Saturday, June 15, 2019

"Miami Beach"

(Continued from here.)

“Good morning, Gladys, and how was your new year?”

“We stayed in and listened to Guy Lombardo on the radio.”


“And how was your new year’s, Mr. Goldsmith?”

Roaring drunk at Bob’s Bowery Bar, but no need to go into all that, so Gerry simply said, “Oh, a cocktail or two with some old friends, heh heh.”

“Here’s your envelope, Mr. Goldsmith, and happy new year to you.”

Gladys handed him the plain envelope and Gerry with his usual casual air slipped it under his threadbare old chesterfield and into the inside breast pocket of his equally threadbare old tweed suit.

“Thank you, Gladys, and may I wish you and your family a most happy new year!” 

“Yeah, thanks, but before you go, Mr. Goldstein asked me to ask you to go in and see him when you came in.”

“Oh, dear. Did he say what it was about?”

“Nope. You can head right back. He’s not busy.”

Whatever could it be? Two months in a row that old Mr. Goldstein had asked to see him! 

Gerry went through the worn wooden gate, past the reception area and down the hall. Mr. Goldstein’s door was open.

“Mr. Goldstein?”

“Ah, Mr. Goldsmith, come in, sir. Please take a seat.”

Had Gerry’s luck turned again, but this time for the worse? His great fear in life was that somehow his fifty-dollar remittance would be canceled. What could he do if that happened? The thousand dollar inheritance from Aunt Edna, and what was left of his brother Alistair’s hundred dollar “Christmas present” (or bribe, ha ha), would only last so long, and what if he didn’t finish his book and get it accepted by a publisher before the money ran out? He would have to find work of some sort, but what sort of work? Night watchman? Fish monger? Could he be one of those fellows who walked around wearing sandwich boards advertising cheap two-for-one suits? Did those chaps get a staff discount?

“Relax, Mr. Goldsmith, it’s not bad news.”

“Oh, thank God. Could you tell I was worried?”

“You were as pale as a ghost, but I see the healthy color returning to your cheeks even as we speak. In fact I have some more good news for you. Your remittance has been increased from fifty a month to one hundred a month.”

For the first time in his life, Gerry Goldsmith fainted. He had passed out of course, many times, but he had never fainted. Fortunately he had been sitting down, and when he came to he was still in the chair.

“Here, drink this,” said Mr. Goldstein. “It’s whiskey. You like whiskey, don’t you?”

What a question. Gerry drank it down in a gulp and handed the dixie cup back to Mr. Goldstein.

“Feel better?”

“Very much so. Did I dream that you said my remittance has been increased to a hundred a month?”

“It’s no dream, Mr. Goldsmith. All legal. A hundred a month till the day you leave this vale of tears.”

“But, how, why, what?”

“I’m not supposed to tell you, but let’s just say a certain member of your family has added the extra fifty. And the money is guaranteed by a trust for the span of your life.”

“Alistair. My brother Alistair.”

“I am not at liberty to say.”

“He arranged to see me, you know, right before Christmas, and after I hadn’t heard from him for twenty years, and he slipped me a hundred dollars.”


“Ha, yeah, maybe. Or more likely just hoping I wouldn’t try to contest Aunt Edna’s will.”

“I can tell you, Mr. Goldsmith, that there were certain, how shall I put this, vaguenesses in your Aunt Edna’s estate.”

Gerry shrugged.

“None of that concerns me,  Mr. Goldstein.”

Mr. Goldstein said nothing for a moment, and then he said, “Again, I am not at liberty to divulge details, but, Mr. Goldsmith, I like you, and I just want to say that if you did wish to contest your Aunt Edna’s will I should be glad to take the case, for free, gratis, and for nothing, until or unless you should receive a settlement satisfactory to you.”

“Oh, God, no, Mr. Goldstein. I wouldn’t dream of it. I hadn’t even spoken to my Aunt Edna since since, gee, my college graduation, and I’m sure Alistair needs her money more than I do, what with his house, and three kids, one in college and all.”

“Your brother, Mr. Goldsmith, was a wealthy man even before he received your aunt’s bequest. While you, if you don’t mind my saying so, live on the Bowery, Mr. Goldsmith.”

