It's down and out via the emergency exit, then through the back alley to the next street that runs parallel to the main thoroughfare. Vago's waiting for me, demanding a pat. He may be orange and imaginary, but he's a cat. You can't refuse a cat.
I honor his request if only to get rid of him. "Go. Make some kittens," I tell my four-legged imaginary friend, and he saunters off, his tail high up in the air, the tip swaying left and right.
For half a block I follow him before I turn left. I pass through a tiny alley, then cross Main Street, to turn left again when I've reached the sidewalk on the other side. From there I walk up to the Irish bar, chewing my gum. There's little traffic and no more than a rat or two.
In my right pocket sits the flower, wrapped in a handkerchief. I keep my hand cupped around it, trying to protect it somewhat. My left pocket holds all the cash mom had on her, which wasn't much. I didn't dare to show her the riches I took from the fat guy at the gas station, as Mom might ask inconvenient questions. The thief who took the book missed the cash, or simply didn't care about money.
The front door of the bar is open but I can't enter. Blocking the entrance is a big, muscled guy, his skull topped by a mohawk growing out of a field of ink. The tattoos continue down his neck, disappear under the T-shirt, then show up again on both his arms, in swirls of waves, mermaids, and seagulls. He's a sailor away from home, he's a cliff blocking my port of call.
"What do you want, kid?" the cliff rumbles, looking down at me - on me.
I smile. "What everybody wants, a good time and a beer."
I talk slow and lazy, slurring the words a bit. People assume you're older when you're talking slower, that you're stupid, or that you've swallowed too many little blue pills. All those options work for me.
"Ain't no place for kids," he grumbles. "Beer's poor, time's bad."
I grab a five-dollar bill from my pocket. "I'll settle for the beer then."
He shakes his head and puts a heavy hand on my shoulder. That's when I knee him hard.
The sailor goes down a little too easily, so I take a cautious step back. One of those sledgehammer hands reaches for me. I dive right, pull one of my guns, and step inside his reach. When the tip of the barrel touches his forehead the moving rock turns into frozen ice.
"Don't," I whisper. "All I want is my beer, my book, and to be left alone. Just don't."
We stare at each other. He's squinting a bit, eyes on either side of the barrel, looking up at me.
"Listen, I'm not here to fight. Believe it or not, but I'm here for a book. I don't want to cause any trouble, but I'll do what I have to do."
"If I let you in and you make trouble then I'm dead," he grunts.
"I make trouble and I'm dead," I point out, waiting patiently for his brains to engage.
He relaxes a bit, as much as one can at gunpoint. Looking for a book makes so little sense that it has to be true. "There are lots of guys with lots of guns inside, kid," he grumbles. "And no books. You on drugs or what?"
I shrug. "You on steroids? If there are that many guns I bet nobody would notice mine. Will twenty do?"
The ice cracks, and he smiles. I step back then make my gun disappear. The bouncer slowly gets up and nods, but when I fish another bill from my pocket he shakes his head. I hope he doesn't want more, because thirty bucks is all I have. Mom's a scrooge, after all.
"Five's enough to call your momma so she can pick up your dead body," he says. "It won't be enough to protect you, so you'll get the call for cheap."
"How much would that be, protection?"
"Nothing would. Stay clear of the nice men. They're trouble." He eyes me suspiciously. "You're one of his? You're too smooth, girl. You sure you're not a cop?"
He steps forward, and I take another step back, keeping my distance and a hand near my gun.
"Where's your backup?" he asks, scanning the street. Smart guy.
"I did bring some friends. And no, I'm not a cop. Just careful," I tell him.
"I'm not. One on the roof of the library, one inside the hotel, a few others."
He squints at the rooftops of the nearby buildings. "Sounds like cops. If you're not bluffing."
"I'll prove it to you." I take another step back and grab my phone. She's on the front screen, quick dial. "Tell six to show herself. Nail the bouncer if he makes trouble. He's not allowed to go inside, nor make any phone calls," I tell Mom when she picks up.
On the other side of the street, in a room on the second floor of the hotel, the curtain moves. The black outline of a person holding a rifle is visible against the light. A second later the window goes dark again, followed by a thin red line that ends in a little red dot on the bouncer's chest. He watches it move before it winks out.
Mom found the laser pointer, I realize. She mounted it to my rifle and must be a bit more worried than she let on. Or she thought the gun was too heavy and the laser pointer itself would be enough. I suppress the urge to wave at her.
I smile at the bouncer. "Not a cop. I'm just here for my book."
"Must be quite some book," he grumbles, then makes way. "Keep your money, little girl."
"Keep your distance, your head down, and your mind on that rifle, big man." My back itches when I enter the bar, but he doesn't try anything. I guess the sailor's mind is completely focused on that tiny little red dot, and what it could mean for his future. The five bucks he's still holding - my five bucks - isn't going to change any of that.
