Gregor was small and slight, but he was tough, and could be pretty scary if need be.
Max Maxwell’s apartment was a third floor walkup near the Hot Metal Bridge. Maxwell had a history of late returns, and it was Gregor’s job to make this one his last.His bosses wouldn’t accept any more excuses.
He mounted thirty-nine rickety stairs to the landing, and his hard fist pounded on the door.
He pounded again.
Footsteps. Rapid ones. Then from inside, a clattering noise and a scrape: something metal being pulled out of a dresser drawer. Something heavy.
Gregor had just time to duck back to the side of the door before two deafening retorts reached his ears, and the wood erupted into a hundred thousand splinters.
Shotgun. Double barrel. Twelve-gauge, probably.
Max’s voice came through the blasted hole high-pitched and frantic.
“They’re not getting it back this time! I don’t care how many of you goons they send! It’s mine and all mine!”
Gregor wasn’t panicked. He’d been through this many times. Time was his friend in a situation like this. He calmly lit a pipe, checking his wristwatch. Four forty-five.With luck he’d make it home in time for supper with Molly. It was Tuesday, which meant chuck roast. Molly made a great chuck roast.
“C’mon, Maxie!” he yelled through the wall. “All this for a book? It’s not even a hardcover!”
“Talk all you want, collector… you try coming in here to get it, and it’ll be the last job of your career!” Gregor could hear the book thief reloading even as he spoke. He breathed in a lungful of tobacco from his pipe.
“You got plenty of warning, pal… When you kept Grapes of Wrath we treated you with kid gloves. And I barely touched you when you went overdue with Vampire Lestat.”
“Kid gloves my eye—you slapped me in front of my girl! And it was Tale of the Body Thief!”
The man was getting more and more worked up. Gregor predicted he’d fire another volley at the slightest provocation. Then it would be time to finish this business and get home to Molly’s roast. Maybe even treat himself to a precious beer.
“Okay,” he hollered, “I’m coming in. You’ll put the scattergun down if you know what’s good for you!” He put the pipe away, and took one small step. The tired wood of the hallway floor creaked, and another pair of blasts tore out the rest of the front door. His ears rang from the shots.
Gregor was already moving: in the door and down the apartment’s hallway at a quick step. Maxwell, standing in front of a window, looked up in surprise—caught in mid-reload, he dropped one of the shells to the floor. He jammed the other into the barrel, snapped the shotgun closed and raised it up. Gregor hadn’t been fast enough.
He felt the barrel press against his sternum as he reached Maxie, then a deafening shot, smoke and a blinding flash—and Maxie and his gun were catapulted backwards through the window.
By the time Gregor got to the broken frame, Maxie was on the pavement below. Limbs jutting at queer angles. A widening circle of red around a shattered skull.
Gregor realized his shirt was smoking, and patted it out. He pulled it open to check his impact-absorbing vest underneath. It had taken most of the shot, but his chest was gonna be sore in the morning. Still—better than being cut in half for a book.
Glancing around the spare room, he saw it lying on the table. Small, with a white cover and black lettering—just like the description he’d been given. On the cover one big word above the author’s name: HOWL.
It was two hours later and Gregor was sitting in his favorite old chair. His belly was full, and Molly was cleaning dishes in the kitchen to the sounds of running water and clinking silverware. The book sat next to him:probably the last copy in existence of that title. Tomorrow it would be safely back in the hands of the Library. Gregor finished his beer, and went to help Molly dry.
The spotlights were hot tonight.
Ray “Killer” McElhone stood sweating on the small stage in his ratty baggy pants and porkpie hat, which werekind of his trademark. The room was dense with drifting smoke, some of which he was pretty sure was coming from the old ceiling fan’s crummy wiring. The odor of beer-soaked wood and drunken sweat and a little bit of urine was potent.
“So my day job, I wait tables up at the Garden Inn, right? For the swells? So the other day I bring this four-topa couple ice waters, and the gent goes: “I don’t like ice in my water,” and I tell him: “Well—wait a few minutes.”
The smallest snicker came from the sloppy drunk girlat a table up front (there was always a drunk girl up front). She was sitting with a guy who was either a sailor or pretending to be Popeye—it was hard to tell with the lights in his face.
Ray had gotten the nickname Killer years before after a particularly good set at Max’s Rock Room. That’s what folks called it, when a comedian did really well. They’d say “he killed that night”, and truthfully he had.
But tonight was different. Tonight everything depended on him being funny, because just offstage to hisleft, a man in a long coat held a gun to Mazzie’s head. Mazzie had been Killer’s girl since not long after he’d started performing Friday nights at The Blue Bottle Fly. She was young and tall and gorgeous and had no business goingaround with a loser like him, but he didn’t question it.
“The other night I was gonna make dinner, and I was trying to decide whether to have tomato soup, or chicken noodle. And I wondered ‘why is there no such thing as tomato noodle soup?’ And then I realized that’s spaghetti.”
That one got a pretty good laugh. The man in the wings even smiled, but his finger didn’t leave the trigger. Mazzie stared at him with terrified green eyes and even now he couldn’t help stare at the high cut of her outfit, climbing way up her thighs as it did.
Killer had to kill tonight. That was the bargain. If he didn’t, Mazzie would die. How he’d gotten both of them into this particularly dire situation involved a long, convoluted string of events—some of them random happenstances, but most of them just plain bad choices he’d made.
