"Eh Blondie, two more pitchers!" a tall
customer yelled over the music, slurring the words, while the three
heavyweights at his table nodded approval.
At the bar, Michael Tanner nursed his bourbon,
observing the room through the smoke. "You have to be bad just to
have a good time," blared the country song in the background, though
he could hardly hear the lyrics above the din. The young waitress in
cut-off jeans and western boots smiled at him and he smiled back.
Michael knew her by sight only. The girl was new, just a kid. In a
few years, his own daughter would be old enough to wait tables. A
"Coming right up!" The girl loaded the tray
and wove her way around the tables, straight and sassy, flaunting
firm breasts through a white peasant blouse.
The big man watched her every move. Holding
the tray high above her head, she pushed the ashtray aside, but he
seized her wrist and pinned it to the table. "I bet you don't wear a
bra under that flimsy shirt," he snarled.
The young girl blushed. "Let me do my work,"
she pleaded, struggling to free her hand while balancing the heavy
tray on the other.
Michael didn't like the big Yankee who'd
sneered at his southern drawl earlier. He couldn't let that cur
bother an innocent girl, so he started toward the table.
"You can't fight me, Blondie!" The man leered.
"Don't look for the bouncer, he went to take a leak. Why don't you
show us your tits?" The Yankee grabbed her waist.
The girl dropped the tray with a cry. It
crashed to the floor, glass and beer scattering the sawdust on the
concrete. The man's paw on the girl's breast closed and ripped her
blouse. She screamed.
Michael pushed himself between the girl and
the man. "You need a lesson in good manners!"
"No ignorant Southerner will teach me
anything!" The Yankee aimed a fist at Michael's face.
Michael stepped aside, avoiding the impact.
When three heavyweights joined the fight, the bouncer tried to
intervene, only to find himself buried in chaos. A punch missed
Michael's left ear. Applying a ju-jitsu move, he sent his opponent
to the floor, into broken glass, sawdust, ashtrays, and cigarette
butts. The bartender reached for the phone while the waitress,
disheveled, rather nude and pale in her torn blouse and cutoffs,
cowered against the bar, protecting her small breasts.
Through the orange light, a booted foot flew
to Michael's face. He caught it in mid air. A sharp twist to the
right and his opponent's shoulder smashed a table, breaking it in
two. A beer bottle sailed through thick haze and shattered on the
heavy wall mirror, cracking it.
The kaleidoscope of jeans, cowboy hats, silver
buckles, spurs, back kicks, sweat, and blood, made Michael's
adrenalin pump faster. He felt happy as a fish in cool water among
the toppled tables and chairs, in the smell of whisky and stale
cigar. Although past thirty, tonight he felt eighteen, as wild and
passionate as ever.
When Michael leapt onto the bar to get a
better view, his long hair caught the breeze from the ceiling fan. A
smoky reflection in the cracked mirror revealed his tall stature,
chestnut hair, good shoulders, strong jaw, high cheekbones, and
strikingly blue eyes... A hard body from packing lumber and driving
nails all day.
His balance, he'd acquired from walking on
catwalks, scaffolding and ladders, and a few beers and bourbon on
the rocks didn't upset his timing by much. That son-of-a-bitch
stepfather, who taught him martial arts as a kid, would be proud.
There was the muscular Yankee. Michael jumped
down and headed in that direction. Blocking a strike, he dodged a
chair, kicked another out of the way then leapt over a table. The
man had cleaned up one side of the room and stood, waiting.
Michael felt the Indian half of his blood
stir. He feinted to the right then threw a left punch to the chin.
The target moved just in time to avoid the blow and sneered back.
Mad as hell, Michael nevertheless controlled his anger. He turned as
if to walk away. Another feint. In a blur, he kicked high and hard,
left heel connecting with the man's face. A jawbone cracked. The
Yankee tumbled down and slid all the way back through the open front
The lights went out. A cold draft chilled the
place as an eerie silence fell. Michael stopped moving and listened.
