“Damaged,” by A.G. Wagoner, is the Grand Prize winning story for the Tenth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards, besting 1,300 entries across six genres: crime, horror, romance, science fiction, thriller, and YA. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with Wagoner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2015 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Eleventh Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Wagoner’s winning entry.
by A.G. Wagoner
I have secrets.
I work at a bar in the middle of nowhere, Tennessee that caters to just-passing-through types, but I’m not putting down roots either and it suits me just fine. It’s a dive that would feature in a softer woman’s nightmares, but I love the dark wood, the neon lights, the unsavory clientele. The poorly lit parking lot doesn’t bother me at all. It’s dingy and the second hand haze hangs in the air like dense fog, but the liquor’s well stocked and thirsty folks can find what they want as long as they don’t mind a sticky countertop.
I snatch a bottle of cheap whiskey and fill one glass for me and one for Jimmy, a regular that maintains his nightly vigil at the bar. We have a routine, he and I. He lifts a finger, I pour the goods. Behind him, men sit at scattered tables, a few sitting together, a couple with hookers, but most are alone, lost in whatever drink they’re nursing, thinking of women or work or whatever. Maybe planning their next bake sale for all I know. I don’t ask.
There are a few regulars like Jimmy, but most faces only appear a time or two before moving on, so I don’t think twice when a pair of strangers walks in one night. Good looking pops into mind when I first peer over my glass. Your typical tall, dark, and handsome, weathered and brooding types. Then I notice the discrepancies, like the way they walk – strong strides, intentional. Purposeful. Not stooped and casting furtive glances after every step as if scared of shadows. Then their clothes. Dark jeans, dark tees, work boots – one wears a leather jacket – like they’re costumed for the parts of Mysterious Stranger One and Two.
But then again, the same could be said about me in my old denim vest with nothing under it. Paired with tight, black jeans and boots of my own, I’m dressed like the bartender from a live- action, b-list television series. But then again, my clothes are a costume, part of my act as the local bartender, meant to keep people from looking too close.
I study them for another second while they pretend not to notice the pretty woman behind the bar. I don a flirtatious smile and saunter over, posing in front of them, straight arms perched on the edge of the bar, leaning forward. The one in the jacket glances down my top, but the other stares behind my head, studying the clock. Either he can’t read analog or he’s avoiding me.
“Well, boys, how can I serve you?” I ask in a low voice.
“I’ll take a beer, whatever you have on draft,” mutters the jacketless one, his glower now drilling a hole through my forehead. His eyes haven’t flickered south yet.
“Whiskey and coke,” answers the second. He looks me in the eye, smirking in a way that probably gets him whatever he wants, at least from women. Tall and muscular, he carries himself with cocky assurance, used to women and men following his lead. Strong jaw, crooked nose, his aura drips alpha male, a man’s man.
My kind of man. It’s a perk of being the hot bartender. I get first pick of men to go home with, no strings attached. Nobody around here expects anything more than a wild night and I like that. Secrets complicate a relationship and on a scale of one to unbelievable, mine would blow the Richter scale. Besides, I’m not looking to meet anyone’s mother or fight over who’s going to grab the bill at dinner. Just sex. Intense, mind-blowing sex.
“I thought you looked like a whiskey man,” I say, letting my gaze linger on him before slipping away to grab the drinks.
“Hey, Johnson!” someone yells while I pour.
I look up and frown when I see a familiar face sitting near Jimmy. The guy’s a liar, but it’s more than that. Hell, I’m a liar. Who isn’t? But he feels cold. He scans the bar, uses only small bills, and no one knows his last name, clear indicators of a suspicious man. And no one is quite as suspicious as a petty criminal. Low-level, desperate thugs can’t afford to stop looking over their shoulders.
And Richie radiates low-level.
“Welcome back, Dick,” I shout over to him while I hand the lookers their drinks. I station myself beside the man in the leather jacket, sending he and Dick a clear signal. Whiskey winks at me, appreciating the view, and takes a long swallow from his drink.
