This was finally finished a few weeks ago. Now I'm polishing and sumitting it. Sorry I didn't do this as a half-hour exercise, but I never forgot the prompt. Thanks, Jill. You're the best.
Queen at the End of the Bar
After my long hot drive I needed a cold beer like a baby searching for his pacifier. That’s when I saw her at the end of the bar. Where else would you expect to find a Miss Universe in a farm town? Out picking pears and apples? She was probably the best-looking babe in this hick town overlooking the Columbia River, just whiling away the hours till Prince Charming swept her away to Portland.
“Stranger in town, huh?” she asked from her stool at the dusky back of the room.
“Passing through. On business.” I made my business her’s. “I’m looking for a guy named Jack Marley, a con man wanted for murder,” and I described him. Ralph, the bail bondsman in Salem, was going to pay me for bringing him back on a felony rap.
“Marley. That was his name?”
“You’ve seen him?”
She ignored my question. “We got a bed-and-breakfast with a view of the river on one side and the orchards and Cascades on the other. Café’s not bad either. Stay a few days.”
That was an interesting thought, and I wondered what her scenery looked like under the skimpy dress hanging like a flag of surrender. There were two things moving in this town. The blinking traffic light and her mouth—but, oh, what a pink, cupid’s bow of a mouth above a long, pale neck and two white shoulders under the spaghetti strap sundress. She was an invitation to a slow waltz, but business had to come first. Marley had used his credit card here the day before. I wasn’t far behind him.
Ralph, the bondsman, had told me about this part of the state. “Bring me back a box of pears, Johnnie,” he said. “After you collar Marley. Or apples. The apples oughta be ripe too. Area around the Dalles is the best fruit-growing country in the world.”
Marley was a killer. A grifter who’d worked downstate selling “ObamaCare” insurance to geezers, then knocking them off. I finished my beer, nodded to the queen, and ambled over to the café.
“Sure, I seen the guy,” the old waitress told me. “It was his sideburns and weird haircut that made me notice. You’ve heard of ‘clean cut’? Well, this guy wasn’t.”
“Not like the good citizens of Haven.” A guy in a ratty sports jacket butted into our conversation. “Everybody here’s a worker bee. Drones!” And he cackled so hard he almost fell off the counter stool. “’Cept me. I’m out to pasture, and that’s just the way I like it. Name’s Dr. Meriwether, but you can call me Bruce.” He reached over to grab my hand. “I am—was—dean of the U of Oregon science program till they canned me.”
“I’ll let you call me Johnnie if you tell me where to find the man with the bad haircut.”
“I got no time for people. Too many of ’em in the world anyhow. It’s the little fellers—the insects—I’m studying. Still working on the matter, for all the crap the university gave me.”
“Bugs?” Mosquitoes when I’m fishing? Flies in my soup?
“Look at all the fruits and vegetables this county produces.” He was almost shouting. “And it’s all because of the wasps and bees. Parasitoids are the most fascinating—like the family Braconidae. They benefit us humans by controlling pests. So sophisticated. Certain plants have compounds that interact with the saliva of caterpillars. Caterpillar spit mixes with the plant juice, emitting a fragrance that attracts the wasps. Wasp kills caterpillar and uses the carcass to lay her eggs. Cunning, eh? Mutualism between botany and the hymenopteran superfamilies.”
He laughed again, spilling his coffee on the counter.
I walked down the main street and back up the other side, passing six people—seven if you count the guy in overalls sleeping in front of the bank. Haven was a fly-speck town that didn’t even appear on my gas station map—a municipal litter box on the side of the two-lane blacktop.
No Marley, so I went back to the bar to think. The queen hadn’t moved.
“What’re you drinking?” I asked to be sociable. Marley could wait half an hour, then I could continue checking places like the bed-and-breakfast, maybe a motel on the highway. Meantime, she hadn’t answered my question about seeing Marley.
She smiled. “Mead,” and she nodded at the barman who’d been staring at the ceiling like he expected Jesus to appear.
“What the hell’s mead?”
“Fermented honey,…Honey.” The last noun referred to me.
Marley could wait till the morning. Stupid crooks don’t rise and shine early, so I asked the broad her name.
“Spanish name. You from over the border?”
“Home grown,” she whispered and slid over to the stool next to mine.
