GLASS CEILING by Frank Quinn

Money has a smell all its own. A flat scent of eager hands and disappointed dreams. Miriam loved the smell of cash. Not the flat crisp hundreds the ATMs spat out but the odor of well-worn bills. The battered twenties and tens that made their way through the club, eventually landing in piles on the corner of her desk.

Her pencil scratched softly across the pages of the ledger before she rolled a stack of tens into a tight cylinder. She strapped them with a rubber band, dropped them into the bag at her feet then picked through the pile of wrinkled bills and continued her count. She’d started keeping the books for old man Washington when she started working here at seventeen. Now, twenty years later the old man was gone but she was still here; holding the club together for the son like she had for the father.

Miriam glanced up suddenly. Over the soft whirr of the box fan dangling from a chain in the window, she heard footsteps. She reached beneath the battered wooden desk and fingered the Glock 9mm mounted in a holster beneath.

“Pooh! What’s up m’ lady?” T-bone called from the hall. He knew about the gun and drunk or not he wasn’t going to spook her when the money was out. He stepped in, dropping onto a torn leather recliner opposite her and kicked his legs onto the desk. T-bone was tall with broad shoulders and a blocky jaw. He tipped up the remnants of his beer then flipped the bottle into a plastic bucket at the corner of the desk.

“What’s our take for the night?” He sat up and glanced at the account book. Beneath the buzzing halogens, his face gleamed with sweat. Pulling a silk handkerchief from his pocket, he swiped it across his brow.

“T-bone,” she shook her head in aggravation. “I can’t tell ya until I finish the count.” She returned her attention to the books, her pencil sliding across the page.

“It looks pretty good to me,” he said reaching over and snatching a handful of bills.

Miriam made to grab his wrist but stopped, her brows knit in frustration. “I can’t balance the books if you take the money before I count it.”

T-Bone laughed and pushed up from the chair. “You worry too damn much,” he moved clumsily around the desk.

The back office of The Red Bird Lounge held a battered wooden desk, an old leather recliner and an ice machine that hummed sedately in the corner. Cases of beer stacked along the walls left little room for T-Bone to maneuver behind Miriam and rub his hands along the tense edges of her shoulders.

“Baby, you don’t need to worry ’bout that shit,” he said. “I know what I’m doin’. Ain’t I been running this place for six years?”

Even in the humid air of the backroom, his breath was hot against her neck. When he kissed her a shudder of disgust ran along her shoulders and she jerked away. She was pissed at his cavalier attitude towards the club. A business she’d help build. Pissed at his disregard for how she’d held the place together; held it together despite his over spending, his gambling, and now the crack.

“Baby, what’s wrong?” he turned the chair and knelt beside her.

With a sharp intake of breath, she willed herself to relax. She smiled and reached up to tug gently at his goatee. “I’m sorry, T. Balancing all the books, paying bills. It puts me on edge.” He’d been drinking most of the night, and she knew from experience he was quick to anger. Even quicker to become violent if she rebuffed him.

His hands groped beneath her shirt, massaged clumsily at her breast as he leaned in to kiss her. His lips were dry as sand and his tongue held the bitter taste of crack. She slid away from the embrace and buried her face in the fold of his neck. Anger flared briefly at the odor of Black Orchid perfume on his collar. Miriam didn’t wear perfume.

“I’m almost done,” she whispered in his ear. “Give me thirty minutes, then we can lock the doors and you can have me.”

He leaned back a gleam in his eye as he considered the offer. “Okay, Baby. I’ll be back in thirty.”
He stepped towards the door then turned to pocket a second handful of bills. “We’ll need something for breakfast,” he winked before disappearing down the hall.

When she was certain he was gone, she opened a bottle of water and rinsed the bitter taste of him from her mouth. She knew from experience he wouldn’t be back. With money in his pocket, he would be gone for the night. He’d return in the morning angry and broke, apologize for leaving, promise never to do it again. She’d lived with his promises. Promises as tenuous and bitter as the crack smoke etching away his life.

Miriam checked her watch. Almost four a.m. With any luck, she could be in bed by six. It was turning into one hell of a night.

*

The next evening was Saturday. Saturdays meant big money for the Red Bird. Miriam came in at six dressed in a low cut sequined top, hip hugger jeans and knee-high leather boots. She’d found the boots at Macy’s. They were $220, but with the shit she put up with she figured she deserved them.

From behind the bar, she watched the crowd swell. The club was split by the mirrored bar in the center of the room. On one side, the concrete dance floor gleamed beneath pulsing blue and red lights, the other side held dozens of wooden stools crowded beneath tall tables mounted in the floor. On a good night, the club could hold almost three hundred people, not counting those hanging out in the parking lot.

