"Mac's your name?" The barman looked surprised. "I call everyone Mac, Mac. It's just one those thingies, you know? Metasyntactic variables."
"Never heard of it," I said. "That drink won't make itself, you know."
The bartender finally got busy with the bottles and a pint-glass, which is a bit big for a drink on the house, but made me happy as I can never drink enough Old Peculiar. Not least because someone usually interrupts me after a few sips. Occasionally it's a broad, and rarer still she'll have chutzpah to take my drink away from me and try drinking it herself. I think it's the twist of grapefruit, makes them think the drink's going to be light, fizzy and feminine. After a mouthful of Old Peculiar though, she's normally face down on the floor, retching like she's trying to regurgitate the Hope diamond, and nine times out of ten my drink's down there with her, lifting the varnish from the floorboards and killing off the cockroaches.
"You were looking for me though," I said, putting aside fond memories of the women I've had trying to throw up on my shoes.
"Well Mac, there's always somebody looking for you in this world. Don't you believe in love connections?" To his credit the barman managed to wink at me. I was impressed.
"There's always people looking for me, barman," I said. "None of them are after a love connection though, and a lot of them are the kind of gentlemen you carefully refer to as gentlemen and never comment on where their hands might be or why they'd be carrying large musical instrument cases this far from an orchestra."
"I've got a cosh behind the bar, Mac," said the barman, holding his nose as he dropped the twist of grapefruit into my drink. "Jesus, Mac, how can you drink that?"
"Is this a message from Mad Frankie?" I pulled the drink towards me and inhaled. I've lost most of my sense of smell, but there was a citrussy hint from the drink that made me feel instantly better.
"It's a plate of lamb pasta," said the barman, turning to the serving hatch behind him and opening it. Behind it was a plate of spaghetti bolognese that looked like it had been made by a chef with no hands. The spaghetti was uncooked, long, stiff straw-like strands splayed across the plate, and the bolognese sauce had come from a can – I could see the can lid half-covered by the sauce. The barman whisked the plate up and set it in front of me with a flourish. I pushed it away.
"That's not cooked," I said. "Send it back."
"You'll have to take it up with the chef himself," said the barman. "Only he won't come out of the kitchen."
"How much of the bar do I have to destroy before he will?" I was feeling in my pockets for my gun, and wondering if I'd remembered to put it on this morning.
"You have to go back to the kitchen and talk to him yourself, Mac," said the barman, his words delivered slowly and precisely. Just as I found the gun tucked into the waistband of my underpants – surely I'd been trying to hide it, but why? – I realised that this was another coded message. "Leave the drink here, Mac," said the barman. "I wouldn't want you starting any trouble back there."
I sighed, and took a couple of sips of the Old Peculiar, just so I could remember what it tasted like, and pushed it back to him. "All yours," I said. "Enjoy it." He recoiled slightly, regarding the glass like it was a live grenade.
"Take the plate, Mac, so the chef knows why you're going back there."
I picked the plate up, wondering why he had to be so cloak-and-dagger about it all. Why not just tell me that there was someone in the kitchen wanting to talk to me?
"Where are you going?" One of the bouncers had stood up again and was glaring at me.
"This food's lousy," I said. "I'm going to make the chef eat it and see if he still wants to charge me for it."
"He's a lousy cook," said one of the others. "We should watch, it could be funny."
"Incoming, guys," said the barman promptly, gesturing at the stairs, and the bouncers turned away to see what he was talking about. I bolted for the kitchen, while the barman waved me anxiously on. I pushed the swing doors open with the plate, and stumbled on through.