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Falls the Shadow by William Lashner

Falls the Shadow


Unlike the rest of you, I cheerfully admit to my own utter selfishness. I am self-made, self-absorbed, self-serving, self-referential, even self-deprecating, in a charming sort of way. In short, I am all the selfs except selfless. Yet every so often I run across a force of nature that shakes my sublime self-centeredness to its very roots. Something that tears through the landscape like a tornado, leaving nothing but ruin and reexamination in its wake. Something like Bob.

Take, for example, the strange happenings one night when I took Bob to a bar called Chaucer's.

Chaucer's was strictly a neighborhood joint, prosaic as they come, except for the name. The narrow corner bar had rock posters glued to the walls, Rolling Rock on tap, a jukebox stocked with Jim Morrison and Ella Fitzgerald. It was the kind of bar where you drank when you weren't in the mood to put on a nicer pair of shoes.

"My, what a colorful establishment," said Bob as we stepped inside.

"It's just a bar," I said.

"Oh, it's more than that, Victor. A bar is never just a bar. It is like a watering hole on some great African plain, where all creatures great and small sit by clean blue waters to relax and refresh themselves."

"Don't get out much, do you?"

"Look around. Can't you see the cycle of nature revolving before your very eyes?"

I looked, but there wasn't much cycling to see. A quartet of college kids were laughing in a booth. A mismatched couple were arguing at the bar. An old man was nursing a beer and complaining to another old man, who showed little interest in anything but his Scotch. The usual weeknight crowd at Chaucer's.

We took a table by the window. I flagged the waitress, ordered a Sea Breeze for me, and looked at Bob for his order.

"J&B on ice," said Bob, "with a twist."

About right, I figured, the last part anyway. At first glance, Bob didn't appear to be worth a second. He was short, soft and pudgy, with heavy black glasses that slipped down his nose and made him look like a fumbling schoolboy. Even with a five o'clock shadow worthy of Fred Flinstone, there was something sexless about him. Women scanning the watering hole for men scanned right past bob. Their gaze would catch on leering hyenas from South Jersey, on lummoxes from South Philly, on old lemurs with expensive haircuts, on empty chairs, but not on Bob. He was of less interest to them than the furniture. They knew the type right off: the guy who works to fit in, who doesn't make waves, who accepts the world as it is, the guy who watches television on Saturday nights because he has nothing better to do, the guy with a hobby. And they would be right, sort of. I mean, it turned out he did have a hobby.

"I used to fish as a boy," said Bob, after I asked what he did with himself after work. "Yellow perch, caught with fathead minnows. But with the condition of the Schuylkill, that's impossible here. So nowadays I simply try to help."

"You say that a lot," I said. "What exactly do you mean? Do you volunteer?"

"In a way."

"Community service? Outreach for the homeless? Crisis hotline?"

"It varies. I lend a hand where I'm needed."

"Freelance do-gooder?"

"Yes, I suppose. Something like that. Do you do much good in the world, Victor?"

"Not intentionally." "Unintentionally, then?"

"I'm a lawyer, I represent clients, and I do that to the best of my ability. If any good comes out of what I do, so be it."

"Like the murder case you're trying now."

My ears pricked up. "That's right."

"A bit bloody, isn't it, representing murderers?"

"That would make it right up your alley, no?"

He clapped his hands and laughed. Bob laughed like a car alarm; when first it goes off, you don't mind so much, but after a while you want to choke someone.

"You're right," he said when the siren calmed. "I'm not one to squeal at a little spill of blood. And sometimes, as you well know, it's more than a little. But do you think any good will come from you putting your client back on the street?"

"Honestly? No. I don't like him much and trust him less."

"And still you represent him."

"He paid me a retainer."

"A rather mercenary approach."

"Is there any other?"

"Sure there is. A far better one. Maybe I'll show you. Pay attention now. Did you see that couple at the bar?"

"The one that is fighting?"

"Very good, Victor. I'm impressed. Well, the fight has escalated and he has stormed off toward the restroom. They've been together for a while but are now going through a rocky patch. You know the point that a couple gets to, where they must decide to either break up or get married? That's the point they've reached."

