Thank you to the fine folks at The Horror Tree for publishing my story “Bar Fight” in Trembling with Fear. I am happy to be included!
I was tailing the unfaithful husband of a neurotic client down a dark alley on the outskirts of Rush City when someone slipped behind me and put a gun to my neck. I heard Bugsy’s voice and knew I had a problem.
“Frank Danger, P.I.!” he said with a delighted baritone that rumbled like a dump truck.
He laid a heavy mitt on my back and sent me staggering. Bugsy was a great guy. I thought the world of him. “Hands up!” he said, “Turn around slow.”
I came around to the barrel of a pistol pointed at my chest. I tried not to look at it. “Bugs!” I said. “Long time no see.”
He told me to shut it and waggled the gun around in a careless way I wasn’t thrilled with. “Eight years, Frankie,” he said. “Eight! Do you have any idea how long that is in the joint?”
“Well,” I said. “If I had to guess, I’d say eight years.”
He didn’t think I was cute. His meaty hand brought the gun up to my face and thumbed back the hammer.
“Easy, Bugs,” I said. “I’m not the guy who sold you out.”
He growled and his gold tooth glinted in the electroliers. He said: “I know it was you, Danger. Know why? ‘Cause I paid good money to find out, that’s why.” He puffed his chest, smiled, and showed the gold tooth. “Some of those cops you run with are dirty as me.”
I shook my head. “Bugsy my friend, you’ve been had. However, as luck would have it, I may know a way I can help you recoup some of your losses.”
“Losses?” He laughed. “You gonna give me back eight years of my life? Nah, we’re gonna make this right another way, Frankie. We’re gonna square things right here.”
“Thirty grand!” I said. A drop of sweat slid cold down my back.
Doubt flickered in his eyes. He tilted his head, tried to think. It looked painful.
“Mind if I smoke?” I asked, going inside my jacket. He frowned but didn’t stop me. I opened a cigarette case and took one, tapped it on my lighter and lit it.
Bugsy was skeptical. “What are you talking about?”
“Just a courtesy, Bugs, some people don’t care for smoke.”
“Before that,” he snarled. “The part about thirty grand.”
I snapped the case shut and blew smoke into the fog. “Thirty grand,” I said. “I have a line on it. We could take it, you and me. It’s just sitting there but I can’t do the job alone. Look Bugs, you mind lowering the gun? You make me nervous.”
He opened his mouth to say something, closed it, and eyeballed me suspiciously. The gun came down slowly and hung by his side but his finger stayed on the trigger. “Let’s have it,” he said.
I jammed a thumb over my shoulder. “That shop back there, the one with all the lights.”
He looked past me. “Do-jo?”
He looked like I told him I could fly. “That’s one of them karate outfits!”
I shook my head. “Do you see the word ‘Karate’ anywhere?”
He gawked over my shoulder. “What’s J-Jiyoo…”
“Jiu Jitsu,” I said. “It’s a Japanese dance. You’ve seen it. The guys tiptoe around barefoot in silk pajamas and wave their arms just so. They all wear ponytails. It’s a lost art. Monks invented it three thousand years ago.”
Bugsy stared over my shoulder. He really wanted that thirty grand. He looked back to me and asked: “What’s the play?”
“Simple,” I said. “We go in the front. You handle the Japanese guy while I go back and get the loot. It’s in an office safe but he never locks it.”
“How did this guy come by that much money?”
I winked. “Opium den.”
“Bugsy’s eyes narrowed. “How come you know so much?”
“I’ve been on this one a long time, Bugsy,” I told him. “Just waiting for the right opportunity.”
He suddenly shook his head. “I never knew you to pull no heists. You’re supposed to be a good guy.”
I shrugged. “Good guys gotta eat.”
Bugsy pondered that and asked: “What about masks?”
I waved it off. “Cops won’t put resources on this. That guy probably can’t even ID us in English.”
Bugsy nodded as though he found that reasonable. “Okay,” he said. “But don’t get cute or I’ll cut you down where you stand.”
“Understood,” I said, and we walked over. Once inside the dojo, I nodded to the instructor and spoke Japanese. “Evening, Phil. This guy’s got me hostage. He thinks we’re going to rob you.”
Phil’s eyes twinkled. He put his arms straight up, turned a frightened face to Bugsy.
“What did you say?” Bugsy demanded. “What did you tell him?”
“I told him this was a holdup. I said you were dangerous and you’d shoot him dead if he did anything stupid.”
Bugsy waggled the gun. “I will, old man. I’ll shoot you dead.” He looked at me. “Don’t just stand there. Get the money!”
The phone was on a desk. I had an operator send an ambulance and clattered out the back into the alley. I heard Bugsy say: “I mean it old man, not another step!” Then there was a scuffle. The gun went off and there came a dry, snapping sound. Bugsy began to scream.
“Danger!” he wailed from the floor. “Danger!”
I went down the alley and around the side of the dojo to the sidewalk. A lone set of headlights bounced towards me through the fog. I held up a hand on a hunch and the lights bounced over and stopped at the curb. “Riverside Casino, my good man,” I told the cabbie. “I’m feeling lucky tonight.”
The same electric sign has hung out over the sidewalk in front of Dusty’s Pub since 1946. The sign features a cartoon French maid dusting the word “Dusty’s” with a feather duster. One warm summer evening in 1978, Dusty, the club’s namesake and creative genius behind the sign, clutched his chest, slid down a wall behind the bar, and was no more. His widow sold Dusty’s before Dusty was cold and the pub went to a man named Claude Radke.
