Beneath the red neon halo of promise, Elmer rubbed his hands together at the prospect of murder.
“He ain’t comin”, Gantry said.
“Shut up,” Elmer snapped. “He’s comin’. Every morning, he shows up. Feeds the bums before the early morning rush.”
“‘Early morning rush’?” Gantry asked. “What ‘early morning rush’?”
“Old Kaufmann sells the cheapest meat in town,” Elmer said. “Cheapest meat in the next five towns.”
“How come I ain’t heard of him, then?” Gantry asked, scratching himself.
“Because you ain’t ate nothin’ didn’t come out of an Iron City brew can in years, y’old drunk. Now shut up. He’s coming.”
Gantry hocked something onto the pavement, took a quick scan of Main Street. At 4:30 in the morning, tucked in darkness of pre-dawn, it was the quietest place on Earth. The problem was, it was always 4:30 in the morning on Main Street. The Hoffscheiner Department Store anchored one end of the street, the Pennsylvania Third Miners Bank anchored the other, and all that was left between them was Arlene’s dusty old luncheonette, the Chevron station, and ancient Kaufmann’s Save On Meats. At some point, Main Street had become Skid Row.
“I don’t know,” Gantry mused, rubbing his gray chin. “If what you’re sayin’ is right, won’t stickin’ the old man up raise hackles?”
“Whaddaya mean?” Elmer asked.
“I mean, you got half the hobos along 80 West linin’ up here at one point or another. Then–if what you’re sayin’ is right–you got a whole ‘nother batch a’ people comin’ here for their grub, willin’ to pay good money for this guy’s meats.”
“Exactly. The guy’s gotta have some dough.”
“Yeah, but alls I’m sayin’ is, it’s like robbin’ the parish priest or somethin’. I’m not lookin’ for the State Troopers to be knockin’ down my door or nothin’.”
“You see any witnesses ’round here?” Elmer asked softly.
Gantry did not.
“This is the first time in weeks this place hasn’t been crowded with bums and crazies,” Elmer went on. “Old man Kaufmann ain’t the type to have cameras–none a’ these old bastards are. Who can afford it?”
“So what yer sayin’ is…”
“What I’m sayin’ is, it’s the perfect crime. Now shut the Hell up–he’s comin’.”
Kaufmann shuffled down Main Street from the direction of what used to be Germantown. Hunched little man, faded gray suit hanging off his shoulders, eyebrows blending into a crown of white hair, squinty eyes framed by thick black spectacles.
“Ach!” he coughed. “So early, and I’ve already got a crowd waiting for me!”
“It’s just the two of us, pops,” Elmer said kindly. “And we’re awful hungry.”
“Of course you are!” Kaufmann croaked. “Of course! Come in! Come in! I have plenty! Plenty to eat, plenty for all. Come in!”
Elmer winked at Gantry as the elder fumbled with his keys, got the shop open, ushered them in. They watched him got through his routine, ducking carefully behind the counter, putting the apron over his head, turning on the fluorescent lights in the counter to showcase his wares.
“You don’t wanna turn the overhead lights on, pops?” Elmer asked innocently. “Awful dark in here.”
“Well,” Kaufmann shrugged, “a man must cut costs any way he can these days. No, the main lights go on when the morning rush begins. Now…how may I help you boys? You live around here?”
“Oh, yeah, on Buckpen Road,” Gantry said.
Elmer looked at him like he’d grown antlers. Gantry winced.
“Ah! Buckpen Road!” Kaufmann nodded sagely. “Mostly old bungalows out there. I remember when they had a custard stand just at the entrance, right off the Keystone Parkway. Not a lot of room for families over there. You two have anyone waiting for you? I can put a package together for stew, if that’s what you need. Stew lasts a family for days.”
“Nah, we don’t need nothin’ for stew,” Gantry grumbled.
“Bachelors, then? Well, I have a few flank steaks I can cut up. They’re a day old, but they’ll get you through…”
Gantry saw Elmer casing the place. He gulped. He was less comfortable about this by the minute. “Flank steaks’re fine, there. That’ll do fine…how long you been here, anyway?”
