Story by Chris Bauer / Illustration by John Waltrip
At the bar hulked a police detective, wearing his Sears Roebuck suit the way a bear would. The ceiling fan whirred with a rhythmic clunk, rippling the sound of the baseball game on the radio and creating a breeze laden with stale beer and tobacco smoke.
Kit chose the stool beside detective, and pulled a crisp ten from my pocket. “I’m buying, Denny.”
Denny jerked his head toward the end of the bar. “We’ll die of thirst.”
The new barmaid posed in her shorts and midi-blouse, soaking up the draft from the wall fan. She laughed, flirted, and gaily waved around a cigarette.
“Damn. She looks like a pin-up.” Kit placed an ash-try on the ten to keep it anchored. “Where’s Iris?”
Denny tapped the ten. “Paid for a job?”
“Yeah. Some rich bastard was cheating on his wife. He wouldn’t get rid of the girlfriend, so she filed for divorce. He was dodging service, so her brother paid me to do it.”
“Hamilton has four brothers in my pocket,” said Kit.
“Beats bein’ an honest cop.” Denny slipped the ten from under the ashtray, and waved it toward the gal at the end of the bar. “Miss?” he said loudly.
She looked toward them and sighed at the nuisance.
“Maybe nobody called her that before,” Kit suggested.
The pin-up strutted and turned in front of them, hands on her hips. She had taken a bath in perfume, and smelled like the flowers at a funeral.
“Two beers,” said Denny.
“And two whiskey shots. I’m buying.”
“Just the beer,” Denny said. “Or I’ll be late for going home.”
The new barmaid frowned. “So, do you want two beers or two shots?”
Kit ignored her. “Iris working?”
On cue, Iris came through the back door, lugging a case of beer that weighed as much as she did. Iris looked like one of those delicate porcelain figures in fancy stores. Kit watched her night after night smiling and nodding to hard luck stories and rambling complaints.
“Iris!” The new gal jerked her thumb in their direction and promenaded back to her personal fan. The view from behind was as good as the front, but they were still thirsty.
Iris appeared, wiping her hands on a snow-white apron. She grinned like Denny and Kit were long lost boyfriends. “The usual?”
They nodded, and she went to the taps in the middle of the bar.
“You’re sweet on her. I can tell,” said Denny.
Kit shrugged. “She’s cute as they come.”
Denny pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes, and shook out the least mangled. “She’s got a story.”
“She had polio, I hear.”
“You can’t tell.” Denny clicked open a battered Ronsen, and lit up. The smoke spun up into the ceiling fan. “Husband used to get drunk and beat her up. She’d have a bloody lip and a liquored-up Eugene would have blood on his knuckles and know nothin’ about it.”
“I heard she got some insurance money,” said Kit.
“I heard same.” Denny paused for a few gulps of beer. “One night my boys show up to find Eugene at the bottom of the steps, deader ‘an hell and stinking of whiskey. Iris was hiding under the table thinkin’ he was coming back.”
“Bastard deserved it,” Kit said.
Iris set the beers in front of them. Condensation streaked the glasses and created little puddles on the mahogany counter.
“I need your help,” she said.
“I’m off duty,” said Denny. “So, if nobody’s gettin’ hurt, I don’t hear it.”
Iris slid Kit’s change onto the counter, and kept it safe with the ash tray. She glanced to the other end of the bar. The burlesque queen was wrapped in conversation and her own cigarette smoke.
“The till’s been short,” said Iris. “Ten bucks each night. It started when Bob brought in his new girlfriend, Donna.”
“Bob’s married, right?”
“Nicest woman you’d ever want to meet,” said Iris. “She does the books for the place.”
“Where’s this going?” Kit didn’t mean it the way it sounded.
Iris let it pass. “I’m scared Bob thinks it’s me. He can’t blame his new girlfriend, can he?”
Kit considered the irony of Bob’s girlfriend being a petty thief, and decided he liked it. “So, how do you know?”
“I count the cash and match it to the cash register tape. We were ten short three nights in a row. I told Bob, and he said he’d do it from now on.”
“Easy to do,” said Denny. “A ten dollar bill. Everybody’s watching her ass and not her hands. Women ain’t dumb.”
“I thought you were off duty?” said Kit.
Denny drained the last of his beer and lumbered from his stool toward the door. “I am. G’night.”
“She steals my tips,” pressed Iris. “Takes too long at the cash drawer…”
“Maybe she can’t count change.”
A balding, pot-bellied man in a Hawaiian shirt marched in like he owned the place. He did. Bob carried one of those glossy paper bags with the ribbon handles. None of the neighborhood shops gave those away. Their clientele was housewives and working women too frugal for a Downtown department store.
Bob caught sight of Donna and exploded into a stupid grin. She fired back a man-melting smile and wiggled her fingers hello. Then she rushed into the back room with Bob trailing.
Iris placed a pale, delicate hand on Kit’s. “I can’t do heavy work. I need this job.”
