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Moscow Mule

After missing several in a row I thought it was time to kick in to Chuck Wendig’s weekly Flash Fiction challenge again. This past week (I’m posting half a day late) the challenge was to pick, randomly or otherwise, a cocktail from a list, and make that the title of your story. Here’s 1566 words of Moscow Mule.

The old man pushed his way into the bar. A blast of heat followed, the summer dry heat that drove daytime drinkers into places like this—dingy, depressing, but air-conditioned. People near the door flinched, but Anton watched the man and was happy he’d grabbed a table well into the place. He’d grown up in L.A., West Hollywood between Poinsettia and Crescent Heights, but he’d never been good with heat, and this dusty gas station and strip mall outskirt hood of Bakersfield had heat to spare. He sipped the sleeve of Stella in front of him and wondered when his contact would arrive and he could get out of this shit pit and back home.

It was a good two hours drive from his apartment, and he’d have to do the return trip in rush hour, which was a hassle, but one he could withstand. He’d stashed enough cash over the last couple years running numbers and playing messenger boy for Uncle Oleg that he could get out of the business soon, maybe move to Portland or Seattle. It would be good to live somewhere with more trees and less smog. A place where you could go on a date without every baboushka in the neighbourhood knowing about it five minutes later. If Oleg’s toady Sergei wanted him to drive out to the ass end of nowhere and drink skunky beer for an afternoon it was all good. For now.

The geezer had moved to the bar, laid his briefcase on the counter, and started haranguing the bartender like Anton’s uncle and his friends did.

“Żubrówka? You’re using Żubrówka? What do you want me to do? Pour it on ice cream?” He took off his hat and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief.

“Look, young man,” he said. “I understand you’re skilled at your job and I wouldn’t want to denigrate your talents, but this is a classic cocktail. This was the toast of L.A. at one time, and you need some specific things to make it properly. Number one, the vodka must be Smirnoff. Number two, you need a nice spicy ginger beer. Not ginger ale, but ginger beer. That bite is essential. Cock ‘n’ Bull is good, and historically appropriate, but I’m not picky. I don’t suppose you have a copper mug on the premises?” The bartender cocked an eyebrow and slowly shook his head.

“I didn’t think so. Doesn’t matter. It’s a hot day. I’ll have two of them.” He watched the mixing process and nodded in appreciation. When the drinks were ready he peeled off a couple bills, tucked the briefcase under his arm and carried both drinks into the depths of the bar, looking for a seat. He settled on the table next to Anton.

“Anyone sitting here?” he asked, setting the glasses down.

“Not right now,” Anton replied. The old man tucked his briefcase onto the floor under the table, then eased himself onto the chair. His suit was a cream linen, well-cared for and perfectly tailored, but thirty years out of style. The hat was a matching snap brim fedora, full-sized, not these little trilbies the frat boy dudebros thought gave them character. He took a long tug off one of the glasses and let the taste wash over him.

“It’s a Moscow Mule,” he said. “Drinks like this were called buck or mule cocktails and everyone was drinking them in the clubs in the forties and fifties. I was a little young for those clubs, then, but I still got in. I guess I imprinted on these. Still drink them, when I drink, which isn’t often. You often hang out in this place, young man?” he asked.

“Not if I can help it. I’m waiting for someone. They should be here by now.” The old man grinned in response, a bright smile that didn’t quite reach his ice blue eyes.

“Isn’t that always the way? We sit in a bar waiting for someone to come along.” He took another drink. “Well, Anton, I’m your someone.” Anton’s eyes narrowed. He drained the Stella and pushed the mug out of the way.

“All right. What do you need me to do?”

“Do, Anton? Nothing. I just want to talk to you.” He extended his hand. “I’m Mickey. We’d probably be neighbours if I’d stayed in the neighourhood.”

“You act like you’re from home, but you don’t dress like it,” Anton said. “But now you mention it I can practically smell the borscht on you.”

