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Undercurents and Just Another Charlie




H. L. Chandler

  As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.

     Jack grew up in the small Arkansas town of Boaz.  The Elk River held the town in a wide bend, while across the deep river rose imposing rock bluffs.  Some of Jack's earliest memories were of picnics on the sandbar east of town where the river widened out and offered shallows for the children.  Indeed, the life of the town centered on the river.

Summertime brought tourist to the area.  Jack's parents rented boats, provided campgrounds, and float trips for vacationing families.  In the winter, Jack's father, Harvey, drove the school bus.  His mother, Jolene, spent her winters seeing to the needs of her children.  Harvey and Jolene Tabor attended the Baptist church, with their five children in tow.  Residents of Boaz knew the Tabor family well.

Jack had three older brothers and one older sister.  They were a busy family that practiced responsibility and self-reliance.  There was no time for fanciful foolishness.  Twelve-year-old Jack took care of himself.  In the summer when he wasn't doing chores, he was free to enjoy the river.

Then...there was his last float trip down the river.  He and his friend, Jerry, were skinny, brown boys with blond streaked hair.  Their bodies sleek with water, like two young otters.

Jack ran across the cement low-water bridge, holding a big black rubber tube around his slim waist.  He looked back over his shoulder.  "Come on, Jerry.  Last one in is a stink bug."

Jerry splashed along the bridge behind him.  "Oh yeah?  You better not let me catch you.  I'll stink all over you!"

Their high laughter rang out over the water.  Jack reached the middle of the river where it ran about six feet deep and the current was swift.  He hoisted the tube up under his arms, held his nose, and leaped feet first off the bridge into the Elk River.  Behind him, Jerry gave the same performance.  They were swirling and bobbing down the middle of the river.

Here, at the low-water bridge, the river was wide and relatively shallow.  One side of the river was a dirt bank overhung with tall grasses and saplings.  The other side spread out onto a flat gravel shore.  Small children waded in the ankle-deep water that lapped the sandy gravel.  There were people at the picnic tables under the shade of giant oaks.

The current washed closer to the higher dirt bank, carrying Jack and Jerry quickly away from the crowd at the low water bridge.  It was a good place to get into the river.  After that, the river turned into a wilder place.  In some spots huge overhanging rock bluffs soared above the swift teal-green water.  Giant oak and hickory trees spread their thick branches as if trying to reach across the vein of water.

It was this part of the river Jack and Jerry most liked.  Floating along in the heavy, dark water, they could pretend anything.  It was three miles from the low-water bridge into the center of Boaz, if you traveled the highway.  The winding river made it a far longer trip.

In the shady stretches of water, Jack shivered and paddled fast to reach the sun-struck waters.  Sometimes the boys' lips turned blue from the cold.  They only laughed and raced each other to the warmer shallows.

"If we built a boat we could sleep on the river," Jerry called across the rippling current.

"Yeah, like your mom will let you stay out all night," Jack yelled back.

"You think your mom is going to let you?"  Jerry scooped up water and slung it in Jack direction.

In this section of the river it veered away from the highway and ran beneath a great limestone cliff.  There was a high bank of dirt at the cliff's bottom.  The river slowly ate away the soil and exposed more rock making the bluff lean further over the river.  It seemed to Jack the river wanted to burrow into the cliff, hide itself and run in secret.  The boys bobbed along like two corks in the current.

The river reached out and grabbed what ever grew too close.  It laid bare the roots of trees and toppled them into the water.  As the boys floated past a long downed, moss-covered tree its gray branches barely above the water, Jerry pointed at two turtles sunning themselves on a branch.

"Want me to catch one?" he called.

"Naw, let them be.  They might get a hold on your toe and not let go until it thunders," Jack teased.  This was what his older brothers had told him about turtles.  He doubted it was true, but never had the desire to prove it.

Jack drew his legs up and tried to lift his bottom a bit.  There were Gar in the river.  Fish with long snouts full of teeth.  He'd not heard of anyone being bitten by one, but again, he wasn't out to test anything.  Today, he and Jerry were river pirates.  There was gold to be stolen.

The river flowed out of the narrows , spread, and turned shallow.  Jack put his legs down and waded to shore.  Jerry followed.  When they reached the gravel bar near the shore they threw the rubber tubes on the ground and dropped down beside them.  For a while they watched the quiet waters lap at the shore.  Small crawdads worked among the rocks and water bugs skittered on the surface.  Across the river, a murder of crows cried out and wheeled over a field beyond the tree line.

