TIME FRAME – Sneak Preview: Chapter 4

time frame coverMy science fiction novel TIME FRAME is now available as an EBook from NECON EBooks at http://www.neconebooks.com.

Previously on this blog I featured Chapters 1-3 of the novel.  Today the sneak preview continues with Chapter 4.

Hope you enjoy it.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

CHAPTER 4

The bald-headed bartender, with a white towel slung over his shoulder, turned from the cash register by the whiskey bottles and approached the two strangers sitting at his bar.

“Would you like another?”  He asked.

The two strangers each had been nursing their drinks for the past half hour.  The one who did most of the talking was a heavy set stocky fellow with dark curly hair and a chubby face that looked friendly.  He had a soft somewhat high voice and nodded a lot when he spoke.  He sipped a Guinness.

His friend was the one who made Duncan uneasy.  A big man, close to 6’ 6”, an imposing figure who looked incredibly fit and strong for someone who appeared to be past his prime, perhaps in his early 40s, as his hair sported spots of gray and his face weathered lines.  It was his face that disturbed Duncan the most, and more specifically, his eyes.

The eyes were cold, a killer’s eyes.  Duncan knew the type because he’d worked at the prison once, a long time ago, and he’d seen his share of murderers.  Not all of them had this particular look, but the ones that did, he’d always kept clear of.  It was the look of a predator, a wolf, eyes that spoke out loud, that said no one they encountered could best them.  I’m the top of the food chain.  The tall man sitting at his bar had these eyes.

The man made Duncan uncomfortable, and Duncan was not spooked easily.  After all, he was the champion arm wrestler of Kilgarvan, and at six foot one inch, he was an imposing figure himself who not only owned Duncan’s Pub and tended bar but also served as resident bouncer.  Still, it was one thing to throw out a drunken lug from your establishment, and quite another to tangle with a killer.  After all, Duncan used his muscles to prevent bloodshed, not inflict it.

The man sipped his whiskey, straight, no ice.  He licked his lips, all the while keeping his eyes on Duncan.  He didn’t blink.

“No, thank you.  We’ll keep to these,” the man said.  His voice was emotionless, yet penetrating, like a gun with a silencer.

Duncan swallowed.  “Just let me know if I can get you anything.”

“Certainly.  Thank you so much,” the chubby man smiled. “You’re very thoughtful.”

“And you two are the oddest couple I’ve ever seen,” Duncan thought.

He turned away from the two men, and his eyes fell upon the welcome sight of O’Leary, one of his regulars, the regular in his opinion.  Duncan’s Pub had been open for 11 years, and Duncan remembered clearly opening for business that first day and within the first five minutes of unlocking the front door, seeing O’Leary saunter in with a big smile and saying, “Pour me a stout, why don’t ya?”  That’s how it had begun, and now 11 years later, that’s how it continued.

“Pour me a stout, why don’t ya?” O’Leary said.  He looked over at the two strangers sitting at the bar to his right.

Duncan opened the tap and poured a frothy dark one into a tall mug.  He slapped it in front O’Leary.

“Ah, I thank you,” O’Leary said, lifting the mug to his lips and drawing in a long sip of the hearty brew.

“No. Thank you,” Duncan said.

“Me?  What for?  You’re the one who’s working,” O’Leary said.

“You keep me sane.  It’s good to see you every day,” Duncan said.  His eyes roved back towards the two strangers, and O’Leary followed them.

O’Leary nodded.  “I know what you mean.”

Duncan was able to have this conversation with O’Leary, in such close proximity to the two strangers, because as usual on a weekday afternoon after work, Duncan’s Pub was packed, packed and loud.

Funny about noise, Duncan thought.  It starts off low, then grows louder as the next guy raises his voice so his friend can hear, and then the next guy does the same, and so on and so on.  You’d think it would reach the point where it would burst the eardrums, but it doesn’t.  Day after day the same thing happens.  Suddenly, it gets quiet, all by itself, and inevitably someone makes a loud off color joke, breaking the silence, allowing the cycle to begin again.

It was loud now, and though the two strangers sat close to O’Leary, separated only by Tim and Tina, two other regulars who Duncan didn’t know as well as O’Leary since they only came in once a month or so, it was easy to hold a conversation without worry that they’d be heard.

Duncan didn’t know how old O’Leary was.  He had looked to be in his 60s on that day 11 years ago when he had first come into the pub, and he still looked like he was in his 60s now.  He was thin but had a round frame, and Duncan imagined he must have been a chubby young man.  He had very fine hair and very coarse skin, no doubt from his career as a fisherman.  He was retired now.  His face could be harsh with all its weathered lines, but as soon as he smiled, all the harshness disappeared and he became as warm as everyone’s favorite grandfather.

