Shootout at joes, p.1
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       Shootout at Joe's, p.1
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           Richard Laymon
Shootout at Joe's


  FASTBACK® Mystery

  RICHARD LAYMON

  Pitman

  BELMONT, CALIFORNIA

  FASTBACK® MYSTERY BOOKS

  Bill Waite's Will

  Cardiac Arrest

  Dawson's City

  The Diary

  The Face That Stopped Time

  A Came for Fools

  The Good Luck Smiling Cat

  The Intruder

  Janie

  Mad Enough to Kill

  No Witnesses

  Shootout at Joe's

  Cover photographer: Jim Ross

  Copyright ©1984 by Pitman Learning, Inc., 19 Davis Drive, Belmont, California 94002. Member of the Pitman Croup. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced by any means, transmitted, or translated into a machine language without written permission from the publisher.

  ISBN-0-8224-3462-8

  Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 83-62093

  Printed in the United States of America.

  1. 98765432

  Folks say everything changes, but that's not so. I've lived in Windville all my life, and Joe's Bar & Grill looks just the same to me as always.

  It has the same grill, the same counter, and the same stools. The long tables aren't much different from the way they were when I was a boy---just older and more beaten up, I guess. The seat cushions were fixed seven years back, but Joe had them done in the same red plastic stuff as before.

  Only one thing has changed much at Joe's place. That's the people. Some of the old regulars keep dropping by at the same time every day. But time has changed them a lot. Take Lester Keyhoe. He fell to pieces after his wife passed away. And old Gimpy Sedge lost his job with the train after he was crippled in the Silver Eagle wreck. Gimpy used to be a conductor. Now he just watches the trains pull in and leave without him. Then he comes by here for chili with Lester---every day.

  Joe's gone, too. He's not gone. He's plenty alive, just retired. I've kept the place going for the past three years, since I turned 21. When Joe isn't off shooting deer in the mountains, he comes in for coffee and a cinnamon roll every morning. He likes to keep an eye on things.

  I sure wish he had been hunting deer the morning Elsie Thompson came in.

  The place was empty except for me and Lester Keyhoe. Lester was sitting at the counter where he always sits. He was sipping coffee while he waited for Gimpy to show up.

  I was wiping the counter when the car pulled up outside. I could see it clearly through the window. It was an old Ford that looked as if somebody had driven it a dozen times back and forth through a rock storm. It tossed up a cloud of dust as it came to a stop. The car coughed and shook for a minute after the key was turned off.

  I stopped wiping the counter then and just stared. The old woman who jumped out of the Ford was a real sight. She was short and round and was dressed in an old army jacket. Her gray hair rested on top of her head like an overturned cereal bowl. She wore wire-rimmed glasses. She was chewing on some gum as if she wanted to kill it. A floppy old handbag hung off her arm. I said to Lester, "Get a load of this." But he didn't even look up.

  The screen door opened, and she made her way toward the counter in her dusty boots. She climbed onto the stool in front of me. Her jaw went up and down a few times. The word "coffee" came out.

  "Yes, ma'am," I said and turned away to get it.

  "Does this place belong to Joseph James Lowry of Chicago?" she asked.

  "Sure does," I said, looking at her.

  Behind the glasses, her round eyes shut and opened. She gave me a huge grin. "That's mighty good news, young man. I've been driving through every one-horse town west of Chicago looking for this place, looking for Joe Lowry and his cafe. There's a place called Joe's in every single one of them. But I knew I'd find Joe Lowry's place sooner or later. Know why? Because I've got will power, that's why." She looked at me through her thick glasses. "When do you expect him in?"

  "Well . . . ," I started to answer but then stopped. "What did you want to see him about?"

  "He is coming in?"

  I nodded.

  "Good. I expected as much. I'm just surprised not to find him behind the counter."

  "You know him, huh?"

  "Oh, yes. My, yes." Her eyes turned sad for a second. She moved her gum to the other side of her mouth and chewed harder. "We used to know each other very well, back in Chicago."

