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Black Mask

Five-Hat Minimum
by David Knadler

The first stripper had come on early, wearing little more than a cowboy hat and bedazzled vinyl chaps. Her act was mostly just prancing around cracking a bullwhip to the theme from Rawhide. A halfhearted chorus of whoops and catcalls erupted from the few bikers seated around the stage.

Terry Knife had seen a similar, better version in Saigon decades before. Still, he stared hard at the dancer. Clearly a newcomer to the field. With the hat and the makeup and the bright blue wig, it was hard to tell if this was the girl he’d come to find. Her height was about right. But he finally decided not and returned to his half-finished beverage.

He became aware of the big guy smirking at him from the end of the bar. Tight white T-shirt, bald head, and swollen biceps: had to be the bouncer. You’d need two in a place like this. When the act was over and the dancer was reaping her meager harvest of dollar bills, the guy came over to lean on the bar beside him.

“Hey, amigo. You can’t sit here for free, man. Two-drink minimum.”

“I figured.” Terry Knife waggled his glass. “I’ll take another Diet Sprite.”

The bouncer smiled apologetically. “Sorry, man. Don’t work like that. When you’re here for the dancers, management prefers you stick to the adult beverages.”

Terry licked his lips. He was tempted, of course. He’d already heard the sly whisper of the friendly demon inside him, telling him it couldn’t hurt to have a shot of Bushmills, just to be sociable. And then another. And so on. That whisper had started a couple of miles before he’d even pulled up to the bar. He blinked slowly and shook his head.

“Coming up on two years sober.” He nodded toward the “Rawhide” dancer. “Can’t throw that away for this level of entertainment.”

The bouncer nodded affably. “Yeah, okay, man. I get that. But you got to buy something, okay? T-shirt or something? How about a hat?”

Terry surveyed the souvenir apparel arrayed behind the bar, most of it bearing the Switchback Saloon’s raunchy slogan: “Liquor in Front. Poker in the Rear.”


The bouncer chuckled. “I know, right? Bikers love ’em, though.”

“Okay, give me one of the goddamned hats. Blue. Extra large.”

“One size fits all, man.” The bouncer was retrieving the hat when Skip Covey came in, trailed by a couple of his recent hirelings: second-string fullbacks in tank tops, not long out of high school. Unlike the bouncer, they had the blemished faces and overinflated look often associated with steroid abuse. Terry turned his face away in the hope he wouldn’t be noticed. A few seconds later, Skip was standing beside him. Tall, hatchet-faced, lean as a weasel. As usual, he wore a malevolent leer.

“Hey, hey, the drinkin’ man! What we got here?” He grabbed Terry’s glass and took a sip. He immediately spat it out. “What’s that, soda pop? Lawrence, did you explain our drink policy to this fat bastard?”

“I did. He’s off booze so we agreed he’d buy a souvenir.” Lawrence lifted the hat.

“Hat, huh?” Covey was still grinning. “I don’t think so. Sitting here sniffing the talent, one hat ain’t going to cut it. Make it five. New rule, Lawrence: five-hat minimum for horny old alkies with gimp legs.”

He put his hand on Terry Knife’s shoulder and leaned closer.

“You want to put that on your tab, tubby?”

Terry pushed the hand away. “Keep your hats. I’ll be on my way.”

He made to rise, but Covey grabbed his shoulder again, shoving down hard.

“Hell with that, man. You already seen the goods.”

He lifted his chin toward the dancer, who cast a concerned glance over her shoulder as she made her way backstage.

“You ain’t going nowhere until you buy your five goddamned hats.”

Terry Knife hadn’t been in an actual bar fight in about thirty years, so he was as surprised as anyone when a murderous rage—maybe another of those demons he’d acquired during his Marine Corps days—exploded somewhere within. He launched himself from the barstool swinging hard, just quick enough to land a glancing blow to Covey’s chin. Then the bouncer and the sidekicks were on him and he was pinned thrashing to the floor. Covey roared curses and strode in, kicking hard. The first missed; the second lit up the inside of Terry’s eyeballs. The third or fourth, he deduced later, put him down for the count.

