Jimmy Shannon from Sheboygan, as he liked to introduce himself to people who came into his bar, had never been to Wisconsin in his life. He’d done time for check forgery in Michigan and three years in Pennsylvania for hustling a widow with Alzheimer’s out of twenty-eight thousand dollars. The judge also ordered him to pay restitution, but Jimmy had picked up some new tricks in prison; once he’d reported to his probation officer after serving eighteen months and gaining early release, he was a gone goose—skipping straight across the state line to Ohio. His cellie was a career forger, and Jimmy admired him. He told Jimmy for three or four thousand he could get new papers and a Social Security card that would stand up to a check.
A few weeks of boozing in bars and making casual conversation led him to Cleveland where he found a guy who knew a guy—and so on through a long list of bullshitters, wasting a few hundred of the widow’s cash on these losers, until he ultimately hit pay dirt. It cost him a thousand more than his cell mate said it would but Jimmy felt it was worth it because he was going legit from here on out. Although his cellie made thousands on his scams, and Jimmy believed him, he was oblivious to something Jimmy realized when the bars clanged shut on him once more: he wasn’t going to die young. Doing jail in your forties is not like some gangbanger going in where it’s a rite of passage. Jimmy’s hair was turning gray and last week he noticed a bald spot on the back of his head the size of a grapefruit.
Jimmy was a natural talker and tending bar was more an avocation than a job to him. He’d put up almost all the rest of his cash on this dump of a bar at the end of the Strip in this second-rate resort town. It had gone through several transformations before Jimmy’s ownership from a psychedelic lounge in the sixties with black lighting through a country-western bar with a mechanical bull to its current state as a sleazy trysting spot for cheating spouses. Its fading red-and-black décor with velveteen booths was its final makeover. The bank that owned it as a result of forfeiture had given him generous points on the loan in the hope of unloading it before it gasped its last breath and the dozers flattened it for a parking lot for the restaurant next door.
But Jimmy had a plan that involved using the rest of the widow’s money on an expensive sound system. Jimmy had looked over the bars on the Strip and he came to the conclusion that the twenty-somethings were not being served by the rash of shitkicker and punk-goth-grunge combos everywhere else.
Jimmy’s gamble was paying off at the right time: it was the height of the tourist season and all the college kids were looking for places to drink and hook up. Jimmy installed a DJ for weekends and the autotracked, fast-beat techno music hit the right nerve with this crowd. He’s already hired two more serving girls for week nights because the word was out and Raul’s—Jimmy’s exotic-sounding brainstorm the day he signed the papers—was taking off. Jimmy took a kickback from two drug dealers peddling Ex in his place. What the hell, he thought, they’d be selling it anyway. Jimmy also paid off one of the beat cops to tell him when vice was hanging around. Sometimes jimmy wished he could talk to his cell mate again. He’d tell him how he had learned from his errors of the past. “Pay the right people off and don’t whine about it,” Jimmy said into his mirror while shaving, as if he were talking to Harry as they used to do at nights after lights out in the bunks. He nodded his head sagely at himself. “Greed will get you right back in the slammer with Harry,” he added. He winked to his image before leaving the rental cottage. Jimmy had plans for this aspect of his new life, too: he’d be financially able to return to the bank and apply for a house loan.
Jimmy had one small problem and he meant to deal with her today. Some old hag of a bar fly had decided to drink in Raul’s and, though this wasn’t affecting the bottom line (Jimmy was using lots of financial lingo these days in his swagger mode), it was irksome to see this disgusting old crone in her frumpy clothes come into his bar to finish up her nightly boozing.
Last night, for example, a couple young girls were chatting her up while waiting to be served at the bar—just mocking her, Jimmy knew—but instead of being offended, the ugly old bitch basked in their flattery. She did something that made Jimmy’s stomach churn with acid. She popped out her dentures and gummed the air like an old snapping turtle. The girls shrieked with laughter, but Jimmy saw a red mist come over his eyes.
Most of the time, when a new customer entered Raul’s and looked around, that person, male or female, knew right away whether this was the right place. Most of the white-haired tourists who stumbled into the place by mistake had the good sense to down their mixed drinks and piss off. Certainly, by the time the serious night crowds began to gather on the Strip, the oldsters knew better than to drink in Raul’s. Jimmy had given his bartenders and bouncers tips on how to discourage these types from frequenting his oh-so-trendy place. There were exceptions: middle-aged-guys on the prowl with credit cards and cash to burn in their pockets. “You see one of these older dudes on a pussy prowl,” Jimmy ordered his staff, “keep the drinks coming and get them to buy rounds for the ladies.” He showed them how to mark the receipts so that Jimmy could give them bonuses in their paychecks. Las Vegas had its whales; Jimmy had his select group of horny husbands who each dropped several hundred a week in his place.
