Heads or Tails?
by Bruce Harris
Joe wiped his hands on a surprisingly clean apron. “Anything to drink?” His voice was deep.
He shook his head.
“Coffee.” Joe grabbed a one-page menu encased in cracked plastic but I waived him off. “Steak. Well done.”
Joe made a face, did his thing and slid a hefty mug toward me. Coffee sloshed onto the blue countertop. He opened a refrigerated door, separated a thin, frozen Delmonico from its stack and tossed it Frisbee style onto the grill.
“Nice weather, huh?” he asked.
“Sucks. I don’t get into the city much, and I picked a winner of a day.”
Joe grabbed a long spatula and began playing with the steak. He turned his head toward me as he scraped grease into the grill’s side reservoir. “It’s keeping everyone home. No one wants to go out and eat. Sucks is right.”
The coffee was good. I looked around the empty luncheonette. “It isn’t the weather keeping your customers away.”
Another sip. “I just saw thousands of people near the Spartan Building on Andrews Street.”
Joe continued screwing with the steak. Tiny grease beads popped and cracked. “Thousands? You serious? What’re they doing?”
The one-man show flipped the steak causing a mini 4th of July celebration engulfing the meat. “I don’t know, an Elvis sighting? Maybe the King is in town. Thousands? Really?”
“Well, maybe I’m exaggerating, but there are at least a thousand, probably more. “Hey, how about a little more coffee?”
Joe re-filled my mug and returned to the steak. “Whaddya want with the steak? Comes with fries and Cole slaw.”
“Fries and Cole slaw.” Joe pulled a bag of frozen potatoes and dumped them into a basket hanging precariously over hot grease. He lowered the fries into the oil. Bubbles. Hot crackling bubbles. “They weren’t there for the King. They were trying to get a glimpse of the dead guy that fell from the 14th floor. It’s actually the 13th, but they call it the 14th floor. Go figure. Trying to avoid bad luck, I guess.”
Joe stopped momentarily, and then resumed jabbing the steak. “Body? Someone fall? I should have known something happened. I heard sirens.”
“He didn’t technically fall. He was pushed.”
Now I had Joe’s full attention. “What are you saying?”
“First, I’m saying that I think the steak is ready. You have ketchup?” Joe placed the meat and slaw on an oversized plate. He hesitated for a moment before handing me a knife and fork. The fries followed. “Second, I’m saying the dead guy on the street was pushed out the window. It wasn’t an accident.”
Joe scratched his head. “And you know this, how?”
I give him credit. He anticipated the answer and he didn’t flinch. “I pushed him. His name is, was, Curtis Welch. Is or was? I’m not sure which.” I poured ketchup over the fries and made a little puddle near one end of the steak. Fatty grease oozed against the ketchup’s edge.
Joe’s hand disappeared behind his apron. When it emerged he was holding a cell phone.
“Go ahead, call the cops.” I cut into the steak and speared a fry. “Very good. Hitting the spot.”
“Oh, I get it,” said Joe with a wheezing laugh, “this is a joke. You’re making this up. Man, you had me going for…”
“It’s real. I killed him. It’s not that he didn’t deserve killing. In fact, it was Welch or another lowlife named Martin Bowman. One of them was going to die today. I flipped a coin, it came up ‘heads,’ and ‘heads’ was Welch.” I wiped Cole slaw juice from the side of my mouth. “Go ahead, phone the police.”
Joe gripped the cell phone a little tighter but didn’t dial. He didn’t take his eyes off the steak knife. “Go on.”
I continued eating. “I’m not crazy if that’s what you’re thinking. This was planned out. Exactly twenty years ago today, Martin Bowman was home alone and decided to play a practical joke. The little delinquent called 9-1-1 and reported that someone was breaking into his house. There was no intruder. The kid was just out for shits and giggles. Well, the first cop to respond was my father. But, he never made it to Bowman’s house.” Joe robotically poured me another coffee and backed up two steps. “He never made it because he was blindsided by a grey sedan at an intersection. Despite the flashing lights and siren, the sedan entered the intersection going more than 70 miles per hour. The driver of that vehicle was drunk. Curtis Welch was behind the wheel. Welch walked away from the accident with a few scratches. My father was killed on impact. Welch did a few years for some horseshit accidental vehicular manslaughter charge, was out early for good behavior and that was that.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say. I…”
I cut him off. “Joe, your father was an attorney, no?”
Joe was as stiff as the beef in the freezer. He hesitated, then, “Died about a year ago.” With his free hand he wiped phantom crumbs off a pitted wooden cutting board onto the floor. “He hadn’t practiced in years. Say, what’s this all about?”
“Just that your old man was the prosecuting attorney who tried the Welch case. He rarely spoke about it, but I don’t think he ever got over the fact that Welch got off so easily. Your father was a friend of the police, tried lots of cases for them. He knew justice wasn’t served this time. It wasn’t his fault. No one blamed him. It’s the system. Anyway, I took care of all that today. Better late than never.”
“By murdering Welch?”
“Call it what you like. As far as I’m concerned, both Welch and Bowman were responsible for my father’s death. But, I believe in a tooth for a tooth, not teeth. You know, like an avenging angel? I wasn’t going to kill them both. I decided long ago that I’d even the score by killing one of the two. But, which one? Like I said, they both deserved it. The time just felt right. I flipped a coin and Welch was the lucky one. I tracked him down to the office in the Spartan Building. I paid him a visit earlier this morning in this nasty rain, explained to him who I was and why I was there, and shoved him out the window.”
“You say there were a thousand people there?”
“Okay, okay. Let’s say there were several hundred.” Joe’s eyebrows rose. “Okay, maybe a hundred people? Fifty? What the hell, more like twenty? I didn’t count them. I…”
The phone disappeared behind his apron. “Good steak, huh?”
I pulled a nickel from my pocket. “How about we flip for it? Double or nothing, heads or tails?”
Bruce Harris is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: ABout Type. His short story "Written Out" appeared in omdb! in June, 2012.
Copyright © 2014 Bruce Harris. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!