“I thought I said for you to call me Richie?” he drawls. “I heard you. I thought you left town?”
“I dropped off my shipment and came back. I missed your pretty face, girl.” He leers at me, gaze slowly devouring my body. It’s a con, a trade off that comes along with wearing clothes like these in a bar like this. It doesn’t bother me, but Whiskey stiffens next to me, shoulders going rigid. “Aren’t you going to ask me what I want?” “What do you want to drink?” I snap, words clipped. “Bourbon, neat.”
I nod and pour it fast, some liquor sloshing over the side as I slide it over the bar, staying out of reach. I keep my distance from men like that. He’d be a bad tipper no matter what I did.
I turn my back on him and eyeball the new guys. “Service here,” I say, wincing dramatically. “Abominable.”
“Customers here,” Whiskey copies my expression. “Even worse.”
“These old dogs are more bluff than bite. What brings you two to town?”
“We’re just passing through,” he answers after another swallow, leaving a last sip in the glass.
“Pretty much everyone here is just passing through.”
“Especially me,” I flash a devastating smile. “But if you’re looking for work for a few months, I know some folks who could use some big guys like you.”
“No, we’re trying to get to the city in good time,” his friend cuts in. My gaze falls on him and he shifts under the weight, looks away. Light hair tops his lanky frame making him appear young. He’s taller than his friend and handsome, but not my type.
“Truckers, then,” I say definitively, but don’t believe it. “Welcome to our humble establishment. My name is Eva.”
“Eva,” Whiskey echoes, trying it out. “I’m Logan. This is Will.” Will nods at me and tips his beer all the way back.
“Nice to meet y’all. Can I get you another?”
“Please,” he says, scanning the bar. It was the third time he’d done that. “And you, Logan?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he responds eagerly. I put three drinks on the countertop, one for each of us, sure to bend at the waist when stooping to grab the bottles.
“How long will you be in town?” The tip of my tongue darts out to wet my lips before I take a sip and Logan catches the slight movement. “A couple days, at least.”
“Plenty of time to explore all the sights.” I lean down on my elbows, get close to him. “A couple days doesn’t seem like enough if you ask me,” he breathes back, that grin enough to get my blood pumping.
“Hey, Johnson! You goin’ to take any more orders or are you goin’ to get a room?”
A scowl interrupts the moment and my veins run hot, temper flaring. My heart beats loudly in my ears and the familiar sensation soothes me. Anger greets me like an old friend.
I turn on my heels, snatching a bottle of bad bourbon, and slam it down next to Dick. I can smell the bad on him. I know it as sure as I know my name isn’t Eva Johnson.
“Here you go, chief,” I sneer. “Drink your fill. If you need company, Cinnamon over there charges half price if you finish under ten minutes. I think that pretty much covers you for the night, so do everyone a favor and don’t let us hear your voice again.”
His narrowed eyes bore into me as I walk away. Logan and Will stare at me in astonishment, eyes wide. I shrug it off and laugh.
“You always talk to the big guys like that?” Will asks, keeping me pinned under a steady gaze.
A stray hair tickles my nose and I tuck it behind my ear before answering. “The big guys are the least of my worries. Trust me, I can handle him.” “He could be dangerous.”
“I’ve worked at worse dives then this and no one’s put me down yet. ‘Preciate it, though. He always this chivalrous?” I aim the last sentence at Logan, hooking a thumb at his partner.
“Always,” he laughs. “Will’s got a thing for damsels in distress.”
I raise an eyebrow at him. “And you? Are you looking for a damsel?”
“No, ma’am.” A pink tongue licks full lips. “I prefer a woman who can take care of herself.”
“That’s good news for both of us, then,” I breathe, biting my lip. “Will, if you need plans later, Cinnamon does a great damsel. I’m sure she’ll cut you a deal.”
