The Real Cool Killers

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Trade Paperback

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around November 28, 1988. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

The book that Walter Kirn said was like “Hieronymus Bosch meets Miles Davis” (The New York Times). * Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones get personally involved in a gang dispute in one of the most provocative cases in Chester Himes’s groundbreaking Harlem Detectives series.

Many people had reasons for killing Ulysses Galen, a big Greek with too much money and too great a liking for young black girls. But there are complications–like Sonny, found standing over the body, high on hash, with a gun in his hand that fires only blanks; a gang called the Moslems; a disappearing suspect; and the fact that Coffin Ed’s daughter is up to her pretty little neck in the whole explosive business.



"I'm gwine down to de river,
Set down on de ground.
If de blues overtake me,
I'll jump overboard and drown …"

Big Joe Turner was singing a rock-and-roll adaptation of Dink's Blues. The loud licking rhythm blasted from the jukebox with enough heat to melt bones.

A woman leapt from her seat in a booth as though the music had struck her full of tacks. She was a lean black woman clad in a pink jersey dress and red silk stockings. She pulled up her skirt and began doing a shake dance as though trying to throw off the tacks one by one.

Her mood was contagious. Other women jumped down from their high stools and shook themselves into the act. The customers laughed and shouted and began shaking too. The aisle between the bar and the booths became stormy with shaking bodies.

Big Smiley, the giant-sized bartender, began doing a flatfooted locomotive shuffle up and down behind the bar.

The colored patrons of Harlem's Dew Drop Inn on 129th Street and Lenox Avenue were having the time of their lives that crisp October night.

A white man standing near the middle of the bar watched them with cynical amusement. He was the only white person present.

He was a big man, over six feet tall, dressed in a dark gray flannel suit, white shirt and blood-red tie. He had a big-featured, sallow face with the blotched skin of dissipation. His thick black hair was shot with gray. He held a dead cigar butt between the first two fingers of his left hand. On the third finger was a signet ring. He looked about forty.

The colored women seemed to be dancing for his exclusive entertainment. A slight flush spread over his sallow face.

The music stopped.

A loud grating voice said dangerously above the panting laughter: "Ah feels like cutting me some white mother-raper's throat."

The laughter stopped. The room became suddenly silent.

The man who had spoken was a scrawny little chicken-necked bantamweight, twenty years past his fist-fighting days, with gray stubble tinging his rough black skin. He wore a battered black derby green with age, a ragged plaid mackinaw and blue denim overalls.

His small enraged eyes were as red as live coals. He stalked stiff-legged toward the big white man, holding an open spring-blade knife in his right hand, the blade pressed flat against his overalled leg.

The big white man turned to face him, looking as though he didn't know whether to laugh or get angry. His hand strayed casually to the heavy glass ashtray on the bar.

"Take it easy, little man, and no one will get hurt," he said.

The little knifeman stopped two paces in front of him and said, "Efn' Ah finds me some white mother-raper up here on my side of town trying to diddle my little gals Ah'm gonna cut his throat."

"What an idea," the white man said. "I'm a salesman. I sell that fine King Cola you folks like so much up here. I just dropped in here to patronize my customers."

Big Smiley came down and leaned his ham-sized fists on the bar.

"Looka here, big, bad, and burly," he said to the little knifeman. "Don't try to scare my customers just 'cause you're bigger than they is."

"He doesn't want to hurt anyone," the big white man said. "He just wants some King Cola to soothe his mind. Give him a bottle of King Cola."

The little knifeman slashed at his throat and severed his red tie neatly just below the knot.

The big white man jumped back. His elbow struck the edge of the bar and the ashtray he'd been gripping flew from his hand and crashed into the shelf of ornamental wine glasses behind the bar.

The crashing sound caused him to jump back again. His second reflex action followed so closely on the first that he avoided the second slashing of the knife blade without even seeing it. The knot of his tie that had remained was split through the middle and blossomed like a bloody wound over his white collar.

"… throat cut!" a voice shouted excitedly as though yelling Home Run!

Big Smiley leaned across the bar and grabbed the red-eyed knifeman by the lapels of his mackinaw and lifted him from the floor.

