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CHAPTER 17, EXCERPT 3

Now Frank had fire ants in his head along with the voices, the goddamn dueling voices. He couldn’t make sense of anything. He liked things simple and straightforward and this conflict was tearing him up. Someone needed to shut the fuck up. He put his palms against his temples and tried to push everything back together but it didn’t work. Gazing across the table at Judy, he didn’t think she was wearing any underwear. He grabbed the vodka bottle, tilted it to his mouth and slugged down a double blast, wincing, nearly coughing. Then she put on that come-hither-bedroom-eyes look that he liked, grinning down at him, and Frank saw a goddamn bird of prey about to slam down on a rodent. Two Fords—two rodents. Score two for Judy Bruton. No—three. Let’s not forget the illustrious Mr. Pills.

Frank set the vodka bottle back on the table and watched her sashay through the archway into the next room, each little bounce of her ass a shot below the belt. Frank had already seen the expensive canopied bed in there, the bedspread shining like gold, and now he was picturing her on it.

And then, from the bedroom, “You ready yet, Frank?” Her voice low and thick.

Frank grabbed two red capsules from the tray, slugged them down with another slosh of vodka, picked up the rolled up bill, snorted half the pile of powder and then repeated the act in the other nostril.

Then Judy reeled in the leash while the soiled seraph pushed him from behind and he staggered into the bedroom stripping off his clothes. She was sitting on the edge of the bed just like he’d pictured, pulling the dress over her head before he could tear it off. And then there it all was, waiting for him. And for a scant instant in his head—here and then gone—he saw a smelt rushing headlong into a dip net.

Judy spread herself, grabbed his arms and pulled him down. He slammed inside her, locked his mouth on hers and their tongues lashed together, writhing like snakes. Thrusting with animal lust, hatred, frustration, anger, sorrow and grief driving him on, Frank was climbing toward the top of the mountain, striving for the peak, the drugs taking him places he’d never imagined, when that weak little voice came back in his head, that meek fellow adrift at sea in the oar-less rowboat. Thrusting harder, Frank tried to shut it out but the little man couldn’t be silenced. “That’s it, Frank, pour on the cement until I’m buried. Pour it on until you can’t hear me anymore. Build it up with every stroke until I’m gone forever. Pile on the cement. Pile it on. Build up the walls… pour it on

Frank continued pushing and thrusting and grinding his hips until he was slick with sweat. And then she was screaming and he was groaning and it was all pouring out of him in a feverish, burning, sick rush.

And then he was left there, small, weak and empty, with a world’s worth of dread sliding over him like a sewer eruption. He rolled off not wanting to see her face but compelled to look anyway, like a kid at the peep show pulling back the curtain on his worst nightmare. Man, her look of total satisfaction tore at him. What the hell had he done? Now his skin was a prison and his mind a cage with poison spikes. He wanted to climb the walls and gnaw the ceiling tiles.

He sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the floor. Shame wouldn’t let him raise his head. He was drowning in the Lake of Fire, man, and behind him she was laughing. Not loud but he could hear the derision, the mocking.

She was not human.

He stumbled out of the bed in a sullen daze, picking his clothes from the floor and carrying them into the living room. He sat in a stuffed chair and fumbled them on. When he had his boots on his feet he stared at the coffee table: the vodka, the pills, the grains of white powder. With waves of nausea filling him to the brim, he struggled upright. He could still hear her snickering, louder now. She wouldn’t stop. He stared at the vodka bottle, had the urge to grab it and crush her skull. Or take the lamp cord and strangle that smirk right off her face, watch it turn to fear and horror, watch the poisoned life spill out.

Just turn around and rid the world of one more filthy parasite; one more blood-sucker…

But then a voice of reason found its way in.

Ah, come on, man, you knew what you were getting into. You always knew this was going to happen. You had all your denials set up, but you knew, goddamnit. Now take your lumps and get the hell out of here. You got a long row to hoe, dumb ass.

Frank got up from the chair, picked his jacket off the floor and shrugged it on. Feeling like a man who’d just killed the only thing he loved, he walked to the door on shaky legs and slid back the deadbolt. And from the bedroom came one last pleasantry. She said it loud and it cut him like a meat-clever to the soul.

“Thanks for coming, Frank.”

Her grating, twisted laugh followed him out the door like a reoccurring nightmare.

At the bottom of the stairs he could still hear her laughing. He couldn’t tell if it was real or just in his head but it didn’t matter, it was still there, like a jackhammer excavating his medulla oblongata.

As he moved through the well-lighted vestibule, Frank felt naked and exposed and his mind was working rapid fire, trying to grasp some straws. More booze? More coke? Pills? Suicide? You can take a flier, man, be just like Ray-Ray—two peas in the same goddamn pod.

But Frank was never one to look at life as a veil of tears or a grim relentless struggle. At times even—shit, he actually enjoyed the whole mess. But now stepping outside into the dark and the mist and the flashing cop car lights down at the far end of the block, he was thinking it would be a long time before he got back to that nice place. But more pressing, he was still blocks from home and his legs were wobbly and getting worse, something he ingested creeping over him like a lead blanket. He knew if he didn’t start moving he might not make it to his house. And now there was another squad car blowing up the avenue toward him and the beacon was jabbing red and yellow shards deep into his head.