To complicate matters, he’d been bombing a lot lately. Maybe his material was getting stale, or maybe the crowd’s taste was evolving as the years went on. Or maybe he’d just lost it.
If that was the case, he and Mazzie were both dead.
Killer took a swig from the beer bottle on the little stool next to him. It was against the house rules for the comics to drink while performing their sets, but Tobias the manager was unconscious backstage—the guy with the gun had done that—and besides Killer needed it to steady his nerves. Plus, it led into good one coming up:
“So my girl, she sometimes worries I drink too much…”
Incongruously, the drunk girl in front broke up at that—too inebriated, maybe, to realize that wasn’t the punchline yet. But her outburst threw Killer off. In an instant he forgot the rest of the joke, and in another instant he realized he’d frozen: the worst thing that could happen to a comic.
A still moment passed. An awful, silent still moment. Killer took another swig of beer, glancing to his left only to see the man with the gun stiffen. He saw Mazzie staring at him with pleading eyes: finish the joke! they said. She’d heard it a million times, she could probably finish it herself. It wasn’t all that funny, but it usually got a laugh.
But it was gone. There was no hope now. His mind was blank. He’d been here before: all he could do was embrace it and move on:
“So there’s this guy…” Killer began, taking another swig of beer. “He’s standing offstage right to my right here. And you know what he’s doing?” A couple members of the audience murmured no and what and the usual grumbled responses.
“He’s pointing a gun at my girl, and if I don’t get you folks laughing, you what what he’s gonna do? He’s gonna shoot her, and then me.”
Some folks actually laughed at that. Killer could see the man tense out of the corner of his eye. He was playing things dangerous here, he knew. He was risking both Mazzie’s life and his own, but he figured: they were already at risk, weren’t they? Best thing was to lean into it.
“You know every comic’s nightmare is to die on stage, and I’m telling you, now I know why.” The audience gave out a good general laugh for the follow up. Nothing like that night at the Rock Room, but still, he was encouraged enough to keep going with this bit:
“There’s that saying, everyone’s a critic? Well, this is why we don’t let them carry sidearms.”
A mediocre response. The man with the gun was just staring at him, now. Maybe he thought Killer was playing some angle, or had a plan—which of course he didn’t. He was simply out of good ideas.
“Why don’t we welcome him out on stage, folks? I mean that’s the friendly thing to do…” he stared back at the man, who was looking around, unsure what to do. Mazzie’s eyes glistened with tears. She knew exactly how dangerous this game he was playing was.
When the man didn’t move, Killer spoke again: “Aww, you know what? I think he’s got stage fright. C’mon, friend, let the good folks thank you for giving me my motivation.”
“Yeah, c’mon out!” Shouted the drunken woman in front, sticking her fingers out like six shooters. He was gaining allies, at least. But the man didn’t budge.
Killer leaned into the mic: “I’m serious, I’m not telling another joke until this fella comes out.” This was his only way out, and he knew it. In the next twenty minutes he could be as funny as he’d ever been, and he and Mazzie would both die tonight all the same—he was sure of it. His mistakes had gotten them into this position, and it was up to him to find a way out of it.
Killer wasn’t talking. He was staring offstage at the man. The audience knew something was going on. A few boos came from the back. The man actually lowered his gun a fraction.
Killer leaned close and whispered into the mic: “C’mon friend, don’t keep the good folks waiting…” More boos and calls for the man to come out came from the smoky darkness behind the spotlights. Someone actually yelled C’mon out and kill him, at least that’d be something. Finally the man tucked his gun back into his coat, and—still holding tight to Mazzie—stepped out.
Two things happened: the crowd broke into loud applause, and the man was momentarily blinded by the spotlights. That was what Killer had been counting on. As the gunman tried to shield his eyes from the glare, Killertook four rapid steps and swung his fist at him.
Of course he missed. Of course he instead managed to clock Mazzie a glancing blow. But at least he knocked her aside—out of the grip of the man.
Killer was dimly aware of yelling and scuffling in the audience behind him, but he was too focused on the immediate danger. The man had reached his hand into his overcoat pocket and grabbed his gun, and all Killer could think to do was grab the gunman’s wrist and try to keep him from drawing it and firing; but of course he was way overmatched in strength, and the barrel of the gun came up bit by bit. It went off, and there was a high-pitched scream from the audience. It sounded an awful lot like that drunk woman.
The gun was still coming up, and Killer knew he’d miscalculated. This guy was gonna shoot him, and then he’d shoot Mazzie. Mazzie who deserved so much better than a beat-down comic like Killer. This is all my fault, he thought as he watched the barrel rise.
Then Killer felt a shuddering impact travel through the arm he was holding, and the gunman went limp, sagging to the floorboards at his feet. Tobias the manager stood there, a big claw hammer in his hand, rubbing his sore head. That thick German skull had served him well.
“Vat bad bizness dis man vant vith you, Killer?” he asked, but Killer was already kneeling by Mazzie. She was shaken, but otherwise okay.
The police came. The man with the gun was taken away. The drunk woman from the front row had only been grazed by the shot, but they put in an ambulance all the same just to be safe. She’d have a tale to tell the gals at the office on Monday. After a while, the place returned to normal. It was still early, and Killer had another set to do before last call.
He stepped back on stage, and tapped the mic. From offstage, Mazzie beamed at him, smiling and proud, one hand rubbing her sore jaw.
“So let me tell you about the last time I went to Pittsburgh…”
Jim Towns Shadow Kamera Films firstname.lastname@example.org