The Writing Disorder


joe kilgore

New Fiction


by Joe Kilgore

kilgore illustration

       The sidewalk wept. Rain, like tears, trickled from cracks and seeped slowly toward the curb, pausing momentarily at the edge before sliding into the gutter and joining a fetid rush of discarded dreams.
      Watching his step, being careful not to slip as he slogged through the charcoal mush that had settled contemptuously atop the cement, Hank looked at the black stream of silt and saw his future floating there. He was no more depressed than usual. He simply chalked it up to fatalistic calluses he had developed over the years. Scars on his psyche that kept him from seeing silver linings behind clouds or wildflowers among weeds. Especially in winter. Especially on gray mornings when wind and sleet sliced his cheek like a careless shave.
      In the alley, he took the key ring from his overcoat pocket and unlocked a metal door freckled with rust. Inside, he pulled the chain that turned on the light in the stock room as he started marching in place and banging his feet down hard to jar the crud from his shoes. Once his coat was draped over a four-inch nail in the wall, he walked across the floor and pushed open the swinging door that lead to the bar.
      The bar was a relatively square room with one wall fronting the street. The only windows were small, oval and set high on that wall just two feet below the ceiling. Even on a sunny day very little light made its way inside. There was a stained glass window in the front door. But its dominant colors were forest green and rose and it kept out as many rays as it let in.
      Years of repetition had honed Hank’s morning routine. Since he always cleaned up the night before, all he had to do to open up was throw the switch by the swinging door, pull the upturned chairs from the eight tables that almost no one ever used, empty the dishwasher of glasses that, like vampire bats, hung upside down to drip dry, and unlock the front door. The door that had the word B A R in yellow, outlined in lead and set dead center in the stained glass.
      Other than the bar, Hank hadn’t gone anywhere for years. He knew he wasn’t about to go anywhere. That’s probably why his wife, Erma, left him, he reflected as he walked back from the front door and ambled behind the bar. She knew after six months that Hank was a lost cause. Of course he knew it too. He just didn’t want to admit it. Who does? Who wants to face the fact that the rest of your days are going to be as bleak as all the days that have come before. Certainly not Hank. That’s why every morning he took the few minutes before his regulars began to straggle in and stared unblinkingly into the big mirror behind the bar.
      He stared at his face. A face etched with deep horizontal lines across his forehead and vertical trenches down his cheeks that looked as if they were carved by a particularly ill-tempered sculptor. But in truth had only been chiseled by monotony and repressed despair.
      The more he looked at his face, the more he was drawn to the spiky silver hair protruding from the front of his forehead while the hairline on either side of it raced toward the back of his skull like illegals at a well manned border crossing. Where had it gone, he wondered. When did it start to abandon ship? Was his hair, like his life, inexorably vanishing? Would this bar, these glasses, this unpitying mirror frame his soul’s stockade for the rest of his days?
      All were passing queries only. Hank had made a kind of peace with the fact that the world was on a slow boat to hell and he had the drink concession. A credo he felt was reaffirmed daily by the detritus encountered on the patron’s side of his bar.
      It wasn’t that Hank was scornful of his customers. He just saw them for what they were. Jailers. His jailers. Dispensing damp, wrinkled greenbacks that kept him imprisoned behind five feet of bourbon soaked mahogany.
      The front door creaked, signaling an end to Hank’s morning reverie. The first of the regulars was arriving.
      Preston always shook the shiny droplets off his worn navy pea coat before he hung it on the rack. The ritual never failed to put Hank in mind of a mangy dog twisting himself dry.
      “Hey,” Hank said, pointing to his head as he did every morning. Preston reacted in rote too. He reached up, removed his skull cap and looped it on top of his coat. It wasn’t that Preston was stupid, well, maybe he was. Nobody really knew for sure. He never said enough to make it obvious one way or the other.
      Hank didn’t ask Preston what he wanted. He knew.
      “Coffee be ready in a minute. I’m a little behind this morning cause’ of the weather.”
