kevin.”
Chelsea smiles, dancing along to Ed Sheeran, then ducking under the bar again. “You love this song, don’t you Alec?” She’s teasing me, since she knows I don’t go in for crooners.
“I love it so hard,” I lie, just to amuse her. “This song gets three snaps in a Z shape.” I snap my fingers and swivel my hips. It’s a little thing I do sometimes, spoofing In Living Color. Chelsea is too young to get the reference, but she doesn’t care. She gives me a throaty laugh that suggests we’re going to have a good time later. “Now let me get my prep work done, so I can beg off early for you tonight.”
“Can’t wait,” she says, flipping her hair. “Sign here and I’ll get out of your way.”
I take the clipboard and sign for the delivery. “Later, hot stuff.”
“Later!” She leaves.
Down the bar, Smitty is already deep in conversation with another female customer. He’s pointing at the beer list and describing something with hand gestures designed to show off his tats.
Work hard, play hard. That’s how we roll at the Gin Mill.
A half hour later, though, I’m not dancing anymore. As the tables fill up with the happy-hour crowd, I am pouring drinks at top speed, just trying to keep up with demand.
A bartender’s job is simple enough—sell booze and keep everyone happy. A bar owner’s job, on the other hand, is a little more fraught. Lately, the partying-to-worrying ratio is a little lower than I wish. Business is good, and the bar is full of people. But my profit margin is shaky, and I don’t have enough cash to reinvest in the business.
Most nights I spend a fair amount of time watching the crowd, trying to guess what changes would make a key difference. If I take out the pool tables and put in a little stage for music, would that help or hurt? Am I charging too much for the premium beers? Or too little?
None of it will be solved tonight, though. I scan the faces in the crowd, and my gaze snags on a couple in the back corner booth. It’s two women, staring deeply into each other’s eyes. They were in here last week, too.
One of them is familiar to me, and I can’t figure out why. And a good bartender never forgets a face. So for the second week in a row, this is gonna bug me.
I mix two margaritas and pour a half a dozen beers. Between each one I glance into the corner again. The pretty, dark-haired woman is lip-locked to the shorter woman. She has a salt-and-pepper buzz cut, and I’ve never seen her before. It’s the dark-haired woman who’s familiar. I just don’t know why. But watching her make eyes at the other woman bugs me. It’s wrong, somehow.
Yeah, this is gonna drive me crazy.
“Alec,” Smitty says.
The glare he gives me makes his nose-piercing flare. “For the third time, what tap am I changing out for the new lager? The IPL?”
“Um…” I sigh. “There’s a new IPL?”
Smitty’s eyebrows lift. “Chelsea brought it? Never mind. I’ll just decide by myself. I’ll rotate out something generic. Cheapskates will have to drink the good hooch.”
That’s probably going to lead to some complaints, but I don’t care right this second. I’m distracted by the couple again, because they’re actually kissing now.
“Hey—are you macking on that lesbian couple?” Smitty asks. “You know there’s porn for that.”
“Oh, shit,” I say slowly. “I just figured out who that is.” And, yeah, it’s bad news.
“A porn star?” Smitty asks.
“No, moron. Her name is Daniela. She’s in a relationship with someone I know. And they live together.” Last time I heard, anyway. I have a memory for exactly this kind of thing—names and gossip. I was destined to become a bartender.
“Uh-oh,” Smitty says.
“No kidding.” I watch for a moment longer, just to make sure I’m not imagining it. But I can see their tongues from all the way over here.
“She’s cheating on her man with a woman?” Smitty dumps a new bucket of ice into the bin. “Kinda dumb, since we live in a small town.”
“She’s cheating on a woman with another woman,” I clarify. “You know May Shipley?”
Smitty stands up, pointing at the Shipley Cider tap. “Like these Shipleys?”
“Yeah, that’s right. May is Griffin’s sister.”
“You gonna tell ’er? Why bother? It’s not like you’re a big fan of the Shipleys.”
