This is How It Starts
A few days back, Barry, who is participating in the NaNoWriMo, asked for an opening line for his novel.
I supplied the above line, which Barry most unwisely decided not to use.
So I'm going to use it, only not in a novel. Stay tuned.
And Now For Something Completely Different: Everybody Wins
They never ask a second time.
I wasn't due back until tomorrow, and my eyes were burning, glazed over by too much caffeine, not enough sleep, and the last dregs of adrenaline from the job. I could have stopped for the night at a roadside Bates, but I wanted to get back to Rosa. We'd been together for 4 months, after I picked her up in a small bar in Toledo, hustling drinks and looking to escape. I helped her get away from her old man, and we landed here, a good enough place as any for me. Long sandy blonde hair that curled just above the small of her back, deep blue eyes a man could lose himself in, and a body of soft curves that fit me like a glove.
Yeah, it was worth the hours on the road just to get back to her.
When I pulled into the driveway, her car wasn't there. But I knew where she'd be. My buddy ran Texas Red's, a small beer joint in a strip mall down the street. Carl wasn't from Texas, and the only thing red in the bar was the neon "Open" sign and the blood on the floor after the Friday Night Fights. Nothing fancy, a pool table, small dance floor, karaoke on Tuesdays, darts on Wednesday, and Ladies Night on Thursdays. Mostly regulars there, and they didn't know your name, especially when the cops came around, but they did know your brand, and that's good enough for me.
I knew she'd be there; that's where she went when I was out on a job. She had friends there, and it beat staying home alone, waiting for my car to pull in, or for the phone to ring. So, I pulled out of the driveway, and headed down the street. Sure enough, her car was parked in front, under a streetlight just like I taught her.
I wallked into the bar, looking to surprise her, but it turned out the surprise was all mine, as I caught her kissing on Carl, and it didn't look like a friendly thing either. I've been on the receiving end of many of Rosa's kisses, all the way from a quick hello, to drop your pants and let's get busy, and this one she was giving Carl would've wound up with her riding him in the back room beside the beer kegs if I hadn't walked in just then.
Now, I'm not a violent man, which is kinda strange, given my line of work, but I always keep my business and personal lives separate; emotions get in the way of work, and there's no need for violence in my personal life. But most folks can't quite grasp that, and when they saw me walk in, there was an instant rush for the exits, and those too far from the door to escape tried to disappear right there on their bar stools. Nobody would meet my eye, as if they'd regressed to childhood, thinking if they couldn't see me, I wouldn't see them. And what the hell, they were right. I only had eyes for my girl and my friend.
Carl and Rosa broke apart, Carl looking nervous and Rosa looking defiant. I wasn't surprised to see that she stood in front of him, as if to protect him from me. She always was a little fireball. I saw her face down a group of young punks hassling old Mrs. Becker from down the street armed with nothing but attitude and a voice that cut to the bone.
I didn't say a word, just looked at them. One of things I've learned from work is that the best way to get the truth is to let them do all the talking. The guilty have a need to confess; it's hardwired in to them. All you have to do is let them talk.
Carl broke first. Big surprise.
"It's not what you think! We were just..."
I cut him off, not allowing him to finish the lie. "Shut up Carl. It's exactly what I think."
"And what if it is? What are you going to do about it, Mr. Big Time?"
That was Rosa, and her challenge hit me in the belly. I knew what she wanted, why she was doing this. She'd played variations of this game before, trying to make me jealous, testing me to see how far I'd go to keep her. I'd played along the first time or two, because she wanted it and I wanted her, so she'd flirt with some guy, lead him on, and then I'd flatten him and we go home and she would give me the prize, a prize that would leave me exhausted and covered with claw marks and bites all over my body. Usually she did more damage to me than the rivals she picked for me.
But tonight was different. Carl was my friend, or had been at least. And I'd just gotten back from a job, and my control is kinda shaky for awhile after doing one, so I wasn't willing to risk a fight now.
"What do you expect me to do, Rosa?"
"Listen up, babe, any man that wants me better be willing to fight for me. I go with men, not little boys who can't take what they want. You've got to earn me, baby."
"And what do you call the jobs I do, to keep you in a nice house, with nice clothes and a fancy car?"
"That's just maintenance, baby. You got to invest more if you want to keep me."
