It’s an Austin Conrad Christmas!
All Austin wants is to finish closing up the Patty Waggin, and enjoy a quiet Christmas Eve in with his sweetheart. But when he decides to give the club’s last, drunken patron a ride home, things go sideways. A holiday tale of love and betrayal, and problems resolved in classic Austin Conrad fashion.
The Last Gift is the gripping short story sat amid the Austin Conrad series of high-octane action thrillers. This story originally appeared in the Dead Of Winter anthology of holiday-themed thrillers.
Warning: contains violence, profanity and irreverence, in equal measure.
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“Let’s go, fella,” Austin said again as he shook the man’s shoulder. “Time to go home. Santa’s almost here.”
It was Christmas Eve and the Patty Waggin was closing early in order to give the hired help the rest of the night off to be with their families. The dancers, along with Teddy, the door man, and Sandy, Frankie’s assistant manager, had left at ten o’clock. But Frankie was still behind the bar, dunking beer mugs into a sink full of suds, rinsing and placing them into the drying rack.
Austin had come into the club to help out with the shut-down. He and Frankie were equal partners in the Patty Waggin, a gentleman’s club in the industrial section of Las Vegas. But Austin didn’t actually work there. At least, not in the normal sense. He preferred to remain somewhat of a silent partner when it came to the club’s day-to-day operations. Mostly he was a fixer, taking care of problems big and small whenever they might pop up. A barstool might need its screws tightened. The gravel in the back lot might need to be re-dragged or the walk-in cooler might be on the fritz and need someone to take a look at it. Some creep might be getting too touchy with the girls and need to be touched up himself a little bit. Those were Austin’s usual tasks.
But tonight he had found himself swabbing out the restrooms and re-stocking the bar while Frankie put up the chairs and swept the floors.
The only other soul left in the place was a stranger, peacefully sleeping at the end of the bar. Frankie had told Austin not to bother him when they shooed the last of the customers away as the lights went up after last call. “May as well let him sleep off a bit of his drunk before sending him out,” she had said. But now, both he and Frankie were about done with their chores and it was time for him to go.
Austin shook the man’s shoulder again, a little more forcefully this time. “Come on now fella,” he said, his voice growing more stern. “I ain’t gonna tell ya again. Let’s go. Now! Before I drag you out by your ear.”
Frankie looked up from her work at the wash sink. “Take it easy on him, Austin. He tipped well.”
Austin raised an eyebrow. “So? They all tip well, don’t they?”
She shrugged. “Not all of them. And they don’t always tip the bartender. Most of their tip money goes to the girls. As it should.”
Austin nodded toward Frankie’s chest, which was spectacularly displayed despite being half-covered now by the apron she had donned to do the cleanup work. “You’ve got your fans too,” he pointed out.
“Yeah, well, I don’t think he was one of them. He never seemed to take his eyes off his beer. When they were still open, that is. He was brooding on something. Maybe crying a little.”
“That so? Crying?”
“Well I didn’t pay too much attention to him. We were busy tonight. Lots of men dropping in when they were probably supposed to be out doing some last-minute Christmas shopping. But I thought I’d saw a sparkle of wetness in his eyes once when he looked up to order another beer. But he mostly just kept to himself. He waved away the first few girls that came over to see if he wanted a dance. They all left him alone after that.”
“I see. Well, there’s no crying in baseball, and there damn sure ain’t no crying in titty bars. At least not this one. I suppose I’d better haul him outside.”
“Well be gentle. He’s not some biker wearing the wrong colors on your turf.”
Austin looked at her, his smile gone. “I gave all that up last summer.”
“I know you did. But you’re still you, darling. You can still be a little…heavy handed…at times.”
“It’s not a bad thing,” Frankie replied quickly. “Its one of the things I love about you. A man with heavy hands can ‘get shit done,’ as you like to say. But this guy hasn’t misbehaved. He’s a paying customer and he’s been nothing but a gentleman. He just needs a little encouragement is all. And not the usual Austin Conrad brand of encouragement.”
Austin looked at her, his mouth hung open, and then he turned to the customer.
The guy was snoring softly, his head lying on his arms, which were folded on top of the bar in front of him.
“You’re the boss,” Austin said with a shrug, and moved in to pick the guy up.
“And don’t you forget it,” Frankie said with a wink. “Here at the Patty Waggin, I am the boss.”
“OK I get it! You’re the boss, I’m the grunt. When we’re in here, anyhow. I’m OK with that, sweetheart.”
“Just help him outside and see if you can call him a cab or something. And don’t sweetheart me, asshole.”
Austin looked up at Frankie and saw her grin. Damn she was cute whenever she called him an asshole. He laughed, shook his head, and slid his arm around the stranger to lift him off of the barstool.
“Wha—what? Who…what?” the guy mumbled and lifted his head drunkenly. “What’s this about? I was schleepiiing!”
“Nap time’s over, pardner,” Austin said, trying to keep his voice sounding friendly even though he was running out of patience. “Time for you to git.”
The stranger’s head bobbed as he looked up at Austin. He had a slight build and shaggy, unkempt hair that hung across his face. One eye was still glued shut with sleep-boogers. The other was bloodshot. Drool glistened on one side of the man’s short beard where it had dripped from his mouth as he slept. “Ogay man,” he said as he weakly patted the front of his shirt, where the pockets would have been if his shirt had had pockets. “I go’a pay my bill.”
“You’re all paid up already,” Austin lied. Merry Christmas you drunk motherfucker, he thought. “Now let’s go. Your ol’ lady’s probably expecting ya.”
Finding nothing in his nonexistent shirt pockets, the stranger had moved to the pockets of his greasy jeans, stuffing both hands in deep, up to the wrists. “Wha? My old? Layydee?”
“Your woman! Wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, parents, whoever’s wait’n on ya back home. Now come on!”
“Austin!” Frankie said sharply.
Austin glanced at her, saw the stern look on her face, and turned back to the stranger. “Come on fella,” he said, softening his voice again. “You gotta go home. Or anywhere. You can’t stay here.”
Austin heard the jingle of keys as the man finally pulled his hands free of his pockets. “Home?” he said, as if the word were in a foreign language. “My…my wife?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Go home. To your wife. And kids, if you got’ny. It’s Christmas Eve. Time to get your ass out of the strip joint and go home to be with your family.”
The man nodded, gingerly stood from the barstool, teetered, and steadied himself with one hand on the bar. “My…fambly,” he said. Austin saw recognition on the man’s face, along with the slightest hint of bliss. His car keys jingled in his other hand as he waved it around like a tightrope walker trying to balance himself.
Austin looked at the keys, sparkling under the brightness of the house lights, waving wildly as the stranger worked to stay upright. “Frankie,” he said.
“You better fix us a couple of coffees. To go. I’m giving our friend a ride home.”