* * *
It was full-on night as Ethan walked down the steps from the hotel entrance, his feet killing him, hungry as hell.
The café adjacent to the hotel was closed, so he headed north under a sky filled with stars, past a rare bookstore, a couple of gift shops, and a law office.
It wasn’t that late, but with everything closed for the night, the sidewalks of Main had emptied out. He’d begun to come to terms with the horror of not having dinner on top of everything else when he spotted light spilling onto the pavement on the next block down. His pace involuntarily quickened as he caught the first whiff of hot food exhausting out of a vent in the building up ahead.
When he reached the entrance, he stared through the storefront glass into a dimly lighted pub called the Biergarten.
His heart swelled—still open.
He walked inside.
Three tables occupied, but otherwise, the place was dead.
He took a corner stool at the bar.
Through a pair of swinging doors drifted the sizzle of meat cooking on an open grill.
Sitting in this pub, his arms resting on the well-worn bar, he felt at peace for the first time in days. The memory of Stallings and the accident was near, threatening to muscle its way in, but he refused to let it dominate his mind. Simply breathed in and out and tried to stay as firmly planted as possible in the moment.
After five minutes, a tall woman with a pile of brown hair propped up with chopsticks pushed through the swinging doors and opened a hinged section of the bar.
She came around to Ethan, all smiles, and tossed a drink coaster down in front of him.
She wore a black T-shirt with the pub’s name screen-printed across the front.
“A beer would be great.”
The barkeep grabbed a pint glass and moved over to the taps. “Something light? Dark?”
“You have Guinness?”
“I got something like that.”
She’d already pulled the tap when he remembered he didn’t have any money.
She set the glass in front of him, cream foam spilling down the sides, said, “You just drinking, or you wanna see a menu?”
“Food for sure,” he said, “but you’re gonna kill me.”
The woman smiled. “Not yet. I hardly know you.”
“I don’t have any money.”
Her smile died. “OK, maybe you’re onto something.”
“I can explain. You see the car wreck that happened on Main a few days ago?”
“You hear about it?”
“Well, there was one, just a few blocks south of here, and I was involved in it. Just got out of the hospital, in fact.”
“So that’s where you got those pretty bruises?”
“I’m still trying to figure out what this has to do with you not paying me.”
“I’m a federal agent.”
“Apparently, the sheriff has my wallet and phone. Everything actually. It’s been a huge headache.”
“So what are you, like, FBI or something?”
The woman smiled, leaned toward him across the bar. It had been hard to tell in the lowlight, but in proximity she was damn good looking—a few years younger than Ethan, with model cheekbones, short-torsoed and long-legged. Had probably been a stone-cold knockout in her twenties, although thirty-four or thirty-five—whatever she was now—didn’t seem to be treating her too badly.
“I don’t know if you’re a confidence man, and this is just a part of your game coming in here with your black suit and this crazy—”
“I’m not lying—”
She touched a finger to his lips. “The way I figure, you’re either exactly who you say you are, or you’re a spectacular liar. I mean, this is a good story, and I love good stories. Either way, of course I’ll let you have dinner on credit.”
“It’s not a lie...What’s your name?”
She shook his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Ethan.”
“Beverly, as soon as I get my wallet and things tomorrow morning, I’m gonna come in here—”
“Lemme guess...and lay a big tip on me.”
Ethan shook his head. “Now you’re mocking me.”
“If you don’t believe me, I’ll—”
“I just met you,” she said. “By the time you’re finished with dinner, I’ll know whether or not I’ll ever see you again.”
“Too early to say, huh?” He smiled, feeling like he might be winning her over.
She brought him a menu, and he ordered potato wedges and a cheeseburger as rare as the health department would allow.
When Beverly had disappeared into the kitchen with his order, he sipped his beer.
Hmm. Something was off. It was flat, and aside from the faintest suggestion of bitterness in the finish, almost completely devoid of taste.
He set the pint glass on the bar as Beverly returned.
“I’m getting a free meal, so I’m hesitant to complain,” he said, “but something’s wrong with this beer.”
“Really?” She gestured to the glass. “You mind?”
She lifted the glass and took a sip, licked the foam off her upper lip as she set it back down.
“Tastes fine to me.”
“No, it’s flat and...I don’t know...it’s just...it doesn’t have any taste.”
“Weird. I don’t get that at all. You want to try a different beer?”
“No, I probably shouldn’t be drinking anyway. I’ll just have a water.”
She got him a fresh glass, squirted water over the ice.
* * *
He lifted a steaming-hot cheeseburger from his plate with both hands.
Beverly was wiping down the other end of the bar when he called her over, the burger poised in front of his mouth.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing. Yet. Come here.”
She came over, stood facing him.
“My experience,” he said, “is that about eighty percent of the time, when I order a hamburger rare like I just did, I get one well done. I don’t know why most cooks are incapable of cooking a hamburger the right way, but there it is. And you know what I do when I get one overcooked?”