01 Sep Secret Bar
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"Secret Bar"Written by K. Banning-Kellum
Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
Every city claims to have them, and every city will tell you that theirs is the best. Most larger places will lay claim to having quite a few. I am of course speaking of secret bars. The kind of bars with no name out front, where a secret password is required to get in. This is what started my obsession, and may have cost me my soul.
The year was 2001. I had turned 21 earlier that year, and had already done up all the new freedoms that come with that age. I had done bars, casinos… you name it. At first it was so cool, because for years I had felt like a kid, like some wet behind the ears idiot that the rest of the world sort of just patted on the head. Even after turning 21, things remained annoying. People would hear that I was 21 and treat me not like an adult, but as a new adult, like a grown-up that still needed grown-ups. I was annoyed. I worked downtown in a dreary office job, inputting data. The nice thing about it though were my hours, 3 pm to 11 pm. For a single guy in his early 20s, it was perfect. I got to sleep in everyday, and I would get off of work just in time to take the quick walk from the New Orleans central business district, cross over Canal Street, and bam, I was in the French Quarter, land of booze and women. Lots of fun times were spent down there.
But as I said, even that began to get boring. Really boring. So, I began to research “secret bars.” I found a few right away, and most of them were just as boring as the regular bars. One in particular, called Mythique, was located up a narrow stairwell, accessible only through a tiny door located under the bar downstairs. Once I got up there though, it was just another bar. The clientele was a bit more pretentious; most of them thought they were the second coming of Lestat, but in the end, it was the same thing—a bar, drinks, people and usually crappy music. I remember one night I was at home in my tiny apartment, using Metacrawler (remember, this was 2001) and searching for more secrets in my city that I was now old enough to exploit. I kept finding links to the same boring places I always went to. Then my email binged, or I should say, announced, “You’ve Got Mail!”
I clicked open my email and saw the heading for the message read “Secret Bar.” Now, I was sure if I had asked anyone on my AOL buddy list for help, and I didn’t recognize the sender. I figured maybe I was in a chat room one night and asked around, but I figured it was worth a check. The email was simple and short, and read something like this…
SECRET NEW ORLEANS BAR: Looking for a journey, not afraid of hell, not too shy for heaven, then come visit us. Be in Jackson Square tonight at 2am. Wear a black shirt and grey pants, and have a cup of coffee in your hand. Seat yourself in the 3rd bench. This is your only invitation, miss it and you will never be invited again. PS: Come alone, tell no one.
That was the end of the email. I was lucky that my job required me to wear a suit, because it just so happened that I had a pair of grey slacks. I pulled on a black t-shirt and realized that I actually looked pretty good. I figured this could be a prank, but even if it was, even it if turned out to be nothing, I would go out and have a few drinks anyway, maybe even get laid. I didn’t have to go into work the next day, so this night could turn out to be fun anyway. However, I may have been a bored, idiotic 21 year old, but I wasn’t totally stupid. This could also be a trick, a trap or something worse. So, I called my best friend Mike up. I told him that I was going out with some strangers from work, and that I wasn’t sure about them. I told him I would call him by 4am, and if I didn’t, for him to call and check up on me. I told him I would be in the Quarter. Mike had to be up for work at 4am, so it wouldn’t put him out of his way to call me when he got up.
I left my apartment at around 1:30am. I only lived about 15 minutes from downtown, but I figured I would make sure I was on time. By 1:55am I was sitting on the third bench in Jackson Square, sipping my coffee, and waiting.
At 2am, the Cathedral bells rang out twice, and I received a tap on the shoulder. A gorgeous woman was sitting next to me, and I thought to myself…..this is too cliché to be real. To me, she seemed like a walking cliché for a “hidden bar.” Goth girl, mid 20s, really hot….yeah, she was from the bar, I knew it from the start.
“I’m Jodie,” said the woman.
“Well, at least you’re not ‘Raven’ or ‘Death’ or ‘Lilith’ or some other stereotypical goth name,” I replied, but I did so with a smile.
She returned my smile with one of her own. “Nope, always been Jodie, and you must be Kurt, right?”
She knew my name…very cool. Of course, my name was on my AOL profile where the email was sent, so if this was her attempt at a cool trick, I was one step ahead.
“Yes, Kurt, that’s me. I guess you’re here to show me to the secret bar?” I asked.
