I was in a pool hall recently, then got the itch so i started writing this story. there is more to come on this one, I promise, but i wanted to get this out there and see what you all think. any feedback is, as always, more than welcome, regardless of its nature.
The room was hot. Not stifling, but warm enough to make sweat trickle tickling down between his shoulder blades. The babble of voices mingled discordantly with the music from the jukebox. The feel of the cue in his hands and the chalk on his fingers was comfortingly familiar. Nostalgia floated through the room, joining with the scent of felt and the sound of clacking balls.
The shot was lined up in his mind. It wasn’t an easy one, and even the players on ESPN wouldn’t deny that. But Max had it lined up in his mind’s eye; perfect in its geomety, he could almost see the eight-ball sinking before he even stroked his cue.
With a steadfast calm, the room around him; sounds and smells and heat, all; seemed to blur into nothingness. He was one with the felt; one with the cue and the balls and the pockets. Slowly, drawing out the moment more for the bliss of it than the need for concentration, he stroked: back slowly, forward with conviction, back again, forward again, linin the shot up for the umpteenth time, knowing that his victory was sure.
There was a soft puff of blue chalk as his cue struck, the white ball skimming across a field of green. The clack was loud and ominous as Max watched his perfectly aligned shot go awry; just by the barest degree he had missed his mark, and the black ball, like a curse of death, bounced between the corners of the pocket, and faltered, hovering for moments, it seemed, before refusing once and for all to fall into the abyss that welcomed it.
Max had a hard time controlling himself; the urge to snap the cue over his thigh was strong, and he could hear his jaw creaking as he ground his teeth together in anger and frustration.
The other man leaned against the table, a low, knowing chuckle rumbling out of him. Without a word or a glance at Max, he nonchalantly poked the cue into the eight, leaving nothing on the table but the spinning white ball. It seemed to be laughing at Max; mocking him in the midst of his misery and terror.
The man stood, admiring his victory for a moment, before turning to Max. The question was in his eyes, and Max understood. Their eyes locked for a moment, Max staring dumbfounded and the pale-skinned man’s pale lips curling at the corners, as if he knew what was coming and was looking forward to it. Then, finally, the man asked, simply, “Well?”
Max tried to swallow, only to find that his mouth was drier than a desert, and his throat gave him nothiung but scratchy pain. “I…” he croaked. “I don’t have it.”
The man nodded, as if he’d expected nothing less, that pale, mocking half-smile still curving his lips as his eyes danced to the tune of future enjoyment. A flicker of those eyes had two men striding toward their table. Their faces were set, not in pleasure as was the man’s, but in determination; they had been hired for such times as this, and they would do their duty without hesitation or qualm. The pair didn’t lay hands on Max, but they bracketed him, leaving him to understand that flight was not an option. One of the toughs stretched his shoulders casually, while the other cracked sunken knuckles.
Fuckin’ cliché, Max thought. As if I didn’t realize they could end me without even trying.
The man at the other end of the table said, “Perhaps we should go outside to…talk.”
The hesitation was clear to Max, and he knew what was implied. With a sigh, Max cast his eyes downward, taking in the damning cue-ball, and nodded glumly, like a child awaiting a spanking. He could only hope that the worst they would do to him was a sound beating. He had survived such before. They certainly weren’t pleasurable, but a black eye would heal, as would broken ribs and bruised testicals.
When the mocking man led him into the deepest recesses of the alley, his hopes changed to skittering fear. Max looked at the walls of the buildings surrounding him, at the brick wall twice as tall as he that closed off the end of the alley. His screams would go unheard.
Emma watched the two big men escort the other out of the bar. She only half heard what the waitress was saying to her; something about her man at home or some such. With a sigh, she turned back to Sheryl. She had seen men escorted from the bar so many times, but she never got used to it, just as she never enjoyed hearing the stories of those men being beaten to within an inch of their lives. But Emma knew that nothing she could do would stop it.
Dumbass guy probably bet money he didn’t have. The fact that the dude might deserve it did nothing to comfort her.
A call for a drink brought her out of her reverie. With practiced ease she pulled an iced mug out of the cooler and got the tap flowing into it. As the Guinness settled, she poured the Jagermeister into a shot-glass, wishing she were home, wishing she could forget about the man being escorted from the bar by a shady-looking guy and his two strongarms.
The head on the stout that she handed to her customer was perfect. The shot-glass alread sat, rim down, on the bar. This guy isn’t fuckin’ around. She finally looked at him, really looked at him. He was plain, to her eyes; just another guy sitting at a bar: nothing special. His hair was dark brown and thinning, though not so bad you would notice if you didn’t look really hard. The skin of his face was dark, as if he’d spent plenty of time in the sun. It was pocked along the cheeks, scarred by acne long forgotten, maybe, but it added to the rough, dangerous look of him. Emma nearly started back as she came to his eyes. The green of them was startling; she had never seen such a sharpness in eyes (and she was a purveyor of eyes). They seemed to look into and through her with zero effort. Flecked with orange and (she thought) spots of blood-red, they seemed to consume her. But, even more startling than the strange beauty of his irises, were the whites. White they were, stark and shining, but shot through with viens of pure black; a blackness darker than moonless nights during the witching hour.