      Preston drank a lot of coffee. A lot of Irish coffee. He’d fold his lanky frame over the far end of the bar and burrow into the newspaper he brought with him every day. It seemed to Hank as if the skinny loner with the long nose, deep set eyes, bushy mustache and knuckles round as gum balls, read the damn fish wrap word for word, page after page and front to back day in and day out. Was he looking for something? Did he really care that much about current events? Was he even reading or just counting the damn letters like one of those idiot savants? Hank couldn’t tell you. Generally, Preston’s only method of communication was to plop a bony elbow on the bar, hook his finger in the handle of his coffee cup and raise it off the saucer. He’d keep it held up like that until Hank saw him and gave him a refill. Hank always put the whiskey in first. Apparently Preston found that acceptable. He never complained. Which could not be said of Crystal, who came in next.
      “Jesus fucking Christ. It’s cold as an Eskimo’s balls out there.” Crystal knew something about balls. And it wasn’t from giving hernia exams. “Good thing I got my caribou panties on.”
      “Yeah,” Hank responded. “They’ll keep your ankles warm later today.”
      “Very fucking funny, Hank. You ought’a give up bar keeping and take your act on the goddamned road.”
      Hank didn’t mind Crystal’s foul mouth. As long as there were no new customers in the bar. Preston never voiced an opinion on it.
      The only thing redder than Crystal’s straggly hair were the veins in her watery emerald eyes. Crows feet jutted out from each like the state highway lines on a road atlas. She was probably somewhere between forty and sixty Hank guessed, but he’d be damned if he could nail it down any closer than that. How she kept her body in reasonably respectable shape he had no idea. Must have been her unique diet.
      “Give us a little start, will you, hon,” Crystal purred.
      “You ever consider solid food for a change?”
      “What are you Hank…one of those know-it-all nutrition experts or a goddamn barman?”
      “You can pay I suppose?”
      “What do I look like, a fucking charity case?”
      “You don’t really want to know what I think you look like?”
      The sneer on Crystal’s mouth melted into melancholy. She put a hand to her hair to brush it back off her forehead. Her eyes got even wetter. Hank knew he had gone too far.
      “I ain’t on the clock yet,” Crystal mumbled. “I’ll fix myself up after a little start. Then…you’ll get it back. You know you will, Hank.”
      Preston’s eyes never left column three. Hank pulled the Maker’s Mark down and poured three fingers in a fat glass.
      “You’re a prince, you are, Hank. A by-god prince,” Crystal said softly as she sat at the bar and started to sip her breakfast.
      Something close to an hour passed. Preston was on the front page of the metro section and into his third Irish coffee. Crystal had slipped into the ladies’ room to put on her war paint and blast Binaca down her throat. The graveyard shift would be getting off soon. And guys who had been dial watching and recording read-outs at the refinery all night just might be in the mood for something more than a drink on their way home. Hank made sure he had more than enough cold beers for the day.
      With a blustery howl, the door opened letting in a stoop-shouldered bundle of brown. Brown overcoat. Brown scarf. Brown fedora. Along with an icy swirl of snow and sleet and wind. The bundle closed the door quickly and started unwrapping itself. Hank didn’t have to wait for the unveiling. He had seen it over and over again.
      “G’day Mr. Tanaka. Pretty lousy out there, huh?”
      Tanaka, in a tattered tweed suit, checkered sweater, blue tie and shoes the color of his outerwear, walked methodically toward the bar as he answered, “Will be worse before it is better. That much I know.”

cig butt

      The old Nippon was over seventy but still stout as a load bearing column. His straight flat nose and thin lips topped a strong chin and jaw line. Tanaka’s lids hung low hiding the color of his eyes but his gaze through those slits missed little.
      Hank opened a Kirin and poured part of it in a glass that he set in front of the old man when he took his seat at the opposite end of the bar from Preston. If history was any judge, and it was, two beers followed by a Saki would be his limit before he’d bundle himself back up and be on his way. Though the Japanese senior only shot the breeze with Hank or other patrons on occasion, he seldom missed a day at the bar. Unlike his physique, his need for human contact hadn’t aged very well.
      Forty-five minutes later the refinery crew and the construction workers had descended causing the noise level in the bar to rise a number of decibels. By then Preston was going through the basketball stats. Crystal had talked a rather burly type into a bourbon. Tanaka was about to begin his glass of rice wine and Hank was dispensing cold beers by the handful.
      There were few saving graces to being a drink jockey during the busiest part of the day. Unless you counted the actual act of simply staying busy. Hank did. The busier he was the less time he had to think about the nut he barely made each month. Or the fact that any life he had ever envisioned for himself outside the confines of the four walls that surrounded him was only that, a vision. A fantasy that had little chance of ever becoming anything more than a pipedream.
