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Posts Tagged ‘American genre fiction’

Sometimes a good first chapter bears repeating. Here’s one:

March 1978, Zenith, Minnesota

One of the harshest winters on record didn’t leave without a struggle, but the cold snap had finally broken, the temperature rising during the night to above the freezing mark for the first time in three weeks. At six a.m. the mercury hovered in the mid-thirties at the airport and slightly warmer downtown by the big lake.

Officer Adams of the Zenith Police Department wondered how the steaming wreck in front of him—a late model Olds with the crumpled body of a black man slumped against the steering wheel—had ended up a battered and broken mess at the bottom of a fifty-foot embankment. There was no ice on the streets, only a little ground fog in the low spots. Shouldn’t have any trouble stopping on that.

The location and condition of the auto suggested that it had blown through the railing at the top of the cliff and bounced down along the jagged rocks to the street where it now rested uneasily, crushed in upon itself like a four-door squeezebox, the front end dented and shattered and all four tires flat.

Poor bastard’s brakes must have given out, Adams thought. Pretty new vehicle, though, to have the brakes go out like that and pick up enough speed to rip through the guardrail.

Adams bent over and looked through the empty hole where the driver’s window had been. Chunks of glass lay on the broad but lifeless back of the man in the seat. His head rested at a crazy angle against the steering wheel, blank eyes facing the passenger window. There was a large bloody dent above his right temple.

A flare of recognition hit Adam’s gut and his heart got heavy in his chest. Something familiar about the shoulders and the dark wool overcoat and the shape of the head.

Adams bent in and peered at the bruised and bloodied face. Then he straightened up and filled his lungs with the damp air and squinted up at the top of the cliff again.

Once more he bent down and stuck his head inside the Olds. He was pretty sure now. The face was swollen and distorted but who else could it be? He heard Patrolman Hayes coming up behind him. Adams took another long look inside the wreck.

It was Johnny Beam, without a doubt.

Johnny Beam looking like he’d lost his last fight.

Adams stepped back and fought away the sick feeling as he watched Hayes bend over and study the body, hands in the pockets of his uniform like he was window shopping.

“Looks like there’s one less nigger on the planet,” Hayes said, snapping his gum.

“Don’t let me hear that kind of shit again, Dennis,” Adams growled, balling his fists. “I knew this man. Used to watch him play football when I was a kid. He may not have been the most responsible guy you’ll ever meet, but he wasn’t a nigger, and I won’t tolerate that shit.”

“Hey, I didn’t mean anything, you know—I was just saying…”

Adams stared down at the body, eyes narrowed. “This is Johnny Beam, used to be the state light-heavyweight boxing champion. Great athlete. And a good guy.”

“Ain’t he the one they brought in on that weapons sting back in January?”

“Yeah, that was him. He’d fallen on some hard times, made some bad decisions.”

“Well, it looks like he’s fallen on even harder times now,” Hayes said, the corners of his mouth rising into a smirk. “You might say he finally hit bottom.” He spit his gum on the pavement, hitched his shoulders and gave Adams a stare.

Adams returned the stare. “You really are an enlightened guy, Hayes. For a fucking cretin.”

A siren wailed in the distance as steam smelling of antifreeze, brake fluid and burnt motor oil drifted across the chunks of broken rock, shards of glass and colored plastic littering the pavement. Hayes kicked at a jagged hunk of metal and stared blankly at the wreck. “You sure pick some funny guys to defend, Adams,” he said. “Wasn’t this guy a bookie and a pimp and every other goddamn thing?”

“Fuck you, Hayes. I knew the guy, okay? It ain’t easy to see someone you know, dead.”

A few blocks to the east, an ambulance careened onto Superior Street and roared toward them with the siren screaming. Further back a tow truck and another squad car were also rolling toward the body of Johnny Beam.

“I got a question for you, Adams.” Hayes said, squinting at the approaching ambulance. “How do you think your friend went off that cliff? Think he was drunk—at six o’clock in the goddamn morning? Stinks like booze in there, but still—couldn’t the son of a bitch use the brakes?”

“That’s a good question, Dennis. A question I’m sure somebody is gonna want answered.”

“You never know, the brakes coulda failed,” Hayes said. “You know how them niggers are, never fixing anything.”

Adams swallowed hard. Was about to respond in kind when the ambulance came careening to a stop and the paramedics jumped out. Swirling red lights sliced through the steam and the fog and the grayness.

Like some kind of horror show, Adams thought. “We got a dead man in there, boys,” he said. “Go easy on him.”

The ambulance jockeys looked at the body with wide caffeinated eyes, searched for a pulse and grimly nodded to Adams.

Who’s gonna care about a dead nigger in this town? Patrolman Hayes thought. Sure, there’ll be a few like Adams who’ll moan about it long enough to make sure everyone knows they feel real bad. And then they’ll forget about it just like everyone else.

The tow truck rumbled up alongside Adams, who was scratching his head and trying to reign in his emotions. The gnarled-faced driver leaned out the window, cigarette smoke seeping from his nose and mouth. “You want us to drag that thing out of the way, officer?”

“You bet, Jack,” Hayes snapped, stepping between Adams and the tow truck. “We got traffic that’s got to get through here.”

Adams bristled. “We’re gonna have to leave it where it is until the chief and a medical examiner get a look at it. This could be a crime scene, Hayes. You go up to the top of the hill where he came through and look around.” He pointed at the arriving squad car. “Bring McNally and Ledyard with you. Put some tape around the area and make sure the tracks and everything are left intact. I’ll wait here for the brass.”

Hayes blinked and thought about saying something but instead launched a gob of spit on the damp pavement and strutted toward the patrol car. He leaned a hand on the driver’s door and filled in the inhabitants.

As the squad car pulled away, the chief of police and the chief of detectives arrived from the opposite direction in separate Ford Crown Victoria sedans, one blue and one brown.

Chief of Detectives Harvey Green was a friendly, heavyset man who was smarter than he looked and well liked by most. His personal motto was Do a good job but take care of you and yours first. He seldom thought or felt too deeply about anything and as long as the larder was full, life was good.

Police Chief Ira Bjorkman was old and tired and had been on the job for too long.  Everyone on the force knew it and so did he. A recent increase in local crime coupled with the intrusion of the national press covering the Norville murder trial into his previously serene existence had stoked his growing desire for retirement. There was just too much bullshit going on these days for someone who was raised on Live and let live.

Harvey Green let the chief walk slightly ahead of him as they approached the wreck.

Adams watched them come, waited for the slow-moving pair.

“What have we got here, officer?” Chief Bjorkman asked, bending over and peering in the car.

“What appears to be a dead man, sir, who I believe is Johnny Beam, the boxer. But I didn’t look for I.D. I haven’t touched anything.”

“Very good,” Bjorkman said. “Looks like we got another one for the coroner. That fat son of a bitch hasn’t worked this much in his whole goddamn career.” He turned around and looked east along Superior Street. “And the asshole better get here in a hurry.”

Chief of Detectives Harvey Green bent over and peered inside the Olds.

“Looks like this could be the end of the line on the ATF boys’ case, eh, Harvey?” Bjorkman said, pawing at the damp pavement with his worn wingtip.

“Maybe so, Ira, maybe so. You think someone got to Beam here? He’s pretty battered. Nobody ever hit him that much in the ring.”

