by Stephen Ground
He shuffled in a cloud of dollar store aftershave, eyes down to avoid his neighbors – he’d lived there since leaving Toronto in ninety-eight, worked every bar, deli, bookstore. He knew it like he knew himself, joys and noxious flaws. He lived alone, preferred it. Sometimes necessary.
He dodged wandering lovebirds and slushy landmines – a bus screamed through falling snow. He was late for a meeting at Le Conquistador, hated being late, particularly on the verge of a deal. He’d drunk there for years, seen it pass from father to son – comfortable, familiar, and the employees ignored the shadows.
Arriving breathless and hungry, a scruffy drunk oozed into his path. He’d witnessed him bite off a kid’s finger in line at Schwartz’s without batting an eye – read in Metroa few days later the victim, star receiver for McGill, was forced to quit the squad. The drunk bumbled past; he smeared palms on his jacket, scratched his neck, and slipped inside.
Le Conq stunk of aged piss and smoke, massacre site of a million innocent cigarettes. He squinted, scanning plastic palms and parrots, glittery VLTs lining the back, and those haunting it: J.F., black denim and Tap Out tee, evening bartender and chief enforcer; a woman, too old for her crushed velvet tracksuit and fraying braids; and in the corner, bathed in neon, was the man he had come to see.
Hey big man, squawked Braids. If you got fifty bucks, I got a good time with your name on it.
He rushed past, J.F.’s back turned.
You’re tough, she shouted. Twenty, we’ll call it a deal.
He dropped on a tattered stool, leaving one empty between, as instructed. The man wore khaki shorts and boat shoes despite it being January; pineapple-spotted Hawaiian shirt stretched across his gut, smeared with the same red flecking his stubble. He glanced – Braids leaned on the bar, whipping her hair. J.F. was tying his boot. The man’s voice brought him back.
Vous avez l’argent?
He fumbled for a crumpled envelope, sliding it between them. The man stuffed it in his pocket.
Toilette des femmes, he mumbled over the screech of a winning hand. Le réservoir.
He eased off the stool, turned the corner and bounded into the ladies’, slamming the door. He fought to catch his breath, rolled his sleeve and lifted the lid – sirens crooned from the murk.
Who’s in there?
He plunged his arm and ripped free his prize.
I know it’s you.
He pocketed it, stormed out.
You shouldn’t be in there. Unless you got ten bucks!
The man was gone, the bar empty. He slipped out without a nod from J.F., busy polishing a glass.