This was a woman who’d make a priest forget his scripture. Not a bit of makeup, but she radiated sex like a nuclear reactor ready to blow. “Guess I’ll have one of those meads.”
“Ha, you met my daughter.” Dr. Bruce banged in the front door and ambled over to a stool five feet down the bar. “Reina and Johnnie. King and queen. What’re you king of, Johnnie?”
“I eliminate bad guys. It’s my job, my talent…and my hobby. I have a low tolerance for crooks and murderers.”
“Welllll,” he said drawing out the word like a piece of chewing gum. “That’s what we do around here. Not me, Reina.”
“Shut up, Dad.” Reina sounded pleasant, but there was venom in her voice.
“Nah, we can talk freely among friends.” Dr. Bruce reached behind the bar and grabbed a cold beer. The bartender might’ve been a cigar store Indian for all his animation. “We had bad guys. Once. Polluters.”
“Not now,” Reina said.
“Nope. They were dumping toxic waste in the swale back of town. Couple of our people sort of redirected the pipes to the managers’ own water faucets. They’re gone, but the damage was done.”
“You poisoned the polluters?” My interest was academic. No one was paying me to dig into that case.
“They were producing a class of chemicals called endocrine disruptors—stuff used in agriculture, industry, and consumer products. The chemicals leached into the water system where the estrogens in human urine passed through sewage and into the water. What happened here is the same as incidents in the Potomac. Smallmouth bass there are being transformed into some kind of intersex with female characteristics. And in Lake Apopka—down in Florida—frogs, salamanders and other amphibians sprouting extra legs. Male alligators developing stunted genitalia. Even stranger things happened here.”
The mead was getting to me as much as the heat in the bar, Reina’s unblinking stare and the goofy Doc rattling on. “Stranger things?”
“Reina was born with an abnormality.”
“Daddy!” Reina shouted. “Shut the f#$% up! C’mon, Johnnie.” She tugged at my arm. “Let’s take a walk. I’ll tell about whether I saw that guy Marley.”
I smelled Reina’s body, the perfume a woman secretes when her hormones offer a man salvation. I was startled when Doc said “abnormality”—the kind of shock you feel when a beautiful woman drives up in an ugly car.
“It’s all right, Reina. Johnnie here is a friend, and if he tells anyone—well, it’ll help keep our town nice and quiet. I mentioned parasitoid wasps over at the café. Reina was a victim of the endocrine disruptors—coincidental with a near-fatal bee sting. Now that she’s 18 and all grown up we have no need for a sheriff, policemen, law enforcement. Oh,” and he raised his hands in mock defense, “not to protect us from our fellow citizens. From outsiders, like Marley.”
“Johnnie,” she said, “let’s go!”
I shook my head. “Sorry, Doc. I’m not making the connection.”
“Welllll,” Dr. Bruce took a long pull at his beer bottle. “You ever hear the joke about the boy whose mother warned him never to have sex? That women had teeth down there to bite your pecker off?”
“The punch line,” I said. “With gums like that, who could have teeth?”
“Your man Marley came to town, stole some money with his con job, and then did the nasty to Reina—with my daughter, sitting there all innocent at the end of the bar minding her own business.”
Dr. Bruce looked down at his bottle and then up at me. “Reina doesn’t have teeth down there. She has a stinger. I called it an ovipositor when I was teaching biology. ”
“She killed him?” The single glass of mead had completely addled my brain. Reina’s hand tightened on my arm and I felt my sex drive heading out the door like a shoplifter leaving a 7-Eleven.
“You don’t want to know what happened to Marley.” She pouted prettily, but didn’t hide her sense of pride.
“I think I do,” I insisted. The horror of what Dr. Bruce told me—and Reina’s stroking hand—sent the hairs on my arm upright.
“He’s…hanging around.” She reached into her bra and pulled out a credit card, flipping it on the bar. Marley’s name was on it.
Dr. Bruce laughed so hard beer came out his nose. “I think she’s going to try growing eggs in him, like those parasitoids.”
I never found Marley. Told Ralph he’d fallen in the Columbia and was probably 20 miles offshore now. And I never went back to Haven. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have nightmares of my visit. And of Reina. And I wake up in a cold sweat thinking of Marley lying in some barn with the apples.