knew him. Not as some passing acquaintance or movie star, not even as a friend, it was much closer than that. I knew this man as well as I knew myself, but try as I might I just couldn't place from where.
How long we stayed there eyeballing each other I'm not sure, long enough to remind me of the old ‘he who blinks first’ game we played as kids, but then since neither of us blinked before he spoke I suppose it wasn't that long after all.
"Don't be a bloody fool, Joe." He shook his head sadly, though his expression remained friendly enough. "Not again. It's so wasteful and upsets things so."
"Just who and what the hell are you......" I began heatedly, but I was talking to the ocean. Whatever it was that I'd been listening to was gone without a trace, not even a footprint in the sand. If it hadn't been for the face I still might have put it down to a mirage or a touch of too much sun. But I knew that face so well, knew it better than my own and it scared me.
Heat or no I needed a beer. I headed downtown to Castro's, keeping to the shady side of the streets while I mulled over that face, racking my brains to put a tag to it. As I neared the bar I could see the front door and windows were wide open, a sure sign the air conditioning was on the blink again. Not that the regulars cared too much, the old system was so ineffectual whatever doubtful fall in temperature it managed was hardly worth the rattle of the machine. Occasionally a customer complained and Castro would listen with sympathetic courtesy, but he had long since noted the resulting increase in beer sales and had no intention of splashing out on any new equipment. Castro was a business man and not about to destroy a windfall profit. But as a goodwill gesture he had installed a second hand ceiling fan that vaguely moved the turgid air around and kept the clientele happy while he continued to undercut his competitors prices.
The big man appeared totally engrossed in conversation with a prime customer who was knocking back imported Heineken larger with whisky chasers, but nothing escaped his notice. As I walked through the door one huge arm snaked beneath the bar and came up with a frosted glass matched by an iced cold can of Slitz. One of the things I admired about Castro was the man had class. Most people drank their beer direct from the can and if that bothered him he never let it show. But with every beer he always produced the glass, though whether to raise the tone of the place or as an added token on the house I wasn't sure, except the phrase ‘on the house’ and ‘Castro’ didn't sit too well together. I popped the can and gave the room a once over while pouring the cold foaming liquid into my glass.
The usual Poker game was in progress at the round table by the far window. Normally I wouldn't have hesitated, I knew most of the players and could hold my own with the best of them. But these weren't normal times, the savings account was running dry and I owed money to people who considered delay offensive. Right now I had to deal in certainties. There was no time or place for chance. At the far end of the bar a bunch of regulars were putting the World to rights with hoots of alcoholic good humour. A couple of them waved me over. I smiled and shook my head, it was still on the early side for The Chicken, but like a shadow at sunset he never stayed anywhere long and I couldn't risk missing him. Then suddenly I saw him, leaning forward in his chair, whispering urgently to a man I didn't recognize. They were sitting at what was known as the recess table in a dark corner as far from the bar as anyone could get. The recess table was where Castro usually put difficult customers who demanded lunch. Unable to refuse a sale though convinced that eating lowered the tone of good drinking establishments, the recess table was Castro's compromise. I topped up my glass with the rest of the beer and headed over to join them.
The Chicken saw me first and motioning his companion to silence, stared lizard eyed as I made my way towards him. He owed his name to a stupid teenage game where a player stands in the middle of the road in front of an approaching car, daring it to stop or jumping clear at the last moment. The Chicken had been the best, but to stay ahead of the gang he had honed his timing to the very last second. Inevitably