Jimmy's harsh whisper was irritating. "What?" The snarled response was intended to silence, not encourage.
“There’s a guy lookin’ in the window!”
“Oh my God, really?” Mitch’s voice oozed sarcasm the way the burden he carried oozed slime. “Imagine that! Someone actually looking in a store’s display window! How bizarre!” He thrust their shared load into his partner. “People are supposed to stop and stare, you dumbfuck. Why ya think the boss puts crazy shit like pigs’ heads with the tongues sticking out up there? It gets peoples’ attention. That’s how we get most of our legitimate business. Just keep moving.”
“C’mon, Mitch! Who shops for meat at this time of night? And he didn’t just stop and look right away. He walked by, and then he came BACK. I swear to God, he stared right at me!”
“You are the most paranoid son-ofa-bitch I ever met. You wanna work with me, you need to lay off the pot. Coke I can handle-- makes you work harder. But this freakin’-out about shit all the time gets on my nerves. Now keep moving. This thing’s heavy.”
“I’m tellin’ ya, it’s weird.” Jimmy shuffled backward, concentrating on keeping his balance. He’d tripped once, backing into the cooler like this, and having a clammy slab of dead flesh land on him had given him nightmares for a week. Of course, Mitch had just stood there, laughing like a jackass while Jimmy twisted and screamed, pinned beneath the horrible thing.
Tonight he made it into the meat locker without tripping. They transferred their load to a hook dangling by a chain from the ceiling, grunting and swearing the whole time. As they paused to catch their breath, Jimmy stared at the mottled pink and white forms all around him. A forest of cold flesh, rocking gently in a non-existent wind. It never failed to unnerve him.
“Why do they move like that, Mitch?” He cringed at his own voice. He hadn’t known the words were coming until they appeared, bouncing off of the corpses, echoing dully, mocking him.
“What the hell are you blubbering about now?”
He knew he should just stop, that he was only giving Mitch more to tease him about. He’d never been good at keeping quiet, though. “The meat. See how it moves, just a little bit? Why is that?”
“Because it’s alive, and it wants to EAT you!” Mitch shoved one of the carcasses. It thudded into Jimmy, knocking him sideways. He shrieked. Couldn’t help it. It was bad enough having them touch his hands. He couldn’t stand it when he felt their wetness through his clothes.
Mitch cackled. “You’re such a fuckin’ pussy. I’ma start callin’ you ‘Jenny’.”
He turned away, face burning. “Let’s just get cleaned up, so we can go have a beer.”
Mitch laughed, a caustic, unholy sound. “Sure, Jenny. Whatever you say.”
Shame kept him silent while they showered and changed, but by the time they made their way out to the back alley, Jimmy had found his voice again.
“You think that guy was on to us?” He took a long drag on his joint, savoring the sweet smoke as it flooded his lungs.
Mitch had his back to him, distracted by the complicated series of locks on the heavy steel door. “What guy?”
“That guy at the window.” He tried to speak without losing any smoke.
Mitch snorted. “You been watchin’ too much TV. And smokin’ too much weed.”
“Well, he could be, like, a P.I., or a Fed, or something. You never know. It was just weird, the way he looked at me. Not at the shit in the window--at ME.”
“New name: Stoner Jenny. Jumpin’ at shadows.”
“It ain’t paranoid. It’s bein’ careful.” He exhaled slowly, satisfied with the anemic curl of smoke that emerged. He hadn’t wasted much.
Mitch finished with the locks. Jimmy flicked his roach away as they threaded a path through the cluttered alley to the bar’s front door.
“What’s that even MEAN? ‘Bein’ careful’? ‘Cause if it’s me listenin’ to you whinin’ and worryin’ about shit that ain’t a problem, you can count me out.”
“I’m just sayin’ we need to be more circumspect. Try to find out who the guy was, and what he was up to.”
“How’s a thug like you know a word like ‘circumspect’? You read that in the funny papers, and go ask your mommy what it meant?” He sneered at Jimmy with naked contempt. “And finding out about a guy who just happened to look in the window ain’t exactly ‘circum-fucking-spect’, you moron. Besides, what you gonna do about it, anyway?”