“Only if you’re ready to journey to hell, or heaven…depending on your tastes. We like to consider this to be the first ‘back out’ point for new clients. You can decline the invitation now, and go home, or to some other bar, or wherever you’d like. Only be warned that no other invitation will ever come to you again.”
I considered this, and decided that it was already after 2am, I was out, dressed and full of coffee. I wanted to see this place.
“Lead on, Miss Jodie,” I replied.
She stood up and began to walk ahead of me—at a rapid pace, I might add.
We walked in silence for some time, weaving deep into the Quarter, past Bourbon Street, past all the loud and drunk tourists, past the warm and safe lights, the cop cars, the music from the bars. Before long, we were in the dark part of the Quarter, mostly residential, and very few people were on the streets this way. She suddenly stopped and walked up the stoop to a private residence. She fiddled with keys, opened the door, and gestured for me to enter.
“Wait, is this someone’s house?” I asked.
“This is the house where the dead scream in silence, where the walls rot, where pain becomes pleasure, where pleasure becomes death. This is the House of Din, He who dwells on the black star. Enter.”
I thought this was the coolest pitch for a bar I had ever heard. I figured it was rehearsed, but she said that whole little phrase with a lot of conviction. I had no idea who Din was, and I certainly didn’t know about black stars, but I did have a desire to push on.
She walked me into the house, which was empty. No furniture, no nothing. Now, French Quarter real estate isn’t cheap, so if this place was renting a house, just to serve as the cover for a bar, they clearly took themselves seriously. This might not be so boring after all.
What happened next was strange. She turned me towards a small hallway with an elevator. Now, I know that some houses back in the day had elevators. However, this one only appeared to go down. New Orleans isn’t exactly known for having basements, especially in homes. As I went to step in, she stopped me once more.
“This is your second ‘back out’ chance. Same as before, you can turn around and leave, no harm, no foul.”
“Push the button,” I replied, pointing at the down button, and stepped in.
The elevator ride felt long. Really long. At first, I was thinking that this was impossible, no one builds down in this city; hell, we even have to bury our dead above the ground. As far as I could see, though, we were going down. This was one of those older elevators with just the metal grate door. I could see wood and metal going past us, and this eventually gave way to stone. I was about to question this, when it occurred to me…
“Cool trick,” I said.
“Trick?” Jodie asked.
“Yeah, the elevator is rumbling in place while a rolling graphic goes by outside to look like we’re going down, right? Because, while I am no expert on elevators, I would say that we’d have to be at least 20 stories below the city right now, and I know that just isn’t possible.”
“You’re right,” she replied, grinning. “We aren’t 20 stories below the city. We are, by now, at least 2000 stories below, if you are using ‘stories’ as a measurement.”
I wanted to say something back, about how that was a lie, had to be a lie, we hadn’t been riding that long, and that amount of depth wasn’t possible on a tiny elevator like this. However, I figured this was all part of the act, like her whole speech about the “House of Din” and all that crap. I didn’t want to become too obnoxious or pushy. She might end up asking me to leave, figuring I would ruin the scene for other patrons. Instead I just smiled and decided to play along with a really cool and elaborate bar scene. Fake or not, this was by far the most ambitious effort I had ever seen put forward for a drinking establishment.
Shortly after, the elevator stopped. Jodie stepped in front of the doors, but before she opened them up, she turned back to me. “This is your final chance to back out. If you wish, I will take you back. However, once I open these doors, you will be in hell. You may find your way back to the surface tonight, but some find that leaving is just impossible. Some stay forever. In the interest of free will and fair play, I am bound by the Council of Nod to offer you this final chance to return to your life. Choose now.”
“Amazing speech Jodie,” I replied. “Really great, you guys clearly put some thought into this. Yes, I want to go to this bar.”
She smiled and opened the doors. A small door sat at the end of a wooden hallway that looked like it may have been built around the time of the pyramids. There were no lights, I could only see by the small electric light in the elevator, and the light coming from the door ahead. I walked forward, and as soon as I stepped off of the elevator, the heat hit me. It wasn’t so hot that I couldn’t take it, but if anyone has ever experienced being in an attic on a really hot day, with no ventilation, then you’ll have an idea of how this felt. The air was thick beyond description. I instantly was covered in sweat, and I knew that if I stayed in this hallway for too long, I would pass out. I turned to look back, and saw the elevator already heading back up. From what I could see, there was no button to call it back down either. I guess Jodie wasn’t kidding when she said that was my last chance to back out. I crossed my fingers that the bar would be air conditioned, and walked forward, into the light.
