by Graham Powell
Alan’s coffee was cold, and had been for ten minutes. Cheap coffee in a cheap diner in a cheap part of town. He took a sip and grimaced, then forced down another like a does of unpleasant of medicine. He picked at the remains of his pie for a minute, then carefully folded his napkin and laid his fork across it. His watch was heavy on his wrist like a manacle. He didn’t look at it. He knew what time it was.
The waitress’ voice shook him out of his reverie. “Can I warm that up for you?” she said. He looked up at her. Blond hair, long, piled high. Pink uniform. Eyes lined from too many graveyard shifts. Nice smile.
“No,” he said. He slid off his stool and headed for the jukebox. Three plays for fifty cents. He fished in his jacket pocket and came up with four dimes. He checked the playlist anyway. There was nothing he wanted to hear.
Alan made a U-turn. Past the far end of the counter a short hallway led to the back of the diner. Restroom doors faced each other across the width of the corridor. Between them was a pay phone. Alan hunched up against the wall, fed his dimes through the slot, and tapped out a number. He tried to ignore the smell of stale urine.
He smiled when she answered. “Hi, Charlotte,” he said. “It’s me. No, I haven’t gone yet. I just wanted to hear your voice first.” His lips tightened. “Don’t worry, I’ll be careful. I know you’re scared. I’m scared too.” He took a deep breath and blew it out. “Try not to worry. Everything will turn out fine. Well, I’d better get going…” He waited. A narrow crease appeared between his eyebrows. “Yeah. Yeah, I know. I love you, too. Uh huh. Look, I really gotta go.” The voice on the other end was still chattering when he hung up the phone.
His stool was still where he left it and still warm. Out of his pants pocket he pulled a small bottle of pills. He shook out a couple and swallowed them, washing them down with the last slug of coffee.
“How do you do it?” asked the waitress.
His head snapped up. “Do it? What do you mean?” he said, voice brittle.
“Eat so much pie and stay so skinny!” She laughed. “You’re always comin’ in here for pie and coffee, coffee and pie. I’d swell up like a damn balloon if I ate what you do.”
A muscle under Alan’s left eye twitched. “I have a high metabolism.” He laid three dollars next to his plate and left without waiting for his change.
Outside, darkness closed in on him like a pack of wolves. It was only six blocks to the Joint, but it could have been sixty or six hundred. His feet had trouble keeping to the pavement. The air was humid, and clung to him like smoke in a sleepwalker’s dream.
He thought he’d be able to hear the Joint before he saw it, but it wasn’t until he saw the neon light spilling out onto the sidewalk that he caught the beat. It was fast and bouncy, and he instinctively quickened his pace, stepping in time to the rhythm. He barely noticed the doorman as he passed over the cover charge.
Inside, the Joint was just a bar like any other, dingy in all the right places and flashy where it had to be. Up on the bandstand a nine-piece band was wailing away, decked out in three-piece suits and two-tone shoes, swingin’ like a garden gate. He stood at the bar, toes tapping, and waited for the bartender.
He sensed the man behind him but said nothing, keeping his eyes on the band. “Hello, Alan,” rumbled a voice deep and heavy. “Russell’s ready to see you.”
“After this song,” said Alan.
A hand closed over his arm. “Now.”
They went up a flight of steps behind the bar and through the door at the top into Russell’s office. It was just a room, fifteen feet by twenty, walled in painted-over paneling, with a few folding chairs and a generic metal desk. Russell was talking to a couple of his boys. When Alan came in he went and sat down.
At one time Russell had been a tough customer, tall and broad, but he’d been fighting a losing battle against gravity for several years, and now only his knit shirt kept his belly from going south for the winter. He’d shaved most of his beard since the last time Alan had seen him, but even his neatly trimmed goatee showed the tiny flecks of gray he tried so hard to hide. When he needed muscle these days, he hired it.
He sat down and regarded Alan with a paternal smile. “Alan,” he said. “How’ve you been?”
Alan shrugged. “Not bad,” he said. He could feel the bass drum thumping through the soles of his shoes. His heart pounded along in time. “Good band tonight. Really tight.”
“If polka was in, I’d have an accordion player tomorrow,” said Russell.
“Clog dancing,” suggested Alan. “You could rent shoes. Like a bowling alley.”
Russell chuckled. “That’s good,” he said. “I’ll have to remember that.” Abruptly he leaned forward on his desk and laced his fingers together. “Enough bullshit. I believe you owe me some money. Do you have it?”
Alan pursed his lips for a second before replying. “No,” he said. “Not a dime. Not a penny.”
