When you get a shock that squeezes your heart, paralyses your brain and turns your body cold, you die a little.
I stood looking into the mirror on the wall of the booth, the handbag gripped in my hand, staring at
the two enormous green pieces of glass that formed her sun goggles, and I died a little.
I became suddenly sober. The whisky fumes that had clouded my brain went away: it was like a razor, slitting through gauze.
She would call the barman and he would find the roll of money in my pocket, then he would call a cop. Once the cop arrived, I would be a parcel of meat to be handled safely and surely back into a cell, but not for four years: it would be a much, much longer sentence this time.
Fingers tapped lightly on the glass door of the booth. I put the handbag on the shelf and turned, then I opened the door.
The woman moved slightly to one side to let me have room to come out.
‘I think I left my handbag…’ she said.
‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘I was going to give it to the barman.’
Maybe the best thing I could do was to push past her and get onto the street before she had time to open the bag and find the money missing. Once I got on the street I could throw the money away, then it would be her word against mine.
I started to make the move, then stopped. The barman had come from behind the counter and was blocking the exit. He was looking puzzled, and he came forward, still keeping his vast bulk between me and the door.
‘Is this guy annoying you, lady?’ he said to the woman.
She turned her head slowly. I had a feeling that whatever the emergency she would always remain poised and unruffled.
‘Why, no. I stupidly left my handbag in the booth. This gentleman was going to give it to you to keep for me.’
The barman looked suspiciously at me.
‘Is that a fact?’ he said. ‘Well, okay, if that’s what he says.’
I just stood there like a dummy. My mouth was so dry I couldn’t have spoken even if I had known what to say.
‘Anything of value in the bag, lady?’ the barman asked.
‘Oh, yes. It was stupid of me to have forgotten it.’
She had a clear, hard voice. I wondered vaguely if her eyes, hidden behind the sun goggles, were as hard.
‘Hadn’t you better check to see if anything is missing?’ the barman said.
‘I suppose I’d better.’
I wondered if one quick punch would get me out of this. I decided it wouldn’t. The barman looked as if he had taken a lot of quick punches in his day, and he looked as if the diet had agreed with him.
She moved past me into the booth and picked up the bag. I watched her, my heart scarcely beating. She stepped out of the booth, opened the bag and looked inside. With slim fingers, the nails painted silver, she moved the contents of the bag about, her face expressionless.
The barman breathed heavily. He kept glancing at me and then at her. She looked up. Here it comes, I thought. In half an hour from now, I’ll be in a cell.
‘No, there’s nothing missing, ‘ she said. She turned her head slowly to look directly at me. ‘Thank you for taking care of it for me. I’m afraid I am very careless with my things.’
I didn’t say anything.
The barman beamed.
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