He’s right. I should probably just leave it alone.
Another pack of drinkers descends on the bar, and I spend the next ten minutes pouring a lot of drinks. Someone asks for a snakebite, so I half fill a pint glass with Shipley Cider. The musky apple scent makes me think of high school, when I used to help the Shipleys get the last of their crop into storage at the end of every season. Ten bucks an hour. It seemed like a fortune back then.
And then August Shipley fired my father, and our lives went right to hell.
Serving up drinks and smiles on autopilot, I consider what to do about May’s cheating girlfriend. Maybe they broke up and I’m worrying for nothing?
As Smitty said, though, it’s a small town. I probably would have heard about a breakup. My sister would have mentioned any big upheavals at the Shipley’s place.
I sneak another look into the corner, and the two women are still going strong.
God, I hate cheaters. Do I call May? Do I mention it to her brother next time I see him?
Nah, not him. Griffin would probably just think I was a gossip. We’re not close. Not since high school, when we were fierce competitors. And definitely not lately, since he broke my sister’s heart.
Funny all the things you can worry about while you’re pouring drinks.
That woman attached to Daniela’s face—I wonder who she is? And how stupid is Daniela, anyway?
“You’re staring again.” Smitty chuckles. “But that is pretty hot.”
“It’s not that,” I growl. “Not sure what to do.” This just pushes all my buttons. I hate cheaters more than I dislike the Shipleys.
Besides, May is the sweetest one of the bunch. A good girl. Quiet. Not as smug as her older brother.
“Nothing much you can do, anyway. And cheaters always get caught.”
Wiping down the bar, I think that over. He’s right, and he’s also wrong. Sometimes a person can live in willful denial for a good long time. My mom, for instance. She probably always knew my dad was sleeping around. But she put up with him even when he didn’t deserve it.
“This is gonna bug you, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I mumble.
“Gimme your phone.”
“Why? Last time you had my phone you posted a picture of your ass on my Instagram.”
“It’s a nice ass. But that’s not what I’m doing, okay? Just unlock it and give it here.”
Against my better judgement, I comply.
Smitty takes a rag and wanders slowly through the big room. Candles flicker in crevices in the brick walls. People talk and laugh while music pulses in the background. The place looks great. Opening a bar isn’t exactly curing cancer. But I’m proud of this place anyway.
When Smitty reaches the back part of the room, he wipes a table with his left hand and subtly takes a photo of Daniela and her lover with his right hand.
“That was pretty slick,” I say when he brings my phone back.
He shrugs. “Slick would be if I could’ve also got a photo of my ass without you noticing.”
I jam my phone in my pocket as a group of four guys approaches the bar. “What’ll it be, gentlemen?”
And just like that, the weekend pace kicks back into high gear. First every barstool is taken, and then every table. Smitty fills drink orders as fast as our cocktail waitress can bring them over. And I do whatever needs doing. When you own your business, that’s just how the day goes.
I forget about Daniela for a while. I pour beers and swap out kegs and upsell my customers into good Vermont craft brews instead of the shlock they’d drink if it weren’t for my brilliance. The Ed Sheeran tunes have given way to an old Santana album and I’m loving life again.
Until I watch the bar door open, revealing May Shipley.
My first thought is: Oh for fuck’s sake. I can think of only one other time May came to the bar—on opening night. But there she is, her cheeks pink from the cool autumn night.
My second thought is: When did May Shipley get so hot? She’s wearing a soft sweater and black pants over legs that go on for days. Tall girls really turn my crank. Then again, many women do.
“Hey, Alec!” she says, waving.
I snap out of it in a hurry. “Wow, May! Haven’t seen you since the summer.”
She gives me a friendly smile, but then starts scanning the room.
“May,” I say sharply. I don’t even have a plan, except to stop her from experiencing the train wreck in the corner. Nobody deserves that.
