"I'm sorry," she said. "We're not quite open yet."
"That's okay," I told her. "Neither are my eyes."
I could tell right away I wasn't going to win any hosannas by being a smart-aleck.
"I need a book," I continued by way of apology. "Something fun but dark. I'm looking at five hundred miles today, but I'm not in the mood for an epic. Noir, maybe. It takes a lot of plot to get through Tennessee."
She went to the shelves and started looking at the books. I was looking at her looking at the books. I'm pretty sure I had the better view.
"Try this." She handed me a trade paper—-nothing flashy. Minimalist even. But I recognized it, and the title went down like a good steak. "You ever read it before?"
"The Big Sleep? Sure. It's been twenty years, though. I don't remember much."
"Literary hair of the dog," she nodded. "It should suit you. It's got a dead dirty books dealer, a nympho with a pistol, some scrape-ups, and a lot of snap-cracklin' wit. Maybe one or two too many jawbreakers, but there's no mush. My guess? You'll hit the FINIS before you make Cullman."
Something caught my eye. Outside, three cruts piling out of a red pickup. I thought about the night before, the money at the casino one interstate exit up, the deal that didn't go down so straight. I looked at my scraped knuckles and licked the cut in my gums. I hoped I made it to Cullman. Hell, I hoped I could make it to a last page.
"What about the sentences?" I asked.
"What about them? You start with the big letter and follow the rest to the dot at the end. That's all you need to know about sentences, Jack."
"I like mine short, but not stuttery. Any joe who speaks one-word ones is likely to get a smack upside the head from me. By the same token, I don't go for gabber.s Long, windy ones give me an ache. You know why? Because long sentences are a tough chew when you're sporting a busted rib or two."
She saw the cruts outside. They hadn't spotted me, but I wasn't lucky enough to stay the invisible joe indefinitely.
"You got a broken rib, do you?" She was watching the dufuses outside.
"Not right now, but something tell me I will before I get to Chapter 2." An idea came to mind. "Hey, how about you give a dying man his wish and read me a paragraph or two of this Chandler guy?"
She took the book back, not looking at it but looking at me, not a dab of fear in her eyes, but hard as a charcoal and twice as haughty. For a second I wondered what it would cost me for her and the book both, but what with the ride I was headed for, I didn't need any baggage.
She opened the book and purred out the antepenultimate paragraph. You know the one: the one that explains the title. The big sleep. It had the kind of sentences a man could die for. With my luck, I probably would.
"You better ring me up," I said. The cruts had spotted the bookstore and were headed for its door. They knew me too well.
"I'll pay cash," I told her. "Because neither of us has time for credit."
"If you ever get back to town, swing by. I stock noir like air. I'll hook you up."
"Sure. If I make it back. Maybe then I can swallow a longer paragraph."
I was on my way to head off the cruts when I nearly tripped again over the stack of hardbacks next to the morning papers.
"You sell many of these?" I asked.
"Not a one," she shrugged.
I looked at my name on the book jacket.
"Figures," I shrugged back.
I set it back on the stack—-gently, because tossing it would've been ungentlemanly—-and I stepped outside to meet my fate.
Damn if the little livro pusher didn't do me right. The Big Sleep turned out pretty durable, especially for a trade paper.
Just ask the first crut who came at me. He crumpled the second he took its spine upside the temple.