“Yes, this is true, Mr. Goldstein, I do technically live on the Bowery, but I have my own room, small, but with my own bathroom, and a two-burner hot plate, and my building is kept scrupulously clean even if it is a mite shall we say shabby.”

Mr. Goldstein paused.

There was a carved wooden cigarette box on his desk. He flicked it open, pushed it towards Gerry.


“Sure, thanks, Mr. Goldstein.”

Gerry reached over and took one out. Philip Morris Commander. He was used to rolling his own, so this was a real treat. He lighted it up with the desk lighter in the shape of a fat little Buddha.

“I admire you, Mr. Goldsmith.”

“You do? Whatever for?”

“Because you stick to your guns. You live the way you want to live, and you are a philosopher. How’s the book coming, by the way?”

“Thank you so much for asking, Mr. Goldstein. I am happy to report that I now have nine pages completed and all typed up!”

“Nine pages in a month – not bad. I think Gustave Flaubert would have been more than happy to produce nine pages in a month,” said Mr. Goldstein, without apparent irony.

“I probably would have had a dozen or more pages done,” said Gerry, “but, you know, the holidays.”

“Sure, the holidays, you’ve got to celebrate a little bit.”

Gerry touched his left breast where the remittance envelope was safely secreted.

“So the envelope really contains one hundred dollars?”

“It does, and for every month of your life from here on.”

“What a windfall! I can’t tell you how happy this makes me.”

“Look,” said Mr. Goldstein. “I’m going to be frank. Again, I shouldn’t say this, but I am seventy-two years old and I don’t care. Your brother Alistair is a rich man, and he’s made himself even richer with your late Aunt Edna’s estate. He is hoping to buy you off with fifty dollars a month, whereas, if you pursued the case, there is a very good chance you could come into possession of several hundred acres of prime Miami Beach real estate.”

“Miami Beach? Florida?”

“Yes. You have a very likely claim to the property, or at least a healthy piece of it. It might take a year or two, but you could wind up a well-off man yourself.”

It all struck Gerry as very tedious. Lawyers, depositions, having to show up in court early in the morning, when he loved to sleep late.

“Just say the word, Mr. Goldsmith, and I can start the ball rolling.”

“Miami Beach.”

“Miami Beach. Prime real estate, Mr. Goldsmith.”

“I don’t even like the beach, Mr. Goldstein. Thanks, but I can’t be bothered. I need to concentrate on my book you see.”

Gerry walked out of the building, onto 52nd Street. It was snowing. He took off his old fedora (Brooks Brothers, vintage 1927, graduation present, and unlike his old suit and chesterfield, it fitted him as well as it ever had), and he looked up at the glowing grey sky up there above the tops of the buildings, and he let the cold snowflakes dapple against his face.

One hundred a month. He decided on the spot that he would talk to his landlady Mrs. Morgenstern, and request, no, demand, that she raise his rent from fifteen a month to, what, thirty? No, let’s not go crazy here. Make it twenty-five, that was fair. Fortune had been good to him, and it was the least he could do to spread it around a little.

A cab stopped in front of him. A cab. He hadn’t taken a taxi-cab ride since – since when? Since his college days, with his friends, on a drunken spree.

He got into the cab.

“Where to, buddy?”

“Bleecker and the Bowery, please.”

He would stop off at Bob’s Bowery Bar – it was two-for-one hot dogs on Mondays. He would have four hot dogs, and, to celebrate his good fortune, a couple of mugs of bock to wash them down with. Then, up to his room and the old Royal portable. Just one good sentence maybe, and then a good long nap.

Life was good, and Gerry enjoyed his first cab ride in twenty-eight years, driving downtown through the snowy streets to his home in the slums.

Miami Beach, and Other Tales of the Bowery, by Horace P. Sternwall, a Pinnacle Books paperback original, 1955; out of print.

Friday, June 14, 2019

"The Bodhisattva Is My Buddy"

As he did on every first day of the month – or on the first Monday of the month if the first fell on a weekend or holiday – Gerry “the Brain” Goldsmith made the journey by foot and by subway from his sixth-floor walk-up tenement room at Bleecker and the Bowery to the midtown offices of the firm of Goldstein, Goldberg and Gold to pick up his remittance envelope.

