Hello and happy Friday all! Here’s yet another sample from the boxed set to be published as part of the Crime Cafe Stories Project.
I present this in the sincere hope that you’ll thoroughly enjoy it and that you’ll join us in supporting the crowdfunding project I’ll launch for this project on Tuesday, July 12!
Pain can be nature’s way of telling you that you have done something really stupid. So I was getting quite a lecture. There was no way I could have won the fight, and sure, I’d known that going in. But I gave it my best. Then came the kick to my head, so fast that I had no time to block or duck. For the next hour, I’d simply tried to reassemble my thoughts.
Now I sat on a barstool, aching down to the bone with bruises and stiff limbs, holding an ice-filled bar towel against the cut over my eye. The coolness felt good. My head throbbed, but by some miracle I didn’t seem to have a concussion, so I counted my blessings.
We were at a private nightclub near the edge of Miami’s Little Havana. At Hernando’s Hideaway, I was in charge of security, taking care of whatever trouble came up. Here in Miami, there was always trouble.
The mirror behind the bar showed the reflection of people around me. Hernando had permitted my rooting section to come in with me, even though the place didn’t open for another few hours. The pain took all my focus for the moment, so I didn’t want to talk to anyone. But I couldn’t ignore Esteban, watching me from behind the bar.
“Your face looks hurted, Zack. Are you okay?”
I wasn’t, but I didn’t want to worry the kid.
“Want more ice?”
The water dripping down between my fingers had gone tepid.
He took the wrap from me, shook out a few slivers of ice, wrung the cloth out, and meticulously refilled it with cubes from behind the bar.
“Thanks,” I said when he handed it back. I put it to my bruised flesh and sat very still. Snippets of conversation began to register.
“When Zack landed that kick in the second round, I thought he had him.”
“Nah, man,” said someone. “That just woke Gutierrez up, and he poured it on. Man, that guy’s gonna be world champ someday.”
“You did us all proud today, Zack,” someone else said, slapping my back, which jolted me with fresh pain. “How about a drink?”
Esteban frowned and shook his head. “No, no, no. Zack don’t drink. Zack never drinks.”
The guy looked at Esteban and then at me. “Special Ed here for real? You work in a bar.”
I shrugged, sending another wave of hurt cascading through my injured cranium. I moaned softly, and my mind drifted away again. No one bothered me for a few minutes, and my head finally stopped hammering so hard.
Esteban placed an envelope on the bar in front of me.
“Zack, look. A letter came for you.”
I looked at it, puzzled. Only my friend Ben knew where I was, and he always phoned, never wrote. He was supposed to call later to find out how I’d done. We’d have a good laugh when I explained how badly I’d got my butt whipped.
I put down the cloth and picked up the envelope. There was my name, in spiky handwriting, with no return address and a postmark from North Carolina.
Since my arms felt tired and heavy from the pounding I’d taken, it took a fumbling minute to pull out a newspaper clipping and a folded sheet of paper. The clipping fell, and fluttered to the floor. Somebody reached down to pick it up while I tried to read what looked like a letter. Moisture from the bar had mottled the paper with large, wet blots.
“You dropped this,” someone said. I waved him off, trying to concentrate on making sense of the letter. He spoke again. “Don’t you know a guy named Benjamin Sterling?”
“Yeah, Ben’s my best friend,” I said. I put down the letter and turned in the direction of the voice, my head pounding in protest. “Is he on the phone?”
There was no answer, just a sudden, strange silence. The guy looked away, and thrust the clipping at someone else. That guy frowned while reading it, then looked up at me.
“What is it?” I asked.
Neither of them spoke. The second guy put the piece of paper on the bar, and they both silently slipped back into the crowd. Wondering at their strange behavior, I picked up the clipping. It was from the Press-Herald in Portland, Maine. It said that Benjamin Sterling, a cook at the Pine Haven resort, had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, after a brief period in the Portland hospital for food poisoning.
No. It wasn’t true, couldn’t be true. No way. It was some other Ben Sterling. “No, no,” I rasped. It was a joke, a sick joke.
Someone put a hand on my shoulder. I shrugged it away, angry. I grabbed the letter from the bar. My hands were shaking as I read it:
We never got along but Ben always sed that we were the only two who mattered in his life. I rote to say how sorry I am about his dying. I still cant believe he done it. Shows you just never know. Thay called me from Main and buryed him in the city cimatarry. I woulda called you but dint have no number, just this address.
P.S. I did love him, but we was just too differnt.
I felt cold inside, confused. I didn’t believe it. What the hell was Ben’s ex-wife up to? I read it again, and found myself trembling. My jaw was clenched so tight my teeth hurt. Killed himself? No damn way. I scanned the clipping again, trying to make sense of it, for Ben would never do that. Not ever.
I tried to stand, but dizziness forced me back onto the stool. People mumbled condolences, but their words slid off me like cold raindrops. I tuned them out. I needed a drink to push this away. My past came rushing back once more, after all the years of trying to forget. The floodwaters of memory swept in; I went under.
Some time later, the crowd was gone. Without people here, the room was too empty and still. It reminded me of the hollow ache inside.
Esteban stood staring at me, not moving. The pounding in my head had subsided to a dull ache, and the dizziness was gone. I wondered how long he and I had been like this.
I started breathing again. “Is Hernando upstairs?”
Esteban nodded, then shifted his eyes downward. “The bad man’s with him.”
“Raul?” I growled. “Did he push you again?”
“No. He only called me a stupid retard. It’s okay.”
“It’s not okay!” I roared, slamming my hands to the bar and jumping up. The stool crashed to the floor, and Esteban backed away, looking terrified. I closed my eyes and ground my hands into my face. I couldn’t stop shaking. I forced calm into my voice.
“I’m sorry, Esteban. I didn’t mean to yell. Forget what he said. There’s nothing wrong with you.” I looked toward the back, to the stairs leading to Hernando’s office. “He’s just a bad man who enjoys hurting other people. And he has to stop.”
I felt the old rage stir within me, a beast unchained and hungry. Something was going to happen. Something bad.
Thanks for reading! And don’t forget to come to the Facebook Party for the project! Everyone in the world is invited! 🙂
PS: All my books on Smashwords are half-off for all of July. Click here to see them and use the code SSW50 at checkout!