“What will you do?”
That came from him, and it took me by surprise. “What?”
“What will you do now?”
Was he concerned? But he was Old Man Morgan. He couldn’t be concerned, could he? And if he were concerned, why didn’t he stop the fight? One word from him would’ve stopped it, at least on my part.
And if he had a reason to let the fight go, why did he fire me? Maybe he was going this far to prove to me it really was all my fault. That it had no bearing on him.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Something.”
“I’m just saying, I hope you wouldn’t go to work for one of my rivals.”
Ah, there it is.
But why would he worry about that?
I was conscientious, and good at whatever I put my mind to. But he’d fired me, so what did it matter to him?
Still, for some reason what he said annoyed me.
I repeated my response a little slower and more firmly. Maybe to make him think that’s exactly what I was going to do. Work for his rivals. “I. Don’t. Know.”
He flicked out his tongue, ran it over his lips, retracted it. “Of course, it’s up to you.” He adjusted his left forearm on the table alongside the cash box. “You were military for a time, weren’t you?”
I nodded. “For a time.”
For a dozen or so years. I considered it an extended civilian-appreciation exercise. If I’d known what most civilians are like I might have reconsidered. Most civilians are hens willing to lay their head on a block to avoid offending the butcher.
“Uh huh,” he said as if he’d uncovered a secret and we were nearing a breakthrough. “And then weren’t you a cop or something?”
I nodded again.
A cop or something. Yes, I did a brief stint there too, but it wasn’t the same. And it wasn’t enough.
In war, you get to be a bad guy.
Hey, don’t believe all the hype. Our guys are as bad as the other guys, only on the other side. It’s all a matter of perspective.
But as a cop, it’s different. As a cop you’re held accountable even if you shoot a bad guy.
In war—well, it’s just war.
I was on the verge of explaining that to him. Then I realized that wasn’t what he wanted to know at all.
He didn’t care whether I was military or a cop. He was asking me why I couldn’t play well with others.
He must have seen the understanding in my eyes.
As if to fill the suddenly uneasy silence, he said, “I was just thinking, you know,” and he shrugged. “Maybe you’re better suited for—well, jobs like that.” And he averted his eyes.
I’ll be damned. Jobs like that.
Not being held accountable. Not being expected to play well with others. Being expected to draw a bead, line up the crosshairs, squeeze a trigger. Being expected to jab deep with a knife.
C’mon, Nick, you know—jobs like that.
If he’d clapped me on the shoulder and laughed and said something like that it would have been great. It would have been a sign of mutual respect, one loser to another.
But the guy was afraid of me. He was seated firmly on his civilian pedestal, and he was afraid of me. It wasn’t brotherly concern at all. It wasn’t a mutual or even unilateral respect.
It was fear. It was a timid little man, despite his superior physical stature, screeching loudly, “Who thinks like that?”
Because there’s no possible way he ever could. He didn’t have the stomach for it.
I waited until he finally looked at me again. Then I steadily met his gaze and nodded. “Sure. I understand.” I roughly took my pay from his hand and brushed past him.
As I opened the door, the wind took it again, slapped it against the outside of the crew shack.
I reached for it at first, then decided to test my theory. I pulled my arm back in and looked over my shoulder. “You’ll get the door, eh Morg?”
He started, then stood quickly and turned around. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He gripped the back of the chair with his left hand, his knuckles white and protruding. “Oh. Sure. Sure.”
A cop or something.
Jobs like that.
I laughed quietly.
There I was, standing outside the crew shack on a dock.
My right leg was throbbing. I never did bleed much, even while standing in line. There was only a small blotch of blood around the cut in my trousers. The khaki made it look worse than it was.
But I might break something loose on my way into town.
I hobbled around the corner of the building, out of the wind, then took off my shirt and tore the left sleeve off it.
I used that to make a tight bandage, then turned the knot over so it was pressing on the wound. That should hold it for awhile.
I tore off the other sleeve, dropped it, then put the shirt back on and started walking toward town.
Town was a quarter-mile away along a quiet road of crushed shells. Well, actually Barney’s Tavern was a quarter-mile away. The town of Agua Andulado was a tenth of a mile or so beyond that.
The sun had dipped below the horizon over a half-hour ago. The moon wasn’t up yet. I think it was in its final quarter anyway.
But it didn’t matter. The crushed seashells that made up the roadbed had been compacted almost into a kind of concrete, at least in the tire tracks left by Morgan’s Caddy. In between the tracks and to the sides, they crunched quietly underfoot. I preferred walking there. There was something comforting about the quiet rhythm, especially with the way the shells glistened.
The road sparkled in the starlight, curved up and around to the left—the west-northwest—on a gentle slope. The curve was shallow too, and the edges were marked starkly by low grasses gone black in the absence of light.
When you leave the pier along the road, you start out walking slightly southwest. And by the time you get to Barney’s Tavern at the western edge of town, you’re angling only slightly north of due west.
All of that’s convenient on nights like this, when the day has siphoned your last bit of strength and town is still a quarter-mile away. Even when a major storm isn’t brewing, the wind coming off the sea is at your back, helping your tired legs get you into town.
As I walked, I thought about the old man’s question. Regardless of his intention, the question was legitimate. What was I going to do?
And he kind of had a point. All my life, at least when I was trying to choose a career, I’d chosen action jobs. Jobs where I could serve, I guess, but jobs where I’d be tested.
Well, until I took up on the dock.
That was a no-brainer. I wanted to escape the nonsense. I wanted to drop out of the world for awhile and be anonymous. That was a big part of it. And I wanted to get in shape physically. That was another part. I wanted to test my muscles instead of my brain.
I wanted to be responsible for myself, for my job. Not for a bunch of other people and their problems.
A cop or something.
Well, being a cop was definitely out. It took me less than a year to see all I wanted to see of that. Even in a small town, the politics seeped in. Fat cats got fatter and skinny cats got run over.
So that left “or something.” Like a hit man with a quarter-pound trigger pull. Or back to the military.
Only the military wasn’t big on re-hiring guys like me, no matter how good they were at “jobs like that.” Besides, that was back in the States, and I was over here.
I continued toward town.
The wind seemed anxious for me to go too. I was grateful, though. It was cool, and my shirt and even my dungarees were dry before I’d walked the quarter-mile swatch of road leading from the pier up to Barney’s.
I’d developed a habit over the past few months of stopping off there for my evening meal and a beer. I wasn’t particularly hungry tonight, but a beer would go down pretty good while I considered my options.
And Mary Jo McWherter might be on the floor.
She didn’t need to know anything, but it would be nice to see her again before I left. Even if she didn’t know I was saying goodbye.
* * *