Jerry jumped up and ran to the edge of the water.  He squatted and poked at some rocks.  Then he grabbed one and yelled,  "We're rich.  I found it.  A lost diamond."

Jack frowned.  His lips curled in a sneer.  "Like heck you have."

"No, look.  Come here."

Jack couldn't stop himself.  He stood up and hurried to where Jerry was holding up a glistening wet blue tinged crystal.  Jack grabbed at it.

"Let me see," he said.

Jerry turned away shielding the object in his hand with his body.

"I found it.  You find your own fortune."

Jack lunged at him.  "You said, we're rich.  So it's mine too.  Let me see!"

"Okay, you big baby.  Here."

Jerry threw the chunk of glass at Jack.  Jack thrust out his hand and almost caught it.  Instead, it fell at his feet.  Jack picked it up and examined the clear, smooth piece of crystal.  It could be a diamond.  Jack looked at it long enough for Jerry to amble to his side.

"Its just a hunk of glass," Jerry said.  "Isn't it?"

"I don't know," Jack narrowed his eyes.  "It could be the missing Hope Diamond."

"You dummy," Jerry slapped at Jack's shoulder.  "Even I know the Hope Diamond isn't missing!"

"Well, it could be," Jack insisted.

The midday sun beat straight down on the river.  The trees offered no shade to the water.  The gravel grew hot under their feet distracting them from the imaginary jewel.  They picked up their floating gear and waded back into the depths.  The smell of hot green vegetation and cool clear water filled the golden air.  Jack was getting hungry, he knew Jerry was too.  Maybe they could pry some money out of one of his brothers and visit the Dairy Queen when they reached town.

Jack began to paddle.  He crossed to the far side of the river where the current ran faster.  "Come on," he called back to Jerry.  "Race you to the next bend."

Jerry rolled over on his stomach and began to row with both arms.  He caught up with Jack and laughed as he passed him.  "Hurry up, brother  snail," Jerry yelled.

When they attained the next bend, the current swirled them around and into another hidden part of the river.  In this stretch, there was a steep, thickly forested bank on one side and a towering bluff on the other.  There was no access to the river for over a mile.  No one entered or left the water at this point.  The river was captured between high banks, and steep cliffs, it slowed to a deep, lazy drift.  It seemed as if the river slept.  It was tired from all the rushing and tumbling and swirling.  Here the heavy green water moved with majesty, stately in its progress.

The boys relaxed in their tubes, legs dangling, fingers trailing in the silken flow.

Jack looked up at the summer sky.  A blue jay scolded from the woods.  Under the bluff, a section of the dirt bank suddenly broke away.  It fell with a sliding rumble and it hit the water with a loud flopping plop!  Jack whirled around in his tube.

"What was that?"  Then he saw the landslide and laughed.  "We better move out," Jack called.  "The whole thing might come down."

With Jack in the lead, the boys started paddling away from the muddy waters.  They weren't truly frightened.  They'd seen this happen before.  There could be real danger if a tree came down, but this was under the bluff.  The solid rock wasn't undermined near enough to fall.  Jack looked back at the new configuration.  He frowned.  He closed his eyes, then blinked and rubbed his eyes.  Something was moving at the edge of the water.  Just there, under the collapsed bank.  He hadn't noticed it at first, but now Jack saw there was a hole under the bluff.

Jerry was behind him, almost even with the newly created, what?  A cave?  Looked like an animal's den.  A big animal.  But underground?  Just now opened?

There were caves all through the bluffs.  Some of them accessible, others too small to be explored.  Jack had never heard of anyone finding an animal in the caves.  A long time ago, maybe big cats or bears might have used them.

"Hurry up," Jack yelled at Jerry.

Jerry nodded and flipped over on his stomach again to paddle.

Then, the world as Jack knew it ended.

Something huge rose from the water.  Its head was the size of the galvanized washtub they kept the iced-down watermelons in.  The long body behind it was as big around as a tractor tire, brown with a darker brown pattern.  And its length?  There was no end that Jack could see.  He tried to scream.  His throat was frozen.

A gigantic coil rose under Jerry and wrapped around him.  Only Jerry's feet and the top of his blond head was visible.  Jack back-peddled with his arms.  At least he thought he was beating at the water.  Jerry didn't make a sound.

