The room was empty save for a few lingerers. Each man but the bartender staring at the bottom of a glass or off into the distance.
“Another round, Jim?”
“Yes, sir. It’ll be the last.”
“Coming right up.”
The bartender grabbed a fresh mug, tilted it at an angle and began to fill it. He grabbed the empty mug Jim was staring into and swapped it with the full one. Jim downed a quarter of the mug and continued his silent contemplation.
A cough was heard and a floorboard squeaked. The entire room returned to silence. There wasn’t a soul in that room that was in the present moment. Regrets about the past coalesced with worries over the future and a touch of liquid courage. These men were fighting unspoken battles.
A set of boots slowly began to materialize somewhere in the men’s ears. They were emanating from the hallway that led to the bar room. The men’s heads perked up and peered at the door. The boots grew more foreboding as they grew louder until they were on the other side of the entrance door. Each head in the room was cocked and staring at the wooden panelled door as it crept open. The figure emerged through the door frame and came into the light. The little light that was available in the bar was sufficient enough to give every man in the room, from the back corner to the bar counter, a reason to go back to looking into their glass.
The figure spoke in a low, hoarse voice, “time to pay up.”
The light fell on the dark figure but did not expose his face. The figure moved forward, each footstep an earthquake.
“But, sir, it was only two weeks ago we paid you,” the barman spoke up nervously. “We can’t afford so many…”
“If you couldn’t afford it, I wouldn’t be here.” The figure said in a menacing voice as it stood next to the bar counter, staring down at the nervous barman. The figure drummed its fingers on the counter as it eyed the room. Each man at each table, sitting on each stool only maintained eye contact with the beer glass in front of him.
“We are all hardworking men here,” Jim spoke up, avoiding eye contact with the figure. “We paid you our dues, but you can’t just take all our pay.”
Grumbles of agreement were heard around the room. The figure turned its head around to acknowledge the palpable feelings of dissatisfaction. In the low light of the room, its head seemed to turn completely around as if on a swivel.
“Is that feeling shared by all here?”
The grumbles continued, more confidently this time.
“Well then work harder!” The figure shouted as a fist was slammed on the bar counter.
The barman began first, pulling out bills from under the counter table and passing them to the figure. Jim did the same, pulling out several bills from his pocket and passing them without eye contact. This shakedown scene played out similarly at each table as the figure moved around the room.
“I’ll be seeing you again in a few weeks,” the figure said as it passed through the doors.
Each man looked down into his glass with a little more humiliation, bowing his head further into his own abyss.
The same pattern repeated itself over the next few weeks. It was established long ago by an unequal distribution of courage. The figure haunting this town had realized early on that no one spoke up much when pushed.
“Heads kept low are better than heads removed,” the barman would say in conversation with patrons.
“We can still have a good life,” Jim would say. “If we keep our noses to the grindstone.”
The figure could smell the cowardice on each man, even without knowledge of these personal statements. The lack of courage haunted the town long before the figure came into existence. The easier path had eventually led them all into difficulty.
“Mom, I really need to go.”
“Okay, I think we can try here.”
The bar doors swung open as a little boy ran up to the bar counter. A woman followed the little boy.
“Excuse me, can we use your toilet?” The woman asked the barman.
The little boy rocketed off towards the general direction of the restroom.
Awkward smiles were exchanged between the barman and the woman.
“Do you want a drink?”
“Oh, no. But thank you.”
“Doesn’t have to be alcohol. How about a water?”
“I’m okay, thanks.”
The barman returned to wiping the counter. The room was again full of silent contemplation. Half empty glasses soothing countless empty dreams. Jim was seated further down the counter stirring some object with his finger, which had fallen into his beer glass.
“Doing some shopping?”
“What?” The woman looked up at Jim sitting several stools away.
“I mean your son; you’re shopping with him?”
“No, I mean yes. He needs some new clothes.”
“Seems like a nice boy,” Jim replied while shifting on his stool.
“He is, he’s very energetic,” came the woman’s response. “I wanted to get him some better fitting…”
A violent thumping suddenly filled the hallway leading to the barroom. The woman stopped mid-sentence and turned to face the door. Each man in the room did the same. Their faces betrayed a feeling of panic. The door again crept open as the dark figure stepped through. Walking past the woman, the figure strode straight to the counter.
