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BLUEROAD3

 

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CHAPTER 29

Frank drove home in a fog with the edge of anticipation ticking in his gut. His limbs were heavy. His mind was wasted and filled with things he hoped didn’t become clear until he was long gone from Zenith. Going into his little rental house for the last time was weird, only a single kitchen chair and a mattress on the living room floor, his footsteps echoing in the empty rooms of what had been his home for many years.

And now all the memories were coming back to haunt him and he knew he’d never get to sleep, the bare walls closing in on him one last time.

He sat in the chair and opened Waverly’s going away gift. On top was a little note. Figured you’d never be able to wait until you were on the road, Frank. Was I right? Best of luck and I hope these items make your journey a real trip.

Underneath a wadded up hunk of newspaper, Frank discovered a plastic pill vial with three large black capsules inside, the original label on the vial peeled off, Stay Awake Pills scratched on the cap with a ballpoint pen. There was also a cassette tape labeled Travelin’ Tunes, which Frank didn’t know how he’d play because Betty’s old Ford wagon didn’t have a tape player, two wrinkled, dog-eared paperbacks, On the Road by Jack Kerouac and The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler, and, Waverly being Waverly, a joint as big as your thumb. At the bottom of the box was a sheet of paper containing names, addresses and phone numbers, all from Phoenix, Arizona. At the top of the list Waverly had scrawled, “In case you wander south of Route 66, man, these old college friends of mine will show you a good time.”

Frank smiled to himself and was again hit with a surge of sentimentality and fondness for a past that he hadn’t liked that much in the first place. Fearing that he might sink into nostalgia and change his mind, he opened the pill vial, took out one of the black Dexedrine caps, went into the kitchen and put water in a plastic coffee cup and swallowed the capsule.

Hell, if he was lucky, he could be out of the state by the time the sun came up.    

 

(The Real End of Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry)

 

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enger 3

 

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CHAPTER 28, EXCERPT 2

The next few days went by slowly, Frank constantly looking over his shoulder or anticipating a phone call from the police. There were some nights that sleep didn’t come easy, but the cops never gave him so much as a sniff, the Zenith Police Department evidently overburdened by the massive onslaught of national media pouring into the Twin Ports to cover the Pillsbury murders, as the press was calling them.

One national tabloid ran the headline: Diabolical duo does dirty deeds to pharmaceutical heir, pays price.

Another: Down and dirty double team does in pharmaceutical tycoon.

Frank, taking a little something from Keith Waverly’s bag of tricks, had one of his own: Drug douchebag dies from dope dose. Demonic dames did it.

From what Frank could ascertain from the newspapers and the television news, the ZPD had pieced together a scenario remarkably close to what he’d hoped for. The cops theorizing that Richard Pillsbury somehow became aware that his new bride, the former Judy Bruton, and her twin sister, Lisa Semke—previously unknown to Pillsbury, the girls separated shortly after birth—had conspired to gain his affection, trust and matrimonial bond in order to carry out an elaborate masquerade designed to make him dependent on drugs and sex and thus create the opportunity for his eventual overdose death. His death in this manner would have cleared the way for the wife (Bruton) to inherit the massive Pillsbury fortune, as she was listed in Richard’s recently revised will as the principal heir, as well as a partner in Pillsbury Enterprises, the family corporation. And continuing, that Richard became so enraged and distraught upon his discovery, already emotionally unstable from intravenous drug use and sexual excess, that he killed both sisters and then fell into despondency, committing suicide by drug overdose and completing the sisters’ “destructive drug and death spiral,” the police department showing that it too, could alliterate.

Frank thought they had it just right enough.

Sitting at his kitchen table gazing out at the rain, he quickly switched gears to fantasize about California sunshine and California girls and California everything, not wanting to think about his approaching return to the Metro tonight. Jesus, it was going to feel weird. He could already see the looks on their faces, the lushes thinking they knew something about Frank Ford.

*   *   *

In his temporary return to the Metropole, Frank worked day shift, afternoon shift, late shift, Saturdays, Sundays, Wednesdays—whatever he could get. And three weeks in he asked Betty for two additional weeks because he needed more money to buy a car for his trip. Not only did Betty agree, but she also offered to sell him her ’71 Ford station wagon at a nice price, an offer Frank couldn’t refuse, a station wagon the perfect vehicle for hauling things out West.

Things had changed at the Metro. The Underground Lounge, the downstairs bar, was closed do to declining business, the DJ thing Betty introduced as a last-ditch effort to bring in customers having failed miserably. Now Tom Meagher was working upstairs and he and Frank were the only tenders on the payroll. Betty had fired Ron, the guy who replaced Frank, for beating up too many customers, and Sack, of course, had already been sacked.

Meagher and Frank ran the bar with just enough control to keep it tolerable and also profitable. Frank enjoyed the time but realized that a big part of his enjoyment came from knowing he’d soon be leaving.

Time moved along, and soon Frank’s final week at the Metro arrived. He was working the day shift on a Monday when Waverly walked in the bar at four in the afternoon, Keith smiling and looking fit and healthy. Frank had put in some time practicing positive thinking and visualization—even some yoga moves—in preparation for his future immersion in California culture, but as Waverly related the latest buzz on the street concerning the Pillsbury murders—what Keith referred to as The demise of Pills and his pussies—Frank was getting little jolts of fear in his gut. According to Waverly, the murmur currently making the rounds was that the cops had determined Pillsbury Manor to be abnormally clean of fingerprints, which had lead them to consider the possibility of an as yet unidentified fourth party involved in the murders. And although most everyone believed that fourth person was either Doughboy Loy or Artie Autry, the cops, Waverly said, were seeking input from the local barroom denizens, with a possible reward if any information led to an arrest of this unknown suspect.

This, of course, ramped up Frank’s anxiety level and got him back to walking on pins and needles—bed of nails—broken glass, you name it. The time wouldn’t go fast enough. He’d seen the cops in the bar a few times applying their manipulative, good-cop-bad-cop methods on the vulnerable types (those they had something on or snitches) but so far they hadn’t confronted him. But how long could it be?

He soldiered on and tried to stay busy. He had a rummage sale at his house. He took the stuff that didn’t sell to the dump and Goodwill. He had his newly acquired Ford Station wagon tuned up. He changed the oil. He paid the hospital bill for his concussion stay, the exorbitant amount eating at him, but mostly he just worked the bar and worried, the time dragging on slower than those last days of school before summer vacation when he was a kid. But he endured and persevered and finally his final day at the Metropole dawned.