The huge body tightened.  Jack could see the muscles ripple.  Blood dripped off Jerry's white toes into the muddy water.

Then the monster raised up and slithered into the new opening in the bank.  It took Jerry with it.  The undulating body stretched on forever.  Up, up, up from the water into the bluff.  It was like watching a mile-long freight train at a rail crossing.  Jack was positive there was no end to the creature.

Jack heard a high screeching sound.  It was as if metal were being ripped apart.  Then, he realized the noise was coming from him!  He clamped his teeth together and ground them until they ached.  The beast's tail finally disappeared into the base of the cliff.

Then there was nothing.

Jack's chest heaved up and down, his eyes bulged as if they were coming out of his head.  The current picked up speed; it swept Jack along further down the river.  His mouth was open and his gaze locked on the spot where the horror had happened.  Then, he was swept away from the site.

Jack shook his head as if trying to make his thoughts come right.  His breath scorched the back of his throat and seared his mouth.

"Jerry.  JERRY.  Jerry.  Where, where, where?"  Words tumbled from his lips.  He couldn't make them stop although they made no sense.

Jack turned cold.  Colder than he had ever been.  The green water lapped around him, sucked at his arms and legs.  The depth of the river pulled at him, the rocky bottom tried to trap his feet.  Fear exploded in his mind.

Jack slapped at the water, cupped his hands, and paddled harder.  As soon as the river widened again, he lunged toward the shore.  Jack staggered through the shallows and flung himself down on the gravel.  He looked over his shoulder at the rolling river behind him.  Crawling on his knees and clawing with his hands, he climbed up the slight rise.

At the top, Jack began to run, away from the river.  Blackberry vines reached out and picked at him, the thorns making tiny blood spots.  He dodged around the bushes and trees, then galloped through a field of knee-high grass to reach the highway.  Jack ran for his life.

Rocks bruised his feet while tears and sweat ran down his face.  When he could no longer draw a painless breath, he stopped running.  Cars and pickup trucks passed him by.  He was only a young boy in a swimsuit walking into town.  When Jack came to the concrete bridge, he paused.  He stepped up onto the pedestrian walkway.  He stood there staring at the river.  His heart thumping against his ribs.  Jack tried to measure the distance from the swirling water to the underside of the bridge.  It was far to short.  The thing could rise up and take something off the bridge with ease.  The bottoms of Jack's feet began to burn.  He stepped back onto the dirt and gravel.

Home, he wanted to get home.  He'd have to cross the bridge.  Jack closed his eyes, opened them, and then ran across the bridge.

When Jack reached his house, he quickly climbed the stairs to his bedroom.  He didn't make any conscious decisions.  Instinct was his guide.  Jack crawled into bed and hid under the covers.

It was late that night before his parents found him.  He had not been missed until they came home from work.  They closed down the boat rental at dark.  The other children were busy with their jobs.  The older boys sometimes had dates and certainly were not looking for Jack.

His mother whipped back the bedspread.

"Jack!  How long have you been here?  Are you sick?  Where is Jerry?  His mother has been looking all over for him."

Jack looked up at her.  Her dark eyes were worried and puzzled all at the same time.  He had no idea where to begin.

Harvey Tabor stood in the bedroom doorway.

"What's going on?  What's the matter with you, Jack?"

Jack's heart beat harder.  His father was to be obeyed.  All of a sudden, guilt grabbed Jack.  Waves of hot shame washed over him.  He trembled.

"Are you sick?"  his mother said leaning closer.  She put a hand to his forehead.

"What did you get into?" demanded his father.  "Climb out of that bed, stand up here and tell me where Jerry is."

Jack stood up.  His bathing suit had dried.  He felt naked before his parents.  They looked at him as if they'd never seen him before.  They began questioning him.  He could see their lips moving, but he couldn't hear the words.  He grew dizzy, he felt himself falling.

When Jack awoke, he was on the couch in the living room.  Dr. Boyer was bending over him.  Dr. Boyer was as old as Jack's grandfather.  He practiced medicine in a small storefront on Main Street.  The people of Boaz felt lucky to have a doctor in a town this small.

"No fever.  Can't see much wrong with him."  Dr. Boyer repacked his black bag.  "Feed him some soup and put him to bed.  He'll most likely be fine in the morning."

