Free Fiction Monday: Drinking in the Afternoon
People disappear for many reasons. Sometimes, for reasons only they know.
And sometimes, the missing will do whatever it takes to stay missing.
A poignant story about grief, loss, and finding a way to cope, “Drinking in the Afternoon” demonstrates Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s incredible mastery of short fiction.
“Drinking in the Afternoon,” by international bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook here.
Drinking in the Afternoon
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
When it was all over, he didn’t count how many friends he had lost. He just walked out of the hospital into the thin sunlight on that hot August afternoon, tossed his uniform in the nearest bin, and did not look back.
He even left his car in the employee parking lot.
He kept his backpack, because it had three changes of underwear, extra socks, and one more pair of shoes. It also had five thousand dollars in cash, stuffed in various zippered pockets.
He had a half-finished paperback in his back pocket—an old 1950s Dell mapback in crap condition. He couldn’t get rid of it, partly because the writing (albeit a bit overwrought) had hooked him, and partly because the title—Before It’s Too Late—had inspired this very moment.
He kept seeing the words—scrawled on the cover, pale pink like the bathroom tile in a mid-century modern, and the girl, eyes closed, forehead bloodied, one arm hanging on the edge of the bathtub, the water up to her chin—as a warning, sent to him in imagery instead of blaring sirens.
He’d had enough of blaring. Warnings, announcements, bells ringing—everyone, no matter how competent they were, moving with just an edge of panic.
He needed calm now. Hell, the world needed calm now. And he had no idea if they were going to get it.
The air was thick and humid. The hospital behind him as battered and tired as he felt.
He walked around the front of the building, shifted the backpack over his shoulder, and made his way to the sidewalk. It was covered with bits of broken glass, probably from the streetlight that got knocked out a week ago.
A dented Budweiser can leaned against the curb, along with one of those ubiquitous disposable blue masks, and a couple of cigarette butts. Cars passed him, moving the hot air, but not really cooling him off.
He’d imagined the end of the pandemic as a defining moment, because the beginning had been a defining moment—those weird handful of days when everything changed.
Instead, he kept following his routine until this morning, when his boss had put her hand on his shoulder.
Take some time off, she said. You have two weeks coming from last year. Take them. Maybe take this year’s vacation time as well. You deserve it.
He’d nodded, thanked her, and continued his shift. He grabbed some lunch, then got in his car and drove to the bank, removing all the money he’d been stashing in his safety deposit box.
His own personal panic response to the COVID crisis—pulling a hundred dollars per week in cash from his paycheck and hiding it away in his safety deposit box. He never exactly knew why, except that it made him feel better, and gave him a tiny sense of control.
After lunch he’d come back to the hospital, packed the money in his bag along with the extra underwear and socks and shoes he always kept in his locker. Still, he finished out his shift like the good employee he had been for his entire career.
After his shift, he peeled off his uniform for the very last time and stuffed it in two layers of plastic bags, just like he’d been doing all year, and leaned the bag against his locker. Then he took a hot hot hot shower, scrubbing away the months of hell, the years of battered obedience, and still didn’t find the hopeful young man beneath it all.
He wondered if that young man had died too or if that young man had been beaten into silence, buried beneath the iPad goodbyes and the wracking coughs, and the bodies stacking up in the hallways.
Maybe it was too soon to tell.
He washed his hair with the supposedly scentless antibacterial soap, dried off with a clean towel, which he threw in the bin, put on his extra street clothes, leaving that morning’s attire in the locker, along with his sensible shoes, perfect for nursing. The shoes were expensive; maybe someone else would get use out of them—and his meagre possessions at home, and the car, ancient though it was.
He left the car keys hanging from the hook in the back of the locker, behind his not-quite-clean blue jeans and the T-shirt that had seemed so practical that morning.
Later, when he’d settled on the Greyhound, eyes closed, a mask over his face because wearing a mask felt as normal now as wearing underwear, he realized that he’d used up a lifetime of service in just one never-ending year. The back-to-back shifts, the endless work, the hands and pleading eyes and rasping voices, all asking for—all demanding—some kind of help, help he couldn’t give.
Help no one could give. Not in the beginning.
And really, not now. Not entirely. Too much had changed. Too much had been lost.
Too many had died.
He closed his eyes…
…and opened them in the Desert Southwest.
Pretty area, the Desert Southwest, although the sun, blazing hot, was like a live thing, even through the grimy bus windows. Not really his kind of place. And that thought propelled him and his backpack off the bus.
No one would look for him in the Desert Southwest. No one would think he had gone there, not for any reason. He’d professed too many times to hate dry heat (not that he’d experienced it, except on vacation with his family as a kid), claimed he loved four seasons (not that he’d experienced anything else), and said he preferred places that had too much water (not that he’d ever spent much time on the lakes and rivers at home in Ohio).
He wasn’t even sure exactly where he was when he staggered off the bus at what Greyhound called a “partner station.” Sounded so elegant, but he’d learned on this trip that nothing was elegant, at least not on Greyhound buses heading west.
The partner stations got progressively sketchier as the journey continued, so much so that often he decided to stay on the bus and use the somewhat clean bathroom rather than use the bathrooms on the outside.
This one, though, it looked cleaner. Newer. More modern. Maybe it was the crisp sunlight illuminating the small gas station and mini-mart, with its smart yellow signs. Maybe it was the clientele, filling up their oversized and exceedingly expensive trucks, hats pulled over their faces, jeans tucked into expensive cowboy boots.
Maybe it was the brown faces and the sea of silver belt buckles and expensive watches on those brown wrists. Maybe it was the laughter, floating in the open bus door from the outdoor tables at the small café across the parking lot.
Or maybe it was just him, exhausted from sleeping upright, grimy from the slightly musty air conditioning, and hungry for something other than the bruised fruit and power bars he’d kept in that magic backpack of his.
He slung the backpack over his shoulder, and walked out of the bus. He stopped, ticket out, beside the bus driver, and asked, “Can I spend a day here if I want, and get on the next bus?”
“You gotta change the ticket today to make sure there’s room,” the driver said without really looking at the paper at all. “Otherwise, you can stay here until Kingdom Come for all we care. You paid your money, you get a ride to wherever, this year, anyway. Or you can just get a refund.”
He’d already traveled about 1,000 miles and paid less than he would have paid for gas if he’d driven himself. He didn’t need a refund. And if he wanted to go elsewhere, well, he would know that in an hour or two.
“Thanks,” he said to the bus driver, and stepped out of the shade created by the bus itself.
The heat hit him like a wall, rising off the pavement, and instantly covering him with a layer of sweat. The bright sunshine hurt his eyes. He blinked, feeling tears, blaming them on the pain from the light.
Everything had a crispness. The area smelled arid. Even though there was a gas station nearby, the smell of gasoline did not prevail. The bus was running, but the stench of the diesel engine seemed to dissipate with the slight wind.
A sign in the gas station window declared this place Tawa City. At first, he thought the first word was incomplete, some kind of strange sign-maker’s typo, but then he saw the same name on a bumper sticker on the back of one of those gigantic trucks: Go Tawa Wolves!
Strange name for a city, but then the bus had taken him through many strange places, all with inexplicable names that seemed to mean something to the local residents and nothing to the travelers.
He shrugged it off, and walked over to the café. He stood in the door for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the interior.
No one wore masks; that was the first thing he noticed. Although a number of people had the masks on the side of the table, near their plates. Masks weren’t required anywhere anymore, but that didn’t stop most people from wearing them.
Or maybe that had been most people he knew, near the hospital, in the medical district.
He hadn’t been out in the real world—or what he thought of as the real world—hardly at all since the crisis started. He’d worked and slept and stopped at the bank and the grocery store nearest his apartment, and often collapsed on the couch in front of the TV, waking early enough to shower, and start the entire pattern all over again.
“Help you?” a woman said from behind a small table he hadn’t even noticed a moment ago. She had dark hair and dark eyes, and wore a black shirt with black pants instead of an actual uniform.
“Is there a seat in the back?” he asked, not even sure if there was a back.