*   *   *

He awoke to the grumble of Harleys, the sound of fat tires on gravel. The bass soundtrack for another stripper act throbbed in his head. He was in the parking lot, being held up by Lawrence.

“You okay? Can’t believe you took that shot at Skip. Didn’t think you had it in you.”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” The bouncer tentatively released his grip and Terry stumbled a bit to one side. Behind him, derisive laughter erupted from the front deck. Skip was there with an overweight biker arrayed in Harley regalia and denim vest. A skull-print do-rag completed the ensemble. Skip raised his middle finger cheerfully and returned to his conversation.

Lawrence steadied him again.

“Easy, partner. Which one’s your car?”

Terry waved toward the battered Ford Focus beyond a row of parked motorcycles. He felt the side of his head and discovered somebody had applied a folded paper towel there, held in place with a hat of some sort. His fingers came away bloody. He noticed Lawrence’s white T-shirt had acquired a bloodstain on one sleeve.

“That me? Sorry about the shirt.”

Lawrence chuckled. “No worries. I got a lot of them.”

They reached the car and Terry fumbled for his keys. Lawrence stepped back, hands on his hips. “Good to drive?”

“Never better,” Terry said.

At least he was sober. But in truth, he felt as drunk as he’d ever been. He was finding it difficult to focus his vision, and the world seemed to have developed a slight clockwise spin. He wondered if he’d suffered a concussion.

He folded himself into the little car, amazed at the spectrum of agony this produced. He got the key in the ignition on the second try. Lawrence stood watching as he backed out, nearly hitting a row of bikes parked behind him. He found drive on the gear shift and steered the car out of the parking lot.

He drove with exaggerated care, just the way he used to drive as a natural-born lush, not so long ago. The road from the Switchback Saloon down to the reservoir was the reason for the bar’s name: seven miles of tight turns and steep embankments on one side or another, and a serious shortage of guardrails. You had to pay attention. With each turn, he fought a rising nausea.

And now came one of those sudden, urgent needs to take a piss. That was another curse of one’s golden years: You always had to go. And when you did, you really had to go. Like right this freaking second.

Terry braked, steered the car off to the right as far as he could. Which wasn’t far: a cliff scarred with blast bores bordered this side of the road; the other side fell away in a rocky embankment. Beyond it he could only see the tops of trees and the black water of the reservoir below.

He moved to the back of the car, struggling with his fly in the glow of the taillights. Despite the urgency, he stood there dribbling like a rusty tap. He cursed. There was a time he could have pissed across the highway.

And now he heard the throaty roar of a Harley Davidson engine, saw the asphalt brightening in the glare of an approaching headlight. The bike was coming on pretty fast. He realized he hadn’t parked nearly far enough beyond the blind curve. He realized he’d left the door open.

The rider was leaning into the curve as he came around it and noticed the car too late. He started to lay the big bike down, but it caught the open door with a mighty clang and continued directly over the embankment in a spray of sparks. A split second later came the sickening crunch of metal on stone.

“Shit!” Terry cried. He struggled to button himself up as he limped to the far edge of the road.

The Harley was forty feet downslope, twisted in the rip-rap boulders. Its twin black saddlebags had been torn loose, one flap hanging partly open. The handlebars were bent nearly double but somehow the headlight remained on. It illuminated the biker himself farther down, a leg and arm twisted at impossible angles.

Terry started clambering down the rock but stopped when he reached the bike. The guy was surely dead. The skull-print do-rag had proven wholly unsuitable for crash protection. His head had been shattered like a watermelon. Blood and gore gleamed on the rocks around him. The coppery smell of it mixed with the aroma of brimstone and leaking gas.

Terry had seen much worse. But the nausea he’d felt earlier could no longer be denied. He doubled over into full-blown puking. The billed hat he couldn’t remember acquiring tumbled right into the puddle, along with the bloody paper towel. He had tears in his eyes as he wiped his mouth on his sleeve. Well, he thought, it was turning into quite the enchanted evening.

He thought to call 911. He slapped at his pockets but his phone was gone; who knew where it was now? He turned to climb back to his car. Then looked back. One of the saddle-bag flaps had been partially torn open. He thought later that he wouldn’t have looked closer except for the flash of white lettering. He leaned closer; it was one of the stupid Switchback “Liquor in Front” hats. He picked it up. And reeled back in astonishment at the plastic-wrapped bundles packed tightly beneath it.

