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Jackpine Savages by T.K. O’Neill  

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A few minutes went by and I started wondering how long it took to smoke a cigarette these days. But you know how it is with chicks: they talk a lot. Ten minutes later, I got a jumpy feeling in my gut and headed for the door. Once outside, I looked slowly around and saw no one, only mist rising from the gravel. I walked toward my vehicle. The red Ford was nowhere to be seen.

Rose had beaten me again.

I had to swallow a lot of shit to tell Talbot of my latest error in judgment. He took it well, and just said, ”Try it again tomorrow,” while I struggled to reassure him that his wife didn’t know she was being shadowed.

I knew this was just bad luck. I’d find my P.I. chops real soon.

Back in Duluth, I went directly to my apartment, a nicely designed basement one-bedroom in the elegant East End home of an elderly retired couple. I grabbed a beer from the fridge and got on the telephone. I was going to need help with this case.

The next morning there were two of us heading up Highway 61. I was behind the wheel of the Subaru. Following closely behind in his GROAT (Grossly Oversized American Truck) was my old pal Dan Burton. We had attended college together (when we actually chose to attend) at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and partied together for a long time after that. Dan was now one year sober and unemployed, which made him perfectly suited to be my sidekick. Not only, was he grateful for the work, but now I wouldn’t have to buy him drinks, something that could have amounted to a small fortune in the past. About six-two and over two hundred pounds, Burton was handy to have around should trouble start up, something I had learned a few times over the years.

I set Burton and his truck in the wayside near Talbot’s driveway. I parked on the shoulder about a half-mile south of him in case Rosie decided to alter her previous pattern. Burton and I had in our possession Motorola Walkie-talkies with a seven-mile range, recently purchased at a local Best Buy with some of the retainer money.

Just as before, I passed the morning playing tourist mesmerized by the beauty of the lake. It wasn’t difficult on a sunny and cool day with a clean northwest wind wrinkling the surface of the steel-blue water. Dan would occasionally pop on the airwaves just to fight his boredom and I’d have to tell him to stay off until necessary. I think it was hard for him to take the situation seriously. After all, it was Carter Brown he was working for. That fact alone was strange enough to him, I was sure.

The world slowly turned to early afternoon.

I was thinking about food when the walkie-talkie crackled.

“She’s got the mail and she’s headed your way,” Dan said hoarsely.

I snapped up the binoculars and homed in on a blinding sunspot on the hood of the Focus. Little blue spots erupted in my vision. I scrunched down in the seat and turned my head toward the lake as Rose hissed by.

“Get after her, Dan,” I said into the little black and yellow box, “I’ll follow you.”

Seconds later the big gray pickup roared by, Dan waving like an idiot.

We followed Rose to Two Harbors where she drove up to the small, brick post office building. I parked a block away where I could still see her car. Dan drove down past the post office and parked facing me.

It wasn’t long before she came through the double glass doors and strutted down the steps, got in her vehicle and left the lot. I was guessing she was heading for Duluth to do some shopping, as she was wearing a green, short-sleeved cotton dress. Exactly why the dress made me think she was going shopping, I really don’t know.

She quickly proved me wrong by turning north on 61 and moving away at high speed.

Burton and I gave chase and again the strange caravan began weaving its way along the scenic North Shore Drive. I was a little worried Rose might recognize the Subaru so I stayed back as far as I could while still keeping her in sight. The fact that these small SUVs were nearly as prevalent up here as the black flies, worked in my favor.

Rose was passing everything on the road and making it difficult to keep up. At one point, I had to hurtle past an RV and a UPS delivery van in rapid succession and cut back into my lane at the last instant, narrowly avoiding a speeding semi while the little Subaru “boxer engine” roared like a sewing machine about to blow. Up ahead of me, Rose’s Focus was making a left on Highway 1 and shooting off into the forest primeval.

I gave chase.

(To be continued)

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T.K. O’Neill

Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.

It’s the mid-1970’s and, in his search for a way out of the mire that had become his life, sometimes-cab driver Keith Waverly finds himself in deeper than his wildest nightmares. At odds with both conventional life and life outside convention, looking for a way to break free without giving in, Keith tries to control his fate, but ends up a pawn in someone else’s bigger game.  The vast darkness of the north woods provides a chilling backdrop and powerful force to Dead Low Winter.

