Flinch Ripperton downed the shot in one gulp, the alcohol just adding fuel to the fire already smoldering in his gut. He winced, eyes watering, and waited for the pain to subside. When it finally faded back to just south of bearable, he decided to hit the head. Flinch scanned the cheerless smoke-filled dive, lit mostly from the blue flicker of a TV set bolted to a wall behind the bar.
“It’s too goddamn dark in here to see anything,” he muttered. He waved at a waitress as she shimmied by. The tall one with the nice rack and the big gap in her front teeth.
“Hey, toots, which way to the can?”
The waitress pointed towards the back.
“Over there, pops, cleverly hidden under the sign that says ‘Men’s Room.'” Flinch squinted, caught sight of the sign.
“Very funny. I didn’t know there was a floor show. And me not wearing my dinner jacket.”
She gave him the quick once over, saw an old man in a cheap suit and an institutional haircut. She decided there was no good financial incentive to continue the banter, so she turned and walked away.
Flinch watched her leave; it was worth it. Before standing, he made sure the piece tucked into his belt wasn’t going to fall out of his sagging pants. Forty years was a long stretch, and Flinch felt good to be packing again. He snugged the automatic down against his hip, rubbing it up against raw bone and a thin layer of pale skin. He had picked the gun up earlier in the day from some twitchy kid over by the park. Flinch hadn’t much liked the set-up, but the punk had come highly recommended from a buddy in the prison laundry, Nicky something or other. Turns out Nicky’s grandson was following in the family business. For fifty bucks Flinch had one of those new plastic jobs, a Glock. It was a hell of a lot lighter than the hog he used to lug around in the old days.
Flinch was halfway across the scuffed wood dance floor when the front door of the bar squeaked open. The bright sunlight poured in from the street outside making it impossible for Flinch to see who had come in. He stood there until the heavy door swung shut and the lighting dropped back to dismal.
A flash of heat rushed through Flinch when he saw the newcomer. It was him, the guy Flinch had waited all this time to see. Flinch took a deep breath, his fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. He decided that he could wait a little longer.
When he got back from the men’s room, the new guy was set up in a booth, on the far wall, halfway down from the front door. He was skinnier than Flinch had remembered, with less hair, and the reading glasses were new. A beer had been delivered and then pushed off, untouched, to the side of the scratched and smeary table. The man was staring down at a small chess board, a cheap magnetic set someone’d give their kids to play with so they’d shut up in the backseat for a couple of minutes. He was moving pieces around, occasionally checking a worn and cracked leather notebook, the kind cops used to carry in their hip pocket. Flinch checked to make sure his gun was out of sight under his jacket, walked over, and silently slid into the booth, across from the chess player.
Flinch watched for a minute as the man moved the pieces around the board. Finally, Flinch spoke.
“C’mon, Detective Ben Rogers, ain’t you gonna say hello to an old friend?”
The man moved one of the black pawns forward, threatening the white king, then slowly lifted his head. He peered over his bifocals.
“Flinch,” he said evenly. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here. I would have planned something more festive.”
Flinch snorted. “Best you can do, Detective? After all these years? Course, I gotta believe you never thought you’d see me again. Figured I was gonna die in prison an old man. Life without parole, that’s how it was supposed to play out. Right, Detective?”
Rogers shook his head. “Actually, I had heard that you were getting out. Got a call from a buddy of mine, he’s a guard up at Jessup. Told me you’d hit the lottery.”
Flinch laughed, “Yeah, something like that. Turns out a dose of stomach cancer can really speed up the rehabilitation process. Guess they figured it saves the state a bundle if I die on the street, instead of the infirmary.”
Rogers shrugged. “So what’s that have to do with me?” He picked up one of the white chess pieces, studied it, put it carefully down back on the small board.
Flinch reached over and snatched up the piece, a queen, and held it tightly in his fist.
“What do you think? You’re the hero who put me away. Maybe I got some business to take care of before I croak.”
Rogers looked up, his face was worn and wrinkled, but his eyes were still clear.
“What do mean I put you away? I thought that the state prosecutor made it pretty clear armed robbery and murder during the commission was pretty much your idea. I was just the cop there to make sure you didn’t do it again.”
