Story by Author Daphne Strasert
Illustration by Lee Dawn
I should have known that dame would be trouble from the first time she set a whiskey glass on the bar in front of me. Maggie had skin the color of well-loved mahogany and eyes that could drown a man in shadow. Her legs went on for days, though you wouldn’t know it when she stood behind the dusty bar of her lounge. We got along, Maggie and me. She poured, I drank, she never asked about my day. It was a better relationship than my last three marriages combined. She was too good to be true—a broad like that was nothing but heartbreak in heels.
I knew my run of luck was up when her shadow crossed the glass pane of my office door one rainy night. She stepped in and hung her coat on the rack, her midnight hair still dripping from the storm outside. She patted it down with one cleanly manicured hand as she strode to my desk, a sultry sway in her hips, and propped herself on the ledge.
I leaned back in my chair, admiring every inch of the stocking-clad view, and propped my feet up. “Now, ain’t this a picture?” I said. “Usually, it’s me who comes to your establishment. What are you doing slumming around a private eye’s office?”
She took a cigarette from her purse but didn’t answer my question, which in itself was concerning. It’s then that I noticed the subtle signs of distress: a small tremble in her perfect pout, the way her fingers shook when she struck a match and lifted it to the end of her cigarette. “I’m in an awful heap of trouble, Hank.”
I cleared my throat and loosened my tie, sitting up properly in my chair. “What’s got you down, doll?”
She took one long drag. Then another. “Someone’s got it out for me.”
“Jesus, darlin’, you sure?”
Her eyes flashed, showing a dangerous flare of temper behind the inky depths. “You think I don’t know when my own life is in danger?”
“Alright now, easy.” I pulled my notebook from under a stack of unattended paperwork. “Start at the beginning.”
She tapped the ash from her cigarette into the tray with a practiced flick of her wrist. “You know I’ve served half the city, one way or another. I never thought I’d make enemies pouring whiskey, but turns out that’s the best way about it.” She looked at me through long lashes. “That’s why I want to get out of this place. Go somewhere respectable. A new town. A new life.”
My pencil stilled over the paper. “You thinking ’bout leaving?”
“Thinking about it?” She raised one perfectly groomed eyebrow. “I’ve got one foot out the door, Hank. Soon as the bar sells, I’m headed for a brand new me.”
Damn. I’d have to find somewhere new to drink. The only other joint suitable for someone of my means and character was Mac’s, and he’d stopped serving me years ago on account of my giving him the what’s-for across the jaw. “Can’t see much benefit in offing someone who’s about to split,” I said, but even I heard no reassurance.
“Neither can I, but someone tried to kill me last night and I just know they’ll try again.”
“Why come to me? The cops are free.”
“You think I should trust the cops in this town?” She gave a weak sort of laugh and I couldn’t blame her. When they weren’t drunk on the job or taking bribes in the alley, the police were busy mugging the muggers. “Besides”—she picked at the underside of her nails—”they’d think I was loony.”
Now, what was that all about? Maggie was the straightest shooter in the business. She wouldn’t so much as embellish a drinking story to a bar fly. If she thought something sounded crazy… “What happened, Maggie?”
She stubbed out the butt of her cigarette. “I closed up,” she said, voice like honey. She looked at me, but not really at me. Her gaze was somewhere else, in some smoky memory. “Three a.m., same as ever.” I nodded. I’ve seen the dying embers of Maggie’s lounge through the bottom of a bottle on many a night. “Except, this time, when I went to leave, the door wouldn’t open.”
“Nothing strange about that,” I noted it anyway, with a half-hearted scribble. “Old building, doors stick.”
Her eyes narrowed and my insides shriveled instinctively. “I know my bar, Hank. That door don’t stick. It was locked.”
“Then, who locked it?”
“I didn’t,” she said with a furtive glance to the door as if someone waited just outside to overhear, “and no one else had a key.”
“So the door locked all by itself?”
“I know how it sounds, but that’s not even the strangest thing.” She lowered her voice and leaned forward. “Something grabbed me.”
She nodded and rolled up the sleeve of her shirt. I followed her gaze to the skin on her wrist. There, smudged against the dark pigment, was an even darker mark. Not a bruise, but a deep shadow, as if a tattoo had grown from her bones. It was the unmistakable silhouette of four fingers and a thumb, the vice-like brand of a hand wrapped around her arm.
“What is that?”
She shook her head. “Beats me. But I’m not going back there tonight without someone watching my back.”
I swallowed the shiver of terror that crawled out from my stomach and plastered on a lopsided smile that got me out of most scrapes with the dames. “Spend all night in a bar? Twist my arm why don’t you, sweetheart?”