“Driving off a cliff will do that to ya.”

Green pulled a clean white handkerchief from his trouser pocket, draped it over his left hand and reached inside the dead man’s coat. He came out with a long wallet that he placed on the roof of the car then leaned back in and sifted the outside coat pockets.

“Here’s a winner for you,” he said, holding up a set of keys. “Still got his keys in his pocket. Look at the little gold boxing gloves. Must be a spare set there in the ignition, just got a plain chain. That’s a little off, wouldn’t you say?”

“A man gets older, starts hitting the sauce, there are times he’ll forget just about anything. You telling me you never thought you lost your keys and then found them later.”

“No… but not like this. This is a heavy set of keys. Man’s gotta know it’s in his pocket.”

“Yes and no. If a man has been up all night hitting the sauce and the foo-foo dust, he might not know much at all. He may be stumbling out the door in a hurry and not know his ass from a tuna sandwich.”

“Yeah, s’pose that’s a possibility,” Green said.  “And it is March….”

“That it is, Harvey, that it is.”

Green straightened up and scratched his chin. Scowl lines formed deep furrows above his eyes. “I think we need to call in a professional accident guy on this one,” he said, turning to gaze at the frozen bay and the hazy outline of the grain terminals in the distance. “Someone whose expertise will override ours. The way the media is jacked up these days, with that goddamn Paul Richards sticking his beak in everything, I think we need someone out front on this.”

“You’re right. I agree,” Bjorkman said. “Your wisdom suits that of the next police chief. But Jesus, what the hell happened to this poor son of a bitch Beam? How did it ever come down to this? I remember when he was really something.”

“Me too, Ira. Me too.”

*  *  *  *

 

February 1960, National Guard Armory, Zenith, Minnesota

Smoke hung thick in the air, stagnant and stinking in the yellow glare of the ring lights. The buzzing of the crowd matched the buzzing between Johnny Beam’s ears as he sank down onto the wooden stool and struggled to clear his head. His opponent had given him all he could handle for seven long rounds but the son of a bitch had paid a price.

The corner man squeezed a sponge and Johnny basked in sweet relief as the cool liquid slid through the tight curls of his black hair and down his bruised, swollen face. All around him, the crowd rumbled. He straightened himself and leaned back against the turnbuckle, stretched his throbbing arms along the ropes and squinted across the blue haze at the cut man working furiously on Al Sparks’ right eye.

The bastard looks like he’s beaten, Johnny thought. Look at him over there, blood dripping down on the canvas. But then, Christ, look at me… the only black men in the goddamn building and we’re both bleeding from the head. But that’s what the paying public wants to see, and you gotta do what you gotta do….

His body was heavy; blood in his mouth made him sick. Legs felt like liquid lead, worse than back in high school football when the rain had turned the pads to concrete. He didn’t feel much like getting off the stool again to face the left-handed Canuck and his goddamn right-hand leads. But the road to the big time went through Sparks, and the big time was where Johnny Beam wanted to go.

He was the light-heavyweight champion of Minnesota—had been for two years. He was proud of it, but it really wasn’t much of a title, and he knew it. Only way to a shot at some real money was by beating better talent. At least better than the punching bags he’d faced so far in his career.

He drank from a glass bottle covered with tape and swished the water around, spit bloody goo into the tin bucket between his legs and ran his tongue over the sore spots in his mouth while old Ernie Callahan applied Vaseline to his eyebrows and dabbed more styptic on the ever widening cut above his left eye.

The ringside bell clanged sharp and shrill.

Trying to focus his thoughts, Johnny stretched his lips around the mouth guard and stood up to answer the call.

Flashbulbs popped. The crowd howled.

Their roar is my engine, Johnny thought; I’ll make sure there’s more of Sparks’ blood to see than mine. If you got two Negroes in the ring, one of them should hit the canvas. That’s just the way it is…

The two well-muscled fighters came together in the center of the ring. A drunk yelled, “Kill the goddamn Canucky, Johnny,” and a cheer went up.

Sparks was desperate and went on the attack. He fakes a right-hand jab and then launched a southpaw haymaker. Beam anticipated well, ducked under the punch, slid to his right, drove upward with his legs and unleashed a vicious right cross to Sparks’ cheekbone, eliciting an audible smack–leather against flesh.

The crowd exploded. Sparks stumbled, crashed into the ropes and grasped clumsily, gloved paws flailing for balance.

The cheers filled Johnny with energy. Just like the old days after busting off a long run or making a crunching tackle across the middle. He moved in for the kill, saw the blood and the look in Sparks’ eyes: dazed, struggling, fearful.

Beam’s jabs shot through and found their mark. Sparks retreated into the corner, struggling for breath and covering up, the cut spreading dark fluid down the side of his angular jaw.

His eyes are pleading with me, Johnny thought. Please don’t take me out. Not in front of all these goodamn white boys… let me stay on my feet like a man.

Johnny hesitated for a second then snapped off another jab, followed by a short, hard right to the mouth that rocked Sparks’ head and sent blood bursting into the smoky air, mixing with sweat in an artful pink mist that put a fever in the fans.

Beam stepped back and searched the Canadian’s eyes. Sparks’ right hand snapped out of its defensive position like a striking cobra, thumping Beam’s cheekbone. Seemingly revived, Sparks came on with purpose in his step and an all-or-nothing look on his bloody, battered face. He jabbed with the right hand, stinging Beam’s widening cut.

Johnny held his ground and they stood toe to toe. An explosion of punches fueled by desperation and anger juiced the screaming throng. Combination for combination, headshot for headshot and body blow for body blow. The crowd rose from the seats, howled for a knockout. The huge armory echoed as the referee stood with his hands on his hips, staring at Sparks.

Beam was tiring but his opponent was further gone.

Like he was lifting a boat anchor out of the mud, Sparks prepped for one more looping left hand, desperately hoping for the knockout punch. Johnny saw it coming and knifed inside. The roundhouse left bounced harmlessly off the back of his head. He came out of the crouch and snapped his own left into Sparks’ chin. Sparks staggered against the ropes and Beam swept in, launching a flurry of punches that were brought to a premature end by the dull sound of the bell.

End of round eight.

The fighters wearily took to their respective corners.

Johnny couldn’t avoid the pang of frustration lingering in his gut, nagging him. This guy just wouldn’t go down like the others. Even in the two fights he’d lost, he’d put the bums on the canvas at least once. Only reason he lost at all was inexperience. But this bastard was tough. Left-handed shit was a pisser.

Johnny drank heavily from the water bottle, trying to douse the fire in his head. The lights seemed to dim as Ernie squeezed the sponge and mopped his brow and chest. His manager, Harry Sloan, was squatting in front of him, a graying, balding head hovering in the fighter’s face.

Ernie worked on Beam’s eye while Sloan wagged his thick index finger and snapped off instructions: “You got him Johnny, stay on him and the fight is yours. Keep on him, keep on him.  Don’t let the bastard take a breath without hittin’ him. Go after the bastard, I tell ya. Keep him on his heels. Win one more round and you got the fight. You gotta want this thing, Johnny. You gotta want it.”

Beam nodded his head but the frustration just wouldn’t go away. Yeah, he wanted to put the guy down and walk out of there a winner—of course he did. But maybe he didn’t want it as bad as he thought he should.  Maybe it didn’t seem worth it quite as much anymore, at the age of thirty. Just look at that goddamn Sparks over there, he’s not right in the head.  Something about the way his eyes float loose in the sockets, and how his jaw takes that funny, crooked angle….

