TIT-FOR-TAT - CORMAC BROWN
First published in the premiere issue of Astonishing Adventures Magazine
It's one of those rare days in San Francisco when it is actually hot. I came into the bar, not to get away from the stifling heat; though I'm a native San Franciscan, somehow I am used to that. No, I came in here to get away from what? Only the Lord and Devil know.
There was something that was bothering me, that I thought was gone from my mind like that formula you learn in school. The one you used to know that tells you when two trains traveling from the opposite ends of the country will meet up with each other. What's the difference, anyway? If they are traveling in my head, they're bound to crash.
Ah, regardless, whatever it was that was simmering in the recesses of my brain, it was starting to stink my soul up. So, bartender? A little "amnesia juice" with a "selective memory chaser." I pretty much ignore the few people here and there, though one in particular catches my eye. He's on the phone and he's wearing a natty wool sport coat, even in this heat...vainglorious moron.
"Did you know that stuff you drank was made in a dry county?"
Now, I've been to this hole in the wall before, and I believe one of the reasons that I specifically picked it out, was because everyone in here keeps to themselves. There is a jukebox, but all it does is collect dust because no one comes in here to dance or get happy. They come in here to be ignored and to forget.
So if a guy was dumb enough to ruin that implied code of silence, I would at best tell him to take a hike. Or at worse, lecture him about the code of silence around here and sucker punch him to make sure he got the point.
Yet, I don't get all sore, because the voice doesn't belong to a guy, but a woman...what a woman. I mean a tomato, the tomato to end all tomatoes. She has my head spinning, or maybe it isn't all her, because this isn't the first bar that I had been to today. But I digress.
If she were in a beauty contest with Myrna Loy and Ella Raines, Myrna and Ella would come in a distant second and third place, in that order. She was a punch bowl full of pulchritude and I wanted to drink her in.
"I said, did you know that whiskey was made in a dry county?"
Am I going mental? All of my thoughts are playing musical chairs and it seems like nothing can lift the needle off the record. Here is the kind of brunette to make you forget about blondes altogether, and somehow I can't understand a word that she is saying.
Is it the booze? Is it her looks? Is someone after me? Is there something I need to get done? This thing that keeps eating away at me, it's bigger than a monkey on my back. It's weighing me down more like King Kong, and on top of everything, he's holding Fay Wray and the airplane, too.
The bartender winks at me and chimes in, "He's had about four too many." He gives me a quick scowl, and then he goes back to washing his glasses. Something about this bottle jockey seems oddly familiar and I know it isn't because I've seen him work here before.
She looks down at my right forearm with a smile so warm that it could melt a glacier, as she sees the tattoo that is almost completely covered by my shirt. She lightly tugs on my short sleeve with her left pinkie nail and causes all kinds of problems, the most important one being that it is my arm that is the only thing keeping me from falling on my face. She purrs, "You want to show it to me."
It wasn't a question.
That gets mine and the rest of the bar's attention. I'm speechless, though I'm fairly sure that she is talking about my tattoo. She leans into me and whispers in my ear. The whisper sends a shiver that bounces up and down my spine, like a kid playing paddleball.
She whispers again and I shake my head. I gulp, "No. That's not what that means. It comes from an old English saying, meaning 'blow for blow.' This...for...that."
She looks me in the eyes, dips her left...then her right shoulder, and her dress slips. Wow. I go into a bar for a drink and a burlesque show breaks out. She catches the dress before it can fall below her navel, then she takes her time putting it back on.
Fair is fair, but before I can respond in kind and show my tattoo, a bear gets up at the end of the bar. Did I say a "bear?" That's the liquor talking. It's a goon that looks like he's half-Kodiak, half-man.
As he lumbers towards me, someone or something lifts the needle and all the thoughts in my head sit down. The game of musical chairs for my thoughts is suddenly over and I'm more sober than I've been for quite awhile. That goon works for Briggs Colcannon and Briggs is what, or should I say who, has been eating at me.
I see Briggs is the one in the sport coat as he glowers at me from his table, just before his goon is upon me. I calmly reach behind the bar for a bottle and crack it over the goon's head. Everybody in the bar can tell you who got the worst of that exchange: the goon has a tiny cut on his face, and my hand is cut open by the glass.
