My scarred right hand moved in a smooth circle, dragging the damp cloth over the glossy top of the bar. The material caught most of the spilled alcohol and grime, leaving a bright, shiny finish as though the wood wasstill new. That’s never how it is though, is it? With every wipe I rub in a little bit more of the blood, sweat, and tears that countless men had left on the counter. Despite its pristine look on the outside, the counter harbors a dark history. Kind of like most men, I’ve come to find.
I worked in Las Vegas for fifteen years as a bouncer. Darkest period of my life. I came into contact with the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity. Mostly the latter two, which is why I used my fists so much and scraped them up real bad. These lowlifes dressed well and looked nice, but Sin City has a habit of showing a person’s inner being. I’ve seen well-dressed men walking around with girls a quarter of their age. I’ve seen young people full of promise and potential snort a mountain of powder that would kill an elephant. I’ve seen gentle beings turn into terrible, sadistic animals when they’ve had too much to drink. Vegas revealed the lowest depths of humanity, and that’s why I came home to this small town. At least here most people are straight-up about who they are. The good people are good and the bad people are to be avoided.
It was a quiet night, as was the norm nowadays, and I was cleaning up before shift change. I had just finished when a kid walked in. He was young; probably just out of college. He was handsome and trim, had his hair combed over and was wearing a fitted-suit that cost a pretty penny. The kid obviously had money and taste. That doesn’t say a thing about him, though. I no longer made snap judgements about people.
He walked in hesitantly, lugging a black briefcase at his side. Glancing around the empty bar with soft, brown eyes, he asked, “Are you guys going to be open for a while?”
I glanced at the clock even though I didn’t need to.The look gave me a chance to think about the kid and why he was here. In fact, the bar was always open. Only now it was half past one, a time when few people have any reason to be out. Shoot, all of my regulars had already left for the night. It was a Tuesday night and most of them had jobs. The ones I liked did, anyways. I nodded slowly, keeping eye contact with the newcomer.
He moved to one of the closer stools and sat down. His voice was calm and even, betraying no emotion besides politeness. “So when do you guys close?”
“We don’t. The next bartender comes in at two. His name’s Jimmy. He’s a good guy.”
“And you don’t mind me hanging around here for a few hours? I looked around, but every other place in this town is closed up.”
I shrugged and tossed the rag towards a bucket, keeping my body facing him. In this business you never turn your back on a stranger if you can help it. The kid seemed nice enough, but looks can be deceiving. “Keep paying for drinks and I’ll let you stick around until this place falls down around your ears.”
The kid smiled wryly. “Then I’ll start off with the best scotch you’ve got.”
I pulled an ancient bottle out from beneath the bar, the label faded with age. Smirking, I replied, “I’ll call your bluff, kid. This here is quality stuff that’s been aged for about thirty years. I’ve only pulled this out twice in the last five years. Shots normally cost twenty-five bucks, but I’ll take twenty.”
The stranger calmly pulled out two crisp Jacksons and laid them on the countertop. “I’ll pay for two shots if you’ll take one with me.”
“I’d be an idiot to turn down that offer.”
I poured the whiskey into two large shot glasses. Not the puny shot glasses some lousy bars try to pawn off as a drink. These suckers hold two ounces easy. I held up my glass and inhaled deeply, smiling at the familiar smell. The kid followed suit and quickly down his drink. I kicked back my glasseagerly. I wasn’t lying to the kid; the whiskey was quality. It was unlawfully smooth and had a rich flavor with an almost buttery aftertaste. Drink too much of this and you start acting like an elitist, sneering at the common whiskeys most regular people consume. I looked at my customer and smiled as he swiftly laid two more twenties on the counter. Smart guy. I nodded at the cash.
“That’ll pay forthis round, but the next one’s on me.”
Shots two and three were as smooth as, if not smoother than, the first drink. The kid leaned back on his stool, his face slightly flushed. “You weren’t joking about this stuff.”
“No I was not.” I looked at the bottle, now about four-fifths of the way gone. It was unfortunate, but the bottle had to die someday. Sensing the kid was loosening up a little, I asked quietly, “So what’s the occasion?”
His face locked down tighter than a vault. I couldn’t get a read on the kid. He might as well have been wearing a mask. My customer shrugged and said, “Just wanted to cut back a little.”
