Charlie Poole is a bum. His friends know it. His gangster uncle Al knows it. And Charlie himself knows it better than anyone. He’s stuck with his meager lot, tending bar at his uncle’s Brooklyn dive, picking up the occasional package . . . and being a bum.
But when two mob hit men show up out of the blue and inform him that his breathing days are over, Charlie doesn’t feel like a bum anymore. He feels like an extremely fast runner. Because not having much of a life is still way better than not having any life at all.
Now, the hapless Charlie is on the lam with a pair of heavies on his tail. And over the next few days, he stumbles into a murder he gets blamed for, meets a gorgeous gal he could fall for, discovers what he’s willing to fight for—and finds out just why the hell anyone would want to kill a bum like him . . .
Praise for Donald E. Westlake
“Westlake has no peer in the realm of comic mystery novelists.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“No writer can excel Donald E. Westlake.” —Los Angeles Times
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About the Author
Westlake’s cinematic prose and brisk dialogue made his novels attractive to Hollywood, and several motion pictures were made from his books, with stars such as Lee Marvin and Mel Gibson. Westlake wrote several screenplays himself, receiving an Academy Award nomination for his adaptation of The Grifters, Jim Thompson’s noir classic.
Donald E. Westlake (1933–2008) was one of the most prolific and talented authors of American crime fiction. He began his career in the late 1950s, churning out novels for pulp houses—often writing as many as four novels a year under various pseudonyms—but soon began publishing under his own name. His most well-known characters were John Dortmunder, an unlucky thief, and a ruthless criminal named Parker. His writing earned him three Edgars and a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Westlake’s cinematic prose and brisk dialogue made his novels attractive to Hollywood, and several motion pictures were made from his books, with stars such as Lee Marvin and Mel Gibson. Westlake wrote several screenplays himself, receiving an Academy Award nomination for his adaptation of The Grifters, Jim Thompson’s noir classic.
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It was a slow night, like any Tuesday. The late late show was High Sierra and there's always a couple of Bogart fans around, in fact I'm a Bogart fan myself, so I figured to stay open till the movie was over and then lock up and go upstairs and get some sleep. After one-thirty I only had two customers, both regulars, both sitting at the bar, both watching the TV, both beer drinkers. I stood down to the far end of the bar, with my arms folded and my white apron on, and I watched the TV myself. Commercials, one or both customers had refills. I don't drink on duty, so it was none for me.
My name is Charles Robert Poole, everybody calls me Charlie. Charlie Poole. Just so you know.
High Sierra ended with the cop shooting Bogart in the back and Ida Lupino glad society couldn't treat Bogart bad any more, and I said, "Okay, gents, time to drink up. I need my beauty sleep." It's a neighborhood bar, regular customers, I like to keep an informal atmosphere.
These two were both good about it, not like some which come in mostly on weekends and want the night to go on forever. But not these two, they drank up and said, "Night, Charlie," and out they went, waving to me.
I waved back and told them good night and rinsed their glasses and set them on the drainboard, and the door opened again and two guys came in with suits and topcoats, the topcoats all unbuttoned so you could see they were wearing white shirts and ties. Not what you mostly get in a bar in Canarsie two-thirty on a Tuesday night.
I said, "Sorry, gents, just closing up."
"Yeah, that's okay, nephew," said one of them, and they came over and sat down on stools at the bar.
I looked at them then, and they were both grinning at me. Tough-guy types. I recognized them both, associates of my Uncle Al, they'd both been in before to drop off a package or a message or to pick one up. I said, "Oh. I didn't recognize you at first."
The one that talked said, "You know us, though, don't you, nephew? I mean you know us to see, am I right?"
Calling me nephew like that was a kind of a playful insult. I got it from Uncle Al's associates all the time. What it meant was, I wasn't really a part of the organization, I only had this job here because of Uncle Al, if it wasn't for my Uncle Al I'd probably starve to death. I knew that's what this one meant when he called me nephew, but I didn't get sore or anything. In the first place, these two and all the others in the organization were very tough mean nasty types. In the second place, facts are facts, it was the truth; I was born a bum and I've been a bum twenty-four years, and if it wasn't for my Uncle Al and this job running this bar I would starve to death in a minute. So what was the point of starting an argument, just because a guy calls me nephew?
