Staring Humphrey Bogart & Ingrid Bergman
I pushed open the heavy door beneath the blue, blinking sign and stepped into the nearly Stygian darkness of the bar, wincing as the screech of the hinges pierced my eardrums while the splinter from the weathered surface of the door frame pierced my hand.
“Ouch!” I muttered and pressed the wound to my mouth. Maybe not the most sanitary but certainly a universal gesture and a comfort. No one in the room appeared to notice my entrance or distress. I rubbed the wound dry and stuffed my hands into my pockets to limit any further risks. I stopped a few feet into the room to allow my eyes to adjust.
It was not a five star establishment. Someone was very concerned about the light bill because the fifteen watt bulbs over the booths and tables barely made a dint in the dark. Tables were clothless and most customerless. Impossible to tell what kind of wood paneled the walls. Eons of smoke had coated them to an indecipherable black.
Along the wall, I could make out three people in two booths. The lone person's bald head reflected the poor light over it. With effort, he might be able to read something in that booth. Two other people were seated at two tables, one nursing a drink and another smoking a cigarette and staring at something in the darkness that I suspected only he could see. Smoke curled upward and caressed the light, as if to coax more from it. It was a wasted effort. The light only winked.
The bar that ran along one side of the room must have been magnificent when it was installed. Five dim, recessed lights placed equidistant over it made it only slightly lighter than the rest of the room. It was an ornate mahogany creation whose luster had been scraped away over the years by thousands of glasses, cuff buttons, and elbows and whose brass trim was long ago tarnished to a dull brown. A flyspecked mirror covered the wall behind it, the reflections in it only a dream half remembered.
Three men sat at that bar. The first was tall and slender and wore a black trench coat. He sat leaning on the bar, one foot on the rail and the other on the floor. A briefcase lay on the bar at his elbow and when he raised his drink I caught a glimpse of something glittery on his wrist. Out of place, I thought.
The man to his right was big, not fat but large and he wore a pair of overalls. His work boots were caked in mud and there was the distinct scent of farm about him. He wore a Braves baseball cap on his head. I got a flash of tractors and barns in my head and couldn't shake it. Somewhere in my brain “Farmer in the Dell” began a litany.
It was the third man who worried me. He was obviously a policeman. I studied him a bit more closely. He was tall and clean-cut. He was the only man facing into the room. His eyes moved around slowly, pausing here and there to study someone or something. It seemed an odd place for him to be at this time of night. There was nothing happening here. But then, maybe that was why.
I wondered which one was my contact. I had little to go on except he would meet me here at 11:00 pm. He would know me, he'd said. I looked at my watch. It was 10:30. I sighed and looked around. Plenty of places to wait but none inviting.
A low mutter came from my right and I glanced around, startled. A small wizened face peered up at me and the whites of the eyes glowed round and bulging. In a voice of rusty hinges he said, “Buy us a drink, honey.” He stretched out a hand caked in something, nails broken and he grinned, his mouth empty and black as the room. “We'll give you a lovely present. Buy us a drink.” The smell of old urine and rank breath wafted around me and my stomach folded in on itself. The smile faded and his face twisted, the mouth became a maw. “Buy us a drink, bitch and we'll let you live.”
I stepped back, moving toward the bar. Something cold and clammy slithered up my spine. What, I wondered, was that?
From the far end of the bar a voice called out. “'ere now, 'arry, leave the customers alone or I'll show you the sidewalk.”
I squinted. A form, darker than the surrounding darkness moved along the bar and a very tall, very pale man appeared. He stopped beneath the last light, nearest me. “Pay the ole divel no mind. Can I get you a drink, lass?”
I stared. He was a ghost. His hair, brows, and skin was snow white and his eyes had a strange cast to them. I realized they were pink. He as an albino. “Um. . .” It caught in my throat and I swallowed, scanning the three at the bar. “Yes, please. Do you have Coca Cola?”
Someone snorted, the farmer I thought. Laughter came from the man in the trench coat. The policeman's eye locked on me and a slight frown creased an otherwise perfect brow. He was handsome. Again I thought it odd he was here.
“Course we do. Bottled. Would you like ice for that?”
“Yes, please.” I sat down at the table near the window. It wasn't much of a window. Even if it were the middle of the day it wouldn't have mattered. It was dirty, flyspecked, and cloudy with smoke residue. It was doubtful if they could ever be properly cleaned.
“May I join you?”
I jumped and looked up. Trench coat stood over me. He wore a black suit and tie beneath the coat. He smiled down at me. Oh.
I nodded. He sat down, his back to the room.
“What are you doing in a dive like this?” he asked.
Someone put money in the jukebox and the lights lit up one corner of the room. Sammi Smith began to croon “Help Me Make It Thru the Night”. The bartender brought me my cola with a glass of ice. I opened it, deliberating before answering. “That is a very old line, you know. But I might ask you the same thing.” I glanced over his shoulder at the policeman who met my gaze with an unblinking stare.
“Yes, you might. But I think you know why I'm here.”
I studied my drink. Yes, I did.
“You have it?”
He smiled and leaned forward. I felt my insides flip-flop and turn to jello. I wondered how I was going to scrape them off the floor and separate them from the filth.
He reached out and stroked my cheek. He whispered, “Darling, of course I have it. But do you have my money?”
I nodded. “The merchandise first.”
He laughed. “Here?”
I looked around. He'd made me forget where I was. Not good.
“The money is in my hotel room. I'll give you the money when I get my merchandise.”
He shook his head and sat back. “Sweetheart,” his voice was soft and teasing, “we have a problem.”
Breathe. Breathe. I took a deep breath and let it out. “No, you do. I have the money. I want the merchandise and then, you get the money.”
“So, how do you propose to do this?”
I thought about it, not liking any of the alternatives.
“Tell you what, I'm perfectly willing to give it to you here, if you want. We can use the back room. But that means you have to go back and get the cash.”
Long sigh. Long drink. I nodded. “Right. OK. Um, you'll have to follow me to my hotel.”
The smile sent warm waves all over me. “Of course. Perfect solution. We could take my car. I'll bring you back for yours if you like.” At my look he shook his head. “All right. Not a solution. Why don't we take your car and I'll pick mine up afterward.”
I shrugged. “Right. That'll work.”
The policeman got up and strolled around the room, slowly making his way toward us. I stood up. “Let's go now.”
He laughed, and trailed his finger along my jawline. “My, my. In a bit of a rush, aren't we. Let me get my case.”
I bolted out the door and waited on the sidewalk beneath the blinking blue sign. He joined me and I pointed to my car across the street. With his hand at my elbow, we crossed the street. He opened my door for me.
He tossed his briefcase into the back seat and before I could slip away his arm snaked around my waist and he pulled me against him. “I'll take a down payment, if you don't mind.”
I melted against him and moaned, slipping my arms around his neck. “Yes,” I whispered.
He lowered his head and I raised my face to claim the kiss. I breathed in the scent of him.
“Keys,” he murmured.
I pulled them from my pocket and handed them to him and slid across the seat, allowing him to get in the driver's seat. I saw the policeman come out the door of the bar.
“Hurry. He's coming.” I said. The engine purred to life and we pulled away, leaving the officer staring after our glowing taillights.
I gave him the address and leaned back and closed my eyes. I felt his hand on my thigh. I moved it off. “Stick with the plan.”
He looked at me, grey eyes smoldering. “If you keep this up, I won't be able to.”
I smiled a sultry smile. “Happy Anniversary, darling.”