The Misadventures of Alcoholus Moronicus
If I jumped out of the booth as if my butt was scalded, Caleb would probably notice. If I tried to slink away quietly and offended Jerry, making a scene, Caleb would probably notice. All I had to do was humor this moron for a minute or two and then hightail it before—
Crap. Caleb had noticed.
And from across the room, he did not look happy. He stood, moving swiftly around the tables, approaching Jerry from behind. I shook my head slightly, prompting Jerry to ask, “Everything OK, sweetie?”
Caleb frowned, and I drummed up the ditzy-blonde voice I’d perfected at Oil Slick’s. “Hi! Do you mind if I sit here?”
Jerry’s dim but perfectly friendly grin was back. “Well, since you already are, I don’t mind at all. Can I buy you a drink?”
“I’ll have whatever you’re having,” I said, smiling sweetly.
He hollered, “Beer!” across the barroom, which prompted a rude gesture from the bartender. Jerry turned back to me. “Well, look at you. Here I thought I’d met all the pretty girls in town. You’re new around here, huh?”
Right, right, idle chitchat. I can do this, I told myself. I could keep Jerry pleasantly distracted and maybe even get him outside, where Caleb could intercede without causing a loud, violent scene. Jerry didn’t seem like a sleaze, which helped considerably. He just seemed like a rather sad, lonely guy who had very bad judgment regarding auto loans and business transactions. Part of me sort of wanted to help him escape out the back door. I smiled, although the expression was a bit shaky, and leaned across the table toward him.
“My boyfriend and I just blew into town a few days ago. But I can’t seem to find him. I guess I’ll just have to spend my time with you.” I slowly walked my fingers up his denim-clad arm.
“Well, his loss is my gain, sweetie. I’ll just get us some drinks.” Jerry waved his arms in the direction of the bar and frowned. “Len doesn’t seem to be cooperatin’,” he said, frowning slightly at the bartender, who was pointedly ignoring him. “Why don’t I go get you that beer?”
I smiled, all sweetness and light. “Why don’t you?”
He sauntered toward the bar, grinning at me the whole time.
Now was probably a good time to run. As nonsleazy as he seemed, Jerry could try his own luck with Caleb. When he turned his back to me to order, I hopped up from the table, made toward the back exit, and ran right into Caleb.
There’s nothing like a face full of pissed-off werewolf to get your adrenal responses going.
“What are you doing here?” Caleb hissed, dark eyes flashing faintly golden as he wrapped his fingers around my wrist and pulled me toward the corridor. Although he clearly wasn’t messing around, his grip wasn’t tight enough to hurt, and I felt insistently guided rather than dragged against my will.
“I got bored,” I whispered, in an effort not to attract Jerry’s attention. “And then I got here, and it all just sort of spiraled out of control.”
“I told you to stay at the motel.”
“I’m starting to grasp why,” I told him. “And I’m sorry. I got anxious when you didn’t come back.”
And I grasped exactly how needy that sounded as the words came out of my mouth. Maybe if I started drinking, I would develop some sort of verbal filter around this man.
A fleeting, pleased look flashed across his face, just before another more lasting look of . . . guilt? That seemed like a strange response to an awkward admission of semifondness. He cleared his throat and pushed me away, against the wall, until there was enough room to make the dance chaperones at my old high school happy.
“Look, Anna, I think we should talk.”
And then, of course—
“Uh, hello?” Jerry asked, returning with beers in hand. “Is this your boyfriend?”
I gave a very startled Caleb an uneasy glance and mumbled, “Ummm . . .”
Even I am amazed by my own smoothness sometimes.
Caleb was the first to snap out of whatever bad-decision haze was circling our heads, drawling, “Yeah, this is my girl. And she doesn’t need anybody buying her beers but me.” He slid his arm around my waist and pushed me behind his broad back.
Resigning myself to being the mewling damsel in this messed-up situation, I dropped my forehead against the back of Caleb’s jacket and sighed, before loudly protesting in full-on Southern drawl, “Aw, baby, he didn’t meant anything by it!”
