Two flights of stairs, a guard, and a disgruntled customer, my only obstacles as I fly through neon lights and downpour. Questions came down like the rain, thick and fast, but my priority was putting distance between them and me. They were already tight on my trail, and wouldn’t mind if I was breathing or not. Weaving through the emptying streets, the oblivion of passerby kept my grim scowl locked. Perhaps if they knew, they wouldn’t be complaining about the drizzle and gloom that was keeping me alive. Scattered thoughts come and go as my trenchcoat flaps around each corner and alleyway. What lengths would they go? Who was running the show behind all this? I stop, a drop of sweat rolling off my brow and joining the endless rain pooling about in the gutters. The glow of the bar casts a dim light on the alley, the city’s cheap thrills shut out. A low din warms my ears, a lively edge to it. Maybe it was the company of people, an inviting barstool, the gentle glow of the bartender, or the promise of a hard drink that lured me in. I always did need a drink.
The broad-shouldered men down the line eyed me surreptitiously behind their half empty glasses, curious at the new meat, as I settled at the counter. Sitting on a stiff stool and remembering why people and me never got along, the bartender’s long stare matched my own for a moment too long. Young, fearless, and broke, a fiend behind the counter and a venomous cobra with the men, her rebellious swagger leaves no room for the time of day. But I knew better. The rest of the joint was a tired collection of nine to fivers, lonely drifters, and older women slipping rings into their pockets. The wooden floors complained often, and the well-worn booths had stories to tell. Low flickering lights revealed shadows low and far, secrets and lies best kept in the dark. Everyone knew everyone, and no one knew me. Home sweet home.
After sending another hopeful crashing and burning, the bartender finally looks my way and rips, “What are ya having, stranger?” I don’t answer immediately, noticing the glances I had been getting from the bar may not be for my dashing looks. The baseball bat leaning on the stool put the pieces together. I slowly rise from the bar, my hand making it’s way to my 9mm friend, when the fireworks start. Ugly knocks my hand away from my jacket, while Brainless acquaints me with his fists. They play me like an accordion, only it’s my lungs and spine making the music. As popping white lights fade to black, I feel something hot and stale against my ear: “You shoulda had that drink earlier, stranger”. Then, nothing.
I wake up bound and gagged, alarm bells still clanging around in my head. The dusty floor stretched on for a few echoes. In front of me was Ugly and some new friends of his. One of them, or rather, a few people combined together in size and weight, approached me with big lumbering steps. Small beady eyes, a squashed nose, and his own gravitational pull to boot, the man looked me up and down while circling me.
I muster what little energy I have and spit, “Looking’s for free, but touching’s gonna cost you, chubs.”
The man erupts in a deep rumbling laugh, looking like Santa’s degenerate cousin. “Such bravado for a man at another’s mercy”, he booms, a smile making his face even more gruesome in the harsh light. “You know why you’re here, stranger, and we’re not gonna play nice until you return what’s ours.”
It was my turn to laugh, a low chuckle escaping past my bruised lip. “I don’t have it anymore. It’s safe and out of your reach, and by tomorrow night, for good.”
The big man froze, and growled to one of his guys, “Is he for real?”
I hear another man’s reedy voice mutter, “Yeah, he ain’t lyin’ ”. A low hiss of relief escapes me; Gaetano came through yet again, the kid. My contacts keep a low profile and know how to make friends with right people, or the wrong people rather. One of these days I’ll be looking at the wrong end of a gun, but not quite yet. I still need that drink.
The big man, satisfied with the report, walks away into the blackness. Before he was swallowed up by the black, he ordered, “Show our friend the door”. I had a second to brace myself before the curtains closed yet again with a sharp crack of a bat and a up-close visit with the floor.
For the second time that night, I woke up battered and bruised, this time with a few trash cans and some fellow rats. Getting to my feet was like being on a merry-go-round, but I staggered up and walked towards the street. Right by the bar again, what good friends. I keep my head down low, bloody and swelling, and sit back down where I was a few lifetimes ago. The bartender, noticing the walking corpse, asks, “What will it be now, stranger?”, only biting now instead of cold. I can’t help but smile as I lean in and ask, “Got milk?”.