It was unseasonably cold in Central Florida. I had bartered with the cab driver and was successful at knocking two bucks off the fare. The money saved (in exchange for a silver lighter) would buy me at least one stiff scotch at a seedy dive bar called "The Web." Even if I tipped the guy pouring hooch I'd still have enough change to ride Pacific Electric's trolley back to my cold water flat.
My trench coat was wrapped tight to my shoulders when I slipped past the threshold of the joint. The temperature inside was more accommodating -- although the bartender didn't speak "tab." Cash with every pour -- rule number one.
My second toss was sweet but bitter. I massaged the remaining currency in my coat pocket -- hoping that I could cover a third drink.
Out of the shadows a lean stiff with a pointed nose moved in my direction. Somewhere in my head I seemed to hear the sound of a single violin. Later that would become ironic.
"Buy ya another, pal?" he said. This guy's cadence was more than a bit dodgy. He carried himself with the timber of a man educated in the Midwest who had roots in California. A steady hand -- with fingers that could herd the keys of a typewriter or helm a raft on the Mississippi.
"Sure," I said. "Why not?"
"You look like a fella who might be willing to mix things up."
"Oh ya think so, eh?"
"Yeah. I do," he responded. "Like the kind of guy who knows exactly how to reply to anything someone else might write."
I nodded -- without taking my eyes off the flack.
"I might have a little work for you."
"Oh yeah?" I remarked. "Well I'm not interested in laying down roots in the big house --- you get that?"
"No, no," he said -- tossing his hands up in defense. In an attempt to further mollify my concerns he motioned to the bartender who poured me a fourth.
"It's nothing illegal. Just a little bit funny. I got an idea, see? I think I can do something incredible. Be as big as Jim Hill or Harold Vogel. That sort of thing."
I became agitated. "What are you talkin' about? You say: 'Jim Hill.' I reply: Who the hell is Jim Hill?"
The guy smiled. "That's exactly what I need."
I leaned back a bit. Still not so sure what was going on. I downed the fourth shot. He ordered me number five.
"Call me Robert," he said. "I think this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
"Okay," I muttered. "But before all that, I gotta bump off some rube named Rao."
(For Mr. Hoskins).