Yet another entry into the world of Friday Flash Fiction. After a couple weeks in different genres, I decided to go with a more traditional (for me) route. I kind of dig this Brenner cat.
What do you see when you close your eyes?
I see the face of a woman. It's a face with round cheeks and wide eyes. It's a face framed by a short bob of curly red hair.
It was the face of Alice Hawke. And this is the story of how we met.
It was a typical Friday night and I was on my usual stool at Sharkey's, a dive bar down by the pier. I had a beer in my hand and it wasn't the first of the evening. A lot of my old army buddies wouldn't set foot in a bar this close the water, but I liked the emptiness and quiet. Besides, if things got boring I could always insult a couple of swabbies and we'd have ourselves a nice old fashioned brawl.
I stubbed out my cigarette and drained my glass. I was about to motion the bartender for another round when she walked in. At first glance, she wasn't much to look at. She was short and kind of on the chunky side. Her eyes were big and brown and her nose was the shape of an overripe eggplant.
She scanned the bar until she spotted me, then walked over and pulled up the stool next to mine.
"Brenner, I presume?"
"Presume? No, I'm Dr. Livingston." She either didn't get the joke or chose to ignore it.
"I was told you're a man with a certain set of skills. Skills that would be of great use to me."
"If the skills you're looking for involve drinking and playing darts, then I'm your man." The bartender dropped off another pint for me, but she didn't order anything.
"Well, it appears Kenavey was wrong about you." She got up to leave.
Kenavey was my rackmate before he washed out of basic. Kept in touch with him and he started throwing some work my way after my "other than honorable" discharge. Not much, but enough to keep me in beer money.
"Wait, lady. I'm just sassing you. What do you need?"
She sat back down and eyed me suspiciously. Kind of the way you look at that box of Chinese food that's been in the back of your fridge so long that you can't remember when you ordered it. Eventually she said, "I could use some protection. I'm meeting a man tonight. You see, I work at Costington's department store downtown in their accounting department. While going over last month's books, I noticed some irregularities."
I took another swig of beer and half tuned her out. "Cliff's Notes version please. I have a short attention span."
She sighed and gave me the hairy eyeball again. I'd get up and leave, but this is my bar and if anyone was leaving, it was going to be her. "Bottom line. I found out my boss was embezzling. He got fired. Now he's threatening to implicate me in it if I don't give him $10,000 tonight. I need someone to come with me to the meeting to make sure he lives up to his end of the bargain."
"I'm willing to offer your $300."
Her eyes bugged even further out of your head. "That's absurd!"
"Blackmail is tricky business, m'am. You're willing to give someone ten gees and hope they go away, but you're not even going to pay a measly 6 percent of that for guaranteed muscle?" I threw a little math at her hoping to impress her.
"Fine," she said. "I'm meeting him at Gemini's on fifteenth street in one hour. I'll give you half up front and half after the meet."
"Four hundred now. The other two when we're done."
She closed her eyes and made a face like she just swallowed some cheap tequila. "You win."
She reached into her purse and pulled out a wad of bills. She peeled off four hundreds and slid them across the scarred top of the wooden bar. I deftly made them vanish.
It occurred to me that Gemini was a funny place for a blackmailer to meet his victim. There wasn't any room for violence because the place was stuffed to the gills with people and egos. Too loud music blared from one side of the room. I followed her through the crowd until we got to a booth in the back. The guy sitting there was wearing a sharp suit and a smug expression. His bald and shiny top and close cropped black hair on the sides made him look like that guy they cast as the snooty maitre d' in almost every movie.
"Who is this?" he asked.
"I'm her dance instructor," I interrupted.
He turned up his nose at me and then pretended I wasn't there. Alice sat and I stood. "I brought you your money, Mr. Bloom."
"Oh, 'Mr. Bloom'? So nice and formal, aren't we." He mocked her. "Did you bring all of it?"
She pulled a large envelope out of her purse and slid it across the table. "As much as I could get my hands on at such short notice."
His long, narrow fingers reached out and drew the envelope closer to him. It looked like a spider trapping a fly. Bloom opened the envelope and slid a finger across the greenbacks. "I'm afraid you're a little light, my dear Alice."
"It's all I have," she said.
Bloom eyed me, then looked back at Alice. "Is he here to make me take this insult?"
Bloom tossed the envelope back on the table and leaned back into the booth. He stared at Alice and Alice stared at him. They looked like a couple in some painting at a classy art gallery. I don't know much about art, so I kept my mouth shut.
He cracked first. "I deserve my fair cut. There should be a lot more than that coming my way. Don't think I'm going soft just because I didn't alter our deal after I got canned."
Alice stole a quick glance at me out of the corner of her eye. I was starting to get the feeling that she was more than an innocent victim in all this. "Consider it a down payment," she said.