His friends and loyal customers were throwing him a Bon Voyage party after close, and Betty had offered the use of the shuttered downstairs bar for the occasion. Betty saying it wasn’t a time to mourn but more a time to celebrate Frank’s contribution to the “Metropole family.”

Jesus.

Coming into the Underground for the party, Frank was surprised how many people showed up, even though a good third of them had only come for the free beer, Betty letting them drain the taps of the recently closed saloon as a gesture of gratitude for Frank’s years of service to the “Family.” Frank thought it was a backhanded gesture—the beer in the lines borderline stale—but about as good as you were going to get from Betty, the woman getting even tighter with the bucks the older she got.

One of those free-beer drinkers was Daniel Moran, who acted uncomfortable and nervous in Frank’s presence and couldn’t stop talking about the murders while giving Frank the evil eye. In spite of that, the party was fun. And surprisingly emotional. Somewhere around two a.m. Frank got hit with second thoughts and feelings of regret, because, shit, what guarantee was there he’d ever find a bunch like this, a group that genuinely liked and appreciated him? You just couldn’t predict the future. Who knew, California might be too crowded for his liking? He might be too impatient for driving in heavy traffic. He’d probably miss the changing of the seasons. And goddamnit, man, three different women came up to him at the party and got physical, touching and rubbing up against him and letting him know in not uncertain terms that he missed out on their bounty.

But it was too late for that kind of regret. It was just separation anxiety, as Nikki might say. And speaking of the blond, blue-eyed one, Frank had seen her on the street driving in her little red Honda, bringing to mind a line from an old Velvet Underground song.

What he had but couldn’t keep—linger on your pale blue eyes.

.And now he conceded that his heart was broken.

But what better treatment for a broken heart than California sunshine?

The going-away bash careened on until after three in the morning. Watching his old friends wander out, Frank had a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye. But at least the cops weren’t waiting out there for him. Then he was about to leave, thinking he wouldn’t sleep tonight with tomorrow’s drive on his mind, when Waverly called to him from the back office, Meagher and Keith the only partiers left in the building. Frank went back there and of course there were lines of coke on the desk and of course they offered him some. He declined. But then Waverly lit a bomber and passed it to him and he partook. It just seemed appropriate to break the law on his last day as part of the “Metropole family.” So he and Keith shared the joint, Meagher abstaining, and Waverly said the weed was just like they had out in Cali these days and Frank was sure lucky to be going there. As the joint hit the halfway mark, Frank felt a shroud drop over his head and the weight of the last few months come down on his shoulders. He was exhausted and anxious, excited and just a little bit scared, all at the same time. “I got a long day ahead of me, gentlemen,” he said, “ so I’m afraid I have to mosey. You guys have been great. It was a great party. But I gotta split before I sink into nostalgia and sentimentality and beg Betty for my job back.”

“No, you sure as hell don’t want to do that, Frank,” Meagher said with a big grin as he rose from behind the desk and extended his hand. Frank shook his hand and then turned to Waverly. Keith was holding out a shoebox wrapped in a piece of the comic section of the Sunday paper. Very colorful, even had a little red bow stuck on the top. “Got a little going away gift for you, Franko, as a token of my appreciation for all the fun you’ve let me in on. How dull my life’s gonna be without you around, man. But I wish you the best of luck wherever you land, and I must admit I’m a little jealous. Going somewhere that doesn’t have winter sounds pretty good to me. Drop me a line when you get settled and maybe I’ll come out and visit. And don’t open the box until your on the road, man, stuff in there will make your journey a little more enjoyable, I think. At least I hope. Really, man, I don’t have a fuckin’ clue.”

Frank took the box and felt compelled to give Keith a hug. And then found himself on the verge of tears, months of suppressed emotion seemingly ready to come slamming out of him at any moment. But he held it together and soon all three of the men were standing and grinning and Frank knew it was time. He turned away and walked out on his Metropole family for the last time.

Probably.

On his way to the door, stumbling by the stage in a state of anticipatory excitement and sentimental longing, Frank glanced down at a couple stacks of albums the former record spinner had yet to haul out. On top of one of the stacks was a Led Zeppelin record, “Physical Graffiti,” lying loose and out of its cover. Frank glanced down at the label and saw his old companion and tormentor—the winged beast. There it was, the inspiration for his nightmare, the image of a naked human with large white wings— the logo for Swan Song Records. Only had one head though.

He couldn’t help but smile. So that’s where it came from. What drugs’ll do for you, eh?

(End of Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry)

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DIVE SHADOW 7

 

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CHAPTER 28, EXCERPT 1

On Tuesday it was on the front page of the morning paper.

Pillsbury pharmaceutical heir, wife and mystery sister-in-law found dead in alleged murder-suicide scenario.

In a constant state of fearful anticipation waiting for this moment, Frank had learned firsthand the meaning of the phrase on pins and needles. But now, sitting at his kitchen table reading the News Tribune and eating corn flakes, he was feeling pretty damn good. Yeah, there was still the regret eating at him—but that went back to his initial involvement, Frank knowing that if he’d stayed away from Judy in the first place his nightmare would never have happened. But hell, things had turned out for the better and you could make a case for Frank Ford as somewhat of a hero. He hadn’t saved anybody but he had rid the world of two festering cancers. If it weren’t for Frank Ford, Judy and Lisa would still be out there spreading their insidious seeds upon the world.

Okay, that was a bit over the top. Suffice to say he wasn’t destroying himself with guilt. He was, however, worrying about Artie Autry and Doughboy Loy. Shit, how long could it be before the Zenith cops picked up on the pair’s association with Judy? And following that, how long before the two dirtbags flapped their gums about Frank fucking Ford and his own interactions with Judy Bruton? Not to mention Frank’s usage of a .38 caliber revolver, which, obviously, matched the caliber of the identified murder weapon from the front-page story.

He shot Autry’s goddamn earlobe off for Christ sake…

So now Frank was fast becoming adverse to the Zenith City. Always a tough place to make a buck, the economy was still mired in depression—or at least recession—without much optimism for the future of the rustbelt port city—so it seemed like a good time to leave.

