Ray “Killer” McElhone stood sweating on the small stage in his ratty baggy pants and porkpie hat, which were kind of his trademark. The room was dense with drifting smoke, and he was pretty sure some of it was coming from the old ceiling fan’s crummy wiring. The odor of beer-soaked wood and drunken sweat and just a little bit of urine was potent.

“So my day job, I wait tables up at the Garden Inn, right? For the swells? So the other day I bring this four-top a couple ice waters, and the gent goes: “I don’t like ice in my water,” and I tell him: “Well—wait a few minutes.”

The smallest snicker came from the sloppy drunk girl at a table up front (there was always a drunk girl up front). She was sitting with a guy who was either a sailor or pretending to be Popeye—it was hard to tell with the lights in his face.

Ray had gotten the nickname Killer years before after a particularly good set at Max’s Rock Room. That’s what folks called it, when a comedian did really well. They’d say “he killed that night”, and truthfully he had.

But tonight was different. Tonight everything depended on him being funny, because just offstage to his left, a man in a long coat held a gun to Mazzie’s head. Mazzie had been Killer’s girl since not long after he’d started performing Friday nights at The Blue Bottle Fly. She was young and tall and gorgeous and had no business going around with a loser like him, but he didn’t question it.

“The other night I was gonna make dinner, and I was trying to decide whether to have tomato soup, or chicken noodle. And I wondered ‘why is there no such thing as tomato noodle soup?’ And then I realized that’s spaghetti.”

That one got a pretty good laugh. The man in the wings even smiled, but his finger didn’t leave the trigger. Mazzie stared at him with terrified green eyes and even now he couldn’t help stare at the high cut of her outfit, climbing way up her thighs as it did.

Killer had to kill tonight. That was the bargain. If he didn’t, Mazzie would die. How he’d gotten both of them into this particularly dire situation involved a long, convoluted string of events—some of them random happenstances, but most of them just plain bad choices he’d made. To complicate matters, he’d been bombing a lot lately. Maybe his material was getting stale, or maybe the crowd’s taste was evolving as the years went on. Or maybe he’d just lost it.

If that was the case, he and Mazzie were both dead.

Killer took a swig from the beer bottle on the little stool next to him. It was against the house rules for the comics to drink while performing their sets, but Tobias the manager was unconscious backstage—the guy with the gun had done that—and besides Killer needed it to steady his nerves. Plus, it led into a good one coming up:

“So my girl, she sometimes worries I drink too much…”

Incongruously, the drunk girl in front broke up at that—too inebriated, maybe, to realize that wasn’t the punchline yet. But her outburst threw Killer off. In an instant he forgot the rest of the joke, and in another instant he realized he’d frozen: the worst thing that could happen to a comic.

A still moment passed. An awful, silent still moment. Killer took another swig of beer, glancing to his left only to see the man with the gun stiffen. He saw Mazzie staring at him with pleading eyes: finish the joke! they said. She’d heard this one a million times, she could probably finish it herself. It wasn’t all that funny, but it usually got a laugh. But it was gone. There was no hope now. His mind was blank. He’d been here before: all he could do was embrace it and move on:

“So there’s this guy…” Killer began, taking another swig of beer. “He’s standing offstage right to my right here. And you know what he’s doing?” A couple members of the audience murmured no and what and the usual garbled responses.

“He’s pointing a gun at my girl, and if I don’t get you folks laughing, you what what he’s gonna do? He’s gonna shoot her, and then me.”

Some folks actually laughed at that. Killer could see the man tense out of the corner of his eye. He was playing things dangerous here, he knew. He was risking both Mazzie’s life and his own, but he figured: they were already at risk, weren’t they? Best thing was to lean into it.

“You know every comic’s nightmare is to die on stage, and I’m telling you, now I know why.” The audience gave out a good general laugh for the follow up. Nothing like that night at the Rock Room, but still, he was encouraged enough to keep going with this bit:

“There’s that saying, everyone’s a critic? Well, this is why we don’t let them carry sidearms.” A mediocre response. The man with the gun was just staring at him, now. Maybe he thought Killer was playing some angle, or had a plan—which of course he didn’t. He was simply out of good ideas.

“Why don’t we welcome him out on stage, folks? I mean that’s the friendly thing to do…” he stared back at the man, who was looking around, unsure what to do. Mazzie’s eyes glistened with tears. She knew exactly how dangerous this game he was playing was.

When the man didn’t move, Killer spoke again: “Aww, you know what? I think he’s got stage fright. C’mon, friend, let the good folks thank you for giving me my motivation.”

“Yeah, c’mon out!” Shouted the drunken woman in front, sticking her fingers out like six shooters. He was gaining allies, at least. But the man didn’t budge.

Killer leaned into the mic: “I’m serious, I’m not telling another joke until this fella comes out.” This was his only way out, and he knew it. In the next twenty minutes he could be as funny as he’d ever been, and he and Mazzie would both die tonight all the same—he was sure of it. His mistakes had gotten them into this position, and it was up to him to find a way out of it.

Killer wasn’t talking. He was staring offstage at the man. The audience knew something was going on. A few boos came from the back. The man actually lowered his gun a fraction.

Killer leaned close and whispered into the mic: “C’mon friend, don’t keep the good folks waiting…” More boos and calls for the man to come out came from the smoky darkness behind the spotlights. Someone actually yelled C’mon out and kill him, at least that’d be something. Finally the man tucked his gun back into his coat, and—still holding tight to Mazzie—stepped out.

Two things happened: the crowd broke into loud applause, and the man was momentarily blinded by the spotlights. That was what Killer had been counting on. As the gunman tried to shield his eyes from the glare, Killer took four rapid steps and swung his fist at him.

Of course he missed. Of course he instead managed to clock Mazzie a glancing blow. But at least he knocked her aside—out of the grip of the man.

Killer was dimly aware of yelling and scuffling in the audience behind him, but he was too focused on the immediate danger. The man had reached his hand into his overcoat pocket and grabbed his gun, and all Killer could think to do was grab the gunman’s wrist and try to keep him from drawing it and firing; but of course he was way overmatched in strength, and the barrel of the gun came up bit by bit. It went off, and there was a high-pitched scream from the audience. It sounded an awful lot like that drunk woman.

The gun was still coming up, and Killer knew he’d miscalculated. This guy was gonna shoot him, and then he’d shoot Mazzie. Mazzie who deserved so much better than a beat-down comic like Killer. This is all my fault, he thought as he watched the barrel rise.

Then Killer felt a shuddering impact travel through the arm he was holding, and the gunman went limp, sagging to the floorboards at his feet. Tobias the manager stood there, a big claw hammer in his hand, rubbing his sore head. That thick German skull had served him well.

“Vat bad bizness dis man vant vith you, Killer?” he asked, but Killer was already kneeling by Mazzie. She was shaken, but otherwise okay.

The police came. The man with the gun was taken away. The drunk woman from the front row had only been grazed by the shot, but they put in an ambulance all the same just to be safe. She’d have a tale to tell the gals at the office on Monday. After a while, the place returned to normal. It was still early, and Killer had another set to do before last call.

He stepped back on stage, and tapped the mic. From offstage, Mazzie beamed at him, smiling and proud, one hand rubbing her sore jaw.

“So let me tell you about the last time I went to Pittsburgh…”

“KILLER” originally appeared in Punk Noir Magazine, 2021.

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