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.”
A white ball streaked across green felt and snapped into a triangle of colorful balls. The formation exploded and the balls thumped off rails, clicked off one another, came to rolling stops. Two stripes fell into pockets.
Billy Miller removed a greasy baseball cap, ran a hand through greasy hair, returned the cap to his head, and said: “I hate you.”
Stephen Zander smiled and chalked his cue with a big fist. He was tall and rangy, twenty-seven, with broad, stooped shoulders and fried golden hair. He looked like a weathered Brit-rocker from the Seventies.
“Thirteen over there,” he said and gestured at a pocket with his cue stick. He laid out flat over the stick and his arm made a fluid motion at the elbow. The white ball rolled slowly across the felt, clicked off the Thirteen and the Thirteen inched along – nearly stopped -before dropping with a click into a side pocket.
Zander indicated another pocket and grinned at Miller. “You’re going to school today, son. Eleven off the Fourt-”
A phone buzzed and Zander frowned. He leaned his stick against the table, and dug the phone from a pocket.
Zander stabbed the screen with his finger and an agitated female voice chittered. Zander winced, pulled the phone away, held it out to Miller, and mouthed: “Talk to her!”
Miller frowned and shook his head.
Zander’s smile went away and a scowl took its place. He barked at the phone. “I told you I was stopping after work!”
The phone chirped higher and Zander stormed around the pool table and out the screen door to the parking lot. The door clattered shut behind him.
Miller watched the door and peeled the soggy label from a bottle of beer. He was alone in the small room now and, after waiting a while for the door to reopen, he ambled to the right side of the bar and called: “Becky!”
“Grab what you want, Love!” a woman said from a back room. “I’m cleanin’ the fryer.”
“Taking another bottle of Snakes!”
Miller walked around behind the bar and took out a bottle of beer. He tossed the bottle cap in the trash and laid four dollars on the register, then came back around to the front of the bar and studied the pool table. Fifteen minutes passed before Miller said out loud: “Forfeit,” and chalked Zander’s stick. He took painstaking care aligning each shot and cursed the ones he missed.
With the table clear, Miller leaned the stick against the table, walked around, clattered out the screen door into the parking lot, and was blinded. His eyes snapped shut as hot, orange light warmed them through his eyelids like midday summer sun. He put up a hand and squinted.
Overhead, a circular craft whirled and whirred and filled the night sky. It bathed the world, as far as Miller could see, with orange light so that everything was the color of marmalade. Wind from the saucer swept grit into Miller’s face and he turned his head and closed his eyes. When he did so, the light winked out and the wind stopped and the night air was cool again. It was silent. Miller stood blinking, then saw a crumpled heap across the lot by his car. He sprinted over and knelt down and took Zander by the shoulders. “Stephen?” he yelled. “Stephen!”
Zander’s mouth twitched. His eyes fluttered open, green and clear and intense, and Miller gawked into them.
“Dude,” Zander whispered. “Wait ‘til you see all the shit I can do now!”
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 one of the nicer houses on its block which is to say three or four of the windows still held glass and the yard had been mowed at some point over the past year. The front door sagged from twisted hinges over a foot-wide chasm where the porch fell away from the house. There might have been a shutter still dangling that hadn’t yet fallen into the weeds. It was a nice place.
Klein was talking to reporters out front. I nodded and ducked the yellow tape.
I managed to bridge the gap between porch and house without snapping my leg off, walked inside, and retched at a stench that might have been rotting maggots fermenting in the sun.
A broad L-shaped staircase brought me up to a second-floor hallway. There were four bedrooms here, two on each side. Filthy mattresses and greasy sleeping bags were sacked around on the floors. Bottles, cans, and cigarette butts were everywhere. Drying puddles of bodily fluids added to the ambiance.
A bathroom about the size of a teacup stood at the end of the hallway with its door open. Sweeney and McGregor were inside looking at blood spatter.
Sweeney saw me and his eyes changed. He hissed something at McGregor who waddled over and pressed a meaty palm into my chest.
“Hold up, Joe.”
“Sweeney thinks you should sit this one out.”
Sweeney stepped up and laid an arm around my shoulder. “Joe! How you been?”
I looked at Sweeney. Then at McGregor. I looked at Sweeney again. “What is this?”
Sweeney paused and mumbled something to the floor and I put it together.
“You don’t want me to see her.”
Sweeney tried to guide me back towards the steps. “Let’s go down, Joe. You should be sitting for this.”
“Who is she?” I asked, trying to squirm free.
Sweeney and McGregor blocked my path. “Hold up a minute,” McGregor said.
My mouth was dry. A bead of sweat slid down my back. I didn’t like my new heart rate. “Get your mitts off me. Let me see.”
Sweeney exhaled. “Joe…” He and McGregor exchanged a look. “Listen, there’s no easy way to do this. Nothing I say is going to prepare you. Maybe I should just let you see for yourself if that’s how you want to play it.”
From far away I heard myself tell him it was. My heart triple-timed. Sweeney said more but I heard it the way you hear the television as you drift off to sleep. He and McGregor stepped aside. I floated down the hall and I was in the bathroom, kneeling by the tub. The woman was young, maybe still a girl. She was sprawled on her back, bare arms dangling over the sides of the tub, blood still dripping from a fingertip.
