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Summary: Jarod lures Miss Parker to a Casablanca style piano bar. Told in mock film noir style.
Author’s Note: This story is from the point of view of the bartender.
It was a dark, stormy night.
As the rain pattered against the metallic awning of the building next door, I heard a sound that was unusual in this part of town: the distinctive staccato of stiletto heels on imitation Spanish tile.
It was hard to make out the exact direction the noise came from, as the plink-plink of the rain falling on that ugly pink and white striped awning echoed through the nearly empty building.
The gin and tonic I was mixing on the bar sat silently while I listened to the awkward harmony. Pink-tap-tap-pink-tap-pink-pink. It was vaguely reminiscent of an old tune I knew once but couldn’t remember. Something sad and mellow.
Before she even entered the room I knew everything about her just from that sound. Tap-tap-tap. Powerful and melancholy all at once. She had seen trouble and was about to see some more.
As the sound came closer, a scuffle seemed to follow it, adding a low background to the strange melody. Pink-tap-scuffle-scuffle-pink-tap-pink-scuffle. It didn’t sound like the song I couldn’t remember anymore.
I finished pouring the gin and tonic. The tap and scuffle were becoming louder; they’d be at the bar soon.
Pink-Tap-Scuffle-pink-Tap-Scuffle. The tap still held a prestige far beyond the cheap tile it emanated from.
I slid the gin and tonic over to the man at the end of the bar. He acknowledged the gesture with a slight incline of his head. Everything became still as the tap and scuffle stopped. All that was left was the metallic plink-plink-plink of the rain.
They hadn’t reached the bar yet.
"Broots!" Her tone was annoyed and sardonic. "Stop dragging your feet!"
"S-sorry," the source of the scuffle answered.
They proceeded to the bar. I was fixing a martini, dry, an uncommon drink around here.
I could smell her perfume. Something fruity that reminded me of a summer afternoon. Peaches maybe, tinged with a spice I couldn’t name. Alluring and sweet, capturing attention without asking for it.
Pink-scff-Tap-Tap-pink-plink-plink-plink. They had reached the bar.
I handed her the martini. Her eyebrow arched in perfect symmetry, reminding me of an archway I had seen once on a postcard of Rome. Curved in a way that was too beautiful to describe.
"Let me guess, Monkeyboy told you to expect me?" The annoyance in her manner didn’t detract from the air she cast. Sophistication and strength showed clearly in everything she did, including the graceful way she accepted the drink from my hand. I’d never seen anyone like her, and I doubted I ever would again.
"Miss Parker, I presume." The words drawled out of my mouth in contradiction to every stunning thing about the woman in front of me. I would have cared, if it had mattered in the slightest. It didn’t. "Mr. Broots, what would you like to drink?"
The man who made scuffling noises started at being addressed. "Wh-uh-oh…um uh-uh…" He bumbled more than a bee in springtime. An odd companion for such a pronounced woman. "Um… well."
"Spit it out, Broots! It’s just a drink. Do you have this much trouble ordering every time you go out?" As brazen as she was beautiful. "Must make for a hell of a long line of angry soccer moms at Mc Donald’s."
He didn’t say anything. I gathered that he was used to holding on to some mild form of dignity by ignoring her belligerent comments.
"Uh, I’ll just have a Coke," he finally managed to get out.
Coke, another drink that wasn’t too common around here. People wanted to get very drunk very fast when they came in. I’d seen more people than I could count throw back beers in under a minute as though the alcohol wouldn’t have the same effect if it were nursed slowly. Funny how people rush through life that way.
"Tell me what I’m doing here, Rick." Her glance around the room had lasted only long enough to see that Jarod wasn’t anywhere to be found. Why she’d expect that he was, I don’t know. He never stuck around for long.
I should have come up with a clever reply when she called me Rick but I’d gotten tired of the number of times people had walked through the door expecting something out of Casablanca. This wasn’t Rick’s and I was no Humphrey Bogart.
I wiped off the counter in a slow deliberate manner. I’d tell her what she needed to know when she needed to know it.
