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Chapter 7

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The mirror behind the bar was broken. The bottom half of it was missing below a jagged line. What was there reflected the nearly empty room behind him. One table was occupied by a pair of hipsters who'd only discovered the place last week. Three barflies sat at the end of the bar not talking to each other as they stared into their beer mugs. The trio of old men had been sitting in those stools since before the hipsters were born.

Caleb checked his reflection from the neck up in the remaining piece of mirror. A splotch of pink lipstick decorated the corner of his mouth. He rubbed it off with the back of his hand until it was gone. The bruise stood out on his cheek. He hoped it faded soon. He was sick of making up excuses.

The proprietor materialized behind the bar. Dale was a bald man with a huge belly that pulled at the material of his white button-up shirt. Without making eye contact, he slid a white envelope across the bar to Caleb who opened it in his lap. He thumbed through the bills and smiled as he deposited the envelope into his pocket.

Dale held up an empty mug, and Caleb nodded. The dour looking man pulled on a draft handle and filled the mug with beer. The dull thud of the mug on the oak bar top echoed through the room.

Caleb took a big draw from the ice cold beer and smacked his lips with approval.

Dale grimaced as he leaned his considerable girth against the bar. He fidgeted with the wet rag, wiping the spotless bar top in starts and stops. "I have a problem."

"A problem?"

"Yes. You know me. I never complain. I make my payments on time, even with the increase you just hit me with."

Caleb shrugged. "It's this damn economy. We all need to make sacrifices."

"Sure. The economy," Dale started to roll his eyes but stopped himself. "Look. The only reason I want to bring up this issue is because I thought you should know."

"All right! Enough pussy-footing around. What's the problem?"

Dale pointed at the mirror. "Late last night, the Outsiders paid me a visit. I was informed that they were taking over this block. And all future payments were to be made to them."

"The Outsiders? Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. I know all the local colors. It was the Outsiders."

"How many?"

"The muscle was two big guys, not as big as Aces, but big." Dale brought his hand up to a distance twice as wide as his own shoulders but winced and dropped a hand down to his side. "The one doing all the talking had a President patch."

"I don't believe it."

"It's true. They came in through the back door and scared the hell out of me. I told them to get lost, that I already had an arrangement with the Devil's Hand."

"And?"

"And they got angry. They busted up the mirror, a table, and some chairs. Then one of them punched me in the stomach."

"At least they hit you in a place where you have a lot of padding."

Dale shook his head side to side as he wrung out the wet cloth. "I think they broke a couple of ribs. They said they'd be back next week to collect their first payment. What am I going to do?"

"You have nothing to worry about." Caleb took another big pull from his mug nearly finishing the beer. "I'll take care of it personally. You'll never see them in here again."

"I won't?"

"Yep. You have my word. Sucks about the ribs. Those take a long time to heal."

Dale mopped the sweat from his brow with a meaty hand. "Thank you. The Devil's Hand has always done right by me. I haven't had any trouble in the ten years I've been paying you for protection. Not even a stick-up."

"That's the way it should be. All the low-life criminals know you're with us. However, turf wars do break out from time to time. This is the first we've heard of the Outsiders making a push into our territories. But not to worry. We'll send them running back to the east side with their tail between their legs."

"Thank you."

Caleb reached into his jacket and extracted the envelope. He pulled out a hundred dollar bill and set it down on the bar. The bill stuck to the damp surface. "Here. Take this for your pain and suffering."

Dale palmed it like a maître de getting a tip. Without looking, the bill went straight into his pocket. He picked up his rag and tossed it in the sink behind him. Smiling, Dale said, "Can I get you another beer?"

"That'd be great. And I could go for some of your famous fried pickle chips."

"Absolutely," Dale replied.

From the freezer under the bar, he pulled out a fresh mug. A thin layer of frost formed on the glass. Dale angled the mug and filled it expertly to the top. Grabbing a new napkin, he set the beer down in front of Caleb and removed the old one. With a nod, Dale left for the kitchen.

Caleb took a sip of the beer and relished the taste, nothing was better than an ice cold draft. Still holding the mug, he rotated the stool away from the bar and surveyed the room. He could see the spot where the missing table and chairs would go. The corners of his mouth turned up in a grin.

He was still smiling when the hipsters looked up to study him like he was an exotic animal in the zoo. The sight of them turned Caleb's stomach with their goofy knit hats and their obviously distressed expensive clothes. They each nursed a bottle of cheap beer to add to the charade.

Caleb's smile turned to a frown. "What are you looking at?"

"Nothing," the pair mumbled as they found somewhere else to look besides in Caleb's direction. He continued to stare for a full minute but neither one would meet his glare. The barflies continued to drink in silence.

"That's what I thought," Caleb said, turning his stool back around to wait for his food.

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