Jimmy shrugged. “I dunno.” Maybe he was being paranoid, but who had done more hard time, him or Mitch? Mitch may call him a moron, but Jimmy knew for a fact that it took brains to get away with the shit he’d pulled. And jumping at shadows beat having the shadows turn on you with badges and handcuffs.
They entered the bar as they always did: Mitch in the lead, heading towards the pool table, leaving Jimmy to fetch their drinks. Jimmy scanned the room as he waited for the bartender. Not a lot of people, but then again, there never were. More males than females, also not unusual for this joint. He studied an over-dressed pair of ladies at a back table. They were out of place here. Maybe looking for a good time, some little touch of danger in their boring, suburbanite lives. He’d have to find a way to meet them. If it was adventure they were after, he could offer plenty.
He watched Mitch drop some quarters on the edge of the pool table, then move past the three men already playing to take a seat at a table in the corner. “Who’s bein’ paranoid now?” Jimmy muttered to himself. Not that he would have chosen differently. Sitting with your back to the wall was generally the best place to be.
“Excuse me?” The bartender had appeared in front of him.
Not Cassie, he noted, but didn’t care enough to ask why. “Two shots of Jack, and two Miller Lites.” He eyed the new bartender with distaste as she turned to the beer cooler. She was attractive enough, but he didn’t approve of pregnant women being in bars. Wasn’t fair to the unborn child, having to deal with the smoke and alcohol that its mother forced into it.
He shifted his attention to the other patrons, studying them carefully. Mostly he didn’t waste time on faces. People wore masks, pretending to be what they thought everyone wanted them to be. The most dangerous ones had the most benign expressions, as a general rule. So he didn’t waste time on faces. Not when he was trying to find trouble before it found him.
Hands, now, they spoke the truth. Soft, pampered hands belonged to pencil-pushers and doctors. Cops had clean hands, and for some reason, they always seemed to have really short fingernails. Scarred hands put him on alert. So did tense shoulders, jackets that weren’t unzipped all the way, pants with a telltale bulge in the waistband, or pockets that were pulled low by something heavy. That sort of thing.
Tonight was different, though. Tonight, he thought of the man at the window, and used the mirror behind the bar to examine faces.
He nearly shit himself when he spotted the window-shopper. He was sitting at the bar, right next to Jimmy, staring down at something in his hands.
They were clean hands, with short nails.
Jimmy pushed back, feigning a stretch, and yawned. There it was. The pocket: pulled low by something heavy, the shape distorted but familiar.
The barmaid returned with his drinks and change. He left a dollar behind, pocketing the rest. Then, shot glasses balanced in one hand, bottles suspended by their necks from the other, he walked with studied casualness to the table Mitch had selected. He felt the hair on the back of his neck rise as he sat, facing Mitch, imagining the eyes of his adversary boring into him from behind.
“He’s here,” he informed Mitch, “and I think he’s got a gun.”
“The dude that was looking in the window. He’s sitting at the bar. I stood right fuckin’ next to him!”
“Yeah, so now you know why he was looking in the window. He was on his way here, and got curious. Then he saw you, and realized you got a purty mouth. Maybe he’ll come in to the shop tomorrow for some head, tongue included. Squeal like a pig, girlie-boy!”
“He’s got a gun, Mitch!”
“Oh, for Christ’ sake! Every time you see a bulge, you think it’s a gun. It’s probably a huge boner, from bein’ so close to you, Jenny. And even if it is a gun, so fuckin’ what? We got ‘em, too, and it don’t mean we’re Feds, or P.I.s. It just means we’re fuckin’ smart, in this city.”
Jimmy struggled to find a way to convince Mitch that they needed to do something. “He’s watching us. He’s probably BEEN watching us, knows we come here every night, and is waiting to see where we go when we leave. Who knows what he’s seen already? I bet he’s got little video cameras hidden in his clothes and shit. He’s probably taping us right now. So don’t say anything bad, ‘cause they can read lips, you know.”
“Good, then he can read this.” Mitch stood, holding both middle fingers in the air, and mouthed, “Kiss my mother-fuckin’ ass, cocksucker!”