*   *   *

The kitchen had darkened a bit by the time Terry finished his story. It was noon the following morning. Despite the sunny forecast, some cumulonimbus was towering in the west and it now looked like a late-afternoon thunderstorm was a possibility. His bum knee, often sensitive to changes in the weather, seemed to concur.

Former deputy sheriff John Ennis, now five years retired, rinsed out his cup. He leaned to the window and scanned the road.

“You count it?”

Terry shrugged. “Hundred and eighty-five grand, give or take. I was thrilled at first. Almost made up for the beat down. Pay off my house for that, maybe step up from that piece of shit Focus.”

“Lot of cash for your average biker.”

Terry rolled his eyes. “Yeah, ain’t it.”

“Skip Covey, huh? Figures. Those brothers have been slinging dope since they were kids. Meth and weed, then. Probably fentanyl now. I expect the bar is a good way to launder cash too.”

Terry nodded. “Waylon’s now the owner of record. Skip’s little brother. I think he’s the only one who hasn’t been in the joint yet. They put some poker machines in back, hired some dancers. I’m guessing they have whores turning tricks in those cabins. Far as I can tell, the clientele is now about ninety-nine percent bikers.”

He rubbed his ruined leg. “Hell of a turnaround. Switchback’s always been a dump, but an honest dump, you know? Probably a dozen different owners over the years and none of them ever had a spare twenty bucks lying around.”

“Magic of the drug trade.” Ennis sighed. “Skip and Waylon, captains of industry. They keep bouncing back, don’t they?”

Terry nodded grimly. “Don’t forget Ike. The one you busted after he burned up his trailer cooking meth? He’s out now too. He’s the oldest, but still the meanest. Bat-shit crazy, I’m told.” His brow furrowed. “I tuned up Ike one time outside Stockman’s, way back in the seventies. May have overdone it. Actually, that’s probably why Skip came after me.”

“Family’s pretty good at bearing grudges. I never got along with old Skip either.” Ennis nodded at the gym bag. “I’m guessing the loss of a hundred and eighty-five large will come to his attention at some point.”

Terry put a hand on the bag. “Kind of why I’m here. On the one hand, I can really use the cash. On the other hand . . .”

“I’m curious why you were out there in the first place. You drinking again?”

Terry resented the casual way Ennis framed the question, as though asking if he’d had lunch yet. Nobody seemed to appreciate his daily struggle. Staying sober was a lonely road. But he just shook his head.

“No,” he said stonily.

Ennis nodded. “Okay.”

There was a long pause in the conversation. Terry spoke first.

“You remember my biological son Carlo.”

“Biological. Sure. Burned up your Caddy and framed you for armed robbery. Nice kid.”

“We get along okay now. Still kind of an asshole. But it’s his sister I’m worried about. Jasmine.”

The last time Ennis had seen Jasmine Vasquez, she’d been a pudgy nine-year-old struggling with a bike that was too big for her. It had been only a couple of weeks after her mother had died in a traffic accident. Jasmine had been living in the house with her drunken half-brother Carlo. As a sheriff’s deputy, Ennis had thought it wise to alert child protective services. He heard she’d been placed with a good foster family in Worland, but hadn’t heard anything since.

“She’s twenty now,” Terry said. “I’ve kind of kept track of her. You know, birthdays and what not. Just watching out. She did real well in high school. Quite the looker now too.”

“I’m hoping this is a fatherly interest.”

Terry scowled. “Give me a break, Ennis. I know people still have me down for the horndog I was back in the day. This ain’t that. I ain’t her dad, but I don’t mind acting like it. Okay?”

Ennis nodded. “Got it. So what about her?”

“Heard from Chuck Butler that she was working out there now. At the Switchback. I just about shit when I heard that. Kid has so much potential. Valedictorian at her graduation. Dancing for a bunch of stinking bikers.”

“Dancing? You confirm that with her?”

