John pulled back on the cue stick with a fluid motion and popped the cue ball so hard it ricocheted off the faded green bumper and missed every single ball before dropping into an empty pocket. Grinding his teeth, he tossed the stick onto the table and went to fish out the solid white ball. Twenty years ago the Nine Ball was one of the top places to play pool at the shore. The place was a single story majestic building that boasted of thirty pool tables with plenty of room so you didn’t whack another player with the end of a cue stick. The front end of the place had seven different pinball machines, a full service bar and an old fashioned cigarette machine that couldn’t ask for ID. An old fashioned jukebox played every hit until the early 90’s.
John looked around. The place was near empty. Two tables at the front were being used, one of them by friends of the manager whom John didn’t recognize. John himself was halfway down the room, only because he asked to be there. The cloth of his table was faded and needed to be replaced. The bar was still being used but most of the higher scale liquor bottles were collecting dust on the top shelves. Three of the pinball machines were broken. The only evidence of the cigarette machine’s existence were the rusted lines on the linoleum floor. The lights on the jukebox no longer lit up and the drunk who was leaning against it was singing along to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as it warbled out of the decrepit speakers. Almost a third of the ceiling tiles were stained brown from the leaky roof. The Nine Ball was a dump.
John placed the cue ball at the end of the table and lined up his shot. He placed the ball so it would directly hit the solid red number three ball. He pulled back, followed through, and cringed as a drunken wail of bad Sinatra suddenly echoed through the large room. The tip of the stick glanced off the cue sideways and sent it sailing away at an angle.
“Damn bastard,” John grumbled.
He huffed and went for the ball. It had been little more than a week since the brick went through the diner’s window. He had spoken to a Detective Abernathy, who John had remarked afterword had an amazingly thick handlebar moustache, and filed a report but nothing had come of it. No one had gotten a clear look at the car and no one seemed equally ready to dust a brick for prints despite the death threat. The only possible person that John could come up with was Zack, but he hadn’t been seen in weeks. As John set up for another shot he thought about Mike. Ana had eventually told him about him calling her a whore but he couldn’t fathom how that would follow up with a call on John’s own life. He lined up another shot. As John pushed the stick a hand clapped him hard on the shoulder. The cue ball spun sideways and his stick knocked into the closest balls sailing them across the table.
“Son of a bitch!” he growled loudly.
The manager called out, “Hey! Take it easy down there.”
John stared at him but swallowed his words. Instead he mumbled a few curses and dropped the stick onto the table. He looked across the faded green felt and saw Mike spinning the nine ball on the other side of the table. The other guy standing behind Mike fingering the pool sticks on the wall rack must have been the cousin Ana had spoken of.
Mike smiled slyly. “Temper, temper. You really ought to control that, my friend. It could get you hurt one day. Besides, it’s just not nice.”
“Point taken, Greene.” John grabbed the rack from under the table and started to collect the balls. “You made me miss my shot.”
“Slip of the hand. I had nothing to do with it. A good player can always play through distractions.” He spun the striped nine ball across the table. John caught it and racked it with the others. “You look a little glum this evening.”
John glared at the guy at the jukebox as he popped in another quarter. “Just a lot on my mind.”
“I guess so. You haven’t had any time to call or visit. I feel a little left out. Hurt, I would even say.” Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home” started to play. The drunk began his own matched warbling on queue. “I love this song,” Mike said lazily.
“You have to have the human capacity for emotions before you can feel hurt.”
Mike laughed. “Feelings tend to get in the way. Who needs them? I’m just out to enjoy myself.”
“At the expense of others?
“Ana told me what you said to her the other day.” He leveled the pool cue at Mike’s head. “You’re a real shit, you know that?”
Mike opened his arms in quiet supplication. “I can’t help it if the girl isn’t thick skinned. I have no time for people who are easily hurt by words.”
“The girl is my friend. And doesn’t deserve to be spoken to like that.” Having set the balls back in order John took the rack off the table. He pointed with it at the drunk. “Hey! Will you shut up?” The drunk smiled at him and raised his green beer bottle as he sang.
Mike smiled slowly. “No, of course she doesn’t. My mistake.” He gestured back to his cousin. “I’m taking Andy out for the night. Thought we could grab a bottle of cheap booze and head to The Golden Shamrock. Find some decent entertainment in this shit town where nothing ever happens. Christ I feel like we live in Beaumont.”
Andy piped up, “Yeah, like in that movie Footloose where Kevin Bacon moves to that town and can’t have any fun.”
Mike pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yes, Andy, thank you. It’s funnier when you explain it.” He turned back to John. “Want to come?”
“Not really. I’m rather enjoying myself here.”