Carl looked uncertainly from her to me, not knowing what he'd gotten himself into. Cuckolding his buddy while he was out of town was one thing; fighting me for Rosa was a whole new level, and he was way out of his depth. Rosa had made it easy for me, choosing a target I could take apart in my sleep.
And I wanted to, God how I wanted to.
But this was personal, and that was professional.
One last chance for Rosa. "So you want me to beat up and maybe even kill my friend just to prove that I want you? Are you a woman or are you a prize to be won in some kind of contest?"
"You gotta fight to win me, baby. That's always been the way it is."
"In that case, sit down, bitch, and watch the show."
Rosa's eyes lit up and Carl looked like he was about to piss himself as I walked over to him.
"Please," he began to beg' "Don't kill me! I didn't, I mean, I wouldn't..."
"Hush Carl. I'm not going to fight you."
"What the fuck are you talking about, you bastard! If you..."
"I said sit DOWN, bitch, and shut up! You want to be a prize in a contest like some crackerjack toy, that's fine by me. But the prize don't get to choose who she goes with, or what the rules of the contest are. Sit your ass back down on that stool and shut up while Carl and I decide where you're sleeping tonight. Or get up and walk out of here; I don't give a damn which."
Rosa looked surprised; she'd never seen me like this before. Nobody had. I was cold, calculating, a machine with a task to perform, a task that would end in blood.
It always did.
"You want to be a prize, well here's the game. Carl and I will shoot one game of 8 ball. Winner gets you. Loser leaves town forever. Carl, you're putting up your bar; I'm putting up Rosa. May the better man win you sorry asshole."
Carl perked up. He was the bar pool champion and had even monied in the big State tournament twice, while I only shot a fair game. I had different uses for pool cues than putting balls in pockets.
"Man, I don't want to do this with you! You can't beat me and I'm not going to..."
"Shut up Carl," I said,” You’re only other option is to go out into the parking lot with me and commence to picking up your teeth as I scatter them, and neither of us want that. But since you are so good, I'll take the break to make you feel better."
I'm not a great pool player, but my mind had moved into high gear, just like before any other job. As Carl racked up the balls for me to break, I could see the paths the balls would take on the table as clearly as if they were printed on the felt. I knew I was going to win this game, not just against Carl, but Rosa too. I would fight for her, but on my terms, not hers. Her way pushed my too hard, threatened the boundary between professional and personal, brought too much to the surface. Even then, as I was sighting down the cue, I could see Carl's throat in my hands, see his face turning blue, then purple as the blood backed up and he began to die.
Loss of control is very dangerous for a man like me.
I safed the break, two banking the cue ball around behind the balls, barely tapping the right corner ball and leaving the cue ball trapped up tight against the rack.
"That's a smart play," Carl said," but you're only delaying the inevitable, my friend." Carl almost smirked as he walked around the table, chalking his cue. His confidence seemed to be returning now that the threat of violence appeared to be over. "You know," he said,” I always thought Rosa deserved better than you, what with you being on the road on your "business trips" all the time. As much time as she spent here, it was only a matter of time before something happened. You should have taken better care of your woman."
He was trying to rattle me, make me angry. He didn't know, couldn't see, that anger was behind me. It was personal. This was business.
He sledge hammered the cue into the tight cluster of balls and they exploded across the table, scattering randomly across the green felt, but nothing dropped; the table was still open.
"You know Carl," I said as I chalked my cue, "You're probably right. Rosa is far to lively a woman to sit at home alone waiting for her man. Maybe I should have taken her on the road with me, but she and I both knew that never would have worked. But hey, win this game, and I'm sure she'll be happy to sit there on that bar stool for you, waiting until 4am every night so you can go home to that tiny little apartment you live in. I'm sure you make enough money running this dive to keep her in the manner to which she will certainly want to become accustomed."
As I talked, I walked the table calculating angles, probabilities, and leaves. Yes, it would be the small ones. My earlier gamble had paid off, and outside of a tricky second shot, the table was runable.
"3 ball, corner." I lined up the cue with the 3, and hit sharply with bottom center english. The three ball shot across te table, rattling into the pocket while the cue ball stopped dead in the center of the table.
I chalked the cue. "Then again, you do have to win this game before your dreams of domesticity with the lovely Rosa come true." Second shot was easy, but with a tricky leave. Roll the cue ball too far and I'd be blocked out by the 8.
