One Too Many at the Oak Barrel
Eric glanced at his watch as the hum of subdued conversation swirled around him, punctuated by an occasional laugh or exclamation when someone lost at dollar poker. Almost 2:00 a.m. Closing time. Ordinarily, he and his wife would be home in bed…with Myra’s smooth, round butt warming his groin.
He signaled the barkeep for another draft and took a swig when it arrived. The Oak Barrel was a mini-brewery with a bar and a few tables. Dark wood everywhere. No garish neons, just a sedate, dimly lit place with a long etched mirror reflecting the small room behind him. Comfortable.
The busy Friday night had quieted down over the last half hour. As Eric was the only patron seated at the bar, the bartender, a guy named Harry, an Afghanistan War vet working his way through Central New Mexico Community College, engaged him in conversation.
“Where’s your better half tonight?”
“Have to let her off the leash occasionally,” Eric said. “She went to Atlanta this morning to see her mother. Be gone a few days.”
“Well, don’t let the Albuquerque Ripper get you while she’s gone.” Harry moved off to fill an order for the Barrel’s only waitress, another CNM student. He returned a moment later.
Eric wiped foam from his lip and nodded toward the girl. “She’s more likely to be a victim than I am.”
“Ever since the Ripper’s been on a rampage her two brothers come pick her up. Besides, the bastard don’t just stick to women. He took down two guys, you know.” The barkeep shook his head. “That don’t compute for me.”
“Sure it does, if you remember rape’s about power, not sex. Besides, you’re no rapist.”
A smile played over the other man’s lips. “Nope, cajoling them darlings into bed is the best part of sex. Well, almost the best.”
When Harry got busy preparing to close up, Eric finished his brew, left some money on the counter, and took his leave. The autumn air was chilled, but not uncomfortably cold. He zipped his jacket to the throat and headed off, regretting he’d walked instead of driving. Oh, well…he liked to hike. And it was only a mile to his house.
The night was quiet; the streets deserted. A wind brisk enough to kick up fallen leaves swirled around his ankles. His ears were cold. Shoulda worn a scarf. He tried to enjoy the night, but his mind kept returning to thoughts of the Ripper.
The shadowy killer had shown up in the news two months ago when a woman was discovered on the Arroyo del Oso golf course…raped and hacked to death. A machete, the cops figured. A week later, an older woman in a diversion channel. Same situation. Then a young man under a pedestrian bridge spanning Tramway Boulevard. Raped. Murdered. Just a week ago, a man of about thirty…his age…found in his own home. The fifth, a matronly woman attacked and killed, also at home. Not more than a few blocks from his own house, as a matter of fact. A chill ran down Eric’s back that had nothing to do with the autumn night.
It wasn’t until he cut through the pleasant little park just north of the community college that he grew apprehensive. He halted in his tracks and spun around. Nothing. The park was deserted. Bushes swayed and a squirrel chattered nervously. But all those cottonwoods lining the perimeter of the green could have hidden a dozen stalkers. A wave of goose pimples rolled down his back, bringing a sudden urge to pee. The hair on his neck rose.
Eric exhaled slowly, willing away the creepies. He was an adult male perfectly capable of taking care of himself. He worked out; kept fit. Still, he wasn’t armed with a machete. Damn, he wished Myra were home.
He picked up his pace east toward Juan Tabo. He left the park and started up the trail into the open, unimproved stretch of rough ground that led to the well-traveled street. No trees here, but it was hilly, blinding him to what lay over the horizon. A paved arroyo paralleled him to his right, just the kind of place the killer liked to dump a body.
Stop it, man! Get those screwy thoughts out of your head. Psyching yourself into a panic.
Nonetheless, he went south on Juan Tabo rather than scaling the John B. Robert Dam and walking the edges of the holding pond. Too secluded.
Before he reached Manitoba, where he turned east again, he’d become so skittish, he was almost constantly looking over his shoulder. No one was there, but he kept hearing footsteps. Or were they just in his mind?
His throat was dry. His bladder was about to give way as he reached his house. He ran up the steps, ready to thrust the door key into the lock. Footsteps. Now he was sure of it. He felt blood drain from his face as he glanced over his shoulder and saw a man. Bundled against the cold. Something in his hand. Something long. Almost at the edge of the yard.
Sweating heavily, Eric fumbled with the lock. Despite clumsy, nervous fingers, his key went in, and the tumblers clicked. He shot through the door, slammed it shut, and snapped the deadbolt. He fought with the chain on the door restraint until it was secure. Only then did he take an easy breath and move to the window. Parting the drapes, he saw the man halfway up the street. Feeling foolish, Eric recognized the lumbering gait of a neighbor who walked with the aid of a cane. Cursing his foolishness, Eric snapped on a table lamp. He turned, and his breath caught in his throat.
Harry, the friendly bartender, stepped out of the shadow of the hallway. A wicked-looking machete in his right hand.
I’m not used to all those broken sentences, but a verb saved here and an adjective dropped there add up. Anyway, I think it works. How about you? Let me know.
Next week: I’ll think of something.
New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.