I leaned against the back wall of Benno’s place and sipped my Negro Modelo, disappointed that he didn’t stock Pacificos. The ice-filled tub of brown stubbies with the gold tops that glittered like they were winking at me eased my melancholy. It was a usual Benno affair – men in cream suits, and turistas in bad bermudas mingled about downing shots of Tequila and sucking limes. Benno wanted me there as a presence. But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t have to step into a situation if needed. In the semi-dark, spirits flowed as quick as the money did, and tempers could flare.
At a party a couple of months back, I needed to escort a rancher who flew down from Wyoming. He’d taken a swing at Benno. I guess he didn’t like the terms offered, not that I ever knew the details of the deals, nor did I want to. I grabbed him by the collar of his Oakland Raider jersey, a boneheaded thing to wear to a Benno event, (and c’mon, the Raiders?), and dragged his cowboy-ass out the back door. He was as lousy a puncher as my bathroom pal, Steve – more brawn than anything like aim. I gave him a couple hard and fast in the kidneys and hit a pressure point on his neck. If anything, I was neat and tidy.
Tonight, the stereo played some Southern Cal rock, a couple of thick guys in cheap suits shot eight-ball on Benno’s slate table. Benno talked to a trio in the corner of the bar. I wasn’t sure where this bunch came from. He had a couple of folders out, aerial photographs of a green land with a snaky river across lush terrain. I wondered if Benno was developing the land, and equally I wondered if he actually owned it. I reminded myself it wasn’t my business. I just cracked another Modelo and gave one of the group a tough guy look that I’d perfected. My expression lay somewhere between confident and bored, and it usually did the trick – unless someone got a bit too much Cuervo in them and figured I was just the right guy to challenge to a pissing contest. I hated that. It used to happen when I worked the gym in Montreal, hired to spar with the next great hopeful. Back there it wasn’t Tequila that made them swing hard, but if I landed one too many on the chin, my opponent kinda lost their composure. We were supposed to be just sparring, but I’d put more than a couple down that way. Still, the old guys that ran the gym never saw me as someone they’d put in the ring. I was too undisciplined, or that was what they told me. That and the fact that I’d never train.
At Benno’s, I had to play it down the middle, even give a smile once in a while. Not a, hey you’re a jackass for believing any of this bullshit and you deserve to lose your money kinda smile – but more of a, hey stud, you got it all happening, you’re the shit sort of grin.
Benno folded up his folders and took the trio through a door to a backroom. I knew he held a lot of his “special” meetings in this room. The decor was a few notches up, and included a fully stocked mahogany bar. Before he went in, Benno had turned and gave me a nod, a signal to park myself outside the door. He’d never told me if I was to prevent anyone from coming in or leaving. Again, I was supposed to be a presence. I didn’t really care, it put a few bucks in my pocket. I’d already planned on heading out to Melaque in the morning. I needed some quiet time and a place where I didn’t rely on beer ice to keep the swelling down.
Voices rose and fell in the room. The cue ball broke another rack.
“You know where I could find a glass of white wine? I can’t stand Tequila.”
She was thin, but had just the right amount of s-curves in her pale peach sundress and sandals.
“Not a country known for its vintages. Better to drink the beer than the water.”
She reached out and took my beer, tilted it back, and drained half of it. She handed it to me without wiping her mouth.
“I don’t really like beer.”
“I can see that.”
Her blonde hair tumbled down in cornrows, a bead of sweat hung on her neck like she was an iced pitcher.
“You’re not interested in the developments?” I asked.
“A bit too shady for me. I’ll let the hubby swing his dick over that.”
I glanced at her ringless fingers. She caught it.
“Hubby for the week,” she said. “Appearances and all.”
That was the best reply I could come up with. This one had danger tape and barb-wire wrapped around all 109 pounds of her and her damn near see-through peachy dress.
“You work for him?” she asked.
“Not really.” She took a moment to relieve me of my beer and the rest of its contents. “I know you didn’t come with my bunch. And you’re not a local by the way you dress. But you move like someone that’s pretty comfortable here. I’d say you been here a while, long enough to know better, and long enough to be trusted by the likes of our host.”
“Your power of observance.”
“Oh, like in the books. I don’t do books.” The bead of sweat hung on and was joined by another that had slid down her tanned neck.
“No, I guessed that.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Her lips made a razor thin line across her too-much in the sun complexion.
A huge crash came from the room behind me. I spun toward the guys at the pool table, grabbed a cue from one of them, and rapped on the closed door where Benno and his new buddies were.
“What’s up, Benno?”
“Stay the fuck out!”
The accent was mid-western, a slight twang. I considered my response for three whole seconds. Then I kicked the door in. The guy standing next to it caught a good rap in the head when the door flew open. A low swing with the cue took his legs out, and I clubbed him another one on the way down.
The guy in the middle of the room lunged for me.
The end of the cue took the wind out of the last bit of sentence, and Mr. Mid-Western went to his knees. I rapped him another one across the back of his head and he hit the tile.
I brought the cue around, and over my head, a bit of a samurai flourish I’d worked on after a weekend of Kurosawa movies. I stopped it about a half-inch from the guy holding Benno by his nicely pressed Brooks Bros. shirt. I tapped his head, just lightly.
“Hey Luke. Go slow.”
That was when I noticed the Glock pointed at Benno’s stomach.
“Put the stick down or I put your buddy down.”
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