"So they said theyd meet you here?" the guy to my left said to the guy two stools down from me.
"Yeah," said the other man, this big grin tattooed to his face, as if his reaction to the first time hed ever gotten into a strip club had never left him.
"And they said it was to settle some point between the two of them?"
"Three. Theres supposed to be three gorgeous women here."
Uh-oh, I said to myself, so damn near disturbed by that piece of news that I almost spit some of my pint back into the glass.
"So howd you luck out with this?" said the first one. Only now did I really pay attention to him and his friend; both were in their early twenties, way too damn young to know better.
"One of them showed up here last night. I thought she was trolling for someone, the way she kept chatting up all the guys here. I wasnt sure if she was looking for customers or was just the biggest tease out there, but she got to me and talked me up."
"And she wasnt hooking or teasing?"
"Nah," said the unfortunate other guy. "She asked me a few simple things, like what I did for a living, what I thought about this and that"
"Nah, simple shit, like the weather, the stars, if women should wear gold jewelry."
"Sounds like she was taking a survey," I interrupted with a definite slur to my words, obnoxious enough to not be ignored but seemingly harmless so that I wouldnt spook them.
"Yeah, I kind of thought that, too," said the second guy. "Then she says she likes how I think, and then she asks me to come by tomorrow because she has two friends with her who shed like me to meet. Said the three of them would love to talk to me."
"And this woman," I said with a subtly creeping sobriety in my speech, "she was this blonde who was really stacked, with a to die for body, that her?"
"Uh, yeah?" said the second guy.
"Why, what?" asked the first.
"Dude," I said, "Like, shes pulled this scam a few times," I said with some carefully worded half truths. "She gets some poor sucker to meet her and her so-called friends, they take him away and promise him a good time, but he gets the short end of the stick. Sometimes they give the poor sap what he thinks he wants, but its stolen or someone died for it when it got into their hands before the three pass it on to him. This is, like, a real nasty scam."
It took the second guy a whole valuable minute before he asked, "So is this something like the police are on?"
"Hey," I said with another careful half-truth, "you can read all about it. The library, the Internet, its all over."
The second guy looked at his watch and said, "You know, I havent been to the gym in a while."
"We did racquetball yesterday," said the first one.
"Cant be too careful," I added. "Gotta stay healthy."
"Yeah," the second one agreed with me. "I should go," and he left a twenty to cover his tab in a hurry.
The first one looked at me; I hate when they think about what Ive said and decide theres more here than what I tell them. "Scam, huh?"
"Big time," I said, keeping it up.
"And how do I know you didnt spook him out of an incredible threesome?"
"Itd be a foursome if it happened," I corrected him, "which it wont. And I aint shitting you here about these three."
"Hey, I came to see if this was for real. Just to look at the blonde alone would be worth it."
"You just want to look at these three? Even thats kind of taking your life in your hands."
"Dude, if they dont mind me looking, Im looking. And if they still want to have someone settle something for them, hey, Im available."
I sat there and looked at his cocksure smile the way you look at a guy behind the wheel who takes a sharp right in the middle of the George Washington Bridge; all you can do is shake your head as the wheels leave the road and the car takes a death plunge into the Hudson.
I threw up my hand in surrender; hey, I tried.
It didnt take long for them to storm in. I rolled my eyes when I saw the three of them enter. Nataly saw them too, but for some reason she didnt ask them to leave right away. I thought she didnt care for trouble at her place, but maybe she felt sorry for them.
Not that you could tell by looking at them that they needed any sympathy. It made sense that of the three of them, the first through the door would be the mature one, with a regal bearing that infused her beauty with a royal air, wearing a power suit topped with her black hair and green eyes, like an actress who used to do fantastic nude scenes but could thrust her Oscar up your ass if you asked her now. As much as youd like to see her in the altogether, you knew thatd be asking for your balls on a platter fried in the same butter they used to do steaks in at Chastens.
The second one of course would have no trouble taking off her clothes for you; shed wonder why if you didnt ask her to step out of her spandex pants and leather jacket in matching hot pink, the way her body english moved, the way her parts bounced. Of course, youd be so taken by her curves that youd maybe only just see her full lips and long blonde hair, and miss those deep mischievous eyes that would warn you that her bubbly blonde act was a dangerous ploy.