But there’s no time. It’s almost like I can hear the brakes squealing as her eyes lock on the far corner of the room. Her frame stiffens as she spots Daniela. And then her hands ball into fists. She leans forward a little, as if the view might change if she were three inches closer.
“May,” I try one more time, as if anything I could say would make this moment less awful.
She doesn’t even hear me. Instead, she stomps toward the back, weaving between bodies as she makes her way toward that booth.
And now I’m in motion, too, ducking under the bar, following her, wondering what will happen. I always thought of May as the quiet Shipley, but now she looks like a heat-seeking missile locked onto a target.
“You cheating bitch!” she yells before she’s even reached the table.
Holy god. I’m both impressed and on my guard. Bar fights are rare at the Gin Mill, but anything could happen right now.
Daniela freezes, her eyes popping wide. But the other woman has her practically in a headlock, and is still trying to eat Daniela’s face. Daniela tries to pull back. She doesn’t get very far, though, as her hookup keeps her head caged in a possessive maneuver.
“Let me go, Trace,” Daniela says as May seethes in front of them.
“No,” the stranger grunts. “That’s the whole fuckin’ point, right? I don’t wanna let you go. You were mine first. You’ll always be mine.”
Oh, hell. This train wreck cannot be stopped.
“That is so touching,” May spits. “Except. As Daniela’s live-in girlfriend, someone should have warned me.” May reaches down and tugs Daniela’s chin, so at least the soon-to-be-ex girlfriend will look at her. “Pro bono work, huh? Every Thursday? You’re pathetic!”
“Hey! Watch your tone!” the stranger bellows. She has a voice like our ancient margarita blender—loud and grating. “Get your mitts off my girl.” Then she actually grabs May’s wrist in her paw and twists it sharply.
“Ow!” May shrieks. “You…cuntmuffin!”
My mouth drops open just as May yanks her hand back and cradles it in obvious pain. I see tears in her eyes. But she blinks them away quickly. And then…
Somehow I anticipate May’s lunge. As she starts forward, I start, too. My arms are longer than hers, and before she can grab Daniela’s lover, I fold May into a protective hug. Or a human straightjacket. Take your pick. I tug her backward before she can do something she’ll later regret.
May stiffens in my embrace, looking over her shoulder with startled eyes. As soon as she identifies her captor, she lets out a frustrated breath. “Let go,” she croaks.
“This whole thing is so shitty,” I say quietly into her ear. “But fighting can get you arrested if somebody calls the cops. And that’s bad for lawyers, right?” Not only did May go to BU for undergrad, she’s an attorney, too.
And, fine, I really don’t want anyone to summon the cops to my place of business. That’s never good.
She blinks once, then seems to relax in my arms. “Okay,” she says softly.
I let her go, and she takes a deep, angry breath. Then she turns toward her girlfriend. (Or former girlfriend?) “Don’t come home tonight,” she barks in the general direction of Daniela.
“She won’t,” the bitch in the booth says. “Daniela says you’re a shitty lay, anyway.”
Apparently my ninja skills aren’t as good as I thought, because this time May lunges before I’m ready. The slap she delivers to the stranger rings out loud and clear. And if any of my bar patrons missed the sound of it, they definitely didn’t miss the stranger’s roar of anger or string of obscenities and threats that immediately follows.
She leaps up onto the booth’s seat to try to get to May, but Daniela is blocking her way, so I have two or three precious seconds to prevent World War III.
I do this by scooping May up—all six feet of her, or near that, anyway—and bodily carrying her toward the door.
The Shipleys are a tall family. Luckily, so are the Rossis. She struggles, but only for a second. And I have her outdoors so fast that a moment later we’re standing in the cool November air, staring each other down.
“Holy crap! That was…” May lets the sentence die.
“Shitty?” I supply.
“Y-yeah,” she breathes. “Jesus. I am a huge idiot. I should have figured this out ages ago.”
“Um…” She’s definitely not an idiot. This girl is fierce. But now I’m not sure how to help her. “Can I walk you upstairs and get you drunk? Owning a bar comes in handy sometimes.”