Miriam took a twenty offered from a girl who couldn’t be older than sixteen and passed back a bucket of cold brews and change. She eyed the crowd with satisfaction, feeling for the mood of the night. She knew this press of people as a living thing; a creature reborn every evening. Tonight they throbbed in the summer heat, gyrating to the pulsing beats of Nicki Minaj and J.Cole. Unwittingly they filled the air with their passion and excitement, breathing life into the Red Bird so that the club moved to a beat all her own.

Below the counter, Miriam spotted the glow of her cell phone. She picked it up and saw the text: by the dumpster

It was Chris. She smiled and stuffed the phone back in place. “Hey, Dwayne,” she shouted above the tumult. A tall, thin man with long dreads was clearing a table amongst the confusion. He straightened and searched the room. Miriam waved until she caught his eye and waved him over. He shoved his way behind the bar and dumped an armload of glasses into the sink. “What’s up?” he asked pulling a dishrag off the counter and wiping his hands.

“Watch the bar for a while,” she said. “I’m going to dump the trash before we get busy.”

“Sure thing, Boss,” Dwayne said.

Miriam dragged two green garbage bags full of clattering bottles through the door at the back of the bar. She stepped into a summer breeze; cool in comparison to the cramped atmosphere of the club. The gravel lot surrounding the Red Bird was packed with cars. Several doors were flung wide and rap music boomed from trunks or speakers set atop the roofs. People clustered around talking and laughing. The faint smell of grape Swishers and marijuana drifted on the air.

As she made her way towards the dumpster people recognized her, called out and waved: “Hey, Pooh.” “What’s up, Pooh?” She bobbed her head and smiled in acknowledgment until she reached the dumpster, then flung the sacks over the top. They slammed into the metal container with a crash. Heads turned momentarily towards the noise then returning to their conversations.

Myriam took a pack of Cools from the top of her boot and tapped out a cigarette. She lit up and sucked in an icy drag. She blew out the tension in a stream of white smoke that whirled into the feverish night.

“Pooh,” Chris whispered. She felt him move up behind her, his firm arms slipping around her waist. She melted into that powerful embrace, tilting her head and offering her neck to his velvety lips. He tugged her into the darkness behind the dumpster and she turned looking up at him. Chris was tall and young his close-cropped hair dark against the rich cocoa of his complexion. Their lips met in a lingering kiss and he pulled back, gazing into her eyes.

“Are you ready for this?” she asked.

He nodded, dipping down and running his tongue across her neck. “Yes, for you, yes.”

“When T-bone is gone, the bar will be ours,” she whispered. “Then we can be together. No more secrecy, no more hiding.”

“Yes, yes,” his breath was harsh, his hands almost frantic as they slid across her shoulders, the tight material over her butt.

“Where’s the gun?” she asked easing back and casting a glance towards the club.

He pulled a nickel-plated revolver from his belt. It gleamed dully in the diffused light.

Miriam smiled and pushed the gun away. “Good, good. Do this just like we planned,” she said. “Then it will be just you and me.”

A smile tugged at the corners of his lips as he eyed the Red Bird. “I’ve got some ideas about this place,” he said. “I think we can really turn it around.”

She considered him with squint-eyed intensity, then the sound of breaking glass drew her attention. She glanced over her shoulder nervously. “I better get back, before they start looking for me. Remember, come in at one.” She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him. “I love you,” her fingers ran down his arm squeezing briefly at his hand, then turned and marched inside.

Miriam busied herself shoving beers and wine across the counter. An ocean of dirty glasses mounted in the sink as she awaited T-bone’s arrival. He usually waltzed in at midnight. He would order beer after beer watching the young women gyrate on the dance floor. But it was after twelve and still he wasn’t here.

Miriam checked her phone. She was preparing to call Chris, tell him they needed to cancel when T-bone strutted in. Several patrons spotted him, called out. It sickened her that he bobbed his head towards them like a minister marching through his congregation; like he owned the place. Which, she reminded herself, he did.

“Hey, handsome,” she pulled a beer from an ice chest and slid it across the bar.

“Looks like a good crowd,” he said his gaze drifting through the room. He spotted Dwayne loading a tray with drinks. “Hey, Dwayne, that little girl of yours any better?”

Dwayne looked up and caught T-bone’s eyes. A smile split his lips. “Yes sir, she’s doin’ much better, much better indeed.” He took the tray and hurried into the crowd.

Miriam checked her phone before tucking it inside her boot: 12:50 a.m.