"Gimme that chiv, shorty, 'fore I makes you eat it," he said lazily, smiling as though it were a joke.

The knifeman twisted in his grip and slashed him across the arm. The white fabric of his jacket sleeve parted like a burst balloon and his black-skinned muscles opened like the Red Sea.

Blood spurted.

Big Smiley looked at his cut arm. He was still holding the knifeman off the floor by the mackinaw collar. His eyes had a surprised look. His nostrils flared.

"You cut me, didn't you?" he said. His voice sounding unbelieving.

"Ah'll cut you again," the little knifeman said, wriggling in his grip.

Big Smiley dropped him as though he'd turned hot.

The little knifeman bounced on his feet and slashed at Big Smiley's face.

Big Smiley drew back and reached beneath the bar counter with his right hand. He came up with a short-handled fireman's axe. It had a red handle and a honed, razor-sharp blade.

The little knifeman jumped into the air and slashed at Big Smiley again, matching his knife against Big Smiley's axe.

Big Smiley countered with a right cross with the red-handled axe. The blade met the knifeman's arm in the middle of its stroke and cut it off just below the elbow as though it had been guillotined.

The severed arm in its coat sleeve, still clutching the knife, sailed through the air, sprinkling the nearby spectators with drops of blood, landed on the linoleum tile floor, and skidded beneath the table of a booth.

The little knifeman landed on his feet, still making cutting motions with his half arm. He was too drunk to realize the full impact. He saw that the lower part of his arm had been chopped off; he saw Big Smiley drawing back the red-handled axe. He thought Big Smiley was going to chop at him again.

"Wait a minute, you big mother-raper, till Ah finds my arm!" he yelled. "It got my knife in his hand."

He dropped to his knees and began scrambling about the floor with his one hand, searching for his severed arm. Blood spouted from his jerking stub as though from the nozzle of a hose.

Then he lost consciousness and flopped on his face.

Two customers turned him over; one tied a necktie as a tourniquet about the bleeding arm, the other inserted a chair leg to tighten it.

A waitress and another customer were twisting a knotted towel about Big Smiley's arm. He was still holding the fireman's axe in his right hand, a look of surprise on his face.

The white manager stood on top of the bar and shouted, "Please remain seated, folks. Everybody go back to his seat and pay his bill. The police have been called and everything will be taken care of."

As though he'd fired a starting gun, there was a race for the door.

When Sonny Pickens came out on the sidewalk he saw the big white man looking inside through one of the small front windows.

Sonny had been smoking marijuana cigarettes and he was tree-top high. Seen from his drugged eyes, the dark night sky looked bright purple and the dingy smoke-blackened tenements looked like brand new skyscrapers made of strawberry-colored bricks. The neon signs of the bars and pool rooms and greasy spoons burned like phosphorescent fires.

He drew a blue steel revolver from his inside coat pocket, spun the cylinder and aimed it at the big white man.

His two friends, Rubberlips Wilson and Lowtop Brown, looked at him in pop-eyed amazement. But before either could restrain him, Sonny advanced on the white man, walking on the balls of his feet.

"You there!" he shouted. "You the man what's been messing around with my wife."

The big white man jerked his head about and saw a pistol. His eyes stretched and the blood drained from his sallow face.

"My God, wait a minute!" he cried. "You're making a mistake. All of you folks are confusing me with someone else."

"Ain't going to be no waiting now," Sonny said and pulled the trigger.

Orange flame lanced toward the big white man's chest. Sound shattered the night.

Sonny and the white man leapt simultaneously straight up into the air. Both began running before their feet touched the ground. Both ran straight ahead. They ran head on into one another at full speed. The white man's superior weight knocked Sonny down and he ran over him.

He plowed through the crowd of colored spectators, scattering them like ninepins, and cut across the street through the traffic, running in front of cars as though he didn't see them.

Sonny jumped up to his feet and took out after him. He ran over the people the big white man had knocked down. Muscles rolled on bones beneath his feet. He staggered drunkenly. Screams followed him and car lights came down on him like shooting stars.

The big white man was moving between parked cars across the street when Sonny shot at him again. He gained the sidewalk safely and began running south along the inner edge.

