The Undisputed Champions of Texas, Chapter 16

Champ was always thrilled when Maggie asked him to cover an afternoon bartending shift.  While he would happily do any task his boss assigned, Champ was a people person first and foremost, so he welcomed the opportunity to be more than a behind the scenes guy.

Sure, he’d once struggled with alcohol and other assorted controlled substances, but those days were long behind him.  Champ saw his ability to man the bar without wanting to pour himself anything from the dozens of colorful bottles at his fingertips as a true triumph of the will.

He was no expert mixologist, but the truth of the matter was that one of the reasons Maggie trusted him alone at that hour was because the bar was usually empty.

There were a handful of regulars who’d haunt the bar in the early afternoon, but they were there for a quiet place to read the paper, get out of the cold, and avoid whatever problems awaited them at home.  This crowd stuck mainly to beers or self-explanatory drinks.

Not even Champ could mess up a rum and Coke or a gin and tonic.

Champ could cackle maniacally about it now, but he had once torn apart the bar for a good ten minutes in search of a toolbox after a customer had asked him for a screwdriver.

Since the bar was usually quiet, Champ spent most of his time stocking the cooler, slicing fruit, and studying his chessboard.  However, should someone come in and want to bend the ear of the bartender, he would be prepared.

short story, serial, Modern PhilosopherHe was about to set a personal record by slicing his ninth consecutive lime without cutting himself when the stranger entered.

Champ was good with faces, but this one was unfamiliar to him.  The ability to put a face to a name had come in very handy when he lived on the street.  It was much easier to guilt someone into parting with some loose change when you asked them by name.

This gentleman was not someone Champ could recall ever having met at the bar or out on the street.  He was a bear of a man with cheeks ruddy from the cold.  He sat at the far end of the bar and made Champ come to him, which the lonely bartender was happy to do.

“Champ welcomes you to Maggie McGee’s.  What would you like?”

The stranger mulled it over for a moment.  “Something on tap.  Why don’t you surprise me?”

While Champ scampered over to grab a pint glass, the stranger looked around the bar like he was sizing up the place.  There was nothing much to see at this hour, but he took it all in like he intended to commit it to memory.

Champ returned, placed the beer on a coaster, and waited.

The stranger, sensing that Champ needed to know if he’d chosen wisely, complied by taking a sip of his beer.

“Excellent choice,” the man said and smiled.

Champ grinned, genuinely happy to be of service.   He quickly searched his mind for the proper topic with which to engage his lone customer in witty conversation.  He looked like the chess type, but how should be approach the subject?  However, the stranger beat him to the punch.

“Is Maggie around?”

Champ was slightly offended by the question because his immediate thought was that the man was implying he wasn’t good enough company.  Then he remembered that Maggie’s name was on the bar and she’d been tending it for much longer than he had.

People came in all the time hoping to chat up the affable owner.

“Champ’s sorry to say she isn’t.  Is there something Champ can help you with?”

The stranger paused before replying as if trying to process what it was about Champ’s manner of speaking that was registering as off.

“No thanks,” he finally replied.  “I was just hoping to say hello.”

“Are you old friends?” Champ asked because he really wanted to chat.

The stranger took another sip of beer and shook his head.

“Actually, her boyfriend is a friend of a friend, who recommended this place to me and suggested I stop in and give my regards the next time I was in town.”

Champ nodded.  “Detective Bruno knows a lot of people.  Champ would be happy to pass along that greeting.”

The stranger stood up and looked around as if he wanted to make sure that Maggie wasn’t lurking somewhere in the shadows.

“Sure,” he said once he had accepted the only way he was going to get his message to Bruno was through the odd ball bartender.  “Tell him I stopped in because I was eager to meet Maggie.”

Champ was confused.

“Champ thought it was Detective Bruno who was the friend of your friend…”

The stranger smiled slyly.  “Yeah, and that’s why I wanted to meet Maggie.  Bruno helped three of my friends relocate last August, and they wanted me to tell Maggie they hadn’t forgotten.”

Champ let out a low cackle.

“Champ thinks that sounds just like Detective Bruno.  He’s always eager to help someone in need no matter how busy he is.”

The stranger nodded his understanding, pulled a ten dollar bill out of his wallet, and placed it on the bar next to his beer.

“Thanks for the conversation,” he remarked with a wink as he headed for the door.