Early the next morning Frank was at the kitchen table biting his nails—a newly acquired habit—when another shocking headline greeted him.

Body of Zenith man found near Enger Tower.

Biting faster now Frank anxiously read the story of Arthur John Autry’s body being discovered—throat cut from ear to ear— beneath some tree branches and other debris in the foliage surrounding Zenith’s historical bluestone tower.

Man, Doughboy Loy finally gave it to Artie. Fat man had to be long gone by now.

Two days later Frank was greeted with another world-rocking headline.

Overdose death linked to Zenith man’s murder, it said at the top of page one of the News Tribune.

Poor Maynard, Frank thought, reading the story. He could never get things right. Christ, they found him with the syringe still in his arm, the Doughboy never much for originality. Either Maynard got too excited after coming into possession of Autry’s drug stash and fired up too heavy a load, or he couldn’t deal with the guilt of slitting his old running mate’s throat and overdosed on purpose.

Frank’s money was on the former, but you never know.

The story went on to say that the police found Autry’s car keys in Loy’s jacket pocket, and Artie’s GTO was discovered parked a half block away from Loy’s rundown residence in Piedmont Heights.

Jesus, with those two drug-soaks dead and gone, it was hard to believe, but it looked like Frank was home free. At the very least, he had a little more breathing room.

And, yeah, sure, that kind of shit gets you thinking. Like maybe Ray-Ray was somewhere out there in the ether pulling the strings, the powers that be giving him one last shot at making things right.

If you believe in that kind of thing.

And even if you don’t, sometimes you wonder….

So right then and there he decided he was going to California. They had to need bartenders out there, didn’t they? Californiashit, manwhere it was happening, where it was going on. Had to be tons of good-looking women out there. Get to a nice quiet town on the coast somewhere and find a small, clean, well-lighted place where all the customers are tan and smiling, perfect white teeth glistening….

That sounded nice. And as guilty as he felt about leaving his mother with her grief, he knew Anne was always better with her. But he had to admit that he was also running away from telling Joan that he now believed Ray had committed suicide. He just couldn’t face that one. He’d have to write her a letter once he got settled and explain his conclusion, feeling strongly that his mother would never accept it, no matter how it was presented.

So it was settled, he was heading for the West Coast. But he needed money for the trip, so later that day he swallowed his pride and called Betty Brown. After he begged and pleaded with her to put him back on the payroll for a month, Betty showed her forgiving side and agreed, telling Frank he was the best bartender she’d ever had at the Metropole—and by the way, she’d just fired Doug Sackberger.

About goddamn time, Frank was thinking as the universe came through for him once again.

(To be continued)

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DiveBartenderImage31

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CHAPTER 21, EXCERPT 3

Doughboy turned up the hill at Third Avenue East. They were passing by the alley above Fourth Street when Frank pulled the thirty-eight from his jacket and shoved the barrel into Loy’s bulbous, pillow-y middle, thinking now he knew what a tub of lard felt like if you jammed a pistol into it. Shit, he’d wanted to jam the barrel hard into Doughboy’s ribs and give the fat fucker a jolt, but instead it was like he’d buried the thing in a goddamn mattress.

Doughboy tried to jerk away from the pistol, his movements like ripples in a bowl of Jello, but there was nowhere to go. He wheezed. He winced. He tilted his head down toward the pistol and gave Frank a hurt, questioning look. “What the fuck are you doing, Ford? I thought we were going to your place.”

“There’s been a change in plans, Maynard. Instead, you’re gonna take me to see Artie, and the three of us are going to have a little talk concerning what took place at the Paul Bunyan the day my brother disappeared.”

“Ah, come on, Frank, I already told the cops everything I know, why you picking on me?”

“I’m picking on you because you were there that day, you stupid sonofabitch. And I know that Artie had some kind of scam planned that Ray didn’t like. That was the subject of the disagreement, according to what I heard. So you want to tell me what it was about or do I keep shoving in this gun until it hits something hard. You never know, thing could go off by accident. Just bought the piece and I don’t know how reliable it is. Might not kill you but sure as hell will do some damage,” Frank jammed the gun deeper into the corset of fat.

Doughboy’s breathing was strained and uneven. Frank could see sweat popping on the fat man’s forehead in the dim light, the skin on Loy’s face red, like barbecued pork. “I can’t drive with that thing stuck in my side, Frank.” Doughboy pulled the Dodge to the curb and stared at Frank with a frightened-but-determined look, Doughboy having had plenty of practice dealing with bullies, it seemed.

“Okay, Maynard, you got it,” Frank said, pulling the gun away, thinking maybe he should wipe it off or something, but instead resting it on his thigh with the barrel pointing at Loy. “But now that I’ve done you a solid you need to return the favor and tell me what Artie and Ray were arguing about, or this little devil goes back into your roll,” lifting the .38, waggling it.

Doughboy slid the shifter arm into park, wiped the sleeve of his gray sweatshirt across his forehead, swiveled his head around for a look outside then inhaled deeply and gave Frank a nervous smile. “Ray was doing some kind of speedball that day. He’s talking a blue streak and he starts going on about how Judy’s got this pharmacist on a string and how she’s getting all these pill samples from him. All the big companies are handing them out by the ton these days, he says. Well, Artie hears this and pretty soon he’s in Ray’s shit telling him we need to share the bounty. How if Ray don’t cut us in he’s going to drop a dime and bust the whole scheme wide open. But Ray dug in his heels and told Artie to fuck off.” Doughboy looked out the window again and then back to Frank. “So that’s what it was all about.”

Frank knew the Doughboy was an efficient, practiced liar, and believing what he told you was the essence of foolishness, but still he sensed a ring of truth in what the man had said. Just a light ring, though, like one of those push-top bells at the meat counter in a butcher shop. “And so, Maynard, when we get together with our mutual friend Artie, is he gonna back up your story or spin a totally different tale?”

“Of course he’s gonna back me up, Frank. I ain’t shittin’ you. But I don’t know where Artie is tonight, I swear. I got no idea.”

“Oh, please, Maynard, stop the shit. Artie is who you were waiting for at the bar. And I think Artie is meeting up with Nurse Judy tonight for a supply of fresh pharmaceuticals courtesy of the illustrious Mr. Pills. And I also think that whatever dope you took tonight is either just kicking in or just wearing off and either way you’re falling apart and need something else. You took a chance on me because you know Ray was getting a ton of shit from his ex and that made my story believable.”