Jack wasn't fine in the morning.  Jerry was well and truly gone.  And Jack had to explain what happened to him.  First, Jack managed to whisper the story to his mother.  Jolene frowned, shook her head in disbelief.

In a small voice Jack said, "I won't go in the river, but I can tell you the place."

All the previous night Jerry's family, along with the police and volunteers, had searched the river, from the low-water bridge to town.  They walked the bank where they could.  They took boats with bright searchlights up and down that section of the Elk.  Early in the morning, they started again.

They searched for Jerry for a full week.  Men came with grappling hooks to drag the depths.  Finally, only his family continued searching.  Jerry's parents came to the house several times.  They questioned Jack endlessly it seemed.  Jack swallowed his guilt and kept silent.  He ached to tell them.  To explain how he could not save his friend.

However, his father had made it plain that he was to do no such thing.  "If you breathe one word of this lie I'll beat you within an inch of your life.  You got me?"

All Jack could do was tremble and nod.  Through sleepless nights, Jack tried to understand.  It had something to do with his parents being able to continue to live in Boaz.  At least that's what his mother said.

"Jack, oh Jackie.  Why did you make up such a story?  You can't keep on lying like you do.  No one will ever believe a word you say.  Now, I know you saw Jerry drown."  She paused and studied him carefully.  "You didn't hurt him yourself, did you?  If you did, you must tell us."

His father wasn't as gentle.  "Nothing but a liar.  A cowardly liar.  You're old enough to be a man, own up to what you did!  If you can't, then you're no son of mine.  Nothing good ever comes of hiding the truth."

Jack decided that his father was wrong.  When the truth is unbelievable, it is far better to hide it.  He should have made up a story that would have satisfied his and Jerry's parents, and the town.  Because, some how, probably through one of his siblings, everyone eventually heard bits and pieces of the story he had told.  As it turned out, his parents didn't need to worry.  The townspeople thought as much of them as ever.  They were admired for keeping up a proud front in the face of having such a son.  Jack heard occasional comments.  "...such a nice family, what a shame."  "...sometimes no matter how hard you try. Well, the other kids are all right."

In the fall when school started, his classmates snickered behind his back.  His inability to go anywhere near the river didn't help matters.  Jack thought about running away.  But he was too frightened.  After seeing what he had seen, and there was never a doubt in his mind, then who knew what other creatures were abroad.

By the next summer the talk had died.  People found other things to gossip about.  Jack missed Jerry.  His days were lonely and his nights filled with terrifying dreams.  His parents attitude toward him subtly changed.  They didn't touch him as they once did.  They had trouble meeting his gaze.  He didn't blame them.

The day he graduated high school Jack left Boaz, never to return. 
          This is the first half of the story.  Go to Wings
Link in their free stories for the second half of Undercurents

Here is the story of a fellow who, perhaps, outsmarted himself.

 JUST ANOTHER CHARLIE       By  H. L. Chandler

       Barnaby Davis knew a good thing when he saw it, after all that was his business. Just as a good diagnostician could detect a specific disease in a patient, Barnaby could quickly spot a person possessing the symptom of needing his money removed. Barnaby's clients never came to him for this service, but they were plentiful all the same. He found them on street corners, in buses, restaurants, bars, parks; the entire city was his place of business. He had only to let his eyes roam a short while until his gaze would settle on his newly found customer. Well, perhaps they weren't exactly customers, but they were his source of income. Barnaby did not refer to them as suckers or easy marks as did some others in his line of work. Thinking of them that way weaken the sincerity of his approach.

Barnaby had plied his trade for some thirty years, and was content in his chosen occupation. The passing of time had brought him a bonus in the form of his appearance. His receding grey hair made his high forehead even higher, and the dark violet of his eyes had paled to a soft blue. So at fifty-five his smooth face, with its quiet smile looked like nothing so much as a neat, kindly uncle. A distinct advantage in his work. At first, in his ardent youth, he had aimed high, thinking that one big take was all he needed. However, over the years it became evident that he could make a comfortable income doing one or two operations a week. He had ethics. He took pride in his work and executed every move according to his own exacting standards. First, there was his protection. He followed strict rules calculated to prevent apprehension by the Law. Perhaps luck played a part in keeping Barnaby out of the clutches of law and justice, but he felt his own cunning had preserved him. Barnaby never oppressed widows or orphans. With so many opportunities, it wasn't necessary to inflict hardship on the needy. He also held his greed to a minimum. People were not likely to call the police and admit their stupidity when only a small amount was lost.