Darkness hovered like a disquieting presence. A shadow reflected in
the mirror, and his heart stopped for a second. When he looked
around, dim light returned and the bar came back to life. Michael
tasted blood. It was dribbling from his brow, although he felt no
pain and did not remember being hit. Front row, an oblivious drunk
stared through the smoke screen in a daze.
A siren sounded in the distance. Michael had
to get out before the police arrived. He could ill-afford getting
caught, even in a simple brawl. Too many similar incidents already
tainted his record. Who‟d take care of his family if he went to
jail? He headed for the restrooms, discreetly exiting through the
back door. He needed a drink.
Ignoring the nip in the air, Michael ran up
the dark alley and headed for the white Ford van with ladders and
lumber on top. Sirens blaring, a flashing red and blue motorcycle
entered the passageway.
"Damn cop!" At the brink of panic, Michael
heard a loud whisper.
"To your left!"
To the left, he glimpsed a narrow opening
between two buildings. Michael dove into it and flattened himself
against the wall, hardly daring to breathe. Sweat chilled his hands.
The police motorcycle drove by without slowing down. Michael let out
a sigh of relief.
A strange music startled him. He turned to
meet blinding blue light... Blinking, Michael protecting his eyes
with one hand while his vision adjusted. In the blue halo, he
faintly distinguished a frail silhouette. His jaw fell open.
"What the hell?" Michael scratched his head.
The blue being was gone, but a voice echoed in Michael's mind: "Do
not thank me, Son." No one stood there. He stared at an empty spot.
It took Michael a few seconds to realize, or
rather to doubt what he'd just seen. Or had it happened at all?
Although sober now, he felt hesitant to take the wheel.
Maybe he should see a shrink. What if Dave was
right and all these years of carousing finally caught up with him?
But hell, if you let go of booze and women, what would be left in
Wearily, listening for any sign of pursuit,
Michael reached the white van. The Ford Econoline fit his needs.
He'd just had the wrinkles ironed out of it and the new white paint
made it look clean. He stepped inside through the sliding door.
Rummaging in the tool chest, Michael caressed
the steel barrel of a sawed-off shotgun and picked up an empty can
of Pepsi. He crushed the flimsy aluminum with one hand and threw it
in the recycle cardboard box in the back. Since Veronica still
worked the graveyard shift, he felt in no hurry to get back to a
When Michael turned on the ignition, the radio
blasted loud country rock. He winced, lowered the volume and turned
the dial until he heard Bruce Springsteen. On the drive home, the
empty streets of Northeast Philly glided past the windows. Letting a
patrol car slide by quietly, Michael slowed down to resume speed on
Roosevelt Boulevard. All the lights switched to green on the main
"Michael, stop!" a voice blared in his mind.
Startled, he jammed the brakes and smoked the
screeching tires. A front tire blew up. Fighting for control,
Michael brought the van to a stop.
Out of the darkness, a black Mercedes crossed
the intersection in front of him, against the light, without even
slowing down. The ruthless vehicle with dark windows, all lights
off, vanished silently into the night.
"Holy shit!" That was close... Michael hadn't
seen it coming. What madness was this? Why did he slam on the
brakes? Thank God he did. His heart thumped, and sweat streamed down
his back as he looked around, shaking. Michael stepped out of the
van to check the damage. "Damn!" The flat was beyond repair.
Frustrated, Michael threw the keys on the
ground and ran sweaty fingers through his hair. Of course, he had no
spare. Since the nail in the Lumberyard yesterday, there had been no
time to get it fixed. Dejected, Michael sat on the curb, feeling the
chill from the concrete crawling through his jeans.
A cold mist started to fall, forming halos
around the yellow mercury lights. Michael shoved his hand in the
pockets of the sheepskin vest. In the haze, he caught a glimpse of a
blue light, a frail silhouette. He rose and called out. "Eh! You!