The club’s almost empty tonight.
It’s a Saturday and around this time, Jack’s usually got his hands full up at the bar.
But today’s different. Odd.
Missing are the members of the Family in their nightly finery. Missing are their expensive sidekicks, the oily gangsters playing cards in their pin-striped suits. Their exquisitely tailored cloth hiding cold pistols and jeweled knives that could be whipped out and used with deadly force in a matter of seconds. The place seems quiet without their boisterous laughter and thick New York-Italian accents dominating conversation.
Jack’s on edge. He’s not used to business being slow on a Saturday night and his waiters are getting lazy. He barks out an order at one of them to keep them on their toes. These youngsters. No sense of responsibility these days.
He glowers moodily as he leans forward on the bar, watching the entrance.
But for what?
Regulars notice the difference and glance around, slightly ill at ease. More so than when the volatile, unpredictable patrons of the club are occupying the same space. Their absence is almost as intimidating as their presence.
There must be a job going down tonight.
A few check their watches and get up to leave. It’s gettin’ late, they mutter to their friends. As if on cue, the dusty clock which hangs in the corner dimly chimes 9. Embarrassed, they slap some dollar bills on the table and walk out. Nervous without knowing why, but for once, preferring to get home to their wives.
When he walks in, everybody notices. It’s a small neighborhood – everyone knows everyone else. More often than not anyway. It’s not often you get strangers in this part of town. And if you do, they don’t walk into this bar.
But tonight, there’s something different in the air. The big boys aren’t around to protect their turf and the others, well, they like to keep their hands clean. Sit back, enjoy the show, don’t get involved – that’s a pretty good recipe for survival around here.
Besides, they’ve all seen the posters. They wouldn’t miss the show tonight. It promises to be big.
He’s slick, they’ll give him that. He’s got a good looking tux, a better looking face and a foreign drawl no one can really place. The muted lighting casts shadows over his chiseled features, lengthening an already long, Roman nose and accentuating a smooth, defined forehead. Thick dark brows hood eyes that give nothing away as he winds his way through the tables with an odd sort of familiarity.
He appears at once totally oblivious to the attention he’s drawing towards himself and in complete control of the unusual situation. He strides slowly towards the barman who measures his approach warily, never once taking his eyes off him as he wipes a wet glass with a checked cloth.
The stranger seems to radiate confidence but lacks the swagger of arrogance. As he watches him, Jack secretly admires the nerve of the guy.
He walks in here, cool as you please, he’d later tell other regulars on a busy night, looks me in the eye and asks for a vodka. Like he’s been coming here all his life.
“Vodka. Please” says the stranger quietly in a voice that’s low and smooth. It is not a question.
He ignores his neighbours at the bar and rests his elbows against the ridge of the old wooden hightable. Relaxed.
Refusing to be intimidated, Jack acknowledges the order with a curt nod and takes a step towards the man, trying to get a better look. Almost simultaneously the stranger puts a hand in his pocket.
That’s not a polite gesture in these parts. The barman freezes in his tracks.
The whole club falls silent.
You could cut the tension with a butcher’s knife, Jack would later say, wiping an imaginary sheen of sweat off his brow at the mere memory.
Jack figures the only one moving in the whole place is the stranger, his hand still deep in his pocket. Every breath hangs on his movements.
He pulls out a slim cigar. No gun. The club swells once again with movement and raised whispers but the man doesn’t seem to have noticed any change.
“Light” he says, his mouth forming the word around the cigar in his mouth. Again, it’s not a question.
Jack’s hand shakes slightly as he strikes up a match. He quickly pours the drink and slides it in the direction of the man who catches the glass and takes a long drink.
As Jack moves on to the next customer, he decides to observe from a safe distance. Just in case.
Suddenly, the band starts up and the combination of the old honky-tonk tune and free-flowing liquor diffuses the tension in the place, quickly erasing the memory of the strained moment involving the newcomer.
Customers gradually divert their attention away from the stranger but glance over every now and then to see what he’s up to. He’s a curiosity, there’s no denying it.
In a club like this, they say, especially in this part of town, you never know what’s gonna go down. Maybe he’s breezed into town to meet the Boss, maybe he’s got a flame to rekindle, maybe both. Who knows. But this is for sure, you never get a dull moment at this bar…
…to be continued.