"How do you know that?"

"I've been watching, listening. People, I've found, are so transparent. She is upset, and she's almost finished her beer." He snatched up his drink, downed it, slammed the glass back on the bar. "You stay here. I think I'll buy her another."

I was about to say something about how it didn't seem the most opportune time to hit on her, but he was already out of his seat, on his way to the bar. While his back was turned, I used a napkin to lift his small glass, dump the ice and lemon rind into my now empty Sea Breeze, and deposit the glass into a plastic bag I had brought just for the occasion. Surreptitiously, I placed the bag in my jacket pocket.

Bob leaned on the bar, a few stools away from the woman, turned his head toward her once, twice, and then called the bartender over and placed an order. The bartender came back with a J&B on the rocks and a fresh Corona, which the bartender took to the woman.

She looked up, surprised, and then turned her head to Bob and nodded. He smiled back. He slid over until he was standing next to her, and he began to speak.

I couldn't hear what he was saying, he kept his voice low, but it was having an effect. She was listening, and nodding, and at one point she even smiled. The woman was small, with brown hair and a pinched face, she didn't seem the type who was often bought drinks by strange men in bars, and she was flattered and wary both, as bob leaned toward her. His eyes, behind his glasses, were the eyes of a mesmerist. And slowly, visibly, you could see a connection develop. Her posture eased, her smile grew, she even laughed at one point, for a moment placing her hand on Bob's arm.

Son of a gun, I thought. That bastard was going to get lucky. Bob was going to get lucky. At my local bar. Bob. I wanted to choke him, yes I did. I wanted to strangle him until his eyes bulged. And that was before she said something and he started in again with his laugh.

He was still laughing when the boyfriend returned.

I had said before that the couple was mismatched, and what I had meant was the almost comical size disparity. She was small, slight, mousy; he was big, broad, bullish. And from the look of him, coming back from the bathroom, angry already from the argument, now staring at the little guy in glasses hitting on his girl, he was seeing red.

"Who the hell are you?" said the boyfriend.

Bob looked up at him without an ounce of fear or worry on his face. He smiled unctuously and reached out a hand. "The name's Bob," he said.

"Get lost."

"Calm down, Donnie," said the woman, her voice dismissive. "We were just talking."

This was the moment when Bob should have backed off, apologized, this was the moment when Bob should have realized he had broken the unspoken code of men in bars and slunk away to leave the two of them alone to work out whatever they needed to work out. But that's not what Bob did. What Bob did was take a step forward.

"If you'll just excuse us for a moment, Donnie," said Bob, emphasizing the name as if it were an insult. "Sandy and I were having a rather personal discussion."

"Sandy and you? Personal? I don't think so."

"Donald, stop it now," said the woman. "This is ridiculous. He just bought me a drink."

"Shut up and let me deal with this jerk."

"That's no way to talk to a lady," said Bob cheerfully. "In fact, I think it would be better for everyone if you would just go home now and leave us be."

"Is that what you think?"

"Absolutely," said Bob, a peculiar smile on his face, peculiar because it wasn't meek or conciliatory in the least, which made it all the more infuriating.

The man took a step forward.

Sandy shouted out, "Donald, no."

The man cocked his fist.

I rose from my seat, ready to do what I could to stop the massacre. Fricasseed Bob, no doubt about it. We'd be scraping him off the walls.

But then Bob shifted to his left, bent down, and exploded upward, slamming his elbow smack into Donnie's face with a crack that sounded like a line drive to center field.

There was a crystalline moment of stunned silence in the bar when everything stopped, when everyone froze, when nothing yet had been sorted out and the disastrous possibilities seemed endless.

And then a shriek, a holler, and the scrape of a chair skidding away as Donnie collapsed to the floor, hands over his nose, blood leaking through his fingers.

Bob reached a hand out to Sandy.

She slapped his hand away, dropped down to minister to Donnie, cradled his head in her arms. "Sweetie? Donnie? Are you all right, Donnie? Sweetie? Say something, please."

