Robert Pettus, author of Two Shots, is an English as a Second Language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. He has previously published short fiction in Allegory Magazine, The Horror Tree, The Night Shift, Schlock!, Black Petals, and Yellow Mama. Mystery Tribune has previously published thriller short fiction Cologne At A Touch from Mr. Pettus.
It was dark in Bellevue; it was five in the morning. Fog wafted upward from the slowly trudging, thick Ohio River and engulfed empty Fairfield Avenue in a concealing, damp mist. Streetlamps shined pathetically through the fog, only barely visible. They looked like massive fireflies floating lazily.
I limped around the corner and down the street. It was only a five-minute walk from my house to work. I lived on the southerly side of Fairfield Avenue, down on Foote Street—the unfortunate side of town.
I had been robbed three times in the last year alone. My rental house, though beautiful—over a century old—was difficult to keep secure. The cops don’t give a shit about crime—not in Bellevue, at least.
“It’s my crackhead neighbors,” I thought to myself as I continued my lurch toward work.
I had terrible posture; I walked down the road like a hunchback, reminiscent of the way I had envisioned Renfield, Boo Radley, Morfin Gaunt, or some other psychotic, gothic character from literary history to walk.
Forcefully shoving the skeleton key into the old door, which wobbled around loosely in its brittle wooden encasement, I finally pushed the stubborn bastard open. I immediately poured clattering beans into the espresso machine and began griding. I was going to need a black-eye—two shots into a cup of black coffee—this morning. Hell, I needed one most mornings. I enjoyed being awake so early, but it was still difficult for me to summon energy. I had a tendency to stay up late boozing and then woke up slow-moving—that was my daily schedule.
I walked into the back-of-house, to the stereo, and turned on my morning playlist, which my boss hated—she didn’t consider it appropriate coffee shop music. Whatever, though—she wouldn’t arrive until around nine; what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. The creeping bass lines and deep guitars of Pink Floy’s The Wall played at near maximum volume throughout the small coffee shop, shaking the centurion building. I got to work mopping the floor.
…she wouldn’t arrive until around nine; what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
The closing shift workers never mopped the damn floor; they always expected me to do it when I arrived in the morning. They considered themselves too busy to wield a mop. It was true—the end-of-shift workers had to deal with more of a crowd—but they never considered how fucking annoying mopping floors is at five-thirty in the morning. There was a reason I was the one here every fucking morning and not them—they couldn’t drag themselves out of bed early enough. No one took that fact into account. No one liked wandering the early-morning blackness of the sketchy Bellevue streets, either. I deserved hazard-pay.
Sipping my coffee and finally awakening a bit, I stared around the shop at the numerous paintings hanging on the wall. I hated most of them, other than this one huge copy, that is. My boss bought this print of Ivan the Terrible and His Son, Ivan. How she thought that painting was okay, but considered Pink Floyd unacceptable coffee shop music, I’ll never be sure. She fancied herself a history buff, though, liking to lecture customers about background information regarding the subject of the painting. That’s the only reason she kept it, I was sure. No one wants to stare at some dude bleeding out while they sip their morning cup. The painting was bad for business—that’s objective.
I still liked it, though; Ivan looked like such a crazy bastard in it.
The bell dinged as the first customer walked into the store. It was Taz. He was always the first customer, every single morning. Like me, he ordered a blackeye every day. He never seemed to need it, though—he was always full of energy—I think he only ordered it because he considered it the “manly” thing to do—some “hair on your chest” sort of bullshit situation. I liked Taz, though—he was a nice guy. He talked way too much for the early AM, but he was polite.
Taz was pretty old, and short—probably only about five foot two. He waddled up to the counter, his stuttering, compass-like gait and hunchbacked form making progress slow. He was wearing his usual outfit of brown boots, blue jeans, red suspenders, and a Looney Tunes, Tasmanian Devil T-Shirt. He rubbed at his prickly white beard as he spoke:
“Morning there, Ed!”
“Morning, Taz. Newspaper and the usual drink?”
“You got it!”
Taz appreciated it when you recognized his usual order; it made him feel a sense of community—that much was obvious. Grabbing his morning paper, he walked to his table by the window and snapped it open.
