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EXCERPT 17, FLY IN THE MILK

Johnny Beam leaps from frying pan into fire in Chapter 3 of Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever books are sold online:

Half an hour later the three of them were bouncing along on bumpy, two-lane asphalt, ghostly snow and dark woods closing in on both sides.

Dig the spongy, yellow front seat of Lambert’s big gold Plymouth: Gloria in the middle, rubbing her thigh against Johnny’s to the beat of rock music coming from the dashboard radio, WEBC, 560 AM, on the dial.

Twenty minutes on the blacktop and a couple miles on iced-over dirt before they swung into the rutted drive of a ramshackle building, remarkable only for its existence in the seeming middle of nowhere. Cars were parked anywhere that would accommodate them, filling the adjacent roadside for fifty yards in each direction.

Johnny guessed they had to be paying off the local constable to overlook this large volume of visitors at a boarded-up wooden shack in the middle of a jack-pine forest. He found out later he was right. The clubs did enough business to afford payoffs without blinking an eye, and there were a lot of needy, underpaid constabularies in the woods of northern Wisconsin. In most cases and most places, with the exception of the occasional young and over-zealous officer, the rural cops hardly ventured out at night in the cold of deep winter, unless there was a call. And as long as nobody got maimed, mugged or murdered, the blind pigs were allowed to continue operations.

The big Plymouth bounced along the tree-lined drive and pulled directly in front of the sagging, gray, two-story house of moderate size that one time might have held a family of six. Lambert wheeled into a private space marked by a wooden sign nailed to a post in the ground, Management painted crudely in red house paint.

Lambert switched off the ignition, shut down the lights and took the revolver from under the seat, put it in the waistband of his trousers, got out of the car and smoothed down his jacket over the bulge. Johnny and Gloria got out the other side. Beam’s heart was beating like someone was working a speed bag in his chest and he surged with a peculiar excitement.

Jimmy and the lady walked up a trampled pathway of dirty snow while Johnny kept slightly behind, breathing deeply of the cold air. It was dry and crisp and smelled of wood smoke. The three stepped onto the warped, ice-speckled porch and Lambert gave a hard rap on a thick metal door with an eye-level viewing slot. A dull roar came through the thin walls. Yellow light seeped through the cracked and yellowed shade of a bay window. About fifty feet to the right of the porch was an outhouse with a sagging roof and two men beside it in the gauzy moonlight, urinating in the snow.

The door is the only thing solid on this whole damn building, Beam thought—truly a business with low overhead. The slot in the door made him smile. But man, where did all these cars come from? Hadn’t been a house for miles.

“You like this door, Johnny?” Lambert asked. “I had it specially made for this place. This welder I know can do some pretty cute things. The guy is a genius, but he can hardly even read. ‘magine that, eh. The guy is a goddamn genius with metal and cars and stuff like that but it would take him a fucking hour to read a goddamn postcard, if he could do it at all.”

The slot slid open with a metallic click. Raucous noise bled out. A pair of yellow, translucent eyes beneath a narrow forehead and a shock of greasy black hair filled the space.

Lambert scowled at the eyes in the slot. “Open the goddamn door, Gooder, you retarded cocksucker.  Can’t you see who this is?”

A metal bolt scraped and the door jerked open.

“What the fuck, Ray?” Lambert snarled.

“Sorry Jimmy,” said a lanky, oily guy in soiled blue jeans and a red flannel shirt. “I was just surprised that it was you, uh, when I saw the… uh… they ah—don’t look like our normal customers, so I—”

His voice trailed off as clouds of tobacco smoke billowed out into the night. There was sawdust on the floor and a great roar of voices trying to be heard over a loud jukebox. Johnny noticed a couple of large and rotund women standing among a crowd of men at a bar made of unvarnished wood.

Ray Gooder stepped out of the way and the three walked in.

“These are my friends, Ray. That’s all you need to know,” Lambert said, his face tightening. “Don’t ever make me wait out here again, you hear me? Where’s your fucking brother?”

“He’s in the back. I’ll tell him you’re here,” Ray said, the tendons in his jaw bouncing.

“I think I’ll just go back and surprise him tonight, Ray. Ted likes surprises, don’t ya know.”

“All three of you going back there?” Ray said, squinting at Johnny.

“Is there a problem with that?”

“No,” Ray said, pushing a hank of hair back into his pompadour.

(To be continued)

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.