Now Champ was really bewildered.

“But you hardly touched your beer,” he called after him.  “Champ can get you something else if you didn’t like this one.”

The stranger gave a little wave and kept walking.

“What’s your name?  Champ at least wants to deliver a proper message.”

“Bruno will know who I am,” the stranger replied as he disappeared into the bright winter afternoon without looking back.

Champ shook his head, poured the beer down the sink, and put the glass in to be washed.  He then walked the ten dollar bill over to the cash register.

“Champ might be slow, but even he understands Detective Bruno isn’t going to know who you are if you’re a friend of a friend and have never met.”

Still shaking his head, Champ rang up the drink and put the change in his empty tip jar.

short story, serial, Modern PhilosopherLater that afternoon, Champ told Maggie about the stranger and passed along his message.

The look on Maggie’s face was one of concern.

“What did he look like?” she asked as her mind raced.

Champ shrugged.  “Champ remembers him looking very average.  He was big, though, maybe like a football player.

Maggie didn’t say anything at first.

“You didn’t happen to keep the glass?” she surprised him with her question.  “Chip would probably want to check it for fingerprints or DNA.”

Not for the first time that afternoon, Champ was baffled.  “Champ dumped the beer and washed the glass.  Champ doesn’t get it, though.  Why would Detective Bruno go through all that trouble to track down some stranger who wasn’t polite enough to leave his name?”

Maggie smiled.  She loved Champ and had to remember that all those blows to the head in the boxing ring had probably knocked the common sense out of him.

“That man wasn’t here for a polite visit,” she said sweetly, though her voice was tinged with concern.  “He was here to deliver a threat.”

Champ rubbed his temple and took a seat on one of the stools in front of the bar.  The place was filling up, but everyone was gathered around the end of the bar closer to the TVs.

“But he told Champ he wanted to thank Detective Bruno for helping his friends move last August,” he remarked.

“I believe you said he used the term ‘relocate’,” Maggie politely reminded him.  “As in to jail.  And when I think about last August, the three men who immediately come to mind are the ones from the failed bank heist.”

Something clicked in Champ’s brain and he finally got it.

“Champ is so stupid,” he berated himself and slammed his fist against the bar.  “That guy from the bank crew threatened Detective Bruno when he went to see him in jail.  His friend came here looking for you to let Detective Bruno know he could get to you at any time.”

Maggie nodded.

“Champ should have knocked out the bastard,” he lamented the missed opportunity.

Maggie reached out to pat him gently on the shoulder.  “There’s no way you could have known.  I’ll let Chip know immediately, but I’m guessing it was meant as more of a form of harassment than an actual threat.  And now he knows that I have a burly bodyguard on duty, and I’m not here all alone like a sitting duck.”

They both knew that she was playing it down for Champ’s benefit, but they took solace in the knowledge that Bruno would never let anything happen to Maggie.

That was the last day for the next several months that there wasn’t at least one undercover police officer in the bar during business hours.


NOTE FROM AUSTIN: When I turned the serials that first appeared on this blog into a novel, I added over 30,000 words to the stories.  The manuscript includes a chapter that follows Bruno as he foils a bank robbery all by himself.  This is the event referenced in this chapter.  Figured fans of the Bruno serials might be confused since they haven’t had a chance to read about the bank heist yet.  Just one more reason to pick up a copy of the novel once it’s published!

About Austin

Native New Yorker who's fled to the quiet life in Maine. I write movies, root for the Yankees, and shovel lots of snow.
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8 Responses to The Undisputed Champions of Texas, Chapter 16

  1. kristianw84 says:

    Things are getting very exciting! I would never want to be on the receiving end of Bruno’s wrath. Anyone who would dare threaten Maggie must have a death wish!

  2. beth says:

    bruno will always look out for Maggie in his own way. thanks for making sense of the context –

  3. markbialczak says:

    Thanks for tying it in, Austin.

    • Austin says:

      The bank robbery subplot is very important to the Bruno story moving forward, so I had to tie it into this one. After all, this is merely a continuation of the other serials, just told from a different perspective.

      Miles Fitzpatrick, the sleazy real estate guy is important, too. That’s why he shows up as the reason that Tex loses his house. Plus, the mention is a nod to the billboard by his house in The Vanishing Santa.

      You should probably expect The Heathens to show up at some point as well. 🙂

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