He was in town for some kind of head hunting thing. Whether it was for jobs, or ,white slavery, was anyone’s guess. He didn’t specify. My guess was, it was a combination of both.
As the bartender, I often had time for speculation. Observation and speculation. Often times I missed the mark with my guesses by so much I wasn’t even in the same ballpark as the subject. More often than not, I hit the son of a bitch right between the legs where it hurt the most. I had to be able to make instantaneous decisions with limited information. I had to be right. I worked nights. Being wrong could get you killed.
Or get you sent to the hospital more dead than alive.
I’d done my share of suffering for being wrong. The last time I fucked up, I got stitched up and was badly in need of the kind of pain killers they weren’t giving out in ER. After that, I vowed to pay closer attention to what was going on around me.
Sometimes, I’m bored out of my skull so badly I get lazy. Other times, I slipped into a black fog of inertia that would resemble a coma if I wasn’t standing up straight, staring at a late show movie I’d seen, roughly, seventeen times, with a coffee cup in my hand, pretending what was inside of it wasn’t distilled from spirits in the Scottish Highlands, instead of the coffee it was supposed to hold. There are a lot of hours between midnight and dawn on a Monday night that doesn’t end until I slipped between the covers around noon on Tuesday. The Scotch went a long way to making it bearable….
I figured the guy throwing lines at the senior college girls to be around forty, though it was tough to tell for sure what with his phony tan and tinted hair. No matter how old he was, there was an air about him of complete confidence with women, especially younger ones, that made me hope he wasn’t a father of girls. Women would be like butter in his hands the way he could cajole, flatter, and bullshit, alternating the three with subtle shifts of humor and business, cloaked with a thin veneer of sexual innuendo. Whatever the payoff was for him, sexual conquest or job prospects, there was never any doubt in his mind what the outcome was going to be.
I was kind of surprised when the plain clothes guys came in for a couple of cold ones. They must have knocked off early from their favorite duty of busting out-of-town minorities at the bus station for contraband of all kinds. It was such easy work: scoring shipments of snow, H and grass for Lower Albany, and getting to crack a few heads in the bargain, without anyone asking questions; even they must have got bored with it. Or maybe someone had been asking questions about the high (100% to 0%) ratio of non-white to white arrestees.
Questions were asked around election time, every four years, when the opposition party brought out a candidate on the Reform line. One who thought some of the police practices might not be entirely on the up and up. Questioning the police used to be viewed as something akin to Heresy in the old days. In fact, the police were often referred to as Dan’s Personal Army after the late leader of the In-Power-for-the Century-Party. Alas, for those concerned , it was no longer the old days. Still, the busts yielded product, and it was hard to argue results when you brought in the goods with the suspects.
I could care less about whether they were drinking on-duty or not. And what they were doing here, or, not doing there, was none of my business; fell under the idle speculation category.
My business was to make drinks and they were thirsty.
I didn’t bother to ask what they were having and put up two frosty drafts of Bud. They laid money on the bar and I looked at as if they were kidding. The younger, smaller one said, “Go ahead and take it. It won’t bite you.”
I was going to make a smart remark and decided against it. I guess it was his day to be the heavy of the pair, and it was fairly obvious it hadn’t been the best of days. Little did I know he was about to go down for charges of racial discrimination And assault, for something that happened at the Greyhound Station. I wasn’t surprised it involved a, mostly innocent minority, a questionable stash of evidence, and some broken facial bones, that apparently occurred when the subject had slipped and fallen repeatedly against the front of the cop’s unmarked car.
The departmental charges would come later. All of which would become moot when he decided to take early retirement and his partner refused to testify. The partner claimed he was momentarily distracted during said incident, and missed the whole thing. He’d go for the early retirement incentive also. The bus station would be momentarily safe for mules to bring their wares into town unmolested. But that would all be later.
Today, we would be interested in the headhunter and his posse of State University students.
“What exactly is that dude at the front table think he’s doing with all those college girls?” The younger cop asked.
“He says he’s conducting interviews.”
“In a bar?”
“That’s what he said.”
“Business, of some sort.”
“Where’s he from?”
“Beats me. Though, if I had three guesses, my first one would be the City.”
“So, let me get this straight. He’s up here, probably from the City, doing business interviews in a bar.”
“That’s what I’ve figured so far.”
“He buying them drinks?”
“One round so far.”
“Long Island Ice Teas.”
“Don’t you think it sounds a little fishy, doing job interviews in a bar?”
“Unusual, that’s for sure.”
“Very unusual. How long has been here?”
“With them? Oh, about half an hour, maybe a little less.”
“You know, a lot of people figure cops for being hard. You know what I mean? That we are lacking in feelings. Cops are parents too. They get married, have children, do the family thing just like ordinary people do.”
“I didn’t know you had children.”
“I don’t. But my partner does. Yeah, a lot of us get divorced. I’m working on my third, but the point is, we have feelings. Now, I know you remember that girl who disappeared a few years ago. The one that like totally vanished?”
“Yeah, sure I do. It was more than a few years ago.”
“Yeah, it was over seven years ago. The point is, we keep files like that open. It bothers us when we can’t solve cases like that. Really bothers us. Especially, young beautiful girls with their whole lives in front of them. You know what I mean?”
“You mean like those girls sitting at the front table with Joe Blow?”
“Thing is we have information. Strong information and indicators that girl that got snatched wasn’t as random as people think, and furthermore, we have strong reason to believe that he will strike again. Do you know how that makes us feel?”
“Anxious and angry. Angry because it almost feels to us like that guy feels not only did he get away with something but he’s rubbing it in our faces.”
