Frank Kampos—a fixer and part-time finder of lost souls, which really means he uses people—picks up the beer bottle, sitting next to the crinkled Malboro pack, and takes a sip. Sets the bottle back down and scans the room even though he’s well aware of his surroundings and has kept a keen eye on the busy happenings inside the warm but less than vibrant bar.
He’s a roughhewed man, with sun-scorched skin and close-cropped widowed-peaked black hair, peppered with gray, wearing a tan double breast pocked work shirt over his lean frame, tucked into his blue jeans. His scoffed boots rest on the foot rail, and the tops of the boots strain against his pant legs. He turns slightly on the stool to get the girl sitting next to him’s attention.
The girl’s a dancer from across the street, wearing a white halter top a size too small for her frame minus a bra so the outfit shows off too much of her brown skin, with two interest-capturing dark circles poking up at him through the fabric, which distracted him for a bit, but he’s back on track now. Black, skin-tight, yoga pants complete her outfit. Tonight, the girl first seized his attention when he watched her from his car before he came into Gold’s Lounge, the bar. The dark hair Latin cutie sauntering across the street from the Tulsa neighborhood strip club named after a particular kind of below-the-belt haircut, all attitude, and emotion.
After going inside, Frank joined her at the bar, sitting a few stools down from her, and worked his unassuming magic by going to the restroom and coming back a bit closer. Not enough to tip her senses but close enough so he can talk to her when he, and more importantly, she was ready. Which is where he saw her expertly wipe tears from the corners of her eyes without messing up her makeup, especially her mascara, the neon orange half-inch nails looking good on her too but would be hell doing anything else other than dancing, and listened as she yelled into her cellphone, telling someone named Jarome that she would be back across the street when she was done with her break but that someone named Stefan had gone too far. Saying, “Fuck me, he’s here now too.” Then telling, who Frank still assumes is Jarome, “no, he’s not allowed to touch me like that and if Onus or you don’t do anything about it, I’m out of there.”
She ends the phone call and sets the cell phone face down.
Frank leans over, stretching his lean frame across the unoccupied stool separating them.
“You see that man over there?” he says, elbow on the bar top next to his bottle; points two fingers toward the man he’s been watching, too, the reason he’s here, by dropping his wrist at a right angle to the rest of the arm. The girl tracks Frank’s fingers to a jovial bald man wearing a purple and yellow rugby jersey with half his purple collar popped up on the left, sitting on the other side of the bar. “You see him, the bald guy, right over there? The one laughing like an idiot, you know him?”
The dancer glances at Frank with apprehension then at the man and then back to Frank. “Yeah what of it?”
Frank wouldn’t consider her tone exactly friendly, actually far from it, but it shows enough interest to tell him that there’s something here he can work with. The slight shuffle of her body on the stool, straightening her back, says he can offer her a distraction from her other problems, which means she’s willing to entertain him but only to a point, which he’s learned is the expiration on most cold-delivered elevator pitches.
So Frank sweetens her listening by withdrawing a hundred-dollar bill from his breast pocket and slapping it on the bar top with a muted clomp and slips it across the bar top toward her. Leaves the bill sitting in front of the unoccupied stool under the girl’s widening eyes.
“I know that man, ” Frank says. “You said you know him. Good, we both know him. That’s a good start. What do you know him as?”
“Stefan,” she says. “He’s a creep.”
“Yeah, how so?” But as soon as he asks it, Frank knows it was the wrong question, too much levity, and curiosity.
“What do you want?” she says, icily. “Where are you going with this? What’s the money for? I’m not that type of girl.”
“What type of girl is that?”
“The type where you hand a hundred-dollar bill and expect something in return,” she says, shifting away from him, “I’m a dancer, sure, but I’m not what you are looking for.”
Frank expected this. “How do you know what I’m looking for? You don’t know me; you don’t know what I’m looking for. Maybe you are exactly who I’m looking for.”
She stares at him deadpan.
He adds, “The money’s for your time—”
She crosses her arms as her attention starts to drift away from him. “That’s what I’m saying, I don’t do what you want. I dance for money. I show off my body, but I don’t degrade myself. I’m not what you are looking for. I’m not that type of girl, I just dance.”