Round nine started slowly. Sparks clinched and held and used the ropes. Johnny lacked the energy to put him away. Both fighters were cautious and seemed reluctant to throw punches.

Deep into the lackluster round, Beam reopened the cut above Sparks’ eye with a solid jab. In return, the Canadian exploded with a jab of his own followed by vicious upper-cut to Beam’s chin that sent the Minnesota Champion staggering backwards toward his corner, only to be saved from any further embarrassment by the dinging of the bell.

Johnny collapsed into the stool, fatigue and frustration sapping his will. Ernie chewed Dentine and stoically worked the Vaseline and the styptic. Sloan shouted sharply, cigar-breath in Johnny’s face: “You let up!  You let up! You let up, goddammit, man! You had him Johnny, but you let up.  Where’s the old killer instinct, man? You gotta show me…You gotta show the crowd… Listen to those fans out there…. They’re your fans, Johnny. They came to see you knock this Canuck bastard into downtown Chicago. It’s time you gave them what they want. It’s time you showed them who the big dog is.”

Johnny’s eye was swollen half shut. He had a fire in his chest, weakness in his knees and a twisted gut. This prizefighting shit wasn’t fun anymore. Not like football used to be. And fighting those hambones—back in the beginning—that had been fun. People had started paying attention to him again. Like the days he was setting the state record in the 100-yard dash in the spring and scoring touchdowns in the fall.

He’d been a two-sport star who the local newspaper had once called “the classy Negro dash man.” Sports, and most importantly, victory, had opened many doors for him in this northern town where you could count the number of blacks on the fingers of your hands and have a few left over—fingers, that is.

But this fight was bullshit. It was taking everything he had inside to summon enough desire to get off the stool and go hard for one more round.

Just three lousy minutes, he told himself as he crouched forward and touched the gloves to his forehead. Just whip this guy for three minutes and be in the locker room smiling, ready to celebrate.

The bell rang. The crowd chanted. “Kill’em Johnny, kill’em. KO, KO, KO. Beam, Beam, Beam.”

Sloan had one leg through the ropes as he brayed his final words: “This is it, Johnny.  Show him who the man is here.  Send him home sorry and sore.  This is your town, big fellah.”

The bruised combatants moved slowly towards the center of the ring where the squatty, balding referee with his prim white shirt and black bow tie waited tensely.

Beam’s nose was swollen; it was getting hard to breathe. He was wishing he’d done that extra roadwork over the Christmas holidays instead of eating cookies and drinking beer.

Sparks’ eye was nearly shut and his cuts were ready to flow red at the slightest contact. He looked beaten but still dangerous, like a cornered dog.

The fighters touched their gloves together.

Johnny glowered and Sparks stared grimly, facial muscles twisted.

The ref gave the signal and the fighters shuffled their weary feet, bobbing and weaving stiffly.

Beam jabbed and circled and waited for his chance. The circling continued while the crowd grew restless.

One minute in, Sparks’ hands dropped slightly and Beam threw a right-hand lead to the forehead, giving the lefty a taste of his own medicine. With surprising speed, Sparks bulled in, grabbed Johnny’s arms and clinched.

“Let him go, let him go,” the referee snapped in a thin sharp voice, reaching between the fighters. “Break it up, come on now, men. Break it up.”

Sparks let up on his grip and Johnny shoved him away.

The ref warned the Canadian.

Johnny moved forward.

Sparks circled.

Johnny threw an overhand right.

Sparks jerked back a half-second too slow and caught the blow on the tip of his chin. His head snapped back and the crowd let out a vicious roar.

Stumbling back into the corner, the southpaw struggled to lift his hands.

Johnny moved in carefully. He could see every past loss in Sparks’ eyes and sense the lingering scars from too many lonely nights on the road.

Beam threw a right hook that Sparks managed to block.

Fading fast, Sparks grabbed on, clinging to Beam’s sweat-drenched torso with all the strength he could summon.

The boxers wrestled. The referee shouted. The fans whistled and catcalled.

The men in Sparks’ corner looked damaged.

Beam’s corner men pounded on the canvas, yelling, “Take him out, take him out!”

The referee moved in to peel apart the writhing octopus.

“Break, damn it, break,” he snarled.

Ignoring the command, Sparks bulled Johnny around until the diminutive referee’s vision was shielded by Beam’s broad back, then, like a ram on the rut, he butted Beam’s damaged eye with his rock-hard forehead.

Gasps and boos filled the air as Johnny reeled backwards on his heels, dark blood spilling down across his cheek and into his mouth. The ref’s face turned crimson. He stared into Spark’s swollen eyes accusingly.

The fighter stood defiantly, like a rat in the corner of a basement.

The ref sent Beam into a neutral corner and issued a warning to Sparks. Then he signaled the fighters to the center of the ring and made them touch gloves before resuming the battle.

Dangerously angry, fists pumping and head jerking like he was swatting flies with his eyebrows; Beam attacked, driving his opponent into the corner with a barrage of thunderous body blows.

Cheers and shouts and calls of derision bounced across the brick walls of the cavernous armory.

Then a funny thing happened. Johnny smelled popcorn. And beer.

Strange, he thought, a transient jolt of mirth passing through him as he pummeled away at Sparks’ midsection, his arms like the limbs of a great tree, heavy and wooden.

Sparks was still on his feet, ducking and covering and absorbing blow after blow, bloodied but not going down. Johnny threw an uppercut that caught mostly glove and was relieved when Sparks snagged his arms and held on.

The ref separated the tie-up but the final bell rang before another punch was thrown.

Both fighters sagged at the shoulders with relief.

Johnny went to his corner reasonably confident he’d won the fight, but not feeling so good about it. It was a different game now.

Prizefighting. Only what exactly was the prize? The money wasn’t shit. Just enough to impress a few women for a couple of nights. And when it came down to guys like Sparks… that kind of fighter, this kind of fight… it was a different world. One that Johnny Beam wasn’t very fond of.

And a distant voice in his head was shouting that he was too old to change.

Truth was, he’d been adjusting to one thing or another all his goddamn life. Whether it was school or the army or white society in general, it didn’t matter. Black man in a white world had to bend or go down for the ten-count. It seemed about time that Johnny Beam—light heavyweight champion of Minnesota—started calling his own shots. Let the world adjust to him for a while, he’d been ducking and dodging long enough.

The fighters got watered down and toweled off and their cuts were treated. Sparks was going to need quite a few stitches and there was a murmur that maybe the fight should have been stopped. “Never seen so much blood,” said some.

Ernie was putting a bandage on the damaged eyebrow. All Johnny could think about besides the throbbing in his face was how badly he wanted to get out of this lousy shit hole of an armory. Hard to believe this was the place where Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson, known as the Big Bopper, had performed just a week before their fatal plane crash. Christ, they had Jeeps in here just like the ones in Korea. Goddamn military trucks, too. And all the assholes out there in the seats—shit—it was way too much like the army.

Sitting there feeling the pain in his hands and head, he recalled the months of training in cold, empty gyms. And all that running outside in the snow and ice so they could put up a ring in a goddamn military garage and come out on a frozen night to see two niggers beat the shit out of each other. But hell, he’d won. He’d beaten the guy; he could feel it. They weren’t gonna come up with some bum decision in this town. He was a hero here, Negro or not. They loved him. He’d won, goddamn it.