She leaned forward. I suppose she was trying to intimidate me. Unfortunately, for her, I was far from unfamiliar with impatient customers.
I continued to wipe off the counter. I knew she wanted answers but I wasn’t ready to give them to her, yet.
"Listen up, Bogey, drop this nonchalant crap and tell me why Jarod had me come here." She had grabbed my shirt. I was still wiping the counter in slow circles. I knew she was the type of person that would get upset over slow, deliberate actions. That might have been part of the reason I was doing it.
"You’ll find out at eight o’clock," I replied boredly. She’d find out soon enough. I didn’t have to tell her.
Her grip on my shirt tightened as she pulled me closer for a moment. He was right, she had beautiful eyes.
The rain was still falling outside. Plink-plink-plink-plink. I wondered if she heard the metallic sound. She didn’t seem the type to notice something as inconsequential as the patter of water on cheap aluminum. It was too meaningless.
"Wonderboy seems to have forgotten to inform you that I call the shots in this little game of ours," she hissed. Another attempt at intimidating me. It didn’t work, I wasn’t talking.
She stared closely at me for a few more seconds, then realized she wasn’t going to get a response from me and let go, disgustedly. She straightened her suit as she surveyed the room again. "Broots, call the Centre, tell them we’ve been," she paused and turned back to me, sneering, "delayed." Her eyes moved back to the bumbling man, who was still standing with his Coke in his hand.
"This place is like something straight out of those movies with the speakeasies and flappers and Al Capone look-alikes," Mr. Broots said in amazement.
It was the same old cliché of piano bars. I’d heard it a thousand times. Odd how people associate real life with movies instead of the other way around. Maybe they can only see it as life imitating art. It’s sad, really.
"Now, Broots!" She snapped her fingers a few times, perfectly, of course. Even upset and annoyed, she was flawless.
"Y-yes, Miss Parker," The poor nervous man stuttered. It wasn’t a pronounced stutter, just enough to break up the first word of every sentence. I almost fancied it was out of respect for her that he appeared so affected by her demanding nature. Paying homage to such a beautiful creature by letting her walk all over him. It was an interesting display of human nature. He turned to me, "Wher- where’s the telephone?"
"The payphone’s in the back," I drawled. "Next to the restrooms."
He wandered off toward the back of the building, staring at things along the way, enthralled by things I now found boring and uninteresting, not worthy of much attention. I almost laughed at the sheer insignificance of it all, but caught myself before I did. They wouldn’t understand it. No one really does.
The rain was still falling in its steady and even beat, monotonous and hollow. Plink-plink-plink. Exactly like everything else, unchanging and slow.
I noticed that Miss Parker’s drink was empty. I expected she’d demand a refill. She didn’t.
"Another martini?" I asked dryly. The room itself was dry, not just my tone. A stark contrast to the dampness outside, the unceasing fall of moisture. Plink-plink-plink.
She sneered again. I knew she wanted a refill. She fit the profile so well… just the type of woman to drown her sorrows in alcohol. And she had so many sorrows, written across her face like the typeface of a large print book. So easy to read despite her best efforts.
I poured her another drink. She’d need it. I knew what he had waiting for her.
Her eyebrow quirked again as I handed her the glass. Still perfectly shaped though more like the dome of Cathedral I had seen once. I don’t remember where. A nameless town on a nameless road. They’re all the same.
She accepted the glass, leaving the empty one on the bar. No questions asked and no questions answered. Her sneer had faded. I knew she was curious about what Jarod had planned for her. She sipped at her drink quietly.
"Ten minutes to eight." My words were incapable of leaving my mouth at a speed faster than a slow lilt. A fine drawl, perfected over the years. I often reveled in it like a wine connoisseur tasting an Italian chianti. An art form in its own right.
Her eyes narrowed. "Why eight o’clock?"
Another question I couldn’t answer for her. I knew the answer of course. I knew the plan too.
I wiped at the counter again. It was as shiny as lane nine at the local bowling alley, as slick too. "Ten minutes," I replied.
Another gin and tonic for the man at the end of the bar. It slid precariously close to the edge of the counter before sliding right into his hand. The perfect roll for a seven-ten split.
