It was raining when the cab slowed to a stop.
John paid the driver with change from his pocket, flipping the collar of his jacket up around his neck as he stepped into the night. From his coat he produced a small piece of paper and compared the address written in neat pen to that of the building before him. This was it. Despite all his years of business in this town he’d never been to this place. He’d never even heard of it.
He paused for a moment under the fading red awning above the sidewalk to smoke. The street was unusually quiet for the hour. John liked the silence and lingered over his cigarette, watching the occasional car roll past. The light from surrounding shops refracted through the droplets to create a cool glow. The distortion was beautiful, in a way, like the dreams of big cities John had as a kid. When the paper burned down to the filter, John rubbed it out under his heel and pushed on the heavy steel door.
Inside, he removed his damp coat and hung it on the empty rack in the entrance corridor. He descended the three steps to the main hall of the establishment and surveyed the scene. The club was dreary and dark. Dim light bulbs flickered hopelessly from dusty chandeliers scattered about the vaulted ceiling. At one point they must have been grand, but now the crystal was so stained with grime and nicotine that the light shining through them was a sad brown complexion. They were mostly for show anyway.
Most of the useful light in the place came from the small candles sitting on each of the old wooden tables throughout the tiered room. About fifteen of them perched at various heights, all with a single flame atop them. They kept the seating area bright enough to navigate, but dark enough to ensure privacy. A long wooden bar ran along the wall to the left of the seating arrangements. John could only make out a few men sitting alone at the bar, and a only a few more dispersed among the tables. Near the far side of the room a large man in an unbuttoned coat sat with two elegantly dressed women. One of them was wearing a black dress and diamond earrings that sparkled defiantly though the milieu of the evening. Quite by accident, John locked eyes with her for a moment. She smiled. He nodded in acknowledgement.
On the small stage at the back of the club there were four men playing a slow jazzy number. A drummer swept his brush across a snare and cymbals, while an upright bass player snapped away at a smooth and steady line. From a piano that seemed too large for the venue came soft chords over which a guitarist dribbled long and lingering notes. The resulting combination of efforts wouldn’t snatch your attention, but many idle moments had dissolved away completely into this type of sound.
John took a seat at the bar. A large mirror along the length of the wall made the place feel bigger than it actually was, though it too was weathered from the passing of time. Rows and rows of exotic liquors rested neatly in shelves in front of the mirror. Everything was coated in dust. There was no bartender in sight. John leaned forward on his elbows and peered nonchalantly down the bar to his right. Nearest to him, three stools down, was an older gentleman staring down into a hi ball of what looked like whisky. He was utterly disheveled, sporting a tattered white dress shirt and brown slacks that looked to have been hemmed and re-hemmed many times. His tie was loose. It hung down sadly into his lap, where it lay limp. The man was slowly rubbing one thumb up and down his glass, lost in thought.
John retreated back onto his stool, turning round to face the stage. The musicians kept on playing, faces both absent and focused at once. The guitarist wore large dark glasses, and a cigarette dangled from his mouth as he plucked away. John always liked watching artists at work. He had never seen these players before, but boy could they play. Each one did their part, hearing and respecting their role in the sonic space. Four men, playing four different instruments, for one moment in time were able to communicate beyond words something important to a room full of drunks and lowlifes. Without noticing, John’s foot had started following along with the slow melody echoing through the dying night club.
From behind him came the familiar voice.
“Why, good evening, Mr. Fowler.”
John could recognize that twinge of a Southern drawl anywhere, though up to this point he’d only ever heard it through the phone. He turned round and faced the man he was here to meet. He was tall, and neatly dressed in an all-black three piece suit and dark loafers. The man flashed a soft smile, and removed his hat to reveal a head of stately white hair. His tie was burgundy red, and his teeth were whiter than anything John had ever seen in his life.
“I hope you haven’t been waiting long. I’m afraid my obligations stole more time from me than expected.”