Jimmy’s dream was to expand. There was an old cement-block, hillbilly bar that Jimmy had his eye on. The Strip was crawling with teenaged runaways—girls who would trick for a little dope money. He’d have no shortage of gorgeous, hot-looking strippers. Once Jimmy had the chamber of commerce president, the precinct commander, and the mayor in his pocket, he was going to seek a change in the city ordinances that would permit a “gentleman’s club.” Two of the three were regulars at Raul’s anyway. It was just a matter of getting that dim-bulb mayor to go along with it. If he didn’t bite at a bribe, Jimmy thought, he’d go the next route, which was to help his own candidate get elected. Jimmy was silently hand-picking potential candidates for that position from among his clientele.
But the street hag had to go first. She was a nuisance and an eyesore. Tonight was the night he would put his plan into motion.
That night while the music was pumping bass guitar riffs through the speakers, jimmy watched his bartender go up to the witch and lean over her. It was too loud to hear a word even if he were sitting on the next stool, but he watched the harpy palm the fifty-dollar bill Jimmy’s man left. She looked about as if she couldn’t believe her luck, then she swiveled her huge behind off the stool and made for the door.
“Good riddance,” Jimmy said watching her go and hoisted his drink in the direction of his bartender, who winked back at him.
“See, Harry,” Jimmy told himself grandiosely, “that’s where you made your mistake. Pay up and your problems go away like that.” He snapped his fingers to put an exclamation point to his own sagacity. “Poor Harry,” he sighed to himself. “That’s why he’s in there and I’m out here.”
She was back the next night—and the night after that, and the nights after that.
The fifty was replaced by a c-note and a simple but precise explanation what the money was for. Jimmy had his bartender practice it in front of him. “Make sure the goddamned old simpleton gets it this time,” Jimmy said with too much heat.
The woman had an iron gullet for all the booze she put away. But she knew how to nurse her last drink until almost closing time and the more prominent she was, sitting alone down there at the end of the bar, the angrier Jimmy became. He fantasized smashing a bottle of Four Roses over her skull (Jimmy wouldn’t waste a good brand on her). Sometimes it was the bouncer’s fish billy he used in his imagination; he could hear the crack and see the fractures like spider webs crisscrossing the skull bone.
But there she was again, night after night. Jimmy was getting ulcers over it.
“No more Mister Nice Guy,” he told his bartender when he reported for work, “I’ll handle it myself.”
Jimmy sidled over to her after he’d seen her down her fourth Rum-and-Coke of the night. He set a new drink in front of her and said, “Hi there, I’m Jimmy from Sheboygan.”
She eyed him and then the drink he was sliding toward her. She grunted something and wrapped her thick fist around the glass. Jimmy barely kept his grin in check. The drink was spiked with a tab of acid he’d bought on the street.
Jimmy stayed near the end of the bar pretending to polish glasses while he watched for a reaction. About fifteen minutes later, half the drink gone, she started to fidget. Jimmy had to turn his back so that no one could see him laughing.
The scream that erupted from her throat was loud enough to pierce through the music. The old woman fell off the stool, and hoisted herself to her hands and knees. She looked like a spavined horse having a seizure. Her mouth hung open and she gasped for breath like a dying fish on the shoreline.
Then, like magic, as if she were a suddenly nimble twenty-something herself, she scrambled to her feet and fled out the door nearly knocking over a young man just entering.
Jimmy experienced a pang of fear. “What if she dies, stumbled into traffic, gets run over …?” Thoughts like these haunted him all night until closing.
He never saw her again. Whatever guilt he felt that night was long gone and he was moving forward with his plans to purchase Jimmy II, his name for the strip-bar-to-be. Things were going so well that he could afford to lose a few bucks before he had all his chess pieces lined up for the switch to the gentleman’s club.
His regular bartender didn’t show that night so Jimmy had to fill in to keep the drinks moving back and forth. Jimmy realized he loved his work and his life was finally in the right place.
“You see, Harry,” he said, summoning his ex-cell mate’s familiar ghost, to read yet another lesson learned—or, in Harry’s case—unlearned. “You have to deal with every problem when it arises. Don’t treat small problems as insignificant. That’s how snowflakes accumulate to become avalanches.” Jimmy had forgotten that it was Harry who had lectured him about the old sociologist’s maxim of the broken-window theory. “One broken window, Harry, means ninety-nine are going to follow it sooner or later,” Jimmy would say when his staff couldn’t overhear.
Jimmy had an extra shot-and-beer at closing, a reward for pitching in, not holding back like a boss and looking for someone else to fill in.
