Gateway by RICHARD THOMAS

The sun beats down on the innocent and guilty alike. It isn’t my job to sort them out, or judge them, just to track them down and do what is expected. My three weeks down here in Saint Louis have been spent on the wrong side of the tracks. East side. You don’t stop your car over here at the stoplights, the stop signs, unless you want an earful of lead or a gut relived of its organs. The air is so thick I can chew it and the AC in the foreign bitch I’m driving is turning the driver’s seat into the Mohave with every hot breath she pushes on me. I want a beer and someone to share it with but there’s work to be done today. Rollie. That’s all I know. And an address that leads me across the Mississippi and under the concrete overpasses that deposit me at a gingerbread crack house. Instead of a crackhead Rollie, I get a tall brunette. Out the front door, her legs glistening, her brown hair pulled up tight, micro-shorts and a t-shirt knotted in the front. Exactly my type. I can stay and take care of Rollie, or I can follow her.

She’s driving an old Nova but the thing has some kicks in it. A throaty growl and it moves up the block. A blast of exhaust and I take off after her. I wonder how the brothers lured her over here, maybe it’s crack, or weed, or maybe she’s hooking. At this point I really don’t care. She takes me back across the river and up west to a quiet suburb lined with trees. She pulls up to a gray stone mansion that has seen a better day. The yard needs cutting, an old oak tree stretches across the front yard, decomposing, and the paint is peeling off in chips. I keep on driving and head up a few houses and turn around. When I come back she’s standing in front of the house with an elderly woman in her housecoat, hugging the white-haired grandma, stuffing a baggie into the faded frock. Touching.

When she pulls up to Nik’s, a bar down the street, sandwiched between Happy Joe’s Pizza Parlor and a no-tell motel, it feels more at home for the both of us. I give her a minute to go in and get settled, and then I head in after her.

She’s sitting at the bar in the dark room, the walls littered with Busch beer signs and pictures of Stan Musial, his bat cocked behind his head. The place is pretty empty. Just her and a couple of old men playing cards, the bartender a pudgy white guy, trying to look down her top. I sit down a few stools away from her and empty my pockets, acting distracted, like I’m trying to find something important. Matchbooks, keys, and a wad of cash, I dig through it muttering to myself. She’s not buying it.

“Why are you following me?” she mutters into her pint glass, taking a hearty swallow.

“Excuse me?” I ask turning toward her, as if I haven’t heard her. “Does Laclede go all the way to Manchester? I think I got a bit turned around.”

Her eyes are dark liquid and electricity wanders over my flesh.

“Rollie’s dead if that’s what you’re after.” She takes another swallow and waves her empty glass down at the bartender. “You’re the fifth guy to case the place this week, and the boys got tired of the attention. So they tossed him to the fourth shark to come around.” She trades the empty for a fresh one, and takes a sip. “You’re late.”

“Dammit,” I swear as the bartender finally sees me. “Bud with a Jack chaser.” He drops them off and walks away, taking a twenty from the pile in front of me.

“I’m not up for anything, if that’s what you’re looking for pal. I’m tired and my accounts are all settled. This time tomorrow I’m a ghost.”

I swallow hard and run my hand over my sweaty brow, the trip a bust now for sure.
“Amber,” she offers up.

“Mitch.”

“But, if you play your cards right, Mitch,” she says, taking another drink, “Maybe I’ll let you live.” Her hand chops at my neck before I can grin, and I fall off the stool to the floor.

“Dammit, Amber,” I hear from above, and there’s a quick pop and then two more. Three sacks of potatoes hit the floor. My windpipe may be crushed. I’m having trouble breathing. I hear the cash register open, then two more dull pops, some cursing, and then a loud sigh. There’s a rustling, broken glass, the smell of liquor. Bourbon and gin, from the likes of it, and a dull whoomp as a match hits the wood. Her face appears in front of me.

“Can you swallow?” she asks, leaning over me, cigarettes and vanilla. She places her foot on my crotch and pushes down. “I guess we’ll find out.” She starts with the beer and I gulp it down to keep from drowning in a pint of liquid. I cough and turn my head. She pulls my hair and straightens my head upright “I’d find a way to stand up,” she says, “But count to sixty first.”

I start counting as the flames build up, and when I hit sixty I’m rolling out the front door, choking on the smoke. My tires are slashed and there are sirens in the distance. A small beige business card is tucked under a windshield wiper. It says Amber followed by a series of digits and I smile in spite of the pain.

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