He ducked around the edge of the building into the shadows and watched the cop car turn onto Fifth Street and head down toward the rowdy party. Then he heard a rustling behind him and turned toward the sound.

He saw it coming.

He scrunched his head down and raised his shoulder to block but he was too slow and too late. The club grazed off the top of his shoulder and caught him up high on the temple and his head exploded in white-hot pain. He saw blue lightning with flashing yellow streaks and then his legs disappeared and the lights went out.

(End of Chapter 17)

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CHAPTER 17, EXCERPT 2

He stared into Judy’s cloudy eyes. She was shorter than he was but somehow she seemed to be looking down at him. He stepped around her and went into the living room. There were easy chairs, small tables and lamps in the corners, and a plush silver-gray couch against the wall with a new-looking, dark wood coffee table in front of it. On top of the table was a tall glass with melting ice inside, a red aluminum fifties-era ice bucket in the shape of an apple and a circular decorative tray, an antique or something, red with green tropical foliage painted around the circumference and a black-and-orange tropical bird in the center. A small pile of white powder and a rolled up hundred dollar bill lay on top the bird’s breast. At its claws were a few loose red capsules and various pills of different colors. A half-empty bottle of Smirnov stood next to the tray like a guard. One soldier not yet dead.

Frank walked over to the couch and lowered himself down, trying hard not to act drunk. He glanced back at Judy and she was still staring down at him with that goddamn gotcha smirk. He leaned back, crossed his legs at the ankles and gave her the evil eye. “So tell me what really did happen that night, Judy,” he said. “I bet Ray never made it back to Zenith, did he?”

Frank kept his eyes on her as she came to the edge of the coffee table. She didn’t walk, she slinked.

“We were going to give him a ride home, Frank. That’s the truth. I told him he’d get over me. I told him we were poison for each other, but he didn’t want to hear it. He was locked into this trip that I was the only woman he’d ever love, the only one who’d ever understand him, that kind of shit. Fuck, Frank, you know how he got when he was loaded. Well, he was fucking maxed out that night on a mix of speed and downs. He’d go from helpless crying to anger and sarcasm in a heartbeat and then back to hatred again. Then he’d get that lost-little-boy look and pout. I tried to tell him I’d always have a soft spot in my heart for him but we’d never be any good for each other—but he was like a fucking broken record, constantly repeating the same shit I’d been hearing for days. And yes, all right, we did have a little reunion fling there for a while. And that was definitely a mistake. Shit, you know, I wanted to let him down easy but he got the wrong idea, I can see that now. But at the time I thought if I was nice to him for a little while he’d begin to see my point of view.”

“And what exactly was your point of view, Judith?”

She gave Frank a peculiar smile. “That I was going to marry Richard Pillsbury and Ray was better off without me. But I told Ray weeks ago that I’d be able to provide him with drugs, samples from Richard’s pharmacies and things. I thought that might help him settle down, you know, accept my reality and move on. I never expected him to come out with the undying love nonsense.”

“It was just nonsense to you, wasn’t it.”

“You ever had a former lover you couldn’t shake, Frank? The feeling’s over for you but she won’t let go, won’t listen, won’t take no for an answer?”

Frank thought back to high school and Carole Strewler. “Yeah, I guess,” he said. “But you still haven’t told me what happened after you left The Cottage.”

She bent over and stubbed out her cigarette in an ornate silver ashtray on the coffee table, her dress riding up high on her gorgeous thighs. Frank tried not to look but couldn’t stop himself. “As soon as we walked out of The Cottage, Ray flipped out. He started yelling and throwing punches at Lew and Lew had no choice but to hit back. They stood there in the parking lot fighting and I couldn’t believe how many times Lew hit him before Ray got knocked down. After that Ray calmed down and he seemed like he was fine, like he got the bad stuff out of his system. We were gonna drive him back over to Zenith, he was saying he just wanted to go home, and I gave him a couple reds so he could sleep. But then we were going out to the car and he got this crazy look and grabbed my goddamn tits and tried to shove his tongue down my throat and I slapped him. I thought he was gonna haul off and bust me one but he just made this weird face, somewhere between a laugh and a cry, said ‘Fuck you, bitch,’ and took off running. Ran off into the dark and I never saw him after that. I swear, Frank.”

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 17, EXCERPT 1

Crossing the avenue his trick knee was hurting and the other one felt weak. He was dizzy, adrenaline had his hands shaking and his gut jumping, and his head was emerging from a dull gray cloud.

Asiata Apartments was carved in stone above the building’s entrance. There was a double glass door with four concrete steps leading up to it and Frank could see a vestibule area with mail slots on the wall and a warm inviting light. But he didn’t feel warm or invited as he stepped in out of the mist and checked the names on the mailboxes, all eight of them.

J. Burton, it said next to #8.

Burton—Bruton. J—Judy. Close enough. Who did she think she was fooling?

