The following is a short story I wrote over the course of a weekend based on a prompt sent in by Colter Hettich. Let me know what you think, and perhaps I’ll expand upon it one day.
Atlantic City, New Jersey. April 5th, 1968
Another long, boring day at County Lawn Insurance. I was looking to unwind with the guys in sales like we always did, but none of them wanted to. They said they were “busy.” Well, no shit! That’s why we’re going to Sloopy’s in the first place. I got the same song and dance from the usual dames in reception, too. But whatever. I’m wasn’t going to let that stop me from turning this crappy day into a good night.
I stepped inside Sloopy’s bar. The usual crowd was there, sans my insurance cohorts, and of course, Ol’ Sloop himself was entertaining like he usually did.
“Quentin!” said Sloopy with his big old smile, “What’ll it be?”
“The usual,” I said. This night was giving no surprises, and I wasn’t about to introduce any. He fixed me the usual martini with the usual olive and the usual blue, plastic épée jabbed through it. I downed it slowly. Doctor’s orders.
With no one to share my thoughts with, I went into my own head. It was just me, the martini, and occasionally Sloopy in this space, and it was nice. The bar chatter phased out. I’ve heard some people call this “zen,” or something. I call it solitary confinement. Just a man and his thoughts, and some alcohol.
“Nice night, isn’t it?”
Those four words were as jarring as a door to that confinement chamber being thrust open. Couldn’t he see I wasn’t here to converse?!
“Yeah, sure,” I said, as an automatic response.
“I assume you are a regular in these parts,” he said, “what would you recommend here?”
“This,” I said holding up what was left of my drink.
“Barkeep!” the man said, “I’ll have ‘this’ please.”
Sloopy looked at him, then back to my glass. “One ‘this’ coming up.”
Something about this guy rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning. He sat there just staring at me through his thick, square rimmed glasses. He seemed to put an effort into his black, curly hair. But it looked like he had just gotten off the job too, so I gave him some respect and tried not to pay much attention to his schtick. But it soon became clear he wasn’t going to let me.
“How was work?” he asked.
“It was good,” I replied. Was this guy the wife I never had?
“Anything interesting happen?
It was getting more than a little weird at this point. I didn’t know what the hell this guy wanted out of me, but I wasn’t about to ask that.
“No, nothing really. Just your average day at the office.”
“That’s nice,” he said with the creepiest smile. I couldn’t take it anymore. Something about this guy… this guy.
“Do I know you?” I asked.
“Think of me as a friend.”
A friend? I didn’t know this guy’s game, much less his name.
“Who are you, anyway?”
“I told you, a friend. A. Friend. Albert Friend.”
He sure seemed to be living up to his name, albeit in the most uncomfortable way.
“Quentin Paddock,” I said, extending my hand to shake his. He left me hanging for a while. I shook my hand slightly in front of his face, and he finally joined in, though I’ve gotten stronger handshakes from a flea.
Sloopy brought out Albert’s drink. Same booze, same olive, same plastic épée which was even in the same color as mine. Sloopy went back to his other patrons but kept a good eye on this Albert from time to time, probably he seemed like the type who might leave without paying, and Sloopy hates deadbeats.
While I was taking in this odd turn of events, I finally noticed Albert just staring at me. He hadn’t even touched his drink yet. We stared at each other for about thirty seconds, then he finally said “To a wonderful evening!” and raised his glass in a toast. I raised mine and clinked it. I was down to the last swig on mine, so I finished it. When I put it down, I noticed Albert’s was still just as full, but the olive was missing. Albert seemed to have a hard time chewing it.
“You know those things have seeds in them, right?”
Albert’s eyes shot open and began to cough. He was choking, and though I probably couldn’t have cared less, I gave him the Heimlich maneuver, because that’s just the kind of guy I am. The pit seemed to be lodged in him pretty well, but with a little assistance from Sloopy, via a good punch to the gut, he coughed it out.
“Easy, fella,” said Sloopy. “You had anything else to drink tonight?
“Not a drop,” said Albert, between gasps for air. “I’ll be fine. I just need to use the restroom.” I tried to help him in, but he broke free of me and slunk off quietly.
“Thanks for your help there, Sloop.”
“Not a problem.” said Sloop, “I’m just glad you still have those good strong arms from prison.” I should add that before my job at County Lawn I used to work in the state penitentiary as a guard. I’ve never been behind bars myself, but I got pretty good at keeping others there.
“What’s with that guy?” said Sloopy.
“Something is,” I said, “but far be it from me to know what.”