Russell sighed. “Alan, my friend. What am I going to do with you? I can’t just let this slide. People will get the wrong idea about me. They’ll say I’m a nice guy.”
“I’ll work it off,” said Alan. “You could use a sax man. You’ve heard me play.”
A knock at the door interrupted him. One of the toughs opened it just wide enough to let in a crack of light. Alan had a brief impression of thin wrists in black suit cuffs, bony fingers clutching an envelope. The door was closed, the envelope passed to Russell. He fingered it and smiled at Alan.
“I’ve got a sax man,” said Russell. “He’s good, maybe as good as you, and he doesn’t cash his paychecks down at the track. Here’s a tip: it’s the horse that’s supposed to be doped.”
“Now wait just a minute,” said Alan. “I don’t do that crap anymore. I’ve been clean for months now. And your sax man,” he added, “I’ve got something he doesn’t.”
“That just proves he’s smarter than you,” said Russell. “You shouldn’t have taken that ledger. Without my books I don’t know who owes what. I gotta break everyone’s legs on general principles. As for my bookkeeper – well, I hear you two are getting married. Congratulations.” His tone became hard and flat. “Charlotte was a nice quiet girl, with a nice, quiet life ahead of her, but you had to turn her head and get her into something she couldn’t handle. Anything happens to her is your fault.”
Alan’s neck was as stiff as a shot of rye. “The books are just insurance,” he said. “I’ll pay you back everything I owe. But if anything happens to me, those books go straight to the cops. I think they might be interested about this little sideline of yours.”
“Maybe, maybe. But they’re not going to find out, are they?”
“Not” said Alan, “as long as I’m okay. I just want to get even again. Give me a chance.”
“I don’t negotiate with blackmailers,” said Russell. “Sets a bad precedent.”
“It’s not blackmail. You get the books with the last payment.”
“You took those books to save your ass,” said Russell, his voice a slap. “Ass-saving ain’t cheap, my friend.”
Alan shifted uneasily. The rickety old chair squealed. One of the men behind him laughed. “A little extra,” he said. “For the inconvenience. I’ll rent your books from you.”
“You’ll rent the books. Sure. Without a dime. Without a penny.” Russell shrugged. “It doesn’t matter anyway.”
“What do you mean?” Alan’s eyes slid down to the envelope.
“Do you think I’m stupid?” said Russell gently. “I can’t afford to let you get away with this. I’ve taken certain steps, Alan. I’ve been busy.” He tore the envelope in half and dumped it on the desk. Something small and shiny bounced across the battered metal top and came to rest in front of Alan.
A dull half-carat diamond solitaire, mounted on a thin gold band. Fifty dollars from a vendor in the street. It was too dim to read the inscription, but of course Alan didn’t need to. Given in hope, Given in faith, Given in love. Russell looked at him. “I’ve squared things with Charlotte. Now it’s your turn.”
Alan barely heard him. The muscles along his jaw stood out as though chiseled from marble. “What do you want?” he gritted out.
“You know I like you, Alan. That’s why I’m going to make you a deal. Since you don’t have any money, maybe something with sentimental value…”
Alan looked up at Russell, back at the ring. “You want this?” he said. “The ring?”
Russell cocked his head to one side. “Do you need a few minutes?” he asked.
Alan picked up the ring and tossed it across the table. Russell caught it as it bounded off the edge. “We’re square?” said Alan.
Russell’s fist closed over the ring. “Yeah,” he said. “Even.”
The corners of Alan’s lips twitched. “Good. I need to borrow five hundred bucks.”
“Alan, you’re a real piece of work,” said Russell as he heaved himself out of his chair. “You may want to leave town for a while. We left kind of a mess at your place.” He paused in the doorway. “I’ll be seeing you,” he said.
“Not if I see you first,” said Alan softly.
Russell let the door bang shut behind him.
The bandstand was quiet as Alan walked down the stairs and over to the bar. “Scotch, a double,” he said stiffly. He pulled the pillbox out of his pocket and yanked off the lid. A half-dozen tablets spilled out into his hand. He looked at them until his eyes began to water and his vision blurred. Like an ink blot, a small voice said mockingly. What do you see? He stood there staring for a long thirty long seconds.
The band jumped into another number. Alan’s mouth tightened into a grim line as he carefully thumbed all but two of the pills back into the bottle. The bartender brought his drink as he jammed it back into his pocket. He popped the pills in his mouth, shot the Scotch down behind them.
As the liquor burned down his throat like acid he thought Damn, but that sax man is good.