“Sure,” she said, grabbing a menu, and leading him around the diners. The small café turned out to be a large one. The outdoor area was probably the actual back. He passed a counter, and an open window into the kitchen and an expansive front room, which was a lot cooler than the spot where he entered.
She sat him at a booth away from the windows, but he could still see out them, sideways, his eyes resting on the unfamiliar brown of the desert covered with some scrub plants he didn’t recognize. Beyond them, the wide highway and fast-food restaurants, chain stores, and in the distance, houses or apartment complexes, or something with the same pink tile roofline that went as far as the eye could see.
He ate the best bacon and eggs of his life, had half a pot of coffee before he slowed down, and whole-wheat toast that was thick and tasted ever so slightly of molasses.
When he was done, he paid, left a nice tip, and asked the woman at the door if there was a hotel in walking distance. She grinned at him, and pointed across the parking lot.
Without the bus to block his view, the hotel was extremely obvious. A cheap chain hotel, the kind he’d seen all along the journey, with a honeycomb of sections and walls so white the entire place gleamed.
He thanked her, and walked across the parking lot, which had grown even hotter, and ended up in the lobby of the hotel, feeling every bit of that heat and then some.
He fretted, for the first time on this trip, about using his identification. He’d had to when he bought a bus ticket, but he had paid cash. He would be paying cash here too, but he kinda liked the anonymity.
He needn’t have worried. The clerk didn’t even look up at him when he entered, and answered most of his questions with her face turned down toward the desk, as she scrawled something on a piece of paper.
When she did look up, he noted the ever-so-faint red marks along her cheekbones, marks he still saw on his face as well. He didn’t wear PPE anymore. He hadn’t double- and triple-masked since the early months of the Biden Administration, but the strain of the year before had left chap marks on his face, marks he probably should have used lotion to get rid of.
It was a sign of how little he cared about himself these days that it took looking at someone else’s face to think maybe he should take care of his own.
She squinted at him, and took his measure as he had taken hers. She was older, with tired eyes, her brown hair streaked with gray. She wore a denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a pair of dark blue jeans so new that they were all one color.
“You take cash?” he asked.
“Honey, at this time of day, we take gold teeth.” Her tone was so laconic that he wasn’t sure if she was joking. She put a sheet of paper on a clipboard, then slid it toward him, along with a pen. “Fill this out.”
He looked at the paper. It was deceptively simple. It asked for his name and his home address and the make and license number of his car, if he had one. A section for credit card information was crossed out, and on the top, someone had written For Cash Transactions.
“That’s it?” he asked before he wrote anything. “You don’t need anything else?”
“You saying I should ask for something else?” she said, almost as if he had offended her.
“No,” he said, handing her the money for the room. Then he filled out the paper with the first name of one of his favorite professors, Rafferty, and finished it with the last name of his great-great grandmother, Quinn.
He liked the sound of that, rolling it around in his mind. Rafferty Quinn.
Then he wrote down the address of his best friend in New Jersey, stopping for only a half a second as his heart filled. His former best friend, late best friend—how did you refer to someone you still loved, but who had died, probably as horribly as one of the patients Rafferty had tended to in his previous life?
“You okay?” the clerk asked.
He gave her a half-smile. “Tired,” he said. “Been on the bus most of the night.”
“Yeah,” she said, “we get a lot of those.”
And with those seven words, she explained her entire attitude. She didn’t care who he was or where he had come from, just as long as he paid and didn’t bother her. As far as she was concerned, he was just one of hundreds of people who had passed through her lobby, tired, dusty, and dirty from a bus ride. Some of those people were probably sketchy. Some probably looked just fine.
He had no idea which category he fell into, but he was suddenly grateful that she didn’t care.
She had given him a gift without even knowing it.
A chance to start anew.
As Rafferty Quinn.
Three months later, a small circle of people called him Rafe. They all believed he was Rafferty Quinn, who had arrived in Arizona just like they had—on the way to somewhere else, but unable to go any further.
By northern measures, Tawa City was small—thirty thousand people, counting the outskirts. By Arizona measures, it was mid-sized, large enough to have some amenities, but small enough to feel intimate.
Rafe ended up in the southern side of a nice duplex because the hotel clerk knew the landlord, who hadn’t been able to rent the place for months. Turned out that the price was high for that part of town, although it still seemed remarkably low to Rafe. Fortunately, he only had to pay a small security deposit to get in. It wasn’t furnished, but enough former tenants had left enough stuff in the shed out back to get him started.
Within the week, he had a library card because he had a provable address. The library card served as backup ID. Most people just wanted to see something, and the library card was something. He never had to pull out his real ID, which had his real name, a name he had mentally tossed in the garbage bin with his uniform.
And since he wasn’t driving, he didn’t need a driver’s license. He wasn’t applying for credit anywhere either. Thank heavens the duplex came with utilities paid, so he didn’t even have to apply for those services himself.
Going back to medicine wasn’t even a debate. He wasn’t going to. He’d done enough. More than enough.
Just thinking about it made him shake.
So he applied for a dishwashing job at a bar and restaurant a block from the duplex, got asked on the first night if he knew how to bartend, and of course he did. He’d paid his way through college tending bar on Fridays and Saturdays at one of the most popular bars in a college town.
He didn’t know all of the strange local drinks, but it didn’t take long to learn them. And they were only ordered by new drinkers, light drinkers, or the occasional tourist who was just passing through.
Otherwise, Tawa City was filled with beer drinkers. And not arty beers either. American-made pisswater was what the students of his old college town would have called the swill he was serving four nights per week.
The bar, called the Night Deck, was attached to the restaurant, the Sun Deck, that had initially hired him. The Night Deck was glass-enclosed on three sides. The building jutted out of a hillside, and balanced on thick metal stilts. It had been built in the 1970s and was not up to modern code, or so the manager had told him at the five-minute discussion she had called a job interview.
You got a problem with the fact that this critter might just collapse on you in the middle of a shift? she asked.
As long as I keep getting paid, I don’t mind at all, he had responded, and she had laughed.
Her name was Constance, and she was pretty easygoing. When he’d failed to cash his paychecks after three weeks, she asked him if he wanted to cash them at the bar, and of course he had said yes. It seemed she was as used to sketchy creatures working for her as the hotel clerk had been.
Rafe thought maybe it had to do with the bus coming through or maybe it was a Desert Southwest thing, or maybe everyone who came here on a hot, dusty, August afternoon was running from something.
Or maybe, just maybe, the world had shifted while he’d been working his ass off. Maybe no one gave a real hardcore damn about the details anymore.
By November, the light had changed to something less intense, more like the sunlight of a northern summer without the humidity. The air was crisp and that faintly spicy scent grew stronger. He’d tried to describe the scent to someone once, and asked what it was, and they said they had no idea; they couldn’t smell it. But they suspected he was smelling desert grass. Someone else thought it was tumbleweeds, and still someone else said it was just the smell of the sand, underneath everything.
The sand was underneath everything. He learned to keep his windows closed, even on cool nights, because when he woke up in the morning, there was a thin layer of dust coating everything.
He also had to watch for critters that got in—one snake so far and two spiders that were bigger than anything he’d seen in the Midwest. He’d killed the first of the spiders with his mapback, ruining the already battered cover, and that made him feel both sad and relieved.
The mapback had been one of the last ties to his old life. For a short time here, he’d thought of collecting more of them. He’d found an old bookstore at the edge of his walking route that had more than a hundred of the mapbacks. He had lingered over them, with their lurid covers and exclamation-filled sales pitches, and wondered if he was settled enough to build a collection of anything.
Then, after a week of watching him, the owner swung a computer around, showing him the Dell mapback page on eBay. You can get what you need to fill out your collection, the owner had said, as if that was a good thing.
Apparently, Rafe had been contemplating the thrill of the hunt as he built a collection, and the owner had just kiboshed that feeling. There was no hunt when there was eBay.
So, instead, Rafe bought the titles he wanted to read, which was a startling number marked Dell Mystery, and returned them for half credit when he finished.
