Carol’s Pub had the sorriest, most raggedy-assed pool table Meredith had ever seen. The felt was scuffed, nicked, and stained; the cushions, battered and uneven. A folded piece of cardboard—torn from the lid of a beer bottle case—leveled one leg on the warped linoleum flooring. The pocket points were misaligned and two had hairline cracks. Cigarette burns marred the edging, dark welts curling like sneers from the composite plastic.
The location befit the table’s condition. Way back of the tavern, wedged into a nook haphazardly created by a windowless brick wall, walk-in cooler, and broom-and-mop rack. A narrow plywood mantel for bottles and ashtrays jutted from the brick wall. A faded Bicentennial banner sagged from two nails. Someone had penned a mustache on George Washington, a beard on Thomas Jefferson, and goggles on Benjamin Franklin. Four stools with ripped cushions, a Pabst light with fringed shade, and two long-haired punks in Levis, T-shirts, and neck chains completed the décor.
Punk One was taking a shot. A hard left cut on the seven ball into a side pocket. Meredith didn’t watch the balls. She took in his stance, grip, elbow angle, and bridge, keeping her eyes on the cue’s glide as he shot. Smooth, not too hard, but with a wobble. Unconsciously, he slipped his bridge as he finished, probably because he was thinking too hard about keeping his right elbow aligned with the cue. He still dropped the seven ball, left himself good for a corner pocket kiss on the one ball.
“Is the girls’ room back here?” Meredith asked before he could shoot. She put the slightest lilt into her voice, just a hint of Laverne and Shirley, while looking around quizzically.
The shooter looked up from the table. Punk Two perched on a stool with his boots hooked on its rail, cue in hand. They scoped her out, squinting through the bangs drifting over their eyebrows. Punk Two took a theatrical drag on his king-size.
“Nah, babe, s’round the bar, back that’a way,” he drawled, gesturing vaguely. The Southern accent gave him away as a recent arrival in Chicago. Carol’s, a honky-tonk joint, was in Uptown, a beatdown neighborhood recently taking in lots of poor whites from Appalachia.
“Thanks!” She twirled around and returned to the bar where Darren was waiting. For this job, Meredith wore shorts, a fitted tee, and flats. July, and the city was as humid as a jungle. Just about every other woman in the bar wore a similar outfit. Darren wanted her to wear stiletto heels with straps. Meri, you flex your right foot when you’re shooting, let him see that shoe dangle just so, for sure he won’t be thinking about his next shot! Took her five minutes to explain why stiletto heels with straps didn’t go with shorts and a tee. Maybe they would find a mark with a foot fetish. Or maybe the mark would wonder why the hell she was sporting those shoes and tumble to the ploy.
Meredith slid onto the stool Darren had been guarding for her.
“Table?” he asked.
“About fell off a dump truck.”
“Worse than Canton.”
He smirked. “Your people. Maybe they’re your second cousins.”
“Wouldn’t that be something?” Meredith decided to say. She had worked hard to lose her accent, but Darren still teased her about being from Kentucky.
“Sandbag ’em?” he asked.
“Thought about it, but no.”
“Pro: They’re young and think they’re hot shit. One I saw shoot, s’got a wobble. We could work that. Con: They know better than to bang those beat-up rails.”
“Try a Bicker?”
“They’ll just bail.”
“For Chrissake, then what?”
That edge to his voice, already—they weren’t ten minutes in yet. Darren’s nerves were fraying a lot lately.
“I’m thinking we could—”
“What can I getcha, hon?” the barmaid interjected. Like the two pool players, she had a Southern accent.
“Rum and coke, lotsa ice,” Meredith answered.
Turning back to Darren, Meredith said, “Dazzle, we should go with that.”