He liked her hand where it was. “Be back in a minute.”
Kit went into the john, marked each of his tens, and returned to his place. “Give me a gin and white soda,” he told Iris. “But skip the gin.”
He offered one of the tens. Iris rang up the drink, slid ten dollars of change onto the counter, and Kit shoveled the money into his pocket.
He nursed the drinks and watched Donna parade back and forth while Bob took bets on the baseball game. Iris moved with the damnedest lady-like efficiency, pouring beer, washing glasses, money in and out of the cash register.
The bar filled and emptied like the rise and fall of the tide. The stuff the tide left behind was Kit and two drunks arguing about who was drunker.
“We’re closed,” announced Bob.
“He’s walking me home,” Iris answered.
Bob shrugged and locked the front door.
Iris counted the cash twice, and ripped off the long roll of cash register tape.
“I’ll do it,” Bob said. Iris plopped the money and tape onto the counter. He took the bundle and went into the back room.
Kit gave him a few seconds and followed.
Among the usual debris of empty beer cases and broken stools squatted an abused wooden desk with a gooseneck lamp. Bob had the bank’s cash bag, and no cash register tape in sight.
Bob looked up, hand dropping to a desk drawer. “Waddya want? I’m doing business here.”
Kit flipped open his wallet, showing the PI license.
Bob sat back a little further in the chair, and pulled open the desk drawer to show a .45. His hand wavered over the gun.
“So, you aint’ gonna rob me. Waddya want?”
“Somebody’s skimming the till,” explained Kit. “Ten dollars at a time.”
“I passed four marked tens tonight. Let’s see if they’re in the cash bag.”
Bob leaned over, filling his hand with the .45. “The cops go with me to the bank. They’ll be here any minute.”
“Then let’s talk to them.”
Bob pulled the gun from the drawer and stood up.
Kit took a step back. “Bob, I’m trying to help you out.”
“I’m not sure who’s skimming the big money…”
Bob relaxed his gun arm.
“But it’s not Iris.”
“She’s got the most to lose. Anyway, she’s worked for you forever, right?
Bob nodded. Kit pressed on. “You own the place, so why steal from yourself? So, it has to be somebody new.”
Bob’s gun arm went stiff, and his eyes narrowed. “I don’t like what you’re saying.”
“Your regulars know it. She makes you look stupid. But I’m not naming names.”
Bob stood motionless for a moment, then offered a weak grin. He collapsed into his chair, and dropped the .45 into the drawer with a clunk. He studied the cash bag. “That fancy-assed bitch. I give her a job outta the kindness of my heart, and she steals from me.”
“It all adds up.”
Bob closed the gun drawer. “So what do you get outta this?”
“Iris keeps her job. Maybe the house buys me a drink once in a while.”
“Yeah. Thanks for tip.” Bob extended a beefy hand. “No hard feelings, but you had me goin’ there.”
“I figured you’d want to know.” They shook hands, and Bob’s was sweaty.
The night cops banged on the front door.
“Yeah,” said Bob. “Donna coulda robbed me blind.” He cinched tight the money bag. Kit walked back into the bar, and Bob followed.
Iris stood framed by the two beat cops. “Good night, gentlemen,” Kit said, and led her out by the elbow.
A few houses down the block, her fingers dug into his arm. “You told him? It’s the slut, right?”
The darkness was thick with August heat, and the air so humid people needed gills to breathe. They paused beneath the feeble glow of street light, ignoring the buzzing insects bouncing off the lamp.
“No, it’s her,” insisted Iris.
Kit started walking again. He could feel Iris’s hip move with each step, and she wrapped his arm in both hands. If a woman could walk and snuggle at the same time, she was doing it.
“Bob came in with a fancy bag from a department store,” Kit said. “His wife might buy something from a neighborhood store, so he couldn’t go to any of them.”
“You sure it’s Bob?”
“He’s skimming to buy her things. He had to do it so his wife couldn’t tell. Remember, she does the books.”
Kit followed Iris to the back stairs of a four family flat.
“Will I keep my job?” she asked.
“Looks that way.”
They climbed the steps side by side. He could feel her slim leg brushing against his. She laid her hand on his shoulder, and climbed to the last step to be tall enough for kissing.
“Thanks for helping me.” she said. She nestled closer. It felt good, even in the August heat. She smelled of lilac powder and her eyes were the color of the night sky.
“Bob wasn’t the only one skimming,” said Kit. He stepped aside. It didn’t feel right to be within kissing distance. “I watched you. A dollar here, a short-change there. That’s why you always did the cash.”
Her finger thrust against him like a loaded gun. “He paid that bitch a dollar an hour. She took my tips. It ain’t right.”
“I’m not telling anybody,” said Kit. “But you got to stop. Skimming is skimming.”
“No!” she hissed. Iris slammed him with both hands. He teetered off balance.
Below him, two flights of stairs. Kit grabbed for the railing.
She came at him again, and he remembered Eugene.
Copyright © 2009 by Chris Bauer.
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