You know, they got most of these in the library, in different editions, the owner told him, and Rafe had nodded politely. He had known that. He didn’t want to read the other editions. He wanted to read these, with their musty old paper scent and the bad print job that occasionally let one word float above the others.
The worlds he found in these books—with tough men and fallen women, murders and good girls and the bad side of town—felt both familiar and unfamiliar to him. Familiar because the books all seemed to be about a moment where everything changed, and unfamiliar because that world had faded into oblivion. Car makes he’d never heard of, motels that seemed even shadier than the one he’d stayed in, cigarettes in everyone’s hand, and the occasional casually racist remark that sent him right out of the story, as if someone was looking over his shoulder and could see that he had read something that was somehow tainted, that contained attitudes both harmful and terrifying in equal measure, attitudes that were common then, so common Our Hero never thought about them, but always seemed like foreshadowing now, even though they never ever were.
Rafe spent most of his free time reading. He needed credit to get cable or internet or something in his duplex. He had enough cash to buy a television, but he didn’t. He did buy a small laptop for less than two hundred dollars, and used the library’s free wi-fi once a week or so.
He didn’t really check on anything. Just surfed the web, following the news stories. He probably could have checked his old Facebook account, but he saw no point. Most of his friends had worked in the medical profession, and so many of them had died in the early days of the pandemic. Not enough PPE led to getting infected with a high viral load, not enough ventilators or understaffed ICUs, or a complete lack of understanding of the virus, led to catastrophic system failures, even in the most robust people he knew.
He’d processed it while he helped others process it, and he watched the treatments change. Antivirals, new drugs developed, old drugs repurposed, new techniques, better oxygenation, smarter day-to-day care, less panic and more thoughtfulness, all meant that more lives were saved, albeit not necessarily improved.
The virus left scars, not just on the face like he’d seen with the desk clerk, but on the soul.
The virus wasn’t gone. That much he got from what news he read, what news he saw. But it was being tamed, just like the 1918 flu had been tamed. It was becoming part of life rather than in control of life.
And life was different, which was why he was here. Even if he caught up with old friends, even if he reclaimed the identity he had set aside, he would never reclaim the life he’d had before.
The sunlight here in the desert was bringing him slowly back to life. Or to something that resembled life. That spicy smell was a constant reminder that he was elsewhere. The comfortable couch he’d bought after he was sure he was going to stay in the duplex for the year he’d promised was a great place to fall asleep on, reading one of the mapbacks and thinking about worlds long gone.
And he didn’t even mind the bar. He liked working the first shift—three until eleven—because it gave him a view of the sunset. Sunsets in all three of those floor-to-ceiling windows were spectacular. Pink and gray and orange over the mountains, which often hosted storms that never made it into the city.
But there were sunsets almost every day. No long gray days with no sun at all. Even the worst days had sunlight for maybe three hours, maybe more.
He would fall asleep in the darkness after his shift, and wake up as the light caressed his face. Sometimes he would stagger from the couch to the cheap mattress he’d bought to replace the one he’d found on the queen bed stashed in the shed, but most mornings, he stayed on the couch, in the sunlight, letting it heal him.
Sunlight and quiet. Two things he hadn’t had in a decade, maybe more. Not with schooling and too many jobs and then the real job and the nightmare and that feeling, that forever feeling, that he was running behind, constantly behind, as something—someone—chased him, catching everyone around him, and somehow managing to let him go.
“What are you running from?” asked the blonde at the far end of the bar. She was nursing an Alabama Slammer, something Rafe hadn’t made since that college bar. To make it, he had to take a minute to refresh his memory. Whiskey, sloe gin, amaretto, and orange juice—and, if he remembered right, a lot of trash talk about football, since he had only made Alabama Slammers when someone demanded that he put a Crimson Tide game on the television.
Even though it was November, it was a Wednesday afternoon, so no college football on the television.
However, she looked like someone who would interject “Roll Tide” into any sports conversation. She was the kind of white woman who thought bronzer made her look younger. Her blond hair was too yellow to be natural and was teased within an inch of its life. She wore a little too much blush over the bronzer, and glittery lipstick that she had mostly bitten off before she started drinking the slammer. Her blouse had rhinestone buttons and her jeans were deliberately too tight. She wore actual shoes with heels instead of some kind of cowboy boots, and she had on no belt at all.
Her fingers played with an expensive silver starburst cuff bracelet on her right wrist, but the bracelet didn’t look like part of the ensemble. Instead, it looked like something she didn’t dare take off, or she might forget where she was.
Her question made Rafe look up sharply, wondering what it was about him that made him look like someone who had been running away from something.
But she wasn’t talking to him. She was talking—in that afternoon half-drunk way—to Ted Cardenas, the attorney who’d been drinking himself into oblivion since he won a case nearly a month back. They were the only two customers in the bar, something that wasn’t unusual this early on a Wednesday.
Cardenas was middle-aged and balding, his remaining hair neatly trimmed, his shirt sleeves rolled up, and his fingers clutching the margarita glass in front of him. Every day, he tried a different drink, as if he would find one that might slide him into forgetfulness.
Every night he left, staggering to an Uber if he was too drunk to drive (lawyer to the end) or to his car if whatever drink he had tried failed to impair him in any way.
He gave the blonde a tired smile.
“I’m not running from anything, sweetheart,” he said. “I live here.”
“You’re drinking in the afternoon,” the blonde said, undeterred by his endearment. Rafe had seen Cardenas use endearments as a weapon for nearly a month now. They repelled any woman younger than thirty, which, considering Cardenas’s age, was probably a good thing. “People who drink in the afternoon are running from something.”
Cardenas raised his eyebrows, but he didn’t look at the blonde. He looked at Rafe. Communication passed between them. Both men realized in that same instance that she wasn’t asking about Cardenas or anyone else.
She wanted someone to ask her what she was running from or who.
Rafe circled over to them, glanced at her drink, which had melted into a sludgy mess.
“Want another?” he asked her.
She looked at him without seeing him. “No,” she said. “I’m good.”
She slung her purse over her shoulder, and stood, looking at Cardenas again.
He sighed. He was her target, and he knew it.
Rafe huddled nearby, because he would rather save Cardenas than have the maybe-drunk lawyer turn his courtroom viciousness on an undefended woman.
“The restaurant over there,” she said, nodding at the tables of the Sun Deck. “Is it any good?”
“I just drink here,” Cardenas said, and shoved his margarita glass at Rafe. “I’ll take another, even though you didn’t ask.”
Rafe grinned. He made Cardenas another margarita, even though his was ice-cold and mostly full. Rafe set it down, whisked the other glass away, and looked at the woman, who was still standing near her stool.
“Sure I can’t get you anything?” he asked her, in a tone that really meant, If you’re going to leave, leave.
“No,” she said, with a bit of an edge. “I told you. I’m good.”
He nodded, and moved to the back of the bar, and leaned on it. He pretended to be watching the TV near Cardenas’s side of the bar, but Rafe was really watching them, seeing if she was going to do anything. She was just loose enough from her afternoon drinking spree, just angry enough at whoever she was running from, just reckless enough to maybe push this conversation farther than Cardenas wanted it to go.
“You don’t like people, do you?” she said to Cardenas.
He let out an audible sigh this time. “Jesus, lady, I’m a defense attorney. What do you think?”
She blinked at him, as if she was trying to put A with B. Either she was too drunk to understand him or too dumb to know exactly what he meant.
Maybe his tone caught her this time, though. Or maybe it was the way he hunched over his drink—a drink that really didn’t suit his attitude, not that many of them had in the past month.
Finally, she shook her head a little and stalked off. She didn’t go into the restaurant. Instead, she went out the side door.
Rafe pushed off the back of the bar, grabbed her messy slammer, and poured it out, wincing as he did so. Official drinks—especially official drinks from southern sporting events—were too sickly sweet for him. He preferred serving the All-American pisswater. At least he didn’t have to smell its cloying sweetness as he assembled it or poured it away.
“She gone?” Cardenas asked, his fingers still wrapped around the margarita glass.
“I hope so,” Rafe said. Of course, she hadn’t left a tip. He was the help, not someone who made his living on the kindness of strangers.