"Of course, you also have to ask yourself if the lovely Rosa wants domestic bliss, even with a guy as charming as you. She left the guy before me almost exactly like this, she's leaving me, how long before she leaves you, my friend? 7 ball, side pocket"
Rosa was silent, but I could see her cheeks color with fury. I lined up the shot on the 7 and hit with just a touch of top english to get the roll I needed. The 7 slid home into the pocket, but I misjudged the roll and the cue ball was locked in behind the 8. I had no shot.
"Nice try," Carl said, "but you never could make those touch shots. The table is lined up for me, buddy. And Rosa won't leave me because I will take care of her better than you ever would. She doesn't need money and things; she just needs a man around."
I didn't even have to look around to see Rosa roll her eyes at Carl's love struck mumblings. She played him but good. I almost felt sorry for him, but that would be unprofessional. I looked over the table. I needed to make a great shot to have a chance of winning the game. Fortunately, it wasn't a shot that required a lot of touch, just the balls to go for it. If I missed, the 8 could go in, and I would lose the game and Rosa.
I chalked the cue and looked over the table. I had to jump the cue ball over the 8, into the 2 at just the right angle to put the 2 into the corner pocket, and deflect the cue ball off the side rail, clearing the 15 and lining up the 6. After that, the table would be a cake walk. I lined up the shot and listened to Carl chuckle softly. The calculator in my head started running and I saw the spot, just as I always do when I'm on a job. Low on the cue ball, just a hair to the left of center. I snapped the cue back and forward and he cue ball flew over the 2, into the 2 just as planned. The 2 ball trickled down to the corner while the cue ball ricocheted off the rail, lining up the 6 like it had eyes.
Scattered applause from the few spectators too drunk to run away broke out in the bar at the shot, and Carl began to look worried as he saw how easy the rest of the table was.
"Nice shot, but you're a long way from home yet." His attempt at bravado was ruined by the quiver in his voice.
"Hey Carl, why don't you go get the deed out of the safe. I'm going to need it in a minute." The 6 went down easy, as did the 1. Three easy shots left and I would have Rosa, and a nice little bar to call my own. Hell, I could leave the road behind. This job could be my last job. Rosa and I could settle down and run this place. Money wouldn't b a worry; I had more than enough stashed away. In fact, this little place would make for a convenient way to keep the IRS off my back.
"You see Carl, when a man wants something as badly as I want Rosa, he fights for it. And when another man tries to take what's mine away from me, well, let's just say it brings out the worst in me. Now, I could have kicked your ass all up and down this place, and that would have been bad enough, but you really pissed me off. You were supposed to be my friend and you betrayed me."
Top left english and a smooth stroke and the 5 joined the rest in the pockets of the table.
"I could have killed you, but that would have been too quick and too permanent. No, I decided on something special for you. I decided to not only take Rosa away from you, but your bar, your friends, hell your entire life. Everything you love is about to be mine and you can't stop it Carl."
Center shot, short stroked and the 4 went home in the side, leaving only the eight, lined up straight to the corner.
"Yep, a man fights for what he wants, and when he really wants to win the prize, he rises above himself, plays better than he's ever played before, wins where he should lose. You achieve a kind of focus that brings things clearer; you see things better, see what you're fighting for, and what it takes to win."
Lining up the final shot...
"You go to it, baby, show him how a real man fights for his prize"
Rosa was back on my side now, like she'd never left. Carl was standing slack jawed, stunned that she'd turned on him, realizing that he was losing her, and his bar. The calculator in my head went to work and showed me the spot to hit.
Eyeing the cue ball and the eight and the corner pocket behind it.
"Sometimes you decide that the prize isn't worth the fight."
I put the cue ball straight into the side pocket. A scratch on the eight. Game over.
I met Carl's eyes for the first time since the game began and he shrank back from me.
"You win the prize Carl."
I put the cue down and walked over to Rosa.
"Well baby, you got what you wanted. Two men fought for you and now you get to go home with the guy you wanted. Everybody wins. I‘m a sucker for a happy ending"
She slapped me, hard. I tasted blood on the corner of my mouth. It should have hurt, but pain gets in the way of doing the job. She raised her hand to slap me again, and I looked her in the eyes. She dropped her hand and I walked out of the bar and got into the car and began to drive again. No destination in mind, no job to do, just putting the miles behind me, waiting for the transition from professional to personal.
I had a feeling that might take awhile this time.
« Close 'er up!