The mournful strains of guitarra, with rhythm provided by viola baixo, greets Sgt. Edison Machado as he opens the plywood door painted with a young chicken, ridiculous in the way it is proud and strutting like an adult rooster even though it’s a squab ready to be fried, and enters the little bar called O Frango. He is greeted by Bartolomeu and Henrique seated at the checkers table, two old-timers who’ve been coming here as long as Machado, meaning ever since the place opened its doors, always sitting there, playing. Hell, Machado helped build this place. The doorknob he’s holding? He salvaged that from a rubbish heap, and he made the door from scrap wood, and painted the chicken after Virgilio, the owner, declared the place’s name.
“O Frango?” Machado had laughed. “Why you wanna call a bar that?”
“Because it ain’t just gonna be a bar, meu amigo! Madeleine is gonna be in the kitchen, and you know she makes the best chicken in two wards!”
And there she is, looking out the kitchen window into the bar room at the sound of “Hey, Didi!” Madeleine, Virgilio’s wife from Little Falls, forty years old now and that big white smile in that ebony face still makes his heart beat a little faster. Ah, Edison, why did you let that one get away, hah? There was a time when she had sighed in pleasure at Machado’s singing, a time when they had been alone together and it had been plain that she wanted him to take her in his arms… But she’s a sister to him now, just as Virgilio is a brother. Things could have been different. But they are good the way they are.
She is just about to call out a welcome to him when her voice stops in her throat and her eyes open wider. Machado knows the reason, and he keeps his face as nonchalant as he can. This is a crazy idea, he mutters to himself in such an undertone that he is not sure whether he only thought it or subvocalized it. He forces himself not to look back over his broad shoulder at the Dei Sergeant who is now entering the little boteco, and he says, “Boa noite. This is Gwydion, my friend from work. Dion, this is Madeleine. She and her man run this place. And these two guys, don’t let them challenge you to a game unless you want to lose your shirt, and boots and socks, too. This here is Bartolomeu,” he slaps the skinny man’s rock-hard shoulder as he moves past the pair at their paused game, “and Henrique,” and he pats the stocky man’s back.
The two players nod in welcome to Dion as Madeleine comes around to the kitchen door and into the bar, wiping her hands on her apron. “Welcome! ‘Tis always good to make new friends. You here for dinner, or just drinks?” Her eyes are fixed on the god’s face, and she looks almost like a teenager, bold but just a little nervous, and her rich, musical Little Falls accent carries quite a different tone than it would, Machado thinks, if he were introducing Longshot, the tall, clumsy redheaded rookie.
Machado mentally rolls his eyes. He’s seen it happen with nearly every female Popula in the station, and with one or two of the guys, too. Dion doesn’t look like a god right off the bat, but there’s no denying he has almost superhuman good looks. Before Dion can respond, Henrique bursts out, “Your first time here, you better eat the chicken!” He points an imperative finger at Dion and, one eye squinting as if aiming a dart, he adds “Chicken!” as if that one word were the most important in the universe.
Dion smiles, looking slightly nonplussed but at the same time oddly pleased. He looks back at Madeleine and says in respectful tones, “My lady, it is a pleasure to be here. Would you do me the great favor of bringing my friend and me some of your famous chicken?” Smooth, Machado thinks. Anybody else, that flowery language would come out sounding stupid, or worse, patronising. But he’s got everybody here smiling.
Madeleine, speechless, stays frozen for a moment, then seems to remember how to breathe, nods slowly, and nearly floats back into the kitchen. Edison shares a look with the two gamers, and then asks Bartolomeu, “Where’s Virgilio?”
“Picking up the kids,” the bony man says, his voice rasping like he has a throat full of iron filings. “The boy, he’s going to that new school, now. Older one, she’s still going to Little Falls, so she don’t have to change teachers, right? Coming home for the weekend.”
“Ah, right.” Machado leans over the bar and fetches a pair of beers that are in a tub of ice. This place has no magical cold cabinet like the ones Merri and Cherry have recently bought for the Burrow, though it does have an enchanted music player, one that spins plastic platters under a needle and then fills the air with song. In fact, the first side of this collection of sad fado songs is coming to an end, and before uncapping the bottles, Machado sets them down and, lifting the arm that bears the needle, flips the disc over and carefully sets the needle to play the other side.
As a new song fills the air with a voice vibrant with saudade, Machado waves a beer bottle to indicate the table to Dion, and then as the two sergeants take their seats, he hands Dion one of the bottles. “Saúde.” He clinks his bottle against Dion’s, raises it, and then takes a drink, filling his mouth with the clean, sparkling, sudsy taste. Is there anything better at the end of a long day of work? He savors it, eyes closed as he sets the bottle down on the table, then opens his eyes and regards Dion. “I hope you like this place, Dion. They are good people here. I’ve known the owner since we were kids.”
It still feels a little strange, calling the god by a familiar diminutive. The alternatives are Sergeant or sir, or Gwydion. The latter just doesn’t fit Machado’s mouth, and the Dei prefers Dion, and, well, it doesn’t feel that strange anymore.