  "How about if I give him a ring and tell him you're here?"

  "That won't be necessary." Snapping her gum and grinning, she opened her handbag and pulled out a revolver.

  I'll surprise him," she said. She aimed the shiny barrel of the revolver at me. "We'll surprise him together."

  I didn't feel much like talking, but I did nod my head.

  "What time will Joe be here?" the woman asked.

  "Pretty soon." I took a deep breath and looked into the barrel of the revolver. "You aren't planning to shoot him, are you?" I asked.

  She pretended not to hear me. "How soon?" she asked.

  "Well . . ." Far away, the 10:15 train from Parkerdale blew its whistle. "Well, pretty soon, I guess."

  "I'll wait for him. Who's that slob over there?"

  "That's Lester."

  "Lester!" she called.

  Lester turned his head then and looked at the woman. She waved the revolver at him, grinning and chewing, but his face didn't change. It looked the same as always, long and droopy like a bloodhound's face, but more gloomy.

  "Lester," she said. "You just stay right on that stool. If you get up for any reason, I'll shoot you dead."

  His head nodded, then turned forward again as he took a drink from his coffee mug.

  "What's your name?" the woman asked me.

  "Wes."

  "Wes," she said after me. She pointed the tip of the gun toward Lester. "Wes," she said, "you keep Lester's coffee cup full. And don't do anything to make me shoot you. If some more customers come in, just serve them like everything is normal. This revolver has six loads, and I can take down a man with each. I don't want to. I only want Joe Lowry. But if you drive me to it, I'll make this place wall-to-wall corpses. Understand?" She blinked at me.

  "Sure, I understand." I filled Lester's mug with coffee, then came back to the woman. "Can I ask you something?"

  "Fire away."

  "Why do you want to kill Joe? He's always been a good man. He's never hurt anybody."

  She stopped chewing and squinted at me. "He ruined my life. That's enough reason to kill a man, I think. Don't you?"

  "Nothing's a good enough reason to kill Joe."

  "Think so?"

  "What did he do to you?"

  "He ran off with Martha Dipswarth."

  "Martha? That's his wife---was."

  "Dead?"

  I nodded.

  "Good." Her jaw chomped, and she beamed. "That makes me glad. Joe made a mistake not marrying me. I'm still alive and kicking. We'd be happily married to this day, if he'd had the sense to stick with me. But he never did have much sense. Do you know what his great dream in life was? To go out west and open up a cafe. Martha thought that was a glorious idea. I said, 'Well, you marry him, then. Go on out west and waste your life if you want. If Joe's such a romantic fool as to throw his life away like that, I don't want him. There are plenty more fish in the sea.' That's what I said. That was more than 30 years ago."

  "If you said that . . ." I stopped.

  "What?"

  "Nothing. Never mind."

  She looked at me as she took a drink of coffee. "What were you going to say?"

  "Just . . . well, if you said that they ought to get married, it doesn't seem very fair of you to blame them."

  She put down the cup and glanced over at Lester. He still sat there
, but he was staring at the revolver. "When I said that about the sea being full of fish, I figured it'd only be a matter of time before I'd land a good one for myself. Well, it didn't work out that way."

  She had a funny look in her eyes then, as if she were looking back at all those years. "I kept on waiting," she went on. "I was just sure that the right man was around the next corner. It finally dawned on me, Wes, that there wasn't ever going to be another man. Joe was it, and I'd lost him. That's when I decided to gun him down."

  "That's . . ."

  "What?"

  "Crazy."

  "It's justice."

  "Maybe the two of you could get together now," I told her. "You know, there hasn't been another woman since Martha died. Maybe . . ."

  "Nope. Too late for that. Too late for babies, too late for---"

  All at once, Lester flung himself away from the counter and made a crazy dash for the door. The old woman turned quickly on her stool and squeezed off a shot.

  The bullet hit Lester in the arm. With a cry of pain, he swung around and ran back to his place, holding a hand over the bleeding wound.

