Rocko had walked that dark stretch of city street a thousand times and never noticed the little hole-in-the-wall tavern before.
“As Luck Would Have It” the sign out front read, though half the letters were missing and the nearest streetlamp was almost two blocks away. The light coming through the single barred window looked like the glow from an old black-and-white television set.
Even standing there on the sidewalk, five feet from the door, the place smelled like cheap whisky and cigarette smoke. It was exaclty the sort of joint he needed that night.
The inside of the tavern was even seedier than the out, and dark enough that Rocko couldn’t make out the faces of any of the other patrons. He was sure that was by design.
He could hear them, though, whispering and shuffling heavy feet. And he could smell them. They dripped with the same sort of weariness and done-with-it-all despair that rocked his heart. Only the path to the bar was clear, thanks to a dim yellow carriage lantern that hung over an empty barstool.
“What can I get you?” the barkeep asked.
“Relief,” Rocko said, and huffed at his own lame joke. “Or maybe a little luck.”
“That, I can do.” The barkeep leveled a serious gaze at Rocko. “Name’s Luck. This is my place. Now, what else can I get you.”
Rocko rolled his eyes when he realized the pun of the man’s name folded into the bar’s name. At least he wasn’t that lame.
“Vodka on the rocks,” Rocko said.
Luck didn’t even turn around or move his feet — he just slid one hand across the bar and placed the vodka in front of his new customer. Rocko blinked a couple of times and looked from the man to the drink and back again.
“What’s troubling you, mister?”
Rocko took a drag of his drink, then looked at Luck. “Who says anything’s troubling me?”
“No one comes to Luck’s if they don’t have some sort of trouble,” the bar owner said. “Heck, most folks don’t even notice the place — until they need it, that is.”
Rocko drained his glass. Luck’s words certainly rang true for him.
“Just problems at work,” Rocko said. He left out the problems at home, and the gnawing self-doubt, and the busted dreams. Work would be enough to talk about. Especially if they got around to discussing Craig Jackson.
“Uh-huh,” Luck said. “I figured as much, seeing you dressed to the nines like that and coming in here with your head hung low on a Thursday night.” He ran his hand up and down in front of Rocko, indicating his business suit.
It was a hazard of the banking trade. Backstabbers were, too. Guys like Craig. You work with a man for ten years, go to his kids’ birthday parties, help him with his projects … you never think he’s going to take credit for your work. Anything went when the almighty dollar was involved, Craig supposed.
He took another swig of vodka, not even noticing his glass was full again.
“What would it take to make things right for you?” Luck asked.
Another swig. Rocko rolled it around in his mouth … squinted … thinking.
“What I really want is just to settle things like men.” He pounded the glass on the bar. “Like my father and grandfather did … they had a problem with a man, they’d go outside and work it out. Can’t do that now. We have to be polite. Reason things out.” He looked up at Luck, opened his hands wide, questioning. “But how can you reason with a traitor?”
“Mmmmm.” Luck nodded his understanding.
“Or maybe,” Rocko said, leaning into the bar, excited. “Maybe we could have a duel like in the old west. Now that would settle things once and for all!”
Luck frowned and snatched the glass from Rocko.
Rocko looked at his hands, then back to Luck. Had the man been wearing a brimmed hat before? And where had all the other men in the bar come from? Suddenly Rocko could see into every corner of the place, and it was teeming with men in dusty work pants, big hats, spurs, even. It looked like a cowboy saloon.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave, mister,” Luck said. He folded his arms and glared at Rocko.
“Leave? Why should I leave?”
“This here is a peaceful establishment, and gun-free. I won’t tolerate any sort of talk about violence.”
“But I was just talking!”
Luck nodded to someone behind Rocko, and in the next instant, two muscular arms slid around the banker’s waist and wrangled him to the front of the bar. A meaty hand opened the door and tossed Rocko outside.
Rocko landed hard in the hot, gritty street and pulled himself to his hands and knees. The sun was hot against his back, and his stetson cast a wide shadow on the ground. He looked to his left and right — feet and legs lined up on both sides of him.
“What the …” he said, as he struggled to his feet.
He steadied himself, then focused his gaze on the man standing in front of him, maybe fifty feet away. It was Craig Jackson, decked out in old west garb and looking even more confused than Rocko felt.
A man stepped from among the throng gathered on one side of the street and stood right in the middle, between Craig and Rocko.
“Good people of Lucky Falls,” the barker bellowed. “We are gathered here today to witness a duel to the death between Rocko James and Craig Jackson.”
The weight of the six-shooter pulled on Rocko’s hip and he remembered he’d never even held a gun before. He was beginning to think maybe he should have just looked for anothe job.
More than anything, he wished he never had that blasted streak of Luck.