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Excerpt from Thomas Sparrow’s crime noir Northwoods Standoff.

Available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers. Also available directly through the publisher. Contact bluestone@duluthmn.com

I woke up late the next afternoon and suffered through a lonely Christmas Eve. At dusk I opened a can of tuna and scooped it out with a few Wheat Thins. Happy Holidays. Then came Christmas morning, and I knew Santa had passed me by. Looked out the window of my bedroom at the gray morning sky and wondered what the fuck it was all about. Tried to fall back asleep but my head was spinning in counterpoint to the spasms in my gut. At dark I drove twenty minutes to the nearest convenience store and picked up another can of tuna, a fresh bag of chips and some macaroni and cheese for Christmas dinner. Glory Hallelujah.

Around nine, with tuna on my breath, I drove by Dotty’s Tavern. Finding it closed, I turned around in the parking lot and headed back home. Halfway up my driveway, I saw bouncing headlights coming toward me. Roy’s hulking Pontiac. My headlights flashed on his bad teeth and wicked grin. I wasn’t so sure I wanted company.

Seeing my truck, he stopped, threw his shifter in reverse and backed up to the house. He parked facing out and I rolled in next to him. Standing there with his door open, eyes bright and excited, yellow interior lights reflecting off his red parka with fur-trimmed hood, he said, “Let’s go ice fishing.”

I was too burned out to argue. Plus, it seemed like I had my first real friend in my new life. If I could only remember to call myself by the right name.

I went into the house and changed into my warmest stuff: Carhartt bibs, down jacket and Sorel insulated boots. Roy sat in the kitchen and rolled joints. Before we left I grabbed the last six-pack of Bud from the yellowing Kelvinator refrigerator.

We drove about thirty minutes through the blackness to a little road leading to a small lake. Up high in the clear sky, shining down on a little shack about twenty yards from shore, was a three-quarters moon. The new snow looked bright and soft and peaceful.

“We going after muskies here, Roy?”

“Nah, gotta go a little further for them. Here we might get a northern or some panfish. Maybe even a bass.”

After trudging through the shallow snow to the small wooden shack, we sat on canvas chairs in the glow of a Coleman heater and bounced tiny jigs tipped with minnows, using the bottom halves of old fiberglass spinning rods. The beer, the smoke and one of Madison’s rock stations coming out of a little one-speaker radio made the night a beautiful thing. In between catching four crappies, six bluegills, one perch and a three-pound northern pike that flopped around on the ice while we laughed hysterically, we talked a lot. More correctly, Roy talked a lot. I learned more about Roy Hollinday than he did about Randy Slade.

Roy said the name Hollinday came from his mother and was originally Hole-in-the-Day in the native tongue. Roy’s mother was a Chippewa Indian who had raised him alone after his French Canadian father ran off with a white woman when Roy was four. This arrangement lasted until eighth grade when Roy, experimenting with a bow and arrow that he and his friends had fashioned out of a willow branch and some fishing line, had the misfortune of shooting another kid in the ear.

As Roy put it: “Four white kids and one skin… and who do you think shoots someone with a bow and arrow? We had an old, broken arrow with a nail stuck in the end, and everybody was betting me that I couldn’t hit Charlie McMillan, who was about seventy yards away. I never thought I’d hit him, but I drew back that flimsy bow and let fly and the goddamn thing came down and stuck poor Charlie right in the fucking flap of his ear. You should’ve heard the screams. Charlie took off running and screaming like Apaches were attacking Silver Bay.”

Roy was placed in a reform school where his name was changed to a more-white sounding Hollinday. Adding injury to insult, there were constant attempts by the staff to beat him into submission and “change his attitude.”

Years later, in high school, Roy finally rebelled against the years of conditioning, punched a teacher in the nose and was expelled. According to Roy, the baseball coach/history teacher used to take great pleasure in saying Roy’s entire name—Roy Rogers Hollinday—in front of the class, often remarking how unusual it was for an Indian to be named after a movie cowboy, as they were always killing Indians. Roy took exception to this disrespect and after school did a John Wayne on the instructor.

Shortly thereafter, Roy left northern Minnesota and joined the Marines.  About said duty, spent mostly as a military policeman in Korea, he wouldn’t speak, only saying, with a haunted look in his eye while squeezing furiously on a red rubber ball, that he’d “done some things over there….”

Mustering out, he enrolled in journalism school at the U of Wisconsin on the G.I. Bill, where he “smoked a lot of reefer and fucked a lot of white girls.” A few years later, after discovering that the local TV stations were bending over backwards to hire “people whose skin wasn’t white,” he jumped at the opportunity.

Then followed a run of a couple years as an on-air personality where he became somewhat of a local celebrity known for his provocative stories as well as his womanizing. The bottom fell out of his little dreamland when the old temper flared up again and he punched out the station manager for cracking too many Indian jokes.

Now he was a lone wolf, who no longer thought much of reservations or big cities and was happy out here living off the land and staying away from trouble and troubling people.

That night he talked fervently about the ancient wisdom of his people and how he’d recently gained much knowledge of the “old ways.” Occasionally he’d refer, with much vitriol, to a group of people he called “the Locusts,” how they were growing in numbers in the cities but couldn’t get to him out here—at least not yet.

It seemed that “living off the land,”—at least like Roy was doing—was suiting him very well. Except for the need of some dental work, it looked like he was doing all right.

I never did say very much about Randy Slade or John Flint or Keith Waverly, my trinity of aliases. Just mentioned that I was originally from Minneapolis and was out here living off an insurance settlement for a damaged leg I’d suffered as a result of a car accident. Trying to find myself, after the accident and a terrible divorce, you know, just drinking and getting high…  Someday I have to find a job…. 

The day after the ice-fishing excursion I was feeling a little off. Dana’s return was looming on the morrow like an erotic brass ring, the carrot in front of the horny horse. I was sitting around stewing when Roy called from the bar. It was around ten o’clock and he said he wanted to come over, had a present for me. I begged off, told him I was going back home to Minnesota for a while over the holidays and needed to rest.

He wouldn’t have any of it. Hearing I was leaving only made him insist all the harder. Finally I gave in. I was too wired to sleep, anyway. In a few minutes I heard Roy’s glass packs rumbling. I stubbed out my Marlboro aside the pile of butts in the green plastic ashtray.

Roy came in alone, except for a big badboy between his lips and a case of Budweiser in his hands. “I got you a going-away present,” he said, setting the cardboard case down on the kitchen table. “The girls said they’d be here in a few minutes, but I have my doubts. Asshole Donny Ralston walked in right after you left and the two of them glommed onto him like flies on a turd. Those two are crank sluts and Donny usually has the trash, so I wasn’t going to argue with the likes of that.”

“Who’s Donny Ralston? He make Purina?”

Ignoring my feeble attempt at humor: “He’s the ’skin with the ponytail that you had the pleasure of encountering the other night.”

“No shit. He’s the candy man, eh?  People do a lot of speed around these parts?” I was curious.

“Half these assholes couldn’t survive without their speed. Used to be just white cross, but Ralston learned how to make meth and he’s introduced the product to the people. Around here they drink to get through the long winter nights, and then they do the crank to get through the long workday, and then they do it all over again. Some guys work for days straight without sleeping and then crash for days. About half of’em eventually disappear into the city, only to have new ones roll in. You’ll never get rid of speed out here, as long as the guys are prisoners of the system and their own ignorance.

“And it’s nice to see you’re not one of them, Randy. This house here had a couple of genuine, high-volume speed freaks living in it before you came along. They both ended up getting busted, she for stealing drugs from the hospital where she worked, and he for stealing from the old people at the nursing home where he worked.”

“Sounds like a real lovely pair—must be some bad vibes leftover in this place,” I said.

“That’s what I’m here to help you with, my friend. I’m here to impart some of my primitive mystical powers upon you and your dwelling. I will have it all cleaned up for you in no time. But first you must swallow this.”

He extended his hand in my direction. His closed fist seemed to grow bigger as it came to a stop in front of my eyes, turned over, and opened up like a large brown flower, revealing a pill the color of red clay and about the size of an aspirin.

“No, man, thanks, but I’m too fucked-up as it is. I don’t want to be taking any goddamn pills. I need to drive to Minnesota tomorrow.”

“No, no, my friend, you’re are unjustly excited, don’t be alarmed. This is sacred mescaline that I acquired from some skins in South Dakota. They know some chemistry wizard makes this stuff. It will have you feeling great, I promise. Your body and your mind will get everything they need when you ride with Juan Mescalito, my friend.”

“You trying to lay that Carlos Castenada shit on me?”

“Who?  What shit?” His eyes flashed red.

“You know, that writer—from Mexico I think—he writes about the same kind of shit. Tripping out on plants—Juan Mescalito and everything.”

“Never heard of him.”

“Oh.”

What the hell, I thought. What could it hurt?  I could always wait another day. The thought made my stomach churn.

I pulled back the top of the beer case and lifted out a bottle, flicked off the top with a church key I kept on the kitchen table. Took a long swig of lukewarm suds and accepted the tablet from a grinning Roy, who was still dutifully standing there with his hand out.

“That’s better, he said.

So we sat at the table and drank beers—at least I did—and smoked from Roy’s pipe. The girls never showed, just as Roy had predicted. When the mescaline started kicking in I no longer cared. My mind soared towards the infinite. I understood time. There was no need to worry about the future or fret about the past, because things happen when they will. I became serene and invigorated, relaxed and energized. Roy’s face seemed to change color. A pulsating aura of red and green and blue surrounded him in alternating layers. He began to speak in a voice much deeper than normal that seemed to come from the center of the earth.

As an accompaniment, the sweet low sound of electric blues floated in from the living room, courtesy of a Chicago FM station. Warm air blew from the registers and the lights grew dim. My head got heavy as Roy began to move about the room, weaving a most fascinating and mind-blowing tale. A strange and absorbing saga that took me places I’d never been, made me feel things I’d never felt. The whole thing seemed like a dance. A crazy, shaman-like Native American dance with an eerie background of black blues and British blues-rock.

Sometimes Roy was a marine, down on the floor doing push-ups and extolling the virtues of physical fitness. The next moment he was a twelve-year-old kid, seeing his life collapse around him and watching the white man take over his destiny. Often, he was a glib and intelligent television reporter from Madison, reciting with charm and confidence his conquests and experiences in the city. But most often, the narrator that winter’s evening was a slightly feral, slightly mad creature.

In my dilated pupils, he ceased being Roy Rogers Hollinday and became a warrior/shaman. Maybe it was the French Canadian in him fueling the fire of the mescaline, as he tried to explain it, but I wasn’t convinced. Something bigger was taking place. I was lost in the cosmos. I was a student in front of the teacher.

I held him in my gaze and felt strange rumblings inside me, as his eyes sunk deeper in his head and turned momentarily empty, like marbles or an animal’s eyes. At one point, he glided way over to the edge of the living room in one effortless motion. After a pause he turned back to talk and his tone was more serious, more emphatic.

I was ready to believe just about anything.

He moved in so close I could smell the marijuana on his breath. He began to recite, in a rhythm that seemed to fit perfectly with whatever song was drifting out of the tuner, his warning. Standing above me, body pulsating, he looked into my eyes.

“I can see it in you, Randy Slade, and feel it in your spirit. You are one of us. You are simpatico of a dying breed; a breed I call the Primitive Mystic.  A breed that is both ancient and evolved at the same time. There are things you feel and know that you keep secret from the world. I can feel it in you. I sense it like I sense the pulse of the earth.  One does not need to be Native American to know the pulse of the earth.  Many blacks have the ability in their blood, but they’ve been living too long in the cities, away from their homeland. Here, in North America, most have lost their connection to the earth.

“There are others, white men such as you, who feel like we do. Men that observe all around them the slow but steady destruction of all that is wild and sacred. You feel the pain in your soul, but know not from where it comes. You seek to drown it in alcohol or run from it with hard drugs. But the white man’s powders and potions never give lasting relief and lead to death and destruction. At the very least, the mind and spirit become weakened.”

To which, I shakily responded:  “I’ve seen you drink rum and cokes, and a few beers once in a while. What about that? And you smoke a ton of fucking pot.”

“A few drinks never hurt a French Canadian, Randy,” Roy said, suddenly looking perfectly normal and straight. “Got to give the devil his due. Some drugs help you see and feel, while others put a cloak over you. A shroud, perhaps… take away your senses. Have you ever seen me drunk?”

“No, I guess not. But still….” My longtime toxic ways were hurting my brain. I tried to choke back the knowledge but couldn’t.

Dark and brooding electric guitar came creeping in from the living room and Roy slipped back into character, eyes glowing like a wolf in the firelight. “Listen to me now, very carefully,” he said, “it’s getting late.”  Jimmy Page’s axe growled and spit. “We are at a dangerous time in the history of the world, especially in North America. The very same forces that nearly wiped out the Indian nation and then enslaved us to their culture are stronger now than ever. The spirits of the blue-belly soldiers and the Indian killers and the buffalo butchers are all coming back together again for one final push at world domination.” A guitar howled and moaned. “Today they are cops, generals, corporate greedheads and right-wing Jesus freaks duping the common working man into being their unwitting foot-soldiers. A lot of ’skins have been made into fertilizer because of Jesus, we all can attest to that.”

He paused for breath, looked toward the heavens and then came back into the kitchen. He sat down on the kitchen counter, feet dangling above the cracked blue linoleum.

“As surely and as effectively as a swarm of locusts, they are preparing to denude the earth of all we hold sacred. The railroad barons and the mining companies are back together with the politicians who looked the other way the last time while their pockets were being filled with blood money. These are reptiles. You have the Reptiles leading the Locusts, and the Cockroaches there to feed on the remains. The cycle is starting all over again. You need look no farther than the president this country just elected in a landslide vote. Reagon used to play an Indian-killing soldier in the movies, for fuck sake. Now he’s waving his flag for all to see. This man will rally the Locusts for one last run at whatever is left out there to consume. They’ll cut down the forests and dam up the rivers and poison the air trying to satisfy their insatiable appetites. And it will be done so smoothly that few will notice until it is too late. Those that speak out will be effectively silenced.”

He stopped talking long enough to pull out a bud from a black, plastic film can and tap it into his reddish stone pipe. He fetched a stick match from the box above the stove and struck it with a quick slash up the thigh of his black jeans. His body seemed to vibrate as he drew on the pipe and handed it to me. My hand shook as I took it. Pressure was building from within. The pipe died and Roy fetched another match. He flicked the tip with his thumbnail and the room turned red and yellow. Smoke went up like a snake.

“You see, Randy, by not participating in their world, by not being a part of the locust swarm in any little way that you can, is at least doing something. You set an example for others by your non-compliance. Strong young men like you and I, however, can make a much broader statement.  We can make a lot of money and spend it on the underground. Local law enforcement must be shown the light, on a personal basis, because the Locusts will use money and influence to twist the laws in their favor. The lawyer is their weapon, and the law schools are churning them out like M-1’s for World War II. We might even have to kick some old-fashioned ass, from time to time.”

He went into a boxer’s stance, throwing jabs and hooks and bobbing and weaving. I puffed on the pipe. Each hit torqued up the mescaline and sent colored pinwheels dancing in front of my eyes.

Roy was grinning widely, not hiding his rotten tooth. For a brief flash, he looked like Keith Richards. And then suddenly, he turned calm and normal, almost flat.

“And that my friend is all I’ve got for you for tonight,” he said finally.  “You need time to digest what you’ve heard. Something to think about when you go back home to Minnesota. Something, to lively up your family’s dinner table, perhaps. I believe that the longer you think about it, the more you will find it ringing true down deep in your primitive soul. I believe you will eventually realize this, and for the first time in a long time, lose the discomfort that sits on your shoulders like a yoke. Consider tonight my Christmas gift to you.” He bowed slightly and walked over to his parka, where it hung from the back of a kitchen chair. “Enjoy your time with your people, and I’ll see you when you get back.” Putting on his jacket, “If you want, I can stop by and check out the house for you while you’re gone.”

Before I had a chance to answer, the door was open and he was going through it. I got up and walked to the door and heard the engine rumble to life, saw the lights come on. As the little cherry stars of his taillights faded past the bend and into the dark skinny trees, steel-gray light was coming over the trees.

Sunrise—and I hadn’t even slept yet. It was clear that Dana would have to wait a few more hours.

I was surprised how easy and painless the decision was.

I picked up the beer bottles in my kitchen as the sun came up, then went upstairs and soaked in the tub. Later, after toweling off, I looked at myself in the full-length mirror mounted on the bedroom door. My body seemed wild and beast-like, as if there was hair growing where there wasn’t. A primal strength inside me was closer to the surface than ever.

I dressed in sweatpants and a thick wool sweater, went downstairs and cooked a little oatmeal and ate it at the table, looking out the window at the gray dawn. The warm porridges brought me down enough to feel like sleeping. It was about ten a.m. when I hit the bed and fell asleep instantly.

I dreamed I was walking through an Indian burial ground at dusk.  Suddenly it turned into a cemetery like one in those classic horror movies, with ground fog, headstones and mausoleums.  It grew dark but I could still see clearly.  I walked until I came to a freshly dug grave that was yet unfilled.  The gravestone read: Keith Waverly. He Stood for Nothing and Died for Nothing.

My gut sank with sadness. I walked on. Soon I came to a small stream running along the edge of a forest. It was daylight again and the air was warm. Birds sang their songs to the morning sun and insects glided through the sweet air, felt about a hundred years ago. I knelt at the bank of the gurgling brook and watched the trout dart in and out of the shadows, wishing I had a pole and a can of worms. Extremely contented, I leaned back against a tree trunk and fell asleep.

I awoke for real. I was in my bed. The metallic-blue sky filled the bedroom window. It was three in the afternoon and the light was already on the wane. With a tired and very relaxed mind I dressed in a slacks and sweater combo, cooked some eggs and packed all my good clothes in my leather suitcase. I made sure to put plenty of cash in the bag before I put on my good boots and leather jacket and drove into Madison.

(End of excerpt)

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Excerpt from Thomas Sparrow’s crime noir Northwoods Standoff (available through major online bookstores):

State Street, Madison, Wisconsin—Halloween, 1979:

The street was blocked off to cars. Costumed freaks cavorted drunkenly; grotesque creatures drank from plastic cups. The Big Bad Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood and the devil himself were huddled together as I approached. Smoke seeped from their mouths as they caught site of me. Satan’s eyes met mine and the trio quickly separated, merged into the surging crowd.

I chuckled. Figured it was my Armani suit that drove them away. They probably believed it was the real me, didn’t know it was just my Halloween costume. A bit more expensive than theirs, that’s all….

I walked through the surging, laughing throng for a few minutes, checking out the fantastic regalia. Then I decided to have a drink, get myself in the mood. There were taverns everywhere and I went in the first one I came to.

Laughter and boisterous voices hit me; beer signs blinked hello. Fucking place was jammed. Costumes and masks mingled in the narrow, smoky space. Along the left side of the room ran a long wooden bar with a brass foot rail. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were tending.

I bellied up and ordered a Stoli screwdriver from the masked man before lifting a pack of Kools from the pocket of my white silk shirt. People seemed to be looking at me funny. Hadn’t they ever seen a successful businessman before, for the Christ sake? They didn’t know I had a quarter of a million dollars of tax-free cash locked inside a Samsonite suitcase in my hotel room. Nevertheless, I felt like I deserved more respect than I was getting.

I lit a cigarette, and then tried and failed to find the pleasure I’d lost years ago. After two drinks, I attempted conversation with a bearded guy on my left. He nodded politely to what I said, then moved away without a word. I tried my luck with a red-haired fairy princess and a prom queen in a faded, aqua, sleeveless gown to my right. They shuffled off to somewhere else, like I was contagious. They were curt. Cute chicks who were curt, it fucking hurt.

