Dan Whittingham loved Monday night. It was his time to unwind, down a beer or three, lose a few bucks, and still get home in time for breakfast. Alice didn’t care how late he was, as long he didn’t disturb her sleep. He started work late on Tuesday mornings, a perk of owning his own construction business. His assistant Chris always offered to manage the business so Dan could take the whole day off but Dan flatly refused. After all, it was his business and his responsibility. He felt guilty enough starting late.
He edged his spotless red pickup onto the paved driveway that fronted Phil’s newly-built home. He snatched the bag of supplies from the passenger seat floor, double-checked the doors were locked, and strode through the side gate into the backyard. A new stainless steel barbecue, large enough to cater for dozens, adorned the freshly stained wooden deck, complete with jacuzzi and covered awning. Dan rapped his knuckles against the wooden doorframe. Phil emerged from the lounge room and saw what he did every Monday night; Dan coming through the kitchen, carrying a six-pack of beer and a small bag of crisps.
Phil Shaw had been one of Dan’s best friends since they were kids. They played football together, rode bikes, chased girls, threw rocks, and lived on the same block. Phil got through the academy with ease and went straight to work at Parker Police Department. He worked his ideal job, only five minutes from home, in a town with no crime. Dan envied him, until a year ago.
Phil transferred from Parker PD, to Winston Central. A forty-five minute drive further south into a neighbourhood boasting an abnormally high crime rate. Within a week, Phil was intentionally struck down by a car during a routine traffic stop. In the ensuing gunfight a bullet grazed his leg. He was visibly shaken for weeks but insisted to Dan he was happy there. Every poker night, the same discussion would surface at the table. When it inevitably reached Phil’s job, he would mumble something about seeing more action down south then hastily divert the conversation. Phil and Dan didn’t openly talk about everything, but Parker was a small town and Dan had heard rumours.
‘Like clockwork, you and that fancy Euro shit! German?’ Phil laughed as he rolled his eyes.
Phil snatched the bag of crisps, ripped it open, and poured them into a bowl. He turned back to Dan, and gave him the same awkward half-handshake, half man-hug that greeted his arrival every week. Dan carefully balanced the six-pack of euro-shit out to the side in one hand.
‘Careful. Fragile goods!’ Dan joked as he headed toward the kitchen.
‘Where are the others? It’s five past.’
Phil ignored the question and brought up the obvious.
‘So you’re spoken for. Game over. Finito. Or did she say no?’
Dan wedged his beer into the small fridge next to out of date yoghurt and a container of rotten vegetables.
‘This fridge is disgusting. You need a girl. What happened to Penny?’
Phil hesitated, and on cue the doorbell chimed.
‘About bloody time,’ Dan muttered.
Rob and Walt arrived at the same time. Rob Denniss was in his early 20’s and a proud slacker. A person who avoids work or effort. He had worked for Dan in the past but was unreliable and in no way handy. There were no hard feelings when Dan unsurprisingly sacked him. He wore clothes that would not look out of place in a hippie commune, and his hair could comfortably nest an extended family of spiders. Rob meandered in, offered a lackadaisical greeting to no one in particular, and focused a nominal amount of energy on getting his precious beer to the chilled comfort of the refrigerator.
Walt, a quieter, and much more polite gentleman followed. A wave of nervousness washed over Dan as he went to greet the older man. He had done this a hundred times before never with this level of uncertainty, or pressure.
‘Hey Walt. Dad. Walter,’ Dan stumbled, as he quickly attempted to work out what to call his future father-in-law.
For someone so organised, Dan was annoyed he hadn’t thought of this earlier.
‘It doesn’t change until after the wedding. Imbecile,’ Phil mocked, as he revelled in Dan’s clumsiness.
‘Walt’s fine,’ the older man said, with a slight twitch of his upper lip, which for Dan was basically the same as a beaming smile.
Walt followed with a wink and headed for the kitchen, leaving his future son-in-law at ease. Walt turned his attention to Rob and silently demanded free space be left for his own beer in the fridge. There was no congratulations or handshake but Dan knew he had the approval of Alice’s father and he didn’t need to search for more, despite his cock-up.
Walter Humley was forced to retire three years ago from his job at Demille’s, a metal manufacturer who supplied more than their fair share of employment to the Parker community. Despite spending most of his later years as a manager, touring the floor of the plant and watching over the younger staff, it became too much and he was reluctantly forced to give it away. After retirement, Walt sought anything to keep his mind busy and poker helped. He liked playing cards, and used to play with Maria. Poker night at Phil’s was the next best thing. He got on well with Dan and treated him like a son from the first moment Alice brought him home. But Walter was a father, and his fatherly instinct told him to use poker night to keep tabs on his future son-in-law.
‘No Gene tonight?’ Dan asked as he glanced toward the door.
Phil shrugged and shook his head. The aroma of cooked chicken wings and fried onion infiltrated the air. The four men circled around harmoniously and their noses led them outside. Each man scooped up steaks, chicken wings, onion, and kebabs off the hotplate and loosely flung them onto their plates.
‘You burnt these. I’ll do ‘em next time!’
‘Dan, the last time I let you near the barbecue, you almost lit this place up. Cooking is not your thing!’
Walter chuckled as Dan discarded the blackened wings on his plate and tucked into the rest. A giant bag of pre-made garden salad, plucked from the cold section of the local supermarket sat neglected in the centre of the table. Dan ducked inside, grabbed everyone a beer from their individual packs, and returned to the table. Phil turned the stereo up and all four men chowed down their dinner.
‘Cheers!’ Phil shouted, raising his bottle.
‘Here’s to the wonderful Alice. For reasons unknown she said yes! And commiserations to Walt, for knowing this sorry son-of-a-bitch is going to be your son!’
Laughter rumbled around the table and all four bottles crashed into each other.
Several beers, and multiple hands later, Dan focused on the lousy cards Rob had dealt. At that time of night, after so many bottles of beer, bluffing was off the table. It was more enjoyable to fold, and shoot the dealer a look that suggested he should sleep with one eye open. Dan flicked the four of spades at Rob’s head in jest and checked his phone.
Three missed calls. He didn’t recognise the number and assumed it was work-related. He got up to grab the card players another round.
The unknown number flashed on the screen a fourth time and the phone vibrated on the table. Phil answered.
Phil turned to Walt as Dan emerged from the kitchen.
‘You both need to get to Winston General. Now!’
* * * * * * *
Chapter 4 coming soon.