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Page 14 of A Drink Before the War (Kenzie & Gennaro 1)

She frowned. “You always say that when you don’t have a clue.”

“Do not,” I said.

At seven-fifteen, things started happening.

Simone, wearing a navy blue sweatshirt over a white T-shirt, faded jeans, and generic sneakers the color of an oyster, walked out of the house with determination and opened her car the same way. I wondered if she did everything the same way with that set look on her face, that the-hell-with-you-if-you-can’t-keep-up air about her. Could people sleep that way?

She went straight up Merrimack, so we gave her a few blocks, waiting to see if we were the only interested party. It seemed to be the case, and if not, I wasn’t about to lose my only lead. We pulled out, and with one last look at my thirty-seven thousand dollars worth of automobile insurance company estimate, mind you we tailed her through Wickham. She went straight through the center of town and hopped on I-495. I was tired of being in the car and hoped like hell she didn’t have Jenna stowed away in Canada. Thankfully, that didn’t seem to be the case, because she got off the expressway a few miles later, turning off into Lansington.

If possible, Lansington is uglier than Wickham, but in imperceptible ways. In most respects, they’re identical. Lansington just feels dingier.

We were waiting at a traffic light near the center of town, but when the light turned green, Simone didn’t move. I felt two cold spades press together around my heart and Angie said, “Shit. Think she’s on to us?”

I said, “Use the horn.”

She did and Simone’s hand went up in apology as she realized the light had changed. It was the first undetermined thing she’d done since I’d seen her, and it felt like a jump start: we were close.

All around us were squat two-story clapboard buildings, circa the late 1800s. Trees were sparse and gnarled in hideous ways where we saw them. The traffic lights were old, still round, no Walk/Don’t Walk signals or neon pictures for those who couldn’t understand the Walk/Don’t Walk parts. The lights made clicking sounds when they changed, and as we drifted along the two-lane road, I felt that we could just as easily have been in rural Georgia or West Virginia.

Ahead of us, Simone’s left blinker went on, and a fraction of a second later, she pulled off the road into a small dirt parking lot filled with pickup trucks, a Winnebago, a couple of dusty American sports cars, and those wretched testaments to Detroit’s bad taste El Caminos. Two of them. A car that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a truck; a truck that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a car obscene, hybrid results.

Angie kept going and a half mile down the road, we U-turned and went back. The parking lot belonged to a bar. Just like Wickham, you wouldn’t have known what it was without the small neon Miller High Life signs in the windows. It was a low two-story building, a little deeper than most of the houses, stretching back an extra ten yards or so. From inside I could hear glasses clinking, a smattering of laughter, the babble of voices, and a Bon Jovi song coming off the jukebox. I amended that last thought; maybe it was just a stereo tuned to a radio station and no one inside had actually paid money to listen to Bon Jovi. Then I looked at the pickups and the bar again, and I wasn’t hopeful.

Angie said, “We going to wait here too?”

“Nope. Going in.”

“Goody.” She looked at the building. “Thank God I’m licensed to carry a firearm.” She checked the load in her .38.

“Damn straight,” I said, climbing out of the car. “First thing you do when we get inside, shoot the stereo.”

***

Simone was nowhere in sight when we entered. This was pretty easy to ascertain, because the moment we stepped through the door, everyone stopped moving.

I was wearing jeans, a denim shirt, and a baseball cap. My face looked like I’d had a disagreement with a pit bull, and the jacket that covered my gun was a raggy, faded army thing. I fit right in.

Angie was wearing a dark blue football jacket with white leather sleeves over a loose white cotton shirt that hung untucked over a pair of black leggings.

Guess which one of us they were looking at.

I looked at Angie. New Bedford isn’t terribly far from here. Big Dan’s Bar is in New Bedford. That’s where a bunch of guys threw a girl down on a pool table and had their version of fun at her expense while the rest of the bar cheered them on. I looked at the patrons of this bar a Heinz 57 mix of eastern rednecks, white trash, mill workers only recently immigrated from the Third World, Portuguese, a couple of black guys all poor and hostile and gearing up to let off some steam. Probably came here because Big Dan’s was closed. I looked at Angie again. I wasn’t worried about her; I was considering what would happen to my business if my partner shot the dicks off a barful of people in Lansington. I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t think we’d be able to keep that office in the church.

The barroom was larger than it looked from the outside. To my left, just before the bar itself, was a narrow staircase of unfinished wood. The bar ran halfway down the floor on the left side. Across from it were a few tables for two against a dark plywood wall. Past the bar, the place opened up and I could see pinball and video machines on the left and the corner of a pool table on the right. A pool table. Terrific.

The place was medium to crowded. Just about everyone wore a baseball cap, even those who I assume were women. A few people had mixed drinks, but for the most part, this was Budweiser country.

We walked up to the bar and folks went back to what they were doing, or pretending to.

The bartender was a young guy, good-looking and bleached blond, but a townie if he was working this place. He gave me a slight smile. Then he gave one to Angie that, in comparison, looked as if his lips exploded. “Hi. What can I get you?” He leaned on the bar and looked into her eyes.

Angie said, “Two Buds.”

“My pleasure,” Blondie said.

“I’ll bet,” she said and smiled.

She does this all the time. Flirts her ass off with everyone but me. If I wasn’t such a rock of self-confidence, it would annoy me.

My luck was good tonight, though. I felt it the moment the Bon Jovi song ended. While Blondie went for the beers, I looked at the stairs. In what passes for a moment of stillness in a bar, I could hear people moving around overhead.

When Blondie placed both beers in front of Angie, I said, “Is there a back door to this place?”

He turned his head slowly in my direction, looking at me as if I’d just bumped his knee stepping onto the bus. “Yeah,” he said with extreme slowness and nodded in the direction of the pool table. Through the smoke that hung over the back I saw the door. He was looking at Angie again, but out of the corner of his mouth, he said, “Why, you planning on sticking the place up?”

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