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Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.




At this point of the evening even I thought I could read Nick’s mind: You fuck this up, Sam, you’ll never get another cent from me as long as you live, you scabby little cockroach—which may not be very long if I don’t win, you fucking dirt bag.

After Nick’s raise, Tom Geno folded, much to Nick’s distaste.

Miko was up next. He sucked hard on a Camel squeezed between his first two fingers, smoke curling around a tattoo on the back of his right hand, some kind of fancy sword in the middle of some flowers. There was at least a thousand of his cash in the pot already, from my guess, and a lot less than that in his shrunken pile.

Miko counted his chips carefully. Touched them softly one at a time and then slowly slid all but one into the pot.

I thought for a second Sam Cross was going to lay them down and give us the old read- ’em-and-weep. But suddenly Miko chirped up in an accent as thick as the syrup in a baklava.  “I like to make raise,” he said, “but I have not enough cash. May I write marker? This I have for collateral.”  He slid back the high-backed oak chair, glanced briefly at the knock-off Tiffany lamp hanging above the poker table and bent over at the waist. Pulling up his blue denim pant leg, Miko reached inside his black calf-high boot and lifted out a small handgun, set it on the table for us to appraise. Nick looked nervous.

Miko’s voice rose. “Is this value for marker? Any takers?”

“No markers to foreigners,” Nick Cross snapped.

John McKay grimaced and glanced over at his brother Peter who grinned thinly and put his hand to his upper lip to cover the oncoming sneer.

Sam Cross said, “Let me see that. I’ve always wanted a sweet little gun like this, I—”

“You’ll blow off your putz with that thing, Sammy,” growled Nick. He had a sour look and was chewing on a cigar.

“This is Walther PPK,” the Greek said, putting his palm down on the table next to the finely crafted pistol. “The double-oh seven—James Bond—he use this to kill many communists. Is worth seven hundred American.”

Sam said, “I’ll give you two bills—two hundred—for it.” He waved casually at his considerable winnings. “But if you want it back, it’ll cost you four—whether it’s tonight or next week. Savvy?”

“Is not enough. Is worth seven hundred.”

“Take it or leave it, pal, the clock is ticking,” Sam reached across the table and picked up the gun. Miko eyed him suspiciously.

Mayor McKay said, “Yes, please do,” his tone superior and weary. He stubbed out his cigarette in a square glass ashtray. ”If I would have known you were bringing a gun, Miko, I certainly would not have given my okay for you to join our game. Did you know about this, Peter?”

Peter McKay shrugged his shoulders and straightened up to the full effect of his large torso. He smiled benevolently at his brother and the rest of us. “I’m sure Miko feels a little worried,” he said, “about carrying a large sum of money in what to him is a strange town, thousands of miles and an ocean away from his homeland. Bay City can be a little threatening in some sections, late at night. Something my brother and I firmly resolve to change. Isn’t that correct, brother John?”

“That’s correct, Peter. But we aren’t here to discuss work.” Looking at the rest of us now. “How about we take care of business and get on with the game? You people don’t know how Evelyn can get if I’m too late getting in.”

“Relax, John,” said Tom Geno, chuckling. “You’ve still got time to get some lipstick stains on that nice shiny shirt of yours.”

Miko’s brow furrowed until his thick eyebrows met in the middle and formed a single row of bushy black hair. He glared at Sam. Sam had his back turned and was busy aiming the gun at the chandelier and the overhead fan and at successively all of the numerous antiques lining the walls and shelves of his rich sibling’s basement rec room. Truly a child at play.

“Okay,” Miko said. “Two hundred. I take it. I win hand and buy back tonight.” Then he hid his mouth with the back of his hand and leaned toward Tom Geno, Miko muttering a barely audible, “Man is a-hole.”

Mayor Geno coughed and almost did a spit take with his Whiskey-and-Seven.

