‘I’ve got to take this call,’ Kate Guillory said. She took a quick gulp of her beer, slipped off the bar stool, headed for the door to get away from the noise. ‘Don’t let anybody sit in my seat.’
Evan Buckley mumbled something under his breath that she didn’t hear. She didn’t ask him to repeat it as she moved away, clamping her phone tightly to her ear. Kieran the bartender caught it.
Depends how good-looking she is.
He raised an eyebrow at Evan. Evan shrugged, you got me. They both knew he wasn’t that brave. Or stupid.
The door had barely banged shut behind Guillory when the woman sat on her stool. Kieran asked her what she wanted to drink then went to pour it. He had a hard time keeping the grin off his face as he caught Evan’s eye.
Evan glanced at the woman in the backbar mirror. Way too old for him. But she’d have passed the good-looking test when she was younger. He cleared his throat.
‘That seat’s taken, I’m afraid.’
She looked at him as if one of the beer pumps had suddenly spoken. Then stated an obvious fact.
‘It is now.’
He considered his options, none of them good. Say it again more forcefully, maybe start a fight. She looked as if she’d been in a few in her time. Her hands were large for a woman, the fingers strong, no polish on her nails. He could offer her money to move. Or wait to see what happened when Guillory got back. Maybe sell some tickets for ringside seats while he waited.
His decision was postponed by Kieran’s arrival with the woman’s beer. He placed it in front of her, did his best to help Evan out. That, or he was worried about his furniture. He pointed across the room.
‘There’s a table free over there.’
The woman didn’t look around.
‘I like it here, thanks.’
Kieran gave Evan a small shrug—I tried—then moved away to serve a less-awkward customer. Evan took a swallow of his beer, glanced in the mirror again, a quick flick of his eyes at her. From the angle of her head, the focus of her eyes, it looked as if she was watching the door. Surely not for Guillory’s return? In desperation he tried the only thing that came to mind.
‘I haven’t seen you in here before.’
She stopped watching the door in the mirror, looked at him.
‘That’s because I’ve never been in here before.’
He nodded, can’t say fairer than that.
‘That would explain it.’
There was the hint of a smile on her lips now.
‘If that was a pickup line, you need to go on a refresher course. Unless you’re saving your best lines for the young ones.’
He shook his head.
‘No, that’s the only one I’ve got and it never worked. Not even back in the day. Besides, I’m with the woman whose seat you’re keeping warm.’
‘It’s that sort of a place, is it?’
‘What sort?’
She shrugged, stuck out her bottom lip.
‘You know. Everybody’s got their own seat. Like a pack of dogs marking their territory.’
‘I’ve never thought of it like that, but, yeah, I suppose so.’
She looked around the bar, nodded appreciatively.
‘It’s a nice place. Good music too.’
They both spent a minute listening to the Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want coming from the jukebox.
‘I put that on,’ Evan said, sounding like he’d written it and played all the instruments.
‘You’ve got good taste. You come here a lot, do you?’
‘Is that one of the better pickup lines I’d learn if I went on that refresher course?’
She laughed out loud at that. Then glanced at the door in the mirror again as if she was worried that her time chatting to him was drawing to a close. There was mischief in her eyes when she looked at him again.
‘So what’s . . . I don’t know her name.’
‘Kate. I’m Evan.’
‘What’s Kate going to do to you when she comes back and finds me sitting on her stool?’
He didn’t miss the fact that she hadn’t offered her name in response to him giving his. He made a big deal of swallowing hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing.
‘I don’t want to think about it. But she’ll probably start a fight with you. She’s like that. Always getting us into trouble.’
She leaned away from him to get a better look at him, eyes moving up and down his body.
‘I’ve only known you two minutes, but something tells me you’ve got that the wrong way around. How about I ask the bartender, and you buy me a beer if I’m right?’
He worked an incredulous look onto his face.
‘You don’t think I’m in enough trouble already just letting you sit there? Besides, I don’t buy anyone a beer if I don’t know their name.’
She gave him a look like he’d just failed the exam at the end of the Better Pickup Lines course with the lowest mark ever.
‘Bella. Bella Carling. Does that get me two beers?’
Had he been unattached and Bella younger, he would have thought that this was all going very well indeed. After a potentially disastrous start they were now laughing together and he was about to buy her a drink. Unfortunately, neither of those things were true. He bought her a beer anyway and they clinked glasses. He came out with the only toast that would work.
‘Here’s to cheesy pickup lines.’
‘You bet.’ She took a long swallow. ‘And going home.’
It was an odd thing to say. If she’d been about to drain the last of her beer and head off, he wouldn’t have paid it any attention. There was something in her voice, a wistful quality with a hint of apprehension behind it, that suggested she wasn’t talking about an apartment a couple of blocks away. She meant home as in where you’re from. Perhaps where you haven’t been for a long time.
He’d have asked her where home was, maybe he’d been there, if that hadn’t been when the door opened.
Two pairs of eyes flicked immediately to the mirror. It wasn’t Guillory. It was a man. He exuded menace and threat and harm from every pore, the sort of man whose eyes you don’t catch if you like the current configuration of your face and limbs and want to keep them that way. Evan smelled the threat of violence coming off him from across the room.
