Archive for March, 2022

“My Ship Comes In” is the fourth story, a novella, in T.K. O’Neill’s Northwoods Pulp Reloaded collection of three short crime stories and this longer story. Ebook available here.

     “W-w-what do you mean, Keith?” he says with a grimace.

     “I was out to the boat, Dan; I saw the damage. I only saw two holes in the boat and they looked like shotgun slug holes. And, it also looks like they went out through the front of the cabin, which means they had to be from pretty close range. Those guys weren’t very good shots, I guess.”

     “They were kids—teenagers—they had a double-barreled shotgun. They shot at Schmidty while he was at the wheel and when he ran down to get our guns and I had to fend them off. My god—they rammed us—and two of them were trying to get on board. Fuckin’ Jamaicans. I was fighting them off and they were scratching at me trying to climb on board. Then Schmidt comes back up with the twelve-gauge and blows one of the pricks away. Puts a hole right in the asshole’s goddamn chest. The other guy goes scrambling into the water and Schmidt could have killed him, too—but he held back.  He was standing there watching, letting the nigger escape, when a third one pops up from nowhere and lets go with both barrels. One of the slugs catches Schmidty in the chest and he goes down. He’s on the deck and he grabs the flare gun and shoots. Must have hit the gas tank or something on their scow because the whole thing went up. It was gorgeous.”

     “That’s heavy, man. Schmidt went down fighting….”

     “He saved our bacon.”

     ”At least your bacon. But your wounds don’t look very deep. What kind of knives did those guys have?”

     “Christ, I don’t know. Everything happened too fast.”

     “You gonna be okay?”

     “I’m feeling weak. I need to rest.”

     “I thought you said the pirates came back again, at night.”

     “I m-m-meant they planned to come back at night. That is the usual modus operandi on the high seas. Th-Th-That’s what they would’ve done, I meant, if Steve hadn’t toasted them. I was shaken up from the ordeal. Waited all night for more of them to come along—but no one did. I ran without the lights until dawn and when the sun came up, there was nobody around. And, luckily, for us—no Coast Guard or narc boats. Now don’t you think it’s time to get a move on?  You need to focus.”

     “I thought you needed to rest. So tell me what happened to Steve after he shot the flare?”

     “He died a few hours later. I watched him die. There was nothing I could do to stop the bleeding.”

     “How did you know he was dead?”

     “You can tell, Keith, when you see it firsthand.” A hint of superiority in his voice now: “He had no heartbeat and there was blood all over him. He wasn’t breathing. Pr-Pr-Pretty good signs that the p-p-poor bastard was dead. And what’s with all the questions? Y-y-you’re not letting y-your imagination run away with you, are you?”

     “Fuck you. What happened to Steve’s body?”

     “I had to bury him at sea.”

     “I’m sure you said some words.”

     “I did.”

     “I won’t ask what they were. I don’t know if I could take it. One thing, though, the only blood I saw on deck was by the helm, underneath the wheel.”

     “We ran through a hard rain. Like now—tis the season.”

     “There was also blood by the rail, near the tiller—I wonder why that didn’t wash off.”

     “Tiller, that’s a good nautical word. You’re picking up on this sailing stuff, Keith—someday we can go for a sail, you and I. But don’t you think we should get along down the road—as in highway?”

     “Yeah, I suppose. But first I have to get something.”

     I go back to the dinghy and come back with the Browning cradled in my arms. Bagley is sitting in the sand, tension creasing his forehead.

     “You brought the twelve-gauge along?” he says, a confused look crossing his face. “Good thought—but I don’t think it’s a good idea to bring it in the van. Just one more thing for a cop to spot if we get stopped for anything.”

     “You’re probably right, Dan, but I’m not bringing it to the van. It’s for use here, right now.” I push off the safety and point the big black barrel at Bagley’s reddening face. He begins to resemble a jack-o-lantern, yellow glow and all. “First, Dan, we are going to sit here together and continue our little chat, like the old buddies that we are.”

     “Very funny. Now cut the shit and let’s get the fuck out of here.”

     “Not before you answer some questions. And believe me, I’m serious. If I’m smirking, it’s because it’s funny to see you there on the ground—with a loaded shotgun in your face—and you’re still giving orders like a fat little general in some third-world shithole. I guess you really can’t help yourself. But, first and foremost, I want one thing understood.  If I’m going to assist you in the odious task of cocaine distribution—well, uh—let’s just say that I won’t do it if I don’t feel comfortable. And right now, I don’t feel comfortable.”

