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Cocktails at Sunset

 



Cocktails at Sunset



The alley was narrow and dark. Eric picked his way around the rubbish bins, stepped over a sleeping wino, counted three doors on the left, then rang the bell by a cellar door. It was opened on a chain.

‘Yes?’

‘Eric Miller, I’m a new member.’ A man inside muttered and a woman replied. The door was taken off its chain and opened by a thickset doorman with HATE tattooed on his knuckles.

‘First visit?’

‘Yes.’

‘Come in.’ He handed Eric a slip of paper. ‘That’s a list of events and club rules; the important ones are payment in cash, no receipts and no credit on the tables and you must put your smokes out before you leave.’ The Doorman strained the buttons as he pulled his coat over his massive chest. He pointed down a steep flight of stairs. ‘Take care on the stairs; cabaret starts in fifteen minutes; welcome to The Flamingo Club.’ The woman sitting beside him offered a rubber stamp.

‘Pass out stamp?’ Eric shook his head.

‘Is Anita Tregowan singing tonight?’ As she shut the membership book, she nodded.

‘Yes.’

Eric went down the long stairs into a nether world of hot stale air and tobacco smoke. He squeezed past the queue for the toilets. A man was lounging against the wall, feeding coins into a payphone. He made no effort to move as Eric tried to pass, so Eric jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow, then pushed past to the cloakroom and checked his coat in. He’d only been in the building a few minutes and already could feel sweat trickle down his neck. Eric did a tour of the club, then went to The Atlantic Suite which was cooler. He sat at a small round table by the stage. All the waitresses wore black cocktail dresses; a few minutes later, one approached; she looked Asian and young.

‘Large single malt and water please?’

‘You like Cuban cigar as well?’

‘No.’ She nodded. Eric looked around. The club was a maze of alcoves and small rooms, many on different levels, all lit by swirling, flashing lights that changed colour like a migraine attack. In front of him was a stage with drawn blue curtains. On the far side of the room, a bar. People swarmed like ants. The lights dimmed a little, thunder rumbled through the speakers and built to a crescendo, then a spotlight followed the compere as he crossed the stage to the mic stand.

‘Good evening, Ladies an’ Gen’elmen. It’ll shortly be cabaret time at The Flamingo Club.’ As soon as he spoke, the room started to fill with people from other rooms. Two couples sat at the table behind Eric; one smelled as if he’d bathed in aftershave. The compere mouthed a greeting to a couple as they went to their table. ‘Time to freshen your drinks whilst I welcome our very own house band, The Dave Hillman Trio.’ The curtains opened and as soon as the musicians started playing their signature tune, ‘Time is Tight,’ a fruit machine by the bar rang a fanfare of bells, the club lights flashed and there was a premature cheer of anticipation which stopped abruptly when the constipated machine only delivered a handful of tokens. The winner couldn’t be seen, she was surrounded by a scrum of customers and waitresses collecting drinks. Eventually, when the room was full, the compere returned to the stage.

‘Ladies an’ Gen’elmen, your appreciation for The Dave Hillman Trio. An’ now, the part of the evening you’ve all been waiting for, an’ Gen’elmen, wait till you see this dress, it's rumoured there’s so little material in it, Anita had to pay for what wasn’t used. A big hand please for the amazing - Miss Anita Tregowan!’ The house lights dimmed, the ceiling turned to night and twinkled with stars, then Anita Tregowan, nearly wearing a red dress, slowly sashayed across the stage, stopped beside the mic stand, pulled it over to her as though she was embracing a lover and started to croon a heart rending torch song with so much anguish even the bouncer had a tear in his eye. Eric was mesmerised by her husky voice, it sounded as if she smoked 40 a day. The waitress brought his drink. He threw a note on her tray and waived the change away.

After an excellent set of blues, torch songs and Piaf classics, Anita closed with ‘Cry Me a River,’ then took a well earned bow during which she thanked the band and left the stage. A DJ took over and assorted couples filled the minute dance floor. A while later Anita entered the room and spotting Eric, strolled over to his table.

