A JOB FOR TWO
by Eric Beetner
Stevie put a hand on the door, stopped to take a final breath, then pushed his way out of the dusk and into the dark confines of the bar. No one turned around. The jukebox didn't scratch to a halt. No one gave a damn he was there.
He shifted the snubnosed handgun in the pocket of his hoodie and found a seat near the end of the bar closest to the door. The tiny gun rolled loosely in the oversized pocket, and Stevie wished he'd spent the extra for a holster.
As many times as he'd told himself to get it over with – to act fast and not second-guess it – when the bartender approached and asked what he wanted, Stevie wimped out and ordered a beer. While the bartender went to the fridge to get his bottle, Stevie took in the other patrons. Five o'clock on a Saturday and the place was nearly empty. Two guys at the far end of the bar who looked like they came as part of the furniture set. One in a well-worn red cap with a bird logo on it, the other in a threadbare olive drab Army jacket. They sat not talking and sipping their drinks in slow motion. A lone man, young, like Stevie, sat in a booth along the back wall. It was early enough in the day, the waitresses hadn’t come on duty yet.
The bartender set down the beer in front of Stevie and went back to washing glasses to get set for the night crowd. He was a man with greying temples and slight stoop when he walked. He paced the narrow confines behind the bar like an animal at the zoo.
"What do I owe you?" Stevie asked.
"You can settle up when you're done," the bartender said.
"I'm just having the one."
"Four fifty, then."
Stevie put a five down on the bar and thought how stupid it was. He'd come in to take money, not give it away. The bartender let it sit, in no rush to go through the motions of drying his hands again to collect the bill.
“Fuckin' highway robbery,” said the man in the army jacket. “I remember when a beer was fifty cents. And they served it to you in a goddamn glass.”
“Yeah, Clyde,” the bartender said. “And I remember when a good hand job in Times Square would cost you five bucks and ten would get you a blow. What good does that do us nowadays?”
“I’m just sayin' to the young man, Roy. It wasn't always like this.”
“Yeah, well, things are tough all over.” Roy continued to wash his glasses. Stevie got the feeling he’d witnessed a typical exchange between the old timers. Probably the sort that happened ten times a night.
Stevie put the bottle to his lips too fast and foam spurted out the top and down his chin. He sputtered and reached for a stack of small square napkins, cleaning up his spot at the bar quick and with nervous, shaking hands, like a kid about to get belt-whipped for making a mess.
He wadded up the pile of wet napkins and set them next to his beer, then stood and went to the bathroom in the rear of the bar. On his way past, he noticed the young man in the booth had left. Only the bartender and two full-time drunks to contend with. He needed a splash of cold water to get his nerve up. He'd already been there too long. He let his face be seen, made a commotion, talked to the bartender. He brought up a thought already bobbing at the surface since before he walked through the door: Screw it, just go home. Robbery is not for you.
He pushed into the men’s room and went to the sink. He ran cold water, dipped his hands in and slapped the water across his cheeks. He hit himself again, harder.
"You can do this," he said to his reflection.
A stall behind him opened. The young man from the booth stepped out. Stevie saw him in the mirror, then spun around to look at him head-on. As he swiveled, the gun slid out from the pocket of his sweatshirt and clattered into the sink, cold water rushing over it.
The young man looked at the gun, then at Stevie. He reached behind him and pulled out a much larger semiautomatic from the hiding spot in the small of his back.
"You a cop?" the young man asked.
Stevie thrust up his hands in surrender mode. "What? No. Me?"
"Then what the fuck is that?" The young man gestured to the gun in the sink with the barrel of his own gun.
Stevie looked down at the gun and noticed the water soaking it. He reached out and snatched it up from the sink like he was afraid it might drown.
"Easy there," the young man said as he stepped forward to place the barrel of the semi-auto against Stevie's neck.
Stevie froze, the snubnose dripping water in his hand. "Am I under arrest?"
"I ain't no cop."
"Well, then . . . "
The water rushed in the sink, filling the room with white noise. Stevie faced away from the man holding a gun on him, but he could see the young man’s eyes through the mirror, as cold as the steel on the back of his neck. He looked more criminal to Stevie than himself. Black leather jacket in a long 1970s cut, short cropped hair, dark, multiethnic skin. Stevie was just a white punk from the suburbs.
The young man fought some decision. His face twisted with the choice. Finally, he spoke. "I came in here to rob the place, alright?"
"So did I," Stevie said.
The young man looked at Stevie, searching for the lie. Stevie lifted the gun in his hand slightly to indicate his own intentions.
The young man reached over Stevie and slammed a palm down on the faucet, cutting off the water and sealing the men’s room in near silence. Only the muffled through-the-wall sounds of a Neil Young song could be heard.
"You did, huh?"
"Yeah," Stevie said.
"Well, what the fuck do we do now?"
"You ever do this before?"