Miss Parker had finished her drink again. Her drinking pace wasn’t fast compared to what I’ve seen around here, but just right to keep the edge going. An assembly line of alcoholic drinks, one consumed directly after the other in perfect succession. Even calculated. Plink-plink-plink. "Another one, Sam," she said evenly.
Her annoyance was covered under a thin veil of alcohol. Liquor induced relaxation. I wondered if that was part of his plan.
The phrase, "another one, Sam," reminded me of "play it again, Sam," an often inaccurately quoted portion of the movie. "Play it, Sam," she’d said. And Sam had played, the tune still fresh in his mind.
Casablanca again. When you’re here long enough, I suppose you fall on the cliches as well. Life imitating art. I still wasn’t Humphrey Bogart.
I mixed another martini, dry, again. She accepted it without raising her eyebrow this time. I almost missed the beautiful curvature. Almost.
"Four minutes." An odd sort of countdown, melancholy in a way, mostly because of the way in which I delivered it. Slow, shadowy.
"Can it, Sam." Her voice was neither angry nor annoyed; the reply, purely out of habit.
The lights in the bar dimmed, like a thousand fireflies losing their shine all at once. Graceful and soft, kind of lonely and a little sad.
It was still silent, just the soft plink-plink-plink of the rain, echoing in the low light, A mild scuffle joining it after a moment. Pink-scuffle-pink-pink-scuffle. The slip of rubber against tile tempering the metallic sound of the rain.
Broots approached Miss Parker. "You’ll never guess what I just saw. I was on the way to the phone when this big guy named Bert…"
"Drop the narrative, Broots," she cut him off. "I’m not in the mood." Her tone had regained its curt annoyance.
"B-but, it’s about…" he bumbled, his voice stumbling over the words like a newly born deer learning to walk. Strange how the man reminded me of a cartoon animal. There wasn’t much resemblance. The mind is prone to odd connections on occasion – Inexplicably.
"Later, Broots," she cut him off again. "Your phone call to the Centre doesn’t need its own novel."
I knew what he was trying to tell her. It was exactly what she wanted to know. Exactly what she was waiting for.
Eight o’clock. The lights on the stage at the back of the building went on, illuminating the recently dusky room. I continued to clean the already immaculate bar.
Miss Parker’s attention remained focused on her drink, seemingly uninterested in the bright stage. "I wonder what the lab rat’s up to now."
I would have chuckled if it had been funny. It wasn’t, really. She would know soon enough anyway.
Mr. Broots didn’t attempt to tell her again, nor did he try to draw her attention to the stage, his own attention glued to the ring of light angled at the back of the building. His will to give her the information she wanted having died when the room became lit in a soft glow, the information she was looking for appearing center stage.
Jarod walked out. Strange the way he plans these things, showing up out of nowhere. He always was a hard read, unpredictable most of the time.
Mr. Broots choked on his drink, coughing in odd spasms when the man he was supposed to be tracking showed up right in front of him. It would hardly help his stutter, adding a rasping undertone to his words.
"You’re supposed to swallow, Broots," Miss Parker said with annoyance, not bothering to look up at her choking co-worker. Her disinterest seemed out of place under the circumstances. She’d pay attention soon enough, though.
Jarod stood in the middle of the stage, grinning like a cat after it catches a canary. I don’t understand why he smiles sometimes, some inside joke that I was never told about. He didn’t really understand me either, though he came closer than most people. He had a way of getting inside of your head, knowing what you were thinking before you thought it. He was an odd duck.
"Good evening ladies and gentleman. Welcome to Coronado’s karaoke night." Jarod’s grin grew as Miss Parker’s head snapped up and her eyes turned pointedly toward the stage.
Her response would have been alarming, if I hadn’t known some part of their history. She would know his voice anywhere. It was ingrained in her memory, I suppose. You can’t spend that much of your life around one person and not memorize the small details about them. They just sort of seep in over the years.