Sure he did. People don’t pound back expensive drinks unless they’re celebrating success or torn up about something. Normally I’m not one to pry, but his answer made me immediately suspicious. I’d suspected something was off about this situation, and his response only confirmed it.
Wanting to steer me away from more questions, the kid asked, “You want to finish the bottle?”
“It seems a little disrespectful finishing it just so you can cut back a little…”
“Trust me;I’ve got a good need of it.” A little bit of emotion flickered across the kid’s face. Whether pain or regret, it caused me to fill the glasses one more time. Slamming back the shot, the stranger looked around the bar. “Bathroom?”
I pointed towards the far wall. “Down the hallway on the right.”
The kid picked up his briefcase and carried it with him. It was odd, but that wasn’t the most perplexing thing about him. For the first time I spied the mud on his trousers and shoes. A lot of mud. Like the guy had been hiking through dampcorn fields for hours on end. It was especially strange because the uncleanliness contrasted sharply with the rest of the kid’s ensemble. For a man so obviously manicured and meticulous, the mud should have been unbearable. As it was, he acted like he didn’t even notice. He certainly didn’t care about it.
My mystery customer reappeared a couple minutes later, the mud still plastered on his pants. I nodded at his clothes. “Nice suit. Those guys run around six hundred dollars, right?”
“Good eye. How’d you know that?”
“I used to work as a bouncer in Vegas. Threw out a lot of assholes who wore those suits.” I was changing my tactics, now trying to get the kid riled up. Get him out of his element. That’s the best way to determine a person’s true character and find out if he has any secrets. To his credit, my customer didn’t even bat an eyelid. He was indifferent. So ticking him off.
The kid replied, “Yeah, I guess there would be a lot of assholes out there. You from there?”
“Nope. I’m originally from here and came back a few years ago. Got a few relatives in the area and the same thing happened to them. They all went off to big cities and corporate jobs, but everyone eventually came back here. Something in the water, I guess.”
My customerrubbed his jaw thoughtfully. He had a distant look in his eyes as he said, “I like this place. Wish I had come here sooner.”
“Hey, you can stay here as long as you want. Visitors in these parts are in pretty short supply.”The kid gave a sad smile. It was plain as day that something was riding him hard. Too bad; I actually liked the guy. I continued, “Do you need a phone or anything? Everything’s closed up, but we can get a hold of the sheriff’s office if you’re in that kind of trouble.”
“No thanks.” The kid gripped his briefcase to his chest, slightly hunching over it like it was a cherished possession. “I’ve made my play. Now I get to deal with the consequences.”
“Is trouble going to follow you here?”
“I’m sure of it. But don’t worry; I’ll go outside so nothing happens in here. No need to wreck your bar on my account.”
That comment really struck a nerve. The kid knew trouble was coming but his focus wason how to make the outcome easier on me. Though obviously upset, he had a strange, almost peaceful demeanor about him. I’d seen the look a couple times before, both in Sin City. Once it had been a guy waiting patiently in the casino lobby after he had dropped all of his cash on roulette. I saw him escorted out by a couple goons sporting cheap suits. There were armed to the teeth. That was the last time I saw the gambler. The second time had been an old coworker just before he had lost the battle to cancer. The strange serenity that all three men possessed was a realization of impending death. Which made me all the more curious about the kid’s past.
I poured the rest of the whisky into the glasses. Raising it, I said, “Here’s to the present, kid.”
The alcohol started to hit me after that drink. Back in the day I could’ve downed ten of those shots and only felt a buzz. I’m not superman, though. And, in retrospect, that lifestyle certainly took a toll on my body. Age and a decreased tolerance were working against me now. The kid looked a little out of it, too. His eyes were starting to dull a little and his gaze began wandering aimlessly. That was probably what he wanted in the first place: to lose focus. I grabbed a bottle of water and a bottle of beer and shoved both of them in front of him.
He looked at them quizzically as I replied, “Your choice.”
The kid nodded and sadly reached for the beer. I knew it was a mistake, but I watched in silence as he guzzled down the drink, trying to drown his sorrows. The sad side of alcohol. He finished the beer and looked at me silently. I nodded towards the water. It didn’t matter what the kid was facing, I wasn’t going to have him die from alcohol poisoning. Grasping the plastic bottle, he chugged the water and handed the bottle back to me.
