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The Barkeep by William Lashner



I flew into O’Hare with only a briefcase and a question.

Off the plane and through security, I spotted my driver holding his little sign. I didn’t break stride as I nodded and followed him to the exit. The car was black and plush and hummed like a cat. All the way down I-94 I felt like a ninja in a navy-blue suit.

The driver had been advised of the address where we were headed, I was simply along for the ride. I expected to end up in one of the great granite buildings on Michigan Avenue or in a modernist skyscraper smack in the Loop, but I found myself instead on the west side of the highway, in a shabby business district with a nail salon, a blues club, and a storefront selling “Energéticos Hormonas.” The driver told me the man I was meeting was on the second floor of the boxy brick building that held the club. The greasy scent of Cuban food from the restaurant next door followed me up the stairs.

A woman sat behind a desk in front of a frosted glass office door, leaning on her elbows in an almost Zen-like stillness. From the size of her, I figured she was part-time receptionist, full-time bouncer. With those forearms, she could have tied me into a pretzel.

“Victor Carl,” I said. “Here to see Mr. Flores.”

She didn’t respond; she simply blinked and stared at me as if I were just another cockroach scuttling across her floor.

“I have an appointment,” I said.

“Mr. Flores has no appointment today with a Carl or a Victor,” she said. “So whichever one you are, sorry, but no.”

“I’m both,” I said.

“Two first names?”


“Usually one is enough.”

“You would think.”

“Mr. Flores is no taking appointment today with no one who has no appointment. In fact he never takes appointment with no one who has no appointment. It is a rule as firm as a fist.”

“Tell him I’m the man from Philadelphia.”

“Philadelphia? I have cousin who live in Philadelphia. Her name Adalia Martinez. Maybe you know her.”

“It’s a big town.”

“She’s a witch.”

“Oh, I’m sure she’s not that bad.”

“I mean a real witch. Dead chickens, charred corn.”

“Sounds like dinner.”

She reached over and picked up a phone, pressed a button, waited. I heard a muffled sound from the other side of the door.

“El hombre de Philadelphia está aquí,” she said. “Su nombre es Carl Victor. Si. Carl Victor.” A chuckle. “En serio. Improbable. Si.”

She put down the phone and nodded toward the door.

I hesitated outside that door as the woman stared. Melanie had given me the assignment, and I had jumped at the hourly pay—ten hours of travel and this meeting would bring in enough to cover my rent for the next month—but I didn’t know who I was representing, or why I was asking the question I had been given to ask. There is a myth that lawyers tell themselves about their service to client and community and the rule of law. But walking through this door, I could no longer sustain such illusions. Melanie Brooks had made of me a tool, handy and expensive, yes, like a premium wrench from Sears, yet a tool nonetheless.

And how did I feel about that?

Evidently Craftsman tough and Craftsman shiny, because though I hesitated a moment, a moment was all. I knocked twice, pushed open the door, and walked into my future.

The office was dark and spare, full of shadows. It smelled of aftershave and tobacco, of thin ties and secret deals and a generation long gone. The desktop was clear, the shelves in the bookcases empty, the walls bare, the lock on the file cabinet depressed. I had walked into a Hopper painting. Standing behind the desk, his back to me, was a tall, thin man in a brown checked suit.

“So you’re Carl Victor from Philadelphia,” said the man, in a gentle voice with only a trace of an accent.

“Close enough. Thank you for seeing me.”

“It is nothing,” he said. “Do you want something to drink?”

“No, thank you.”

“A cigar?”


He turned, a glass filled with amber in one hand, an unlit cigar in the other. His face was thin and handsome, his hair was gray, and his eyes were surprisingly kind. “Perhaps, then, a plate of empanadas from downstairs.”

“Tempting, but no.”

“Your loss. I own the restaurant, and the chef is marvelous.” He stepped around the chair and sat down, leaned back, took a sip of his drink, put the cigar in his mouth. He stared at his glass for a moment, as if appraising a jewel.

“I don’t know you, Carl Victor,” he said, his voice just as gentle as before. “Normally, I have a rule that I will not meet with someone I do not personally know. It is a rule that has well protected me over the years.”

“And yet here I am.”

“I was told by someone that I must see you. There are only a few people in this world that I trust enough to cause me to break such a rule. Whether fortunately for you or not is still to be determined, but he was one, and so here you are. What can I do for you, Carl Victor from Philadelphia?”

“I have a question,” I said.

“No request, no favor, no point you want to get across? Just a question?”

“Just a question.”

“Go ahead and ask your question and we’ll see if I will answer it.”

“What do you want?” I said.

“What do I want?” He laughed. “You’re the one who came all this way. What do you want?”

“I want to know what you want.”