“Jesus.” May swallows. “That sounds way too appealing right now. But I’m afraid my AA sponsor wouldn’t approve.”
AA? “Fuckity-fuck,” I stammer. I’ve just offered to get a recovering alcoholic drunk? “I’m sorry. Shit. I…”
She holds up a hand. “No need to panic. People offer me drinks all the time. But these days I say no.”
“I’m sorry,” I stammer again anyway. Jesus. I’m such an asshole.
“For most people, it wouldn’t be such a life-changing suggestion.” She meets my eyes with her light brown ones. “But for me, it’s bad news.”
“Okay.” I’m trying to regroup. “Can I drive you somewhere, then?”
May closes her eyes and leans her head against the brick wall of my building. “I never want to see her again.”
“I’ll bet. That woman was a bitch on wheels.”
“I mean Daniela,” May says, opening her eyes.
I’d meant Daniela, too. But I’m smart enough not to say that right now. “You two live together, right? You need somewhere to go?”
May sighs. “I have somewhere to go. My family will throw a parade if I leave Daniela and move back home. They’re going to be giddy.” Then her eyes get shiny with tears. “Shit.”
“Aw.” Mayday! Crying women are my weakness. So I pull May into a hug. “Tell me how I can help.”
She takes a deep breath. “You have a pickup truck, right? I need to move out. Can I borrow your wheels?”
“Sure,” I say immediately. But I can’t let a teary woman move out of her place alone. Even if she is a Shipley. “I’ll go with you. It’ll be faster that way. Is there much furniture?”
“No.” She steps back. “All the furniture is hers. I just have clothes and books.”
“Okay. So this will be a snap.” She smells like lemons. I mentally slap myself for noticing. Now is not the moment to mack on May Shipley. “Let’s go. I’ll drive.”
“Alec, you really don’t have to. I’m sure you’re supposed to be behind that bar. And I could call my brothers.” She looks, if possible, even more glum saying that. “They won’t be able to hold back their glee.”
“Don’t bother them,” I say quickly. “Come on.” Taking her hand, I tug her away from the wall. “You’re not in any shape to drive.”
She’s right, of course. I’m supposed to be tending bar with Smitty. He’s probably getting crushed in there. I pull out my phone as May follows me toward the truck, and sure enough there’s a text from Smitty already. WTF? Where’d you go?
I bleep the locks and try to think. “Hop in. I just have to make one quick phone call.”
As May buckles her seatbelt, I look up at the lit windows of my brother Benito’s apartment. Since he’s home, I pull up his phone number and tap it. “Hey,” I say when he answers. “I’m supposed to be tending bar tonight, but now I have to help out a friend with some urgent business.” I’d explain, but it would take too long. Besides, I don’t even know why I’m bailing out May Shipley. “Could you check on Smitty in a few minutes? See if he’s slammed?”
“Sure?” Benito says. “After I finish my dinner.”
“Thanks. I owe you.”
We hang up and I shoot off a text to another of my bartenders, asking if he’d like to pick up an extra shift tonight. Then I start the truck and turn out onto the two-lane highway, heading south. “Your place is in Randolph, right?”
May snaps out of the daze she’s in. “It is. No… It was. I can’t believe it’s going to end like this.” Fresh tears spring into her eyes.
“I sure am sorry. Cheaters are the worst.” My father was the king of cheaters. I watched him slowly destroy my mother’s self-esteem until he disappeared for good when I was fifteen.
“Alec, I don’t know why you’re helping me like this.” She wipes her eyes.
I just shrug, because I don’t really, either. “That’s what friends are for, right?” Although May and I aren’t really friends. She’s four or five years younger than I am. We didn’t overlap at the high school, although I saw more than enough of her brother.
May reaches over and puts a hand on my forearm. “Well…I really appreciate it. When I straighten my head out a little bit, I’ll make you an apple pie as a thank-you note.”
“See? I knew I was helping the right person.”
She smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes.