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Weird Tales, May 1942

Maybe you've heard it said of someone, "he's scared of his own shadow." Well, here's the story of a man who had a damned good reason to be!

Black Bargain

By ROBERT BLOCH

IT WAS getting late when I switched off the neon and got busy behind the fountain with my silver polish. The fruit syrup came off easily, but the chocolate stuck and the hot fudge was greasy. I wish to the devil they wouldn't order hot fudge.

I began to get irritated as I scrubbed away. Five hours on my feet, every night, and what did I have to show for it? Varicose veins. Varicose veins, and the memory of a thousand foolish faces. The veins were easier to bear than the memories. They were so depressing, those customers of mine. I knew them all by heart.

In early evening all I got was "cokes." I could spot the "cokes" a mile away. Giggling high-school girls, with long shocks of uncombed brown hair, with their shapeless tan "fingertip" coats and the repulsively thick legs bulging over furry red ankle socks. They were all "cokes." For forty-five minutes they'd monopolize a booth, messing up the tile table-top with cigarette ashes, crushed napkins daubed in lipstick, and little puddles of spilled water. Whenever a high-school girl came in, I automatically reached for the cola pump.

A little later in the evening I got the "gimme two packs" crowd. Sports-shirts hanging limply over hairy arms meant the popular brands. Blue work-shirts with rolled sleeves disclosing tattooing meant the two-for-a-quarter cigarettes.

Once in awhile I got a fat boy. He was always a "cigar." If he wore glasses he was a ten-center. If not, I merely had to indicate the box on the counter. Five cents straight. Mild Havana — all long filler.

"Oh, it was monotonous. The "notions" family, who invariably departed with aspirin, Ex-Lax, candy bars, and a pint of ice-cream. The "public library" crowd—tall, skinny youths bending the pages of magazines on the rack and never buying. The "soda-waters" with their trousers wrinkled by the sofa of a one-room apartment, the "hairpins," always looking furtively toward the baby buggy outside. And around ten, the "pineapple sundaes"—fat women Bingo-players. Followed by the "chocolate sodas" when the show let out. More booth-parties, giggling girls and red-necked young men in sloppy play-suits.

In and out, all day long. The rushing "telephones," the doddering old "three-cent stamps," the bachelor "toothpastes" and "razor-blades."

I could spot them all at a glance. Night after night they dragged up to the counter. I don't know why they even bothered to tell me what they wanted. One look was all I needed to anticipate their slightest wishes. I could have given them what they needed without their asking.

Or, rather, I suppose I couldn't. Because what most of them really needed was a good long drink of arsenic, as far as I was concerned.

Arsenic! Good Lord, how long had it been since I'd been called upon to fill out a prescription! None of these stupid idiots wanted drugs from a drug-store. Why had I bothered to study pharmacy? All I really needed was a two-week course in pouring chocolate syrup over melting ice-cream, and a month's study of how to set up cardboard figures in the window so as to emphasize their enormous busts.

Well—

He came in then. I heard the slow footsteps without bothering to look up. For amusement I tried to guess before I glanced. A "gimme two packs"? A "toothpaste"? Well, the hell with him. I was closing up.

The male footsteps had shuffled up to the counter before I raised my head. They halted, timidly. I still refused to give any recognition of his presence. Then came a hesitant cough. That did it.

I found myself staring at Caspar Milquetoast, and nearly rags. A middle-aged, thin little fellow with sandy hair and rimless glasses perched on a snub nose. The crease of his froggish mouth underlined the despair of his face.

He wore a frayed $16.50 suit, a wrinkled white shirt, and a string tie—but humility was his real garment. It covered him completely, that aura of hopeless resignation.

TO HELL with psycho-analysis! I'm not the drug-store Dale Carnegie. What I saw added up to only one thing in my mind. A moocher.

"I beg your pardon, please, but have you any tincture of aconite?"

Well, miracles do happen. I was going to get a chance to sell drugs after all. Or was I? When despair walks in and asks for aconite, it means suicide.

I shrugged. "Aconite?" I echoed. "I don't know."

He smiled, a little. Or rather, that crease wrinkled back in a poor imitation of amusement. But on his face a smile had no more mirth in it than the grin you see on a skull.

"I know what you're thinking," he mumbled. "But you're wrong. I'm—I'm a chemist. I'm doing some experiments, and I must have four ounces of aconite at once. And some belladonna. Yes, and— wait a minute."

Then he dragged the book out of his pocket.

I craned my neck, and it was worth it. The book had rusty metal covers, and was obviously very old. When the ...

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