Hard-Boiled Short Fiction By William Kitcher

William Kitcher, author of Stripes And Solids, lives in Toronto. His stories, plays, and comedy sketches have been published and/or produced in Australia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Czech Republic, England, Guernsey, Holland, India, Ireland, Nigeria, Singapore, South Africa, and the US

*****

When I hit town early afternoon, I went to The Crystal Duck, next to the train station, took a stool at the end of the bar nearest to where the bartender was reading a book, and ordered a beer. He served me, looked around the bar to confirm no one else was there, and went back to his book. The bar was a little grimy, and the air was stale, like last night had never left.

The bartender was a little grimy as well. He was about twenty-two, with long unkempt blond hair, a faded foreigner t-shirt and jeans, and a smell of dried sweat.

Somewhere, ZZ Top was playing softly.

While contemplating the liquor bottles stacked behind the bar, and trying in vain to read the cover of the bartender’s book, I heard a familiar sound.

A loud clack followed by a few softer clacks. I looked at the bartender but he didn’t react. After two more clacks, I said, “Many people play here?”

The bartender looked at me, paused, then said, “Sometimes.” He went back to his book. Now I could see it was Walter Tevis’s “The Hustler”.

I got off my stool, picked up my beer, and slowly wandered to the back of the bar. I pushed open a door that was slightly ajar, and stood in the doorframe.

There was a guy playing pool by himself. He apparently hadn’t noticed me. He was an old forty, a big bear of a man who was flabby in places. He wore a crisp white shirt, khakis, scuffed black shoes, and smelled of too much cologne. A decent gray jacket hung off the beak of a stuffed swordfish, mounted on a wall that otherwise had only a few old liquor ads and a painting of dogs playing pool. Sunlight oozed through a smudged window opposite.

The balls were scattered, and he made three shots easily, giving himself a good shape each shot, before looking up at me briefly. He sank another shot, and then he missed what looked to be an easy one. That seemed suspicious to me.

He chalked up his cue and said, without looking at me, “You play?”

That sounded even more suspicious. Was this guy a hustler?

“I used to,” I said. “When I was a kid.”

He chalked up his cue and said, without looking at me, “You play?”

He looked at me with an expression I couldn’t figure out. Was he sizing me up? He concentrated on his shot and missed it. He circled the table to set himself up for another shot.

I waited and watched, and said nothing else. If he was first to speak next, he was definitely a hustler.

He made two shots, missed one, and with a handful of balls left on the table, said, “You want a game?”

What the hell, I thought. “Sure,” I said.

He leaned his cue against the wall. “Take a few practice shots,” he said. “Then we’ll start a new game.” He put four quarters on the side rail above the money slot.

I took a cue from the rack and stared down the shaft to see if it was straight.

“Put it on the table and roll it,” he said. “You can tell better if it’s warped that way.”

I did as he said. The cue was good. I took a few shots. I wasn’t very good.

“Ready to go?” he asked, picking up the triangle.

“Sure,” I said.

Put the money in. Make sure you hold it in until all the balls have dropped.”

The balls rolled like thunder. He racked them up, handed me the cue ball, and picked up a cue ball from the other table.

“Lag for break,” he said.

We did, and he won.

“Derek,” he said, putting his big bear paw out.

“Bill,” I said, shaking it.

He broke, and two stripes went in. He potted two more stripes, then missed.

“So I’m shooting solids?” I asked.

“Uh huh.”

I sank the two ball but left myself in terrible shape, and could barely even hit another solid.

He sank two more stripes, then missed an easy shot. He was definitely a hustler. It was only a matter of time before the topic of money would come up.

We finished the game. He won by a few balls.

“You from around here?” he asked.

Showing interest, I thought. Becoming my buddy. Classic hostle.

“No,” I said. “Just in town for a couple of days, visiting friends. They’re still at work so I thought I’d have a beer or two.”

“What’s your business?”

“I’m a spy. I sell arms.”

He laughed.

“Nah,” I said, “I’m a mechanic.”

He looked at my hands, and I looked at them as well. Calluses. Cuts. Scars. Busted fingernails.

The bartender poked his head through the doorway. “You guys want anything?”

“Wanna play another game?” Ask Derek.

I finished the rest of my beer and handed the glass to the bartender. “Sure,” I said to both of them.

Derek hadn’t been drinking. If he was a hustler, he’d order a whiskey or a shot of vodka or tequila. If he wasn’t a hustler, he’d have a beer. Beer makes you go to the toilet too often, and hustlers don’t have time to waste.

“Yeah,” Derek said. “I’ll have a Jameson’s”. Two ice cubes.”

“Done,” said the bartender as he left.

“What do you work on?” Ask Derek.

“Mostly motorcycles,” I said. “I like Harleys.”

Great bikes. You got any quarters?”

“Yeah,” I said. I put four in the slot and held it in. Derek racked the balls.

“Wanna make it interesting?” he asked.

Here it was, I thought. I wanted to see where this was going, so I said, “Sure. How much?”

“Ten bucks?”

Ten. Not too much to turn me off. Not enough to make me think he was hustling me. Not too little to not make it worth his while. But this would escalate, I was sure of that.

“Ten’s good,” I said. “Who breaks?”

“I do,” he said. “I won the last game. House rules.” He broke, sinking a stripe. He sank three more before missing.

