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ANGELUS OF DOOM
Tension at the Snooker 8
Bill Smith wiped a bead of sweat from his brow as he squatted down and looked up over the edge of the pool table at the brown leather bottle. It was perched upside down and its base was covered with $20 bills. Bill noticed that the bottle, about six inches tall and shaped like a small narrow-necked milkbottle, was about a sixteenth of an inch away from the rail midway between a side pocket and a corner pocket on the snooker table. The bills on the base actually hung out over the top of the rail, about three inches from Bill’s squinted eyes.
The poolroom was dark, except for the fluorescent light directly above the table, but Bill imagined that he could see among the shadows that shifted just outside the range of the light, pairs of red, unblinking eyes that seemed to follow every move he made. The murmurs among the shadows were unintelligible but Bill knew they concerned infamous bottle pool games of past years, when the legendary Jicarilla Pete Felch or Totah Bosco played with $100 bills.
In the far back of the Snooker 8 poolroom Bill could hear the clack of dominos from the same four old men who’d been playing there daily since the war. He stood up and chalked his cue for the third time as he walked around the table, ignoring the baleful gaze of the burly, bullet-headed man who stood near the table.
“That bottle’s not goin’ anywhere, Bill—are you?” the man asked, and the shadows chuckled and coughed.
“My wells haven’t come in yet, Tom, so I kinda look at those 20s a little different than you do,” Bill retorted, placing his cue on the rail and lining up what looked to be a three-rail shot. A nervous titter ran through the room. The shot he was lining up was dangerous—he’d be trying to make the 9 ball in the corner pocket and it would miss the bottle by about a half inch—if he made the shot. If he didn’t, the cue ball or the nine ball might hit the topheavy bottle and knock it over. If that happened he’d have to add a $20 bill to the pile of bills and put the bottle back upside down with the bills on top of it, draped across the base of the bottle. Then Tom Bolack, his beefy opponent, would have a shot at making the nine and collecting the money on the bottle.
Bill wasn’t worried so much about anteing up another $20 if he knocked the bottle over on the table. What would be disastrous was if the bottle and money fell on the rail or on the floor. Then he’d have to match the pile of $20s and there were at least two dozen of them.
Bill tried to shut out the distractions of Bolack and the derelict shadows as he lined up the shot. Another bead of sweat dripped into his eye and he wiped it off and chalked his cue yet another time. He was vaguely aware of a church bell tolling mournfully three times in the distant background. Maybe they’re tolling for me—if I miss this shot?
It really was a desperate shot—three rails before the cue ball even hits the nine, and then the nine would have to have enough oomph to shoot past the bottle into the corner pocket. He couldn’t shoot a finesse shot. He had to hit the cueball damned hard and hope he didn’t get a vertical bounce when it slammed off the rails. A bouncing cueball could knock the bottle off the table easy.
Bill knew he shouldn’t have accepted Bolack’s challenge of ending the session with a high stakes bottle pool game. He was better than the oilman, all right, but sometimes the bottle laughs at the better player. And Bolack had bottomless pockets when it came to competition. If he knocked the bottle on the floor, he’d just peel off a few more $20s from the roll in his overalls. If Bill had to match the pot—and lost—his wife Geneva would have his lunch for breakfast. He was pulling down $200 a week at Miley Mud and Chemical but they were also buying a pricey little MG.
The bell had stopped but just as Bill was getting ready to bring the cue back for his shot, it rang again—three times. Bill grinned nervously and relaxed again for the shot. He chalked his cue again then drew the stick back and—just before he slammed the cuestick into the cueball, the bell rang once more. Three times.
Tom Bolack guffawed. “For whom are them bells tollin’ for, eh, Bill? For thee?” This brought numerous cackles from the shadow gallery.
Bill was angry that Bolack had usurped his literary metaphor but shrugged it off and hunkered down to make the shot. He took his time because of the importance of the shot and just as he drew back—the damn bell started tolling again—and kept tolling. This time even Bill laughed out loud. “Okay, now it’s a sign. A sign that I’m going to make this shot and walk out of here with your money in my pocket.”
He set the cue down on the rail and held it steady with his left hand. His right hand drew back once, twice, three times and with complete silence in the poolroom—broken only by the seemingly eternal bell in the distance—Bill grunted and whipped his right arm forward.
The sickening screech of Bill’s cuestick slicing off the edge of the cueball in a horrible miscue was simultaneous with the booming voice of a tall, fedoraed man entering the front door, momentarily flooding the front part of the poolroom with sunlight. The cueball spun dizzily across the table towards the far corner pocket, clipped the pocket’s edge and bounced about two feet up in the air before caroming off the edge of the rail right at the bottle. The cueball had so much spin on it that it curved just before hitting the bottle dead on and instead glanced off the side of the neck. The ball’s english started the bottle spinning, the $20 bills acting like a green and black propeller, and the bottle drunkenly teetered down the table along-side the rail and with an agonizingly slow final spin, dropped topfirst into the side pocket, the bills still firmly perched on the bottle’s bottom.
Meanwhile, the cueball kissed the nine and the nineball slowly rolled into the corner pocket where it fell with a PLOP! just as the bell stopped ringing.
There was a hush in the poolroom. No one had ever seen such a thing happen. The bottle didn’t tip over. But it was in the pocket. The bills were still on the bottle. The nineball was made.
“Bill, goddoggit, what are you wastin’ time in here playin’ pool for? I told you yesterday we needed to pick up Gunter at noon and it’s already past noon.” The newcomer didn’t notice the murmurings of awe that erupted from the shadows. “Hey, Tom,” he said to the hulking man near the table. “How’s it goin’?”
Bolack stood mutely at the side of the table staring at the nine ball in the pocket below him, his hammy fists clenched tightly around his custom-made ivory-inlaid cue, made from the tusk of a wooly mammoth.
Bill Smith laid his stick down on the table and quickly gathered up the pile of bills on the bottle. “Good game, Tom. Gotta go.” And was out the front door with the man with the fedora right behind him.
The stunned big man squinted in the momentary sunlight and grabbed the bottle out of the side pocket and threw it against the wall. “Goddam you, Tucker!” he shouted at the closing front door. “He’d a never made that shot! An’ as for you Smith, I’ll see you at th’ bowlin’ alley tonight! ’N’ somebody’s gonna die!” Then he turned and faced a wizened man in an apron who approached with a triangular device and a big camel-hair brush. “Pete,” he muttered. “Rack ’em.”
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