Sonny followed between the cars and kept after him.

People in the line of fire did acrobatic dives for safety. People up ahead crowded into the doorways to see what was happening. They saw a big white man with wild blue eyes and a stubble of red tie which made him look as though his throat were cut, being chased by a slim black man with a big blue pistol. They drew back out of range.

But the people behind, who were safely out of range, joined the chase.

The white man was in front. Sonny was next. Rubberlips and Lowtop were running at Sonny's heels. Behind them the spectators stretched out in a ragged line.

The white man ran past a group of eight Arabs at the corner of 127th Street. All of the Arabs had heavy, grizzly black beards. All wore bright green turbans, smoke-colored glasses, and ankle-length white robes. Their complexions ranged from stovepipe black to mustard. They were jabbering and gesticulating like a frenzied group of caged monkeys. The air was redolent with the pungent scent of marijuana.

"An infidel!" one yelled.

The jabbering stopped abruptly. They wheeled in a group after the white man.

The white man heard the shout. He saw the sudden movement through the corners of his eyes. He leaped forward from the curb.

A car coming fast down 127th Street burnt rubber in an ear-splitting shriek to keep from running him down.

Seen in the car's headlights, his sweating face was bright red and muscle-ridged; his blue eyes black with panic; his gray-shot hair in wild disorder.

Instinctively he leaped high and sideways, away from the oncoming car. His arms and legs flew out in grotesque silhouette.

At that instant Sonny came abreast of the Arabs and shot at the leaping white man while he was still in the air.

The orange blast lit up Sonny's distorted face and the roar of the gunshot sounded like a fusillade.

The big white man shuddered and came down limp. He landed face down and in a spread-eagled posture. He didn't get up.

Sonny ran up to him with the smoking pistol dangling from his hand. He was starkly spotlighted by the car's headlights. He looked at the white man lying face down in the middle of the street and started laughing. He doubled over laughing, his arms jerking and his body rocking.

Lowtop and Rubberlips caught up. The eight Arabs joined them in the beams of light.

"Man, what happened?" Lowtop asked.

The Arabs looked at him and began to laugh.

Rubberlips began to laugh too, then Lowtop.

All of them stood in the stark white light, swaying and rocking and doubling up with laughter.

Sonny was trying to say something but he was laughing so hard he couldn't get it out.

A police siren sounded nearby.


The telephone rang in the captain's office at the 126th Street precinct station. The uniformed officer behind the desk reached for the outside phone without looking up from behind the record sheet he was filling out.

"Harlem precinct, Lieutenant Anderson," he said.

A high-pitched correct voice said, "Are you the man in charge?"

"Yes, lady," Lieutenant Anderson said patiently and went on writing with his free hand.

"I want to report that a white man is being chased down Lenox Avenue by a colored man with a gun," the voice said with the smug sanctimoniousness of a saved sister.

Lieutenant Anderson pushed aside the record sheet and pulled forward a report pad.

When he'd finished taking down the essential details of her incoherent account, he said, "Thank you, Mrs. Collins," hung up and reached for the closed line to central police on Centre Street.

"Give me the radio dispatcher," he said.

Two colored men were driving east on 135th Street in the wake of a crosstown bus. Shapeless dark hats sat squarely on their clipped kinky hair and their big frames filled up the front seat of a small, battered black sedan.

Static crackled from the shortwave radio and a metallic voice said: "Calling all cars. Riot threatens in Harlem. White man running south on Lenox Avenue at 128th Street. Chased by drunken Negro with gun. Danger of murder."

"Better goose it," the one on the inside said in a grating voice.

"I reckon so," the driver replied laconically.

He gave a short sharp blast on the siren and gunned the small sedan in a crying U-turn in the middle of the block, cutting in front of a taxi coming fast from the direction of The Bronx.

The taxi tore its brakes to keep from ramming into the sedan. Seeing the private license plates, the taxi driver thought they were two small-time hustlers trying to play big shots with the siren on their car. He was an Italian from The Bronx who had grown up with bigtime-gangsters and Harlem hoodlums didn't scare him.