“Borscht? In this suit?” Mickey chuckled. “Never.”

“So what do you want to talk about? I can’t tell you anything about business, even if Sergei sent you.”

“Sergei didn’t send me, Oleg did. I don’t need to know about business. I just need to know what happened at the Odessa Grocery last Tuesday night.”

“Ah, shit, I told Oleg what happened. I don’t want to do it again.”
“Try me, sonny boy. Walk me through it.” Anton looked at his empty glass and wished there was some beer left in it.

“Right, so Yakov and I went there to pick up a package for Oleg. The guy was just closing up, so he let us into the back room, but then he said he’d had a rough week and didn’t have the money. He’d done that in the past, but always made good. Anyway, he got mouthy and Yakov shot him, just pulled out his piece and shot him. Problem is, he didn’t know the old man was carrying and as he’s lying on the floor dying he pulls out a little gun and pops Yakov twice in the chest. I was freaking, but I grabbed Yakov’s wallet and anything that could ID him quickly and got the hell out of there.” He rubbed his hands on his jeans, trying not to fidget. Mickey drank some more and crunched what was left of an ice cube.

“Look, Anton. We both know that isn’t how it happened. You got the news to us fast enough that we boosted the cameras before the cops got there. We know what happened, but I need you to tell me the whole thing, why it happened, and remember that I’m not the judge or the jury. Oleg just sent me out to talk to you where our nosy grandmas weren’t eavesdropping. Just give me the deal and I’ll be on my way.” He took a fresh handkerchief from his jacket pocket and handed it to Anton.

“Here. Wipe your face. You’re gonna leave a salt lick on the table you keep sweating like that. Just talk.”

“Right. Okay.” Anton looked around at nothing in particular then lowered his eyes to the table. “It happened pretty much like I said. The guy started getting mouthy, saying he and Oleg went way back and he’d tell him what this little jerk was saying. It really wasn’t much, it’s just the way old guys-“ He looked up at Mickey. “Sorry, it’s just how some old guys talk. Yakov could have threatened him, or trash-talked him or smacked him in the head or something. Instead he just said ‘Who’s a jerk?,’ pulled out his gun and shot the guy. Shot him cold.”

“And what did you do?”

“I shot him. Hand to God I don’t know why I didn’t just punch him in the head and get us both the hell out of there, but I freaked and I put him down. Then I realized what could happen and I wiped the gun and put it in the old guy’s hand and got the hell out of there. I talked to Oleg then I got drunker than I’ve ever been.”

“You felt sorry for the man he shot?”

“I don’t know if I felt sorry, I mean it isn’t like he was treating us with respect, but he didn’t deserve to be shot.” Mickey finished his drink and put his hand on Anton’s shoulder.

“Here’s the thing,” he said. “This shit happens. We get into situations where we’d ordinarily react in a particular way but we can’t. We can’t because we’re professionals, and we don’t react to things like that. We work through it, maybe discuss it with a colleague later, right?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Anton let out a sigh. “Everything’s changed now, isn’t it?”

“No, Anton. The only thing that’s changed is that things are out in the open.”

Mickey slid the second glass across the table to Anton.

“Best drink in the world, son. Everyone should have at least one before they die.” He donned the fedora, pulling the brim down slightly over his right eye.

“Enjoy it.” He stood up and strolled out the door, letting in another blast of heat. Anton looked at the glass full of golden liquid, condensation running down its surface. It sounded like it would taste good, and he’d have to sit around to miss rush hour anyway, so he’d be safe having another drink. He raised it for a taste, then noticed that Mickey had left the briefcase on the floor.

Three blocks away Mickey checked his reflection in a storefront window, popped his sleeves and adjusted his hat. It made him sad to hear about Jake. He was such a good boy. Always had a hug for his Uncle Mickey. He didn’t even flinch when the bomb detonated.

A professional didn’t react to these things.

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