“You mean you don’t have anything?” Loy’s voice was a grating whine in Frank’s ears.

Frank shook his head in disbelief and gave Doughboy a hard stare. “No, Maynard, I don’t have anything. Afraid you fell victim to the hunk of cheese in the rattrap, because you is the big fat lab rat. Now get this piece of shit on the road to wherever your partner in crime is.”

“I told you, Frank, I don’t know exactly where he is. He said he’d find me.”

“I tell you what, Maynard. Put your drug-sniffing nose out the window and pick up the scent. I know you can find drugs like a bloodhound finds blood.”

“He could be out at Squirrel’s, I guess.”

“Squirrel’s it is then. Drive on, Jeeves.” Frank waggled the gun in a circle like a master of ceremonies at a circus, which, come to think of it, he kind of was. A twisted, stinky, exploitive circus—just like the real thing.

Loy whined some more. “Aw, c’mon, Frank, it’s way out in the West End, I’m in no shape to drive all the way out there.”

Any patience Frank once possessed had gone out the door with Nikki a few hours ago. He lifted the pistol from his knee and drove a corner of the butt into Doughboy’s bulbous bicep, hitting something firm beneath the layers of fat.

Loy yelped, grabbed his arm and continued whining. “Frank—Jesus, c’mon, would you? I was just saying, man, just telling it like it is… ease off, all right? Artie might not even be out there. I told you… I’m not sure where he is.”

“Feeling more alert now, Maynard? Think you can get us to Squirrel’s?”

Biting down on his lower lip in an exaggerated pout while rubbing vigorously on his bicep, Doughboy flashed Frank a hateful glance then gingerly lifted his arm, dropped the shifter into drive and peeled away from the curb in a cloud of dust and a roar of un-muffled V8.

(To be continued)

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DiveBar70s

 

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CHAPTER 21, EXCERPT 2

Doughboy was easy to spot, overhead lights glinting off the big round shiny dome of his head like some sort of urban distress signal. Low on energy? See the Doughboy. Can’t sleep? See the Doughboy. Can’t face life without a crutch? See the Doughboy. Too much pain? See the Doughboy.

Business must be slow, Frank thought, the Doughboy all alone in a booth kind of hunched over and disheveled, looking like he needed a friend. And that gave Frank an idea, the universe finally opening up with a game plan and laying out the procedures.

The Filling Station, set pretty much in the middle of the Central Hillside, was the focal point of the neighborhood and one reason Frank always disliked coming here. There was a lot of overlap in the customer base and you never knew when someone you had to punch out at the Metropole might decide on payback while you were off your guard drinking and socializing and having a good time at the Filling Station.

Striding down the aisle toward the Doughboy, nodding to familiar faces and gesturing to the bartender, Skimmer Mancini, older guy rumored to be buying the place, Frank was fighting the urge to snap his finger into the back of Loy’s balloon of a head. But then he saw the pale mountain of flesh quiver and begin to rise up from the booth like a not-so-great white whale. Frank watched the creature struggle out of the booth and stagger and sway toward the men’s room at the back of the bar. Halfway there the Doughboy formed a gun with the thumb and forefinger of his pudgy right hand and placed the finger against his head.

When Doughboy flicked his thumb three times like he was shooting himself in the head and then disappeared behind the restroom wall, Frank got the message. Old Mister Doughboy was feeling a tad self-destructive tonight.

Frank slid into the empty booth on the opposite side from where Loy had been. A few minutes later Frank heard a scratchy, incoherent whine coming from behind him and then saw the man himself dripping down into the booth like a melting candle, everything sagging. Frank gave Mr. Loy a nice deep smile, phony as a three-dollar bill. “How’s it hangin’, Doughboy,” he said, “got anything I might be interested in tonight?”

Doughboy’s chin rose slowly like the opening of a coffin lid in an old vampire movie. The slits for eyes slowly widened, going from hazy to stark and staring, in an instant. “Frank, I didn’t expect to see you here. In a place like this, I mean.”

“This is my neighborhood bar, Maynard, the place I met my former girlfriend. This bar carries a lot of nostalgia for me. Now you gonna answer my question?”

“What question was that, Frank?”

“Come on, Maynard, wake the fuck up. What you got for sale, tonight? Ups, downs, narcotics—what?”

“That’s not your bag, Frank. Even I know that. You’re just fuckin’ with me. Loads of fun torturing the fat guy, right? Ray was the same fuckin’ way except he was too small to pull it off.”

“Afraid you’d sit on him I bet, eh, Maynard? But I am not here to torment, only to seek shelter from the storm. What’re you holding, man, come on?”

“Nothing, Frank. I was expecting someone to show up and they haven’t yet. But you never know what might turn up here if you wait around until close.”

Maynard out of product on a weekend night? Something was in the wind.

“Well then, Maynard, this is your lucky night. I just may have the answer to your prayers. I was going through Ray’s shit at his old apartment the other day and I ran across a little stash of his. Actually, it’s not little, man, it’s an entire shaving bag full of pills: reds, yellows, capsules, tablets, shrink wrapped stuff, bottles… a real pharmaceutical horn of plenty. Probably a gift from his former wife.”

Loy’s face was turning pink now. “Come on, Frank, what’re you trying to pull? Everybody knows you hate that stuff. And I’m sure the cops gave Ray’s place a complete shakedown, so stop fuckin’ with me and go bother someone else to get your sick kicks.”

“Doughboy, my man, I appreciate your caution. Didn’t expect it, believe me, but this time your instincts are failing you. You heard that I quit the Metropole, I assume. And now my day job is on hiatus, so I really need the fuckin’ money. And, you see, I knew where Ray stashed his shit. Little bro had a hidey-hole under some loose bricks in the fireplace. Come on, this stuff is right up your alley. We can both make some hay here.”

“All right then, let me see what you got.”

“I didn’t bring it in here for Christ sake. You gotta car?  We can go over to my place, it’s only three blocks from here.”

Doughboy’s face scrunched up and his eyelids began to flutter. “Well, I dunno about that, I’m kinda fucked up.”