Frank’s sure she dances but dancing can be pretty degrading. Running in the circles Frank’s ran, the disorganized crime ones, Frank’s gotten to know quite a few dancers over time. Once was a Jarome of the world; does something different now, but Frank can’t change who he was.
Frank points again at the bald man. “That’s Cuba Mosby— Munoz is his real name, but he thinks Mosby makes him sound like something he’s not. Important,” Frank says. “You know him as Stefan?”
The woman adjusts her black hair off the shoulder closest to him. “That’s what he says his name is,” she says. “He can’t keep his fucking hands to himself. He smells like some lavender fucked a rotten coconut.”
“Must be his middle name,” Frank goes on without skipping a beat, but her description of Cuba’s aroma is pretty dead on. Frank spent enough time with the guy sharing a cell. “I don’t know if it makes him sound better, using his middle name, but Mosby’s what he thinks or thought made people forget his skin color and see his value on paper. Hard to get a job when you’re a spic convict. And, when I knew him that’s all he was. Although, it’s been a while since we last saw each other, and I don’t know if he’ll recognize me now. Been like five years since we were in the same room. And it wasn’t a pleasant experience.” Frank doesn’t say for whom. He stares at her. “Do you think it sounds better?”
“Better for what?” she asks.
“That’s a smart question,” Frank says, pleased; he found the right girl. “Most people, they ask what the money’s for, why your time, and why I’m paying a hundred just to listen—they’d ask what they are listening to, expect some sort of pitch, which of course in a way that’s what this is,”—smoothly motioning back and forth, from her to him with those same two fingers—“but not you. No, you know what it’s for. Your time. Like I said.Like with dancing. The money you make there, that’s for your time too; not for the skill in the art of shaking your moneymaker, because you know it doesn’t matter how good of a show you put on your going to make some money as long as it’s decent and those guys, they’re always going to throw money at someone—not always going to be you. No your different, better, got a head on your shoulders.” His words make the girl smile. “What’s your name?”
“Chade,” she says, “like shade, but with a CH.”
“Chade,” Frank says, trying the name out, rolling it across his tongue.
Frank sticks his hand out there, which might as well be a hook on a line, she’s bought in now, even if he’s the one who laid down the money first, but that’s alright, he’s playing his own game. She politely accepts.
“Frank,” he says, “and you know what questions to ask because you’re smart. Not in the University since. No. I don’t know if you even finished high school, my guess is you didn’t, but I don’t want to judge you too harshly, and we’re not going to count being locked up as university although it is…no you’resmart in other ways. Worldly ways,” calling her what she is without calling her what she is, his way of showing respect. “That’s how I know I got the right girl; see I’ve been watching you for the last hour while I nurse this beer.”
He cocks his head to the Budweiser
“What of it?”
“I’ll get there,” Frank says.
“You a cop?”
“Do I look like a cop?”
Chade studies him for a moment. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Then why you ask?” Frank holds up a hand. “Let me put it to you a different way, what about me made you think to ask if I were a cop? I’d like to know for professional reasons. Don’t want to give off the wrong vibe. Might get me hurt or something.”
She says, “Because I’ve been watching you too, thinking you are smooth, keeping your eyes on me but not acting like you’re looking at me, or Stefan. And going to someplace else and coming back just a bit closer is an old trick. Find new material. And I think you are here for that man. You say the money’s for my time, but then I know the money’s for your pitch, not my time. Not necessarily for the guy either. So ifyou’re not a cop, then I don’t know what you want the man for.”
“I’m in collections,” Frank says matter-of-factly but a read of her eyes tells him she doesn’t know what that is, “like a bondsman but I’m not what you would call official.”
“License, badge, maybe a gun that wouldn’t get you putaway for having,” Frank says. That’s how he went down the first time.
“Do you have a gun?”
“What do you think?”
He has a gun, tucked into his boot, handle digging into his left ankle. A revolver so it doesn’t jam or eject casings. He hates carrying the thing, but he’s found it’s better to have a gun and not need it than need one and not have it.