“Hey y’all, drinks on the house ton-“ My bartender barreled through the front door with a goofy grin on his face. Jimmy caught himself when he saw the customer. “Oh, sorry ‘bout that. Didn’t think anyone was here. Just kidding about the free drinks.”
Smiling, the kid rose to his feet and stumbled towards the bathroom for a second time. His pace was noticeably slower and more uneven. I’d hold off providing the next beer for a little while. I slid another water to the customer’s place.
Jimmy came over, a weird look on his face. “Sorry, Boss, I didn’t think anyone was in here. There aren’t any cars in the lot right now. Where’d he come from?”
“Hard to say. He’s running from something, though. I think he had to walk a ways to get here. Maybe all the way from the highway.”
Jimmy let out a low whistle beforerolling up the sleeves on his flannel shirt. It was the same shirt he always wore, along with jeans and cowboy boots. Jimmy was nothing if not predicable. That’s why I kept him around. The guy actually enjoyed working the dead shift and he showed up on time every night, snow or sleet be damned.
Jimmy asked, “Should I call the police?”
I had been weighing the question since the kid had arrived. On the one hand, he obviously needed protection. On the other hand, he might get skittish and run if the police showed up. At least this way I was able to control the situation. It took several seconds, but I finally replied, “Best not. The kid would’ve called for help if he wanted it.”
Jimmy shruggedand asked, “So you headed home, Boss?”
“You know what? I think I’ll stick around for a while. I like the customer. He seems to be a good kid.”
The customer walked back in at that instant and we shut up. Jimmy organized the liquor bottles while I stood around and polished glasses. The kid sipped on the water, lost in his own world. I wasn’t going to disturb him again. Give him some solace while it lasted. He was halfway through the beverage when the door opened.
Two thugs walked in, acting like they owned the place, acting like they owned my bar. That alone raised my hackles. The foremost guy was young and acted like it. He wore a leather jacket and enough gold chains to supply a pawn shop. His right hand was tucked in the back of his pants like he wanted to try a quick-draw. I silently marked him as Chains. He was a punk I could handle easily. His partner was different. The second thug was about my age and looked it. His bullet-shaped head was covered in closely-shaved, black hair. His eyes were cold and dead; I knew they’d seen a lifetime of pain and suffering. Likely most of the pain had come at his hands and his helpless victims had been the ones suffering. This one was Old-school. I’d seen plenty of his type in Vegas. Anyone saying that organized crime is on its last legs should just visit that city sometime.
Chains smiled viciously at the kid like a wolf who had spotted his prey. “Brett! We thought we’d lost you in the last town over!”
The kid stood up defiantly. “You mean after you riddled my car full of bullet holes?”
“Hey, we were just trying to make sure you couldn’t leave without us. So, you ready to hitch a ride or you want to settle everything here?”
The kid shrugged indifferently. “I’ll come with you guys.”
“No.” All heads whipped at the sound of my voice. I smiled grimly and continued, “I think the kid will just stay here.”
Old-school looked me up and down. He was deciding whether or not he could take me. I couldn’t tell what conclusion he reached. His voice was deep and gritty. “You sure you want that? You don’t know what he’s done.”
I turned to the kid. “You a murderer?”
He shot a quizzical look at me before replying. “No.”
“You a rapist?”
“You a child molester?”
I turned back to Old-school. “Then I reckon he’s fine right where he is. He may not be perfect, but he isn’t all bad.”
Chains pulled his pistol out and held it by his side, tapping it against his thigh. Old-school looked at him and waived the gun away, but Chains wasn’t having it. The thug turned back to me. “He’ll pull the trigger.”
Old-schoolstared at me, this time displaying a brief show of surprise. He resolutely said, “We’re going to leave with Brett.”
The guy gave me chills. My instincts were never far off. He definitely knew where a few unmarked graves were. I replied, “We’ll see.”
Chains glanced at us, confused. He seemed like the type that had gone through life often confused. “What are you talking about? You aren’t going to stop us; you ain’t nothing!”
Old-schoolsmirked as he talked about me. “This guy was something. I’m just not sure that he’s up to the challenge anymore.”
His body shaking with fury, Chains snapped at the kid. I figured he was either on steroids or amphetamines. He said, “You coming with us or not?”