The judges didn’t take long to reach a unanimous decision in favor of Minnesota Champion Johnny Beam. But the key word here was decision. Johnny swore he heard a tone of disrespect when the ring announcer said the word.  But then some of the crowd started chanting, “John-ny, John-ny, John-ny,” and he felt better. He held up his tired arms in victory and smiled that famous smile that had won over so many.

As he made his way out of the ring and slowly across the concrete floor toward the dingy lockers in the basement, the crowd was friendly and encouraging, yelling “Way to go Johnny” and “Bring on Archie,” meaning Archie Moore, the current world light heavyweight champion. But the scene just made the knot in Beam’s gut get tighter and fueled his growing desire to escape.

After the tape was cut off his hands, he sat on the bench in the locker room staring at the dark green floor, wiping sweat from his chest with a worn towel and pulling on a bottle of beer from the case of Royal 58 a local distributor always sent over on fight nights. As he sat there letting his muscles relax, smelling the liniment and touching his fingers gingerly to the bump on his face, Johnny started to feel a little more comfortable about his future.

Removed from the ring and Al Sparks’ stinging blows, his victory seemed a little easier than it actually had been. Now it was possible to believe he could do it again. Maybe get a shot at the title. Wasn’t that what they were saying out there?

Ernie Callahan hovered around, squinting at the swelling above his fighter’s eye. Sloan was there, too, a cigar between his lips and a beer in his hand, his free hand slicing through the dank air as he paced around, talking excitedly.

“I think we can get you a shot with Kid Chocolate, Johnny. He’s been ranked as high as number five. We can get a big venue, maybe Chicago… at least the Twin Cites….  I know you want to move up. And y’know, it’d ah, it’d ah… it would’ve been be a sure thing, you know, if you had KO’d the Canadian.  But you know… anyway…  Sparks is well respected in the game. He once took Ezzard Charles the distance, y’know. So beating him in any fashion is good.”

“Wasn’t Charles a heavyweight?” Johnny asked peering up, his eyes showing skepticism as he swiped the towel across his forehead.

“Well yeah, when he was champion, he was. And that should be motivation for you. Charles started out light heavy, I think….  He, ah, put on weight—and then he moved up toward the end of his career.  First light heavy, than heavy. Didn’t reach his prime until his body was mature. Only weighed two hundred when he was champ. Our Mr. Sparks also put on some weight as he matured, you can bet on that. He was packing at least one-eighty-five out there tonight.”

“I sure must be maturing, too, Harry,” Johnny said, chuckling softly and pulling at the growing roll around his middle. “And it’s getting harder to take off, the more mature I get.”

“I told you, you should’ve started training sooner,” Sloan said through a blue cloud of cigar smoke as he returned the empty bottle to the cardboard case on the green bench. Then his head jerked toward the hallway, honed in on someone in the small crowd mingling outside the locker room. He leaned over and grabbed another bottle of beer, waggled his paunchy, late-forties body and said, “There’s some people I gotta see out here, Johnny boy. You hold tight a second.”

“Sure, Harry,” Beam said, turning to Callahan. “You can go home now, Ernie,” he said softly. “I’m going to be fine. You know I heal up real quick. I tell you what, my friend, why don’t you stick a few of those beers in your coat and take them home to the wife. I know she likes beer. Tell her that Johnny Beam wanted her to have a good time tonight.”

Ernie stuffed six bottles in the pockets of his gray wool overcoat, thanked Johnny and left. Beam felt that familiar lonely-in-a-crowd feeling coming back again so he hit the showers. The hot water and steam took away some of the pain. He dressed in his favorite black suit and a white shirt that he’d purchased just last week at Allenfall’s. The suit was from Chicago, acquired when he’d lived there after returning from the Korean War. That suit was the only thing he’d brought here from the big city besides his wife Ruby.

Suit was the only thing still with him.

Those were the days, Johnny thought. Chicago. That had been the way to live. Only it was way too big down there. He really liked it up north here in Zenith. This town had always been good to him. At least when you compared it to what else was out there. At least the places that he’d seen.

He’d thought about Florida after the war but it was too damn hot down there. He’d grown up in northern Minnesota and his blood was like a Finlander’s. Yep, you put Zenith together with Bay City, his place of birth across the bay in Wisconsin, and the place was just big enough. Big enough to contain all kinds of trouble and small enough that the trouble was easy to find. You had everything you needed in the Twin Ports. Yes sir, there were some strong positives to life up here, predominantly white citizenry or not.

The question now forming in the back of his aching head was how to bring a little of Chicago’s high living here to Zenith and cash in on his fleeting fling with fame. One way or another, this boxing gig was going to end someday. More likely sooner than later. There just had to be some elements of the Chicago life that he could incorporate into this locale. Some source of income other than getting the shit pounded out of you for chump change. No way he was going back to being the neighborhood nigger.

He was reaching for his coat when Harry Sloan came bursting back into the room, red-faced and ebullient, a large unlit cigar in his hand and a fresh one burning in his mouth. “Here you go, Johnny, victory cigar from Havana. World’s finest, compliments of Bob Nash.”

“Slow down, Harry, you’re like a whirling dervish. What’s that you’ve got there, a carrot from Bob Nash for one of the horses in his stable?”

Nash was the fight promoter and Johnny had always believed he was screwing the fighters one way or another, undercounting the gate or padding expenses or what have you. He wasn’t driving a Cadillac for nothing. But, giving credit where credit was due, Nash had always treated Johnny right. At least right enough to stay on his good side. And Nash had influence in this town. Had the keys to some of the doors that Johnny wanted to walk through. Nash knew the folks with money and the folks who liked to play—the gamblers and the ladies’ men and the lonely squares that needed someplace to belong.

So Johnny always smiled real nice and made with the jokes around Bob Nash. And hell, Nash wasn’t really that bad once you got used to him. He knew plenty of women who liked to party, and that was a redeeming factor in itself.

“Thanks, Harry,” Johnny said, taking the cigar and flashing his perfect set of pearly whites. “Grab me another beer, will you please? Where is Bob, anyway? He stuck his head in here for a few seconds, and then left. Didn’t seem that thrilled about the fight, if you ask me.”

“Whattaya mean, Johnny?” Harry said, handing over a brown bottle of beer. “Come on. He’s fine. Come on—Jesus man. Good crowd wasn’t there?  You’re always good here; you know that. Bob’s good, too, you know. He wants to meet us at the Flame later. Says he’s got some babes on the line—you know Bob. He wants to talk a little business too, he says. I’m positive he’s got some plans for you.” He paused and stared out into the hall. “You mean he didn’t say anything at all when he popped in?”

“Yeah, he said ‘good fight’ and all that shit.  But he just said it and left. I was getting the tape cut and his head jerked right in and out of here like he had a nervous twitch.”

“He must be preoccupied, thinking about your future.”

“That must be it. Yassuh, bozz, yassuh.”

“Oh, come on, Johnny, ease off,” Harry said, wrinkling his eyebrows. “We’ll go to the Flame. I’ll buy you a steak.  A couple of drinks and you’ll be good as new.”

“Since when do you buy me a steak, Harry?”

“Since tonight. My vote of confidence for our future together.”

