In twenty years he’d never had to use the gun. Now it looked as if he might have to break his record …
Jess had kept his eye on the two since they had come in. Both of them were young, hardly more than kids, dressed “cat” style in Mr. B shirts, draped coats and peg pants. They had not caused any trouble. All they had done was sit quietly at the end of the bar drinking beer.
Still Jess did not like their looks. Hoods he could handle because he always knew what they were thinking. Kids were different. They were always surprising you. You couldn’t trust any of them.
Standing behind the bar he watched the place slowly empty. The two of them did not move.
Jess was not afraid. He had owned the bar for twenty years and had yet to use the forty-five that rested on a shelf beneath the register. Occasionally, he would have a trouble-some drunk but very seldom. Usually the drunk would take one look at the scar tissue around Jess’ eyes, his flattened nose, and cauliflower ear, then decide to move on.
Finally the kids were the last customers left. Slowly, dabbing at glass rings on the bar with a rag, Jess moved down toward them.
“I’m sorry, fellows,” he said, “I’m closing up. You’re going to have to come back another time. Sorry.”
He grinned, showing his two gold teeth.
They only stared at him and drank their beer.
Little punks, he thought. Trying to act smart. They’re all alike. They’re what’s wrong with the world. Punks.
“It’s after curfew, so I can’t serve you, anyway. So would you mind finishing up and moving along?” Jess was still grinning. “Come back any time between five and midnight. I’ll be glad to have you.”
One kid turned to the other.
“Did you hear the man say something, Phil?”
“No, I sure didn’t. Maybe he just coughed.”
“Yeah. That must have been it.”
“He’s real clever,” the one called Phil said.
If it had not been for the hardness in their eyes Jess would have laughed at them. They were talking like a couple of movie, tough guys.
“I’m going to have to ask you to move on,” Jess said again.
“I don’t think he wants us here, Phil. He’s trying to get us to beat it.”
“That makes me feel lousy, when somebody tells me to leave a place.” Phil sipped his beer. “I hate for people not to like me. It makes me feel lousy. Know what I mean?”
Jess wanted to tell them to act their age but instead he said, “Look, I know how it is when you’ve had a couple too many. Go on home and sleep it off. No hard feelings.”
“That’s damn white of you,” Phil said. “It makes me feel good all over. There’s only one thing that would make me feel better.”
Phil grinned and took a pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket.
“You know what that is?”
He lit a cigarette and blew a stream of smoke through his nose.
“Well, it would be for you to open that register and give us a little going-away present. That would make us feel real good.”
All the time the boy had been speaking the two of them had not taken their eyes from Jess. He was beginning to sweat. He felt it trickle down his back and knew his shirt was turning dark beneath the arms.
“All right,” Jess said, making his voice hard, “you guys had better cut it out now and beat it. Go on now and I won’t remember what you look like. If you don’t, I’ll see that you spend a little time on the roads. If you don’t believe me, just keep up the way you’re going.”
“You’re real tough, aren’t you?”
“Tough enough to handle two punks like you.”
Phil put his hand inside his coat and let it stay.
“If I have to take my hand out you know what’s going to happen, don’t you?”
“You’re making a big mistake,” Jess said.
“Yeah. I’m going to lose all kinds of sleep over it.”
“Cut out the stalling,” Phil said. “Open the register.”
Jess watched the two of them as he edged toward the register.
“You kids had better think this over.”
As Jess reached the register he laid his hand on the butt of the forty-five resting on its shelf. It felt cold and heavy in his hand as he turned and fired.
He had hurried his first shot a bit and it was wild, smashing the neon clock above the men’s room. But the next two shots were not wild. The kid beside Phil was hurled from his stool to the floor beside one of the booths.
It was not like the movies. He didn’t wobble or groan. One moment he was sitting on the stool, the next he was laying on his back beside one of the booths.
Phil had dropped down beside his stool, sobbing, “Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot. I don’t have any rod. For God’s sake, we were only kidding. Don’t shoot.”
Jess walked around the bar and stood looking down at him. He was crouched beside the stool, unable to keep his eyes from the body beside the booths.
“Get up,” Jess said.
Phil stood, muttering, “You didn’t have to level on us. Why the hell did you do it?”
Jess lowered the gun.
“Don’t try nothing, punk. Just stand easy.”
He went to the pay phone and put in a call to the police. All the time he was talking he did not take his eyes from the kid.
When he came back the kid had stopped sobbing.
“Look, mister,” he pleaded. “You got to let me go. I never done nothing like this before. Honest to God. It will kill my folks.”
Jess looked at him.
Punk kids, he thought, are what’s wrong with the world now. He’ll get a couple of years in the reformatory and be back out to bother innocent people.
“All right, kid,” Jess smiled. “Beat it.”
“You mean it?”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
The kid stood in the doorway without moving, watching him coldly.
Jess said: “What are you waiting for? I’m not going to tell the police anything about you.”
“You’re damn right you’re not,” the kid said thinly.
Jess never felt the bullet that smashed into his brain.