What happened over the next couple of hours is largely a blur. I will tell it as best I can.
I entered that bar. It was small, very small, about the size of a bedroom. There was a single wooden bar, 3 bar stools pushed up to it, and 3 small tables in the corner area. The room was poorly lit; only a small light bulb, hanging from the cord, was providing the light. However, it was well-lit enough to see everything, and sitting right on the bulb seemed the most logical. There was a small shelf behind the bar, typical set up, liquor bottles in front of a mirror. There were 5 others in this room, plus the bartender. I saw a Gothic girl sitting at one of the tables, sipping a drink with a rather plain dressed man. There were two gentlemen at the other table. One was wearing a business suit, the other was wearing that awful ‘cowboy’ attire that was popular in almost all walks of life, even secret bars. There was another woman, average in appearance, probably in her mid 30s, smoking at the other side of the bar. Of course there was me too, so that completed our little circle. There was no music playing. The walls were old wood, oak maybe. The bartender, now he was a classic. White shirt, black pants, suspenders and bow tie. Like something out of the roaring 20s. It was still hot too. Not as bad as the hallway, but pretty awful. Liquor would only make me hotter, but I was here now. I figured I would test the waters.
Now, as for liquor, I saw no bottles that I could recognize. None were labeled. There was no beer either. No name brands. No cash register. No bar mat. This place was as simple as you could want. After a moment, the bartender spoke to me.
“Welcome to Hell!” he announced, smiling.
“Cool name, sort of expected it, though.” I tried not to sound rude or pretentious. They had put on a great show tonight, but calling the place Hell…really? Too predictable.
“Well, it translates differently in lots of places. Hell is just the way you know it. Shall I call it something else?” he asked, and he didn’t seem to be joking or annoyed.
“No, Hell is fine, how about a drink…Jack and Coke please,” I said.
“No Jack here, and no Coke either,” he answered at once.
“What do you have then?” I asked.
“Well, most people down here have a drink we call Regret. I can also serve you Loneliness. Or if you’re feeling particularly bold, our house special is Damnation.”
“Wow, you guys are really playing up the hell thing. Okay, serve me some Regret please.”
He handed me a drink poured from a brown bottle. It tasted amazing too. I figured it to be a bourbon, and wished I had some Coke to mix it with. Apparently there was no ice here…I chuckled, of course not, ice in hell…what am I thinking? The drink was tasty though, and the buzz hit me quick.
I ordered up a Loneliness and begin to look around at my fellow patrons. None of them seemed to even notice me. The goth girl was cute though, so I picked up my drink and decided to walk over to her, when suddenly the woman sitting at the bar began to whimper.
“I am so thirsty…can I please have some water,” she seemed to be pleading this to the bartender.
“No ma’am!” He replied with that same stupid grin. “No water in Hell, not even a small amount. Have another cigarette, though. Wash it down with some hard liquor.”
“No more smoking…my mouth is too dry…no more liquor…water please,” she continued, and to me, it began to sound a lot like begging.
Instead of handing her water, he held out an unlit cigarette. It was then that I noticed the overflowing ashtray, the size of a damned punch bowl, sitting next to her. It was full of butts, had to be over a thousand of them in there. Had she smoked them all herself? I strained my eyes and studied her harder. He lips were blistered badly. She had been at it for a while. The bartender patiently held out the cigarette, grin never leaving his face, until she finally sighed and took it. He produced a lighter and she took a drag. She began to cough violently, gagging too. I decided to chime in.
“Hey man, she doesn’t look so hot, and I really don’t think she needs another smoke. She looks like she dying of thirst too. Call the elevator, man. She’s had enough I think.”
The bartender turned his big smile on me. “Who? Ol’ Nancy here? Naw, Nancy is a trooper, man—smokes a couple packs a day. And as far as her thirst, well, she knew this place was a thirsty sort of dive before she walked in the door, but she wanted to be here. She is getting exactly what she wanted.”
I walked over to Nancy and placed my hand on her shoulder. “Ma’am, if you want to get out of here, I’ll walk you over to the elevator. You don’t look so great right now.” I tried to sound as concerned as a 21 year old kid could sound.
Nancy looked at me and smiled. “Oh, I’m fine…just fine,” she said, but her mouth quivered as she spoke.
The bartender was watching us like a hawk, still smiling, but his smile no longer looked so friendly. “Everything okay?” he asked, beaming like a used car salesman.