He unbuttoned his jacket and slid smoothly into the seat on John’s left. His face was wrinkled, but in a way that suggested his life had been well-lived. These lines were earned, not accepted. Maybe it was the depressing aesthetic of their surroundings, but something about the brilliance of the man’s teeth made John’s skin crawl.
“No,” John said, “I’ve only just arrived myself.”
“Wonderful. Would you like a drink?”
The man gestured to the bar with an elegant raise of his hand. Seemingly out of nowhere there appeared a frail old man in a faded waiter’s uniform. There was no life in his eyes.
“Sure,” John replied, “bourbon on the rocks.”
The bartender nodded blankly, retreating into the shadows. John looked back at the man in black. He was still baring his teeth in an unreadable half-smile. The man splayed his arms out slowly, with his fingers drawn upwards as if to say, Well?
“Here we are.”
He was still smiling as he said it. John leaned back in his stool.
“Yeah. You called, I came.”
The man stared at him for a moment and then chuckled. He folded his arms around his chest. On his left wrist was a very expensive looking watch. European maybe. John could see the second hand ticking away. It outpaced the music only slightly.
“And I appreciate that. Truly. This is ugly business; it pains me that we had to meet under such circumstances.”
The man had a very smooth speaking voice. His words rose from a place deep in his chest, but came out in a controlled bass that hummed pleasantly. The cadence of his speech was expertly timed to convey both authority and decisiveness. It was the kind of voice that could tell you anything and you’d want to keep listening. But this was not a conversation John wished to linger over.
“What was I supposed to do. Doesn’t seem like I had much of a choice,” John said.
“That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose,” the man replied, grinning. “But then again, we always have a choice. You just made yours long ago.”
John clucked his teeth to himself. He wheeled around on his seat and found his drink waiting patiently on the coaster. Condensation frosted the bottom third of the glass. How long has this been here? he wondered. He took a long sip, grateful for the sting of strong liquor to break the strange unreality playing out around him.
“Seems that way,” John replied.
The bartender returned once again, setting down a glass of clear liquid in front of John’s date.
“Thank you Victor,” the man said.
He lifted the cup to his lips and took a short sip. His eyes pulled shut for a moment as he savored the taste. In the front of the club the band had switched their tune. The pace was even slower now, and the feel even more melancholy. John swirled his drink, trying to unite the melting ice with the liquor in a uniform substance.
“What exactly do you want from me?” John asked.
The man looked forward to the mirror and didn’t answer immediately. He seemed to be studying his reflection intently. Between the dingy surface of the glass and the dim lighting, all John could see of himself was the most elementary jumble of dark shapes.
“Yes, I suppose that is the question of the evening…” the man turned to John.
“Tell me, Mr. Fowler, what do you know about me?”
John thought for a moment. He really did not know much more than the fact that whoever this man was, he was powerful. John also knew that he owed this man a great deal of money. As for the stories he’d heard about folks who tried to cross him, well… those were just rumors.
“Well. Not a whole hell of a lot mister,” John said. He took another swig of his bourbon. “And to be quite honest, I’m damn happy to keep it that way.”
The man offered no reaction. He simply turned back to the mirror again. John wasn’t quite sure what to do, so he finished his drink. Again, from nowhere, the bartender emerged from the shadows and offered him another round. The flickering candlelight from the tables made the whole place feel like it was moving.
“That’s all well and good Mr. Fowler. All you really need to know is that you have taken advantage of my hospitality,” the man said. He turned to face John. “And I am not a man that takes kindly to that sort of disrespect.”
The man removed a piece of lint from his sleeve delicately, twisting it to the floor between his thumb and forefinger.
“Now, the situation we find ourselves in on this fine evening is not one I suspect you are accustomed to. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I suspect I am not. I, on the other hand, have made it my business to navigate these, situations, let’s say, as professionally and efficiently as possible.”
He turned to John and smiled. It sent a chill down his spine, and John took another sip of bourbon.
“Do you understand what I’m trying to say to you, Mr. Fowler?”
