Thursday, March 18th, 1993
Kane slid onto a stool at the bar, and the bartender, a man named Art, who told his patrons that each drink he mixed was a work of Art, took a ring of keys out of his pocket, knelt behind the bar, turned the key in a lock, and reached inside a safe. The door of the safe faced the bartender, but a slot had been cut into the bar so that an envelope could be slid into the safe without implicating every hand it touched. The bartender stood, walked to Kane, and set a thick manilla envelope on the bar.
Kane took the envelope, slid it into his inside coat pocket, and ordered a Jack and Coke.
The Red Door had no windows, no sign, and its only advertising came in the form of matchbooks with the name of the bar, written in balloon letters, above the phone number. A literal hole in the wall, The Red Door fit snugly in a strip mall between a land and title company and a karate studio. The strip mall was in St. Patrick’s, firmly inside Kane’s territory, on 80th Avenue a couple of blocks south of Lincoln Cemetery, a central location for a drop.
Art splashed Coke on two fingers of sour mash and set the cocktail in front of Kane, who watched the reflections of the other patrons in the mirror behind the bar. Kane wasn’t worried about being robbed. Everyone, including the police, knew the bar was a drop, and nobody cared. Nobody dared rob a drop. If they did, they’d be hunted by every cop, criminal, and opportunist in the city. The thieves would be outcast, losing any and all police or criminal protection, and a bounty would be placed on their heads that would tempt their mothers.
Kane knew all of this, and it made him tired. As a child, he’d dreamed of being a college professor in a quiet college town, preferably with a river and a strong music department. His happiest memories were set in a library, his nose in a book, at a time before his father had died but marked by his father’s absence. After his father’s death, he’d been placed in a boarding school for wayward youths. A ward of the Catholic church, he’d had an opportunity to change his life, get away from the old neighborhood and his roots, but he hadn’t had the resources or guidance to make the leap. Instead, he’d fallen back on the world he’d known, the world of his father, his mother, and his friends. In the summers during high school, he’d worked as a bag man, a kid who ran routes, sliding small envelopes in slots like the one in the bar near where he sat. He’d hustled packages, working both the streets of his childhood and the world he’d been thrust into by the destruction of his family. Arrests were part of the life, but he’d managed to keep his record limited, and as a minor, his juvenile record would be sealed. He’d tried to hustle his way through college, seeing education as a clear path to something new, and it had almost worked. Months from earning his degree, his roll of the dice hadn’t abolished chance. His luck turned. Three years in prison meant that he’d come of age in the life, and it was the only life he’d ever known or would ever know.
As fate would have it, the life suited him. He saw the angles with a clarity he never felt in an academic environment. The only thing that bothered him about violence was how little violence bothered him, so he did his best to keep peace in the city, and he tried to treat people fairly. Because of that, most people, cops and criminals alike, respected him. They didn’t necessarily like him or agree with him or think he deserved the power he now had in the city’s underworld, but they respected him, and that was as good as it got in his line of work.
During the past six months, Kane had become the most powerful individual in Central City’s underworld. And as he sipped his drink and considered his surroundings, he wondered, as he often did, if he could’ve avoided his lot in life. He’d made the decisions he’d thought best. He’d tried to escape, and he’d failed. He’d tried to protect the people he cared about, and he’d failed. He’d tried to limit the violence, and he’d failed. At this point, he wasn’t sure he’d recognize the right thing if it bit him.
Perhaps the right thing was a myth, a story told to children to keep them walking the line society drew in the sand. Kane’s life had crossed that line, and his reality turned over, but Kane’s world appeared the same.
Kane sat in a dive that looked like all the other dives where he’d spent much of his life. A bookie who paid for protection sat with two professional gamblers. Three construction workers still in work clothes sipped beers at a table filled with empty shot glasses. An old woman sat by herself at the bar with a glass of wine, and a working girl tried her charms on an older man nursing a beer. The people around Kane, people who sought a release from suffering in any shape, form, or context, could those people be seen as right? Were they doing the right thing? Did their existence justify their choices more than his existence justified his?
If not, who could blame them for the choices they made? How much privilege would a human need to claim to know how to live better than those who made a living?
In the reflection of the room presented by the wall of mirror, the working girl caught Kane’s eye. She stood near the far end of the bar, and when he entered, he must’ve passed her without noticing. Kane watched her as he sipped his drink. She had fine, disheveled hair, and track marks on her left arm. She appeared clean enough that Kane assumed she lived somewhere with a shower, but she wore no makeup, and her skin was covered in acne. Her mouth tilted to the left, and she spoke with her jaw as if each word a mouthful. She chatted with an older man, a man by himself, and the man looked uncomfortable. She touched his leg every so often and laughed too hard at his jokes. He squirmed at the attention.
Was he uncomfortable with women or with that particular woman?
Kane saw something in the woman’s jaw, something familiar. He’d known someone with a jaw like that, someone with fine hair and a thin frame. The eyes, though, were different. The eyes at the edge of his memory were filled with life and mischief and danger. This woman’s eyes were dead. They looked into the mirror, met Kane’s eyes for a single beat, and looked away.
Who was she?