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Jimmy Slick was at his table, just where I’d seen him last, but this time he was dead. I didn’t notice he was dead right away, and no one else in the joint was any wiser, but when I plunked a glass of gin down in front of him and he didn’t react, I knew something was up. Nothing else was amiss; Alice had been in her position outside The Bucket and gave me the all-clear signal as I approached. Jimmy had been alone when he went in, and whoever had done him hadn’t aroused her suspicions.
I sat next to what used to be Jimmy and looked him over, trying not to draw any attention. Cause of death was pretty easy to establish; there was a knife between his shoulder blades, the puncture neat and clean, hardly bleeding at all. An expert job. I got that crawling feeling that someone was right behind me at that moment, ready to do the same to me. When I turned around, however, there was no one there.
I looked around the place to see if anyone had taken an interest in my activities, but all the other people sat at the bar, staring into their drinks, as if the answers to life were to be found there. I leaned forward and put my head near Jimmy’s, as if speaking conspiratorially, while I went through his pockets. A fat wad of cash, a battered switchblade, some small change, driver’s permit, and a key ring with a house key and the key to a Ford.
I almost missed it. One of his hands was clenched tightly shut. With a shudder I pried open his cold fingers to find another key, a smaller one but finely crafted. I didn’t take the time to inspect it then, I just slipped it into my pocket. Somewhere there was a lock it fit into, and it couldn’t be coincidence he was holding it when he died.
I leaned back and looked at Jimmy. He hadn’t wanted to get involved, but I had talked him into it. He’d been a weasel, but an OK guy for that. Now he was dead, and his murder was going to be pinned on me. Just another problem on top of all the others. I tossed back my whiskey. Now I was angry.
Another figure entered the bar. He was dressed like just another Joe but he wasn’t there to drink. He crossed directly to my table and sat. “Did you find anything?” he asked.
“An unusual amount of cash,” I said. “This your work?”
“No, but I know the man who did it.”
“Guy knows his stuff.”
“Yes. He has many talents. How much cash?”
“I didn’t count.”
“Nothing else out of the ordinary?”
I shrugged. “A piece-of-junk blade, some small change, keys—”
The other’s eyes narrowed. “What sort of keys?” Bingo.
I stood. “Check for yourself.” I walked over to the bar and caught the attention of the barman. “A gin and a bourbon for my friends over there,” I said gesturing back to the table. I put some dough on the bartop and started for the door. I looked back and I saw the unblinking eye of a pistol pointed at me from under the table. “See you boys later,” I said, and neatly slid the murder rap onto my new friend.
“Yes, you will,” he said. “Soon.”
I had Jimmy’s address from his driving permit, but I suspected that if whatever the key had been there it wasn’t any longer, and whoever had it could just use a hammer to spring it open. No, the key itself was what mattered, not the lock it opened. Alice was going to have a lot of legwork to do.
I stepped out onto the street, blinking in the sun, cursing the heat, and turned up the avenue.
Alice wasn’t there.
Tune in next time for: Nest of Vipers!