The third one, however, you would never think of as being too shallow to open a book. Hey, in her auburn hair and dainty wire glasses, youd imagine shed written dissertations about every book ever written. And itd be a mistake to ignore everything below her long neck that was poured into a smart Oxford shirt with matching schoolgirl tie and skirt; shed love it if you only wanted her mind, but you better have something nice to say about the rest of her too, or else.
"Whoa," said the first guy as he looked at them, his eyes wider than a deers in the headlights of a speeding semi.
The first one of the three watched her blonde compatriot look around and asked her haughtily, "So where is he?"
"But I thought hed be here," the blonde replied with a pout.
The third one looked over her glasses and said, "Obviously he absconded and vacated. Are you sure he wasnt likely to reconsider?"
What little hope I had that thered be nothing to worry about was vaporized when the first guy raised his hand and said, "Hey, you looking for someone?"
The three of them turned to the guy. The looks they gave him could have killed him; Im surprised they showed enough restraint that they didnt.
"Yeah," said the moron, "he had an appointment to keep, something came up, so he, ah, asked me to fill in."
They stalked over to him the way lionesses approach their kill. "And by what presumption do you claim to be advocate for your associate?" asked the auburn one.
"Huh?" he replied.
"Let me be blunt," said the black-haired one, "who in Hades are you?"
"Uh, I was just here to make sure that you three would get offI mean, get your question answered."
"Oooh," said the blonde, "you want to play with us?"
He made a fatal large smile.
"Unacceptable," said the black-haired lady. "Hes biased."
"I concur," said the third as she adjusted her glasses. "His predisposition renders him incapable of impartiality."
"Hey," he said, "I think I can be impartial. I bet I can listen and appreciate all three of you."
"All at once?" asked the blonde.
He sealed his doom as he gave a dopey , startled laugh.
I made a desperate play for his life and spoke up. "You know," I said in as friendly a way as possible, "maybe you shouldnt settle for the first guy you find in a bar."
"Oh, you are such an asshole, you" the first guy got out before one of the three (I didnt see which of them) turned him into a toad. The guy sat on the bar for a few seconds, stunned, before he tried to climb into his martini glass to finish his drink.
The worst of it, though, was that the three of them turned their eyes towards me. "You!" said the black-haired one with imperial haughtiness.
"I should have surmised," said the auburn one, her eyes behind her glasses tightening into dagger points.
"Hmmph!" said the blonde.
I couldnt run for the door, there was nowhere to hide, and Nataly looked like she was in one of her moods and didnt want to be bothered, so there was only one thing to do: hope like crazy I could charm my way out of this mess.
I smiled as I said, "Its been a while, ladies. So, how have you been?"
"You little worm!" said the black-haired one, her power suit cracking smartly as she leaned in on me. "How DARE you be here!"
I laughed a little. "Now if Im not mistaken, I was here first, at my local, and you three walked in on me. True?"
"And you didnt observe the wastrel loitering in the establishment before scheduling our rendezvous?" the auburn one asked the blonde.
"He wasnt here last night," the blonde one said with a grimace.
"Thats not the point," said the first imperiously. "Why are you here now, and why are you involving yourself in our affairs again?"
"Trust me, its not by choice," I said.
"You had your chance," said the blonde, "and you tried to make a mockery of the whole thing when it was your turn."
"Me? Mock you three? Why would I do that?"
"And yet you did insist," said the black-haired one, "that we had somehow made the choosing unfair."
"Well, we dont have to go over those old arguments again."
"You accused me of torturing all of my husbands dalliances, and being more than willing to take out my so-called bad relationship problems on the wrong people."
"Oh come on," I said, hoping she wasnt going to remember how huffy she got the last time we talked about this, "you were his sixth wife, and he never stopped playing the field after you two were wed."
The auburn one and the blonde both gave hidden sniggers as the imperial one lost ground in the argument accompanied by a visible blanch on her face.