“I quite like it,” Dion responds, looking around. “Cozy. Friendly.” He breathes in deep, closing his eyes for a moment. “It has a good, familiar feeling to it. As if most of these people have been coming here regularly for years. The kitchen smells, the under-layer of tobacco. It smells like…a home.”
“Yeah, well, it is,” Machado agrees. “They live right upstairs.” He holds his bottle at an angle and rolls the edge of the bottom across the table in a short arc, back and forth, his fingertips playing on the bottleneck to the rhythm of the sad song. “I wasn’t sure whether to bring you here, but… You seem like you really want to get used to Three Rats. I thought you should see the opposite of the Singing Cockroach. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Burrow. Just… Sometimes you want to drink with the same people all the time. And where you won’t get poked in the eye with a fern.”
Dion’s laugh is subdued. “I’m glad you brought me here. Life doesn’t always allow for spontaneous exploration of Three Rats establishments, but the ones I know are quite pleasant.” He pauses, in pained consideration. “Except for the Roach.”
“Yeah, well, every ward has to have a Roach, I guess.” Machado keeps rolling the edge of his bottle. He has a question welling up in his mind, something he was reassured about by Somrak, but…Somrak, despite his successful week in charge, is still not someone that Machado trusts to judge others’ thinking. “Listen, uh…that vacation you took. Everything that’s been going on, well…it’s good to have you and Alma back.”
The god looks at Machado, penetrating, his smile fading. “Are you worried that we Dei are planning to leave? I assure you, you couldn’t be more wrong about that. We have all grown to like this ward.”
The god sounds, to Machado’s ear, a little surprised with himself. “I have to admit, I’m beginning to think you might stay around. Pretty strange still to see cops who have all these powers walking around the streets. Funny how I’ve become used to it in the station. But with all that’s been happening – it’s good to know we can call on you.”
The smile fades completely, and the sorrow of the music seems to settle into Dion’s expression. “Sometimes I wonder if all that has happened isn’t to blame on our presence here. How did you handle things, before our time? Considering how we’ve struggled so far, it couldn’t have been easy.”
“It wasn’t.” Memories of dark deeds that he would rather not revisit come to mind. Three Rats has always been a difficult place to survive in, a place forgotten by other, more prosperous wards, with very little opportunity for advancement outside of the gangs or, for a lucky few, the Guardia. Machado had thought his friend Virgilio was crazy to start a bar in a ward so crime-ridden, so unstable. And some of the deals Machado had cut with local gangs to keep this place open, to keep the family safe, and other families, other lives… He just hopes this god sitting across from him really can’t read his thoughts, because otherwise he might feel obligated to arrest his mortal counterpart.
Madeleine arrives with a tray bearing several plates and bowls, which she sets down on the next table. “Here you go, officers,” she croons. She places before them two dishes of chicken sauteed with cashew nuts and bell pepper in a thin tomato sauce, topped with thin slices of raw yellow onion. “Poulet aux noix de cajou,” she names it, “and mayi moulin,” she continues as she puts a shallow bowl between them containing a mound of redbean-and-cornmeal mush, surrounded at the edges by a garnish of thick chunks of avocado. She adds two small plates of vinegared shredded cabbage, carrots, onions, and green chilis, calling them “pikliz” and warning Dion that they are quite spicy, but good to eat with the fried plantains, plates of which she sets on the now-crowded table. She picks up the tray and smiles at the both of them, and asks, “Bom apetite! More beer?”
“Sim,” Machado says, handing over his now-empty bottle. “Merci, minha amiga. This is going to become his favorite place, now, I know.”
Madeleine smiles invitingly at Dion and she laughs. “You sound like that would not be a good thing, Didi!” she chides, lightly slapping Machado’s shoulder.
Machado chuckles. “Hey, I’m happy to introduce him to my favorite place to drink, and the best local food.”
Because his voice is loud, the checkers players overhear, and stocky Henrique bursts out, “But…not local! This is…is exotic! Exotic Little Falls food!”
“Cuisine!” Bartolomeu corrects him. “High-class cuisine! That’s what it’s called when it’s from more than one hour away!”
“Oh, and what does that make me, then?” Madeleine says to him, putting one fist on her hip and holding the tray at a slightly threatening angle.
Bartolomeu cringes, giggling, and begs, “Save me, Didi! She’s gonna assault me with a deadly weapon.”
“Maybe she can smooth out that point on top of your head,” Machado suggests. He turns back to Dion as the hilarity dies down and Madeleine goes behind the bar to get their beer.
Through all this, Dion has looked on with amusement, even enjoyment, but Machado appreciates how he did not join in and try to be ‘one of the boys’ right off. The place is friendly, all right, but even if the others don’t realize Dion is a god, Machado worries that Dion’s upper-ring mannerisms might quash the relaxed atmosphere before the regulars here get used to him. But now that it is once again just the two of them for them moment, Dion leans forward with a grin and asks in a low voice, “Didi?”