I ordered, received and promptly drained my third drink before deciding to hit the street. I put down a fiver for a tip, stood up and got dizzy. I’d forgotten how strong they make the drinks in the Badger State.

Nausea rolled through me. Must be the stress catching up, I thought to myself. Too much for the old nervous system. Circuit breaker must’ve popped.

I sat back down and rubbed my eyes with my knuckles, leaned my elbows on the bar and sucked deeply of the smoky air. Little green stars flew around the back of my eyes.

“You all right, sir?”

A woman’s melodic voice, smooth and warming, like good red wine, brought me back from the darkness. I looked up gingerly into a pair of mischievous, deep-brown eyes dancing behind a silken mask. Full and sensuous, honey-red lips lit up my world like the desert sun at noon. She was tall, with a sculpted chin. Wide across her back with slim shoulders and a delicate alabaster neck, auburn hair spreading deliciously against it. Knee-length burgundy velvet dress, black stockings and high black boots. The elegant mask that matched her dress covered prominent cheekbones.

I immediately felt better. “Yeah, I’m all right,” I said. “Must be jet lag or something.”

“Really… where did you fly in from—Europe?”

“No, ah… just, ah… California.” It was really Florida, but that seemed too low-ball to impress her, so I lied. Something I was pretty good at—lying. “I’ve been flying all over the country lately, and I’m afraid my ass is lagging behind.”

She smiled thinly and motioned to the Lone Ranger as he flitted up and down the bar in a failing attempt to satisfy the clamoring horde. She caught his eye and he seemed to recognize her, came without hesitation. Sliding up in front of us, the masked man grinned and asked the Velvet Lady what was her pleasure. She smiled sweetly and handed him a folded white card with a ten-dollar bill pressed against it.

I couldn’t stop looking at her.

“This is for Raymond,” she said to the Ranger. “Make sure he gets it.” Then, turning back to me: “I’m glad you’re feeling better, sir,” leaning close enough that I got a blast of her sweet scent. “You’re kind of cute, I think. Maybe we’ll run into each other again someday.”

She said, “Ciao,” turned from the bar and me and walked away in a burgundy hurricane, the scent of cinnamon and money lingering. By the time I regained my composure, she was out the door and gone and I was feeling blue. Couldn’t believe she’d said Ciao.

I grabbed for my drink.

I sipped cautiously and watched the Lone Ranger as he slid the little white card into the frame of the cloudy bar mirror. An idea sprang to life inside my cluttered head.

“Hey Masked Man,” I said, loudly, waving a crisp twenty in the air. “I think Silver needs a few bags of oats.”

He was on me in an instant.

“What can I do for you, sir?”

“Twenty bucks says that I’m Raymond, and I get to read that card.”

“You fucking crazy?” he puffed up his chest and frowned.

“Forty?” I pulled out another fresh double-sawbuck and waved it at him. Unlike the real Lone Ranger, this guy could be bought. He grabbed the bills, looked up and down the bar quickly, lifted the card from the mirror and threw it down in front of me.

“Read it and then give it back,” he said bluntly. “It’s just an invitation to a private after-hours party. They won’t let you in, anyway, without the card.”

My heart sped up as I opened the folded white card:

Admit one treasured guest

Halloween Night, 1979

Wolves and Lambs

314 John Avenue

Midnight

Wolves and Lambs? What kind of cockamamie shit was this? Too damn intriguing to pass up.

I stood up, feeling much better. Dropped another twenty on the bar, now drunk and cocky. “Thanks a lot, Masked Man.” I said, as the bartender served a beer to a guy dressed as a toilet.

Then the front door burst open and a loud crowd of masks and costumes came pouring in. I stuffed the card in my trouser pocket and wove through them like O.J. Simpson shredding the Dolphins on a cold day in Buffalo. Out the door and gone in a flash, I heard the bartender yelling after me.

I hit the street and looked to my left. Just another maze of freaks. Turned right and kept moving, just in case the bartender had any heroic ideas in his head. Maybe the Lone Ranger bullshit was getting to him; you never know.

I searched the swirling mass of color. Caught a glimpse of the burgundy-clad beauty disappearing into a group of beer-bellied elves and wasted dwarves. Satan was there, too. He was everywhere.

I raced past a porcine Porky Pig, only to find myself at an intersection where sawhorses with City of Madison printed on them demarcated the endpoint of the party. Beyond the barrier, the street was open to traffic. A few cars rolled by slowly as people walked away from the party. Two tired and impatient–looking policemen held their nightsticks at their sides and stood at the curb, watching.

Looking every which way, I frantically searched the crowd for the mystery woman. Couldn’t find her anywhere.

I sunk.

I started walking toward the cops, thinking they would know where John Avenue was. I was about ten yards away when they raised their bullhorns:

“PARTY’S OVER, CLEAR THE STREETS. BACK IN THE BARS OR TO YOUR CARS. EVERYBODY’S GOTTA GO. PARTY’S OVER. CLEAR THE STREETS”

My heart pounded. I stared, cringed and stopped dead in my tracks. They started toward me.

They passed me by with only an authoritative glare to show for it and I breathed a sigh of relief. One of the most underrated feelings in life, relief.

I moved in the opposite direction of the cops, searching for the nearest bar out of the party zone. My mind drifted in the cool autumn air.

I don’t know how long I’d been walking before I realized I was totally lost.The search for John Avenue had sent me down these windy streets until they were dark and empty.

I kept on walking aimlessly and time again drifted. Then I found the street sign. Or it found me. There it was, beneath the only light for blocks.

Yogi Berra used to say: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” So I did.

Down another narrow, darkened street with the wind at my back pushing me along.

There wasn’t much there.

After a nervous block, I noticed a bunch of parked cars up ahead, filling up both sides of an otherwise empty street.

I kept on walking. It wasn’t much brighter except for the gleam of the fine automobiles. The first one I came to was a dark green BMW. Then a Mercedes, a Corvette, a Jag and another BMW—a black one. Almost all the vehicles were world-class, not a junker in the bunch.

This must be the place, I thought to myself. But where was the party? The buildings all looked empty; some of them even boarded up. I moved further along into this car booster’s dream world, searching for signs of life. I crossed the avenue and peered in the darkened windows of abandoned storefronts. Then, right in front of me, above an iron door on a three-level brick building, was the number 314 in big, brass numerals.

The building was dark as pitch. I craned my neck, scanned the second story and found no signs of life. Something flashed below me. I looked down. Steps and a metal railing led to a doorway.

Then it flashed again, a plastic, paste-on, light gizmo above the door. Little yellow light blinked every thirty seconds or so.

I went down the steps and pounded on the blue, freshly hand-painted steel door. After about thirty seconds, it opened slowly and a large white man wearing a sleeveless black T-shirt and pirate’s hat became visible in the glow of a black light. Dude had biceps the size of tree trunks, a black eye patch over one eye and a skull-and-crossbones earring in one ear lobe.

He flashed a gold-capped grin. “Invitation please,” he croaked, deep like a bullfrog.

I pulled out the card and handed it to him. He rolled it in his massive fingers, had a quick look, stepped back and opened one of two glass doors behind him. “Right through here, sir,” he said politely, with the deference I’d been craving all night long.

I stepped through to a set of fancy stairs, going down to yet another level. The sound of Huey Lewis and the News’ “I Need a New Drug” hit me like a wet newspaper to the face. I cringed but kept on going.

Each stair was shiny black, rimmed with brass. There were lacquered black handrails and you could see your shoes in the darkened side mirrors with gold filigree around the edges. At the bottom was a vestibule with purple walls and another set of glass doors that opened into what at one time must have been a nightclub.

Big disco ball spinning above a large dance floor. A few people tripped the heavy fantastic, some in costume and some in fine evening wear. To the right was a large bar area. In a darkened corner, a lesbian couple dressed as baseball player and umpire groped each other with more show than go. A guy with oily hair and a thin mustache, like Rudolph Valentino, stood behind them staring with glazed eyes.

I made my way through the bizarre dance crowd. Behind the bar, shirtless bartenders held their pumped-up chests high as they struggled to keep pace with the hard drinkers lined up three deep. I watched a group of guys in fine suits putting the hustle on a couple of sweet young things in Shirley Temple costumes. I had found the Lollipop Fair but not the lady in burgundy.

Most of the men around the bar had gelled, slicked-back hair, looked like they were living in a wind tunnel. Made me wonder if I was falling behind the times with my recently dyed-blonde, surfer’s do.

Bartender came over to me and I caught myself staring at his nipple ring. First time I’d ever seen one on a guy. Wondered what it felt like.

I ordered a Stoli and cranberry juice.

“So, are you a wolf or a lamb?”

The slight lisp and lilting tone caught me unaware. My prayers had gone unanswered. I turned toward the sound.

A diminutive guy in a tuxedo had moved in next to me. He held a burning cigarette in a white holder in one slightly cocked wrist and a wineglass in the other. Reminded me of Joel Grey in Cabaret.

“I’m a muskellunge.”

Tres amusant,” he said dryly, moving closer and leaning his head toward mine. “But you must know that the reason for being here tonight is to play the game. You can’t even get in here unless you play the game. You look like a wolf to me, and I’m getting excited. Or are you just a tease?”

“Look, ah, mister—I’m only here because a beautiful woman in a velvet dress invited me here. I don’t see her here right now, but she’s the only reason I came. I’m new in town. This is my first visit to Madison, but I’m starting to like it.”

“So you’re one of Dana’s lambs, and you don’t even know it.” He reached out and ran his fingers down the lapel of my Armani. “She always seems to pick the ones with the best taste.” He looked coyly around the room. “Would you like some blow?” he said casually, eyes studying mine.

“Cocaine?”

“Of course, silly. My lord, what did you think I meant?” he smirked.

“Ah—nothing. But no thanks, anyway, I don’t do coke, anymore. It’s a waste of money.”

“One of those, are we? I didn’t mean that I was selling. I was offering, sweetie. I must be too subtle for my own good. Ever free-base? I swear you’ll love it.” His reddened lips puckered slightly and his eyes had a glint in them.

“No ah, really—no thanks. I appreciate the offer, but I think I’ll just sit here and drink until Dana comes looking for me.”

“Suit yourself Captain Hunky. It’s your loss. But I should tell you that some of her flock have been known to wait for a long time—wait so long their little pee-pees shrivel up. Ah, but what the hell—youth. Ciao.” He spun on his heel and glided away toward the dance floor.

I sipped my drink and watched the dancers, synapses popping from the strobe lights and the spinning mirror ball. Then I saw a door open up in the middle of the wall on the other side of the dance floor. Two freaks staggered out bound up in shiny black bondage gear and slid through the crowd. They made their way toward the back of the room until I couldn’t see them any longer because of the stairwell.

I ordered a shot of tequila as two Shirley Temples walked off with one of the men in the nice suits. The guys at the bar turned their attention to a devil with a blue dress on as the Shirleys escorted their lucky hombre towards the door in the wall. Dude looked weak in the knees as he pulled open the purple door with a lightning bolt on it and disappeared into the dim light, Shirleys chattering at his side.

The bartender loaded me up with Jose Cuervo, salt and a lemon wedge. I put down a ten and said keep it. Licked the salt, sucked down the burning nectar, tasted the sting and jammed the lemon in my mouth. Said Whoa and held up my hand for one more.

I was riding the tequila train when she appeared at the back of the room. All of a sudden she was just there. Tall and thin but curvy, with an elegant chin and a chiseled nose, her deep brown eyes telling me there was a lot going on behind them. Just the kind of woman I was looking for.

She came striding elegantly toward me. I prepared to say something profound and clever but she walked right on by, only a miniscule moment of recognition flicking across her statuesque features, leaving me to stare after her forlornly. The lady in velvet, in a matter of seconds, had taken possession of my dick and my heart and was making rapid inroads on my head.

I watched, totally absorbed, as she approached a couple of the suits at the end of the bar. They were smoking cigars, holding martinis and singing loudly to “All That Matters is the Money,” along with the old-time jukebox.

I was fascinated as she motioned to the Brylcream Boys to be quiet by putting her finger to her lips in the way of a schoolmarm. And I’ll be goddamned, if they didn’t shut up.

I almost fell off my chair when she nodded in my direction before turning her attention back to the erstwhile choir.

The hackles on my neck started up. I wanted to turn up the collar of my coat, the way it was when I came in. I was thinking maybe I should leave before I had to fight my way out. I stared into the mirror behind the bar and saw her coming toward me. Little old me.

I was still young enough to think that true love was going to save me. I couldn’t help but hope that Dana was the one holding my ticket to ride.

She slid into the barstool next to me and I drowned in her sweet scent.

“I know you must have an invitation,” she said, studying my face intently. “Eric wouldn’t have let you in, otherwise. The unusual thing is—I don’t remember giving you one—and I never forget a guest.” She put her slender fingers to her chin and looked at me thoughtfully, wise beyond her years.

“That guy at the door is named Eric?” I chuckled and tried to meet her penetrating gaze. “Seems like it should be something more frightening, like Thor or Odin or something. And anyway, don’t you remember me? We met earlier tonight. The hands of fate guided me here.” Her eyes remained steely. “You’ve forgotten, haven’t you? Well for me, anyway, it was memorable. Back at that bar on State Street. Jimmy’s or Billy’s or whatever it was.”

“That invitation was meant for Raymond,” she said, touching one of her crimson fingernails to the bridge of her nose. “He’s not even one of mine. I mean that someone else invited him—not me.” She folded her arms across her chest. “And how did you manage to get hold of the invitation Mr. ah—” Her gaze got more steel in it. “I don’t believe I caught your name.”

“This is all very explainable, if you’ll give me the opportunity. Raymond sent me along to express his regrets. He had a headache and wasn’t up to attending. Said he thought it better that at least someone had some fun tonight, as long as he couldn’t, and all. Poor boy was just going to go home and wash his hair, so why didn’t I get out and kick up my heels.”

She moved her hand over her mouth. She was smiling underneath.

No rings on her fingers.

“Who are you then?” she asked, eyes smiling.

Here was where I had a problem. I didn’t want to give her my real name—Keith Waverly—and I couldn’t try any of the other aliases that I had used in the past, either. One never knows when an old identity will come back to haunt you. I needed a new name, something with a little panache, gravitas.

“You first,” I said, finally regaining some semblance of wits. “How about you tell me your name first—and then after that, you can explain to me about this Wolves and Lambs stuff. Then I’ll tell you all about me, if you’re still interested. Even my social security number—I promise.”

I fiddled out a pack of Kools from my coat pocket and offered her one.

“I don’t smoke and I don’t reveal my name to strangers,” she said, firm but not angry.

“I guess we’re in a pickle then, aren’t we,” I said, lighting up and blowing the smoke toward the bartender. I leaned forward on the bar and stared at the rows of top-shelf liquor glistening in the amber light.

“You are in a pickle, I should think,” she said laughing haughtily. “What if I have you thrown out of here?”

“Oh come on, please—that won’t be necessary. If you really want me to leave, I will. But I think it would be nice for both of us, if you sat down here and had a drink with me, told me all about yourself and your little get-together. I’m just a lonely boy out on his own, looking for someone to show him the ropes in a new city and maybe have some fun. It is fucking Halloween, after all.”

“Yes it is.” Her eyes went down to her elegantly manicured hands. “Are you a cop?”

I damn near spit. “Me? Are you kidding? I don’t even like cops.” I turned and faced her, longing on the rise.

“You didn’t answer my question,” she said, blinking slowly.

“No, I am not a policeman or a member of any law enforcement organization, I do solemnly swear. How’s that?”

A gleam in her eyes. “What if I told you this was a cop party?” she said, cracking a crooked smile that made my dick twinge.

“Than I’d say to you that I now know why they call this town “Mad City.” Never seen cops that dress and act like these people do. You know—the obvious signs of wealth—not to mention the fetish gear.”

She seemed to settle down into her stool a little bit, looked across the room at her gel-haired friends. They noticed her attention but turned away and pretended they weren’t the least bit interested.

“Champagne, please, Rick,” she gestured to the nipple ring-wearing barman, ran her fingers through her hair and tossed her head back. “You must realize Mr.—”

“Jones.”

She suppressed a grin. “What Mr. Laugh-a-minute Jones doesn’t understand, is that this is a very expensive little get-together he’s crashed. He must understand that many people have put out good sums of capital to ensure that all the right ingredients are present. These people give the invitations to those they know will give them favors or services in return. Thus, with you here instead of Raymond, we have somewhat of a financial imbalance, if you will. Not to mention the other awkward possibilities.”

This was sounding too good to miss. “If it’s a matter of money, I can certainly kick in my share,” I said, nice and polite. “I’ve been doing quite well lately. Or are you hinting that Raymond was supposed to blow someone or something, and I might not want to play the same nasty game?”

She sniffed, nostrils flaring, eyes fiery. “Let’s not worry about it any longer. I’ll take responsibility for you—you shall be here as my personal guest, so you better not screw up. My only request is that you leave after one hour. Out of respect for me, and my position with these people. I can pass you off as an old friend. That way, I won’t lose favor with the bosses.”

“Now that were old friends, I have to tell you that you’ve really got me intrigued, Dana old pal.”

Her neck snapped erect. “How did you know my name?”

“Joel Grey told me.” I pointed at my one-man greeting committee, who was busy chatting up some androgynous types. “He said I was one of Dana’s lambs and didn’t even know it. Although you don’t seem like the shepherd type, I put two and two together and got you.”

Mirth wrinkled across her perfect eyebrows: “I’m not sure you’d quite fit the bill. As a lamb, that is.”

“One never knows, I guess. And what exactly is the deal with the wolves and lambs?”

“It’s from Steppenwolf.”

“The rock band?”

“The book,” she said with a withering glance. “By Herman Hesse. Are you at all familiar with it?”

“Yeah, read it when I was in college. All I remember is that the guy took drugs and had a strong aversion to being confined in an office or a barracks or anything like that.”

“That’s one theme, I suppose,” she said. “There are others.”

I mumbled about not recalling and downed a shot of cactus juice in one long swallow. I reached casually for a lemon slice from the nice white bowl stud-muffin Rick put in front of me before he poured Dom Perignon into a hollow-stemmed glass for Dana.

Suddenly nervous, I swung around and faced the dance floor, feeling the edge of vertigo as the booze hit my gut. I couldn’t keep my curiosity in check. “What’s behind door number three over there, Dana? Secret doors in the middle of walls fascinate me. You gonna show me? Dana’s a real nice name. I like it.” I couldn’t believe what a douche I was sounding like.
She looked at me, smiling slightly—or maybe painfully.
“Could you take me behind the magic portal before I have to leave?” I asked. “One hour is hardly time enough to take this party in.”

She tossed back her bubbly in one gulp, looking incredibly wild and sexy, like the blood was flowing to all the right places. “So tell me, Mr. Jones, what is it that you are doing so well at, lately, if I may ask?”

“I’m a businessman. And my name, isn’t Jones, it’s Flint. I was just keeping with the anonymous spirit of things. John Flint is my name, business is my game.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere, Mr. Flint. What kind of business are you in?”

“I’m sure it would bore you to death.”

“Oh no, please tell me, I’m truly interested, I assure you. I’m a businesswoman; I have my MBA—maybe I’ve even heard of your company.”

“I doubt that. But, it’s ah, Kirby Enterprises—out of Orlando. But right now, I’m trying to get out of Florida. Myself, personally, I mean.”

“Don’t like the weather?”

“It’s not that.”

“Didn’t you tell me you’d just flown in from California when we talked downtown?”

That she remembered our conversation made my confidence rise.

“California, Florida… what’s the difference? The weather’s nice and they’re both too crowded. Guess I don’t like crowds very much.”

“You are quite a little fibber, aren’t you Mr. Flint? Which one is it then, Florida or California?”