He only stayed long enough to smile mischievously and wink at Miss Parker before he disappeared behind stage. He delighted in taunting her. I’d watched him call her a few times, in the early morning, hours before the sun would rise. Those were the hours the bar was the quietest, the hours he enjoyed the most, he’d said once. Less coming and going, just people staying where they were, resting for a while before everything started over again. I felt the same way most of the time.
Miss Parker ran toward the back of the building almost immediately. A huntress through and through, he’d said. As agile and quick witted as a cat. Her movements were fluid and seamless. I wasn’t surprised by her actions, despite their rapid succession. Her drink sliding on the bar as she put it down, her shove at Mr. Broots to move him out of her way, the way she drew her gun from its holster without the slightest hesitation, her evenly paced dash for the stage. Her hair swished exquisitely as she moved away from the bar.
I watched her disappear behind the stage, then returned to the process of wiping the counter. She’d be back soon enough. It was all part of his plan.
Mr. Broots stood there, still as a statue, his mouth slightly open in awe. He reminded me vaguely of a statue of a squirrel I had seen once at a local park. A blatant attempt to beautify the decrepit recreational area. It hadn’t worked.
"She’ll be right back, Mr. Broots," I said blandly to the squirrel-like man. I knew the plan. Exactly the way it would occur. Jarod was leading her on a chase, a game of catch me if you can that she hadn’t signed up for.
"Um… uh," the statue finally managed to mumble. He still hadn’t moved. A small woodland creature captured in plaster with a Coca Cola in hand. Hardly the type of statue you’d see in a park.
I wiped at the shining counter in small circles, a clever ruse to look occupied. Keeping my hands busy while my mind pondered the absurdities of life. There must be a point to it, I haven’t found it yet though.
Jarod would be leading Miss Parker through a maze of hallways behind the stage, weaving through a series of rooms designed for storage but converted into dressing rooms for performers. Everything always seems to serve a double purpose that way. A double meaning everywhere you look. Everything followed by an undertone you often can’t see or hear.
The bar was quiet for karaoke night. There was usually a hum of casual conversation passing through the air as the patrons waited for someone to take the stage. Tonight, only the sound of rain falling outside filled the air. Plink-plink-plink. There was an occasional request for another drink, signified by a light tap of glass against the laminated wood of the tables in the room, but nothing loud. Maybe they had realized what I had; life was best passed in quiet contemplation.
"H-how do you know she’ll be right back?" Mr. Broots finally managed to ask. A squirrel that bumbled like a bee. An odd compilation. Fodder for a Disney movie, I suppose. Awkward and endearing.
I didn’t reply, continuing to drag the battered cloth across the polished wood. Playing up the stereotype of bartenders in some ways. Partially out of habit, partially out of a need to play the part. I haven’t found the reason behind that need yet. Like everything else, I’ll analyze it someday.
A determined look crossed Mr. Broots’ face. "If-if he’s planning something dangerous for her, you had better damn well tell me what it is." His concern for his boss had added an odd edge to his voice. An attempt at intimidation, nowhere near as skilled as hers.
"She’ll be just fine, Mr. Broots." My voice was still dry, though lacking any form of derision or sarcasm.
Jarod would be leading her toward the Southeast corner of the building right about now. Drawing the chase out as long as he could. Depending on his feelings at the moment, he might lead her out into the alley before re-entering the building. A small detour into the humid, night air. Warm and damp.
Part of me wondered if he would confront her face to face during the course of the evening. He wanted to. You could see it in his eyes. Confronting her was dangerous, he had once said. His words, like so many that had left people’s lips, had carried a double meaning. I hadn’t understood it at the time but the appearance of her gun that evening had clarified the situation.
Conversely, their eyes spoke volumes. The times that they confronted each other were the ones they enjoyed the most. Their own strange form of intimacy, running and chasing, only stopping occasionally to question why. I wondered if, at times, they forgot who was doing the running and who was doing the chasing. The lines could blur easily, the way they played the game. Each running and chasing simultaneously.
"Y-you know why he brought her here, don’t you?" Mr. Broots said. Less of a question and more of a statement. There was an underlying intelligence to the floundering man. Intriguing, to say the least.