Sam slid the diminutive weapon into the pocket of his worn sharkskin suit coat and counted out twenty ten-dollar chips. As soon as Miko got his hands on them they were tossed into the pot along with a fifty-dollar bill. The little guy was shoving it back at the politicians and the businessmen and the crooks.

“There you go, assholes. There you go. I sell my gun—only protection from the crazy drug sick maniacs you have here. And I have reason to fear. Some of you know. But I shall win this game and return to ship with pockets stuffed and then I will stay there until business is done and I can return home.”

 (To be continued)

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Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.




The next guy around the poker table was a Greek sailor name of Miko, a small wiry guy with tight black curls, long thick sideburns and a bushy coal duster mustache. He wore a blue denim shirt worthy of a first mate on a boat docked in town, which he was. Miko was a last minute replacement for the captain of the ship who had begged off to tend to some late-breaking emergency. That’s what I was told, anyway.

Miko tapped his cards on the table and brushed away my offer of a draw. The stand-in was standing pat.

The game was draw poker, Jacks or better progressive, trips to win. This meant that every time a hand was played where no player possessed three of a kind or better, the cards were reshuffled and a new hand dealt.  As long as you didn’t fold you were still in the game. The pot carried over and kept growing from hand to hand. It was one of Nick’s favorite games, and he usually waited until near the end of the night when most everyone was half drunk before requesting it. Tonight he was scrambling to find any game that might bring a large pot—big enough to recoup his losses.

We were, like, eight or nine deals into this one and I think we were on Queens to open. It’s pretty unusual to go that long without a winner but some nights the cards just shut down for a while. There was a small fortune in the pot. Nick and Sam were betting and bluffing like lunatics and going through all these crazy tics and scratches and movements of body parts like they were warming up for a third base coach-impersonating contest. Nobody else seemed to take notice and this made Nick even more brazen. One time he raised his right eyebrow so high on his forehead that it nearly blended in with his receding hairline.

The next and final player was Peter McKay, brother—or half-brother as Sam told it—of John McKay. Also Deputy Mayor of Bay City. He was a tall one with close-cropped, sandy hair and big ears that stuck out a little more than average. Not quite Dumbo but getting there. He had a square head like G.I. Joe and was wearing an ugly green polyester sport coat with a darker green turtleneck underneath. A heavy gold watch flashed on his left wrist and a gold ring sparkled from his right hand. He fingered the ring while he studied his cards.

The guy made me nervous. Dude had a pushy, prying way about him like a cop or a high school principal. And his eyes were cold when he smiled. Guess I just wasn’t used to high society. I was thinking he was getting wise to Nick Cross and his spastic routine, when Peter grimly asked for two cards.

Sam Cross was ready to bet. He fingered a pile of chips, smile still on his face and a Marlboro dangling from his lips, a small flake of ash resting on his oily brown beard. Brought to mind a pudgy Bob Dylan. He took a hundred-dollar bill from the pocket of his baggy seersucker trousers, wrapped it around a fifty-buck stack of chips and pushed it all into the mix.  “Hundred and fifty beans,” he said.

Mayor McKay called and then looked at his watch.

Nick Cross raised it fifty, all the while licking the left corner of his mouth and scratching his chin with his index finger. He kept glancing over at Sam. That was the scam, see. According to Sam they’d done this when they were kids. He told me they had some sort of psychic connection on account of they were so close as children, and they could almost read each other’s minds. These signals they were exchanging were supposed to communicate what cards one possessed or didn’t possess and other things, like when to raise or call. I was kept in the dark about the meaning of the individual signals. They had to keep some secrets, they said.

Remind me never to play poker with you, I said.

They already knew enough not to play with me.

(To be continued)

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Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.




On the night before the game, I told Sam Cross I wouldn’t be dealing seconds or off the bottom of the deck like the old days. The cheating always gave me a queer feeling, even back then. The old days were three or four years ago when I ran a card game for Nick Cross out of a little shack in the north end of Bay City near the warehouses. Nick would give me the cash every month and I’d pay the rent on the house, using a false name, and keep the fridge stocked with beer. I provided fresh decks of cards when needed and dealt with the delivery people if somebody had food sent in during a game. I took the house’s ten percent rake out of every pot and was also the bouncer but we never had much trouble. At six-foot-one and two hundred pounds, most guys thought twice but every now and then you’d have to put the hand on someone. But I never liked it much and I could usually talk my way out of tight situations. And people—even drunken losers—usually liked me.