“I think you think you are smarter than you pretend to be,” she says. “I think you know exactly what you’re doing, and I think you’re just playing with me because you want me to do something, but you haven’t actually gotten around to telling me what that might be. What do you want?”
“For us to be on the same page.”
Chade picks up her beer and sips it. The entire bar smells like someone hosed the place down with stale beer. The nakedbulbs on the mirror in front of her, wrapping around the mirror, illuminate her face harshly, giving him a good look at her heavy makeup, which is nearly painted on, and her false eyelashes.
She says, “If you know the man’s name, why don’t you just go over there and do whatever it is you are here to do?”
“I can’t just go over there,” Frank says. “That’s not how this works.”
“How’s this work?”
Frank chuckles. “I have to surprise him. Give him a jolt; make him wee his pants or something.”
“Instill fear?” she asks, interested like she wouldn’t mind getting back at Stefan, which again, is the reason why Frank’s talking to her.
“Yeah, something like that,” he says.
It’s not at all like that and that’s not the reason why he’s not walking across the bar and doing what he does best. The reason is this place is full of witnesses.
“I do favors for friends. Sometimes they ask me to come around, ask people to fulfill their promises, pay their debts, that sort of thing.”
“So what do you want with me?”
“I think you are in a unique position.”
“You’re not above using your body to make some money and he likes you.”
“How do you know that?”
“He can’t stop looking at you,” Frank says. “Cuba’s always had a thing for—well girls that look like you and the whole time I’ve been sitting here, doing my thing, watching you, he’s been staring at you.” Frank leans back on the stool, sips his beer. “Honestly, I don’t know how you haven’t felt his eyes boring into you, the way he’s staring.”
“—makes my skin crawl—”
“Like with the hair standing on in and everything?”
“Yeah, like that.” They’ve come to the moment, where he’s going to have to lay it out, so she knows what he wants. He can’t put it off any longer. “What do you really want with me?”
“I want you to go over there,” Frank says. “Squeeze them Tetons together in his face, offer to take him outside to show him a good time, probably use his car, you don’t have one and if you did, you wouldn’t want what’s going to happen to happen to yours.”
“What’s going to happen?”
Frank shakes the beer, index finger up off the neck. “No, no, I can’t tell you that.”
“That’s all you want?” Chade asks, considering the proposal. “What’s the catch?”
Frank smiles uncomfortably and rolls his shoulders, both of them, forward in a slow tension releasing way. “I may have to frighten him,” he says, “which means it might be what some people may or would consider violent.”
It will be downright savage, but he doesn’t share that with her. No need.
Chade asks, “Just go over there, offer to let him do what he wants to do, take him outside, and then you’re goin’ to do your thing?”
Frank’s smile transitions to his eyes, genuine now. “Yeah, that’s the idea—give him the Midnight Special.”
“The thing you can’t tell me about?”
“I told you, I’m going to talk to him.”
Frank’s not but no reason to tell her that.
“How much?” Chade sips the beer. “I don’t know if a hundred’s going to be enough.”
“The hundred’s not for him,” Frank says, shaking his head. “I told you, the hundred’s for your time. I’ll give you five more if you do what I ask and then look the other way when the time comes.”
“Look the other way?”
Frank nods. “Sorry, officer, I don’t know what happened. Some lunatic showed up out of nowhere. No, I didn’t get a good look at him.”
“That type of look the other way?” Chade says. “You think the police will show up?”
“Always a possibility, with what I do,” Frank says. “I guess that depends upon Cuba.”
What he doesn’t say is it depends upon Cuba and if he matters in the eyes of the local law enforcement.
Chade grips the beer bottle with both hands and stares blankly into the mirror. She closes her eyes, the false lashes fluttering down in a dark wave.
Frank tugs the roll of cash lose from his other breast pocket and starts to count out the five hundred. The sound of fabric and him licking his finger, dramatically counting out the five hundred, get’s her attention. It should. That’s what he wanted. She opens her eyes as he finishes counting out the five hundred and then he sits it on the bar top. Stuffs the rest of the roll back into the pocket.
“All of it now?” she asks, eyeing the money.
“What,” Frank says, shrugging innocently, “you going to rip me off? Either you go over there, or you don’t. But if you take the money and leave, it’s not like I won’t notice.”