I got back to preparing the store for the coming morning rush. I brewed the blonde roast, the dark roast, the grog, and the decaf. I set out the muffins, cinnamon rolls, and lemon cakes in the glass display next to the cash register. I filled the dish-washing sinks in the back with hot water—one with soap and the other with sanitizing liquid. I slid a slice of breakfast casserole into the microwave, for myself. I would cover it in sriracha and inhale it in seconds, as usual.
I was ready.
“What do you think about everything going on overseas?” said Taz from his seat at the window.
“What do you mean?” I responded, chewing casserole greedily.
“All this stuff with Putin and the Russians in Ukraine. All this janky business happening in Afghanistan. We shouldn’t be letting these people get away with it. I’ll tell you what—that wouldn’t have happened back in the good old days; not back in the 70’s, or the 80’s.”
Taz grinned as he spoke—his moustache quivering—as if he subconsciously knew he wasn’t to be taken very seriously, and it made him uncomfortable.
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I responded apathetically. Russia also invaded countries in the 70’s and 80’s—the Soviet-Afghan war, for example—but I didn’t feel like arguing with Taz.
Taz always talked about international news, or politicians, and he always spoke from the standpoint of a traditional tough guy who would never put up with the absurdities happening in today’s world. He didn’t mean anything by it; he just liked envisioning himself as a no-nonsense sort of dude. I played along with it, partially because I was afraid not to—I had once challenged him and quickly hurt his feelings, causing within me some surprisingly deep self-loathing. I didn’t want to do that again—Taz was a nice guy.
My second customer walked through the door at about 6:45. It was Robert—he was always the second customer. He strutted in confidently, as usual. I was always unsure of why he was in such a socially competitive, weirdly high-spirited mood so early. I couldn’t tell whether it was because this specific environment—the coffee shop, with only Taz and I present—made him feel like a fucking boss, or if he strolled around like such a deliberate asshole everywhere he went. That’s probably what it was.
“Two shots,” he said, gesturing with his fingers as if he thought I didn’t understand English, “You know the drill.” He began pacing around the interior of the place, as if unable to keep still, bouncing as if not drawn floorward by the same gravity that made me want to crash into my bed.
I set two double-shot glasses under the espresso machine and twisted the coffee into place. The fragrant drip began not long after.
“Oh, hell yeah,” said Robert, wafting the smoke toward himself with his hand and sniffing loudly, “That’s a good one—you’re on your game today!”
Robert always had to watch me make his shots, and if the coffee didn’t pour to his satisfaction, or if he thought the color was bad, he would make me redo it. He was a real bastard like that.
After receiving his two shots, he downed one of them straight up—he was the only person I ever saw drink espresso like it was straight-bourbon—and then dumped the other into his large cup of dark roast. Robert got the dark roast because he thought it was the strongest type of coffee. He was wrong about that, though—blonde roast is more highly caffeinated. Taz did the same thing. Robert wanted to get as much of a caffeine buzz as possible; Taz wanted to make sure everyone thought he was a real man. One was a super asshole; the other was a polite, though insecure man.
“Well,” said Robert, waving aggressively as if karate-chopping the air, “Thanks, as always. I’m out of here. You in tomorrow, Ed?”
“Well, I’ll see you then, you quality barista, you!”
Robert then strolled out of the store. On his way out, as he always did, he removed a single shot of Scope mouthwash and glugged it, swishing it around and then spitting it into the street. He got into his white Mercedes-Benz and sped off.
After he left, I moved to refill the black roast coffee dispenser. Between the two of them, Taz and Robert downed most of it each morning. It never sold very well the rest of the morning, though.
Wiping spilt coffee from the teal countertop, I noticed at the corner of the counter a red, smudgy liquid the color of blood.
“The fuck is that?” I said aloud. Goodbye Blue Sky played loudly, though barely noticed outside my psyche.
“You got a mouth on you, son!” barked Taz from his table. I looked over at him, but he was still hiding behind his newspaper. Flipping it aside, as if feeling my glare, he grinned at me and chuckled. I looked at the counter again. It definitely looked like blood; it was dark red and metallic. Robert had been bleeding. I wiped up the mess and made a mental note to ask him about it tomorrow.
“You think Biden will be able to stick around, or do you think Trump will come back and sweep him out of the swamp again?”