The bartender came back, handed me my beer and Derek his Jameson’s with two ice cubes which tinkled. I noticed that Derek put his drink down without even taking a sip. He didn’t want to get close to drunk. He was in for the long haul.

I sank a couple, then missed. He sank three, then missed. I sank one, then missed. He ran the rest of the table.

“Again?” he said.

“Sure,” I said. “I’m slowly getting the rust off.” I laughed.

“Twenty this game?”

“Sure,” I said. What the hell. This was fun. And it wasn’t a lot of money for me. He probably had somewhere to go later that afternoon, so he wanted to make a few bucks as quickly as he could.

He won that game too. I was down thirty. So what? Thirty doesn’t even cover an hour’s work of a decent motorcycle mechanic.

We kept playing. I kept drinking beer. We raised the stakes. You’ve heard a version of this story many times.

I won the $50 game. I think he let me. He made a few suspiciously bad shots, the last of which set me up to clear my remaining balls.

He won that game too. I was down thirty. So what? Thirty doesn’t even cover an hour’s work of a decent motorcycle mechanic.

Then I won the $100 game. I was playing better but he was still fumbling occasionally, setting me up for the long con.

And then it came. He won the $200 game, playing much better. His missed shots didn’t look intentional to me, and there were very few of them.

He won the $300 game. He broke, methodically ran the table, and I watched, drinking my beer and chalking my cue tip pointlessly.

He put his cue back in the rack, came over to me, and put out his bear paw. I assumed he wanted me to put money in it, but I didn’t want to do that.

“One more?” I slurred.

“Aren’t you done?” he asked.

“One more,” I said, taking his paw and shaking it. “Thousand dollars!” It was supposed to sound confident, but it sounded to me like false bravado.

“Do you even have that much money on you? You’re already down three-eighty to me. You wanna be down another grand on top of that? Do you have the money?”

“Screw you, buddy!” I yelled, loud enough to attract the bartender’s attention.

“What’s going on, guys?” he said.

“This guy!” I said, waving vaguely at Derek. “This guy is accusing me of not having the cash to cover my debts. How do I know he can cover the debt if I win?”

“I can vouch for him,” said the bartender.

“Yeah, of course you’re gonna say that!”

“Look, man, don’t you think you’ve had enough to drink?”

“Screw you too! I can hold my booze,” I said as I staggered toward the bartender with a look on my face that meant I was ready to pound someone. “How do I know he’s got the money? Just ‘coz you vouch for him? Who the hell are you?!”

“OK, calm down,” said the bartender, putting his hands on my chest. “I’ll not only vouch for him, if he doesn’t have the money, I’ll take it out of the till and give it to you, I swear.”

He’ll take money out of the till? He keeps a grand in the till? That sounded as fishy as the swordfish with the blank eyes.

“Take your hands off me,” I said, as quietly as I could. Quiet is scarier than loud.

He did. “OK, no problem, OK?”

“All right,” I said, and stepped back.

“Now,” said the bartender, “it’s understandable that Derek would want assurances you can cover any losses you have.”

“Fine,” I said. I took my wallet out of my back pocket, opened it, took the cash out, and gave it to the bartender.

He thumbed through it. His dirty blonde eyebrows went up in surprise. He handed the money back to me and looked at Derek. “He’s good.”

“OK,” Derek said.

I said, “Get us a couple of whatever he’s drinking. Put it on my tab.”

The bartender looked at Derek, who nodded. The bartender left.

“Rack ’em up,” I said.

“Are you sure?” he said.

“Screw you!” I yelled. “And you know what? Screw a grand! Make it two! Rack ’em up!”

“OK, two grand,” he said. “You rack them up. Loser racks, winner breaks.”

“Put your quarters in, screwboy,” I said.

He let out an unintentional snort, and put the quarters in. I racked the balls.

He broke, and sank a stripe and a solid. He looked over the table, then sank a stripe. I was solid.

The bartender brought the drinks, put one on the table beside me, and one for Derek on the side rail. The bartender stood and watched.

Derek sank four more stripes before just missing on his remaining ball. He spun away from the table and swore at the wall. He turned back to the table calmly, knowing that he’d left me the cue ball behind the eight ball without a clear shot at a solid.

“Two ball,” I said, and hit a two-bank shot on the two into a side pocket, leaving myself in good shape.

I ran the table after that, sinking the eight ball with my eyes closed. I put my cue on the table and rolled it. “That’ll be sixteen-twenty,” I said.

Derek took his jacket off the swordfish’s nose and removed a roll of bills from a side pocket. He took the rubber band off it, and counted it. He handed it to me, and said, “I’m four hundred short.”

I took a few steps toward him.

“I’ll cover it,” said the bartender quickly, and went into the other room.

I went closer to Derek and pulled my fist back. He wins. I laughed, and put my fist to my side. “You prick,” I said.

I took my whiskey off the table and had a small sip. It was good. I put the remains on the long rail. “You can have the rest,” I said. I chuckled to myself at the double meaning.

Back in the bar, the bartender was standing there holding out his hand with $400 in it. He seemed nervous.

I gave him another hundred and said, “That non-alcohol beer tastes like crap.”

I left the bar and made it to the train station in time to catch my train for the next town.

*****

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