< Barflies
Barflies

by

Frank Byrns




Marcy was full of shit.

She had been right about that place on 17th being a good place to meet ballplayers. And to her credit, that club on Laurel Avenue had been crawling with lawyers. But when she turned Fran on to this bar, down on The Waterfront, and told her it would be a good place to meet a hero? This time, Marcy was full of shit.

Fran looked around the dive again, and lit another smoke. She didnít even like cigarettes, only smoked them when she was bored. She shook her head as she exhaled. This dump didnít even have a pool table. When sheíd asked the fat bartender about that, he had said "we used to", and left it at that.

She took a look at the broken cigarette machine, the silent pay phone swinging off the hook, the yellowed, stained pin-up calendar displaying Miss November 1986. Fran would bet "we used to" answered a lot of questions around here.

She wasnít sure just what she had expected. The ballplayers didnít exactly run around their place in hats and jerseys; why would Metas be any different? She knew instinctively that it wouldnít be all capes and masks and Mardi Gras, but this... Two guys at the bar watching the game? Drinking Schlitz? The old guy in the corner playing dominoes? By himself, nursing a gin and tonic?

Not to mention the fact that even though she was the only woman in the room (if you didnít count Miss 1986 on the wall), no one had spoken to her in over an hour. She might even think that this was a gay bar, if it had even an ounce of style.

Fran shifted on her stool, her micro-skirt riding up her thighs as she did so. No one noticed. No one had noticed her for an hour, since the bald guy had left. He was one of those bald by choice men, not bald by nature, and Fran thought it really worked on him. He had bought her a drink -- a Long Island Iced Tea -- and had an Icehouse for himself. He said his name was Vic, and she told him she worked at the Federal Building downtown. When she asked him what he did for a living, he changed the subject. A minute later, he was gone. Franís first thought was that maybe he was a hero, but the more she thought about it, the more time she spent in this dump, the more she decided he just lost his nerve. Too bad, really. She was starting to dig him.

She glanced up at the clock behind the bar, stuck on 8:20. "It used to," the bartender said before she could even ask.

Fran gathered her purse, left a five for the Corona she hadnít even touched. Marcy said that this was where she had hooked up with Firefly. Fran said that Marcy was full of shit.

* * *

Shane stood under a streetlamp, waiting for his guy. Heíd been there almost a half-hour, and he was starting to get pissed. He had come down to The Warehouse District to get a little dope and get a little ass, in precisely that order. Now his guy was late -- for all Shane knew, his guy had gotten picked up by one of the Waterfrontís cape and mask set. Enigma, Firefly, Nighthammer -- it could have been any of them, or a dozen more just like them. It was getting so a man couldnít even get high anymore, even if he was free, white, and twenty-one.

Not for the first time tonight, Shane wished for a cell phone. He noticed a dive bar across the street, wondering if they had a working pay phone where he could page his guy one last time. On second glance, he wondered if a dump like that even had a working anything.

A working girl, maybe, he thought, as a hot chick in a short skirt stepped out of the bar and into the night. She walked in his direction, crossing the street, tossing a Newport butt onto the asphalt. He dropped his own cigarette, grinding it under his heel, changing his mind about the girl as he watched her. It was in her stride, too cautious somehow for a pro. Still, though, there was something about her; it looked like he had struck out on the dope, but item two on the agenda was starting to look promising.

He stepped out of the shadows as she crossed the centerline, giving her plenty of time to see him and not be startled. He still wore his white shirt and tie, having come straight here from waiting tables uptown; maybe sheíd mistake him for a professional type.

She reached the curb, smiling nervously at him. Now that the streetlamp gave him a good view, he could see that she was definitely not a hooker, even if she dressed like one. He smiled back, showing some teeth.

"What are the chances of catching a cab down here?" she asked in a small, baby doll voice.

"Ah, you just missed one," he lied. "I just called for another on my cell, though -- Iíll share it with you, if you want. Where you headed?"

"Midtown?"

"Hey, me, too." Shane shook his head suddenly, extending his hand. "Goodness, where are my manners -- My nameís Jack."

She offered her own hand, cold and clammy to Shaneís touch. "Fran."

"Well, Fran, if youíd do me the honor of accompanying me to Midtown" -- He dug in his pocket and produced two twenties, originally pinched from the register to score some dope, now earmarked for something else -- "Youíll ride free of charge."

"I can pay -- "

"Nonsense." Shane flashed some teeth. "I insist."

Franís smile lightened, genuine now. "OK."

A pair of headlights washed over them as a car turned the corner, the first Shane had seen in twenty minutes.

"That was quick," Fran said.

Shane turned and stared as a yellow cab glided slowly to the curb in front of them. The passenger side window slid slowly down, and the driver leaned across the bench seat towards them. "You needed a ride, Miss?"

Shane sized the cabbie up. A big guy, probably one of those where theyíre even bigger than you think, the ones where you donít realize just how big they are until theyíre stepping on your throat. And where the hell had he come from?