“What does anyone want? Wealth, sex, a fine Scotch and a Cuban cigar. Peace on earth, goodwill for all men, the White Sox to win another pennant.”

“Let’s not get carried away,” I said. “But I didn’t ask what anyone would want. What do you want?”


“You. Specifically.”

“And you will grant my every wish, is that the idea? Make me rich beyond my wildest dreams?”

“Is that what you want, money?”

“Who doesn’t want money?”

“I look at this office, and I look at your secretary, and I doubt very much that what you want most is money. Oh, you like your Scotch and your cigars, and I assume they’re both premium— we all want to maintain a certain lifestyle. But this office tells me that money is not what you are about.”

“Your eyes are sharper than your tie, Carl Victor. So maybe what I really want is power.”


“Who doesn’t want power?”

“And why do you want all this unlimited power? So you can stand with senators and governors and have your picture snapped? I figure you can already do that, or I wouldn’t be here. And yet, your walls are bare of trophy pictures. No smiling pols, no glowering moguls, no evidence of a single lever of power.”

“I am maybe discreet.”

“You are definitely discreet. And you are also cautious. Even with all the power you have, you sit in this spare little office and refuse to meet anyone you do not personally know. How much more power do you want? Enough so you would be unwilling to meet with your own brother?”

“It is a conundrum, is it not? If you were faced with such a question, Mr. Carl Victor, what is it that you would want?”

“Money and power, or maybe for someone to get my name right, but it is not a question for me.”

“I see. It is my question only.”


“And what will I have to do in return for having my most secret desires filled?”


“Excuse me, Carl Victor, I don’t see fairy wings on your back.”

“I have been assured that there is no quid pro quo here.”

“No quid and no pro. A freebie.”

“To the extent there is such a thing,” I said.

“Who sent you?”

“Even I don’t know.”

“And I am to give you an answer with no idea of who is asking the question and with what motive?”


“Why would I do such a thing?”

“Because I’m from Philadelphia, the place where dreams come true.”

“Is that your city’s slogan?”

“No, I just made it up, but in your case it might be true.”

The man looked at me, looked at his cigar, looked at me again. He took a long silver rectangle from a desk drawer, something that looked like a pistol clip. He flicked the top, and a flame erupted. He took a moment to light his cigar. He leaned back, puffing away. The smoke settled between us like a shifting curtain of motive. I sat before him as calmly as a tick on a blade of grass waiting for a fat golfer to pass by.

Finally, he took the cigar out of his mouth, leaned forward until his clasped hands rested on the desk, and shook his head with deep resignation.

“I have a daughter,” he said.

About half an hour later I called the information into Melanie from the curvy bar of some steak house just south of Division Street. It was an expensive meat market in more ways than one, but I had time to kill before my flight and I had developed a sudden hunger for a slab of animal flesh, well-charred. Fortunately, Melanie had given me an American Express card to cover my expenses. After I downed a quick Sea Breeze, and after a waiter showed me a tray of aged cuts of prime beef and I pointed to something round and red, I made the call.

“He has a daughter who started a catering business in Miami,” I said into the phone as a woman a few seats down eyed me with something more than mild interest. “He wants it to be a success.”

“The doting father,” said Melanie. “I’m surprised.”

“That he loves his daughter?” I said, smiling back at the woman. She had thin wrists, and her lipstick was candy-apple red, and she was not the kind of woman who would usually eye me with interest in a bar, but there she sat and there she eyed.

“No,” said Melanie. “I’m surprised that he said anything to you at all. The read we got on Flores was that with strangers he was as close-lipped as a clam. Nice job steaming him open. The partners will be pleased.”

“And I aim to please the partners.” I waved a finger in an oblong circle, letting the barkeep know he should refill my Sea Breeze and buy the woman whatever it was she was drinking. “I got the sense, based on the level of his concern, that it’s going to take a lot of weddings to make his daughter’s business work.”

“Let us worry about the weddings. You just get back here.”

“My plane leaves in two hours,” I said as I nodded in acknowledgment of the woman’s mouthed thank-you. She was tall and lush and blonde, as tasty and well-marbled, no doubt, as the rib eye I had ordered. And she smiled as if I were exuding some sense of newly won authority. “Before I depart, I’m going to have a steak and three more drinks and nuzzle the earlobe of the woman four seats down from me, and then I’m going to sleep like a narcoleptic on the flight home.”

“Good,” said Melanie. “So you’ll be well rested when you land.”


“There’s a hysterical woman in Fairmount who is threatening to kill herself. You need to talk her down.”

“Get a psychiatrist.”

“We need someone we can trust, someone with tact and absolute discretion.”

“Boy, do you ever have the wrong man.”

“I’m betting not.”

“But if she’s threatening to kill herself, what can I do? I won’t be back for four hours.”

“Trust me, she’ll wait.”