"My nose," moaned the boyfriend. "He broke my nose."

Bob took it all in impassively. When the bartender reached over the bar to grab for him, Bob shrugged him off. He backed away, winked at me, and left the bar, vanishing before anyone could stop him.

The bartender and I both rushed outside after him. We scanned the streets veering away from the corner, first Lombard, then Twentieth. Empty, vacant, Bobless. "Who the hell was that?" asked the bartender.

"That," I said, "was Bob."

Back inside, Donnie was still on the floor, sitting up now, one hand over his nose, his white shirt splattered with his own blood. Sandy was holding him, hugging him, straightening his hair.

One of the old men leaned over him. "Let me see it," said the man.

Donnie removed his hand. His nose was an amorphous blob.

"It's broke," said the man, his voice high with delight. "Broke, broke, broke. No doubt about it. I seen enough of them. The hospital's just down the street. You ought to get that thing fixed."

We helped him onto his feet, helped him out the door. He pushed us away when we tried to help him any more, and he and his girl, both of her arms around him now in support, walked slowly toward the bright light of the emergency room.

I paid the bill, searched the area to no avail, shrugged and went home. Bob was waiting in front of my building. He leaned against a wall, his arms were crossed, he seemed to be insufferably pleased with himself.

"Are you insane?" I said to him.

"I just did Donnie the biggest favor of his life."

"You weren't interested in Sandy?"

"Please," said Bob. "I prefer a little more substance on the bone."

"So then it was all a setup."

"Their relationship was in dire straits, it needed some juice. Years from now, when the two of them are celebrating their wedding anniversary, with their children all around, they'll think back on the most important day of their lives, the day the recommitted themselves to their future together. The day he fought for her, the day she rushed to his aid."

"You set him up and then you broke his nose."

"I try to help," said Bob.

"But you broke his nose."

"That, I'm afraid, wasn't part of the plan. Accidents happen, Victor, remember that. Sometimes even the best of intentions go awry. But often the accidents work out for the best. Think of Donnie with his new nose. It will enhance his features, don't you think? Lend his face the character it was sorely lacking."

"What gave you the right?"

"We are all fellow travelers. We don't have the right to turn away."

"So you step in whether they want you to or not?"

"I do my part."

"You are insane," I said.

"Like a rabid fox," said Bob. "But let me ask you this, Victor. Whom did you help today?"

As I said, he had a hobby. And he was right, I hadn't done a teacup's worth of good that day. And he was probably right about Donnie and Sandy, too. They had seemed closer, with Donnie holding back the blood from his nose and Sandy wrapping her arms about him, much more the loving couple. And the broken nose probably would improve Donnie's appearance and, after it was set, maybe improve his sinuses, too. Who knew, maybe Bob was just what they both had needed? But still, I saw the blood leaking between Donnie's fingers, the blood splattered on his fine white shirt, dripping onto the floor. And I couldn't help but wonder if the answer I was looking for, the answer to a killing I was still trying to solve, was there in the blood. I was just then in the middle of the François Dubé murder case, and I sensed that Bob was somehow in the middle of it, too-that was why I had taken him to the bar, why I had swiped his fingerprints. The Dubé case was the usual type that falls upon a lawyer's desk, a case of murder, of protested innocence, of history and dentistry and the best of intentions gone all to hell. Not to mention the gratuitous sex and the gratuitous violence. Not to mention.

Yet for me it was a case about more than a lone woman dying in a whirlwind of her own blood. It also started me to thinking about the benefits and costs of involving yourself in other people's lives. When are we compelled to help? When does a helping hand turn meddlesome? And when does meddling turn murderous? The questions proved to be more than idle, they proved to be a matter of life and death.

Mine, for instance.

But it didn't start with Bob, no. His role would be crucial, yes, but he would appear later in the story, he was not there at the beginning for me. No, for me it started with a cashier's check in the amount of five hundred dollars from another self-centered son of a bitch, François Dubé.

The foregoing is excerpted from Falls the Shadow by William Lashner. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022