A STORY by T.R. HEALY

MUD BATH


“no business like show business”


Around half past eight in the evening, the ragged man stepped into the waterfront bar and, for a long minute, looked around the dingy establishment, which was so dark it was difficult to make out the faces of any of the patrons. Then, he walked over to the bar and asked the bartender, “Is Harry Ratner around?”

“Not tonight.”

“I understand he's a regular here.”

“I wouldn't say that, but he does come here on occasion.”

“Well, the next time he's in, tell him I'm coming for him.”

“And you are who?”

“Just tell him I'm coming.”

***

The next night, Ratner came into the bar. Right away, the bartender delivered the cryptic message he had received from the ragged man.

“That's all he said, 'I'm coming?'”

“That's it, Harry.”

Ratner creased the middle of his forehead. “That's strange.”

“I thought so, too.”

“He didn't say anything else?”

“Nothing.”

“I'll be.”

“He must have some grudge with you.”

“Who doesn't?”

The bartender nodded, a frequent target of his acerbic remarks.

“What did this guy look like?”

The bartender thought for a moment. “You know what?”

“What?”

“He looked like a scarecrow.”

“What?”

“He did, Harry. He had a long, lean face, big dark eyes, and wore jeans and a torn flannel shirt and a floppy canvas hat.”

Ratner shook his enormous bald head. “I can't believe it. I'm being threatened by a goddamn scarecrow. And, for the life of me, I can't think of anyone who looks anything like that.”

“Maybe he was sent by someone you've had a problem with?”

“Yeah, maybe so, but who can that be?”

“You're just going to have to sit down and make a list of people you've crossed in some way.”

He sighed. “There are a lot of people I've had issues with over the years but I have no idea who could be behind this.”

“Well, you better find out and find out fast.”

***

Ratner was a promoter of music and sports events in town. It was not something he ever planned on doing, but nearly nine years ago, after failing to pass the CPA exam, he borrowed some money from his father, who was a very successful accountant, to purchase an adult movie theater that went out of business because of the ready availability of pornography on the internet. The theater was located at the edge of Chinatown and was in such wretched condition it took almost three months of refurbishing before he could stage an event. His first show was a concert of local blues musicians and, to his surprise, he made a significant profit. Over the course of the past nine years he put on hundreds of events, not all as successful as his first one, and during that time he knew he had crossed a lot of people. It was the nature of the business. Quickly, he discovered all the aggravation that was involved in being a promoter. Performers didn't show up on time, sometimes not at all, and those who did often made outrageous demands and seldom were satisfied with what they were paid. He got so many headaches that he bought bottles of analgesics by the cartons.

“In our line of business,” another promoter told him when he was just getting started, “you need to have a heart but it should be a cold one otherwise you'll lose your mind.”

He suspected he had offended many people with his abrupt and abrasive manner, but that was just the way he was, the way he had been ever since he could remember. He just couldn't tolerate people who didn't do what he wanted. They should know what he was doing was more beneficial to them than anything they wanted to do he believed. And if he wasn't always right, he was right most of the time.

***

The night after he learned of the apparent threat leveled against him, Ratner didn't leave the theater after he finished counting the receipts for the performance. Instead, he remained at his desk, sipping whiskey, and tried to figure out who was behind the threat. He started to jot down the names of people who were annoyed with him the past year but there were just too many, so he narrowed the list to three people who might be angry enough to do him harm.

The first person he decided to contact on the list was Joel Stern, who managed a reggae band that had performed at least half a dozen times at his theater. Last year, on Memorial Day, the band was contracted to perform with another reggae band at the theater but, five weeks before the scheduled concert, he found out that Stern also was negotiating to have the band perform at another venue on that date so Ratner sued for breach of contract. Though incensed by the action, Stern was confident he would prevail in what he believed was a premature lawsuit, but the court ruled in Ratner's favor, deeming that Stern repudiated the contract when he started to negotiate with a third party. The decision made him even angrier, and he made it clear to Ratner that he would get even with him some day.

Ratner had not had any contact with him since the trial so he wouldn't be surprised if he refused to speak with him now but he had to call him because he needed to find out if he was behind the threat made at the waterfront bar.

“Hello.”

“Joel?”

“Yeah. Who's this?”

“Harry Ratner.”

Silence.

“Hello, hello. Are you there?”

“I'm here,” he snarled. “What the hell do you want, Ratner?”

“I frequent this bar on the waterfront, as you may recall, and the other night when I wasn't there some guy came in and threatened to come after me. I'm calling to see if you know anything about it.”

“You think I sent him?”

“I don't know, Joel. You tell me.”

“You're something else, Ratner. You really are.”

“Well, did you send him?”

“No. I did not. What you did to me was wrong, and you damn well know it, and I've already told you, someday, I'll get back at you. I don't need to send some messenger to tell you what you already know.”

“So you didn't have anything to do with this guy?”

“I just told you I didn't, you prick!” he barked and slammed down the receiver.

He believed him, and was sure when an opportunity presented itself Stern would make good on his promise. He probably never should have called him because he already knew his answer.