Nancy shakily replied yes. The bartender turned around, and in that second Nancy gripped my arm hard, pulled me into the smog that was her breath, and whispered…
“Leave while you can,” so low that I almost missed it. Her breath was like a chimney, she must have been chain smoking for days. I smoked, and so do most of my friends, and even on nights when we would chain smoke and pound booze until the sun rose, none of us were ever that toxic.
I walked over to the man in the business suit. He at least appeared sane.
“Hey sir, I think that lady over there needs help,” I said to him.
The man looked at me and laughed. “We all need help, kid. We’re in Hell after all!” he shouted.
As he did this, I looked over at the goth girl, just in time to see her begin to cut herself, deep and hard from the looks of it. The plain dressed man sitting next to her begin to laugh in a high pitched tone, almost a giggle, and that was when I noticed that he was masturbating. Only, not in the sense that we all do, at home. No, his penis was raw, bloody, torn away in places, but he just kept going at it.
“Stop that! Look at what you’re doing to yourselves!” I screamed at them. They looked at me and I noticed that the girl was crying, but also smiling. Her eyes were practically begging to her self-inflicted pain to stop, yet she just kept cutting.
I had seen enough. I reached over and attempted to pull the knife out of her hand. Just then, I felt a strong grip on my shoulder, stronger than anything I had ever felt in my life. It was the bartender, he had come around the bar to grab me.
“No, NO sir!” he screamed into my ear. “Every patron of Hell gets to enjoy their treats without judgment. After all, judgment has already been passed. We exist beyond that now. Let her cut, she loves it after all, can’t you see she loves it, she is smiling ear to ear!”
The bartender dragged me back to my stool, and with great speed, was somehow back behind the bar again.
“Now, you wanted secrets, right, Kurt? You were bored and wanted more. That is what you came for. Now drink your drink before I beat your fucking face in!”
Through all of this, he never stopped smiling. He slammed a glass before me. I murky liquid was inside. He grabbed my arm and begin to squeeze, the pain becoming unbearable. My mind began to race…this was no bar—this was something, but not a bar. I wasn’t ready to believe I was actually in hell, but I knew I was somewhere bad.
“DRINK YOUR DRINK SIR!” he screamed again, and fearing that I would pass out from the pain, I slammed down the liquid in front of me. It tasted horrible. I couldn’t describe it then, and I can’t now, but it was fierce.
He let go of me, and suddenly the room got much hotter. The light began to flicker, and suddenly I was afflicted by knowledge. Things I didn’t want to know, things that no one would want to know.
My mother had an affair…and the man I had grown up calling dad was in fact not my father at all.
I had a brother who died. I never knew that.
My boss at work hated me.
My grandfather committed suicide…all these years I just thought he died naturally.
My mother was going to abort me…but changed her mind because she couldn’t afford the abortion.
I was going to die alone.
My wife, a woman I would meet in six years and fall madly in love with, would die in a car crash with my three year old son in the back seat. There was nothing I could do to change this.
I would go blind in my 60s from a work related accident.
There were currently 34 people in the world right now, some who I thought of as friends, who wanted me to die. They hated me.
No one, not my mother, not my father…no one had ever loved me, at all.
Those were just a few of the secrets that suddenly hit me. There were thousands, maybe millions more, but by then my mind couldn’t process them all. There were some things, things about me, things about people I knew, that were so dark that I am thankful that I cannot remember them, because to dwell on them for even a second longer would have brought on madness.
Frantically I looked around the bar. The woman, Nancy, was still smoking, only her throat was on fire…a small red glow, smoldering, right in the middle of her throat. She was clearly in the worst pain of her existence, but she continued to take puff after puff of her cigarette. Each time she did, the glow on her throat would get brighter.
I looked straight ahead into the mirror behind the bar, seeing the gore fest that had begun behind me. However, what took my attention was the small, black figure, standing directly to my right. It was maybe 5 feet tall. Its skin was jet black. The only thing that stood out was its eyes. They were human eyes, but bright. Not glowing, just….bright enough to stand out from the onyx of its face. It had small horns on its head. It had very white, very sharp teeth.
Somehow, I knew this was Din, and I was in his house.
I looked towards the door, but it was gone. The heat continued to get worse. The secrets were still popping into my mind, each worse than the one before. Entire dimensions of my soul were being revealed to me. All of it horrible.
Just then, my cell phone rang. The ring tone, something from my world, something from up above. It grabbed my attention, and in that moment, the secrets slowed down a bit. I looked down, it was 4am…Mike, Mike was calling to check up on me.