Barnaby gave a tug to the jacket of his ordinary grey suit under his modest topcoat. Another rule, never look too sharp. Then he headed for the Crystal Bar. Having worked dry his various other haunts he was anxious to see what prospects the Crystal might offer.

It was a small intimate lounge, having almost as many seats at the bar as in the booths. This suited Barnaby fine, as he never bothered with the Charlies seated in booths anyway. Contact was much easier to make with a lone one at the bar.

There were two empty stools between Barnaby and the young man he was cautiously but intently observing. The night began to look promising. Through long experience, Barnaby had cultivated the ability to accurately size up his Charlies, as he called them. This one had the look of a traveling farm boy about him. He looked ill at ease in the obviously cheep new suit he wore, and the stiff manner in which he held himself indicated he was not accustomed to his surroundings.

Barnaby usually tried to work out a skillful approach, but this time he felt it unnecessary. He casually placed his pack of cigarettes on the bar at arm's-length away from himself. After a short time, he reached out to pick the pack up again. Instead, he knocked it to the floor making sure it sailed in Charlie's direction.

Just as he had calculated, Charlie quickly hopped off his stool to retrieve them. Barnaby moved down the two spaces to take them from the outstretched hand.

"Thank you. I don’t know what makes me so clumsy."

They exchanged a friendly smile and Barnaby started to take his original seat, but hesitated and said, "Say, would you mind if I joined you. Or are you waiting for someone?"

The young man shook his blond head from one side to the other. Barnaby smiled the fatherly style he reserved for his more youthful game, and sat beside his target for the evening.

"A fellow should never drink alone you know." Barnaby confided.

 Again, the response was merely a nod of the head. Hum, Barnaby thought, Charlie here maybe a tough nut to crack if I can’t get him to open his mouth. Barnaby needed a little information before starting work. It didn’t do to plunge in blind.

Then suddenly a callous covered paw nearly bumped Barnaby’s nose. "My name is Robert Down and I’m glad to meet you."

Barnaby moved his head back, reached up to shake Robert’s hand, and lowered it to a more reasonable level.

"I’m Barnaby Davis. I am happy to meet you, my friend."

Robert ducked his head and said, "Sure is nice to have someone to talk to. I was getting lonesome sitting here by myself."

"I know the feeling. But surely you have friends or family close by."

"Nope. I left them all back in Junction Springs." Robert stopped then quickly added, "That’s where I come from."

"I see, and are you living here now?"

"No. I just stopped at that hotel down the street for tonight. In the morning, I’ll be going on to New York. I’m gonna get me a job there."

My, my, Barnaby thought. He had to restrain from rubbing his hands together. Travelers usually carried enough money to satisfy his modest ambitions and the fact they would soon be gone suited him very well.

"Say now, perhaps I can entertain you for the short time you will be in our fair city, Mr. Down. It is Mr. Down isn’t it?"

A small embarrassed laugh accompanied Robert’s answer, "That’s right. But you don’t have to call me mister. All my friends call me Bob." He chuckled again and said, "Back home it’s kind of a joke about my name. Bob Down. Some of the fellows got real smart one day and started calling me Bob Up."

Barnaby forced a smile, Bob’s joke not funny enough to promote a real laugh.

Bob waited a second and continued as if he thought Barnaby didn’t understand him. "You know. Like jump up or hop up." Bob used his hands to illustrate this explanation.

Shades of Hicksville, Barnaby thought. For business purposes, Barnaby mustered up a hearty laugh, while his mind was busy deciding which of his routines he should use. He felt sure his capacity for alcohol would far surpass that of the bumpkin at his side. It almost insulted his artistic nature to settle for any means that simple. Yet, a menial task now and then never hurt anyone.

"I’ll tell you what, Bob; since you are a guest in town let me buy you a drink."

"Now that’s real considerate of you. And I’ll buy you one too."

Barnaby raised his hand in protest. "Oh no, I couldn’t let you do that. I’m sure you need all your money for the rest of the trip to New York."

"Don’t you worry none about that." Bob inclined his head to one side. "I wouldn’t come off without I had plenty to last me." He patted his tightly buttoned hip pocket." I got close to a thousand dollars. What do you think of that?"

