I tend bar in this place outside of Chicago, on the edge of Cicero. Back in the 20s, it was a speakeasy, so when the new owner learned the history, he decided to keep it the same. He redid the decor in a 20s theme, and us bartenders have to wear the old time shirts, and comb our hair a certain way, and keep our bow ties straight. He wanted me to put on a flapper outfit, and serve tables, but I told him, I'm a bartender, and I'll wear the shirt, and comb the hair, but I'm not wearing a dress, no thank you. He shrugged. As long as I keep the bar clean, he could care less.
The guy is such a history nut, he even named the place The Speakeasy. Okay, it's a corny name, but I like working there.
Around about the time of the renovation, the construction guys found a stash of hooch from prohibition. It was labeled simply as whiskey, but it didn't look like it. Turned out it was the old bathtub gin. They opened a bottle in back, and the smell was more powerful than any drink I could serve. That stuff could cure what ails you, or just kill you.
Most of the bottles were sold to collectors, and the money helped pay for the renovation. The rest were kept around by the owner because they looked good. You know, have some bottles up around as decoration. There were about four bottles on the walls, and three bottles in storage, and we had them all labeled as Poison Gin.
Thursday night is usually quiet, when just our regulars come in. I'd say I know about ninety percent of the people who come in then. So when I saw an unfamiliar shadow slide through the door, I paid attention.
I couldn't believe it was really him. I had to look for a couple of seconds to be sure I wasn't seeing things. But there he was, that same son of a bitch. I'd heard he'd made parole this time, but I didn't think he'd even look for me, much less be able to find me. He's got some nerve, I thought, just showing up here. Swaggering up to my bar and grinning at me like nothing happened. He knew I hated him.
"So, Kris, how long has it been? Four years, five. . . ?"
"It's been nine years, you shit. They finally let you out, huh?"
"Yeah, finally. 'Bout time, don't you think?"
"No. I think they should've kept you there for another twenty. What are you doing here, Johnny?"
"Well, I just wanted to drop by and say hi, Kris. After all, it's been a while, and you didn't even come see me. I missed you."
"Yeah, you probably did. What's wrong, Johnny, couldn't you get any of the other cons to be your fuckin' slave?"
The guy had the balls to grin at me. "Hey, sure, I could -- but none of 'em were as good as you, Kris."
I felt my face getting hot, and I made sure I put down the glass I was drying, so I didn't bust it and cut myself. "Listen, you mother-"
"Ah-ah-ah. Come on, now, Kris. No swearing at the customers. It's not good for business."
"Screw business, and screw you."
He grinned again. "Okay."
I just stared at him. The knife we use for cutting fruit was just to my left. I wondered if I could get his jugular with just one slash.
"What do you want, Johnny?"
"Same thing everybody else wants, really. Long life, liberty, happiness. Great sex. . ."
"I meant to drink."
"Oh, I don't know. What do you have?"
I sighed, and tried to keep my temper. "It's a bar, we've got alcohol. What do you want?"
He leaned forward. "You know what I want, Kris."
"Sorry, we don't carry Thunderbird or Muscatel. We've got more class than that."
"You know what I'm talking about."
Our eyes locked, and I could feel the shudder begin at my shoulder blades and sink down to my toes.
"I shouldn't have called the cops on you ten years ago, Johnny. I should have just shot you myself."
He shook his head. "Hindsight's twenty-twenty. But you wouldn't have done it anyway."
"You don't think so?"
"No. Murder just isn't in your blood."
He leaned back on his stool and clasped his hands behind his head.
"So, are you interested in talking a little business? I've got a proposition for you."
"I don't have anything to discuss with you. Now either order a drink, or get out."
"Oh, I think we've got plenty to discuss. After all, I did you a big favor."
"What big favor? You got me hooked on drugs and used me as a prostitute. Which one of those do you consider a favor?"
"I'm surprised at you, Kris. I didn't do either of those things."
"What would you call it?"
"Well, I used to give you some treats."
"It kept you happy, didn't it? And I introduced you to some nice guys."
"And took their money after they had sex with me."
"Yes, but they were nice guys, mostly."