Fly in the Milk – $2.99 at https://amzn.to/2LbNJ8j

Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry – $2.99 ebook, $15.95 paperback at https://amzn.to/2Lp48GT

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EXCERPT 16, FLY IN THE MILK

Johnny Beam leaps from frying pan into fire in Chapter 3 of Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever books are sold online:

Johnny shrugged and took another tablet from the bag, put them both on his tongue; poured some Cutty in his glass and washed them down.  A bitter taste lingered.

“You’ll be right as rain in a little while, my friend,” Lambert said, getting up.  “Pour yourself another drink while I get ready.  We’ll snag Gloria on the way out. That is, if she isn’t already in the parking lot giving head to the band.” He laughed loudly then limped over to the metal filing cabinet, opened the second drawer from the top and lifted out a nickel-plated Colt Python .357 Magnum.

“Jesus, man, what you need that for?” Johnny asked, the skin around his eyes tightening.

Lambert turned with the gun in his right hand, barrel pointing up at the low ceiling. “You never can tell, my friend. You never can tell. I ain’t ever had to use it yet, but there were, you know, times in the past when I wished I had a gun with me. And now, since I got one, nothing happens. It’s like hazard insurance, y’know?  With this bum leg of mine I sure can’t run away if there’s trouble, and it doesn’t help me much if I have to fight, either. I can still handle myself, you understand, you’d be surprised. But I can’t handle more than one guy at a time.”

“Yeah, sure, I know. But I don’t like guns, had enough of guns in Korea. Seems like where there are guns, trouble follows close behind—if it ain’t already there. Way too many of them in Chicago when I was there. Got so you were always checking out a man’s coat to see if he was packing.”

“Man like you, Johnny, can get out of most jams with his fists, I ‘magine,” Lambert said, sticking the revolver in his waistband.  “But ah, come on, man, take a look at me.  Skinny old gimpy bastard like me needs a back-up.”

“I’ll watch your back tonight, Jimmy. You don’t need that thing.”

“No offense, my friend, but walking into one of my joints with you next to me, could start something right there. Could be some kind of trouble start up—uh—just on appearances—if you catch my drift.” Lambert looked down at a stain on the rug.

“I know what you mean, Jimmy; I know what you’re saying. But honestly, I don’t usually have any trouble when I go out. I’m a friendly guy, you know; I get along with people, for the most part. My mother always taught me that was the way you had to be to get by in this world.” Johnny shifted uneasily in the chair, rubbed at his throat and smiled.

“Just the same, my friend, I think I’ll bring the heater along.” He patted the pebbled grip and nodded. “You know the old line: Meet my friends, Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson. So here, meet my friends, Mr. Colt and Mr. Python.” Jimmy cackled and a cold light danced in his eyes.

“Maybe I shouldn’t go at all,” Johnny said, wincing deep furrows on his broad brow. “I don’t wanna screw up your deal, Jimmy.”

“Ah, no, Johnny, don’t worry. Just come along for the ride, we’ll be all right. No, I mean it. One thing for sure, you won’t be sleeping anytime soon, I promise you that.” He cackled. “You gotta see these places of mine. You know, get a grasp on the scope of my operation. You gonna be a businessman, you gotta learn.”

“Well I ain’t gonna tell you your business, Jimmy, so we might as well get a move on. I’m already starting to feel pretty good. This is good scotch,” he said, lifting the glass to his lips.

“Have some more while I get a few things from out front, Champ. I’ll be back in a flash.”

The door slammed shut. Johnny leaned back in his chair and took a look around the office. Couch, TV, desk, a few chairs, file cabinet, pictures of fighters on the brown-paneled wall: Joe Louis, Marciano, Max Baer, Sugar Ray Robinson, Carmen Basilio, Benny “Kid” Paret and others, also a couple of wrestlers. He recognized Gorgeous George, long, curly blond hair like a woman’s.

Kind of place that Johnny felt at home. He could picture himself in a backroom like this, smoking a cigar and stuffing money in a canvas bag. His would be a little nicer, though, better furniture. Have a color TV, maybe a fridge… That would be real fine.

(To be continued)

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.

Fly in the Milk – $2.99 at https://amzn.to/2LbNJ8j

Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry – $2.99 ebook, $15.95 paperback at https://amzn.to/2Lp48GT

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EXCERPT 15, FLY IN THE MILK

Johnny Beam wanders from the ring to the swamp as Chapter 3 begins in Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

Johnny chuckled softly to himself and squinted out the windshield as fog collected on the edges of the glass. He pointed the Olds in the direction of the Bayside Bar and tried to imagine his parents together in this town. It was hard to do.

