Whenever he closed his eyes, Connor couldn’t shake the image of a man made of rats and bugs or get the sound of Leyla screaming out of his ears. With everything that had happened in between, it felt strange to Connor that it was that moment that he couldn’t let go of, but there it was. Thankfully he had the perfect cure for such a hangup: alcohol.
As the last of the beer flowed out from the pitcher into Connor’s mug, it felt like the last of his prospects were gone with it. Job gone south, no Leyla, and no money to pay off Joey. He drank the glass with desperate consternation at the realization that soon he too would be empty. The beer tasted flat and stale on his tongue; it felt like the sum and total of Connor’s whole life. There are many kinds of beer: some are well-rounded and rich with a good head on them, most are decent and tolerable in everyday situations, and then there are the dregs of the beer world. The dregs are tasteless and terrible and only find refuge among the most desperate of drinkers. As he swallowed the last foul sip of the swill, he sadly realized that he was quickly falling into that last category.
He was in Nattie’s, a dive bar that made most dive bars look like palaces. The small smattering of tables and chairs that littered the tiny space had all been purchased second-hand, not a one matched the others. Moreover, most of them had patchy, uneven legs that had been broken off then fitted with cheap replacements. The floor upon which these solemn seating arrangements sat was wood so fatigued that Connor guessed you’d have to sand and stain it just to get it back to looking ‘worn.’ The walls were grimy, stained with beer and shards of broken glass from the inevitable altercations that had occurred here. Most of the stains had been half covered with decades-old posters of women straddling beer cans in bikinis in a misguided effort by the owner to make the place look ‘classy.’
The rest of the dive was a jukebox, two decrepit pool tables, a bathroom that smelled so foul that you couldn’t go inside without plugging your nose first, and the bar itself. It had been wood at one time but had since been smeared with so many coats of varnish that it felt like plastic to the touch. The place had three taps, a shitty liquor selection, and a TV so old it had knobs instead of a remote.
Connor didn’t like Nattie’s because it was a good bar. He liked it because it was a bar so terrible that everybody stayed away. At the moment there were only two other patrons frequenting the establishment, their ugly mugs drawn into a permanent frown as they drank in silence. It was the perfect place to drown some sorrows amidst the saddest remainders of the human condition that ever sat atop bar stools. Even his pal Mickey wouldn’t come into this joint. This was where hope went to die and was reborn as functional alcoholism. Connor looked forward to embracing that alcoholism. At least until three more days passed and Joey came gunning for him. Now all he needed was something more to drink; too bad he was broke.
“May I buy you another round?” The voice that spoke up next to him was British. It was that snooty kind, too, like a king or that Henry Higgins fellow. Connor turned to see a tall, well-built man dressed in a dapper, tan suit with wing-tips, slicked-back, chestnut hair, a long, thin nose, green eyes, and a smile like a snowman, cold and on the surface.
He didn’t remember seeing the door open or hearing the man come in, but there was a hungry focus in the way the Brit looked at him that said it wasn’t the shitty jukebox that had brought him to this dive. Connor immediately realized this cat was going to ask for something he didn’t want to give in return, but at the moment he really did want another, better beer.
“Much obliged, pal.” He ordered two bottles of one of the nicer lagers. The red-headed barkeep pulled the fresh beers from the tiny, battered fridge under the bare liquor shelves. The bottles hit the over-varnished bar with a dull thud as the man, smiling all the while, pressed in on Connor.
“They tell me that you are Connor Donnelly; is that true?”
“‘They’ got a big mouth, whoever they are. Sure, I’m Connor, and who might you be?”
“Pleased to meet you. My name is Donald Chance.”
People could at least try to make up decent aliases, Connor thought to himself. As far as phony names went, Donald Chance was right up there with John Doe and Jimmy Notacrook. He appraised the man coolly. He took a long swig then decided that his best bet was to antagonize the slimy Englishman. If he could prick his pride, he could trip him up and find out who he really was. Besides, he really didn’t like the ‘aw’ sound the bastard had put into a simple word like chance.
Shaking his hand, Connor said to the Brit, “Pleased to meet you, Chauncey.”
“No no, that’s ‘Chance.’ Like a game of chance.”
“Well, we don’t have all those weird games you people across the pond do, Chauncey, and we call our football soccer here.”