  "You'd better hope nobody heard that shot," the woman said to both of us.

  I figured nobody would hear it. We were at the far end of town, and the closest building was a gas station a half block away. The cars going by on the highway made plenty of noise. And with all the hunting that goes on around here, nobody would pay much attention to a single gunshot. Still, for five minutes, we all waited without saying a word. The only sound was the old woman snapping her gum.

  At last, she grinned as if she had just won some sort of prize. "We're in luck," she said.

  "Joe's not," I said. "Neither is Lester."

  Lester just sat there holding his hurt arm. He wasn't about to say anything or even move.

  "They shouldn't have run away," the woman said. "That was their mistake---they ran. You aren't going to try running out on me, are you?"

  "No, ma'am."

  "Because if you do, I'll shoot you for sure. I'll shoot anyone today. Anyone. This is my day, Wes---the day Elsie Thompson pays Joe back."

  "I won't run, ma'am," I told her. "But I won't let you shoot Joe. He's . . . he's a good man, and I'll stop you one way or another.

  "I went over to fill Lester's mug. He didn't need more coffee as much as he needed a doctor. But I figured he would live.

  "You sound pretty fond of Joe," the woman said.

  "I am."

  "Well, I used to be. I used to love him more than words can say. I thought he felt the same way about me, but I guess I was wrong."

  "If you really loved him," I said, "you'd put that gun away and say 'hi' when he comes in."

  She laughed bitterly. "You don't know the pain. You don't know how it feels to love a person and lose him."

  "Sure I do." I leaned against the counter and looked her in the eyes. She blinked at me through her thick glasses. "I've lost people I loved. I guess everyone has. My mother died three years ago, and . . ."

  "I'm sorry to hear that, Wes. But it doesn't have anything to do with me and Joe."

  "It sure does," I said. "I felt sad. I felt cheated, as if she'd run out on me. But if she came walking through that door right now, I sure wouldn't put a bullet into her. I'd give her a hug and say, 'Welcome back.' "

  "You're not me."

  "I guess I wouldn't want to be you." I leaned over to refill her coffee mug. I could tell the revolver was aimed at me all the while. "Why don't you just drink up now and leave?" I said.

  "I'll leave soon enough," she said. "Right after I empty this gun into Joe."

  I swung the coffee pot at her face.

  The glass pot exploded as she slammed it with the barrel of the revolver. I let the pot fly from my hand and made a grab for the gun. The woman jumped back off the stool, almost falling. I sprang over the counter, saw her take aim at my chest, and figured my number was up. But she didn't pull the trigger. Instead, she swung the barrel up hard. It caught me under the chin with a hard crash. The blow nearly knocked me out. I staggered away from her, bumped into a stool, and grabbed the counter top to keep from falling.

  "You've got guts but no brains," she said.

  I glanced toward Lester, hoping he might have escaped during the few seconds I had kept the woman busy. He was still sitting at the counter, his arm bleeding. His sad eyes met mine, and he shook his head slowly from side to side.

  "Get behind that counter where you belong," Elsie snapped at me. "Clean up that mess," she said. "And don't you go trying another stupid trick like that. If you do, I'll put a bullet between your eyes."

  I wasn't too steady on my feet, but I made my way down to the end of the counter. My head was spinning. My ears rang. Blood was dripping onto my apron from a small cut under my chin where the revolver had hit me. I guess I was lucky to be alive, but I didn't feel lucky.

  I felt rotten.

  I had failed. I had messed up. I had taken a chance and made the move that could have meant the difference. But this old woman, three times my age, had been quicker than me.

  As I stepped behind the counter, I saw the woman move her stool back a few feet. That way, she would be out of range if I made another try. "Just face it," she told me. "You can't stop what's going to happen. No one can."

  I wiped the blood off my chin. Then I started to wipe up the spilled coffee and bits of broken glass.