“What kind of garbage was she talking about? Running away.” Cardenas twirled the glass just a little.
“I think she wanted you to ask her what she was running from,” Rafe said.
“She wanted me to buy her dinner,” Cardenas said. “She’s between meal tickets and she needed someone to give her a boost, even if it was just dinner in a somewhat fancy restaurant.”
“A meal might not’ve hurt you,” Rafe said, as he wiped up the beads of water on the bar, all that remained of the woman now.
“Who’re you, my mother?” Cardenas asked, but there was no edge to that comment.
“Naw,” Rafe said. “Just noticing that the drinks aren’t really working. Sometimes a hefty meal is more of a knockout drug than anything alcoholic.”
He caught himself then. He was giving advice, and it had some of his education in it. He didn’t sound like the friendly neighborhood bartender now. He sounded like a nurse who saw a bit too much in one of his patients, someone who needed help and would never ever ask for it.
Cardenas looked at him for a moment. “Better fat than sloppy drunk, eh?” he said, with a near smile.
“You’ve never achieved sloppy drunk,” Rafe said. “Which is why I’m recommending you try something else.”
“Good point,” Cardenas said, shoving the margarita away. “Don’t know why I even tried this one. Tequila and I have never gotten along.”
He pulled out his wallet, but Rafe waved it away. “You didn’t drink anything.”
“To my knowledge, that’s not a requirement,” Cardenas said. “I ordered something, received it, and the unwritten contract in every bar I’ve been in says I need to pay for it.”
He placed a twenty on the bar. Rafe moved forward, grabbed it, and opened the cash register, removing Cardenas’s change.
Cardenas waved a hand. “Keep it.”
Then he tilted his head. Unlike the blonde, Cardenas was actually looking at Rafe. Maybe looking more closely at Rafe than anyone had in, oh, two years or more.
“You know,” Cardenas said, “when she asked about running from something, you jumped.”
“I did?” Rafe asked. It was easy to sound surprised because he was. Surprised that Cardenas had noticed.
“Yeah.” Cardenas leaned on the bar. “And you never talk about yourself.”
“The bartender code,” Rafe said. “It’s not about me. It’s about you.”
Cardenas snorted. “Yeah, right. Like bartenders at this joint have a code.” He glanced over at the restaurant. “So,” he said, “what do you recommend?”
“Not the fish,” Rafe said. “Salads. The tortilla soup. Desserts.”
Cardenas grinned, and for the first time in weeks, the grin reached his eyes. “If you hadn’t added desserts, I would have accused you of saying that the only good food here was the low-calorie stuff.”
Cardenas stood up, waggled a finger at Rafe, and said, “You no longer have the right to say no one listens to you.”
Rafe smiled. “Today, anyway.”
“This week,” Cardenas said, clearly arguing for argument’s sake, like the good lawyer he was.
He disappeared into the restaurant, leaving the bar mid-afternoon empty. Rafe wiped down the bar, put the dirty glasses in the tiny dishwasher behind the bar, and started doing his prep for happy hour.
What are you running from? she had asked, and the words had penetrated.
He was running, or he had been, even if he never acknowledged it before now. He had tossed his old self into a garbage bin, abandoned everything from his car to his name, and ended up here.
It remained to be seen whether or not he was starting over.
He didn’t feel like it.
Even though he had been stationary for three months, he was still running.
And he wasn’t sure if he could stop.
She was back the next day with another slammer and a boy toy. She bought, which surprised Rafe, and they sat on opposite sides of a booth far from the windows.
The boy toy was white, of course, with muscular legs, and washboard abs visible through his tight T-shirt. He wore canvas boat shoes with no socks and looked the picture of ease. His brown hair had highlights and his square jaw looked one cut above natural.
There was money in his casual look. He had ordered a mojito, but he wasn’t drinking it. He was spinning it around with his long, manicured fingers.
And he wasn’t the only one who was fidgeting. She was too, playing with that expensive bracelet, as if it mattered more to her than anything else.
Rafe kept an eye on them, because they were unexpected. He hadn’t expected her to be back, and he certainly hadn’t expected her to be with a boy toy.
Cardenas watched them too, albeit through the mirror behind the bar. That way he didn’t have to turn around.
He was doing enough turning around anyway. The night before he had made a point of letting Rafe know that Cardenas had finished every bite of his dinner. This afternoon, Cardenas had ordered a cranberry juice on the rocks, which looked faintly disgusting.
He wasn’t drinking that either.
“I got a reservation,” he said to Rafe.
Rafe looked away from the couple—if he could call them that—and at Cardenas. Cardenas looked a little less stressed, a lot wider awake. Or maybe Rafe was just projecting.
“Six o’clock at the Sun Deck. I had the tortilla soup last night, and I am not going to eat a specialty salad. Ever.”
“Okay,” Rafe said, not sure what kind of response was warranted.
“But you’re right,” Cardenas said. “Food helps. Even had breakfast this morning. Still can’t go into the office though.”
Rafe sighed inwardly. Here it came: that moment of confession that every bartender dreaded. He wasn’t someone’s therapist, even though he had a lot of education in the psychological underpinnings of human beings. He had to take those classes for his degree. He hadn’t liked them.
“Bet you understand that,” Cardenas said. “You switched professions, right?”
Switched probably wasn’t the right word. Abandoned would have been better.
“I have not been a bartender forever, if that’s what you mean,” Rafe said. “I suppose it shows.”
“Only when someone orders an Alabama Slammer, and the first thing you do is go for the mixology book behind the bar.” Cardenas sipped the cranberry juice, winced, and pushed it away.
“I don’t live in Alabama,” Rafe said. “I would have to look up the exact mix for a mint julep too.”
“Touché,” Cardenas said. “Give me a bottle of water, would you?”
Rafe did, and brought a glass, just in case. Cardenas poured some water into the glass, and then sipped it.
“How many?” he asked quietly.
Rafe’s stomach flipped. He was actually being interrogated for the first time since he arrived in Tawa City, interrogated gently, but interrogated nonetheless.
“How many what?” Rafe asked.
Cardenas’s face had settled into a mix of sadness and compassion. “How many people did you lose?”
You want the real number? The work number? The actual human toll? Or do you want the personal number, because that’s the one I can’t bring myself to add up, not that it matters. They’re gone. They’re all gone. And for what, really?
At that moment, the woman stood up, saving Rafe from composing any kind of answer. She held her drink in her right hand.
He recognized the look on her face. He’d seen it a dozen times in the past three months, and all of those looks had come just before something dramatic.
Yesterday, she had been loose enough, drunk enough to be volatile, but today, he would have bet that she was completely sober.
“You’re a fucking son of a bitch,” she said to the boy toy, and tossed the drink in his face.
Then she slammed the glass down, pivoted, and stalked out of the bar.
The boy toy didn’t move. He had been sitting with one leg extended, foot up, the other leg bent back at a slight angle, so that he had looked both relaxed and in control.
The drink dripped down his face onto the too-tight T-shirt. He watched her go without moving his head. When the door slammed shut behind her, he sat upright, grabbed the hem of his T-shirt and wiped off his face.
Rafe walked over to him with a clean bar rag and a slew of napkins. “We sell T-shirts, if you want one,” he said.
The boy toy looked up. He had surprisingly green eyes that couldn’t be natural any more than that chin was.
“I’m good,” he said, just like she had said yesterday. That same dismissive tone, that same I’m not talking to you insouciance.
“Well, I’d wash it off, if I were you,” Rafe said. “Because it’s going to stick and stink as it dries. There’s just enough sugar in that drink to make your next few hours deeply unpleasant.”
“It’d have to try pretty damn hard to make things worse,” the boy toy said. He took the clean rag from Rafe and, instead of wiping his face with it, wiped the booth instead.
Former bartender then. Or restaurant worker. Someone who knew what a pain it would be to clean up that area if they didn’t start now.
“I got that,” Rafe said. “If you want to just move to the other side or a different booth…”
The boy toy finished as if Rafe hadn’t spoken at all. Then he set the bar rag on top of the bar, grabbed the napkins and scrubbed as well. He stood, handed Rafe the mojito, and said, “Next time, muddle the mint.”