The guy looked around. His gaze settled on another man sitting at a table near the door—the table that Kieran had tried to direct Evan’s new friend Bella towards. He yelled something unintelligible at the seated man, took a fast step towards him. Seemed the man at the table had been expecting something like it to happen. He didn’t look up with a surprised expression on his face at the unexpected interruption as you’d expect. He was already getting to his feet to meet the attack head on.
Everybody turned towards the two men, an indignant shout from Kieran behind the bar ringing out. The first guy threw a wild punch, caught the second guy a glancing blow on the side of the head.
Then the door opened a second time and Guillory stepped inside, not more than a couple feet away from the flailing arms of the two men. She leaned away as a fist cut through the air in front of her nose, then reacted instinctively, stepping between them.
Hey! Break it up.’
Evan spun around on his stool, came off it quicker than if he’d been told it was free beer next door but only for the next two minutes. Concentrating on the melee on the other side of the room, a confusion of grunts and flying fists and frayed tempers, not paying attention to immediately behind him. He bounced into a guy coming towards him as all other eyes were on the scuffle by the door. They cracked heads, a bone-jarring collision, eyes going in and out of focus. Evan flew backwards into the bar, the other guy wavering in front of him.
Then something hit the bar’s wooden floor with a metallic boing and quivered. They both looked down at the switchblade the guy had dropped, its pointed tip embedded in the floor, the light catching its shuddering six-inch blade.
The guy hesitated momentarily. Then went for it before Evan had a chance to react. He scooped it up, closed it, dropped it in his pocket. A well-practiced maneuver that nobody else in the bar would have noticed even if they hadn’t been concentrating on the fight by the door. He might have been bending to scratch an itch on his ankle. He showed Evan his palms as if in apology, then shoved hard into Evan’s chest with the heels of both hands. Evan stumbled backwards into the stool again as the guy turned and ran. He pushed himself upright, yelled across the room.
Kate! Stop that guy.’
Guillory was in the middle of the two men fighting, trying to keep them apart. She looked up at the unexpected sound of her name, lost concentration for a split second. The guy who’d been sitting at the table punched her in the side of the head, shoved her into the table he’d been sitting. Then the two men dived for the door, the animosity between them a thing of the past. Evan’s eyesight was still hazy but he’d have sworn they held the door for the man who’d dropped the knife. Then they were gone, the door slamming behind them.
He shook his head to clear it, charged across the room to follow Guillory out into the street. She was standing on the sidewalk, phone out, arm extended, trying to get a shot of the license plate of a car burning rubber all the way down the street. She gave up, her hands shaking from the adrenal letdown. Staring after the car’s disappearing lights, chest heaving, massaging the side of her face. She noticed him beside her, glared at him instead.
‘Thanks a lot, Buckley.’
‘You want me to kiss it better?’
Sorry might have been preferable, but hey-ho. She ignored him anyway, a frown creasing her forehead.
‘There’s something strange going on. They all got into the same car.’
It wasn’t the time to point out that saving gas helps the planet.
He steered her back inside, felt his heart lurch as he remembered Bella sitting on her stool.
Except she wasn’t. She was gone. His first reaction—thank God for small mercies—was immediately overshadowed by the fact that Guillory was right. Something was off.
‘Why did you want me to stop him?’ she said, still rubbing her cheek. ‘I’m going to have a hell of a bruise.’
‘He had a switchblade—’
‘And you wanted me to stop him? I’m lucky I’ve only got a cracked cheekbone.’
He ignored the exaggeration, patted the air the quiet her down.
‘It was back in his pocket by then.’
Her eyes narrowed.
‘Are you sure you saw it? Didn’t imagine it? How many beers have you had?’
He knelt down where the guy had dropped the knife to see if he could find where the blade had stuck in the floor. She suddenly smiled, something he thought she’d forgotten how to do.
‘Not here, Evan. It’s embarrassing.’
Then Kieran leaned over the bar, a grin to match Guillory’s on his face.
‘What are you doing down there, Evan? Got a big announcement for us? I’ll get the champagne on ice.’
He tuned them out, concentrated on the floor. It was no good. There were too many scrapes and gouges. He got up again, sat on his stool. Asked Kieran if he didn’t have any work to do. Guillory still had the remains of the smile on her lips and in her eyes.
‘Tell me what happened.’
He told her about crashing into the guy because he was concentrating on her and the two men fighting, how the man he’d collided with had dropped the knife. And how he’d been coming towards him with it when everybody else’s attention was on the fight. He saw the dots joining themselves in her mind as he talked. A few beers, a bang on the head, eyes out of focus, an imagined knife. But she didn’t come out and say it, nodding thoughtfully to herself instead.
‘There was something wrong about that fight. Like they weren’t really trying to hit each other. The only real punch was the one that hit me. Thanks to you.’
He kept the you’re welcome to himself, stated the obvious conclusion.
‘It was a diversion to cover for the guy with the knife.’
‘If there was a knife.’ She held up her hand to stop him from objecting. ‘Who was he after if there was?’