He leaned out of his window and yelled, "You ain't plowing cotton in Mississippi, you black son of a bitch. This is New York City, the Big Apple, where people drive–"

The colored man riding with his girl friend in the back seat leaned quickly forward and yanked at his sleeve. "Man, come back in here and shut yo' mouth," he warned anxiously. "Them is Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson you is talking to. Can't you see that police antenna stuck up from their tail."

"Oh, that's them," the driver said, cooling off as quickly as a showgirl on a broke stud. "I didn't recognize 'em."

Grave Digger had heard him but he mashed the gas without looking around.

Coffin Ed drew his pistol from its shoulder sling and spun the cylinder. Passing street light glinted from the long nickel-plated barrel of the special .38 revolver, and the five brass-jacketed bullets looked deadly in the six chambers. The one beneath the trigger was empty. But he kept an extra box of shells along with his report book and handcuffs in his greased-leather-lined right coat pocket.

"Lieutenant Anderson asked me last night why we stick to these old-fashioned rods when the new ones are so much better. He was trying to sell me on the idea of one of those new hydraulic automatics that shoot fifteen times; said they were faster, lighter and just as accurate. But I told him we'd stick to these."

"Did you tell him how fast you could reload?" Grave Digger carried its mate beneath his left arm.

"Naw, I told him he didn't know how hard these Harlem Negroes' heads are," Coffin Ed said.

His acid-scarred face looked sinister in the dim panel light.

Grave Digger chuckled. "You should have told him that these people don't have any respect for a gun that doesn't have a shiny barrel half a mile long. They want to see what they're being shot with."

"Or else hear it, otherwise they figure it can't do any more damage than their knives."

When they came onto Lenox, Grave Digger wheeled south through the red light with the siren open, passing in front of an eastbound trailer truck, and slowed down behind a sky blue Cadillac Coupe de Ville trimmed in yellow metal, hogging the southbound lane between a bus and a fleet of northbound refrigerator trucks. It had a New York State license plate numbered B-H-21. It belonged to Big Henry who ran the "21" numbers house. Big Henry was driving. His bodyguard, Cousin Cuts, was sitting beside him on the front seat. Two other rugged-looking men occupied the back seat.

Big Henry took the cigar from his thick-lipped mouth with his right hand, tapped ash in the tray sticking out of the instrument panel, and kept on talking to Cuts as though he hadn't heard the siren. The flash of a diamond in his cigar hand lit up the rear window.

"Get him over," Grave Digger said in a flat voice.

Coffin Ed leaned out of the right side window and shot the rear-view mirror off the door hinge of the big Cadillac.

The cigar hand of Big Henry became rigid and the back of his fat neck began to swell as he looked at his shattered mirror. Cuts rose up in his seat, twisting about threateningly, and reached for his pistol. But when he saw Coffin Ed's sinister face staring at him from behind the long nickel-plated barrel of the .38 he ducked like an artful dodger from a hard thrown ball.

Coffin Ed planted a hole in the Cadillac's front fender.

Grave Digger chuckled. "That'll hurt Big Henry more than a hole in Cousin Cut's head."

Big Henry turned about with a look of pop-eyed indignation on his puffed black face, but it sank in like a burst balloon when he recognized the detectives. He wheeled the car frantically toward the curb and crumpled his right front fender into the side of the bus.

Grave Digger had space enough to squeeze through. As they passed, Coffin Ed lowered his aim and shot Big Henry's gold lettered initials from the Cadillac's door.

"And stay over!" he yelled in a grating voice.

They left Big Henry giving them a how-could-you-do-this-to-me-look with tears in his eyes.

When they came abreast the Dew Drop Inn they saw the deserted ambulance and the crowd running on ahead. Without slowing down, they wormed between the cars parked haphazardly in the street and pushed through the dense jam of people, the sirens shrieking. They dragged to a stop when their headlights focused on the macabre scene.

"Split!" one of the Arabs hissed. "Here's the things."

"The monsters," another chimed.

"Keep cool, fool," the third admonished. "They got nothing on us."

The two tall, lanky, loose-jointed detectives hit the pavement in unison, their nickel-plated .38 specials gripped in their hands. They looked like big-shouldered plowhands in Sunday suits at a Saturday night jamboree.

