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!
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.
You get down into some of these third-world countries and the tech is thirty years behind; this airport had a pay phone.
There’s weight to the sound of a real phone bell you don’t get with a cell. I heard the ringing from far away and ran to it.
Saturday afternoon. Civilians everywhere. A mother gripped her son by the arm and bawled, “Mind me!”
I shoved through. “Down! Down! Down!” I said and a little girl landed on her butt and slid.
A man picked up the handset and the phone detonated.
Louie had a drink waiting for me.
“Don’t mind if I do.”
He nodded. “New hat?”
I removed it and laid it on the bar. “Twelve bucks.”
Louie whistled. “Must be nice.”
“Big money in detective work. Nothing but fur coats and limousines.”
The grin died on his face. “Fat Rico was in asking about you.”
“What did you say?”
“Told him I didn’t know nothing but it looks like he figured it out on his own.”
Fat Rico stood in the doorway.
“Do me another favor, Louie,” I said, nodding at the hat. “Put that somewhere safe, will you?”
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.
The woman sat at the bar and stared into her drink and Harvey stood behind her. He laid a hand on her back and leaned in so his mouth was in her ear. “Did you get it?”
She nodded at her drink.
Harvey sat down. “Beautiful.”
The bartender walked over. “What can I get you?”
“Whiskey,” Harvey said. “Neat.”
“How about you, ma’am? Ready for a refill?”
The woman covered her glass with her palm. The bartender left and came back with a whiskey.
“You don’t seem too enthused,” Harvey said.
The woman didn’t say anything. She pushed an ice cube down into her drink with a straw. It bobbed back to the surface.
“You got the signature,” Harvey said. “The hard part is over. Here, let’s see.”
The woman turned and dug in her purse and handed him a piece of paper. He looked at it and gave it back to her. She put it in her purse.
“Don’t lose that,” he said. “How did you manage it?”
“Just slipped it in the stack. He never reads anything.”
“They won’t suspect a thing,” Harvey said. “That explains everything nice and clean. There won’t be a reason for anyone to poke around.”
“He’s not the type. Everyone knows it.”
“Wasn’t,” Harvey said. “He wasn’t the type. He’s been down since he retired. You said so yourself.”
“Not that down.”
Harvey pointed at her purse. “That letter says otherwise.” He brought out a pack of Camels, shook two out, and offered one to the woman.
“No, thank you.”
He lit one. “What do you want to do?”
“I just wish there was some way to know for sure that we will get away clean. I wish there was some guarantee.”
“Life isn’t like that.”
“No,” she said. “On second thought, I guess I do want one.”
Harvey fished out a Camel and lit it for her.
She exhaled. “But you think it’s safe?”
“I wouldn’t let you do it if I didn’t.”
“What do I tell them, you know, if they do poke around?”
Harvey shrugged. “The truth. He seemed a little down but you didn’t think he was the type. They’ll believe you. Melancholy makes people do crazy things.”
“How long until we can be together?”
“After? I’d say a year just to be safe.”
The woman nodded. “Okay.”
“You’re sure? We shouldn’t go through with it if you’re not sure.”
“I’m tired of waiting,” she said. “I don’t want to wait anymore.”
“Me neither,” Harvey said.
“He’s not a monster you know. He doesn’t treat me poorly.”
“I wish there was some other way.”
“I know but there isn’t. This is the only way to swing the money side of it.” He laid a hand on her shoulder. “Everything will go off without a hitch, you’ll see. We just need a little faith and before you know it, we’ll be together. Did you buy the sleeping pills?”
“Good. Have you eaten yet?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“No? I’m starving,” Harvey said. “Lucky for me, they have great food here.” He stubbed out his cigarette and waved to the bartender. “Can I get a menu when you get a second?”