“What?” Rafe asked.
The boy toy gave him a sad smile. “Exactly.”
Then he wiped off his hands, pulled a ten out of the pocket of his shorts and handed it to Rafe. “I know she doesn’t tip well,” the boy toy said, “and we made a mess.”
Then he touched two of his fingers to his forehead in a mock salute, and walked out of the bar, the soles of his canvas shoes squeaking on the floor as he went.
Rafe stared after him for a moment, frowning. Something had been off, and it wasn’t just the “muddle the mint” comment. He cleaned off the booth, got a mop, and wiped the floor too.
When he finished, he went to the bar, washed his hands, and grabbed the mixology book.
“For the record,” Cardenas said, “you did muddle the mint. That’s the official term for smooshing the mint with the bar spoon. You even added the club soda properly. Don’t let him get on your case.”
Rafe looked at him. “How did you know that’s what I was looking up?”
“Because you wear everything on your face. You’re a good bartender. Someone trained you right, but they didn’t teach you the terminology, did they?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Rafe said. “I learned in the do-that-then-this school of bartending.”
“Real bartending,” Cardenas said. “Not some fancy frat boy class that impresses, but doesn’t really know what it’s doing.”
That was the right vibe. Frat boy. Arrogant, entitled…and yet, wrong. Because he knew how to clean up after himself. Underprivileged frat boy? Impoverished frat boy, who qualified for some other reason? Wannabe frat boy?
Not that it mattered. The closest university was Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Tawa City didn’t even have a two-year college.
Still, there was something in Cardenas’s tone.
“Frat boy,” Rafe said. “You know him?”
“Oh, yeah,” Cardenas said. “He’s a lawyer, and not a very good one. Works harder at not working than anyone I know.”
Rafe looked over at the booth as if he could conjure the boy toy again. “He’s a lawyer. He didn’t look old enough.”
“Like me?” Cardenas asked, then snorted half a laugh. “Believe me, he’s old enough. Been practicing, if you want to call it that, in this county for…oh…ten years or so now.”
“Seriously?” Rafe was still staring at that spot. He was trying to reconcile the shorts, the abs, the hair with highlights with his own idea of lawyer.
“Seriously,” Cardenas said. “Which leads me to believe I was wrong about that little encounter yesterday. If you put it through a different filter, she was asking me why I wasn’t at my office, not trying to get me to buy her dinner.”
Running from something? she had asked. She had been sitting extremely close to Cardenas, in an empty bar, on a Wednesday afternoon.
“My secretary’s on extended leave,” Cardenas said. “My office has been locked for a month now, with a back soon sign on the door, which is actually fading in the afternoon sun. So, I think it’s probably fair to ask me what I’m running from. Only she hadn’t prefaced it with anything about hiring me or trying to find me or even needing a lawyer.”
Rafe grabbed a bottle of water for himself from the fridge. He marked it on the tab that he kept for himself, even though the boss had told him it was okay to drink as much water as he needed, and that the bottled was probably safer than tap.
“The thing is,” Cardenas said after he took a sip from his water glass, “I don’t do divorces. That’s all Todd does. Divorces. He’s good at them, although he’s getting tired of them. I think he got into it for the ass, you know? Not realizing that divorces are about as messy as pretty much anything in the law. Guaranteed you’re going to get involved in some crap that will bring you to court over and over and over again, never get resolved and let you see the worst side of humanity, all dressed up in professional clothing.”
“I thought that’s what being a defense attorney was,” Rafe said, remembering how Cardenas had shut the woman down the day before.
“In theory, we know that our clients are the scum of the earth. Or at least the most desperate. And a lot of my work is one and done. A bad mistake on a Friday night, with a little alcohol involved. A fist fight, maybe, or a two-car accident with just enough fault that meant someone might get charged with reckless endangerment. I get them to plead or negotiate the bad charges down. I let some of them spend one night in jail so that they never do anything stupid again. I collect a ridiculous fee, and send them on their way.”
“Then why are you here?” Rafe said. “You won a case, you said. And it brought you here.”
Cardenas’s face shut down. Then he took out his wallet. He was about to remove some cash when he stopped.
“Tell you what,” he said in his lawyer voice, that courtroom voice Rafe had heard half a dozen times since Cardenas had become a regular at the bar. “You tell me how many people you lost, and I’ll tell you why winning a court case is sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a defense attorney.”
Then he peeled out a twenty, and flicked it onto the bar. He left, instead of going into the Sun Deck, even though, as he had said earlier, he had a reservation.
Rafe took the twenty, made the change, and put it behind the bar in case Cardenas came back that night. Procedure, after all.
But of course Cardenas didn’t come back.
He didn’t come back for a week.
And when he did, he looked even more wrecked than he had in October.
Thanksgiving week in this part of Arizona had a weird vibe. Or maybe it just seemed weird to Rafe. Turkeys were crowding the grocery stores, along with all the makings for the meal fixings. The grocery store floral shops had real and fake centerpieces that included red and gold and orange plants, along with pumpkins and horns of plenty.
But the temperature outside hit seventy more than once, and only went down to the forties at night. There was sunlight, not endless rain or the threat of the worst storm of the year.
The days were short, yes, but so light that it didn’t seem like November until the sunlight abruptly disappeared around four-thirty or so. There was no fall crispness in the air.
Because it didn’t feel like Thanksgiving, he didn’t have that same desperation that he felt in Thanksgivings past. Did he accept the invitations of friends for a bad meal filled with great congeniality? Did he stay home and watch too much television, eating a store-bought version of the meal his mother used to make, before the dementia made her burn everything she tried to cook? Or did he work as many shifts as possible throughout the entire season, trying to ignore the festivities, despite the tinny holiday music filtering through the public parts of the hospital, the small sad tree near the cafeteria, the menorah set up in front of the gift shop?
He didn’t have to make those choices. The manager scheduled him to work on Thanksgiving, holding up her hand as she gave him the schedule.
Before you complain, she had said, remember you’re the new guy.
He hadn’t planned on complaining. He hadn’t planned on anything, so he was happy to have his schedule decided for him.
He’d bartended Thanksgiving Day once in college, but that had been the college bar, mostly empty since the students were gone. Only a few university employees had showed up and a couple of the regulars, professors who had long since substituted the bar for some semblance of home life.
Here, Rafe suspected, the day would go differently. There were a lot of sunbirds in Arizona, and they’d learned during the pandemic that all the holidays they spent with family weren’t as much fun as spending holidays without family. Probably the opposite lesson that most of America had learned in that awful dark year, but there it was.
He’d unlocked early on Thanksgiving morning, just because, and was cutting lemons when the door opened. Cardenas barged in. He wore a Baylor sweatshirt that had seen better days, and the fringe of hair around his bald spot was standing up as if he hadn’t even tried to comb it.
He wore jeans that were a little too baggy and athletic shoes so bright and shiny that they looked like he had borrowed them from someone else.
He was carrying what passed for the local paper, and slammed it on the bar without sitting down.
“You see this?” he asked.
She was on the cover, the blonde. One of those studio portraits that looked like the person but didn’t look like them at the same time. Clearly, someone had helped her with the bronzer and the makeup for the portrait, or maybe the portrait had been taken in the days before she started overcompensating for growing older.
The headline read Mysterious Disappearance, and the article that followed detailed what made the disappearance so mysterious.
The woman—Georgette “Jorji” Amberson—had abandoned her Mercedes in the desert outside of town. There were no keys in the ignition and the doors were locked. The trunk was filled with Louis Vuitton luggage and a Goyard purse that looked as expensive as it was. The purse was pictured, in case anyone had seen her carrying it. It was silver and black, with a solid-looking lockable clasp.
The article didn’t say if the police had gotten into the purse, but Rafe could only assume they had, since they had her identity.
Cardenas’s meaty forefinger slammed into the headline, half crumpling the paper.
“Says here she’s been gone since last week,” he said, sounding a little more panicked than he should have.
“It says here,” Rafe said calmly. He was good at calm. He had been trained in calm, “that she hasn’t been seen since last week.”