I didn’t respond, continuing my endless circles on the bar counter top. Figure-eights. Upright infinity, Jarod had commented, when he’d noticed me drawing the pattern with the cloth. Continuous, un-ending.
He’d probably opted to lead her out into the alley, increase the challenge. Freud would have had a field day examining the reasons behind their taunting chase. It held a complexity nearly beyond comprehension. I had attempted to decipher it myself one evening. Several nights later, I still couldn’t ascertain every aspect of it.
I poured another Coke for the strange, bumbling man. He seemed to contemplate for a moment whether to accept my offer or continue to stand there like a lost puppy, or more appropriately, like a lost squirrel. Ultimately, he accepted the drink and sat down at the bar. His eyes narrowed as he asked, "It-it’s some bartender code of honor, isn’t it? You keep people’s secrets for them."
I nodded, my first direct response to one of his questions. A Sam Adams for the man at the other end of the bar. The drink slid down the center of the bar. A strike. Only there weren’t any pins, just lost people escaping their sorrows in alcohol for a few hours. A few shots, several mugs, a bottle or two, fancy stemware filled halfway up. There must be a metaphor for life in their somewhere.
"So, um, hypothetically, if I were to, uh, start talking to you, y-you would listen and the conversation would never be repeated." He had something on his mind, apparently, and needed someone to confide in. I was used to hearing people’s confessions and secrets, comes with the territory. Of course, he moseyed around the point more than a cowboy strolling down a deserted street in the middle of a showdown.
"Yessir," I replied boredly. He had plenty of time to share his woes with me. Jarod would continue the chase outside of the building for a while longer before returning indoors and heading for his ultimate destination. Mr. Broots could bumble about whatever was troubling him in the meantime.
"Wow, I-uh… I’ve never really talked to a bartender before. I mean, you-you hear all of these stories about how they keep your secrets and can, you know, be really sympathetic and understanding about stuff but I never knew if it was true or not. I kind of feel like I’m in the middle of one of those old film noirs they run on the classic movie channels, with the detectives and the blonde women trying to find out who murdered their husbands when really they killed them themselves. And there’s always a scene where the detective drowns his sorrows at a piano bar because he finds out the truth about the woman but not until after he’s fallen in love with her. Of course, then there’s the confrontation where you find out if she did it because her husband cheated on her or if she’s just a femme fatale trying to bring the detective to his eventual downfall. God I love those movies."
A classic film nut. That was the only fact I needed to understand the cause of his awe upon first entering the bar. Another man influenced by pixilated pictures transmitted across thousands of miles via wires and cables for the entertainment of the masses. Life was simply a derivative of fiction.
I slid another Sam Adams to the man at the other end of the bar. Off to the side, just shy of center. Pins six and nine wouldn’t fall. I could pick up a spare easily enough the next time around. I continued to wipe the countertop.
Nobody had taken the stage yet. An empty spotlight on an empty stage. A quiet karaoke night, awkward but not unpleasant. The patrons were too self-involved tonight. Wrapped up in their own thoughts, I suppose. I could relate, my mind employed most of my time. Searching for that something more that everything hints at. Work was a feeble distraction from the depths of my own subconscious and that desire to find a deeper meaning. In most ways, a bar was the best place to contemplate such things. No one bothered you about inconsequential nonsense or expected you to solve their problems for them. It was just you, your thoughts, and your choice of poison.
He would have led her back toward the building now. Wet from the rain, tired from the exertion, adrenaline kicked up several notches. A complicated dance with steps unknown to anyone but themselves.
Perhaps he had lured her onto the rooftop, raised the stakes higher by decreasing the area in which to run. But it wasn’t likely. He would get caught that way. Walking into a web of his own making. He couldn’t afford to be the fly while she was playing the spider.
"Anyway, uh." Mr. Broots seemed to be closer to talking about his troubles. Then he shied away again. "… do you, um, have any peanuts?" A skittish horse. Or a squirrel afraid of getting trampled by an unkempt shoe. Or any shoe for that matter. Squirrels are so quick to escape.
