There's a train a-coming
You don't need no baggage
You just get on board
All you need is faith
To hear the diesels humming
Don't need no ticket
You just thank the Lord
-- Curtis Mayfield, "People Get Ready"
I wish I could tell you that the two guitar strings looked to be spun from gold or crackled with lightning or felt ethereal to the touch, but the truth is they just looked like any pair of E strings you could buy at any music store. Each was rolled very carefully and sealed inside an airtight plastic bag. I handed one to Bone-Bag and one to JukeJoint and stood there in respectful silence as each of them added it to their guitars.
Where Bone-Bag had the Strat, JukeJoint, surprisingly, had a new-looking Les Paul with a brilliant sunburst finish. I'd expected something a little more, I don't know, worn for his ax of choice. Something whose age was as unfathomable as his.
As they finished stringing, I took a brandy snifter and set it on the bar, then pulled out my switch and freed the blade.
The two of them looked at the knife and laughed.
"You call that a knife?" said JukeJoint.
Bone-Bag shook his head. "I pick my teeth with things bigger'n that."
Both of them proceeded to reach into their coat pockets and produce knives that were only quarter-inches short of qualifying as machetes.
They looked at each other, nodded their agreement, climbed down from their stools and met in the middle of the bar where the snifter waited, then each one very quickly twisted their blades to make a small cut on the other's thumb.
They bled into the snifter until it was half full, then each put their bleeding thumb into their mouth, sucked once, and healed the wound.
I wasted no time: I took the snifter and poured their mixed blood in a straight line across the floor in front of the serving panel. I was now completely safe from any harmful magic--or accidental magic backlash--that might try to veer toward the bar.
"All right, boy," said JukeJoint. "You pour the liquor, you got the power, you say yeah or nay: We do a warm-up set or what?"
I looked at my watch: 11:40 p.m. "Five minutes to tune, five minutes to warm up."
Bone-Bag gestured toward my left hand. "Arthritis's a bitch, isn't it?"
I nodded. "Crippled up that hand before I was twelve."
"Looks like a damned claw."
"Thank you. And that night cream's doing wonders for your complexion."
"Hoo-wee!" shouted JukeJoint, slapping his hand to the bar. "He got you with that one, Ankou."
Something in his voice told me that if he won tonight, I was going to be in deep sewage.
They each laid straps to their axes then slipped them on over their shoulders.
JukeJoint cocked his head at me. "Gonna wait 'til the Midnight Hour, eh?"
"I thought it would be a nice touch."
"One thing I always despised about your race," hissed Ankou, "is that you people always have to make everything so dramatic. Like afflicting something with ritual will somehow make it important. Well, get this: None of it means shit to us. Only the music, only this"--He held up his guitar-- "means a damn--and then only because of what it can produce, not because of the thing itself."
"I knew he'd be in one of his moods," whispered JukeJoint. "By the way, you can call me J.J."
Ankou glowered. "Don't encourage him."
J.J. grinned. "You never were any fun."
"Go to Hell."
"We're trying to move back into the other neighborhood, asshole. At least get the zip code right."
I checked my watch again. Almost 11:50. "Better get yourselves on the stage."
"Not just yet," said J.J. "Since you pour the liquor and provide the stage, you get to ask each of us one question and we gotta answer it. You wanna ask 'em now or after it's over?"
I thought about the implied threat in Ankou's voice earlier and figured this might be the only chance I get. "Look, I know what you are, and I know what it is you're here to do...but what I don't understand is why."
Ankou snorted a derisive laugh. "That's not a question."
"He's right," said J.J. "Like on that one game show, you gotta ask it as a question."
"Why do you have to do this?"
J.J. looked over at Ankou. "You wanna take that one?"
"Not without another shot in me."
I filled his glass and watched him slam it back.
"You know that old saying about monkeys and typewriters?" he asked.
"Somebody once said that if you put enough monkeys in a room with enough typewriters, eventually one of them would write Hamlet. It's the same way with Music, you little pissant. Despite how primitive your race is, something got screwed up. You weren't supposed to inherit the gift of Music, but our daddies, they done went and gave it to you, anyway. Dipshits." He shrugged his massive shoulders. "For the longest time no one really worried about it--I mean, what the hell was the chance any of you were going to even come close to reaching into the heart of song? Only we could do that--and then only with lifetimes of practice behind us.
"But something went wrong. Too many monkeys got their filthy hands on too many typewriters and...your race started to tap into the Secret of Music. Not often, and sometimes not very well, but some of you showed promise. And so it was decided that maybe, just maybe your race might actually be Worthy of Music. One day you might get it right, and so long as that potential existed, it couldn't very well be taken back from you.
"So every so often, when Music starts to change--like when, say, rock'n'roll was getting started, or all that electronic progressive garbage infected the 70's--beings like us have to come to dumps like this and fight it out on our axes. We gotta box heads. We gotta play our way through cramp-inducing variations on every goddamn form of music your race has managed to cough up by accident and see if it all hangs together." He cracked his knuckles. "Personally, I'd just as soon make all of you deaf and be done with it, but nobody's left it up to me."
"But which one of you is fighting for us to keep it and which one--?"
"One question, boy," said J.J. "One to him, one to me. Now, you got something you want to ask 'ol J.J. or not?"
I nodded, suddenly very frightened.
It was quite possible that before the next hour was over, Music would be taken away from Humankind.
I had at least a dozen questions I wanted to ask him, and there was no way to deem one more important than the rest, so I spun the curiosity wheel in my head and it came up on: "Why'd Ankou call you the Eternal Champion when you first showed up?"
J.J. wiggled his fingers. "Because since this whole mess began, I ain't once lost a battle of boxing heads. Good thing, too, 'cause the loser..." He actually shivered, then. "Well, it ain't pretty, we'll say, and leave it at that. No sense scaring you any worse than you already are."
"The Eternal Champion," said Ankou, then snorted an ugly little laugh. "That'll be changing tonight. I thinks the Listeners are partial to Yours Truly this evening. Then we'll see how it feels when you're on the End of Silence."
"What's that?" I asked. "The End of Sil--"
"Two questions to a customer, son," said J.J., apologetically shrugging his shoulders.
"Is everyone in?" whispered Ankou in a pretty good Jim Morrison imitation. "The ceremony is about to begin."
And the jukebox went dead.