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.”
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.
Miles Vandelay stood at the head of the table and hoisted his wine glass with his left hand. With his right, he pinged the glass repeatedly with a spoon. His eyes glittered with booze and triumph.
“Real quick,” he said. “I don’t want to hold up the party – ”
“Get off the stage!” said his VP of Operations, Todd Alton. He grabbed a bread roll from a basket on the table and tossed it at him. Soon, rolls were coming in from all over the room. They bounced off his chest and sailed past his head as he bobbed and ducked. “You’ll make me spill my wine!” he protested.
“There’s plenty more where that came from!” yelled Ezra from another table and the room erupted into applause and whistles.
Vandelay laughed and held up a palm. “All right, all right, you animals, but you know I’m cheap. I want to enjoy every. last. drop.” He upended the glass and held it up as a gladiator might hold the decapitated skull of a defeated enemy. The employees roared and upended their glasses, holding their empties high.
“They say,” said Vandelay, “All’s fair in love and war and I suppose that’s true. I’ve been through enough wives to know the love part is anyway.”
The room hooted and whistled.
“I’d like to add,” Vandelay continued, “that all’s fair in business too. To those of you who are here tonight, I salute you. This evening, we celebrate the culmination of our efforts. Our moment of glory is at hand!”
The room exploded into cheers. Rolls flew from table to table and Alton popped a fresh bottle, champagne spraying everyone at the table.
“Now I know this merger wasn’t easy,” Vandelay said after the cacophony had died. “We had to let some good people go and that can be difficult,” he said in a somber tone. “The good news is…we’re drinking their cut!”
The employees roared and pinged their glasses with their silverware.
“Some will say that life is more than money. They’ll tell you horror stories of deathbed regrets and spiritual reckonings. I would point out that every person who talks like that is broke and a loser! You don’t hear that garbage from successful people!”
“Amen!” said Ezra and the room laughed.
“I would submit to you that there are two types of people in this world: the hunters and the hunted. Looking around this room, I see victorious hunters and, to the victors go the spoils!”
The employees cheered and stomped their feet.
“The bonus checks that you received today were the largest Vandelay Industries has ever paid.”
He raised his hand as the decibel levels went to their highest point of the night. The employees stood as one to chant, “Van-de-lay! Van-de-lay!”
He smiled and waited for calm. “All right. All right. Now listen. It would be easy for us to rest on our laurels but life is about the survival of the fittest. You’re either growing or you’re dying, there is no coasting. So I raise my glass…wait…somebody give me a full one,” he said, tossing the empty over his shoulder.
The employees laughed and someone handed him a full glass of champagne. “Eat, drink, and be merry!” he said. “For tomorrow we…have to get up early and do it again!”
As he drank, he heard the laughter. In his peripheral, he saw glasses lifted to faces.
Then it went black.
He awoke with a start to find himself lying in an alley. It was cold and he was wearing only a t-shirt. “What the hell?” he asked, looking at the gravel. Pieces of broken glass glinted in the rocks. “I must’ve…blacked out…got robbed,” he muttered.
A voice startled him. “No,” it said. “You weren’t robbed.”
He turned to see a homeless man, long-haired and filthy, seated beside him. He wore ripped corduroy pants and torn shoes with duct tape holding them together. He smelled of smoke and rotten teeth and body odor. He wore an army jacket but Vandelay doubted very much that a man like that had served in the armed forces.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Ah…” the man said, smiling. “That’s not the question. The question is, who are you?” The homeless man put a bottle wrapped in a paper bag to his lips and drank. Then he set it down and laughed heartily as red wine trickled from his lower lip down into his beard.
“Yeeeaaah…okaaay,” said Vandelay. “That’s great, Crazy. I’ll be on my way now. Good talk.”
Vandelay stood but something was wrong. He was too close to the ground. He was too small. Too light.
He was a child.
“What is this?!” he demanded. “This can’t be…this isn’t real!”
The homeless man turned and winked, his eyes remarkably clear. “Oh, it’s real. You see, Miles, you didn’t do so hot in your last life. In fact, you made a real mess of it. This is your do-over. A mulligan. Another chance to live it right.”