The man’s smile withered for a moment as he stared into Connor’s eyes in confusion. After a moment the smile lit up again and he said, “Ah! I see. You’re trying to poke at me, is it? A little friendly ribbing? Some verbal chicanery? I’m no stranger to the oratory shenanigans your kind seem to favor, Mr. Donnelly.”
“Aw hell, you can call me Connor if you call me anything, Chauncey. Or better yet, don’t call me at all.”
The Brit’s laugh was as phony as his name. “You really are quite amusing, Mr. Donnelly. I am indeed pleasantly surprised.”
“Well I’m glad I’m good for a laugh.” Connor drank down the beer in long gulps, smacking his lips as he finished it. “Thanks for the drink, Chaunce, best of luck finding a kidney pie or whatever it is you blokes like to eat.”
Chauncey grabbed his arm, a menace filling the Englishman’s eyes that Connor had not quite expected. When he had first sized the man up, he wouldn’t have put ‘dangerous’ on the list of descriptors. However, that attribute was there in full force now. The severity of the look put Connor back in his chair, “Now, now, Mr. Donnelly, we were just getting to know each other. You don’t want to be rude, do you?”
“I would certainly hate to be rude, Chauncey.”
Chauncey released his grip. “You have a smart mouth; I can see that clearly. The question is: do you have a smart mind to match it?”
“Well, I never did get good marks in grade school, Chaunce-a-lot. I was too busy looking up girls’ skirts and scamming kids out of their lunch money.”
Chauncey was growing visibly irritated. With a quick motion, he grabbed for Connor. Connor tried to slip away, but the wobbly stool he was on ruined his evasion. Chauncey seized his hand. He held it fast with a tight squeeze and pressed his pointer finger into the top of the hand until it began to hurt. “Maybe some people find your buffoonery endearing, Mr. Donnelly. Let me assure you that I do not. Now I’m going to ask you a question, do you understand? It is very important to me that you answer this question honestly. I will become very upset if you try to lie to me, Mr. Donnelly. And I will know if you are lying.”
“That sounds like quite the circus act: Chauncey the Human Polygraph.” The finger pressed down harder, eliciting a grunt of pain from Connor. “Okay! Ask away, Chauncers.”
Satisfied that his words had the desired effect, Chauncey reached into his jacket pocket. Pulling out a photograph, he placed it on the bar. It was a candid shot obviously taken with a telephoto lens. The subject was turned in profile, shopping or chatting with someone out of frame. “I didn’t take you for a stalker, Chauncey.”
The finger pressed in again, burning as the nail dug in to Connor’s flesh, “Look at this girl. Do you recognize her?”
Connor did. The picture wasn’t the best quality, but the blonde hair and porcelain skin of Leyla was unmistakable. For a brief moment, Connor wondered if this picture had been taken more recently than the last time he had seen her. But he realized asking would give Chauncey the answer to the question.
He focused on the picture, knocking on the bar to imitate deep concentration. He made his face impassive. He had to sell this lie perfectly, or it might mean his life and Leyla’s. “Nope, never seen this chick before in my life. Pretty, though. Say, do you have a thing for blondes, Chauncey? I know this gal who runs a house up on fifth street; she can get you any type of girl you want.”
The pain intensified as the fingernail began to puncture Connor’s skin. The stool wobbled as he began to shake from the pain. Chauncey’s voice was ice as he said, “I told you not to lie to me, Mr. Donnelly. I do not want to make this any harder than it is.”
“Fine, I’ve seen her around a few times.”
The nail dug in harder. “Still lying.”
Connor had to actively resist the desire to scream. “Sure, we went out a couple times last year.”
Blood flowed out onto his finger as the nail continued to dig. “I’m ceasing to find your loose relationship with the truth charming.”
“Okay, so maybe I know her, what’s it to you?”
“Where is she?”
“Look, if she made you promises of some kind, or maybe made you think she loved you, I understand. But chasing after that dame is nothing but bad news, Jack. Do yourself a favor and move on to the next gal. You’ll save yourself a lot of heartache.”
The finger relented a bit. Connor took in a deep breath at the sudden relief as Chauncey replied, “I appreciate your advice, but I’m not in love with her.”
“Then why do you want her?”
“That’s none of your business, Mr. Donnelly. Now we have an understanding going here. You’re not going to lie to me any more, right? Where is this woman?”
“I don’t know.”
Connor expected the pain to resume, but it didn’t. Chauncey instead seemed crestfallen. His hand maintained its grip on Connor’s, but he took his finger off completely. The Brit frowned for a moment as he considered his options. “And when was the last time you saw her?”