      But by the time the roofers and the carpenters and the clock punchers had started to drift away, a number of things began to happen that left Hank with the distinct impression that today just might be a little different than all those other days had been.
      Oh sure, Preston was still holding his cup aloft as he made his way through the obits, but Tanaka had ordered a second Saki, Crystal had gone out and come back in three different times and appeared to be flush enough to put cash on the bar in advance of her orders, and a man was coming in from out of the cold that Hank had never laid eyes on before. A young man who caught his attention the minute he stepped inside.
      The guy was dark skinned. Not black. Maybe Puerto Rican or Mexican. But maybe not Latin at all. Maybe one of those islanders or middle eastern types for all Hank knew. He had no idea. The neighborhood that used to be packed with Irish, Italians and Jews, now seemed to be mostly Asians, Pakistanis and God knows what else. Hank didn’t have a problem with that. He didn’t care about the color of their skin. His big complaint was that they simply didn’t drink enough.
      But there was definitely something different about this guy. To begin with, he was not dressed for the weather. No topcoat. No hat. No scarf. No nothing. Just a blue serge suit, white shirt and black tie. He had a black briefcase he seemed to cling to with both hands. Hank thought he looked like one of those low level guys at the bank who kept turning him down for loans. But the real kicker, even stranger than the fact he wasn’t winter proofed at all, was that he was sweating. Sweating like a marathoner in Miami.
      Pulling the briefcase up under one arm, he walked haltingly away from the front door. He scanned the room as he walked, his dark eyes darting from side to side. He would look down at a table then up toward the bar. It was obvious he was having difficulty deciding where to alight.
      “What can I get you?” Hank asked, thinking the question might help the man decide to come to the bar. Hank wasn’t keen on waiting tables.
      Still looking like he was concerned with who might or might not be in the room, the young man stammered, “Wha…what do you have?”
      What a stupid question thought Hank. “It’s a bar, man. We got pretty much whatever you want to drink.”
      “Maybe he ain’t looking for something to drink. Maybe he’s looking for something else,” Crystal slurred as she hiked her dress over her knee and crossed her legs. “You looking for something else, sweetie?”
      “No,” the young man said, clutching his briefcase tighter, and moving to a barstool as far removed from Crystal’s as possible. “I would just like a sparkling water please.”
      “Bubbly water. Coming right up,” Hank said.
      By the time Hank found one of the few Poland Springs he had and turned to set it in front of the perspiring young man, he couldn’t help but notice how agitated the guy continued to be. The young man kept holding tightly to the black briefcase. He held it so tightly the veins stood out on the back of his hands drawing Hank’s eye to an intricately carved silver band on the fellow’s ring finger. Hank couldn’t really tell if it was a wedding band or not.
      While his hands were on his case, the man’s attention seemed to be on the other people in the bar. An interest that was far from reciprocal. Preston was deep into the real estate section. Crystal was checking her makeup in the mirror. Tanaka was sipping and smiling. Maybe at Hank. Maybe at the nervous man. With those slits you couldn’t be sure.
      “You are the owner of this establishment,” the young man almost whispered to Hank.
      “If that’s a question, the answer is yes,” Hank replied, still unable to detect his nationality. The fellow had virtually no accent.
      “I must ask a favor of you.”
      “I’m big on drinks, Mac, not favors.”
      “I have to be someplace. Very, very soon.” Then, moving his case forward in his lap, he asked, “Do you have a safe place? A safe place I can leave this for a short while?”
      “Look buddy, this is a bar. You want to store your case somewhere, get a locker at the bus station.”
      “I don’t have time,” the young man said pleadingly. “I don’t have time to go to the bus station. I must make my appointment.”
      “Well, hell, it doesn’t look that heavy. You brought it in…take it with you.”
      “I can’t. I can’t have it with me at my appointment. But I’ll come right back for it. I’ll be gone less than an hour.”
      “Look, man…I can’t—“
      “Please…I’ll pay.” Then reaching into the breast pocket of his suit, he pulled out a wallet. Counting out five twenties, he said, “Here’s a hundred dollars. It’s yours. Just for watching the case until I return.”
