Posts Tagged ‘American pulp’

In late January of 1978, with football season over and hopeful Christmas tree lights throughout the vast northern winter darkness switched off in defeat, full-time cabdriver, sometime card shark Keith Waverly witnesses the violent abduction of a local street hustler. Later, when the man is found with his head ventilated by bullet holes, Waverly is dragged into a world of high-rolling gamblers, crooked politicians, violence and really bad weather, with only his wits and his new girlfriend to pull him out.

CHAPTER 8 Acid Reflux

Excerpt 7

     I drove to a spot on Fifth Street across from the Boulevard Lounge, walked across the street and started searching for Johnny Wells’ big Chevy. Found it in the back parking lot, nose-up to the rear door of the bar in a spot marked Management Only Violators will be Towed.

The blood pounded in my head.

I thought about going back inside but put the kibosh on that. I was too fucked up. I considered standing outside by the backdoor but a cold and relentless freezing drizzle was coming down—and even I knew enough to stay out of the rain.

I had to talk to Mary and say my piece. That was what Stephanie wanted.

The fuck did I care what Stephanie wanted?

I owed Mary.

Why is that?

Because she said she loved me.

Did she show any love on that stage tonight?

I don’t know.

She’s doing hard drugs. There’s a warrant out on her. She can’t be trusted. 

     What am I doing here then?

I don’t know. 

I should leave.

But now there she was.

Out came a steady stream of people. I watched Mary peel off to the side, reject an overzealous fan and stop alongside Wells’ car. She leaned against the bricks of the building, pulled a cig from the pocket of her most-likely-new black leather jacket, and fired up. Took a big drag and blew smoke into the rain. Then a deep pull of fresh air, holding it in for a few seconds, head tilted back.

I followed her gaze up to the streetlight. Shining, blinding, raindrops fell. I was almost to her before she saw me. Shock and a wry, groggy amusement played over her tired features but she still looked sexy in her black stockings and burgundy thigh-high skirt. I tried to say something but she beat me to the punch.

“You fucking loser,” she said with a snarl. “What are you doing here? You didn’t want anything to do with me. I’m a stripper—remember? And you’re just so damn good, aren’t you. Ain’t it that the same old story. Ain’t that how it is.” Her voice was metallic, like a spoon rapping on a counter top. “Now I got a real man, so why don’t you split before he comes out and kicks your ass. I don’t want him thinking I’d have anything to do with someone like you.” She pawed the ground with the toe of her knee-high black boot and looked away from me.

“What the hell are you talking about, Mary? You expect me to believe that shit? Or is this some weird way of punishing me for your own delusions?”

Coherence wasn’t coming easy for either of us.

Mary scowled and spit out her words: “You don’t have to have anything to do with me if you want—that’s fine.” There was moisture welling in the edges of her eyes and my chest was about to explode. “Why did you come here? Why did you do that to me?” Her voice cracked.

“I don’t know. Something came over me. I was drunk. The band was weird. My brain broke. Why do we need a reason? How about this thing with you and Wells? What about all those things you said about him before? They’re not true anymore? Stephanie told me a few things about Johnny, like he’s a baby raper, for one. Or maybe you knew that. Did you know that?”

“Steph’s just making that up because she wants Johnny back.”

“Popular guy for a grease ball. Why don’t you just split, Mary? Get out of this town for good.”

Who was saying these words? I wondered. Who was making this body move?

Surely not me.

“Steph is just saying it because she wants to be where I am. I’m tired of running. And Johnny gives me things—things I like. And I make good money. Everywhere I go—everyplace else—I always have to leave.”

“That’s such bullshit. How can you even say that? Can’t you see what Wells is trying to do?”

“Somebody looking for me?”

Wells was standing there in the rain sneering, his narrowed eyes locked on me. He flashed that thin and viciously gleeful grin I‘d seen once before. He was wearing the same ugly leather jacket and the same pointy-toed boots as that time at the Castaway. Screw baby raper, this guy was a killer. Crazy Harvey Dornan knew it but could no longer tell anyone about it.

I stared in Wells’ face like a drunken fifteen-year old defending his first love from the neighborhood bully. “Yeah, I am,” I said with as much bluster as I could muster.

Then his gloved left hand flashed out like a snake’s tongue and crushed my nose. My knees slammed down on the wet gravel. I spit blood and tried to clear my head. I’d been expecting the right hand. His fists were like lead. Then a boot crashed up into my chin and I saw green and red stars and everything went fuzzy. Too gone to beg for mercy, gang.

Goodbye, goodbye, I’m diving into this puddle.

Sounds and voices now—lots of voices—and scuffling in the gravel. Johnny was yelling. Mary was close to hysterical.

Out of my one good eye I saw some bikers dragging Wells back toward the door of the bar. It was Big Dog and Frank and some pals. They formed a ring around Wells and wouldn’t let him get to me.

Then a kind-eyed man in a light-colored golfing jacket helped me up off the ground and held me steady. He tried to keep from getting blood on his jacket but I think some got on there. “You’re in rough shape,” he said, studying me with concern. “Maybe you should go to the hospital.”

“No, man, I’m all right,” I wiped away blood and mud and bits of gravel from my face with my sleeve. “That asshole just straightened out my crooked nose for me, that’s all.” I was about to puke on the guy’s nice jacket.

Pain of a different kind surged through me when I caught sight of those hurting brown eyes staring out from behind a row of cars. I saw tears through the rain.

“Why won’t you leave Johnny and I alone?” she yelled out, just a hint of panic at the back of her throat. “You know how it is. Why don’t you go away, you weirdo?” Then she gave me one last sad look that made me think this wasn’t over yet, turned and walked quickly back into the club.

The show must go on.


Dead Low Winter available on ebook at all online bookstores.

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In late January of 1978, with football season over and hopeful Christmas tree lights throughout the vast northern winter darkness switched off in defeat, full-time cabdriver, sometime card shark Keith Waverly witnesses the violent abduction of a local street hustler. Later, when the man is found with his head ventilated by bullet holes, Waverly is dragged into a world of high-rolling gamblers, crooked politicians, violence and really bad weather, with only his wits and his new girlfriend to pull him out.

CHAPTER 8 Acid Reflux

Excerpt 6

     “Can’t be pissing yourself away like a child,” said a deep voice in the darkness.

I jerked and turned in the direction of the voice. A tough looking old man in a bowler hat was frowning at me from ten yards away. He crossed his arms against his old fashioned clothes: wool topcoat, round-collar shirt, tie, Navy blue wool suit.

A bolt of lightning popped inside my temple like a soundless firecracker. “What’d you say to me? The fuck are you laughing at old man?” I waved the geezer away. “Get the hell out of here, you old bastard.” I bent over and scraped some mud off the ground and threw it at him. He moved aside before it got half way there.

The laughter got louder. Now it was inside my head.

Then I recognized him. It was James Wallace Waverly, a grandfather I had never known. His picture was on the wall when I was a kid. According to the stories I’d heard, he was a tough sonofabitch, a hard-bitten Englishman who worked as a bouncer on the trains in upper Michigan during the depression. Had to disarm and disembark freeloaders all the time. But he had died before I was born. And now he was standing right there in front of me.

This was some strong fucking acid.

“What are you doing here, old man? It ain’t Halloween. Why don’t you leave me alone? Everyone else sees Jesus, and I get you.”

“Screw Jesus,” snapped old Jim. “Jesus was a martyr. You have to be dead to be a martyr. You want to be dead—like me?”

Now his face was a skull, worms wriggling from the empty eye sockets.

I freaked and rubbed my eyes and looked again. This time he had a face, a face that was giving me the Look. The look you see on the pioneers’ faces in the photos in the museums. I always admired the Look but I’d never understood what was behind it.

“You trying to tell me that I’m a coward—taking the easy way out? Look at me. I’ve been beaten to shit. Knocked every which way. My marriage is long in the trash barrel and now Mary is playing house with a psychopath, and the Big Perv killed my friend. And these other guys, they—ah, hell. It’s just not worth it anymore. I don’t see the point of life.”

Again the laughter burning in my ears.

“What’s the point of death, son? Anything worth having is worth suffering for. Unless you’d rather give up, of course. It is your choice.”

“That is funny,” I said. “And trite. Do you like that word—trite? I went to college, y’know. I know a lot of words. And they’re all about to come spilling out here on the ground at any moment. What do you want with me? Welcoming me to the graveyard? Introducing me to the family?”

All I got was The Look.

I was close to him now. I took a swing at his head, a looping overhand right.

He disappeared.

Bad acid, probably. Indigestion maybe. Chemicals in the booze. Unhealthy lifestyle. Hormones in the hamburger. Could be anything.