“I just flew in from LA, and my business is, like I said, in Orlando, Florida. I had an import-export business, but I’m searching for other opportunities. Thus—California. ”

“I see. And you swear you’re not some kind of cop?”

“Back to that, again? If you only knew… But come on now, this is supposed to be a party. And I have but a few short moments left in which to savor your beauty.”

“You really do go off, don’t you, John.”

“Must be the jet lag. But now it’s time for the magical mystery tour you promised me, darlin’.”

“If you insist. It’s time for your journey to the dark side, Mr. Flint. Perhaps it is indeed fate that finds you here. Before we go, I must tell you that our back rooms here are for the purpose of losing all inhibition and surrendering to one’s own desires. If this is going to be something you find difficult, then I suggest we cancel the trip.”

“I think I’ll make it.”

“Come along,” she said. “We’ll go through my entrance at the back of the club.”

“But I always wanted to go through a secret door like that one on the wall.”

“We’ll come out that way, honey, just for you. Now come along.”

I caught up to her and she grabbed my hand with an iron grip far beyond what one would expect from such a slender, delicate wrist. “I hope you’re not from the Midwest,” she said. “Your sensibilities might be offended.”

“I am from the Midwest. But my sensibilities were offended a long time ago. And to tell you the truth, I kind of liked it.”

We went past the bathrooms to a purple and white zebra-striped wall with a door in the center. Through the door to a narrow, dark hallway, dimly lit by a red bulb on the ceiling. As Dana was closing the thick door she looked deep into my eyes.

“You remind me of a wounded animal, Mr. Flint,” she said.

That threw me for a loop and no response was forthcoming.

My eyes struggled to focus; my senses struggled. The air was thick with the sharp odor of sex—raw, primal sex. Also heavy incense and pot smoke—high-grade—maybe a hint of opium’s sweetness lingering on the edge.

We walked along, shoes creaking on the wooden floor. Moans and muffled cries came from behind one of several crudely painted black doors bordering the dim hallway.

“Here is where the wolves and lambs play out their parts, John,” Dana said with a dramatic tone. “So you see, one must choose his role before he comes in here. And also prepare for it. Do you like to watch, Mr. Flint? Many of our participants encourage voyeurism. Some like to show, and others like to look. Some like to give, while others like to receive. This is the balance of the world.”

“Some like to pitch and others like to catch.”

“Exactly.”

Behind door number, two came the crack of a whip and a long, male groan, somewhere between pleasure and pain.

“Come with me now,” she said, holding out her hand like I shouldn’t say no, making me feel like a little boy—putty in her soft hands.

I could feel the stirring down below. I’d follow her anywhere.

We lingered by the third door. Behind it, bedsprings bounced and squeaked out a backbeat to the voices, laughter, grunting and screams of delight.

“We also respect those who desire privacy,” she said, moving down the winding hallway. “Perhaps they don’t want to be interrupted by strangers at the wrong moment, you understand—so we leave closed doors closed—although none have locks.”

I tried to speak but there was a lump in my throat.

Door number four was halfway open, affording a narrow look at a naked guy kneeling on a mattress on the floor with a black leather mask over his head. He had a hard-on the size of a bull while a black-leather-clad dominatrix twisted his nipple with her studded-gloved fingers and demanded he bend over and beg forgiveness with his ass in the air like “a bitch dog in heat.”

Flashbulbs popped from behind the door and a skinny kid in a beret came into the picture as he searched for a different camera angle.

Door number five was pretty tame. Just a couple of the slick-haired dudes getting blown by one of the Shirley Temples while the other Shirley crawled around on all fours shoving her ass at a naked guy who was chasing her around trying to hit her in the head with his huge dick. There were vodka bottles strewn around and a mirror with mounds of white powder on it, as well as a cardboard box full of plastic sex toys. That’s amore, I guess.

Door number six was closed but the room had a viewing window in the wall, like maybe it had been an office at one time. A special office preserved for those who like to show it off to the world. Strange off-kilter jazz music played inside. The display was boys only: six nude gay boys in a blow job daisy chain on top of several mattresses. Two other blue boys dressed in cowboy boots and black leather bondage gear stood above them giving each other hand jobs and swapping spit. I recognized the nipple ring on Rick the bartender. Must have been on break or busy working overtime. A slick-haired dude in black was catching all the action with a shoulder-mounted video camera.

My knees were weak and Dana was in total control. She seemed so superior. My over-priced clothes and my forty-dollar haircut weren’t cutting the mustard. I felt like a rube—a dirt farmer.

“Gosh,” I said. “All these people sure know how to have fun. Too bad my hour is going so fast.”

“Here,” she said softly, pointing toward a narrow passageway between the walls of the labyrinthine enclave. “This is the way to the door that opens onto the dance floor. I wouldn’t want to deprive you of your fun—after you went to so much trouble finding me. And tell me, exactly how did you find this place?”

I ignored her query as we wove our way along through the crimson shadows. Close again to the throbbing music, arrows of colored light swirled under the door. On the other side, voices rose. Laughter. Shouts. Crazy fast talk.

Aroused, appalled and confused, I had bad hots for this Dana. But I couldn’t shake the lingering edge of fear. Once burned, twice shy, I guess. Except in my case you’d have to multiply those numbers.

I stumbled out through the secret door and had to dodge quickly to avoid the lesbians in baseball garb, who were doing the crocodile rock. Like a drowning man struggling for life, I wove toward the bar. The object of my desire followed behind me at an awkward distance. Awkward for me, that is. I was searching for a glib comment but had none at the ready.

I fell against the bar like I’d just crossed the wide Missouri without a boat. Dana glided up, looked at me inscrutably and motioned to the bartender.

“In answer to your last question,” I said, leaning closer. “I found this place by just walking down the street until I found John Avenue. Just lucky, I guess.”

“More than lucky, I should think. You don’t realize how difficult it is for crashers to find one of our galas. We go to great pains. You see, John, John Avenue doesn’t really exist.”

“Come on, I saw the sign. You, my dear, made one incorrect assumption— and now I’m here. That’s all, end of story. No big deal. I’m not going to do anyone any harm, I promise. I don’t care what these people do to each other in the privacy of these rooms. Fucking Christ, I could care less. Truth be known, I was only looking for you. Like I said before, I’m just a lonely boy looking for a friend. You seemed like someone I could like, that’s all.” I looked at my Rolex: “And goddamn, if my hour isn’t almost up. My, how time flies.”

“Have another drink on the house Mr. Flint. I’ll join you. Maybe we can get together some day, who knows.” She looked soulfully into my eyes and I thought I was going to melt like a hunk of butter on a radiator. “More champagne for me, Alex, and whatever Mr. Flint desires.”

“How about a rum and coke, Alex. You know,” I said, looking at her. “I’d like that—the getting together part. Can I call you someday when the sun is shining?”

“That would be all right.”

I couldn’t believe it.

“I’ll give you my card,” she said. “I’ve got some around here, somewhere. Then I’ll walk with you to the door and see that you get started out in the right direction. Did I hear correctly? You said you walked here?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Not a good place to walk at this hour.”

“I’ll be all right. I can take care of myself.”

“I’m sure you can, Mr. Flint—John.”

“I could take care of you, too, you know.”

“What if I don’t want to be taken care of?” She suppressed a laugh.

Realizing that I was very hammered and sounding like an idiot again, I shut my mouth and stared out at the dance floor.

What a sight to see.

And somewhere back in Florida, my poor wife was pining for me. At least I thought so.

This new and strange woman had made me feel funny but I liked it. One moment you’d think she was mature and strong willed and then the next moment she would seem a child, vulnerable and needy. She’d made me feel small and unimportant at times. And other times I’d sworn she wanted me to kiss her.

I took a swig of the freshly arrived drink and stood up.

“Well, I’ll be a good lad and get me arse up the stairs and onto the bleedin’ street,” I said, Cockney accent. I often go to the accents when I’m uncomfortable and stupid drunk. “Hate to cause trouble in a new town, ya know.” Somehow, Norwegian slipped in.

I went back to my normal voice, slightly loose. “You can just write your phone number on a matchbook, if you want, like in the movies. Save you the trouble of searching for business cards.”

She pressed her finger to her upper lip. Her eyes softened and she smiled sweetly, reaching over the bar and coming back with a black and orange, glossy matchbook.

“Got a pen mister?” she asked, playfully, her voice a sexy growl like Lauren Bacal in “To Have and Have Not”.

“No, but there’s got to be one at the cash register, don’t you think?”

“Of course. Why don’t you come with me and I’ll walk up the stairs with you. We can both say hello to Eric.”

“Yeah, you can introduce us. Maybe someday I’ll need a ski-joring partner.”

Her eyebrows arched while my heart ached.

“I’m sure Eric would love being your dog,” she said slyly. “Should I ask him for you?”

“Ah, no… never mind. I need a little work on my stride, anyway.”

We slid haltingly over to the cash register where, sure enough, there was a ballpoint pen.

Dana was opening the matchbook, pen in hand, when the glass doors at the bottom of the stairs opened. In strode a tanned, good looking, expensively dressed couple of indeterminate age. They moved like monarchs while we were mere commoners. For companionship, instead of basset hounds or Dobermans, our king and queen kept a member of the opposite sex on a leash. The nubile pets were clad in head-to-toe, black, skin-tight latex.

“Shit.” Dana hissed under her breath. Then to me: “I’ve got to go now. Sorry. Call me sometime.”

She quickly scribbled, handed me the matchbook and whisked off to greet the King and Queen of Deviance.

I slipped the matchbook in my trouser pocket as Dana reached their table and greeted the royalty. Pretty soon the entire entourage rose and made a stirring migration over to a large table at the edge of the dance floor, which had obviously been reserved for the hotshot king and his vampire queen.

The pets took their places on the floor, supine at their master’s expensively shoed feet as the festivities raged on.

Dana played the hostess-with-the-mostess, bringing their drink order up to the bar and generally bowing and scraping. At least that’s the way my drunken eyes were seeing it. These people either had something over her or had something for her, like cold hard cash. It quickly became apparent my new love was going to be gone from my presence for the remainder of the evening.

I quietly made my way up what now seemed an extra long and steep flight of stairs. By the time I hit the top my legs were like cement and my head was mush. My heart raced and my stomach flip-flopped. Visions of Dana danced in my head.

Big old funky Eric smiled at me as I came through the door. Guy must have been a sergeant in the German army in a past life. “Have a good night, sir,” he fog-horned, lifting the steel bar and shoving open the door.

I stepped to the doorway and was greeted by pouring rain, coming down in spikes.

“Whoa,” I said. “It’s raining. Maybe I should call a cab. It’s coming down in sheets out there.”

“Sorry sir, no outside phone lines tonight.”

“Well shit. There a payphone anywhere near, do you know?”

“Not that I’m aware of, sir. Is there something wrong with your car?” he said, rubbing his meaty hand underneath his nose.

“Fuck, man. I don’t have a raincoat or a car or even a goddamn hat. I’m staying at a hotel on State Street, and that’s a long ways from here in weather like this. I’ll ruin my suit in this kind of rain.”

“I do have a box of garbage bags, sir.”

“Garbage bags?”

“Yes, sir. We use them for the cleanup. But you could put one over your head, tear a couple holes for your eyes, and have yourself one bitchin’ rain poncho. Been known to use them myself, once or twice.”

“Well, Eric, let me tell you this—your boss told me your name was Eric. And your boss—Dana—and I, have become good friends, you see. I shall tell her what a true gentleman and fine doorman you are—certainly worthy of a fine raise—if you should find it in your power to fetch me one of those bitchin’ ponchos that you so kindly remembered.”

I held out a twenty.

“Certainly sir. Right away.”

(Northwoods Standoff available at major online bookstores)

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Enjoy Chapter 15 of T.K. O’Neill’s crime/noir enovel Fly in the Milk–and order the whole thing for just $2.99!

CHAPTER 15

William “Big Cat” Edwards always thought it peculiar how he grimaced when the cops passed by on the road. City cop, highway cop, sheriff or goddamn game warden, it didn’t matter. Every time he saw a vehicle with a flasher on the roof and a uniformed driver, he felt the stirrings of anger and resentment and maybe hatred. There was possibly a little fear, but he would never admit it.

Driving north on Highway 53 in his ’69 Buick Electra four-door, he wondered what his old parole officer would say if he ever told her that one. Like if he just came out and said I hate fucking cops, Marlene. The bitch would be busting her ass to get him back inside, that’s for sure. At least until after her period was done with and she mellowed out again.

The bitch. He’d see her in the bars all the time with her old man—her husband—both of them drunk as skunks. Yet they always found a way to look down at you, didn’t they? Give someone a job with power over others and they start thinking their own shit don’t stink.

Sure, he knew that all cops weren’t bad. And yeah, they were necessary to keep the real assholes in line, but he still swore to himself whenever they passed by on the road. Back when he was a kid, his teachers were always preaching that the cops were there to help you. He’d never seen much of the helping, only the throwing in jail part. His daddy… his uncle… him…

Sometimes he wished he were still a kid, innocent and playful, only worried about if his mother might embarrass him with her alcoholic incoherence or her lunacy. Now and then when he was a little down, he wondered if he’d be better off a retard like his younger brother. Ride around all day in a window van with all his tard buddies, making weird faces at the passing cars. Wouldn’t have to go through the grind anymore. Wouldn’t have a care in the world, except maybe if you crapped your pants or not. But maybe that wouldn’t bother you either.

Yeah, this life was getting to be a grind, that was true, but none of the straights would ever believe you if you told them. They think it’s because you’re lazy that you make your money on the other side of the law. They think it’s an easy life, running a blind pig. They don’t know it’s harder than running a regular bar, and you always got to worry about getting busted, besides. These days there’s lots of competition and the money is tight. People would rather stay home and get stoned and watch cable TV. And you’re always looking over your shoulder to see who’s coming after you. Is it the cops or just some crazy drunken asshole you eighty-sixed a month ago?

They think because the blackjack tables and the roulette wheel are always busy, it means you’re rolling in the dough. Nobody thinks that you got partners like anyone else in business. And you got cheaters coming in and trying to rip you off, and you got your own partners trying to skim every nickel they can get away with.

Nah, man, it ain’t easy being an outlaw. You got your times of underemployment just like anyone else. And if you fuck up, you don’t just get fired, you get thrown in the slam.

Big Cat, like his bud Johnny Beam, believed it was time to move on to sunnier shores. Bring the wife and kid down to where it was warm all year long. Score a nest egg and roll down to Florida; maybe buy into a bar or a liquor store and sell gin to retirees. It would sure be nice to not have to see Artis and Gary again. Why in fuck he’d ever partnered up with them, he didn’t know. Maybe it had been God’s will….

The rusty Electra rode like a pillow on a wave, floating along as the sky tried to decide if it was going to rain or shine. Twenty minutes past the Three Lakes Road at the first right after Dunston Road, Cat turned onto the gravel and pushed down the pedal, watched in the rearview as the dust kicked up behind him like an exploded vacuum bag. Two miles on the dirt and he’d be at the house, the sleazy shithole with the dilapidated chicken coops out back that Artis called home.

He was still kicking himself about the past, wondering how he could have let it happen like it did. If he’d been thinking back then, he would’ve asked Johnny to let him run the Hanging Dog. Just him alone, not the other two lizards. But the Big Cat, so named because of the three white vertical steaks along the left side of his full, dark head of hair and the feline grace he’d shown in the boxing ring, could never hang onto money. And Johnny had needed the bread up front. Gary Masati always had cash because there was money in his family. And Artis was Gary’s strong-arm guy. That was how the deal came together. But that was a long time ago and the Cat had always been Johnny’s man, the only one of the three that was smart enough to keep an enterprise going.

Artis Mitchell paced back and forth on the cracked, yellowed linoleum in his spacious and filthy kitchen. Dirty dishes were piled high in the sink and the place was getting too dirty, even for him. Time to get Elizabeth Hardy from down the road over again to do some cleaning. Maybe this time he would get her inside the bedroom and get her pants off. She was only sixteen but she could clean up the house real good. Three dollars an hour and she earned every cent. Watching her ass in them tight Calvin Klein jeans was worth two-fifty an hour alone.

Warmth flooded him as he replayed in his mind the night that had changed his life and brought a ray of hope into his otherwise bleak existence. That time when there was a knock on his door and Elizabeth was standing there in her red wool car coat, pretty as a pin-up. When she smiled that toothy smile, her lips all curvaceous, and asked so sweetly if she and her friends could come over to his house and party sometime, you know, hang out and smoke dope and drink beer—well, old Artis was thinking a miracle had happened. He’d hesitantly agreed, using every bit of his will, to keep from drooling and babbling like a diseased monkey.

On the evening of the much-anticipated party, five kids had showed up on Artis’ front porch: Elizabeth, her friend Jenny, and three boys whose names Artis kept forgetting. Ricky and Billy and Tommy or some shit like that. They’d brought their own weed and a partially consumed half-gallon jug of Red Mountain wine. Artis kept his own stash of Colombian pot a secret, but he did share a few cans of Pabst from his fridge.

The kids were nice to him but a little afraid of the man with the big beer gut and the huge, hairy arms. Artis chose to believe that their standoffishness was, in fact, respect and shyness.

After the get-together was over and the kids had stumbled out, leaving his little house quiet again, Artis had parked himself on the lumpy gray couch, beer in hand and cigarette burning on top of an empty Blue Ribbon can on the cluttered table, and come up with a grand scheme.

He would invite the gang over again, someday soon. Make sure he had everything set up just right before they got there: some nice Boone’s Farm apple wine for the girls and Steinhaus beer for the boys. Cheap booze always worked better. Then bring out the good weed and the Penthouse magazines and get the kids horny, tell’em to feel free and use the spare bedroom if they want to have a little fun. After a couple had been in the room going at it a while, he’d say he was going to roll a joint and go into the closet of the other bedroom where his camera was mounted on a tripod.

He could work the hole-in-the-wall action all night long.

When the film was developed he’d have leverage on the kids. They wouldn’t want their parents to know what they been up to, so they’d do some favors in exchange for the pics. Maybe some free weed or some stolen goods from the boys—maybe a grab-and-dash job or two. The girls—they got things they can do, too. Let your imagination work for you on that one.

Artis sighed, scratched a stick match on the window molding and fired up a Marlboro, looked through the dusty glass at the brush and scrub trees along the edge of his backyard. Dark clouds like buffalo turds were moving slowly across the steel-gray sky.

He was starting to get pissed off. Where in the fuck was that goddamned Masati? Fat fuck was supposed to be here an hour ago so they could work on their story… excuse… alibi… explanation for the discrepancies in the accounting books at the Dog. Porky son of a bitch was probably into the Valium again and would more than likely be totally useless in convincing the Cat of their innocence.

As Gary Masati bounced along the highway in his Ford Bronco in the direction of what he often caustically referred to as “Artie’s Acres” or “Mitchell’s Mansion,” he had indeed been into the Valiums. Trying to cut back on his coke and speed usage, he had ingested the tranquilizers as part of a self-prescribed therapy regimen.

Masati had two nicknames. One that you could say to his face: Assram, or Ram for short, which referenced his unique ability to break through locked doors using his sizeable hindquarters as a battering ram. The second nickname, “Gag me Gary,” referred to his predominantly rank body odor. You only spoke this behind his back, unless you wanted some trouble. At this moment, his jaw was a bit loose and his mouth hung open. He seemed to breathe and snore at the same time and he didn’t give a fuck about much of anything.

That’s the thing about Valium, take enough of it and you just plain don’t give a shit. No matter what you do, have done or are about to do, you care not. The little pills, be they yellow or big blue, were often prescribed as a means of putting the mind on an even keel, freeing the unhappy user from the sufferings of anxiety and fear and guilt. And they worked. Empathy, patience and tolerance were also frequently banished from one’s emotional repertoire by diazepam, but this side effect was one about which Gary Masati could not have cared less.