Cardenas’s mouth thinned.
“It also says here,” Rafe said in that same tone, “that anyone who did see her should call the authorities. Have you done that?”
Cardenas nodded. “They don’t really give a shit,” he said. “Not that I’m surprised. But they were pretty dismissive of two chance meetings in a bar. Even though she had talked to attorneys both times.”
“You gave them the name of the…” Rafe almost said “boy toy,” “…frat boy. Right? What was his name? Todd?”
“Todd gave them his name,” Cardenas said. “A few hours after they found the car. Apparently his business card was inside.”
Rafe frowned. Todd didn’t seem like the kind of lawyer who had a business card. Or at least, the kind who would have given it out to a woman who called herself Jorji.
“Apparently, he gave them my name too,” Cardenas said, “and the name of the bar, and said the bartender and I witnessed his humiliation.”
“Well, he did get a drink to the face,” Rafe said. “Although he didn’t seem that humiliated.”
“Probably because he was used to it,” Cardenas said. “Or to some kind of anger coming at him. I told you, he’s a terrible lawyer.”
“Terrible lawyers usually don’t get drinks to the face,” Rafe said, speaking from a few short months of experience now. “Ex-boyfriends do.”
Cardenas’s gaze met his. Then Cardenas’s eyes wandered, as if he was trying to piece that information together.
“And,” Rafe said, “the fact that she abandoned her car doesn’t mean she’s in trouble.”
After all, he had abandoned his. He didn’t add that, but it might’ve shown on his face.
Cardenas slipped onto one of the bar stools, but he didn’t order. “She did ask about running away.”
“No,” Rafe said. “She asked you what you were running from.”
“Yeah, yeah, I remember,” Cardenas said. “Then she said some garbage about people who drink in the afternoon are running from something.”
“Sounds like it hit a sore spot.” Rafe picked up the knife and started back in on the lemons.
“I think people who drink in the afternoon have just plain given up.” Cardenas spoke with an undertone of viciousness.
“Have you given up?” Rafe asked quietly.
Cardenas’s mouth thinned. He looked at the woman’s grainy picture on the very thin newspaper, as if he could learn something.
Rafe couldn’t help himself. He looked too. “You know,” he said slowly, “she was drinking in the afternoon.”
Cardenas settled deeper onto the bar stool. “You think she was running from something?”
Rafe flipped the newspaper around. “Did you read the article all the way through?” he asked.
Rafe opened the paper, read the second half of the article, frowned, paraphrased. “She was reported missing by her husband. They live in Chicago. She was here for the winter. Who comes here for the winter?”
“Anyone from Chicago who’s smart,” Cardenas said.
“I mean it,” Rafe said. “I haven’t been here long enough to really know. Just assume.”
“Sunbirds,” Cardenas said. “Tourists on the way to somewhere else.”
“Sunbirds usually own a place, though, right?” Rafe asked. “Sounds like she was here for a vacation.”
Now, Cardenas seemed interested. He leaned forward. “She have friends here?”
“Not that the article says.” Rafe closed the paper, then went to the bar sink and washed his hands. “But she was going to be here over Thanksgiving, through the holidays. That doesn’t sound like something a person does as a vacation. No offense to the town, but it’s really not that special.”
“It’s in the desert,” Cardenas said as if he couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“And so is Phoenix and Tucson and even Sedona, which has—”
“Woo-wooism,” Cardenas said.
“I was going to say a natural beauty.” Rafe had traveled down there with colleagues a couple of times on his days off. Cardenas was right; there was a lot of fake mysticism in Sedona, but the rocks were stunning. “If I was going to go somewhere alone for the holidays, though, I’d go there or Phoenix or somewhere that had big interesting diverse celebrations.”
“You’re not her,” Cardenas said.
“True enough,” Rafe said. “It just seemed strange to me. She had to have come here for a reason.”
“No,” Cardenas said. “She had to have stayed here for a reason.”
Then he did it—he looked directly at Rafe. Rafe’s heart started pounding. He knew Cardenas’s courtroom voice. Was this his courtroom glare?
“What made you stay?” Cardenas asked.
There were a thousand different answers to that question, none of them right, and all of them important.
The bus stopped here, and I didn’t want to ride anymore.
The town looked clean and just big enough.
It felt right.
“Figured I’d give it a try,” Rafe said and he wasn’t really lying. “If it didn’t work out, I’d move on.”
“Is it working out?” Cardenas asked.
Rafe paused, thought, then nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess it is.”
He went back to cutting up the fruit for the afternoon. He started in on the limes now, some of the acidity leaching into the small cuts on his fingers. His skin was drier here than it had been up north, even with all the handwashing he had done there. He had also applied a lot of lotion.
Cardenas didn’t move. He also didn’t order anything. He just kept staring at the paper.
Finally, Rafe couldn’t take it anymore.
“What’s got you so agitated about her?” Rafe asked.
“It doesn’t bother you that we might’ve been the last people to see her alive?” Cardenas said.
Rafe’s reaction was instantaneous. His mind shot back to the past year—all the people who had died in his arms, or while he was stroking their sweat-soaked hair, desperate voices rising from the iPad or the nearby phone or the computer, You there, Mom? Dad, I love you, Dad. Hey Jessie. Wake up, Jessie, please. Don’t go. Don’t leave us. We love you. Please…
Rafe gripped the side of the bar. He had almost lost his balance for a moment. Maybe he had lost his balance.
“No,” he said. His voice sounded raw. “It doesn’t bother me that we might’ve been the last people to see her alive.”
Because she had been alive when she left. Alive, and angry, and vibrant. All those people, all of last year’s people, he had been the last person to see them alive too, and then he watched them die. Watched helplessly as they faded away, gasping for air that he couldn’t provide.
“Well,” Cardenas said, clearly oblivious to Rafe’s sudden shift in mood. “It bothers me.”
Cardenas tapped the picture on the paper again.
“I mean, if I hadn’t been such a dick to her, maybe we could have figured out what she wanted and maybe she’d be sitting here right now.”
“Or heading back to her husband,” Rafe said.
“Doubt that,” Cardenas said. “She was here without him. And Todd is a divorce attorney.”
“But you’re not,” Rafe said.
Cardenas raised his head, but not all the way, as if he was going to look at Rafe then thought the better of it.
“No,” Cardenas said, “I’m not. But she didn’t know that.”
“I’m pretty sure she did,” Rafe said.
He finished cutting the limes, then put them into their little holder. He used a clear plastic cover on all the fruit. The slices gleamed, waiting for someone to come into the bar and order something that required them.
“You ever going to tell me what was so awful about that case you won?” he asked.
Cardenas folded the paper, as if he didn’t want to see the woman’s face anymore.
“Think it through,” he said quietly. “I’m a defense attorney.”
“You represent the guilty all the time,” Rafe said.
“Yeah,” Cardenas said. “There’s guilty, and then there’s pathological.”
“Isn’t it one and the same?” Rafe asked.
Cardenas sighed. He tucked the paper under his arm, and then climbed off the bar stool.
“Nobody shows, you tell your boss I said you could go home,” he said.
“Nobody shows,” Rafe said, “It’ll be just like staying home. So no big deal.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Cardenas said, and walked out the door.
No one entered for another four hours. Rafe cleaned every nook and cranny of the bar. Replenished some stock. Made sure that every dish and mug and wine glass was spotless. He turned on the TV, watched football he didn’t care about, marveled at the crowds, but kept the sound down anyway.
And he thought about her, the woman named Jorji.
Her husband had called in. She had gotten mad at a divorce attorney. She had thrown a drink in his face.
Then she had gone into the desert and…what?
Rafe made himself a club soda and used one of his fresh lime slices, which wasn’t looking quite as fresh after waiting forlornly in its bin all afternoon.
He switched it around—wondering, for the first time, what had happened to his car, his life. Had he been reported missing?
He went into the office and booted up the computer. Then he went back into the bar, turned the sound completely off on the TV, and left the office door open, so he could hear if anyone arrived to drink off the remains of their family Thanksgiving.
He settled into his boss’s chair and, for the first time, Googled his old self.
