The Contender

The price of a pint can be a necessary business expense when unloading ill-gotten games. In the Gutter, some people pay so much more.

The Contender by Paul Brazill

It was a Saturday night and The Cobble Bar was only slightly busier than it was midweek, which really wasn’t very. Indeed, if the place hadn’t been useful for the local criminal fraternity–money laundering, distribution of contraband and the like—it would have closed down years ago.
A big screen television was silently showing a 24-hour weather channel though no one seemed to be watching it.  Status Quo’s ‘Paper Plane’ blasted out as I walked up to the bar and took off my raincoat.
‘What can I get you?’ said the barmaid.
She was short, with dyed black hair and a blood encrusted nose piercing. She had a sharp Eastern European accent and a sharper scowl.
‘A pint of John Smith’s, please,’ I said. 
I pointed toward Sniffy, who was coming back from the Gents toilets sniffing his fingers. ‘And whatever he’s having.’
She poured Sniffy a pint of Stella Artois before pouring my pint of bitter.
‘Ta much, Aneta, my little antenna,’ said Sniffy.
He winked at the barmaid.
I watched Aneta struggle to put the head on my beer as Sniffy knocked back half of his pint in one go. He burped. And sniffed. He seemed to have slicked back his long black hair while he was in the toilets and his Deep Purple sweatshirt was soaked.
‘Been for a quick shower have you?’ I said.
I took my pint from Aneta. It was more head than beer but I just smiled and said nowt.
‘Just thought I’d freshen up in case any talent turns up,’ he said.
I looked around the pub. All men. All middle-aged or over. All as rough as fuck. Aging barflies and wastrels. Like Sniffy. Like me.
‘You never know, you might be in luck,’ I said. ‘There’s a school for the blind nearby.’
‘I’m so horny I’d do the blind dog,’ said Sniffy.
He cackled and sniffed.
I shoved aside the image and looked at some notes I’d made on a soggy beermat. I had a holdall full of hooky Ukrainian cigarettes I was hoping to offload to Mad Frank, the pub landlord, if he ever showed his face. I’d been in the pub two nights running and hadn’t clapped eyes on him. In fact, I couldn’t remember having seen him in the pub for some time. I needed to get some dosh soon, though.  It was a coming up to rent day and I’d already missed two months’ payments. Pete Patel, my landlord, had been giving me the evil eye of late and a bloodshot one it was, too.
Sniffy swigged the last of his beer. He nodded to Aneta who poured him another pint.
‘Same again?’ he said.
‘No, I’ll have a Stella,’ I said. ‘I can’t cope with the stress of watching Aneta pouring another pint of John Smiths.’
Aneta put the drinks on the bar.
‘My dogs are barking,’ I said.
I picked up my pint and took a seat in the corner while Sniffy played on a quiz machine. He came over a few minutes later holding out a handful of coins, grinning.
‘I’m not just a pretty face,’ he said.
‘Not even,’ I said.
‘Ha bloody ha,’ said Sniffy.
He sat opposite me.
A short, stocky man with a wild, ginger beard walked into the pub. He was wearing an old combat jacket a and carried an acoustic guitar covered in garish, Day-Glo stickers. He nodded to Sniffy and went to the bar.
‘Oh, for fuck sake,’ said Sniffy. ‘I didn’t know he was back out of the loony bin.’
‘Who’s that, then?’
‘That’s Jeff. He fancies himself as Seatown’s answer to Bob Dylan although he sounds more like Bob Hope. He was alright once upon a time but all the prescription meds and booze have cramped his style a bit and then some.’
Sniffy took out a Vicks Inhaler and jammed it up his nose.
Jeff climbed onto a table and tuned his guitar.
‘I didn’t know there was live music on in here,’ I said.
‘There isn’t usually but Jeff has a special dispensation, like. What with him being Mad Frank’s son and that,’ said Sniffy.
He sneezed.
‘I’ll just pop outside for a breath of fresh air,’ said Sniffy, holding up a packet of Silk Cut cigarettes.
Five increasingly torturous versions of ‘Hurricane’ later, I was ready to go home when Jeff stopped playing and went and sat on a barstool.
Sniffy came back into the pub, stuffing his Nokia into his pocket and shaking the rain off like a soggy mongrel. He winked to Aneta who winked back and poured Jeff a double whiskey. He downed it in one. She poured him another one.
‘Important call was it?’ I said.
‘As a matter of fact it was. I’m on a promise,’ said Sniffy.
There was a crash. I looked up to see Jeff sprawled on the floor. Aneta ran over to him and took out her iPhone. A few minutes later a couple of paramedics ran in. After examining him, they took Jeff out on a stretcher.
‘I wonder if he’ll be alright,’ I said.
‘I doubt it,’ said Sniffy. ‘That booze and drugs combination is pretty damned fatal.’
He winked.
‘Shouldn’t someone let his dad know?’ I said.
‘A bit difficult, that. Frank’s down in the cellar and he won’t be coming back up. I hope!’
He cackled and sniffed.
‘Who’s going to take over the pub then?’ I said.
‘You’re looking at the new owner.’
He grinned and ran a hand through his hair. He sniffed loudly.
‘I told you I was on a promise,’ he said.
Aneta walked over and sat on Sniffy’s knee. She kissed him on the lips.
‘Isn’t the entrance to the cellar located in the gent’s toilets?’ I said.
‘It is,’ said Sniffy.
He and Aneta started cackling.  I was lost in thought for a moment and then shrugged.
‘Can I interest you in some dodgy cigarettes?’ I said.

Paul D. Brazill’s books include Too Many Crooks, A Case Of Noir, Guns Of Brixton, and Kill Me Quick! He was born in England and lives in Poland. He is an International Thriller Writers Inc member whose writing has been translated into Italian, German and Slovene. He has had writing published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Books of Best British Crime.