As far as he was concerned, the meeting was more for Big Cat and Artis; they were the ones who cared about the Hanging Dog. He, you know, didn’t give a fat fuck. He didn’t need the club and the club didn’t need him. He had an income, a monthly inheritance check from a long-dead uncle that kept him in the necessities of life, like food, dope and alcohol and a place to crash. And because of his ingenious method of entering locked rooms, he was a valuable addition to any burglary crew—and a damn good auto mechanic besides, if he had to work. If you had to work a steady, at least in a garage you could stay stoned on something all day. Currently, he had a tricked-out pick-up on the market that he’d assembled from all “borrowed” parts.

Sure, he’d skimmed a little off the top here and there at the Dog. Fucking anybody would, working that place. It’s not like there were any tips or anything. But the kind and size of the losses Artis was talking about had to be from something else. Like maybe fucking Artis was stealing a pile and concocting some kind of intrigue bullshit to cover it up.

Gary knew how easy it would be to start out small, lifting a few bucks here and there, telling yourself you were going to pay it all back later when you got ahead. But then you never got ahead and all of a sudden you were looking at a pretty big hole in the bookkeeping. That’s probably how it went down.

The road went by in a soft haze. Hardly seemed like any time at all before he was cutting the ignition and staring blankly at the dust as it swirled down on his hood and drifted into the side of Artis’ shitty house. Gary’s brain was a jellied mess, the last twenty miles a total blank.

He had risen that morning with a fierce craving for a burst of illicit chemical energy in the form of powders or pills, a habit that, in its infancy, he had told himself would be good for him, help drop a few pounds. Having finally assessed the damaging nature of such a habit to both his pocketbook and his mental health, Gary often fought the urges with a ten-milligram Valium, which usually reduced the craving to a muffled moan. He had boosted at noon with another blue tablet and nearly passed out during lunch at Silk’s pool hall. Then Peter Klang had given him a white cross in the men’s room to help him revive.

Gary climbed out of the fading orange Bronco, steadied himself on the doorframe and fired up a Viceroy with a black plastic lighter. Mellow but mean; he hoped nobody gave him any shit because he wasn’t in the mood. Didn’t want to pull out the .38 from the waistband of his jeans under the tail of his blue flannel shirt. All he wanted to do was rest. Rest and think about the burglary job that Tommy Soderberg had clued him to, a small safe with cash, old coins and jewels. The picture in his head glowed with warm colors that promised satisfaction like a five-course dinner.

He staggered up the incline and let himself in through the dirt-smudged, scratched-up wooden front door. In the nearly empty dining room, dust floated thickly inside an angled column of sunlight streaming through a high window on the west wall, the sun having found a break in the bank of clouds.

He saw a blurry Artis sitting on a wooden chair in the kitchen, nursing a can of Old Style, huge forearms resting on the rickety wooden table with a cigarette burning between his thick fingers. A steady blue-gray stream of smoke rose toward the yellowed ceiling. Artis looked worried.

“Jesus Christ, Artis, you pig,” Masati snorted, jiggling across the litter-strewn floor. “Don’t you ever clean this place? I remember that peanut butter jar over there from three weeks ago, for the Christ sake. You’re gonna get some kind of rat-shit fever or something. Smells like the fucking landfill in here.”

“Fuck you, Ram. Clean enough for a shitbag like you.” Artis bared his yellowed, tobacco-flecked teeth in an artificial smile that looked more like a grimace.

Masati sat down heavily. The wooden chair creaked and sagged. He dropped his cigarette into an empty Old Style can on the table and took a deep breath. His eyelids were heavy and so was his lower jaw.

“Well I’m heerrrrr…” he slurred.  “Whasss with all the drama? You knock up a sheep an need bread for an abortionnn?”

“I thought it was a sheep at first but then I discovered it was your mother.”

“You would fuck my mother, Artis, you sick fuck. Even the old man won’t do that anymore.”

“Who could blame him after you came out.”

“Fuck off. What the hell you call me out here for? What’s this goddamn emergency you’re all worked up about?”

“Big Cat’s on his way out. He’s gonna want to know why we’re out of liquor at the club and why we don’t have his usual share. Then, in a couple days, when he hears from Randall that he ain’t been paid, he’ll be ready for it.”

“It’s that bad, uh? We got to prepare him for the worst? Fucking shit. You never can tell… it ain’t my fucking fault.”

“Nobody’s saying it’s anybody’s fault. I’m saying we lost a ton at roulette last summer. I think someone was past posting. I think there was a team working us. Remember all those new guys? Them assholes with the Ohio plates?” Artis’ eyes pleaded slightly, hoping for backup on his grasp at straws.

“Nahhhhhh…… but, y’know… there’s new faces every summerrrr.  You can’t catch da same fish everrrryy day.”

“You better remember those faces when Cat shows up, Ram. You better remember how they slicked us. Otherwise he’s gonna think it was you and me been stealin’ him blind and causing the Dog to go tits up.”

“We’rrre tittsss ubp?”

“Like a beached sucker. We only got enough booze left for you and me to get drunk. We can’t afford the rent or the skid to Randall, and the women don’t want to come around no more  ‘cause nobody wants to spend anything on them. Dudes’d rather sit home and whack it to porn videos. And there just ain’t any money around. Not enough for a place like the Dog to stay goin’, anyway.”

“Hell’s gonna happenn to da stuffff?  Jukeboxss an pinball?”

“’Magine someone will come for them.” Artis said, watching the dust-filled column of sunlight as it faded away. “Can’t see Lambert or Johnny Beam leaving them behind. Unless the cops get there first. I think it was just a matter of time before we got popped, anyway, you know what I’m saying? It’s like, we’re getting out at the right time.” He heaved a heavy sigh. “You want a beer, man?”

“No thanks, I’mm watcchhin my waistline.”

“What are you watching it do, take over the county?”

“Fuck you.” Masati shot Artis the bird in slow motion.

Artis snorted, raked the empty beer cans off the table, pinned them against his barrel chest and stood up. He paused to gape at Masati’s head as it lolled on his thick, fleshy neck like a beach ball on a rhino, the chair creaking sharply each time it jerked back upright.

Then they both turned their heads at the sound of a blown-out, window-rattling muffler. Artis looked out the window above the sink and saw a big Buick pulling up, followed by a cloud of dust that swirled around the house. He dropped the beer cans in a plastic garbage pail under the counter by the sink and wiped his hands on the front of his blue denim coveralls.

The Buick jerked to a halt in the dirt. Big Cat held his breath as the dust cloud passed by and settled on the patchy lawn. The massive, copper-colored two-door hardtop with white vinyl roof shuttered and shook, chugging for twenty seconds before it finally wheezed and went quiet.

“Sounns like Cat couldd use hisss timing adjustedt,” Masati slurred.

“Why don’t you offer your services?” Artis asked, grinning.

“I hav in tha passst, I’ll havv yuu knowww—but he never sidts down long enough to gedt it donnne.”

“That’s another thing, man,” Artis said, eager for the opening. “He’s hardly ever at the club anymore, only shows up when we’re closing, to count the cash. Shit, lately he doesn’t even show up at all, half the time. Fucker’s been having me drop it off at his house. Trouble is… I ain’t brought nothing over for the last three weeks.”

“Thisss isss whadt I gedt when I de-le-gate yuuu sommme re-sponnsa-billlidty?”

“Fuck you, Masati, if you hadn’t been passed out in the office or not there at all every goddamn night, I wouldn’t have had to do it.”

“So it’sss my fauldt thattt you spennt the housse’s casssh?”

“I had to pay my rent and electricity, and I had a shit load of parking tickets—they were going to throw me in jail,” Artis frowned until the thick hair of his eyebrows joined at the bridge of his nose. “What fucking choice did I have?”

“I forgive you Artis,” Masati said, his speech momentarily returned to normal due to the rush of apprehension and fear brought on by Big Cat’s arrival. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. But you’re going to have to ‘splain that to our boy Mr. Cat. And I think I hear his footfalls a rustling on the porch right now.”

Then the front door scraped open and the screen slammed behind it. The six-foot-two former boxer and part-time musician known as Big Cat, came striding in, the heels of his blue and red cowboy boots knocking on the decaying wood floor.

“Greetings from the Land o’ Nod,” Masati said from the kitchen, his tongue thickening.

The three men jerked to attention as a clap of thunder ripped the sky. In an instant, a hard rain came ripping down from the black clouds, large oval drops hitting the dry dirt and bouncing. Drumming on the tops of the cars and tapping like a thousand tiny hammers on the shingled roof of the house.

“At least it will keep the dust down for a few days.” Artis said, looking out at the deluge as he moved slowly into the dining room. He kicked at a crumpled McDonald’s cheeseburger wrapping. “Hey, Catman, how’s it hanging?”

“Long and thick, as per normal,” Big Cat said, deep and mellow. He was a large man with wide shoulders, a strong chest and a square head, features that some mistook for Polynesian or Samoan.

“Beer, William?” Artis inquired, gesturing toward the kitchen and the grease-stained refrigerator that only a year before had been a shiny new unit, part of the swag from a warehouse rip-off on the Zenith waterfront.

“Yeah, I’ll have one, Arty.” Then, seeing Masati’s obvious intoxication, Cat went into the kitchen, bent down and looked into the fat man’s eyes. “And how are you today, Gary?”

“Pretty mellow, I guess.”

“Sampling the mother’s little helpers again, are we?”

“You might say that. Just a couple three, my man.”

“Blues?”

“Yessir. Want some?”

“No thanks. Maybe later. I got to stay sharp these days. These are trying times for the Cat. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. We’ve got to make some changes, I’m sorry to say. We have to shut down the Dog.”

Artis felt his nerves lighting up as he returned from the fridge with a can of Old Style and set it down on the table. Big Cat grabbed a paint-splattered wooden chair, spun it around backwards and sat down with his arms resting on the back. He picked up the beer, popped the top and took a large pull.

“Annnd jus exacly why does the Dawg haf to die, oh great leader,” Masati slurred, his lips undulating in a failed attempt at a smile.

“It’s losing money,” Big Cat said. “There ain’t enough cash left to keep it running. Fact is, it’s been going downhill for a while now, as you’ve probably noticed. You guys—”

Artis shuffled his feet nervously, stuffed his hands deep in the pockets of his worn, Oshkosh coveralls, lowered his eyelids and studied his feet. “Look, man, I’m sorry—”

“I’m sorry it’s over, too,” Big Cat blurted, “but it’s partly my fault. I gambled away the capital. It’s that simple. I got into this big poker game with some real high rollers. Big-time dudes with deep pockets that I thought I could clean out. To make a long story short, I lost. I came so fucking close on one huge pot—I still can’t believe the cocksucker hit the third ace. He pulled a full boat over my spade flush. I was tapped. Blew like nine grand, right fucking there. That’s why I haven’t been comin’ around.” He took a chug of beer and sat up straight, a serious look on his face.

Artis and Gary shared subtle “do-you-believe-it?” glances.

“Jesus Chrise, Cat, shhit,” Masati said. “I hat three gran in the Dawg but I made that a hunert times over. You can take yer time payin me back, buddy, I donn’t giv a shit.”

“You don’t owe me nothing, William,” Artis said.

“You guys take all the machines that are left,” William the Big Cat said. “The pinball and horserace machines are gone already. Had the guy in there today from West Side Games. You got the bag of quarters, Artis?”

Artis shook his head and tried to look solemn, when in actuality he was relieved. “No… I don’t. Sorry man, I had to use that to pay off these parking tickets I had. I swear, Cat, they were gonna throw me in jail.”

Big Cat took a sip of his beer and shrugged. “C’est la vie say the old folks. So ah, in lieu of a bag full of quarters—anybody know any guaranteed moneymaking scenarios? I need something, real bad.”

“Hey ah, lissen yu guyss,” Masati said. “I, ah, wasn’ goin’ say nothin’ bout thisss, but Tommy Soderberg tole me about this job. He ah, ah—wants me to do thiss job with’im, ya see.  As lonng as yu guyss are’n such rough shape, y’know, why ah, ah—don’t we doit arselfes.”

Cat was disbelieving. Masati was a chronic bullshitter and Tommy Soderberg always worked alone. “Tommy Soda told you about a job? You fucking sure about that?”

“I swear ta Godt, Cat, I ain’t gonna shit you.”

“I can hardly wait to hear this,” Artis said.

“Shut up Arty, let him talk. It takes him long enough, already. You got any coke or speed or something to give him? It’s like listening to a walrus croaking.”

“But, guys, I’m tryin’ to wean maself from stimulants,” Masati insisted, eyes widening slightly.

“Bullshit,” Big Cat said. “I’ll wean you from your nuts if I have to listen to anymore of your mumbling.”

“I shall make an effort to enunciate.”

“Here, then,” Artis said, shaking his head. “Maybe this will help.” He reached in the pocket of his coveralls and came out with a silver bullet filled with coke, set it on the table in front of Masati.

Assram fish-eyed the dull gray metal vial with the tiny hole on the tip. “I do believe it will, gentlemen, I do believe it will.” Moments later, the life was back in his eyes and he was ready to go. “So anyway, as I was saying. Tommy Sodapop told me about a lovely little safe job that he has researched. A safe that is full of old coins, cash and jewelry, he says. Old man used to own a business, but now he’s retired, but he keeps this office to make him feel like he’s still got what it takes, y’know? Maybe he does a little business once in a great while, y’know? Anyways, Soda said he was in the building doing some painting—doing some work for Harold Greene of Meridian Realty— and he seen the old guy going in the safe and pulling out these books of old coins and shit.

“And then he says that later in the day he’s sitting around at the Golden Flow and the old guy comes in, still dressed in his suit and bow tie. The geezer sits at the bar and has one tap beer and then leaves. Soda asks Paul the bartender if he knows the guy and Pauly says Sure, the guy comes in five days a week, always at the same time of day, has one beer and then leaves. He says the guy is loaded, owned a jewelry store for sixty years or some shit like that.”

“Sounds good, Gary,” Big Cat said. “But what the hell did Soda want you to do? I mean, can’t he get in there by himself?”

“He wanted me to help carry the safe out. Said the two of us could haul it out of there and throw it in the back of my Bronco.”

“Thanks for clueing us in, Ram,” Artis said, sarcastically.

“When can we do it?” Big Cat said, setting the empty can on the table and rubbing his hands together like he was washing with unseen soap.

“We hit the place and Soda’s gonna know it was me,” Masati said. “Not sure I want him on my case for jumping his gig.”

“How much of a cut is it gonna take to get you over your guilt and fear?” Big Cat asked, dryly.

“Half should do it.”

“Half the take?” Artis sputtered. Little balls of spit flew from his mouth and stuck in his scraggly brown beard. “You gotta be fucking insane, you fat bastard.”

“Listen, you hairy Greek fuck, not only do I deserve a chunk for finding the job, I should get another bump for crossing Soda. He’s not exactly going to want to hug me for this, in case you’re thinking otherwise.”
“Soda ain’t gonna do anything to you, Ram,” Big Cat said. “Fucker won’t get near you.” He gave Artis a wink on the sly. “All he wants to do is get high and play ball. He’s not the violent type. He’ll just spread the word around town about your deed and hope you get what you deserve.”

“Which is?” Masati asked, warily.

“Judge not, lest you be judged, has always been my policy, Ram. I’ll let someone else decide your just desserts.”

“I’ve got some good ideas about that,” Artis said, wiping at his beard.

“I bet you do, you sick fucking pervert,” Masati said, eyelids growing heavy. “Got another hit of blow?” he said to the air, his gaze directed at a place on the ceiling where a crack in the plaster resembled the letter Z.

“Maybe I do,” Ram, Artis said. “Providing you stay right where you are and give us all the details on this job.”

“Can do, Artis, my friend, can do. It’s not like I was going for a jog or anything.”

Big Cat got up from the table and walked into the dining room. This was the kind of shit that drove him crazy, the way those two dorks carried on. Took them forever to do anything. How he’d gotten this involved with these two was beyond his comprehension. He must have been lonely back then—or maybe he’d taken pity on the pathetic bastards.

He stared out the window at the puddles and the splashing water and the wind pushing the leaves on the popple trees to their silvery backsides. Now it seemed he was getting in deeper with the diet-challenged duo. When he’d thought that all was lost, opportunity had fallen out of the sky. More correctly and certainly stranger, out of Gary Masati’s rubber-lipped mouth. This was as close to “out of the blue” as you were going to get.

Curiouser and curiouser, Cat thought, wondering where he’d heard that before. Way back in the anterior lobes of his brain, another tiny voice was trying to be heard. But it sounded too much like his parole officer—the bitch—and he tried to ignore it.

You seem to look for trouble, William, it was saying.

(End of Chapter 15)

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PART SIX

(published in 1999)

The sunlight hit my eyes and I was reeling.  Life on the street seemed normal as I staggered toward my car.  I was parked in front of Tony’s Tap, a bar that had recently been closed down by federal marshals for amphetamine trafficking.  I was feverishly working my key in the lock when the front door of Tony’s opened up and a tall distinguished looking man with light brown hair and a receding hairline stepped out.  He was wearing formal clothing, like a butler or something:

“Just in time for happy hour sir; we have Black Stag on special today.  Won’t you join us?”  He smiled.  His teeth were brown decaying stumps.

The door lock popped up and I jumped in and jammed the key in the ignition.  Unlike the movies, the engine started immediately.  My intestines had a life of their own as I squealed out of the parking space and hot-footed-it out of town.

I was running scared down the highway at eighty miles an hour when I popped over the crest of a small hill into a construction zone that I didn’t remember being there on the way down.  About thirty yards in front of me, a big, red, Mack truck was pulling out from a side road on the right.  Another big, red truck was bearing down in the oncoming lane, doing about sixty and throwing up dust like a stagecoach on “Death Valley Days.”  All I could see in the rear view mirror was a large, gold grille and the word MACK.  They had me boxed in.  My mortality was as real as a February morning in Duluth—right here, right now.

I swerved to the right, hurtled off the bank, flew twenty feet in the air and slammed hard onto the new roadbed.  I fish-tailed and got her straightened out.  Gaining speed, I rocketed off an up-sloping piece of hardpan like a four wheeled Evel Kneivel, flew forty feet in the air and hit the old highway with tires spinning.  Behind me, dust filled the air and my tormentors could not be seen.

All those big red trucks got me to thinking: I wondered if the color had any significance… nah….

The road ahead was clear.  I sped on.  Five, ten, fifteen miles.  I had the thirst of a thousand slaves and a headache that a crate of aspirin couldn’t touch.  Then I heard a siren.

I pulled over for the cop, figuring I had no choice.  He seemed like a normal small town officer: slightly paunchy and slightly sleepy.  He walked slowly along the shoulder as I rolled down the window.

“Your driver’s license, please.”

I showed him my license.

“You know you were going pretty fast, Mr. Kirby.  What’s the hurry?” His dark aviator sunglasses hid his eyes.

“The devil made me do it.”

“Speeding is nothing to joke about, sir.  What is your business in this area?”

“Just visiting the Harper family, in Hell—er, ah—Shell Lake, sir.”

     “Oh… I see… well then, you may go.  Have a nice day.”  He gave me back my license, turned on the heel of his jackboot and went back to his patrol car.

It’s so good to be on the road again….  I was singing, yeah, but my skin was the color of a lily pad and nature was making all of its calls at the same time.  I needed a roadside rest, and—as if by magic—one of those blue signs appeared ahead of me.  I angled off into the oasis and pulled up next to the facility.

After I disgorged, I was walking out of the little toilet shack when I saw two geeks standing next to my car.  One was wearing an orange Sunkist T-shirt and a matching, sweat stained baseball cap, while the other had on a grease-stained, gray work shirt and a blue cap.  Both wore blue jeans that sagged below their pot guts.  Beavis and Butthead gone to seed.  I could see no vehicle anywhere.