I began to sit back on my barstool, but I noticed something on the floor just beneath Albert’s. Seemed to be his wallet. It must’ve fallen out of his pockets while I was trying to save his life. I’m not one to peer through one’s belongings, but sticking out of it was a picture; a picture of me! “Hey Sloop,” I said, “get a load of this.”
He came over as I opened the wallet. It wasn’t the martini clouding my vision. It was definitely me, right there in his wallet. On the back had my name, age, address, place of employment and a few other frighteningly descriptive notes about who I was and what I do.
“This guy’s on to you, Quent,” said Sloopy.
“Yeah…” I said, and I couldn’t help but wonder why. Since I left my job at the pen I’ve always been a simple man. I wake up, I go to work, sit in a box for eight hours, and go back to my slightly roomier box when the day is done, occasionally stopping here or somewhere else on the way. Day in, day out, that’s my life, and I like it that way. This man’s evidence seemed to point to that.
I flipped through this wallet a bit more to find out about this so-called “Albert Friend.” Actually, that did seem to be his name, as I learned from his FBI ID and badge.
So this guy was a spy? Not a very good one. Just then, I happened to catch him starting to come out of the restroom. I folded his wallet back up and dropped it back on the floor.
“Make sure he’s alright, Sloop,” I said, “I gotta take a leak myself.”
I walked into the restroom and sat in on my usual think tank. I didn’t have any business to take care of, mind you, but I had to process all of this: A spy was after me. Could he be someone from my days in the clink? There were some dark times there, but I left on good terms with the facility. Also, there’s no way they’d let an ex-con into the FBI, at least that quickly. And I would’ve remembered a face like his, so feeble and dweeby. He was a little guy, too, someone the larger inmates would have for lunch if they stepped out of line.
Still, he could be armed, and I’d rather not deal with him. I looked over to the window. It was starting to rain, but I could easily squeeze out and get far away from this guy. Sloopy would understand if I didn’t come back to pay my tab for a while. I’ve always dreamed of breaking this routine. This could be my chance.
On the other hand, what have I to fear?! This so-called spy could hardly down a martini without choking on it. My intrigue into this guy’s game won out over my fears. So it was settled: I’ll turn the tables and start questioning him. I remember smiling to myself at the thought; this could be fun.
I swung open the restroom door and returned to my stool. Albert was there, his martini still untouched, save for the aforementioned olive, but now he was sipping on a glass of ice water. Sloop shot me a look as if to say, “be careful,” but I had this in the bag.
“Feeling better, Friend?” I said.
“Fine, never better,” he replied, though his face seemed anything but; eyes still bloodshot from the choking episode. He was sent here to do some sleuthing, but it seemed all he wanted now was to go home.
“Y’know, I never had a chance to ask how your day went. How was work, Mr. Friend?”
“What? Work?” he said, as if it was a foreign term. “Uh, I mean it was good. Never better.”
“You seem a little nervous,” I said, “just relax, unwind. Leave your work at work.” Sloopy brought me another martini. I raised it to him again and said, “after all, we’re not there now, are we?”
“Of course,” he said, stumbling to pick up his drink. He must’ve spilled half of it as he raised it to mine. We toasted again, and this time he actually sipped some of it. “Hmm, quite good,” he said.
“Ol’ Sloop makes the best martinis this side of Atlantic City,” I said. “That’s a classified secret you can take to the bank!”
“Indeed,” said Albert, taking another swig.
“So where is it you work, exactly?”
“Who me?” he said, “Oh, nothing special, just an insurance company.
“Well whad’dya know, so do I!” I was getting an inkling of where his story was coming from. “You work here in Atlantic City?”
“Yes, I do sales in -”
“Get outta here!” Could you tell I was having fun with this? “Don’t say the name, lemme guess… County Lawn?”
“Exactly!” he said. More than anything he seemed happy we shared some common ground, even if we actually didn’t.
In fact, at this point, I really began to doubt he was a spy. Well, his papers and everything checked out. Both Sloopy and I saw his wallet. A spy wouldn’t craft his story to be exactly like the guy he was tracking down. Hell, if he works at the same company, we surely would’ve bumped into each other at some point. It’s a big workplace, but not that big.
“Wait till I tell the other guys about this!” I said. I know I’m not the most subtle of people. My plan, or lack thereof, was all about dropping some obvious hints to get him to drop some obvious hints of who sent him, and why. “Or, better yet, you can tell them!” I burst into a fake laugh, which he soon joined in.
“See?” he said, “you really can think of me as… a friend.” His eyes went cross and he fell out of his barstool and straight to the floor.