‘Well, hello again – so you joined the club then? Tell me - do you like my repertoire or are you stalking me?’

‘If I said stalking you, would it be so bad?’ She smiled.

‘Maybe, maybe not.’ Eric pointed to an empty chair at his table.

‘That’s some dress, gives minimalism a new meaning.’

‘You like it? It’s a Gallo & Moretti.’

‘Could a stalker buy a lady a drink?’ She hesitated then sat facing him. As soon as she accepted, Eric became aware they were being watched by a man who was leaning on the bar. His demeanour was hard and dead, one Eric was familiar with. ‘So where did all that angst come from; can’t see you working the streets of Paris or anywhere else on your way up?’

‘Angst from life in general and grief from men in particular.’

‘Maybe you need to change your men.’ Anita shook her head and her thick auburn hair fell over her eye. She brushed it aside. Eric would have been happy to watch her do that all night.

‘All men come with grief; the only difference between them is the amount they bring.’ She picked up a beer mat and read the advert on it. ‘You’ve never told me your name, Mr Stalker?’

‘Eric Miller.’

‘So, do you like my songs?’ Eric looked straight at her.

‘Not the songs, the singer.’ She smiled again and put the mat down.

‘What do you do, Mr Stalker?’

‘I’m a Security Consultant.’

‘What sort of security would that be?’

‘Working for companies finding staff with their fingers in the till; that sort of thing. I solve problems which need to be done on the quiet.’

‘Been doing it for long?’

‘Too long and the 29th of next month, I’m done.’ The room changed to red.

‘Then what?’

‘I’ve a couple of ideas.’

‘Why are you leaving security?’ Eric finished his whisky then rolled the ice around his glass. ‘The game’s changed, security’s high tech now. The best jobs are creamed off by kids with degrees who stare at computers all day.’

‘It’s called progress.’

‘Maybe, but I’m left with crummy two bit jobs. These days, I spend my time poking around the dregs of society fixing problems for peanuts.’ As they talked, a tall thin man with slicked back hair and wearing a maroon corduroy suit approached the table. He put his arm around Anita and kissed her forehead.

‘Hello love.’ She gave him a deadpan glance, then waived towards Eric.

‘Eric Miller, my husband, Andy McKenzie.’ McKenzie looked surprised, but before he could speak, Eric said;

‘But, Anita Tregowan?’

‘Stage name; Susan McKenzie isn’t Show Biz, is it?’ McKenzie snapped his finger in recognition. ‘Eric Miller – you’re a hard man to find,’ and as he spoke, the heavy who was leaning against the bar started to approach the table. McKenzie saw him and waved him away, then turned to Anita.

‘Love, go and chat to the big guy wearing a bow tie on table 12, he wants to meet you – be nice – I need him for a while.’ Anita got up and McKenzie sat and stared at Miller.

‘Know who I am?’

‘I’ve heard.’

‘I’ve been searching all over for you and I’ve been hearing disturbing things.’

‘Like?’

‘Like you’re planning to retire.’

‘Yes, so what?’

‘Got a good pension have you, saved a nice nest egg?’

‘What’s that to you?’ McKenzie took a wad of envelopes from his pocket, selected one and put it on the table in front of Miller.

‘Look in there.’ Miller took a crumpled piece of paper out of the envelope. ‘It’s your marker for eight grand and you, sunshine, have till the end of the week to pay me for it.’

‘But the marker’s with Ron Fraser; we have an understanding, I’ll pay when I can, he knows that.’

‘Your Mr Fraser sold it to me, it’s mine now and if I don’t get my money by Saturday night, it won’t be a case of wanting to retire, you won’t be able to work - you’ll be about to catch a bad case of broken legs, capiche?’

‘McKenzie - I need some time…’

‘Oh, don’t tell me you’ve spent all your hard earned readies on that wreck floating in Weymouth harbour. What’s it called; the Saratoga isn’t it?’

