Part One: Where Everyone Knows Your Name

What’s the difference between a bar and an IRC chatroom? Kevin thought.

He was having problems coming up with an answer. They were both crowds made up of wanderers. A chatroom, at its core, is just a bar without drinks – the same losers coming in and out, mingling without consequence with someone they will barely know at all by the time they’re done.

Maybe the only difference with a bar is that you can find someone you like here and be lucky enough to leave with them. This was, for some, the literal reason they went to bars – to find someone they like, tell them they could no longer be in the bar, and… leave the bar. Together. Get in their car and head off to their semi-messy apartment where they’ll enjoy each other’s sloppy company till the early morning. That drinking was just foreplay, prologue, an appetizer.

He shrugged and brought his second bottle of stout to his lips, still mulling over the question silently. Doesn’t that mean, he thought, that being here was like… leaving a chatroom… for a chatroom

He checked the clock hung over the bar counter. It was sixteen-forty-five. He anticipated the rest of them would be just a little late. They agreed upon half past fourteen, to hurry here as soon as their work days ended, but Kevin always has a feeling when people run late. It probably isn’t their fault, of course. He remembers one of them, a girl going by ’angelmoon34’, saying she didn’t even have a car.

But he knew at least that they’d make it, however late. This was an opportunity of a lifetime. Something he knew none of them would pass up, or else they wouldn’t have made plans to spend the rest of their evening in the presence of total strangers.

He just really wished they’d get here by now.

He took one large swig of his drink, waving vigorously with his free hand to get the barkeep’s attention. The man behind the counter, a bald fair-skinned man, slim but fit, in a dark blue shirt and grey slacks, nodded sternly to him and reached into the fridge behind him for another cold drink.

Kevin put down his bottle, sighed, and looked up at the ceiling. He could imagine holding it in his hands, feeling it warm and new against his fingertips. One of the first. One of the triple-niners. His to claim for the right price.

He resisted the temptation to look at the clock again. His palms were itching. Something as majestic as this experience shouldn’t be kept waiting. He assumed it was something beyond their control – traffic, impromptu work meeting, a tragedy even – and, under his voice, cursed each possibility in turn.

He tugged at the bow tie around his neck. He hated them. He didn’t like the feeling of something wrapped around his neck. But it was required. A uniform. A signifier of what he shared with his companions. He remembered what he said in the chat when ‘counterfeitrudeboy’ suggested it: It’s like wearing a placard that reads ‘I AM A HUGE DORK’ around your neck.

Not bow ties specifically. He liked bow ties, even if he felt uncomfortable wearing them. Not even the specific warm-coloured pixel-pattern bow tie they were discussing. Just the reference behind the bow tie. An esoteric literary one – that it was the tie Adam Cantrell wore in Derek Merriman’s Revolver, the tie he wore with nearly everything no matter how silly, his absolute favourite article of clothing. A symbol – for earnestness? or naivete? There are probably as many answers to that question as there are readers of Merriman’s books. Plus, perhaps, one more answer, for good measure.

Kevin went to reasonable lengths for this tie to make sense. A blue long-sleeved shirt tucked into denim jeans. He loved his grey slip-on sneakers, and wasn’t feeling like tying his laces that morning, like most mornings, so that completed the set. Not very Adam Cantrell, if he was being literal, but it would do.

When he brought his head back down, there was a young woman standing beside the table, looking right at him. He cleared his throat nervously. “May I help you?” he said.

She pointed at the wooden chair to his right. “Is this seat taken?”

He was about to say he was waiting for company when he noticed, under her black leather jacket, nestled above the collar of a plain white shirt – a bow tie, lots of pinks and oranges and yellows in a pixel pattern.

He thought back to the novel. Wasn’t her first words to him also Natalie’s first words to Adam in Revolver?

He smiled. “It can be, darling,” he replied, smirking.