“Hello, Mr. Barman, the taxman cometh.”
Each man began to reluctantly reach into his pocket and prepare for this week’s shakedown.
“Mom, I’m finished!” A shout came from the back of the barroom. The figure shifted his focus and took notice of the youth running across the barroom floor.
Its attention then shifted to the woman, standing to his left. She was out of place but still worth some tax money.
“Hello, there,” it began. “I’m going to need your ‘contribution’, missy.” The woman, with a look of fear began rifling through her purse.
“Mom, who is this man? What are you doing?”
“She’s going to pay me what’s owed,” the figure said as it reached out its hand to collect the barman’s fee.
“She doesn’t owe you anything!” The little boy shouted and walked up directly to the figure. The figure towered over the boy but the boy stood his ground. The woman pulled out several bills and proceeded to hand the money over. The boy snatched the money from her hand before it reached the dark figure’s grasp.
“Hand it over now,” the dark figure said slowly and methodically. “She has to pay just like everyone else in here.”
The boy pushed the dark figure’s knees and looked directly up at the figure’s obscured visage.
Each man shifted in his stool uncomfortably while still avoiding eye contact.
The boy shoved the bills into his pants pocket and began to walk away.
The dark figure immediately stepped forward and swatted at the little boy. He was sent flying across the barroom floor and crashed into an unoccupied table. Each man was no longer avoiding eye contact. The figure walked over and pilfered through the boy’s pockets. The woman ran over, hiding her emotions and began to hug and comfort her son.
“Thank you for your contribution.”
The boy sprang up, fixed his clothing and ran back to the dark figure, who was already focused on shaking down others. He began punching the figure’s legs and scream at the top of his lungs.
The dark figure looked behind him casually and again swatted the boy away like a nuisance. This time the boy’s head hit a pillar in the centre of the barroom. He was visibly hurt.
“Stay down, boy.”
The woman rushed over to help her son, this time doing her best to prevent him continuing this futile endeavour. The boy would not stay down. He rose to his feet, with a bloody face and again ran over to attack the dark figure.
“Stay down, coward!”
The dark figure kicked the boy before he could get close. The boy was sent reeling and slammed into a wall. This time he was knocked unconscious. The woman screamed and rand over.
“You monster!” she began while sobbing. “It’s just a little boy.”
“He needs to learn his place.” The dark figure said. “A coward like the rest.”
“He wasn’t a coward,” Jim shouted authoritatively.
The dark figure spun around and looked behind him. Each man had risen from his respective seat. Each man was staring directly into the eyes of the dark figure, who was now standing directly beneath a bright light. The light illuminated the figure’s physiognomy. It was obscene and horrible. The men had never directly looked at it before. But they now had no problem looking into its eyes. The face was contorted into a look of fury but the eyes betrayed fear.
“What would you cowards know?”
“We saw it before our eyes,” the barman spoke as he walked around from behind the bar counter.
“Learn your place, cowards.” The dark figure continued speaking with confidence but his eyes showed otherwise. They were no longer predator eyes. They had changed into prey eyes.
“There are no cowards here,” Jim said.
“None except for you.” The barman added.
The dark figure took a single step backwards. It was no longer an unknown force of terror but a man. The men descended upon this man in unison as the mother and now conscious boy looked on.
Local law enforcement came around to do an investigation. They had never been very good at protecting the locals from this menace but suddenly came out of the woodwork. They were there to ask the patrons about a disappearance. A man who frequented bars and other establishments had gone missing several weeks ago and left no clue. They said it was tied to the assault of a little boy who had thankfully made a full recovery. The men in the bar said nothing to the authorities as they peered into the bottoms of their glasses. The case was utterly baffling, especially in this town where no one wanted any trouble and everyone kept to themselves.
“He never came around here,” the barman said, while wiping the bar counter. “I can tell you that for certain.”
“Are you sure you never saw a man who fit this description?” asked the officer.
“Because he’s been known to start trouble some places he goes,” the officer added. “So maybe somebody saw something.”
“We would know what to do with somebody if they started trouble here,” Jim said, while looking into his beer glass. “After all we aren’t cowards.”