On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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McEwan wasn’t calm, but he was at least clear. He was going to walk into the pub, and he was going to just see what happened.
This was a significant departure from his policy during the last ten years or so, since he retired. He’d been much more reasonable, partly on doctor’s orders, and partly because his wife Mary told him she wasn’t going to put up with any more of his shenanigans. But his wife was the reason he was in this position today, at least indirectly.
She’d come home twenty minutes ago, looking flustered, but that was nothing new. McEwan assumed she’d bumped into someone and had been chatting, the way women do, and had heard some bad news about someone or other. She’d probably tell him about it, and he’d grunt at appropriate points, then promptly forget the entire thing. He wasn’t a bad person, and he loved his wife; by god he loved her with a fierceness that bordered on madness sometimes. But he just didn’t care about the gossip, or really about anyone else in the little town. If it didn’t affect him directly, he didn’t want to know anything about it. Put the football on the telly, cold drink in hand, and that was just about all he wanted from life now.
Even so, they’d been married for forty-six years, so of course he wearily asked what was bothering her, preparing himself to endure the tale. Strangely, though, Mary had told him nothing was wrong. That was a huge warning sign. It took another ten minutes to get the truth from her.
Apparently, she’d been walking along the street, minding her own business — an assertion that McEwan allowed to pass without remark, given the context — when she’d been shoved aside by a man going in the same direction. She hadn’t fallen over, but she’d ended up leaning against a wall, and she had a sore shoulder. And the thing was, she knew the man, just as McEwan did. His name was Thomas Crozier the younger, but in this town he was just Wee Tommy. He’d been in a hurry, Mary said, and he was frustrated at the slower-moving people in front of him.
Well, that was that. McEwan had determined that she was essentially just shaken but otherwise alright, made her a cup of tea, and then fetched his coat from the hall. She warned him, but he waved it away. Some things were right and some things were wrong, and it didn’t much matter what your wife said about it. He went out.
Tommy always went to the pub at this time every day. Half the men in the town did, or maybe three-quarters. What else were they going to do? So when McEwan stepped into the place, it was no surprise that he immediately caught sight of Tommy at his usual table on the far right, along with his cronies.
Alright then, he thought, and he marched over. Tommy looked up as he approached, and McEwan realised immediately from his friendly expression that the other man had no idea whose wife he’d just knocked for six. Somehow, that made it all much worse. That was the moment McEwan knew this wasn’t just going to be a chat and a warning.
“You knocked Mary into a wall half an hour ago, Tommy,” McEwan said.
His tone was utterly normal, without a trace of anger or accusation. It was matter-of-fact; even cheerful. Back when he was a working man, there were people who had pissed themselves when they heard that tone. Wee Tommy, though, cocked his head like a confused mutt, as if he was trying to work out what the punchline was.
There was a man at an adjacent table who did look around, though. Big guy, younger, well enough groomed, in a way that was effectively a big neon sign around his neck. Sure enough, he put his drink down and pushed his chair back from the table a little, not getting up yet. McEwan had clocked him immediately. He didn’t know who the guy was, but his name didn’t matter.
“On the street,” McEwan continued, eyes still on Tommy. “She said you were in a right hurry. Nearly took her clean off her feet, as I hear it.”
Now Tommy’s face paled. The gears in his head needed oiled, but they still worked. And to their credit, his pals seemed to pick up on the change in mood. They both set their glasses down, but they looked more like they were angling for the door instead of getting between the two men.
“Shite,” Tommy said, soft as you like. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t know who it was. I wasn’t thinking.”
“That’s right enough,” McEwan replied, deadly gentle. “So where were you off to?”
Tommy swallowed even though his mouth was empty, and McEwan knew the answer. He’d been hurrying to get to the same place he was now; to get a drink inside him. Not uncommon, either, but it wasn’t exactly a justifiable emergency. Not yet.
“That’s what I thought,” McEwan said, not waiting for whatever nonsense the other man was frantically trying to assemble. Tommy lifted both his hands from the table, palms outward in a gesture of appeasement.
“Let me buy you a drink, eh?” he said. “And I’ll come and apologise to Mary as soon as you like. I’m really sorry.”
“You know that’s not going to cut it,” McEwan said, and now, at last, the man at the next table stood up and inserted himself into the space between McEwan and the others.
So this is how it goes, McEwan thought.
“I can see where this is going,” the newcomer said evenly, “and I think we all need to just calm down. I’m here for a quiet drink, but you should know that I’m a police officer.”
McEwan looked at him and smiled so warmly that the guy actually frowned. Tommy just lowered his head.
“Good for you, son,” McEwan replied to the stranger. “Your mother must be proud.”
The copper never saw the fist coming, and when he hit the floor, McEwan already had his eyes back on Wee Tommy.
“Get yourself outside, and let’s get started,” he said.
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