Frank grabbed the curved brass handle on the heavy wood and glass inside door, pushed down the little thumb tab and pulled. Door didn’t budge. What the hell? Shit, his brain wasn’t working right. It was one of those systems where you buzzed the apartment and talked on an intercom and the tenant pushed a button to unlock the door. A complicated process not guaranteed to achieve the desired result, but what choice did he have? So he stood there looking around and searching for another way in. But goddamnit, the security building seemed secure. With reluctance he pushed the button for #8, hoping J. Burton/Bruton felt like a visitor at two-A-goddamn-M in the misty fucking morning.

No response.

Frank felt the muscles in his shoulders letting go. No one was home and he was off the hook. But then the winged beast weighed in with a different opinion, digging in its talons until he pushed the damn intercom button one more time.

Still nothing.

He was turning to leave when the metallic voice came through. “Yes? Who’s there? Is someone there?”

Frank put his mouth close to the speaker and tried hard not to slur his words. “Judy, this is Frank Ford. Sorry to bother you this late, but I really need to talk to you about Ray. Something’s come up and I—”

“Well, big brother Frank has finally come around. But what if I don’t want to talk about Ray at two-thirty in the morning, big brother Frank?”

“Then I suppose I’ll have to nestle into a corner of your vestibule here and wait until you come out.”

“Suppose I call the police and tell them there’s a drunk passed out in the entry.”

“Then they’ll haul me in and I’ll have to tell Detective Moore that you were the last person to see Ray alive. I’ve got two witnesses who saw you walking out of The Cottage with Ray on your arm. You and one of your new hubby’s goons.” It was actually only one witness but she didn’t need to know that. Cops went to The Cottage and started asking questions, no telling how many witnesses they’d find.

“My husband is a businessman. The owner of several pharmacies—in three states—why would he need these so-called goons?”

“You tell me. I’m sure you’re privy to the inside info.” Silence on the intercom. “So you gonna let me in or not?”

More silence.

Frank waited, his gut roiling like waves on Lake Superior. Then the door clicked and he grabbed the brass handle, pushed down the thumb flap and pulled the door open. Going inside to an olfactory mixture of cooking odors, cleaning fluids and old carpeting imbedded with the smell of years of bodily functions, he was reminded why he didn’t like apartment buildings.

Going up the gold-carpeted stairs, his legs were like lead and the goddamn winged thing was cooing in his ear like a pigeon as big as a beer truck. An image was forming in the foggy reaches of his mind. An image of him in a rowboat without any oars, cold, lonely and vulnerable as the boat washed out to sea.

At the top of the stairs he pushed back the vision. The hallway had numbered doors along both sides. And judging by the location of the high window, Frank figured Judy was all the way down on the right. He moved unsteadily along the worn carpet until he was in front of door number eight. He lifted the horseshoe shaped knocker and tapped it down, lifted, repeated, and then repeated again.

Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 17, EXCERPT 1

Crossing the avenue his trick knee was hurting and the other one felt weak. He was dizzy, adrenaline had his hands shaking and his gut jumping, and his head was emerging from a dull gray cloud.

Asiata Apartments was carved in stone above the building’s entrance. There was a double glass door with four concrete steps leading up to it and Frank could see a vestibule area with mail slots on the wall and a warm inviting light. But he didn’t feel warm or invited as he stepped in out of the mist and checked the names on the mailboxes, all eight of them.

J. Burton, it said next to #8.

Burton—Bruton. J—Judy. Close enough. Who did she think she was fooling?

Frank grabbed the curved brass handle on the heavy wood and glass inside door, pushed down the little thumb tab and pulled. Door didn’t budge. What the hell? Shit, his brain wasn’t working right. It was one of those systems where you buzzed the apartment and talked on an intercom and the tenant pushed a button to unlock the door. A complicated process not guaranteed to achieve the desired result, but what choice did he have? So he stood there looking around and searching for another way in. But goddamnit, the security building seemed secure. With reluctance he pushed the button for #8, hoping J. Burton/Bruton felt like a visitor at two-A-goddamn-M in the misty fucking morning.

No response.

Frank felt the muscles in his shoulders letting go. No one was home and he was off the hook. But then the winged beast weighed in with a different opinion, digging in its talons until he pushed the damn intercom button one more time.

Still nothing.

He was turning to leave when the metallic voice came through. “Yes? Who’s there? Is someone there?”

Frank put his mouth close to the speaker and tried hard not to slur his words. “Judy, this is Frank Ford. Sorry to bother you this late, but I really need to talk to you about Ray. Something’s come up and I—”

“Well, big brother Frank has finally come around. But what if I don’t want to talk about Ray at two-thirty in the morning, big brother Frank?”

“Then I suppose I’ll have to nestle into a corner of your vestibule here and wait until you come out.”

“Suppose I call the police and tell them there’s a drunk passed out in the entry.”