Then the world jumped to the left. Then back to the right. Stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight. Whattsa matter, can’t you see straight?

      My stomach lurched; loins itched. Some kind of crazy energy came up from the ground. I felt it in my legs—then everywhere. Nostrils the size of Mason jars and my breath rushing like a hurricane. Ready to run with the wild dogs. Then the laughing again—no longer in my head maybe but I really couldn’t tell. Then I saw him across the street encircled by a million pulsating raindrops.

“No sex in the grave, boy,” he shouted as he toe danced in front of a boarded-up theater. I couldn’t remember ever seeing the building before.  Today’s feature was written in bold but fading letters on the peeling marquee: Waverly’s Demise.

More laughing seemed to come from behind me then but when I turned there was no one there. A strange electric buzzing, like from a recording, reverberated off the deserted asphalt and the empty buildings. Then I heard a wailing sound, at first getting stronger and increasingly mournful, before finally fading.

Then a harsh whisper: “The beast is on a short tether, boy.”

I looked everywhere. No Gramps. When I turned back around the theater began to crumble before my eyes. In an instant it was an empty lot with an old tire and a broken concrete block lying in the middle of dead weeds. The distant wailing sound came back again—as a siren this time—getting louder and coming my way. I ducked into the darkness and ran until my legs stretched out. Now everything was clear. Ever clear ever true. Running was good. You just had to have direction.

I got back to the car all ready to go.


(To be continued)

Dead Low Winter available on ebook at all online bookstores.

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In late January of 1978, with football season over and hopeful Christmas tree lights throughout the vast northern winter darkness switched off in defeat, full-time cabdriver, sometime card shark Keith Waverly witnesses the violent abduction of a local street hustler. Later, when the man is found with his head ventilated by bullet holes, Waverly is dragged into a world of high-rolling gamblers, crooked politicians, violence and really bad weather, with only his wits and his new girlfriend to pull him out.

CHAPTER 8 Acid Reflux

Excerpt 5

     Back in the womb now I started it up and drove around until I found a street lonely and dark enough. I parked next to a big black oak tree whose branches seemed to point at me accusingly. Across the street a vacant lot divided a row of dark little houses with their shades pulled down. I took a blast on the bottle and the whiskey swirled into the bottom of my gut, hot and shivery at the same time.

I felt myself sinking down, giving up. But I needed a smoke. A man needs a smoke. My matchbook said “Relax and Enjoy” but it was empty. I flipped open the glove box and rummaged for matches because the car lighter didn’t work. A sheet of green pyramid LSD fell out onto the torn rubber floor mat.

What the hell, I thought. Why not do some right now? Could it make things any worse? Always sick, always in trouble, always guilty—don’t get much worse.

I tore off a strip of the acid, sixteen hits at least. Washed them down with Windsor and laughed a bitter laugh like everybody’s fool. Then me, and my friends Whiskey Man and Mr. Cigs, went for a little walk—or stumble, as it were, around the empty streets. I could no longer feel the cold and the icy rain soothed the wounds on my face.

But could I save face in outer space without a trace of sanity?

In a time that seemed like an hour but could have been ten minutes, I came upon a boarded up church, a small, white, clapboard building with a bogus steeple on the roof. I walked toward the rear of the building with the intent of relieving myself. There was a strange metallic taste in my throat. Glands in my neck were going squirrelly. My brain was shifting gears like a sixteen-wheeler rolling down hill in a snowstorm. Putrid smoke from factories was thick in my nostrils. Cars on the bridge whined in my ears and the universe vibrated through me in intermittent waves. Lights on the hillside—miles away—hurt my eyes. Pain always there to remind me.

Bad thoughts tumbled out with the rushing urine: The High Bridge would be a good place to end it all. It would be a big deal—women would cry. What a rush, just walking up to the middle, cars zipping by like you’re not even there and you not caring about jackshit. Every time they whoosh by your heart just about explodes and a chill of fear grabs your balls. Up on top of the span, the wind would be blowing and you’d look down at the dark and icy water below and the voice would be screaming Jump. Jump you miserable coward. Jump.

You’d just go numb—it wouldn’t be that bad.

     Come on, what are you waiting for? Take the plunge. You’re outta here. Gone Johnson. People would be yelling. Horns would be honking. When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah. The lights… the water… all around me they swirled. Inside me it swirled.

On the ground in front of me it swirled.

