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He hadn’t seen Nikki since yesterday morning. She’d called his house late Saturday afternoon but he let it go to the machine. Heard her voice inviting him to dinner at the Chinese Lantern with her folks. He blew it off, being in no condition to feign interest in the blathering of her “silent majority” parents. Although they weren’t very silent when it came to talking shit in Nikki’s ear about Frank Ford. Here was the generation gap in fully realized form.

Frank was doing a lot of thinking. Christ, that’s nearly all he’d done since the acid trip. His body was heavy and languid but his mind was still buzzing and running on. And now more customers were coming through the door. The early ones on Sunday were almost always your lushes, your chronic, full-blown alcohol junkies. Little brother Ray was one of those chronics when he was still walking the earth, although Ray was a little more evolved, easily substituting some kind of pill for the booze when necessary to keep the messy symptoms at bay.

Yeah, Ray-Ray used to be one real smart kid, all right.

But whatever he formerly was, it didn’t give anyone the right to kill him. And goddamnit, someone did kill the bastard.

One conclusion Frank had come to from his marathon brainstorming—he needed a gun. A gun without a past. Too many violent creatures lurking in wait out there to get through this ordeal unarmed. And on Sundays in Zenith City, one place you might be able to track down such an item was the Metropole Bar, the Sunday gathering place for Zenith City’s underground elite, such as it was. They’d all come here eventually; it was the only place open downtown where you weren’t expected to dress up. Unless you were Richard “Mr. Pills” Pillsbury, then you dressed up wherever the hell you went just to show the peons how much better than them you were.

Mr. Pills was also at the front of Frank’s thoughts a lot—too much—since the other night. Frank was sure Pills was the guy he saw beating on Ray last fall. There was something about the man, some slimy reptilian vibe. And, come on, Pills and Judy Bruton as a couple just didn’t make sense. Judy was just too damn hot for the self-important douchebag. True, this new version of Judy looked to have her shit together, seemed changed, somehow—but Frank wasn’t sure he was buying it. Bitch used to flirt with Frank right in front of Ray—her husband at the time— and never even tried to disguise it. Now every time Frank pictured her he felt a stirring in his shorts and saw that wild sex-drunk face he remembered from her days with Ray. And it was driving him crazy. But thankfully there were customers at the bar wanting service, which took him at least temporarily away from his dead end thoughts.

He got everyone squared away and then looked up at the clock on the wall. Shit, only a quarter after one. Time passes slowly when you’re stuck in a scream. Then he remembered the North Stars playoff game was today at the Met Center and he went down to the far end of the bar and switched on the television mounted on the wall. The Stars and the Blues were just getting underway. Frank lingered to watch the opening face-off and then turned back to his customers. He was surprised to see Jenny the waitress coming through the door on what Frank thought was her day off. She was moving slowly, nearly shuffling, her face displaying a comfortable blankness and resignation, possibly even acceptance, of her lot in life.

Jesus, Frank, you’re getting too heavy. “Lighten up” were Einstein’s last words, man—take the advice of a genius.

(To be continued)

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Sunday morning coming down

It was actually five minutes past noon but it’s the thought that counts. Frank was standing inside the front door of the Metropole gazing at the near empty barroom, the smell of the place hitting him so hard he was having some kind of gag reflex thing—throughout his entire body. And seeing old Mr. Harrison and Gary Steinmark struggling up to the bar trying to hide their impatience, their need, Frank was wondering how long it would take before they started shaking so hard they fell off the stools. If he didn’t run right the hell over there and serve them their fix of cheap bourbon, might not be long. Back when Tom Meagher used to work Sundays, he liked to make those guys wait. Harrison and Steinmark were usually the first ones in the door and Meagher enjoyed fueling the rising panic on their pale gaunt faces and the anxious, uncomfortable squirming on the barstools. But Frank was a little more sensitive than Meagher, a little more forgiving. Soft, you could say if you were so inclined.

But today Frank was in no hurry. He ignored the two chronics and turned to stare out the window at the empty sidewalk and the blue sky. And then, fuck, his sensitive nature kicked in and he felt bad for the hopeless bastards depending on him to keep the shakes at bay in a city where the liquor stores were closed on Sunday. Frank was never one to begrudge anyone an escape valve. Fighting against the stink, the lead in his legs and the fatigue that made every movement a chore, he went behind the bar and grabbed the Old Granddad bottle.

“Afternoon, gentlemen,” Frank said, pouring a couple of bumps, Harrison and Steinmark craning forward over the bar expectantly like a couple of withered whooping cranes, their muscles tense and rigid. Seeing the wrecked, sagging flesh on their faces, the eyes filled with years of pain, the crooked arthritic fingers like claws resting on the bar, Frank was thinking this was one depressing goddamn dive for sure and a lousy place to be stuck on a nice sunny Sunday. And as soon the thought crossed his mind he saw darkness washing over the front windows. Clouds were moving in with rain likely to follow and that made him feel better somehow. If he couldn’t enjoy the day why should anyone else?

