Questions and Answers

By Brian Lawrence (1998)

"Well I'll be, Alex O'Brien," Frank Lane shouted over the steady din of the crowded nightclub. He sat at the bar of the Mallard Lake Cafe, his words slightly slurred, a half empty glass of amber liquid cradled in his hands.

O'Brien slid up to the bar, taking the only remaining stool, and grasped Lane's hand. His longtime acquaintance was a harried gentleman, wearing a gray suit that looked like he'd slept in it, with the jacket unbuttoned, shirt collar open, and a loosened blue paisley tie. A half-smoked cigarette smoldered in a glass ashtray to Lane's right. The putrid stench of used butts mixed with the smell of sweet liquor and expensive cologne.

Lane craned his neck and regarded O'Brien. "You look different." He stared a bit longer then said, "That fuzzy worm on your lip."

O'Brien grinned and ran a finger and thumb over his thin mustache.

"And those glasses. When did you start wearing glasses?"

O'Brien adjusted his wire-frames and answered, "I'm getting old, Frank. Eyes just aren't what they used to be."

Lane expelled a short laugh then asked, "What brings you here?"

"Business in Winston-Salem." O'Brien motioned to the bartender.

"Winston-Salem? Our biggest competitor's in Winston-Salem. You still in computer security?"

O'Brien nodded, then ordered a gin and tonic.

"You doing work for anyone I know?" Lane asked.

O'Brien smiled, shrugged.

"Industrial espionage." Lane chortled. "Top secret stuff, huh?"

Again, O'Brien shrugged. "However," he said in a throaty voice, leaning close to Lane. "Information has it that something's going down in this bar."

"Oh?" Lane asked, elbows resting on the polished surface of the bar. While gazing into the depths of his drink he casually reached for his cigarette, took a deep religious drag, flicked the ashes, and rested it back on the edge of the ashtray.

"That's what I hear." O'Brien sipped his gin and tonic.

"So, tell me. What's going down?"

"Not so fast. You remember those logic games we used to play back in college?"

"Yeah, I remember." Lane answered, shaking his gray-haired head. "You used to cream me. Never was very good at those. I lost a bundle to you." He drained his glass, slammed it on the bar and shouted, "Another whiskey sour."

"How would you like a chance to win something back?" O'Brien asked.

"Sure. Why not?" Lane gulped a healthy portion of his refilled glass.

O'Brien swiveled his stool and faced Lane. "Okay, here's the game. There are two men in this bar. One is a hired killer, the other his mark."

Lane released his drink and rotated ninety degrees on the padded stool, his bloodshot, brown eyes bulging, his attention absolute. "Who?" he asked excitedly.

"Ah, ah. Not so fast." O'Brien sipped his drink, set it on the bar, and continued, "You can ask me three questions that require answers of no more than four words. Any question, except directly who these men are. If, after the three questions you can guess who they are, you win."

"How do you know this?" Lane leaned closer to O'Brien, a conspiratorial glint in his bloodshot eyes.

"Is that your first question?" O'Brien asked, favoring Lane a sly grin.

"No." Lane shook his head "You ex-government agent types. You'd just lie anyway. Never give up your source, right?"

O'Brien shrugged and kept his expression impassive.

"Okay. I'll play," Lane said. "Two men in here. One's a killer, the other his target." He swiveled his stool back and forth, his gaze skipping over the crowd. He polished off his drink and shoved the glass forward for another refill.

O'Brien returned his attention to the bar and his gin and tonic. From within a perfect square, the bartenders worked below an inverted pyramid of glasses that hung from the ceiling like crystal bats over an island of liquor bottles. From three sides the manic bartenders sloshed drinks for patrons. The fourth edge, facing the main area, was reserved for the endless stream of worker bee waitresses collecting nectar from one big flower.

Behind O'Brien and Lane were three small, round tables, each occupied. To their left a dance floor, surrounded by more tables, all of them full. The band Invisible Lisa blasted out popular tunes on a stage set a few feet above the dance floor.

With the joint being located in a small town just outside Winston-Salem, and across the highway from a popular golf resort, the crowd was a mixed group of young locals, older businessmen, and golfers. Each group was easily singled out by their dress; the larger group of golfers in shorts and golf shirts, their faces and arms crimson, the businessmen dressed like Lane and O'Brien, drowning their stress in sweet liquid, and the locals, mainly young women, wearing everything in between and drinking beer.

O'Brien glanced right down the bar. Sitting next to Lane was a sandy-haired man in tan shorts and a red golf shirt engaged in conversation with a similarly dressed woman who wore white shorts and a yellow shirt. Going around the bar were two more men, obviously golfers by their attire, three women huddled together at the corner, two more golfers eyeing the three women, a man in a striped dress shirt and flashy tie talking with a well-dressed attractive brunette, and three more raucous golfers speaking spiritedly with four young women.

"First question," Lane said. O'Brien returned his attention to his drinking companion. "Are the two men sitting together?"

