the establishment in the alley to which morden led professor zender was in no wise advertising itself to passers by. a dirty window below street level emitted no light, and the stout door at the bottom of a set of iron steps could barely be distinguished from the brick wall.
the professor waited on the street level as morden descended the steps and rapped on the door, three times, then two. not, the professor thought to himself, the most unbreakable code.
presently the door opened, barely emitting light into the stepwell. morden entered, and held the door open while the professor carefully descended the steps, feeling in front of himself with his stout stick.
whoever had opened the door for morden had apparently gone on ahead, and the professor and morden navigated the low gloom - gentle reader , is there ever any high gloom? - forgive the digression - but then, is not digression the soul of narrative? - but i digress. they made their way through the gloom - a gloom caused as much by smoke as the absence of light - to a table in the center of the room and seated themselves. the professor made out a hulking form behind a serving bar at the far wall with its back (apparently) to them.
the form disappeared and (again apparently) appeared at the table.
"snappy, old boy, what can i get you?" if professor zender was surprised or amused by this sudden apparition, or by his old pupil's having descended so low as to answer to the nomenclature of "snappy", or by the surprisingly almost genteel voice of the interlocutor, he evinced nothing.
morden, or "snappy", rubbed his hands together. "well, professor, what will you have? a schnapps?"
"why not?" zender addressed the hulking form - "the schnapps, barman, it is good?"
"no, guvnor, it is not good. in fact, it is right horrible. if you wanted good liquor, you had better have gone to the archduchess's fancy dress ball, if you follow my smoke."
"i perceive you are trying to impress me with your honesty. consider me impressed. this schnapps of which you speak so disparagingly, does it have immediate adverse effects?"
"it might, squire, it might. this stuff will make christ crawl back on to the cross, pardon my expression."
"well then, do you have beer - "
"no, no!" cried morden. "the beer is worse than the schnapps. much worse!"
"very well, very well, let us have two glasses of schnapps then."
"short or tall?"
"tall. tall, so that we might not interrupted." and the professor turned his head aside to indicate the exchange was over .
but the loquacious server was not to be dismissed so easily. "you know, i thought you might be a lexicographer when i first saw you."
"yes, you know, studying the language patterns and quaint locutions of the netherworld. when i used the expression 'follow my smoke', which if the truth be told, i just made up out of my own head on the spur of the moment, i expected you to whip out a notebook and write it down immediately."
"really? how illuminating."
"so i suppose you have some other avenue of exploration?"
"a most judicious observation."
"i figured you for a professor even before snappy called you one. you might be surprised how many professors we get in here."
"i doubt that i should be surprised in the least."
the barman raised his eyebrows, as if inviting further confidences.
"i am suffering from a raging thirst, as no doubt our friend snappy is also."
"certainly, guvnor, certainly. point well taken." and with that the barman smiled and moved away.
"zobo does tend to run on," morden observed after the barman left.
the professor just shrugged.
"he doesn't get many opportunities for conversation here. despite all his talk of professors, most of the clientele here just want to drink and stare into space."
"worthy goals." zender looked around for the first time. his eyes having adjusted to the gloom, he made out four or five solitary figures at different tables, who were indeed staring into space or at the walls.
"so." morden chuckled. "i could not help being amused at poor zobo's guess that you were a student of words. not words but action, eh professor? with you it was always action that counted."
"indeed. specifically, i am studying the ratio of action to words and fantasies in the industrial nations."
"ah." morden's eyes glazed over only slightly at this asservation.
"and even more specifically, such ratios as applied to those with the most extreme views - extreme in terms of the surrounding social nexus, of course."
"of course. but here is zobo with our drinks."
zobo put the two drinks on the table and the professor reached into his pocket.
"no need for that, sir. you can settle all at once when you leave."
"excellent. and look here, when i do settle up, perhaps i could have a few words with you. you seem an observant fellow, perhaps you can indeed help with my researches, arcane though they be."
"it would be a pleasure, squire." and zobo smiled more widely, showing surprisingly white teeth. "i am honored to have made so positive an impression."
"i surmise, from your slightly insolent manner of addressing my respectable self, that you might be no stranger to the barricades, eh?"
"why, as to that, sir - the rivers of history do not flow smoothly in one direction, nor do the streams of memory. as we gaze into their dark waters, what shifting shapes do we see?"
"indeed. but tell me, while i have you here, are you acquainted with an individual named frommer?"
"frommer? not fritz frommer?"
the two glasses having been set down, morden raided one to his lips. after an initial grimace, he took a healthy draught.
"yes," replied zender. "fritz frommer."
"i have heard of him - he was quite the beau of the ball, the flavor of the day, a few years back."
"he was not a customer here?"
"oh, no, not unless he came in disguise. you see, sir, he had his own establishment. and quite the establishment it was, a center of noise and controversy and - and -"
"exactly, sir, intellectual upheaval! ha, ha!" zobo looked around the room at the hunched, solitary drinkers. "not such as you see here."