Suspect Foul Play, read a banner headline on the main newspaper.
FRIENDS CLAIM MISSING MAN WOULD NOT COMMIT SUICIDE
The case of a missing Ohio man grew more mysterious today as friends gathered to discuss his case with a reporter. Richard Stikarski vanished after his last shift as a nurse at a local hospital. His car remained in the parking lot for three days before anyone noticed. His apartment is untouched, clothes still in the closet, toothbrush in the holder. It looks like he has gone out for an afternoon stroll, but he has not returned.
Friends say Stikarski is a caring man who had a joy for living. He would not kill himself, which is the working theory of the local police. Since the start of the pandemic, suicides among health care professionals have tripled…
Rafe leaned back. Friends? He had friends who said he was full of joy? He had no idea who those people would be. He hadn’t been full of joy since…well, he couldn’t really remember.
He felt a twinge of guilt at leaving them all behind, at letting them worry. He probably should let someone know he was all right, but he really didn’t want to.
Maybe he had committed suicide. Not the traditional kind which meant physically ending his life. But he had certainly metaphorically ended it, leaving that life as abruptly as a man could without dying.
No one had tracked him down, and it sounded like the police weren’t even looking.
Just like, it sounded like, they weren’t looking for Jorji.
He Googled her, now that he had her name. She was married to a Chicago real estate broker, who, on paper at least, had a lot of success. There were society pictures of them, her in some kind of designer dress, him in a suit or a tux. He was older, with silver hair that looked dyed, and the roundish solid body of a middle-aged man who tried to exercise but was losing the battle with fat anyway.
No kids. A country club membership. An afternoon fox hunting in Upstate Illinois at one of the big estates. He looked happy; she looked like she’d been the one chased by the hounds.
Her eyes always looked guarded, haunted. Her Facebook posts were mostly photographs of society charity events. Her individual footprint without the husband was practically nonexistent.
The articles about her mysterious disappearance in the desert were the only things that seemed out of place in her perfectly orchestrated life.
But, unlike Rafe, she hadn’t tried to hide where she was. She had driven a Mercedes down here, locked her purse and her luggage in the trunk, locked the car, and then toddled off somewhere or disappeared in the scrub.
It was November. People died in the desert, but they usually did so in the 100-plus-degree temperatures of the summer. Her car was found not far off a well-traveled road.
All she had to do was wear good shoes and walk to the road, hitch a ride or, if she was in good shape, walk to the nearest gas station.
And then what? An Uber? A bus ride? Buses didn’t stop anywhere except their designated routes.
He checked one of the articles about her.
The car was found not far from the partner station where he had disembarked.
He hadn’t cared if anyone ever saw him again. He just hadn’t wanted to get in his car again, see his apartment again, deal with anything—anything at all—that reminded him of the past year.
But she might have wanted to shake loose a controlling husband or lose her society image or let people know she was done with their world.
Conspicuously leaving the car out, leaving her things behind, was a statement, wasn’t it?
I am gone. Here, I leave you with a little mystery to take your attention, while I live my life elsewhere.
Just like he had done.
“Hey, anyone here?” an unfamiliar voice called.
He started, having not heard the door open. But it must have.
He got up, walked to the office door, saw a group of six thirty-something men, all in football jerseys. Two of the men wore jerseys for a team that had already played; the remaining four had on jerseys for games that were upcoming.
“Mind if I turn up the sound?” one of the men asked. He had already found the remote.
“Be my guest,” Rafe said with a smile he didn’t feel. He didn’t like the way they broke the silence of his afternoon. He didn’t like the fact that they had interrupted his thinking.
He took drink orders, grabbed the remote back, put out some bar pretzels, dimmed the lights a bit, and turned on the other TV on the other side of the bar.
As the games got underway, more people came into the bar, some wearing jerseys, others with companions who were clearly related. Everyone getting out, getting away, leaving the Thanksgiving feast or celebration or obligation behind as they settled into the relative discomfort of a bar on a holiday afternoon.
The Night Deck wasn’t even a sports bar. There were a few, closer to what he thought of as the suburbs, but none of them as nice as this place. Even now, as the daylight did its sudden seasonal fade, the light coming through the windows—pink and gold and gray—was one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen.
Even some of the die-hard sports fans turned and watched the sun go down and, Rafe realized, maybe they weren’t as die-hard as he thought. Maybe they were casual fans who had decided to while the afternoon away with friends, cheering on a team they only slightly cared about, just to have some companionship in a world where companionship had been—for a time—exceptionally rare.
He had picked up empty glasses from the first table, and was dumping the slushy orange mess of one of them into the bar sink when he froze for just a moment.
She had ordered an Alabama Slammer. It was a disgusting drink, the kind only hardcore fans would drink.
And wasn’t this an important sports weekend? College football rivalries always centered around Thanksgiving weekend.
“Hey,” he said, “anyone know when the Tide plays this weekend?”
A few people looked confused. A handful pulled out their phones and tapped at them, obviously burrowing into Google, just like he could have done. Apparently, there were no Crimson Tide fans here at all.
But, within a few seconds, an answer from various sources: Alabama played Auburn on Saturday, kickoff in the early afternoon Arizona time.
He nodded, thanked them, and went back to work, thinking the whole time.
He almost called Cardenas, but didn’t. What would he say, really? I have a hunch I know where she is?
And then what, if they both found her? Cardenas was a lawyer, for godssake. He was such a lawyer that he was a defense attorney, the kind of man who, until October, believed everyone was entitled to a good defense—even the guilty.
So Rafe finished up his Thanksgiving by serving the best drinks he could. He made more money in tips than he expected, more than he made the next day, Black Friday, because people were spending their money on gifts, not on taking pity on the lonely bartender who, unlike them, had had to work on a holiday.
Surprisingly, he hadn’t been lonely. The day—the time—had gone quickly.
Saturday arrived faster than he expected.
And then he had to make a choice.
He didn’t work until five, which gave him time to think.
There was a cluster of local sports bars near what had once been a thriving mall. Now, it was a bit of a ghost town—stores emptied before the pandemic, stores emptied during it, a few stores clawing their way back, and the handful that had managed to survive.
He took the bus, which let him off near the large empty mall parking lot.
He stared at the bars—the only things that looked even half alive—and walked to the one with the most cars in its parking lot.
The noise hit him the moment he opened the door. TVs too loud, announcers shouting scores and plays and bits of trivia, blaring music, and shouted conversation. People sat at tall tables, feet on the rungs of the stools or on the rungs of the tables themselves, nursing beers, focusing on the TV or pounding their fists in emphasis.
The bar branched into three different rooms, all of which had TVs on, some hanging from the ceiling. He walked left first, rather surprised he didn’t see her, because this appeared to be the most upscale of all of the bars in the area.
Laughter echoed, along with the occasional group shout or moan. He wandered past tables, near a second bar, and through a door that led into the third room.
She wasn’t here at all, and he was beginning to wonder why the heck he was even trying this. He didn’t know her, and, for all he knew, someone had found her, made her put the purse and identifying materials in the car, and taken her to some shack somewhere.
But Rafe was here already. He didn’t need to give up just yet. The game was just getting underway. The announcers were shouting things like “first and ten,” and naming players he’d never heard of until now, the sound echoing over all the conversation and music.
He veered toward the door when he saw her, tucked in a corner, at a table that really didn’t have room for a second person. She had her back to the wall, her hands around—what else?—an Alabama Slammer instead of a beer.
The drink had caught his eye, or maybe it was her posture. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have recognized her. She was wearing a simple, baggy gray sweatshirt with no logo at all, brand-new blue jeans, and a pair of new white athletic shoes. Her feet were clinging to one of the rungs. A wallet sat alongside her drink, but she didn’t have a purse.
More importantly, she wasn’t wearing the bronzer or the bad makeup. She looked five years younger. Her hair was slightly messy, as if it hadn’t seen a comb since that morning.
He paused, wondering what he should do. He had thought about finding her, but never about what he would do after he found her.
Then the entire crowd cheered, but they were looking at a different game. He realized at that moment, only two TVs in the entire room were showing the Alabama game. The other game was apparently closer to the heart of Arizonans for a reason he didn’t even fathom.
