O is for Outlaw Page 69

Tim Littenberg emerged from the back corridor and paused in the doorway while he adjusted his cuffs. The two of them, the joint smoker and the bar owner, ignored each other with a casualness that seemed phony from my perspective. Their behavior reminded me of those occasions when illicit lovers run across each other in a social setting. Under the watchful eyes of their respective spouses, they'll make a point of avoiding contact, thus trumpeting their innocence, or so they think. The only problem is the aura of heightened awareness that underlies the act. Anyone who knows either can detect the charade. Between the man in the booth and Tim Littenberg there was an unmis takable air of self-consciousness. Both seemed to be watching the black-haired waitress, who seemed equally conscious of them.

Within minutes, she'd circled and arrived at the booth. Tim moved away without looking at her. The guy with the joint leaned forward on his elbows. He reached out and put a hand on her hip. He motioned for her to sit. She slid into the bench across from him with her tray between them as though the empty glasses might remind him she had other things to do. He took her free hand and began to talk earnestly. I couldn't see her face, but from where I stood she didn't seem relaxed or receptive to his message.

"You know that guy. a voice said into my right ear.

I turned to find Tim leaning close to me, his voice amazingly intimate in the midst of loud music and high-pitched voices. I said, "Who?"

"The man you're watching, sitting in the booth over there."

"He seems familiar," I said. "Mostly, I was trying to remember where the rest rooms are."

"I see."

I stole a look at his face and then looked off in the other direction, deflecting the intensity with which he'd fixed his attentions on me. He said, "Remember Mickey's friend Shack?"

"Sure. We talked earlier this week."

"That's his son, Scottie. The waitress is his girlfriend, Thea. In case you're wondering," he added, with a hint of irony.

"You're kidding. That's Scott? No wonder he looked familiar. I've seen pictures of him. I take it you're still friends?"

"Of course. I've known Scottie for years. I don't like dope in my bar, but I don't want to make a fuss so I tend to ignore him when he's got a joint."

"Ah. "

"I'm surprised you're back. Are you looking for someone in particular, or will I do?"

"I was hoping to find Mickey. I told you that last night. "

"That's right. So you did. Can I buy you a drink?"

"Maybe when I finish this. I'm really fine for now."

He reached over and removed the beer glass from my hand and helped himself to a sip. "This is warm. Let me get you a fresh one in an icy mug." He caught the bartender's eye and lifted the glass, indicating a replacement. Tim was wearing a dark navy suit with a dress shirt that was oxblood red. His tie bore a pattern of diagonal wishbones, navy and red on a field of light blue. The musky bite of his aftershave filled the air between us. His pupils were pinpricks and his skin had a sheen. Tonight, instead of seeming restless and distracted, his demeanor was slow, every gesture deliberate as if he were slogging his way through mud. Well, well, well. What was he on? I felt a faint ridge of fear prickling up along my spine, like a cat in the presence of aliens.

I watched a frosty mug of beer being passed in my direction, hand over hand, like a bucket brigade. Tim placed the mug in my hand, at the same time resting his free hand against the middle of my back. He was standing too close, but in the press of the crowd it was hard to complain. I longed to back away, but there wasn't room. I said, "Thanks."

Again, he bent low and put his mouth close to my ear. "What's the story with Mick? This is twice you've been in."

"He lent me his jacket. I was hoping to return it."

"You and he have something going?"

"That's none of your business."

Tim laughed and his gaze glided off, easing toward Thea, who was just rising from the booth. Scott Shackelford was staring down at the table, pinching out the joint, which was barely visible between his fingers. Thea picked up her tray and began to push toward the bar, studiously avoiding the sight of Tim. Maybe she was still pissed off for what he'd said to her last night. I didn't want the beer, but I didn't see a place to set it down.

I said, "I'll be right back."

Tim touched my arm. "Where're you going?"

"To take a whiz. Is that okay?"

Again, he laughed, but it was not the sound of merriment.

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