“It’s your lucky day!” Logan exclaims, clapping him on the back. “Will is always looking for a bargain.”
“What are you? Her pimp?” He shakes his head. “I’m going to go… join that game of pool,” Will mutters under his breath, gesturing to the back of the bar where two burly men are arguing.
“You sure? They could be dangerous,” I quip.
He rolls his eyes at me before stalking off, taking another beer with him. “So you’ve worked at a lot of dives? You don’t seem like the type.”
“You don’t seem to belong here, either, but I’m smart enough to keep it to myself.”
A sly smile and I turn to grab Jimmy another drink. He’s moved to a table, away from Dick, so I go ahead and do a round, keeping an eye on Logan. He’s watching me and I’m watching him and I know we’re thinking the same thing. Done deal.
“Johnson,” a gruff man shouts at me from a far table. I walk over and he asks for more beer, but the hooker he’s with doesn’t want anything. She’s a regular here and knows that I’ll help out if a john starts giving off bad vibes. I’ve thrown men out before, snuck girls out through the kitchen on occasion.
I weave around tables to the back of the billiards room to check on Will. He’s laughing with the two men. If he’s intimidated by the patches designating them senior members of a criminal bike gang, he doesn’t show it. The two notice me, whistle and shout some lewd comments, but no orders so I smile and shout back a few choice words of my own as I take my leave.
“It looked to me like the lady’s preference is clear,” Logan shouts over to Dick from his stool as I come around the bar. His eyes are bright, amused, but Richie’s face is beet red.
“Take a walk with me and you won’t be so cocky, pretty boy,” he hisses back.
“Calm down, Richard,” I interrupt. “If you have a problem, you know where the door is. Any more shouting from you and I’ll throw you out myself.”
“Fine. But if you want a real man, I’ll be around.” Clutching the bottle I left in front of him, he stumbles out the door, muttering, the threat implicit.
“You’re welcome,” I say, in mock annoyance. “For what?” Logan scoffs.
“For saving your ass.”
“Is that right? And here I thought I was defending your honor.”
“My honor hasn’t needed defending in awhile,” I laugh. “But you should be careful. Richie doesn’t make empty threats. I can walk you to your car later if you’re scared.”
“How can I refuse? When do you get off work?” A calloused finger trails lightly over my palm and wrist.
“We close at three. I’ll have the place locked down by three thirty.”
“Two whole hours left,” he says, shaking his head. His hungry eyes rove over my body suggestively, making my skin tingle.
“Logan.” Will had come up beside us, face serious. His eyes dart to me before he turns his back to block me out, whispering something, fierce intensity in the set of his jaw.
Letting the two talk, I check on Jimmy instead of hovering. I dip my chin towards his drink and he nods for another one.
A few minutes pass before Will stomps out the door and Logan clears his throat, his fingers tapping anxiously on the glossy counter. I put a little extra sway in my hips when I walk back, then lean down on the bar in front of him.
“Some wingman you got there. You following your partner?”
He winces at the term. “Listen, we have” – he stumbles for the right word – “business. But I’ll be back.”
“Three thirty?” I lick my lips, toss my hair back. It’s a cheap ploy, but I’m not above it. “Three thirty.” He leans over the bar and presses his lips to mine before leaving the bar with a wink.
I stare at his ass the whole way.
“Nice boy.” Jimmy’s voice rumbles. “You know you shouldn’t, right? With his job, it’s dangerous.”
Jimmy knows me, my secrets. But he won’t tell. I know his, too.
“Yeah, I know. This is the longest I’ve stayed in one place,” I answer. “Which means I’ll have to run soon.”
“Maybe.” He swallows the liquor. “Maybe not.” “I might as well make it worth it,” I add.
He doesn’t respond, just looks lovingly into his drink.