“Yeesh, talk about a lightweight,” said Sloopy. Well, he was a very small man in stature, but he looked like he could handle half a martini. “Help me get him up, will ya?” He waved over for his assistant Sarah to tend the bar in his absence. Sloopy grabbed his legs and I picked him up by the shoulders, and we took him down the hall towards a back office where Sloopy kept track of bookkeeping, accounting, and whatnot.
“I spiked his drink,” Sloopy admitted after we got out of sight.
“There are few people I won’t serve, and spies are one of them.”
“Gee, if he is a spy, he’s not a very good one. Talk about clueless.”
“He’s got a real enough insignia on him. That’s for sure.” We pulled his limp body into the room and slunk him over the couch. We both stared at him for a while.
“Would a spy really allow us to do this to him?” I asked.
“No matter,” said Sloopy. “We’ll find out what he’s all about when he wakes up.”
“And how long could that take?”
“Not very long.” Sloopy took a small bottle from his desk. All it said was “For Waking Deadbeats” on it. He closed the door, and walked over to Albert. He pushed his mouth open, and put two drops of the substance on his tongue.
In seconds, he rose screaming. From the little whiff I got of the stuff it smelled like a really strong pepper sauce. Albert grabbed his throat, almost strangling himself. Sloopy grabbed a vintage pistol out of his
desk and pointed it at him. He froze like a deer in headlights.
“Who sent you?” said Sloopy. I’ve known Sloop for years, but I’d never seen him get like this. Albert didn’t say a word. “Well?!” he said, his thumb moving toward the hammer of the pistol.
“I’m not who you think I am!” said Albert. “I’m not in the FBI!”
“Bullshit,” said Sloopy, clicking the hammer back. “You better start making sense.”
“I’m serious!” he said, fumbling into his pockets for his wallet, “Look, this badge? Plastic, it’s fake!” He picked it up and flung it on the floor.”
“You have five seconds to start answering my question,” said Sloopy, “1…” I picked up the badge on the floor. “2…” It was light, and seemed hollow. “3…” Sure enough, some of this shiny “gold” on it was flaking off, and it was plain black plastic underneath. “4…”
“Stop! He’s telling the truth,” I said bringing the trinket to him. The emblem read “Funny Badguy Investigator.” I thought it was funny, but Sloopy threw it back across the room without so much as a giggle.
“Alright wise guy, how do you have so much information on my pal here?”
“I – I don’t know.”
“1…” Albert began to piss himself. “2…” And he passed out again.
“I don’t think he’s going to cooperate,” I said.
“No shit,” said Sloopy. “Alright, start checking his pockets, I’ll look through his wallet again.” I got right to it. All I could find was a BB gun designed to look like a Colt handgun, and a British passport. Interesting, since he didn’t seem to have a British accent.
“You got anything, Sloop?” I asked.
“Just 60 bucks, this phony FBI crap, and a genuine Diners Club Card. What’ve you got?” I handed him the gun and passport. “A fake gun, but a real passport.” he examined them closely. “Great Britain, eh? You check this James Bond’s coat?” I dug around in the pockets, but found nothing but a snotty handkerchief. “Be more thorough,” said Sloopy, “take it off him.” I did, and sure enough, a small slip of paper was sticking out. At first glance, it looked like the coat’s tag, but folding it out, it was a professionally developed photograph of a beautiful woman, with bracelets, a necklace, a smile on her face, and nothing else.
“Looks like this guy’s only guilty of being a smut peddler,” I said.
“Sure seems like it. A man-child playing spy for the evening.” said Sloopy, finally cracking a smile. “Alright, let’s get him out of here.” He scribbled a note on a chunk of cardboard, then he picked up Albert’s legs again. I grabbed his arms.
“Where to this time?”
“The bus stop,” said Sloopy. I noticed the sign said “TO GREAT BRITAIN” on it. We brought him out the back door. The rain was pouring, but Albert was still out cold. Still had that sedative or whatever it was that Sloopy gave him in his system. The bus stop was just half a block away. We sat him on the bench and propped the sign up on his legs.
“That’ll get him out of here,” said Sloopy.
“Or cause him to die of pneumonia,” I added.
“Means to an end.”
We went back to the bar and Sloopy got back to work. I, on the other hand, had enough action for one night. So I settled my tab, grabbed my coat, and walked back to my apartment. I passed the bus stop on the way back. Albert was still there, fast asleep. Part of me wanted to wait for the bus to make sure he would be alright, but the storm was coming in hard, so I left him there. I did, however keep that leaflet of information he had on me. That’s information I wouldn’t want falling into more capable hands. I also held onto that nude photograph. That would be my little keepsake from my evening with A. Friend.