She grinned, putting her leather messenger bag down beside the chair and having a seat. She stretched her hand out to Kevin. “You’re a MerriFan if there ever was any. I’m PearlizedLenses. You can call me Rebecca.”

Kevin took her hand gently and gave it a firm shake. “KingOfHandsomeBirth. I don’t have a lot of close friends, but the ones I have call me Kevin.”

“Good evening, Kevin. What’s a good drink here?”

As he made to answer, the barkeep put his drink on the table, nodded to them both, and left. “Well, as you can see,” Kevin said, “I’ve been having the same since I got here. Stout’s not everyone’s favourite, though. I’m still trying to figure out if it’s really mine, even.”

She shrugged. “My usual, then, I guess.” She whistled to get the bartender’s attention, and he turned. “Vodka cranberry, por favor.”

He nodded and said “One Cape Cod, on its way,” barely audibly over the average din of the surrounding patrons, and continued heading to the bar.

The two MerriFans waited in silence for barely a moment as the bartender returned with one red-hued concoction in a highball glass, gently draping a napkin onto the table in front of Rebecca and resting the glass on it. She leaned down and took a sip of it through the straw leaning over the rim, slowly gulping it, and then turned to Kevin and said, “Good. I am no longer mentally at work. Now, where the hell is everyone else?”

At around seventeen-thirty hours, the last member of the party, a lean dark-skinned man in his early twenties walked up to the table in a lime green shirt, a purple blazer with matching slacks, and a boater hat with a large hole in the brim. His bow tie was visibly disheveled, as if he had given up trying to tie it properly at all.

“How late am I, exactly?” the man said, huffing heavily, holding his sides.

“Quite,” Kevin said, “but we can’t blame you. Sit down. Take a load off.”

He fell into a chair opposite Kevin. “Darren James. counterfeitrudeboy? Pleasure to make your acquaintances.”

Clockwise, starting from him, they introduced themselves: Rebecca, then Kevin, then angelmoon34, also known as Adrienne, a short, shy girl with shoulder-length brown hair in a grey cardigan that all but covered up her own bow tie.

Darren nodded. “Cool. So, since I’m late, I guess we get ready to hit the road?”

“Eh…” Rebecca said. “I wanted to ask a question about that. When everyone got here, which we’ve now all done.”

“What’s up?” Kevin said.

“What do we know about this guy?”

“Muzzio?” That was his forum username. “… as much as we know about each other, I guess.”

Darren was the one with the big idea that this was worth capitalizing on in the first place, and now he couldn’t help but think this was just going to be an anxious mess. He noticed, out of the corner of his eye, Adrienne rubbing her shoulder awkwardly.

“You do understand how reassuring that isn’t, right?” Rebecca said.

Darren put his hand up. “I’m really sorry for dragging you guys along for the hype, in that case. To be honest, I don’t know anything about him either. And surely he knows the same about us. But this is, like, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity-”

“- to be bamboozled,” Rebecca interrupted.

“To test the hypothesis,” he rebutted. “Either Flavourful Twilight exists or it doesn’t. Which means either we win or we lose. I mean… some of us made more of an investment to get here than others.”

He noticed Adrienne glancing up at them all, and then back down. They knew he was referring to her; she had traveled all the way from Jardine College, all the way from the Eastern Woodtown coast, for this opportunity; where the rest of them may have been mere blocks from the Tilleton bar they chose to meet in, she had taken the bus for almost a day, and probably holed up in some leaky motel on the outskirts of town before this meeting.

“But,” he continued, “if it does, we’re going to look back at this moment as the big crazy journey we had to meet a shady-looking guy on the internet and buy a secret book from him under the table. And if it doesn’t, we’re going to look back all the same as the big crazy journey we had to find out that Merriman probably died in a gutter somewhere with his magnum opus incomplete, in a dusty shoebox in his last apartment. But, like, that’s the kind of story that brings strangers together, builds character and all that jazz, right?”

