A MESSAGE • by Amanda J. Capper

The last three beers from Joe’s poker game wanted their freedom so I hauled my butt out of bed and headed for the john. Had to pass through the kitchen and there he was, ass against the counter, arms folded on his chest, one ankle crossed over the other. At ease, looking like he belonged. I tried to shake the sleep from my head. Who the hell was he? Some kind of short-brimmed hat was pulled low over his eyes but I could see a sharp nose and a square jaw. His right ear looked strange, as if something was stuck in it — no, behind it. Like chalk, or a cigarette.

Damn. Humphrey Bogart was in my kitchen.

Well, maybe not the Humphrey Bogart. Where did I leave the freakin’ phone? I should call the cops. Or Joe. Do something.

“Won’t be long, James. Just have a message for you.” His voice was low but clear. Sounded younger than he looked.

I nodded, the only movement I seemed capable of making. Rat Fink finally got off the bed and came to check things out, nails clicking on the hardwood floor, tail wagging. Some guard dog.

“Wait.” My brain also decided to join us. “How do you know my name? How did you get — ?”

A quick movement of his hand shut me up. He reached into his overcoat and my brain yelled Gun and my bladder screamed Where? and promptly leaked into my boxers.The mystery man pulled out what appeared to be a bunch of dental tools on a key ring.

“Good old-fashioned lock picks.” He smiled at me and I damn near smiled back. “Don’t see these around much but they were useful in their day.” He tossed them to me and they fell on the floor. I am not a morning person.

Tail still wagging, Rat Fink retrieved the picks and returned them to the stranger. The old guy pushed his hat back and patted my dog’s head. “What’s his name?” The tools disappeared.

“Rat Fink.”

The guy’s eyes lit up and he gave a low laugh. “Great name. Knew a few finks in my day but none as handsome.”

“My mom named him.” The situation was weird but I was too groggy to deal with it. I turned my back on them both, to show my disdain and total lack of fear. Not easy to do with damp underwear. I vaguely wondered about making coffee.

“Sounds like your mother,” he said to my back.

I made a sharp about-face. “My mother? You know my mother?” Mom tied up in the trunk of this guy’s car flashed through my mind.

He pointed a long finger at a note on my table. Call your mother, it read.

Humphrey, or whatever his name was, drove the point home. “You haven’t called her in a while.”

Well, no, I hadn’t. Starting your own business takes time. Work. Mom understood.

“She misses you.” In an easy, fluid motion he threw his hat on the table. It slid to a stop beside the note. Smooth. I felt a reluctant admiration.

“What’s it to you?” Brilliant come-back. I looked at the floor and I swear, actually started to shuffle my feet. How old was I? Twenty-eight or twelve?

“Let’s just say I care.” He pushed himself away from the counter. I tensed, ready to throw myself behind Fink but the old guy smiled and reached for his cigarette. “I was going to leave the note and hit the road, but then I heard you get up so I figured, what the hell, why not meet the guy Sally talks about all the time.” He made a show of opening his coat and slowly reached in to lift matches from his shirt pocket. “She didn’t think we’d… what was the word she used? Mesh? Yeah, something like that. But I think we’re meshing fine, don’t you?” He didn’t light the match. Stood there holding the match in one hand, cigarette in the other, and staring at me through narrowed eyes.

I gulped. “I guess so, sure. But why are you in my kitchen before the sun is even up? I don’t know who you are, she’s never mentioned you to me.” My chin lifted and I stood my ground.

His jaw tightened. “When was the last time you talked to her?”

And I was right back to twelve. A twelve-year-old with a full bladder and enough time for his poker buddies but not enough time to find out his mom was apparently dating a gangster. I edged around him. “I’ll be right back,” I muttered but by the time I was done in the bathroom the stranger was gone.

He’d locked the door behind him and I stared at that door for a long time. I thought about lock picks. Hats. Mom’s laugh and her knack for meeting bizarre people. I wondered what he thought of me. Eventually I shrugged and headed back to the bedroom. I didn’t call her.

I’d visit instead.

Amanda J. Capper lives in Ontario, Canada, with her musician husband and their mangy mutt. She works, reads, writes, and reviews (thegenreview.com) full-time but every now and then stops to carry on conversations with complete strangers.

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Every Day Fiction