Chapter 3:
The Sad Hour Special

The Ruckmoor had been in operation twenty-one hours a day for decades, five-thirty in the morning until two-thirty in the morning, every single day including Christmas. Long ago, it had been a hole-in-the-wall serving mostly third shift workers, a rough joint for bikers and serious drunks. But it was located in a spot in north Columbus that in the eighties and nineties had been among the fasted growing areas in the country. When high-end developments sprang up all around it, the Ruckmoor had to grow more upscale with the businesses around it.

Now it blended right in with the office parks and steakhouses, a pleasant-looking establishment with the same old-school business model. Drinks were cheap, entertainment was cheaper, and the place only closed for three hours a day.

When Mike and I pulled up in the parking lot, we were almost relieved to see that it was mostly empty. If the place had been rocking at ten-thirty in the morning, I think I might have started to either lose - or possibly gain extra - faith in humanity.

The bartender was a blonde-haired guy with a beer gut, wearing a mask under his chin. He was wiping off the bar and telling a story about the oversized gumball machine by the door. “You wouldn’t believe it,” he says. “It’ll happen out of nowhere, we’ll have thirty people in here and all of the sudden, someone yells out ‘Twenty dollars on red!’”

“No way!”

He was talking to two men in postal carrier outfits and a woman dressed as a barista from Starbucks, all of them happy as clams with their drinks in front of them. The only other people in the bar were a pair of bikers playing a ring toss game in the back, which sounded pretty engaging. The rings made a clanking sound as they landed on pegs, and the two bikers groaned or cheered.

The story about the gumball machine was just a little more important than us. The guy winks at us and holds up a finger, and then continues telling the story of how people bet on which color comes out of the gumball machine next, and then half the bar gathers around it while they feed quarters into it, waiting for a winning gumball.

He was fairly skilled at storytelling though. By the time he was finished, it was like he was telling us the story too, and he smoothly segued into asking us what wanted to drink, as if that’s how the story ended.

When he put them in front of us he reminded us that we were allowed to take our masks off when we were drinking. Mike asked, “Are you drinking?”

“No.” But he threw air quotes up around it, so that was a yes.

“So you’re allowed to put that mask on correctly?”

“Sure,” he said, not really catching on. “Name’s Dan Lowzerdorfer. They call me the Dorf for short.”

“Why don’t they call you Dan? That’s shorter.”

“Huh. I guess because there are a lot of Dans.”

We shrugged, and pulled our masks down, sitting maybe six feet apart, maybe a little less, and I took a drink of my bloody mary, and Mike took a drink of ice water.

It was startling. He’d said the bloody mary was special, and he was right. It was strong and spicy and all-in-all pretty special.

“Listen, Dorf,” Mike said. “We’re trying to catch up with a buddy of ours. Tall guy, brown hair, clean-shaven, probably wearing a sports jacket and tie. Either he had an Ohio State Buckeyes tie on or an Ohio State Buckeyes pin on his jacket. He’d be drinking vodka with a lime, talking fairly loudly, and his phone would ring a lot.”

The Dorf put on a poker face, still wiping off the bar. “You guys are friends of his.”

“We are.”

The Dorf nodded, not convinced. “A lot of people come into a bar at nine in the morning, and they don’t want it broadcasted that they came into a bar at nine in the morning.”

“A lot of people like to keep their teeth,” Mike said.

We all laughed as if he were joking around, which Mike was not. “He’s a friend of ours, a regular in here,” I said, twirling my finger in the air. “What do I owe you for this?”

The Dorf told me, and I paid him and tipped him ten bucks, and he thanked me, ringing a bell behind the bar and startling everyone in the place. One of the ring toss guys yelled an obscenity at him and he laughed.

The ten bucks did the trick though. The Dorf said, “Yeah, that’s Tim you’re talking about. He was in here not long ago, you guys missed him by a half-hour? Forty-five minutes?”

“That sounds about right.”

“Yeah, he was sitting right where you are. Him, and then another guy came in and joined him. They didn’t come in together, your guy came in first, the other guy a little later. I think they talked for fifteen minutes, then they both left at the same time.”