“Haven’t seen her yet. She’s been working the front desk at InterBel; they told me she took a couple of personal days. I went by her apartment but nobody was home. Cell phone goes to voice mail. That’s why I went out to the bar. Thought maybe I could have a word . . . but then Skip and his crew showed up.”

Ennis sat down at the table. Both men regarded the gym bag in silence.

Terry cleared his throat. “So what do you think?”

Ennis stood and took another long look out the window. He looked like a man pondering an ethical dilemma, but he wasn’t. He was calculating risk versus benefit. The risk was attracting brutal vengeance from the Covey clan. The benefit was undercutting a longtime nemesis. Ennis had done battle with Skip and his brothers before, and sported a crescent-shaped scar above his right eye as proof of it.

“All right,” he said. “Since we’re talking about the Coveys, I don’t see much wrong with keeping it.”

“No kidding! I was just wondering if you thought I should get a Swiss bank account or something. No way Skip Covey’s getting one cent of this money back. Shit, I’d die first.”

“Could happen,” Ennis said. “My experience, extreme violence is always Plan A with the Coveys.” He touched the scar. “Want my advice? Hide the cash someplace and just lay low. Keep your mouth shut. Give it a few days, see what happens.”

Terry grunted. “Dick Tracy over here. Yeah, okay. But as long as we’re waiting, I seem to have lost my phone. Mind if I use yours?”

*   *   *

Skip Covey was seated at the bar, turning Terry Knife’s shitty little flip phone in his hands. It figured that the old bastard would have a phone like this—reminded him of one of those Cricket phones they used to advertise on TV, shaped like a toilet seat.

Skip, of course, had the latest iPhone on a belt holster. He felt like a real businessman wearing it. Which is just what he was these days: a businessman. Taking care of business. And business was pretty damned good, what with his new associates in Spokane.

Skip opened the flip phone, snapped it closed. Last night had been sweet, finally putting the boots to the guy who’d beat up his brother Ike in similar fashion all those years ago. Skip had been eleven then. It was one of the few things he still remembered like it was yesterday.

He and Waylon had been huffing paint in the back of Ike’s pickup outside Stockman’s. Waiting for Ike, until he’d come flying out the back entrance and stumbled to his knees in the gravel. Behind him was Terry Knife. Skip had struggled to make sense of it: Here was Ike, who for years had handily kicked the shit out of anyone who looked at him wrong, now getting his own ass handed to him by this short bastard everybody said had been a Marine in Vietnam.

Skip and Waylon had both been too scrawny and too wasted to intervene, so they hadn’t tried. Just sat there staring. It still bothered him that they hadn’t done anything. They could have thrown rocks or something. The thing was, Ike had never been quite the same since.

Skip jumped when the flip phone rang in his hands. Unknown number. He opened the phone and held it to his ear, grinning. He pitched his voice higher, mimicking the perky cadences of a receptionist.

“You’ve reached the offices of noted pedophile Terry Knife. How may I direct your call?”

A brief silence on the other end.

“Yeah, I’m going to need the phone back.”

Skip recognized the voice and laughed.

“Really? Piece of shit like this, I thought you threw it away. But yeah, sure. Come on out and get it. It’ll be in the ladies’ room toilet. That’s the one you use, right?”

“You know, those three other guys hadn’t been there, you might not be sounding so chipper today.”

“They weren’t there, I might have killed your fat ass. And then I’d be even chippier.”

Terry Knife didn’t reply.

Skip, relishing last night’s violence, now became aware of something that had been bothering him since.

“You got lucky with that sucker punch. Then that guy of mine. Lawrence. He’s the one should have been kicking your ass; instead he pulls me off just when I’m getting warmed up. He your gay boyfriend or something?”

“How’d you guess, Skip? Look, just leave the phone at the bar and I’ll be out to pick it up. If it’s not in the toilet, I’ll forgo the assault charges. Up-and-coming businessman like yourself probably doesn’t want that kind of hassle, right?”

“I’ll show you hassle, fat boy.”

“So that’s a yes?”

In truth, Skip had considered the possibility of a visit from the law. Skip was paying off a couple deputies in Worland but there might be others in the county who hadn’t got the word. And he really didn’t want the law poking around here at this critical juncture of the business.