It was the following morning. Taz was already perched at his usual table, his wide ass enfolding the majority of the strained, small woven chair. It looked as if to collapse at any moment, but Taz didn’t seem to notice.
“Hopefully neither of them,” I responded, dumping the washrag into a bucket of warm, dirty soap and water. “You a Trump fan?”
“No… Not really,” said Taz, “but I’ll vote for him if it comes to a choice between him and Biden. But no, I don’t personally like him. I’m a Lincoln fan! You know that. I’m a Reagan fan. I like Teddy Roosevelt. That’s what we need back in the white house—someone unafraid to get things done.”
“Isn’t that how all the MAGA crowd feels about Trump?” I said, “That he’s ready to get things done?”
“True, true,” responded Taz, “He’s not afraid to get things done, that’s true—he’s just not competent, or wise enough to do the right thing, at least not very often. That’s important, too, you know.”
“You think Reagan was wise?”
I didn’t respond for a couple minutes. I went back to wiping down the table—still dirty from the previous afternoon’s rush—as if I hadn’t heard Taz.
“Don’t you think Biden’s too damn old to run, anyway?” said Taz after some time, the cracks in his squeaky voice involuntarily communicating discomfort.
“Oh yeah; I think so. He and Trump both.”
“True. But we’ve got to choose one of them, unfortunately.”
“What about a third-party candidate? The Libertarians, or the Green Party?”
Taz chuckled, “In this country, third parties are an illusion.”
I couldn’t disagree with him on that.
Robert walked in the door at his usual time, today raising his arms high above his head, signaling a ‘two’ with his thumb and pointer finger, before even making it to the counter. He had even more energy than he did yesterday.
“Dva, pozhaluista!” he said in some sort of too-cool-for-school, dramatic, broken Russian accent.
It threw me off-guard. I wasn’t ready for that. I understood him, but I for some reason couldn’t respond. I stood staring at him like a fucking idiot.
“Two shots,” he finally interjected, “I said two shots. Aren’t you a college kid? Aren’t you supposed to be smart and shit?”
I didn’t respond; I simply got to work preparing the espresso shots. The coffee poured from the machine not long after, though this time—as opposed to yesterday’s perfect shots—the liquid was a light brown, creamy color. It sputtered chaotically from the spout into the glasses, which fogged with steam as they filled.
“No bueno,” said Robert, “No fucking bueno. You know what that means, right? Right college boy?”
“Yeah,” I responded. “I fucking know.”
“Hey!” said Robert, raising his arms as if to display his innocence, “Just a joke man! Chill it out! It was just a joke.”
I poured the two rejected shots into a separate cup—I would drink those myself—and began preparing a second attempt at Robert’s. This time he was satisfied with my efforts. Nodding his approval as coffee filled the steaming glasses, he snatched a newspaper from the stand in front of the counter.
“Holy shit!” he said, looking over at Taz. “You see this, Tazzy boy?”
“Taz looked over at him begrudgingly. “Yes,” he growled, “I saw it. And I told you I don’t like it when you call me that.”
“Oh, right,” said Robert, “I forgot all about that. My mind is always foggy as hell in the morning—foggier than the Ohio River! Foggier than downtown! Hell, if my mind were like downtown Cincinnati, you wouldn’t be able to see the skyline at all—there wouldn’t be a single light on.”
“I can imagine,” I said.
“That’s why I need this coffee; that’s why I need my shots poured correctly. Anyway, Sir Taz,” Robert was again looking over at Taz, “What do you think about all this shit?”
“You mean the killings?” said Taz.
“Yeah!” said Robert, “Isn’t it some fucked up shit?”
“Yeah, I guess so. The world is a bad place, though, these days. Not like it’s any different than any other time, I guess. I reckon I’m desensitized to it.”
“Desensitized!” said Robert, “You mean it doesn’t scare you? Not even a little bit?”
“No, not really,” said Taz. “Who would want to kill me anyway? I’m not rich; I’m not attractive—I’m just Taz.”
“But you walk around town everywhere. You waddle block after block from your house to the coffee shop; from the coffee shop to the bus stop; from the bus stop back home. Aren’t you afraid that there’s a killer on the loose here in little old, dark, foggy Bellevue?”
“No. No sense being afraid; if it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go. Maybe I’ll get a couple swipes in on the killer—hell, maybe I’ll be able to take his ass down!” Taz lifted his shirt over his belt, revealing a large hunting knife. Wincing, Robert looked away. He made eye-contact with me as if to communicate his discomfort with Taz’s knife.