They’d be at the back door now. Wet and out of breath. He’d get there first, of course. The pace between them set perfectly. The door would close behind him before she reached it, allowing him a few more seconds to set things in motion.
I slid Mr. Broots a bowl of peanuts. Far too short to decipher where it would go. More like a golf putt than the long roll of a bowling ball, though the shiny surface of the counter was far from resembling the cheaply made astro-turf of the local "Putt-Putt."
"These are pretty good," Mr. Broots said nervously. His troubles were making him edgier by the moment. If he didn’t spill them soon, I doubted he’d be able to speak intelligently for the next week.
She’d be swinging the door wide right about now, as he tapped his way up the back stairs; the melody frantic and yet full of organized chaos. Her eyes would need to adjust to the darkness, focusing on the small sliver of light leaking around the edge of heavy velvet curtains; the best drapes for keeping light out or locking light in—depending on your preference.
"You-you know, sometimes, I…" Mr. Broots was about to show his hand of cards. A jack high-hand, no doubt. The luckless sort of draw that plagued people of his restrained mentality.
He had reappeared on the stage. The mic crackled and a sudden shower of peanuts erupted, scattering across the counter. Interference. Gutter ball.
"In order to get things moving, I’d like to invite a certain lady to take the mic," Jarod said, his voice as even as freshly poured concrete; lacking the undulations of short-breaths.
Mr. Broots must have understood the direction of his comment, his eyes widening like the shocked faces of teenage girls in haunted mazes. Surprise and childish fright. More and more like the innocent mammals of Disney cartoons. It would take weeks to regain a normal speech-pattern. No question.
"Miss Parker, the house is yours." Jarod’s wide grin was met by unrepressed rage as his pursuer reached the edge of the stage. Her gun was leveled at his heart. Shoot to kill. Though her orders said otherwise. Temporary insanity, she would claim. Yet it had been obvious all along that he had driven her mad.
"Not today, Jarod." Icicle daggers meant to wound and tear tender flesh. I wondered if she had ever worked with a butcher. She’d make a mean turkey cutlet, no doubt.
"Oh, I think you’ll find yourself willing to oblige."
His cue would have been fit for the Super Bowl, if he had been so inclined to apply his talent to a mainstreamed media. I doubted he would bother.
Mr. Broots watched in stunned silence, as though he had been frozen in place by an unexpected cold front from the North. The geese would pass him by searching for warmth in the South. Pity, he’d have enjoyed their solemn company.
Miss Parker’s gun was easily removed from her taut hand as John and Bill lifted her from the ground. The manager had chosen them for a reason. Their refrigerator build showed no hidden confections behind the bottled water. Simply the red meat. Just enough to bounce the riff-raff away. And today, Miss Parker was their captive superball.
Tap-tap. Her heels struck the lacquered stage as she was set in front of the microphone. Center stage. The lime light.
"Damn you." The serpentine tongue held within a mouth of beguiling beauty. The perfect seductress. Lilith to Adam.
I prepared another martini. She’d be needing it when the night had done. One more sorrow and trouble to permeate with liquid.
Jarod left the stage just as the bouncing ball began to indicate the lyrics. Her gritted teeth obscured the lyrics, like caution-tape--meant to keep the public out, but concealing nothing of the crime or danger.
John’s elbow eradicated the problem, pointedly aimed at her rib cage.
"There’s a somebody I’m longing to see."
I handed Mr. Broots a new coca cola. His hand accepted readily, curved around the frosted glass. He’d enjoy the show, until she upbraided him later for events that were out of his control. Carbonation and caffeine were the only mild solutions and distractions, for now anyway.
"I hope that he turns out to be…"
Her eyes were narrowed on him like a hawk, able to pick him out of the Where’s Waldo puzzle without fail. Even in her rage, the stern fire pressed on. An unresolved passion that would cause combustion one day. Too much friction and not enough release. Spontaneous ignition.
Jarod’s dark shadow wavered beneath the neon exit sign, reluctant to miss the performance, but ready to move on again. It would be some time before their paths would cross again. So often a set of parallel and simultaneous lines, rarely interceding.
"Someone who’ll watch over me…"