Jesus, it was a long goddamn piss.

I zipped up and pulled out the bottle and sucked hard on the whiskey.  Take me back to my daddy’s knee, sweet whiskey; take me back. 

     I knew if I stayed here much longer they’d have to change my name to Catatonic State. I could dye my hair orange….


(To be continued)

Dead Low Winter available on ebook at all online bookstores.

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In late January of 1978, with football season over and hopeful Christmas tree lights throughout the vast northern winter darkness switched off in defeat, full-time cabdriver, sometime card shark Keith Waverly witnesses the violent abduction of a local street hustler. Later, when the man is found with his head ventilated by bullet holes, Waverly is dragged into a world of high-rolling gamblers, crooked politicians, violence and really bad weather, with only his wits and his new girlfriend to pull him out.

CHAPTER 8 Acid Reflux

Excerpt 4

     I leaned against the side of a house and pushed my hair back off my forehead. I bent over at the waist, pressed my finger to my nostril and blew out bloody snot. Down the alley a neon-bathed rat scurried across the damp pavement.

After a moment of reconnaissance I cut through several backyards of garbage cans and rusty autos and moved quickly across the street, doubling back to my car. Beaten and kicked—kicked and beaten. Needles and pins-a.

I couldn’t make myself drive so I sat there and squeezed the steering wheel while my head reeled and whirled. Eventually I settled down a little.  I found a long butt in the ashtray and fired it up. Nicotine narcosis, baby, let’s have it.

Violated and dominated and kicked around like a diseased rodent—not to mention getting fucked in the ass—that shit will linger with you for awhile. That’s the shit I couldn’t take. That, and about five hundred other goddamn things, that were struggling to the surface like a swarm of pissed-off rattlesnakes. I couldn’t stand for any more abuse. Time to get even before the game got over. Time to stop running. You can only run so far before you realize you’re running from yourself.

I still had the stamp on my hand from the bar.

I tried in vain to figure it all out. What the hell do I get for trying to help somebody? My goddamn ass kicked. I should’ve gone to Jamaica.

Yeah, you shoulda, asshole, but it’s too late for that now. You’re in too goddamn deep. 

Maybe I could live in my car for a while. The automobile is like a rolling womb. You got wheels. You got door locks. You got the radio, heater—storage space in the trunk. You can sleep in your car; eat in your car, fuck in your car. Americans learn how to live out of their cars as teenagers. Why couldn’t I do it? Shit, I could park wherever I wanted. Go wherever I wanted. If anything bothered me I could just drive away.

Just me and my womb on wheels.

A man needs something to drink if he’s going to live in his car. So I struggled over to the now painfully throbbing Viking Liquor sign, went in the store and bought a pint of Windsor Canadian and a pack of Kools from the thick-haired clerk. I didn’t even like brown liquor and I was trying to quit smoking so clearly this was some kind of self-destructive urge like all the cool rock stars had. The clerk gave me a funny look for a second, like maybe I smelled bad, which I probably did. Looked like hell, too.


(To be continued)

Dead Low Winter available on ebook at all online bookstores.

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In late January of 1978, with football season over and hopeful Christmas tree lights throughout the vast northern winter darkness switched off in defeat, full-time cabdriver, sometime card shark Keith Waverly witnesses the violent abduction of a local street hustler. Later, when the man is found with his head ventilated by bullet holes, Waverly is dragged into a world of high-rolling gamblers, crooked politicians, violence and really bad weather, with only his wits and his new girlfriend to pull him out.

CHAPTER 8 Acid Reflux

Excerpt 3

     This time I moved directly to the foot of the stage. Men grabbed and shouted at Princess Mary but she stayed just beyond their reach—thrusting and tantalizing—occasionally coming close enough to touch and then darting backward. The room rose to a fever pitch. The band hit the crescendo then crashed to a halt. Mary bent over at the waist with her back to the audience and pulled down those crimson panties. Shivers shot up and down my spine. The mob roared approval. Something in my head broke.

I was squeezed in between two guys in suits when the next song started up. Mary looked down at me, her body naked, face like a mask. She saw me but I couldn’t read her. Was it love? Disgust? Pain? Embarrassment? Now I was just one of the pack. I wanted so badly to taste her. Then she was close to me, leaning over slightly, saying something I couldn’t quite hear through the noise. I grabbed her ankle and squeezed it—softly at first. It was so warm and smooth. I couldn’t make myself look up. I stared down at the stage and squeezed a little harder. She tried to pull away. “No, Keith, don’t. Please stop.” She barked it at me. “You don’t know what you’re doing. Let go.”

