Written in response to the following from Reedy’s story prompts: “Write a story where the readers are in on a secret that the characters are unaware of.”
One Friday night, the oak door of The Whistling Dog flew open. The night was clear and tranquil, so every soul in the bar knew it was no breeze that did it.
It was a man: Mitch Larson, tall, bearded, with a thick overcoat and a tattooed face; the jukebox had finished playing ten minutes ago, and he stared into the silence. Moving forward, casting a cursory glance toward the stairway on his right, he walked to a barstool far from the other drinkers. The bartender, Jesse Wilkes, sixty if he was a day, approached, his round spectacles shining with the light emanating from behind the bar. Across the room, Harp Jackson’s hands, the nimble fingers of which aided in guitar-picking and card-slinging alike, slipped, and his deck of cards shot halfway across his table. Sitting opposite him in the booth, Frankie DeMontier—built like a football player, with a severe widow’s peak and a crooked smile—blinked, having never seen Harp’s hands fail him before.
In twenty minutes, one of these men would be dead.
These four weren’t the only company; Darcy Kinsington had been telling an animated story to Gretchen Peck and Margaret Ervine; old Carlson Boatright was on the far corner of the bar, pretending to watch the news; and Dirk Houghan and Ralph Vanceworth were frozen amid a grave chess battle. Everyone hesitated to resume their prior activities; all of them, obviously or not, were watching to see what Mitch would say or do.
It was Jesse who broke the silence. “Any luck?” he asked anxiously, setting down the drink: a glass of Old Forester, neat.
Mitch swirled the bourbon around; in the bar lights, it glowed amber. For a moment it seemed he would make no reply. “Mm.” He nodded. “Y’could say that.” His voice was like sandpaper.
Carlson, the next closest to Mitch, abandoned his pretense of television-watching and leaned in. “What’s that, Mitch? You said you found her?”
“Didn’t say that,” said Mitch, calmly enough, but his face was still downturned, and if either Jesse or Carlson could see his eyes, that man would be very afraid indeed.
Harp, after fumbling his shuffle, had stood up at the newcomer’s words. Now he moved a few steps closer. “What is it, Mitch?”
Mitch didn’t turn. To the glass in his hand, he said, “Spoke to Buddy Salinger.”
This silence was prickly, electric.
Jesse chuckled. “Buddy? What’s he got to do with—?”
“Thought he was in Las Rojas?” Frankie interrupted, standing to join Harp, his brow furrowed.
“He is,” said Mitch. The band on his left ring finger clattered against the lowball glass.
“You drove all the way to Las Rojas?” said Harp.
Downing his bourbon, Mitch set the glass onto the bar, where it gleamed empty. “Li’l drive ain’t nothin.” He indicated for Jesse to give him another.
“Well—what for?” cried Carlson. “What’d Bud say to ya?”
“Called me. Said he had some’n to tell me. So I went.”
Everyone waited. But Mitch seemed to have forgotten there was a conversation happening at all.
Frankie said, “Listen, Mitch. Whatever Buddy said … he ain’t in his right mind. We all know that. Come on. He just prolly wants to feel important, like. Say he was a help to ya.”
“Could be.” Mitch drew his second drink closer. “But he seemed mighty together when I saw him. Mighty sure.”
“What’d he tell ya, Mitch?” said Jesse, softly.
“Said he knew where Sally was. Knew who took her.”
A knight slipped from Ralph’s fingers and clattered to the chessboard, but neither he, Dirk, nor anyone else seemed to notice.
“So—so she was taken?” said Frankie. “Someone took her?”
“’Pears so,” said Mitch, taking a drink.
“Did he know or not?” said Carlson. “Where Sally was, I mean?”
“He knew.” Mitch raked his eyes over the glowing bottles on the wall behind Jesse.
Dirk rose to his feet; he strolled toward the jukebox, as if to shatter this mood with a well-chosen tune.
“Leave it, Dirk,” said Mitch without looking, the loudest he’d spoken.
Dirk froze, then resumed his seat with Ralph.
Mitch went on, “Went to the Browntree Motel just off the fifty-nine. Where Bud was staying.”
“How long’s he stayin there?” said Harp, although not a single one of them intended to make the drive.