Duncan didn’t know if 11 years ago O’Leary simply looked older than he was, or if nowadays he simply looked great for his age.  Duncan just hoped the man remained healthy and kept coming in.  Sickness in old age came on fast.  He had seen it with his dad, and now with his mother.  They go on and on in apparent good health claiming they’re going to live to 90, but when sickness comes to a 70 year-old, serious sickness, the body just doesn’t recover.  Duncan didn’t want to see O’Leary sick.

“Just how old are you, O’Leary?”  Duncan asked.

O’Leary sipped his stout and placed the mug on the bar.  “Old enough to drink as many of these as I want.”

“You watching your health?”  Duncan asked.

“Take my medicine every day,” O’Leary said, raising his glass.

Duncan laughed.  He happened to notice the clock on the wall opposite the bar.

“You’re here early today,” Duncan said.  “What’s the occasion?”

“The wife’s out shopping,” O’Leary said.

“You rascal,” Duncan said.

He noticed the two strangers looking around the bar, as if they were looking for someone.  He told himself to leave well enough alone, to attend to the customers at the other end of the bar, but the man with the cold eyes suddenly looked perplexed.  The expression caught Duncan’s curiosity.  Still, he wanted nothing more to do with these two men, at least not until he had finished with the customers at the other end of the bar.  Duncan was about to turn to those customers when he realized the man had caught him staring.

“Oops,” Duncan thought, and he grinned.  How to get out of this one? He decided to simply do his job, and that would take care of it.  He stepped towards the two strangers.

“You look like your wheels are turning,” Duncan said.  “Something on your mind I can help you with?”

“No one’s smoking.  A pub without cigarette smoke.  Why is that?”  The tall stranger asked.

“Welcome to the 21st century,” said Tim, who sat just to the men’s left.

The stranger turned towards Tim and glared at him with wide opened eyes.        “It’s a new law,” Duncan said.  “No more smoking in the workplace, which includes the 10,000 pubs here in Ireland.  If you want to smoke, you’ll have to go outside.”

“Ireland, the world’s healthiest place to live,” O’Leary said, lifting his beer mug.  “Damned health minister!” Tim said.

The tall man turned to his chubby friend.  “Why didn’t you know about this?”

The chubby man shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I didn’t see anything in the literature about it.”

“Don’t come down on your buddy too hard,” Duncan said.  “It’s a brand new law. I’m sure it’s not in any of the travel guides yet.  I hope you weren’t looking forward to that smoke too badly.  You gentlemen on vacation?”

“No.  Business,” said the tall man.

“I see.  What do you do?”  Duncan asked.

The man made direct eye contact with Duncan but didn’t offer an answer, at least not by speaking.  His eyes, they did the talking, and Duncan knew what they were saying, “Stop asking me questions.”

“We’re in the travel business,” said the chubby man.  “That’s why we’re a bit put out that we didn’t know about the ‘no smoking’ law.  It’s our job to know these things.”

“Travel business,” Duncan repeated.  “Are you going to write up a report on my pub?  Should I be on my best behavior?”

The chubby man chuckled.  “No, it’s not like that.  We’re more interested in the people doing the traveling than the places they travel to.  We’re sort of like the People’s Choice awards.  We don’t rate the places we visit ourselves, but we talk to the real life travelers and see what they have to say.  Do you get many travelers here, or do you serve mostly locals?”

“Locals, for sure.  Very few travelers,” Duncan answered.  “On any given month you’d be the only ones, but it must be the week for visitors.”

“You’ve had some tourists in this week?” the chubby man asked.

“One.  A man.  Pretty sure he’s an American. He talks like an American.”

“He sounds like the kind of man we’d like to talk to,” the chubby man said.

“Really?  Too bad, because you’d learn much more if you talked to one of the regulars,” Duncan said.

The chubby man smiled.  “Don’t worry.  We don’t publish negative reviews.  That’s not what we’re about.  We’re interested only in people’s experiences in foreign lands.  We’re not critics.  We’re about human interest stories.  It’s too bad we missed this guy.”

“He’s been in more than once.  Maybe he’ll come in again today,” Duncan said.  He looked at his watch.  “Around this time, too.  Maybe you’ll get lucky.”

“Maybe,” the chubby man said.

Duncan noticed the chubby man’s beer mug was nearly empty.

“Are you sure I can’t get you another?  Duncan asked.

“You know, I think I will have another, thank you very much.”

