by James M. Black
Mac looked around his bar: pool table; neon beer signs; chairs just waiting for customers.
No staff tonight. Just him. No one else wanted to work on Christmas Eve. Lazy bastards. Well, he would do it, Christmas Eve or no. There might not be any drinkers tonight, but Mac would damn well be open in case anyone did have a few bucks and a dry mouth.
And a home they didn't want to be at, Mac thought. Or a family they wanted to avoid.
Mac wiped a clean glass and set it with its brothers underneath the bar.
What was he supposed to do, he asked himself, shut down just ‘cause it was a holiday?
"When Hell freezes over," he grumbled.
The door flew open with a bang and a blast of cold wind.
Mac looked up. "Hey, buddy, you want to close that? I ain't paying to heat the whole outside."
The man at the door waved his hand. "Sorry," he said as he stomped shoes and shrugged his coat off. "Beer, please," he said. "In a bottle. I'll take whatever's cold."
Mac stared at the stranger for a long minute. What the hell would make someone like that come into a place like this, he wondered? The guy didn't look like any of his regulars: no boots; no calluses. Hell, the guy was clean-shaven for Christ's sake. Mac figured the guy looked like some kind of professor with his fancy shoes and khaki pants.
Ah, screw it, Mac thought. The bar was open and he wasn't causing any trouble. Whatever this guy was doing was his business. And he looked like he had money.
"This stuff tastes like water," the stranger said, making a face at his third beer. He slid his bottle over toward Mac.
Mac caught it and tipped the last two inches into the sink. "You want something stronger?"
The stranger shook his head. "Nope. Anything stronger'll just make me sick. And I don't want to get sick. Just drunk."
Mac watched the man fish another green bill out of his wallet.
Mac waved the money away. "You've already got a huge credit on your tab," he said. "Beers don't cost twenty dollars a pop around these parts. Not yet, anyway. Just tell me what you want."
The stranger waggled the money toward Mac. "Come on," he said. "It's yours. Take it. Just bring me one more and I'll be on my way."
"How about I call you a cab instead," Mac said. "You've more than paid for it."
"A cab? On Christmas Eve?" The stranger scrunched his face as if the idea itself stank. "Not where I'm going."
"No? How far you going?" Mac asked.
The stranger shrugged. "Hell, most likely. No way of knowing ‘til I get there."
Christ and double-Christ, Mac thought. What the hell was this guy talking about? This was not the kind of nut-job bullshit he wanted to put up with. Not tonight.
"One more," the stranger said, holding up a finger. "One more and I will darken your doorstep no more."
Mac frowned. "I think you've had enough already."
"What? Three is enough?"
"Three in fifteen minutes is more than enough. I send you out of here after pounding those down; the cops'll have to unwrap your car from a utility pole. And who do you think they'll blame for that, huh? Me, that's who. I don't need that kind of trouble. What's say I call you a cab?"
"Point taken," the stranger said. He pulled a fresh fistful of bills out of his pocket. "But I'm not looking to cause you any trouble," he said. "I just want one more beer. One more and then I'll hightail it out of here. No trouble anywhere in the plans."
Mac looked at the wad of crisp, clean bills crumpled in the stranger's fist.
"Come on," the stranger said. "One more. What could it hurt?"
Mac shook his head and reached toward the cooler for one, final beer. "I shouldn't do this," he said. "If the state comes after my ass…"
The stranger smiled and slapped the cash down onto the bar. "Ah, you're a saint and you don't even know it."
Mac lifted the lid.
The front door burst open with a fresh gust of icy wind. Two men charged in, each wearing a black ski mask. One man gripped a shotgun as if his life depended on it, the other carried a .44 Magnum with a six inch barrel.
Mac froze. "Shit," he said.
"Get your motherfucking hands up," said the man with the shotgun.
Mac closed the lid and raised his hands as the Dirty Harry wannabe strolled up to him and pointed his pistol directly into Mac's face. He placed a burlap sack on the counter.
"It's Christmas Eve," the gunman said, "and Santa ain't got no money. We're here to fix that."
Mac stared down the length of the barrel. The black metal seemed to go on forever. Still, just at the other side, slightly above and in front of the gunman's white knuckles, Mac could see the tips of five bullets glinting in their chambers. The sixth one, he knew, was already loaded and waiting to blast his head off.
"Fill the sack," the gunman said, "with all your money. All of it." He pulled the hammer with his thumb. "Now."
Mac heard the unmistakable click of the gun, then heard the stranger curse.
"Damn it," the stranger said. "Damn it, damn it. I might have known."
The gunman jerked, his eyes going wide.
Mac felt his heart stop beating.
The gunman pointed his pistol toward the stranger. "Who the fuck are you?" he said. He pointed his gun toward Mac, then back at the stranger. Then Mac again.
"I thought you said this place was empty. I thought you had this place staked out," he said to his partner.
