The tavern was as lively as it has always been; folk were merry, and drinks were plenty. The only person not swept away by the electric feel of the atmosphere was Cooper, who found himself crouched behind the bar, fiddling with a series of valves and hooks under the counter to decouple a recently emptied keg ready for replacement.
After a sigh of success, Cooper, in one swift movement, stood upright and, using his momentum to swing, hauled keg up and over his shoulder, resting it on his back. As he turned to leave, he found his path blocked by a man with a heavily scarred face, leaning against the wall with a sly grin and crossed arms.
“Hi,” he said, “I liked you better with your clothes off.”
“Sorry, we don’t offer those types of services here,” Cooper replied, matter-of-factly and quickly tried to brush past the man.
“Wait! You seem to be mistaken,” Jay-Dee interrupted, sidestepping and forcing himself into Cooper’s way again, “It is I, that has something to offer you.”
“I’m honoured,” Cooper sighed, his inflexions as dull as stale bread, “But, we don’t allow others to offer those services here, either,” And he quickly tried to squeeze past for a second time, but was immediately halted by the sudden arrival of Anna and Ifri.
“Don’t be so hasty,” Anna called out, “Think about this. We’ll give you a good rate.”
“Yeah,” continued Ifri, “We’re a group package – and an experienced group at that.”
“If you’re worried, we’ll make sure you wear protection,” Jay-Dee muttered sensually, inching closer to Cooper.
“Look,” Cooper said in a stilted tone, seemingly flustered, “I don’t really care what you guys do behind closed doors, but I’m just the keg-runner. I’m only good at carrying things”
Both Ifri and Anna squinted and paused for ponder, visibly confused.
“But…” Anna said, “That’s exactly why we want you. We need a Looter.”
“What did you think we were talking about?” Probed Ifri.
Before Cooper could stutter out his response, Jay-Dee interjected.
“So, are you interested?”
“I don’t even know what that would entail,” Cooper replied, finally setting the keg down off from his back.
“Oh, the usual,” replied Jay-Dee, “Killer monsters, nefarious traps, certain death awaiting on each corner—the typical.”
Anna jabbed her elbow into Jay-Dee.
“Ignore him,” she said, “We’re an Adventuring party. And, due to an unfortunate—and completely unrelated to me, circumstance, we have regretfully lost our Auto-Looter. We would like to hire you to replace that role.”
Cooper paused and took a deep breath. He scanned the tavern, taking in the obnoxious banter of patrons, and the same decrepit walls of which he found himself confined in day-in and day-out – and he looked at the keg at his feet. Memories flooded back of nights in agony, curled in bed, the innumerable trips back and forth while straining under the weight of these barrels.
“Is it a permanent position?” He finally asked.
“If things go according to plan, it’ll only need to be a one-time deal,” Ifri replied, “You’ll get a percentage of whatever loot you can carry.”
“If you can carry it,” Jay-Dee scoffed, “These things will be heavy; unlike that empty bucket you’ve been dragging about,” he said, tapping his foot against the keg on the floor.
“I’m sure I can manage,” Cooper replied, and he looked to the bar behind him and saw Grendel feverishly pouring pints while Aífe ran the length from bar to door delivering table-service to all who sat in-between. For a moment, he felt a pang in his heart – but he quickly dismissed it, and he continued to speak; “Let me finish this keg run, and I’ll come meet you at your table.”
“Sure, let Jay-Dee help with that,” Anna said, nudging Jay-Dee.
“No, I won—,” Anna elbowed him again, “— Fine, I will.”
Cooper took a step back and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, be my guest. He watched as Jay-Dee marched towards the keg with his chest puffed out, rubbing his hands. He squatted, ensured his grip was good and… Heaved. And heaved and pulled and tugged until his face went red—and he groaned with strain, but he could not budge it.
“The fuck is in this thing?” Jay-Dee exclaimed, bent over the keg while heavily panting.
“It’s empty,” replied Cooper with a smirk curling at the edges of his lips.
“Aye, as empty as a prostitute on discount day,” Jay-Dee mocked, and he manoeuvred himself for a second attempt.
Cooper placed his hand on Jay-Dee’s shoulder, urging him back.
“I wouldn’t,” he said, “On the outside, these kegs look wooden – and for the most part, they are. But the insides are lined with heavy metals.”
“Explains the taste,” muttered Jay-Dee.
“Why do you line them with metals?” Asked Ifri.
“We don’t,” replied Cooper, “Originally they were used in the Broken Districts to smuggle Azoth; the metals serve as both a preservation method and a detection deterrent. But, as you can see, they’re fairly cumbersome – so you can’t travel far. Made them useless for the most part. So, they scrapped them. Grendel, the owner, was able to purchase them in bulk for cheap.”
“Surely it would be cheaper to just purchase normal kegs,” asked Ifri.
“Perhaps,” Cooper said, while he hauled the keg onto his back with ease, “but these are refillable.”
Cooper began to feel the impatient stare of Grendel burning into his back.
“I’ve got to go,” he said, “But we’ll talk more at your table,” and Cooper quickly scurried towards the storage room before risking Grendel’s inevitable ire.
Cooper once again found himself settled in the storage room, amongst the stale porous walls – finding comfort as he has always done so, but for reasons new to him. He looked at the tower of kegs and the drab walls with new eyes, and renewed excitement – and he thought, with glee, that this may be the last time he would ever have to look at these walls again.
He heard the door open behind him.
He spun to see Grendel standing in the doorway and he quickly scurried to his feet.
“Sit, lad,” Grendel said, his voice was firm but there was a softness to it not often heard. It startled Cooper, and he immediately complied.
“I assume those bumpkins were lookin’ to solicit ya?” Grendel asked, taking a seat amongst the kegs beside Cooper.
Cooper nodded with his eyes downcast.
“Are ye’ gonna accept?” Grendel continued, his voice firm and stoic.
Cooper nodded again. There was a deep sigh from Grendel.
“It’s dangerous. You might not come back,” he continued.
Cooper said nothing, but instead, let the silence of the room speak for him.
“And if ya’ don’t come back, I’m sellin’ ya’ stuff to recoup costs.”
“I don’t have any stuff!” Cooper barked.
“Then ya’ got nothin’ to worry about!” Grendel retorted.
Cooper got to his feet and tried his best to avoid Grendel’s gaze; “I better go,” he said while walking towards the door.
“Cooper!” Grendel shouted, “Ya’ better come back.”
The sound of his words pierced Cooper to a halt. There were many things he had expected to hear from Grendel, but not this. He turned and saw looking back a face of genuine concern, hidden behind the rough exterior of furrowed beard and weathered skin – it nearly broke Cooper.
“I’ll come back,” Cooper said, “And I’ll be sure to pay what I owe.”
Grendel smiled. “The only thing owed to me is your life, so don’t be throwin’ it away for nuffin’”