I leaned forward on the bar, my hands spread wide apart. “He’s not.”
Chains snapped and started to swing his gun for me. He was quick, but he was also dead. It was his lack of knowledge that killed him. He didn’t know that I always carry a handgun and I shoot targets at least once a week. My hand moved instinctively, grabbing my hidden gun and swinging it level in a blur of speed. I fired twice as he leveled his gun, my pistol bucking gently in my hands. The bulletscaught him in the square in the forehead and the chest. Chains slumped to the ground, a look of bewilderment eternally frozen on his face. A bullet flew past my head and smacked into the liquor bottles behind me. Glass falling on my shoulders, I swung my handgun to Old-school. A second shot grazed my shoulder. I fired four times in quick rhythm. All four of my shots found his torso. Old-school’s last shot drilled into the floor, fired far too late to make a difference.
The thug collapsed on his side and began coughing up blood. Staring at me, he weakly said, “You could’ve stayed out of it.”
I shook my head slowly, gun still in hand. “But I couldn’t, though. I left Vegas knowing I had let far too many vile deeds go unreported and unpunished. I moved back here to get away from it. You guys were going to whack the kid, clear as day. I couldn’t let it happen. Not anymore.”
He started to reply but went still before he could utter the words. Jimmy and the kidstared in horror at the corpses. The kid’s face was ashen and it looked like he was going to puke. Finally he wretched his gaze away from the bloody scene and turned towards me.
“You don’t even know what I did.”
“That’s true, but it almost certainly didn’t deserve death. Your blood would have been on my hands as well if I had let it come to pass.”
“You don’t even care what I did?”
I hesitated. “Kid, I’d like to think I just saved the life of a saint. It would be very depressing to find out I’d just stuck out my neck for a bad criminal.”
He slowly pulled up his briefcase and set it on the counter. “This sucker contained the bank accounts and passwords to about five hundred people. It was my first time working with the crew. We hacked some charity with weak online protections. We could have used the info to steal hundreds of thousands or maybe millions of dollars. I…I had second thoughts and took the data with me.”
“What do you mean the briefcase containedthe information?”
The kid smiled wearily. “I burned them in your bathroom and flushed the remains down the toilet.”
“Okay, but why not destroy the documents sooner?”
“I guess I thought I could hide the stuff and use it as a bargaining chip when they caught up with me. I never got a chance, though. They were always right on my tail.Then they shot up my car and left me in this small town with no taxis and no escape. I finally destroyed them when I knew I couldn’t get away or hide the documents.”
Jimmy noted, “You could’ve hidden it on your walk over here.”
“In a random field in the middle of the night? It would have been pointless.”
“You still could’ve gone to the cops.”
His face flushed, the kid replied, “That would require me to discuss my role in the affair. My initial goal was to escape and avoid any jail time. I’d rather not get shanked by some prisoner paid by my past employer.”
I nodded slowly, carefully thinking about my next move. “I guess you’d better head out before the cops show up, then.”
Jimmy and the kid in unison said, “Head out?”
“Hey, I’m not obligated to do a citizen’s arrest. Just leave the briefcase on the counter and walk away. Simple as that.”
The kid hesitated, not sure if I was pulling something. His eyes held hope as he asked, “You sure?”
“I’ll be less sure if you keep asking me. I like you, Kid. You seem like a decent guy who got caught up in the wrong circumstances.I’ve seen a lot of really bad people in my life, so I guess I’m just betting on the good in you.”
Nodding slowly, he slowly backed up quickly. Like he was afraid of what I might do. As the door swung shut I knew that was the last I’d see of him. That’s the life of a bartender. You see the good, the bad, and the ugly drift through your doors on their journey through life.
Told through the voice of a grizzled bar owner, this short story focuses on the unusual event that unfolds in his country establishment. During the dead of night, a young man comes in, covered in mud and carrying a briefcase. The narrator, formerly of Sin City, can sense something is off about this customer. Jaded by his past line of work, he knows many people aren't what they seem and that most everyone harbors dark secrets. Simultaneously intrigued and suspicious, the owner tries to pry the truth out of the newcomer while they consume several drinks. Slowly the facts start to come out, but not before an unexpected arrival forces the bar owner to pick sides. Either way, blood will be spilled.