“Another Guinness?”  Duncan asked, just to make sure.

“Yes.”

Duncan looked at the tall man, still nursing his whiskey.  The tall man shook his head.

“No thank you,” the man said.

Duncan moved to the tap.  “You are one creepy looking guy,” he thought.  “The sooner you’re out of here, the better!”

As he poured the beer, he thought about what the chubby man had just said, and he didn’t buy it.  Travel business.  He didn’t think so.  They didn’t look the part.  At least the tall guy didn’t.  He had killer written all over him.  Maybe to other people he didn’t look so obvious, but it was Duncan’s job to know people inside and out, and the vibes he got from this guy weren’t good.  Whether he was some sort of international agent, CIA perhaps, or hired gun or even terrorist, it didn’t matter.  Duncan wanted him out of his bar.

“Your kind is the last thing we need,” Duncan thought.  “Ireland has enough of its own problems.  We don’t need violence from the outside.”

Duncan filled the mug with a fresh Guinness.  He turned and gave the chubby man his drink.

The front door opened, and Duncan saw the American visitor.  His gut told him to keep his mouth shut, but the chubby guy had said the American was the type of person they wanted to talk to, as part of their travel business.  Maybe he’d call their bluff and see what happened.

“You gentlemen are in luck,” Duncan said.  “Our American tourist just came in for his afternoon brew.”

The two men looked over their shoulders.

The tall American, about 6’2”, and lanky, had the slim yet fit look of a runner.  He wore dark clothing, blue jeans and a dark blue sweatshirt with a hood which bunched up behind his neck.  His white running shoes helped him bounce when he walked.  His hair was jet black, wavy, and it possessed a gel shine.  He had handsome blue eyes that put people at ease.  He appeared a friendly chap.

He approached his usual table, a small circular job meant for two.  Though the pub was packed, the small table was still available.  Most of the patrons of Duncan’s Pub preferred to either stand or hang out by the bar.

Duncan and the two strangers weren’t the only ones who noticed the American come through the door.

Brenda, Duncan’s best waitress, was already moving his way.  He had just sat down, when she leaned her attractive body against him so that her hips touched his shoulder.   She made it a point to touch all the male customers.  Duncan let her do it because it was good for business.  She had a way of doing it without coming across trashy.  She came off like a kid sister who hadn’t seen her “brothers” in months.  The men loved it, and they loved her.  They rewarded her by giving her the best tips in the house.  Duncan didn’t mind because they also stayed longer and bought more beer.

She and the American struck up a conversation, and Duncan knew Brenda would soon be approaching the bar with the man’s order, a mug of frothy ale.

“Does he always come in alone?” the tall man asked.

“Yeah,” Duncan answered.  “Always picks the same table, right there, gets himself a beer and some dinner, and has a good time.”

“You’ve never seen him with anyone else?”  The tall man asked.

“No,” Duncan said.  “Why do you ask?”

Again, the man answered with his eyes, and they were none too happy.

“We ask different questions of solo travelers compared to couples or groups,” the chubby man said.  “Just doing our homework before we go over there and talk to him.”

“I see,” Duncan said.

The tall man reached into his pocket and tossed some money onto the bar.

“Thank you for the drinks,” he said.  He stood from his seat, and his chubby friend followed.  Together they approached the American.

Duncan took the money, nodded in approval at the size of the tip, and turned to deposit the cash in the cash register.

“Is it a full moon tonight, you think?” O’Leary asked.

“Why do you ask?”  Duncan said, looking over his shoulder.

“Those two.”

“You noticed?”

Duncan closed the cash drawer and approached his friend.

“Noticed?  I felt it!”

“The only thing you feel is a hangover in the morning!” Brenda said, coming up behind O’Leary and planting a friendly kiss on the back of his ear.

O’Leary smiled upon seeing Brenda.  “I can still feel more than that, just ask my wife!  Or perhaps you’d like a demonstration?”

“I have asked your wife, and I don’t have the two hours it’ll take to get you started!”  Brenda shot back, bringing howls from the patrons on both sides of O’Leary.  “Our American friend will have his usual,” she said to Duncan.

“Thank you, Brenda,” Duncan said.  He looked into the crowd to see the two strangers approaching the American’s table.

“Travel business,” Duncan muttered, shaking his head.  His stomach suddenly felt sour.

O’Leary made another off color joke causing more hearty laughter from the crowd around the bar.  Duncan smiled and poured the ale for the American.

“Good old O’Leary,” Duncan thought.  “How can anything bad happen with him around?”

 

And that ends Chapter 4.  Once again, thanks for reading!

—Michael

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