Barnaby’s eyebrows went up as he said, "I think that’s a fine amount."

Barnaby signaled to the thin, balding barkeep and ordered another drink for the two of them. As the bartender poured their drinks Barnaby stared at a spot somewhere between the third and fourth button on the white shirt before him, and engaged in what most people call counting chickens before they are hatched. Of course, he would leave the boy enough to get out of town. Chances are he wouldn’t remember how he got back to his hotel. Barnaby would get his key from him making it unnecessary to stop at the desk. Yes, that would be good, and then if he watched his step no one would see how good old Bob got to his room.

The gangling youth took his turn at buying a round, and then Barnaby ordered them set up again. This went on for some time and Barnaby wished Bob wouldn’t be so free with their money.

He watched Bob closely for the first signs; a slight slur to his speech, although Barnaby thought, with this rube a slur would be indistinguishable. Maybe it will be his eyes. With some guys, it's always their eyes first.

Several drinks back Barnaby had started pacing himself. Slowing down, he was soon a half drink behind. Then he worked it gradually to the point of refilling at the same time but being a full drink behind his companion. Theory being, the more drenched Bob became, the less Barnaby would have to drink.

According to Barnaby’s projection, his fish should have been ready to scoop up; but something strange was taking place, or more precisely not taking place. Bob sat there knocking off one glass after another showing no signs of inebriation.

"Say, Mr. Davis, you’re kind of slowing down aren’t you?"

Barnaby had reached his limit. He didn’t like to drink on the job and was sorry he tried this particular device on Bob. How was he to know, as Bob so colorfully put it, that his daddy weaned him on corn squeezings? Barnaby slapped his hand palm down on the bar and said,

"What’s the matter with me? Here I said I would entertain you this evening and I just keep you here talking with me." Barnaby leveled a broad wink at Bob as he continued, "A healthy young fellow like yourself must have more than a drinking thirst that needs quenching, right?" Barnaby let a slight leer creep over his lips. Then, increased it to full volume when it was obvious Bob didn’t know what kind of thirst he meant.

Barnaby tried several approaches to the subject, thinking that perhaps he wasn’t using terms familiar to Bob. At last, in desperation Barnaby said, "Look Bob, what I’m trying to say, is how would you like a nice girl tonight?"

Barnaby Davis did not intend to produce a bedtime playmate, it was not necessary. He would simply take the money and leave his catch waiting in some hotel room for a non-existence service.

Bob again tucked his head down and gruffly chuckled, a habit that was fast becoming annoying, and said, "Oh yeah. I gets you now." Bob jabbed Barnaby’s ribs with his elbow. "For a while you had me going there, didn’t know what you was talking about."

Barnaby’s head developed a methodical thumping and he began to lose his benevolent facade. He rubbed the painful spot on his side wondering how Bob kept from killing people with his physical punctuation.

"Well, how about it, friend? I could fix you up with a sweet thing." Barnaby pressed the point.

Bob wrinkled his nose and ran his index finger along its side. "I appreciate what you’re trying to do for me. But absolutely no. I got me a girl back home and I wouldn’t step out on her for the world."

Barnaby spread his hands and shrugged his shoulders, "Believe me, boy, you won’t be doing anything wrong. This has nothing to do with a girl like yours. It’s just a little amusement for the evening."

Bob brought his huge hand down on Barnaby’s shoulder and said, "I know you’re trying to be nice to me, but I don’t want to hear no more about it. Why, I’m happy to just sit here and enjoy your company."

Barnaby mentally added his smarting shoulder to his growing list of infirmities and cast about for the next approach to try on Bob.

"I’ve got it. How about a nice quiet game of cards?"

"Mr. Davis, I swear I never saw anybody trying so hard to please. Now you don’t have to go out of your way for me."

In his agitation, Barnaby was almost bouncing on the barstool. "But I’m not. I want to play cards. I love to play cards."

Bob laid his hand on Barnaby's still tender shoulder causing Barnaby to wince. "Why don't you just relax and enjoy yourself, Sir. You know ever since you sat down here I’ve had a feeling that something is troubling you."

Barnaby looked at Bob with resignation. "Have you now." He lit a cigarette and snapped the lid to his lighter shut. "Don’t let it bother you. We all have problems, kid."