“Consumed the last of your product, eh? No problem man, I got something’ll fix you right up. Up, down, sideways, inside out… whatever way you need to go I’m sure I got something will fill the bill. So whattaya say, let’s go and have a look, the night is still young. You can get yourself right and be back here for the witching hour if we make haste.”

Drug lust motivating him, Doughboy stood up. “Let’s go then, Ford,” he said. “Let’s make some haste.”

Frank followed Loy out to the parking lot and a dark green Dodge four-door from the late sixties. Ugly car with rust around the wheel wells and spots on the doors looked like blasts from a rust-shooting shotgun. Getting in the passenger side, Frank’s feet crunched down on a pile of empty potato chip and Cheeto bags, candy bar wrappers and grease-stained fast-food bags. Craning his neck to the backseat while Loy struggled in behind the steering wheel, Franks saw an even larger collection of similar debris covering the floor and the rear seat cushions. Whole damn car stunk like a landfill on a hot summer day.

Loy cranked the ignition and the engine fired. It was loud as hell. Had to be a hole in the muffler or no muffler at all. “Jesus, Maynard,” Frank said, “Aren’t you afraid of getting stopped in this thing? Not too smart to carry dope when your car sounds like a stock car.”

“Which allows me to fit right in perfectly in this part of town, Frank. Zenith cops don’t seem to pay it any mind.”

“At least until they need an excuse to pull you over. But I guess it’s your choice, Maynard, being a grown man and all.”

Loy gave Frank a look before pulling down the shift lever and driving out of the parking lot. “Which way?” he said at the intersection of Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue East.

“Come on, Maynard, you know the way. I’m sure you and Artie have been by my place before.”

“Never been there, Frank, swear to god. Why would we do that?”

“Okay, never mind. Play it that way if you need to. Go over to Third Avenue and take a right, I’m in the alley above Fifth.”

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 12, EXCERPT 1

After midnight at the Metropole, it was all hanging out. Frank was hunched over the bar, his internal discord currently tamped down to a dull harangue thanks to a steady diet of generously poured Bushmill’s from his old friend Sack, the hangdown shuffling around behind the bar like a mental patient on Thorazine. Waverly was standing to Frank’s left, Keith seemingly having a hard time standing still, and was involved in as discussion with some cute young thing. And then out of the blue a fish stink attacked Frank’s nose—nothing fresh or clean about it—followed closely by the sound of Danny Moran’s strained, just-above-a-whisper-because-I’m-really-too-drunk-to-talk voice. “You guys missed quite a show.”

“Jesus Christ,” Frank said, turning to watch Moran struggle onto the barstool. “You slither in here, man? Figured you were still out at the river biting the heads off smelt.”

Moran’s face was paper pale with irregular red blotches on the cheekbones. His eyelids were at half-mast. “I would be,” he said in a rasp. “But Pillsbury and the old lady got into a row and that ended the festivities.”

Frank perked up, lifting his head a couple inches. “They had a fight? You hear what were they fighting about?”

“I got an earful, let me tell you that. Judy and Linda got pretty nuts after hippie boy there (flicking his head toward Waverly) turned their cranks. They were drinking and carrying on with the Sultry Sisters of Smelt routine, and everybody’s having a good time, y’know, but then old Pillsbury starts yelling at her. They’re down at the water and he’s grabbing her arm and she’s pulling away and he’s stumbling after her and she’s saying she’s just gonna jump in the water and drown or some ridiculous shit like that and they go tussling down the shore. Then Judy stumbles and falls in and she’s dripping wet screaming at Pills and he’s yelling at her and the other two geeks are standing there with their thumbs up their ass staring and mumbling to each other like they’re worried it’s their fault or something. Personally, I thought it was fuckin’ hilarious, but all I could do was look concerned and try to keep from laughing, which wasn’t easy, let me tell you.”

“Are you fuckin’ serious?” Frank said.

“Serious as a heart attack, Frank. So then Judy goes storming off up the hill and Pills is still grabbing at her and she’s jerking her arm away and screaming ‘don’t touch me,’ ‘keep your hands off me’—shit like that—and Pillsbury is hissing at her like a big goddamn snake. The rest of us are standing there staring at the rocks like deaf and dumb retards, and a couple minutes later everyone but me takes off. And the bastards left the cooler and the smelt sitting there, so now I got thirty pounds of smelt and Pillsbury’s cooler in my truck.”

“Good source of protein, Dan,” Frank said, turning toward Waverly in time to hear Keith say to the cutie, “I’m not much for inhibitions.” Smiling, Frank said to Waverly, “Moran tells me the toot you gave Judy caused a psychotic reaction, man. She and Pills got into a row.”

“No shit,” Waverly said, turning and seeing Moran. “Hey, Danny, you made it, man.” Then looking back at Frank, Keith said, “Funny thing, though, Frank, I never gave Judy any toot. Offered it—but she turned it down. The other chick, Linda, put a couple mounds up her nose though.”

“I heard Pills growling something about street coke and hippies,” Moran said.

“I swear she never had a grain, at least from me,” Waverly said. “She did seem to be coming on a little strong, and I’m used to that, but it did seem a bit staged, y’know, like she had an agenda—the old make-your-man-jealous routine like the girls in high school used to try to work all the time. But I’m all fucked up, so I could be wrong.”

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 10, EXCERPT 3

Frank winced. “Is that it, Danny?”

“Patience is a virtue, Frank. Try some, why don’t you?” Moran took another hit of beer. “So here comes the good part. Judy’s standing there and she pipes up they’re planning to have some friends over tomorrow night and she and Pills thought it would be fun to go out to the river and try smelting. But neither Tricky Ricky nor her has ever done it before so she’s wondering if I might want to join them and give some pointers. Then she says bring the rest of the crew, too. So I tell her I wouldn’t want anyone to get washed out into the lake like happens every year, so I’d be glad to come out and show ’em the ropes. And I tell you; you shoulda seen the look on old Pill’s face. I thought he was about to swallow his goddamn tongue.”

“She really said that?” Frank said, feeling a tickle of anticipation in his solar plexus.

“No, I’m making it up, Frank. Part of the book I’m writing.” Moran knocked down the rest of his beer. “Of course she said it, man. What woman can resist the Irish charm of Daniel J. Moran?”

“Just about every chick alive, from what I’ve seen, Danny.” Frank said, finishing off the bottle of Bud that Moran bought him. “What time we going?”