He was on Banks Avenue, near the viaduct over the railroad tracks, thinking how nothing seemed historical about Bay City, just old. How the past seemed to disappear like last winter’s snow, and once it was gone, nobody thought about it much.

Except maybe if you were drunk and blasted on pain pills.

At 12:20 he swung into the gravel parking lot of the Bayside and was jolted by the sight of two gigantic Great Lakes ships towering in the gloom at the back of the lot. Two brown monsters looming dry-docked, waiting for the ice to go out. Waiting for winter’s grip to loosen, just like everyone else.

He picked up a few stares when he came through the red door into the dim, smoky bar. He didn’t give a damn. To his left was a stage, four skinny white kids with ducktail haircuts, white shirts and stovepipe jeans playing electric guitars and slouching through a love song about a “Little Ragged Dolly.” A few couples slow-danced. Stage lights changed color from red to blue to yellow.

Two meatheads at the bar made a point of staring as he strode confidently and impassively past them. But nobody was about to say anything to the beefy, well-dressed black man with the Band-Aid above his eye and cigar stub clenched between his teeth.

He approached the barman and smiled at the slender guy with the standard ducktail haircut. The tender pointed towards the back of the room.  “Mr. Lambert said you should go on back, Mr. Beam. Just go on back to the hallway there and hang a right.”

“Thanks,” Johnny said, as the kid moved down the bar toward a teetering, rouge-cheeked lush with a pink scarf wrapped around her frizzy, thinning red hair.

Beam walked towards the back of the room, squinted through the smoke and the dim lights at the pool table. He saw faces that looked vaguely familiar. He turned down a hallway of cracked brown linoleum. The smell of stale beer was in the air. Red and white shards of light from a cracked Exit sign strafed the walls. He knocked on the scarred and scuffed wooden door that said Office in gold letters.

“Come on!” Lambert hollered from behind the door.

Beam turned and pushed on the doorknob.

Jimmy was sitting in a wheeled leather chair, wearing sharply creased tan slacks and a tan western-style shirt, brown cowboy boots stretched out alongside a cluttered oak desk. Against the far wall, Gloria was sprawled out on a green, three-cushion couch, drink in one hand and Salem burning in the other, breasts damn near falling out of her dress. Her mouth wriggled into a big smile when Johnny sat down in front of the desk and grinned at her devilishly.

“Glad to see you could make it over, Johnny.  Or should I call you Champ?” Lambert said.  “Glad you came over, my friend.” He lifted out a green bottle of Cutty Sark from a bottom desk drawer. “Here, pour yourself a drink.

“Gloria, get Johnny a glass, honey. And then get me that plastic bag from the file cabinet.”

Gloria lifted herself from the couch, smoothed down her red dress and shook her body like she was trying to get all her parts back into place. She couldn’t quite manage it, tripped on her high heels and went stumbling and giggling across the room.

“So, Johnny, my friend,” Lambert said, lighting a Lucky Strike, sucking in smoke and slapping his Zippo down on the desktop. “Tell me about these booze bargains that you were referring to earlier. Tell me how you and I are going to rake in the big dough.”

“I’ve got some real solid plans, Jimmy, real solid. These are some things I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I thought I’d check with you first—I’m going to do it anyway—but having you along will sweeten the pot for both of us, I can guarantee that.”

“Go on Johnny, you’ve got my ear.” Lambert said, flicking his ash into an amber, circular glass ashtray on the cluttered desktop. “Exactly how can you save me a ton of moolah on booze?”

“No offense to Gloria,” Johnny said, bowing his head as she approached. “But I’d prefer to treat this as private business between you and me, Jimmy.”

Smirking, Gloria placed a thick short glass in front of Beam and then tossed a small rolled-up paper sack onto the desktop.

“Of course,” Jimmy said, dragging hard on his cigarette.  “Gloria, sweetheart, why don’t you go out front and flirt with the guys in the band for a while or something.  Maybe you can get one of them to take you home later. I’ve got to go out to the county tonight, and I know you don’t like it out there.”

“Maybe I want to go along tonight,” she whined, wiggled.

“We’ll talk about that later,” he said.

She flipped him the bird, rocked her hair back and bounced her ass in that tight wool dress out of the room, a slight pout holding on her rapidly aging visage.

The office door clicked shut.

“We’re alone now, Johnny.  Let’s hear the plan.”

“Coincidence, I guess, but it concerns your holdings in the county, Jimmy. All the booze you sell out there. It’s well known that you supply those places, and I know a guy who can cook stuff up so it’s better than the real thing. That means tax-free liquor. High-grade. Stuff would be perfect for your blind pigs, man. This stuff will flat out light up those farmer johns.”

“Moonshine, you say?”

“More correctly, corn whiskey.  My man says he can make whiskey as good as store-bought, color and everything, if he’s got the time to age it. If he ain’t got the time, he can use food coloring and flavoring.  If there’s a call for it, we can get you bathtub gin. My prices are going to be low, Jimmy. I’m talking so low, you’ll have to squat down to see’em.”

“How low, exactly?”

“Truth is, we’re not ready to price it, yet,” Johnny said, but the truth really was that he didn’t have any idea. “We have to make a batch first, to see what it’s gonna cost and how long it has to age and other considerations. A wet run so to speak.”  Johnny grinned.

Lambert was struck with the thought that Beam resembled Louie Armstrong—the big smile and the round face.

“Thing I’m getting at,” Johnny continued, “is that if the sample is to your satisfaction and you decide you want to order big for your clubs, I think I could price it even lower, say, if you were able to toss me a little advance bankroll, you know, in order to increase the size and scope of the operation.”

“And you’re sure this cook of yours knows his stuff?  I can’t be financing any garbage.”

“I’ve tasted the stuff, the guy makes it for himself in small batches. Hillbilly lives in a trailer in the woods outside of Zenith. Son of a bitch is a master. Stuff is smooth going down and sure enough puts the fire in your belly. Of course you’d get a sample before any commitments were expected.”

In reality, never a drop of Big Cat’s shine had touched Johnny’s lips. But you gotta do what you gotta do.

“Your word on it is good enough for me, Johnny.  If you say it’s kosher, then it is.  Tell you what, my friend. Why don’t you come out to the sticks with me tonight? We’ll talk business and party a little and get a grasp on what kind of volume I do. I’ll show you how it works in the boondocks.”  As he spoke, he lifted the paper bag off the desk, reached in and removed a rolled-up plastic bag. He let the baggie unfurl to reveal a snarl of white pills along the bottom, covered in a dusty white powder. “Why don’t you take a couple of these, Johnny, and come along for the ride tonight? You’ll like it. I’ll bring Gloria along and we’ll have a party.”

“I already took some pain pills tonight, Jimmy. I’m flying pretty high already. You know how it is after a fight, the adrenaline and all.”

“These are different than pain pills. These are bennies, my friend. Pep pills, goofballs, uppers. Benzedrine is what the doctors call it. Take all your troubles away and let you run a little longer, don’t ya know. You’ll feel like a new man with these, Johnny, that’s my guarantee.”  He tossed the bag and Beam caught it with a smooth motion.

“I’m going to be flying so high, Jimmy,” Johnny said, grinning like Louie Armstrong, his voice velvet smooth, as he reached into the bag and removed one of the small white tablets. He figured he’d go along with Lambert for the sake of business. Same thing as having lunch with a banker to get a business loan.

“Big man like you needs at least two, Champ.”

(To be continued)

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.

Fly in the Milk – $2.99 at https://amzn.to/2LbNJ8j

Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry – $2.99 ebook, $15.95 paperback at https://amzn.to/2Lp48GT

Read Full Post »

EXCERPT 14, FLY IN THE MILK

Johnny Beam’s father didn’t let a losing streak keep him from planning the game to end all games as Chapter 2 ends in Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

Railroad and shipping traffic slowed to a near standstill and the mines followed suit. Survival became the watchword. Money got tighter. The poor no longer had anything extra for the occasional bet. Savvy Scandinavians knew how to hunker down and batten down the hatches. The lowlife sunk lower and the ladies of the night, faced with dwindling clientele, moved southward to Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans and points west.

To complicate matters, Clarence was growing soft. At least that’s the way he looked at it. He’d always maintained a policy of never getting close to any of his ladies. If they got knocked-up, it was a trip down to the yellow shack by the railroad tracks where the wrinkled old veterinarian would take care of things. Either that, or leave town.

The new, soft Clarence not only had settled down with one of his stable, he was going to be a father. And he never would’ve been in that situation if Ethel Mae weren’t such a fine-looking woman with a good head on her shoulders, as he told anyone willing to listen.

He was now over thirty and the idea of a son didn’t sound that bad to him, except it meant he was going to have to feed, clothe and put a roof over their heads. The mother of his child wouldn’t be a whore no more.

As the fear of the Depression sank further into the fabric of the nation, the gambling crowds grew even smaller. Cash flow slowed to a half-frozen trickle. Clarence felt a little panic now and then. Like maybe it was time to pack up and leave. On to greener pastures, as the Swedes liked to say in that particular sing song way of theirs: On tuu greenah pastuhs….

Being adaptable, he soon tapped into a growth industry: bootleg liquor. In the years after the introduction of the Volstead Act, the sale of illegal alcohol kept the wolf away from many doors across America. Clarence was able to develop a steady income by hawking booze provided to him by a former customer from his brothel days.

The new decade came in cold, dry and dark. The expected birth was only a few months away. Ethel was getting fatter every day. Clarence had never seen anyone eat like that, let alone a woman. They had a little boxy house in the North End. All the working girls were gone and the only gambling to be had was strictly high-stakes poker with the elite.

Clarence had found poker to be a horse of a different color. Sadly, cards were not one of his strengths. Big on feelings and hunches, he never quite felt it with the cards, and the other players were too smart and too rich. When their cards were bad they played it close to the vest and folded. When their cards were good they could buy Clarence out of a pot, overwhelm his limited personal resources.

Best he could do was break even, or, on a good day make enough scratch for a week’s food. He took solace in the fact that he was still close to the guys with the dough. When you were close to the fire, there was always a chance to get warm.

Clarence Walker Brown Junior came into the world at St. Catherine’s Hospital in Bay City, Wisconsin, on March 2, 1930, a healthy strapping baby with his father’s muscles and his mother’s good looks.

Clarence couldn’t help but stare at the boy and feel his fatherly pride swelling. This here was some boy.

The new father proceeded to give family life his best try. He changed his ways some and took jobs doing favors for some of the big wheels from the card games. Little paid favors—whatever they might request. He did the collecting for Jimmy Fuller’s pinball and bowling machines. He chauffeured for Zenith businessman, James P. Baker, who had taken pity on Clarence one night after winning a large pot in which Clarence was holding the better hand but was forced to fold because of a lack of funds.

The reformed pimp continued his effort at family life for close to two years, spending a good chunk of dough to rent a house out in the South End of town so Ethel Mae and little Clarence could get away from the seedy side of things.

Sometimes he’d sit in the kitchen and stare mournfully out the windows at the miles and miles of flat empty land. Land that once was expected to hold the streets and neighborhoods of the future “Chicago of the North.” Any hope for a real city on that tundra had been lost October of 1929 when the stock market crashed.

Clarence often felt an emptiness inside him, a longing for the big city. Busy streets, downtown traffic and smoky nightclubs. An environment in which he could thrive.

Denied this, he gamely went through the teething and the diapers and being cooped up with Ethel Mae when she wouldn’t stop yammering. He lived through the cold winter months and the frigid, damp, non-existent spring. Got through the bouts of claustrophobia and Ethel’s drinking binges and the looks of superiority from his employers.

December of 1932 brought change along with the snow. Prohibition was over and tavern owners were dreaming of the sights and sounds of a full barroom, while the citizenry was busy figuring what items they could go without to afford alcohol. For Clarence, repeal of prohibition proved to be a double-edged sword. First there was the decline in profit from the sale of illicit alcohol, which, when all had been tallied, had proven to be a source of income that, if not for his frequent gambling losses, would have been considered quite good for the time. On the other side of the coin, the new liquor-fueled optimism in the air—or perhaps recklessness—brought his dice games back in favor. With the addition of some new players, a ten-percent rake off the top began to look pretty fine, especially when he could make it grow by playing in other hustlers’ games.

And then came the Big Losing Streak.

The faster he made it, the faster he lost it, longest such streak of his life. His debts grew faster than the snowbanks. Every gambler knows—at least the good ones—about the ups and downs, but he’d never seen nothing like this. The strain began to get to him. He was drinking heavily and his head hurt most of the time.

Then one frosty February night, when there seemed to be no end to the torture, the idea—The Plan—came to him. A scheme to make one big score. Fleece the suckers and escape this hole he’d somehow fallen into. The time and the mood were right.

Clarence had been around long enough to be accepted in Bay City, at least to fellow gamblers. He was part of the scene. His speech, his clothes and his mannerisms had become more Wisconsin than Chicago and his peers treated him accordingly.

