I’ll hit the brakes and he’ll fly right past me
Bulstrode peered into the lobby bar of a downtown transient hotel and watched Karl Rafferty roll a cigarette. Rafferty’s hair was longish and thin and obscured his eyes as he bent down over his cancerous chore. He fingered the tobacco into its paper nest, rolled it up tight, and gripped it at one end between his finger and thumb. He inserted all but the end held into his mouth and pulled it through his lips to seal. Cigarettes rolled and sealed, Raff examined it, found it satisfactory, nestled it between his lips and struck a match. He inhaled deeply, smiled, took a pull off a bottle of Old Style and said something, leeringly, to the bartender, who rolled her eyes.
Bulstrode was seized with a maddening, toxic nostalgia. This Rafferty sitting at the bar was exactly the same as he’d been in 1965. Older, bonier, closer to death. But still, somehow, exactly the same. He rolled his cigarettes the same way, pulled off his beer bottle the same way, leered at female bartenders the same way. He was the exact same ratlike little man Bulstrode had once thought himself permanently shed of. But Bulstrode, goddammit, was not the same man he’d been in 1965.
Tré arrived at the entrance to the lobby bar and greeted Bulstrode. He was surprised to be meeting Bulstrode in this seedy place. But he’d been doing exactly what Bulstrode had told him to lately. If Bulstrode wanted to meet him in this dump, then Tré would meet him there.
“Hi, Tré,” said Bulstrode. “Look, I need you to know that this man we’re going to meet is not my friend. He is merely someone I used to know and someone to whom I feel the obligation of past collegiality.”
Obligation of past collegiality, thought Tré, what the fuck does that mean?
But he kept that thought to himself and just nodded briskly and followed Bulstrode into the bar.
“Bully,” said Rafferty, turning around in his barstool, in obvious good humor. “Have you brought me the deed?”
“No, I’ve brought you something else,” said Bulstrode. “Let’s sit at a table and I’ll tell you what I have in mind.”
“Brought your Gal Friday,” said Raff, grinning at Tré and laughing loud at his own joke.
“Tré Little,” said Tré, squelching his dislike and holding out his hand. “I work for Mr. Bulstrode.”
“I used to work for him,” said Rafferty. “But back then we just called him Bully.”
“I don’t care what you call me,” said Bulstrode, wearily. “Let’s just sit down.”
When they sat down, Tré pulled out a file and, at a nod from Bulstrode, began speaking. “Bulstrode asked me to scout out some appropriate properties for you downstate,” he began. “I found a great place off Rend Lake that…”
“Downstate?” exploded Rafferty. “Fuck that! I done my time downstate. I’m a Chicago man. I’m staying here and you’re giving me what I want, Bully. Or else.”
“Just let Tré finish,” said Bulstrode. “You may change your mind.”
“It’s a place called Fishtails,” said Tré. “It’s a great bar. They do a brisk business and have a GM who’s been there a number of years and seems amenable to hanging out and running the place. I’ve got some numbers here…”
“Aw, fuck it, Bully,” said Rafferty. “You know I’m not going downstate. I got no idea why you ever thought I would. Give me what I want or…”
Bulstrode put a hand up. “Tré,” he said. “Can you go have a coke or something at the bar and let me talk to Rafferty alone?”
“Sure,” said Tré.
Tré sat down and ordered a soda. He looked around the place, at the cheap formica finish on the bar, the bartender who’d definitely seen better days, the cigarette burns in the ratty carpet. This looked about as far away from the direction The Lightweight Group was headed as possible. Tré wiped the lip of his glass with a napkin before taking a sip.
As Tré sipped his coke, he cast sly glances over at Bulstrode and Rafferty. They were whispering intently to each other and Bulstrode’s face was turning red. Raff seemed to be enjoying himself.
Tré wondered what the hell he was doing there and was beginning to suspect that obligation of past collegiality meant a little bit more than what Bulstrode pretended. Tré had come in thinking that maybe this was some act of Christian charity or something. Bulstrode was, after all, a religious man. But the whole thing seemed so sleazy. Was Rafferty some kind of black sheep relation? Did he have something on Bulstrode?
Rafferty stood up to go to the bathroom and Tré looked back at the bartender before Bulstrode could catch him staring.
Bulstrode’s eyes darted up to Tré, his irritation with Rafferty’s intractability visible. What was the point of having Tré here if he couldn’t sell lazy, shiftless Rafferty on a life of permanent vacation? Ah, but it wasn’t really the boy’s fault. Rafferty wouldn’t even let him speak. Maybe they could have pitched him a place in Wisconsin if Rafferty could have left the state.
Bulstrode knew that Tré was nervous about the situation, but he wasn’t too worried about Tré suspecting any malfeasance. Tré was in too much debt to him to interpret anything too broadly. He would want to remain ignorant of any wrong-doing on the part of his benefactor.
He picked at a hangnail and waited for Rafferty to come out of the bathroom. Tré looked up as Rafferty exited, smiling, eyes open strangely wide. Tré recognized the look.
Raff lurched over to Bulstrode, hiking up his pants, seeming more confident. “Look,” he said. “I’m heading out of here. Going over to The March for a drink. You’ve got a week to get the paperwork in order. Now pick up my tab for me, wouldja?”
As he left, Bulstrode walked over to the bar, wallet in hand, to pay the tab.
“So, Rafferty was in a real good mood when he left the bathroom, huh,” said Tré carefully.
“Yeah, so what?” said Bulstrode.
“You know what he was doing in that bathroom, right?” said Tré.
“What?” said Bulstrode.
“Mr. Bulstrode, that guy was wired. I mean it’s none of my business, but he just went into the bathroom and did a couple of rails of cocaine. It’s obvious.”
“Cocaine?” said Bulstrode, opportunity forming.
“Yeah,” said Tré, feeling uncomfortably like he wasn’t so much gossiping as paying back a debt with information. “We should probably let the guys at The March know that he’s coming.”
“Oh, they’ll figure it out,” said Bulstrode. “Cocaine. Imagine that.”