Smirking, Moran eyed him. “Judy said they were going out to the mouth of the Lester around six to find a spot they can build a fire, roast some weenies and stuff. But we can show up anytime, ’tis a public beach, after all.”

Frank said, “Thank you Daniel J. Moran for that bit of tourist information. What time you planning on going?”

“Oh, I dunno, around dusk, I s’pose. Smelt start running at sundown, don’t they?”

Frank said, “Could be. Good a time as any, I guess. You coming, Keith?”

“Unless I get a call to drive cab.” Waverly paused, seemed to ponder something. “But—you know—the hell with it, I can’t stand sitting in that cab on a nice night when shit is happening. I’m going. You need a ride?”

“I’m not sure,” Frank said. “I’ll call you if I do.” He was tussling with the idea of borrowing Nikki’s car and the turmoil made him want another beer. Sure, he’d said he’d only have one, but everybody says that—and pretty much nobody Frank heard say it in all his years tending bar, ever stopped at just one. He had a pocket full of cash, so what the hell? “Another round, please,” Frank said to the muscled up college type in a blue polo shirt behind the bar. And now, Christ, Frank’s mind was jumping with new ideas, new demands, the chance to get close to Judy opening up possibilities he could previously only dream about. Had previously dreamed about. But he needed to pull in the reins and do some thinking. What would be his approach? Could he ply these people with alcohol and see if someone said something about Ray? That seemed unlikely. Still, you never know until you try. But did he even care about who killed Ray anymore? Wasn’t it Nurse Judy he wanted? Wasn’t she what was driving him crazy? But crazy was the operative word, man. He needed to be smart, in control and looking ahead.

That would be the hard part.

Frank left the Shoal after his third Bud. No shots of Wild Turkey. No joints in the parking lot with Waverly. No drinking games. No nothing. When he left them, Dan and Keith were deeply involved in a discussion about cocaine, both with glints in their respective eyes, and they hardly noticed his exit.

At home in his postage-stamp living room, Frank pushed the button on the answering machine and heard Nikki inquiring as to his weekend plans. Nikki saying she had to work both Friday and Saturday and maybe Frank could come out one night and hang out for a little while, a slight hint of concern—or maybe resentment—in her voice.

He pushed the delete button, wishing he had one for his mind. Last place he wanted to go was Jimmy Carl’s goddamn strip club. And thinking of Nikki made his stomach jump and twist. There had to be something wrong with him. Just a week ago Nikki was his whole world and now he was shitting on her. But hell, that was the kind of garbage you expected from a member of the Ford family.

It was becoming increasingly clear that Nikki was better off without him. And that thought set him off musing, mulling and contemplating.

Frank didn’t mind being alone; in fact, he was beginning to prefer it, but he didn’t consider himself a loner. When you’d spent as much time tending bar in a dive as he had, a place where you saw the human race at its worst—and anyone denies that is lying to themselves—you just tend to crave solitude, man. Sure, he knew he’d always have the need for occasional female companionship, which explained those nights bringing home some chick from the bar for a little of the horizontal tango only to feel bad and cheap afterwards, hating the smell of the stranger on him, but now he could see that this type of behavior—the one-night stands, the after-hours conquests and all that went along with it—was a form of self-abuse. Not self-abuse, like jerking off, but the real and destructive kind—the emotional torment. And he was a lot different now from when he first started at the Metropole. Back then it was a player’s dream, that old line about needing a stick to fight them off nearly true. Cute girls, too, most of ’em, and if you’d told Frank then that this seemingly limitless bounty would eventually get boring and tedious, he would’ve laughed in your face. But it in fact did turn tiresome—and oddly repetitive. And then after he met Nikki—a vision of loveliness working a waitress gig at a saloon just two blocks from his tiny house—Frank hardly ever looked a second time at the nubile honeys smiling up at him across the bar. Just occasionally, you know—but only if she was exceptional.

And that’s why his growing obsession with Judy Bruton was so goddamn troubling.

Fuck it, maybe he’d just order a pizza.

(End of Chapter 10)

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CHAPTER 9, EXCERPT 2

Walking up Lake Avenue, the revolver digging into his lower abdomen, a big hole seemed to open up in Frank’s mind. A window to a vast open landscape where he could see all the bad shit that could happen now that he owned a gun, all of it there waiting on the periphery and ready to drop down into the diorama. He didn’t need to make a list; shit was pretty obvious. And it did feel weird carrying a gun. Like maybe he was crossing over into fantasyland or starring in his own movie, The Amazing Adventures of Frank Ford. Yeah, he’d stepped into a new arena with a whole new set of rules, and damn if it didn’t look like Johnny Beam was living in that same ballpark. And it wasn’t treating Johnny very well, judging by the look of the man. Couldn’t really say a black man was looking pale, but shit, Jesus—Johnny was definitely not his old lighthearted self.

But hey, Frank thought, good things come to those who wait. And then he wondered what the hell that had to do with anything.

By the time he got to Fifth Street after five blocks straight uphill—and after a full day of work besides—Frank was sweating heavily under his denim jacket. And the pistol against his stomach seemed to have worn a hole down to his liver. Man, how did those gang dudes live with this shit? Was there some product out there to deal with rod rash? Prickly pistol chafe? Handgun hives?

Maybe Mr. Pills’ pharmacy had something.

But for now he’d just have to tough out the remaining three blocks to his house. He wanted to take off the jacket but couldn’t because of the pistol. So he had to sweat—and that wasn’t a bad thing, mind you—cleansing the river of life, an old football teammate used to say— but shit, that dude was fat and full of poison now, so what the hell.

Finally arriving at the alley above Third Avenue East and Fifth Street, Frank looked down the pavement at his house and saw an unfamiliar car in the driveway, a little red foreign job. Jap car, little brother Ray would’ve called it. Frank’s heart kicked up a few beats and a shaky shot of adrenaline got his feet moving faster. Who in hell could it be? All sorts of foreboding shit was gathering behind his eyebrows as he walked past the playground and stared ahead at the red car. He could see now it was a Honda. Go little Honda. Hear the Beach Boys sing.

And then the driver’s door opened up and lovely Nikki Clark stepped out looking oh so clean and fresh and delicious in jeans and a green T-shirt. Nikki liked green, looked great in green. It seemed to make her eyes bigger.

Frank was feeling green around the gills.

