May 16, 2024, 06:24AM

The Last Hours of Oliver Dabb

Hard-nosed reporter Rance Hartley pokes around Servais’ bar for information.

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As his wife, Mary Pat, backed slowly out of the driveway and into the quiet residential street that terminated in the cul-de-sac in which the family’s Dutch Colonial was located, Oliver Dabb stood waving gently with one hand, the other tucked into the left back pocket of his pleated khaki shorts. Noting that the boys, Lawrence and Parker, were jockeying for position to get at the backseat’s passenger side window, ultimately establishing an uneasy truce that allowed each to press some combination of palms and nose against the glass and grin ecstatically, their father blew them kisses and waved. Mary Pat put the Volvo station wagon into Drive, glanced up to catch the tail end of the gesture and, assuming that she was its intended recipient, smiled lovingly and tooted the horn twice in response before accelerating and retreating slowly from Dabb’s view.

His right hand now joining his left in occupying the appropriate back pocket, Oliver stood there in the driveway for somewhat longer than might be considered average or “normal,” though he was by no means troubled by any unpleasant emotions or racked with anxiety. He was, though, right on the precipice of some kind of involuntarily arrived-at realization when an affable, Irish-accented voice called out, “Oi there, Dabb! Th’ fuck’re ye do’n, then?”

Dabb gave an almost imperceptible start and, turning to his left, spotted the source of the words, his stout sixtysomething Irish Catholic neighbor, Slate Flanagan, leaning with his forearms on the dark green cyclone fence that separated the two men’s properties. The ruddy featured, rust-haired Irishman was smiling toothily and cradled a napkin-blanketed highball of straw-colored whiskey and watery ice cubes in his large, stubby-fingered hands. “Missus fuckin’ off to the ‘rents’ place with the rugrats for the weekend, is she?”

Dabb took a few reluctant steps toward his neighbor, his mind percolating with potential excuses to keep the tedious neighborly chat as brief as humanly possible. “Oh. Yeah. Well... not really, but...”

Flanagan sipped his whiskey but, afterward, reassessed Dabb through squinted eyes and then sucked down nearly all the liquor left in the glass—roughly a double’s worth—and let out a loud sigh during which he “gleeked” visibly, spraying droplets of dilute whiskey several feet toward Dabb. “When the cat’s away, the mice will play, innit?” he remarked conspiratorially.

Before Dabb could offer a reply, Flanagan bid him come closer with an oddly dainty gesture of the index finger. “C’on’over a minute, eh? ‘s somethin’ I’d like yeh t’see.”

“I’m... really not sure. I’ve got work I need to be doing.” Speaking more easily and more surely, Dabb added quickly, “In fact, the whole point of Mary Pat–”

“Fock is Mary Pat?” Slate barked, sounding gravely offended and nearly coming over a fence that never would’ve supported his girth.

“M-my wife,” Oliver answered instantly.

“Oh. Yeh. Well. Won’t take but a minute, yeh? ‘sides, you’re a hack, innit? A reporter, eh? Call it a scoop then, mate.”

“A scoop?”

“Fuckin’ell, you comin’ or not then?” Flanagan sighed. When Dabb nodded after a brief hesitation and headed for the end of the driveway to circumvent the fence, the bear-like Irishman muttered several exasperated obscenities under his breath and took a final gulp from his glass, which he shook a little afterward.

“Anything about this whole thing sticking in your craw?” hard-nosed veteran reporter Rance Hartley asked before finishing off his gin and tonic.

Servais grunted unintelligibly.

“Come again?” Hartley asked, tapping the bottom of the glass to coax one of the ice cubes within toward his waiting mouth.

“Don’t jiggle the fuckin’ cubes in that glass again,” Servais snarled.

Hartley shrugged, set the glass down on the coaster. “That better?”

“Yeah. Lots,” Servais said tersely.

Hartley pursed his lips. “Lots better, or lots bothers you about—”

“You drinkin’ or what?” Servais interrupted, eyeing the empty glass on the bar between them.

