The Last Word
by John L. Micek
“I hate it when they scream,” McCormick said. He took a long pull from the pint glass, its sides slick with condensation, and put it down on the dark wood bar.
Next to him, Thompson nodded. He was drinking a martini, three olives, and only a splash of vermouth. He held the glass up to the light. He watched the olives float lazily in the ice cold liquor.
“All that begging for mercy,” Thompson said. He frowned and shook his head. “Can’t take that. They ought to know going in how it could end for them.”
McCormick signaled the barman for another beer. The barman was drying glasses and hanging them in an overhead rack. His sleeves were rolled up and he wore a garter around his left bicep. His black waistcoat was buttoned and his mustache was waxed.
The barman tipped two fingers to his forehead in salute and poured another draft. He moved down the bar, holding the pint glass. He made an elaborate show of putting it down in front of McCormick.
“Tab, sir?” he asked. McCormick nodded without making eye contact. The barman glanced nervously at the two men and moved back down the bar. He went to work slicing a lemon.
“Had a guy in Pittsburgh once, tried to pay me,” McCormick said. He smiled at the memory. He’d gone to work early. It was a cold February morning, the kind where the inside of your nose hurt when you breathed in.
When he was done, McCormick bought coffee from a food truck vendor and rode the Mount Washington incline, liking the way the traffic cruised across the yellow bridges leading into the city.
“Yeah?” Thompson asked, one eyebrow arching in amusement.
“Yeah,” McCormick said. “Told him that if he had all this money to pay me, that it should have gone to Lewis first. Then he wouldn’t be dealing with me.”
Thompson’s shoulders shook with silent laughter. He was the more slender of the two. His fingers were long and thin. He wore his still thick blonde hair combed up and away from his forehead.
The tie at his throat was knotted precisely and there was a tiny dimple in the center of the knot. A black wool overcoat hung on the back of his chair. He wore his suit coat and exactly a quarter-inch of the white of his French cuffs peeked through.
“Some of them never learn,” Thompson said. He drained his glass and looked at his watch. He had time for another drink before he had to head home. He glanced at the barman and tapped at the top of his glass.
The barman nodded and started mixing another martini.
McCormick was the smaller of the two, built solidly, like a fireplug. He was still wearing his pea coat and his dark hair was mussed from the watch cap that he’d taken off and stuffed in one pocket. Underneath the coat, he wore a flannel shirt and corduroys. His heavy shoes were still wet from the snow outside.
The barman put Thompson’s glass down in front of him. Thompson took the glass and sampled the martini.
“Perfect,” he said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” the barman said. Behind them, a woman with stiff blonde hair put money into the jukebox. Patsy Cline began to sing.
“How long we known each other?” McCormick asked Thompson, already knowing the answer.
“Twenty-five years,” Thompson said. “Since that business in DuPont Circle.”
“Yep,” McCormick said. He took another long pull on the pint glass. The beer was hoppy, but good. His short, thick fingers dug through the bowl of peanuts he’d placed at a right angle to his glass. He extracted another handful, ate the nuts and then chased them with another sip from the pint glass.
“We’ve been coming here nearly as long,” Thompson added.
“Yep,” McCormick said. He looked around the bar. The room was long and narrow, leading back from a dark green door that opened onto Second Street near Market in Philadelphia. If you walked past it, you’d hardly notice the place.
You had to put up with the hipsters. But it was a good place to get a drink, McCormick thought. And he could be across the bridge into Jersey and home in no time flat.
They sat silently for a while, finishing their drinks and watching the pointless mid-season hockey game on the TV that someone had mounted on a swivel-arm over the bar. The sound was turned off. Patsy Cline gave way to Billy Joel.
McCormick and Thompson stood up at the same time. Each looked quizzically at the other.
“Time to go?” Thompson asked.
“Yeah,” McCormick said. “It’s late. Gotta get an early start tomorrow. Got a thing in Virginia Beach I have to take care of. You?”
“Day off tomorrow,” Thompson said. “But Anna will be expecting me.”
They settled up with the barman.
“Good night, Dave,” McCormick said to the barman.
“Good night, Mr. McCormick, Mr. Thompson,” the barman said. He did not use their first names. They had never told him. McCormick and Thompson preferred it that way.
They got to the door and Thompson went through first. He held the door and McCormick stepped across the threshold and stopped. He looked at Thompson.
“Why do you figure Lewis never hired one of us to go against the other?” McCormick asked Thompson.
In the half light of the streetlamp, Thompson’s face took on a thoughtful cast.
“Good people are hard to find,” he said. “We do what we’re paid to do. And we don’t ask too many questions.”
“How is Anna?” McCormick asked. He knew all he needed to know when he saw the brief flash of pain that shot across Thompson’s face. He’d been to the wedding.
“Treatment’s expensive,” he said. “But they’re keeping her comfortable.”
“Good,” McCormick said. He put out his hand. “Same time next week?”
“Yes,” Thompson said. They shook hands. “See you around.”
“See you around,” McCormick said. He pulled on his watch cap and stood there, in the snow, watching Thompson’s back until he was out of sight.
When he was in the car, McCormick reached into his coat pocket and took out the neatly folded piece of white printer paper. He read it again: “Thompson’s been skimming. Take care of it. Lewis.”
McCormick smiled darkly. He balled up the paper and set it alight with one match from a book of matches in the glove compartment. When it was going good, he opened the car window and dropped the balled up piece of paper into a snowbank and watched as the snow quenched the flames.
McCormick felt good about it. He knew he’d catch hell. But he didn’t care. It was important to have values.
BIO: John L. Micek covers Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His previous work has appeared in Pop Culture Press, The Big Takeover, Harrisburg Magazine, PopMatters.com and Shotgun Honey. He lives in Harrisburg, Pa., with his wife and daughter.