For the first time Bob’s face acquired a keen look of interest. "I knew it. I can always spot a fellow with troubles." Bob gave a little nod to his head and added, "Don’t ask me how, but I just knew."

"Don’t worry, I won’t ask you."

Bob rushed on despite the flat tone of Barnaby’s voice. "There wasn’t a person for miles around that didn’t bring their troubles to me. Why, that was one of my biggest pastimes just helping folks that was in trouble."

Suddenly, a little bell went ding in Barnaby’s head and he sat straight up. Of course, how could he have missed it? Big sympathetic boob like Bob. The sick mother routine, that's the ticket. He'd need to bring Clara in on it, but she was always ready to pick up extra jack. Barnaby let his jaw hang slack and a little sob broke his voice.

"How could you tell?"

Bob’s chest expanded several inches and he gave a satisfied looking smile as he knowingly nodded his head. Barnaby watched Bob from the corner of his eye as he continued.

"Yes, I have been trying to hid my feelings behind a mask of gayety." Barnaby glanced up to see how he was going over. The look of concern he saw made him want to shout eureka!

"You see my dear mother is very ill. I would love to rush to her side, but circumstances forbid it."

Bob leaned nearer. "What circumstances is that?"

"Well, I’m short of money at the present. What’s worse, now Clara can’t go home either. Oh how could I have been so stupid?" Barnaby hoped he wasn’t over doing it, but from Bob's expression he was right on target.

"Wait just a minute here. I didn’t get all that. Who is Clara and what stupid thing did you do?"

"I’m sorry, I know I’m not making myself clear, but I have been so upset." Barnaby sighed deeply. He was particularly proud of his sighing; he felt that it had a real pity invoking quality.

"I'll try to start at the beginning. My sister, Clara, and I live here hundreds of miles from our saintly mother. Just yesterday we received a telephone call saying we should come at once mother was very ill. Clara being out of work has no money of her own. I have been just getting by. However, I did manage to scrape six hundred dollars together."

Barnaby did some fast figuring before he settled on six hundred as a goal. Of course, that wouldn’t all be profit, but five hundred would. The amount was large enough to seem real, but not so large that it would cause hesitation when he called on Bob to do his part.

"Yes, I had the money to send Clara home, but more than anything I wanted to go with her. Oh, how can I tell you what I did then?"

Bob seemed entranced. He looked as if he were ready to shake Barnaby to make him continue his tale of woe.

"I thought if I could get into a small card game with what I had, perhaps I could run it up into enough for both of us to go home."

"And you lost it!" Bob proclaimed like the voice of doom.

"All but one hundred dollars." Barnaby lowered his head until his chin nearly touched his chest. "Even now Clara is home getting packed. She thinks I have the money." Barnaby glanced around the room as if looking for a clock. "She is going to meet me here in a short while to pick up the money, and then start right home. I'd call her and make some excuse, but being out of work she had to give up her telephone."

Bob shook his head and made a clicking sound with his tongue, "My, that is a shame."

"What a pity it is." Barnaby put his hand to his head.

Then suddenly he brightened as he exclaimed; "I just remembered something. Several months back I loaned a friend five hundred dollars. He might have enough to repay me now."

Barnaby pulled out his cell phone and quickly dialed the number for the local time and temperature. Then he carried on a one-way conversation. Ending with, "Thanks, Sam, I'll be right over."

With his best confident smile Barnaby turned to Bob. "Good news! Sam can pay me back."

Bob laughed, "Hey, that is good."

Barnaby once more assumed a frown. "No that’s bad. If I leave now to get the money I’ll miss Clara, and if I do, she’ll miss her bus. That would make her wait until the next one, and who knows, by then it might be too late."

Barnaby sweated out a second or two wondering if Bob was going to fall for this line. However, Bob seemed too caught up in the story to notice anything wrong. Then Bob broke into a face-splitting smile.

"Here’s where you are going to find out how helpful I can be. I’ll wait here for your sister and you can go on to get your money."

Perfect, just perfect Barnaby thought, then he said, "Would you do that? How kind you are." Then he hesitated a moment as if a thought came to him. "But that won’t do any good. What if I get back late? She would still miss her bus."

They sat in silence until Barnaby decided that enough time had elapsed for him to think of a solution.

 "Bob, you don’t know me. I’m only a fellow human struggling along like the rest, and believe me I will understand if you don’t want to do this, but I have a plan."

