On the big screen above the bar, two teams were playing for the World Cup, and I’m sure somebody somewhere cared about it.
Not me. I was drinking a cold bottle of Carta Blanca and listening to the pair next to me. Their heads were close together, but they’d had a couple and were talking the way nearly drunk people do—just a little too loud—and they were much more interesting than the TV.
“Man, I still can’t believe she threw you out like that,” the guy nearest me said. “I hate to hear it.”
“Yeah,” his friend said. “I mean, I guess I knew it would come sometime. She thought we was in a relationship; I thought we’s just fucking.”
And now they’re neither, I thought. But you keep your nose out of other people’s business, right? Things are tough all over. My bottle was empty, so I gestured at the bartender for another. The beer was going down smooth and cold, and the bar was mostly dark except for the overheads that glinted off the glassware hanging from racks mounted to the ceiling. And the TV, of course.
Neither one of them was what you’d call big. The one farther away from me — the one who’d thought that he and his woman were just fucking — was what you’d call wiry. Not six feet tall, but the cords in his forearms stood out every time he moved to lift his glass.
They were drinking gin martinis with not very much Vermouth, and I could smell the alcohol from where I sat three stools down. It was the middle of the afternoon and they were tipsy going on drunk. I looked at my beer. Most of it was gone. If I wasn’t careful, I’d get tipsy, too.
But I had things I needed to do, work that couldn’t wait much longer. Maybe I’d made a mistake with the beer. There was some pressure south of my belt buckle, and I remembered that old saying: you never really buy beer, just rent it for a little while. I stayed put. Of course I did. Being patient is part of the job, and I pride myself on being professional. When the one nearest me shoved away from the bartop and said, “I gotta break the seal,” I slid from my own stool and managed to stumble into him when he tried to pass.
“Oh, hey,” he said as he grabbed my arm to keep me from falling. “You all right old-timer?” I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. While he was helping me stand, I put my hands on him, too. A quick dip into his pockets, a nudge to the ankle with the side of my foot.
That was good. I don’t carry on jobs like this one, not since I got arrested and my attorney had to do a little fancy footwork to keep me out of jail on a weapons charge about five years ago. But I still worked all the time around people who carried a gun, and it made me cautious when I wasn’t carrying one.
He headed to the men’s room and I followed about two steps behind him, giving him just enough space to step through the door before I came through like a freight train. I had my fist tight against my shoulder and I drove the point of my elbow horizontally into the base of his skull.
He stumbled forward, trying to catch himself on the white porcelain sink. But it was slippery with water and his hands skidded along the smooth slick surface. I got a right hook into his kidney and he kind of slumped down, an agonized chuff of wind exploding from his mouth. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and didn’t recognize the man looking back at me. There were two bright, hard red spots high on my cheekbones, right underneath my eyes, but other than that my face was as pale and emotionless as death itself.
I got a hand under his collar and turned him around to face me, slapping one rough palm over his mouth before he could scream. His eyes were wide and sweat trickled down his forehead. His hands were locked on my forearm and he made little mewling sounds against my palm.
“I don’t know if you’re wearing a wire,” I whispered, spitting the words like venom from a snake’s mouth. “I don’t care, either. We have a mutual friend. He’d like you to shut your piehole. If you don’t do it yourself, he’s gonna send me around again, and we’ll have to work out a more permanent solution. Nod if you understand.”
He nodded. Snot trickled out of his nose and onto my hand. I let him go and punched him. Just the belly. My orders were clear: Leave no marks on his face. So I pounded his ribs with a couple of shots, and when he turned away, bent over and clutching his abdomen, I aimed a kick right between his legs, getting up under him hard, doing my best to punt him like a football. That was the closest he came to screaming, but there wasn’t enough air left in his body to actually make the sound. Instead his mouth was drawn out in a silent rictus of pain.
It wasn’t enough.
While he knelt puking on the floor, I stepped on his ankle with my thick-soled shoes and heard a bone crack.
I washed my face at the sink and used the paper towel on the bathroom door handle. If the cops wanted to, they could get my prints from either of the bottles I’d used. But I was betting there wouldn’t be any cops. I opened the door and walked out. The afternoon sun glaring into the bar looked a few shades darker. I left a couple of bills on the bar to pay my tab, and then I walked past Mr. I-Thought-We’s-Just-Fucking and out the door. It was summer, so the sunlight was still strong, even though it had dropped deep into the western sky.
I walked a couple of blocks to a little pocket park over on 76th Street, where I sat down on a green-painted wrought iron bench and texted the client. Message delivered. Only time would tell if the message was received.
I’m muscle for hire. You need someone protected? I can do it. Somebody owes you and doesn’t pay? I can collect. And sometimes I run a messenger service, like today. Better than a certified letter. My messages tend to stay with people, even after they get out of the hospital.
I put the phone back in my pocket. Sat on the bench and watched the world come back into focus. It was deep in summer, and the green world around me was abuzz with bees and butterflies. Somewhere nearby a woodpecker hammered percussion in a band no one else could hear. Nature red in tooth and claw.
The phone buzzed, a notification of payment sent to an app, which would eventually be electronically transferred to my bank. All clean and tidy. It made me think of the early days on the street, scrapping. Poor white boy, no money in his pockets, fight anybody over anything, without the slightest provocation. Of course, I still didn’t have any money in my pockets. Money doesn’t mean what it used to. It’s no longer a wad of cash concealed in a handshake once the job is done. Now it’s electronic transfers, all ones and zeroes. I don’t understand it. All I know is that I still don’t have any cash in my pockets.