"I donít -- "

Fran cut him off, brushing past as she climbed into the backseat. "Címon, Jack -- our rideís here!"

Shane beat back a scowl, then walked around into the street, climbing into the taxi behind the driver.

"Where to, folks?"

"Midtown, right off the Plaza," Fran said.

It took Shane a moment to realize they were both staring at him. "Uh, yeah, East Plaza."

The taxi pulled off the curb, headed north towards the freeway.

"So, Jack," Fran said, eyeing his tie. "What do you do?"

"Uhm, Iím a stockbroker."

"Really," the cabbie said, eyeing him in the rearview. "Which house?"

"Well, I work from home. Daytrading, mostly." Shaneís jaw tightened.

"I always wanted to try that," the cabbie said. "Daytrading, I mean. I only asked which house because my brother-in-law works uptown -- Thomas Morgan? You know him?"

"No, sorry. Like I said, I work from home."

"What exactly is daytrading, anyway?" Fran asked. "I read about it in the Observer, but Iím not quite sure."

"Iím sure Jack could explain it better than me."

Shane ground his molars, his jaw clenching until his ears rang. "Oh, itís boring, really -- and trust me, once I start, Iíll never shut up."

Shane tried to project the Shut Up towards the cabbie. It didnít work.

"Címon, Jack," the cabbie said. "Itís a least a twenty minute ride to the Plaza -- tell us everything you know about daytrading."

Shane shook his head, keeping it together. "Some other time, maybe."

"Well, maybe you could answer me this, then. That article in the paper -- the one your little ladyfriend read -- I read it, too, and I was just wondering -- "

"Fuck this," Shane said, losing it, pulling out his piece and plugging the cabbie in the back of his head.

* * *

Adonis had marked the guy in the tie as trouble right away. When he first spotted him, he was standing alone on an empty street, looking for all the world like somebody waiting to close a drug deal. Adonis had driven on up the block before circling back, and when he returned, the guy had a girl with him, and Adonis smelled trouble.

And when the guy shot him in the back of the head, Adonis felt pretty certain his instinct had paid off.

As it usually did in situations like this, time slowed. Adonis heard the hammer of the pistol click in the back seat before he heard the young woman, Fran, scream. He braced himself for the shot immediately by letting his body go limp, taking his foot off the gas, and gripping the steering wheel tightly.

The pain was immense as the bullet struck home somewhere near the base of his skull, and he nearly blacked out. The impact pitched him forward violently, and his forehead struck the steering wheel hard enough to bend it three inches out of place. But he held firm to the wheel, and kept the taxi steady and straight.

The car gradually rolled to a stop in the middle of the deserted street. The only sound was the continuing screams of Fran.

"Ohmigodohmigodohmigod -- "

"Pipe down, bitch."

Adonis sat motionless in the driverís seat, his forehead resting on the steering wheel, collecting his wits, playing dead. It was dark in the cab, and he hoped that Jack had not noticed the distinct lack of blood in the car. From the corner of his eye, he saw the crumpled bullet resting on his own thigh.

"Are you crazy -- you killed him! What is your -- "

"I said pipe down."

"But Jack -- "

"Itís Shane."

"What?"

"Itís Shane. My nameís Shane." Shaneís voice was wild with adrenaline.

"You -- you lied to me." Fran was irrational with terror.

"What we need to do now is make this look like a robbery."

"We?"

"Thatís right -- youíre coming with me. Or youíre staying with him. Your choice."

Adonis felt Shaneís knees through the back of the seat as he reached around to fish Adonisí wallet from his left hip pocket. With his head still on the wheel, he shifted a fraction of his weight in the seat to the right, forcing Shane to reach just a bit further -- and thatís when he made his move.

He sat up suddenly, twisting to his left all in one smooth motion, reaching behind him with both hands and grabbing Shaneís left wrist, snapping it like a chicken bone. He heard the gun drop into the floor well in the back seat, falling from Shaneís right hand, the result of a mixture of surprise and pain. "Grab the gun," he said to Fran.

She surprised Adonis with how fast she moved, and then again when she tossed the gun out of the window into the street. "Good move," he said.

The whole sequence of events had taken less than five seconds, from Shane reaching for his wallet to the gun hitting the pavement. Adonis released his hold, and Shane slumped over against the rear passenger door, already unconscious from the pain. Adonis got out of the cab and opened the back door, making no effort to break Shaneís fall as he fell into the street.

Fran opened the other door, and stood in the street, staring at Adonis.

"He -- he -- He shot you."

Adonis shook his head, the motion causing a shooting pain where the bullet had impacted his neck. "He missed."

"But -- I saw you -- It was too close -- How could he -- "

Adonis held up the crumpled bullet between his left thumb and forefinger. "He missed."