“Come on and find out,” he said. He snapped the phone shut.

He walked around the bar and poured himself a generous portion of Maker’s Mark. He had finished it and was contemplating another when Lawrence showed up for work. Skip watched him in the bar mirror.

Again with the snowy-white T-shirt. It had impressed Skip at first, a sign of professionalism, but now he realized the man’s dress and demeanor didn’t project near enough menace. Guy didn’t even have a neck tattoo. Skip glanced over at the pool table, where his two other assistants were leaning on their cues, trying to project an air of menace. He’d told them to stick around just in case.

“You’re late.”

Lawrence examined his wristwatch, his impressive forearm rippling with the move. Skip now considered that his two new bodyguards weren’t quite as . . . toned as Lawrence. Not even close. Really, all they were was big.

“Twenty minutes early by my watch, Mr. Covey.”

Mr. Covey. That was another thing that had impressed Skip during the initial interview. Now it just made him seem like a pussy.

“We go by bar time here. Like I said.”

“You didn’t mention it. But now I know.”

Skip tapped his glass on the bar. He swiveled the stool to face Lawrence.

“Be that as it may.” Skip had heard that line on TV once. “Be that as it may. I ain’t real happy with your general performance, Lawrence.”

The big man said nothing, his face as blank and placid as a damned milk cow.

“You weren’t any help with the old guy last night. Pushed me off when you should have been putting the boots to him. Then I see you out there after, making nice in the parking lot. Ain’t what I pay you for. So you’re fired. Get the hell out of here.”

He swiveled back to the bar, feeling like Donald Trump on The Apprentice. Taking care of business. In the mirror, he noticed the two kids tense up and take a step forward, still gripping their pool cues. But Lawrence didn’t move, except to fold his massive arms and smile.

“Well, that’s pretty sudden. But, okay. I’ll need my pay now.”

Skip shook his head. “Sandy will cut a check at the end of the month. She’ll mail it to you.”

“I’ll take it today, Skip.”

No more Mr. Covey now. Skip frowned.

“Counting today, comes to three hundred and twenty-eight dollars,” Lawrence said. “I’ll take it in cash.”

“Today? No way, dipshit! You ain’t even . . .”

And now Lawrence was standing beside him. Guy was quick, give him that. The two kids stayed right where they were, mouth breathing. Might as well have their dicks in their hands as those pool cues. Christ, you couldn’t get good help these days. Lawrence put one large hand on Skip’s shoulder, almost the same move Skip had used on Terry Knife the night before.

“Let’s go get it from your safe,” Lawrence said gently. “Then I’ll get out of your hair.”

*   *   *

After Lawrence had gone, Skip had a team-building session with his two bodyguards. At least it started that way. But his temper quickly took wing, as it often did, and in the space of ten seconds he was screaming obscenities, advancing on them until both were against the pool table.

Finally, he stepped back. His face was still red and he was breathing hard.

“Okay, now I forget your goddamn names. Which is which?”

Both were looking at the floor as they nodded. One lifted a hand. “Jason. He’s Cole.”

“Okay, let’s review the job description, Jason and Cole. One. More. Fucking. Time. Nobody touches the boss. Ever. If you ever get the faintest clue that somebody might lay a hand on me, what are you going to do?”

Cole spoke first. “Uh, stop them?”

“Close. But no, Cole, you don’t just stop them. You beat the living Christ out of them until I tell you to quit. You take those pool cues and swing for the fences until I judge the threat to be neutralized. Got that, retards?”

Both nodded. Skip nodded too.

“Good! That’s good! Do your jobs and it’ll look real good on a resume someday. One more thing: I want you both strapped from now on. Might be times when pool cues don’t cut it. I got some spare guns in back.”

Now both men smiled.

*   *   *

Terry Knife showed up an hour later. Skip saw the ruined Ford Focus pull into the gravel lot, marveled that anyone could be seen driving such a wreck. Something had happened to the driver’s door too—it was strangely warped and seemed to be held shut with a bungee cord. He hadn’t noticed it the night before.