“Then they’ll haul me in and I’ll have to tell Detective Moore that you were the last person to see Ray alive. I’ve got two witnesses who saw you walking out of The Cottage with Ray on your arm. You and one of your new hubby’s goons.” It was actually only one witness but she didn’t need to know that. Cops went to The Cottage and started asking questions, no telling how many witnesses they’d find.

“My husband is a businessman. The owner of several pharmacies—in three states—why would he need these so-called goons?”

“You tell me. I’m sure you’re privy to the inside info.” Silence on the intercom. “So you gonna let me in or not?”

More silence.

Frank waited, his gut roiling like waves on Lake Superior. Then the door clicked and he grabbed the brass handle, pushed down the thumb flap and pulled the door open. Going inside to an olfactory mixture of cooking odors, cleaning fluids and old carpeting imbedded with the smell of years of bodily functions, he was reminded why he didn’t like apartment buildings.

Going up the gold-carpeted stairs, his legs were like lead and the goddamn winged thing was cooing in his ear like a pigeon as big as a beer truck. An image was forming in the foggy reaches of his mind. An image of him in a rowboat without any oars, cold, lonely and vulnerable as the boat washed out to sea.

At the top of the stairs he pushed back the vision. The hallway had numbered doors along both sides. And judging by the location of the high window, Frank figured Judy was all the way down on the right. He moved unsteadily along the worn carpet until he was in front of door number eight. He lifted the horseshoe shaped knocker and tapped it down, lifted, repeated, and then repeated again.

Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 16, EXCERPT 2

Frank pushed open the door and it complained with a rusty moan. He got out and stood on the sidewalk as Waverly flicked his head from side to side and checked the rearview mirror. Watching the Olds roll slowly away down the avenue, Frank was thinking Good luck, man, always an adventure crossing the bridge at this time of night.

Then Frank looked across the street and saw Jesus staring at him. Shit, it was just a statue in front of the ancient St. John’s Catholic Church. But, man, the eyes did seem accusing.

Frank averted his gaze and crossed Fourth Street, starting up the hill with the rustle of wings at his back. He wasn’t sure what he’d do once he got to the apartment building, only knew he had to go there. He was back to being a drone, a robot, Judy’s clown, the dirty, feathered creature pushing him along. His torment, his obsession, and his madness, were penetrating the layers of alcoholic insulation and tearing at him, making him sting. She owned him. Had his balls in her hand. And he couldn’t stand the pain of it—the shame.

The short walk up the hill didn’t sober him up much, if at all. The neighborhood was mostly dark, streetlights out to accommodate crime it seemed, only the rare porch light or window glowing. Judy’s building loomed ahead of him now, large in the corner lot, the two-story brick structure reaching all the way back to the alley above Fifth Street.

Frank lumbered up the hill and stepped into the alley across the avenue from Judy’s building, his heart thumping like a train pushing up a steep grade and his armpits squeezing out foul, cold sweat. He could see a light in the same top floor window as the last time he was here. Fighting against rising nausea and the weight of the booze pulling at his head, he took deep breaths and leaned against the side of a tiny box of a house abutting the alley, a light mist reviving him somewhat. He could hear loud voices coming from the far end of the block and the thumping of a stereo. Party tonight. Party every night. Gazing up he detected movement behind the gauzy curtain of Judy’s high window, a silhouette behind the glass. As it lingered there for just an instant, he got that familiar spiky heat shooting along his spine.

That old black magic got you under my skin.

Fuck it, he was going in.

(End of Chapter 16)

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CHAPTER 16, EXCERPT 1

Approaching downtown Zenith, the northbound lane of the freeway was nearly empty, while on the southbound a long line of cars was angling off toward the Interstate Bridge.

Lemmings, Frank thought. His madness seemed to be receding but he could still feel the creature—or at least the memory of it—at his back, like a shadow. And the words JUDY, JUDY, JUDY, were burning behind his eyes.

Maybe the lunacy was just lying low.

“Where we going, Frank?” Waverly said, his first words since the Arrowhead Bridge. “Your place?”

“Go to the Underground, man. That goddamn coke of yours has got me shaky as an old lady. I need some booze to take the edge off.”

Glancing at the dashboard clock, Waverly gave him a look. “It’s after one, Frank.”

“Meagher’ll be there. He’ll let us in.”

The tendons in Waverly’s jaw twitched as he took the downtown exit off the freeway and veered onto Michigan Street.

After an hour and three or four bumps apiece, Frank and Keith stumbled out onto Michigan Street peering around for cops, Waverly looking extremely nervous. Meagher and Oberst hadn’t had much to offer besides Betty’s booze. And cocaine. Stuff was everywhere in this town, it seemed, and Frank wondered how people could afford the shit. Like ol’ jonesing Waverly there who bought fifty bucks worth from Oberst that seemed about a third of a gram. Frank had abstained and was congratulating himself even though he had a gnawing craving for the shit that surprised him. Jesus, his nerves were maximum raw and he felt like a shaved cat in a hailstorm, not that he’d ever had the experience. But he did have feelings—all of them bad—and real questions for which he had no answers. He was hoping if he got home soon he could pass out and take another look at things tomorrow in the sober light of day.

