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Chester Himes

The real cool killers

1

'I'm gwine down to de river,

Set down on de ground.

If de blues overtake me,

I'll jump overboard and drown..

Big Joe Turner was singing a rock-and-roll adaptation of _Dink's Blues. The loud licking rhythm blasted from the jukebox with enough heat to melt bones. A woman leapt from her seat in a booth as though the music had struck her full of tacks. She was a lean black woman clad in a pink jersey dress and red silk stockings. She pulled up her skirt and began doing a shake dance as though trying to throw off the tacks one by one. Her mood was contagious. Other women jumped down from their high stools and shook themselves into the act. The customers laughed and shouted and began shaking too. The aisle between the bar and the booths became stormy with shaking bodies. Big Smiley, the giant-sized bartender, began doing a flatfooted locomotive shuffle up and down behind the bar. The colored patrons of Harlem's Dew Drop Inn on 129th Street and Lenox Avenue were having the time of their lives that crisp October night. A white man standing near the middle of the bar watched them with cynical amusement. He was the only white person present. He was a big man, over six feet tall, dressed in a dark gray flannel suit, white shirt and blood-red tie. He had a bigfeatured, sallow face with the blotched skin of dissipation. His thick black hair was shot with gray. He held a dead cigar butt between the first two fingers of his left hand. On the third finger was a signet ring. He looked about forty. The colored women seemed to be dancing for his exclusive entertainment. A slight flush spread over his sallow face. The music stopped. A loud grating voice said dangerously above the panting laughter: 'Ah feels like cutting me some white motherraper's throat.' The laughter stopped. The room became suddenly silent. The man who had spoken was a scrawny little chickennecked bantamweight, twenty years past his fist-fighting days, with gray stubble tinging his rough black skin. He wore a battered black derby green with age, a ragged plaid mackinaw and blue denim overalls. His small enraged eyes were as red as live coals. He stalked stiff-legged toward the big white man, holding an open spring-blade knife in his right hand, the blade pressed flat against his overalled leg. The big white man turned to face him, looking as though he didn't know whether to laugh or get angry. His hand strayed casually to the heavy glass ashtray on the bar. 'Take it easy, little man, and no one will get hurt,' he said. The little knifeman stopped two paces in front of him and said, 'Efn' Ah finds me some white mother-raper up here on my side of town trying to diddle my little gals Ah'm gonna cut his throat.' 'What an idea,' the white man said. 'I'm a salesman. I sell that fine King Cola you folks like so much up here. I just dropped in here to patronize my customers.' Big Smiley came down and leaned his ham- sized fists on the bar. 'Looka here, big, bad, and burly,' he said to the little knifeman. 'Don't try to scare my customers just 'cause you're bigger than they is.' 'He doesn't want to hurt anyone,' the big white man said. 'He just wants some King Cola to soothe his mind. Give him a bottle of King Cola.' The little knifeman slashed at his throat and severed his red tie neatly just below the knot. The big white man juMped back. His elbow struck the edge of the bar and the ashtray he'd been gripping flew from his hand and crashed into the shelf of ornamental wine glasses behind the bar. The crashing sound caused him to jump back again. His second reflex action followed so closely on the the first that he avoided the second slashing of the knife blade without even seeing it. The knot of his tie that had remained was split through the middle and blossomed like a bloody wound over his white collar. '… throat cut!' a voice shouted excitedly as though yelling Home Run! Big Smiley leaned across the bar and grabbed the red-eyed knifeman by the lapels of his mackinaw and lifted him from the floor. 'Gimme that chiv, shorty, 'fore I makes you eat it,' he said lazily, smiling as though it were a joke. The knifeman twisted in his grip and slashed him across the arm. The white fabric of his jacket sleeve parted like a burst balloon and his black-skinned muscles opened like the Red Sea. Blood spurted. Big Smiley looked at his cut arm. He was still holding the knifeman off the floor by the mackinaw collar. His eyes had a surprised look. His nostrils flared. 'You cut me, didn't you?' he said. His voice sounding unbelieving. 