O'Brien pondered the question then settled on the loose interpretation and answered, "Yes."

Out of the corner of his left eye he caught sight of a young blonde woman in a short, green, sleeveless dress emerging from around the corner, probably from the bathroom. As she bounced past, she met his stare, and a smile lit her face. He swiveled on his stool, following her retreat through the door leading to a porch-like section in the back of the building. Rubbing a hand over his slicked back, dark hair and straightening the lapels on his blue pinstriped suit, he seriously considered abandoning Lane and following the pixie in the green dress, even though she was at least twenty years younger.

"Hmm, they're together," Lane muttered, reluctantly changing O'Brien's mind. His old friend stood and walked to the end of the bar, surveying the other tables, like a single man on the prowl. Then Lane walked past O'Brien and looked into the porch.

He returned, squeezing between O'Brien and tall, big-boned woman who had materialized at the bar. "Are there any women with them?" he asked favoring the steroidal woman a quick glance. She wore a shirt from which the sleeves had been amputated, and tight black jeans. Big, but well proportioned, she had a tattoo of a green dragon encircling a red rose on her exposed shoulder.

O'Brien thought her alluring until she smiled. The gap in her teeth, probably from a bar fight, dashed the illusion.

"If you hadn't said the killer was a man, I'd have guessed her," Lane said, smirking and pointing over his shoulder at the tattooed woman. "So, are there any women with them?"

O'Brien tore his eyes away from the hideous gap. This time he elected to go with the strict interpretation of the question and said, "No." He then said, "By the way, how's the bidding going on that new acquisition? I heard its high stakes."

Lane shot him a surprised look. "You heard? From where? We've been pretty tight-lipped about it."

O'Brien shrugged. "I have my sources."

"And they are?" Lane asked, holding his glass out to the bartender for yet another refill, his face suddenly serious.

O'Brien sipped his own drink and slowly shook his head.

Lane copied the gesture and laughed, more of a snicker actually. "Multi-billion dollar deal." Still shaking his head in perplexity he said, "Might as well tell you. You'll probably find out anyway. Down to two companies. Us, obviously, and our number one competitor, the one in Winston-Salem. We're this close to winning." He held up a hand, his finger and thumb less than an inch apart, his eyes dancing with excitement. To look at him, one would never guess he was the chief executive officer of one of the largest high tech firms in the world.

"Dug up any dirt on the competitor? Doing a little mud slinging?" O'Brien asked, grinning slyly, favoring Lane a wink.

"Well, you know. Nothing too terrible. A few innuendoes, a couple rumors, the usual. Nothing I'm sure they're not doing."

Both men smiled. O'Brien nodded. Lane gulped half his drink.

"What about you? How's work going? This client here a lucrative one?"

"Not bad." O'Brien shifted his gaze to the bartender as the young curly-haired man poured a line of drinks, deftly switching from the liquor bottle to the soda spigot, doing four glasses, without spilling a drop. The precision and speed was impressive. He liked precision and speed.

"Going to be in town long?" Lane asked.

"Probably not," O'Brien said. "Should wrap up in a day or two." He glanced left and watched the crowd bump and grind on the dance floor.

"Never understood why you quit the CIA," Lane said. O'Brien slowly swiveled his head and gazed at Lane. "Seemed like you had a great deal. Travel to exotic places, set your own schedule. Not pinned to an office." Lane sucked on his cigarette, shaking his head.

"Little profit potential and too much protocol," O'Brien answered. "Besides, spying on the Middle East just isn't the same as Russia. Too much risk."

"Hmm. So, when did you get in? Quite a coincidence running into each other here," Lane said.

"Yes, it is, isn't it." O'Brien sipped at his gin. "Got in yesterday. Flew in from Atlanta, where I had other business."

"So, come on, who's this client? Anyone I know?"

"Can't say, Frank," O'Brien answered.

Lane drained his glass and started to ask another question. The bartender, a young, well-built man, leaned over and asked if they wanted a refill. Lane nodded. O'Brien shook his head, still having half his drink remaining. The band stopped, announcing they were taking a break. Canned music started at one-tenth the volume. A harsh looking, yet attractive woman appeared at the corner of the bar closest to O'Brien. She gave both men the eye. O'Brien smiled and winked. She smiled back and blew cigarette smoke in great puffs out over the tables behind them.

Again, Lane started to speak. O'Brien cut him off. "How's the wife and kids?" he asked, watching the woman over his glass as he sipped his gin.

"Doing well. Janey starts at NC State this fall. Rory's into every sport. He starts high school. How about you? When are you going to find a woman and settle down?"

"My travel schedule isn't conducive to family life," O'Brien replied.

Lane nodded, then said, "No women. Sitting together. That narrows it down. There were three tables of all men in the main area. One on the porch, one behind me. And sitting at the bar, are two pairs of men who seem to be together."