“You’re a real prince. What’d you do, sell a car today?”

“Two to be exact. You know I couldn’t afford steaks on the money you pay me. Maybe tube steaks.”

Johnny laughed; his eyes twinkled. “You always said you were doing this for the love of boxing, Harry—the ‘sweet science,’ right? And of course you saw great talent and potential in me.”

“And that is still correct, Mr. Beam. And if you’ll down that beer and grab your coat we can get to someplace where it doesn’t smell like jockstraps and assholes floating in liniment, and they serve real drinks and thick, juicy steaks.”

“I’m ready for that,” Johnny said, as he thought more about his plans.

Yes sir, it sure did pay to be nice to some people. That’s what he liked about living in Minnesota; there were always a lot of nice people out there ready to help you out with things.

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

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CHAPTER 4, Excerpt 12

Just north of Corpus Cyn pulled to the shoulder to make a call, believing it was unsafe to talk and drive at the same time. Should she call Jean and seek sanctuary? Better than Daddy, but it was always the same at Jeannie’s house: First came the wine or beer, followed by smiling sympathy and understanding, and then eventually the unasked for advice and the cracks about naivety and being a pushover. So damn it; that was no good, either.

Cyn put the phone down on the seat and chewed at her lower lip. She was feeling a curious mix of apprehension and exhilaration. Wasn’t the Fourth of July yet, just early April, but today was definitely Independence Day. Taking a deep breath and letting her senses take over, something she’d learned in yoga class, Cyn felt the rush of traffic going by and the heat coming through the windows of the Toyota. Gazing out the windshield, she saw the big Northgate Mall sign up ahead towering above everything else.

Maybe something is guiding me, she thought. But there was still an empty space where her plans should be. She’d just have to keep the faith and take advice from that Kacey Musgraves’ song, the nice Texas girl singing about following her arrow wherever it points. But to follow arrows you need a little cash and Cyn only had fifty dollars in her purse—two twenties and two fives—and three credit cards she didn’t want to use because she knew from the crime shows that law enforcement could trace the receipts and see where you’ve been. The joint checking account still had the household money in it but she was hesitant to use that for the same reason—Trooper Dan might come looking.

Ten minutes later Cyn was drifting through the air-conditioned comfort thinking everyone in the mall looked strange today. She found an ATM and slid her card in the slot. A cash advance would keep her free from them all, Dan and Jean and Dad and Mom. And for now that’s what she wanted.

Needed.

Watching those crime shows with Dan, sometimes Cyn would imagine herself a character in the drama. What would she do; how would she feel? And now here she was, back in the car, cash advance safely tucked away in her purse and feeling strung out. Not exactly sure what strung out meant, thought it had something to do with drug addiction, and that certainly wasn’t the case with her, but still she felt stretched out and worn thin and on edge and directionless. “Strung out” seemed to capture the essence of her being at the moment.

Cruising aimlessly now, she was fighting off a little envy. Hard not to envy the people living in these beautiful homes surrounded by lush foliage. They had beach and water access, luxury cars in the driveway—what’s not to like?

Cyn didn’t like feeling envy, one of the seven deadly sins, and told herself it was only the surface of things she was seeing. One shouldn’t be fooled by superficial illusions because what went on behind closed doors could paint a totally different picture. And, in Cyn’s experience, often did.

She smiled recalling her first ride through Corpus Christi, nearly twenty years ago, the family relocating from Minneapolis for her father’s new job with the tire company. How the feelings of awe and envy started for her then, sun, water, sand and palm trees offering up a rich and colorful contrast to the bleak snow-covered plains of her former home in Minnesota. And no, Cyn hadn’t made it to her own dream house yet, but that kind of thing mattered very little to her. Six years ago, being Dan Henning’s wife and the mother of his child was all she wanted, having chosen Dan over her other suitor at the time, Roy Owen. Bunky, they called him. Biggest car dealer in Corpus now (Owen Toyota, Bunky’s BMW, Roy’s Royal Rides), and he owned one of the biggest, gaudiest homes in town.

Well, Cynthia had made her choice and vowed to make it work and tried her darndest for six years and now where was she? She would gladly do without the waterfront mansion if Dan still possessed what he had back then, although, to tell the truth, she could no longer identify exactly what that was. Maybe it was a lack of something? Seemed like Dan was carrying extra baggage lately. Yes, that could be it.

Possibly things had started eroding after Danny was born. And yes, Cyn had read the magazine articles about first-time mothers losing their sexual desire, young women refocusing their lives around their child at the expense of matrimonial intimacy, but she didn’t think that was her situation. What it was, Dan started coming home with the scent of other women on him. Sometimes faint, sometimes stronger. And then the stuff really hit the fan with the incident with the prostitute, the cell phone picture and Dan’s suspension, the incident putting a spotlight on the problem and making it hard to deny—although Cyn had tried really hard.

God.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 4, Excerpt 11

On her way to Corpus, traveling along I-37 in her ’96 Toyota Camry—same model that made the headlines about accelerators sticking a few years ago but she never had any problems with it—Cynthia was picturing her parents in their elegant home. Daddy moving with his stiff-backed posture and mother trailing behind him like a zombie, the poor woman seemingly reduced to only neediness now, independent thought having left her some time ago.

The image wasn’t very appealing.

No, she wouldn’t go to her parent’s house; she was thirty years old for God sakes. She needed to find someplace Dan wouldn’t think of right away. But it was kind of weird, because as much as she wanted to feel angry, Cyn couldn’t help but remember better times, seeing her and Dan together on the couch watching television cop shows like Justified and Graceland, Dan frequently hooting he’d like the freedom to shoot miscreants like that Raylan Givens on Justified. And Cyn saying Timothy Olyphant who played Raylan was sure a cutie, maybe a hottie, jerking Dan’s chain a little.

But those kinds of moments didn’t come around much anymore and you had to make the best of things. And sometimes wisdom comes from unexpected places. It was because of those cop shows that Cyn got the idea to purchase a prepaid cell phone at Walmart, (what they called a “burner” on TV). Now with the burner she could call people without fear of Dan getting to the phone company records. You had a possessive cop for a husband; you had to take steps. She’d gone into the Walmart with the idea of using an alias for the purchase—April Flowers—and was a little disappointed when the pimple-faced kid at the counter didn’t even ask for a name, taking her money and ringing it up without so much as a second look.

So, with her new phone, she could avoid being traced. But now the question was what untraceable act, exactly, should she commit, since she had the opportunity? Her sister kept insisting she get down to Padre Island and hit the beaches, Jeannie telling her, Pick up a bikini and a thermos of mai tais and see what comes along, implying, it seemed, strange men. But Cyn suspected Jean’s advice was the booze talking, her older sister possibly an alcoholic—a functioning one, yes—but frequently displaying some of the signs discussed at Al Anon meetings, Cyn having attended a few last year in an unsuccessful attempt at understanding her husband’s daily boozing.