“Well, I’ve got to head off to work,” he said finally, “I’ll see you two tomorrow morning, as usual.”
Robert again gargled mouth wash and spat it into the street before getting into his car. After he had pulled away—skidding off toward the Daniel Carter Beard Bridge, heading from the Kentucky side of the Ohio River toward downtown Cincinnati—I walked out the door and examined the stain he had left from his mouthwash. The stain was blood red.
Taz didn’t come in the following morning. It was a relief, actually—being a super introverted person, I always appreciate a break from daily small talk. I couldn’t help but wonder why, though; he was the most regular customer the store had. He was also very obviously a creature of habit, tending to the same exact schedule every day—it wasn’t like him to be a no-show.
Robert came in at his usual time, swaggering in with his arms flailing around, his step intentionally slew-footed, as if waddling like a duck.
“My good man!” he said, “Prince Edward! How goes it this wonderful morning?”
I glared at him, unresponsive, though I began preparing his shots, which was so ingrained into my morning muscle-memory that it happened purely by instinct.
“No need this morning, my man,” said Robert, “I’m riding high! No need for any extra punch to my morning joe. I’m good!”
I looked at Robert; his expression was wide-eyed and manic.
“What the hell’s up with you today?” I said, pouring the espresso shots, which had already brewed, into my own cup of coffee.
“Nothing, my man—it’s just a great day to be alive, you know what I mean? Just like that country singer, Travis Tritt, said—a great day to be alive. You know, I’ve never been a country music fan, but I may blast that one today.”
“Do it,” I said, the thrashing guitars of Holy Wars…The Punishment Due, by Megadeth, playing loudly throughout the coffee house.
“You’re always listening to some dark ass shit in here, my man,” said Robert, “Maybe you should try out the country song today, too.”
“Perhaps I will.”
Robert paced briefly around the dining area, as if expecting something to happen.
“Well, you clearly don’t have much to say today,” he finally snapped, swatting forward with the back of his hand as if to brush me aside, “so I guess I’m out of here.” Before turning to the door, he looked up at the painting of Ivan the Terrible. “That guy knows what the hell is up,” he said, pointing aggressively at it. Ivan looked horrified and psychotic, as usual. Robert then walked toward the exit, though before walking through the door he turned back, glaring at me over-shoulder, sarcasm apparent on his quivering, singly visible eye.
“Where’s Taz?” he said, snickering.
“Didn’t come in today.”
“Oh, really? Why not? That’s not like him at all!”
“Oh well. I’m sure we’ll find out why.”
Robert winked at me and then—as if unable to control it—burst into a fit of laughter. Unable to keep himself together, he gripped both of his knees with his hands, dropping his coffee and spilling it all over the floor and across the bottom of his work slacks.
“Clean that shit up,” he said, pointing at the spill, still cackling like a maniac. He then walked out the door, spit mouthwash into the street, got into his car, and pulled away.
I cleaned that shit up.
I found out what happened to Taz, though it wasn’t from Robert. I saw it in the paper the next day; there was a photo and everything. Not a photo of Taz, but a photo of the street where he had allegedly spent his final moments. It was all taped off, as crime scenes always are.
I imagined Taz’s body sprawled out across the sidewalk, his long beard blowing in the crisp morning wind.
His hunting knife had been found on the sidewalk next to his lifeless person. Someone, after shooting him twice, had taken it from him and gutted him with it. Apparently, his intestines were sprawled out in the street, in some form of conscientious disorganization, as if someone had tried to write something with them—or perhaps craft an image—before becoming frustrating and giving up.
My hands shook as I held the paper in front of my face. Nauseating anxiety crept up my spine and into my intestines, which I still luckily enough possessed. The feeling of a cold sweat covered my person. I felt as if I was about to pass out, but I didn’t.
Robert came in at his normal time, only moments later. The paper still blocking my vision, I heard the bell ding as the door opened. I flipped the paper aside and saw him sauntering in. He was happy, though slightly less ecstatic than yesterday. Excited, though not completely manic. Making eye contact with me, he grinned and made a number two sign with his hand.
He saw the newspaper I was holding, smiled, and winked.
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