     “If you’re too scared, Keith, drive me out to the road and you can walk away. Nobody has to know that you were ever here. I’ll send you some scratch when I get back to civilization. Just help me get to the road, please.”

     “I’m afraid that won’t work for me, Daniel—for many reasons. Not the least of which is that I don’t trust you. Don’t trust you now and never have. I mean, for Christ sake, Dan, I haven’t forgotten what a rip-off you are. Nobody I know ever trusted you. Whether it was with their girl or their money or anything. I don’t know how it is you manage to use everyone to the max like you do, all the while prancing around like some kind of fuckin’ diva, but the real funny thing is that I always stood up for you, believe it or not. I’m probably the only guy in the world ever had anything good to say about you at all. And what did that get me? A load of horseshit. Did you forget we’ve done business together before, buddy? I know what an asshole you can be, remember? I’ve taken the brunt of your condescension and your arrogance. Arrogance and ignorance—your two strong points. I guess I’m the ultimate sucker.” 

     “Are you serious? That’s what you’re so upset about? If I promise to be a nice guy will you point that shotgun away?”

     “Shut the fuck up and listen to me. Something seems terribly wrong here. I don’t believe your shit. Bile is rising up. My gut won’t accept the scene you’ve painted.”

     “I think you’ve finally gone off the deep end, Keith. Better give me the shotgun before somebody gets hurt.”

     “I went off the deep end a long time ago, Dan. That’s why I wouldn’t hesitate to pull this trigger and end your nasty little life. I’m sick of being shoved around by people like you.”

     “People like me? You mean someone who’s made something of his life?”

     “That must be it. Must be my frustration over a lack of status in mainstream society. But we’re straying from the heart of matters. I need to know more about this alleged pirate attack. I remember you telling Steve back in Key West that this deal was going to be your people all the way. You had some guy from Colorado, a high roller from Aspen or something, coming in to run things. I do remember you saying that. So how did the infallible Bagley go so terribly wrong, I want to know?”

(To be continued)

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“My Ship Comes In” is the fourth story, a novella, in T.K. O’Neill’s Northwoods Pulp Reloaded collection of three short crime stories and this longer story. Ebook available here.

Chapter 5

Obvious signs of a struggle on the Larson E: bloodstains on the deck, along with broken bottles and empty shotgun shells. But somehow, the destruction doesn’t live up to Bagley’s story. The boat isn’t riddled with bullet holes like I expected. I only see two holes, and they’re directly to the right of the steering wheel, about head high. Two large clean holes and that’s it.

     Down below, several live shotgun slugs and two shotguns lay on the bed of the larger stateroom. The bed my wife and I slept in not too long ago. The green Hawaiian shirt Steve Schmidt was wearing when we first arrived in the Keys hangs from a hook on the wall. 

     Tears well up behind my eyes and I fight them back down. I jam three slugs in the Browning semi-auto and set it back down on the bed. I suck in deep breath after deep breath and go back topside. Shakily, I push the button; tear off the seat cushions and stare, fascinated, as the panel slides back. A thin metal door above the “Emergency” tank is easily unlatched and lifted up to reveal a green North Face backpack lying high and dry on a mesh tray fastened to the sides of the tank. I crouch down and grab the two aluminum rods on the pack and lift. A hundred pounds comes up as easy as squeezing a pimple. Adrenaline works wonders. I throw the pack on the deck and stare at it, my heart ripping like a marching band at the homecoming parade. At my feet is a quarter million worth of coke, wholesale. By the time the last line has been snorted, smoked, or injected, well over a million dollars will have been generated.

     Lordy mama, my ship has come in. 

     Then my body starts doing the convulsion boogie and a wave of outright terror washes through me. I jump back to my feet and go down below deck, grab the shotgun, push off the safety and touch off a load by the side of the bed. Water rushes in and my ears ring. I go back topside, a three-alarm fire in my head. I heft the pack and start down the ladder towards the dark sea. My foot slips on a wet rung and I go crashing down, landing on my shoulder in the raft. The thing damn near tips over but somehow doesn’t. I pull off the pack and laugh hysterically before climbing back up the ladder. I lock the rudder with the improvised loop of rope and start the engine. Before pulling the anchor, I retrieve the Browning and throw it in the dinghy. There’s already two inches of water in the cabin.