Machado rubs his hand from his forehead, across his smooth scalp, to the back of his short, thick neck. He growls, “Nobody calls me that outside this place, all right? Nobody.”
Chuckling almost silently, Dion leans back and solemnly promises, “Then none shall ever hear it from me.”
Madeleine returns with their beers and after a little more pleasant banter, she leaves them to continue their private conversation. Machado says, “‘brigado. Saúde.” He touches his bottle to Dion’s. “Now, where were we? Oh, yeah…well, sure, we had a rough time of it, back before you got here. There were times we had to choose who to go after, and there were people we just couldn’t go after. Not enough people, not enough support from on-high. But it wasn’t as bad as it got lately. You arrived right when the Dukaines were coming in, screwing with everything that had settled down into peace for awhile. So, you know, it was them, not you. You got here just in time. Now, looks like we’re getting back to peace again.” He knocks the tabletop for luck.
Dion’s eyes catch the knocking, and he smiles a little at it. I guess to him it’s just some superstition, but hey, like Vóinha used to say, ‘The gods have their magic, but so do we’, Machado thinks.
“May the Fates agree,” Dion says. “I know of wards where Popula and Dei don’t mingle at all. I’m glad this isn’t the case with our little station. Much of what we have achieved has been due to your work, after all. And even with Pavia joining us, not having the Inspector with us…” Dion takes a deep breath and sighs, his shoulders drooping. Then he looks back up at Machado. “Anyway, that is not what I wanted to ask you about. I have been thinking about Kori lately. His outbursts. And I know he is very close to you.”
“Outbursts, hah? What’s going on?” Machado’s brows creases in multiple furrows. He likes all the Bunnies, but Kori, sixteen years old and full of explosive energy, is the one he is closest to. The boy has been learning capoeira from him, the local martial art that is also a dance and a musical form and so much else – a lifestyle, really – and it has made Machado feel like an actual uncle to the teenager.
“Well… I admit we have never been particularly close, he and I,” Dion says, nervous. “But we have never been on bad terms either. The Bunnies are just not the type to be aggressive or resentful without good reason. But Kori recently accused me of causing some level of separation between them and their mother.”
Machado breathes out, his eyes cast down. I was afraid this could happen. “Ah… He doesn’t talk a lot, you know? But yeah, he’s got a lot of anger there. I’ve tried to draw him out, but it seems like he gets it out, you know, through his body. Running, football, tussling with other kids. He’s got to be careful though. He’s real strong for his size. That’s why I started teaching him to fight. Not so he’d fight more. So he’d learn to control it.”
Dion nods all through this. “I understand. Martial arts do the same for me. But I would not dream of blundering into his life, proposing to teach him a completely different style of fighting. I just wanted to understand what makes him so angry at everything. And if he won’t speak to you…” Dion pauses and takes a drink of his beer. “I guess I’ll be left wondering.”
Taking a drink as well, Machado thinks over the possibilities. He looks up and asks, “Can you, uh…” he gestures vaguely, “turn off all that god stuff when you need to? Pretty much just be like us in a fight?”
“Yes. I can refrain from using my powers if I sense they are not needed. Why do you ask?”
“Well, you’re right, he’s not going to take it well if you come in to teach him.” Machado is nervous to ask this, but he refuses to show it, shoots the question straight. “But you think you can be a student? To me?”
Dion smiles slowly. “Provided you don’t ask me to do a backflip in slow motion on my first lesson, I would be honored.” By the time he reaches the end of the sentence, he sounds quite serious.
Machado feels a little smile form. “Oh man, what am I getting myself into? Anyway, I hope capoeira will be different enough from what you already know that Kori will be, you know, a little better than you at first, if you ain’t got the powers going. If he can show you a thing or two – that would be good. He’s already turning into a good teacher, with the younger kids. I don’t know if he’s going to talk, but maybe at least he’ll start thinking different about you.”
“I hope so,” Dion says. “My intention was never to interfere with the Bunnies’ relationship with their mother. And though I care for them, there is little I can do from where I stand in this case.” He locks his eyes with Machado’s. “Let me know when the next lesson is and I will be your loyal student.”
To Machado, it sounds like this is a very big deal to Dion. He returns the seriousness, straightening a little in his chair, holding Dion’s gaze. He nods. “Tomorrow morning. Right after dawn, in the yard behind the Burrow.” Inside, he is thinking, Seriously?? I’m going to be a Dei’s teacher? Am I mad?
Then he looks at his almost-empty bottle mournfully. “Guess I better not have any more. Getting up early now.”
Dion exhales deeply. “At least you are not on call. This was wonderful. I am sorry to leave, but I do have to get to my shift. Oh, by the way, would you mind not commenting about this with our lovely commanding officer quite yet? I want to see what I can achieve on my own.”
Machado grins with the right side of his face alone. “Fine. But the one who asks me to keep secrets is the one who pays for beer. Next time! Get your hand away from your pocket – tonight you are my guest.” He signals to Madeleine, and reaches for his wallet.