Flinch jerked up, then winced. He clutched his stomach.
“You and I both know that the killing was not my fault. I’d already knocked over twelve banks without mussing a teller’s hair. Cleared over twenty grand in less than six months. You cops show up, and boom, somebody dies.”
Rogers smiled. “That’s not the way it goes. You know that. You take a hostage, he dies, somebody’s going to have to pay. You seemed like the logical choice, standing there with the gun and all.”
“Yeah, but you were there too, guns blazing, and it’s not like you even had to do that much thinking. You guys never would have been waiting for me at that bank without being tipped by that bitch, Lizzy.”
Rogers shrugged again, “Yeah, she told us where and when. But it’s no wonder your old lady turned you in. A woman knows that the honeymoon’s going to end sooner or later, but not with a couple of black eyes and a busted lip.”
Flinch slammed his hand on the table, loud enough so the bartender looked over. Rogers waved him off. The bartender went back to pushing a wet rag around the top of the bar.
Flinch leaned into the table. “Don’t give me that crap. I treated her like a queen. Maybe I got a little rough sometimes, laid some hands on her. But only after I’d had a few drinks. And it’s not like she didn’t deserve it,” he said.
Rogers looked up, a rush of red on his face. “She told us all about it. The little game you’d like to play. Act like you were going to hit her. Then give her two for flinching. Big man, aren’t you? It took a lot for that woman to step forward. She was terrified of you.”
Flinch shrugged. “Hey, my old man did it to me. Beat me up good. I’d show up at school black and blue, kids would know I’d flinched. Started calling me that back in the fourth grade.”
Rogers reached across the table, grabbed the white queen away from Flinch. He put it back carefully in its original position.
Flinch looked down at the board. “What the hell’s all this chess crap. You weren’t much of an Einstein back in ’63. You gone soft or something?”
Rogers shook his head. “Nah, nothing fancy. I tried playing chess for real after I retired. But I didn’t like it. Too much going on. Pieces flying in from all sides. No good way to figure all the angles. But I like playing endgames. You know what they are?”
Now Flinch shook his head.
Rogers said, “It’s when you only have a few pieces left on the board. The trick is to figure out how to win in as few moves as possible. I like to replay endings from famous matches. See how the pros handled it.”
Flinch smirked. “Sounds stupid. What’s the point of only playing the last part of a game?”
Rogers dropped his voice so Flinch had to lean in to hear. “No man, see…that’s exactly the big deal. The endgame. It’s all that counts. Nothing you do during the game matters if you blow the endgame. You hear what I’m saying?” His gaze bored in on Flinch, who leaned back into the cracked vinyl booth.
“Sound like a real kick, Detective. Actually, I got an endgame of my own I’ve been working on. Wanna hear how it goes?”
He opened his jacket and eased out his gun, just enough to let Rogers see the grip. Then he tucked it away.
Rogers didn’t react, just sat there, pinned like a king looking at mate in two.
“Here’s how it’s gonna play,” Flinch said, his voice getting mean, the way it was in the joint when he wanted to make sure some punk didn’t get any ideas. “You and me are going outside, take a little walk, get some fresh air.”
A waitress appeared out of the gloom, she looked Flinch over. Then she turned to Rogers.
“Hey Ben, you or your friend need anything?”
Ben looked up, shook his head. “We’re okay, Charlotte. Thanks.”
“All right, honey, just give a wave if you change your mind.”
When she had left, Flinch said, “Real cozy here, aren’t you? I checked around, you come here every afternoon.”
Rogers smiled, “So you’ve been doing your homework. I’m impressed.”
“They installed some Internet terminals in the prison library couple years back. Got some punk lawyer in for tax evasion show me how to use one. I did a search on your name. Got the address, sat outside your house the last couple days. Followed you here. Not exactly detective grade legwork, but it got the job done. Tell you one thing though.”
“What’s that?” Rogers asked.
“Can’t find Lizzy. She’s next on my list. But she’s disappeared. Like she knew I was coming. No mind. After I’m through with you, I’ll keep on looking. She’s out there somewhere. The doc says I got at least six months. Enough time. Besides, it gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”
Flinch slid out of the booth and stood.