"Listen, sister, if I don't get out of here soon, I'm going to be facing jail time. I need that money so I can high-tail it to a South American country that doesn't have extradition."
His eyes flicked in my direction and I realized just in time that he wasn't looking at me. I spun to see a gorilla swinging a folding chair in my direction. I got my arms up just in time to absorb the shock intended for my head. My hands tingled like I'd slept on them all night. I kicked the gorilla in the nuts, crumpling him to his knees. I landed a left hook to his temple, sprawling him on the ground like a giant bearskin rug. I said, "Watch the head, it's where I keep all my wisecracks."
While I was distracted, Bloom and Alice had both left. I don't know if it was together or separately, and I didn't really care to find out. My little dance with the gorilla had attracted unwanted attention from the club's bouncers, so I booked it out the kitchen.
I went back to my apartment and tried to get some sleep. There was a knock at my door around 2:30. I tried to ignore it, but it didn't take the hint.
I stumbled over to the door and opened it. The gorilla was standing there and he pulled my into the hallway by both shoulders. He took me to see Bloom.
Bloom had a nice room over on 52nd street. It was all Oriental rugs and velvet drapes. I figured the chair I was sitting in would cost me a whole month's worth of beers down at Sharkey's. And I can drink a lot.
Bloom sat in an identical chair across from me, bridging his fingers the way some people do when they're trying to look smart. "Tell me where Alice is."
He wasn't amused. "If you don't want to tell me where she is, at least tell me where she keeps the money. That's really all I'm interested in."
"I don't know anything about her or the money. I only met the girl a couple hours ago."
"Loyalty is an admirable trait. Let's see how loyal you really are. Bruno?" He motioned to the gorilla who moved from his position by the door. As he got closer, his girth started to block out the overhead lamp. His shadow must have weighed 50 pounds by itself, easy.
Bruno clamped a catcher's mitt sized hand my hand and started to squeeze. Bloom said, "Now, Mr. Brenner. Where is the money?"
"I don't know," I said. "I'm telling the truth. She came into my bar a couple hours ago. Said you got fired for embezzling money and were blackmailing her. She wanted me to come along for backup in case you got violent."
Bloom said, "How much was she paying you?"
"One thousand dollars." I lied.
Bloom laughed. "You really should've asked for more. You see, the embezzlement scam was her idea. Cooked it up all by herself, but she needed my help to doctor up some of the customer accounts we used to hide the funds."
Bruno was still squeezing, and I couldn't pry his hand from my throat. Spots started dancing The Nutcracker before my eyes. Bloom continued, "In the time we were running the scam, we siphoned off nearly a quarter of a million dollars. It was all going so well until that bitch decided to cut me out. I tell you what. I'll let you go on one condition: find Alice for me. You can keep her thousand dollars and I'll pay you another two thousand once I get my money. Deal?"
Before I could answer him, there was a knock at the door. Bloom turned and stood and opened it. Before the door was even opened halfway, a gun went off and Bloom slumped to the ground. Bruno let go of my throat and tore into the hallway. A few seconds later I heard two shots and knew Bruno was down too. As a strong believer in the saying "discretion is the better part of valor", I climbed out the window and down the fire escape.
In the alley, I lit a cigarette to calm my nerves. The smoke burned my raw throat, so I coughed. I turned the corner around the front of the building and a short, stocky figure in a tan raincoat ran down the front steps. I grabbed her and spun her around to face me.
It was Alice alright. She stared at me with those wide eyes for a second, and I said, "Hello, angel."
She tore herself free and pointed the gun at me. "Stay back or I'll shoot."
"Out here in the middle of the street? Well, you've already killed two men tonight. I guess a third won't make much of a difference."
"I'm warning you."
I'd seen combat during the war. My life was on the line on more than one occasion. But it's different when it's not in the middle of a battle. You seem to notice all the little things. The sweat on her upper lip. The slight tremble of her eyebrows. The white knuckles wrapped around the dark metal grip.
"What do you want?"
I said, "I want the rest of my thousand dollars and I want you to forget you ever saw me."
"The deal was for six hundred."
"That was before two men lost their lives."
Alice licked her lips and contemplated my offer. "That's it?"
Her gun hand lowered and she reached into her raincoat for the fat wad of bills. She peeled off $600 and tentatively reached out toward me. I took the bills from her and put them in my pocket.
"And we just walk away?"
"We walk away."
She started to walk away, not turning her back on me. She was probably suspecting a trick. If I didn't know me so well, I'd be expecting a trick too. The trick is to know how the cops work. Any time there's money and murder involved, the cops get involved. It wouldn't be too long before they connect the dots between Bloom, the missing money, and Alice. They certainly didn't need my help and I had a stool down at Sharkey's where they could come and find me if they did.
Alice finally took her eyes off me as she turned the corner. I hoped I'd never see her face again.
I flicked away my cigarette and walked off into the cold city night.