Vandelay’s face was horrified. “How do you know my name?…No! No, this isn’t right! I’m asleep or…on something…Todd dosed me with something or…this isn’t how this is supposed to work!”
The homeless man smiled. “Well…maybe you should sleep it off.”
Miles nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I just need a little sleep. I just need to sleep it off.” He sat down and wrapped his arms around his chest; the wind was icy. He closed his eyes and drifted…
He opened his eyes. “Yes, Mama?”
“Kevin, come back to the box where it’s warm; I got a fire going. Who were you talking to, son?”
Kevin’s eyes were confused as if a dream had just ended he couldn’t quite remember. He looked up and down the empty alley. After a moment he said, “No one, Mama.”
Now try this:
There are moments in life that determine our fates. Call them crossroads or decisions, determinations or resolutions, the labels matter not. What matters is that a choice must be made and the reverberations of that choice will be felt for the rest of our days.
Agnes has arrived at such a place.
She sits with two cards in her hand, a ten of spades and a six of diamonds, the blackjack dealer standing before her. No one sits beside her, her fellow gamblers having been relieved of their assets and long since gone home. It is a few minutes past four in the morning but the casino is bright, the music loud, and the building is pumped full of oxygen. From where Agnes sits it may as well be two in the afternoon.
She is winning.
Agnes has been conversing with the dealer all night and he’s heard all there is to hear about her grown children and their grown children and their children too. He knows her favorite books and where she goes to church and about her ladies clubs and that she crochets. And as the hours have come and gone, they have talked and laughed and sparred back and forth, him winning a hand, her winning two, him winning two hands, her winning one.
And finally they have built to this moment, she having thrust all her winnings, all her savings, to the center of the table in moment of do-or-die madness. Her heart is galloping, her hands shaking and she doesn’t know if she wants another card so she stalls by confiding, “I can’t believe how well this night has gone. I never win anything.”
And here the dealer stops and gives her a look, a look of warm sympathy as though he understands what she means but can’t allow her the sentiment. He says, “Don’t say you never win anything, Agnes. Don’t say you’re unlucky.”
She smiles without looking from her hand, her mind racing as she strains to calculate her odds.
“In my line of work, you hear it all the time: So-and-So is lucky but not me. So-and-So has a rabbit’s foot or a horseshoe or a four-leafed-clover wedged up their ass but not me.”
Agnes blushes at the unexpected profanity but says nothing, still studying her cards.
“Can you tell me the number of times you’ve said, ‘I could have been killed’ or ‘I should have been killed’ or ‘I nearly died’? Can you tell me how many close encounters you’ve had where looking back you wonder how you walked away? The odds that any of us has made it this far are remarkable and if this doesn’t leave you feeling lucky or blessed, I don’t know what will.”
Agnes doesn’t know how many times she has cheated death. The number is probably somewhere between five or ten times she imagines, maybe a couple more.
“When people think of luck, they think of money. They think of lottos and raffles and game show prizes and all of those things are well and good,” the dealer says. “But Life…Life is the ultimate prize. To be alive, to awaken each day and to breathe and to laugh and to cry…these are the prizes we need to win, the alternative does away with any complementary parting gifts.”
Agnes nods over her cards grateful for this pep talk and the extra time it affords her to contemplate her hand. “Yes, yes, I suppose that’s true,” she says.
Here, he pauses until she looks up. Then he says, “the multi-millionaire who commits suicide is a cliche. It happens so often yet we’re still surprised when it does. We say things like ‘money can’t buy happiness’ or ‘at least you have your health’ but we don’t really mean it. Deep down, we all think we could solve our problems and buy some purpose in this life if we just had the cash.”
He falls silent and she doesn’t reply. There is a drawn out pause then he gestures toward her hand. “What’s it going to be?”
Agnes swallows hard. “Hit me.”
He peels off a card and lays it before her: the six of clubs.
She stares at the card then exhales in a long rasp. Her hand goes to her chest as she slides off her chair and into a heap on the floor.
“Oh Agnes, we’re sorry. You were so close!” says the dealer. “Looks like your luck has run out.”