"And you two are no better," I pressed my luck. "The way you go after any poor young woman who tries to measure herself against you," I said to the blonde. "All those poor mothers who, because they loved their daughters, would compare them to you; youd take the kids and make them sleep with their fathers, turn them into trees. I mean, all youd have to do is stand next to the kids and itd be like comparing a Ferrari to a Volvo, but its not enough to just show them how silly it is to make that distinction."
"Your tendency for dramatic overindulgence precedes you, half-sister," said the third smugly.
I needed to drain half my pint before I took up against the last one. "Oh, right," I said, "this from someone who has worked out her bad moods and annoyances in the worst possible way. So how many spiders did you count making webs over the years?"
"Spiders ." the blonde giggled.
"Trojans," the auburn one intimated, which wiped the smile clean off the blonde.
"Hes doing it again," said the black-haired one regally. "Hes setting us against each other."
"Yes I am," I said with probably not enough caution. "And unlike the ones who caused all this, Im willing to say to you directly, Hey! Youre being goaded here! And, I may add, I have the good manners to tell you three that this is one of the fucking stupidest, most petty little squabbles Ive ever seen, and that you three really dont accomplish anything by keeping this shit up but cause a lot of pain and suffering, not only to anyone around you but to yourselves. Cant you three just get along?"
I didnt know from the looks on their faces whether I was going to really suffer myself very soon, or if this time Id finally gotten some sense into their heads. So much pain over this stupid mess, so many hurt and killed; part of me hoped that it all ended right there and then .
"Tell you what," said the black-haired beauty. "Why dont we end this now?"
"There you go," I said, trying not to smile too much, let alone cheer loudly
"After we get one last opinion," she added.
The blonde and her half-sister looked at me together, their gaze going into formation alongside the thirds, and my heart sank again.
"Not another round in this contest," I said, trying not to sound like I was pleading.
"You do have impeccable credentials," said the auburn one with a slight smile. "You did just prove a moment ago that you bring considerable insight and vision to all matters."
"And you demonstrate both directness and straightforwardness," said the black-haired one. "Both very admirable traits, I must say."
"And I just know you," cooed the blonde, "Ive always known that you do notice things about a girl, what she does to look nice," she said in lower tones as she leaned in on me, her lips threatening to tickle my ear .
"You can save that for later," the black-haired one said sternly to the blonde.
"Contamination of the judges ability to properly adjudicate will be considered prima fiche tampering," said the auburn one.
The blonde grimaced, but as she backed away she turned up the corners of her mouth in a seductive, come-hither manner. She never could stop playing to her strong suit.
"Now," said the black-haired one, "I believe it is my turn to set the first criterion"
"You did that last time," said the blonde. "And its always the same one, we stand there and promise what we can give him. Raw power this, sheer force of destiny that, blah blah blah."
"Do you really believe," said the auburn one to the mature one, "that you would be fortuitous enough to find yet another so avaricious in this area? Are you gullible enough to believe the one judgment you actually won could be replicated easily simply by holding the contest in New Jersey, within sight across the river of your grand triumph?"
"There must be someone as driven as this Donald Trump here," she replied.
"So why cant I go first?" said the blonde.
"With yet another predictable jejune insistence that we be judged upon our pulchritude and that the only way such assessment can be accurately derived is with no obfuscation?" snipped the auburn one.
"Are you insane?" asked the black-haired one. "After the last time you insisted the three of us strip for that simpleton you found, and he insisted after we bared ourselves to him that hed know better after we got each other off for him?"
"Well, maybe he didnt really mean that," said the blonde. "And if you hadnt turned him into an armadillo on the spot, he might have explained himself."
"Of course," said the auburn beauty, "it has been some while since an exhibition of cognitive ability was allowed to open the examination."
"If you mean another Answer the judges question session, sister," said the blonde, "youve got to be really asking for trouble."
"Frankly," said the black-haired stunner to the one wearing glasses, "the answer you gave that one time to the man who questioned how a fair universe could support all those boy bands had to be the biggest load Ive ever seen expelled."
