by Andy Rausch
It was a hot night in The Blue Room, and Junior was really going to town on the trumpet, having his way with his audience. Drenched in sweat and enveloped in thick cigarette smoke, he wrapped up his set with a largely-improvised version of “So What.” The moment he finished, the audience erupted with cheers and applause, making him remember why he had gone into this profession in the first place. Not every night was like this. Hell, most nights weren’t. But tonight was, and Junior wanted to bask in it for as long as he could.
He made his way down off the stage, trumpet in hand, and headed back to the bar. Junior nodded at Jimmy the bartender, and Jimmy fixed his a drink. Junior edged up to the bar, grabbed the shot glass, and downed the thing. When he sat it down, he realized he was being flanked by two of Red’s goons.
“Boss wants to see you,” said Smoke Daniels, a big mean sonofabitch, putting a meaty paw on Junior’s shoulder. Unfazed, Junior looked back at Jimmy, who was watching all this with a look of amusement. “Gimme another drink,” he said, and Jimmy did. Junior downed the shot just as he’d downed the previous one, and turned toward Smoke. Seeing no way out, he said, “Let’s go for that walk.”
The three men made their way through the crowd and out of the bar. The men led Junior to their automobile, and pushed him in the backseat. The other guy drove, and Smoke sat beside Junior.
A few minutes later they were outside The Cuckoo Cock, a rundown old bar that now functioned as Red’s base of operations. “Leave the horn in the car,” said the other goon. Smoke snatched Junior up, pulling him out of the automobile, and dragged him inside the place.
Once inside, Junior saw Red sitting there majestically, like a king on high. He was surrounded by a few underlings, who were playing Spades. They all stopped and looked up when Junior and the two goons walked in. Red had a big shit-eating grin plastered across his mug, and he chuckled the way a young boy might after having just killed a cat for fun.
Smoke pushed Junior down into a wooden chair facing Red.
“It’s good to see you, Junior,” said Red, still grinning. He raised his cigarette to his lips and took a drag.
Junior sneered, but said nothing.
“Do you know why I brought your ass here?”
“Is it ’cause I’m so damned pretty?”
“Well, kind of,” said Red. “The thing is, I know all about you and Georgia.”
Junior tried to play it cool, but he was certain he looked startled. “What about her?”
Red chuckled again, looking around at his men. “This man thinks I’m a fool.” He turned to Smoke. “Tell me, Smoke, am I a damn fool?”
“Nah, Red,” said Smoke. “You’re not a fool.”
Red looked back at Junior, their eyes locking. His smile fell away. “Then why the hell are you trying to talk to me like I’m an idiot?”
“That’s how you see it?” asked Junior.
“That’s how I see it. Tell me, is there any other way to see it?”
Junior smirked, and Red’s eyes got big. He sat back in his chair, and turned towards one of his goons. “Charlie, do me a favor and knock the grin off this motherfucker’s face.”
Charlie, a big muscular dude in a cheap suit stepped towards Junior. He pulled back and slugged him in the jaw. The blow knocked Junior back in his chair, turning his head in the process. Junior rubbed his jaw and tried to make his blurry eyes refocus.
Charlie asked, “We good, boss?”
“Nah, I don’t think we are.”
“You want I should give him another one?”
Red nodded, and Charlie stepped forward, slugging Junior again.
As Junior was trying to find his bearings, Red asked, “Why you gotta go around behind my back and screw my lady, Junior? That type of thing is uncalled for. How exactly did you think I was gonna react to this news?”
Junior shook his head, still trying to clear it. He looked up at Charlie, still standing over him menacingly. He looked at Red. “You got it all wrong.”
Red looked around the room at his men. He started to chuckle again, and they followed suit. He looked at Junior. “Then explain it to me, my boy. Tell me how I got it all twisted up.”
“Me and Georgia, we’re just friends. There ain’t nothin’ there, nothin’ at all. We ain’t never been like that…”
“I think you’re a damned liar,” said Red, nonchalantly taking another drag of his cigarette.
“No, no, I swear,” said Junior, pleading now. “It’s not like that.”
“Oh, but it is. You know how I know?”
Junior just stared at him, saying nothing.
Red turned towards one of his goons. “Show him.”
One of the guys reached into his pocket and pulled something white out. He tossed it onto the table in front of Junior. It was a handkerchief. Junior opened it and felt sick, knowing at once what he was looking at—it was a human finger.
Red grinned. “You recognize that nail polish? Georgia gets her nails done by the Jap broad down the street. Does good work, that broad.”
Junior stared at the finger for a long moment before bursting forward out of his chair and reaching out for Red. He came fairly close to grabbing him before one of the goons snatched him from behind and pulled him back down into his chair.
Red looked a little rattled by this. “What do you think you’re doing, boy?”
Junior stared at him. “What have you done with Georgia?”
“That’s none of your concern,” said Red. “But what is your concern is that she told me you and her were planning to take off in the middle of the night and head for New York City. Is that right? Were you planning to set up shop and play house with my woman?” Red caught himself getting overly serious and forced another chuckle. He waved his arm dismissively. “Silly boy, don’t you know? You can’t turn a hoe into a housewife.”
Junior glared at Red, wanting nothing more than to kill the dude, but he said nothing.
Red stood, plucking the cigarette from his lips. He looked to Smoke. “Hold him down.”
Red moved forward, cigarette in hand, and pressed it into Junior’s forehead. When the cherry from the cigarette touched the sweat on Junior’s brow, it hissed a little. Junior wriggled beneath it, letting out a piercing scream.
Red looked past Junior to one of his men. “Go get Tiny. Bring him out here.” He looked down at Junior. “You’ve done it now. I’m assuming you know Tiny.”
“Only by reputation,” said Junior.