“Where to, Frank?” Waverly said, pulling open the driver’s door, the dangling side mirror banging against it. Keith’s voice was up an octave and his words sounded like he was gritting his teeth—because he was.

“Home’ll do me, Keitho. And thanks a lot for doing the chauffeur bit tonight. Without a car one can feel helpless, you know?”

“With a car like this one you can also feel helpless.”

Frank thought he should laugh or at least chuckle, but he couldn’t.

They got in the Olds and went up the hill, turned right and headed east on dark and empty Fourth Street. As they passed Third Avenue East Frank saw Artie Autry’s GTO coming down the hill. He craned his neck around and watched the worn Pontiac turn onto Fourth Street and head west.

Sonofabitch.

Farther up the avenue Autry just came down was Judy’s apartment building, the one Frank followed her to that first night. Seemed a long time ago. Would she still keep the place now that she’d married into the big bucks? Seemed pretty doubtful, but she hadn’t been married that long—so it was possible. You can never be totally sure, man, because once you think you know it all, you’re due for a rude awakening. But it could be a coincidence Autry was in the area; the asshole could know any number of people around here. It was the western edge of the Central Hillside neighborhood—Frank’s neighborhood—although Frank’s house was on the plush eastern end. Plush. What a joke that was. Christ, the Central Hillside was hundreds of small houses jammed together—most of them rundown—and a few aging brick apartment buildings. A goddamn oasis of squalor and broken concrete, shitty old cars, welfare families, slumlords and, not to be overlooked, the bulk of the city’s trade in hard drugs and stolen property.

Artie Autry’s comfort zone.

“I tell you what, Keith,” Frank said. “Just drop me off on the corner here. I need to walk off some of this booze before I puke.”

“Sure you’re not too drunk to walk, Frank? I am.”

“Nah, I’m all right, man. Just need a little cool air to revive me. It’s only a little ways to my place. And now you can just roll down the hill and get back on the freeway. Fly outta here before the cops take an interest in your cantilever side mirror and invite you in for a sleepover.”

“I hear you,” Waverly said, pulling to the curb in front of a large red stone building, Romano Center on a big white sign out front.

(To be continued)

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smelt

CHAPTER 15, EXCERPT 3

Then Frank sensed something behind him, something new and unknown. He jerked around, half expecting to see someone inside the ancient, obsolete tollbooth. Perhaps the ghost of an ordinary man in a gray uniform, some long dead escapee from the past handing out bottles of Wisconsin whiskey confiscated at the Minnesota border for the lack of the proper tax stamp, the tollbooth attendant from a time when somebody actually cared about such things.

For the sake of his head, Frank stepped across the bolted planks and looked inside the tollbooth. It was empty, quiet, and bathed in the eerie glow of the yellow bridge lights, a wrinkled Old Dutch potato chip bag on the floor next to the flattened butt of a filter cigarette.

“Ray, you here?” Frank said to the breeze.

Ray didn’t answer.

Frank knew what a woman could do to you, the pain they could cause. Maybe Ray did jump off this goddamn firetrap. Maybe the little shit was just a sensitive candy ass with a big front built up. Something the mental health quasi-professionals might say, eh? Except for the candy-ass part.

Poor, miserable Ray-Ray… he was the goddamn baby of the family.

“Ray-Ray, goddamnit, can you hear me? I know now, man. I know that what happened to the old man really fucked you up. It fucked us all up, Ray—the whole goddamn family. We all have the scars, you know? But you were the baby and you got hurt the most, I know that now. Ma was half-dead for a while and you didn’t get enough of her. You had it the worst of all of us and I’m sorry, man. We just didn’t know.”

Getting no response but the hissing of the breeze and the groans of the ancient bridge pilings, Frank felt foolish and went back to leaning on the railing and staring down at the black water. And still no answers came. No gut feelings. No intuition. No premonitions. No insights. Just the demanding tug of the puppet strings on his shoulders and the wind pushing at his back.

Man, that water looks cold…

His legs were weightless. He felt himself floating.

And then a flash of stray light hit the corner of his eye and he turned to see a car approaching from the Bay City side, two little white circles back there pointing this way. It had to be trouble. Maybe Pillsbury’s goons were coming to throw him down to join Ray… or Artie Autry followed him, the leather-faced prick seeking revenge… might be the Baytown cops coming after cokeheads… or drunken louts on the way to Zenith, returning home womanless yet again and looking to kick the shit out of some helpless schmuck to ease their frustrations.

Man, it was fucking Baytown, you just never knew.

But it had to be something bad.

Why the fuck hadn’t he brought the pistol?  Went through all the trouble to buy a gun and didn’t even bring it along, something an idiot or a born loser would do.

You ain’t any better than Ray was, Frank. Deserve to get your ass kicked, boy. Feel better after you’ve taken your punishment, son.

So the hell with it, he’d just wait. Just lean against this railing and stare down there in the distance at the big new Interstate Bridge, headlights arcing through the sky from tiny cars rolling across in a drunken rush for more alcohol.

Last call for alcohol.

Man, he’d said it a million times.