      He couldn’t explain why, but Hank was still a bit wary. “It’s just not a good idea,” he began, “suppose you come back and say I took something out of it.”
      The sweaty young man put his right hand into his pants pocket. He fumbled around for a moment, then his hand came up holding a little gold key.
      “The briefcase is locked. I have the key. I won’t accuse you of anything. Please. Here…here’s another hundred,” he said, pulling a Benjamin Franklin from the wallet he dipped into seconds earlier. “Please. Take this too.”
      Caution is no match for cash. Hank said, “Okay, look…give me the case, I’ll put it right here behind the bar. I’ll be here the rest of the day. So when you come back, I’ll give it to you.”
      “Thank you. Thank you so much,” the young man said.
      “But I keep the two hundred, right?”
      “Yes. Yes. It’s yours for being kind to a stranger. Thank you. I’ll be back within the hour,” said the tense young man as he handed the case to Hank. Then he rose from the barstool, cut quick glances once again at the three others in the bar and walked hurriedly to the door leaving his Poland Springs untouched. Opening the door to a blast of wind and wet, he then cautiously stuck his head out, looking left and right. Apparently satisfied, he stepped outside and shut the door behind him.
      “Tell me I didn’t just see what I thought I saw,” Crystal bellowed over her once again empty tumbler.
      “Forget it, okay? Just forget it,” Hank said.
      “Forget it. Forget it! Do you know how many dicks I’d have to suck or how many times I’d have to bend over to come away with two hundred bucks plus somebody’s goods?”
      “I don’t know and I don’t want to know,” Hank replied. “It’s not an image I’d care to conjure up. Anyway, the guy’s gonna’ be back soon and it’ll be done.”
      Crystal couldn’t let it go. “What do you suppose is in the case, Hank?”
      “Doesn’t matter what’s in the case,” he said. “It’s his and he’ll be back for it.”
      “If it’s worth not one…but two hundred clams just to hold the thing…can you imagine what must be inside?”
      “Something very valuable perhaps,” Tanaka said to no one in particular. Or to everyone in the bar.
      “You got that right, my…banzai brother,” Crystal warbled, finding it difficult to get the b’s out cleanly.
      Hank looked over at his Japanese customer. “No point in speculating. He’ll pick it up later and we’ll never know what was in it. But I’ll still have two yards.”
      “Yeah Hank, you’re a fucking negotiator…a hell of a businessman. But you’re also still a goddamned bartender. So give me another Maker’s Mark,” Crystal screeched, slapping a sawbuck on the bar she had earned earlier.
      An hour went by. Preston moved meticulously through the want ads. Tanaka decided to stay and asked for coffee. Regular coffee. Crystal went to the ladies room a couple of times and threw up. Only to return for another three fingers. The sweaty man didn’t show.
      Two hours went by. The occasional customer came and went. A scotch and soda here. A vodka martini there. The streetlights came on. Still no dark young man in a blue serge suit.
      “I’m telling you…we got something big here, Hank.”
      “Crystal…we don’t have anything. I’ve got it and I’m just holding it. That’s all.”
      The red head’s focus, what little there was of it, changed when she realized she had once again consumed her profits. She turned toward Tanaka and squawked, “Hey Hirohito…how’d you like your knob polished?”
      The old gentleman looked across the bar and said to her, “You ask me that each time I come in here.”
      “Oh yeah,” Crystal replied, her elbow on the bar as she rested her head in her hand. “And what do you answer each time?”
      The sides of Tanaka’s mouth went up and a smile creased his cheeks as he replied, “No thank you.”
      Then the door opened and a man walked in. It was not the man who left the case. This was a bigger man. Over six feet. Well over. Even though he was wearing a heavy overcoat, an expensive cashmere one, it was obvious to all in the bar that he was way beyond two hundred pounds. He wore no hat. His hair was wet from the weather. His face was expressionless.
      Preston, immersed as he was in the comic strips, didn’t really see him. Crystal looked his way and saw dollar signs. Tanaka, like Hank, saw trouble. Particularly when the big man pushed the door to and slid the bolt across, locking it.
      He opened the buttons of his overcoat but didn’t bother to take it off. “Anybody in the toilets?” He asked as if he was used to getting straight answers right away. And he got one.
      “No, I don’t think so,” Hank answered. Then added, “But listen, we have to keep that front door unlocked. It’s the law.”
