The job was in the bag—but people would insist on looking.
|"A face to freeze you solid. Tha's what she had." The speaker's words were slurred, and he fumbled at his glass with whiskey-numbed fingers. "Freeze you solid," he repeated as he slopped his drink over the polished bar top.
The barman continued rubbing at a glass with a dirty cloth. He worked at it with a machine-like intensity, and concentrated his attention on the front door.
It was a small bar, a narrow bar, the kind of bar you find downtown in large cities, slid in between a pawn shop on one side and a butcher on the other, where there's no room for anything but a long, chest-high bar and a row of stools. A bar where names are held and nursed more closely than the drinks.
"Y'ever heard th' expression?" the speaker said.
"What expression?" asked the barman.
"A face to freezhe you sholid." The speaker was hunched almost double over the bar. "You heard it? You've heard o' her, of course."
"I've heard the expression."
"Th' expression. Psh! But her. You've heard of her." He laid a leathery hand on the burlap sack that rested beside him on the bar. It bulged roundly. Perhaps it held a bowling ball, or some other item of similar size and shape and weight.
But the barman avoided looking at it, or at the viscous pool of tarry, red-black liquid that was slowing seeping out through the rough fibers.
"Who d'you mean? Your neighbor?"
"My neighbor?" The speaker squinted with disgusted puzzlement. "Buh she lived all th'way 'cross the country!"
"I thought you said she was from the neighborhood." The barman set the glass down with a click. But there was nothing else to polish, so he picked it up again and went back to working it over.
"Your neighborhood. This neighborhood." The speaker tapped the bar with a dirty fingernail. "Tha's why you would'a heard of her."
"It's a big neighborhood."
"Huh!" The speaker's head sank again. "I think som'n with a face like hers'd be known 'roun' here. Freeze you solid to look at her."
He muttered some more to himself, then sat up straight and peered into the warped mirror behind the bar. He seemed not to see his own face, with its thick lips and slit-like eyes under swollen lids; the lank and dirty hair; the nose flat like a lion's. He rocked back and forth, as though trying to peer around his own reflection to see the wall reflected behind.
"Could o' done it in here," he muttered. "Perfec' for it, really. Wouldn'a had to stop by a druggist, pick up a, a—" He waved at the air, as though he might snatch the word he was looking for from it. "Li'l one you carry aroun'."
"So what did she do to you?" the barman asked his only customer of the evening. He jerked his chin at the burlap bag, though his eyes still skittered away from the stuff that was oozing out of it. "Why did you have to, uh—?"
"Her?" The drunk blinked. "Nothing! 's just a job, tha's all. Just a job." He stroked the bag.
Then he shivered and jerked away. "Tough one, though," he muttered. "Never gets any easier. People think you do it once—thpbt!—an' tha's the end. No. There's always another'n popping up. It's envy in back of it, you know. Always envy. Pride an' envy an' 'oobris. And a lack of imagination in certain people," he added bitterly.
He brooded, and seemed not to notice the flash of red and blue lights that suddenly swept through the front windows. But the barman visibly relaxed, and set the glass back down.
"'s'why you need a specialist like me," the speaker added after a silence. "Wanted to retire a long time ago."
He roused himself. "But here's t' a hard job done right!" He threw back the whiskey and set the glass down with a bang. "'nother one!"
But the door opened first, and the barman nodded past him at the two leather-jacketed policemen who came in. "What's up?" the lead cop asked. His tone was relaxed, but his glance was sharp and wary.
"Ask the man with the head in the bag," the barman replied.
"That true?" The second cop elbowed his partner aside and leaned next to the drunk, who had to twist around to squint up at him. "You got a head in the bag?"
"A head in the—? Sure!" He held his empty glass up to the barman. "'s'why I'm here."
"It's what he told me," the barman said. He shrank back. "He comes in here, drops the thing on the bar, tells me he's just come in for a steadying drink after cutting the head off a lady, and what the hell took you boys so long to get here?"
The first cop was studying the bag and the ooze that was now sticking it to the bar top. "You have a look in it?"
"I wouldn' let him if he asked!" the drunk said. "She got a face to freezhe you sholid!"
"Well, let's have a look." The cop picked up the bag and—
"Oh, God!" The barman covered his mouth and ran for the back as a thin, reddish string, dribbling like cold syrup, streamed from the corner of the bag. The cop shot an amused glance at his back, then shook the bag open. He looked inside, and froze solid.
"Charlie," said his partner after a moment's silence. "Hey!" He bounced a fist off his partner's shoulder, and frowned at the lack of movement or reply. "What the—?"
"Hey, you shouldn' do that!" the drunk hollered as the second cop leaned past to peer inside the bag.
"Coupla idiots," Perseus muttered as the second cop froze as solid as the first. He wrenched the bag from their stony grip. "I tol' you what her face would do to you!"
But people never learned. No matter how many times you cut the head off a Gorgon—or how many times you warned them not to piss off a goddess—people just never learned.
Prompt: Cover image.