The bar is dark and gloomy except for that one spotlight aimed at the entrance. The light's there to blind me and to allow the patrons to have a good look at newcomers. Once past the light, I halt and blink a few times. Now it's my time to study them.
It's not busy, but the place isn't empty either. Close to a dozen bikers in leather and t-shirts, their number matching the bikes outside. Two women in fishnets, pierced and painted, give me haughty looks... The barkeep keeps himself employed by moving dirt from one glass to the next.
Mom said I would recognize 'the Wicked Witch' easily. She's right, I just didn't expect 'her' to be a man.
In a booth at the back sits a businessman dressed in an impeccable white suit reading a newspaper, a tumbler within reach. His shirt is black, his tie is white. He's in his late forties, early fifties, with dark hair that's greying at the temples. He has a sharp, handsome face, and blue eyes which hide behind thin-rimmed glasses. All that's missing is a fedora.
His companion sitting opposite sips from a coffee cup, his eyes are on the bar, on the bikers, and on me. He's wearing a white shirt, brown trousers, and a gun in a shoulder holster. His hair is slick and combed back. There's so much grease in it that the reflections outshine the poor lighting of the bar itself.
I take another step and I'm not surprised when a cold hand grabs my arm. I look at the hand, then at the arm, then at the owner of both. Another white shirt, this one paired with green trousers, separated by a wide, black belt, from which a revolver dangles low on each hip. His droopy mustache and curly black hair make him resemble the cliche Mexican bandit he is. From Sweden.
The bandit steers me towards the Man-in-White. The 'Witch' in the white suit lowers his newspaper and studies me as I get closer. The bikers show us little more attention than a curious glance before returning to their beers. It's obvious that the bikers and the Man-in-White's crew are 'invisible' to one another.
"That's close enough," the brown trousered henchman says. He puts down his coffee cup, gets up, and lifts a corner of the leather vest I'm wearing. His hand immediately goes to his weapon. "She's packing, boss. Hands where I can see 'em." He eyes me warily.
"Strictly self-defense," I explain.
The Man-in-White smiles. He's all the successful businessman, late-night gangster, movie actor. He isn't worried by little girls like me, guns or no guns.
His glass contains a smokey liquid and a few cubes of ice, without a doubt something tasteful and expensive. I wonder what that would be in a place like this. Something special with his name on it, hidden behind the bar. Or maybe he's sufficiently paranoid and brings his own bottles.
Next to the man's glass lies an old coin.
"We're amongst friends," the man says. "No need for any of that. Please, sit down. Would you like anything to drink?"
He talks slow, his voice soft but clear, his words carefully selected and perfectly pronounced. I'm tempted to look around for the director and camera crew and wonder where they hid the microphone.
"But sir," the Mexican starts.
I stubbornly stay standing.
"It's okay, Sven. Miss…" The Man-in-White looks at me, questioningly.
"Alejandra." I chew my gum. "Beer."
"Miss Alejandra Beer here would like to have a soda. Why don't you get her one?"
The Mexican named Sven sighs and leaves for the bar, and Mr. White-Suit studies me whilst we wait. When the bandit returns, he puts a long glass with ice cubes and a slice of lemon on the table, then fills it with coke. He takes the bottle away once done. I turn to watch him taking up his position again close to the front door.
"He's a good man," White-suit says. "A bit protective of his employer, perhaps, but then that's never a bad thing for an employee. Tony here will agree, don't you Tony?"
Tony brown-pants nods, not taking his eyes off of me, nor taking his hand off his gun.
"Why don't you go over there, and help Sven do important things?"
His boss just waits, a half-amused smile on his face. "Would you like me to add 'please' or do you prefer 'now'?" he asks. His voice goes cold when he combines the two. "Now, please?"
Tony pales. He gets up, stammers an apology, then rapidly joins his colleague. The two put their heads together in a flurried exchange underlined by dark looks in our direction.
"They don't like you," their boss says. "I sometimes think they don't like me, but they're still good men. They know they can trust me, and I know I can trust them. That's not something I can say about you. Now, would you sit down please?"
I shrug and take the spot Tony just vacated."Sven? I… wouldn't have guessed."
The Man-in-White chuckles. "His parents were immigrants who moved from Tijuana to Stockholm before they came here. They didn't like it here and went back to Sweden, taking Sven with them. He didn't like it there and came back here again, alone. I never asked why."
I don't mind Tony brown-pants as he seems experienced. It's the swagger of Sven the Swedish-Mexican gunslinger that bothers me. Wearing revolvers that way is a challenge to the world, a world that will respond. With lead. When that happens I don't want to be around.
It is as if the boss can read my mind. "Well, they'll shoot him first. No one likes amateurs."