Chade grins. “Give me the five now and another four more when it’s done.”
Frank expected this. “Negotiations, I like it. What’s the other four going to be for? You’ve already done the job.”
“To look the other way, if or when the cops come around.”
“Alright, alright.” Frank counts out another four hundred and lays it on the bar. Doesn’t matter to Frank any, it’ll be tacked on to Cuba’s bill—for expenses. “The four hundred for after, but you got to say nothing. Remember, with the people I work for, I’m good at finding people.”
Chade regards him for a moment longer and then swipes the money off the bar. She finishes her beer, slams it on the bar top, and stands all in one motion. She folds and slips the cash into the waistband of her yoga pants. She glances at him once more before turning, shuttering, transforming from the cynical dancer to something a bit more bubbly, and somehow, in Frank’s eyes, life flushes into her cheeks, her heavy makeup blends into perfection against her skin, as her now supple lips stretch back into the most radiate smile he’s ever seen.
He picked the right girl.
Chade crosses the bar, greets Cuba loudly, surprising him, and slithers into his lap the way a house cat climbs into its owner’s lap for affection. Next thing Frank knows, Chade’s got her arms wrapped around Cuba’s neck and he’s trying to kiss at her, but she keeps throwing her head back, just enough, to prevent each attempt.
Then they’re up, Chade leading the way, Cuba’s hand in her hand, as they move to the front of the small bar and the door.
Hunched over, Frank waits with hands around the Budweiser, watching the whole scene unfold in the bar’s mirrored backstop. Waits until the doors swing close and then gives it a full sixty-second count, the whole time his heart hammering away because this is the moment things could go wrong. Cuba could have noticed him. Chade could take his money and run. Warn him. The possibilities are nearly endless, and yet, they’re not, because Frank picked the right girl. Only took two weeks of watching Cuba’s habits to pick the time.
Normally, he’s a bit more heavy-handed, but Laird wanted to send a message and made sure Frank knew it was important for him to send the right message. Laird said, “Don’t kill him; just make him regret taking my money…or something. Be creative about it.”
Frank got the job because he knew Cuba; wouldn’t say they were exactly friends, but when a guy runs out on a debt a coupleof years old, it takes a certain type to track him down. Someone that knows him.
Laird said Cuba’s debt was something that could be accommodated, but Cuba needed to know he can’t go off the reservation again. Frank told him he’d handle it.
Frank collects his cigarette pack, throws a twenty on the bar for the bartender, and stands to leave, pushing open the heavy wooden door and stepping into the night. He tugs on his belt before bending to remove the revolver from his boot. He puts .38 police special in his back waistband and takes a deep breath with his hands on his hips, working the adrenaline through his system until his lungs catch up to his hammering heart. He clenches his hands, flexing his fingers, a few times, getting the kinks out.
From recon, Frank knows Cuba drives an old square-ishFord pickup truck, two-toned, black and silver, with neon lines running down the sides and a big Madonna in the window, sun-faded from baby blue to luminous white.
Frank’s dark eyes scan the streetlight shadowed parking lot, spots the truck and the two silhouettes filling the windows, kissing-loves, off to the side of the lot. He crosses the parking lot, digging the cigarette pack out of the back pocket, and taps the last cigarette out, placing it behind his ear like one does a pencil. He feels for the lighter in his pocket with his fingers before crumpling the pack and throwing it in the back of Cuba’s truck bed, unworried about discovery. Then quietly, with the same unhurried hand, retrieves the Jersey claw, the wicked-looking multi-tool with a big-ass metal bear claw at the end used for a variety of things, from where he stashed it in the back of Cuba’s truck bed.
Swinging the Jersey claw like a baseball bat down by his thigh, Frank rounds to the driver’s side, transitioning both hands to the handle, lifts the Jersey claw in one swift heave, over his left shoulder, and swings through the driver’s side window as expertly as a switch hitter smashing a homer. The glass shatters,exploding inward and showering Cuba and Chade with fragments before either one of them knows what’s happening. Frank rakes out the window with a couple of twisting thrusts, jabbing the Jersey claw against Cuba, who’s now turning to see what the hell’s happening.