Radke did not rename Dusty’s Pub. Instead, he opted to spend the money needed for a new sign on something more practical. This practical something turned out to be a seven cartons of cigarettes which he smoked through in four weeks.
As Dusty had, Claude Radke required that “his girls” wear the uniform of the French maid on the sign. On Friday and Saturday nights, two of Claude’s girls would skitter about the pub slinging drinks and tickling the noses of their tippers with feather dusters. It was said that Radke’s girls would tickle other things although that remained, as yet, unproven.
One drunken night, Claude Radke groped one of his girls and she slapped him. Hard. Humiliated, he tossed her out on the sidewalk to the drunken cheers of his small knot of elderly regulars.
The banished waitress showed up at my desk the next morning with information about Claude Radke she thought I could use. She was right. I dropped by Dusty’s later that afternoon to tell him the good news.
Three men sat at the bar when I walked in. They swiveled to me.
“Afternoon, boys,” I said, opening my jacket. “Stop by again when you can’t stay so long.”
They grumbled at the badge and finished their drinks, tearing bills from wallets and flipping them onto the bar.
“So long, Claude,” one said.
“Thanks for stopping, guys,” Radke replied bitterly. The door closed behind them and Radke said: “What in hell do you want?”
“Nothing for me, thanks,” I said, taking a seat. “I’m on duty.”
He scowled. “A comedian.”
We were the only two in the building so I made a show of looking around and asked: “How’s business?”
His eyes narrowed to fiery little slits of hate. “You want something, cop?” he snarled, “or are you just here harassing a hardworking businessman for no reason?”
I shrugged. “Your gal, Louise, stopped in to see me this morning.”
“Not my gal.”
“Not anymore,” Radke said. He dried his hands on a towel.
“She claims you sell cocaine.”
Radke waved a hand in dismissal. “Bah.”
“She told me you keep a pile of it in a coffee can in back.”
“If you knew Louise. She’s crazy.”
“You won’t mind if I look around a bit since you’ve got nothing to hide.”
Claude Radke smiled sweetly; a golden tooth glinted. “Be my guest,” he said. “Long as you got a warrant.”
“Funny you should say that,” I said. I made a show of pulling open my jacket, reaching in, and coming out with a crisp, white sheet of paper, triple-folded.
Radke’s eyes shot to it and stayed there. His forehead bunched up. His nostrils flared.
“Do not do it Radke,” I said.
He bolted out the back.
I laid my palms on the bar, tried to vault it, and bashed a shin. I went down over a couple stools and gimped out the door, cursing a blue street. I went around to the alley and there stood Claude Radke, hunched over and gasping at the ground.
“You should have turned left,” I panted.
He ran a ways before sliding out in the gravel. He landed on his hands and rolled over onto his back. He laid there and moaned for a while and when he sat up, I was there. I palmed his forehead and laid him back down in the rocks.
“I don’t gotta talk to you, cop!” he snarled. “I want my lawyer.”
I let go of his face and sat n the dirt besi, panting. Radke was panting too. A deep, bloody gash had been carved out above his right eyebrow and both knees were torn up slick.
“Too old to be running, Claude. Where in hell would you even go?”
“I want my lawyer.”
“So you said.”
I stood and dusted my pants and held out a hand to Radke. He ignored it and climbed up on his own, wincing. We walked back towards the pub.
“I’m not arresting you,” I said.
“On the level.”
He stopped. “What is this?”
“Here it is: You give me the coffee can and I’ll walk out of here. You get to decide what you do with your time for the next three to five.”
Radke’s eyes got narrow and shrewd. He scowled. “You’re gonna sell it?”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“You’re a coke head?”
I shrugged and walked. “Take it or leave it. Ask yourself how much your lawyer charges and compare.”
He grimaced and kept up. “I didn’t take you for a dirty blackmailer, cop. Next month you’ll be back for more.
“One and done. I’ll shoot straight with you, Claude. We’ve known each other a long time.”
He jutted out his chin. “And if I don’t?”
I shrugged. “The Department gets it. You pay an attorney for a plea deal, and you probably do time.”
We walked in the back door of Dusty’s and he put a large can of Folger’s in my hands. I opened it; Louise was telling the truth. I set the can on a table, pulled cuffs from my belt and said: “Claude Radke, I’m arresting you for possession of a narcotic with intent to sell. You have the right to remain silent…”
“You lied to me,” Radke said. His lips were shiny and spit flew when he said it.
I put the cuffs on him, finished his rights, and marched him around the bar out the front door. The pub was still empty.
Radke was bewildered.
I dug in my jacket pocket, removed the folded paper, unfolded it and showed it to him.
“LOST,” it said. “Male German Shepherd answers to the name Rex. Missing since June 17th. Has shots and is friendly. If found, please call…”
I folded the paper back into my jacket and Claude Radke and I took a drive downtown.
It was the fire that taught Jeff about miracles. After all, he shouldn’t have been there – Jeff never visited on Wednesdays. “Maybe I’ll see what the old man’s doing,” he’d said and when he pulled into the drive, the house was engulfed.
Reflecting, Jeff doesn’t know if his father would have escaped – so frail was he when Jeff found him, barely visible through the smoke. Jeff’s eyes shimmer. He smiles, grateful. He sees again his hands gripping the skinny ankles, hears anew the screams as he drags his father back into the flames. “Better safe than sorry,” Jeff whispers aloud.