We are pleased to share with you a very special short-short noir tale by a true master of the macabre! This one surely ranks in the top tier with stories by Cornell Woolrich, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and David Goodis as far as I am concerned. -The Black Bird
“Johnny on the Spot”
by Frank Belknap Long
From Unknown (Dec. 1939)
I was Johnny on the spot. I had left a guy lying in a dark alley with a copper jacketed bullet in him, and the cops were naming me. They were also naming a torpedo named Jack Anders. Anders had ducked out of the alley, the back way, without stopping to see if I was tagging after. The bullet had come out of Anders’ gun, but I was as much to blame as he was for what had happened.
Wait—I’ve got to be honest about this, I was more to blame. He was the trigger man, but I had put the finger on the guy in the first place. I wanted to get away from the bright lights, because when I stared at my hands in the glare of the street lamps they seemed to change color. I couldn’t stand the sight of myself in the light. My red hands—
In the dark I could forget about my hands. I wanted to dance in darkness to the strains of soft music. It was a screwy sort of urge—considering. All over town the teletype was naming me. By going into that taxi dance hall I was exposing myself to more publicity on the same night.
I should have stayed with the crowds in the street. But I’m a restless sort of guy. When I get a yen I have to satisfy it, even if it means extra leg work for the cops.
A dozen heavily rouged dolls in romper suits were standing around under dim lights when I entered the hall. I walked past the ticket window and mingled with the sappy-looking patrons. The Johnnies who patronize taxi dance halls are all of one type—dumb, awkward-looking clucks who have to shell out dough to get favors from dames.
With me it’s different. All I have to do is snap my little finger. I don’t mean I could have got by in there without buying a ticket. Not for long. But there’s a rule which says you can look the dames over and walk out again if you’re not suited. All I did at first was mingle with the patrons and size up the dames. And that’s how I came to overhear the conversation.
The two dames who were whispering together were standing off in one corner away from the ropes. One was a blonde with cold eyes and an “I’ve been around” look.
The other girl was young and sweet, I could tell just by looking at her that she hadn’t been around at all.
The blonde’s eyes were boring like a dental drill into the younger girl’s face. I stood close beside her, listening to what she was saying. She wasn’t giving that poor kid a ghost of a break.
“You’re pretty smart, aren’t you?” she taunted. “You think you’ve got something.”
The dark-haired girl shook her head. “No, Dixie, no. I didn’t say that. I don’t know why he likes me. I swear I don’t.”
“Quit stalling, hon. You know how to use what you’ve got. You’re smart, all right, but not as smart as I am. I’m taking him from you, see?”
Sudden terror flared in the younger girl’s eyes. She grasped her companion’s wrist and twisted her about.
“You can’t do that! I love him. I love him, do you hear?”
The blonde wrenched her wrist free. “You’ll get over it, hon,” she sneered, her lips twisting maliciously. “They all do. I can’t help it if I like the guy.”
“You like him because he’s rich. Not for what he is. You got lots of men crazy about you.”
“Sure, I have. But Jimmy’s different. Maybe I do love his dough. So what? Don’t you love his dough?”
“I swear I don’t, Dixie. I’d love him if he didn’t have a cent.”
“He’s all you’ve go, eh? Well, ain’t that too bad?”
“You won’t take him away, Dixie. Promise me you won’t.”
Dixie laughed. “I’m taking him tonight, hon. I’ve had plenty of experience with guys like Jimmy.”
I knew then that Dixie was the girl for me. I stepped up to her and held out my arms.
“Dance, honey?” I said.
She was plenty startled. She stared at me for an instant in a funny sort of way. Like she knew I was standing there, but couldn’t see me.
Then her arms went out and around my shoulders. We started to dance, moving out into the hall.
We were in the middle of the floor when something seemed to whisper deep inside of me: “Now, now, while the lights are low and music is like a whisper from the tomb.”
I stopped dancing suddenly and clasped her in my arms. “You’ll never take Jimmy away from her,” I whispered.
She was a smart one, that girl. She recognized me an instant before I kissed her. She whimpered in terror and struggled like a pinioned bird in my clasp.
“Spare me,” she moaned. “Come back in a year, a month. I’ll be waiting for you. I won’t run out on you. I swear it.”
“You played me for a sap,” I said. “You were warned about your ticker, but you went right on dancing.”
“I’ll stop tonight,” she promised wildly. “Give me a few days—a week.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, girlie. This is the payoff.”