"I did," said the second gunman. That guy stormed across the empty barroom and pointed his shotgun directly into the stranger's face.
"Don't you fucking move," he said. "You so much as twitch and you're dead."
He peeled his lips back into a snarl. "I been watching this place for hours," he said. "Ain't nobody come or gone. How the fuck did you get in here?"
The stranger raised his hands very slowly. "Easy there," he said. "You must have just missed me. I've only been here for, what, fifteen minutes or so."
"Shut up," said the man with the shotgun. "I been watching. Ain't nobody come or gone."
He shoved the weapon closer to the stranger's face. "Who are you? Who else knows you're here?"
The stranger raised his palms higher and spread his fingers wider.
"Relax," he said. "I'm nobody. I'm just trying to get drunk on Christmas Eve. Put your gun away, man. I won't stop you from robbing the place. All I want is one more beer."
The gunman sneered. "What do you want me to do, Billy? You want me to blast him? I swear there wasn't nobody here. I been watching like a hawk. Tell me what you want me to do, Billy."
The stranger snapped his fingers. "Hey," he said. "Don't talk to your partner. Talk to me. If you want to shoot me, then at least have the decency to look at me."
"Shut up!" said the gunman.
"Pull the trigger," said the stranger.
The gunman stared the stranger in the eyes like a deer facing down the headlights of an oncoming truck.
Christ and double-Christ, Mac thought. What the fuck is that guy trying to do?
"What's going on over there, Bobby?" said the man with the pistol. "Make him shut up. We've got a job to do."
The stranger slowly brought his hands into the center of his chest.
"Right here," he said, tapping. "Put one right here in my chest. I don't have much to live for, anyway."
"Shut up," Bobby said. "I'll blow your fucking head off!"
The stranger grinned. "No, no. Not in the head. Do you have any idea how much that hurts?" He tapped his chest again. "Right here. Kill the heart. It's a much better death that way. Much cleaner."
Bobby tightened his grip on the shotgun.
"Do it," the stranger said. "Shoot me. Do the world a favor. Pull the trigger."
"Shut up, Mister. I swear I'll shoot you."
"Yes," the stranger said. "Do it."
"I'll do it!" Bobby's voice crackled with fear and adrenaline. "Shut your fucking mouth!"
Mac held his breath. He knew he shouldn't have opened up on a night like this. Not on Christmas Eve. And now he was going to die. For a couple of crack heads and a crazy, preppy drunk, he was going to die. Just fucking great.
"We don't have time for this, Bobby," said Billy. "If you won't shut him up, I will." He swung his pistol. "Get out of my way, man. I can't get a clear shot." He swung back toward Mac. Then toward the stranger. Mac. Stranger. Mac.
"Fill the fucking sack!" he shouted.
Mac eased slowly toward the cash register, his hands still held high. "All right," he said. "I don't want to spook you by moving too fast. Nothing in here worth dying over."
Billy swung his pistol back and forth between Mac and the stranger. His hand was shaking. "Goddamnit, Bobby, will you fucking move? I can't get a good shot."
Mac crept closer to the cash register.
"Don't you fucking move!" said Billy.
Mac froze. "I can't fill the bag, son, unless I can get to the money. I need to open the drawer if I'm going to get the cash."
"All right," Mac said. "All right. Keep your cool. I'll give you everything I've got. Just stay cool. Don't want no trouble."
Mac chanced a look over at the other side of the bar. He could see the stranger staring directly into Bobby's eyes.
"Bobby, is it?" the stranger said. "You ever kill anybody?"
Bobby shifted in his stance. "Just shut up," he whispered. "Shut up or I'll fucking kill you."
"Of course you will," the stranger said. "Squeeze the trigger. That's all it'll take. One little squeeze and this will all be over."
The stranger slid forward on his barstool until his feet touched the floor. "Do it," he said. "Do it now."
The stranger slowly reached toward the gun.
Christ and double-Christ, Mac thought. There was no way in hell that he was going to die for this stranger. Let that jack-ass do whatever fool thing he wanted to, Mac was not going down with him. No way. He reached a few extra inches under the cash register to his own insurance policy: a sawed-off -- only slightly illegal -- shotgun. Mac lifted it smoothly and pointed it directly at that fucker Billy's head.
Billy turned to face the barman again.
Mac pumped the slider to make sure Billy knew what was going on. "Don't fucking move," he said.
"That's right, dumb ass," Mac said. "Tables are turned now. Put your gun down on the bar. Nice and easy."
Billy started to move.
"Easy," Mac said. "It don't take no kind of aiming to blast you to pieces. Not with this thing. You make one sudden move and it'll be the last thing you ever do."
Billy stared down the cold, black bores of the shotgun's barrel. He lowered the pistol.
"That's right," Mac said. "Nice and easy."
"Bobby," Billy said, "barman's got a gun."