"Straighten up!" Grave Digger yelled at the top of his voice.

"Count off!" Coffin Ed echoed.

There was movement in the crowd. The morbid and the innocent moved in closer. Suspicious characters began to blow.

Sonny and his two friends turned startled, pop-eyed faces.

"Where they come from?" Sonny mumbled in a daze.

"I'll take him," Grave Digger said.

"Covered," Coffin Ed replied.

Their big flat feet made slapping sounds as they converged on Sonny and the Arabs. Coffin Ed halted at an angle that put them all in line of fire.

Without a break in motion, Grave Digger closed on Sonny and slapped him on the elbow with the barrel of his pistol. With his free hand he caught Sonny's pistol when it flew from his nerveless fingers.

"Got it," he said as Sonny yelped in pain and grabbed his numb arm.

"I ain't–" Sonny tried to finish but Grave Digger shouted, "Shut up!"

"Line up and reach!" Coffin Ed ordered in a threatening voice, menacing them with his pistol. He sounded as though his teeth were on edge.

"Tell the man, Sonny," Lowtop urged in a trembling voice, but it was drowned by Grave Diggers's thundering at the crowd: "Back up!" He lined a shot overhead.

They backed up.

Sonny's good arm shot up and his two friends reached. He was still trying to say something. His Adam's apple bobbed helplessly in his dry wordless throat.

But the Arabs were defiant. They dangled their arms and shuffled about.

"Reach where, man?" one of them said in a husky voice.

Coffin Ed grabbed him by the neck, lifted him off his feet.

"Easy, Ed," Grave Digger cautioned in a strangely anxious voice. "Easy does it."

Coffin Ed halted, his pistol ready to shatter the Arab's teeth, and shook his head like a dog coming out of water. Releasing the Arab's neck, he backed up one step and said in his grating voice: "One for the money … and two for the show …"

It was the first line of a jingle chanted in the game of hide-and-seek as a warning from the "seeker" to the "hiders" that he was going after them.

Grave Digger took the next line, "Three to get ready …"

But before he could finish it with "And here we go," the Arabs had fallen into line with Sonny and had raised their hands high into the air.

"Now keep them up," Coffin Ed said.

"Or you'll be the next ones lying on the ground," Grave Digger added.

Sonny finally got out the words, "He ain't dead. He's just fainted."

"That's right," Rubberlips confirmed. "He ain't been hit. It just scared him so he fell unconscious."

"Just shake him and he'll come to," Sonny added.

The Arabs started to laugh again, but Coffin Ed's sinister face silenced them.

Grave Digger stuck Sonny's revolver into his own belt, holstered his own revolver, and bent down and lifted the white man's face. Blue eyes stared fixedly at nothing. He lowered the head gently and picked up a limp, warm hand, feeling for a pulse.

"He ain't dead," Sonny repeated. But his voice had grown weaker. "He's just fainted, that's all."

He and his two friends watched Grave Digger as though he were Jesus Christ bending over the body of Lazarus.

Grave Digger's eyes explored the white man's back. Coffin Ed stood without moving, his scarred face like a bronze mask cast with trembling hands. Grave Digger saw a black wet spot in the white man's thick gray-shot black hair, low down at the base of the skull. He put his fingertips to it and they came off stained. He straightened up slowly, held his wet fingertips in the white headlights; they showed red. He said nothing.

The spectators crowded nearer. Coffin Ed didn't notice; he was looking at Grave Digger's bloody fingertips.

"Is that blood?" Sonny asked in a breaking whisper. His body began to tremble, coming slowly upward from his grasshopper legs.

Grave Digger and Coffin Ed stared at him, saying nothing.

"Is he dead?" Sonny asked in a terror-stricken whisper. His trembling lips were dust dry and his eyes were turning white in a black face gone gray.

"Dead as he'll ever be," Grave Digger said in a flat toneless voice.

"I didn't do it," Sonny whispered. "I swear 'fore God in heaven."

"He didn't do it," Rubberlips and Lowtop echoed in unison.

"How does it figure?" Coffin Ed asked.

On Sale
Nov 28, 1988
Page Count
160 pages