After taking another sip of whiskey, he phoned the next person on his list, Corey Binder, who worked at the theater for almost two years. He started out in the box office, selling tickets, then after a few months became one of three assistant managers. But, eventually, he had to let him go when he discovered that someone Binder had hired to sell tickets was skimming money before the tickets were counted. Binder denied he had any knowledge of what was going on but Ratner wasn't so sure. And even if he didn't know, Ratner believed, he should have known and deserved to be terminated. The young man was livid and, like Stern, swore he would get even with him.

Thumbing through his phone directory, he found Binder's number and dialed it and was surprised when a woman with an Arabic accent answered.

“May I speak with Corey Binder?”

“Who?”

“Mr. Corey Binder.”

“I'm sorry, sir. There is no one here by that name.”

He then read her the number he dialed.

“Yes, that is this number, sir, but no one by that name lives here.”

Puzzled, he called his secretary at home and asked if she had Binder's current telephone number.

“I don't, boss, but you know he moved to Las Vegas.”

“No, I didn't know that.”

“Yeah. He left a couple of months ago.”

After hanging up, he took another sip of whiskey, pretty sure then Binder had nothing to do with that curious person who made the veiled threat against him.

***

The third person he wanted to speak with was Naomi, a part-time community college student who worked as an usher at his theater for not quite four months before she abruptly quit. She claimed she didn't feel comfortable being around him anymore because of the many suggestive remarks he made about her appearance. Certainly he was attracted to her but he never put his hands on her except, every now and then, to massage her shoulders when she seemed tense. At the time of her departure she threatened to file a sexual harassment suit against him but, so far, she hadn't brought it so he wondered if the threat made the other night was a prelude to her lawsuit.

He understood these days she worked as an attendant at a health spa on the east side of town near the train station so one afternoon he decided to pay her a visit there because he was certain she wouldn't speak to him on the phone. The spa was located in the basement of a large, three-story house that included the offices of a licensed masseuse, an acupuncturist, and a naturopathic physician. The bronze weathercock on top of the house listed so far to the right that it appeared it might topple off at any moment.

He better get inside before it fell on him, he thought, as he hurried down the basement stairs.

“Good afternoon,” the receptionist greeted him as soon as he entered the spa which smelled of lilacs and liniment.

He nodded. “I'd like to have a word with Naomi, please.”

“She's not here at the moment.”

“She's not?”

The receptionist, whose eyelashes were as long as her fingernails, looked at her wrist watch. “She won't be here for another thirty minutes.”

“I guess I'll just have to wait.”

“You know, while you're waiting, you can take advantage of our special this week.”

“What sort of special?”

“A session in our mud bath.”

He grinned. “I've done a lot of things, but that's something I've never done.”

“You should try it,” she insisted. “It'll be good for you.”

“How so?” he asked skeptically.

“The mud is a combination of volcanic ash, Canadian peat, and mineral water heated to a hundred degrees. Besides being very relaxing, it will soothe any aches and pains you may have in your joints and will improve your circulation and cause your skin to feel healthier and more toned.”

He chuckled. “How can I resist all that?”

“You can't, sir. So can I set you up for a fifteen minute session?”

“Just fifteen minutes?”

“The mud is too hot for you to stay in the tub any longer.”

“All right. I'll give it a try.”

Promptly, she got up from behind her desk and directed him to the changing room down the hall which, surprisingly, didn't have any lockers, just some wooden pegs on a couple of the walls. Before he entered the room, she handed him a small braided basket to put his keys and watch and wallet and advised him to keep the basket in view at all times. Nodding, he put his valuables in the basket then went into the room and undressed and hung his clothes on one of the pegs.

In another minute, naked, he stepped into the tub of mud which was so hot he couldn't breathe for a second. Then, slowly, he lowered himself into the tub until the mud came up to his neck. He felt as if he were wrapped in several wool blankets, the mud was so thick and heavy.

Breathe, he cautioned himself, breathe as if you were back outside in the cool, damp air.

There was only the single tub in the small closet of a room so he was all alone until, a few minutes later, when the door opened and Naomi stepped into the room. His back was to her so she didn't recognize him until she walked around to the side of the tub.

“My God,” she gasped. “What the hell are you doing here, Harry?”

He told her about the threat he had received and wanted to know if she knew anything about it.

“I don't and I don't know why I would because I'm through with you, Harry. You should know that by now.”

“Well, someone is coming after me.”

She snickered. “There must be legions after you.”

He didn't say anything, just sank a little deeper into the mud.

“No one really likes you, Harry. You've hurt too many people.”

“They're jealous. All of them are.”

Glumly, she crossed her arms.

“I'm a promoter. I'm out to make money, not friends.”

“And so you've succeeded, which is why so many people have it in for you,” she said, glaring at him with her crystal green eyes. “What you look like right now, in all that mud, is what you're like on the inside. What you've always been like I'm sure.”

“Bitch.”

“Bastard.”

***

Every night, for the next two weeks, Ratner went to the waterfront bar but the strange guy who threatened him never appeared. Then, he stopped going there at all, figuring whoever was after him would find him sooner or later.

 

T.R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest.