I sat in the 4 pm lull pouring bourbon into coffee that was new at noon. By the time the java hit my off-white mug it was the consistency of engine oil and just as strong. I levelled it off with a few more nips from my flask, aware that somewhere in the labyrinth of faded red polyester booths Nancy stalked with an eye for what she called disreputables. It didn’t matter to me, I’d run afoul of the old buzzard more than once. More than once she’d rouse me from a doze and demand that I pay for something or make tracks. If she wanted to give me the boot for improving the house blend then she could go right ahead, I’d go take up my usual stool at Hogan’s Place.
When the bell on the door rang I knew it was Harry from the way he threw his weight into it, something he was known for before he was just a passing spectre in this neighbourhood. The sleigh bells clashed against the glass-like Santa Clause from hell had arrived, bringing a blast of late October air with him. I listened to his wet shoes squeak across the linoleum and a pair of leather oxfords announced his presence in my field of vision. He stood dripping on the floor for a few minutes longer, my guess was he was trying to figure out if the lump keeping the booth warm was the man he used to know.
“You’re early.” It wasn’t the words he said so much as the way he said them, with that same haughty attitude like I was wasting his time even though he called me. I traced a line from the floor to his eyes, my neck feeling ancient, my head feeling stuffed. Harry Clemens stood in a wool coat cinched at the waist and scarf caressing the exposed skin of his freshly shaven neck. He pulled his doeskin gloves off finger by finger and in one absurd second, I thought he’d slap me across the face with them. He slapped them on the table instead and sat down, snapping twice for a menu. I smiled at that. Nancy moved at her own pace, and if she wasn’t here when he sat down, snapping wasn’t doing a damn thing.
“Something funny?” Harry asked me, that steely edge to his voice as cold as the air he’d walked in with.
“You’ve been gone a long time,” I smirked around my coffee mug. The bourbon warmed me in a way the coffee couldn’t as it burned down my chest I wondered what Harry had to feel so pissy about, and if he’d called me down here just to pout.
I was shocked when Nancy strolled over with her pen and pad ready. “What’ll it be stretch?” she rasped.
I’ll get a cup of coffee, fresh pot. If that’s not too much to ask.” Nancy gave us both a look that could freeze water but she held her tongue, probably figuring Harry for a big tipper. The only sound she made was the whisper of her light pink chiffon uniform against her strides.
“Pretty tough on her,” I said
“Coffee looks like engine oil, and I can smell the hooch from here.” He eyed me up and down “She doesn’t think much of you.” His eyes finishing the sentiment for his mouth though who would.
“Guess you’re guilty by association,” I said.
“Yeah. you get that a lot, huh?”
That one stung. In the echo of a distant memory I heard a gravel-coated voice murmur “next time keep your goddam eyes to yourself.” and then I heard her screaming. I gripped my coffee mug a little tighter, gulped the booze a little faster, and felt the memory slither back to the recesses where it came from.
Silence stretched out between us as I tried to read what was swimming in his hollow eyes set above his knife-sharp features. By all accounts, we should have had volumes to say to each other, but both of us stayed locked in that stubborn silence. Nancy brought his coffee and I watched the steam against his charcoal grey coat.
I caved first, breaking the silence with a question. “What do you want Harry, did you call me down here for any other reason besides throwing your good fortune in my face?”
“Is that what I was doing? Huh. I had no idea.” It was his turn to smile around his coffee mug.
“What? You want me to apologize is that it?”
“What could you possibly have to feel sorry about?” his mock shock pissed me off. When I slammed my fist on the table it drew a few stares, chief among them was the head buzzard herself. “She knew what she was doing and she made every choice by her own accord.”
“You saw what she was doing and you let it happen!” Harry’s coffee sloshed out of the mug when he slammed the ceramic on the glossy formica tabletop. “You told me you would take care of her. You gave me your word. You had a responsibility!” His words were clipped with rage, the pain within them unmistakable, but by then we’d all been hurt, hadn’t we?
“You want to talk about responsibility? YOU. LEFT. Harry, you left everything you held dear to chase some pipe dream down the tracks and now you want to come back here because what? Why? Because you feel guilty? You want to hang your blame on me, why don’t you take a look in the mirror!”
Harry surprised me then by leaning back in the both and letting out a bark of laughter at the ceiling. “Guilt? Guilt?! You know you’ve got some nerve Slate, why the hell should I feel guilty, when you’re the one that got her killed in the first place!”
The smack was loud in the diner that had grown silent as our argument suffocated the life out of the rest of the conversation. I hadn’t had enough time to get a good wind up but the punch connected anyway. The pain rippled through my hand, up my arm, and just about to my jaw, but by god was it satisfying.
“Listen if you two are gunna make trouble hit the bricks, I don’t want blood on my floor or cops at the door, so beat it.”
Harry gave her the stink eye and I thought he’d start in on Nancy but he only stood and fished a two-dollar note from a billfold that looked mighty scant for him. He placed them on the table keeping his gaze locked on me. “Keep the change Ma’am. Think of it as amends for my rude friend here.”
His eyes finally gave a recognizable emotion and I gave him some hate right back. If he wanted an apology from me he’d die of old age before he heard it. He slid the bills to the middle of the table and uttered one word to me.
He wanted to pick a fight with a man bourbon drunk and angry. I was happy to oblige.
I don’t remember the start of it, if any words were said or who swung first. All I remember is putting every ounce of my anger behind my right hand and stepping into it.
There was blood on the concrete, mine or Harry’s I couldn’t say. The next memory I have erupting behind my eyes like a flashbulb is Harry driving his fist into my cheek.
I saw her then, just for a split second Louise was in the alley with us, she was looking at me with those green eyes and I felt a fresh crack ripple down my heart. I wrapped my left hand into the folds of Harry’s lapels, the stupid fox fur around his collar matted and slick in the grey light. I fed him a healthy right before he drove his foot down on mine and turned the tables.
He cuffed my ear and my vision blurred. A few more drops of blood hit the asphalt but this time they were mixed with fat drops of rain, I thought I heard thunder but it might have been the trash cans Harry threw me into. He was in my face after that, breathing his stench of coffee and blood on me.
“Listen to me good, Percy. I don’t give a damn if you’re in the middle of a case or not. If there’s any shred of remorse in you, you’ll meet me at the train station in forty eight hours, don’t even think of leaving town. I’ve still got enough cops in my pocket to keep tabs on you. I know you still live in that shit box apartment and I won’t hesitate to get a squad of head crackers to drag you out of there in cuffs if I have to. You owe me Slate, and it’s time I collected.”
“I don’t owe you shit.” it was hard to talk around my swollen lips but I think Harry got the idea since he rang my bell once more for good measure.
“Two days. 8 am to Peterborough. A train car or a jail cell, your choice murderer.”
Harry let me go and my head dropped back into Nancy’s day-old donuts and used coffee filters. Above me, the world sped on like a runaway locomotive and I lay in the rain half-drowned.
When I decided to move my muscles screamed and I felt a rapid pulse coursing through my swollen face. It was the smell more than anything that got me moving. that wet rot of old coffee mixing with the diner trash stood me on my feet. I fished in my pocket and found a few scraps of change. It wasn’t a fortune, but it was enough for a short glass of something brown at Hogan’s Place. Heading for my Klock street apartment I changed course and found the familiar route to my old haunt. The coming darkness slapped a few more raindrops on my back like an old pal.