— ♦♦♦ —
Every scumbag in the city knew Maggie’s bar—that’s why I fit right in. Didn’t matter who you were. Crooked cops, mob goons, dames of ill repute—they all gathered at Maggie’s once the sun went down far enough for them to skulk out of hiding. If you needed something done right—or very, very wrong—you went to Maggie’s. You’d find your guy. Though, usually, he’d be passed out in a corner booth clutching a glass like it was his long-lost love.
Tonight was typical, though maybe the clientele was a bit soggier than usual on account of the rain. I sat in the back booth, one eye out for Maggie’s boogeyman, the other on the ginger ale I nursed between my hands. Maggie had flat refused to give me anything stronger than a Shirley Temple, though at least it was on the house.
The night continued along just fine. Folks came, folks went. Drinks were poured and cash exchanged. All the while, I waited for the other shoe to drop. Something had spooked Maggie real good. And this was a woman that I had seen throw out a man three times her size. While she was wearing heels.
A muddled feeling settled over me, though I’d been dry as the Sahara all night. As closing time came and patrons scraped and grumbled their way into the night, the feeling grew heavier, like I’d been shellacked to the stool where I sat. Maggie was right, there was something in the air, something… sinister, thicker than the smoke.
Maggie cleaned out the register with practiced efficiency. A cool breeze of relief should have blown through the room, the exhaustion of a night’s work well done, but it didn’t. Instead, the air crackled with static energy, like a brewing storm. Maggie must have sensed it too because her eyes locked with mine from across the bar. Worried creases formed on her brow.
“Wait here, doll,” I said as I palmed my Smith & Wesson. The weight of the gun was comforting, the fit of the grip between my fingers more familiar than a lover’s hand. “I’m gonna check the back.”
She nodded, lush lips pressed in a frightened pout.
The back room held the stored liquor that made its way to the shelves each night. I cracked the door open, leading with my shoulder and peered into the maze of crates and shadows. As I stepped into the dark, the door closing with a click behind me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something watched me. But in such a tiny space, what could?
The blow came from behind, knocking me into the back brick wall face first. My attacker was on me again before I could get up. A hand wrapped around my neck and pushed me up, up, up. My gun clattered from my hand, landing on a nearby box, too far to reach with more than my fingertips. In the dark room, I couldn’t see his face, but, as I thrashed in his grip, I could smell the whiskey and smoke on his breath.
“She’s mine,” he said, voice like rocks over concrete. “She won’t leave me.”
His hands tightened around my neck. What little air I could drag into my lungs was filled with ash and smoke. I clawed at the arms that held me aloft, but I may as well have fought a statue. As the edges of my vision greyed, I stretched for the hilt of my gun, fumbled, nearly dropped it, grabbed it fully, and fired. With an inhuman roar, my attacker released me. I crumpled to the ground against the wall, dragging in burning breaths and pointing my gun wildly into the black. I’d hit him. I had to have. But there was nobody. No blood. Nothing but darkness and my own pounding heart.
— ♦♦♦ —
I sat in my office chair, chain-smoking and downing glass after glass of whiskey. I rubbed my hand over my neck. I had caught a glimpse of my reflection in the dark glass of the bar. A soot black mark now marred the skin under my jaw, an identical brand to the one that marked Maggie’s wrist.
She sat in the chair opposite my desk, an unsmoked cigarette dangling from her fingers, dripping ashes onto the carpet as it burned away. “What do I do, Hank?” she asked. She didn’t heed the lipstick that had smudged past her lips or the mascara smeared down her cheeks. She was no less beautiful.
I laid a soothing hand on her knee. “Now, doll, it’ll all turn out right. I’ll tell you what we’re gonna do. I’ll walk you home—”
“I can’t go home!” She gripped my hand in hers.
“Now, listen here, you’re gonna go home—”
“I won’t stay alone!”
“Fine, then, you’ll stay here on the couch and get some rest”—I stopped her before she could interrupt again—”and I’ll stay with you. That alright?” She grumbled but didn’t protest further. “Then tomorrow morning we’re gonna check out that bar. Scour it top to bottom and we’re gonna find the sonofabitch that did this.”
“You still think that this is something you can solve?” Maggie asked, finally giving up on the pretense of smoking and stubbing out her cigarette in the ashtray. “After what you saw tonight? You can’t catch a shadow, Hank.”
I set my jaw. I’ve always been a stubborn sort of man. If I take a case, I’m damn well going to see it through. Shadows or hellfire, this was no different.