Jerry raised his hands, spilling the better part of the beer down his shoulders. “Hey, man, she sat down with me. I didn’t mean any harm.”
“You wanna talk about this outside?” Caleb growled as I backed toward the employee exit and calculated my chances of bolting for the motel room and avoiding the inevitable fiasco of fisticuffs. And frankly, my feelings were a little hurt that Jerry had thrown me over so quickly when faced with my pissed-off “boyfriend.”
Defensive and agitated, Jerry retorted, “Hey, maybe if you were taking care of her at home, she wouldn’t have to go looking for it elsewhere.”
“That’s it,” Caleb barked, grabbing a handful of Jerry’s blue-jean jacket and rattling him back and forth. “Now I’m kicking your ass!”
I let out a plaintive wail, as if I couldn’t believe our lovely evening on the town was being ruined by such barbarism.
Jerry clawed at Caleb’s hands, trying to wriggle loose, like a worm on a hook. “No, she’s not even worth it, man.” With that, he managed to jerk away from Caleb’s massive hands and turned to walk away.
Now, having spent some time around the male barfly, or Alcoholus moronicus, I’d learned to recognize the signs when a guy was faking walking away from a bar fight so he could sucker-punch his opponent. I was about to shout a warning, but Caleb apparently recognized those signs, too, because when Jerry turned to whip his beer at Caleb’s head, both of us had already stepped out of the way, leaving the bottle hurtling toward the large barback, who had just carried a keg through the employee entrance behind us. Thinking Caleb was the beer tosser, the barback took a swing at him. But instead of hitting Caleb, the punch landed right in the face of an old, grizzled trucker type, whose partial denture plate went flying out of his mouth and behind the bar.
The toothless trucker was none too pleased about this development and dived at Caleb and the barback. Caleb moved to push me out of the way, but I’d already ducked, naturally falling into step with the waitresses. They tended to tuck away into a safe corner until the fists and flying objects stilled. And considering the way the fight seemed to spread throughout the barroom like a virus, those objects would likely remain in motion for some time.
Caleb had ducked the barback’s first punch but caught the second on its upward swing at his chin. Although it would have been better to keep moving, I was transfixed by the grace with which Caleb moved that massive, powerful body around; sidestepping and dodging like a matador, all the while tracking Jerry over his shoulder so the little weasel couldn’t escape.
The physician in me couldn’t help but tally the injuries. Caleb’s emergency-room bill would have been considerable if he wasn’t going to heal up automatically. His effort to keep watch on Jerry kept getting him punched in the face. I could hear the bridge of his nose crack under the pressure of the barback’s fist, not to mention two fractured ribs and a split in the skin over his left cheek. Across the barroom, I saw an old, wizened trucker flip another onto a scarred pine bar table hard enough to break his clavicle. And a fireplug of a waitress brought her tray down on the trucker’s head so hard he was going to have at least a minor concussion.
Unfortunately, Jerry was picking his way across the room, around the flying fists, and seemed to be ducking toward the front door. And Caleb was too distracted by the painfully thin jukebox woman biting his arm to notice.
I scrambled across the room with all the grace of a drunken gazelle and cut Jerry off before he reached his escape route. OK, brain, what are you doing? You don’t approve of Caleb’s job, and you don’t know Jerry, so why are you trying to come up with a distraction to keep him from getting away?
“If you wait a minute, I’ll show you my boobs.” I blurted out the words, stopping Jerry in his tracks.
Jerry had the exact same reaction, blinking rapidly at me as he spluttered. “Wh-what?”
This was the brilliant distraction you came up with? I seethed at my cerebral cortex. How did you get me through medical school? I could only blame the bad influence of the biker-babe clothes.
“D-did you say you’d show me your boobs?” Jerry spluttered nervously, as if he was on the verge of giggling.
I scanned the room for Caleb, who was now being detained by the headlock the three-hundred-pound barback was putting on him. And now I was on the edge of panic, because there was no way I was flashing this guy. I did not spend four almost homeless years avoiding a pole—despite several potentially lucrative offers—to start publicly baring skin now. I had backed myself into a corner, in terms of negotiations. I would have to keep this in mind for future bar fights. “Maybe just one.”
