Too early to go home, too late to go back to the office.
I’d put something maudlin on the stereo, and grieve with an expensive bottle of single malt; the picture of that in my head was too pathetic, even for me.
I went to the Full Moon Saloon instead; it was everything it promised.
My favorite barmaid, Sandy, was there; she didn’t like the term though. She preferred bartender, because she had her reasons, which oddly enough, were pretty valid.
She leaned forward, searching my face, all compassion. “What can I get you?”
“The usual, stronger than usual.”
She gave a little smile, but there was concern as she pulled back. “You sure you want to…?”
I sighed. “Sandy, I’ve been second guessing myself since I heard about Valentine. I just had a young cop get in my face and second guess me too. I consider this place a refuge, and a haven, which may be the same thing, but I don’t care right now, and I’d like to think I know my own mind, at least here.
“So yeah, I’m sure.”
“Hey,” she said, leaning back over. “This place is a refuge for you?”
She smiled. “Does that make me your refugee?”
I groaned, smiling in spite of the fact my heart felt like a sledgehammer hit it.
“Really? Is that the best you got?”
“Ha! I got a million more like ‘em.”
“That’s why you’re here.”
She stroked my cheek, then gave it a little slap.
“Fuck you, big man.” She went down the bar to make my drink.
“When I watch you walk away, anything’s possible.”
She looked over her shoulder, then it registered, and her mouth dropped.
I started laughing, then she joined in.
We actually did have a thing once, but she wasn’t going to walk the path I chose, and truth be told, I didn’t want her to do it either; she had an innate sweetness, despite the jadedness of the surroundings she worked in.
The place was a dive, but it was ‘our dive.’
She came back with the drink, and poured a shot for herself.
“To Valentine,” she said. We dribbled some of our drinks on the bar; she let it run down a bit, and the scent wafted up like sinful incense.
“So what happens now?”
“Word’s getting around; by tomorrow there’ll be a manhunt.”
“You in it?”
“No, Kent. C’mon. Those jackals that do this stuff for real are great at it, way better than guys like you.”
“By what? Were you…?”
“No. She was like a daughter to me. Sort of.”
You didn’t admire your daughter’s legs. or let her roam the world in short, tight dresses killing people for obscene amounts of cash.
“You, and other guys like you. C’mon, Kent! She’s played the role on stage a million times to guys like you.”
“You keep saying that, Sandy. What do you mean by that?”
“Careworn, world-weary. Guys like you, carrying weight you no longer need to carry, having problems that should have gone away by middle age. Guys like you, trapped by money and no way to get out ‘cept through the morgue.”
She put her hand across my folded forearms.
“It was never going to be enough, Kent. Don’t you see that? You’ve got blood on your hands, your conscience, and no one to inherit anything good, because nothing good came out of it.”
She dug her nails in a bit.
“All you have to show, for all you’ve done, for all the years you’ve been supposedly cleaning up the streets and changing things for others, and profiting from it, is an onset of cirrhosis, and a dead young girl with her guts steaming in the rain.”
Her words felt like someone jammed a double-barrel to my head and pulled both triggers.
I felt myself convulse, and she took her hand away.
There was such a rush of mixed emotions, I wound up acting on none of them: I wanted to slap her, I wanted to throw the glass as hard as I could and watch it shatter, the way Valentine shattered when the bomb went off. I wanted to shoot something or someone, I wanted to scream, and I wanted to die.
I was out of tears, but my face must’ve gone rumply like I was going to cry again.
“Sorry, Kent. I care about you; I don’t want you to do this.”
“You’re really saying you don’t know if I can.”
She turned that over, took a sip of her drink, then focused back on me.
“Yeah, at the core of it, that’s what I’m saying. Let the hounds loose, and they’ll find him. Swoop in then, and take him away and butcher him all night when they do, but don’t join the chase.
“Please, Kent. Don’t do it.”
I took a sip of the malt.
“You had me at ‘butcher’….”
I took another sip.
“Ahhh, dammit, Sandy…”
She beamed, leaned over, kissed me quick.
“That’s my man…”
We had another round, and I caught a cab home, and watched the rain run down the window, and the red neon lights colored it, and it was Valentine’s blood again, running down the window, down the gutters, down the drain, down to wherever the damned souls go, crying for peace.
When I got in, I booked a mid morning flight to Valentine’s hometown.
I hung up, feeling a bit guilty, remembering everything Sandy said, but there was one thing more important than anything else that stood out.
“You really did have me at ‘butcher.’ ”