Drunk on Time
by J. H. Malone
Saul is a 20-something computer expert. He’s somewhat undisciplined and drinks too much, but he is charming and has a soft spot for older people and for his love interest, who is a brilliant but enigmatic researcher. They unlock the secrets of parallel universes with unexpected results for themselves.
Table of Contents, parts:|
1, 2, 3, 4. 5, 6, 7,
8, 9, 10, 11a, 11b
Two weeks later, I was sitting in The Studio after work with a beer and bowl of pretzels in front of me. Four old sots swapped lies and kept me company at the bar. Walt was nodding on his stool by a metal sink full of pilsner glasses. A soccer game between two Mexican clubs unreeled in silence on the flatscreen.
“Go home, Dad,” Mimi said, giving Walt a pat on the back. She came down the bar to the five of us.
“How are your seniors?” she asked me.
“Surprised by age.”
“Would my dad fit in over there, when I finally get him to sell this place and retire?”
“The ladies will be all over him.”
She glanced back at him on his stool.
“The centers aren’t so different from this place,” I said.
A hard guy in his fifties stepped into the bar, encased in a suit tailored for a bank president. He looked us over.
“Nice suit,” I said.
“You making fun of it?” the guy said.
“Why? It’s not yours?”
I was on my third beer with several shots of well gin thrown in. Mimi reached out and tapped my hand.
“I feel like a clown when I wear it,” the guy said. “Cost enough for five suits.”
“You get a promotion?” I said.
“Yeah. I’m a businessman now.”
“If you say so.”
He came over to the bar and gave me the look. Mimi tapped me again. The guy waved her off.
“I’m Tony Garza,” he said to me. “Thanks for helping my mom the other day.”
“Valeria. Nice lady. You’re welcome.”
“My daughter can get a little wild.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Racquetball, dinner with a guy, quiet party in Los Feliz.”
“My mom is old-school. When my daughter goes out, her grandma fears the worst. Julieta is seventeen, and she and Tommy Link are a thing, but that don’t mean she can worry her grandma. I like Tommy, but a guy’s a guy, you know what I mean? Julieta should’ve checked before she took off like that. It’s a rule.”
“You want something to drink?”
Mimi drifted back. The geezers shifted down the bar, giving us room.
“Johnny Walker Blue,” Garza said to her. “Bring over the bottle.”
“No black, gold, platinum, or blue in this joint,” Mimi said. “You’re lucky to get red.”
“Do I know you?” Garza said to her.
“I’m Mimi. Walt’s kid.”
“You know Julieta? She went to East Valley.”
“I knew her big sister Mariana.”
“So what about this guy here? He dependable?”
“The old folks love him.”
“What’s your opinion?”
She shrugged. “He’s sitting here half-drunk,” she said. “What does that tell you?”
She fetched the bottle of Johnny Red and set it on the bar, along with a tumbler for Garza and a couple of bar napkins. I swallowed the last of the beer in my glass and slid it over next to the tumbler. Garza poured out a dose for each of us, ignoring the foam remnants in my glass.
“Nothing to drink worthy of that suit in this dive,” I said to Garza.
He looked down and ran a palm over the fine material of the suit coat. His calluses produced a scratching sound.
“You asked if I got promoted,” he said. “Yeah. I’ve been in collections for years. Now I’m in charge of loans.”
“You don’t look too happy about it.”
“I’m not so good with numbers. I’m not so good at giving orders. I’m not so good at knowing who to give money to and when to say no. Collecting, I’m good at.”
“So why the promotion?”
“My boss got... got fired. The head of the company decided to try me out. He says I’m trustworthy. My boss wasn’t.”
“You could’ve said no.”
“Uh huh,” he said, meaning “nuh uh.” “Anyway, I’m here now because I’m looking for Tommy Link, and my daughter won’t tell me where he is. We were arguing about it, and my mom reminded me how quick you found my daughter last week. My mom says I should ask you to find Tommy the same way. She says Julieta might be tweeting at him or texting him or whatever the hell they do these days, and you could spot him on your computer.”
