by Paul Negri
From the moment I saw her, I knew she was trouble. Her red dress and how she filled it seemed to bring the heat of the night in with her. Pretty she wasn’t, and not young. Fifty and a few, I guessed. But there was this look in her eyes that made you look back. “Can I help you, Miss?” I asked.
“Can you help me?” Her hair was an unnatural blonde and her face too smooth to be entirely her own. She was big on top and you could swear they were natural. She stared at me, as if I’d asked her a riddle. “Do you sell alcoholic beverages in this establishment?”
“Sometimes,” I said.
“Is this one of those times?”
I was about to say no, but the look she gave me changed my mind. “What can I get you?”
“Doom. A double.”
“I don’t know what that is, Miss.”
She was annoyed with me. “Is this a bar? Are you a bartender?”
She laughed but she wasn’t amused.
Orlando, sitting on his habitual stool, said, “It’s vodka, Billy. Vodka and squid ink or some shit. Everybody uptown is drinking it. It’s the latest thing.”
“Oh, yeah?” I looked at the woman. “We’re mostly beer and whiskey here, Miss. We don’t mix much. You sure you’re in the right place?” She said something I didn’t catch. “Excuse me?”
“What a dickhead,” she said, loud enough for everyone to hear.
“Excuse me?” I said again. I was hoping I hadn’t heard her right.
“Not you. Jackson. He’s a dickhead on wheels.”
“Why on wheels?” asked Orlando. “What…he’s handicapped?”
“I don’t know any Jackson,” I said.
“You don’t know Jackson? Then why did he tell me to meet him here?” She cocked her head to one side and looked at me like she was my mother and had caught me with my hand down my pants. “Maybe my boy is trying to lose me.”
“Any of you bums know a Jackson?” I called to the scattered regulars. A couple of guys looked away from the TV long enough to shake their heads. Orlando smiled stupidly. Then Phoenix got up from his table and moseyed up to the woman at the bar.
“What’s this Jackson look like? I’m bad with names but I never forget a face.” He sat down beside her and put his big hands on the bar. She looked at his hands and crossed her long legs, her red dress taking a hike.
“Big, black, and half my age. That ring a bell?”
“Yeah. Half the bells in this town.” He put out his hand. “Phoenix.”
“What about it?” she said.
“Not it. Me. I’m Phoenix.” He smiled, pleased with himself.
“That makes you flat and dry, right?”
Some of the men laughed. Phoenix didn’t. “Can I buy you a drink?” It didn’t exactly sound like a request.
“I don’t know. Can you?”
He slid off the stool and started back to his table. I didn’t like the look on his face. As a matter of fact, I never liked the look on his face.
“Georgia,” said the woman to his back.
Phoenix turned. “What about it?”
“Not it. Me. I’m Georgia. And you can buy me a drink.”
Phoenix smiled and that was the look I liked least of all. It almost always meant trouble. He sat down next to Georgia. “Billy boy, a shot and a beer for me. Give the lady what she wants.”
“I don’t have what she wants,” I said.
Georgia put her arms on the bar and leaned forward, giving me the ten-dollar tour. “Do you have any vodka at all? And anything black to put in it?”
“I’ve got it cheap and plain. Nothing fancy,” I said. “And I think I got some prune juice.”
“Two shots of vodka in a wide mouthed glass and enough prune to blacken it,” Georgia said.
I mixed the drink just like she said, but murky brown was the best I could do. I put the drink in front of her. Georgia frowned at me, like I had disappointed her once more. She reached in her bag and took out a small bottle and put several drops of something in the drink. It got a lot darker.
“What’s that?” asked Phoenix.
“Just something I use to add an extra kick to my drinks.” She took out a cigarette and lit it.
“No smoking here,” I said. She ignored me.
Georgia took a long drag and held it, bent her head down, fixed her mouth over the glass for a few seconds, then came back up. Smoke filled half the glass, floating like heavy fog on a pool of sludge. She pushed the drink in front of Phoenix. “Down the hatch, big man.”
Phoenix looked at it. He didn’t look thirsty. “I’m allergic to prunes.”
“Jackson is allergic to peaches. But he eats a peach now and then,” said Georgia and winked. She took another drag and exhaled a mouthful of smoke into the drink again. Orlando and a few guys came over to watch, like she was performing a magic trick.
“Maybe Phoenix doesn’t have the stomach for it,” said Orlando with a smirk.
“Fuck you,” said Phoenix. He picked up the smoking glass and kicked the shots back. “Christ,” he said. “That’s real nasty.”
“How about another? We’re just getting started,” said Georgia.
“How about we don’t,” said Phoenix. “To be honest, you’re not worth it, babe. You seen better days.”
Georgia laughed. This time she did seem amused.
“Where you going?” I said.
“Home,” said Phoenix. “I got to work tomorrow.” He seemed in a hurry to leave. He looked spooked.
“You okay?” I asked.
But he was out the door without a look back.
The show was over and the men meandered back to their places. Georgia took out a slip of paper and a pen and scribbled something. She folded the paper. “Will you do something for me, Billy?”
“If Jackson shows up, just give this to him.”
“Okay,” I said.
“And Billy, you have to promise me something.”
“You won’t read it until you know he’s not showing. Until closing. After that I don’t care. Do you promise?”
“Can I trust you?”
“I keep my promises,” I said.
“Then you’re a rare man, Billy.”
I put the slip in my shirt pocket.
Georgia smiled an odd smile. She hopped off the stool and headed for the door. “Bye, boys,” she said and was gone. Good riddance, I thought.
* * *
I shooed the last barflies out at two and locked the door. I fingered the note in my pocket. All night it was like a bad itch I desperately needed to scratch, but I’d kept my promise. I felt good about that. I took out the slip and unfolded it.
If you kept your promise, the big man is dead. If you’ve opened this as soon as I left, you have an hour to get him to a hospital and save him. What have you done, Billy boy?
“Christ!” I screamed. But there was no one there to hear me.
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Paul Negri is the former president and publisher of Dover Publications, Inc. He is the 2015 Gold Medal Winner of the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition for a novella. His stories have appeared in The Vestal Review, Bartleby Snopes, Pif Magazine, and other publications. He lives and writes in Clifton, NJ.