Thankfully at that moment Connor heard the click of a double-barreled shotgun being readied. He and Chauncey turned as one to stare at the weapon. The wielder was none other than Nattie himself. “I’m sorry, Chauncey. I’ve been very rude. I haven’t introduced you to the owner and barkeep of this fine establishment. Most folks just call him Nattie, but I think in your case he would prefer Nathaniel or sir.”
Nattie was on the larger side with red hair and a seriously broken nose that hadn’t been set properly. The square jaw and hard line to his face made him look fierce - even though he was built more like a beach ball than a bouncer. In this case the shotgun did all of the intimidating he’d ever need. For awhile he had made due with a baseball bat, but, as the neighborhood had gotten rougher and the brawls meaner, he had traded up for the double barrel that he had affectionately dubbed, ‘Lucy.’ Nattie’s voice had the authority of a man who had kicked out more than his fair share of ruffians when he said, “Do we have a problem here, bud?”
“No, not at all, sir. Mr. Donnelly and I were just having a conversation.”
Nattie’s shotgun didn’t so much as tremble, “Is that true, Connor?”
“Oh, Chauncey here’s my best pal, Nat. He bought me a beer and everything.”
“You sound like quite the benefactor, Chauncey.”
“Oh, that’s just Mr. Donnelly’s little pet name. My name is Donald Chance.”
Nattie didn’t seemed impressed, “Now look here, Chauncey. I don’t like people who correct me and I don’t like people who cause trouble in my bar.”
“Of course, Nattie. I would never dream of correcting you.” The man could be quite the brown-noser with a shotgun in his face.
“That’s Nathaniel. You sure this guy is okay, Connor?”
“Yeah, no need to get rough, Nattie. Chauncey here is done talking and was just about to leave, weren’t you, Chaunce?”
Chauncey gritted his teeth. “Yes, I am all through here. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Mr. Donnelly.”
“No problem, Geoffrey Chauncer. And thank you for showing me that little party trick you can do. It really is something. Ta-ta now.”
Chauncey’s walk was obstinate and slow as he meandered out of the bar. He was clearly looking for some excuse to stay and talk to Connor more, but there was nothing more he could do other than slam the door ruefully behind him. Nattie lowered the shotgun with a sigh. “Your friends are a little intense, Connor.”
Connor took the beer that Chauncey had left untouched, “He ain’t my friend, Nat. In fact, I wouldn’t let that limey into your establishment again if I was you.”
“Yeah, sorry it took me so long to get back here after you gave the emergency knock on the bar. I’d left Lucy unloaded after last night and forgot where I put the damned shells.”
“No harm, no foul.” Connor rubbed the wound on his hand. ”I’ve been starting to wonder if I shouldn’t wear a heater myself with all the grief I’ve been getting lately.”
“You, strapped? I don’t think so, Connor. You may be a crook, but you’re no gangster. Leave the guns to the killers; otherwise, you’re likely to end up shot.”
Connor took another long shot then shuddered as he recalled the night of the heist and the endless bugs and rats. “As it is, I’m just as like to end up worse than shot. Right now getting shot seems like a blessing.”
“Bad trouble, eh?”
“Always is, Nat. Though this time it’s more weird than bad. Well, maybe equally weird and bad.”
“In that case you should probably settle your tab and take your troubles elsewhere.”
Connor looked aghast, “Nattie, Chauncey’s gonna still be out there waiting for me. You gotta let me stay in here long enough for him to get bored and leave.”
“Sorry, Connor, it’s nothing personal. This place is all I got, and it ain’t nothing much. You’re lucky I let you in here at all with the rumours going ’round about you and Joey. I got a nose for this sort of thing, and I know that this is a mess I don’t want coming back onto me.”
“Jesus, Nat, you’re killing me here.”
“I don’t want to kill you. I just don’t want you dying on the floor I have to clean.”
Connor was pissed, “Nattie, I’ve always said that you’re a real, fucking humanitarian.”
“They’re getting ready to present me the Nobel Peace Prize. Now get out.”
“At least let me borrow the phone so I can call for a ride.”
“That I can do.”
After he had hung up the phone, Connor pleaded with Nattie to let him wait out until the car showed up. Despite the urgency of the plea, the bar owner was not moved. Connor had gotten maybe five minutes out of the back and forth exchange, but unfortunately a last threat from Lucy pushed him out the door. He hadn’t even gotten to finish his beer. Typical.