* * *

As far as Fran was concerned, they should have left Shane lying where he was, unconscious in the street. But the cabbie insisted on calling 911 before he drove her home. He kept the gun, though.

She stayed in the backseat, even though he offered to let her ride up front. They rode in silence for a while, as she stared at his hack license posted on the passenger side sun visor. Sherman Morgan, the license read, good for the next two years. The picture on the license looked like him, but he sure didnít look like a Sherman.

Still, though, the picture looked familiar. But from where? Something about the eyes, maybe, the bridge of the nose...

Mentally, she began rifling through her adolescent collection of Hero Beat magazine, trying to remember the glossy masked faces mixed in among the Clearasil ads. Kid Dynamite. Galaxy. Extreme. Five Star.

The Phenom.

She squinted her right eye shut, trying to superimpose a silver mask over the photo of Sherman Morganís face. That was it. That was the one.

"Hey," she said, sliding up, throwing her arms over the front seat. "Didnít you used to be -- "

"No."

"But I remember reading that The Phenom was bulletproof -- "

"No."

"And then the way that bullet bounced off -- "

"He missed."

Fran leaned back in her seat, crossing her arms in front of her chest. The taxi made a right turn into Midtown Plaza.

"Which building, maíam?"

Fran made a face. "This is close enough. Iíll walk from here."

The cabbie turned around to face her, draping a massive forearm across the top of the front seat. "Look, Iím sorry for all the trouble. The rideís on me tonight, OK?"


Fran nodded, still unhappy. She climbed out of the cab and stood on the sidewalk, expectantly. She crossed her arms across her chest again as the cab drove off without so much as a goodbye.

Fran turned and walked quickly up the sidewalk towards her building. She wondered if Marcy was in bed.

* * *

Shane came to in the middle of the street. He looked over at his arm, which was bent at an unholy angle. The whole thing was very strange. From the looks of it, his wrist should have been hurting a whole lot more; but as it was, he couldnít feel a thing.

The police siren in the distance was getting closer; no, not the police, but an ambulance. Maybe they were coming to help him. He hoped so.

Wasnít there a girl here with him, just a second ago? And what the hell had happened to him? Could he explain this to the police?

* * *

Adonis walked into Solitude at a little after two in the morning. He smiled to himself at the faded calendar on the wall, Miss November 1986. The clock stuck at 8:20, no closer to Last Call than it was at lunch time. Some things never change.

"Adonis! Long time, no see," the round bartender called as he made his way over, a white towel draped across his shoulder, his suspenders doing their best to battle gravity.

"Leon," Adonis nodded. He sat down on a stool, took a long look around the place. There were only a couple of patrons left in the bar. Vic had returned, sitting at a four top, lost in a beer; Hebner still in the back, playing dominoes, by himself.

Adonis smiled as one of the dominoes opposite Hebner moved across the table of its own accord. "Hey, Leon, speaking of long time, no see, is that Willis playing dominoes with Hebner?"

"Yeah," Leon said, sliding Adonis a longneck. "Heís funny -- hates the game, but says it helps him unwind."

They both watched another domino lay itself on the table. Hebner cursing in frustration; someone laughed. Adonis took a long pull on the beer, nodding.

"Heard some sirens a bit ago," Leon said.

"Yeah?"

Leon worked hard with his towel, rubbing at a spot on the bar. "Couple of cops stopped by, asking some questions, some guy with a nasty broken wrist."

"Cops calling about a broken wrist? Must be a slow night."

Leon admired his own reflection in the bar, satisfied. "They said it was real nasty. Hardly even human, they said."

"Is that right?"

"I told Ďem I wouldnít know anything about that."

Adonis finished the beer, stood it on the bar on top of a five.

"Yeah, me neither. Iím just a cabbie, trying to make a dollar."

"Hustling for a dime," Leon agreed.

Adonis reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out Shaneís gun, laid it on the bar next to the bottle.

"Vic, you need a ride somewhere?" Adonis called as he stood up to leave. Leon took the pistol, put it under the bar with the rest.

Vic didnít look up from his drink, just waved Adonis away.

"Anybody? Willis?"

Willisí disembodied voice floated across the room from the dominoes table. "I think Iím gonna play a few more, big man."

"All right, then. 'Night, Leon."

"See ya 'round, Adonis."

THE END



Bio: A year ago, Frank Byrns said: "Previously, I have published Sunvolt at www.scifi-zine.com, and my story Ridealong will be included in the upcoming issue of Unwarranted Confessions. During the day, I am a mild-mannered retail manager. But by night..." By night, Frank becomes the unauthorized biographer of the metahuman set, giving us American Lenny (Aphelion, March 2004), Hollywood Ending (Aphelion, November 2004), and now Barflies. Frank's short fiction has also appeared in such magazines as Electric Velocipede, Cyber Age Adventures, and Alien Skin. Visit him at http://www.geocities.com/frank_byrns/superstories

E-mail: frankbyrns@hotmail.com

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