THE BRUTAL LESSON (last sample chapter)

(Paul and Sonny are two undercover narcotics cops, friends of our bar manager, Marty. They become regulars at The Lark Tavern, and in this sample, they step in to help Marty out of a jam. This true story was originally posted here in 2011. It’s back now as a sample chapter.)

Life at the bar rolled on, and everything still seemed to move too fast. I kept expecting a little quiet after a rocky start. In sports, there’s an old saying: “The game slows down!” It’s advice a veteran ballplayer might pass on to the youngsters, explaining that, in time, the game won’t feel so out of control. It wasn’t happening at The Lark. Despite months of pouring drafts, sometimes I still had to put on a brave face. This was a city bar, each night was new, and the place could get crazy.

The bar manager, Marty, started having trouble with a customer we’d just shut off, a seedy guy in his early thirties. He kept making a fuss about being asked to leave, yelling about his legal rights. Of course, it was only stupid bar talk, but Marty took it personally this night. Marty stood lean and muscular at 6’5”. He’d been a military guard in the Marine Corps. He grabbed the guy by the shirt, lifted him off the floor, and carried him in the air for three or four long strides before throwing him toward the door. The man landed on his feet, stumbling to catch his balance, and made one last comment about his citizenship rights before ducking out the door as Marty advanced.

Half an hour later, Marty got a call on the kitchen phone. “Just a minute,” he said to the caller. “Give me a minute. I’ve got customers.” He walked out from the kitchen over to Paul and Sonny, the undercover cops sitting at their usual spot at the bar; the other bartender and I joined them. The man who had been thrown out was on the phone, Marty told us. He planned to hire a lawyer and sue Marty for assault.

“Get him to come down here,” Sonny interrupted right away. He chimed in while Marty was still speaking before the rest of us had time to figure out what was going on. “Tell him you want to talk first,” Sonny said. “Suggest settling out of court, that you’ll make him a good offer.”

Marty returned to the kitchen as Paul and Sonny moved apart without saying a word to each other. Paul stood with his elbow leaned on the bar, looking toward the TV—while Sonny sat a little further down, bent over his drink. A half-turned barstool was now empty, with one of them on each side; I suppose they looked like anyone else at the bar. When the man walked through the front door fifteen minutes later, Marty waited behind the bar across from Paul and Sonny, so the guy stepped into the space between them. “You had no right to put your hands on me!” he snapped immediately. “You had no right! I called a lawyer.” Paul and Sonny never moved.

“I’m sorry,” Marty said, “I know I was wrong. It’s been a long day.”

“You were way out of line,” the returned customer leaned forward, “and I’m gonna sue your ass!”

Lark Tavern exterior a few years after this incident

“Look,” Marty continued quietly, “I told you I was sorry. Let’s talk about it.

“There’s other things,” Marty said, “and I can’t afford to go to court right now. So what can I do for you? How can we make this go away?

“Listen,” Marty said, “. . . can I give you some money? How much would take care of it, fifty dollars? A hundred dollars?” The man tried hard not to smile as he gained the upper hand. Our jukebox played in the background.

“What do you say?” Marty asked. “How about two hundred dollars. Is that enough?”

The guy thought about it for a moment, and then he made the mistake. “I guess that would be fair,” he said, “. . . two hundred dollars?”

Paul and Sonny pounced simultaneously in a split second, throwing the man forward and bouncing his head off the bar rail. Paul spun him into a full nelson, pinning his arms up above him. Sonny whipped his badge from his pocket and slammed it on the guy’s face. “That’s extortion, asshole!” Sonny shouted. “Asshole . . . asshole!” He kept bringing the badge down hard, again and again. Blood spurted from the man’s eyebrow.

They rushed him toward the door, twisting and turning. Paul slammed the man’s face into the door frame on their way out. Splinters of white wood popped out from the frame. The man moaned something, slumped forward in the full nelson, but his words were unintelligible.

It all happened in a blur. Paul and Sonny hustled him outside and into their car. Paul drove while Sonny held the customer in the back seat. We saw Sonny’s fist snap down in the rear window as the car peeled away. The entire incident lasted about twenty seconds.

When they returned later, we learned that Paul and Sonny had driven the man around, continuing to hit him, telling him they were going to send him to prison—for extortion, resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer. “You’re going away for fifteen years, asshole!” Sonny shouted as he punched him.

“Maybe we should whack him out,” Sonny said, turning to look at Paul while holding the customer in the back seat. “Why don’t we kill him?” Sonny said. They talked about how they could dump his body by the projects, in the poor section, which had so much crime no one would really investigate. The guy was so scared he pissed in his pants, wetting his crotch. When they finally dropped him off near the projects, he bolted from the car as soon as the door was opened and ran stumbling across the parking lot.

“I don’t think we’ll see him back here anytime soon,” Sonny laughed as he and Paul told the story after hours. Later, when Marty and Paul stepped away, leaving just the two of us at the bar, I asked Sonny what would happen if the man filed a complaint against them. “What if he claims it was entrapment or excessive use of force?” I asked.

“Well,” Sonny said, “in that case, I’d have to kill him, wouldn’t I?” He laughed, but he wasn’t kidding. “He’d have to disappear,” Sonny said. “They’d never find the body. I’d never let a jerk like that fuck up my career.”  *****************************************************************************************

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