      “As of now I’m the law,” the big man said and started toward the bar.
      He took long strides. His heavy legs came down hard and his heels clacked loudly on the wooden floor.
      There had been trouble in the bar before. It had been broken into a couple of times in the early morning hours when it was empty. Graffiti had been spray painted on the outside walls and had to be removed. Hank had to oust unruly drunks on a couple of occasions. One time he even had to call 911. But in the few seconds it took for the big man to walk from the front door to the middle of the bar, Hank got the weird sensation that all those previous occurrences had been mere child’s play.
      “A young guy came in here earlier today. A young guy in a blue suit,” the big man said, looking directly at Hank.
      “Lots of guys come in,” Hank replied, “now about that door.”
      “Forget the door,” the big man said loudly. “The guy left a briefcase here. I want it.”
      “This is a bar,” Hank said, “do you want something to drink?”
      “Don’t fuck with me,” the big man said coldly. “I don’t have the time.”
      Preston closed his paper and began to slide off his barstool. The big man’s head turned quickly his way.
      “Sit down, stretch. Nobody leaves til’ I get that case.”
      Preston did as he was told. Hank started to say something but Crystal cut him off. She slid off her bar stool and took a step toward the big guy saying, “Well look, tiny…if we all have to stay, maybe you can buy a girl a drink, huh? What do you say?”
      “Get away from me, skank.”
      Crystal’s drunk eyes opened wide as half dollars. “What did you call me?”
      “Crystal, sit down,” Hank said.
      “Did you hear what he called me. He called me skank. Skank!       Who the hell you calling skank…fat ass!”
      “Get her out of my face,” the big man said to Hank. “Now.”
      “Crystal, damn it. Sit down. Look, here’s a drink,” Hank said grabbing the bourbon and pouring some into Crystal’s glass. She was still staring at the man, defiance turning to revenge in her eyes. But she went back to her stool and the drink.
      “Time’s running out, now give me the case,” the big man said again to Hank. “Or everyone here’s going to be in a world of shit.”
      Hank looked from Tanaka to Crystal to Preston. Then he looked to the locked front door. “Look, the guy paid me to watch the case for him,” he said.
      “Don’t care about the money,” the big man mouthed. “Just give me the case, now”
      “He said he’d come back for it.”
      “He ain’t coming back.”
      “But he said he’d be back for it,” Hank entreated.
      The big man started reaching inside his overcoat as he growled, “I said he ain’t coming back.” He pulled a wadded handkerchief from his pocket and quickly opened it over the bar. “And he ain’t fucking coming back.” A finger rolled out. A finger encircled by an intricately carved silver band.
      Hank’s eyes opened wide and the back of his hand came instinctively up to his mouth to keep him from retching. But he didn’t have time to get sick. With one huge paw, the big man grabbed the front of Hank’s shirt and pulled him forward. His other mitt reached inside his coat and came back out with a service automatic that he shoved under Hank’s chin.
      “Now…for the last fucking time…give me the briefcase.”
      Tanaka, sitting several stools away at one end of the bar, saw the fear in Hank’s face. He saw the seriousness in the big man’s eyes. And he saw Crystal’s hand coming out of her purse.
      “Perhaps I have the case…over here,” Tanaka shouted.
      The big man turned his head left toward the old Japanese. When he did, Crystal opened his neck with a razor blade.
      Her desire to help Hank, fueled by a fierce need to avenge the mammoth’s tacky insult, combined with an intense swipe and an extraordinarily lucky landing along the man’s carotid artery, sent blood spraying like the Spindletop gusher.
      The big man’s hand flew off Hank’s shirt while his other simultaneously dropped the gun. Both sprung instinctively to surround the geyser spurting from his throat. He stumbled backward from the bar while the fingers of his hands turned red with the life that was now spilling through them and running down the lapels of his cashmere coat. Head back, mouth open, eyes rolling in his head, he careened from one empty table to the next knocking chairs asunder.
      Hank, Preston and Tanaka looked on in horror while Crystal wailed like a banshee. “Ayeee…ayeee…call me a skank will you! Who’s the tough guy now? Drain out you big piece of shit.”
      The big man crumpled. His hands, slick with blood, slid from his neck as the breath escaped him like air from a balloon. Knees banged the floor first. The he fell forward on his stomach and face. His last heartbeats pumping out what was left of the red rain.