At the cash register, I swipe at my mouth with the back of a hand before clicking on the monitor. I scroll through names in front of me, stopping at Logan Montgomery and jotting down his credit card number. I grab a few more names and numbers – not many, this is more of a cash only joint – writing them down in a small notebook that doesn’t leave my back pocket.
It’s just one of my secrets. Probably the most innocent one.
“What about Richard?” Jimmy growls again, with eyes only for his cup.
“You’re worried about me,” I declare, looking up from the glass I’m washing, “Don’t. I can handle him.”
I swat at him with the towel. He doesn’t respond to my joking, only grumbles into his drink some more. The rest of the night I spend pouring more drinks, grabbing more beers, listening for the door, but it only creaks open to let someone stumble out.
The two hours pass slower than usual, but eventually, three o’clock closes the bar. Jimmy grunts his goodbye, then stomps off. He’s never been much of a linguist, but he’s loyal, a good man to have at your back if you’re in trouble and I’ve had my share of that. I nod to him, not much of a talker myself. It’s the only acknowledgment I get, except a few quick waves from a couple pros.
I close out tabs, herding the last stragglers through the open door, making sure everyone has a safe ride home. I wipe down the tables, the bar, pick up trash. The clock says it’s three twenty seven.
“I’ll give him a few more minutes, then I’m gone.”
It’s not like I have anything else to do tonight, but I won’t wait around like a fool. The vest strikes again, I think, counting tips. Between that and the credit cards I’d pocketed during the week, I am damn near rich. Which, for me, means I have rent for the next few months with enough leftover to drink myself stupid. Or to get out of dodge in a hurry.
Even working at half my usual speed, it’s not long before there’s nothing left for me to do to stall. A quick glance at the clock confirms it. It’s three forty-five and Logan isn’t here.
I sigh, disappointed. But there would be someone else in a couple of days. There always is.
I switch off the light and walk out the back door, the bolt clicking when I slide it into place. The muffled sound of footsteps behind me snaps my senses into high alert. A few seconds pass, but there’s no other noise.
I turn, taking in every inch of the dark parking lot. My beat up Chevy is the only vehicle casting a weak shadow in the one yellow light. Cicadas chirp. Gravel crunches under my shoes. A light breeze toys with my hair, taking the edge off the warm Southern air.
Adrenaline makes my skin hum and when a figure appears out of the trees, I don’t flinch. If Richard wanted to scare me, stepping out of the shadows makes a poor spectacle. A bit overdone for my level of experience.
“Dick. What a surprise,” I declare, voice dull.
“I told you I’d be around. But what about pretty boy? Your price too high for him and his friend?”
“Take you all night to think of that line?”
He stalks toward me on unsteady legs, coming to a stop inches from me. I smell the liquor on his rancid breath, but I don’t step back. Adrenaline flows through my veins and the feeling of thrumming muscles comforts me. I’m used to the fury, the steadily building anger rumbling under the surface. It feels good, like slipping into my favorite pair of jeans.
He studies me with a hard, lecherous glare, making an elaborate show of looking me over.
I offer him my most charming smile and take a half step closer. His stare falters for a beat.
“Turn around, crawl back into whatever hole you came from, and we’ll call it even,” I order in a calm voice.
“I don’t think so. You see, while I was in the city, celebrating a job well done with a few close friends, I heard some rumors. About a ghost.”
I sigh, weary of the theatrics.
“An artist, really. Moves like smoke. Never leaves a trace. The man’s there, then poof, as soon as the job’s done, he’s gone. Until a year ago when he finally screwed up. Now the rumor is that it isn’t a man at all.”
Rich looks older than he really is under the streetlight, skin wrinkled from cigarettes, stomach bulging from alcohol. He’s an entry level scumbag, involved in anything illegal if it will make him a buck.
“The story says this ghost is wanted by some pretty bad dudes, dead or alive. And there’s a big price on her head.” A meaty hand darts out and grips my arm. His fingernails dig into my skin and I note the pain absently, weighing facts.