"Actually," said the auburn one with a look in her eye that said shed found a brilliant way to cover her ass, "I propose that if this is indeed the last time we do this, that our esteemed jurist be granted the right to set the agenda."
It felt like an eternity after the three of them turned to look at me. If this was indeed the last timeand knowing them, that wasnt guaranteedit would have meant an end to the great calamities that kept happening on Earth every time their feud flared. No more sudden wars from nowhere, no more violent dynastic changes, no more vast shifts of wealth and power without warning, leaving too many suckers stranded on the sides.
If only it could have happened sooner. Troy would never have been sacked, and Rome never would have gone for Carthage. Jerusalem wouldnt have been at the end of a road of blood, and Archduke Ferdinand would have stayed the hell out of Sarajevo. Hey, Id have been happy if only this could have ended before disco or Pokemon.
It would all end here, right at the Washington, all that pain and misery.
And all itd cost me would be two really pissed off goddesses whod probably make enough mischief on their own without the other one. Tough choice, being the first in line for the shit, or part of the cause of the shit to blame it on.
Same damn choice as the last time.
I looked around a little, trying to appear that I was getting another round. Nataly had a fresh pint right there for me; not enough time to push things off a little longer, but boy, did I really need a drink.
I took a long, hard pull from the pint. There was only one answer to this; the same as the last time.
"You know," I said slowly as their eyes focused on me, "in all the time since last wed spoken of this matter, I have wondered a bit about whether what I did was hasty or foolish."
Surprisingly, none of them grabbed me and shook me to get on with it.
"Its been many years," I continued, "and frankly, the more I think about it, the more I feel I made the right choice. Ladies, my original position stands; I cannot in good conscience choose from among only three of you. There must be at least three more to choose from, if not many more, so that the question among youwhich of you is the greatestcan truly be answered in its proper context. Only then, from out of a proper sampling, can a definitive answer ever really be gotten."
After a long hard stare at me by all three of them, the black-haired one asked me pointedly, "Are you going to suggest the same three candidates to round out the field?"
I looked down, trying not to meet their gaze, trying to look more interested in my beer.
They looked at me with long drawn-out gazes. The fact that they only looked at me meant they probably knew deep inside what my answer was going to be anyway.
As I raised the pint to my lips, the three vanished without even leaving a faint breeze behind.
"And I thought they were going to leave you with the legs of an ass," said Nataly as she came over to my stool. I didnt realize Id been standing the whole time until they left, and I really needed that stool then.
"I better check myself when I get to the mens room," I said as I sat, "just to be safe."
Nataly noticed the guy whod been turned into a toad and shook her head. "They could have waited until he paid, at least."
"Isnt there someone you heard about who was looking for a familiar? Wouldnt that cover this guys tab if you sold him to that wizard?"
Natale wiped up the toad piss at the base of the martini before she said, "You do know theyd never go for your scheme, as long as shed have a chance of being added to the mix."
"Probably. Shed be a real competitor too, that winning smile, her tight perky features in a pretty package, giving her all with enough enthusiasm to make you root for her."
"If I didnt know better," said Nataly in a low voice, "Id think you still have the hots for her. Do I know better?"
"A gentleman never tells."
"So whats stopping you?"
"Even if I did, which Im neither confirming or denying, shes so high up the hierarchy that they couldnt say no to her."
"Which is why this is a very limited field."
"Yeah," I sighed as I took a drink, "I guess itd be asking a lot of them to invite her. Theyd never stand a chance against Nike in a fair competition."
James Ryan won the Beatles Embassy Imagination Award: Best Fan Fic for his story "I Read the News Today." Yes, believe it or not, you can still hold a vote with a surprise winner without a media circus ensuing or legions of lawyers running around your capitol.... For his birthday, he has hopes of actually being recognized as a writer; hey, weirder things have happened.... His work has appeared in such places as Dragon magazine, Lacunae, the Urbanite, the New York Times, and some of the better men's room walls across the state of New York. Until he gets the chance to follow the program for disenfranchised neurotic writers, he's doing the regular job and grad school schtick. His wife Susan and son Jamie just nod and smile when he starts to rant, which, all said, makes things that much easier.