Behind Jerry, there was a flash of familiar plaid. At some point during my mammary-related musings, Caleb must have shaken off the angry barback, because he was now creeping up behind Jerry, holding a finger to his lips, and brandishing a purloined pool cue. I grimaced, as if in heavy consideration.
Jerry was about to protest this bargain when Caleb crept up behind him and whacked him over the head. If Jerry had any friends who might have objected to him being whacked over the head and then packed out of the bar like baggage, they were too caught up in the fight to notice.
Caleb wasn’t even winded by the brisk walk back to the truck under the added burden of hauling a grown man. While I leaned against the passenger door, trying to catch my breath, Jerry was tucked into the truck as meticulously as a newborn babe. Caleb raised the metal gate between the front and back seats of his truck and carefully cuffed Jerry’s arms to the ceiling handle, zip-tied his feet, and gagged him with a bandanna. It was disturbing how quickly Caleb accomplished this, as if he was the feature act in some sort of criminal rodeo. But he seemed pretty angry, so angry that he didn’t even speak when he stopped at the motel to let me grab our bags and check out. Apparently, leaving me in the truck with a wanted man wasn’t something he was willing to do, even if the man was unconscious.
I packed up in record time, although I stared longingly at the bed as I marched our bags out of the room. I’d really been looking forward to sleeping in the same room two days in a row.
Story of my life.
Caleb was resting his forehead on the steering wheel when I opened the truck door. I climbed into my seat, and there was a long, awkward silence after I buckled my seatbelt. I could only look around the newly neat interior. Who knew that the floorboards were maroon? I was contemplating whether I could get away with buying one of those little plug-in air fresheners at the next rest stop when Caleb finally raised his dark head, his features completely wooden as he deadpanned, “ ‘If you wait a minute, I’ll show you my boobs’?”
I shrugged. “It worked.”
The tiniest hint of a smile quirked his lips, but he schooled his features into a more serious expression. He pulled the truck out of the mostly deserted motel parking lot and onto the quiet street. He grumbled, “I told you to stay at the motel.”
“Funny thing. It turns out that I have free will and won’t just stay put when you tell me to heel,” I said, throwing my hands into an exaggerated helpless posture.
He frowned at me and slid his phone out of his pocket to make arrangements for Jerry’s transfer.
Jerry was silent for most of the ride, because, well, he was unconscious.
As we drove, Caleb called his clients and made arrangements to drop Jerry at a small bush-pilot operation about three hundred miles away. Caleb’s clients, who remained unnamed for reasons I didn’t question, would be waiting at the hangar there for us. I chose not to think about what would happen to Jerry once they had him. But given what I’d read in his file—which I had filched from Caleb and read with a pen light while we waited—Jerry wasn’t a terribly nice person, with a history of petty and not-so-petty larceny, grand theft auto, and assault. Torn by my strange connection to Caleb and my feelings of solidarity for another “runner,” I didn’t feel good about the part I’d played in Jerry’s capture. I’d acted out of instinct, wanting to help Caleb, to stay in his good graces. But now, the farther we drove, the more I wanted to yell for Caleb to stop the truck and let Jerry out. Or maybe just let me out.
When he finally woke up, Jerry wailed and cursed and grunted for the rest of the drive. I thought Caleb would do the Dog the Bounty Hunter thing and lecture Jerry about the bad choices that had led him here. But all he said was “You do something this stupid again, you know they’re going to have me right back at your door.”
Note to self: Stop making comparisons between Dog the Bounty Hunter and Caleb. He wouldn’t find them amusing, and I couldn’t stop picturing Caleb with a libido-killing haircut. Also, I liked to think I was above calling him Wolf the Bounty Hunter—even behind his back.
“Inspiring,” I told him, and we engaged in a battle of dueling body language.
I jerked my head toward Jerry. Caleb shrugged his shoulders. I tilted my head and poked out my bottom lip in the prettiest pout I could muster. Caleb sighed, glanced over his shoulder, and added, “Eat your vegetables. Say your prayers before bedtime. And give a hoot, don’t pollute.”