Worst I ever got hit was by a three hundred pound woman. Big, mean, fat thing smacked me hard in the mouth one night and chipped a tooth, all because I had to escort her skinny little wimp of a husband out of the place for being drunk and obnoxious. What the hell you going to do, hit a woman? Broad like that—next time I might.

Occasionally we’d get a bunch of drunks that the Cross brothers felt like ripping off. Then I’d get to practice my little games of deception with the pasteboards—the tricks I’d learned in my senior year of high school during the several months I was laid up with a broken hip after crashing into a goalpost during a high school hockey play-off game. Early March, I think it was. The goalposts didn’t move in those days, driving the net took guts. Always a shitty month, March. I mean, just the word March, think about it. It’s what they say when they want you to go someplace you don’t want to go. March upstairs to bed, young man. March up there and take that machine gun nest, boys. But I put the downtime to good use, learning to handle a deck of Bicycle Brands like Bret Maverick at a sucker’s convention.

And so it was that the Cross boys began to exploit my talents like the bloodsuckers they were. Every so often the boys would throw a big “Las Vegas party.” And part of the hype was “professional dealers.” That would invariably be me and some other douchebag, dressed up in fancy shirts and green plastic visors.  I guess people don’t mind getting ripped off if the rippers seem up-scale enough.

Boy, could I do some things. Only once did anyone complain and he was a lawyer so what do you expect? Nick gave the guy his money back and told him if he ever came around again he’d be sorry. That was the last we ever heard from the lawyer.

It was good fun and decent money for awhile and you got free beer and met some interesting characters that helped keep your mind off what you were doing. Then one night the cops busted the place while I was outside in the backseat of my car trying to get some kind of a job—be it blow or hand or whatever—from this tart I’d met in a bar that very afternoon. Nick lost everything in the house that night—around two grand—and blamed me for a while, so we became estranged. A year later he realized he would have lost it all anyway—no matter if I was inside or not—and at least his pal Keith didn’t get popped, he says. What he was probably thinking was that I might have ratted him off if they’d gotten me. Must’ve figured he was lucky in at least one way.

One thing about Nick, he’d do anything to protect his holdings. The string of low-ball rental properties, the two dive bars and his precious antique store gave the fat man a nice cash flow. But he still continued to invest in his little brother’s fast-money deals. I guess Nick couldn’t help himself; the more he had, the more he wanted.

Younger brother Sam’s personal capital was born out of a whiplash scam he’d pulled off a few years back. Used the insurance money to set up a sports book. Book as in “bookie.”  He was also good at investing his brother’s money in drugs and having some fool like me do the retailing for him.

It was a natural progression for me to start selling, I guess. I was just going with the flow. At first it was weed and that was no big deal—like I had a history with that stuff. Getting a student loan and using it to buy weed was common practice when I did my stint at university.

Everything was going along all right there for a while. But then a ten-pound load I’d fronted out got popped and I was suddenly a maximum debtor to the brothers. And when you owed money to them, you were the collateral. They owned you and they made you feel it. You were on call twenty-four hours a day just to keep up with the interest. No job was too small or too large when you were into the Cross brothers’ pockets.

What choice did I have? I just went along with what they said. They knew guys who would kneecap you for a few bucks, the sheer joy of the act being the main reward.

So what do you do if you’re in debt? You up the ante.

So I started selling cocaine, the new drug on the Cross brothers’ menu.

And then I got into real debt.

(To be continued)

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Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.



In an age that is utterly corrupt, the best policy is to do as others do. — Marquis de Sade, 1788

ONE:  Social Climbing

The high rollers had me surrounded. They were all staring at me, waiting.

“Three, please,” said the Mayor of Bay City. He was polite, as usual.