“I came to show you my new car, Frank,” Nikki said, short blond hair glistening in the sun and white teeth sparkling. But her eyes were sending a slightly different message.

But God she looked good.

Frank was wondering what was wrong with him, how he could let Nurse Judy override this beautiful young girl, this breath of fresh air. But that was part of it—she was young. Too young? That’s what people said. You know her parents had to be questioning it. Why Frank is nearly forty years old, dear, surely you can’t have much in common. It might seem okay now, but soon he’ll be middle aged and you will still be in the prime of life. It’s time you started thinking about your future, dear. What kind of father would Frank make? Why, he’d be an old man when your children graduated from high school.

And they weren’t even engaged, for Christ sake.

But Frank had thought about marriage. And yeah, he’d heard it all, the dirty old man jibes, the robbing the cradle accusations. Perv. Sleaze. Lecher. But man, society is just a fancy name for a mob. A mob that gets its jollies from tormenting the non-fits.

And talk about your non-fits, now he had to get the goddamn gun out of his belt before Nikki saw it, the pistol possessing all the characteristics of the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to Nikki keeping the faith. But maybe it was really better for everyone if she found out. Give the young thing a chance to escape before she got roped into Frank’s mess of a life. Keep the sweet girl from getting permanently tarnished by his mongrel heritage.

Son of Tom Ford, family abandoner.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 9, EXCERPT 1

It had to be past five-thirty when Frank knocked on the glass door of the Storehouse, Closed sign at eye level. But in just a few seconds Johnny Beam was there with his familiar Satchmo smile, Frank thinking it looked a tad forced today. He followed Beam through a showroom of used furniture, toys, dolls, appliances and other collectables, to a doorway at the back of the store with a green curtain across it. They went through the curtain to a large storage area with a concrete floor, a ton of boxes and loose stuff lying around on it.

Johnny said that he thought Frank wasn’t gonna show, said he was about to leave. Frank explained about his new job, a day job, one he didn’t know he’d have when he’d talked to Johnny yesterday. Beam gave him a knowing chuckle and stepped into a small office cordoned off in the southeast corner of the expansive back room.

Lotta old shit in this place, Frank was thinking. Hope Johnny doesn’t bring out a flintlock dueling pistol or some junk piece from the Korean War…

“So you quit on old Betty, eh, Frank?” Beam said, sitting down behind a dark green metal desk, on a worn cloth chair with wheels. On the desk were papers, a phone and one of those rectangular metal address books with the little arrow on the side pointing at the letters of the alphabet. Frank’s mother had one of those things when he was a kid and he used to play with it for longer than he could now reasonably explain.

Frank said, “Yep, that’s a fact, Johnny. I quit. Goddamn bar just finally got to me after all those years. Got so I fuckin’ hated the smell of the place.”

Johnny was chewing gum and drumming his fingers on the desk, fidgeting in the squeaky wheeled chair. “I hear you, Frank. More power to you, man. Change can be good for a person. Been trying to make a few changes, myself.” Then Beam reached down under the desk and brought up a rectangular wooden box that reminded Frank of those silverware boxes he’d seen at Pills’ Palace.

Resting on the burgundy velvet-lined interior of the box were four handguns, two revolvers and two semi-autos.

“I’m not gonna ask you what you need a gun for, Frank,” Beam said. “But I will say that this little popper here,” touching the smaller revolver, “is only gonna be effective at close range, three to ten feet. After that it’s gonna be iffy. This bigger one, the thirty-eight, will give you a little more range and better stopping power but it’s heavier and harder to conceal, if that’s something you’re concerned about. One advantage you get with the revolvers, they don’t kick out any shell casings, don’t leave evidence scattered around. Again, if that’s something that matters to you.” He pointed at the semi-automatics. “The autos hold more cartridges, so that’s an advantage. We got a nine-millimeter and a three-eighty, essentially the same caliber, just one is metric and the other one is American. Some guys don’t like the autos because they say they jam. But these two are top shelf, man, Baretta and a Browning. Go ahead, pick one up; see how it feels.

Frank liked the look of the Baretta. He picked it up and hefted it. Thing was solid, heavier than he expected. Felt good in his hand, strangely satisfying. “How much for this one, Johnny?”

“New, that’s a seven hundred dollar piece, Frank. You can have it for three-fifty.”

Frank only had two hundred and twenty-three dollars in his pocket, all the cash he had in his house when he left for work this morning. “Fraid that’s a little out of my league at the moment, Johnny. What’s the cheapest piece?”

“That would be the thirty-two, the snub-nose, your basic Saturday Night Special. Let you have that for a yard and a half. But I warn you, man, the piece is off brand, could be a hunk of shit. I hear they’re stamping these things out by the carload these days; demand in the big cities is so high.” Beam put his hand across his upper lip and leaned back. The chair squeaked.

Frank picked up the thirty-two and bounced it around in his hand. It felt cheap and tinny. He put it back in the box, sat back.

Beam said, “Tell you what, man, you want a revolver, I’ll give you the thirty-eight for two bills. Smith and Wesson. Good solid weapon. Bluing’s a little tarnished and the wood on the grip’s got a little crack in it, but still very functional.”

“You got a deal, Johnny.”

“Good man. But remember, Frank, ain’t gonna be no bill of sale. You get popped with that thing; heavy shit could come down on you. I ain’t lyin’. And sure as hell don’t try to pawn it.”

“Okay, man, I hear you.” Frank stuck his hand in the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a fold of wrinkled bills.

Johnny said, “You gonna need a holster or a shoulder harness or anything?”

“Nah, man, I’m good. I’ll stick it under my belt and put my jacket over it like they do in the movies.”

(To be continued)

 

 

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Jackpine Savages by T.K. O’Neill  

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CHAPTER ONE, EXCERPT ELEVEN

I didn’t sleep much that night and got up at dawn to wait for the morning paper. My suspicions were confirmed. An article on page one, Taconite Bay woman dies in hit-and-run, told the sad story of the tragic accident that caused the untimely death of Rose Marie Engwar Talbot, thirty-seven years of age.

Anger, confusion, guilt and fear cycled through me and put me off my feed. I showered and dressed and left for the office in the hope that something there would distract me from my thoughts. The carpenters were scheduled to finish work that morning on a small reception area, where, someday, hopefully, a good-hearted and pretty-in-a down-to-earth-way secretary would greet my perspective clients.

