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The characters kind of reminded Frank of the crowd he’d spent the last ten years serving drinks to at the Metropole Lounge in Zenith, Minnesota. And if that place wasn’t the heart of the American night, he didn’t know what was.

But Frank was hard pressed to find much wisdom or universal truths from his days at the Metro, unlike the characters in the book, who seemed to readily extract profundities from their own similar experiences.

Frank guessed things just looked different from the working side of the bar.

But the book made letting your wild side out sound fun and exciting. And now Frank had a craving for beer. And there were two more black beauties remaining in Waverly’s gift box.

He could swallow one down, get back in the groove and drive all night, be like those crazy, sad bastards in the book.

And damn near to California by tomorrow morning.

But shit, that wasn’t going to cut it. Along with the fuel supply problems, thoughts of being alone on the freeway in the middle of the night and having the Hater come back on center stage were turning him cold. It could really get dark at night out here in the West, even on a freeway.

His life was already dark enough without adding to the blackness, he thought. And he was just too burnt for another all-nighter, the accumulated stress of the last few months choosing now to turn him inside out and sideways.

But the book did give him an idea.

Kerouac’s protagonist, Sal Paradise, was on his own journey to California, and made his first prolonged stop in the city of Denver, with the purpose of looking up an old friend and possibly scrounging some cash for the remainder of his journey.

Frank also had a friend in Denver, an old high school buddy, former Arizona Amateur Tennis Champion Larry Richards. Who, the last Frank had heard, was now a divorce lawyer in Denver, allegedly raking in the cash hand over fist, divorce a growing concern in 1977.

Frank possessed adequate funds and could afford a place to crash if necessary, so that separated him from Sal Paradise. But he was craving rest, recreation, fun and excitement—without any fear attached—and Denver was only an inch away on the map. 

So…

Larry always had his shit together, Frank was thinking. Back when they were teenagers and used to hang together, the guy was well organized and full of plans. If he were anything at all like the guy Frank remembered, Richards would definitely show him a good time in the Mile High City.

Which was just what Frank needed. 

Blow off a little steam and straighten out his wounded mind. Drink beer and shoot the shit and chase women in a new place where nobody knows who you are or what you’ve done.

Studying the map, he discovered Denver was somewhere around two hundred miles or more away—nearly four hours. Far enough, that it would be dark before he hit the city limits. And coming into an unfamiliar environment after dark was never a good idea.

Frank put the paperback down on the seat, started the wagon and headed back to I-70. Slightly rejuvenated, the coffee chugging through him, he figured he had a couple more hours left before he hit bottom.

(End of Chapter 2)

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Summer—1977

Coming up on Oakley, Kansas, Frank Ford’s head was scrambled eggs.

     The black dex got him here nicely, fourteen hours of positive thoughts pointing straight ahead to the future like a bunch of little arrows. But now the arrows were falling to the pavement like pieces of an imploding building, and Frank was lost.

     Not lost on the highway—he had his trusty Michelin Road Atlas to prevent that—but lost inside his head. The horror show of his recent past was kicking in like a garish neon sign on a dark, empty street and an ice pick of fear was growing in his solar plexus.

     He’d left home confident that he’d covered his tracks. The cops hadn’t given him so much as a sniff. But he’d killed two women and shot the ear off another guy and sometimes stuff like that comes back to haunt you.

     You just never know.

     And the self-immolating burn of guilt for killing two murderous, psychopathic sisters?

     It shouldn’t be there.   

     But it was, kind of.

     Sometimes you think you’ve put certain things behind you, gotten past them, but then one day they come sneaking back up your brain stem and resume the grinding.

     Back in Minnesota he had all his rationalizations in place. Wanting to believe that if he just kept moving, the recriminations would never catch up. But now it seemed he was getting as fearful as an old woman. Maybe just like his mother. He was walking on eggs in his mind as if one wrong thought would bring on the Hater. But hell, the accusing voice had already been in there for a while and Frank was starting to get accustomed to the internal accusations and self-condemnation.

     Currently the Hater was insisting that Frank deserved to burn in hell.

     Or some other form of Christian-themed punishment.

