I walked into the bar one dreary Tuesday afternoon only to find Bill not at his usual spot behind the stick, but instead sitting at the small, round table in the far corner. That’s the table you use if you have a dark deal that needs doin’, or don’t want to be noticed. Very Siberia, that table.
There he was, sitting ramrod still, staring at the entrance as I came in. Almost like he’d been waiting for me. Waved me over. As I got closer, I noticed a newspaper near his left hand, folded neatly. The day’s crossword, I figured, ready for his imperial pen.
But that’s when I also noticed the sharp, four-inch folding knife near his right hand.
An original Buck, I believe. Worn bone and steel. He smiled then. I could tell he was drunk.
Something was wrong. Very wrong.
“Bill,” I began, but he cut me short with a quick, chopping motion. Pointed at the crossword. Reminded me of the Ghost of Christmas Past pointing at Scrooge’s tombstone. Stared at me cold and hard as he intoned, “Eleven down. Five letters. Pseudonym. Donald Westlake. Pulp Writer.”
I relaxed then. He was just playing around. It was a little early for Halloween, but sure… I could go with it. I was a fun guy.
“That’s easy!” I said as I went and fixed myself a shot of J.D., hoping he was far enough along in his cups not to care, “You’re after Dexter. John Dexter. Was a faked-out house name, used by old Nightstand Books.” I tossed off the shot. Coughed a little as the fire hit my belly. “Westlake and Lawrence Block wrote a soft-core porno under that name called, ‘No Longer a Virgin,' in I believe 1960 or so. That’s the story, anyway.”
Bill consulted his crossword. Shook his head. Smiled grimly. Picked up the knife. Opened it. “Put down your hand,” he whispered.
“You wanna ever drink here again, smart guy?”
I looked around the room. This was home away from home, womb away from womb. I had a discount here on drinks. “You know I do.”
“Then put down your damn hand.”
I did. Put down my right. Flat, fingers splayed. The knife blade caught a bit of light, winking at me like a diseased lover. Bill handed it to me.
“Play,” he said.
I knew what he wanted. The game called Nerve. You take the knife, and as fast as you can, tick off each space between the fingers, always returning to the base, the space just outside the thumb. Think 1-2-1-3-1-4 1-5 1-4 1-3 1-2, etc. As fast as you can. Like in Aliens, when Bishop does it to Hudson.
“You’re wrong” Bill intoned. “It’s not Dexter.” God, proclaiming judgment.
I nodded. Wished Bill had remembered his meds today. Took the knife. Began…
When I’d made an entire run, from thumb to pinky and back, Bill stopped me.
“Five letters. Pseudonym. Don Westlake. Pulp Writer.”
Then I knew. Cursed myself as I sat there, shaking like a Pekinese on a cold day. “Oh hell,” I said, “You mean Stark! Richard Stark! The thief Parker was his creation. Great books. Hell, The Hunter, 1962, where a thief is betrayed and left for dead by his turncoat friend AND his wife, is crime fiction at its best, man! Was even made into the legendary Lee Marvin flick, Point Blank. Awesome writing! Then there’s The Outfit, The Mourner, The Jugger… you can’t miss with this stuff, and—”
Bill cut me short by picking up the knife. Consulted the crossword. Like an oracle consulting bones. Nodded as he filled in the letters. “Good work, smart guy.”
I relaxed, happy to have won. Wondered what the hell had happened to make Bill the troll under the bridge today.
“Hey,” I said, but too quickly. Sounded just like the scared, little writer I was. “So, um, can I have another drink now?”
He shook his head in response. Again consulted the crossword. Read out, “Eight across. Greatest Stark book cover artist. Seven letters.”
I wracked my head for the name that would fit that. Yeah! “Bennett!” I almost screamed. “Harry Bennett did all the earliest covers for the Parker books! His cover for Man with the Getaway Faceis perfection, man! Parker gets a whole new mug to escape a contract that’s been put out on his life by the mob in that one. A must for any crime fiction library.” I wiped some perspiration off my forehead. It was going to be okay.
Bill consulted the crossword. Told me sadly, like telling me I had cancer, “Doesn’t work.”
“The hell you say!” I shouted.
Handed me the paper.
I slowly picked up the knife. Bill smiled. A crazed shark, on meth.
I cried out in pain as the knife bit deep into my index finger. To the bone. Blood. All over the table. Bill shook his head as he consulted his crossword. “Whoopsie,” he said after a moment, “My bad. Read it wrong. Shoulda been, ‘Seven across, greatest Stark book cover artist, eight letters.”
I’d never wanted to kill before, until now. Panted like a sick dog as I wrapped a napkin around my ruined index finger. Then it came to me.
“Robert E. McGinnis,” I said harshly. “The guy who created most of all the great crime book covers from that period. Probably did over 1200 god-damned covers. Apprenticed at Walt Disney when he was young. Back in 2004, he started creating covers for Hard Case Crime. Did movie posters, too, like for Barberella, and the Matt Helm series. Fantastic work, great man.”
Bill filled in the letters. Nodded his satisfaction. Quietly put the knife away. Folded up the paper. “Come back at Happy Hour, Lefty,” he said as he got up.
Man, did I need to find a new watering hole.
Robert Lewis grew up under the pier at Venice Beach, CA. There, by firelight, he would entertain the stray dogs with weird and wonderful tales. He’s still telling stories, but now he lives in a place with walls, a roof, and cases of red wine. Crime fiction and blues guitar are his things. He blogs over at NeedleCity, and twits sporadically and nonsensically as @robertklewis.