Authors: David Goodis
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
Shoot The Piano Player
by David Goodis
Copyright 1956 by Fawcett Publications, Inc.
There were no street lamps, no lights at all. It was a narrow street in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. From the nearby Delaware a cold wind came lancing in, telling all alley cats they'd better find a heated cellar. The late November gusts rattled against midnight-darkened windows, and stabbed at the eyes of the fallen man in the street.
The man was kneeling near the curb, breathing hard and spitting blood and wondering seriously if his skull was frachired. He'd been running blindly, his head down, so of course he hadn't seen the telephone pole. He'd crashed into it face first, bounced away and hit the cobblestones and wanted to call it a night.
But you can't do that, he told himself. You gotta get up and keep running.
He got up slowly, dizzily. There was a big lump on the left side of his head, his left eye and cheekbone were somewhat swollen, and the inside of his cheek was bleeding where he'd bitten it when he'd hit the pole. He thought of what his face must look like, and he managed to grin, saying to himself, You're doing fine, jim. You're really in great shape. But I think you'll make it, he decided, and then he was runfling again, suddenly running very fast as the headlights rounded a corner, the car picking up speed, the engine noise closing in on him.
The beam of the headlights showed him the entrance to an alley. He veered, went shooting into the alley, went down the alley and came out on another narrow street.
Maybe this is it, he thought. Maybe this is the street you want. No, your luck is running good but not that good, I think you'll hafta do more running before you find that street, before you see that lit-up sign, that drinking joint where Eddie works, that place called Harriet's Hut.
The man kept running. At the end of the block he turned, went on to the next street, peering through the darkness for any hint of the lit-up sign. You gotta get there, he told himself. You gotta get to Eddie before they get to you. But I wish I knew this neighborhood better. I wish it wasn't so cold and dark around here, it sure ain't no night for traveling on foot. Especially when you're running, he added. When you're running away from a very fast Buick with two professionals in it, two high-grade operators, really experts in their line.
He came to another intersection, looked down the street, and at the end of the street, there it was, the orange glow, the lit-up sign of the tavern on the corner. The sign was very old, separate bulbs instead of neon tubes. Some of the bulbs were missing, the letters unreadable. But enough of it remained so that any wanderer could see it was a place for drinking. It was Harriet's Hut.
The man moved slowly now, more or less staggering as he headed toward the saloon. His head was throbbing, his windslashed lungs were either frozen or on fire, he wasn't quite sure what it felt like. And worst of all, his legs were heavy and getting heavier, his knees were giving way. But he staggered on, closer, to the lit-up sign, and closer yet, and finally he was at the side entrance.
He opened the door and walked into Harriet's Hut. It was a fairly large place, high-ceilinged, and it was at least thirty years behind the times. There was no juke box, no television set. In places the wallpaper was loose and some of it was ripped away. The chairs and tables had lost their varnish, and the brass of the bar-rail had no shine at all. Above the mirror behind the bar there was a faded and partially torn photograph of a very young aviator wearing his helmet and smiling up at the sky. The photograph was captioned "Lucky Lindy' Near it there was another photograph that showed Dempsey crouched and moving in on a calm and technical Tunney. On the wall adjacent to the left side of the bar there was a framed painting of Kendrick, who'd been mayor of Philadelphia during the Sesqui-Centennial.
At the bar the Friday night crowd was jammed three-andfour-deep. Most of the drinkers wore work pants and heavy-soled work shoes. Some were very old, sitting in groups at the tables, their hair white and their faces wrinkled. But their hands didn't tremble as they lifted beer mugs and shot glasses. They could still lift a drink as well as any Hut regular, and they held their alcohol with a certain straight-seated dignity that gave them the appearance of venerable elders at a town meeting.
The place was really packed. All the tables were taken, and there wasn't a single empty chair for a leg-weary newcomer.
But the leg-weary man wasn't looking for a chair. He was looking for the piano. He could hear the music coming from the piano, but he couldn't see the instrument. A viewblurring fog of tobacco smoke and liquor fumes made everything vague, almost opaque. Or maybe it's me, he thought. Maybe I'm just about done in, and ready to keel over.
He moved. He went staggering past the tables, headed in the direction of the piano music. Nobody paid any attention to him, not even when he stumbled and went down. At twelve-twenty on a Friday night most patrons of Harriet's Hut were either booze-happy or booze-groggy. They were Port Richmond mill workers who'd labored hard all week. They came here to drink and drink some more, to forget all serious business, to ignore each and every problem of the too-real too-dry world beyond the walls of the Hut. They didn't even see the man who was pulling himself up very slowly from the sawdust on the floor, standing there with his bruised face and bleeding mouth, grinning and mumbling, "1 can hear the music, all right. But where's the goddam piano?"
Then he was staggering again, bumping into a pile of high-stacked beer cases set up against a wall. It formed a sort of pyramid, and he groped his way along it, his hands feeling the cardboard of the beer cases until finally there was no more cardboard and he almost went down again. What kept him on his feet was the sight of the piano, specifically the sight of the pianist who sat there on the circular stool, slightly bent over, aiming a dim and faraway smile at nothing in particular.
The bruised-faced, leg-weary man, who was fairly tall and very wide across the shoulders and had a thick mop of ruffled yellow hair, moved closer to the piano. He came up behind the musician and put a hand on his shoulder and said, "Hello, Eddie."
There was no response from the musician, not even a twitch of the shoulder on which the man's heavy hand applied more pressure. And the man thought, Like he's far away, he don't even feel it, he's all the way out there with his music, it's a crying shame you gotta bring him in, but that's the way it is, you got no choice.