They told you at Al Anon—kind of a class in Alcoholism 101—that boozers often tried to control those around them with shame and guilt and subtle attacks on self-esteem. Recalling past encounters, Cyn thought it sort of sounded like Jeannie. Like the time Jean called her Cynthia Moonbeam because she’d taken a Transcendental Meditation class, although she quit after only three sessions because Dan said they couldn’t afford it. Or that time Jean criticized her for not having a full-time job like “normal women.” And she’d sure never forget the time she saw a photo of Jennifer Aniston in a magazine and made the mistake of saying she thought Jennifer’s hair and hers looked alike, Jean then telling anyone who would listen that Cyn believed she was just like Jennifer Aniston. God, the way Jean could twist things. And the way everyone in the family seemed to accept what she said as gospel—it was enough to make you want to scream. Dan could play the same game, proving it by claiming he needed booze for job stress and telling Cyn, “Men are under real stress; not the neurotic crap housewives have in their heads.”

But, well, aren’t all men controlling like that? Make a case for her father too, truth be told, and he hadn’t had a drink in years. Still dishing out the barbs though. Al Anon also had a name for that: a dry drunk. Strange concept but it made some sense when you thought about it.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 3, Excerpt 10

Sam pushed redial and got a busy signal, his gut churning like a washing machine on spin cycle. He had no time to waste tracking down the pill bitch so he went in the bathroom and checked his supply, found five of the pills left. Definitely not enough to get through the entire ordeal. He dry swallowed one to push back the fear of running out and went to his computer, booted up and clicked onto Southwest Airlines.

Ah, Southwest, the Greyhound Bus of the airways, one more indignity to suffer through. Fucking Jimmy—why had he trusted the kid? But Jimmy had been straight with him in the past, part of Jimmy’s nature it seemed, and if what he’d said about the license plates was indeed true, then it really wasn’t Jimmy’s fault. Not Sam’s fault, either. And hard to believe that Bob Ryan messed it up, but what else was there? So it was a good thing that Jimmy escaped. Who knows what secrets he might’ve revealed if the jackbooted Texas fascists had got hold of him, hooking electric cables to his testicles and such.

Sam clicked through, found a seat available on a flight to San Antonio with connections to Corpus Christi, and, although he hated to use a credit card online, finalized the transaction with his Visa card.

Sam shut down the computer, went to his bedroom and started filling a bag, stuffing in clothes without much thought because his thoughts were like young flies scattering—hard to hang on to. Soon the pill would take over and everything would slow down and the thoughts would be lying there stuck in the mud and he could pluck them out at his leisure, leisure being perhaps the wrong word. If he hurried, he could still get a cab and make it to the airport in time for boarding. He glanced at the Browning 9mm in his sock drawer, wishing he could bring it along. But those days were long gone. In today’s world a toothbrush was considered a dangerous weapon for someone of Middle Eastern descent.

As he was zipping up his bag, the landline in the living room chirped. Wanting to get out of here fast, Sam let it go to the answering service. But then, before he knew it, his cell phone was dinging from the top of the dresser, screen showing R. Ryan. Sam picked up the cell, his hands trembling. He thought he felt the beginnings of the languid chemical onslaught coming through his veins. He put the phone to his ear and heard his name being snapped off like a hammer hitting metal: “Sam. Sam. Sam.”

Sam said to the hammer: “Bob, how are you this morning?”

“Aggravated, Sam. My man in sagebrush country just called to tell me the van hasn’t checked in yet. You were supposed to be making my delivery today. Fuck is going on here?”

“I was just going to call you, Bob. There’s been a little problem with the van. Nothing I can’t handle, you understand.”

“You were supposed to be down there with it, Sam. This is very disturbing news, not the kind of thing I expect from you.”

“What makes you think I’m not in Texas, Bob?”

“Because I’m standing outside your goddamn door, asshole. I hear you in there, goddamnit.”

“Oh.” Sam felt his throat constrict and his sphincter lock up. And on weakened knees he shuffled to the door and let Bob Ryan in. Ryan was big, six-two, wiry and wide shouldered, wearing loose fitting jeans below a brown suede jacket and white shirt, the man’s sharp-featured face gray and rough and scowling down at Sam, Ryan showing his particular fake-smile that resembled a dog baring its teeth. “Sam,” Ryan said, nodding.

Sam said, “I’m on my way to the airport right now, Bob. I know I told you I was driving the van down myself, but several emergencies came up and I was forced to delegate responsibility to my extremely trustworthy right-hand man. In fact I—”

“Not that degenerate wop Ireno, I hope.”

Ryan seemed to grow larger in Sam’s eyes. “As a matter of fact, it is Jimmy.” Sam getting short of breath. “But I swear he’s changed his ways. Jimmy’s actually quite responsible now. In fact he called me this morning, said the van had broken down and the repair shop wouldn’t accept his credit cards—some kind of mix-up concerning expiration dates, I gather. I’ve scheduled a flight down there to straighten things out. Other than that, everything is fine.”

“I appreciate you finally doing what you were supposed to do in the first goddamn place, Sam. But why don’t you just wire him the money or use one of your own cards over the phone?”

“Well, he’s stuck at some backward dust hole outside Corpus Christi, Texas, and they won’t do that. You know how things are these days. And since I’ve cleared up my local emergencies, I thought it only right I fly down and take charge.”

Ryan squinted at him, scowled some more and shook his head. “And I know doing the right thing is important to you, Sam,” Ryan laying on the sarcasm. “But don’t you think it might be wise to have somebody with their shit together as your right-hand? Too much incompetence makes a man unhealthy, unwealthy and dead, Sam.”

Sam wanted to mention the license plates, but didn’t, fearing Ryan’s legendary capacity for rage. Instead: “I’m sorry, Bob, I truly am. I’ll be straightening everything out quite soon. Just hold your faith a little bit longer and I guarantee everything will be fine.”

“Better be, Sam. Hate to attend your funeral. And just to be on the safe side, y’know, I’m sending my assistant Frankie Neelan along with you.”

This was not what Sam wanted to hear. “But my flight leaves in two hours, Bob. I don’t know if we have time. I—”

“He’s waiting in the car outside, Sam. I’ll run you two out to the airport.”

“You sure your man can get a ticket?”

“He can do it on the drive to the airport. These kids today can do anything with their goddamn phones. Maybe Frankie can teach you a few things.”

Sam hated the idea.

“I’m looking forward to the opportunity, Bob,” Sam said, pulling at the loose flesh around his Adam’s apple.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 3, Excerpt 9

Sam had the pill trollop on the line when the call-waiting click hit his ear. Times like this, he wondered why he’d ordered the damn service. Leave this one waiting, you might lose her for days, twat sliding off to Sopor Land. Girl had all the new drugs the kids were getting hooked on these days: Oxies, Vics, Special K—that stuff—a new one coming along all the time it seemed.

Reluctantly switching over to the incoming call, Sam heard Jimmy Ireno’s nasal whine on the other end. Sam’s spirit lifted. Ah, sweet Jimmy, always giving you pause but then coming through in the end. The boy still like he was on the basketball court: making mistakes, being reckless, but coming through at the buzzer. “Eye” Ireno’s fourth quarter heroics had rescued Sam from financial disaster more than once, back in the day.

“Jimmy, my friend, good to hear your voice. I confess I was a little worried, but I should know better, shouldn’t I? Trickster that you are, always taking old Sammy to the brink. But everything is forgiven now that the vehicle has been delivered and you are all right.”

“You sitting down, Sam?” Jimmy said. “You better sit down and listen.”

“What is this Jimmy, more of your tricks? You haven’t given your old friend enough heartache already?”