Emma was frozen, captivated by the intensity of those eyes; held thrall by them as had never happened to her before. She woke from her paralysis slowly, vaguely realizing that the man was speaking to her.
With a start and a shake of her head to clear her thoughts, she asked him to repeat himself.
The grin he gave her would weaken any schoolgirl’s knees. She was no schoolgirl, but wasn’t immune either. Her heart skipped before she could quiet it.
“I said,” he said calmly, still grinning as if he knew what flashed through her mind, or it amused him somehow. “I said it would be best if you left. Close the bar, kick these people out, and go home.”
As soon as she realized her jaw was hanging open, she snapped it shut. There was annoyance in her voice that she did nothing to hide as she asked, “Why would I do that?”
The man across the bar from her sighed, though his grin remiand, never slipping or fading in the slightest. “I fear that something terrible is going to happen here.” He cast a quick glance over the laughing, swearing, singing crowd milling about around the pool tables. With a suddeness that brought sadness into those strange, beautiful eyes, his grin was gone, replaced by a haunting mourning that nearly brought tears to Emma’s eyes. “I would avoid it if I could,” the man said, almost to himself. Emme leaned over the bar so she could hear him. “But we are only capable of so much, in the end.”
His gaze returned to hers, and he didn’t seem at all concerned or surprised that her face was bare inches from his. “Please, Emma,” he said, “get these people out of here and go home.”
Her stunned silence was not the answer he wanted, she knew, but it was the only one she could give, so shocked she was. With an effort, she pulled her eyes from his and looked around the bar, forgetting to ask how he knew her name. Everything seemed normal; just a typical Saturday night. With a soft chuckle, she shook her head and said, “Sorry, man. Not gonna happen. Maybe you’ve had one too many?”
The man sighed once more, the sadness in his downturned eyes seeming to wilt the laquered planks of the bar. “Very well,” he said, so sorrowful and filled with troubled resignation that Emma wanted to wrap her arms around him. He continued: “Please leave. It’s always harder once you’ve looked into their eyes.”
This last was said softly, and Emma had the feeling that she wasn’t meant to hear it.
Suddenly, the man turned his head, sitting up and peering at one wall of the bar. His voice was grim, a death march in the midst of the revelling and carousing: “It has begun. Again.”
As the man stood, the bar was suddenly, deafeningly filled with screams.
Max waited for the next blow. Both his eyes were swollen nearly shut. The toughs were vague shadows against the lamplight from the street beyond. But he could hear. He wished with all his heart he couldn’t, but the shuffling step backward told him of the impending pain as the man hauled back to strike him. He hoped, wished with all his might, that it wouldn’t be in the stomach again. His nose was broken, he was sure, and both his eyes swollen and throbbing, not to mention his lips cracked and several of his teeth loose, but he didn’t think he could handle another blow to his abdomen; the sound of the cartilage in his nose cracking was nothing compared to the sound of his rib snapping like a well-dried wishbone.
The pale man with the smirky smile was still there; Max could just make him out through his puffy eyelids. The smile had deepened since Max’s thrashing had begun; the man was enjoying this thoroughly.
All these thoughts flashed through Max’s mind in less than a heartbeat. As he waited for the blow to fall, the smile on the pale man’s face vanished into a look of confusion and, could it be? fear.
The blow didn’t land. Max looked at his torturers, only to see, dimly through his swollen, bloody eyes, a jagged gash where the man’s throat had been. The blood that sparyed from the wound mixed warmly with Max’s own, caused by his broken nose. The eyes of the man stared lifelessly upward, as if silently pleading the heavens for an answer to his unexpected demise. The other tough, Max could see, was looking skyward as well, a long knife in his white-knuckled hand. His eyes dashed back and forth across the sky, seeking the murderer in the firmament, but they saw nothing. Suddenly, he was dead, his heart torn from his chest with a cracking, squelching sound that would have had Max vomiting if his stomach muscles weren’t so tortured. The man’s eyes followed the trail of blood on the dark pavement before him, settling on his own unbeating heart, before he fell in a lifeless clump to the ground.
Max was so filled with shock and fear that he hadn’t noticed the pale man’s retreat. He could still see him, vaguely, just entering the lamplight in the street, backing away as if from an awkward moment with a jilted lover. Then, from the sky a shadow streaked, and the pale man was gone, leaving nothing behind but a shriek of terror and the sounds of tearing flesh.