“T-bone,” she laid a hand on his arm. He turned and considered her. The smile slid from his face when he noted her serious expression.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“One of the Lil’ Gs told me someone gonna jack us tonight.”

“What? Who said that?”

“He didn’t want no one ta know he snitched,” she said. “I promised I wouldn’t tell.”

He seemed unsatisfied with her answer and turned, eyeing the crowd. “Did this mystery man tell you when or how many people it gonna be?” He upended the beer and slammed it angrily on the bar. A spray of foam erupted from the top. Next to him a girl brushed at her damp arm, looked him up and down, her lips pursed in an expression of disgust. Then she turned and stomped into the crowd.

“He said it was one guy, and he was coming sometime around one.”

T-bone checked his watch. “Shit, that’s now.” He slid from the stool. For the first time in years, he looked nervous.

“I wasn’t sure if the guy was telling the truth,” she said, “so I’ve had this under the counter all night.” She pulled out the Glock 9mm and slid it across the bar.

“Good, good,” T-bone said. He picked up the gun and jammed it in his waistband. “Any nigga come in ta my place an’ try an’ jack me gonna eat a bullet.” He sat for a minute scanning the faces around him. Miriam slid another beer in front of him and he drank half of it in a gulp. “Yeah, they gonna eat a fuckin’ bullet,” he wiped his hand across his mouth and leered at the crowd.

He spun suddenly his eyes locked with hers. “It’s just you and me, you know? You and me against all them fuckers.” he bumped his chin towards the crush of people behind them.

“I know,” she smiled and laid her hand over his. “I love you.”

Near the front door, voices were suddenly raised in alarm. Miriam’s eyes broke from T-bone’s and she stared, wide-eyed, over his shoulder. “He’s here,” she gasped and ducked behind the bar.

Screams and cries spread through the club like a fever. A stampede of brightly colored humanity surged towards the rear door as a tall figure emerged from the crowd. The man’s face was covered with a black ski mask. In his left hand, he held a revolver; it gleamed and flickered in the dancing red and blue lights. He moved steadily across the room his focus riveted on the bar. Then he caught sight of T-bone. The man’s eyes were bright beneath the mask and he halted. Slowly he raised the revolver.

The room was filled with a deafening report and a brief flash of brilliance. Bottles shattered behind Miriam and tumbled to the concrete floor sending splinters of glass skittering against her leg. She crawled to the end of the bar and peered over the top. The two men closed. They stood just feet apart leveling their guns, then in a binding riot of noise, both weapons fired. The combatants were thrown back by the impact of their shots. T-bone stumbled against the bar sending glasses and bottles smashing to the ground. The man in the mask took two lurching steps backward before righting himself.

They raised their guns again but the revolver barked first and T-bone grunted in pain. Then he leveled the Glock and yanked the trigger; again and again and again. The man in the mask lurched backward with the force of the impacts. Then his feet tangled beneath him and he tumbled to the ground.

Miriam marveled that despite the rhythmic beat from the speakers, for a long moment the club seemed silent. Then it erupted in cries of panic, sounds of breaking glass, and overturned stools as those trapped inside dashed for freedom. In seconds Miriam, T-bone, and the unmoving assailant were alone.

Miriam crept from behind the bar as T-bone slid to the ground. Behind him, the bar was streaked with blood. A viscous red pool spread in a widening arc beneath his arm.

“Baby,” he gurgled through bloody lips, “He hurt me bad.”

Miriam crouched beside him her face grim. Then she stood and sauntered over to the killer. She gently tugged back his mask running her fingers gently across his cheek before closing his staring eyes. Then she pulled a rubber glove out of her pocket and slipped it on before picking up the revolver.

Outside the wail of sirens grew in the distance. Miriam glanced towards the door then walked over and squatted beside T-bone. “I think I’m gonna make it,” he coughed. He smiled, his yellow teeth spotted with blood.

“I don’t think you will,” she said and leveled the revolver.

T-bone raised the Glock, stared with knitted brows at the locked back slide then let his hand drop to the ground. “Why, Baby? Why you do this to me?”

“It’s a new world, T.” The sirens grew steadily closer. “There’s women in combat now, woman senators, female astronauts, it’s time things changed here too. After tonight there ain’t gonna be no more glass ceilin’.”

*

BIO : Frank Quinn an ex-police officer and current software developer living in the wilds of Norman, Oklahoma. His fiction has appeared in several magazines including Tales of Terror, the always fun PULP METAL MagShotgun HoneyBewildering StoriesDown in the Dirt and DeadLights magazine as well as Mother’s Revenge and Hindered Souls Anthologies. He’s also the recipient of Writing.com’s 2016 Quill Award for Best Short Fiction.

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