Jerry emerged from the subway at 52nd Street into the bracing cold and looked up at that sky of solid steel grey up there between the buildings of Manhattan that scraped against it.

It was Monday, January the third – a new year!

At the age of forty-eight, Gerry  felt that his life had finally turned around. The previous month had been the best month of his life, since – since when? Perhaps since the month of his graduation (barely, but nonetheless) from Harvard, way, way back in that glorious year of 1927, when all of life lay spread out before him like an all-you-can-eat country club buffet. A week after getting his diploma he had boarded a tramp steamer for Calais with his graduation money in his Boy Scout wallet and with the security of his fifty dollars a month remittance (courtesy of the late Grandmother Goldsmith) for the rest of his life.

Yes, fifty a month went a long way in those halcyon days of the late 1920s, even in Paris, where he had lived lazily and contentedly for two years, in his cheap hotel on the rue Claude Bernard with the bathroom down the hall. 

But, sadly, as the years passed by after his return to the States (just in time for the crash of ‘29), and as Gerry passed from beamish boy into chubby and dissipated and terminally shabby middle-aged man, that fifty a month had become harder and harder to scrape by on. But Gerry had always remained true to his principles. He had never seriously considered getting a job, even when, as usually happened during the last week of a given month, he had to live on day-old pumpernickel bread and hard-boiled eggs and forgo bock beer and even roll-your-own tobacco, no, he had accepted his lot, and all the while he had continued his work on his great magnum opus, his book of philosophical reflections, begun back in his youthful days of loafing in the cafés of Montparnasse and the Latin Quarter, subsequently filling up dozens of those schoolboy marble composition books all through the grey years, and which, just this past month, he had finally begun “typing up” with his old Royal portable, finally rescued from pawn thanks to the unexpected inheritance of one thousand dollars from his Aunt Edna.

And then there had been that puzzling out-of-nowhere Christmas card from his younger brother Alistair, and their Christmas Eve afternoon meeting at the bar at the Plaza, culminating in Alistair slipping him an envelope containing five twenty-dollar bills. Oh, sure, Gerry knew why Alistair had given him the hundred, hoping to mollify him so that Gerry wouldn’t try to contest Aunt Edna’s will; it was so like boring Alistair. How much had the old girl left Alistair, anyway? A hundred thousand? More? Gerry had no idea, and he didn’t care. If he stretched out that thousand-dollar windfall he might not have to have a bockless and tobaccoless last week of the month for a couple of years, and by that time his book would be finished, perhaps already published, with the royalties just streaming in.

His latest title for the book?

The Bodhisattva Is My Buddy.
Ha ha, just what the reading public was ready for in these dull and humorless commercialized years of the 1950s!

{Continued here.}

The Bodhisattva Is My Buddy., and Other Fables of Our Modern Age, by Horace P. Sternwall; an Ace Books paperback original, 1955; one printing, never republished.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

"The Albigensian Heresy"

(Continued from here.}

The guy had a name of course, but nobody knew or cared what it was, because in Bob’s Bowery Bar he was known as Funk, short for “Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia”, which is what Gerry “the Brain” Goldsmith started to call him because Funk was always showing off how much he knew about everything. “Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia” was a little long, though, so pretty soon he just became known as “Funk”, Funk the obnoxious know-it-all.

Billy Baskins had never actually spoken to Funk, in fact Billy hardly spoke to anyone. He was known as a quiet guy in the bar, and no one knew that the reason he was so quiet was that he was an aspiring elegant international assassin, and Billy knew from his magazine stories that a good assassin was always a little mysterious, the quiet type. But Billy couldn’t help but overhear Funk, because besides being a know-it-all, he was loud. But one thing Billy knew, the guy was obnoxious, and nobody liked him. He really was a perfect choice for a practice assassination with Billy’s new pistol.

Billy really wanted not to screw up this job, and so he decided to take his time, to observe Funk, and study his habits, so that he could pull off the assassination at the perfect time and place, like a real professional.