There was one stool near the small table. He grabbed the stool, pulled it closer to the table, and waved at the cocktail waitress as he sat down.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked.
Jorji opened her mouth to say no before she even looked at him. Then her gaze met his and her cheeks pinked. She recognized him.
“Thought you would have had enough of bars,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said, “this is really not my scene.”
“Then what are you doing here?” she asked, with a bit of a bite.
“Following a hunch,” he said.
She closed her eyes. Her entire face collapsed. She looked defeated.
The cocktail waitress showed up at that moment. At least this wasn’t one of those sports bars where the waitresses had to wear short skirts. This waitress was in jeans and a blue polo shirt with the bar’s name across the pocket.
Rafe ordered a beer, gave her money upfront, and told her he was paying for the slammer too.
The cocktail waitress raised her eyebrows, raised them even more when he waved away the change, and scurried off to put the order in. She seemed a bit confused, since he had paid out of order, but he didn’t care. He wasn’t even sure he would be here when the beer arrived.
Jorji had opened her eyes. She was watching everything, with a slight frown.
He tapped a finger on her cocktail napkin. The bar wasn’t suited for conversation, but at least no one would hear what he had to say, even when he raised his voice.
“People who drink in the afternoon are running from something,” he said. “That’s according to you.”
“You know what I’m running from,” she said. “You saw the paper.”
“I have no idea what you’re really running from,” he said. “I know what everyone assumes. The hubby has issues, you’re safer away from him. But what this really is, I don’t have a clue.”
“You trying to figure that out so your conscience is clear?” she asked.
Another whoop and groan from the crowd, but apparently, it came from the other game. Her game, the Alabama game, was scoreless, and both teams seemed to be stuck in the middle of the field.
“Why’d you throw the drink at Todd?” Rafe asked.
“What do you care?” she asked.
“Humor me,” Rafe said.
“He told me the prenup was ironclad,” she said.
“I suspect you already knew that when you hired him,” Rafe said.
“I didn’t hire him. I wanted to talk to him, but his office looked sketchy, and so I figured I’d meet him in the bar.” She made a face. Then she picked her straw off the bar napkin and stirred the slammer. She hadn’t had much of it. “He said the prenup was ironclad, and so was he, and if I wanted to check out how hard he was, then maybe he’d help me get one of those big East Coast firms that were known for breaking tough agreements.”
“So you threw the drink at him,” Rafe said, smiling in spite of himself.
“I should have poured it down his pants,” she said, “but I didn’t want to get that close.”
The cocktail waitress brought the beer and some chips and salsa. Apparently, she wasn’t used to getting a big tip.
She set it all on the table, grinned flirtatiously at Rafe, and walked away.
“Is the prenup ironclad?” Rafe asked.
“Half a dozen attorneys between here and Chicago think so,” she said.
She had been laying a trail. He was beginning to understand that now.
“What about the defense attorney? Why were you talking to him?”
“What do you care?” she asked.
“Humor me,” Rafe said.
She studied him through half-open eyes. Then sighed, and pulled her phone out of the back pocket of her jeans. “If you’re going to get the reward, call now, and take the suspense out of it. I know the number by heart. I’ll type it in for you.”
So apparently the phone was a new one, not the phone she’d been traveling with.
He didn’t touch the phone or his beer or the chips.
“I don’t care about a reward,” he said, and for a brief half-second, he wondered if that was true. Then the wondering passed. He didn’t care about the reward.
He cared about another person who had done something similar to him. There was a part of him who wanted to know how similar. Were they kindred spirits or was their time here in this strange town just a coincidence?
She took a sip out of the slammer, winced, stirred it, and sipped again, nodding. Apparently the mix was finally right.
“I followed him here,” she said.
“Cardenas?” Rafe asked, surprised. He had really thought they didn’t know each other.
“I watched him in that courtroom,” she said. “He won, you know. Against all odds.”
Rafe frowned. “I don’t pay attention to legal crap.”
“Tabloid case,” she said. “The entertainment press couldn’t get enough of it.”
Rafe wrapped his fingers around his beer glass. It was cool to the touch. He still didn’t want any of the beer, but his fingers needed something to do.
“That Phoenix socialite who murdered her husband?” she said, as if that would ring some of his bells.
Rafe shook his head again, not willing to say he’d only been here for a few months. He had no idea about any socialite.
“The evidence was pretty damning. Everyone was saying it was premeditated. He used the burning-bed defense.” She took another sip from her drink. “Don’t tell me I have to explain that too.”
“Sorry,” he said.
“The defense was she was so badly abused that premeditated murder was the only rational response,” Jorji said.
“Were you abused like that?” he asked.
She didn’t even flinch. Nor did her gaze break from his. “I just wanted out of the prenup,” she said. “I figured a man like him might have some insights.”
“But you didn’t even talk to him,” Rafe said.
“I did. You saw me.” She fiddled with her glass, turning it around and around in her hands.
“That wasn’t a conversation,” Rafe said.
“And I realized I wasn’t a murderer,” she said. “If I wanted to kill my husband, I would have stayed.” She gave Rafe a thin smile. “Sounds so dramatic, doesn’t it?”
He had no idea. His ability to understand what real drama was had burned away years ago.
“Why are you staying here?” Rafe asked.
“No one seems to care who you are,” she said. “Even if they recognize you.”
There was a challenge in her eyes. He gave her a small smile.
“I noticed that too,” he said. Then he tapped the table, and stood up. “If you’re scared of him, you should leave. They’ll come searching.”
“They already have,” she said, then touched her face. “The investigation was perfunctory. One of the investigators looked right at me, and didn’t even see me.”
Rafe could understand that. He had almost missed her as well.
“He doesn’t want to find me,” Jorji said. “It’s better for him if I just disappear.”
“Is it better for you?” Rafe asked.
She nodded, slowly. “I hadn’t expected to feel so…” That half-smile again. “…like myself again.”
She looked up at the game, her smile widening. Then she sipped a little more of her drink.
He glanced over his shoulder. Alabama was ahead.
“You went to Alabama?” he asked.
“In a different lifetime,” she said. Then she sighed. “Now that you’ve heard the whole sorry story, you gonna turn me in?”
“I wasn’t planning to before I heard the whole sorry story,” he said, knowing he hadn’t even heard half of it. He stepped off the stool.
“Then why are you here?” she asked.
He took an ostentatious sip of his beer.
“To drink,” he said. “In the afternoon.”
She laughed. The sound was radiant, and he finally understood what would attract some rich Chicago man to a woman like her. That laugh would catch anyone.
Rafe tapped his fingers on the table, and then nodded a goodbye.
He headed out of the bar, finally understanding that they weren’t exactly similar. She wasn’t ending her old life. She was returning to an even older one, finding what promise she could.
He paused at the door, wondering what other secrets were in that bar, in the laughter and the shouted encouragement for teams hundreds of miles away. How many lives were different now, how many lives had changed.
Was this town more amenable to faceless people, like him and Jorji? Or had all towns become like that, less absorbed with the details of other people’s lives, focused instead on wringing the best out of one’s own?
He glanced at her. She was shaking her fist at the TV, lost in the game, in the new-old life.
He smiled. She made him feel lighter, less alone, and he hadn’t even told her his story.
He never would.
He would probably never see her again.
A couple passed him, heading out of the bar. He stared at Jorji for another minute. She never looked back at him. She would probably worry about him for a little while, then she would realize he was as good as his word.
He wasn’t going to collect a reward, or even think about her again. He was going to move on with his life, just like she was moving on with hers.
He pushed his way out of the bar, into the bright Arizona afternoon sunlight.
He was done drinking in the afternoon.
He was done running away.
He was home now, in his new life, the old one locked away in an Ohio impound lot, most likely. Not quite as poetic as a locked Mercedes in the Arizona desert, but just as effective.
Maybe more effective.
He glanced at the bar one last time.
He wished her all the best.
Drinking in the Afternoon
Copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March/April 2023
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2023 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Alp_Aksoy | Depositphotos