As he’d come to grips with this change from big-city smoothie to small-town hustler, Clarence often battled with disgust and self-doubt. His overwhelming need to escape what he now saw as a slow road to the grave allowed him the moral distance to plan a con of his long-time associates. He actually did struggle with feelings of guilt, at times. He believed himself an honest man but could usually find a sufficient rationalization to ease any concerns that might rise to the surface of his mind.

Some of the guys… well, he knew he’d feel kind of bad if they got fished. But the rich guys, he’d gladly take to the cleaners like a pile of cheap suits.

He fed the flames of anticipation among the locals with stories of dice games run by cash-laden Negroes from Chicago with fancy suits, hair straightener and manicures. How these big-time gamblers would cover any bet you could make and smile if they lost. Clarence sold the tales like you sell a kid on the circus, with wild yarns of gigantic pots and of empires won and lost on a single roll of the bones. In the throes of a dull, tedious winter, the brethren were easily led, as the only way to reach Florida back then was a damn long train ride.

It took Clarence a month of phone calls and letters and telegrams to put it all together. He had hyped, cajoled, wheedled and promised, and by the time all was said and done, a series of big-dough games in Zenith and the Minnesota Iron Range had been arranged for a four-day, Friday-to-Monday span.

The final game was to be on a Monday evening in the East End of Zenith at the mansion of J.P. Baker.

A house full of whiskey-addled titans of commerce and industry and enough money to retire to New Orleans in antebellum style would be waiting.

(End of Chapter II)

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.

Fly in the Milk – $2.99 at https://amzn.to/2LbNJ8j

Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry – $2.99 ebook, $15.95 paperback at https://amzn.to/2Lp48GT

Read Full Post »

EXCERPT 13, FLY IN THE MILK

A tough fight, pain pills and the blur of streetlights take Johnny Beam on a trip down memory lane in Chapter 2 of Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

Hell of a place to be born in, Johnny thought. It was after midnight and he was rolling by the High Times Saloon and the Heartbreak Hotel. Wanting to stall a little longer, he decided to cruise over by the viaduct and see if he could find the apartment building that he and his mother had lived in.

He didn’t remember his old man, only the stories. 

It was said that Clarence Walker Brown knew all the right places and all the right faces. He was a gambler, a bon vivant and the keeper of a few professional ladies: a Negro making a buck in the very cold, very white North. One may wonder what a black man was doing in northern Wisconsin in 1927. Clarence often pondered that question himself.

He had learned the various scams in and around Chicago from his daddy and his uncle. They had worked the dock and warehouse districts with their women and their cards and their dice. Success eventually had bought them a small club out near the truck stops and the mills. All was fine until prohibition hit and Al Capone and his boys appeared on the scene with a strong interest in corn liquor and the connected rackets.

Then came the fires and the shootings.

Escaping on the run, Clarence had ridden the railroad north, hoping to find a place where the ready cash might flow without the loss of his precious blood. Booming Bay City was the end of the railroad line and the beginning of a new life for him, as well as several other Negroes that had traversed the trail of the tracks.

As always in boomtowns, with the flow of cash and commerce comes the flow of vice. With vice, comes corruption. Bay City had it all. And it was so damn cold the competition was sparse.

The cold equalized things. In the long winters, the main concern was warmth. Everyone is on the same page when it’s ten below zero. Few like to fight when they’re shivering.

Post-1920, as the aftershock from a racially motivated lynching in Zenith reverberated through the region; racism in the Twin Ports became mostly a verbal thing. The Scandinavians and the Bohunks gradually learned how to live with the “coloreds,” generally allowed them to fill a niche.

One Bay City sporting house featured black ladies exclusively, for servicing a strictly white clientele, and most of the other houses featured at least one black prostitute. A black piano player was a fixture on the speakeasy circuit in the infamous North End, and some superb Negro jazz combos occasionally arrived to play all-night gigs. The black gamblers were allowed to ply their trade without interference as long as they played it straight and paid their bills.

Shortly after arriving in town, Clarence had stumbled into a real sweet deal, the good fortune of which reaffirmed his lifelong belief and reliance on luck and circumstance. It had gotten him this far, after all. The circumstances coming into play here being the shortage of healthy “sporting ladies” in Bay City, and the luck, being the three young prostitutes who accompanied Clarence on his journey from Chicago.