      For a few moments nobody moved. The force of Hank’s grip on the bar turned his fingers pink and his knuckles white. Preston had tumbled from his stool and onto the floor as the bloodbath began. He continued to sit there in shock. Tanaka’s elbows were on the bar with hands together and fingers laced. Crystal slumped against her barstool, the blade still in one hand while a glass dangled from the other, it’s contents long since spilled.
      “Jesus,” Hank finally said.

grim gun

      “Jesus had nothing the fuck to do with it,” Crystal stammered.
      “What are we going to do?” Hank asked himself as well as the others.
      Tanaka separated his hands and raised his head. He spoke softly but surely. “We contact the authorities. This was self-defense. Miss Crystal thought he was going to kill you. We all did. We will all say so. Miss Crystal acted to save your life.”
      Hank looked at the old man even after he stopped speaking. It took a moment for him to take in what he was saying.
      “Yes. You’re right,” Hank said, “Crystal just swung…trying to make him drop the gun. It was an accident. An accident that happened because she was trying to keep him from killing me.”
      Preston was still on the floor. Crystal hadn’t moved either.
      “That’s what happened,” Hank said to Crystal. “That’s what we’ll tell the cops. We’ll all say that…because it’s the truth…it’s what really happened.”
      Crystal’s gaze slowly moved from the big man’s body on the floor to Hank’s eyes searching her face. “Yeah,” she responded. “Yeah, sure. That’s what happened.”
      Hank tried to gather his thoughts quickly. But he couldn’t seem to keep them to himself. He said out loud, “So, I should call them, right? I should call the cops. Should we do anything? Should we check to see if he’s still alive?”
      Tanaka could tell the barman had not fully recovered from his own shock. “If the man were still alive his heart would be beating. If his heart were beating, he’d still be bleeding. The man on the floor is dead.”
      “Yeah,” Hank responded. “Yeah, that makes sense. I‘ll call the cops.”
      “Hank,” Crystal said slowly, looking first to the barman, then to Tanaka, then back to Hank, “what do you suppose is in the case?”
      Hank didn’t answer for a moment. He looked at Crystal. Then quickly to Tanaka who gave no sign of a response. Then he stammered, “What… what difference does it make? Who cares what’s in the damn case!”
      “Somebody cared a lot, Hank,” Crystal said, more glassy-eyed than ever now. “The guy who brought it in cared. He gave you two hundred bucks just to watch the damn thing. This fat fuck lying on the floor sure cared. He was willing to take you out…hell, probably all of us…just to get his hands on the case. There’s gotta’ be something in there Hank. Something good.”
      “Perhaps there is something of value,” Tanaka said just above a whisper. “Two men. So committed to it. So anxious that it be safe. Perhaps it is most valuable.”
      “Look,” Hank said, “forget the damn case. A man is dead here. Maybe two,” he added, looking over at the finger with the silver ring still lying on the bar.
      “What did they die for, Hank? What did they die for? Lets find out,” Crystal purred.
      “You’re nuts. You’re out of your head,” Hank came back. “We can’t do that. We can’t look in the damn case. It’s not ours. And…and it’s locked, remember?
      “Perhaps the dead man has the key,” Tanaka said quietly. “He had the other man’s finger. Perhaps he has the key the young man showed you.”
      “You don’t miss a thing, do you?” Hank recoiled. “You sit there, quiet. keeping to yourself. But you don’t miss a thing, do you?”
      “Lets see what’s in the case, Hank. Lets see,” Crystal continued.
      “Look,” Hank argued, “it’s my ass on the line. I took the money to watch it. “I’m the one who’ll get in trouble if anyone thinks…well, if they think…”       Tanaka stepped into the void Hank’s addled pause left. “Who’s to say what anyone will think? Perhaps no one…other than the young man and the brute lying on the floor here…even know of the case.”
      “But what if he doesn’t have the key,” Hank shot back.
      Before Tanaka or Crystal could answer, a voice came from the far side of the bar. “I’ll find out,” Preston said. Then he uncoiled himself from the floor and started walking.
      “Oh great,” Hank barked. “Now you’ve even got him into this. Preston, where are you going?”
      The lanky one didn’t answer. He simply marched over and reached into the outside pockets of his pea coat hanging on the rack. Pulling a leather glove from each, he slipped them on and walked back to the body on the floor.