"Nice guys, right. Forty-year-old men having sex with a fourteen year old. Nice."
"You didn't seem to have any complaints about it back then."
"How could I complain? I wasn't even conscious most of the time."
"Hey, don't over exaggerate. Besides, you still haven't thanked me for the favor."
"You remember. The briefcase? The one I left in the cabinet in the garage at the old house?"
I remembered. "What about it?"
"It's gone. I know the cops didn't get it, because they would have rubbed my nose in it. So I presume you took it, since you and I are the only ones that have keys." He leaned forward again. "And I know I don't have it. So that leaves only. . . you."
The briefcase. After nine years I'd almost forgotten about it. It had been enough to get me off the streets for good.
"So, what? I don't know what happened to your stupid briefcase. And I don't have a key to the house. I tossed mine years ago." That part at least was true. I hadn't wanted the thing as a reminder.
"Kris, Kris, Kris. When will you learn not to lie to me? Listen, I don't care what you did with the money. I'm glad you used it, and I'm glad it helped. But now . . ." he spread his hands. "Now, you owe me. And I've come to collect."
So that's it, I thought. He wants his money back.
He was playing with the band
of his watch, stretching it back and forth. It wasn't his customary Rolex, and
I took a moment to get a good look at him.
He wasn't just older. That would have been a relief. But now that I was really looking at him, I could see there were faded patches on his jacket, and the cuffs on his shirt sleeves were worn. These were old clothes, and they weren't silk either. His diamond rings were gone, and so was the gold braid that use to hang around his neck. If it wasn't for the way his face was imprinted in my mind I probably wouldn't have known him.
But he hadn't really changed. He'd just grown older, and gotten poorer. Now he wanted back what I took from his nine years ago. But I wasn't playing the game. I'd given him everything else, he wasn't taking my freedom from me.
"Are you ready to listen to my proposal?"
"Maybe. Are you ready to order?"
"Sure. Do you know how to make a Nightmare?"
"Johnny, you are a nightmare."
"Ha, ha. Do you know how, or not."
"Let's see, gin, cherry brandy, Madeira, orange juice. Right?"
"That's it. I'll have a Nightmare."
"Okay." I picked up a glass, and set it on the bar.
"By the way, where's the can in this joint?"
I pointed it out to him, and watched him work his way through the tables.
When he got back, his drink was waiting for him. He took a sip, and grimaced. "Jeez, this tastes different. I know I haven't had one of these for a while, but . . ."
"Sorry. I know the gin isn't Seagrams, but is it okay?"
He took another sip, and then a gulp. "Yeah, it's okay. It kind of grows on you, you know?"
I smiled at him. "Like mold."
"Ha, ha. Now, about this business proposition."
"Listen, Johnny, I don't feel too comfortable, talking about this out in the open. I get off at nine thirty, why don't we meet then?"
He narrowed his eyes and looked at me.
"Honest, Johnny. I'll meet you, I promise."
Finally, he shrugged. "Okay by me. Where?"
"Meet you at the Denny's over on Braxton. About quarter 'till ten?"
"Sounds good." He drank down the rest of his Nightmare, then smacked his lips. "Man, that's not so bad." He stood up, and wobbled a little. "It's also pretty strong. Good thing I'm not driving, eh?" He winked at me, then belched.
I managed somehow to keep a little smile on my face. "Yeah, good thing."
He laid a ten on the bar, and told me to keep the change. Then he weaved toward the front door, and stepped out. I felt a cold breeze blow past me, and then the furnace came on. In a moment the chill was gone.
The other evening bartender came in just a few minutes later, as I was serving a Bloody Mary to one of our regulars. He was shaking his head.
"What's up, Jay?"
"Not much, Kris. How're things here?"
"Just ducky. What was that head shake for?"
"Oh, just something that happened outside. Some old guy was leaning out of his car, puking in the gutter. Then he keeled over. It was a mess trying to get in here through the mob."
"Wow. Pretty freaky, huh?"
"Yeah. We might get some extra business because of the crowd. Be good for tips, you know?"
"Cool." I watched him as he went into the back to hang up his jacket. I smiled.
I'd have to remember to tell Jay I'd broken a bottle of Poison Gin.