He pictured the scene in his mind. Bella sitting where Guillory was now at the end of the bar, nobody beyond her. There was nobody else it could’ve been. He told her about Bella and their conversation, what he’d noticed.
‘She kept looking in the mirror. As if she was afraid someone was coming after her.’
‘Looks like they were—if you’re right about the knife.’ There was a lot of emphasis on the if. ‘Thank God for clumsy idiots like you or Kieran would have blood all over his floor.’
Kieran was passing at that moment. He heard the words knife and blood, saw the look in her eye as she massaged her cheek again.
‘Take him outside first, Kate. I don’t need any more mess in here.’ Then to Evan, ‘Did you get your new girlfriend’s phone number? The two of you were getting along pretty well.’
Evan thought he was just having some fun at his expense, trying to incite Guillory to violence against him. He was wrong. Kieran was waiting for an answer.
‘No. Why?’
‘She was in such a hurry to get out, she left her wallet on the bar.’
He reached under the counter, came up with a battered brown leather bifold wallet, laid it on the bar. Evan picked it up. It was more like a man’s wallet. That fit with his overall impression of her. A no-nonsense sort of woman who could hold her own in any situation.
‘Did you look in it for a phone number?’
Kieran shook his head.
‘I haven’t had time. I don’t suppose she’ll be in a hurry to come back either.’
Evan and Guillory exchanged a look, didn’t say anything. Evan waited until Kieran had gone to serve somebody else, then looked inside. He let out a low whistle.
‘There must be a thousand bucks in here.’
He took out a fifty, placed it in front of Guillory. ‘One for you . . .’ Took out another one, put it on the bar next to his own drink. ‘One for me . . .’
She snatched the wallet out of his hand, scooped up the two bills, stuffed them back inside with all of the others. Then she looked through the other sections of the wallet.
‘There’s only cash. No credit cards. Hang on . . . here’s her driver’s license.’
He watched her pull out a Massachusetts license, recognized a younger Bella from the quick glimpse he caught of the photograph. She snorted as she read it.
‘It expired in 1992.’ Then she read the name out loud.
‘Arabella Carlson.’
The first name sounded right—Arabella shortened to Bella. But the last name was wrong.
‘She told me her last name was Carling, not Carlson.’
Guillory smiled and he knew he was going to be on the wrong end of something.
‘Can you blame her? I wouldn’t give you my real name. In fact, sometimes I wish I never had. Besides, it’s so loud in here, it’d be easy to mishear something that similar.’
That wasn’t the case. He knew what he’d heard. Especially after she made a point of telling him her full name and asking if that earned her two beers instead of only one. And it made sense that the sort of person who ended up being the target of a premeditated knife attack lived in a world where you give strangers a false name as a matter of course. He didn’t pursue it with Ms Skeptical.
‘Anything else in there?’
‘What? Some naked selfies, you mean?’
He pictured the woman who’d sat beside him. Far too old for him. But the facetious remark was closer than Guillory intended. She fished out an old photograph folded in two. It showed a much younger version of Bella in her mid-twenties standing beside another woman a few years younger. You couldn’t miss the fact that they were sisters. And he’d been right about Bella. She’d been a good-looking woman when she was younger, even if she’d been eclipsed by her little sister. Both women wore shorts and sleeveless white blouses, standing up to their knees in the sea. Whoever had taken the photograph had been further out, taking the shot looking back towards the shore, sand dunes and a big house in the background behind the two women. They looked exactly like what they were—two young women with their whole lives ahead of them. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that he was looking at the home that Bella had toasted, the one she was going back to.
What had just happened made him wonder if she’d ever make it.
He took the photo from Guillory while she finished looking through the wallet. Bella was now in her early-to-mid fifties. That made the photograph thirty years old, circa 1990. There wasn’t anything written on the back to prove or disprove it. But there was a phone number.
‘That’s all there is,’ Guillory said, putting the wallet on the bar.
‘There’s a phone number.’
‘Uh-huh. So give your new friend a call.’
‘It won’t be hers. Who writes their own number on the back of an old photograph?’
‘So what are you going to do?’
‘What am I going to do?’ He pointed at himself. ‘I was thinking I’d give it to a police officer.’ He pushed the wallet along the bar towards her. ‘There you go. Do your job.’
She pushed it back again.
‘Do you know what I do, Evan?’
She knew it was a mistake as soon as it was out of her mouth.
‘I know what Ryder does.’ Ryder was her long-standing partner, his long-standing nemesis. They’d almost come to blows on a number of occasions. ‘He sits on his fat ass all day long—’
The palm of her hand was suddenly an inch off the tip of his nose.
‘Enough. And I’ve got better things to do than return lost property.’
‘What about the fight? And the guy with the knife? What are you going to do about that?’
‘Not much I can do. There’s no CCTV. I didn’t get a good look at the license plate.’
She picked up the wallet, thumbed through the bills.
‘Like you say, about a thousand bucks. But they weren’t muggers. Not in a busy bar, not even for a thousand bucks.’
She was right, of course. There was a lot more to it than that. If either of them had noticed the man sitting further down the bar, the one staring intently at Evan, and had asked his opinion he’d have agreed with her.