Then a fifty-pound bee stung my right ear and a horse kicked my left kidney. Next thing I knew I was saying hello to everybody’s shoes. I tried to scramble away on my knees and a boot popped out of nowhere and collided with my ribs. Then another stung my mouth. I kissed the ground. Star showers everywhere, man, funny electric shocks in my neck. Then two guys pulled me off the floor and shuffled me away. I was spitting blood, not fighting back.

They dragged me across the room. One bouncer slapped me across the back of the head. I struggled free and made a dash for the door. No bum’s rush for this kid. I burst out the door and hit the sidewalk running and headed for the darkness. Shouts and laughter were soon behind me. I turned into a dark alley, walked down half a block, stopped and listened. It was quiet. Streetlights reflected off the puddles of rainwater. I walked another little bit and listened some more.

Still quiet.

(To be continued)

Dead Low Winter available on ebook at all online bookstores.

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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 faked 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 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 1 (Excerpt 1)

South Texas Tangle is a tribute to the work of Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, and follows Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Writing.”

Jimmy Ireno was strung out on speed, bad freeway coffee and fear. But the big problem was the state trooper with the absurd wide brimmed hat, shovel-blade chin and linebacker shoulders waiting at his window.

“Driver’s license and registration please, sir.”

Saying it nice and polite.

But those were the last words Jimmy wanted to hear anywhere, let alone the middle of flatlands nowhere, hundred miles south of San Antonio. Thing was, he didn’t have a valid driver’s license. Revoked last year for a couple of chicken-shit DWIs coming home from the clubs. Cops on that shift can be real assholes. And registration? Nothing like that in here. They run the VIN they’ll find the listed owner to be some long-dead Minnesotan or an incarcerated miscreant, maybe someone only exists on paper. That’s the system.

“Are you aware that your vehicle has no license plates, sir? Seems that the mounting hardware was, ah, substandard.”

Jesus, no plates?

And why was the cop dangling a gnarled-up garbage bag tie in Jimmy’s face? Did somebody back in Minnesota not know that screws work a lot better? Jimmy didn’t have a clue. And was also totally clueless about a lot of other things—like what the hell he was going to do now.

Looking up at the cop, Jimmy said, “What? No plates? Seriously? That can’t be right. They were on there when I left Minneapolis.” And coming up with the best lie he could think of on such short notice: “Someone must’ve taken ’em. Probably at the campground last night in Oklahoma. Some Mexicans were checking out the van, they must’ve—

“Your driver’s license, sir.”

Politeness fading.

But Jimmy’s really huge problem was the million dollars in small bills hidden behind the cheesy Chevy conversion’s simulated wood paneling. Jimmy and the cash were on the way to McAllen, Texas, just a short jaunt over the Rio Bravo from Reynosa, Mexico, a place where—Sam Arndt had told him—they might as well put up a sign: Cash Wash—Cheap. Come one come all to Javier’s Pawn Shop. Bills Cleaned Daily. We Don’t Ask No Stinking Questions.

Up ahead now in the near dark, Jimmy could see a green road sign in the splayed beams of the van’s headlights, fluorescent white letters spelling out Gamble Gulch Rd.

Gamble Gulch?

This was clearly an omen. And Jimmy believed in omens. It was all the impetus he needed. Reaching down like he was going for his wallet, Jimmy jerked the door handle, put his shoulder to the door and drove it at the cop’s chest. But the trooper, evidently no rookie, was standing far enough back that the door missed him by three inches. Despite his miscalculation, Jimmy continued his burst from the truck, raced by the surprised trooper, dove down the bank and rolled to a stop in the high weeds directly below the Gamble Gulch sign.

Jimmy Ireno could always run. And the trooper had a decent-sized gut hanging over his belt, making it unlikely he could catch up to Jimmy, now slogging toward a grove of trees, the image of a speeding bullet coming at his back filling his troubled mind. Once inside the sheltering foliage, Jimmy listened for the clomping of the cop’s long boots or the wailing of sirens.

Neither one came.

Whattaya know.

(To be continued)

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Several days after the big poker game had come and gone, the first sunny spring-like day of the year hit town. And wouldn’t you know it, man, I had to work my other job: clerk at goddamn Wadena Book, the Twin Port’s only dirty bookstore.