     The engine murmurs softly. I pull up the anchor, put the boat in gear and quickly go down the ladder and flop into the raft on my stomach. I untie, and the Larson E glides slowly into the darkness.

     The grin is still on my face as I come ashore but I quickly turn grim at the prospect of facing Bagley. He catches sight of the pack on my back and can’t suppress a smile of his own and I hate him for it. Me, who was balls out crazy a minute ago, laughing like a fool—and I hate him for just smiling. These are strange times indeed.

     There is a little bee buzzing around inside my head now telling me something is not quite right. I can’t shake the feeling. There’s more to this situation than meets the eye or the ear, but I don’t know exactly what. Considering that I’m dealing with Dan Bagley, why should that come as a surprise?

     I throw the pack down at Bagley’s feet. “There’s your guilt powder, Dan. You happy now?” I look up and down the beach and see nothing but darkness. Driving rain the only sound. “I suppose we should get going,” I say, staring hard at Bagley as he struggles to his feet. Now I’m almost positive those marks on his face are scratches. Metallic sounding words begin to tumble out of my mouth: “Those look like scratches on your face, Dan? Were those woman pirates?”

(To be continued)

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“My Ship Comes In” is the fourth story, a novella, in T.K. O’Neill’s Northwoods Pulp Reloaded collection of three short crime stories and this longer story. Ebook available here.

     Then I think I hear a splash over the water and a weakly shouted, “Keith!” I stand there frozen in the warm rain. The bow light is out now and the sea is dark. If Schmidt were on board there would be something more than a muffled shout; that much I know. 

     Was it drowned out by the waves and wind and rain? I’m hoping they’re just being cautious. My gut churns at the possibility Bagley and Schmidt doubted my reliability. Then another sound, like a brief cry of pain, reaches my ears. A shaky flashlight beam points down at the water then goes dark.

     Five eternal minutes go by, the only sounds the hammering of the rain and the pounding of my heart. I don’t move. Squinting through the dim light, I can see the dinghy coming ashore, landing rope dangling in the water. The bow lifts as it hits the beach and a stooped figure struggles out. Slowly, it makes its way towards the lantern light. 

     Looks like Bagley. And just like the Larson E, he’s listing to one side. I see dark splotches on his torn safari shirt. Schmidt is nowhere to be seen. 

     I drop the club and start running down the soggy sand.

     “Keith,” Bagley says with a weak voice, “Where are you, Keith? Can’t you see I need help?”

     “I’m coming, Dan. What the hell’s going on? Where the fuck is Steve?” 

     I get to him and discover that the blotches on his shirt appear to be blood. He’s got a red bandana tied around his right bicep.

     “Steve’s dead. We were attacked by fuckin’ pirates. Schmidty got shot. He’s dead, Keith. Those bastards killed him. I got lucky or I’d be dead too. It was terrible. I’m just so goddamn lucky. They were trying to board us when Schmidty shot a flare into their fuel tank. I guess he saved my life—and now he’s gone.”

     I stop dead in my tracks. Blackness descends over me like a tight-fitting skullcap. My knees buckle. “He was a good man,” I say, struggling for composure. 

     I help Dan to my camping spot. We sit down on the sand and the rain lightens. He has blood on his face and hands and what appears to be shallow stab wounds around his neck and right shoulder. And he’s pale, like maybe he’s lost a lot of blood.

     “Jesus, Dan, I can’t believe this is happening. Schmidt is fuckin’ dead. This is awful, man. What the hell should we do? You’re not looking so good. I think we need to get out of here.”

     “I’ll make it,” Bagley says, His voice is weak but resolved. “I’ve got too much money and too much time involved in this to give up now. Schmidty would want us to keep going, Keith. You’ve got to hold it together. If we can just get this job done, I think everything will turn out all right.”

     Now I’m shaking, the last drops of precious adrenaline ripping through me like a hundred and ten volts of pure lightning.

     “We’ve got to move fast, Keith. You have to get the van. I don’t think I can walk that far. I’m feeling a little light-headed. You’re going to have to save me, for a change. After all those times I bailed you out, now its time for you to pay me back.”

     Bailed me out? What the fuck is he talking about?

     “What about the ganja?”