"You just tell me what it is. I'd be a dirty dog if I leave here without helping you."

Barnaby slipped a ring off his finger. It appeared to be a modest sized diamond set in gold. Bob's eyes widened and he whistled as Barnaby put into his hand. Then Barnaby took out his billfold and extracted one hundred dollars placing that also in Bob’s hand. Bob looked puzzled and Barnaby held up his hand to silence him.

"You wait here for Clara. If she comes before I get back give her the hundred, and here is where you really come in. Then loan her five hundred of your own. You keep my ring for security; I assure you it is worth far more than the loan you'll make."

Bob frowned and Barnaby could almost see his thought process.

"If you get back in time you’ll have the money for her?"

"That’s right..." Barnaby agreed. "...but if she has already been here I’ll give it to you in return for the loan to Clara."

Understanding illuminated Bob’s face. "I see. I would get it back tonight. I wouldn’t be loaning it for more than what, a half hour, or so?"

"At the very most. At any rate, you’ll still have the ring." Barnaby assured him.

Barnaby directed Bob to a corner booth, and set him up to wait. He told him whatever he did stay in the same booth. That was where he and Clara were to meet. He would know Clara by the red scarf she always wore. So advising Bob, Barnaby hurried out onto the street.

It was misting rain, and streetlights made shimmering, pale yellow halos where their beams struck the pavement. Barnaby scurried over the few blocks to Clara’s walk-up apartment wishing Bob had risen to one of his other baits. It was chancy using Clara when he had made no previous arrangements, just as was his leaving money with Bob. Still, every business required some investment. Besides, he would have it, plus five hundred, back in no time.

Barnaby had used Clara on occasion and although she didn’t look like anyone's sister, she would pass in the dim bar. As Barnaby climbed the stairs he calculated how much Clara might want for her few minutes of work. Surely, she'd settle for a quick fifty.

 He found Clara at home and explained the set up to her. He arranged to meet her around the corner after she had made the take. Getting ready to leave he added, "It isn’t worth much, but try to get my ring while you are there. He might go for some story about you needing to pawn it for extra money."

Clara nodded her brassy blond head and with all the bearing of a veteran, she sallied forth.

Barnaby stood in a doorway; his collar turned against the wet wind, and watched the clock in a jewelry store window across the street. He was just settling down for his wait when Clara was suddenly beside him. Barnaby jerked the cigarette from his mouth.

"What the hell are you doing here so soon?"

Clara’s thin lips tightened in a sneer." You lost the mark. You know better than to drag me out on a night like this when you don’t have the thing jelled."

Clara’s scorn was a blow to his pride.

"You must have missed him. He would never have walked out. I know my Charlies better than that," Barnaby insisted.

Clara drew her jacket closer about her pudgy body. "Well damn you, Barnaby. I’m not standing around freezing. Next time you call me make sure it's a go."

Clara stalked off toward her apartment, and Barnaby rushed around the corner to the Crystal Bar’s entrance.

Once inside he looked in every booth and ran his searching look down the row of customers seated at the bar. Satisfied he had not missed him; Barnaby headed for the men’s room. Maybe he got sick or something in spite of his daddy’s corn squeezings. Barnaby scratched his head; he was puzzled and disappointed. Walking to the end of the bar, he motioned to the bartender, and leaning part way across the bar said,

"Do you remember me? I was in here earlier with a young fellow, with blond hair."

The bartender nodded his head up and down causing the light from the overhead spot to cast a glimmer on his bald patch.

Barnaby licked his lips. "Did you see him leave after we moved to the booth?" He jerked his thumb in the direction of the opposite wall lined with booths.

"Is your name Mr. Davis?"

"Yes, that's right." Barnaby answered.

The bartender reached into his shirt pocket and handed Barnaby a slip of paper. "Here then. He left this note for you. Said something about needing to rest for his trip tomorrow, and that you would understand."

Barnaby hurriedly unfolded the paper as the bartender went on about his duties.

The handwriting was firm and the note perfectly clear.

Dear Mr. Davis. I can’t tell you how glad I was to help. Even without the scarf, I knew your sister right off the minute she stopped by my seat. It seems you didn’t need to worry none about getting more money for her. She said the hundred dollars was plenty. Your friend, Bob.

P.S. I gave her your ring, so you’d be sure to get it back. She seems like a real sweet girl.