So all I said was, "Sure, I know you. I recognize you now. You been in here before."
The other one said, "He recognizes us."
The first one said, "Well, sure. We been in here before."
Life imitates art. And yet I'd bet neither one of them had ever read Hemingway.
I said, "Is there anything I can do for you?" I was hoping it was just a drop, just a package they wanted to leave and then they'd go away. I was tired; if it hadn't been for High Sierra I'd have closed the place at one o'clock.
The first one said, "Yeah, nephew, there is. You can tell me if this looks okay." He reached into his topcoat pocket and came out with a small white card, like a calling card, and put it down on the bar between us, kind of slapped it down under his palm and then took his hand away. "How's it look?" he said.
It had my name on it, and a thing like an ink blot. It looked like:
I said, "What's that supposed to be?"
They looked at each other. The second one said, "Is he kidding?"
The first one said, "I don't know." He looked at me with a lot of mistrust. "You don't know what that is?"
I just shrugged, and shook my head. I kept looking back and forth, from the card to their faces to the card to their faces. I was kind of almost-grinning, because I figured it was some kind of a gag or something. Every once in a while one of Uncle Al's associates thinks it's funny to pull a gag on me, on the useless bum of a nephew. It's what I have to put up with for the soft berth.
The first one shook his head after a minute and said, "He don't know, he honest to Christ don't know."
"What a nephew," said the second one. "Nephew, you are the biggest nephew that ever lived. You're all the nephews in the world rolled into one, you know that?"
"What's the joke?" I said. "I give up, what's the joke?"
"Joke," said the second one. He said it flat, like it was too incredible to believe.
The first one tapped the card. He had thick fingers and dirty fingernails. He said, "That's the spot, nephew, get me? That's the spot, the black spot, and you're on it."
The second one said, "He still don't get it. Would you believe it, he still don't get it."
"He will," said the first one. His right hand reached in fast inside his coat and came out with a gun, a huge black thick right-angled glittering gun with a hole full of poison in the end of it and the hole pointed straight at me.
I said, "Hey!" I threw my hands up in front of my chest, or something like that. And I still had in the back of my mind that this was a gag, they were trying to scare the nephew. "Hey!" I said, therefore. "You want to hurt somebody?"
"Open the cash register," said the first one, still pointing the gun at me. "The bit is, this has to look like robbery, you know? Do you know what I mean, nephew?"
"He don't," said the second one. "He don't know a thing."
"That's right," I said, giving them a chance to tell me what it was all about. "I don't know a thing."
"The spot means you're done," said the first one. "You're all through. Go on over there and open that cash register."
"Hurry, hurry," said the second one. "Nephews should do like they're told."
I still didn't get it. But on the other hand maybe the best thing was play along with them, and sooner or later they'd get tired of kidding around and they'd tell me what this was all about. So I went over and hit the No Sale key and the register drawer popped open and I said, "There. It's open."
"Pull the bills out," the first one said. He was still holding that gun. "Put them on the bar there."
There weren't very many bills. The Rockaway Grill barely makes enough a week to pay my salary, never mind upkeep and stock and six per cent profit and all that. But it's all right, nobody wants the Rockaway Grill to make any money, don't ask me why. I asked my Uncle Al three, four times, and the first couple times he tried to explain it, something about taxes, on the books the Rockaway Grill makes a profit that is actually money the organization made somewhere else, something like that, but everytime my Uncle Al explains something to me it winds up he's hitting himself on the forehead with the heel of his right hand so I don't ask him any more.
Anyway, there was just this little stack of bills, most of them ones, and I put them on the bar, and the second one came over and took them and stuffed them away in his topcoat pocket.
I said, "Hey, wait a second. That isn't funny."
"That's right," said the first one. He looked mean, and he was still aiming the gun at me.
