(Continued from Lucky James-Mrs. Fortescue)
“Here we are” said Fat Red pulling up in front of Finnegan’s Wake, a place so far off the beaten track across the lake that it had no know reputation back in town. Red craned his neck out the passenger side window to give the place the once over. “So”, he nodded appreciatively, “What brings you all the way out here to Bumfuck?”
Getting out the back door James handed the fare over. “I heard they do some interesting things with gin”, he said. “The botanicals, y’know?”
“Bout the only interesting thing they can do with gin in my book is pour it in me glass”, Red laughed. James waved him a quick smile and Red yelled at his back driving away. “I’m off the rest of the night-so just ring me up when you’re ready.”
He pushed the open door and was instantly covered and drawn in by the comfortable, boozy, smoky blanket that he knew and loved so well. As his eyes adjusted to the dim he returned a couple of nods and winks. An older fellow sporting threadbare tweed discretely raised a glass to him.
There weren’t many places around the lake-in the county for that matter-that James could go into and not be recognized at least by some. A cynical man-and James was far from that-might say that these folks made a lot of money off of James in the day. Which would probably be a bit of an overstatement. Many made some, but those who made a lot were long gone. But to these blokes, a little was a lot. So what the hell.
It was not all bad being recognized over here at The Wake because the townies that saw him were hiding out just like him. Some from wives, some from girlfriends, mothers, fathers, bosses. It was easier to drink when you knew-at least the odds were long-that someone that might be looking for you, would walk through the door.
He moved to an empty seat at the bar next to a large man who pretty much gave him his back as he spat words at a woman to his right who couldn’t have looked more bored had she been in a contest. “JC”, said the barkeep pouring three fingers of clear into a short glass with a single small ice cube-the way James liked it. He squeezed a lime wedge into it-didn’t drop it in-then backed discretely away so as not to interfere with a man and his gin.
James closed his eyes and allowed the first sip to sit on his tongue exuding a welcome warmth before letting it slide down his throat. One thing that Caitlin’s partial personal Prohibition had done was to make every drink an artwork to be savored. Very seldom in his latest posting at the Manse had he slammed one drink as the quickest way to get to the next as was his typical drinking style.
Even so, when he finished the first, he needed do nothing more than slide the empty glass a scant inch away from himself and Blind Tommy was there to refill it. (And no, Tommy had perfect vision and two beautiful hazel eyes-so don’t ask. It’ll make you seem a tourist).
It wasn’t until he was halfway through his second drink that a few seldom used doors of perception opened and James noticed the formidable pile of cash in front of the hulk next to him. The money didn’t interest him-although it had to be what kept the woman on the other side absorbed in his braying prattle. No, what James noticed was the envelope at the bottom of the stack. It was a small yellow envelope seemingly identical to the ones that Caitlin used to transfer cash. Maybe identical-all Goosington stationary had a stylized goose head printed on the face. Problem was that the scattered bills covered most of the envelope and he couldn’t see to be sure.
It wasn’t long before Blind Tommy refilled his glass a third time and after the first draught, James reached over as if the pile were his and pulled the envelope out from under. Sure enough, there was the line drawing of the goose seemingly winking at him. And it was still heavy-stuffed with bills that weren’t scattered on the bar. James had known from the first that this was no doubt one of the men contracted-and paid up front-to do the work on the dock that had never been done. Why the idjit was still walking around with the money in a Goosington envelope was anyone’s guess.
He wondered if Mrs. Fortescue met with this hulk? But the thought of Jane brought him straight to the memory of her kicking over Caitlin’s lap absorbing swats from her paddle. The reddening cheeks appeared in his mind’s eye, then the whiff of sweet vanilla….he slid happily to another place. He wasn’t gone long though-and experienced no more than a tickle down below-when the large man turned in his stool to face him.
“Excuse me little man. D’ye mind?” Said the large one, reaching to pluck the envelope from his fingers. The general hub-bub of the room settled to a hub. Or bub. Pretty James Cook had just been called “little man”. James heard whispers in the deadened din; “Little!” “He called him little man!”
He wasn’t little actually. He was average size, maybe even a tad tall for his weight which made him look slender. He had fought as a middleweight but even being little over his fighting weight he was still giving away close to a hundred pounds to the looming shadow beside him. If he had looked closely, the ape might have noticed that the only imperfection on Pretty James’ face was a slight bump and almost imperceptible offset to the bridge of his nose.
That was the lone remaining souvenir of his victory over Short Gene Poach for the county middleweight championship years before. He was a decided underdog in that fight and bets on Pretty James-or Handsome James (the name he fought under) paid handsomely.
The man, sitting still taller than James, blinked his watery eyes, surprised that the envelope wasn’t in his hand by now. Still held by this little peckerhead with a….was that a smile on his face? Is this little pud laughing at me? He raised off his stool and loomed over James casting a wide shadow.
As typical in these situations, everything slowed for James. A gentle hum closed over him and his breath settled to an almost imperceptible in and out. Heartbeat wasn’t a thump-just a little bubble. If he knew what blood pressure was he would be pleased to know his settled in to a child’s level. A child sitting in a field of daisies. Playing with a puppy. Then it came.
“Then”, as Brown Duffy, the oldster in the tweed would tell the story later, “This big Ginger-the size of a house-lays his hand on Handsome James Cooke-and that rung the bell.” James felt the ham sized hand grab hard at his shoulder trying to pull him to face his fate. The big man’s intention was to petrify the little man with the strength of his grip, then turn him to face him. Then smash him-which he was sure would impress the swish at the bar. She was a hard one but he’d have her, he was sure. Everyone nearby snatched up their drinks and leaned away when the hulking stranger laid is paw on the former county middleweight champ.
The punch James threw would have been a straight right cross had he been standing but since he was still on his stool only on the way to rising, it came as sort of an uppercut. No matter though. He hit him square in the mouth and the big donkey went down as if gravity was a new discovery that he couldn’t wait to try out.
It was quiet enough in The Wake to hear the chit-chit clatter of bone across the hardwood like a tiny roll of dice. “Em’s my teef!” the big guy sputtered, stunned into childhood, sitting on his arse on the floor. James heard the scattered laughter muffled around the bar. Choked chortles and gleeful whispered repeats of “Em’s my teef!” James stood and waited but his once and never-again assailant sat seemingly confused at the proceedings. A blood pink spit bubble covered his mouth for an instant before popping.
James gathered the stack of cash off the bar leaving enough to cover a round of drinks and a good tip. He even slipped a bill to the woman who now saw her perceived payday disappearing. What the hell-she had earned it. “This” he said holding up the cash and the envelope “belongs to Caitlin Milan, of Goosington Manor”. Off is the dark recesses of the bar a choked laugh “Goosington!” set off a round of honking. “Anyway, I’m returning it to her”, he declared slipping it into his back pocket.
“Whatever you say, JC”, Blind Tommy nodded.
As he was walking out the door Brown Duffy called his name. James turned. “’Em’s my teef!” Duffy imitated while all around him stifled giggles. James smiled tightly but winced as he stepped out the door. He hoped this wouldn’t be a new nickname for him. Truth is, he was partial to Pretty James Cooke, but didn’t think he would cotton much to Pretty Teef Cooke.
(To be continued….)