Jimmy glanced around quickly. No one was paying any attention. “Sit down, you fucking moron!”
Mitch sat, chuckling. He loved goading Jimmy. The skulking, pathetic little bastard irritated the shit out of him.
“I think I’ll go buy him a drink, tell him it’s from you, and ask if you can have his phone number.”
Jimmy ignored him, intent on sorting out this problem. What if the guy really was a Fed? What could he have seen, looking through that window? Did he recognize what they were carrying? Could he have taken a clear enough picture to incriminate them? They hadn’t turned on any lights, and he hadn’t noticed a flash or anything. He wondered if it were possible to take pictures with no light.
Maybe he and Mitch should go back to the shop right now, and process that carcass. They had to make the sausages and get rid of the bones before they went home for the night, anyway. They could get it done now, then come back here to finish their break.
But what if the Feds were raiding the place already? And even if they weren’t, the guy at the bar was sure to follow them when they left.
He felt trapped. They couldn’t leave without being followed, and there could be cops gathering evidence against them right now, while he sat like the moron Mitch said he was, unable to think his way out of this mess.
Maybe that was the ticket: he’d just play dumb. “It’s a pig, Officer. One the USDA guys wouldn’t pass. My boss, he gets ‘em real cheap, and has us bring ‘em in late at night, so no one sees. We make ‘em into sausages. I know we ain’t s’posed to, but no one’s ever gotten sick.” He’d have to tell the boss before the cops busted him, so the two of them would have the same story. If he was lucky, the boss would be so impressed and grateful, he’d give Jimmy a bonus, or something.
He almost told Mitch his plan, then thought better of it. Mitch’d either laugh at him, or take the credit for his idea. Or both. Plus, if Mitch didn’t tell the same story that Jimmy and the boss did…well, there was the scapegoat they needed, right? It’s not like Jimmy owed Mitch any favors. The guy was an asshole.
There were payphones down a short hall, opposite the restrooms, that he could use to run his plan by the chief.
“Where the hell are YOU goin’?” Mitch demanded. “Your beer ain’t half gone yet, and those yahoos are just about done with their game.” He jerked his head at the pool table.
“Gotta take a piss.”
He darted a quick glance toward the guy at the bar, and was startled into immobility. He was gone! What the hell? Was he next door, snooping around? Or was he in the john? If he was, he might overhear Jimmy talking on the phone.
As he stood, paralyzed with indecision, the man walked through the front door and dropped a pack of cigarettes onto the bar. So, he wanted them to think he’d gone outside to smoke. That was the law, but people smoked in this bar all the time. Jimmy knew what the guy was really doing: talking to his fellow agents, or peeking in windows again.
He reached for the payphone.
“What if they tapped them?” The thought popped into his head, so clear it was as if someone had actually spoken.
He turned, shouldering his way into the men’s room, relieved to find it empty.
Standing at the urinal, his mouth felt dry, and his urine refused to flow.
He had to do something, but what? Couldn’t leave, couldn’t trust the pay phone….And he knew they could pick up cell phone signals, record and decipher them. Could he explain to his boss in a way that wouldn’t alert the Feds? Not likely. And he couldn’t just borrow some else’s phone. The fuckin’ Feds were probably recording every call that went out of here tonight.
He moved to the sink, methodically washing and re-washing his hands as he dismissed one idea after another. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t come up with a fool-proof plan. If he left, he’d be followed. What if he just went to a hotel? That’d look suspicious. He couldn’t work in this town but not have a home somewhere nearby, could he? And he had no wife or girlfriend to blame for not being able to go home. Maybe he could hire a hooker. But getting a room wasn’t really a solution. He’d still be followed, and still wouldn’t be able to call his boss.
He finally stepped away from the sink, and toweled his hands dry. They’d just have to wait the guy out. Come bar time, he’d follow them, or they’d follow him. Either way, they could jump him, search him, and beat some information out of him. If he was a Fed, they’d just claim ignorance and self-defense. If he wasn’t, well….Then they’d have to kill him.
Satisfied with his plan, Jimmy returned to the table, eager for a game of pool.