“In the movies, maybe,” Rebecca said.

“Exactly!” He grinned. “Just like in the movies! Where the road trip ends up being a rite of passage!”

Darren didn’t make out that Rebecca rolled her eyes, but she did so directly in Kevin’s field of vision. “Well, I’m here because I’m hoping the book does exist,” she replied. “All I’m saying is that I hope someone vetted the guy at least a little.”

“All I know about him is that he is legit.” Darren scratched his head, not in confusion so much as in reach of a genuine itch. “In the… illegit sense. Makes a lot of under-the-table artifact deals. Art, really peculiar stuff – not, you know, the typical pricey Seventeenth century lacquer paintings or whatever. Lost architectural manuscripts people thought had been burned in war, notebooks from Freemason craftsmen. The weird shit.”

“And there’s never an unhappy customer, either,” Kevin added. “One guy bought an Olliphant painting just to see if it had the rumoured Grantus sketches underneath; Muzzio checked himself to see if the provenances mentioned it. Independent auditors confirmed the sketches have come up in inspections, but the painting the guy got didn’t have ‘em. Muzzio personally investigated the forgery himself. Just because he got paid for the original Olliphant. Not for no charge, of course, but… that attention to detail is a big deal.”

Rebecca squinted at Kevin. “… and you learned all of this from…?”

“The internet,” Kevin and Darren said in unison.

“Right.” She folded her arms. “And I should trust this?”

“Well, yeah,” Kevin said. “Like, it’s unmistakable. The trail is full of evidence, if you follow it. The only thing that isn’t obvious about him is who he is. But he always delivers.”

“That answers the question – or tries to – of whether we can trust him to deliver. It didn’t answer the question of whether we can trust him.”

“To repeat,” Darren said, “each one of us is not sure if we’re sitting at the table with three serial killers.”

Adrienne finally chimed in. “Well, I’m hoping you aren’t. And… the experience or whatever is not what I care about. This book…” She was looking up now, her hands on her lap. “It’s easy to say it’s just a book, right? That we will just forget about this whole thing if it doesn’t exist. But…”

Darren noticed her slender hands straightening her dress nervously. She cleared her throat. “…you know when something you’ve read, or watched or listened to, changes your life so tremendously that you wonder sometimes what kind of life you’d be living if you didn’t have it? When something literally saves you? Merriman is that. I don’t give a damn about whether or not I can tell the story of how true that is. All I care about is that it’s true. And I… need this.” She whispered that last part, but didn’t look away from anyone. “Right now, it’s important to have this book. This one. So the quicker we can get on with it, the happier we’ll all be, maybe?”

Kevin raised an eyebrow and added, reticently, “Well, I guess that’s three votes.” He turned to Rebecca and waited silently.

Rebecca remained equally silent. She was well aware of how many ways this road trip could turn into a gory tragedy. She was one of two women, and beyond her questions about Muzzio’s criminal leanings, she wasn’t really willing to put either one of these guys in the driver’s seat of a mission to meet a stolen art fence in the middle of Tilleton after dark. Part of her – the part of a woman that is ever-vigilant in new spaces – even wondered if that was their plan at all.

But there was another part of her. One that hummed with curiosity. The one that craves only to know that which the world thinks is unknowable, or to prove that which the world considers untrue. She felt as many Merriman readers did – a mind so fine, so beautifully complex, would never take a new notion and leave it incomplete. Even if he never shares it. She was hungry to know what that mind’s last hurrah looked like. What it meant, what it said, what new and disturbing revelations lay between its lines. She could spend a few hours being on a hair trigger for that, she thought.

She sighed, reaching for her drink and downing the rest of it in one go, and then stared sternly at Kevin.

“Alright, losers, we best get ready to go, then.” She turned to Darren and squinted. “But if this Muzzio guy turns out to be bad news, I’ll kill you before he gets a chance to.”

“Yeah, of course.” He grinned. “As a matter of principle.”