“What the hell are you doin’ here, you long-haired, big-city faggot?” they croaked in unison like a two-headed lamprey on PCP.  “We don’t like your kind around here.  We are gonna mess you up.”

I jammed my hand through the open car window and grabbed a hold of the Penthouse magazine I had purchased at Hammond Spur for those lonely moments.  With a quick flick of the wrist I sailed the skin mag onto the grassy area by the john.  My two friends raced and dove for it, while I jumped in the Ford and got the hell out of there.

What seemed like hours but was really only minutes later, I began to feel safe.  By the time I could see Lake Superior, the whole thing seemed like a dream.  I’m still not really sure what happened….

Is their ritual satanic activity in Wisconsin?  Probably not.  Nothing organizes this demon, it thrives on emptiness and mind numbing boredom.  Lack of love is its siren’s call.  Does the devil live in Dairy Land?  I really can’t say for sure, but if the Packers make it to the Super Bowl, ask me again.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  The Green Bay Packers went to the Super Bowl both 1997 and 1998, beating New England in ’97 and losing to Denver in ’98.  Also in the late nineties, one of the largest internet child pornography rings ever investigated was traced to a man who lived just outside of SHELL LAKE, Wisconsin.

(The end)

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PART FIVE

(published in 1999)

By the time I came to the statue of the giant rodeo cowboy outside of Spooner, the chicken was lying in my gut like a tungsten football and my sinuses were so clogged I was snoring while awake.  I decide to find a local pharmacy and seek relief.

When I plopped down the bottle of maximum strength Pepto Bismol and a packet of SudaFed Allergy-Sinus pills, the kid behind the counter at Pamida was grinning like he’d been freely sampling the amphetamine suppositories.

“Do you take plastic?” I asked in a nasal drone.

“Sure,” he said, “Visa and Master Card.”

“No,” I said, “not credit cards, I mean these.”  I pulled out a handful of Bayfront Bluesfest tokens from my pocket and showed the pimply teenager.  “These are collector’s items—what can you give me for them?  Maybe you want some tanning booth certificates instead. Good for the complexion I understand.”

“Those tokens are way cool, dude,” said the boy.  “Are they from that festival up in Duluth where the colored people come and play old music?”

“The very same, kid.”

“I’ll give you fifty cents a piece for them.”

After we concluded our deal, the clerk was still grinning and I was hurrying for the door.  Soon I was on the road again.

A few miles outside of Shell Lake, a strong wind came up.  Then I noticed an increased lushness in the roadside foliage, as if the drought had never touched anything around here.  The corn was over five feet high and fat, while everywhere else I had been the scrawny stocks barely reached three feet.

About this time, the antihistamines started kicking in.  What follows is a little hazy in my memory:

“Go there and they will come… Hell lake is the center…” the voice echoed in my head.

I was walking around in one of the prettiest small towns that I’d ever seen.  Why was I here?  Some half-assed, hair-brained idea about satanic cults and a voice from a corn field.  I felt small, I felt foolish and I felt crazy.

The blue-green waters of Shell Lake washed soothingly at my feet as I stood on the closed and empty beach.  Then I turned up toward Main Street and went in search of beer.  The best way to get to know a town is from its bar people, I always say.

As I walked, questions floated in and out of my mind like lazy black flies:  What was that odd monument in front of the new school?  What was the “Shell Lake Advantage” being touted on all those signs?  Why was the corn so fucking tall?  Would the bar have Leinenkugel’s?

Inside the Water View Lounge, it was clean, very clean.  A pleasant looking blonde woman in her mid-thirties stood behind the long oaken bar.  At the table by the front window sat a lady of considerable girth wearing a purple bowling shirt.  At the far end of the room, near the pool tables and the bathrooms, were three old-timers chewing snoose, drinking beer and staring at the big screen TV.

Having learned that drinking Bud gets you accepted in the bars down here, I ordered one.  Then another.

About halfway through the second beer, I noticed a paper sign on the wall behind the bar that said:  WE HAVE BLACK STAG!  MADE LOCALLY—TRY IT!  A hand-drawn rendering of a large stag leered out from above the copy.

“Let me try some of that,” I said, pointing to the sign.

“You want to try some of that,” said the bartender, her voice deeper than I remembered.  “It’s on special today, three shots for four bucks.”

“Must be my lucky day.”  Shots? I don’t do shots anymore.  I used to have some bad habits you see….

“Every Tuesday is Black Stag Day here….”

“Cool.”  Without my consent, my right arm came out of my jeans pocket and laid a fiver on the shiny bar.

The bartender bent down below the cash register and opened a cooler door.  She lifted out a large, crystal decanter filled with an inky, black liquid.

Three jet black, two-ounce shot glasses sat full to the brim in front of me.

“People around here like to down all three, one right after the other.  That is, if they’re man enough,” piped up the huge woman in the hideous bowling shirt.  “We call it a triple.”

A triple… how original.  Man enough you say?  Down the hatch number one: vile, radioactive licorice.  Number two: cough syrup with a mule kick.  And now for number three: What is this shit? I almost gagged, my face got flushed.  I looked around and everybody was staring at me, and then they turned their heads away.

Soon we were all friends.  Fellow denizens of a small-town Wisconsin drinking establishment.  A wiry guy in camo pants and his square-headed, jut-jawed buddy came in from the sunlight and joined the fun.  We all laughed.  When I snuck in questions about the crime and violence in the area, they brushed me off, preferring instead to spin tales of the Harper family—some kind of local icons or something.  They all kind of smiled and nodded when the camo dude said: “Just about everyone around here is related to the Harpers in one way or another… it’s true really… almost everyone….  Ain’t that right Julie….” He looked at the bartender.

“My cousin Mimi is married to a Harper, so I guess I qualify,” she said.

I was feeling so warm and fuzzy that I decided to be honest.  Come right out and tell these fine people what the hell I was up to.

“You know,’ I said beaming, “I haven’t had this much fun in a long time.”  I felt like I could whip George Foreman and not break a sweat.  “And to think I came to town here on assignment, trying to find cults and satanic ritual and shit….”

Suddenly the room started spinning.  The stag on the sign pulsated with life.

I turned on my bar stool: the three deer in the outdoor scene on the back wall were dripping blood.  The blonde bartender came out from behind the bar, and horror of horrors, she had the rear end of a horse.  She was a fucking CENTAUR.  The young men closed in around me.  They were SATYRS. Weaving, spitting, SKELETONS approached from the back room.  The fat lady was grabbing her crotch and howling like a bull elephant in heat.

My head pounded; my heart was in my throat.  Sweat dripped off my face like a rain storm.  Nausea gripped me and I was about to puke.  The floor undulated as they surrounded me.  The heat of their bodies was unbearable and the smell of their breath abhorrent.  I was weak and my throat was so very dry.  Then I heard it, hideous and horrifying… The Demonic Chillin’ Choir shrieking in unison:

“WHAT DID YOU SAY, BOY?”

With a last gasp burst of adrenaline, I charged at the circle with my head down, ramming my shoulder full tilt into a toothless old harpy.  He fell backward on his skinny ass and I went stumbling and crashing out the door.

(To be continued)

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PART FOUR

(published in 1999)

September rolled around and I had pretty much resigned myself to defeat.  I stuffed my journal in my sock drawer and left it there.

Then one day I was over at my Aunt Ethel’s little house north of town, mowing the lawn for a little extra cash.  Auntie Eth always tried to help me out when she knew I was low on funds.  It was kind of a little game we played, where she knew I’d mow the lawn and wash the windows for nothing, but she’d always slip me some money anyway.  And then I’d give it back to her and say, No, no that’s not necessary.  Then she’d give it back to me, insisting, and I would put it in my pocket and give her a hug.  I’d been thinking about pawning my stereo, but only a junkie would do that.

So anyway, I was out in back by Ethel’s withered, stunted corn crop, when I heard this voice coming from the middle of it: “Go—and they shall be there… Hell Lake is the center.  Go and they shall be there….”

Well, I knew I wasn’t hallucinating, because I’d been straight for so long, so I kind of flipped out and went running out of there and got into my car and drove immediately to the office of the Tattler and walked right in on Bill Crocket as he was talking on the phone.  I heard him say something about the paint on his BMW before he hung up and turned his attention to me.  He smoothed down his off white, tropical weight suit with the palms of his hands.  A big gold ring with a single diamond flashed on his left hand.  He leaned back in his chair on wheels, put his right hand against his upper lip and eyed me warily.

I spilled my guts and my story to Crocket like a strung out crack addict trying to cop a plea to a hanging judge.  I begged him for an advance, so I might make one last foray into Cheeseland.  This time I would corner the followers of the horn-ed one; expose them to the penetrating light of investigative journalism.  Elton Kirby had a mission.

Crocket looked at me like I’d been huffing Carbona and shook his head.  “You haven’t written a goddamn thing that’s worth a shit all summer, Kirby,” he said, opening up his humidor and pulling out a foot long cigar.  “That journal, or diary, or whatever the hell you call it, is kind of cute, but I need some real news.  I need somebody’s balls on the table where I can crush them.”

“I think I’ve got something this time, chief.  If I’m right, we’ll have an entire town by the nads.  The mayor, the librarian, the sheriff… we’ll have them all.  Please, this is big.  Just a small advance….”

“The mayor, you say?  The sheriff?” He waved the cigar in a big circle and his eyes grew moist.  “That’s more like it, Kirby.  I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do.  I’ll give you fifty bucks cash and twenty certificates from Sun Seekers—these things are worth at least fifteen bucks a crack.”

“Tanning certificates in fucking September, Bill?  It’s still fucking summer for the Christ sake.”

“That doesn’t matter.  Hey, find some chicks, some waitresses or something… they’ll trade’em for food or drinks.  Tell’em how much of a shame it would be to lose that nice summer tan of theirs—that’ll get’em.”  He turned away from me, grabbed a plastic lighter off his large antique desk and began shuffling some travel folders.

I took the money and the tanning certificates and left.

The day was sunny and breezy as I rolled onto the Johnny Blatnik High Bridge.  Although my sinuses were a bit clogged up and my stomach was a little queasy, my spirits were high.  I stopped at the Hammond Spur station for some of their chicken, my favorite fast food.

The rhythmic snapping of the red and blue plastic pennants on the fuel pump island bid me farewell as I dipped my fingers into the greasy meat and drove back out onto the street.

Soon I was traveling down Highway 2, rolling along with the sunny sky and the semis.  Past the sweet corn sellers and the melon stands, the empty motels and the muddy Nemadji River.  Past the rusted railroad bridge and the President’s Bar in decaying East Superior, and then on to the four-lane, Highway 53.

A few miles down the road I turned off at the Spooner exit and headed south.  A more beautiful stretch of roadway, you would be hard pressed to find.  It just begs you to speed, and I obliged.

Really moving now, I rolled past the Middle River, the inevitable piece of road construction and the Lake Nebagamon turn-off.  Cattails like Havana cigars and multi-colored weeds swayed and waved in the ditches.  The Jayhawks sang from the radio as I hurtled by the junkyard at Bennett. The roadside became a blur when I blew by Stone Chimney Road and Smithy’s Supper Club.  Tires hummed on the warm pavement through Solon Springs and by the Village Pump and then the Douglas County forest—which resembles a telephone pole garden.  Followed by the Poodle Inn, Gordon, Wascott, Two-Mile Lake, the Deer Farm Bar at the entrance to Walleye Land, the road to Dairyland, the Totogatic River and then Minong—the home of Link Brothers famous store and the highest rate of mobile homes per capita in the region.  Back on the open road, I breezed across Stuntz Brook, the road to Lampson, The Little Silver Inn and a farmhouse made of stones.

The countryside began to change.  Pines and sand gave way to rolling hills and hardwoods—I was in farm country.

(To be continued)

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Johnny chuckled softly to himself and squinted out the windshield as fog collected on the edges of the glass. He pointed the Olds in the direction of the Bayside Bar and tried to imagine his parents together in this town. It was hard to do.

He was on Banks Avenue, near the viaduct over the railroad tracks, thinking how nothing seemed historical about Bay City, just old. How the past seemed to disappear like last winter’s snow, and once it was gone, nobody thought about it much.

Except maybe if you were drunk and blasted on pain pills.

At 12:20 he swung into the gravel parking lot of the Bayside and was jolted by the sight of two gigantic Great Lakes ships towering in the gloom at the back of the lot. Two brown monsters looming dry-docked, waiting for the ice to go out. Waiting for winter’s grip to loosen, just like everyone else.

He picked up a few stares when he came through the red door into the dim, smoky bar. He didn’t give a damn. To his left was a stage, four skinny white kids with ducktail haircuts, white shirts and stovepipe jeans playing electric guitars and slouching through a love song about a “Little Ragged Dolly.” A few couples slow-danced. Stage lights changed color from red to blue to yellow.

Two meatheads at the bar made a point of staring as he strode confidently and impassively past them. But nobody was about to say anything to the beefy, well-dressed black man with the Band-Aid above his eye and cigar stub clenched between his teeth.

He approached the barman and smiled at the slender guy with the standard ducktail haircut. The tender pointed towards the back of the room.  “Mr. Lambert said you should go on back, Mr. Beam. Just go on back to the hallway there and hang a right.”

“Thanks,” Johnny said, as the kid moved down the bar toward a teetering, rouge-cheeked lush with a pink scarf wrapped around her frizzy, thinning red hair.

Beam walked towards the back of the room, squinted through the smoke and the dim lights at the pool table. He saw faces that looked vaguely familiar. He turned down a hallway of cracked brown linoleum. The smell of stale beer was in the air. Red and white shards of light from a cracked Exit sign strafed the walls. He knocked on the scarred and scuffed wooden door that said Office in gold letters.

“Come on!” Lambert hollered from behind the door.

Beam turned and pushed on the doorknob.

Jimmy was sitting in a wheeled leather chair, wearing sharply creased tan slacks and a tan western-style shirt, brown cowboy boots stretched out alongside a cluttered oak desk. Against the far wall, Gloria was sprawled out on a green, three-cushion couch, drink in one hand and Salem burning in the other, breasts damn near falling out of her dress. Her mouth wriggled into a big smile when Johnny sat down in front of the desk and grinned at her devilishly.

“Glad to see you could make it over, Johnny.  Or should I call you Champ?” Lambert said.  “Glad you came over, my friend.” He lifted out a green bottle of Cutty Sark from a bottom desk drawer. “Here, pour yourself a drink.

“Gloria, get Johnny a glass, honey. And then get me that plastic bag from the file cabinet.”

Gloria lifted herself from the couch, smoothed down her red dress and shook her body like she was trying to get all her parts back into place. She couldn’t quite manage it, tripped on her high heels and went stumbling and giggling across the room.

“So, Johnny, my friend,” Lambert said, lighting a Lucky Strike, sucking in smoke and slapping his Zippo down on the desktop. “Tell me about these booze bargains that you were referring to earlier. Tell me how you and I are going to rake in the big dough.”

“I’ve got some real solid plans, Jimmy, real solid. These are some things I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I thought I’d check with you first—I’m going to do it anyway—but having you along will sweeten the pot for both of us, I can guarantee that.”

“Go on Johnny, you’ve got my ear.” Lambert said, flicking his ash into an amber, circular glass ashtray on the cluttered desktop. “Exactly how can you save me a ton of moolah on booze?”

“No offense to Gloria,” Johnny said, bowing his head as she approached. “But I’d prefer to treat this as private business between you and me, Jimmy.”

Smirking, Gloria placed a thick short glass in front of Beam and then tossed a small rolled-up paper sack onto the desktop.

“Of course,” Jimmy said, dragging hard on his cigarette.  “Gloria, sweetheart, why don’t you go out front and flirt with the guys in the band for a while or something.  Maybe you can get one of them to take you home later. I’ve got to go out to the county tonight, and I know you don’t like it out there.”

“Maybe I want to go along tonight,” she whined, wiggled.

“We’ll talk about that later,” he said.

She flipped him the bird, rocked her hair back and bounced her ass in that tight wool dress out of the room, a slight pout holding on her rapidly aging visage.

The office door clicked shut.

“We’re alone now, Johnny.  Let’s hear the plan.”

“Coincidence, I guess, but it concerns your holdings in the county, Jimmy. All the booze you sell out there. It’s well known that you supply those places, and I know a guy who can cook stuff up so it’s better than the real thing. That means tax-free liquor. High-grade. Stuff would be perfect for your blind pigs, man. This stuff will flat out light up those farmer johns.”

“Moonshine, you say?”

“More correctly, corn whiskey.  My man says he can make whiskey as good as store-bought, color and everything, if he’s got the time to age it. If he ain’t got the time, he can use food coloring and flavoring.  If there’s a call for it, we can get you bathtub gin. My prices are going to be low, Jimmy. I’m talking so low, you’ll have to squat down to see’em.”

“How low, exactly?”

“Truth is, we’re not ready to price it, yet,” Johnny said, but the truth really was that he didn’t have any idea. “We have to make a batch first, to see what it’s gonna cost and how long it has to age and other considerations. A wet run so to speak.”  Johnny grinned.

Lambert was struck with the thought that Beam resembled Louie Armstrong—the big smile and the round face.

“Thing I’m getting at,” Johnny continued, “is that if the sample is to your satisfaction and you decide you want to order big for your clubs, I think I could price it even lower, say, if you were able to toss me a little advance bankroll, you know, in order to increase the size and scope of the operation.”

“And you’re sure this cook of yours knows his stuff?  I can’t be financing any garbage.”

“I’ve tasted the stuff, the guy makes it for himself in small batches. Hillbilly lives in a trailer in the woods outside of Zenith. Son of a bitch is a master. Stuff is smooth going down and sure enough puts the fire in your belly. Of course you’d get a sample before any commitments were expected.”

In reality, never a drop of Big Cat’s shine had touched Johnny’s lips. But you gotta do what you gotta do.

“Your word on it is good enough for me, Johnny.  If you say it’s kosher, then it is.  Tell you what, my friend. Why don’t you come out to the sticks with me tonight? We’ll talk business and party a little and get a grasp on what kind of volume I do. I’ll show you how it works in the boondocks.”  As he spoke, he lifted the paper bag off the desk, reached in and removed a rolled-up plastic bag. He let the baggie unfurl to reveal a snarl of white pills along the bottom, covered in a dusty white powder. “Why don’t you take a couple of these, Johnny, and come along for the ride tonight? You’ll like it. I’ll bring Gloria along and we’ll have a party.”

“I already took some pain pills tonight, Jimmy. I’m flying pretty high already. You know how it is after a fight, the adrenaline and all.”

“These are different than pain pills. These are bennies, my friend. Pep pills, goofballs, uppers. Benzedrine is what the doctors call it. Take all your troubles away and let you run a little longer, don’t ya know. You’ll feel like a new man with these, Johnny, that’s my guarantee.”  He tossed the bag and Beam caught it with a smooth motion.

“I’m going to be flying so high, Jimmy,” Johnny said, grinning like Louie Armstrong, his voice velvet smooth, as he reached into the bag and removed one of the small white tablets. He figured he’d go along with Lambert for the sake of business. Same thing as having lunch with a banker to get a business loan.

“Big man like you needs at least two, Champ.”

Johnny shrugged and took another tablet from the bag, put them both on his tongue; poured some Cutty in his glass and washed them down.  A bitter taste lingered.

“You’ll be right as rain in a little while, my friend,” Lambert said, getting up.  “Pour yourself another drink while I get ready.  We’ll snag Gloria on the way out. That is, if she isn’t already in the parking lot giving head to the band.” He laughed loudly then limped over to the metal filing cabinet, opened the second drawer from the top and lifted out a nickel-plated Colt Python .357 Magnum.