‘It’s not a wreck, just needs a bit of TLC. Anyway, how’d you know I’d bought a boat?’

‘It’s my business to know things; like I know all about the little Security jobs you do and the devious ways you get results.’

‘I do what it takes.’

‘Course you do; we’re alike you and me; go getters; we probably like the same things, have the same friends, but the big difference is on Saturday I’ll be eight grand better off and you won’t.

‘I haven’t the cash right now…’

‘Ooh, that is unfortunate. You know, the way I see it, you’re a man with limited options; sell your boat, buy a wheelchair or do a little job for me.’

‘What job?’

‘Nice easy one, won’t take long.’

‘If it’s that easy, why not get one of your boys to do it, you’ve got enough of them?’ McKenzie rolled his eyes as though he was talking to an idiot. ‘My staff are specialists, extremely good at extracting things, like money from people who won’t pay, but this job needs finesse. They haven’t much of that.’

‘And if I decline your offer of work?’

‘Then I suggest you sell your boat.’ One of the bouncers came up to McKenzie and whispered in his ear. McKenzie got up and picked up the marker. ‘I have to see someone; we’ll talk again later. Oh, here’s a little coincidence for you. When I was searching for you, I heard about your first wife’s new man – interesting character – a cop. After what she’s been telling him about you, he’s started to investigate your second wife’s death. Sounds as if he’d like a chat with you sometime.’

‘She died in an accident.’

‘Of course, she did, I believe you, but we’re men of the world, we both know how these convenient little accidents can happen.’ McKenzie gave Eric a straight look. ‘Don’t we?’ As soon as McKenzie left the room, Anita came back to the table again.

‘What was that all about, Andy seems to know you?’

‘I owe a fellow eight grand, a gambling debt, McKenzie bought my marker and he’s demanding payment.’

‘Be careful, word is his new muscle’s a psychopath.’

‘I’ve dealt with his type before, they’re not too much problem.’ He drained the last few drops from his glass. ‘So, is McKenzie a source of grief?’ She glanced around carefully then spoke quietly.

‘Listen, I don’t know why, but I feel I can talk to you. He always was Jack the Lad, after the big buck; a bit of a bad boy; guess it was part of the attraction. He’s never satisfied; doesn’t matter how much we’ve got; he wants more. People are petrified of him but the only people who frighten him are medics trying to help; he’s terrified of doctors and his health is awful.’ She pointed around the club. And I think he’s addicted to danger as well, look at this place; he didn’t need to open it, he says the police’ll never find it but it’s already full of low life selling everything you shouldn’t buy; how long will they keep quiet? Andy isn’t the man I married, he’s turned into a monster, he corrupts everything he touches and these days he makes the Krays look like spring lambs.’

‘If that wino in the alley dies, this place’ll be swarming with Cops and flies.’

Anita lent back and beckoned the heavy to the table.

‘I’ll get him moved.’ Miller glanced behind him.

‘I’ve been married enough times to know the look in a woman’s eyes that says the fire’s gone out.’ She ignored the comment, but asked:

‘You married?’

‘Twice; one walked, one died.’

‘Eric, take Andy seriously, he’s pulling in everything he’s owed. He’s planning a big job for three weeks’ time; he won’t talk about it and there’s a lot of new faces around. I’m used to his iffy mates, but this lot are serious players, gives me the creeps just having them here. Take my advice, if you don’t pay, he’ll set his apes on you and he doesn’t make idle threats. He says this is his last job, then we’ll retire. I’ve never seen him so edgy, but promise me you won’t breathe a word – if he finds out, he’ll kill me.’

‘Do you want to retire?’

‘No, singing’s what I live for.’

‘You’re good at it; why don’t you get a recording contract?’

‘A couple of agents are interested but he won’t let me, he doesn’t like me having my own money.’

‘But you’ve got a fabulous voice and great stage presence.’

‘So, I’ve been told.’

‘With talent like yours, any husband should help you to take it as far as you can, I would.’

‘Would you – really?’

‘Too true.’