"Shut up," said Mac. "No talking. Now tell your friend to put his gun down, too."
Everything happened fast.
The one called Bobby looked back at his partner.
The stranger barked some crazy kind of laugh, then lunged forward, snatching at the shotgun.
Mac saw Bobby open his mouth to shout. He saw Bobby squeeze the trigger.
The blast caught the stranger square in the chest. It sent him flying as if he'd been hurled by some ornery giant. Pieces of body and buckshot struck the bar with an explosion of splinters and blood.
"Holy --" Mac said. He didn't see Billy duck, but he knew the asshole had pulled his trigger.
Time moved like cold syrup. Mac felt the bullet punching into his chest, but it felt like it was happening to someone else -- someone far, far away.
Mac saw Billy's eyes grow wide, even under that stupid ski mask. The kid's lips melted from a snarl of victory into a gape of horror.
And Mac felt himself leaving the ground.
He was airborne.
Then he was unconscious.
When he came to, Mac was lying on his back, staring up at the ceiling.
"Wake up," said the stranger.
Mac raised a hand to shield his eyes. "Too bright," he said. "Where am I?"
"On the floor. You really ought to get up. You might catch a cold down there."
Mac grunted. "Hell with that," he said. "I've been shot."
Mac squinted against the brightness. "So were you," he said. "I saw you."
The stranger squeezed Mac's hand. Mac came off the ground as if he weighed no more than folded paper.
"How do you feel?"
"I told you," Mac said, "I got -- "
He groped at his chest. No wound. He looked down and patted himself with both hands.
"But…" he said, "I got shot. I know I did. I felt it."
"Of course you did."
Mac looked up, but was forced again to shield his eyes against a blinding brilliance.
"Who are you?" Mac said. "What's going on here?"
The light vanished, leaving Mac to squint against an eye-aching darkness.
"Just someone passing through," said the stranger. "On Christmas Eve."
Mac rubbed his eyes and shook his head. That voice -- it sure sounded like that crazy drunk. But it couldn't be. Mac had seen him take a full load of buckshot, square in the chest.
Mac froze. "The gunmen," he said. "The man who shot me… Where are they?"
The stranger was suddenly standing by the door, pulling up his collar against the cold. "Time for me to go," he said. He raised his hand to wave. "I'll have to pass on that last beer. Good night. And Merry Christmas."
He opened the door with a fresh blast of cold wind and then vanished into the night.
The door clicked shut behind him, and Mac was alone.
Mac stood right where he was for several, long minutes. "What in the name of Christ is going on here?" he said.
He looked around. There was his pool table. There were his chairs stacked neatly on top of their tables. He walked around to the front side of his counter. His bar was still intact. Undamaged. No blood. No splinters.
He went behind the counter again and opened the cash register. The noise of the bells was jarring in the deep silence, but the money was all there. Untouched.
He looked under the counter. His shotgun was missing.
All right, he told himself, something had happened. He hadn't dreamed the whole thing up.
Mac looked in the bin underneath the counter. Three bottles. Empty.
He looked down the length of the counter. There was a wad of bills, crumpled, exactly where the stranger had left them.
He patted his chest again. He had been shot, hadn't he?
No wound. Nope. Whole.
Mac gripped the counter as the world began to swim before his eyes.
Christ and double-Christ, he thought, what the -- ?
The world snapped back into clarity. Mac looked around his empty bar. He took in the tattered velvet of his pool table and the up-ended legs of his barstools. He saw the polished surface of his countertop reflecting the red and green of neon beer signs.
No. Not Hell. Not yet.
"Christ and -- " Mac started to say, then stopped. He didn't know what to say next. Maybe nothing. Tonight was Christmas Eve, after all. Not supposed to take the Lord's name in vain. Not on Christmas Eve.
Mac hurried to the door, snatching his coat along the way.
He looked back at the bar one more time before he opened the door.
Everything inside was still and lifeless.
He opened the door and stepped outside. Snow lay deep and quiet over everything he could see, gently reflecting the street and sodium lights so that the world seemed to doze with a lazy, hazy glow.
Mac pulled his coat on as the door clicked shut behind him. He crunched away into the night, not bothering to even look back.
He didn't know where he was going, but Mac knew his feet would take him somewhere. Maybe a church. They still had those late-night services on Christmas Eve, didn't they?
Mac pressed on. Maybe he'd find one of those. Tonight seemed like a good night to get right with the Lord.
A very good night, indeed.
© 2007 James M. Black
Bio: James M. Black is a former martial arts instructor who hung up his black belt to raise kids. After five years as a stay-at-home father, he's more than ready to try something easier -- like freelance writing. His story "A Photo Worth Dying For" will be online in the August 2007 Horror Library, and "The Jollyman's Magic" will appear in the November / January issue of Sorcerous Signals. Visit his website at The Crazy Kinked-up World of James M. Black.
E-mail: James M. Black
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