His name, Mike…yes, I have a friend named Mike…my best friend. The more I focused on things that were real, the more stable things became around me. The secrets were almost stopping now. The macabre scene around me was slowing down too. Nancy was back to just smoking again. The goth girl wasn’t cutting. That sinister face of Din…it had also retreated just a bit.
MIKE…MIKE…my oldest friend…yes, we grew up together, we rode our bikes together, we had sleepovers, pizza parties…and the more I focused on the real world…if I could just…
The door was back. I bolted for it.
“Stop! You had your chance to back out!” screamed the bartender, and I looked back just in time to see him leap over the bar behind me.
I shot through the doors and back into the tiny, impossibly hot hallway. The bartender burst through the doors, and I did the only thing I could think of. If thinking about the real world, weakened this place, then perhaps a real link to the real world would break it. I hit “answer” on my cell phone, and the voice of my best friend, who was calling from the safety of his apartment, greeted my ears. I could even hear music in the background, real music.
“Mike…call the cops, I am in real trouble here,” I screamed into the phone.
“What, I can barely hear you man, your connection sucks,” he answered.
The bartender was still coming, still grinning. I had one last idea.
I pushed “speaker”.
Mike’s voice, a product of the living world, owned by someone who had not made a deal to enter some level of hell, flooded the hallway. The bartender stopped.
“He is not allowed to know of this place…to have any contact without being invited…even voice contact…it violates the Council of Nod.”
That was when the final blow to the bar from hell was delivered. I heard Mike, in his sleepy yet concerned voice, say, “What is the Council of Nod?”
Contact had been made. Whatever rules governed this place had been broken.
Suddenly, the elevator came down. The bartender, still smiling, looked down at me.
“Sorry, sir, but you have violated the rules. You are no longer welcome at this bar. Please leave.”
Jodie was standing in the elevator. I stood up and climbed in. The effects of the drink I consumed were gone. No more secrets.
My phone had died; I guess calling from hell drains a battery. However, the effects were enough. We rode up in silence.
When we reached the surface, Jodie walked me out of the house, onto the stoop. Then she spoke. “You may think you won tonight, but you didn’t. You had a chance to ride this elevator up, as well as down. Your heart wanted secrets instead of happiness, though, so it went down. You could have gone up, and everything you could ever have possibly desired would have been yours. So, go on, feel proud. We like proud mortals, because the proud ones always find their way back to Hell.”
“Fuck you, Jodie.” I replied, but did so as I was walking away. I didn’t want to tempt these people anymore than I had.
When I got home that night, I remembered almost all of the secrets. Over the years they have slipped away, slowly at first, then, like a dream, I would wake up and more would be lost. I wrote down the ones that I listed here, because I didn’t want to forget them all. However, when I read them now, they don’t seem like secrets anymore, just like weird lies.
Of course, I called the police the very next day. I wanted to help those people down there. I had to dress up the story a bit. I told the cops that I was led there by Jodie after meeting her in the Quarter. I left out the part about the place possibly being a level of Hell, and simply described it as a basement where people were being tortured. The cops got a warrant and went in. The house was empty, as I said it was. However, there was no elevator found. The cops said there was a large closet area that appears to have had an old elevator at one time, but it was long gone now. The house itself was still on the market; it had no owner.
For a few years I would go down to Jackson Square around 2am, hoping to catch Jodie luring another victim into the house. However, I never saw her again. Years went on, I did marry, and no, my wife was never killed in a car accident. We don’t have kids yet, though. Perhaps when I violated the contract, the Council of Nod, or whatever, I somehow broke that cycle. I’ll never know, but I will be careful. After I posted this, I burned the list of secrets that I had written down. Of course, I could always read them on here, but I won’t. And in time, hopefully I will forget them too. I never confronted my mother about the abortion plan, or asked who my real dad was. Those secrets seemed so real, but Satan is also called the “Father of Lies” for a reason. I am not sure if Din is Satan or just a lesser version of him, but I doubt that Din is a very honest sort either.
I post this as a warning though. A warning to be careful when seeking out secrets. Some things are kept secret for a reason, and to know them, is to know madness.
Credit: K. Banning-Kellum
Check out Kellum’s collection of 12 short scary stories, Gris Gris and Juju: A New Orleans Horror Lagniappe, now available on Amazon.com. The book includes the story featured on this page, as well as many more.