     Frank knew he just needed to get comfortable with being uncomfortable; it was that simple.

     He’d always considered himself an outlaw. You know, a few illegal drugs, a little cheating on the taxes, maybe a couple lies to the girlfriend or the occasional hot item purchased from some hangdown at the Metropole.

     But a killer?

     He hadn’t planned on it, but he most certainly was guilty of murder, no matter how justified. And the cops had a nasty habit of overlooking justifications when it came to homicide.

     So he had the ice pick in the gut and a hot wire in his brain shooting sparks and making him squirm behind the steering wheel of his 1971 Ford station wagon. He was thinking maybe if he pulled over for a while and shut his eyes—if he was lucky, catch a few Zs—he might get back to that walk-and-don’t-look-back state of mind that had carried him so smoothly across the plains.

     If he could just get back to the same old Frank Ford, things would be all right.

     Thinking about it, he knew it would never happen. The old Frank Ford was history, gone Johnson.

     He fired up a Marlboro with the car lighter. Yeah, he was smoking again, his nerves and the monotony of long-distance driving conspiring to make him buy a pack at the first place he saw after crossing into Iowa early this morning. But this latest butt tasted like burning rope, and was adding a pulsing pain behind the eyes to his already existing symptoms of disarray.

     He stubbed out the cig in the ashtray and glanced at the approaching road sign.

     Oakley  3.

     Highway 83  3. 

     Highway 83 was a north-south road that would take him to the Texas panhandle and I-40, somewhere west of Oklahoma City, and from there it was a straight shot to LA. But he knew he’d struggle just to make it to Garden City, Kansas, only forty miles to the south, if he didn’t stop for a while.

     The fuel situation was also troubling. Some of the gas stations were already closed and it was only seven o’clock in the evening, Central Time. The good fellows from OPEC were putting the squeeze on America’s oil supply. The petroleum titans from the Middle East conspiring to enlighten America as to who was running the gas-and-oil show.

     And it seemed to be working. Big companies like Amoco, Shell and Texaco were unable to provide enough fuel to keep all their stations open. And those that did have gas were plagued by long lines, purchase limits and surly drivers—one of whom, Frank was rapidly becoming. So he made a quick decision—or something made it for him—and he wheeled the Ford wagon onto the Oakley exit.

     He tried to make himself relax.

     At least enough to give the impression that he was relatively normal, which, of course, was the furthest thing from the truth.

     Oakley was a Norman Rockwell painting. And like most small towns Frank had visited, there was a supermarket on the main drag.

     He swung into the parking lot of Bob’s Ideal Market and steered the wagon into a slot. There was plenty of room. He got out of the car, surprised how stiff he was, and went into the store. There he grabbed a large Styrofoam cup of coffee and two pieces of fried chicken and some deep-fried potato quarters from the deli, the scent of the greasy treats too tantalizing to resist.

     Getting back to the car, his stomach now a little queasy from road coffee, cigarettes and no food, he put the potatoes in his cooler for later and grabbed a chicken thigh.

     He sipped the coffee and took a bite of the greasy chicken and gazed out the car window at the comings and goings of the locals. Then for no apparent reason the anxiety started up again and he didn’t feel like moving quite yet so he reached into the back seat and grabbed the little going-away-gift box that hippie boy Keith Waverly had given him back in Zenith.

     He lifted out the two dog-eared paperbacks.

     One was an old Raymond Chandler novel, The Little Sister, which Frank suspected was Waverly’s off-handed comment on the adventures in Frank’s recent past. The other one, On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, was a famous book Frank knew about but had never read, and was probably Waverly’s comment on Frank’s current situation.

     And immediate future, Frank was thinking as he put the Chandler novel back in the box and turned back the wrinkled cover of the late Jack Kerouac’s claim to fame.

     He looked at the copyright.

     1957.

     Twenty years ago.

     He started to read.

     Once he adjusted to the scattershot prose it seemed to sync with his discordant mind and bring on some form of calm. Got him feeling like he was sitting placidly in a giant eggcup. A strange image, for sure, but that’s exactly what he felt like, that’s what came to him.

