Breen’s first reaction, when he saw the gun, was to laugh.

A nervous laugh, to be sure, but Breen had an ability to look at himself in a detached, ironic sort of way in stress situations, and the thought of him getting robbed tickled his perverse inner funnybone.

He sat up, jarring the naked barmaid on top of him. He eased her off to one side. She was a cute, plump, German-looking girl with lots of yellow hair. Her lips were a blush-pink color. So were her nipples. She tried covering herself with the little black skirt she’d climbed out of moments before; it was like hiding behind a stamp. Breen was naked too, but he didn’t bother covering up. He got a carpet burn on his butt, though, sitting up so fast, surprised.

And the only thing he could see, at first, was the guns—one of them a .45, the other a shotgun, Jesus!—and the long black woolen overcoats, filling the doorway of the back room like two long shadows. The faces of the men were lost, for the moment, in the darkness and the turned-up overcoat lapels, but Breen remembered them immediately, remembered seeing the two men come into the bar an hour or so ago. Remembered the full-length dark coats and turned-up lapels and remembered how stiffly one of the men had walked, almost limping. Limp, hell—that had been the goddamn shotgun strapped to somebody’s thigh.

Which explained why the pair hadn’t bothered shrugging out of their heavy, wet coats to hang them up as they came in; why they retreated at once to the rear of the place, to a back booth near the men’s can, out of Breen’s sight.

And he hadn’t gotten a close look at the pair, either. The yellow-haired barmaid and another waitress, a sexy brunette who had resisted Breen’s advances and just worked there, took care of the customers in the little bar, while Breen just stayed back behind the counter mixing drinks, making occasional conversation. He’d had no contact with the two men, and probably wouldn’t even have noticed them particularly if it hadn’t been such a dead night.

Tonight, the late December freezing rain that had begun to turn to snow around seven was keeping everybody at home. The bulk of drinking done in Indianapolis tonight would be guys sitting in their kitchens with a bottle and glass, or in an easy chair with beer and pretzels and the boob tube for company. The night was so slow, in fact, the snow looking so blizzard-like, that Breen had closed up early, just after midnight. He was losing money staying open, it was so dead, and besides, that would give him two full hours with that Playboy Bunny of a barmaid and the wife none the wiser.

Women were a weakness of Breen’s. Not his worst weakness, but an easy second place. Gambling was his first love, of course —or lust, rather: Breen was a gambler the way a nymphomaniac is a lover, never quite getting out of it what was put in. But he’d kicked the habit, or anyway hoped he had; he hadn’t indulged in anything even as harmless as a penny ante poker game these past three months or so. The trick, of course, would be if he could resist the damn horses. It was easy enough to go cold turkey in December, when there was nothing doing but damn harness racing, which wasn’t racing at all, in his mind. But what about next summer, when the Chicago tracks started up, and he’d have the old itch to drive in on the weekend? December, sure, but what about fucking May?

Anyway, he was paid up. Didn’t owe no bookie no nothin’. Thanks to Nolan, Breen had been able to pay off those four gees he owed that pig bookie of his, and catch up on some of the back alimony and child support he owed his first wife, besides. Things were looking good. The world was spreading its legs for Breen. So was the yellow-haired barmaid, when the guys with guns came in.

She’d been on top of him. Doing her Linda Lovelace imitation and not a bad one at that, after which she’d started settling that sweet German ass down on him, and that’s when those fuckers came in.

Thieves, no less.

And he laughed.

Couldn’t help himself.

For a second, he laughed. Man bites dog. Thief gets ripped off.

That was Breen, that was what he was: a thief. A stocky, forty-two-year-old, black-haired, crew-cut, fleshy-cheeked, twice-married thief. Who ran a bar in Indianapolis with his brother-in-law Fred (the nights Fred had off were the nights Breen had on—on the plump, sexy waitress, that is) and lost more money on the horses than any bar, let alone one small, quiet, out-in-the suburbs neighborhood bar, could take care of. The only way Breen the gambler could survive was if Breen the thief got out and hustled.

And in the old days, the fifties, even on into the sixties, it hadn’t been so bad. It had been good, as a matter of fact, very good. He had worked with the best: guys like Laughlin, Metesky, Randisi, Nolan. Especially Nolan. Nolan was the best organizer in heisting, a real leader, somebody you felt confident working with. But things had started going to hell these last few years. Laughlin and Metesky and a couple of other good men were killed in Georgia little over a year ago, in a back roads chase like something out of the movies, only no happy ending: the damn car went off the side of the road, rolled, blew the fuck up. And Randisi, Christ, he’d just heard about Randisi the other day: shot through the throat, dead before he hit the ground, and the sad part was Randisi was robbing a fucking liquor store. A guy like Randisi robbing a liquor store, shit. That alone was enough to make you sick.

Christ, for a while there, seemed like everybody in the business was either shot or in stir or otherwise out of commission. Even Nolan.

A couple of years back, Breen and Nolan and some others had been in Chicago (Cicero, to be exact) getting a bank job together, when some syndicate guy shot the job right out from under them. Nolan had had some trouble with the Chicago Family years before, but everybody—including Nolan—had thought that to be past history. Well, it wasn’t, it was here and now, and Nolan and Breen and the rest of the string found out the hard way. Luckily only Nolan got tagged with a bullet, but the job went blooey, and Nolan was out of action for a time.

Initially Breen figured Nolan for dead, and so did about everybody else in the business. When Nolan turned up alive, several months later, no heist man worth a shit was willing to come near Nolan, who might as well have stayed dead. Even Breen had stayed clear of his old friend. The risks of the profession were great enough already without including somebody who was wanted by the Family on a job.

