This story is by Joseph P Arcara and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
Pops saw the businessman hurrying down the dark, late night street. He sensed the man’s fear when he stepped in front of him and held out a dirty hand. “Please, Mister, I’m a vet. Not gonna lie to you. I need a drink. Not food, not a room, just a drink.” Pops averted his eyes, not wishing to frighten the man into running off.
Pops could sense motion as the man reached for his wallet, stuffed a twenty into his hand, and mumbled an obscenity as he walked away. Twenty dollars! His eyes looked past the now deserted, dirty street to the neon glow above the bar, the once vibrant lights faltering, slowly dying. The Bang Box. Inside its moldy, chipped walls, photos of better days hung, and a cheap bottle of bourbon waited. Pops could almost smell the sour beer, the stench of decay. His life.
He quickly crossed the street, his once muscular frame beginning to sag from age and misuse, licking his lips, already tasting the fire that could never quite burn away his desire for just one more.
Pops nearly ran through the door, money in hand, his thirst an aching pain. Big George stood behind the bar, his eyes framed with terror. Pops stopped in mid stride. Pops knew that look. He’d seen it many times in Vietnam when he was Marine Recon. He’d seen it in the men he’d served with, and in the eyes of the people he’d killed. He’d seen it in Little Doll’s eyes before he cut her throat. The look of coming death.
“Got a problem with the plumbing, Pops. Got to close
early tonight. Tell you what, though,” he said, reaching for the bottle of Jack Daniels from the back bar. “One on the house, then you have to go. Here’s your usual.”
Jack Daniels! He hadn’t had a drink of top shelf bourbon in decades, and George would never buy him one. Something was terribly wrong.
He slowly approached, trying hard to act like this was just another normal night. “How come you’re behind the stick, George? Where’s your daughter?”
George’s eyes flicked nervously towards the back room. Pops could see the man’s huge forearms begin to quiver. “Cassie’s in the back, doin’ inventory. C’mon, Pops. Drink up and git. I gotta close.” Another lie. George didn’t do inventory. Never had. Just he and his daughter, equal partners, no one to steal from them. They were in trouble. Serious shit.
Quickly, Pops put the glass to his lips and drained it. God, but it was good. “I won’t keep you, George. See you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, Pops. Tomorrow.” George sounded defeated, all his tomorrows gone.
Pops looked up and down the deserted street. He could find another bar, just walk away. But he couldn’t do that, could he. In another life he had been a hero. A President had shook his hand, hung a medal around his neck and told an adoring Country of his great deed.
No, not a hero. People once thought so, but all he was when he came back was broken. The worst crossfire ambush a soldier could imagine. They were all as good as dead. But Pops, good with an M16, excellent at hand to hand, but unsurpassed with a knife, went into the bush and killed them all. The last one was a little girl, her AK47 raining death on his men. She turned and looked at him, her eyes so big and filled with hate. He slipped the knife into her throat, and Little Doll had walked with him ever since. Yeah, some big time hero.
Except even now, his life an unending chapter of cheap liquor and self loathing, he couldn’t walk away.
Pops entered the alleyway to the bar’s back door, near the dumpster where he sometimes slept. For a big man, Pops was quiet. No clumsy man ever lived through Recon. Into the small kitchen he crept, stopping only to pick up a knife from the wash board, and walked towards the voices. He heard the anger before he heard the words.
“This ain’t enough, George. Not nearly enough. Now, you had your chance. So, here’s what’s gonna happen next. I’m gonna gut stab you, George. Gonna hurt you bad. Then, I’m gonna screw your pretty daughter’s brains out, and you are going to watch me do it. When I’m done, my man Tobias here is gonna have her. Then, we’re gonna slit her throat, right in front of you, soak this place with gas and burn it to the ground. You’re gonna burn, George, and all because you didn’t take me seriously.”
“For God’s sakes, Karl. I’ll get you the money. You’ve got to give me more time! Please!”
” Time’s up, Georgie. Tobias, take Cutie in the back and get her ready. Hurt her a little. I like that.”
Cassie came into the room first, her body shaking, the smell of fear overpowering her Chanel scent. A huge man followed, grinning, one hand tightly holding Cassie’s neck, in the other a glock.
Pops slipped from behind the doorway, and a heartbeat later he lowered Tobias silently to the floor, death spasms making his feet dance to a macabre song. Feeling the heavy hand leave her, Cassie turned to see Pops holding a finger to his lips, the knife at his side, dripping red.
Turning, Pops entered the bar to find a thin, short man staring at him. He had a face that resembled a weasel and the same lightning reflexes. He was very fast, and very good, but Pops was more than fast, more than very good. He was brilliant. He watched as life left those eyes. Watched as they became silent orbs like Little Doll’s. She who would follow him to his final breath. She who would always walk by his side.