“Jesus, man, what you need that for?” Johnny asked, the skin around his eyes tightening.

Lambert turned with the gun in his right hand, barrel pointing up at the low ceiling. “You never can tell, my friend. You never can tell. I ain’t ever had to use it yet, but there were, you know, times in the past when I wished I had a gun with me. And now, since I got one, nothing happens. It’s like hazard insurance, y’know?  With this bum leg of mine I sure can’t run away if there’s trouble, and it doesn’t help me much if I have to fight, either. I can still handle myself, you understand, you’d be surprised. But I can’t handle more than one guy at a time.”

“Yeah, sure, I know. But I don’t like guns, had enough of guns in Korea. Seems like where there are guns, trouble follows close behind—if it ain’t already there. Way too many of them in Chicago when I was there. Got so you were always checking out a man’s coat to see if he was packing.”

“Man like you, Johnny, can get out of most jams with his fists, I ‘magine,” Lambert said, sticking the revolver in his waistband.  “But ah, come on, man, take a look at me.  Skinny old gimpy bastard like me needs a back-up.”

“I’ll watch your back tonight, Jimmy. You don’t need that thing.”

“No offense, my friend, but walking into one of my joints with you next to me, could start something right there. Could be some kind of trouble start up—uh—just on appearances—if you catch my drift.” Lambert looked down at a stain on the rug.

“I know what you mean, Jimmy; I know what you’re saying. But honestly, I don’t usually have any trouble when I go out. I’m a friendly guy, you know; I get along with people, for the most part. My mother always taught me that was the way you had to be to get by in this world.” Johnny shifted uneasily in the chair, rubbed at his throat and smiled.

“Just the same, my friend, I think I’ll bring the heater along.” He patted the pebbled grip and nodded. “You know the old line: Meet my friends, Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson. So here, meet my friends, Mr. Colt and Mr. Python.” Jimmy cackled and a cold light danced in his eyes.

“Maybe I shouldn’t go at all,” Johnny said, wincing deep furrows on his broad brow. “I don’t wanna screw up your deal, Jimmy.”

“Ah, no, Johnny, don’t worry. Just come along for the ride, we’ll be all right. No, I mean it. One thing for sure, you won’t be sleeping anytime soon, I promise you that.” He cackled. “You gotta see these places of mine. You know, get a grasp on the scope of my operation. You gonna be a businessman, you gotta learn.”

“Well I ain’t gonna tell you your business, Jimmy, so we might as well get a move on. I’m already starting to feel pretty good. This is good scotch,” he said, lifting the glass to his lips.

“Have some more while I get a few things from out front, Champ. I’ll be back in a flash.”

The door slammed shut. Johnny leaned back in his chair and took a look around the office. Couch, TV, desk, a few chairs, file cabinet, pictures of fighters on the brown-paneled wall: Joe Louis, Marciano, Max Baer, Sugar Ray Robinson, Carmen Basilio, Benny “Kid” Paret and others, also a couple of wrestlers. He recognized Gorgeous George, long, curly blond hair like a woman’s.

Kind of place that Johnny felt at home. He could picture himself in a backroom like this, smoking a cigar and stuffing money in a canvas bag. His would be a little nicer, though, better furniture. Have a color TV, maybe a fridge… That would be real fine.

Half an hour later the three of them were bouncing along on bumpy, two-lane asphalt, ghostly snow and dark woods closing in on both sides.

Dig the spongy, yellow front seat of Lambert’s big gold Plymouth: Gloria in the middle, rubbing her thigh against Johnny’s to the beat of rock music coming from the dashboard radio, WEBC, 560 AM, on the dial.

Twenty minutes on the blacktop and a couple miles on iced-over dirt before they swung into the rutted drive of a ramshackle building, remarkable only for its existence in the seeming middle of nowhere. Cars were parked anywhere that would accommodate them, filling the adjacent roadside for fifty yards in each direction.

Johnny guessed they had to be paying off the local constable to overlook this large volume of visitors at a boarded-up wooden shack in the middle of a jack-pine forest. He found out later he was right. The clubs did enough business to afford payoffs without blinking an eye, and there were a lot of needy, underpaid constabularies in the woods of northern Wisconsin. In most cases and most places, with the exception of the occasional young and over-zealous officer, the rural cops hardly ventured out at night in the cold of deep winter, unless there was a call. And as long as nobody got maimed, mugged or murdered, the blind pigs were allowed to continue operations.

The big Plymouth bounced along the tree-lined drive and pulled directly in front of the sagging, gray, two-story house of moderate size that one time might have held a family of six. Lambert wheeled into a private space marked by a wooden sign nailed to a post in the ground, Management painted crudely in red house paint.

Lambert switched off the ignition, shut down the lights and took the revolver from under the seat, put it in the waistband of his trousers, got out of the car and smoothed down his jacket over the bulge. Johnny and Gloria got out the other side. Beam’s heart was beating like someone was working a speed bag in his chest and he surged with a peculiar excitement.

Jimmy and the lady walked up a trampled pathway of dirty snow while Johnny kept slightly behind, breathing deeply of the cold air. It was dry and crisp and smelled of wood smoke. The three stepped onto the warped, ice-speckled porch and Lambert gave a hard rap on a thick metal door with an eye-level viewing slot. A dull roar came through the thin walls. Yellow light seeped through the cracked and yellowed shade of a bay window. About fifty feet to the right of the porch was an outhouse with a sagging roof and two men beside it in the gauzy moonlight, urinating in the snow.

The door is the only thing solid on this whole damn building, Beam thought—truly a business with low overhead. The slot in the door made him smile. But man, where did all these cars come from? Hadn’t been a house for miles.

“You like this door, Johnny?” Lambert asked. “I had it specially made for this place. This welder I know can do some pretty cute things. The guy is a genius, but he can hardly even read. ‘magine that, eh. The guy is a goddamn genius with metal and cars and stuff like that but it would take him a fucking hour to read a goddamn postcard, if he could do it at all.”

The slot slid open with a metallic click. Raucous noise bled out. A pair of yellow, translucent eyes beneath a narrow forehead and a shock of greasy black hair filled the space.

Lambert scowled at the eyes in the slot. “Open the goddamn door, Gooder, you retarded cocksucker.  Can’t you see who this is?”

A metal bolt scraped and the door jerked open.

“What the fuck, Ray?” Lambert snarled.

“Sorry Jimmy,” said a lanky, oily guy in soiled blue jeans and a red flannel shirt. “I was just surprised that it was you, uh, when I saw the… uh… they ah—don’t look like our normal customers, so I—”

His voice trailed off as clouds of tobacco smoke billowed out into the night. There was sawdust on the floor and a great roar of voices trying to be heard over a loud jukebox. Johnny noticed a couple of large and rotund women standing among a crowd of men at a bar made of unvarnished wood.

Ray Gooder stepped out of the way and the three walked in.

“These are my friends, Ray. That’s all you need to know,” Lambert said, his face tightening. “Don’t ever make me wait out here again, you hear me? Where’s your fucking brother?”

“He’s in the back. I’ll tell him you’re here,” Ray said, the tendons in his jaw bouncing.

“I think I’ll just go back and surprise him tonight, Ray. Ted likes surprises, don’t ya know.”

“All three of you going back there?” Ray said, squinting at Johnny.

“Is there a problem with that?”

“No,” Ray said, pushing a hank of hair back into his pompadour.

As Johnny became visible to the crowd inside, the roar became a murmur and then a kind of hissing, as the inhabitants took notice of the black man with the white woman, and the skinny guy with a limp and a face like a rattlesnake. Some in the crowd recognized Lambert and went back to their card game or their drink or their overweight prostitute.

Johnny felt the tension right away. He’d expected it. He was used to it.  At 5’11” and 185 pounds of thick muscle, with hands as fast as two cobras, he didn’t have to take it if he didn’t want to, and hell, Jimmy had a gun for Christ sakes. But tonight he didn’t want any trouble. He was starting to feel too good for trouble. And Gloria was beginning to look mighty fine. Sure was coming on to him, what with her leg-rubbing routine and all that.

No, he didn’t want any trouble from these Farmer Johns. You often heard the BS about peaceful country folk, but they just seemed like a bunch of ignorant rubes to him. Put them in the same room with a person of dark skin and it’s like they’ve seen the devil himself.  A nigger with a white woman is just too much for the retards; their blood starts to boil. A hanging offense to the slack-jawed dipshits.

Let them come after him tonight, Johnny thought. They started something; he’d sure as hell finish it. The way the bennies had him going, his hands would be quick. Except for the throbbing in his eyebrow, it was like he hadn’t gone ten rounds. He was fresh, like he’d just woken up five years younger. If only Lambert had given him these pills before the fight…. Would’ve put Sparks on the canvas to stay, without a doubt. Fuckin’ right. And any Clem Cadiddlehopper motherfuckers decided to give him trouble tonight, they were gonna be spitting teeth real quick. Anyone pulled a blade and he had Jimmy with that cannon of his. But he didn’t want any trouble. The goofballs were really taking hold, putting a little tightness in the solar plexus. Room was full of white guys spending money.

Ted Gooder’s office had once been a bedroom at the back of the house. The door was closed but Lambert barged right in.

Maybe some poor, lonely little kid used to sleep here in this room, Johnny thought as he floated in behind Gloria.

Besides a console model television in the corner, the office held a desk, a few folding chairs of various styles and a brown vinyl couch against the left wall. The doorman’s older brother Ted was sitting on the couch watching the late movie next to a plump blond in her forties, a former stripper once known as Ethyl Flame. At their feet was an old-fashioned metal washtub filled with ice cubes and bottles of beer. A jug of Seagram’s Seven and a quart of 7Up were propped in the center of the tub like the crown on an ice sculpture. Not that anyone in the room had ever seen an ice sculpture, except maybe for the frozen mounds of urine-carved snow at the side of the outhouse and the bottom of the back porch.

“Don’t get up, Ted, you might miss something,” Lambert said, limping to the metal desk and sitting on the top. He rubbed his hands together. “Come on Johnny, Gloria… pull up a chair.  Ted’s going to offer us a drink, aren’t you Ted?  And then we’ll conduct our business and get the hell out of here. Looks like you’re busy tonight, anyway, Ted.”

Lambert was pretty buzzed himself and he didn’t care much for the Gooder brothers except for what he could get out of them. He knew they were capable of anything, as he had witnessed them torturing cats and screwing sheep back in their school days together at old Walnut School.

But Lambert knew the Gooders were perfect to run this joint for him. Everyone in the area, including the law, was scared of them. And the general populace accepted the fact that if you crossed one of the Gooders you’d better sleep with one eye open and take out plenty of fire insurance.

Jimmy had been able to kick their ass when they were kids and he still had a hold over them. Now they worked for him. It wasn’t hard to be smarter than the Gooders, and in the long run, Lambert was even more ruthless than they were. Over the years, Ted and Ray had accepted it. Sure, they still skimmed a little off the top of the rake at the poker table, and lifted a few bottles of liquor or a couple cases of beer once in a while. But they weren’t aware that Jimmy allowed them to get away with stuff like that—the little things. They just believed they were devilishly clever.

The Gooders didn’t mess with Lambert. They knew quite well what he was capable of, having been his enforcers for years. Besides, why bitch too loud? They were making money and doing what they liked best: getting piss drunk, screwing whores, fighting and dealing in stolen property.

Jimmy believed that contented cows produced more milk. Give the ignorant pricks a little frosting and they’d lay off the cake. And he had other ways of insuring his fair share of the take.

He charged for the liquor used and kept track of the empties, refilling the more expensive brands with cheaper booze. He offered cash to the bartenders in the joints in exchange for any information on skimming, and often hired informants who would come in, spend a little money and watch the goings-on with an eye out for employee theft. The Gooders never could be sure whom Lambert might send. The threat of being caught and what Jimmy might do to them had kept the degenerate siblings in line, so far.

Ted Gooder slid his arm off the bare shoulders of the former exotic dancer. She shifted her position and continued to stare at the TV. Gooder, a slight sneer wrinkling his lips, stern-eyed Johnny. “Jimmeee,” he said, cocking his head back and assuming a slit-eyed smirk. “You’re early tonight. You got a hot date or something like that?”

“Something, like that. And if you’ll get me the bag, I’ll be on my way.”

“You’re so goddamn early, man, it’s still a little short. I gotta hit the till and the poker table one more time. Unless you don’t have the time.”

“I can wait, Ted. For a minute. I’ll have a Seven ’n Seven while I wait. And get us a bottle of good bourbon, would you? We need a jug for the road. Deduct it from the tab.”

Ted turned to Ethyl, still engrossed in the Doris Day, Rock Hudson feature. “What say you be a good girl and fetch my friend Jimmy a bottle of our finest whiskey,” he said. “Some Canadian Club or something. Tell Pete to put it on my tab.”

“Ah Ted, can’t it wait ’til the commercial?” Ethyl whined, wrinkling her nose. “What’s the matter with the Seagram’s, anyway?”

“Get the fuck off your fat ass and do what I asked you. You tell me I should ask when I want things, and now I do, and you don’t do what I ask. What the fucking hell is that?”

Flustered, her bright red lips sagging down like a sad clown, she reluctantly struggled out of the couch and slinked away, thinking that Ted wasn’t getting anything for free tonight.

“And get three clean glasses, too,” Ted yelled as the door swung closed. Then he stood up and stretched his arms. “Jesus, Jimmy,” he said, moving toward Lambert. “You really oughtta knock at a man’s door, y’know. What if I was getting a blowjob or something, and you came barging in?  A guy could get his dick bit off. Someone comes barging in on you like that, it could be dangerous.” He slapped his thigh and laughed, his chin jutting out sharply like a blade.

“Don’t you be talking like that in front of Gloria,” Jimmy snarled playfully, before laughing and coughing at the joke. “The way I see it, Ted, you got no worries at all. First of all, I seriously doubt if anyone would ever suck your dick, but if for some strange reason it actually came to pass, like maybe you had a blind, retarded sister… you’d still be safe. Yup, with a one-inch dick, there’s not enough there to bite off.”

Gloria giggled and glanced quickly over at Johnny’s crotch, all rounded and full under those nice, creased slacks.

“Very funny, James,” Ted said, flipping the bird, his left cheek and eye twitching.

Johnny stood up and creaked across the warped, aqua blue linoleum to a window. Looked out into the small backyard, the gray, grainy snow and the dark tree line dimly lit by a three-quarter moon riding high in the sky. He was thinking about who should run his juke joint when it opened. How it was good to delegate. Spread the responsibility. And the culpability, should the authorities ever choose to enforce the laws and crack down on this shit. His choices were admittedly thin.

First things first, though, he needed to get ahead on the booze angle. His mind was flying with ideas and it was hard to contain his thoughts. The knot in his stomach was still there, like maybe an ulcer.

He turned from the window and walked assuredly to the tub of ice. Smiling politely as he passed Ted, he reached down and grabbed the Seagram’s, twisted the top and tipped it to his lips.

“Your boy sure makes himself at home, doesn’t he, Jimmy,” Ted said, cocking his neck to the side and squinting at the black man.

Johnny felt the muscles in his neck tighten. He gritted his teeth and sucked in some of the moldy air, smiled at Ted with hard eyes.

“That’s nobody’s boy, you inbred piece of shit,” Lambert snapped. “That’s Johnny Beam, light-heavyweight champion of Minnesota. You better show him some respect or he’ll kick your skinny white ass.”

“I’m not out to kick anyone’s ass tonight, Jimmy, I already did,” Johnny said, eyes going gentle. “I’m just trying to relax and have some fun. I’m a guest here, and I should’ve asked for the drink. My mother always taught me to be polite, and I’m afraid I forgot my manners.”

Ted seemed pleased for a second, then confused. His hand went up beneath his nose and covered his mouth.

Johnny took another pull of the whiskey, felt the flush in his cheeks. The cretin would probably throw good booze away, he thought, before drinking from a bottle that a nigger had touched to his lips.

He set the bottle back in the ice and went back to his chair humming the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

Then Ethyl came careening through the door with a jug of Canadian Club and three glasses, her bleached blond, straw-like hair falling in her face and the straps of her green dress slipping down off her shoulders. She set the booze and glasses on the desktop and flounced back to the couch

Ted stared at her, half sneering, then lifted a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket, shook one out and placed it on his lower lip. “I s’pose I’ll go make the rounds,” he said, his eyes flickering darkly. “You gonna empty the machines tonight, Jimmy?”

“Like I always do.”

“Well, yeah then, enjoy your drink and I’ll be back before the next gas is passed.” He flicked open a war surplus lighter; lit his fag and exited in a cloud of blue smoke.

Except for the two assholes, it’s a pretty slick operation, Johnny thought to himself. Low overhead, a percentage of the gambling and Jimmy owns the machines, supplies the booze and takes a chunk out of the till. But what about the whores? Much money to be made off whores. Something he’d have to look into. Maybe he and Lambert could work some kind of lend-lease deal.

Gloria and Ethyl were on the couch looking at television, engaged in an amphetamine-fueled conversation. Lambert was in a chair at the desk, his bad leg stretched out, and Johnny, unable to stay seated for any length of time, paced around the room, talking a blue streak and gesturing animatedly with his slightly swollen hands.

Whereas the broads yakked about actors and Hollywood and the contents of their purses, Beam and Lambert were speaking rapidly and in depth about percentages, availability of product and volume discounts, as well as security, bribery and the law.

Twenty minutes passed before Ted returned with a canvas bank bag in his hand and a pained look on his face. Lambert took the bag and looked inside. “You got the invoices on the liquor handy, Ted? I forgot to bring my book out tonight. I also need a bag for the coins from the machines. Forgot that, too.”

“Got your key, for fuck sake?”

“Got that.”

Ted said, “Top drawer, James, everything’s in there: bags, invoices, rubbers—whatever the fuck you need.”

Lambert ignored Ted’s strutting and checked the liquor receipts while Johnny finished the last of his drink. Gloria stood up from the couch just as the national anthem began to blare from the television, tinny and out of synch with the words running across the bottom of the screen.

“See ya next week, Ted, be good now,” Lambert said, slipping on his suede leather jacket. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” grinning like a decaying jackal.

Ted smiled back, his lips peeled back to reveal yellowed canine incisors. “Don’t know what the fuck that would be, Jimmy, you sick son of a bitch.”

“You see the way I get treated, Johnny?” Lambert said, his eyes flashing. “Save these two ungrateful punks from a life of poverty and sex with animals, and see how I get treated. I got half a mind to sell this place to you, Champ, if you want it.” He side-glanced Johnny then back to Ted.

Stuck there inside his stupid grin and filled with the desire to punch somebody smaller than himself, Ted could only stand stiffly, stunned look on his sagging, hang-dog face, while his Adam’s apple bounced up and down like a frog on a hotplate.

Lambert grabbed the Canadian Club from the desk, snickered, and made his way out, not looking at Gooder. Gloria and a smiling Johnny Beam nodded their good byes and followed close behind.

Some sucker is gonna pay for this goddamn shit, Ted Gooder thought, as he watched the door close behind them. Jimmy comes out and embarrasses me in front of Ethyl and now she’s sitting there thinking I’m a stooge. Fuckin’ asshole brings a stinking nigger with him who puts his ju-ju lips on the goddamn booze bottle.

Trying to save some face and always one to look at saving a buck, Ted came up with an idea. He could give that bottle to Ethyl and get back on her good side. She wouldn’t know the nigger had lipped it. Maybe he could salvage something out of this lousy night, anyway….

While Jimmy cleaned out the pinball machines and the jukebox, Johnny and Gloria retreated to the car, got the engine running and the heater going. Johnny had thought it best to leave the building before any trouble started, having correctly assessed the mood of the crowd as just a very short step above a lynch mob. Discretion triumphed over valor despite the pounding speed in his head and the feeling of invincibility it gave him. Funny thing though, sitting out in the car in the empty black woods, he wished he had Jimmy’s gun.