A thug has a death grip on my arm. He’s drunk and out of control.
He’s going to try to kill me.
“And you’ve come to the conclusion that I’m this ghost?”
“I wouldn’t have put it together without my friends. One of them told me she bartends between jobs, keeps a low profile. But what got my attention was her scar, under her left collarbone. Got knifed on a job or something. This is where it gets interesting. You see, I don’t forget a good rack.”
He trails a filthy finger down the jagged scar tissue not hidden by my low cut top. A souvenir, he’s right, but not about its origin. Oddly enough, I’d never gotten hurt on a job. This scar was a remnant from my old life.
His hand keeps heading down, and his touch hurts more than the grip on my arm, but I focus. Push his dirty hand out of my thoughts.
“He thought he was getting close to finding you. He was going to sell you out. For a price. So I took my knife and carved a line into his chest, but I’m afraid he wasn’t as lucky as you. Now you’re mine and I’ve got a price of my own.”
He jerks me close and his threat grinds against my hip. A sour mouth smashes against mine and his hands fumble for my chest.
Using my free hand, I grab his wrist and twist my arm free, shoving my elbow into his diaphragm. With a grunt he stumbles backwards, stunned. He comes back swinging, but it’s easy to dodge, wild and wide. My knee slams into his groin, then his nose when he doubles over.
He clutches his broken nose, stepping out of range. “You bitch!” he shrieks, spitting blood.
Two fast strides and he’s got a fist in my hair, pulling me off balance. His other connects with my jaw as pain bursts into my sight line. I swing my heel back and kick his shin with a thud. A yelp and his grip on me loosens. It’s enough for me to scramble free then dance out of his way when he lunges for me. From somewhere behind us, shuffling erupts in the trees surrounding the lot.
Footsteps? Did Richie have an entourage? My mind works fast, putting all the pieces together.
Two quick jabs have him staggering, blood pouring from lips and nose. “So you killed your friends? Just because they told you a rumor or two? Spun a pretty tale and got you all hot and bothered?”
“I’m going to kill you,” he howls.
He reaches for me again, but this time I’m armed. He didn’t notice I grabbed the knife out of my belt when he had me by the hair and I slice at him as I sidestep his clumsy bulk. He’s used to winning because of his strength, but size isn’t any use if he can’t catch me.
More rustling sounds behind me and I brace myself for what’s about to happen.
“US Marshalls! Down on the ground!” Logan yells, running out from behind the bar, gun aimed at my attacker. Will is with him, echoing his battle cry.
“Looks like I’m not the only one who’s on to you,” Richard grunts.
I wink at him, count to three and turn to face Logan, eyes wide, trying to look surprised. Richie sucks in a deep breath before leaping forward, hands reaching for a neck to snap.
Gunfire explodes in the night, lighting the parking lot like lightning.
Dick hits the ground before he can touch me. I drop to my knees, panting hard, swallowing the solid scent of smoke and lead.
“Logan,” I mutter when he grabs me, pulls me to my feet.
“Are you alright, Eva? Did he hurt you?” he asks, holding on to my shoulders. “No, I’m okay. What are you doing here?”
“We’ve been following Richard Alcore for months now, escaped from custody when he was being transferred back in January. You were right about him being dangerous.”
“I’m always right about dangerous men. I should’ve known you were feds, but the drinking threw me off.”
Will clears his throat. “We’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention that.” “We had to stay in character,” Logan reminds his partner.
“You saved my life,” I answer, hugging Will. He goes rigid as a statue and I try not to laugh at him, because I’m supposed to be traumatized.
Logan studies me for a heartbeat too long before smirking. “And here I thought you could take care of yourself?”
“I guess we’ll never know,” I declare.
I press my body against his and kiss him, hard, feeling the muscles beneath my hands coil in response.
My secrets are safe. I’m safe.
I didn’t even have to kill anyone this time.