  "Do you know why I can't be stopped?" she asked. "Because I've got will power, that's why." She gave me a strange grin as she chewed hard on her gum three times before going on. Then she said, "Today I'm going to die. So I have nothing to lose, you see? That gives me all the power in the world. Understand?"

  I shook my head and wished I hadn't. It hurt like mad.

  "As soon as I gun down Joe, I'll drive out of this town. I'll climb into that old Ford and get it up to 70 or 80 miles an hour. Then I'll pick out the biggest tree---"

  My one loud laugh stopped her words.

  "Think I'm fooling?" she asked. Her smile was gone.

  "No, ma'am. It's just kind of funny, you talking like that about crashing into a tree. Not funny 'ha-ha,' funny 'weird.' "

  "Weird?"

  "You don't know about Joe? No, I guess you wouldn't. He crashed into a tree---an aspen, just off Route 5. That was about three years back. Martha was with him. His wife Martha. She got killed in the crash. Joe was in real bad shape himself, and Dr. Mills didn't give him much chance. But he pulled through. His face got so broken up that he doesn't look quite right, and he lost the use of an eye.

  His left eye, not his aiming eye. He wears a patch over it, you know. And sometimes, when he gets feeling good, he lifts up the patch and gives us all a peek underneath."

  "You can just stop that," the woman warned me.

  "He lost a leg, too."

  "I don't want to hear about it."

  "Yes ma'am. I'm sorry. It's just that . . . I thought I should warn you. Everyone who crashes into a tree doesn't die."

  "I will."

  "You can't be sure. Maybe you'll just end up like Joe, hobbling around half blind on a wooden leg, with your face so scarred up that your best friends will hardly know you."

  "Shut up, Wes."

  She pointed the revolver toward my face, so I slowed down and said quietly, "I just mean, you'd better think twice before you go off and try to get yourself killed. You just never know how---"

  "Keep your mouth shut!"

  I shut my mouth. I shrugged. I wiped some blood off my chin. And then I heard footsteps outside---the slow, unsteady noise of boots dragging slowly across the porch.

  Elsie grinned at me. Her jaw worked faster on the chewing gum. Her squinting eyes twinkled behind her glasses as the footsteps got louder.

  Through the window, I saw the man's mussy gray hair and his scarred face with the patch on his left eye. He saw me looking. He smiled and waved.

  I glanced at Lester, who was holding a napkin to his arm.

  The woman aimed the
revolver at me one last time. "Don't move," she warned me.

  The screen door swung open.

  She spun on her stool.

  "DUCK, JOE!" I shouted.

  He didn't duck. He just stood there looking confused as the woman jumped off the stool, crouched, and fired. The first bullet missed him high and to the left and shattered the window. The second bullet knocked his leg out from under him. He flopped onto the floor. The woman took careful aim at his head.

  I was in midair, leaping off the counter. I slammed against her back as she fired. The bullet tore a hole in the floor. Then the two of us hit the hard floor and rolled. She swung the revolver at my face, but this time I blocked the blow. I knocked the gun from her hand.

  They say you're not supposed to punch women. But right then, I wasn't about to let that worry me.

  My hand still stung from the punch. The woman lay on the floor, out cold.

  Lester was on the phone, calling for an ambulance.

  I was down on my knees, making sure that the frightened man was OK. I hadn't bothered tending to his leg---the woman's bullet had passed through it clean, taking out nothing but splinters. She had hit the wooden one.

  I looked up when the screen door squeaked open.

  The big man stared down at us. His mouth dropped open. "What the . . . !" He rushed forward and fell to the floor beside us. "Gimpy!" he said to the man on the floor. "Are you all right, old pal? What happened?"

  "Some crazy old woman shot me," Gimpy said. He squinted his one eye and looked confused.

  "Elsie Thompson," I said and nodded toward where the woman lay.

  Joe Lowry stared at her. "Name rings a bell, but . . ."

  "It should," I said. "You left her for Mom. She came in here to kill you, Dad."

 


 

  Richard Laymon, Shootout at Joe's

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