This is what I call a target-rich environment
Bulstrode walked into his office, disgusted with his protégé. Forget that – forget “protégé.” He was disgusted with his employee. Bulstrode thought he might as well have given Fred the job, if Tré was going to spend every night getting drunk and every day failing in his responsibilities. He’d had such high hopes for this kid and Tré was letting him down.
Bulstrode walked into the lobby, with the intention of complaining about Tré to Wally Cadwallader, even though he knew Wally would tell him to lighten up. But he was in the mood to complain and Wally was on the payroll and had two ears. So Wally could good and goddamn well oblige Bulstrode by listening.
Bulstrode was not in a good mood.
And it was about to get a lot worse, because when Bulstrode entered the Lightweight offices, the first face he saw was Karl Rafferty’s, and it looked even more strung out and smug than it had the last time. Bulstrode looked quickly around and was relieved to find Raff alone. Wally must have stepped away to the bathroom or something.
“Jesus, Raff, get out of here!” said Bulstrode. “You can’t have burned through that whole five grand already. Just get the fuck out of here!”
“No worries, Bully,” said Raff. “I still got a little but left. But I was just thinking about you and wanted to chat about the old time. What do you say we head back to your office and crack open a bottle of the good stuff?”
“You want to CHAT?” said Bulstrode. “Get the fuck out of here or I swear to God….”
“Aw that’s cute,” said Rafferty. “You swear to God what? What are you gonna do to me? So long as I can talk, you’ll probably do what I want. So let’s drink some whiskey and reminisce a little. What do you say?”
“Fine,” said Bulstrode, defeated. “But not here. There’s a bar down there called Tip Top’s. Just go there and I’ll meet you in five minutes.”
“All right,” said Raff. “But if you’re not down there in five minutes, I’ll just come right back up. So don’t be late.”
Bulstrode darted back into his office, took ten deep breaths and tried to calm down. He’d expected Rafferty to come back. But not so soon. It was too soon. This was bad. Bulstrode grabbed his checkbook and headed out.
Tip Top’s was an old man bar.
An old man’s bar is a bar where bottles of domestic beer are served with short glasses and shots of whiskey are sipped not bolted. They are bars where tipping is done at the end of a session, and always in the same amount. The clientele is made almost entirely up of men, retired and unmarried, on the far side of 60. Men who headed to the bar after a late breakfast, usually at the same diner, content to spend the lion’s share of the day discussing current events and sports with other old men. Sometimes they played checkers or dominoes. These old men were usually home before the evening rush hour, a little loose, but never drunk. People don’t get drunk at old man bars.
The bartender at an old man’s bar is either an old man or a middle-aged woman. She was the latter at TipTop’s: on the wrong side of 40, been in the game for a while and patient with these old men. She flirted a little and indulged them in their fantasies that maybe there was still a chance for things to be different, even though they were all caught in the entropic thrall of the old man bar and no one would be able to break the spell.
This bartender was not pleased to see Karl Rafferty walk in. Right away she pegged him as a wiry, strung out bit of trouble just waiting to happen. So, she ignored him in the hopes that he would leave. But Rafferty wasn’t going anywhere; he was perfectly content to wait five minutes for his reluctant benefactor.
Tip Top’s wasn’t an L.G.E. presentation, so when Bulstrode walked in, no one looked nervous or annoyed. In his desperation, he looked a little like all the other old men there, only maybe a bit more prosperous. Bulstrode settled himself next to Rafferty, and the bartender conceded that her ignoring strategy wasn’t going to work. So, she took their order.
When she placed a short glass along side his bottle of High Life, Bulstrode poured the beer into it without thinking. He sipped the shot of Jameson she poured him.
“What do you want now,” said Bulstrode, turning to Rafferty.
“Aw, is that anyway to start off a chat between old friends,” said Raff. “Look at us, sitting at the bar, just like old times.”
“Raff, it was never like that,” said Bulstrode, wearily. “We never had any old times. You were always just some guy who worked at the same bar as me.”
“That’s not true,” said Raff. “We was friends. We was pals. You used to slip me shots from behind the bar. We used to drink together after hours. We had some laughs.”
There was some truth to that, thought Bulstrode. Maybe, after a long shift, he’d have a beer or two with Raff in the quiet morning hours. He’d let Raff talk about how smooth his pal, Bully, was. He’d let Raff talk about all the broads who wanted to bang his pal, Bully. Raff had always been around the periphery, eager to stroke Bully’s ego, content with the paltriest attention. They’d never really been friends. But Bulstrode hadn’t bothered to tell Raff that, and Raff grew to believe his own fiction.
And then during one of those quiet nearly morning chats, Bulstrode had let down his guard. He had let slip to Rafferty how Ellinore Ladislaw was ready to give him some money. He told him far more about his plans than he ought to.
He hadn’t seen any harm to it then. Raff had been so eager to play sidekick, so happy to sit back and worship, that Bulstrode had never seen the harm. He’d never noticed Rafferty’s little rat eyes landing on things, paying attention. And when Raff got dangerous, Bulstrode got rid of him and thought it was all done.
But now he was back.
“Fine,” said Bulstrode, bitterly. ‘We used to be pals. Whatever. What do you want now?”
“Oh,” said Raff. “I guess I won’t be welcome into the bosom of your family any time, huh?”
“No,” said Bulstrode. “And leave my family out of this.”
“Another grand will do then,” said Raff. “Another thousand will make for a merry Christmas.”
“Fine,” said Bulstrode, pulling out the checkbook. “One thousand dollars. Cash it and don’t let me see you again for a while, do you understand.”
“You got it, boss,” said Raff, signaling for another shot.
Bulstrode turned and left the Tip Top and headed back up to the L.G.E. offices. He looked in to Tré’s tiny office and, finding him with his head on the desk, chewed him out ferociously. When Wally told him to take it easy, he turned his fury that way, ordering Wally to spend more time thinking about his job at L.G.E. and less working on his ridiculous makeup adventures.
Then he stormed into his own office, slammed the door, and spent the rest of the day feverishly working on things to discuss with his soon-to-be-fellow elders at Fourth Presbyterian.
When Bulstrode got home that night, he found Susan sitting in the living room, sorting through a dozen boxes of the beautiful Christmas decorations they’d accrued over the years. He stood in the doorway looking at his beautiful wife, in their beautiful living room, surrounded by beautiful, glittering, gold and silver, red and green decorations. A crystal wine glass filled with Chardonnay rested on a coaster next to a copy of the Utne Reader. Everything in the room was fine and lovely.
He had so much to lose.