He pulled out a packet of hundred-dollar bills and handed it to me. I laid it on the bar. Down the bar, Jorge Gonzalez got up like the money was a signal and headed out. Freddie and Juan moved to the pool table. Hoang limped to the bathroom.
“I got lucky finding Julieta,” I said. “I’d never find Tommy.”
“My mom says you’ll find him. He’s popular in the Valley. If you don’t find him in LA, check Reno and Vegas. He gambles. Go home and use your computer. What are you doing in a joint like this anyway?”
“It’s not home, but it sort of feels like it,” I said.
Garza had the shoulders of a lineman. He loomed. A powerful guy, like an ox is powerful. I had an idea, though, that in spite of his ox-like strength, his mom, wife, and daughter probably shared the reins to his yoke.
“If finding my daughter was luck, good for you,” he said. “Now you can be lucky some more.”
The hands sticking out of his suit looked like they could hurt somebody. I kept quiet. Instead of answering, I took a manly swallow.
Garza knocked back the liquid in his glass in an unsuitlike way.
“I help you find the guy, then what?” I said.
He pointed at the hundreds.
“I mean, to Tommy,” I said.
“Does to me.”
“Doesn’t to you. You find him, you get the finder’s fee. Do what you do on the computer, however you do it, I don’t care. Google him like you did my daughter.”
“You said you didn’t care that he took your daughter out. She didn’t ask permission, but is that Tommy’s fault?”
“I like the kid. This isn’t about my daughter.”
“What’s it about?”
“Money. He owes it.”
“And can’t pay it?”
“Why I can’t find him.”
“My gift for using the computer won’t work if you’re going to hurt this guy,” I said. The alcohol fumes cleared off my brainpan for a minute, stirred by a puff from the winds of concern. “My gift comes from a good fairy, not a bad one.”
“You sound like the fairy,” Garza said. “I’m not going to hurt the kid.”
I searched his face and couldn’t find a lie hiding there, but that’s because it was hiding.
“Work with me, Tony,” I said.
Garza sighed. He seemed like a calm guy, but there was nothing calming about him. I didn’t want him angry. I didn’t want him taking off his suit coat to keep blood from splashing on it. I suspected blood was not unusual in his line of work, at least before he got promoted.
“You like to haggle, huh, Saul? Get the best deal?”
“Are you talking about my nose?”
Hoang came back from the bathroom and stood watching the other two at the pool table. The soccer match continued in silence. A guy I didn’t know dozed over his beer at a table in the back.
“I’m not trying to make a deal,” I said. “I don’t want some kid’s blood on my hands.”
“I promised my daughter I wouldn’t kill him or cripple him.”
“You said you’re not in collections anymore. Somebody else going to collect from Tommy?”
“I’m handling this one personally,” Garza said.
I didn’t have to think long about that one.
“You loaned him the money, and you want to clean this up quietly,” I said.
“The organization is gonna take the money from me when they find out. Nothing I can do about that, but if I don’t work the boy over, they’re gonna work me over instead.”
“How much does Tommy owe?”
“Twenty large, plus the vig.”
“Yow. How did that happen?”
“He’s got a gambling problem.”
“I mean, how did he get into you for that much?”
“I’m new at making loans instead of collecting on them. Tommy scores big sometimes. He knows sports. He’s an excellent poker player. Also, his father is rich. Only lately, Tommy isn’t doing so good. He’s taken some real bad beats at the table. He keeps explaining how he’s due to bounce back. He’s a convincing kid.
“Also my daughter leaned on me a little. I thought his father would bail him out. I called the old man when Tommy couldn’t pay up. I got the horse laugh. His old man told me Tommy was kicked out of UCLA for organizing poker games in the dorm. The family disowned him.”
I finished my Red. Garza made no move to refill either glass. I sensed he was done drinking.
“You’re the new guy in charge of loans,” I said, “and the first thing, you let a kid take you for a ride.”
He tightened up at that, but his suit and new responsibilities reined him in.
“Yeah,” he said. “Like I told you, I don’t make an example out of him, somebody is gonna make an example out of me.”
I pushed my glass away.