Moving slowly up the stairs to the office and wrestling with my emotions, I passed one of the carpenters coming down, power saw in hand. We nodded a greeting and continued on our separate ways. I could smell sawdust and new wood and wood stain. It was clean and responsible and good. All the things I wasn’t.

The crew was putting the finishing touches on my new addition. I’d spent a lot of time convincing the landlord of its necessity. I guess I just wore him down. And now, there it was in front of me, smooth and glistening like a new penny. I walked through to my desk, sat down on the wheeled chair and wondered if there wasn’t somebody I should call to say something about Rose. Billy Talbot for one. It seemed I should call but I couldn’t pick up the phone. All I could do was waffle. Sit there and vacillate. Not what a private eye is supposed to do. Something had been taken out of me and I couldn’t dodge the thought that this was just the beginning of my troubles.

My fears were validated an hour later when, as I sat numbly, gazing out the window at the thick gray clouds and unwillingly focusing on the churning in my gut, there was a knocking at my shiny new door.

With nobody there to greet them, the deputy sheriffs and the plainclothes cop just walked right on through.

They identified themselves as members of the Creek County Sheriff’s Department and the Duluth Police Department. Badges were waved but I was too dizzy to really see them. They informed me of my rights and that I was being charged with the murder of Rose Marie Engwar Talbot. As well as working as a private investigator without the proper license.

Lead fell into my feet and I stammered incoherently as they pulled my wrists behind my back, put the cuffs on and brought me down the steps to a waiting cruiser, engine running.

The ride up the lakeshore was a blur of feverish silence broken only by the barking of the police radio. I didn’t even have a lawyer. Every goddamn P.I. has a slick lawyer. I was shit. Toast. Cannon fodder. Life handed me lemons and fate had made lemonade out of my ass.

They brought me to the Creek County lockup and put me in an interrogation room, a narrow windowless space with puke-green paint on the walls. Reminded me of a detention room in an old high school.

I had no alibi for the night in question. I’d been at the Savannah Club but I couldn’t prove it. A new bartender was working that day and I had left after only a couple of beers. I couldn’t recall seeing anyone I knew by name. Surely the cops would check. Wouldn’t they?

Gradually, the shock of arrest began to fade. I started to get my dander up. Embers of anger and righteous indignation began to smolder within me. I hadn’t done this. What could they possibly have on me?

I found out in one hell of a hurry. About as long as it takes for the other shoe to drop.

They had traces of blue paint obtained from the rear bumper and driver’s side of the crushed Focus. They were going to test my Subaru. To go with the paint scrapings, they’d also found a vaguely threatening note in Rose’s purse, written on my business stationery. With a signature that looked enough like mine to make my intestines bleed.

The final straw on the camel was a video turned over to them by the deceased’s husband, showing two men in suits getting out of a Ford Crown Victoria in front of the Talbot residence, a vehicle rented in Duluth with a credit card issued to one Carter Brown.

To accompany the video of the Crown Vic and the boys getting in and out, they possessed a copy of perhaps Jeff Tormoen’s greatest performance, Dan Burton providing the supporting role. A performance the sheriff claimed was a crime in itself. But more importantly, a demonstration of my willingness to resort to “extreme means” to achieve a desired end.

I wanted to explain but knew it wouldn’t come out sounding right.

They also had my bank statements. They focused on what they called my recent “abnormally large” deposit. I thought I had them there. Why would I kill her if I’d already been paid?

They had an answer for that.

Billy Talbot told them I’d offered to “dispose of his wife” for five thousand dollars. After which, he allegedly became so terrified that he paid me fifteen K to lay off and forget I ever knew his sweet Rose. Talbot dutifully added that I was a loser who had failed on numerous occasions to do even basic surveillance successfully, and that I probably killed Rose to prove I was a man.

I figured it was all cop talk. But the fight went out of me when they said a witness had come forth claiming to have seen a small, blue SUV playing bumper cars with the red Ford Focus on the night in question.

When they got through, my inner Mike Hammer had become a quivering hunk of Fletch. Gelatinous and weak, I had all I could do to keep from ratting out Jeff and Dan, wanting desperately to believe that it would go easier on me if I did, but knowing all too well that it wouldn’t. I was being set up for a long fall with no net and I knew it.

I refused to speak and asked for a public defender.

They put me in a cell. The air smelled of stale sweat and old urine with an overlay of cheap pine cleaner. Time slowly ticked away.

The court appointed a public defender.

Sam Frederickson was about my age, with curly salt-and-pepper hair, thick glasses and chronic garlic breath. Close quarters with Sam was a little like being in a barn stall with a scampi-eating plow horse, snorting and all. But the guy had energy and enthusiasm and was a lot smarter than he looked.

I quickly discovered the courts didn’t allow Sam the same level of respect as I did. Murder One in Minnesota requires a grand jury indictment. Nobody except me seemed in a hurry to proceed. I was remanded back to a cell in the county lockup as the gales of November came knocking.

Gray cloudy day after gray cloudy day rolled by my tiny window. I began to lose hope. I was almost beginning to believe I had actually done the murder while in a fugue state or blackout, like in a bad TV show. I began to search for ways to end it all. My life seemed over, all because I’d wanted to be a private eye.

In the days approaching Thanksgiving, my despair became unbearable. An opportunity for relief appeared to me one dreary afternoon in the form of some loose plaster on the ceiling of my cell. I discovered the slightly discolored soft spot, probably the result of a small leak in the roof, while lying on the bed staring at the ceiling, lost in torment.

I stood up on the bed, pushed on the ceiling with my fingertips and a chunk of plaster fell easily into my hand. I could see a thick overhead support beam through the resultant hole. More than adequate to hang yourself from, I thought, feeling an immediate sense of release.

I removed my orange jailhouse jumpsuit and tied the torso around the beam. I stood on the edge of the bed and carefully knotted one of the legs around my throat.

As I stood on my toes, ready to step off into sweet oblivion, I remembered reading that you had an orgasm when you hung yourself. I also recalled that a few kids had died trying to get off that way, back in the days when it was a fad. Maybe it was still a fad. Look what happened to David Carradine.

As I jumped off the bed and felt the cloth tighten around my throat, I couldn’t help but wonder:

Would I be going—or coming?

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