For the first time I began to take it serious. I said, "You aren't going to kill me."
"You got it," said the other one.
"And here it comes," said the first one, and Patrolman Ziccatta, the cop on the beat, came in saying, "Hey, Charlie. You're open late."
So what should I of done? Should I of said, "Patrolman Ziccatta, these two men just come here to rob and murder me, and that one there has my night's proceeds in his topcoat pocket and that other one there just stuck a big mean-looking gun quick back in his topcoat pocket when you came in," is that what I should of said? You think so? These associates of my Uncle Al, I should finger them to the police, never mind what for? You think so?
That just shows you don't know the situation.
My Uncle Al would kill me, I blew the whistle on two of his associates like that. I mean with no fooling around, bam!
I mean, it's all well and good with Patrolman Ziccatta right there and everything for the moment, but what about tomorrow? What about next week? How do I live? Where do I live? What do I do with myself?
More important, what does Uncle Al do with me?
These two guys, now, they weren't kidding, they'd come here to kill me, I finally got that through my head, but let's sit down and think about this thing a minute. There's no reason why the organization should want me killed, so it's got to be somebody made a mistake somewhere, right? Now, when somebody makes a mistake what you do is you don't throw the baby out with the bath water, what you do is you see can you rectify the mistake. Right?
So what I had to do was I had to stay alive some way or another until I could get to a telephone and call my Uncle Al — which he would really love, two-thirty in the morning and everything, but this time I would say I got a legitimate excuse, I mean after all — and then I could tell my Uncle Al what was up and he could maybe rectify the mistake.
So I didn't say anything to Patrolman Ziccatta except, "Just closing up now, just this minute." Then I looked at the two mean types and I said, "Sorry, gents, you got to go now."
They looked from me to the patrolman, and then they looked at each other, and I could see everything they were thinking. They were supposed to kill me, but they couldn't kill me right this minute unless they killed Patrolman Ziccatta too, and killing a uniformed policeman in the performance of his duty is a very dangerous thing to do and maybe going too far just as a sidelight in the rubbing out of a nephew, so maybe for the moment they should call it off. Maybe for the moment they should go outside, and wait for Patrolman Ziccatta to go away, and then they could come back and kill the nephew in the privacy of his own home.
I saw this going through their heads and running back and forth between their eyes, and then the first one said, "Okay, barkeep. See you later."
"Yeah, barkeep," said the second one. "See you later."
They went on out, and Patrolman Ziccatta came over and leaned on the bar and said, "There's quite a wind blowing up out there."
Now, it was only the eleventh of September, and it might have been breezy outside but it wasn't exactly the North Pole, but I knew what Patrolman Ziccatta really meant and what I was supposed to do about it, so I said, "Let me give you something to warm your bones."
"Well, thanks, Charlie," he said. He always acted surprised, and we ran through this same business almost every night.
I got a four-ounce glass from under the bar, and filled it about two-thirds with bar bourbon, and slid it over in front of the patrolman. He kind of slouched against the bar, and turned his back to the big plate-glass window that faced the street, and he held the glass in close against his chest so it couldn't be seen from outside, and he took quick nips from it, one right after the other. Nip. Nip. Nip. Like that.
Past him, I could see those two guys across the street, standing in front of the men's clothing store over there and talking together like they were any two guys you might see anywhere.
I said, "I'll be right back."
"I'll hold the fort, Charlie," he said, and went nip, nip, nip.
I walked on down to the end of the bar, and raised the flap and went through, and past the jukebox and the shuffleboard bowling machine game and the restroom doors, and through the rear with NO ADMITTANCE printed on it, and into the back room, piled high with beer and whiskey cases. One thing I always had, I always had a good inventory.
I turned on the light back there and checked the back door that the two locks and the bar were all secure, and checked the double locks on the three windows, and everything was okay. I left the light on and went back up front and Patrolman Ziccatta was standing by the front door. "You left your cash register open, Charlie," he said, and pointed his nightstick at it.