“Tonight’ll be his last night, I wager,” said Mitch, as he finished his second bourbon. For a long time, he contemplated the empty glass, the glossy countertop, and the glistening bottles.
He turned around, the movement sudden as the strike of a viper. He looked at Harp, now twenty feet away.
“Thing is, Bud didn’t call me. I called him.”
Harp was either too shocked or too cautious to respond, so Frankie asked the begged question. “Called him? For what? And what’s he got to tell you about Sally anyway? Hell, didn’t all of us—”
Mitch silenced him with his eyes. As Frankie’s Adam’s apple bobbed helplessly, Mitch said, “Yeah, y’all had the same story, di’n’t ya? ’Bout last Saturday.”
Harp broke his silence. “’Course we did, Mitch. We was all together, whatchu mean?”
“Were you?” said Mitch, and no one could speak for a moment. He turned back to the bar, and held up his glass, now full again. “Cheers, Jesse,” he said drily, drinking half of it before returning to Harp and the rest of the crowd. “Ever since Sally’s gone, I kep’ thinkin and thinkin, turnin over ideas in my head. ’Cause you know and I know Sally weren’t the type to run off. She loved me. She loved me.”
It was the most anyone had heard Mitch speak on the subject of Sally’s disappearance.
“So I kep’ thinkin,” Mitch went on, “who coulda done it? ’Cause I don’t believe for one pig-flyin second that this was some drifter, like. Don’t feel right. Naw, this feels too close, too personal.” Without looking, he reached and drew the bourbon to him, taking a drink. “So who coulda done it? Who woulda done it? What bastard coulda hurt my woman?” His lips seemed to tremble, but a moment later, everyone was sure it had been a trick of the light. Mitch Larson never broke. When he brought glass to mouth again, beard tickling the rim, his eyes stayed on Harp. “Yeah, Bud told me the same thing. Y’all were here, out there smokin, right?” He pointed toward the front door.
“Yeah, Mitch—” Frankie began, but Mitch talked over him.
“Y’all was smokin and saw Sally fly by in her sunflower-yella DeVille.” He laughed softly. “Her Yella Devil. That’s what y’all said. Only”—he scratched his chin—“somethin nagged me about how Buddy told it. Just one detail.”
Harp leaned his hands against the table, like someone about to plead with a mental patient. “Mitch, what are you sayin? He—”
“When y’all said she raced by, you told me—told the police too—that she turned on Bridgebin.”
“She did,” said Frankie, his voice begging.
“And you too,” said Mitch, turning to Jesse. “Right, you confirmed it?”
Jesse’s wide eyes could barely hold Mitch’s. “I . . . I wasn’t there. I mean, it was busy, ’n’ I don’t remember when the boys were in, or when they were out front, so I can’t . . .”
Mitch nodded as though he had expected no other reply. To the others, he said, “Only thing is . . . Buddy’d told me she swerved onto Summerwell.”
Even if a pin had dropped, no one would have noticed; they were too transfixed.
“Now, hold on, Mitch,” said Harp, with the tone of someone ushering reason back into a conversation. “We established this. We know Bud is … I mean, he’s—”
Mitch fixed him with a cold stare and his words faltered.
“Whatever he is don’t change facts. I called him up, he told me where he was, and I went t’see him. And I told him, I said, ‘Bud, how’s it that Sally turned onto Summerwell? That road’s been closed up for months.’ He hemmed and hawed, ’n’ I said, ‘Buddy, ’sides, you cain’t even see Summerwell from the front o’ the Dog.’ After that, he got real quiet.”
The Whistling Dog was quieter still.
Mitch set his empty glass on the bar and tapped beside it without looking.
Jesse hesitated. “Now, Mitch, I reckon you’ve had en—”
Mitch turned, and Jesse backed away, grabbing the bottle.
“Asked Bud for an answer. An explanation, like. ’Cause I can’t see as how he’d mess his facts that bad. ’Less the whole thing were a lie.”
“You’re talkin …,” said Harp, then tried again. “You sayin all of us was lyin? All of us, Mitch?” He stared as though waiting for Mitch to admit this was all a joke.
“Told Bud he should come clean.” His eyes fixed on Harp’s. “And finally he did. He told me the truth. Told me everything.”