And then the goddamn intruder was pulling to a stop right behind him, exhaust fumes fouling Frank’s nose. Frank refused to turn and look. Not unless he heard a door open or a human voice.

But the engine did sound familiar.

“You’re gonna catch your death, Frank, you stand out there all night.”

Goddamn Waverly.

Catch your death, indeed.

Not tonight.

Frank turned to see Waverly leaning across the front seat of the Olds pushing open the passenger door. “You ran off with my coke, Franko. Had to chase you down to get my vial back. Need a ride, man? No fare in Keith’s Cab tonight.”

Frank shook his head, feeling a wry smile forming. Having a tiny moment of reason, he stepped inside the rusty ’65 Olds.

(End of Chapter 15)

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CHAPTER 15, EXCERPT 2

Then Waverly said, “Remember when I was in here the other night, Dory? You were talking with Martha about this guy who was crying at the bar a while back?” Dory nodded to the affirmative, showing a nervous smile. Waverly continued. “I heard you say that you thought he was the guy jumped off the Tallahat—um—the Arrowhead Bridge. This man here,” gesturing toward Frank, “is that guy’s older brother. And he really needs to find out what happened that night. It’s very, very important to him, Dory. You know how family matters can be, I’m sure.”

Her lower lip dropped a bit and she shuffled her feet, gave Frank a guarded look.

Frank returned her look, thinking that some other time he might have more interest in her, but now he was going down a tunnel wearing blinders, no room for side interests. “Nice to meet you, Dory,” he said, handing her the photo. “Is this the guy who was in here that night?”

She scrunched up her face and studied the picture. “I think so,” she said, “but it was a long time ago. And he didn’t look happy that night. Looked a lot older, too—but I’m pretty sure that’s him. We talked for quite a while.”

“Did you see him leave?” Frank asked.

“No, not really. I was working, so I had to keep leaving him. Then this blond chick came in and sat down next to him and I figured maybe that was the girl he was crying over so I let them alone. They were sitting right where you guys are. The next time I came back they were gone.”

Hearing that, Frank ceased being Frank. The familiar things left him. Feelings, thoughts, point of view—you name it—everything was different now. He was a blank slate. And he had a bizarre sense there was something at his back, a large shadow looming there, a dirty white creature with huge spreading wings. A dark angel tearing away any semblance of normalcy he possessed, shredding his decency and pulling him into her depraved sphere. He tried to push back the feelings but they just got stronger, swallowing him up.

He saw Dory watching him, a confused look on her face, the girl probably thinking he was nuts. He tried to speak but it came out a rasp. “Do you think Martha saw him leave?”

Dory took a swallow of her drink and handed the photo back to Frank, looking at him with hooded eyes. “Maybe,” she said, “You have to ask her. All I can say is that your brother was one lovesick guy and I’m sorry he died. But I really have to get to work, so good luck to you guys.” She gave Waverly a last glance and a nice smile and gave Frank one of those sad, I-feel-sorry-for-you-smiles that he hated. Then she grabbed an empty tray and went off into the crowd.

Frank watched Dory move into the throng. Then he looked for Martha. Saw her down at the far end of the room but heading this way. Then somebody must have stuck an electric cord up his ass because his whole body began tingling and vibrating, a burning, driving force pushing at him.

“Hey, Martha,” Frank said, as the waitress approached, her eyes looking suspicious and wary. “Thanks so much for helping us out. Dory was a big help. And I just have one more question and then I’ll leave you alone, I promise.” He held up Ray-Ray’s picture. “On the night this guy was in here, did you by any chance happen to see him leave?”

Martha set her tray of empty glasses and beer bottles on the bar and gave it some thought. “Yes,” she said, “I did. I remember thinking they were an odd threesome, the small guy with the sad face, the blond chick with her hand on his shoulder and this big guy walking behind them like a chaperone. I dunno, it just seemed kind of weird.”

“This big guy, what did he look like?”

“Oh, I dunno—muscle head—no mustache or beard or anything. Had one of those shiny, sports-team jackets on. Light colored hair, I think. I didn’t get a really good look at him but I know he had really wide shoulders.”

“Did you see him and the smaller guy talking at all?”

“No. Like I said, the big guy was acting like a chaperone, just walking behind the other two when they were leaving. It did seem kinda weird, you know, but weird is a way of life around here. But that’s all I got for you guys, sorry.” Then she turned to the waiting bartender, the Seagull giving Frank the evil eye as Martha blew that rebellious hunk of hair off her forehead one more time and started reciting the drink orders. Frank took a ten-dollar bill from his jacket and stuffed it in the tip jar—an empty wine carafe on the bar—and Martha and the bartender suddenly looked more congenial.

Frank turned to Waverly, Keith checking out the chicks on the dance floor as The Agates cranked up Hypnotized.” But Frank had nothing to say. He couldn’t get beyond the grinding inside, the pushing, the demanding. Wouldn’t leave him alone. Felt like marionette wires connected his shoulders to the winged beast at his back and the malevolent angel had an agenda of its own.