“All right, up. Nice and slow. Neither of us are as fast as we used to be, but I’m still fast enough.”
Rogers carefully packed away his chess pieces into a plastic bag, folded the chess board, and then slid both into the pocket of his overcoat. The leather note book went next. Then the glasses. Finally, he opened his wallet and threw a ten on the table.
The two men walked out of the bar. Rogers in front, Flinch about three steps behind.
The bright sun looked good, but it was doing a lousy job. The temperature had dropped since Flinch had gone inside. He pulled his coat close around his chest, shivered.
Rogers looked at him. “You gonna be all right?”
Flinch glared at him. “Don’t worry about me. I’m gonna be all right enough to do what I waited for all these years.”
He motioned with his head. “Let’s go. Back to your house. We both know the way. And don’t forget about my little friend here,” he said, patting the pocket of his jacket.
They walked silently for a few blocks, past small storefronts, bakeries, delis, the occasional liquor store.
Finally Flinch spoke, “The old neighborhood hasn’t changed much since I’ve been in. It’s still a dump. Why the hell you living here? Cop’s pension can’t be that bad.”
Rogers laughed. “The place has its charms. Besides, everyone I know lives within five miles. You get used to being in one place.”
Flinch shrugged. “Maybe you, but not me. If I had the chance, I’d have blown out of here a long time ago.”
Rogers stopped, turned, looked at Flinch. “You still can. It’s not too late. Leave now and we pretend that nothing’s happened. I’m not going to tell anyone. Go live what’s left of your life. Make the endgame count.”
Flinch stared back, his gray eyes hard like the cement walls of his old cell block. “That’s exactly what I am doing. See, all that time, I’m stuck in a six by eight, I’m waiting. Knowing that somehow, I am going to get out and even up with you two. That’s what kept me alive all these years. Evening it up with you and Lizzy. I do you and then I find her. Settle the score, before this cancer eats its way through to the outside.”
As he spoke, Flinch started to gulp for air, his short breaths visible in the cold air.
Rogers moved to grab Finch’s elbow, trying to steady the gasping man.
Flinch pushed him away, and he moved his hand inside his jacket. “Don’t try anything stupid, cop,” he spat. “I don’t want to do you right here on the sidewalk, but I will if I have to.”
Rogers stepped back slowly holding his hands up out in front. “Take it easy, Flinch. I’m not trying to be a hero,” he said.
“As long as we understand ourselves, Detective. Now just let’s keep walking.”
The two men reached a stoplight, pausing to wait for the light to change.
Rogers said, “You know, you should forget about Lizzy. Leave her out of this. Don’t you think she’s suffered enough?”
Flinch snorted. “She don’t know what suffering is. I bet she’s had a great life. Laughing the whole time, me rotting away in some cell.”
Ben shook his head. “I don’t think so. I bet that she never got over what you did to her, the abuse, the beatings. Women don’t forget things like that. They try to push it back into some little corner of their heart, but they always know it’s there, because they have a little less room for all the other stuff.”
Flinch sneered. “And this is supposed to make me feel what…bad?”
Ben turned to look at Flinch, his face flushed. “I bet that Lizzy lived in fear that one day you would get out and do what you are doing right now. Living like she just took a deep breath but was afraid to let it out. Can’t you just leave her alone?”
Flinch smiled. “Why would I do that?”
The light changed.
The two men walked silently until they reached the front steps of Rogers’ row-house, a neat two story brick building with wrought-iron railings flanking stone steps that rose to the front door.
Flinch grabbed Rogers by the shoulder, spun him around so they were face to face.
“Your tax records say that you live here with your wife, but I didn’t see any dame when I was watching the place. Is she around? I wouldn’t mind inviting her to our little party.”
Rogers glanced up at the front door.
“She’s not here. She…Beth went out of town about a week ago. She’s up at my daughter’s place, on Long Island, helping out with the grandkids while my son-in-law’s away on business. She won’t be back until next week.”
Flinch shrugged. “Too bad, I would’ve liked to have met her. See what kind of woman you go for. Doesn’t matter. Maybe I’ll see her at the funeral.” He snickered.