Harp’s face transformed with an unreadable emotion. “Now wait just—”
“Listen, Mitch,” said Frankie, his voice rising above all. “Jus’—jus’ listen, all right? I’ll explain, I can explain.” Moving forward, he took a seat at the bar, four down from Mitch.
The man only stared at Frankie, until the latter finally started talking. “Harp and me, we got this … group.”
“Don’t, Frank,” said Harp, but Frankie ignored him.
He strained to lower his voice, but everyone could hear each word. “Me and Harp and Bud. We did odd jobs. Find businesses with light security, things like that. But we never hurt nobody.”
“You broke in and robbed ’em,” said Mitch, more statement than question.
“We never hurt nobody,” Frankie repeated in a desperate whisper.
Mitch turned to the bartender. “You know ’bout this, Jesse?”
Jesse stepped back, his hands out as if to stop an oncoming car. “No, no. Me? No, never.”
“Mmhm.” Mitch turned to Frankie. “What’s that got to do with Sally?”
Frankie nodded. “She … well, she joined up with us.”
Mitch’s face didn’t react. “How’d that come to pass?”
Frankie looked to Harp, who threw him another panicked look, then turned back to Mitch. “She just came over and found us all, at Harp’s one night, after a job. Said she knew what we was up to and basically threatened us to include her.”
“That right?” said Mitch.
“Yes, Mitch; yes.” His eyes shone. “She only did a couple smaller jobs with us, but she—”
“You sayin’ my wife’s a thief?”
Frankie looked uncomfortable. “Well, I …. She was there, Mitch. I dunno what to tell ya.” When Mitch said nothing, he went on. “Anyway, we was only there a couple jobs, then next thing we knew, she’d run off with a chunk of our cash.”
“So the thief becomes the thieved,” said Mitch under his breath.
“Nothin.” Breaking eye contact, he scanned the stores of liquor again. Then he turned to Harp. “That true? Sally joined y’all, robbed ya blind, and zipped outta town?”
“Yeah—yeah, Mitch. That’s what”—he looked to Frankie, then back—“that’s what happened.”
Mitch nodded as though the whole exchange had left him as satisfied as a good meal. Then from the depths of his coat he brought out an object, and no one knew what was happening until the Smith & Wesson 4506 caught the bar lights, gleaming as Mitch pointed it toward Harp. “Now, why don’t you go on ’n’ tell me what really happened?”
Harp raised his hands and backed away. “Mitch—”
Mitch was ex-police, but everyone was still startled to see him wielding the pistol. All of them were too scared to move, even to flee, afraid of setting him off.
“Mitch, you know I don’t allow firearms in—”
“Shut up, Jesse,” said Mitch, and he did.
Finally Frankie said, “Let’s all just take a deep breath here.”
“I want Harp to take a breath and tell me the truth.”
“Mitch, Frankie already told you—”
“I want the truth!”
Harp exhaled shakily. “All right, Mitch. I was sleepin with Sally. Last year or so. There, is that what you wanna hear?”
Mitch blinked. “Anythin else you wanna say?”
“She was comin over to mine when she stumbled on us after the job. That’s how she found out. That’s how she knew.”
“Then? What Frankie said. Everything he said is—”
“You killed her.”
“Harp …” There was a warning in Mitch’s voice now.
“I don’t know what Buddy said,” Frankie told Mitch, “but …”
“Where is Bud, Mitch?” said Harp softly. “C’mon, man. Tell me he’s all right.”
“Don’t you worry ’bout Bud,” said Mitch. “Might be he’s just outside.”
No one voiced their disbelief at this.
“Buddy told me he took Sally aside, tried to get her to leave y’all. Gave her a way out—only she was half-drunk, tryin to seduce him there in your van, when you walked in. You musta had it in your mind she was your woman, Harp.” Mitch gave a bitter laugh. “Bud said you went into such a rage, you went to shoot at him. Your fingers always were quick, weren’t they?”
Harp said nothing.
“You pulled your gun and made your shot, but Bud and Sally spun around and you missed. Your precious hand failed you, and instead o’ shootin Bud in the back, you shot my Sally. Had her bleedin all over the place, by all accounts.”
Mitch stepped closer.
“Then what happened, Harp?” he whispered. “You paid Buddy off, and he helped hide her. Her, and her car, you took to his landfill, and buried her like she were old news.”