Frank was a walking wound. He needed to change his head. Needed something to help him think, help him get free from the terrible energy, the broken-glass feeling in his veins.

Frank took out a twenty and laid it on the bar in front of Waverly. Keith glanced at it and then at Frank. “What’s that for?” Keith said.

“For twenty bucks worth of that toot,” Frank said.

“That’s okay, man, you can have a blast for free.”

“No, I want to pay. Then you can’t say I owe you.”

“Okay Frank, that’s cool,” Waverly picked up the twenty, put it in his jeans pocket, brought out the little brown vial and slipped it into Frank’s hand below the bar top.

Frank took it to the men’s room, stepped into a stall, closed and locked the door. He opened the cap on the vial, spooned up a mound and snorted. Repeated for the other side. Then thinking, What the hell, he did it again—twice. And then the vial was empty and he probably did owe Keith something.

Coming out of the can Frank was thinking the shit had worked. His mind was floating free now and some pleasant sensations were filling his limbs. But as he looked across the room at Waverly sitting at the bar, the man alone and looking forlorn, a bolt of icy lightning shattered the feelings of relief and Frank’s hands and feet went cold. Faces in the crowd turned ugly. The music tore at his nerves. Behind him the waxen wings were flapping louder now, insisting, prodding. With panic clawing at his chest, Frank bolted toward the exit and burst outside into the cold and damp.

Alone in the parking lot, Frank had no clue. What was he doing? What did he want? Without an answer he started walking, drawn toward that apparition floating down there in the distance. The Arrowhead Bridge, Ray’s final stopping point.

Did the little booger really jump off the thing or did Judy and the orc throw the poor heartbroken fuck into the icy water?

No answers came and he kept moving. Couldn’t stop himself. Up ahead the bridge was glowing yellow, with shades of blue.

And before long he was on it, the ancient wood beneath his feet, the empty tollbooths looking ghostly, the lights of Zenith on the far shore eons away. It wasn’t Star Wars anymore, man. The fun had flown and the laughs were faded memories. There was only the bubble pushing him along and the insistent flapping of the wings at his back. He could hear Judy laughing as he walked slowly to the peak of the bridge and leaned against the wood railing. Staring down at the black water, a vaguely sulfurous odor tickled his nostrils. Little balls of yellow light bobbed on the oily surface and he was back in that empty wasteland. Cold. Alone. Jagged. No captain on the ship. A vessel adrift. Unknown forces pushing it. Now he could see her face. That smug look when she was in control and trying to own you, trying to make you beg. Jamming his teeth together, he stared harder at the black coiling water, his body percolating with apprehension.

Could Ray really have jumped from here or did he get some help from Pillsbury’s goon?

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 15, EXCERPT 1

They say that good things come to those who wait. Frank wasn’t sure he bought that one. But right now, right here, what choice did he have? So, as a matter of necessity, he knocked down the shot and signaled the bartender for another one. Waverly was gonna need another one, too.

Frank took a sip of water then fished an old photograph out of his wallet. Picture of Ray sitting on his Honda 305 motorcycle, taken right after he and Judy got married. Frank was surprised how happy Ray looked. Didn’t have that snarling, stab-you-in-the-back-when-you’re-not-looking face Frank had come to know and hate. Made you think Ray really loved the woman. No question he’d gone downhill without brakes after she divorced him.

Frank set the snapshot on the bar and had a taste of Irish, round two sitting in front of him now. Yeah, Judy was a hot, nasty bitch and once she got her hooks in Ray, the poor bastard was done for. There was just something about her that Frank could never quite explain. Harlot just kept coming back into his head. Had to admit he wanted her—goddamnit—and he hated himself for it.

Then time seemed to crawl and Frank was never much for patience. He was fidgeting on the barstool and Waverly was in the can for the third time when Frank saw the little blond in the red cloth coat coming through the entrance. She was approaching the waitress station as Waverly slid in next to Frank. “That her, Keith?” Frank said, gesturing toward the girl in the red coat.

Waverly turned. “That be her,” he said. “Cute, eh?”

Frank didn’t say anything. He was too busy being overwhelmed and taken over by the moment, foreboding riding high and hard in his head and gut. But he was finally getting to something; he could feel it. But shit, maybe it was just the booze. Just about anything seems important and meaningful when you’re hitting the sauce. And god knows he had a good load on. Should’ve been enough to knock him out, but a toxic, grinding energy had a hold of him, pushing him on and allowing no comfort.

Now the sweet-faced Dory was taking off her coat and bringing it behind the bar, sliding it under the counter above the beer coolers. She wore a loose-fitting blue dress that stopped at the knees, sensible flat shoes and dark stockings or tights. Frank never quite knew the difference. He took Ray’s picture off the bar top and rubbed it on his sleeve, stared at it. He watched Dory exchange greetings with the two bartenders. Martha was at the waitress station looking washed out but she had a smile for Dory as the blond came out the step-through. They hugged and Martha said something up close to Dory’s ear. Noise level was high, the Agates rocking out with Hooked on a Feeling.” Frank knew how hard it was to have a conversation when the band was playing. Both the girls were looking at him now. Martha nodded her head.