She was clothed which struck me as unusual. Her short shorts and sleeveless t-shirt were sopped. Blood was smeared across her face and neck, smeared across her teeth. The skin that wasn’t painted bloody was a bruised yellow turquoise. Her lips were grey. Her hair, blonde at one time, was red and black and matted. I studied her face. Then, I turned to Sweeney: “So? Who am I looking at?”
Sweeney’s eyes narrowed and he furrowed his brow. “You don’t know?”
“Never seen her before.”
Sweeney looked to McGregor.
“Look again,” McGregor said.
I turned back and the girl was sitting. She shrieked at me, wild-eyed and hysterical. I shrieked back. She lunged for me and I was on my feet with my gun out. Sweeney and McGregor threw themselves at me. They took hold of my arm as the gun fired. It sounded like an atomic bomb in that little room.
They pinned my wrist to the wall above my head and held it there. They were blocking the girl. I couldn’t see the girl! Someone was screaming and screaming. I closed my mouth and the screaming went away. Sweeney’s contorted face swam in front of me. He was insistent, barking orders, trying to reach me. My ears sang.
“…a gag,” Sweeney was saying, distant and tinny. “Not real. It isn’t real…” His face was shiny and pasty. His eyes looked insane.
We stood this way for several seconds. Finally, McGregor tilted his head, squinted at me, and released my wrist. He turned to the tub. Sweeney let go and I had my arm back.
The girl was on her side in the the tub with her hands over her ears and her knees pulled up tight. She was shivering, frantic, talking to herself. Sunlight streamed in through a fresh bullet hole in the wall. My bullet couldn’t have missed her head by more than six inches.
I stumbled to the hall, found a place to slide down the wall, and sat on the floor. I laid my gun beside me. My pants were wet. Sweeney knelt by the tub and comforted the girl.
McGregor came out and sat beside me. Neither of us spoke for a long time. He picked lint off his pants. Finally, he said: “I tried to warn him, Joe, but you know how he is. I told him it was too much.” He turned, appraised me frankly, shook his head, and returned to the lint. “Great gag.”
My voice was hoarse and thin. “What happened?”
McGregor sighed at his pants. “The girl is his niece. She’s taking some acting courses at the community college. This whole thing came about when she told Sweeney her acting could fool a cop.”
I considered this for a while. “Makeup?”
McGregor nodded once. “Everybody was in on it. The reporters are actors. Sweeney wanted to get back at you for that stunt you pulled with the pizza delivery guy.”
I smiled ruefully. “Mission accomplished.”
The girl bet him $10 she could convince you she was dead,” McGregor said. “Looks like she won.”
I shook my head. “The blood didn’t smell. There was too much of it not to smell. I knew it felt wrong, I just couldn’t – I couldn’t quite…”
McGregor shook his head again. “Sweeney.”
“Let’s hope the girl isn’t in shock.”
“She’ll come around. Listen, Joe, you’re not gonna…you know…report this, are you? Sweeney and me and Klein, we could lose our badges.”
I shook my head. “What is this trash heap anyway?”
“Crack house, maybe? Smack? I dunno, ask Sweeney. I’m just here because he told me to be.”
I nodded and climbed unsteadily to my feet. I felt ninety years old.
“What are you gonna do?” McGregor asked.
“Going home for dry skivvies.”
McGregor nodded and returned his attention to the the lint on his pants. “Sweeney,” he said.
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.
He stood in a large hole, perhaps four feet deep and five or six in diameter. The digging was strenuous, the ground comprised of gravel and sand. With each thrust, the shovel stopped dead, sending a jolt through his arms, his shoulders, his back. Every few minutes, he dropped to his hands and knees to dig by hand. With his fingers, he unearthed heavy rocks, straining to wrestle them from the hole and heave them aside. The rocks dented and dulled his shovel, slowing his progress.
The air was crisp and the moon full; his body steamed through his shirt. He lifted the shovel from the hole, flat to the ground and perhaps a quarter full, and tossed its contents over his right shoulder. The sand made a brushing sound as it fell on dry leaves. He plunged the shovel into the earth again.
She stood behind him and said, “Why are you doing this?”
He stopped and let the shovel stand by its blade as he removed his cap and drew his arm across his forehead. The shovel stood upright for a moment then fell. “I have to find it,” he said.
She shook her head. “I don’t need it.”
Bending over, he grasped the shovel. “If I don’t find it now, We’ll have to wait until Spring.” He shook his head. “I can’t dig through the frost.”
She wrinkled her forehead and said, “Leonard, you’ve been out here for days! Weeks!” She moved close and he pulled away. She stopped and said softly, “Perhaps it’s not God’s will that it be found.”
“I don’t believe that. If He wants me to leave it out here in the wild, He needs to tell me plain. I ain’t interested in deciphering hints from The Almighty.”
She raised her eyebrows. “He is telling you. I’m telling you. Take the shovel home and draw yourself a warm bath. Put on dry clothes. Make a fire! Do the things you need to do to move on.”
He shook his head.
She smiled with sad eyes and said, “The landslide was not your fault. You don’t need to find my body.” She smiled. “It’s already buried.”
He fell to his knees in the dirt and covered his face with his hands. “No, no, no…” he cried.
“I have to go now, Leonard,” she said softly. “It’s time for us both to go home.”
She drifted away into the trees…
Leonard awoke with a start, his eyes wet and the television still on. Beside him, she lay sleeping, breathing deeply. He spooned her, and buried his face between her shoulder blades, pulling her close.
She faced the wall, smiling. “These dream pills were worth every penny,” she thought. “I am SO going shopping today.”
Now try this: The Predator