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 Settlers stood side-by-side on the moon’s surface, watching mushroom clouds bloom, orange and lovely, across the Earth.
“Guess the old adage is true,” one said.
“His partner turned. “What’s that?”
The astronaut skipped a stone ninety yards across the Sea of Tranquility. “You can never go home again.”
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.
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?”
“Just grab it and toss it out.”
“You do it!”
“Seriously? This is why you yelled at me to come in here?”
“Please, will you?” she pleaded. “Can you kill it, Josh?”
“Why can’t you?”
“Because I can’t.”
Her brother grinned. “Can you imagine if it had babies and they were all crawling on your face when you woke up?”
She shrieked high and shrill and long and he added squeaking baritone wails and they laughed and laughed until nothing was funny anymore.
He wiped his eyes and sniffed. “It can’t hurt you.”
“You won’t do it?”
“You only have to look at it a few more hours.”
She frowned. “It will still be here even if I can’t see it.”
They sat quiet. “Will you bring your stuffed animals?” she asked.
“All of them?”
“I’m going to bring all mine. And my dolls. And the toys from when I was little.”
“Dad said we’re supposed to leave the stuff we don’t need.”
“I don’t care what he said!”
He blinked at her. He turned and looked out the window. “I should go pack,” he said.
“Do you think mom will be sad when we’re gone?”
He leaned forward and rested his forehead against the glass. “Probably.”
“Do you remember that fight they had when I spilled my juice?”
She nodded. “I wished I didn’t spill it.”
“I know,” he sighed. “It’s ok though.” He turned from the window. “I’m going to pack.”
She stepped in his path with her doll. “Do you want to play army men or something? You can use Barbie for the monster. I won’t get mad.”
“I have to pack. I’m sure Mom will be up soon to help you.”
She tossed the doll on the bed. “I’m going to ask her to kill it.”
“It’s only a few more hours you have to think about it.”
“No,” she shook her head. “It will still be here. Even when I can’t see it.”