'Ah'll cut you again,' the little knifeman said, wriggling in his grip. Big Smiley dropped him as though he'd turned hot. The little knifeman bounced on his feet and slashed at Big Smiley's face. Big Smiley drew back and reached beneath the bar counter with his right hand. He came up with a short-handled fireman's axe. It had a red handle and a honed, razor-sharp blade. The little knifeman jumped into the air and slashed at Big Smiley again, matching his knife against Big Smiley's axe. Big Smiley countered with a right cross with the redhandled axe. The blade met the knifeman's arm in the middle of its stroke and cut it off just below the elbow as though it had been guillotined. The severed arm in its coat sleeve, still clutching the knife, sailed through the air, sprinkling the nearby spectators with drops of blood, landed on the linoleum tile floor, and skidded beneath the table of a booth. The little knifeman landed on his feet, still making cutting motions with his half arm. He was too drunk to realize the full impact. He saw that the lower part of his arm had been chopped off; he saw Big Smiley drawing back the redhandled axe. He thought Big Smiley was going to chop at him again. 'Wait a minute, you big mother- raper, till Ah finds my arm!' he yelled. 'It got my knife in his hand.' He dropped to his knees and began scrambling about the floor with his one hand, searching for his severed arm. Blood spouted from his jerking stub as though from the nozzle of a hose. Then he lost consciousness and flopped on his face. Two customers turned him over; one tied a necktie as a tourniquet about the bleeding arm, the other inserted a chair leg to tighten it. A waitress and another customer were twisting a knotted towel about Big Smiley's arm. He was still holding the fireman's axe in his right hand, a look of surprise on his face. The white manager stood on top of the bar and shouted, 'Please remain seated, folks. Everybody go back to his seat and pay his bill. The police have been called and everything will be taken care of.' As though he'd fired a starting gun, there was a race for the door. When Sonny Pickens came out on the sidewalk he saw the big white man looking inside through one of the small front windows. Sonny had been smoking marijuana cigarettes and he was tree-top high. Seen from his drugged eyes, the dark night sky looked bright purple and the dingy smoke-blackened tenements looked like brand new skyscrapers made of strawberry- colored bricks. The neon signs of the bars and pool rooms and greasy spoons burned like phosphorescent fires. He drew a blue steel revolver from his inside coat pocket, spun the cylinder and aimed it at the big white man. His two friends, Rubberlips Wilson and Lowtop Brown, looked at him in pop-eyed amazement. But before either could restrain him, Sonny advanced on the white man, walking on the balls of his feet. 'You there!' he shouted. 'You the man what's been messing around with my wife.' The big white man jerked his head about and saw a pistol. His eyes stretched and the blood drained from his sallow face. 'My God, wait a minute!' he cried. 'You're making a mistake. All of you folks are confusing me with someone else.' 'Ain't going to be no waiting now,' Sonny said and pulled the trigger. Orange flame lanced toward the big white man's chest. Sound shattered the night. Sonny and the white man leapt simultaneously straight up into the air. Both began running before their feet touched the ground. Both ran straight ahead. They ran head on into one another at full speed. The white man's superior weight knocked Sonny down and he ran over him. He plowed through the crowd of colored spectators, scattering them like ninepins, and cut across the street through the traffic, running in front of cars as though he didn't see them. Sonny jumped up to his feet and took out after him. He ran over the people the big white man had knocked down. Muscles rolled on bones beneath his feet. He staggered drunkenly. Screams followed him and car lights came down on him like shooting stars. The big white man was moving between parked cars across the Street when Sonny shot at him again. He gained the sidewalk safely and began running south along the inner edge. Sonny followed between the cars and kept after him. People in the line of fire did acrobatic dives for safety. People up ahead crowded into the doorways to see what was happening. They saw a big white man with wild blue eyes and a stubble of red tie which made him look as though his throat were cut, being chased by a slim black man with a big blue pistol. They drew back out of range. But the people behind, who were safely out of range, joined the chase. The white man was in front. Sonny was next. Rubberlips and Lowtop were running at Sonny's heels. Behind them the spectators stretched out in a ragged line. The white man ran past a group of eight Arabs at the corner of 127th Street. All of the Arabs had heavy, grizzly black beards. All wore bright green turbans, smoke-colored glasses, and ankle-length white robes. Their complexions ranged from stovepipe black to mustard. They were jabbering and gesticulating like a frenzied group of caged monkeys. The air was redolent with the pungent scent of marijuana. 'An infidel!' one

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