Rogers glanced up and down the sidewalk. It was deserted. A few cars drove past, but no one noticed two old man standing in the late afternoon sun.
Rogers said, “Look, for the last time, please don’t do this. It’s not going to make anything better. Killing me doesn’t give you your life back. What do you say, we end it here, just call the last game a draw. Nobody wins, nobody loses.”
Flinch shook his head. “Sorry Detective, it’s too late. I’ve got to play this one to the end. Let’s go.”
The two men moved up the stairs and into the house.
As soon as they were both inside, Flinch kicked the front door shut, and pulled the gun out from under his jacket. He pointed it at Rogers while looking around. Spotless living room to the left, hallway leading to a bright kitchen in the back. A set of stairs going up to the right.
“Let’s go in the living room. Nice and easy. Don’t get too close now.”
Rogers walked into the living room, crossed the gleaming wood floor and stopped by a table where an elaborately carved chess set was laid out, ready for a game. Flinch followed him into the room, his back to foyer. He stopped about six feet from Rogers.
Flinch raised the gun. He looked Rogers in the eye. “Any last words?”
Rogers took a deep breath. “Just take a second to think about what you are doing. That’s all I ask.”
“O.K. Done. So long, Detective,” Flinch said.
A loud report filled the room. Somewhere in the distance a dog started barking.
Flinch fell to the floor. Blood flowed out of the small neat hole that had just appeared in his shoulder. His plastic gun slipped from his hand.
Rogers looked up at his wife standing in the hallway. Gun ready for a second shot, poised like a real cop covering her partner, just like he had shown her.
Rogers exhaled loudly. “You did great, Beth. But did you have to wait until the last second?”
Beth stared down at Flinch for a few seconds, then slowly raised her head to look at her husband.
“Sorry. I just wanted to be sure. Sure that he really was going to do it. I wanted to see if he had changed. But he’s still the same vicious animal he always was.”
She walked over and stared down at Flinch.
It took Flinch a few seconds to focus. He shook his head, squinted. “Lizzy? Is that you? What the hell? Lizzy. What are you doing here?”
“I go by Beth now. And yeah, it’s me.”
Flinch had a puzzled look on his face.
“How,” he said.
Beth, still pointing the gun at Flinch, said, “Ben was so sweet to me during the trial. We started seeing each other. Fell in love. Got married. We have a couple of grown kids. Have a good life. One that you could have had, if…well…you had your chance.”
Flinch stared at her, his face draining of color. Then he spoke, the way he had always spoken to Lizzy, his voice echoing across forty years of wasted life. “You crazy bitch. You shot me. Who the hell do you think you are? I can’t believe I got capped by some stupid housewife. You wait, I’m gonna kill your husband here, and then I’m gonna kill you. And then I’m gonna find your kids and kill them too.” He made a move for the gun that lay a few feet out of his reach.
Beth strode quickly over to Flinch. She kicked the gun out of his reach, over to her husband.
Beth looked at Rogers. “I told you he wouldn’t change. There is no good in this man. Never was, never will be. All of that nonsense about giving him a second chance. Setting this whole thing up after we got the call he was getting out. It almost got you killed.”
Ben stared at the floor, unable to look at his wife. “It’s going to be all right now. We handled it. It’s over,” he said.
Beth shook her head. “It’s not over as long as he’s still alive. He will always be out there. Trying to get me, to get us. I can’t live with that anymore.” She looked down at Flinch, sneered at the man.
“I’ve spent forty years scared out of my mind that this piece of crap would show up, waiting to prove to you that he is as evil as I said he was. Well now it’s done. Time to lay the demons to rest.”
Rogers turned away.
Flinch tried to sit up. His arm gave way and he fell back on the floor. Without warning, Beth kicked Flinch in the shoulder, hitting the source of the pool of blood that was forming near the table with the chess set. Flinch screamed. She raised her foot, as if to kick him again, but stopped short. Flinch grabbed his shoulder and squirmed anyway.
Beth pointed the gun at Flinch, right at his heart.
“Sorry, honey but you know the rules. That’s two for flinching.”
The gun fired. Flinch didn’t hear the second shot.