It’s funny how near I can get to people without frightening them. When she sagged to the floor the couples about us went right on dancing. The lights were so dim they didn’t notice her lying still and cold at my feet.
For three or four seconds no one noticed her. Then one of the girls saw her and screamed. All over the floor men and women stopped dancing and crowded about her. I knew that in a moment they would be naming me again. So I slipped silently from the place.
I do not like to be named. In that dance hall I was just a lonely guy looking for a dance to waltz with. I am only Death when I strike, and between times I am like the people about me.
Maybe you’ll meet me sometime in a crowd. But you won’t recognize me because I take color from my surroundings. I am always fleeing from what I have to do. I am a Johnny on the spot. But in the end—in the end I meet up with practically everyone.
A Short Bio of Long
by Perry Grayson (alias The Black Bird)
© 2012 by Perry Grayson
Frank Belknap Long, Jr. (1901-1994) is the prolific World Fantasy Award-winning author of such books as The Hounds of Tindalos, The Horror from the Hills, and The Rim of the Unknown. (Incidentally, those titles are three of the most sought-after collectors items published by Arkham House, the specialty press founded in 1939 by August Derleth to immortalize the writings of H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft discovered Long and took him under his wing after reading FBL’s 1921 story “The Eye Above the Mantel” in The United Amateur. The two became best friends during the early 1920s while Lovecraft lived in New York. They exchanged hundreds of letters over the course of fifteen years. The Lovecraft association tends to keep “Belknapius” [as he was called by HPL -PG] in HPL’s shadow, however, Long’s body of work speaks for itself.
Over the course of his seven-decade career, Long wrote over three hundred stories, poems, and articles, many of which have been widely reprinted in approximately 100 major publisher anthologies. Following a few years in amateurdom, Long’s first professionally published story was “The Desert Lich,” in the November 1924 issue of Weird Tales. His first book was A Man from Genoa and Other Poems (1926).
The Long legacy is an important one in the annals of 20th century pop culture. He helped shape the fantasy, horror, and science fiction fields while Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov were still in their teens. Long was one of the few science fiction writers to make the transition from the 1930s Astounding Stories to exacting editor John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction and Unknown / Unknown Worlds during SF’s Golden Age. In the pages of Astounding and Unknown, Long appeared alongside Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, A. E. van Vogt, Fritz Leiber, Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, Eric Frank Russell and many other highly respected SF and fantasy luminaries. When the pulp magazines died in the early 1950s, Long transitioned successfully to the paperback original.
As a pioneering horror comic book scriptwriter, Long paved the way for the immensely popular EC comics with his work in the ACG title Adventures into the Unknown (circa 1948). As an editor, Frank worked on magazines such as Fantastic Universe, Satellite Science Fiction, Short Stories, and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine during the 1950s and ’60s. Long’s poetic bent carried over into his prose, and his verse kept the torch of romantic tradition alive during the age of modern freeform poetry.
Alongside his Lifetime Achievement award from the World Fantasy Convention, Long was also awarded the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Horror Writers of America. You might think that an author with such laurels would have enjoyed the high life of modern horror acolytes like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice, but Frank Long’s existence was that of the perennially struggling artist. Not a surprise when you consider Edgar Allan Poe’s demise. An empty bank account, but a wealth of imagination. Long outlived most of his fellow pulp-era writers, and he made a final public appearance in 1990 at the Lovecraft Centennial Conference in HPL’s ancestral home, Providence, Rhode Island.
A New Yorker at heart, Long spent most of his life in the Big Apple—aside from a brief stint in California during World War II. He married Lyda Arco in 1961. Frank and Lyda had no children. Lyda was very protective of her husband’s literary reputation, always reminding folks that Frank was much more than just Lovecraft’s protégé. Long passed away on January 2, 1994. Lyda followed FBL to the grave nearly a year later. In November 1994 there was a memorial ceremony held for Long at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx presided over by author/editor (and ordained minister) Robert M. Price. In attendance that sunny autumn day were your humble WoW editor, reigning Lovecraft expert S.T. Joshi, esteemed horror writer T.E.D. Klein, editor extraordinaire Stefan Dziemianowicz, Lovecraftian humorist/satirist Peter Cannon, former Amazing and Fantastic editor Joseph Wrzos, First Fandom Hall of Fame member Ben Indick and my fellow young (at the time) scrivener Scott Briggs.
Belknapius’ spirit lives on in every word he wrote!