"One more question, then I'll need a guess," O'Brien said, lighting a cigarette, peering over his cupped hands at the woman to his left. She stared straight ahead, back against the bar, intent on her own cigarette. O'Brien guessed her age around forty, either recently divorced or looking to fool around on the side, as the white band on her left hand had not tanned sufficiently to match the rest. Her cinnamon and sugar hair barely brushed her shoulders. She wore a tight, blue and white striped knit dress, showing off a decent figure. She swiveled her head O'Brien's way and again smiled in feigned coyness. Lane interrupted O'Brien's return smile.

"Okay, are they within ten feet of us?"

"Yes," O'Brien answered, stepping down from his barstool, turning to face Lane. "Your guess."

"Could be those two men at the bar or at the table behind us."

Lane studied the two men closest to them at the bar. O'Brien looked as well. Like the rest of the golfers, their red faces and arms indicated they'd hit the links that afternoon. Plus, their demeanors were those of teenagers on that first field trip away from home. Boys weekend out. Both wore wedding bands and stupid grins.

Lane turned. O'Brien did the same. The men behind them were businessmen. One wore a black suit and had jet-black hair. He sat with his arms crossed, gazing intently at his partner. The other had his fingers steepled, his eyes darting around. Both nursed mixed drinks. Neither said much.

O'Brien inched closer to Lane, then glanced around. The harsh yet attractive woman gave him another look, this one more seductive. He winked again. She smiled and looked down at her hands. He sighed at a soon to be missed opportunity. On the other side of Lane, the sandy-haired man now sat alone, both hands around his drink, staring intently at the half empty glass.

"Got to be the pair behind us at the table," Lane said.

O'Brien slowly lowered his gaze and stared into his friend's eager face. "I'm truly sorry, but that's wrong."

"So, it's those two," Lane said, indicating with his head the pair of golfer's at the bar. "I told you, I never could win these silly games. I always go for the obvious and it never is."

"Nope." O'Brien set his expression and narrowed his eyes.

"Then who? Whoa, Alex, back up a little."

"Sorry." O'Brien retreated a step then clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Got to get going, buddy. Early meeting tomorrow." He turned to leave, but stopped, turned back and said, "Can't say I didn't give you a chance, though."

"What?" Lane asked, his face screwed in confusion. "Hey, wait," he protested. "Who are the two men?"

"See ya, Frank," O'Brien said. He turned and left. On the way out, he rubbed a hand across the harshly attractive woman's cheek and whispered, "Maybe another time." She frowned.

Roger Wood felt ridiculous sitting in the bar wearing a red Polo shirt and shorts. Especially since he had to wear a baggy shirt to cover the gun tucked in his waist band. The handle of the 9mm ground into his gut. The broad he'd been talking to had been cute, though. What was her name?

Out of the corner of his eye he saw O'Brien leave. He waited a few more minutes, then pushed back from the bar and stood. He turned to the businessman next to him who was muttering into his drink.

"Hey mister," Wood said, tapping the man on the shoulder. "Want to know what you would have won if you'd guessed the right two men?"

The man named Frank Lane, so Wood had been told, looked up from the bar and swiveled toward Wood. Lane's eyes narrowed in annoyance.

"What were you doing, listening to our conversation?" Lane asked.

"Naw. I already knew about the game."

A questioning look crossed Lane's face. "You knew? How?"

Wood slipped the 9mm out of his pants and shoved it hard into Lane's gut. The overweight executive grunted.

"Don't you want to know what you would have won?" Wood repeated.

"What the..." Lane's eyes widened. His mouth opened and closed like an epileptic guppy. His glance shifted from Wood to the gun in his paunch and back again.

Wood leaned over and whispered in Lane's ear, "You'd have won your life."

The band started in on a loud rock-and-roll tune. The drummer drowned out the sound of the three explosions that tore into Lane's mid-section. Wood shoved the gun back in his waistband and quickly left the bar.

Lane slumped on his barstool, until gravity took hold and he fell to the floor. The last thought to enter his mind was that this time he'd overlooked the obvious.

O'Brien waited at the bottom of the stairs outside the bar, standing in shadow. The streets were quiet. No one had passed in the last five minutes. Even from the bottom of the hill, he felt the music from the band. He saw Wood come through the doors and hurry toward him. O'Brien stepped out, allowing Wood to see him, then fell into step with his nervous partner as he came alongside.

"How'd it go?" O'Brien asked calmly. Even in the opaque night, he could see the whites of Wood's wide, unblinking eyes, eyes that flitted like a wounded sparrow.

"Fine, man. Just fine. Piece of cake, actually. Piece of f-ing cake."

"Good." O'Brien stopped and glanced around. He saw no one. "I've got your money," he said to Wood.

"Yeah, hand it over, O'Brien. Then I'm outta here."

O'Brien smiled, reached inside his suit jacket, pulled out a snub-nosed .22, set it against Wood's forehead, and pulled the trigger.

Wood staggered. Blood dripped from the blackened hole in his head. His expression passed from perplexity to anger. Then his eyes rolled and he crumpled to the ground.

O'Brien pocketed the .22 and walked away, thinking about how much he liked neatness and precision.