‘You’re good with compliments, are you trying to pick me up?’

‘Well, I wasn’t, but it’s a very good idea.’ Anita sat looking at Eric; deep in thought. The house lights swirled, changed to gold and as Eric watched her, he saw desperation in her eyes and to his surprise, felt overwhelming concern for her.

‘Do you have a bucket list for your retirement?

‘I’m not retiring, just getting out of security and clearing my head.’ He drank the last dregs of his whisky. ‘There’s only one thing on my list – buy a boat, go to Martinique, catch fish, live on white wine and olives then drink cocktails at Jack’s bar at sunset till I’ve forgotten why I went there.’

‘You got a list?’

‘Yes - get away from Andy then sing for my supper; but Martinique sounds a dream.’ Eric stared into her eyes and tried to see past her sadness.

‘You like boats?’

‘Yea – love them. We had one once, I used to crew it but Andy got rid of it – it was hot and questions were being asked.’ Eric glanced around, then lent closer and gave her arm a gentle pat.

‘Sometimes, dreams come true, especially if you want them badly enough.’ The sadness in her eyes changed and for a second, he saw excitement, but it didn’t last long.

“Why Andy keeps going, I don’t know, his health is lousy. He can’t see it, but if he goes inside, there’s a good chance he won’t come out alive.’ Eric stood up and as he pushed his chair to the table, he muttered:

‘Interesting…’

‘Where are you going?’

‘To get some sleep, I’ve got an early start tomorrow.’

‘Doing anything interesting?’

‘Tell McKenzie I’ll pass on his job offer and tomorrow I’m going to Weymouth to see a man about a boat.’

‘But your …’

Eric smiled. ‘I need to talk to my old mate Lew, he’s the Harbour Master.’ He looked straight at her. ‘You’d like him; known each other for years, he says some very interesting things.’

’So, does a girl get the drink you offered?’ Miller beckoned the waitress over and threw a note on her tray.

‘Give Mrs McKenzie what she wants then keep the change.’ Then he turned.

‘You take care now and don’t give up on your dreams; see you very soon.’ As he went, Anita beckoned the waitress closer, took the note from her tray and said in a quiet voice;

‘Champagne cocktail and charge it to Mr McKenzie’s account.’

The following morning, Miller got off the train at Weymouth and carried a large cargo bag to the harbour. The Harbour Master spotted him as he walked along the quay.

‘Hi Eric, when are we going to have that beer together?’

‘Not right now Lew. Is she good to go?’

‘Yes, taking her out for some fishing?’

‘Not fishing – Lew; do me a favour.’ He handed Lew a stamped envelope, a slip of paper and a clam phone. ‘Phone Detective Sergeant Horton on that number – use this phone – there’s enough credit for one more call. Ask him for his address and tell him to keep an eye out for this letter. Tell him there’s a job, big one, going down soon and the letter will give him details.’

‘Why don’t you?’

‘He’ll recognise my voice. Don’t tell him who you are. Put the address on this envelope. When are you going to see your daughter in Woking?’

‘Tuesday.’

Good, post it there. When you’ve made the calltake the sim card out of the phone and throw them both in the harbour. Eric reached in his bag and took out a bottle of whisky. He handed it to Lew. ‘This’ll help you forget you’ve seen me.’

‘Any messages for anyone?’

‘If any man calls - you haven’t seen me but if a woman comes and there’s only likely to be one, get her to sing ‘Cry Me a River’ and if it does make you want to cry, tell her I’ll be waiting at Jack’s Bar on Martinique with cocktails at sunset.’

 

Anthony Billinghurst


Tony Billinghurst lives in England. He has published works in several genre and likes to write at night in silence. He has recently published in : The London Journal of Fiction (anth.), Fiction on the Web, Ham Free Press, Fiction Pool, CommuterLit Ca., Scarlet Leaf Review Ca., Fantasy Divinity (anth.) USA and Ariel Chart Au.


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1 Comments

  1. nothing more powerful or entertaining than a sharp short fiction.

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