“Do you think that guy up front might have something to do with it?”
“I don’t think anything. Not yet, I don’t. But I’m going to have another beer and I’m going to see what I can find out and then I’ll start thinking things. Make it a bottle this time. And turn down the music.”
“Not a problem.”
What I meant was, no problem turning down the music. Apparently there was a problem with Joe Interviewer, and I had a feeling the way the detective, casually leaning against the wall nearby where the girls were finishing up their LIT’s, that if there was anything funny about his routine, we would be hearing about it real soon.
I recalled the girl that got snatched. I and all the other bartenders had looked at her smiling face on a Missing poster for the better part of a year. I know, I’d answered my share of leading questions about her, so much so, it wasn’t likely I wouldn’t forget what happened to her. Or, was presumed to have happened to her.
Yeah, I’d seen her in here too. The weekend before the disappearance. She was stacked all right, and cute, and it shouldn’t have happened to her. She wasn’t much of a drinker, so we didn’t, actually, like interrelate. The only reason I recalled her was she was the uncommon beauty. A clean, unspoiled kind of beauty you didn’t see that much of anymore. The bottom line, though, was, she could have been anyone. Once your own kids get to be around the same age as the girls that hang out in your bar, they become like, well, kids. Well-developed kids, yes, but still kids. My self-image doesn’t include molestation in it. Not yet, anyway.
I really wished they would have found her, but, after a day and half, the biggest manhunt in my memory of this town, you knew she was gone with a capital G. All you could hope was that she didn’t suffer too much before the end.
My detective buddy motioned for me to lower the music further. I complied, figuring whatever move he was going to make was coming soon.
He put his nearly empty Bud bottle on the side bar and wandered over to the table and said, “Excuse me. I’d like a word with you.”
His partner had quietly edged in nearby in case backup was necessary.
“And just who might you be?”
“Detective Sgt R- and this is my partner. We’d like a brief word with you.”
If nothing else, his introduction made quite an impression on the young ladies. It wasn’t a favorable one either. They looked almost as puzzled as he was pissed off.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to see some identification, please.”
“Actually, I do mind.”
“I’m going to politely ask you once more for some identification. If I have to ask a third time we’ll be doing this someplace else and we’ll be a lot less polite.”
I could see Joe Interviewer think about minding a whole lot until he saw exactly how serious Det. Sgt R-was about seeing his identification. No matter where you were from or where you were now, the one thing that is constant would be, if a cop asks you to do something, you do it ,while he’s making nice, rather than wait for the alternative. Joe was smart enough to recall that.
“What’s this about, Officer?”
“Excuse me while I make a call and check out a couple of things.”
Taking a cue from that exit line, the girls make their own exit line excuses.
Joe objects, “Don’t go now, girls. I’m not finished with you yet.”
“Yes, you are.” R-‘s partner says for both of them.
I wonder what R- is hearing on the phone. Probably not much. They are running Joe’s license through the system and not finding anything of note. At least, that’s what I was figuring.
I’ve know R- for over twenty years and he might be talking to the his answering machine at home while Joe sweats. What the hell, making a suspect sweat is what cops are good at. You never know what the “person of interest” might say when you finally get around to talking to him again. Some guys will plead to anything just to end the ordeal. I’m reasonably sure Joe had nothing to do with that girl’s disappearance, but, I’d be willing to bet, if he was on the up, he’d be changing his recruiting practices for future interviewees. That is if he ever came within a hundred miles of Albany again.
Eventually Sgt R- comes to the bar with Joe’s stuff says to me, as if Joe was invisible or beneath contempt. Or Both. Probably both. “He checks out. Settle up his bill and make sure that he leaves right after. Take care, we’ve got work to do.”
R-drops Joe’s wallet on the bar and walks out without another word.
“Why did you throw me in to those guys?”
“What makes you say that I threw you in?”
“How else would they have gotten on my case?”
“Maybe it’s the way you dress or something about your attitude. If I had one guess, I’d bet it had something to do with how you go about conducting your business interviews.”
“You could have clued me in.”
“Why would I do that? I’ve never seen you before in my life. You wander into my bar with a cooler than thou big city attitude, meet four girls half your age for drinks, start a tab and you expect favors too.”
“There’d been a big tip in it for you—”
“And I was just supposed to know that. I know those guys for over twenty years. Before the one that did all that talking was a cop, we used to hang. Spent a bazillion nights before I started working here too, closing this place down with them. Besides I have to live with them and more than likely I’ll never see you again.”
“More than likely. Jesus, what a load of shit.”
“Whatever. Mama always told me, ‘Son, when a cop tells you to do something, you best do it or else, what happens to you later is all your own fault.'”
“How much do I owe you?”
“Twenty-four bucks for the LIT’s plus your two scotches and a tip comes to fifty even.”
“What makes you think I’m going to leave you that big a tip?”
“The card in my wallet with the number for a direct call to that cop’s unmarked car.”
He paid up.
And I never saw him again.
Thirteen years to the day after the first State girl disappeared, a second one went missing the same way.
Neither one of them have even been found.
Billie Girl, Vickie Weaver’s first novel, won the 2009 Leapfrog Literary Press Fiction Award. Other recognition: 2015 second place in Twisted Road Southern Gothic Fiction Contest (judged by Dorothy Allison), 2014 Lush Triumphant Contest Winner (Sub Terrain); 2009 Spiro Arts fellowship at Park City, Utah, home of Sundance Film Festival; 2008 semi-finalist Mary McCarthy Prize; 2006 Pushcart nominee. Her short stories have appeared in literary journals and anthologies. She lives in the middle of an Indiana hayfield.