Snakeskin (continued)

"Do?"  Lissa stares at Asian Steve as though he's grown a second head, but Steve just stares back, almost as though he has.  "What can I do about something I know nothing about?"

"Well there's your first problem," says Steve placidly, toying with a green-glass liqueur bottle.  "Your first job would be to find out what an Oni is, and then do something about it.  But if you can't think even that far ahead then I'm afraid I will ban you from the Barbershop.  You'll have to find somewhere else to get your shave and haircut."

Lissajous's glass rocks on the bar as it slips from nerveless fingers, luckily falling only an inch and a half.  A little wave of golden liquid slops to the rim of the glass and splashes on the countertop.  He knows what Steve's just said but he can't bring himself to believe it.  What will he do without the Barbershop?  There's a moment where everything seems to freeze, holding in place around him.  Even his heart pauses beating, and in that timeless instant he sees the woman's -- the Oni's -- face in the mirror behind the bar.  Her mouth opens in what should be a smile, but it keeps opening and opening, the top of her head folding back until there's just a tooth-rimmed hole atop her neck, and a long, purplish forked tongue protrudes obscenely out.  Then his heart beats, and the vision fades, and a bar-towel whisks in front of him clearing up the spilled drink.

"I'll find out who she is," says Lissa.  "I'll find out why she's come here.  I'll help you stop her."

"It."  Asian Steve's face is cold and hard again.  "Learn this from me now: only respect things that deserve your respect."

"Oh right!"  Lissa laughs, the tension breaking and a wave of relief washing over him.  "This is just my day for people telling me profound things.  Prophecy is what you make it, and respect where respect is due.  Who gets to tell me that every cloud has a silver lining, or that a penny saved is a penny earned?"

Steve ignores him.  "You're not helping me, and I'm not sure that I'm going to help you.  Seems to me that someone wanted by the Oni is someone to avoid."

"No, wait.  You said you were banning me when I wasn't going to do anything about her.  You have to let me play here now, I'm going to fix it all!"

It's Steve's turn to laugh now, but it's mirthless.  "Fix it all.  What an ambition."

He says nothing more, turning away and busying himself behind the bar while Lissa finishes his drink.  It gets more bitter towards the bottom of the glass, and he's feeling a little light-headed; the drink is stronger than he realised.  Finally the glass is empty and he clinks it back on the bar.

"You can come back," says Steve, not turning round.  "But if you bring me another Oni, it'll be the last time you come."

A hand lands on Lissa's shoulder and he starts so violently he slips off the stool and sprawls on the carpet, legs and arms akimbo and his head spinning.  He puts his hands down to push himself up, and they slide over a dry, warm scaly surface.  Just like snakeskin.  He fritzes again, unexpected and shocking, a sudden vision of a dark-haired boy with snakeskin gloves staring like a deer caught in the headlights.  It lasts a fraction of a second, and then he's remembering holding a snake on a zoo visit as a schoolboy.  He shakes his head and drags himself to his knees.  It's as if someone -- something? -- didn't want him having that vision.

"What's going on?" he says, but Asian Steve is gone and the security guard leaning over him has his lips sewn shut with white thread.  A hand grabs him under the armpit and hoists, and he struggles to get his feet under him before he falls over again.  He orients himself to the door he came in by, but he's turned around and pointed at another door, and the guard gestures.  When he doesn't move immediately he's cuffed round the back of the head, and it hurts.  He hurries to the door, listening to the slap and trip of his steps on the snakeskin floor.

The door opens as he reaches it, but there's another security guard on the other side and there's a peephole in the door; nothing mysterious, nothing weird.  This time.  There's another corridor, concrete floor and forest green walls, but no copper strips and no shadows.  He can't see where the lights are, or the ceiling for that matter.  He hurries along the corridor, opens another door, and then stops abruptly.  He's back on Wesson Street, and when he turns around, the door behind him is anonymous, unremarkable, and already encouraging him to forget it.

The End

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