     He read for an hour straight, looking up only occasionally to glance at the old pickups and dusty sedans going by on Main Street, USA.

     Story so far was about a bunch of people under the age of thirty traveling across the country on the cheap, doing a lot of drinking and drugs. And sex, if they could get it.

     Basically turning dissipation into a religion.

     The Beat Generation. Predecessors to the hippies.

     Story took place in 1947. Thirty years ago…. 

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Late November—1977

Lying on his stomach at the fence line of an Arizona ranch just inside the Mexican border, Frank Ford finds it hard to believe that only six months ago he was in northern Minnesota trying to stop two psychotic sisters from killing a douchebag pharmaceutical heir.

But it’s true.

Now the sky above him is a tapestry of stars and his three companions are up in the cosmos with them, each of the three men having consumed a number of peyote buttons before leaving Tempe.

Frank, being the driver, abstained. At the moment, though, he’s not sure whether that was a good decision or a bad one. He’s wired tight and the other three are loose goosey, so what the hell.

The four men are on a mission to rescue the younger brother of rising rock star Evelyn Raines, with whom Frank has a confusing and undefined relationship. It seems that Javier Raines was caught smuggling marijuana and Mexican citizens across the border—something he’s been doing for several years, according to his sister. The kicker here being that it wasn’t an official government law enforcement agency that snagged him, but a vigilante group doing unauthorized work along the border.

Unauthorized work that often includes torture, the rumors say.

Just a weird situation all around, Frank thinks, as he watches Ted Webb—the provider of the peyote buttons—crawl underneath the barbed wire, the butt of a .45 caliber Colt semi-auto sticking out the waistband of his faded jeans.

Being the most mobile of the four, Ted volunteered to sneak up to the barn, only outbuilding on the property, to see if Javier is actually in there. And, if so, come up with a plan for extracting him.

Squeezing the stock of a cut down twelve-gauge, Frank watches in the weak glow of the lone dusk-to-dawn yard light as Ted scoots across the dirt towards the barn. Yard dog is no longer a problem, yellow-haired mutt collapsed in a heap near the front gate, after consuming a hefty serving of Henry Ruiz’s Doggy Downer Delight.

Henry Ruiz, along with Frank’s roommate in Tempe, Bill Cross, round out the rest of the not-so-fearsome foursome.

Henry is stretched out on Frank’s left, looking at the front door of the one-story ranch house through the night-vision scope of an M-16 carbine, his souvenir from Vietnam. On Henry’s left, Bill Cross cradles a .22 caliber semi-auto plinking rifle, his eyes flitting around the yard like tumbleweeds in a windstorm.

Henry and Ted are ‘Nam vets. Bill served in Korea. Frank’s damaged knee kept him out of the military. Failed his draft physical.

Not that he’d have wanted to join even if his knee was perfect, he thinks, then tenses as he sees Ted coming back fast, crouching low.

Ted scurries to the fence line and squats down in front of Henry. “There’s two guys in there,” he says. “Both of ‘em naked and bloody and tied to posts in the ground.”

“They conscious?” Henry asks.

“Maybe, couldn’t tell for sure,” Ted says in a hoarse whisper. “I didn’t go in all the way. Didn’t want them shouting or something. They might’ve been aware of me, I’m not sure. Neither one of them looked in good enough shape to walk back to the car, though, I can tell you that much.”

“Well, no mission ever goes the way you plan it, we’ll just have to improvise,” Henry says. “Brings to mind an old Mexican saying: ‘Trust in God but keep one hand on your pistola.’ So I guess that’s what we’ll do.”

Henry slithers under the barbed wire and stands up. Raising the M-16 to the ready position, he trains the carbine at the front door of the house and walks sideways toward the barn.

Frank and Bill follow Henry’s lead.

Frank’s bum knee is stiff and sore from the walk in and he can’t help wondering how the hell things came down to this…

 

Amazon: https://amzn.to/3DEFkY

Barnes and Noble: https://bit.ly/3sBA5SZ

https://books2read.com/u/mlEM1B 

See all T.K. O’Neill’s books here: https://www.amazon.com/~/e/B09HPBWMJF

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