He was out as soon as his head hit the pillow.
Jimmy thought the light penetrating his eyeballs was too much sunlight this early. He must have forgotten to pull the shades near his bed in his exhausted state.
When he opened his eyes fully, he knew it was something else. The old limbic brain at the base of his spine was tingling a warning sign. This wasn’t ordinary sunlight but a flashlight probing his eyes and face.
Jimmy sat straight up in bed as if electrocuted.
Mother of God, Jimmy realized as his brain collected itself and understood the image. Someone was in his bedroom.
That someone put on the room lights. That someone was a very big, bearded male in his late thirties. He wore denims and a vest with—Oh God—outlaw biker patches. Jimmy saw the Mongols logo, the one-percenter patch and, worst of all, the dozens of scrambled tattoos up and down the man’s massive arms. Jimmy heard men in boots walking around downstairs. “My friends,” the big biker said, “you don’t mind, right?”
“No,” Jimmy said, “help yourself. Take my money. I think I have a few hundred in my wallet.”
The biker smirked at him as if that were something funny.
“I can get the night receipts,” Jimmy offered. “There’s at least three thousand, all cash, small bills. Please … please take it and go.”
“It’s not your money we want, Shannon. It’s your bar. I have a paper for you to sign—”
He took out a wad of folded papers from his back pocket and tossed it to Jimmy.
Jimmy realized, with a sickening dread, these were in fact legal papers. He noted the pathetic figure entered as the sale price.
As if reading his mind, the biker said, “I know how much cash you have in the house and how much you keep in the bar and I know to the penny how much you have in your bank accounts, personal and business. You’ll be able to pay taxes on the sale and then you can skip town with your life.”
“What if I don’t sign?” Jimmy was astounded at the courage he mustered just to get that out, say it to this brute.
Without raising his voice, the biker said, “Don’t matter. You’ll disappear. That’s what them dudes downstairs is for. Your call. I’ll give you five minutes to think it over. I’m going for a beer and when I’m done, I’ll be back up to see what your answer is.”
Jimmy watched him go. He noticed his cell phone and wallet weren’t on the bureau top where he placed them every night after work. He leaned over the side of the bed and noticed that the phone jack was still in the outlet but it had been cut in half.
Time stopped in its tracks; it seemed seconds had passed but he heard the heavy tread of the big man coming back up.
“What’s it to be?”
“I’ll sign, I’ll sign your paper,” Jimmy said.
Jimmy signed the document and handed it to the biker who folded it haphazardly and thrust it inside his grotty Levi’s. “Now we got us one more thing to clear up,” he said and reached down where he groped under the bed and came up with the Louisville slugger Jimmy had put there when he first moved in and long since forgotten about.
He watched the biker’s big fist wrap itself around the meat end of the bat and clean it of the dust that had gathered on its sleek varnished surface.
“What—what are you doing?” Jimmy whispered, half-choking on his words. “I signed the paper.”
“Yeah, man, you did.”
The man didn’t even look at Jimmy as he took a practice swing that made the air ripple around Jimmy’s head. “That was business. This is personal. You’re going to be in the hospital for a long time. When you get out, you get out of town. Understand?”
“What—what are you saying?”
“You gave my old mother a mickey finn. She spent a week in the hospital, crying every day. She wrote me about it. When I got paroled at Chillicothe for good behavior, I decided to come see the lowlife prick that would do something that shitty to a harmless old lady.”
Jimmy said nothing; he waited for the blow without taking his eyes off the biker. He hoped he’d go unconscious right away and not too many bones would be broken when it was over. When the biker approached him from the side of the bed where he had more clearance for a good swing, Jimmy shut his eyes. He heard Harry’s ghost snickering in his head: “I told you, Jimmy. I told you always to treat your mark like you’d treat your own mother.”
The bat took Jimmy under the jaw. Before the citadel of his brain could register it and assess the damage from nerves shooting from jaw, broken teeth, and bloodied, impaled lips, he was back in the same pod, the very same cell with Harry, who was standing there shaking his head in dismay at Jimmy’s return. Jimmy tried to explain, tried to tell him about that irritating old woman, but somewhere deep below his feet—below the entire prison tier—a rumbling, whirling, black vortex was sucking in all his words and thoughts and, finally, the heaving sobs pouring out of his chest and spilling into the air.
Robb White publishes the Tom Haftmann private-eye series, most recently Nocturne for Madness. He has two noir mysteries: When You Run with Wolves and Waiting on a Bridge of Maggots. He has a collection of short stories: ‘Out of Breath’ and Other Stories. Special Collections won the Electronic Book Competition of 2014 by New Rivers Press.