Frank drops the tool, reaches through the window, snatching a bunched handful of Cuba’s shirt, and drags Cuba halfway through the window. “Here you go,” Frank says, hefting, and then let’s gravity do the rest of the work. Cuba spills headfirst to the ground. No reason to do more work than necessary. Frank looks down at him Cuba. “Should I whistle while I work? I feel like I should be whistling.”
“What the fuck man?” Cuba groans, gathering himself. “Do you know who I am?”
Frank glances at the girl, who’s picking glass out of her cleavage. Then he kicks Cuba in the side. “No one said talk,” Frank says. “Don’t you see this isn’t one of those times where you get to talk? I mean, a guy, me, drags you out of your truckwhile you’re trying to get your dick wet should send a certain type of signal.”
Cuba groans again.
Frank pauses for Cuba to roll over and see who’s there. He plucks the cigarette from his ear and shimmies the lighter out of his pocket.
Cuba rolls over. “Frank?”
Cupping his hand around the cigarette in his mouth, lightening it, the flame flashing an image of his face, Frank says, “Hey, buddy.” He snorts out the initial drag of smoke through his nostrils.
“What the hell, Frank?”
“You owe Laird some money,” Frank says calmly.
“That’s what this is all about?” Cuba says, crabbing backward across the concreate, shoulders and heels scooting his lean body.
“Don’t make me chase you.” Frank sighs, reaching around his back and removing the revolver from his waistband. “Laird’s going to let you live.”
But Cuba doesn’t stop scooting.
“Ah come on, man,” Frank says, “this could be easier for you. I’m just supposed to come here and instill the fear of God, so to say, to make sure you know Laird knows where you are and you’re going to pay back his money. You know that right, you’re going to pay it back, or you won’t see me coming. Not that you did now.”
Not that Frank’s ever killed anyone but Cuba doesn’t know that.
Cuba nods but doesn’t stop moving, gaining another strained inch.
Trailing after him, Frank brings the revolver around, takes aim, and shoots Cuba in the left foot. “There, that’ll stop you for a few moments. I’m trying to talk to you. What you don’t want to talk to me?”
“You’re a psycho!”
Frank shoots the other foot. Cuba howls in pain.
Frank says, “I much prefer this,”—shaking the revolver—“to breaking your legs the old-fashioned way. It’s easier. More efficient. So now that I got your attention—stop your bellyaching; I can’t talk to you if you’re screaming and if you’re screaming you’re going to bring some unwanted attention to yourself—listen, Laird doesn’t want you dead, not yet, but he wants his money.” Frank pauses; waits. “This is where you say the words.”
Groping at his wounds, Cuba says, “What words?” through gritted teeth.
“I’m going to pay Laird,” Frank says. “Now say it with me, I’m going to pay Laird.”
“I’m going to pay Laird.”
“There, was that so hard?” Frank glances back to the girl, who’s slowly extricating herself from Cuba’s truck while Frank slips the gun in his front waistband. It’s warm through the work shirt. Frank retrieves the Jersey claw from the ground, resting it on his shoulder, and takes a drag from the cigarette. “You want to take a hit of this?” Holding the cigarette out toward Cuba.
Cuba shakes his head, crying, a pathetic sniveling cry. Getting shot in the foot has a way of making the pain stick around.
“That’s what I figured,” Frank says, flipping the half-burnt cigarette at Cuba’s bald head. Cuba squeezes his eyes shut as the cigarette collides with his forehead, bounces, and sends a dazzle of sparks fading into the night just like Frank.
BIO: Mark Atley is the author of The Olympian, American Standard, and the forthcoming A Bright Young Man from Close to the Bone Publishing, as well as a handful of short fiction. Look for Too Late To Say Goodbye and Trouble Weighs a Ton coming soon as books one and two in the Tulsa Underworld Trilogy from 4Horsemen Publishing
Mark promises to entertain his readers and will choose real other drama every time. He works as a detective for a suburb of Tulsa, OK, and has dedicated his life to crime. Check out markatley.com for more information or follow him on Twitter: @mark_atley or at markatley.com