John nodded slowly. Jesus, he thought to himself, what have I gotten mixed up in.
The man breathed in deeply, exhaling into a smile through his pearly white teeth.
“Good. Let me get to the point then,” the man said.
He picked up his glass and took another gentle drink. John could smell that it was gin.
“By the very fact that you’ve the wits to come meet me here tonight I’d offer that you’re a tactful man Mr. Fowler. Someone who will acknowledge the necessity of making hard choices when they must be made.”
What the hell else was I supposed to do, John thought. He nodded again.
“Well, that’s very good Mr. Fowler. Because what I want to propose to you tonight is a special opportunity. One that has the potential to satisfy both parties of this little…” he trailed off. “Negotiation, as it were.”
John took another pull of his bourbon. He could feel the alcohol working its way through his body. These must be doubles, he thought.
Somehow the band’s newest song was even slower than before. The music and the sad light of the old chandeliers and wavering candles danced around the club. John’s foot was still keeping time, rolling back and forth over the wooden rest of his stool.
The man continued.
“As I was saying before, you have made serious of decisions, Mr. Fowler. A long and interesting series of decisions that led you from wherever you come from to this moment.”
He bowed his silver head in the direction of John’s seat.
“To that very position, in fact. And to this conversation with me, in which we are presently engaged.”
Something in the man’s tone made John’s bones ache, like a winter chill coming too soon in the season for one to be wearing the proper clothing.
“Sure,” John replied. He wished the strange bartender would return to refill his glass soon.
“I know quite a bit about you, actually. Quite a life you’ve led Mr. Fowler.”
John said nothing and faced the stage once again. Atop the raised surface the pianist had begun tinkling out a somber solo, while his three companions hushed their tones in respectful deference. It was a downtempo expression that emerged from the keys- a sorrowful reflection on experiences unknown but certainly familiar to all those unlucky enough to find themselves in this filthy establishment. All John’s life he wished he could play piano. It would be better to be the one making this type of music than the one suffering from the regret it illuminated.
“You don’t understand,” John snarled. “You don’t know a goddamned thing about me.”
He looked up at the man and held his steely gaze until he was forced to look away. He could feel something bubbling up inside of him, though he couldn’t identify anything beyond its ugliness.
The man leaned towards John, studying his face. He wasn’t smiling anymore.
“Mr. Fowler, whether or not you choose to accept the oppressive truth of this fact, I assure you that you alone are responsible for sum and total of the circumstances before us,” he said. “We all must face our day of reckoning sooner or later. For you, that day has come.”
Whispers of old memories rode the man’s words through the dingy air of the club into John’s skull. Pictures of people and places flashed suddenly before his eyes, a horrible montage of the pain and grief that accumulates during some thirty-odd years of a life of deceit. What he’d done to get here, the people he’d hurt, the lies he’d told… None of it was anything to be proud of. John knew this. As much as he ran and drank and slipped away from the truth, it was always inside of him, somewhere deep in his gut like a cancer.
What the hell is this, John thought. He emptied his bourbon down his gullet, but it did no good against the cold. In this state of exposure he could feel the sting of hastily self-bandaged wounds searing at their rotten edges.
The man stared at John. He seemed to be watching these unpleasant thoughts as they drifted about John’s consciousness. The man’s hand was gripping his glass of gin, with one forefinger tracing the rim slowly. His skin was smooth, nails trimmed neatly. It made John sick. The whole situation did.
Behind him, the band was still plugging away, slowly, following the ups and downs of the charts with the sparkling lethargy only jazz musicians can produce.
He reached into his pocket a grabbed his pack of smokes.
“I don’t know what you’re getting at exactly.” John said.
He placed a cigarette in his mouth and lit it.
“But I didn’t come here for a goddam confession,” John smirked over his first puff. “And you sure as shit don’t look like any preacher I’ve ever seen, anyways.”
He exhaled and tamped his ashes into a dusty tray beside his empty glass.
“So why don’t you cut the bullshit, and tell me why I’m here.”