Destiny came into play when the foursome chose to make their first stop at the Douglas Hotel. After a round of introductions in which the ladies strutted their stuff and made their nicest, Clarence and the hotel proprietor quickly struck up a deal. In exchange for a small rental fee, the occasional free lay for the proprietor, and a cut of the take, Clarence was allowed to run his ladies out of the upstairs of the Douglas Tavern, currently languishing in disuse next door, and host dice and card games in the backroom.

The local cops pretty much kept their eyes turned away as long as their pockets were lined. On occasion, when the mood struck them or too many ministers had complained to the chief, the boys in blue would bust a card game and scrape a big pot into their coats or maybe make a few nominal arrests of known prostitutes.

In an effort to keep the raids at a minimum, the gamblers often sent turkeys to the police station at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and many on the force were known to fight the winter’s chill with a bit of local moonshine, free of charge.

Clarence didn’t like giving money to cops; it went against his upbringing. As far as he could see it, the only difference between the cops in Bay City and those in Chicago was that up North they were dumber and cheaper to bribe. They were, however, just as brutal. Nevertheless, he marched along with the band, kept his mouth shut and greased the right palms when necessary.

Things went pretty well on the edge of civilization. He wasn’t exactly getting rich, but he had enough to eat and drink and smoke and gamble, put warm clothes on his back and coal in the stove during the six months of winter. He was extremely popular with the ladies, both black and white, and was considered a prized catch among the working girls.

For a time Clarence enjoyed relatively easy living in Bay City, even doing some fishing and playing a little golf in the all-too-brief summers. By 1929, his stable of women had grown to ten and his gaming salon was the most popular in town, attracting many influential and wealthy patrons.

Then the Great Depression hit the country like a razor blade rainstorm.

(To be continued)

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.

Fly in the Milk – $2.99 at https://amzn.to/2LbNJ8j

Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry – $2.99 ebook, $15.95 paperback at https://amzn.to/2Lp48GT

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EXCERPT 12, FLY IN THE MILK

A tough fight, pain pills and the blur of streetlights take Johnny Beam on a trip down memory lane in Chapter 2 of Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

Johnny moved back to Zenith in 1957 with his statuesque bride Ruby and their unborn child in tow. With the help of some fans of his past gridiron prowess, he managed to land a job at the steel plant in western Zenith.

They attempted to play house.

Sadly, John couldn’t control his wandering eye or the other body parts that followed, and Ruby quickly got fed up. She walked out of the house with John Jr. and hopped a Greyhound bus headed for Chicago in March of 1958.  Somewhere south of Madison, Wisconsin, Ruby was heard thanking the lord for giving her the strength to escape from a “town more drab and gray than the darkest night Chicago ever seen and a man who made an alley cat look like a saint.”

Liquor and pain pills had him giddy; the streetlights had blurry circles around them. No wonder his mind was drifting a little, wondering about what it was like for his mama in this old town, thinking about things that went on thirty-plus years ago in this vulgar little place.

                                                     *   *   *   *

Walking the streets of Bay City, Wisconsin, in the year of our lord nineteen hundred and twenty-seven, one might wonder as to why this side of the bay was once expected to become the larger and more populous of the two port cities. The “Chicago of the North,” some had boldly predicted.

Conventional wisdom at the turn of the century had it that the tip of the great lake and its two ports would prove to be a hub for the shipping industry, with the railroads meeting the shipping traffic at a natural vortex of goods from all directions.

The region did indeed prove to be a hotbed of commerce. By 1920 the port cities were being serviced by fourteen railroads, bringing in over thirty million tons of iron ore and nine million tons of coal yearly. Lumber from the forests and grains from the western prairies also rolled into the ports in great quantities, and by the mid-twenties, the Twin Ports boasted more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the U.S.

Unfortunately for Bay City, the majority of the new citizenry, and almost all of the wealthy, chose to make their homes in the tree-covered hills of Zenith, on the Minnesota side of the lake. There was something about the hills and the rocky cliffs and brooding pine forests on the North Shore of the lake that made it special. 

The port town on the Wisconsin side of the bay was soon filling the role of tawdry little sister to the lovely and virtuous Zenith. Bay City was the homely one resigned to collecting the runoff. Like algae to a stagnant pond, the lost, the lonely and the otherwise disenfranchised floated to this low point on the geographical survey where the speakeasies, the gambling joints and the sporting houses waited with open doors. There was always a drink to be found, a card to be turned or a skirt to be lifted. The railroaders, the truck drivers and the seamen, along with many “good citizens” of Zenith, came to pursue pleasure and release in a town known to many around the region as “Hell.”