“It’s nothing personal,” he said. “He told me he had a sure thing. I’m the sucker here. He promised me if he won the bet, he’d pay me off and use the rest of the money to check into a treatment program. He told me he was already going to Gamblers Anonymous. Probably a line, but the kid sold me on it. Maybe he sold himself and Julieta too. In spite of everything, I like Tommy.”
“So I helped your mother find your daughter and now I’m supposed to help you find Tommy so you can beat him up?”
A cloud passed over his face. “I promised my daughter about Tommy,” he said. “I didn’t make any promises about you.”
“How would your mom like it, if you hurt me?”
“My mom knows the business. I’m a pussycat compared to what my dad was. She knows it’s never personal with me.”
He let me sweat a minute and then poked me in the chest.
“I’m messing with you,” he said. “Turn me down and the worst I’ll do is send somebody over to bust up that damned computer of yours.”
All of a sudden the bar came into focus.
“What if I can’t find him?” I said.
“My mom says if you look, you’ll find. Tommy stands out. He can’t help it. He’s got to be a player, if not here, then somewhere else.”
“You haven’t found him.”
“He’s staying clear of the books and casinos around here. If he’s gambling online or he’s left town, you’re the guy to figure it out.”
“Tommy Link,” I said.
“Tommy Link. Where’re you from, anyway?”
“I grew up in Thousand Oaks. Then I went back east for a while.”
“What are you doing in this neighborhood?”
“Close to my job. When did you last see Mr. Link?”
“When I gave him his final warning Sunday night. One more day to bring me the money.”
“Who else have you got after him?” I said.
“Nobody. I want to keep this quiet. I’ve put the word out a little bit, but my collection guys aren’t working on it.”
“Where did you talk to Tommy last Sunday?”
“Over on Victory?” I said. “What time?”
“Maybe ten, ten-thirty that night.”
“What does Tommy look like?”
I already knew, of course, but I wanted to make an impression.
“Nice clean kid. Grew up in Canoga Park. Tall. Blond hair. Used to wear an expression said he knew it all. That was before this losing streak. Now he’s hangdog.”
“And what would the example look like, if you made one out of him?”
“It would look like somebody would say, what the hell happened to him? He’d still be walking, though, at least after a while.”
“Come back tomorrow night,” I said.
Garza pulled out a pen and wrote a phone number on a napkin. He pushed it over to me and stood up. The money remained where it was.
“You’ll get a bonus for finding Tommy quick, like you found my daughter,” he said. “Call me when you do, or I’ll be here tomorrow night. Ten o’clock.”
He shook the wrinkles out of his trousers. Mimi came over to reclaim the Johnny Walker and glasses.
“Say hello to Mariana for me,” she said to Garza.
He nodded and walked out.
Mimi eyed the hundreds lying on the bar.
“That’s not good,” she said.
“He wants some computer help.”
“Yeah? My advice, don’t give it.”
“He was persuasive,” I said.
Mimi yawned and pushed her hair behind her ears.
“One more hit?” I said, picking up my glass.
“You’ve had enough. You going to help him?”
“He said he’d smash my computer.”
“They say things like that. It’s part of the business.”
“He won’t smash it?”
“No, he’ll smash it. He just won’t enjoy smashing it.”
“I can’t find a kid he’s going to hurt,” I said. “How did I get into this?”
“Tell him you tried and couldn’t find him.”
“If I try, I’ll find him. I’m afraid to lie to this guy. Not when I’m sober.”
“Are you sober now?”
“I’m not drunk enough, that’s for sure.”
“Stall him,” Mimi said. “Maybe he’ll find the boyfriend in the meantime.”
My glass was still in my hand. I held it out. She sighed and poured a finger into it.
“Let’s pray the kid is long gone,” I said.
“When is Tony coming back?”
“Tomorrow night. Here.”
“He wants to put this to bed,” Mimi said.
I stood up, stuffed the money in my pocket, and drained my glass.
“Good night, guys,” I said to the trio at the pool table.
They dropped their cues on the green baize and returned to the bar. I ignored their questioning looks and took an egg from the basket on the bar. Mimi cleared my glass.
Copyright © 2020 by J. H. Malone