About ten-thirty on a Saturday night and things were pretty slow. I had the glass front door propped open a crack to let in the soft night air. The juices were beginning to flow again and I was feeling pretty good. I leaned back on the rear legs of the hard and uncomfortable chair and sensually fondled a Dunlop red-stitch softball. My eyes flicked restlessly around the brightly lighted room. All the gash and dick and plastic genitalia burned the mucus on my eyeballs and I couldn’t rest my gaze.

I was rubbing my eyes with my knuckles when Sammy Cross walked in arm and arm with a gorgeous girl, the babe about five-six or seven, medium length auburn hair, a gorgeous slinky bod and dreamy brown eyes. Kind of girl that makes your dick hard, your heart soft and turns your brain to mush—just the way I liked it.

My mouth must have fallen open or something because now Cross and the girl were both grinning up at me. Then the light bulb went on in my head and I knew it was the girl from the cab and the Castaway and my dreams, this time without the tortoise-shell shades.

I said, “Sam—what are you doing here? And who’s your friend?”

And now I was embarrassed by my surroundings.

Her blue painted eyelids were at half-mast. A cigarette dangled from her long fingers. She looked me over with an appreciative smirk. My heart thumped like a big bass drum. Surely she must remember me, thought I, but she didn’t let on.

Sam was grinning like a satanic Teddy Bear. “Keith,” he said, “Let me introduce you to Mary.”

Always had manners, that guy.

I said, “Hi,” and a thousand worms wriggled in my gut.

“Hi,” she said, with a sexy half smile.

Then she took a walk around the shop, checking out the fuck-and-suck rags in a wave of perfume and tobacco smoke. I couldn’t keep from staring. Her expression remained the unreadable half smile. Crimson nails, a silver and turquoise bracelet on one wrist and no rings. Breasts pushing firmly against a thin black sweater, butt moving sweetly in tight flare jeans. Some funky platform shoes, an oversize Levis jacket and the picture was perfect, like I’d seen in a dream or maybe an album cover.

“Jesus, Sam,” I said in a whisper. “Where’d you find her?”

“Right over in your back yard, Keitho my friend. She’s a peeler at the Castaway.”

“Jesus—she is the one. She was in my cab. You’re dating her then?”

“I’m trying to—but not tonight—she just dropped in over at Delaney’s with a couple friends while I was sitting there having a few pops. I’ve been trying all night to get her to go to this big party with me, but she says she won’t go with just me alone. Unresolved issues of trust, I suspect. The little girl is not as easy as I had hoped—and after all the cash I’ve stuffed down her g-string.” He peeked up at me for a reaction and got none. “No, I’m kidding,” he said, “really what the deal is, she’s got two friends with her over at the bar and we thought you would be the perfect escort. I told her Carla and Charlene would think you’re dreamy.”

“Fuck you. What do these other chicks look—”

“Why do you work in this place?” Mary said, wide-eyed and innocent, upon her return to the front of my lofty perch above the sea of smut.

I was on a raised platform, two feet above the rest of the floor, sitting behind the cash register at a small lectern. Everybody had to look up to me to pay for the porn. There was a sense of power in that chair. If the customers were feeling guilty when they looked up at you, you were the High Priest of Porn about to pass approval on their sins.

This girl had somehow turned the tables on me.

“Cause I know the manager and the pay is good,” I said, and felt my face reddening.

“How much do you make?” she asked, still with the same expression. I loved the way her hair swept back in wings.

“Five dollars an hour, cash.”

“But minimum wage is only two and a quarter.”

“Well, actually I get three bucks an hour, but I ring up at least a ten dollar no sale every shift and put it in my pocket. Hell, the cops could walk in and bust me at any minute. I deserve a little hazard pay, you know? And besides, this place is owned by Ferris Alexander—I should steal more.”

“Yeah, Waverly is a real prince,” Sam chimed in. He put his hand on the girl’s sexy shoulder. “See what I told you, Mary, have you ever seen such an innocent, honest, trustworthy boy as Keith. Just look at that boyish face. Why, the boy won’t even steal too much from Minnesota’s pornography king, who’s so rich he shits quarters. What a guy you are, Wavo.”

And then two forty-something men in worn trench coats came through the door. Yes, it’s true, men in trench coats. At the sight of Mary they tensed up and began to paw around the room like water buffaloes at an occupied water hole.