Walking down Main Street, Bay City didn’t look much different than many Wisconsin towns. Markets and furniture stores and hardware, mostly low buildings with hastily assembled storefronts. Snowbanks, a few cars and brown-brick structures that made the dark days darker and the sunny days seem dirty. Black and white and shades of gray.

Leaving the main drag and heading toward the railroad tracks, one would come upon the cracker-box houses of the citizenry. Tap on the window of the right ones and a woman would appear, a woman who would take money for sex. Other stops in the jungle of bungalows might provide a jar of corn liquor in a paper sack or perhaps more exotic means to loosen the bonds of the imprisoned soul.

Down by the waterfront were greasy cafes, cheap rooming houses and boarded-up, sagging buildings with faded signs touting now-illegal imbibing pleasures. Good names like Budweiser and Schlitz and Seagram’s turning gray with age. Closer to the docks, it was mostly flophouses: two-story flops that were perfect if you were between jobs or riding out a binge, either short-term or permanent. Hobo hotels where the desk clerks knew the right houses in the right neighborhoods to find what was needed to make it through another day.

(To be continued)

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.

Fly in the Milk – $2.99 at https://amzn.to/2LbNJ8j

Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry – $2.99 ebook, $15.95 paperback at https://amzn.to/2Lp48GT

Read Full Post »

EXCERPT 11, FLY IN THE MILK

Johnny Beam looks back on the life that led him to this moment in Chapter 2 of Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

The rest of his Bay City memories consisted of dark mornings and cold nights spent with his mother in a small apartment in a brick building that smelled of cabbage and dust and pine-scented cleaner. One of his favorite things was dropping the table scraps down the second-floor incinerator chute after his mom had wrapped them in newspaper. He’d had a radio, a football and a basketball. He remembered bouncing the basketball behind the building on the cracked concrete in the cold, wet spring. No images of his father reached his consciousness.

Color entered his memories after he and his mama moved across the bridge into Minnesota. It had been summer and the little house with the small backyard had filled the two of them with joy and a feeling of freedom. Something new for his mama, this freedom thing. She instilled in him the need for it.

The circular dashboard clock on the Olds read a little before midnight. To kill some time, he decided to take a ride around the town and soak up some of the atmosphere. Lambert couldn’t think he was overanxious—you didn’t want that.

Bay City repelled and attracted him at the same time. It was a great place for chasing pussy and drinking on the cheap and that was about the extent of it. The trouble was that a black man was like a fly in a bottle of milk over here. It wasn’t hard for anyone to spot you, and when they did, they usually hated what they saw.

Not that Johnny never got around. He could handle himself and had the championship belt to prove it. Duking it out with some drunken fool wasn’t what worried him. It was the strange feeling he got in Bay City, a feeling of uneasiness coming from no identifiable source.

He toured the dark and decaying north end of town and took a little trip along the infamous John Avenue, aptly named, considering the number of brothels it had held over the years. He wondered if perhaps he’d somehow driven by his birth home without knowing it.

His mother had once been a whore.

The knowledge had hurt him at first. Burned him from the inside out like he’d swallowed hot charcoal. He’d only known her as a saint. She’d been a beautiful woman, that part was true. He’d seen the old photos. She’d carried herself tall and straight, and even when she’d gotten heavy in her later years she radiated a noble quality, like royalty.

Whatever she’d done in her past, Johnny didn’t hold a thing against her for it. And over time, he accepted it. He knew that folks sometimes had to do things to get by. Things that the straights and the self-righteous looked down upon. But Johnny had the utmost respect for his mother and everything she’d done for him. It hadn’t been easy for her around here; he knew that.  She’d heard the word “nigger” more times than she cared to, that was for sure.

One thing he deeply regretted was not being there the day she died. Poor woman dropped dead from a heart attack in church while he was living in Chicago. After coming back to Minnesota for the funeral, he’d wanted to stay. Didn’t need any more of Chi-town. One thing had led to another, and after some coaxing his wife Ruby said she’d give it a try, thinking anything would be an improvement over the old neighborhood and the way it was going downhill.

(To be continued)

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.

Fly in the Milk – $2.99 at https://amzn.to/2LbNJ8j

Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry – $2.99 ebook, $15.95 paperback at https://amzn.to/2Lp48GT

Read Full Post »

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