      “I can’t believe you’re doing this,” Hank said loudly. But no one seemed to be listening.
      Crystal had poured herself another drink from the bottle Hank had left on the bar. She was sipping as she watched. Tanaka had turned on his stool so he could look directly at the skinny man gingerly searching the frighteningly pale corpse.
      Preston was methodically going from pocket to pocket. First the overcoat, outside and in. He had to roll the body on it’s side to get into some of the pockets. He didn’t seem to mind. Nothing in the overcoat. He progressed to the suit coat, found a wallet, put it beside the man and continued into the pants pockets. By touch alone, he could tell there was nothing in the back pockets. He had to reach under the body to check the front. From the right side he pulled out a handful of change. When he spread it out in his gloved hand, he saw the key.
      “Is this it?” Preston asked, holding the key so all could see.
      “This is stupid,” Hank said. “It’s crazy.”
      “Get the case,” Crystal said. “Lets open it.”
      Preston put the key down on the bar in front of Hank.
      “Sure, you want me to do it. You want me to open it,” Hank railed. “Then my prints will be all over the thing.”
      “Your prints are already on the briefcase,” Tanaka said, walking over to where Hank and Crystal were at the bar. Preston had turned back to the body where he began to study the dead man’s wallet.
      “As for the key,” Tanaka continued, “you can easily wipe it clean or simply lose it. The police will have no way of knowing if the case was locked or not.”
      “This is not a good idea. We should not do this,” Hank moaned. “It can only lead to more trouble.”
      “Listen Hank, you’re forgetting something. You got two hundred out of this and we…we got nothing,” Crystal crowed. “And don’t forget the bigger fact…that I saved your fucking life. That guy would have blown you away. That’s what you were ready to tell the cops, right?”
      Hank took a breath. And put both hands on the bar.
      Tanaka looked at him and said, “We only want to look. We only want to see what all this was about, Hank. This is a mystery. A mystery we can solve. It is something we will take with us forever. Think how we would feel never knowing. Never knowing what was so important that it cost two men their lives and almost ours as well. Is your life so full, Hank? Is your life so full you have no desire to solve such a mystery?”
      Hank looked at Tanaka. He thought about what the old man was saying. He thought about what had run through his mind earlier in the day. That one day was pretty much like every other. That he was stuck behind this damn bar dolling out drinks to…what had he called them… not customers…oh yeah, jailers, his jailers. He thought about the idea that maybe the only way some things ever change is if you actually get off your ass and do something to change them.
      Then he looked at Crystal. And he said to himself, why not? Why the hell not? Why not do something to change things? He reached in his pocket and pulled out the money the young man had given him.
      “Here,” he said to Crystal, “that’s for saving my life. Hell, you’ll just wind up giving it back to me for booze anyway.”
      Then he turned to the old man. “No, Mr. Tanaka, my life ain’t all that full. I was just thinking about that this morning.”
      Crystal whispered, “Come on Hank, it can’t hurt to take a little peek.”
      Hank let out a huge sigh. He picked up his bar rag and wiped a clean place in front of him. Then he reached down, got the briefcase and set it on the bar.
      “Okay,” he said, “lets solve ourselves a mystery.”
      Crystal leaned in close. Her mouth opened into a smile that almost made her look pretty. Tanaka stepped closer too. For once you could see his brown eyes.
      Hank took the key, put it in the lock, turned it and heard it click.
      Then as Hank’s thumbs started sliding the tabs that would open the snaps, the three heard Preston say, “Hey, this was the guy I was reading about in the paper. He and some others been knocking over banks using explosives and—“
      Then no one heard another word as the world turned into a blinding white light.
      And where once stood a grim, dark bar in a cold, wet town, the sidewalk bled. Blood trickled from cracks and seeped slowly toward the curb, pausing momentarily at the edge before sliding into the gutter where it joined a fetid rush of discarded dreams.

Joe Kilgore’s fiction has been published in magazines, online literary journals, anthologies and more. He has one novel to his credit, THE BLUNDER, and is currently under contract for another to be delivered this summer. Two of Joe’s western stories can be found in the anthology AWARD WINNING TALES available from Austin, Texas is Joe’s home where he resides with Jezebel, a French Bulldog, three cats, and his wife Claudia, who did the illustrations within this story.

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