Skip almost laughed watching Terry get out. He noted the man’s new injuries with satisfaction. The limp wasn’t new, but the severity of it was. Skip remembered the old days, when Terry Knife would cruise Worland’s main street in that black Cadillac convertible, top down and one local beauty or another snuggling up to him. Real big man, back in his snowmobile stunt-riding days. How the mighty had fallen.

Jason and Cole were out back now, shooting at bottles with the bootleg Glocks he’d provided. It had quickly become clear that they needed the practice. A new volley of shots boomed up through the trees and Terry stopped mid limp. For just an instant he looked ready to hit the dirt. Skip chuckled.

“Incoming!” he called.

The man was a wreck, no doubt about it. Skip strolled from the door to lean against the deck railing.

“You look like shit. Need more hats?”

“Where’s my phone?”

Skip reached into his pocket, placed the phone on the railing. “Here you go.”

Terry hobbled forward and was reaching for it when Skip nudged it off the railing onto the gravel.

Terry straightened and stared. Skip grinned, hoping the old bastard would lose his temper again. A little mano a mano might be just what the doctor ordered this fine afternoon. This time, he’d go to town on old Terry without any interruptions. But the older man bent with difficulty and picked up the phone.

“Now beat it,” Skip said. “Don’t want to see your sorry ass here again.”

“One other thing,” Terry said. “You have Jasmine Vasquez working out here?”

“Who, now?”

“You know who. I need to talk to her.”

Skip stepped down onto the gravel. “You after one of my strippers? You ain’t talking to nobody. I said: Get yourself gone. Before I kick in the other side of your head.”

Skip wasn’t sure how to read the expression Terry Knife now wore, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t fear. That annoyed him, especially when the man actually smiled. Showing his teeth. Terry held up the phone.

“Thanks anyway. Owe you one. You ever lose anything, give me a call.”

What the hell was that supposed to mean? And now his new iPhone rang at his hip. The two men stared at each other for another beat before Skip grabbed the phone and glanced at the screen. Spokane.

“Get lost, asshole,” he said. “I have to take this.”

*   *   *

Two minutes later, Skip was staring at his own reflection in the black screen of the iPhone. He didn’t like the worried face looking back at him. Spokane was inquiring about the cash that was supposed to have arrived this very morning. Spokane had made specific threats and allegations. Spokane had implied he could expect a follow-up visit soon.

Skip bellowed a string of obscenities, fought an urge to hurl his phone into the trees. It was always some damned thing, wasn’t it? Just when business seemed to be taking off. Why, why did shit like this always happen to him?

Off behind the bar, he could hear another ragged volley of shots from his two thoroughbred bodyguards. Dumb and dumber. No doubt they were still missing the Bud Light bottles from ten feet away. Now he almost regretted firing Lawrence.

He had to hope Jason and Cole were acquiring some measure of competence with the bootleg Glocks. Especially if Spokane’s people were planning a hostile visit. He still had some cash in the safe, but nowhere near the amount now missing.

Where had it gone? The courier? Doubtful. The man had handled bigger sums in the past few months and had always delivered on time. Skip grimaced and stared at the sky. Then he remembered Terry Knife’s cryptic parting shot. And shouted another curse, so loud it echoed in the trees.

*   *   *

Terry opened the phone as he drove. It was dead, of course. Either the battery had given out or Skip had indeed submerged it in a toilet bowl. Or done something even worse—the man was a malignant child in many ways. Terry tossed the phone on the seat. He reminded himself to wash his hands later.

The good news was, Skip had first seemed clueless about the missing money. The bad news: Now his own big mouth had probably made sure that was no longer the case. Ennis would say it was a stupid thing to do. And he still had no line on Jasmine.

Terry slowed as he rounded the hairpin turn and drove by the place where the Harley had crashed. He’d looked for it on the way up. You couldn’t see the wreckage from the road, just a vague fifty-foot scrawl on the pavement.

But now there were ravens. They had arrived in force. It was another hot day; no doubt they’d been summoned by the smell of decomposing biker. They were like a sign saying: Big dead thing just down this way.

Oh well. No point dwelling on the past. He did have a score to settle, after all. And his personal philosophy was that vengeance didn’t count unless the target knew from whence it came.


Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2023 Five-Hat Minimum by David Knadler

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