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This way and that way—go this way and that.

That bit of an old German children’s song cycling in Frank Ford’s head seemed to be a comment on the flow of his thoughts. In the aftermath of his brother’s funeral, he was bouncing between sad, happy and relieved—and then back again. And to top it off, he had mud on his pants.

“Goddamnit,” he said, brushing impatiently at the dark clumps ringing the cuff of his only pair of dress pants. Most guys would have relegated these sharply creased grays to painter’s pants long ago, but not Frank Ford. To him these trou seemed more than suitable for his brother’s goddamn funeral.

Frank’s temper was not improving as the remaining splotches resisted his vigorous rubbing. Thinking about the funeral service wasn’t helping his head either.

Frank gave up his grooming efforts with a grunt, lifted his legs into the front seat of his rusty blue Pontiac station wagon and slammed the simulated wood-paneled door. He normally had Fridays off at the bar but today was the second time this month Betty called him in because Douglas “Sack” Sackberger pulled one of his infamous disappearing acts. If you could call holing up inside a bottle at his lowlife-welfare-cheater-girlfriend’s dump, disappearing. Frank wondered why Betty didn’t fire the sorry bastard. Maybe they were related, Sack and Betty. He’d heard that.

“Goddamn families,” Frank said as he turned the key, the angry profanity fading into the empty street like a warning. The starter responded with a tired whine.

It’s not like Ray was a brother anyone should mourn.

The whining and buzzing, ground to a halt.

Frank cranked down the window and yelled, “Fuck,” into the damp, gray air. Christ, the way it went down was so typical of Ray, his body lying there with ID in the pocket of his jeans so we could all know who it was. Know what happened to him, what somebody did to him. Make his big brother feel morally obligated to do “the right thing.” Whatever the hell that was.

Why couldn’t the dirt bag have just gone away?

You know how at funerals people always say they’re going to miss the dead person? This ceremony was no different. But Frank knew they were all liars. Except Mom, of course, she always loved Ray no matter what he pulled. “Ray-Ray’s had a hard time of it,” she’d say, explaining why she gave her younger son money or forgiveness. Money Frank always knew would be spent at a bar or a drug house— and forgiveness surely to be taken advantage of by the receiver. Mom babied Ray and took his side most of the time, which never failed to piss Frank off, but now it was left to him to comfort her.

Forgotten, that’s how he wanted to remember Ray. But the lasting image of his grief stricken mother bent over in the church pew and the rising bile in Frank’s craw, foretold a different future. He didn’t know how to answer when she asked why. Why Frankie? Why did little Ray-Ray have to die like this? 

Frank gazed out at the cloudy sky and the small, well-kept houses in the blue-collar neighborhood surrounding his mother’s apartment building and felt the sourness growing. Maybe he should tell her about that time last fall. The time he saved her little darling from an ass kicking. Tell her about driving downtown one night and seeing this gray-haired guy in a dark suit pounding his fists on some turd in a worn-out fatigue shirt. Tell her he got a look at the smaller guy and realized it was Ray. Then maybe he should tell her that his first thought was—Good, he’s probably getting what he deserves. But Ray was Frank’s little brother and Frank had to stand up for him for that goddamn reason and that reason alone, so Frank jerked the car to a halt right there on the main drag—double parking on goddamn Superior Street for Christ sake—honked the horn and waved to his wacko brother. And when the gray-haired guy glanced over, Ray took the opportunity to scramble away and jump in the front seat of Frank’s big station wagon. Then Mom’s sweet little boy Ray-Ray gave the natty dresser the finger and hocked a gob of spit at him as Frank drove off. When Frank asked him what it was all about, Ray said he was fucking the guy’s wife, which Frank thought was a crock because any woman married to the dapper dude was not going to play around with snotty, greasy, Ray Ford. More likely Ray was sniffing around the guy’s teenage daughter, trying to get her high or something.

Frank twisted the key in the ignition again and this time the Pontiac V8 fired up, sending clouds of oily exhaust into the air. He pulled away from the curb and pointed the wagon in the direction of Jimmy Carl’s Gentlemen’s Club. Nikki was out there doing her waitress thing, the master’s degree candidate working in a strip club for her sociology thesis. Girl was the only joy Frank had left in life. Kept him from thinking about his ex-wife and her asshole new husband or the way the country was going lately, everything costing so much these days. Sweet little Nikki made him feel alive, feel something good inside again. Her company and a couple stiff bumps would get him through the afternoon, but tonight at the Metropole was another thing altogether.