     “There isn’t any pot, Keith. Just coke, a hundred pounds of pure Colombian cocaine. It’s inside the fuel tank. There’s a special little door underneath the seats at the stern. You have to push a button on the console and the piece will slide back. First turn the ignition key to the right—clockwise—then push the black button on the outside of the steering console. I think there’s enough juice left in the battery. If not, you’ll have to grab a crowbar from the tool kit and—“

     “Just a goddamn minute. You told me this was a pot deal—mari-ju-wana—not fuckin’ coke. Every time I touch cocaine, something bad happens. And believe me I’ve got enough trouble as it is without adding more. Steve is dead, man. Can’t you see? It’s happening already. Hundred pounds of coke can get you executed in this state. This is insane. I should turn around and walk the fuck out of here, leave you for the cops. I do not want to mess with cocaine.”

     “T-t-take the damn cross off your shoulders, Keith, and get s-s-smart.” Bagley’s chronic nervous stutter makes an appearance. “Pot is for hippies; it’s old w-w-world, now. The profits are less and the loads are larger—it’s all yesterday’s papers. You can cut this blow and keep cutting it, and you’ll still be able to sell it for top buck. The p-p-profit margins are astronomical. You can put a hundred pounds in a backpack, and y-you can’t say that about w-w-weed.” He sits down on the sand, elbows resting on his knees, chin on his clasped hands. “Now go and get our nest egg so we can get out of here b-b-b-before I goddamn bleed to d-d-death.”

     “You seem to be doing all right, man. At least you’ve regained your gift for being an asshole.”

     “What do you mean by that? And what are you waiting for? I haven’t got much energy left.”

     I stare at him. 

     “Oh, I see…” he says. “So th-th-that’s the way you’re going to play it.  W-w-well then, ah-ah… I’ll tell you what, I’ll ah, ah, in-increase your share of the load—n-now that Schmidt is gone we can—”

     “I want half,” I say, looking him straight in the eye.

     “W-w-w-well, I w-was thinking a third—of Steve’s share—but I guess half would be f-fair, if you insist.”

     “You misunderstand, Mr. Bagley. I want half of the whole thing. The game has suddenly changed, you see. I never signed on for cocaine—and especially not death. And I think those added problems warrant extra compensation.”

     “Huh, huh,” he clucks like a hen, “You’re not serious.”

     I turn away and walk down to the dinghy. Grab the rope and start to swing the bow around when a realization—no, more a question—comes to mind: If Dan and I leave in the van and Steve is no longer around, who is going to sail the boat around the horn? Yes, sir, that’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. I pull the dinghy up farther on the beach then walk back to where Bagley sits glumly, staring at me. In the yellow glow of the smoldering fire, the marks on his face look like scratches. He’s dabbing at them with a wet cloth, the water jug at his feet. 

     He looks up at me, annoyed.

     “What about the boat, Dan? We can’t just leave it here, can we?”

     “You’ll have to sink it.”

     “How am I supposed to do that?”

     “It’s already taking water from where they rammed us.”

     “They were close enough to ram you—and you’re still alive?”

     “Schmidt cut loose on them with the twelve-gauge and they backed off and waited until dark.”

     “All right, so what should I do?”

     “Go out to the boat and put the coke in the dinghy. Then start the engine, lock the rudder into a southwesterly direction, throw her in gear and get off.”

     “How do I lock the rudder?  Is there a switch or something?”

     “There’s a loop of rope that holds it in place. You’ll see how it works.”

     “Will she sink fast enough?”

     “Blow a hole in it with the shotgun. Just make sure it’s below the water line. There’s a few slugs left. They’re on the bed in the master stateroom. And you better take a lantern.”

     “I don’t know about touching off a shotgun. Somebody around here hears it, they might call the cops.”

     “Close the cabin door. In this rain, no one will hear anything. Or better yet, just pull the drain plugs. But that will take you some time and the shotgun won’t. Yeah, blow some holes—that way it’ll look like pirates if anyone finds the boat.”

     “Yeah,” I say, and turn, like a zombie, toward my task.

(To be continued)

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“My Ship Comes In” is the fourth story, a novella, in T.K. O’Neill’s Northwoods Pulp Reloaded collection of three short crime stories and this longer story.

Chapter 4

Two days later, I’m still alone on this desolate strip of beach waiting for something I’m not even sure is going to happen. But I have no other place to go and ninety-three bucks won’t get me very far in any direction. Looks like I’m stuck with sticking it out.