“I’m afraid this is harsh reality, Sam. The van is now in the possession of the State of Texas. Fuckin’ license plates fell off somewhere along the line and the patrol pulled me over. I just barely escaped myself, had to run through the sagebrush for hours to get away.”

“Stop with the bad jokes, Jimmy, my blood pressure, you know.”

“No joke, Sam. Everything’s gone. But it’s not my fault. Whoever you had mount the license plates on the van, did one piss poor job, man. Must’ve been some real sharp guys. I know you’re a generous fellow, Sam, but did you have to hire the handicapped for this gig?”

Sam felt the heat rising to his face and his stomach acid jets blowing out volume. For a moment he feared passing out. Rubbing his forehead, he stared at the floor. This had to be a joke, yes, one of Jimmy’s pranks, the wop asshole just rolling him on the coals, seeing how much old Sam could take. But goddamnit, if what Jimmy was saying was actually true; they were both as good as dead.

Staring at the phone in his hand, Sam struggled to pull himself up from the nightmare. He tried to think but the thoughts just kept jumping around in his head like popping corn.

“Jimmy, you still there? Are these things you say really true? Maybe you’re trying to cut yourself in for the big payday? How can I tell, this far away from you? That vehicle was delivered to me by my client’s people. These are top-shelf people and not given to egregious errors such as you describe.”

“Doesn’t change the facts, Sam. I never would’ve been stopped if it weren’t for the missing plates. Never went over the limit the whole way. Your client must’ve hired temps that day.”

“You seem to be taking this lightly for a dead man, Ireno. You know I was responsible for that delivery. I told the man I’d be driving it down there myself. The only reason I didn’t was out of kindness to you, Jimmy. To let you make good on your markers.”

“And your charitable ways are known far and near, Sam. You think I’m taking this lightly? I’m stuck down here with no money, no clothes but what I got on my back, and more than likely a BOLO on me ringing across the police band as we speak. Consider yourself lucky that you weren’t driving. Really couldn’t see you racing through the briars and the brambles like I did.”

“If I was driving, maybe I would see the plates were loose. Were you high, Jimmy?”

“Fuck you, Sam. And no, I wasn’t high. Just a little speed for the driving. Toed the line the whole goddamn way.”

Sam was out of ideas. What the hell could he do, put in a claim with the Texas State Troopers? Call Bob Ryan and beg for mercy? Guys tried that became catfish food in the Mississippi. “Goddamn you, Jimmy, you have any idea who we’re dealing with? If Bob Ryan doesn’t hear from me or his man down there today, I’ll be the confetti in next year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. Drunken micks will be eating corned beef and Sammy.”

“I sympathize, Sam, but what the hell you want me to do? Seems to me the only play you got is claiming the van.”

“Claiming the van? You are high, Jimmy. Or are you telling me the highway patrol might not have found the money?”

Jimmy had an answer ready, his mind coming back to normal: “No way they didn’t find the money. A blind man coulda spotted the gap between the panels all the way from Mexico for fuck sake. Another amateur job done by your so-called top-shelf people. Way too much gap between the panels, dude. But think about this, as long as there was no dope in the van, why not cop to unlawful transfer of legal tender or whatever they call it and see what your legal sharpies can pull off. Might get something back that way. Shit, I don’t know. Only thing I know for sure is that I forgot my tennis whites and I’m beginning to stand out around here like the accidental tourist. I need to find a place away from prying eyes.”

“Don’t hang up, Jimmy,” Sam yelled into the phone. “I’m coming down there and you better answer your phone.” All Sam heard was a click and a buzz and emptiness ringing in his ears. He’d wanted to say to Jimmy that perhaps if he hadn’t run away the highway patrolman wouldn’t have looked in the van, but now the goddamn little dago rodent was gone. Made Sam momentarily forget the pill-pushing wench on the other line. Remembering, he clicked back, thinking he’d need a real good load if he had to fly down to the Lone Star State. But coming back, the line was dead; bitch was gone, Sam thinking she was off filling an anal syringe with Oxycodone… pill trollop floating away on a fantasy bubble.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 3, Excerpt 8

Jimmy was still in Tequila World. At least the parts of him that ached, throbbed or made him want to puke. His head was hazy but shit was coming back to him:

So he was sitting on that barstool last night rolling the ice cubes in his empty glass, waiting for another tequila sunrise from the bartender and wondering where he was going to sleep. Then the drink came and pretty soon he didn’t give a shit. Funny how the cactus juice makes your thinking change and it seems so natural, so right, at the time.

In the next scene he’s still at the bar, arguing with himself and looking at the remains of his money, a pathetic little pile in his hand. He’s wondering if he should get another drink or tip the bartender and crawl off somewhere to pass out. But before he can decide, Tequila World cues up a thrill ride in the form of a slightly drunk woman somewhere between thirty and forty Jimmy had an idea was a secretary from the Midwest, real estate or insurance. Soon she was on the barstool next to his, smiling at him and saying, “Can I buy you a drink?”

Well, Jimmy never had a problem with assertive women—even aggressive was all right if they were hot—and this one wasn’t half bad. And he did need a place to spend the night. So, as someone famous once said, exactly who, Jimmy couldn’t recall at the moment: “Buy your ticket, take the ride.”

Repeating that in his head he turned toward the lady and smiled as best he could, his face feeling rubbery. “You certainly may,” he said, looking in her eyes. Chick’s eyes were pale blue and glazed over, woman behind a wall of alcohol herself.

“You from Mexico, mister? I always wanted to meet a real Mexican.”

“I’m from anywhere you want me to be, darlin’. You can call me Julio.”

Then two more sunrises were sweating in front of him and she was smiling at him and everything was getting kind of warm and fuzzy. And maybe later there was a group sing-a-long with Jimmy leading the bar crowd through rousing renditions of Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise”. And that’s pretty much all he could remember before waking up hung over in a hotel bed—six a.m. on the bedside clock—what’s-her-name (Linda?) passed out next to him, makeup smeared, matted hair sticking to the drool on the side of her mouth.

Horror show, dude.

Jimmy snuck out of the room without waking her and now was on the sidewalk, sun beating down on him, Jimmy thinking how nice it would be if things were different. If Sam Arndt hadn’t hired incompetents to mount the license plates on the van, Jimmy would be enjoying a spring vacation free of the millstone of his gambling debts, as was his initial intent. But instead of enjoyment, Jimmy’s mouth tasted like bird shit, he was battling heartburn, and trying to think away a headache. The reality of his situation was a gauntlet of fear and suffering where making it through to the other side guaranteed nothing.

Was a lot here he couldn’t control.

The money was gone for good. Same with the van.

These thoughts ignited little explosions in Jimmy’s gut, the acid riding up his esophagus to his pounding scull, the hot sun he’d longed for all winter now an instrument of torture. Dirty old sun.

Coming to a busy four-lane street Jimmy stopped and squinted in both directions, trying to recall the route he took last night. Tequila had gone down real easy and now he was paying the price. But not as dear a price as he’d pay if Sam caught up to him.

A voice in his head, this one coming from his good upbringing, was saying he should give Sam a call. There were no drugs found in the van so maybe the state of Texas would give the money back. Was it against the law to carry a million in cash in your vehicle? Jimmy didn’t know the answer to that but thought it must be illegal, the way they were making just about everything a crime these days. But as much as Jimmy wanted to believe in the possibility of a positive outcome, something rang hollow with the idea of the State of Texas returning money to suspected criminals. You didn’t hide your cash behind the wall paneling if you were legit. Didn’t take off running through the weeds if you worked for Goldman Sachs or Bain Capitol.