The goon reaches for me and I duck under his grasp. By the time he turns around, I've caught him square in the nose with a barstool. The goon stiffens, then he leans forward for some more, which I dish to him with more panic than passion. I jab the barstool twice at his face, the first blow connecting, and he snatches the stool out of my hands, on the second.
He is a little woozy, but his anger seems to bring him to and I hit his legs with another barstool. He drops to one knee and I'm swinging at him like Joe DiMaggio did two months ago, trying to keep his fifty-six game hitting streak alive. The goon finally flops to the floor. I could hit him again, but I have no beef with him as I'm here for Briggs Colcannon.
Hell, I have no beef with Briggs either, and even though we've crossed paths over a dozen times, I never put it together as to just who he was. Briggs had double-crossed every mob, from the Italians, the Jews, the Basques, and even the Chinese. He has even cheated the politicians in Sacramento, and they never forget.
Miss Tit-for-Tat's gorgeous eyes widen for a second and my head instinctively follows what startled her. The bartender is pulling a double-barreled shotgun and I panic, and hit him with a bottle. He winces and I yank the shotgun from his hands. Somehow, my dumb luck manages to hold up and the thing doesn't go off.
Yes, everybody who is anybody that makes a dollar the wrong way off of someone wants Briggs dead; nonetheless, he is impossible to get to. He is cousin to both the mayor and the police chief, though I doubt even family loyalty is the reason they protect him as fervently as they do.
As Briggs's meat paw reaches into his natty sport coat, I realize that the double-barreled shotgun is in my hands and he thinks I'm there to kill him, though I'm starting to have my doubts. I do know that I am a gambler with too many debts to forgive, and if the U.S. Government had to make good on them, it would bring back the Recession of 1937.
So someone has sent me, a man with no common sense and nothing to lose, to take care of one of the most powerful men in California. Yet that someone is not a man who has lost money, political pride or had a man or friend killed by Briggs. No, Briggs took away the most important thing in the world to that man and here she is, standing right behind me.
As Briggs and I simultaneously pull our triggers and I close my eyes, I think to myself that I don't blame either man that has put me in this shootout. If ever there was a woman worth dying for...
...I open my eyes to Briggs looking right back at me. We both exhale, though his breath is his last. His natty sport coat is far from natty now, and though my shirt is a little wet from perspiration, it doesn't have any holes in it. The little peashooter that Briggs had is on the floor, then I realize that someone could've been shot, so I turn around.
At first glance, everyone seems okay, then my eyes meet those of Miss Tit-for-Tat's. Her eyes are unsure of what to make of me, and I'm not sure what to make of myself. I'm no killer and I can't tell if she's scared of me, or feels sorrow for the loss of Briggs. My eyes drift over to the bartender and through his scowl, he winks at me. I thought taking that shotgun was entirely too easy and that he looked too familiar.
I look all the way around and wherever the bullet that Briggs squeezed off went, it didn't hit anybody. She looks at Briggs, then she looks away from me as I turn to go. Had we met under different circumstances, I would've been Briggs right now, with my guts seeping to the floor. Because women like that are what brings out the Briggs Colcannon in the meekest of men, and we will never know what it is like to enjoy the company of, or keep a woman like that, for long.
The sun blinds me as I walk out of the door and helps me get my bearings. I hop aboard a streetcar for Downtown, where I'll take another streetcar across the Bay Bridge and into Oakland. The San Francisco waterfront is out, so hopefully the cops will be looking for me there, just as I'll be sailing past Alcatraz.
I have to pray that the former husband of Miss Tit-for-Tat made good and struck all of my gambling debts from the books, for a good accountant can do what no magician can do in real life, make something actually disappear. Either way, I'll never come back to San Francisco.
A friend of mine told me about Hong Kong and said they treat American men there like kings, and that you can't beat the food. Things with the Japanese are getting hairy on that side of the Pacific, so the ship I'm sailing out on is bound for Hawaii, where it's nice and quiet. The ship is taking a drawn-out and convoluted path, so we won't get there until right around the first week of December.
BIO: "Cormac Brown" is a pen name. He is an up-and-slumming writer in the city of Saint Francis and is following in the footsteps of Hammett…minus the TB and working for the Pinkerton Agency. Some of his stories have appeared at Powder Burn Flash, Six Sentences, Astonishing Adventures Magazine, and Crooked Magazine. You can find him at Cormac Writes.
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