     The adrenaline high that kept me going has washed out and left in its place rising anxiety and a longing for something I can’t identify. Also a nagging suspicion that I’ve really fucked things up this time. I know I can’t wait on this beach forever; food and patience are nearly depleted. In the back of my head, a hyena mocks my every thought.

     After much soul searching I decide to leave by noon tomorrow, boat or no boat. After this much time has gone by, I can’t be sure of what or who might show up—if anybody. 

     Will a flotilla of coastguardsmen fresh from drug interception training be hitting the beach like the second assault on Normandy? Or will Bagley and Schmidt float in all big-timey, acting like it’s no big deal to get stood up on a lonely beach for two days by a couple of assholes. 

     Just because they’re the big-time smugglers and I’m the lousy pick-up guy doesn’t mean I haven’t run a few risks. If only they knew.

     I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve gotten up and said to myself I’m leaving, only to sit back down, light a cigarette and wait some more. Stare out at something in the vast distance and wait. The waves just keep breaking slowly and rhythmically against the shore and the sound has become an annoyance. No longer relaxing, it grates on me like a constantly nagging voice: Sucker, sucker, sucker…. 

     You get to a point in a situation like this where you run out of things to think about and your mind starts covering the same old territory, over and over like a broken record. Round and round she goes, where she stops nobody knows.  

     And if you stare long enough at nothing, something might finally appear. If it’s far enough away, an object can take the shape of many things. Sheer wishful thinking, if you’re tired enough, hungry enough or scared enough, might make you see something that isn’t there. Whether you’re sitting in a deer stand or a duck blind or against a bank of sand, it’s conceivable that a stump could seem to be a deer, a pigeon might look like a duck and a large piece of debris on the horizon could become a boat. 

     There’s a dark speck on the horizon now that brings this theory to mind. How long has it been there? Could it actually be them, after all this time?

     Adrenaline again begins its bubbling drive through my bloodstream and I stand up to stare out at the dark speck. Then the waves and the wind start to change. Begin to sound like an orchestra. An orchestra playing something exhilarating and uplifting like a Sousa march or a hymn, maybe. Not a solemn, weepy song, but a strong and warlike hymn like “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

     The object is closer now—and most definitely a sailboat. Possibly approaching my little home away from home. Clouds are rolling in and a damp breeze is kicking up from the North. As I stand here squinting out at the sailboat, the sun disappears and the blue and yellow sky slowly fills in with gray and black. 

     Now the boat seems to have stopped its shoreward progress. 

     I build up the sand around the signal flag, throw some wood on the fire and fetch the binoculars. 

     Not enough light to be sure, but indeed, the object looks to me like the Larson E. But something is off; she doesn’t look quite right going through the water. But then what do I know about sailing? What does a northern boy like me know about sailboats? Still, I swear it looks as though the sail is down and the bow is listing. I start to think about it and my paranoia alarm goes off like the dive signal on a submarine. I’m sure it’s the narco squad driving the boat, trying to clean up the loose ends of another failed smuggling attempt. 

     Or could it be that Schmidt and Bagley are drunk and trying to fuck with my head?

     I squeeze the field glasses tighter and search for any signs of life. One of them should be on deck, scanning the shoreline. But the deck is empty. There’s nobody out there.

     Some long lost instinct tells me something’s wrong and I drop the glasses in the sand and look nervously around for some kind of weapon. My eyes lock onto an axe handle’s length of wood lying in my pile of scraps. I pick it up and run the smooth, worn surface through my hands. It’s a little thicker than an axe handle and a little hard to grip, but it will have to do, should a situation arise. Primitive man using primitive tools.

     The boat keeps moving slowly in my direction and the sky keeps fading to black. It’s raining now, big drops coming straight down. I let it pour down on me, pointing my face to the heavens. Then a tiny bow light on the boat breaks through the curtain of darkness, glowing both red and yellow, like the glass cover is broken. Then a beam, like a flashlight, sweeps the boat’s interior and goes dark.

     I pick up the driftwood and walk back into the dunes, watching silently as the bow light moves ever so slowly toward shore. I hear the murmur of the diesel engine for a moment and then it’s gone, swallowed up by the rain. Then I hear something moving behind me in the brush. I hold up my club and yell, “Who’s there?”

     Nobody, answers the rain.

(To be continued)

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