He was around six feet tall. He wore a long brown trench coat. A large brimmed hat left his face in almost complete darkness as he entered the bar. I’d been sitting there for a good hour and my buzz was well and truly on. It had been two weeks since my wife had left me. This was my temporary happy place, as I did my best to forget. The man walked towards me, his boots clacking on the floorboards. He took the seat next to me. An aroma of pipe tobacco and gasoline wafted from him. I stared straight ahead.
“What are you drinking, friend?” he asked, his voice low and gravelly.
“The house whiskey,” I replied, not turning to face him.
The man leaned over and swiped a bottle from behind the empty bar. He poured the brown liquid into my glass and then into his. The country music that played seemed apt.
“You come here often?” I asked, suddenly worried he’d take it the wrong way.
The neon sign behind the bar flickered.
He slammed his drink. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him carefully surveilling the room before pouring another.
“You waiting for anyone?”
“Yup,” he responded in a calm monotone.
Another whiskey disappeared down his throat.
“Someone has something of mine.”
I was out of my depth. I had the feeling this man could kill me with a look. His odor put me on edge. I could understand the tobacco smell. He appeared as if he’d walked here straight from the Wild West. But the gasoline, it chilled me. Where had he been tonight?
“A skull,” he continued, “has anyone ever stolen anything from you?”
I laughed, nodding nervously.
“My ex-wife, she stole my heart. I’d like it back.”
He didn’t join in in my amusement.
“What’s her name?” he asked.
“Sandra,” I offered up inexplicably.
“People shouldn’t take what doesn’t belong to them.”
I wasn’t sure he understood.
I finished my drink. The man refilled it before I could protest.
“So, this skull, is it valuable?”
The man grunted. I jumped at the sound.
“Valuable to me. He stole from me, and I need it back.”
A black cat jumped onto the bar and sauntered towards us.
“Are you some sort of collector?” I asked, not wanting to offend the man by staying silent.
He absentmindedly fondled at the teeth that hung from a string around his neck. Not the typical canines you’d expect, but smaller ones, around ten all differenly sized.
“You could say that.”
The man stroked the cat. It purred contentedly, before gracefully leaping to the floor.
The door to the bathroom opened, it was Henry, the owner. He cocked his head when he saw the man who sat next to me, then frowned when he saw the half-empty whiskey bottle.
“Are you paying for that?” Henry said to the man, placing his hands down hard onto the bar.
“I’ll get it,” I said reaching for my wallet.
The man’s arm thrust out in front of me. A worn leather glove rested on my chest.
“No,” he said.
“Hello Erlik,” Henry said smiling, “long time no see.” An arrogant gold front tooth glinted in the dank florescent light.
“You know why I’m here.”
Henry nodded knowingly. His initial humor fell away from his face.
“I don’t have it.”
“I need what’s mine.”
“Can’t we talk about this?” Henry said.
Visible beads of sweat began to gather on his forehead. In empathy, I perspired as well.
Erlik stood up and confidently pointed his gloved hand inches from Henry’s face.
“I have something else, it will be perfect,” Henry offered, nervously backing away and towards the door behind the bar.
“Don’t test my patience,” Erlik’s voice almost boomed with its authority.
I scanned the room to see if there was anyone brave enough to confront the man. It was as if what I was watching was for my eyes only. No one moved, no one even looked up from their drinks.
“Please come with me, I promise I won’t disappoint,” Henry opened the door and beckoned Erlik in.
The cat brushed against my legs. An act that would usually sooth, but instead, I downed my drink and afforded myself another.
The neon light behind the bar flickered. Moments later Erlik calmly returned to the room. He sidled up next to me and placed a bag on the bar. He picked up the whiskey bottle and necked it. The black cat rubbed against the man’s legs.
“What’s in the bag?” I asked.
“What is mine,” he said.
He reached down and gave something to the cat, who graciously took it and chomped away, purring contentedly.
“What was her name again?”
“Who?” I asked, confused.
“San…” I stopped myself. Erlik had unwrapped the contents of his bag. An arrogant gold front tooth glinted in the dank fluorescent light.
Quickly he covered it.
“People shouldn’t take what doesn’t belong to them.”
A woman’s scream broke through the din of the country music. A crowd began to gather around the open door behind the bar. I turned to find Erlik was nowhere to be seen. The front door slowly closed. When it was almost shut, the cat slipped out.
Panicked, I got up and rushed to join the others. Without thinking I took out my phone and dialed my ex-wife’s number. It rang and rang, before the voicemail picked up. I heard the beep but didn’t say anything. I was in shock. Staring at the blood that had pooled and leaked into the room. Staring at the headless body of Henry.
Sandra never answered my calls. I didn’t expect her to. I can’t count how many times I had phoned her in the past two weeks. I didn’t blame her. I had to warn her. I wanted to go to her house. But I couldn’t. She wouldn’t have answered the door to me. Not after what I had done. A restraining order put paid to that. I should’ve though. I should’ve sacrificed myself for her.
When I heard the knock on the door, there was no one there. Just a cardboard box on my front steps.
I didn’t need to open it, Erlik’s name in black Sharpie and the red stains confirmed the contents.