"Oh, yeah," I said. "Thanks a lot."
"One of these days, you'll get yourself robbed here," he said. "Well, good night, Charlie."
"Good night," I said.
He went out and I locked the door right after him. Those two guys were still across the street. Patrolman Ziccatta strolled away down the sidewalk, practicing with his nightstick. He was getting so he could twirl it pretty good now, didn't drop it very much at all any more.
I turned off the neon beer signs in the window, and walked down the long narrow room to the back again, and switched off the indirect lighting there, so now only the backbar displays were still lit and those were left on all night. I looked down the long dim length past the plate-glass window and across the street, and saw the two of them step down off the curb and start this way. There wasn't any traffic out there, there wasn't anybody but those two guys.
I went into the back room, where the light was already on, and up the creaking stairs to the second floor. I could actually hear my heart. In my ears, I could hear it.
Up on the second floor I had this really very nice little three-room apartment, with a living room in front and a kitchen in back and a bedroom in the middle. The only way up there was the staircase from the storeroom downstairs to the kitchen upstairs, and then you had to walk through the bedroom to get to the living room, all of which didn't help any romantic mood any time I took a girl up there, but I didn't get to take too many girls up there anyway so it didn't make that much difference. The only thing, it was a pretty nice place, and convenient, but no playboy penthouse.
I went up there now and turned on the kitchen light before I clicked the switch at the head of the stairs that turned off the light down in the storeroom. I shut the door at the head of the stairs and turned the key in the lock and left the key in there to delay them if they figured to pick the lock. Except why should they pick the lock when they could just shoot it off?
Well. I hurried through to the living room, where the phone was. The whole place was its usual mess — the bed unmade, magazines all over the floor, the door standing open and ugly between the bedroom and the bathroom, underwear scattered around — the whole usual mess I was always telling myself I would clean up the next chance I got and never did. But this time, of course, I never even noticed the mess or thought about it or anything. I just hurried into the living room, turning on every light I came to, and quick called my Uncle Al at his apartment on East 65th Street in Manhattan.
Seven rings it took; I counted them. I knew my Uncle Al would be boiling, this hour of night, but even he would have to admit this call had a reason.
Finally he answered. I recognized his voice, sleepy and irritable. "Lo? What? Who the hell?" "Uncle Al," I said. "It's me, Charlie."
All at once he was wide awake, and very formal. "Albert Gatling is not in," he said.
I said, "Uncle Al? Didn't you hear me? It's me, your nephew, Charlie Poole."
"Albert Gatling is not in," he said. "He's out of town."
What was going on? I said, "What are you talking about? I recognize your voice, you're Uncle Al."
"Albert Gatling," he said, "is in Florida. He'll be there at least a week. This is the butler talking."
"Let me talk to Aunt Florence," I said. I didn't know what Uncle Al was up to, but Aunt Florence would snap him out of it. Aunt Florence is my Uncle Al's wife, and my mother's sister. Uncle Al is actually only my uncle by marriage.
"Albert and Florence Gatling," he said, "are both in Florida."
"Uncle Al," I said, and he hung up.
That is, I thought he'd hung up. But then when I tried to call him back, there wasn't any dial tone or anything, no sound at all in the telephone. I knew what that meant, it meant those guys had cut the wires outside so I couldn't phone for help.
What was I going to do? I had these wild visions of getting the frying pan from the kitchen, and hiding behind the door at the head of the stairs, and when they came in I'd let them have it, bonk, bonk! But that was no good. Even if I wasn't afraid to do something like that, and believe me I was far too afraid to hide behind the door at the head of the stairs even if I had a machine gun, but even if I wasn't afraid, that was no good. Because all this was was a simple mistake, and once it was all straightened out everything would be okay again, same as before. Except if I were to do something to one of those guys, like kill him or hurt him bad so he went to the hospital or something like that. I mean, even though it would be self-defense and the result of a mix-up that wasn't my fault at all, I would still be in trouble with the organization.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Fugitive Pigeon"
Copyright © 1965 Donald E. Westlake.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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