Billy stuck his pistol into his waistband, put on his old coat and went down the six floors of his tenement and around the corner to Bob’s.

Funk was already there, and you could hear his annoying voice as soon as you came in the door, yammering away in his high-pitched whine.

There were seats open on either side of Funk, because no one wanted to sit next to him, but that didn’t keep him from butting into conversations on either side of him, all the way down to both ends of the bar.

Billy took a stool to the left of Funk and ordered the house bock.

“The Albigensian Heresy?” Funk was saying to the Brain, four seats away. “You want to know about the Albigensian Heresy? I’ll tell you all about the Albigensian Heresy!”

The Brain had been facing the other way, talking to that young poet guy Hector Philips Stone, but he turned around to address Funk.

“Why, no, Funk,” he said, “I don’t want to know all about the Albigensian Heresy, but thank you for offering.”

And he turned back to the young poet.

“I know all about the Albigensian Heresy,” said Funk. “All about it. Y’know what’s really inneresting about the Albigensian Heresy? I’ll tell ya, and this is something most people don’t know, because they don’t read, but I’ll tell ya –”

Suddenly Bob was standing in front of Funk and he rapped his Marine Corps ring on the bar, and everybody knew what that meant.

“Your beer is finished,” said Bob, “and so are you. Now get the hell out of here and don’t come back.”

“What, I can’t talk about the Albigensian Heresy?” said Funk. “What about the First Amendment? What about freedom of speech?”

“I’ll tell you about freedom,” said Bob. “Freedom from loud-mouthed obnoxious know-it-alls like you, which is what I’m gonna have as soon as you take your ass out that door. Or do I have to kick it out the door?”

“Wow,” said Funk. “A guy can’t even have a little conversation.”

“Out,” said Bob. “I ain’t gonna tell you again.”

“Jeeze,” said Funk. “I’m going, I’m going. Wow.”

And he scooped up his loose change from the bar and left.

Billy quickly finished his mug of bock.

“Thanks, Bob.”

“What? Only one?”

“Gotta meet somebody. Maybe I’ll be back later.”

He left a quarter for Bob and quickly walked out. So, a change of plans, but a professional assassin had to learn how to think on his feet. He would have preferred to wait and study Funk’s movements and habits, but it was now or never, because for all he knew he might never see Funk again, and he would have to find somebody else to practice an assassination on.

Outside he saw Funk walking slowly up the block, and Billy quickly followed him. Now was as good a time as any because the street was empty. It was just another cold Tuesday night on the Bowery, and anybody who could be inside and warm was inside and warm. When he was about six feet away from Funk he took out the pistol, aimed, pulled the trigger.

But the gun wouldn’t fire! He kept squeezing the trigger, because in the movies they always said squeeze, don’t pull the trigger, but nothing happened.

He shoved the gun back under his coat. How embarrassing.

Just then Funk stopped and turned around.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said.

“Hi,” said Billy.

“Did you see what Bob just did?”

“I did,” said Billy, joining him, “and I wanted to tell you I don’t think he was very fair.’

“I know! Can’t a guy talk?”

“Sure he can,” said Billy.

“You want to get a drink somewhere?” said Funk.

“Sure,” said Billy.

“You know any good places?”

“Sure,” said Billy. “Come with me, I know a great place.”

His fine mind was working overtime, the way an assassin’s mind should. He led Funk over towards the East River, where he said he knew this one really great bar where they let people talk if they wanted to talk.

When they reached a particularly deserted block of warehouses, Billy interrupted Funk, who was going on about the Albigensian Heresy again.

“Hey, Funk, you know anything about guns?”

“I know all about guns,” he said. “What do you want to know?”

“Well, I bought this pistol, and I know it’s loaded, but when I pull the trigger it won’t fire. Do you want to see it?”

“You mean you have it on you?”

“Yes, I bought it for personal protection.”

“Of course.”

Billy brought out the pistol.

“Ah, a .45,” said Funk. “Service model. So what’s the problem?”

“I pull the trigger but it won’t shoot.”

“Oh, jeeze, weren’t you in the service?”

“No, I was 4-F.”

“Here, gimme.”

Billy handed him the gun.