“Mitch.” Harp’s eyes pleaded. “Please, man, I … I’m sorry. You gotta believe me, it was an accident. It truly was—”
“Is that true, Harp?” Frankie’s voice was hoarse.
Harp kept his gaze on the gun. “I …”
“It’s true, all right,” said Mitch.
Old Carlson cried, “No!”
Mitch said, “But that weren’t the end. Because Sally was still alive. She was still alive, you bastard.”
Harp looked utterly shocked. “I … No, I …”
Mitch was nodding. “Yes. She bled like hell, but the bullet musta just missed her heart, or someone wanted her alive, ’cause the next day—Sunday mornin, hallelujah—Buddy found her. Did he put her outta her misery? No, sir. What’d our Bud do? Brought her here.”
Now Mitch swung his gun to Jesse.
“To you. His only friend outside the group. Jesse here agreed to take her to one of his rooms, hide her away, see to her wounds quietly. And he kept Buddy’s secret—y’all’s secret.”
“That’s …,” Harp said, trailing.
“A mighty tale, I know,” said Mitch.
“So, Sally’s here?” said Frankie. “She’s upstairs right now?”
Mitch was shaking his head. “Wish it were so. During all my searchin, I peeked in every corner of this town, those rooms included. Sally was gone by then. So my question is”—he ran his gaze from Harp, to Frankie, to Jesse, around and around—“who finished her off? ’Cause one of you did. Speak up, ya coward: who was it? Who’s the one who m—”
A gunshot cracked, earsplitting and alarming even though everyone had been tensed for it; three bottles shattered on the wall behind Jesse.
Everyone looked, but Mitch’s right arm had already dropped; his left hand, clutching his shoulder, came away red. He turned and stared with bleary eyes.
Thirty feet away, Darcy Kinsington stood pointing a Ruger SP101 at him, jaw set and eyes blazing.
“Bet Bud didn’t tell ya ’bout me, did he?” Her voice pierced the stillness, and she stalked closer. When Mitch made to raise his pistol, she said, “Keep it down there, that’s a better idea.”
Everyone else had dropped to the ground.
“Darcy?” Mitch croaked.
“Yeah. Big surprise, huh? I’s the one told Bud to get Sally outta that group. Always hated her. Entitled is what she is. I had Bud wrapped around my finger, givin me cuts from his jobs, and I knew he’d do whatever I said, he’s stupid enough. Only Sally tried to have Bud to herself, and Harp fudged it all up. When Buddy told me she was hidden here, I couldn’t believe it. So yeah, I did it. I came here and gave her a scarin like to haunt her for her lifetime. Told her she’d better get from town and never come back. And she did.”
Mitch’s jaw tightened. To his right, Frankie made to stand, possibly anxious to stop more bloodshed, but Mitch, wound tight as he was, reacted, aiming and shooting Frankie clean through the heart.
Darcy fired again, grazing Mitch’s neck and shattering more bottles.
“Frankie!” cried Harp. His friend fell with a thud to where he had just lain, pooling blood.
In the chaos, Darcy had circled to her right, toward the door. She brushed golden locks out of her face, wearing a manic smile. “It’s been a fun Friday night, boys. But I got places to be.”
“If you take one more step—”
Darcy kept moving, and Mitch shot her in the leg, the sound like thunder. Crying out, she fired at Mitch, then dashed for the door before he could react.
Mitch fell back and hit the bar, blood soaking his shirt. Everyone watched as Darcy grabbed the oak door and threw it wide—
And ran right into Buddy Salinger.
“Bud!” said Darcy, half shocked and half faux-joyful.
Buddy did not smile; he shoved her and she went sprawling, the Ruger falling from her hand and clattering across the floor. Before anyone could think, Harp leaped forward, grabbed it, and shot Darcy where she lay.
Silence followed. Mitch lay propped against the bar, clutching his stomach, his gun forgotten. Harp helped him to his feet, then into a chair.
“Don’t s’pose that make us even, do it?”
Mitch spat blood to the side, finding Harp’s eyes. “Sure don’t. But if you help me find Sally, maybe I’ll forgive you your quick fingers, and let you live.”
Harp promised he would. But first he went to the bar and asked Jesse for a drink.