I thumbed the cards off the top of the deck and slid them across the smooth brown surface of the round wooden table. Mayor John McKay took them and settled back against his straight-backed chair, spreading his cards out like a fan as he always did. Then he took a white-tipped filter cigarette from the pocket of his tailored white shirt and lit it with a silver Zippo and a flourish of his long-fingered almost feminine hands, blowing out the smoke in a slow upward moving cloud.

I figured he must have hit on his pair.

“I’ll take two,” said large-headed and balding Nicholas Cross on McKay’s immediate left. Cross squinted and tugged on the bridge of his previously-broken-but-nicely-set nose as if a fly was up there. “Make it two of the same kind if you please.” He grinned strangely at the rest of the players, pulling at the loose skin around his Adam’s apple like the fly had found its way down there. After seeing his cards he made a quick swipe across his forehead with a hairy forearm and sat back.

I looked over to my left at the ever-grinning mug of Sam Cross, Nick’s younger brother. His index finger was jammed in his ear, the rest of his stubby hand wiggling with gusto, his other hand resting comfortably against his slight paunch. A good-sized pile of chips and several empty beer bottles formed a barrier around his neatly stacked cards. He’d opened right off the get-go and drawn two.

The Cross brothers were cheating and I knew it. But it only seemed to be working for Sam. Nick had been losing big all night long and was down to writing IOUs. And the jing wasn’t only going to his sibling; he was spreading it around.

Tom Geno, the slick-haired mayor of Zenith City, had a few of those IOUs and also a gigantic collection of chips stacked up in odd-sized piles like rice cakes at a vegetarian picnic. And him the compulsive degenerate gambler that everyone loved to play against. The big fish from the bright side of the bay where the streets are a little cleaner and the sun shines a little brighter. The boys from Bay City always enjoyed cleaning this fish, but tonight the finner was having the last laugh. Yes sir, the Mayor of Zenith City was showing the Bay City boys a thing or two about poker, letting them know he wasn’t the sucker they thought he was.

Geno took one card and slid it in his hand and mixed them up slowly, one at a time, without looking. Having the last laugh on these assholes would definitely be frosting on the Mayor’s cake.

Myself, I was laughing on the inside, where it counts. Imagine—me hanging with the rich and influential. Just a punk nobody finally old enough to grow a decent mustache and here I was, in on the “fleecing of the elite,” as Sam Cross called it.

But the brothers were fucking up their scam right in front of me.

The show was going to be better than I thought.

(To be continued)

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Noir writer switches gears with hard-boiled Lake Superior detective novel

The 2014 National Indie Excellence® Awards recognized Jackpine Savages by author T.K. O’Neill as a finalist in the category of crime fiction finalist in this year’s competition.

This prestigious national award is open to all English language books in print from small, medium, university, self and independent publishers. Also this year, O’Neill’s detective fiction was judged “outstanding” in the 22nd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards.

A trending Christmas gift favorite for fans of the genre, Jackpine Savages is hard-boiled detective fiction in the tradition of Ross MacDonald and Robert B. Parker, set on the rugged north shore of Lake Superior. It features novice private investigator Carter Brown, who, thanks to an inheritance from a well-to-do uncle and a mail order P.I. diploma, realized a boyhood dream. When word spread of a homegrown private eye in the backwoods of northern Minnesota and Carter landed his first case, Brown Investigations was born. Before he could cash his first check for services rendered, Brown found himself locked up on a murder charge and soon entangled in trying to solve a murder of which he was also accused.

Bluestone Press published T.K. O’Neill’s latest crime fiction in both ebook and paperback formats. O’Neill is also author of the noir Fly in the Milk, exclusively on ebook, and has also authored three pulp/noir books under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow, one of which was translated and distributed by Fusosha Publishing in Tokyo, Japan.

Bluestone Press was established in early 1999 in Duluth, Minnesota. Jackpine Savages (trade paperback ISBN #978-0-96-720066-8; ebook ISBN #978-0-9672006-5-1) is available at major online retailers, including Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Google, iBookstore (Apple), Sony Reader Store, Kobo (Borders) and ebookit.com. Book sellers can contact Ingram/Lightning Source. Excerpts from Jackpine Savages and other publications are available at www.bluestonesblog.com .




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