Mike made a face as the drunk tried out the high notes. “I’m sure. C’mon. I assure you it would be a great pleasure for all of us.”
John made a face of his own. “That’s disgusting.”
“I didn’t mean it like that, you ass. Come with us. I don’t want to just go with the virgin.”
“Hey,” Andy protested.
Mike ignored him. “At least with three it would seem more like a party rather than two gay guys pretending they like the scenery.”
“Again, no thanks.” John set the pool stick against the solid white cue. He felt a tightness cramping in his chest that ran down both arms until the muscles in his forearms felt like they were going to rupture. Determined not to let him be distracted, he focused on sinking the nine ball on the first shot. He pulled back, tensed his arm and released as another high pitched hair band wail ripped through the air.
John grabbed the stick in both hands and snapped it in half as if it were a thin twig. Armed with both pieces he marched up the main aisle between the pool tables straight for the jukebox. The drunk, still singing and oblivious to everything else, was looking at the machine when John cracked him over the shoulders with both pieces of the pool stick. The stranger cried out and fell, the bottle he’d been waving clattering to the ground with whatever was left inside spraying out across the floor. John reached down, picked the drunk up by the shoulders and threw him into the barstools at the counter where he landed with an ungracious thud as the barstools clattered and fell to the ground.
“Hey! You knock that shit off right now!” the manager yelled, pointing a thick finger at John.
“Or what?” John snapped.
The manager crossed his arms over his chest and nodded to his friends at their own table who were watching and seemed ready to pounce at the given word. “Or else you’re gonna have a load of trouble.”
Breathing heavy, John stared him down. When he took a step towards him, the two other men who had been playing pool stepped up to join the manager. John growled a low sound but he knew he was outnumbered. He leaned back as the tightness in his chest began to fade. John dropped the broken pieces of wood and reached back into his pocket for his wallet where he pulled out two crumpled twenties. He walked up to the counter and placed them purposefully on the counter top, all the while staring into the manager’s eyes. The drunk was trying to get up off the floor, using the moveable stools for handholds. Mike and Andy had joined them.
Mike tsked. “Such a temper. I guess you’re done playing pool for this evening?”
“You’re driving,” John barked.
Mike laughed. Before they all walked out of the building Mike called back to the owner who was holding the wrinkled bills. “The man places it all on black!”
“You ever been to this place?”
John looked at Andy in the backseat. He wasn’t sure why the kid was trying to force conversation with him but decided it was a better way to pass the time than talking with Mike. He turned his head to look out the window. It had started to rain and John watched the fat droplets make thick rivulets down the window. “When it was The Cowboy, yeah.”
“What’s it like in there?”
“No, just curious.”
“I can’t say much for it now. I haven’t been in there since I’ve been back. But before I left it was a sports bar of sorts. TVs all over the walls, the bar stocked to the rafters. Most summers the place was filled with all sorts of assholes that took over the town. You’d think it was their spring break most nights. But in the off season it was an okay place to hang out. We used to go there sometimes and sneak some drinks. Couple of the bartenders didn’t really care what you did as long as you stayed quiet. Most of the guys were just in there to have a good time.”
Mike laughed. “Still are, man.”
Andy ignored him. “But now it’s different?”
“I guess so. The giant waving cowboy is gone, the name is different and it’s a strip club. Everything changes.”
Mike smiled. “Yup. Everything does. So what is Ana doing tonight? I had assumed you’d be with her.”
“She said she had to work.”
Mike smiled. “I bet she does. She is a hard working woman.”
John stared at him. “What the hell are you smiling for? Seems like ever since you ran into me all you’ve done is smile.”
He flashed John a full toothed grin. “I just love to smile.”
John was halfway through turning his head away when a passing streetlight reflected something inside Mike’s jacket. John leaned forward as he tried to think of what he saw. As the car passed under another streetlight, John saw the butt end of a black semi-automatic hand gun sitting in a holster under Mike’s arm.
“Jesus. Greene, is that a gun?” he asked, hoping he was wrong.
Mike adjusted the front of his jacket with his free hand to hide the weapon. His eyes flashed quickly from the road to John and back. “It might be.”
“Why on earth are you carrying that? Do you even have a permit?”
“I keep it for protection. You never know when it might come in handy.” He flashed a smile. “I am, after all, in a dangerous business.”
John frowned. “And what exactly is it that you do?”
“Don’t ever ask me about my business.”
“Did you just quote The Godfather?”
Mike laughed. “When does one have such a perfect opportunity?”
John grunted. He sat for a few moments in silence, listening to the rain. Finally he turned back. “So what do you do, Mike?”
Mike looked directly at him. The streetlights caught against his glasses reflecting a bright eerie flash. He was no longer smiling. He replied, “Don’t ever ask me about my business.”