"Eddie." the man said, louder now. "It's me, Eddie."
The music went on, the rhythm unbroken. It was a soft, easygoing rhythm, somewhat plaintive and dreamy, a stream of pleasant sound that seemed to be saying, Nothing matters.
"It's me," the man said, shaking the musician's shoulder. "It's Turley. Your brother Turley."
The musician went on making the music. Turley sighed and shook his head slowly. He thought, You can't reach this one. It's like he's in a cloud and nothing moves him.
But then the tune was ended. The musician turned slowly and looked at the man and said, "Hello, Turley."
"You're sure a cool proposition," Turley said. "You ain't seen me for six-seven years. You look at me as if I just came back from a walk around the block."
"You bump into something?" the musician inquired mildly, scanning the bruised face, the bloodstained mouth.
Just then a woman got up from a nearby table and made a beeline for a door marked
. Turley spotted the empty chair, grabbed it, pulled it toward the piano and sat down. A man at the table yelled, "Hey you, that chair is taken," and Turley said to the man, "Easy now, jim. Cantcha see I'm an invalid?" He turned to the musician and grinned again, saying, "Yeah, I bumped into something. The street was too dark and I hit a pole."
"Who you running from?"
"Not the law, if that's what you're thinking."
"I'm not thinking anything," the musician said. He was medium-sized, on the lean side, and in his early thirties. He sat there with no particular expression on his face.
He had a pleasant face. There were no deep lines, no shadows. His eyes were a soft gray and he had a soft, relaxed mouth. His light-brown hair was loosely combed, very loosely, as though he combed it with his fingers. The shirt collar was open and there was no necktie. He wore a wrinkled, patched jacket and patched trousers. The clothes had a timeless look, indifferent to the calendar and the mens' fashion columns. The man's full name was Edward Webster Lynn and his sole occupation was here at the Hut where he played the piano six nights a week, between nine and two. His salary was thirty dollars, and with tips his weekly income was anywhere from thirty-five to forty. It more than paid for his requirements. He was unmarried, he didn't own a car, and he had no debts or obligations.
"Well, anyway," Turley was saying, "it ain't the law. If it was the law, I wouldn't be pulling you into it."
"Is that why you came here?" Eddie asked softly. "To pull me into something?"
Turley didn't reply. He turned his head slightly, looking away from the musician. Consternation clouded his face, as though he knew what he wanted to say but couldn't quite manage to say it.
"It's no go," Eddie said.
Turley let out a sigh. As it faded, the grin came back. "Well, anyway, how you doing?"
"I'm doing fine," Eddie said.
"None at all. Everything's dandy."
"Including the finance?"
"I'm breaking even." Eddie shrugged, but his eyes narrowed slightly.
Turley sighed again.
Eddie said, "I'm sorry, Turl, it's strictly no dice."
"No," Eddie said softly. "No matter what it is, you can't pull me into it."
"But Jesus Christ, the least you can do is--"
"How's the family?" Eddie asked.
"The family?" Turley was blinking. Then he picked up on it. "We're all in good shape. Mom and Dad are okay--"
"And Clifton?" Eddie said. "How's Clifton?" referring to the other brother, the oldest.
Turley's grin was suddenly wide. "Well, you know how it is with Clifton. He's still in there pitching--"
Turley didn't answer. The grin stayed, but it seemed to slacken just a little. Then presently he said, "You've been away a long time. We miss you."
"We really miss you," Turley said. "We always talk about you."
Eddie gazed past his brother. The far-off smile drifted across his lips. He didn't say anything.
"After all," Turley said, "you're one of the family. We never told you to leave. I mean you're always welcome at the house. What I mean is--"
"How'd you know where to find me?"
"Fact is, I didn't. Not at first. Then I remembered, that last letter we got, you mentioned the name of this place. I figured you'd still be here. Anyway, I hoped so. Well, today I was downtown and I looked up the address in the phone book--"
"I mean tonight. I mean--"
"You mean when things got tight you looked me up. Isn't that it?"
Turley blinked again. "Don't get riled."
"You're plenty riled but you cover it up," Turley said. Then he had the grin working again. "I guess you learned that trick from living here in the city. All us country people, us South Jersey melon-eaters, we can't ever learn that caper. We always gotta show our hole card."
Eddie made no comment. He glanced idly at the keyboard, and hit a few notes.
"I got myself in a jam," Turley said.
Eddie went on playing. The notes were in the higher octaves, the fingers very light on the keyboard, making a cheery, babbling-brook sort of tune.
Turley shifted his position in the chair. He was glancing around, his eyes swiftly checking the front door, the side door, and the door leading to the rear exit.
"Wanna hear something pretty?" Eddie said. "Listen to this--"
Turley's hand came down on the fingers that were hitting the keys. Through the resulting discord, his voice came urgently, somewhat hoarsely. "You gotta help me, Eddie. I'm really in a tight spot. You can't turn me down."
"Can't get myself involved, either."
"Believe me, it won't get you involved. All I'm asking, lemme stay in your room until morning."
"You don't mean stay. You mean hide."
Again Turley sighed heavily. Then he nodded.
"From who?" Eddie asked.
"Really? You sure they made the trouble? Maybe you made it."
"No, they made it," Turley said. "They been giving me grief since early today."
"Get to it. What kind of grief?"
"Tracing me. They've been on my neck from the time I left Dock Street--"
"Dock Street?" Eddie frowned slightly. "What were you doing on Dock Street?"