(To be continued)

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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

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EXCERPT 9, FLY IN THE MILK

Johnny Beam looks for the good life in all the wrong places in Chapter 2 of Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

The scotches arrived shortly thereafter, followed closely by Lambert and the buxom redhead. Lambert sat down next to Harry, who slid as far away as he could get, wedging himself against the window.

The redhead slid in next to Johnny.

He didn’t budge an inch.

“Hey Johnny,” Lambert said, gesturing toward the woman. “Hope you don’t mind me bringing Gloria, here, she really wanted to meet you. She likes boxers.”

“Pleased to meet you, Gloria,” Johnny said in a mellow baritone.

“The same, I’m sure,” Gloria said, smiling, her lips crooked.

Her large mouth and large teeth, red lipstick and hair were joined together in unison, shouting, Fuck me.  At least that’s the way Johnny was reading it.

“That cut on your eye must be nasty, Johnny,” Gloria said, hormone-induced concern oozing from her husky voice as her long red fingernails slid over his shoulder. “And this awful bump…”

“I’ll be all right, darling. I’m a big boy. I recover fast.”

“I just bet you do,” she said, slowly sliding her hand from his shoulder.

“We just came over to say we enjoyed the fight, Johnny,” Lambert said, slightly slurred. “Didn’t we, Gloria?”

“Of course, Jimmy—it was a wonderful fight,” she said, admiration flowing like clover honey from her big browns.

“I thought you were gonna put the guy out there a couple of times,” Lambert said, lighting a Lucky Strike and letting the smoke disperse in a cloud around his head. “You had him on the ropes more than once.”

“Sparks was tough, he knew all the tricks,” Harry Sloan snapped. “He’s had a lot of fights.”

Then the waitress returned and they hadn’t even looked at the menus.  Johnny sipped on his scotch and told her to come back in a minute. “Thanks for the drink, Jimmy,” he said, warmly.

“My pleasure, Johnny.  You deserve it after a fight like that. That guy Sparks was pretty tough, eh?”

“Plenty tough, Jimmy. He hit like a kick from a horse and he fought dirty. You saw the bastard head-butt me, didn’t you?”

“That stuff is low down, all right,” Lambert said.

“You ever been kicked by a horse, Johnny?” asked Gloria, her eyes twinkling as she elbowed him lightly in the ribs.

“Can’t say as I have ma’am,” Johnny said like John Wayne; his grin so deep it made Gloria nearly swoon. “But I can well imagine. I’ve been hit by many a horse out on the football field.”

Gloria giggled and fell into him, brushing her breasts against his thick-muscled arm.

“Well Johnny, just wanted to say hello,” Lambert said, staring at Gloria, his lips and eyes narrowing.  “We better get back to Nash before he thinks we’re plotting something.” Lambert liked Johnny. A man’s color had never meant anything to him, as long as his money was green. That was one of his little jokes.

“Listen Jimmy,” the boxer said. “You got a few minutes? I’ve got some things I want to discuss with you.  Some business ideas I’ve been tossing around. Things I think you’ll be interested in.”

Lambert was always ready to listen to a business proposition. He had irons in many fires and a diversity of investments. As well as bars in Bay City, he owned several establishments in remote rural areas, boondocks buildings on dark tree-lined back roads that housed after-hours clubs. Some called them blind pigs, others, roadhouses. “Good citizens” called them the scourge of the county.

Whatever you called them, these establishments housed after-hours drinking, gambling and, sometimes, prostitution. A local legend had it that carloads of women would occasionally show up at the clubs unannounced. Girls who worked the Wisconsin strip-bar circuit and wanted to supplement their income with a little lying-around money—or so the story went. Just this possibility, the vague dream that someday this might happen while you were in the building, was enough to keep the honky-tonks hopping with horny hayseeds on many a dark and frigid night. These were the places that held Johnny’s interest. Something he’d seen in Chicago seemed just right for such establishments.

He’d learned a lot in Chi-town. It had taken getting drunk with his Uncle Charlie (Mama’s brother) to find out about his daddy. Mom had never said much about his father, summing up his existence with: “He was a good man who died when your were three.” Old Charlie hadn’t wanted to spill the beans but he was too honest a person to hold back. At least after he and Johnny had knocked off a gallon of Red Mountain wine. Then the floodgates had opened and the story came rushing out like rainwater down the side of a mountain.

The truth was a shock to Johnny at first, but also a relief of sorts. Here was something to explain the parts of him that had railed against his mother’s teachings in spite of his good intentions. These traits clearly came from his daddy’s side of the family, the people his mama never wanted him to know about. The part of him that, among other things, wanted to make moonshine—in the tradition of the old Chicago gangsters—and sell it in Lambert’s joints.