His paranoia evaporated when Gloria brushed her hand across his thigh and brought her mouth close to his ear. “It sure would be an honor to touch the chest of a champion prize fighter,” she cooed, sliding her curvaceous ass a little closer. “I’ve always wanted to feel the muscles of a fighter, you know. They must be really, really hard.”

Well it wasn’t long before his chest wasn’t the only thing that was hard and Johnny was sliding his bruised hand up along Gloria’s thighs, all the way to the moneymaker. In response to this bold move, she moaned and leaned in for more. Their tongues intertwined while Johnny kept one eye on the door of the house. After a steamy few minutes, Johnny finally had to push her off, sensing something.

Lambert emerged from the house a few seconds later, looked around warily and searched the darkness. Seeing no danger, he got in behind the wheel and threw the coin bag on the backseat floor. Johnny liked the musical chink the coins made when the bag hit the carpet. Sweet music indeed.

“Well, gang,” Lambert said, “Only two more stops to go.”

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The Flame was Zenith’s premier restaurant. Situated on the waterfront with a sparkling view of the bay, it featured fine food, a casual but well-dressed atmosphere and the reputation as the place to be seen in the port city.

Johnny and Harry Sloan arrived in separate cars, one behind the other. Harry in his brown Chevy sedan and Johnny in a dark blue 1956 Olds four-door hardtop. They parked in the lot and walked together towards the two-story, white block building, FLAME running vertically down the front wall in red neon.

A biting wind whipped across the ice-covered bay. The temperature hovered slightly above zero. The cold helped Johnny revive. Numbed the pain in his face a little. That and the three Empirin with codeine tablets he’d swallowed.

The fighter and his manager went through the glass doors together, glanced briefly into the dark piano bar on the left, where voices and smoke mingled with soft lights and the murmur of slow jazz. Moving up the carpeted staircase, Johnny peered out the smoked-glass at the blinking lights of Bay City, across the water, the town where he was born.  He smiled at the memory of his mother, how she’d kept the secrets of his birth locked up inside her for all those years. How he’d found out the truth from his people in Chicago, after the war. Aunts and uncles who’d laughed as they told him the story one sticky summer night over jugs of red wine.

Johnny and Harry reached the top of the stairs and their shoes hit the thick burgundy carpet. Melodic mood music and low voices backed by the tinkling of ice in glasses soothed Johnny’s soul.

They gave their coats to the pretty brunette coat-check girl who was smiling behind the dark wood counter. The maitre d’ greeted Johnny by name and with a smile. Several diners turned from their tables to look at the victorious pugilist. Some were fans; some were gawkers. Johnny was well known and, for the most part, well liked in town. He smiled and waved and responded politely to various congratulations.

Promoter Bob Nash was sitting in a black leather booth along the wall with Jimmy Lambert, the owner of several taverns in Wisconsin and a big fight fan. Both men had a large-breasted woman at their side, a blond for Nash and a redhead for Lambert. Nash, a Manhattan glass in his hand, nodded at Johnny and Sloan and pointed to an empty table nearby.

Johnny was glad to see Lambert there. He had a few things he wanted to discuss with the man. Some ideas he had. Thought the two of them could make some money together.

“Your table is ready Mr. Beam,” the maitre d’ said, respectfully. “View of the harbor, as always.”

“Thanks, Kenneth, I appreciate it,” Johnny said, flashing the million-dollar smile and slipping Kenneth a five spot.

Kenneth bowed slightly, “Right this way, gentlemen.”

“What about Bob, Johnny?”  Harry whispered.

“He can come over to our table if he wants to talk, Harry. I ain’t gonna tag after him like a puppy dog.”

Johnny smiled as they walked by Nash.

Bob Nash looked up at him, quizzically. “Johnny… Harry…” he said, wiping his mouth with a white linen napkin.

“Nice fight, Johnny. How you holding up?” Lambert said as the fighter and his manager lingered.

“Fine, Jimmy, fine. Right as rain all the time, you know. I just need a nice steak and a stiff drink and I’ll be as good as new.”

“Let me buy you a drink, Johnny,” Lambert said.

“That would be real nice of you, Jimmy. Why don’t you come over to our table a little later? If you got a minute, I’ve got some business ideas I’d like to discuss with you.”

“You bet, Johnny. What are you drinking?”

“I’ll have a scotch,” Johnny said, tugging on the cuff of his fine white shirt.

“Make that two scotches,” Harry Sloan said, with a wink.

“Sure Harry, I’ll buy you a drink,” Lambert said, grinning like a jackal. “Soon as you pay off your debt from football season.”

“Come on, now Jimmy,” Sloan said. “This is no time for that stuff.  Haven’t I been good?”

“Yeah, you have been good, Harry,” Lambert said, laughing and wrinkling his eyebrows at the redhead sitting next to him. “Just kidding around. Two scotches it is.” He spied a waitress and gestured in her direction.

Johnny kept smiling as he glided over to the table where Kenneth was patiently waiting, manicured fingers holding two glossy red menus.

Harry Sloan followed behind, his face slightly flushed. He tugged at his green, bargain-basement sport coat and sat down across from Beam, who was gazing distractedly out the window.

Kenneth placed the menus in front of them. “The waitress will be with you shortly. Enjoy your meal.”

“Why did you go and invite that bastard Lambert over, Johnny,” Sloan whined, shifting uncomfortably. “You know I don’t like him.”

“Sounds like you like him enough to bet with him,” Johnny said, grinning.

Harry saw through the smile to the fatigue on Johnny’s face. “Christ, that was way back in football season, Johnny. I haven’t done anything lately.”

“Lambert must be a pretty good guy to let you slide this long.”

“I’ve been paying him regularly, for the Christ sake. And it sure as hell isn’t that he’s a nice guy; it’s that he’s smart. Smart enough to know that if there’s any rough stuff, he’ll never get his money. And he’ll go to jail, besides.”

“For assaulting you?  I don’t know, Harry, cops just may congratulate him. That is if any of them ever bought a used car from you.”

“Very funny, champ.  You should go on the stage.  And there’s one leaving any minute now.”

Beam laughed softly at Harry’s same old routine, his permanent response when the joke was on him. But on this occasion, Harry was right. In this town, too much violence and the cops shut you down in a hurry. The way Johnny saw it, if you stayed away from the stupid strong-arm stuff, you could get away with a lot around here.

A busboy in a white linen coat came to the table and poured ice water from a silver pitcher into short-stemmed crystal glasses. Johnny drained his glass before the boy was finished pouring Harry’s.

“More, sir?” the boy asked.

Johnny liked being called sir. “Please,” he said.

The scotches arrived shortly thereafter, followed closely by Lambert and the buxom redhead. Lambert sat down next to Harry, who slid as far away as he could get, wedging himself against the window.

The redhead slid in next to Johnny.

He didn’t budge an inch.

“Hey Johnny,” Lambert said, gesturing toward the woman. “Hope you don’t mind me bringing Gloria, here, she really wanted to meet you. She likes boxers.”

“Pleased to meet you, Gloria,” Johnny said in a mellow baritone.

“The same, I’m sure,” Gloria said, smiling, her lips crooked.

Her large mouth and large teeth, red lipstick and hair were joined together in unison, shouting, Fuck me.  At least that’s the way Johnny was reading it.

“That cut on your eye must be nasty, Johnny,” Gloria said, hormone-induced concern oozing from her husky voice as her long red fingernails slid over his shoulder. “And this awful bump…”

“I’ll be all right, darling. I’m a big boy. I recover fast.”

“I just bet you do,” she said, slowly sliding her hand from his shoulder.

“We just came over to say we enjoyed the fight, Johnny,” Lambert said, slightly slurred. “Didn’t we, Gloria?”

“Of course, Jimmy—it was a wonderful fight,” she said, admiration flowing like clover honey from her big browns.

“I thought you were gonna put the guy out there a couple of times,” Lambert said, lighting a Lucky Strike and letting the smoke disperse in a cloud around his head. “You had him on the ropes more than once.”

“Sparks was tough, he knew all the tricks,” Harry Sloan snapped. “He’s had a lot of fights.”

Then the waitress returned and they hadn’t even looked at the menus.  Johnny sipped on his scotch and told her to come back in a minute. “Thanks for the drink, Jimmy,” he said, warmly.

“My pleasure, Johnny.  You deserve it after a fight like that. That guy Sparks was pretty tough, eh?”

“Plenty tough, Jimmy. He hit like a kick from a horse and he fought dirty. You saw the bastard head-butt me, didn’t you?”

“That stuff is low down, all right,” Lambert said.

“You ever been kicked by a horse, Johnny?” asked Gloria, her eyes twinkling as she elbowed him lightly in the ribs.

“Can’t say as I have ma’am,” Johnny said like John Wayne; his grin so deep it made Gloria nearly swoon. “But I can well imagine. I’ve been hit by many a horse out on the football field.”

Gloria giggled and fell into him, brushing her breasts against his thick-muscled arm.

“Well Johnny, just wanted to say hello,” Lambert said, staring at Gloria, his lips and eyes narrowing.  “We better get back to Nash before he thinks we’re plotting something.” Lambert liked Johnny. A man’s color had never meant anything to him, as long as his money was green. That was one of his little jokes.

“Listen Jimmy,” the boxer said. “You got a few minutes? I’ve got some things I want to discuss with you.  Some business ideas I’ve been tossing around. Things I think you’ll be interested in.”

Lambert was always ready to listen to a business proposition. He had irons in many fires and a diversity of investments. As well as bars in Bay City, he owned several establishments in remote rural areas, boondocks buildings on dark tree-lined back roads that housed after-hours clubs. Some called them blind pigs, others, roadhouses. “Good citizens” called them the scourge of the county.

Whatever you called them, these establishments housed after-hours drinking, gambling and, sometimes, prostitution. A local legend had it that carloads of women would occasionally show up at the clubs unannounced. Girls who worked the Wisconsin strip-bar circuit and wanted to supplement their income with a little lying-around money—or so the story went. Just this possibility, the vague dream that someday this might happen while you were in the building, was enough to keep the honkytonks hopping with horny hayseeds on many a dark and frigid night. These were the places that held Johnny’s interest. Something he’d seen in Chicago seemed just right for such establishments.

He’d learned a lot in Chi-town. It had taken getting drunk with his Uncle Charlie (Mama’s brother) to find out about his daddy. Mom had never said much about his father, summing up his existence with: “He was a good man who died when your were three.” Old Charlie hadn’t wanted to spill the beans but he was too honest a person to hold back. At least after he and Johnny had knocked off a gallon of Red Mountain wine. Then the floodgates had opened and the story came rushing out like rainwater down the side of a mountain.

The truth was a shock to Johnny at first, but also a relief of sorts. Here was something to explain the parts of him that had railed against his mother’s teachings in spite of his good intentions. These traits clearly came from his daddy’s side of the family, the people his mama never wanted him to know about. The part of him that, among other things, wanted to make moonshine—in the tradition of the old Chicago gangsters—and sell it in Lambert’s joints.

“What kind of things you talking, Johnny?” Lambert asked.

“I bet you sell a lot of liquor, what with all your taverns—right, Jimmy?”  Johnny smiled, eyes twinkling.

“That’s right, Johnny—quite a bit, I s’pose….”

“What if I could save you lots of dough on the booze? Would that interest you?”

“Of course it would, Johnny. But I don’t see how you could do that. I mean, you know, you should see the rotgut I sell already.” His snaky body folded forward into a raspy, cackling laugh.

“I can beat any price you get—guaranteed,” Johnny said.  “Good quality stuff, too. Is there maybe some time we can discuss this in more detail, Jimmy?”

“Say, listen ah, Johnny,” Lambert said. “We gotta get back over there with Bob. But how about if you come over to the Bayside tonight, say about midnight?  I’ll buy you a drink and we’ll talk business. Just tell the bartender you’re there to see me, and he’ll show you back to my office. I’ll tell him to expect you, so he ah… doesn’t get… isn’t…  Ah fuck, I’ll just tell him Johnny Beam is coming.”

“I can do that, Jimmy. In the meantime, give some thought to the things I said, I think this could be a good deal for both of us.”

Lambert stood up, holding his cocktail glass and coughing. His lips curled down at the edges as Gloria continued to flirt. Impatience creased his shaggy eyebrows.

“Sure nice to meet you, Mr. Beam,” Gloria said, putting her hand on Johnny’s large forearm as it rested on the table.

“My pleasure, Gloria honey,” Beam said, oozing warmth.

Lambert coughed into his fist and walked awkwardly away.

Gloria got up and followed slowly behind, her heart and just about everything else she possessed full of lust for Johnny Beam.

“Jesus, I’m glad he’s gone,” Harry Sloan said, sliding away from the window and flexing his shoulders. “And what’s this shit you’re feeding him about cheap booze?”

“I know some people in the wholesale liquor business,” Beam lied, stretching his arms along the back of the booth and watching Gloria wiggle away and glance back at him. “Down in Minneapolis, that’s all. People I met while I was in college. I get around, you know.” This was partially true. He knew some guys that ripped off delivery trucks.

“You were only down there for a year.”

“I make friends in a hurry, Harry, you know that.”

“I sure do.  Like that broad with Lambert. She was looking for a hunk of dark meat tonight.”

“And I sure aims to please, Mr. Manager bozz.”

“Shut up Johnny, and look at your menu.  Here comes the goddamn waitress.”

“I know what I want.”

The restaurant filled up and stayed that way. The grill smoked. Cocktail glasses jingled and the room hummed. The kitchen pumped out steaks and chops and lobster and the famous shish kebabs that were set aflame in full view, the white-coated kitchen staff carrying the skewers to the tables like burning swords, orange flames shimmering in the darkened windows.

Over the course of the evening, admirers sent drinks to Johnny’s booth.

Others in the restaurant wondered who the nigger was.

After the meal, Johnny lit a cigar. Bob Nash and his girl Sheila went downstairs to the piano bar and Harry decided to go home. Lambert told Johnny he’d see him at the Bayside and departed with the jiggling, redheaded Gloria in tow.

Johnny joined Bob Nash in the piano bar. They didn’t say much to each other; just Bob’s same old line about how Johnny could hold his state title for another ten years, easy. How there was no one out there that could touch him. Always avoiding the question about any big fights or the chance to get a shot against a national contender.

Johnny had a good load on and he began to flirt with Bob’s blond bombshell. He could have left with her, but that night he was more interested in business than pleasure. He was only flirting with the broad to get Bob Nash’s goat. Most of all, he wanted to think about making corn whiskey. A young fighter he knew name of Big Cat Edwards had bragged about making corn whiskey and bathtub gin good enough for a true boozehound.  At least that’s what he’d said one night, and Big Cat wasn’t the type to bullshit. Johnny believed him, anyway, and you just had to go with your hunches.

Around 11:45 Beam said his goodbyes, pumping Bob Nash’s hand and maybe squeezing a bit too hard and planting a big smooch on Sheila’s full, fleshy lips. The parking lot was dark and quiet as he went to his car, the only sound the dull clack of his heels on the frozen pavement. He could see the lift bridge looming in the vague light. The car door moaned as it slid open and the wind bit at the back of his neck. The leather seats were ice-stiff. The throbbing in his head had faded into the background. The ignition fired and the engine roared to life. Johnny looked out at the frozen grayness of the bay and felt like good things were about to happen. For some odd reason, it seemed life was about to start going his way.

Bay City was dark and dirty as it always was. Sooty snow and greasy black ice filled the gutters and clung to the curbs. Hunks of paper and flattened plastic cups danced and pinwheeled across the pavement, driven by the snarling wind.

Johnny considered what it might be like if he still lived in this town and shook his head. All he could remember about his childhood here was a couple of sunny spring days, just a few months before he and his mother had left for Minnesota.

Warm days in the springtime were a rarity on the shores of the big lake; that’s why you remembered them. Having a dying rat flying at your face was another reason to remember.

His mama had been feeling good that day and she’d let him go off with some of the neighborhood boys, even though they were a little older, white and scruffy. The group spent the afternoon walking along the railroad tracks that ran through town, looking to smack rats with a hockey stick. They had two sticks and plenty of targets.

The system worked like this: the older boys held the sticks and walked alongside the tracks while Johnny and another boy walked through the weeds in an attempt to flush out the rodents. When a rat scurried in front of a stick bearer, he attempted to swat the filthy beast, a slap shot being the preferred method.

On Johnny’s day in the sun, the boys developed a new twist to the game: “Hit it at the pickaninny.”

He never forgot the sight of those filthy things flying at his face after a hard slap shot, sharp teeth sticking out like fangs. Enough to make him afraid of rats forever.

     Goddamn state boxing champion afraid of rats…

The memories made him feel the same things again: the dread, the fear—like he was a scared little kid again. He squeezed the steering wheel a little harder and inhaled deeply, felt his boxing wounds throb.

The rest of his Bay City memories consisted of dark mornings and cold nights spent with his mother in a small apartment in a brick building that smelled of cabbage and dust and pine-scented cleaner. One of his favorite things was dropping the table scraps down the second-floor incinerator chute after his mom had wrapped them in newspaper. He’d had a radio, a football and a basketball. He remembered bouncing the basketball behind the building on the cracked concrete in the cold, wet spring. No images of his father reached his consciousness.

Color entered his memories after he and his mama moved across the bridge into Minnesota. It had been summer and the little house with the small backyard had filled the two of them with joy and a feeling of freedom. Something new for his mama, this freedom thing. She instilled in him the need for it.

The circular dashboard clock on the Olds read a little before midnight. To kill some time, he decided to take a ride around the town and soak up some of the atmosphere. Lambert couldn’t think he was overanxious—you didn’t want that.

Bay City repelled and attracted him at the same time. It was a great place for chasing pussy and drinking on the cheap and that was about the extent of it. The trouble was that a black man was like a fly in a bottle of milk over here. It wasn’t hard for anyone to spot you, and when they did, they usually hated what they saw.

Not that Johnny never got around. He could handle himself and had the championship belt to prove it. Duking it out with some drunken fool wasn’t what worried him. It was the strange feeling he got in Bay City, a feeling of uneasiness coming from no identifiable source.

He toured the dark and decaying north end of town and took a little trip along the infamous John Avenue, aptly named, considering the number of brothels it had held over the years. He wondered if perhaps he’d somehow driven by his birth home without knowing it.

His mother had once been a whore.

The knowledge had hurt him at first. Burned him from the inside out like he’d swallowed hot charcoal. He’d only known her as a saint. She’d been a beautiful woman, that part was true. He’d seen the old photos. She’d carried herself tall and straight, and even when she’d gotten heavy in her later years she radiated a noble quality, like royalty.

Whatever she’d done in her past, Johnny didn’t hold a thing against her for it. And over time, he accepted it. He knew that folks sometimes had to do things to get by. Things that the straights and the self-righteous looked down upon. But Johnny had the utmost respect for his mother and everything she’d done for him. It hadn’t been easy for her around here; he knew that.  She’d heard the word “nigger” more times than she cared to, that was for sure.

One thing he deeply regretted was not being there the day she died. Poor woman dropped dead from a heart attack in church while he was living in Chicago. After coming back to Minnesota for the funeral, he’d wanted to stay. Didn’t need any more of Chi-town. One thing had led to another, and after some coaxing his wife Ruby said she’d give it a try, thinking anything would be an improvement over the old neighborhood and the way it was going downhill.

     Johnny moved back to Zenith in 1957 with his statuesque bride Ruby and their unborn child in tow. With the help of some fans of his past gridiron prowess, he managed to land a job at the steel plant in western Zenith.

They attempted to play house.