“Oh. Uh, yeah, why not? One more won’t kill me. And here,” Hartley held a bill between the two first fingers of his hairy hand, then tossed it toward the surly barkeep. “Have one for yourself.”

Servais poured Hartley’s drink—over the two dying ice cubes that remained in the glass—but looked warily at the folded bill. “What’s that?”

“For tip,” Hartley answered with uncharacteristic uncertainty.

Servais set the drink in front of Rance and gave a single quick shake of the head. “Nope. ‘Cuz if this ends up in your column? Or my name gets passed around in connection with any of that shit-fingered snooping around you call reporting?”

Hartley bristled slightly at the tone the ex-big leaguer was taking with him. “Yeah?”

Servais pressed his battle-scarred knuckles on the bartop and leaned forward, his face just a couple of inches from Hartley’s. “I’m gonna step all over your fuckin’ head.”

Hartley held the sip of gin and tonic in his mouth for a long time, looked in Servais’ gun-metal gray eyes and knew he meant what he said. Rance swallowed, savored the burn. He smiled a little. “Not much tonic in this one, is there?”

Servais wiped the bar with a rag that had seen better days. “Nope. Gave you that one straight.”

Hartley lit one of the thin cigars he favored, puffed a couple of times and, tossing his match in the nearby ashtray, nodded. “Fair enough. Now, what is it about this kid’s death that’s got you so het up?”

“The whole business stinks like fuckin’ pig shit,” Servais said in his uniquely constricted rasp, halfway between flinty and a curious sort of chirp. “But the number one thing?” He raised his index finger, forever made noticeably crooked by an errant Kevin Tapani forkball back in ‘96, then poured himself a rye during the pregnant pause that followed. “I don’t trust any verdict of ‘suicide’ where Slate fuckin’ Flanagan is the last known person to have seen the deceased alive.”

Upon entering Flanagan’s house, Dabb had the distinct impression—inexplicable but no less vivid for it—that someone else was there. As Slate pulled the storm door closed behind them, Dabb repeated what he’d said at least twice already: “I really can’t stay long, Mr. Flanagan...”

“Call me Slate, m’boy. Yar makin’ me feel old as the blemmin’ hills,” the huge Irishman said in his sing-songy brogue. “And as I say, won’t take but a minute’a yer time.”

As they stepped through a pair of French doors and into the sunken living room, the hardwood floor of which was covered with a number of off-white drop cloths while the furniture was pushed against the walls and in some cases stacked one piece atop another. The feeling of another presence was now all but oppressive.

“Is... someone else here?” Dabb stammered, his own heartbeat banging hellishly in his eardrums like some piece of huge industrial machinery gone haywire.

Flanagan turned. “Someone else? Oh, no, laddy,” he said, flashing a wolfish grin.

Dabb felt his gaze drawn to a large framed photo on the wall. It was a portrait in black-and-white, very old— mid-19th century, probably not long after the invention and initial ubiquity of photography itself. The light-haired subject of the portrait, with his chiseled features and the burning intensity of his eyes plain even in the rather degraded quality of the photo, was familiar to Dabb, though he was not quite sure how. He made a move toward the portrait without thinking.

“Ah. Right you are. ‘s’what I wanted yeh to see. Have a look,” Flanagan said easily, though his voice was now all but incomprehensible to Dabb, having a strangely distorted, smeared quality made more severe by its curiously distant sound.

“Who is this?” Dabb intoned with an uncooperative tongue through thick lips. He felt as if he may pass out. He braced himself against the wall with his hand, but the plaster felt fuzzy, leading him to recoil slightly. He tried to blink the gauziness out of his eyes. When Flanagan asked if something was the matter, light emanated from the Irishman’s mouth and lingered in the air in wispy threads. “What the fuck is going on?” Dabb croaked.

A garrote of some kind tightened around Dabb’s throat and something slammed into his spine. He fell to his knees as he clutched clumsily at the strap or cord that was crushing his trachea, briefly getting a finger between it and his skin, only to then feel a vague spray of warm liquid on his neck. Red bubbled and spurted out before him. His vision popped and sparked and soon the relentless throbbing of his pulse grew distant and quiet.


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