Breen had always worked with Nolan as often as possible, but with Nolan and so many other good people out of circulation, Breen had to take what he could get.

And what he could get, it turned out, was the Comforts.

That was what Breen called really hitting the bottom. About as bad as Randisi and the fucking liquor store. Stealing nickels and dimes, that’s what Breen was reduced to. Literally. Heisting goddamn parking meters with the goddamn Comfort family.

Crazy old Sam Comfort usually worked exclusively with his two sons, Billy and Terry, but Terry drew a short term for statutory rape a while back, and Comfort asked Breen to fill in till the boy got out. Breen had gambling debts to pay, and back alimony and such, and even though he knew old man Comfort had a reputation just slightly shadier than a two-dollar whore, Breen accepted Comfort’s offer. When you’re desperate, you’re desperate.

Actually, he had to give old Sam credit: the parking meter angle wasn’t such a bad one. Comfort had worked out a route along Interstate 80, of good-size cities with poorly lit sections of town where parking meters were ripe for picking; Breen and Billy Comfort wore khaki green uniforms with the words "Meter Maintenance" stitched on the back, and Billy would go around emptying meters with keys old Sam provided, bringing back buckets of coin for Breen to empty into the trunk of the Buick, behind the wheel of which sat Sam Comfort, monitoring police calls on a citizen’s band radio.

It had been a solid month of six-days-a-week hard work, and when he went to the Comforts’ rented farmhouse in Iowa City to collect his share of the nearly fifty thousand bucks that the unofficial meter maintenance team had taken in, Breen had discovered that all the bad things he’d heard about the Comforts were true, and more. Old Sam paid Breen his share by shooting him.

Once in the side, once in the leg.

But Breen had managed to get away, despite the pain and inconvenience of the two wounds. The Comforts, in their quaint, folksy manner, had gotten drunk before Breen showed up, which made evading them no great trick. The trick had been not getting killed by those first unexpected blasts.

Breen had scrambled to his car and got it going, while behind him the back windshield had turned into a big lacy glass doily, thanks to the hole punched in its middle by Sam Comfort’s handgun. He had driven the car to Planner’s, Planner being an old heist guy who was a good friend of Nolan’s. It turned out that Planner had died not long ago, and Nolan and a lad named Jon were presently staying in Planner’s place, getting the estate settled or some damn thing.

Anyway, Nolan helped Breen get on his feet, or rather on his back, providing a bed and patching him up and letting him stay there and heal a while. Furthermore, it turned out that Nolan’s troubles with the Family were really over this time, and Nolan was evidently thinking about getting back into circulation. On hearing of the Comforts and the double-cross, Nolan offered to get the money back for Breen.

Breen hadn’t been too hot on the idea. He was never one for revenge, placing his ass first on his priority list. Fuck, he was grateful just to be alive. Let bygones be bygones. He didn’t hold any grudge against those goddamn fucking asshole Comforts. But at least, he had told Nolan, if you do rip them off, kill them too. If you don’t, he’d told Nolan, you might as well kill me now, because the Comforts are going to figure me for this and come around and feed my balls to me, à la fucking carte.

But Nolan was hard to sway once he got an idea in his head, and Breen stayed behind, resting up in bed, while Nolan and Jon went off to the Comforts’ home territory—a farm in Michigan, near Detroit—and got the parking meter money back. Breen’s share and all the rest of it, too.

And the really nice thing was the Comforts—Sam and Billy anyway—had been killed in the process.It wasn’t Nolan’s style, killing people, or anyway, it wasn’t his style to kill people needlessly. But here there’d been a need: the old man and his son got wise to the heist and came out with guns. So Nolan and this kid Jon had killed them both.

Or anyway, that was what Breen had been told.

Because now, several months later, as he sat naked on the floor of the cramped, closetlike back room, on the soft carpeting he’d installed with cute, plump barmaids in mind (a German-looking, yellow-haired example of which was next to him, huddling in wide-eyed fright against stacked boxes of booze, a young girl as naked as he was and trying to hide behind an inch or so of black cloth), after he’d laughed momentarily at the thought of being caught with his pants down, of being a professional thief about to be robbed by some petty cheap-ass punks, Breen wondered if there was such a thing as ghosts.

Because one of the men aiming the ugly round, hoglike nostrils of a shotgun at him was a white-haired, gray-eyed old man with sardonic smile lines worn into his face, an ambiguously evil/innocent-looking old man named Sam Comfort. The other man, the one with the .45, wasn’t a man at all—he was a boy. At first Breen thought it was Billy Comfort. He thought both dead Comforts had come back from the grave after him. But it wasn’t Billy; it was Terry. Thin-faced, fair-haired Terry. The sole surviving Comfort, Breen had thought.

Till now.

And the laugh, that ironic laugh at the thought of man bites dog, caught in Breen’s throat like a chicken bone, and he felt naked. Naked as hell, more naked even than he was.

"No," old Sam said. "I ain’t dead. But you are."

And the old man swung the shotgun, firing, noise and smoke and fire exploding out one barrel, and the sound was a sonic boom in the little room, rattling the boxes of liquor, breaking bottles, shaking everything.

Breen swallowed, wondering why he was alive.

Then he looked to his right, looked over to where old Sam had swung the shotgun.

Looked over in the thankfully shadowy corner of the back room where the plump body of the barmaid had been tossed, flung, like a life-size inflatable doll with the air slowly seeping out of it. He looked at yellow hair and blood and the rest of what used to be a head with a pretty face on it, dripping down the side of the wall.

"Where’s Nolan?" old man Comfort said.

Copyright © 1982 by Max Allan Collins

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