"Same again – no ice."
The barman glares at me. I don’t blame him. No one likes being told how to do their job.
Slattery’s Meat Market is situated in an ugly, unremarkable part of town. It used to be a factory social club, back in another lifetime, but now it hosts live pussy shows and the occasional cockfight. When I arrived, Slattery was scrubbing blood-streaked vomit off the front steps. Despite the brutally cold Autumn afternoon, his evening shirt was transparent with sweat.
There are no coasters, so the barman places the drink on an old Thighs & Fries napkin. Apparently Slattery retrieved them from a skip after the chicken joint was shut down earlier in the year.
There is a videotape playing on a small black and white TV behind the bar. All I can really see is a juddering blur of skin and bone, but I half-recognise one of the girls, so I assume that the video was made locally. It is always nice to see local entrepreneurs looking out for one another.
I turn back towards the stage and survey the smouldering wreckage of my past. Ani and I were never married, but we came close. Too many hot, blurred afternoons. Too much vodka and Mountain Dew. Back then she had a part-time job in a Texaco garage, I didn’t have a job of any description. They were good days.
I move further down the bar, away from the toilet block and the stink of hot piss coursing through the rusty pipes. The stage consists of five paint-splattered planks balanced across a load of beer crates. This end of the room smells of stale cigarette smoke and fresh pussy sweat.
Ani is nude, but a moment passes before I realise that she is pregnant. It takes me by surprise. She told me that her insides had been chewed up after a botched appendectomy, so it takes me by surprise. I remember the ragged scar well. I used to trace it with my forefinger after sex.
Her dark hair has been shaved to stubble and her scalp is the colour of a burned carpet. A cigarette dangles lazily from her lips as she gets her grind on. Flecks of ash fall across her breasts every time she makes a sudden movement. She is completely shaved down below, but I can see small tufts of hair under her armpits. Her boots are scuffed and silver. They look too big for her, like they used to belong to someone else.
I came here today to tell her that her father has died in prison, but I’m not sure I have the heart. I was told that he bled out in the chow line at Channings Wood after getting a shank between the ribs. The knifeman had melted a prison-issue razor blade into a plastic spork. Obvious, but effective. What Ani doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Maybe.
The song ends abruptly, and when Ani climbs down from the stage a couple of guys drift across the sticky floor towards her. They remind me of rabid dogs in search of spoiled meat. At first I think they are carnies–some of Eugene’s boys, maybe, but they look too clean.
“What does a man have to do to get a fuck around here?”
The first man is middle-aged and hard-looking. His eyes are sunk deep in their sockets, and his ears and nose look too big for his withered face. I slide off my barstool towards them. Slattery usually employs a bouncer – a big fat guy with a lump hammer – but he doesn’t start his shift until six o’clock. Up close, I recognise the tough guy. His name is Robert John Hershey. He used to be a cop, until they kicked him off the force.
I stomp the back of his legs and he crumples like an old cigarette packet.
Ani’s wet lips part as she sees me. She doesn’t smile. Neither do I.
Hershey peels himself off the dirty floor, with a nasty-looking smile plastered across his rotten face. I see a glint of metal under the queasy bar lights as he lashes out at me with a set of brass knuckles.
I allow the car aerial to drop from my sleeve and whip him across the eyes in one fluid motion. He howls like a stomped dog – blood leaking out from behind his bony fingers. He stumbles around the bar shrieking, bouncing off tables and chairs.
The other man watches wordlessly, enjoying the show. He is called Charles Boggs. He’s a cop, too. He reaches into his checked sports jacket and comes out with a battered little gun. It looks like a throw-down piece. He smiles unpleasantly, and his skin looks see-through. His badly shaven jawline clicks as he shuts his mouth.
He aims the piece at my face, hand trembling slightly.
He steps closer, and I picture the bullet entering my eye-socket and splattering my skull-meat across the bar.
I picture the barman reluctantly mopping up the viscera with a stack of Thighs & Fries napkins.
I picture shovelfuls of winter mud raining down on my cheap, plywood coffin.
My heart thuds like a breezeblock being thrown down a tenement stairwell. I’m about to close my eyes when Boggs grunts and drops to his knees. Slattery stands over his body, breathing like a horse. A tyre iron dangles limply from his hand, like an afterthought. The blood pooling under Boggs’ dented skull looks positively black.
“Fuck… thank you.”
He shrugs awkwardly. Slattery is a tall, rangy man, but his face has been ruined by too much nicotine and gin. He grunts.
“I don’t have many friends, so I take care of the few I’ve got.”
Then he starts to drag Boggs through pool of skull-blood by his jacket collar. He leaves a fat, dark smear on the floor.
Ani doesn’t reappear from behind the smoke-coloured curtain next to the stage, and I don’t have the energy to look for her.
The barman passes me a tall glass of something luminous.
“Cocktail. On the house. Slattery calls it a ‘Clubfoot’.”
I take a sip.
“I hope it tastes better coming up than it does going down…”
He doesn’t laugh, but neither do I. It wasn’t a fucking joke.
Afternoon congeals into evening, and the Meat Market becomes hot with bodies. Crowds make me nervous, so I button up my jacket and leave. Slattery has resumed scrubbing at the bloodstain. The sky is the same colour as his cold, grey eyes.
A sickly yellow smile forms between his lips.
“Someday, we are all going to pay for this.”
I nod, leaving him to the blood-streaked vomit, and walk into the hard winter light.
Tom Leins is a disgraced ex-film critic from Paignton, UK. His short stories have been published by the likes of Akashic Books, Shotgun Honey, Near to the Knuckle, Revolution John, and Spelk. He is currently working on his first novel, "Thirsty and Miserable." Get your pound of flesh at https://thingstodoindevonwhenyouredead.wordpress.com/