The platinum card in my wallet isn’t bad, though.
That was the year I was living in the Sky Inn, a not-quite-condemned pile of cinderblocks, shingles, and roach-infested carpet on the 6000 block of First Ave. on the east side of Birmingham. Yeah, I could’ve lived somewhere nicer if I’d wanted to, but the place had its charms. Each room came with its own drug dealer. And in that neighborhood, no one gave a damn about my comings and goings. Gunshots and knifings and clubbings went unremarked and unreported. My neighbors tended to be like me: gentrified right out of the Crestwood and Avondale neighborhoods, looking for a permanent place to light. I rented by the week, a cash-only deal that would probably get the manager fired if anyone ever found out about it. A hundred bucks due every Sunday before noon.
I was sitting in the glowering darkness of my room early on a Monday afternoon, staring at the gray blank screen of the broken TV when Carlton Doyle called me.
I carry the standard twenty-first century communications device, a small black flat rectangle that makes me feel dumber every time I look at it. I don’t spend a lot of time on it, but it’s got the usual slew of social media apps, something that told me the weather, and everything I needed for online banking. It tracked every incoming and outgoing call. Somewhere in a data center in Bumblefuck, Nebraska, there would have been a record of Carlton’s call.
But he went through the motel switchboard instead. There’s a reason he runs most of the organized crime in the greater Birmingham area. He ain’t dumb.
When the phone rang, I gave it the surprised and ultimately suspicious look that most of us living in this new century use. We don’t talk on the phone anymore. Texts and instant messages — in an emergency, emails — are the way we reach out and touch someone these days. But since I’d grown up before all that, I still remembered how to answer the phone.
“Hello?” I said. My voice sounded rusty, like a gate with hinges long unused.
“Do you know who this is?”
I didn’t have to lie. I’d been in Doyle’s presence four or five times over the years, fixing problems he needed solved.
“My office. One hour.”
The line went dead. Self-assured prick. Maybe I didn’t want to go to his office. Maybe I had big plans, sit here in my room and watch the gray TV screen while the window-unit air conditioner droned in the background and hum Desperadoes Under the Eaves to myself. Warren Zevon would be proud.
But this wasn’t the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel, and I wasn’t going to drink up all the salty margaritas in Los Angeles. I wasn’t even sure you could get to LA from Birmingham. Might as well see what Doyle wanted.
I took a quick shower and shaved carefully. In the alcove that passed for a closet, three suits hung. I took the best one down, a charcoal gray number with narrow blue pinstripes, and paired it with a shirt that nearly matched the color of the pinstripes. I put on gray socks and a pair of black tasseled loafers that needed a shine. I threaded a black belt through the loops of the pants and put a spring-clip holster at the small of my back. An Airweight .38-caliber revolver went into it. It’s a little hammerless number, easily concealed. I figured it would be perfect for a trip to downtown Birmingham. If I ever decided to go on safari, I had a .357 Magnum locked in the portable safe beneath the hotel room bed. It doubled as an elephant gun when I needed some real stopping power.
I tried not to think about the differences between the message I’d delivered the day before and my appointment with Doyle, but it was impossible to ignore. Even under the best of circumstances, Carlton Doyle was dangerous.
I spent a few minutes debating what kind of tie to wear, but finally decided the hell with it. On an hour’s notice, Doyle probably didn’t care what I looked like when I got to his place.
That was one of the differences between us. I cared. It ain’t just what you do; it’s how you look while you’re doing it.
I heard that from a Boston P.I. one time, and I’ve never forgotten it.
The drive downtown was a reminder that I wasn’t from Birmingham, I just lived there. People who knew the city, who lived with it and made up its beating heart, knew the surface streets much better than I did. That’s why I always took the interstate, much to my chagrin. It wasn’t any faster, with orange cones blocking some exits and guiding the off-ramps to others. The Department of Transportation was still hell-bent on fucking up traffic in central Alabama for the foreseeable future, and was doing a fine job of it. I got off before Malfunction Junction and found the John Hand building right where it was supposed to be, at the corner of 20th and Second Ave.
A private elevator took me to the eighteenth floor, where a bubbly blonde receptionist took my card, looked at the name discreetly, and told me that Mr. Doyle would be right with me. I’d seen the secretary a few times before. Maybe one day she’d remember my name.
I took a seat on a white leather settee that looked more expensive than the entire motel I lived in and checked my appearance in the mirror. The suit fit well, even though I’d lost some pounds—or maybe because I had—but my sandy blond hair needed a cut. My teeth were white and mostly even, but the lines in my face were etched deep by sorrow or time or both. I’ll never look forty again. My complexion was too pale, the color of skin that doesn’t see a lot of daylight.
Doyle’s reception area was tony, with a lot of gold leaf and real plants, the kind that needed to be watered regularly. There was an old-fashioned water cooler that advertised Poland Springs water. I could get a cupful and sit back on the sofa with it. Have something to do with my hands.
On the receptionist’s desk, a discreet chime sounded. She looked down once, and then back up to me. Her smile was brilliant and charming and devoid of any independent human warmth.
“Mr. Doyle will see you now.”
She dropped her gaze without a second’s hesitation. So much for the good suit. Maybe if I’d worn the tie. I went past her desk—I knew the way—and opened a frosted glass door.
From Magic City Blues by Bobby Mathews. Used with the permission of the publisher, Shotgun Honey. Copyright © 2020 by Bobby Mathews.