“What kind of things you talking, Johnny?” Lambert asked.

“I bet you sell a lot of liquor, what with all your taverns—right, Jimmy?”  Johnny smiled, eyes twinkling.

“That’s right, Johnny—quite a bit, I s’pose….”

“What if I could save you lots of dough on the booze? Would that interest you?”

“Of course it would, Johnny. But I don’t see how you could do that. I mean, you know, you should see the rotgut I sell already.” His snaky body folded forward into a raspy, cackling laugh.

“I can beat any price you get—guaranteed,” Johnny said.  “Good quality stuff, too. Is there maybe some time we can discuss this in more detail, Jimmy?”

“Say, listen ah, Johnny,” Lambert said. “We gotta get back over there with Bob. But how about if you come over to the Bayside tonight, say about midnight?  I’ll buy you a drink and we’ll talk business. Just tell the bartender you’re there to see me, and he’ll show you back to my office. I’ll tell him to expect you, so he ah… doesn’t get… isn’t…  Ah fuck, I’ll just tell him Johnny Beam is coming.”

“I can do that, Jimmy. In the meantime, give some thought to the things I said, I think this could be a good deal for both of us.”

Lambert stood up, holding his cocktail glass and coughing. His lips curled down at the edges as Gloria continued to flirt. Impatience creased his shaggy eyebrows.

“Sure nice to meet you, Mr. Beam,” Gloria said, putting her hand on Johnny’s large forearm as it rested on the table.

“My pleasure, Gloria honey,” Beam said, oozing warmth.

Lambert coughed into his fist and walked awkwardly away.

Gloria got up and followed slowly behind, her heart and just about everything else she possessed full of lust for Johnny Beam.

“Jesus, I’m glad he’s gone,” Harry Sloan said, sliding away from the window and flexing his shoulders. “And what’s this shit you’re feeding him about cheap booze?”

“I know some people in the wholesale liquor business,” Beam lied, stretching his arms along the back of the booth and watching Gloria wiggle away and glance back at him. “Down in Minneapolis, that’s all. People I met while I was in college. I get around, you know.” This was partially true. He knew some guys that ripped off delivery trucks.

“You were only down there for a year.”

“I make friends in a hurry, Harry, you know that.”

“I sure do.  Like that broad with Lambert. She was looking for a hunk of dark meat tonight.”

“And I sure aims to please, Mr. Manager bozz.”

“Shut up, Johnny, and look at your menu.  Here comes the goddamn waitress.”

“I know what I want.”

The restaurant filled up and stayed that way. The grill smoked. Cocktail glasses jingled and the room hummed. The kitchen pumped out steaks and chops and lobster and the famous shish kebabs that were set aflame in full view, the white-coated kitchen staff carrying the skewers to the tables like burning swords, orange flames shimmering in the darkened windows.

Over the course of the evening, admirers sent drinks to Johnny’s booth.

Others in the restaurant wondered who the nigger was.

(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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“(T.K. O’Neill) throws worlds of hurt at his ne’er-do-well characters… in the spirit of Raymond Chandler… his writing process builds on trouble… the underside of the American Dream… a perfect example of noir…” (MMM Newspapers)

EXCERPT 8, FLY IN THE MILK

Johnny Beam meets up with Zenith’s underworld in Chapter 2 of Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

 

The Flame was Zenith’s premier restaurant. Situated on the waterfront with a sparkling view of the bay, it featured fine food, a casual but well-dressed atmosphere and the reputation as the place to be seen in the port city.

Johnny and Harry Sloan arrived in separate cars, one behind the other. Harry in his brown Chevy sedan and Johnny in a dark blue 1956 Olds four-door hardtop. They parked in the lot and walked together towards the two-story, white block building, FLAME running vertically down the front wall in red neon.

A biting wind whipped across the ice-covered bay. The temperature hovered slightly above zero. The cold helped Johnny revive. Numbed the pain in his face a little. That and the three Empirin with codeine tablets he’d swallowed.

The fighter and his manager went through the glass doors together, glanced briefly into the dark piano bar on the left, where voices and smoke mingled with soft lights and the murmur of slow jazz. Moving up the carpeted staircase, Johnny peered out the smoked-glass at the blinking lights of Bay City, across the water, the town where he was born.  He smiled at the memory of his mother, how she’d kept the secrets of his birth locked up inside her for all those years. How he’d found out the truth from his people in Chicago, after the war. Aunts and uncles who’d laughed as they told him the story one sticky summer night over jugs of red wine.