— ♦♦♦ —
Maggie’s bar wasn’t meant to be seen during the day. The light filtered through the dingy windows like sun through water—illuminating, but an unwelcome intrusion and not near enough to chase out the eerie gloom. I groped along the wall for the light switch and the bulbs flickered to life with a dramatic buzz, like a slumbering hive of bees, angry at the disturbance.
The bar looked the same as the night before—chairs up, counters scrubbed—but a sense of malice hung in the air, heady as the smell of smoke and whiskey. Even that odor held a new familiarity since my attacker had worn it as his personal cologne.
We started at one end of the bar and worked our way across to the other, a slow, methodical search that left no shadow undisturbed. Nothing seemed wrong—not an ashtray or mousetrap was out of place—yet something was wrong.
When we stood at the front of the bar, every stone overturned, I looked to Maggie. “Nothing here. Maybe that boogeyman of yours only comes out at night.” Maggie looked at me—no, past me—with wide, frightened eyes. Then I heard it, a great clattering, shuffling noise coming from the bar.
I turned. In the flicker and sway of the overhead lamps, a hulking beast rose out of the floor. Dirt and ash flooded to it from all corners, years of filth and cigar butts and broken dreams pulling together into one mass of misery. It was the damned soul of the bar, growing out of the floor like some drunken golem.
“Oh, Jesus, Hank! What is it?”
I didn’t answer but shoved Maggie behind me. I drew my gun, but it was like moving in molasses. I knew I was telling my hand to fire, but the signal got lost somewhere in the wires.
“You can’t leave,” it growled, the voice reverberating around the room and shaking the bottles in the bar-rack. “You’re mine.” It surged forward and my brain finally reconnected to my hand. I fired six quick shots into its chest. It roared and stumbled backward, then reformed.
“Maggie, run,” I said as I fumbled with the extra bullets for my revolver. She froze behind me, eyes the size of saucers fixed on the monster in front of us. “Damn it, woman, run!” I turned her around and shoved her toward the door. She lurched forward on legs like a newborn calf. The monster still advanced, the smell of liquor and smoke choking the air around me.
Behind me, Maggie rattled the knob, then hammered at the door. “It’s locked!” she cried, half-hysterical.
The creature took shuffling steps forward. “You can’t leave,” it repeated. The phrase echoed within the bar, rebounding on itself until it reached a chaotic chorus.
I finally managed to place the bullets and fired again, aiming for the glowing embers of the creature’s eyes. It roared and knocked me aside with a sweep of its trunk-like arm. I flew backward into the mirrored shelves over the bar, seeing stars as I collapsed to the ground in a hailstorm of broken whiskey bottles. Maggie’s screams reached me through the ringing in my ears. I struggled back to my feet. Clearly, bullets weren’t going to stop this… this… whatever it was. And it didn’t seem to give a damn about me. It only had eyes for Maggie.
Maggie… The bar’s owner.
She’d poured sweat, blood, and tequila into this place, raised it like a child. And now that she was moving on, it seemed the kid wasn’t ready to be weaned. This thing… it was trying to keep her in the bar. But what if there weren’t a bar?
I pulled a matchbook from my pocket. Three matches broke before I successfully struck one. By that time, the monster had Maggie cornered near the door. I shouted and it turned in a lumbering pirouette. I held the match aloft and it roared once again. I let it drop.
The liquor pooling on the floor lit with a roar. I jumped out from the bar before I could join as unwilling kindling. I rushed past the creature as it came toward me, dodging it as it reached me.
“Time to go, doll,” I said as I grabbed Maggie’s arm. I didn’t bother with the door. The creature would have ensured it still penned us in. Instead, I hurled a barstool at the massive pane windows. They shattered with a satisfying crash and I dragged Maggie through the opening.
On the street, in the brilliant morning light, we watched the flames engulf the bar. The roar of the fire mingled with those of the creature. In the flicker of flames, we watched its massive form pace back and forth. Maggie clung to me, a shadow in soot as she watched her attacker crumble into the ruins of the bar that had spawned it.
“Do you think it’s gone, Hank?”
A cross beam inside collapsed with a burst of sparks and flame. Could fire destroy something made of ash and smoke? Could it kill something that wasn’t alive in the first place? I held Maggie just a little closer, my hand wrapped over the black print that still marked her wrist. “Sure I do, doll,” I said. “Sure I do.”
— ♦♦♦ —
The Altos. By Russell Richardson, Art by Tim Soekkha
“Sit down,” Dino barked, pointing at his Rummy partner’s chair. “Boss says.”
“Boss says?” croaked Sal. The words caught in his throat. “What does he want?” But Sal already knows, and it’s ain’t good.