Mike said, “Did you catch the other guy’s name?”

“He didn’t throw it,” said The Dorf.

“The thing is, that also sounds like a friend of ours.”

“You guys sound like detectives or something, is what you sound like.”

“Well, we’re not.”

The two postal carriers needed fresh drinks, but he had the same policy with them that he had with us when we walked in. He held up a finger to let them know he’d be right down. “I don’t know the other guy’s name. Your guy Tim had his phone on him, and answered it a couple of times, so if he’s really your pal, just call him up and ask him who he was with.”

He said it politely but firmly, and with maybe a hint of judgment. Bartenders dislike it even more than most, when people get in other people’s business. You’re supposed to mind your own business, his eyebrows reminded us sadly. He left us there to think about our behavior, walking down the bar to answer a few follow up questions about the gumball machine while he mixed another couple of drinks.

While he was gone, I pointed to a few different spots on the ceiling where video cameras were mounted inside silver domes. I said, “You see these cameras everywhere these days, in just about any business for insurance reasons. Someone slips or gets into a fight, tries to sue you, your insurance company is going to want the tools to see what happened and prove it wasn’t your fault. I don’t think you can get insurance anymore without putting them in.”

Mike frowned at the nearest camera. “Where do they go? Is there some kind of room with monitors and security guys somewhere watching it?”

His phone was out, sitting on the bar, so I reached out and tapped it. “There’s an app you can get on your phone, laptop, whatever device you want that can connect to the Internet. The Dorf down there can probably look at the footage from his phone.”

Mike squinted at The Dorf, down there shaking up the bloody mary mix and vodka. “I’m with you. So all we have to do is get his phone.”

I clapped a hand over my face. “No, Mike. No, we don’t steal the man’s phone.”

“Ah. I gotcha.” Mike cracked his knuckles.

“Stop it.”

The Dorf returned, and he was our pal again. The statute of limitations on failure to mind your own business must have been very short indeed. I put a fifty-dollar bill on the bar. “Listen, Dorf. We really are friends of Tim’s, but we also really need to know who he met here, and we can’t ask him. So, let me introduce you to another friend of mine, Mr. Ulysses S. Grant. Mr. Grant and I would like you to get out your phone and pull up the video from these cameras.”

He reached for the bill instinctively, and Mike’s hand clapped down over it while he drained his ice water. The straw bubbled against the bottom of the glass.

“I can pull it up. It sounds like you already know that. But it isn’t a one-man job.”

I nodded and put another fifty on the bar. “Meet Mr. Grant’s twin brother.”

Mike moved his hand so The Dorf could look at both of the bills. The Dorf said, “Tell you what, why don’t you go get their Uncle Andrew. I’ll see what I can do.”

Five minutes later and two hundred dollars lighter, we were hunched over the bar looking at a video of Tim Hatch on The Dorf’s phone. Tim was sitting right where we were, also hunched over a phone, but it was his own. We watched him scroll through his newsfeed, watched him receive, and then return someone’s text, watched him take a phone call right there at the bar.

I felt a wave of dread. I remembered arguing with him about that once. I told him answering your phone was like lighting up a cigar. You’re supposed to excuse yourself and step outside. We’d never settle that argument now.

Tim talked calmly on the phone, no gesturing. He barely moved. In fact, his demeanor was hunched, tilted away from the people at the other end of the bar just slightly. Was he talking about something he didn’t want overheard?

The bikers walked up and put their empty bottles on the bar politely before telling The Dorf to have a great day. When they walked out, the rectangle of sunlight blasting in made the whole room squint.

Mike said, “Okay, here we go.”

When the guy walked in, it was hard to make out who he was. Tim had been easy to identify. We knew it was going to be him. We had to piece together details.

A tall guy, square-jawed. Wearing a suit. No glasses, no beard. I couldn’t place him.

But Mike could. He paused the video and rewound it, then reverse-pinched his fingers to enlarge the image. He frowned. “That’s Benjamin Todd.”

“The buyer’s agent?”

“I told you, that’s a solid guy. He was in Desert Storm.”

“And he was in here, a half-hour before Tim was killed. And he was also the one who found him.”

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