I lowered my voice. “What’s this party you’re talking about, Sambo?”

“Over in Bay City at Tony’s Cabaret. Then a private after-hours bash at Peter McKay’s digs. Big party, man. All the hipsters will be hanging.”

“Are you kidding me? Tony’s Cabaret is a gay bar. And fucking Peter McKay—what’s his deal? And how did you manage an invite? McKay didn’t look too enamored with you after the poker game, if I may say so. In fact, it seemed like he wanted to bust open your wise-ass skull, if my perception was at all accurate, you low-life sonofabitch.”

“That maybe so. That maybe so, Keith, my man, but big Peter has seen the error of his ways. I’ll have you know that we are now business associates. Time moves along, my son. By the way, he mentioned you. Said you should come to the shindig, if I saw you. Said he might have a few ideas for you.” Sam paused and stared at a plastic vagina hanging from a peg-board on the west wall. “Um, ah, and y’know, Nick is getting a little anxious to see some kind of positive sign from you, if you know what I mean.”

“Fuck Nick,” I said.

A party given by the powerful Peter McKay, beautiful women at my side—now here was the start up the ladder I’d been waiting for. Nothing was going to bring me down.

Sam gave me a look, said, “Big talk.”

“Fuck you, too,” I said.

Mary stood with her hip cocked to the side. “We have to get the girls, don’t forget, Sam,” she said. Looking up at me with those fascinating, heavy-lidded peepers when she said it.

“How could I forget those two,” Sam said, as he took Mary’s arm and sashayed toward the door. “See ya, Waverly,” he said. “Be there or be square.”

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes,” I shouted after them. “Don’t leave without me.”

The clock said 10:45.

“You’ll have to make up your minds, guys,” I said to the water buffaloes as they relaxed and approached the desk “We’re closing in five minutes.”

“I thought it said midnight on the front door,” said the guy with an oval head made me think of an egg. Had a soft-boiled look about him.

“Yeah, we just got here,” whined the other one, his skin the color of bone. “I’ve got a whole pocket of quarters here for the movies.” He lifted up the side pocket of his gray overcoat and jangled it at me. He had long dirty fingernails.

“Boss has to come in and do inventory tonight, guys. Sorry.”

“Well, all right then,” said the guy with the fingernails, looking around.  “I’m gonna buy a magazine. Wait a minute, would you.”

He picked out a spectacular photo collection of extra-large breasted women entitled Big Mamas. I rang up No Sale and set the ten-spot on the counter in front of the register. Fuck Ferris Alexander. A man needs a few bucks in his pocket when he’s going out with a pretty lady or two.

(To be continued)

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Cross Is What My True Love Bears

February faded into March and I hardly knew the difference. Still gray, still cold, still windy. I guess it was getting warmer though because the boats were coming through the locks out East and steaming down our way. Here at the Head of the Lakes we depend on the boats for a lot of things. A high volume of goods moves through the Twin Ports and a lot of locals make their living because of shipping. And it’s one of the first signs of spring, even though there never is much of a spring on this end of the lake. Most years you’re craving it by Valentine’s Day anyway.

Winter can wear away at you until your innards cry out for relief. The warm weather and sunshine you so dearly crave is cruelly held back, day after dreary day. Your eyes burn from the unrelenting grayness. The weight on your chest and the tightness in your neck are facts of life. It works on your sanity. Bad shit happens in this part of the world come March. Boozers drink more, druggies do more drugs, the well-off head south and the crazies go over the edge.

So when Sam Cross invited me in on his poker scam I jumped at the chance like a condemned man in a hurry to the gallows. He and his brother wanted me to do my little mechanic number to augment their scheme, Sam said. I figured my big break had finally come. I truly felt the game was going to lead me up the ladder somehow—hanging with the rich and influential and all it entails. The right connections, you know—something was bound to fall my way. And I wasn’t going to jeopardize my future position with high society by cheating. Because, what you need in this world is connections. But sadly, my only connection remained the same after the game as before.

Sam Cross.

One of Sam’s bookmaking debtors was paying off his markers in wholesale LSD and I was given the job of turning it into cash. Three bucks for the red pyramids and five for the green. Take a little trip on the cheap. A good ride and you could drink a lot more when you were doing the Sid. Good for the town’s economy, kept the cash registers ringing. I’d sample the wares now and then myself and hit a few bars and usually blow the profits on drinks.

(To be continued)

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