He looked up and down the empty dark street the bar was located on. The streetlights were out and the bar sign, though lighted, was dim. Shadows were everywhere, and not even the cars wanted to drive in this neighborhood. He strained to look for his ride, but knew that it wasn’t going to arrive fast enough. It was no surprise at all when a pair of hands jerked him back by the collar and dragged him into the alleyway. A low, orange light on the side of the building illuminated the expected assailant. He sneered as he was brought face to face with Chauncey again.
“I suppose you think that was terribly clever, Mr. Donnelly.”
“Well in hindsight I wish that I had said you were my cousin, Chaunce. Maybe Nat woulda’ let me stay if he thought it was a family dispute.”
“I am not a man to be trifled with.”
“Did I make you think I was trifling with you, O Chauncey Boy? I’m sorry, let me make it up to you.”
Chauncey sucker punched Connor in the gut so fast that it bent him over with coughing. “Do you still feel like being funny, Mr. Donnelly?”
It took a moment before the coughing subsided enough for him to force out a reply. “Aw, hell, Chauncey, what can I say? You bring out the best in me.”
Another punch then the Englishman slammed Connor’s back against the wall. Connor saw stars as the snowman smile returned to Chauncey’s face, “The girl, Donnelly. When was the last time you saw the girl?”
“It’s been about about a day. She ran off.”
“Do you know where she went?”
“Do you know where she might go?”
This time it was a knee that came up into his stomach. Connor could taste blood. “I told you not to lie.”
Chauncey was very good with that little trick. He always seemed to pick up the lies no matter how good they were. Connor spit, “She could be a lot of places, but the only one I know about is unlikely.”
“My time is precious, Mr. Donnelly, so here is what you’re going to do: you’re going to find her for me.” Chauncey pulled a card from his coat pocket and stuffed it into the pocket of Connor’s jacket. “Then you’re going to call this number and tell me where she is.”
“That sounds like a lovely idea, Chauncey. How ’bout you make us reservations at that little French place uptown for a few days from now, and we can discuss it over Sole Normandie.”
Chauncey grabbed Connor’s hair so hard that a small tuft came up with his fist, “Don’t think to weasel out of this, you little worm. I can find you whenever I want, and I will check up on you regularly to make sure you’re actually doing what you’re supposed to.”
“Don’t mix your metaphors, Chaunce. Either I’m a weasel or a worm, which is it?” The sarcasm was pretty much all Connor had left through the searing pain. He coughed up more blood as the Brit’s knee came back up into his stomach.
He slumped over as the British man kicked him a few more times in the side. He brought up his hands into a defensive position, but the beating came anyway. He might have gone too far with the antagonizing, he dimly realized through the series of blows. On the bright side, he had correctly predicted how best to get a rise out of the man. After a few more kicks, the Brit picked him back up. “Now, should I expect any more back talk from you, or are you going to be a good boy? I warn you, I’m not afraid to beat you to a pulp if you feel like being mouthy again.”
Connor was just about to mount another verbal defense when something funny happened. Chauncey’s smile evaporated and a look of pure terror replaced it. Connor’s head slumped sideways and he saw that Chaunce’s eyes had followed a cockroach that had skittered across his shoe. It went and joined a pile of roaches that had set up their home near Nattie’s garbage can. The mass of insects were intently exploring a bag that had fallen from the eternally full dumpster and had partially spilled onto the cement. Oh great, Connor thought, this again. Another cockroach made its way across Connor’s chest to join the feast. Chauncey almost whimpered as it passed.
With a haste that felt like panic, Chauncey pushed Connor against the wall one last time and grabbed him by his lapels. “Find the girl, Donnelly. Find the girl or else!”
The British bastard tore off down the street so fast that Connor barely had time to shout out, “Thanks, Chauncey! It’s true what they say: everything sounds classier with an English accent.”
Connor slumped down in the alley. His sides hurt, he was still tasting blood, and he wanted another beer. A crazy Brit with a penchant for sensing prevarication - just what he needed. Leyla really knew how to pick ’em. As another cockroach flitted across his pant leg, he started to think that all his problems in the world must somehow relate back to the day he decided to take on that leggy blonde as a partner. It was bringing him nothing but trouble now, trouble and cockroaches. They were growing bolder now in their rush to get to the smorgasbord by the dumpster. With a hazy realization, Connor stood up and turned down the alley. He wasn’t alone any more. There, at the far side of the dark corridor, stood the indistinct shape of a man.