Johnny and Harry reached the top of the stairs and their shoes hit the thick burgundy carpet. Melodic mood music and low voices backed by the tinkling of ice in glasses soothed Johnny’s soul.

They gave their coats to the pretty brunette coat-check girl who was smiling behind the dark wood counter. The maitre d’ greeted Johnnby name and with a smile. Several diners turned from their tables to look at the victorious pugilist. Some were fans; some were gawkers. Johnny was well known and, for the most part, well liked in town. He smiled and waved and responded politely to various congratulations.

Promoter Bob Nash was sitting in a black leather booth along the wall with Jimmy Lambert, the owner of several taverns in Wisconsin and a big fight fan. Both men had a large-breasted woman at their side, a blond for Nash and a redhead for Lambert. Nash, a Manhattan glass in his hand, nodded at Johnny and Sloan and pointed to an empty table nearby.

Johnny was glad to see Lambert there. He had a few things he wanted to discuss with the man. Some ideas he had. Thought the two of them could make some money together.

“Your table is ready Mr. Beam,” the maitre d’ said, respectfully. “View of the harbor, as always.”

“Thanks, Kenneth, I appreciate it,” Johnny said, flashing the million-dollar smile and slipping Kenneth a five spot.

Kenneth bowed slightly, “Right this way, gentlemen.”

“What about Bob, Johnny?”  Harry whispered.

“He can come over to our table if he wants to talk, Harry. I ain’t gonna tag after him like a puppy dog.”

Johnny smiled as they walked by Nash.

Bob Nash looked up at him, quizzically. “Johnny… Harry…” he said, wiping his mouth with a white linen napkin.

“Nice fight, Johnny. How you holding up?” Lambert said as the fighter and his manager lingered.

“Fine, Jimmy, fine. Right as rain all the time, you know. I just need a nice steak and a stiff drink and I’ll be as good as new.”

“Let me buy you a drink, Johnny,” Lambert said.

“That would be real nice of you, Jimmy. Why don’t you come over to our table a little later? If you got a minute, I’ve got some business ideas I’d like to discuss with you.”

“You bet, Johnny. What are you drinking?”

“I’ll have a scotch,” Johnny said, tugging on the cuff of his fine white shirt.

“Make that two scotches,” Harry Sloan said, with a wink.

“Sure Harry, I’ll buy you a drink,” Lambert said, grinning like a jackal. “Soon as you pay off your debt from football season.”

“Come on, now Jimmy,” Sloan said. “This is no time for that stuff.  Haven’t I been good?”

“Yeah, you have been good, Harry,” Lambert said, laughing and wrinkling his eyebrows at the redhead sitting next to him. “Just kidding around. Two scotches it is.” He spied a waitress and gestured in her direction.

Johnny kept smiling as he glided over to the table where Kenneth was patiently waiting, manicured fingers holding two glossy red menus.

Harry Sloan followed behind, his face slightly flushed. He tugged at his green, bargain-basement sport coat and sat down across from Beam, who was gazing distractedly out the window.

Kenneth placed the menus in front of them. “The waitress will be with you shortly. Enjoy your meal.”

“Why did you go and invite that bastard Lambert over, Johnny,” Sloan whined, shifting uncomfortably. “You know I don’t like him.”

“Sounds like you like him enough to bet with him,” Johnny said, grinning.

Harry saw through the smile to the fatigue on Johnny’s face. “Christ, that was way back in football season, Johnny. I haven’t done anything lately.”

“Lambert must be a pretty good guy to let you slide this long.”

“I’ve been paying him regularly, for the Christ sake. And it sure as hell isn’t that he’s a nice guy; it’s that he’s smart. Smart enough to know that if there’s any rough stuff, he’ll never get his money. And he’ll go to jail, besides.”

“For assaulting you?  I don’t know, Harry, cops just may congratulate him. That is if any of them ever bought a used car from you.”

“Very funny, champ.  You should go on the stage.  And there’s one leaving any minute now.”

Beam laughed softly at Harry’s same old routine, his permanent response when the joke was on him. But on this occasion, Harry was right. In this town, too much violence and the cops shut you down in a hurry. The way Johnny saw it, if you stayed away from the stupid strong-arm stuff, you could get away with a lot around here.

A busboy in a white linen coat came to the table and poured ice water from a silver pitcher into short-stemmed crystal glasses. Johnny drained his glass before the boy was finished pouring Harry’s.

“More, sir?” the boy asked.

Johnny liked being called sir. “Please,” he said.

(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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