Tiny was a heavyweight fighter who lived in the neighborhood. A real big, tough, mean sonofabitch. Everyone knew he was in Red’s pocket. In addition to boxing, Tiny also worked as a collector for Red, roughing up whoever the boss said needed to be roughed up.
Junior’s head was throbbing now. Everything was hazy. He was trying to make sense of everything, and Red just kept laughing maniacally, making his head hurt even worse. Where was Georgia? Was she still alive? For that matter, would Junior have any chance of making it out of this place alive?
“Where he at?” came the monosyllabic caveman voice from behind. Junior had never heard Tiny speak before, but he knew at once that it was him.
Red just stood there in front of Junior. He looked down at him. “This here’s Junior. He needs to be taught some manners. He needs to be taught not to disrespect me. He needs to learn to keep his goddamn hand out of the cookie jar.”
Junior looked up at Red, opened his mouth, prepared to say something smart, but the blow to the back of his head knocked Junior forward, his forehead striking the edge of the table as he went down.
Now Junior was on the floor and everything was really hazy. It took Junior a few seconds to realize why—there was blood in his eyes. He turned to look up at Red. The room was moving, his vision blurry.
“Get your ass up,” came Tiny’s voice from behind.
Junior opened his mouth, his cheek still pressed against the floor. Before Junior could move or formulate any sort of plan of attack, he felt Tiny hoisting him up from the ground. He felt himself arc back just before Tiny thrust him crashing down on top of a table.
“Goddamn, man,” said Red. “You gonna kill the boy.”
“Is that what you want?” asked Tiny. “You want me to kill his dumb ass?”
Red chuckled that sickening chuckle again. “Nah, I just want you to play with him a bit.”
Junior was lying on the floor, his head and ribs hurting like hell. He was staring at the floor, unable to move. Then he felt Tiny’s hands on him again, lifting him up. Junior mustered up a bit of strength and swung his elbow back hard, surprised when it actually struck Tiny in the face. Junior, still being held at chest height, felt Tiny stagger back a bit. Then Tiny growled an awful gutteral growl and he raised Junior up over his head, hurling him down onto the floor again.
Junior landed hard, crumpling like papier-mâché. Junior looked down, seeing his blood all over the floor before him. Still face down, he pulled his arms back and adjusted himself on the palms of his hands, trying to push himself to his feet. He raised himself a little bit, but fell limply to the floor.
Junior couldn’t see him, but he could hear Red. “Why’d you do it, boy? Surely a talented young man like yourself could find another woman without having to go sneaking around trying to steal my woman…”
Junior was going to try to stand again. He pressed his palms down against the ground, stretching his fingers out. Just as he did, Red came forward and stomped down hard against his hand. He did it again, and again, and again, finally squishing Junior’s broken fingers around beneath his heel.
Through his own screams Junior could hear Red taunting him. “I guess you won’t be able to play the trumpet anymore, huh, boy?” Red laughed heartily, as did his goons. Junior felt tears welling up in his eyes, and soon saw them falling to the floor before him. He spread out his broken fingers and tried to push himself up again.
“You got heart, boy,” said Red, sounding genuinely impressed. “Don’t he got heart, Smoke?”
“Yeah, boss,” said Smoke. “He gots a lot of heart.”
Junior lay there on the floor for a long beat, trying to push himself back up to his feet. As he did, he heard Red say, “What do you think I should do with a young buck who got heart? Should I let him live?”
There was a moment of silence before Charlie spoke up. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, boss. What if he comes back someday?”
“Ain’t nobody give a good goddamn what you think,” growled Red angrily. “I’m the boss here, not you.” There was another moment of silence before Red said, “Say it. Say I’m the boss.” And Junior, still looking down at the blood-covered floor, heard Charlie sheepishly repeat, “You’re the boss, Red.”
“You’re goddamn right, I’m the boss!” After another long moment of awkward silence, Red said, “Get that boy back up on his feet.”
Junior felt hands reach around beneath his arms, lifting him up. Junior found himself on his feet again. He was wobbly, and he started to fall, but the goon held him up until he regained his composure enough to stand without toppling.
Red got up in his face, the smell of collard greens strong on his breath. “What if I let you live, boy? What you gonna do? What if I let you live, but I told you I never wanted to see you in Kansas City again, so long as you live? What would you do?”
Junior just stood there, swaying, but said nothing.
“You’ll do nothing, that’s what you’ll do,” said Red. “I’m gonna let you live out the rest of your pathetic miserable life with nothing. You’re gonna be a testament of what I’ll do if anyone crosses me. I messed up your hand so you can’t play that horn no more, and I took away your woman… The love of your life, huh, Junior? Do you know what her last words were?”
Junior looked up at Red, trying to convey an expression of hatred.
“She said, ‘Tell Junior I love him.’ That’s what she said.” Red stepped back to get a good look at Junior’s anguish. He laughed, looking up at Smoke. “Take this trash out to the street and leave him there.”
Smoke grabbed Junior, practically dragging him out of the place. As he did, Junior heard Red from behind him. “Don’t ever come back, Junior,” he said. “Not ever. God as my witness, if I see your face again, you’re a dead man.”
Smoke dragged him through the door, tossing him down to the hard pavement, where Junior lay crumpled like a discarded piece of trash. “Don’t ever come back,” Smoke advised one last time before going back inside.
Junior lay there for a moment, broken and pathetic. He thought of Georgia and he considered the fact that he’d never see her again. He could see her face now. “Christ,” he muttered, reaching for the neck of a broken beer bottle lying beside him. He pushed himself up, slowly finding his way to his feet. He stood there for a moment, swaying as if he were standing in a stiff wind. He turned back towards the entrance of the bar.
He gripped the broken bottle as tightly as he could and walked back into The Cuckoo Cock.