"Rob a joint same time as someone else? Fuck, no."
"I mean rob any place, ever."
The man tilted his head at Stevie, still trying to figure if he was full of shit. He kept the gun pressed tight to the back of his neck.
"You mean you never did?"
"First time." Stevie smiled, weakly.
"Fuuuuuuuck." The young man took the gun down, ran a hand through his hair.
The young man gave a look that made Stevie feel like the amateur he was. "Travis."
"So what do we do, Travis?"
"First, you dry off that fucking gun. Then we go out there and do this thing. We split halvsies."
Stevie nodded and waved his hand in front of the automatic towel dispenser. A length of rough towel came out and he tore it off, wiping down the outside of the gun with it.
"How do we do it?" Stevie asked.
"We go out there, guns drawn, and get the money. Simple as that. Grizzled old guy like that, he's been through this before way many more times than we have. He won't want any trouble. He'll make his money back, and then some, by closing time tonight."
"Did you think of what you're gonna say?" Stevie had a whole list of options to choose from.
"I don't fucking know. Give me the money, I guess."
"No 'this is a stickup' or 'this is a robbery'?"
"That should be pretty obvious."
"Yeah, yeah. I guess you're right."
"Okay, you ready to do this thing?"
"I guess so."
Travis stepped up and put his gun over Stevie's heart. "You fuck this up for me, and I shoot you. Get it?"
Travis went out first. Behind him, Stevie got caught up in the moment and blurted out, "This is a stickup!"
Both men skidded to a halt when they saw the bartender, Roy, staring back at them with a sawed off shotgun aiming both barrels at their chests.
"What took you boys so long?"
"I told you," said one of the two long-term drunks. "They were sucking each other's dicks." Both men at the end of the bar had turned spectators with the best seats in the house. Each man held their drinks in shaky, over-calloused hands.
"Drop those guns, boys," Roy said.
Travis muttered, "Motherfucker," as he dropped his semi-auto to the wooden floor. Stevie bent down and placed his gently on the floor.
"Kick 'em over," Roy said, waving the sawed off toward the two old men.
Travis and Stevie kicked their guns toward the end of the bar and the two old men leapt off their stools and snatched up the guns before they stopped sliding.
"Mine's wet," said the man in the sweat-stained Cardinals hat.
"Don't matter, Chip," the bartender said. "We don't plan on using them."
Clyde, who picked up the semi-auto, turned the gun on Roy.
"What the fuck, Clyde? Are you serious?"
"Damn right I'm serious. Open the register."
Stevie tried to catch Travis' eye to get a clue how to handle the situation. Travis was transfixed by the scene playing out before him.
"God dammit, Clyde."
"Just do it, now."
Roy turned his body and aimed the shotgun at his best customer.
"Don't get funny now, Roy. I was in Nam."
Clyde extended his arm, the gun shaking at the end of it. He may have known how to shoot a gun once, but those days were drowned at the bottom of a thousand bottles of beer.
Chip swung the snubnose up and put it against Clyde's temple. "You lost your goddamn mind." He pulled the trigger, but heard only the wet slap of a misfire.
Clyde pivoted awkwardly and blasted his stool mate in the chest. Chip flung his arms out wildly as he fell back, the snubnose discharging as he flailed and Stevie's beer bottle clear down the bar exploded, soaking his five dollar bill in beer suds.
Roy blasted both barrels into Clyde, who took the shot in his back. The olive drab of his jacket dappled in red as the shot pellets dug in. He spun on his way down and let three quick shots go. The mirror behind the bar exploded and a flash of red spit out from the top of Roy's head.
Travis bolted for the door like he'd just made an interception. Stevie stayed glued to his spot.
Clyde fell back and landed on top of Chip. Roy disappeared in a heap behind the bar.
Stevie stood still as the falling glass sounds tapered off and were replaced by the end of the Neil Young song. Bob Seeger was next up, singing about night moves as if nothing had happened.
Stevie waited for more shooting, for the cops to come bursting through the door, for God to send a lightning bolt down through the roof. When nothing happened, he stepped forward, peeled the soaking wet five-dollar bill off the bar, and went to the door. Stevie put a hand on the door and paused. The cash register was right there, unattended. He'd have to step over Roy's head-shot body to get to it, but the contents of that tray are what he came in there for.
He felt the wet bill in his hand. He thought to himself, technically, I never paid for that beer. That's stealing. Probably good to start out small.
Stevie pushed through the door, leaving the dark confines of the bar and moving out into the dusk.
Eric Beetner is the author of Dig Two Graves, Split Decision, A Mouth Full of Blood and co-author with JB Kohl of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. His award-winning short stories have appeared in the anthologies Pulp Ink, D*cked, Grimm Tales, Discount Noir, Off The Record, Murder In The Wind and The Million Writers Award: Best new online Voices. For more info, free stories and random thoughts visit ericbeetner.blogspot.com