No, you didn’t.

Now a dissenting voice in Jimmy’s head, the most dominant voice in his recent history, was preaching avoidance, as usual. Telling him it was time to start fresh with a new identity. He was familiar with the process, having read his older brother’s copy of The Paper Trip (a guidebook to obtaining alternative identity) way back in 2012.

So he had the dueling voices thing going. Add to that he was a scruffy vagrant type on the tony beachfront boulevards of Corpus Christi, Texas, someone likely to draw the attention of the local bum dispersers. Made him wonder if strolling without a destination was a violation down here.

Shit, he just had to keep moving.

With sweat dripping into his eyes and the sour odor from his armpits mixing with the chick’s stale perfume to form a nauseating bouquet, Jimmy spied a bench on the boulevard and headed for it. There, in the shade of two large palms, he breathed deeply, trying to disperse the pounding in his head and the growing nausea and dizziness. Didn’t work. So he slid his cell phone out of his stained khakis—tar balls on the beach down here, you believe that?—and punched in Sam’s number. Jimmy hadn’t forgotten that Sam Arndt gave him a break, gave him a chance to work off his old gambling debts, and for that he believed he owed the man something. The least Jimmy could do was get Sam on the line and bitch about the license plates falling off, put the situation in its proper perspective.

Here was the refurbished and responsible Jimmy Ireno putting his best foot forward, getting in the habit, giving Sam a heads up. But a worm of memory was beginning to wiggle in his head, something about another dude, a more dangerous one, an Irishman, some kind of gangster. Jimmy recalled Sam pissing and moaning about a ruthless dude from St. Paul would slice off his nuts if anything happened to the cash.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 3, Excerpt 7

Sam Arndt’s gut was still churning when he got up to take a leak at four-thirty a.m. Stumbling back toward his king-size bed, he wondered what was causing this intestinal distress, but was too zonked to care. Save it until morning—the beauty of downers.

But the next morning, as any experienced tranq user knows, he would feel dumb and pissed off and just a tad slow. Then you drink the coffee and maybe your gut tightens up again and you have to go back for more Pepto. Then you read the paper and see where the Blues scored three times in forty-two seconds and you lost a shitload. But the thing really upsets you is that goddamn Jimmy Ireno hasn’t called from Texas like he was supposed to and now there’s a message on your phone from Bob Ryan, the “Associate” whose money you are responsible for: “Sam. What the fuck is going on? Answer your goddamn phone, goddamn it.”

So now Sam had a pressing need for more of those pills. And would have to call the fat chick in St. Paul gets them from some Mexican by the carload, see what she has in stock. And to make matters worse, he was getting hooked on the goddamn things. Sammy’s little helpers.

Help.

Sam was thinking he’d personally skewer Jimmy’s balls on a shish-ka-bob if the kid screwed this deal up. That is if he could keep his own gonads out of Bob Ryan’s Mulligan stew long enough to get his hands on the wop-cokehead-weasel-bastard-sonofabitch Ireno.

 

Dan Henning was feeling loose. Texas Highway Patrol could kiss his ass goodbye this time. See how often Theodor lunched with the governor after Henning was gone. Goddamn Cyn could be replaced too. Woman was turning their boy Danny into a sissy the way she smothered him. Always preaching the “Christian Way,” and that’s suppose to be good, but Danny was getting too—not sure what to call it—just something not right about him these days.

Henning was thinking maybe he should take Danny away for a while, put a little distance between the two of ’em and Cynthia. But man, sometimes it got hard to be around the boy. So maybe Danny was better off with his mother. She could teach him to live the nice clean life—no drinking, no swearing, no whoring.

Poor kid.

Henning swung the red Dodge Ram pickup onto his hardpan driveway and rolled through the trees surrounding the trailer. Coming into the yard he cut the wheel hard, hit the gas and sent the truck into a dust-throwing slide. He’d polished off the beaner’s shitty lime vodka on the way home and didn’t have to be back on the job for two days. Planned to request a personal leave of absence his first day back. Tell them it was a family-based decision, take that route: personal problems sir, that kind of thing, easy for everyone to relate to.

He got out of the truck. He stood and watched the sun peeking above the eastern hills. Soon it would be up bright and hot. Expecting some kind of scene from Cynthia, Henning lit a Marlboro to mask his booze breath and went inside to face her. But in the coolness of the trailer’s mint-green interior he sensed the emptiness. No Cyn to greet him. No smell of his breakfast cooking. No sound of his son playing. Just dust floating inside a sunbeam and the soft hum of the refrigerator. All the dishes were clean and put away. Nothing in the sink. Coffeemaker was empty.

Scratching his head, Henning looked out the window above the sink and saw nothing out there but dirt and trees. Now he had a hole in his gut and thoughts he couldn’t control were pushing in.

So where in hell were they? What was Cyn pulling this time? Goddamn woman was always messing with his plans. Someday maybe he’d show her the error of her ways.

Heart pounding faster in his chest, Henning turned away from the sink and went into the bedroom. Bed was made and Cyn’s dresser drawers were open. Wasn’t like her to leave them that way. He saw a piece of paper on top his blond dresser, small piece of notepaper held down by a can of Gillette shaving cream:

Dear Dan,

     Please don’t be alarmed. Danny is at Furillo’s Day Care. You can pick him up any time before six. I’m not sure how to tell you this, so I’ll just come out and say it.

     I’m going away for a while. Maybe forever. I just don’t know right now. Back when we were first married, I never could have imagined the loneliness and emptiness that I feel today. And everyday, truth be told. Something has been bothering me for quite some time now, and you don’t seem to know or even care. You have become a stranger to me. You come home from another world expecting me to be at your beck and call, and although I was raised to stand by my man, it seems to me it should go both ways. Instead, you seem to be standing farther away every day. My mind is so full of questions and confusion I don’t even know what it is I want anymore.

     Reading this, you’re probably fit to be tied, but please try to swallow your anger and understand my feelings. I’m not abandoning our son. I will call you tomorrow so we can talk. In the meantime, try and get to know your boy a little. It will do you both some good.

–Cynthia

“Jesus Christ, here we go,” Henning said out loud. He couldn’t say he’d seen this coming but Cynthia and her instability were always just a short and curly away from total lunacy. And now here it was.

Leaving him? Hell with that. He was leaving her. Just like her to bail at the same time he got rich, woman’s timing always piss-poor. Like the time he was facing suspension and she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant and he had to beg Theodor into stalling the suspension long enough to keep the medical insurance viable. Yep, goddamn Cynthia was getting like an anchor he had to drag around, and who the hell needs that?

Henning returned to the kitchen and took the bottle of Johnnie Walker Red from the cupboard where Cynthia always stuck it, the woman not wanting it out in plain view in the light of day. Typical of the shit he had to put up with.

But hey, not anymore.

From now on it’d be JW blue label sitting out where everyone could see it. Nothing but the best, goddamnit. Little Danny would learn how real men carried themselves. Maybe they could take a trip down to Mexico, just the two of them, pick up an RV from one of the used-car bandits down there, travel around and let the kid see how real men live.

So there was a plan.

Let’s see what she has to say about that.

(To be continued)

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