“Oh, this was my father’s shop,” Kaufmann said, laying a red mass on the chopping block, which was gray-brown from all the blood it had sponged up over the years, zig-zagged with gashes. The old man went to work with a pair of carving knives. “He opened it in 1893! Just come here from Bayern. You know where that is?”
“Nah,” Elmer said.
“That’s Bavaria. Oh, the town was great back then. The old steel mill was active, the coal mines were busy, downtown was a sight to see! My father, he believed in Christian charity, you know. Truly. People don’t know, but we’ve been making these little, ah, ‘care packages’ ever since the place opened. Oh yes, in the Depression, we kept a lot of families fed. In the 60s, when the mill closed, we were there for our Union boys, yes we were. And now? Well, I suppose it’s just habit, now.”
“Is that right?” Elmer purred.
Gantry was sweating. This was all wrong. The old man was thin as paper–how the Hell could they put a guy like that down? It was like killing a puppy. And here he was putting steaks together for them, wrapping them in wax paper, asking about their kids… Gantry backed towards the door. Elmer saw him, and made a face like a rabid pitbull. Before Gantry’s hand could touch the door, Elmer’s big, stupid .44 was waving in the air.
“THE MONEY!” he crowed.
Kaufmann blinked. Gantry’s mouth flopped like a beached whale’s.
“GIVE IT, YOU ROTTEN OLD BASTARD!” Elmer howled. “THE MONEY!”
Kaufman set down the little bloody packs of wax paper, wiped his hands on his apron. “I see.”
“GOD-DAMNED RIGHT. MONEY. NOW.” Elmer cocked the .44 for emphasis.
Kaufmann fixed his glasses, sighed. “Yes. Of course. The money.” He turned, limped over to the dusty old cash register.
“Elmer, man,” Gantry whispered, “this is screwed up. C’mon. Let’s just get out of here.”
“He’s already seen our faces, you idiot,” Elmer seethed. “And you told him where we lived.”
“Aw, shit, Elmer. C’mon.”
“WHERE’S THE MONEY, OLD MAN?”
“You know,” Kaufmann said, his back to them, working the little manual levers on the register, “it’s such a shame you young men weren’t a little older. If you’d seen this town in its heyday…oh, it was so good, back then. It’s such a shame to see how our men have to fend for themselves, now. Even in the Depression, you know, men knew how to carry themselves. Dignified. Honorable. Those were real men, back then.”
“YOU SOME KIND OF FRUIT, KAUFMANN?” Elmer barked.
“Oh, no,” Kaufmann said, digging around the register’s interior. “I just remember a time when men were civilized. Not like now. Now we’re like dogs. Which is a terrible thing for a town like this…”
“Come on, Elmer. Stop it, man. Let’s go…I don’t wanna do this anymore…”
“Shut up, Gantry,” Elmer warned. “WHERE’S THAT MONEY, OLD MAN?”
“…yes, a terrible thing, seeing a town like this turn to a pack of dogs…”
“Let’s just go,” Gantry whined.
Elmer whirled, put the .44 in Gantry’s face.
“…but for a butcher, maybe a town of dogs is not such a bad thing,” Kaufmann said, turning.
Elmer looked over, saw the double barrel shotgun.
And that was that.
When the smoke cleared, Kaufmann sighed. He’d not had to fire that cannon in years. The vagrants who wandered in were usually just filthy beggars–odious, but not particularly dangerous. They went quietly: knife up between the ribs, sometimes across the throat. But this…well, thankfully Sheriff Dumbarton’s rounds didn’t start for an hour, and Main Street was–as usual–empty. In a couple of hours, the morning rush would start. Arlene would stop by for her day’s ration for the luncheonette. Old Sadie would be stopping by for first cut for brisket. The Lowry boy would be by for steak cubes for his wife and kids. And the Scwartzkes, customers for years. Yes, meat was expensive if you went through normal vendors, but the Kaufmanns had been keeping costs down for decades. ‘An hour ’til Sheriff Dumbarton stops by for his weekly pound of roast beef,’ Kaufmann thought, appraising Elmer and Gantry as they cooled on his shop floor. Plenty of time to carve up new meat for the morning rush.