Sadly, John couldn’t control his wandering eye or the other body parts that followed, and Ruby quickly got fed up. She walked out of the house with John Jr. and hopped a Greyhound bus headed for Chicago in March of 1958.  Somewhere south of Madison, Wisconsin, Ruby was heard thanking the lord for giving her the strength to escape from a “town more drab and gray than the darkest night Chicago ever seen and a man who made an alley cat look like a saint.”

Liquor and pain pills had him giddy; the streetlights had blurry circles around them. No wonder his mind was drifting a little, wondering about what it was like for his mama in this old town, thinking about things that went on thirty-plus years ago in this vulgar little place.

 

                                                     *   *   *   *

 

Walking the streets of Bay City, Wisconsin, in the year of our lord nineteen hundred and twenty-seven, one might wonder as to why this side of the bay was once expected to become the larger and more populous of the two port cities. The “Chicago of the North,” some had boldly predicted.

     Conventional wisdom at the turn of the century had it that the tip of the great lake and its two ports would prove to be a hub for the shipping industry, with the railroads meeting the shipping traffic at a natural vortex of goods from all directions.

     The region did indeed prove to be a hotbed of commerce. By 1920 the port cities were being serviced by fourteen railroads, bringing in over thirty million tons of iron ore and nine million tons of coal yearly. Lumber from the forests and grains from the western prairies also rolled into the ports in great quantities, and by the mid-twenties, the Twin Ports boasted more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the U.S.

     Unfortunately for Bay City, the majority of the new citizenry, and almost all of the wealthy, chose to make their homes in the tree-covered hills of Zenith, on the Minnesota side of the lake. There was something about the hills and the rocky cliffs and brooding pine forests on the North Shore of the lake that made it special. 

     The port town on the Wisconsin side of the bay was soon filling the role of tawdry little sister to the lovely and virtuous Zenith. Bay City was the homely one resigned to collecting the runoff. Like algae to a stagnant pond, the lost, the lonely and the otherwise disenfranchised floated to this low point on the geographical survey where the speakeasies, the gambling joints and the sporting houses waited with open doors. There was always a drink to be found, a card to be turned or a skirt to be lifted. The railroaders, the truck drivers and the seamen, along with many “good citizens” of Zenith, came to pursue pleasure and release in a town known to many around the region as “Hell.”

     Walking down Main Street, Bay City didn’t look much different than many Wisconsin towns. Markets and furniture stores and hardware, mostly low buildings with hastily assembled storefronts. Snowbanks, a few cars and brown-brick structures that made the dark days darker and the sunny days seem dirty. Black and white and shades of gray.

     Leaving the main drag and heading toward the railroad tracks, one would come upon the cracker-box houses of the citizenry. Tap on the window of the right ones and a woman would appear, a woman who would take money for sex. Other stops in the jungle of bungalows might provide a jar of corn liquor in a paper sack or perhaps more exotic means to loosen the bonds of the imprisoned soul.

     Down by the waterfront were greasy cafes, cheap rooming houses and boarded-up, sagging buildings with faded signs touting now-illegal imbibing pleasures. Good names like Budweiser and Schlitz and Seagram’s turning gray with age. Closer to the docks, it was mostly flophouses: two-story flops that were perfect if you were between jobs or riding out a binge, either short-term or permanent. Hobo hotels where the desk clerks knew the right houses in the right neighborhoods to find what was needed to make it through another day.

     

Hell of a place to be born in, Johnny thought. It was after midnight and he was rolling by the High Times Saloon and the Heartbreak Hotel. Wanting to stall a little longer, he decided to cruise over by the viaduct and see if he could find the apartment building that he and his mother had lived in.

He didn’t remember his old man, only the stories.

 

It was said that Clarence Walker Brown knew all the right places and all the right faces. He was a gambler, a bon vivant and the keeper of a few professional ladies: a Negro making a buck in the very cold, very white North. One may wonder what a black man was doing in northern Wisconsin in 1927. Clarence often pondered that question himself.

     He had learned the various scams in and around Chicago from his daddy and his uncle. They had worked the dock and warehouse districts with their women and their cards and their dice. Success eventually had bought them a small club out near the truck stops and the mills. All was fine until prohibition hit and Al Capone and his boys appeared on the scene with a strong interest in corn liquor and the connected rackets.

     Then came the fires and the shootings.

     Escaping on the run, Clarence had ridden the railroad north, hoping to find a place where the ready cash might flow without the loss of his precious blood. Booming Bay City was the end of the railroad line and the beginning of a new life for him, as well as several other Negroes that had traversed the trail of the tracks.

     As always in boomtowns, with the flow of cash and commerce comes the flow of vice. With vice, comes corruption. Bay City had it all. And it was so damn cold the competition was sparse.

     The cold equalized things. In the long winters, the main concern was warmth. Everyone is on the same page when it’s ten below zero. Few like to fight when they’re shivering.

     Post-1920, as the aftershock from a racially motivated lynching in Zenith reverberated through the region; racism in the Twin Ports became mostly a verbal thing. The Scandinavians and the Bohunks gradually learned how to live with the “coloreds,” generally allowed them to fill a niche.

     One Bay City sporting house featured black ladies exclusively, for servicing a strictly white clientele, and most of the other houses featured at least one black prostitute. A black piano player was a fixture on the speakeasy circuit in the infamous North End, and some superb Negro jazz combos occasionally arrived to play all-night gigs. The black gamblers were allowed to ply their trade without interference as long as they played it straight and paid their bills.

      Shortly after arriving in town, Clarence had stumbled into a real sweet deal, the good fortune of which reaffirmed his lifelong belief and reliance on luck and circumstance. It had gotten him this far, after all. The circumstances coming into play here being the shortage of healthy “sporting ladies” in Bay City, and the luck, being the three young prostitutes who accompanied Clarence on his journey from Chicago.

     Destiny came into play when the foursome chose to make their first stop at the Douglas Hotel. After a round of introductions in which the ladies strutted their stuff and made their nicest, Clarence and the hotel proprietor quickly struck up a deal. In exchange for a small rental fee, the occasional free lay for the proprietor, and a cut of the take, Clarence was allowed to run his ladies out of the upstairs of the Douglas Tavern, currently languishing in disuse next door, and host dice and card games in the backroom.

     The local cops pretty much kept their eyes turned away as long as their pockets were lined. On occasion, when the mood struck them or too many ministers had complained to the chief, the boys in blue would bust a card game and scrape a big pot into their coats or maybe make a few nominal arrests of known prostitutes.

     In an effort to keep the raids at a minimum, the gamblers often sent turkeys to the police station at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and many on the force were known to fight the winter’s chill with a bit of local moonshine, free of charge.

     Clarence didn’t like giving money to cops; it went against his upbringing. As far as he could see it, the only difference between the cops in Bay City and those in Chicago was that up North they were dumber and cheaper to bribe. They were, however, just as brutal. Nevertheless, he marched along with the band, kept his mouth shut and greased the right palms when necessary.

     Things went pretty well on the edge of civilization. He wasn’t exactly getting rich, but he had enough to eat and drink and smoke and gamble, put warm clothes on his back and coal in the stove during the six months of winter. He was extremely popular with the ladies, both black and white, and was considered a prized catch among the working girls.

     For a time Clarence enjoyed relatively easy living in Bay City, even doing some fishing and playing a little golf in the all-too-brief summers. By 1929, his stable of women had grown to ten and his gaming salon was the most popular in town, attracting many influential and wealthy patrons.

     Then the Great Depression hit the country like a razorblade rainstorm.

     Railroad and shipping traffic slowed to a near standstill and the mines followed suit. Survival became the watchword. Money got tighter. The poor no longer had anything extra for the occasional bet. Savvy Scandinavians knew how to hunker down and batten down the hatches. The lowlife sunk lower and the ladies of the night, faced with dwindling clientele, moved southward to Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans and points west.

     To complicate matters, Clarence was growing soft. At least that’s the way he looked at it. He’d always maintained a policy of never getting close to any of his ladies. If they got knocked-up, it was a trip down to the yellow shack by the railroad tracks where the wrinkled old veterinarian would take care of things. Either that, or leave town.

     The new, soft Clarence not only had settled down with one of his stable, he was going to be a father. And he never would’ve been in that situation if Ethel Mae weren’t such a fine-looking woman with a good head on her shoulders, as he told anyone willing to listen.

     He was now over thirty and the idea of a son didn’t sound that bad to him, except it meant he was going to have to feed, clothe and put a roof over their heads. The mother of his child wouldn’t be a whore no more.

     As the fear of the Depression sank further into the fabric of the nation, the gambling crowds grew even smaller. Cash flow slowed to a half-frozen trickle. Clarence felt a little panic now and then. Like maybe it was time to pack up and leave. On to greener pastures, as the Swedes liked to say in that particular sing song way of theirs: On tuu greenah pastuhs….

     Being adaptable, he soon tapped into a growth industry: bootleg liquor. In the years after the introduction of the Volstead Act, the sale of illegal alcohol kept the wolf away from many doors across America. Clarence was able to develop a steady income by hawking booze provided to him by a former customer from his brothel days.

     The new decade came in cold, dry and dark. The expected birth was only a few months away. Ethel was getting fatter every day. Clarence had never seen anyone eat like that, let alone a woman. They had a little boxy house in the North End. All the working girls were gone and the only gambling to be had was strictly high-stakes poker with the elite.

     Clarence had found poker to be a horse of a different color. Sadly, cards were not one of his strengths. Big on feelings and hunches, he never quite felt it with the cards, and the other players were too smart and too rich. When their cards were bad they played it close to the vest and folded. When their cards were good they could buy Clarence out of a pot, overwhelm his limited personal resources.

     Best he could do was break even, or, on a good day make enough scratch for a week’s food. He took solace in the fact that he was still close to the guys with the dough. When you were close to the fire, there was always a chance to get warm.

     Clarence Walker Brown Junior came into the world at St. Catherine’s Hospital in Bay City, Wisconsin, on March 2, 1930, a healthy strapping baby with his father’s muscles and his mother’s good looks.

     Clarence couldn’t help but stare at the boy and feel his fatherly pride swelling. This here was some boy.

     The new father proceeded to give family life his best try. He changed his ways some and took jobs doing favors for some of the big wheels from the card games. Little paid favors—whatever they might request. He did the collecting for Jimmy Fuller’s pinball and bowling machines. He chauffeured for Zenith businessman, James P. Baker, who had taken pity on Clarence one night after winning a large pot in which Clarence was holding the better hand but was forced to fold because of a lack of funds.

     The reformed pimp continued his effort at family life for close to two years, spending a good chunk of dough to rent a house out in the South End of town so Ethel Mae and little Clarence could get away from the seedy side of things.

     Sometimes he’d sit in the kitchen and stare mournfully out the windows at the miles and miles of flat empty land. Land that once was expected to hold the streets and neighborhoods of the future “Chicago of the North.” Any hope for a real city on that tundra had been lost October of 1929 when the stock market crashed.

     Clarence often felt an emptiness inside him, a longing for the big city. Busy streets, downtown traffic and smoky nightclubs. An environment in which he could thrive.

     Denied this, he gamely went through the teething and the diapers and being cooped up with Ethel Mae when she wouldn’t stop yammering. He lived through the cold winter months and the frigid, damp, non-existent spring. Got through the bouts of claustrophobia and Ethel’s drinking binges and the looks of superiority from his employers.

     December of 1932 brought change along with the snow. Prohibition was over and tavern owners were dreaming of the sights and sounds of a full barroom, while the citizenry was busy figuring what items they could go without to afford alcohol. For Clarence, repeal of prohibition proved to be a double-edged sword. First there was the decline in profit from the sale of illicit alcohol, which, when all had been tallied, had proven to be a source of income that, if not for his frequent gambling losses, would have been considered quite good for the time. On the other side of the coin, the new liquor-fueled optimism in the air—or perhaps recklessness—brought his dice games back in favor. With the addition of some new players, a ten-percent rake off the top began to look pretty fine, especially when he could make it grow by playing in other hustlers’ games.

     And then came the Big Losing Streak.

     The faster he made it, the faster he lost it, longest such streak of his life. His debts grew faster than the snowbanks. Every gambler knows—at least the good ones—about the ups and downs, but he’d never seen nothing like this. The strain began to get to him. He was drinking heavily and his head hurt most of the time.

     Then one frosty February night, when there seemed to be no end to the torture, the idea—The Plan—came to him. A scheme to make one big score. Fleece the suckers and escape this hole he’d somehow fallen into. The time and the mood were right.

     Clarence had been around long enough to be accepted in Bay City, at least to fellow gamblers. He was part of the scene. His speech, his clothes and his mannerisms had become more Wisconsin than Chicago and his peers treated him accordingly.

     As he’d come to grips with this change from big-city smoothie to small-town hustler, Clarence often battled with disgust and self-doubt. His overwhelming need to escape what he now saw as a slow road to the grave allowed him the moral distance to plan a con of his long-time associates. He actually did struggle with feelings of guilt, at times. He believed himself an honest man but could usually find a sufficient rationalization to ease any concerns that might rise to the surface of his mind.

     Some of the guys… well, he knew he’d feel kind of bad if they got fished. But the rich guys, he’d gladly take to the cleaners like a pile of cheap suits.

     He fed the flames of anticipation among the locals with stories of dice games run by cash-laden Negroes from Chicago with fancy suits, hair straightener and manicures. How these big-time gamblers would cover any bet you could make and smile if they lost. Clarence sold the tales like you sell a kid on the circus, with wild yarns of gigantic pots and of empires won and lost on a single roll of the bones. In the throes of a dull, tedious winter, the brethren were easily led, as the only way to reach Florida back then was a damn long train ride.

     It took Clarence a month of phone calls and letters and telegrams to put it all together. He had hyped, cajoled, wheedled and promised, and by the time all was said and done, a series of big-dough games in Zenith and the Minnesota Iron Range had been arranged for a four-day, Friday-to-Monday span.

     The final game was to be on a Monday evening in the East End of Zenith at the mansion of J.P. Baker.

     A house full of whiskey-addled titans of commerce and industry and enough money to retire to New Orleans in antebellum style would be waiting.

(End of Chapter Three)

T.K. O’Neill’s newly release crime novel Fly in the Milk is available as an ebook for 99 cents at online bookstores, including Barnes and Noble, ebookit, Google, iBookstore (Apple), Amazon, Sony Reader Store, Kobo (Borders) and Ingram Digital.

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Bluestone’s Blog features excerpts from the works of T.K. O’Neill from and those under his pseudonym, Thomas Sparrow.

Read excerpts from T.K. O’Neill’s upcoming crime novel Fly in the Milk — to be released in February as an e-book on online bookstores.

Selected Thomas Sparrow’s works are also featured in excerpts.

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Florida, 1979

Life’s a Beach and then You Die

PART FIFTEEN

Sometime soon, somebody will discover an abandoned hippie van with links to three dead people. Traces of drugs and semen and god knows what all will be found among the carpet fibers of this four-wheeled wagon of sin. SATANISTS INVADE FLORIDA!  Might be the headline in the Baptist Weekly.

I stick poor Dorie inside Bagley’s sleeping bag and clean out the van.  I throw a pair of Bagley’s tennis shoes, shorts and a T-shirt, into the crashing surf. I leave behind Bagley’s wallet and Elton Kirby’s wallet, keep Keith Waverly’s wallet. Then I stuff all forty-five kilos of coke and some clothes into two military duffels and throw them in the trunk of the Chevy.

Just before I drive away, I remember to go back and close the curtains on the van and say my farewells and regrets to Dorie.

I mean, what was I supposed to do?  I really had to kill her. I could never have become partners with the heinous likes of her. And I couldn’t have faced the responsibility of loosing Dorie on an unsuspecting world, with her in possession of massive quantities of cocaine and a loaded handgun. Again, I’m providing a public service. Born to serve—that’s me.

Dan Bagley and Dorie, I figure, were like two peas from the same pod, except Bagley had the good fortune to be born rich while Dorie, on the other hand, had to learn to lie and cheat out of necessity.

I’m beginning to see a new path. The seventies are fast approaching a horrible end and I can see an inkling of the new way.

It is time to be done with spiritual angst and uncertainty. The time is right for worshipping a new god, the god that the so-called successful people are already bowing and scraping to—Money. Covetousness dressed up as Enterprise.

With cash as your guide, there is no guilt or agonizing soul searching.  No one wails or gnashes his teeth, unless the stock market crashes. One simply accumulates—always going forward—come hell or federal investigation. And after accumulating, you consume. Then you discard.  It’s as easy as one two three.

Feeling spiritual, I anoint my new Holy Trinity.

MONEY, SEX and DRUGS form the new Godhead.

These are things that you can feel and experience. Not pie in the sky and self-denial. This time around, I’m not going to get caught short. I’ll be riding high on the crest and running the shoot, hanging five on a golden surfboard.

First things first, though. I have to get back to Tampa without getting caught by the cops. Then I need some cash, a new mode of transportation and an outlet large enough to handle mucho kilos of Peruvian Marching Powder. Talk about your millstones.

If I think about it too much my head starts to spin.  I have no choice but to take it one step at a time. I decide to wait on the beach for a while; in a couple of hours it will be dark.

After five minutes of vacant staring, my stomach is flopping so bad I have to leave.

I continue down the frontage road until it winds its way back to Highway 19. I turn right and head south through Homossa Springs until I hit State Highway #98. I turn east, roll through Brooksville and then all the way to the freeway.

It’s a soft evening with no wind. Sun is falling, red as blood. As the roadside lights start popping on, the sky turns gray and then black and I’m swallowed up in the swarm of traffic. Just another white-trash night for the guy in the maroon Chevy.

I’m strangely relaxed; emotion seems to have left me for the time being. The drive is surreal, like I’m floating on air and the only sound is the hiss of the tires. Like a homing pigeon, my instincts are bringing me back from whence I came. Or at least to the general vicinity of my lousy apartment.

Why am I going home? I’m really not sure. I only know that I must get rid of the Chevy—find somewhere to dump it—and the only area around here that I know is near Twin Lakes. One thing in my favor: there are so many complexes and parking lots in the area and—correspondingly—so many cars—that one more decrepit sedan can disappear in the crowd without much trouble.

About a quarter-mile from Twin Lakes I turn into the parking lot at Palm Gardens: a vast, fern-surrounded, apartment complex that stretches across an entire square block. I park and walk the remaining distance to Twin Lakes through the buildings. All logic has left me. I’ve become a hound following some long-ago scent. I walk on until I get to the laundry room behind my apartment. That’s when something makes me stop.

Voices seep from the glow of the laundry room. I change direction, walk behind the laundry building and down to the next breezeway, which takes me to the far side of the pool area, directly across the water from the glass doors and living room window of my old place.

I step out into the open and sit down in a poolside chair. I can see inside my former home; the curtains are open wide. Mike is on the couch watching television. I can’t move, no matter how much I want to.

Envious of the seeming peace inside that warm light, I hope that they’re at least a little worried about me. At least Mikey. But then again, what am I to them but an occasional interloper who always seems to run off when the going gets tough?

A slight breeze kicks up, carrying laughter from the second floor.  Something wells up inside me but it isn’t the same familiar pain, only a spasm from a memory. Not really longing but more a confusion that leaves me numb and wondering, more curious than hurt.

I sit in the chair until I see Carole come to the window and look out.  Looking right at me but not seeing. She seems to search the darkness for a moment then pulls the cord and the drape slides closed. I stare at the orange glow behind the curtains for a long minute and then get up and walk away.

Breathing deep and rhythmically, I try to concentrate on the task at hand. I have business to do. There is nothing left for me here and I need to get hold of Ted. He’s the only one who can help me. The only one I know that might save my ass.

I move quickly down the dim sidewalks and into the dark space between complexes.  As my feet hit the grass, burning tears and barely suppressed sobs come pushing out. They last until I get to the next complex; then abruptly stop.

That’s the last time I will cry about anything.

 (The end)      

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