“You need any help with this, Franko?” Waverly said.

“Just get me started,” Frank said. “She remembers you, I can tell by the way her face fell to the floor when she saw you.”

Dory was looking at Waverly as he beckoned to her, Keith smiling his love-me-I’m-sweet smile as best he could with his jaw muscles wired so tight, Frank thinking it had kind of a ghostly effect. But Dory’s eyes brightened with recognition and she came over. Waverly turned on the stool to face her, saying, “Hi, Dory. Good to see you again. How you been?” Keith sounding mellow, reaching back for a little something extra it seemed, dude sweet as maple syrup.

Dory said, “Fine, Keith,” up in his ear talking loud. “Martha said you guys were looking for me. What’s up?”

At that moment the band hit the final notes of the tune and the room suddenly rang with loud voices caught unaware.

“Can I get you a drink, Dory?” Waverly said, his voice getting softer. “Or don’t they let you drink before closing time.”

Dory smiled, the skin around her eyes crinkling. “I’ve got a few minutes,” she said. “I’m in a little early tonight.”

Dory gestured and caught the eye of the skinny bartender with the sharp elbows and the bony arms that flapped like wings. The Seagull, Frank had christened him. The other tender was a beefy guy Frank figured did some bum dispersing on the side. Man had a look in his eye Frank was familiar with, having seen it a hundred times on guys who enjoyed punching drunks.

“Rum and coke, please, Jimmy,” Dory said, and the Seagull went to make the drink.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 14, EXCERPT 3

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Tables and chairs were stacked around the perimeter of the long narrow room, creating a decent sized dance floor. It was nearly empty now, only a few stragglers lingering, and recorded music was coming through the house system, “Let it Bleed,” sounding tinny. The oval bar was set close to the back wall about halfway down the room, and Martha was standing at the waitress station wearing a tight fitting white T-shirt and blue jeans. She had tiny freckles on her cheekbones. Frank thought she definitely qualified as a cute young thing. Which, strangely enough, was a rarity among Bay City waitresses.

Frank watched Martha zip off into the thirsty throng and felt a little sorry for her, Frank being very familiar with the grief that liquored-up cretins and snippy bitches dumped on waitresses. He and Waverly walked through the smoke and the distracting sparkles of the mirror ball to the waitress station. Frank stood there feeling the impatience and frustration twisting up his gut while Waverly ambled off toward the men’s room.

With Waverly off for his maintenance toot, Frank waited for Martha to return. Few minutes and she was back, breathless and hurried, snapping off drink orders to one of the two yahoos working the bar, The Cottage embossed on the breast of the yahoo’s yellow polo shirt. Frank waited, his gut grinding. He watched Martha take a big breath, extend her lower lip and blow a wayward hunk of black hair off her forehead, her face seemingly saying, Don’t bother me, I’m busy. Frank pushed on anyway. “Are you Martha?” he said, leaning toward her.

Angling her head to the side, she gave him a narrow-eyed stare. Frank smiled as nice as he could. “Yes I am,” she said. “Who wants to know?”

“I’m Frank, Martha. And that curly-haired fellow there…” Pointing at Waverly who, back from the men’s room, was standing behind Martha now, “His name is Keith.”

She turned to look. “Oh yeah,” she said, “I’ve seen him around.” She smiled. Waverly’s cuteness was a reliable icebreaker, although Frank thought Keith looked like shit tonight. And then the bartender was putting the glasses and bottles on Martha’s circular tray and her harried look was back. “But I’m real busy, guys, as you can probably see. I don’t really have time to chat.”

Waverly slid onto the stool, nodding to Frank and Martha.

“Being a former bartender,” Frank said, “I understand, believe me. I hate to bother you, but we’re here on a matter of great importance.” Martha’s eyebrows went up as she grasped the drink tray. “I was wondering if Dory was working tonight,” Frank continued. “She just might be able to help me with some very pressing problems.”

Martha shot an anxious glance over her shoulder toward the bartender and then looked back at Frank. “You guys cops?” she said, a little sneer forming on her cute mouth.

Frank snorted. “Do we look like cops, Martha? Really?”

“You never can tell in this town,” she said. “But I really gotta move here, guys. Dory should be in about one. She works another job on Fridays then comes in here to help close. And now I gotta go. Really.”

And she did, back into the jungle of booze hounds. Frank watched her slap some big lout’s hand off her ass and then stand there while the asshole put it back on her again. She shoved it off again, snapping some angry words at the guy.

“Whattaya drinkin’, Frank?” Waverly said.

Frank turned his gaze to the clock on the wall. Twelve-thirty. Dory wouldn’t be here until one. Long time to wait without a drink. Moran always called it a cocktail, even if it was just straight booze in a glass. Long time to wait without a cocktail. “Shot of Bushmills should do me. And a glass of water.”

“Shot of Bushmills, a water and a Bacardi orange juice,” Waverly said to the skinny, beak-nosed tender in a yellow polo shirt.

Frank settled in.

(End of Chapter 14)

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