“Lookit,” Funk said. “You got to rack the slide first, like this, see? That puts a bullet in the chamber.”

“Ah, I get it,” said Billy. “So now it will shoot.”

“No, not yet. You see this little switch here? That’s the safety, you got to flick the safety down like this, and now it’s ready to fire.”

“Safety down, then fire.”

“Correct. Now I’m going to flick the safety up again, which means it won’t fire until you what?”

“Until I flick the safety down again?”

“That is correct.”

He handed the gun back to Billy.

“Thanks, Funk.”

“Actually, my name isn’t really Funk, it’s –”

Billy flicked the safety down, pointed the pistol at Funk’s chest, and fired. The pistol jumped in his hand, but he held onto it, and Funk fell backwards.

Billy looked around. Not a living soul. He bent over and looked down at Funk in the pale light of the street lamp. Funk stared up at nothing, and he would never talk about the Albigensian Heresy again.

The Return of the Last of the Elegant International Assassins, by Horace P. Sternwall, Monarch Books, 1952; out of print.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

"The Return of the Last of the Elegant International Assassins"

Billy Baskins realized that if he was ever going to become a successful elegant international assassin he would have to learn how to be much more careful.

His first “contract” had proved disastrous. True, he had successfully assassinated Marie McCarthy’s husband Jerry, but only after accidentally also assassinating Marie, who had hired Billy for the job in the first place. And so he hadn’t made a dime from the job. Billy realized later that he should have taken a quick moment to check Marie and Jerry’s persons to see if they had any money on them, but, no, he had been too drunk and panicked to think of that. Anyway, who was he kidding, how much money would a couple of stew bums like those two have on them, especially after celebrating Marie’s birthday in Bob’s Bowery Bar all night?

The first thing Billy decided was that he couldn’t just be assassinating people by hitting them on the head with a brick; he needed to get a gun, like a proper international assassin. This proved surprisingly easy to do, but then, after all, Billy lived in a very poor and crime-ridden slum, so if there was anywhere in the world one could hope to purchase an illegal firearm, where else but the Bowery?

All he did was go up to that gang of teenagers who hung out near Billy’s tenement. They were called the Windbreakers, probably because they all wore windbreakers, but then what did Billy know, maybe they wore windbreakers because their gang was called the Windbreakers?

Billy already knew the kids, because every time he passed “their” corner (northwest corner of Bleecker and the Bowery, right near Bob’s Bowery Bar) he had to give them fifty cents’ “toll”.

So this day, as he was giving their leader Terry his fifty cents, he came right out and asked the kid if he could get him a gun.

“What kind of gun, square man?”

Billy hadn’t given it much thought, but he said, “A pistol?”

Terry paused before answering, and looked up and down the block.

“Meet me in the alley outside Bob’s in one half hour, and bring fifty bucks.”

“Fifty?” said Billy. His savings were daily getting depleted, and it hadn’t occurred to him that illegal guns were so expensive. “Don’t you have anything cheaper?”

“No. But I got a government-issue .45 automatic with the serial number filed, and just because I like you, square man, I throw in a loaded seven-shot ammo mag.”

“Well, okay, then.”

Suffice it to say that one hour later (Terry had been over a half-hour late, and he hadn’t even apologized) Billy sat on his narrow bed in his sixth-floor tenement room holding his new pistol.

Terry had shown him how to pop the ammo magazine out and put it back in again, and Billy did this repeatedly, just for practice.

Now, while he was waiting for someone to offer him his next contract, it occurred to Billy that he should try a “practice” assassination.

But who should he assassinate? There were eight million people in this city. Surely thousands of those people would be missed by no one, and so the ethical thing to do (Billy knew that a good assassin always had a code of ethics) would be to pick out someone really obnoxious, someone who had no friends, someone no one would miss.

And Billy knew just the person!

That really boring guy who had started hanging out at Bob’s Bowery Bar lately – the one that they called “Funk”, short for “Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia”, because he was such a know-it-all. Yes, Funk would do, he would do just fine.

(Continued here.)

The Return of the Last of the Elegant International Assassins, by Horace P. Sternwall, Monarch Books, 1952; out of print.