Man, was that what it was coming down to?

Christ, he hated this place on a Sunday. In denial all those years. But everything did seem sort of different in here today. Place was the same as always but now he couldn’t ignore the caked-on dirt or the odors of urine and stale puke with an overlay of cleaning fluids. All of it searing the inside of his nostrils in concert with the insistent and ever-present stink of stale tobacco, which served to remind him why he was trying to quit.

Yeah, shit, it was going to be a long, goddamn twelve hours.

(To be continued)

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Leaving Lakeview Country Club that fateful day last spring—over a year ago now—Richard was delighted to discover a folded sheet of paper from a waitress’s order pad stuffed in the pocket of his overcoat, Judy’s name and phone number written there in a lovely hand, Richard thinking this was indeed a special lady if she knew what coat to put it in.

A lady of special gifts, indeed.

And, of course, during their courtship, Judy had told him about her past and the trouble and misunderstanding at the nursing home, which had then led to her leaving her chosen profession of nursing and taking the waitress job. Which, thank the lord, had led to her meeting him, proving that their love was something meant to be, something scripted in the heavens. His prayers for a nurse and a lover answered with the same wonderful creature.

But mother’s admonitions were stuck in his head whether Richard liked it or not. So he watched Judy carefully for signs she might be falling back into drug addiction. Never saw a one. Judy was proper, sober and efficient. And even when she prepared Richard one of her “special cocktails” from the assorted samples he brought home from the Zenith store—the medications that got him feeling mellow and free from the incessant harping voices in his head—Judy never indulged. She stayed straight and coherent and took care of things with a clean efficiency.

Which was a heck of a lot more than he could say about the construction workers he’d hired. Take for instance the carpenter Moran down there in the backyard now putting up sawhorses in the morning sunshine. There were times the man showed up looking like he’d just stopped drinking in order to come to work. Richard was sure he’d seen vomit stains on Moran’s trousers in the morning more than once, and the smell of the man—good God, you didn’t want to get close to that until your breakfast was down. But in spite of all this Moran did good work; you couldn’t deny that. It was actually shocking when you looked at the results of his labors and compared them to the man. Richard had at first wondered why Judy recommended Moran, Richard taking one look at him that first day—the day you’re supposed to make a good impression, first day you meet your prospective employer for god’s sake—and thinking the man was a stumblebum, some denizen from Judy’s past that she couldn’t shake free of. But watching them interact, you’d swear they’d never met before, Judy seemingly as repelled by the man as Richard was, but still insisting Moran was the right man for the project. And another plus, a man like Moran, seemingly permanently benumbed by alcohol, would likely remain blissfully unaware of the goings on around him.

Yes, Moran was perfect for the job. Well, not exactly perfect, he was a little slow, took him longer to finish things than Richard would have liked. But here it was a Saturday and Moran was on the job, so you had to like his initiative, even though it meant another day of the shriek of a power saw in your ears. But Goosey Lucy always asked for an extra pill or two when the saw was screaming away, so that was good. And with Judy’s rat bastard of an ex-husband now in the ground and out of his hair, it was easier for Richard to tolerate someone like Moran. But things would definitely improve when they were free of all the lowlifes flitting around the periphery. Yes, it wouldn’t be long before the whole estate was his and he and Judy could ride into the sunset in a brand new Cadillac, perhaps a black one, with the sunset preferably taking place somewhere other than this provincial city in the frozen North.

The phone rang on the desk behind him and Pillsbury checked his watch. Ten a.m. Two hours before Judy would come up to fix his lunch, which meant he had time for a long and leisurely bath. Turning away from the beautiful lake, he went to the phone and picked up the receiver. “Richard Pillsbury speaking.” He paused, listening. “Sorry to hear that, John. How can I help?” Feeling a worm of irritation wriggling in his stomach, Richard inhaled slowly, trying to relax, something he found difficult at times. “Of course I’ll take care of the bill,” Richard said. “You doubted me?” He frowned, fidgeting. “All right, very well then. Tell them he is an employee of mine working on a company project. That’s RXP Enterprises. We have an account at both hospitals, so it shouldn’t be a problem. And John, was your mission a success, despite the misfortune?” Richard chewed on a fingernail. “I see. That is truly unfortunate. No, I’ll let you know. Keep me informed as to our friend’s condition and I shall make sure you both are taken good care of.”

Richard ground his teeth together and stared out at the sun-spackled water, now thinking the glare was annoying. He wanted to slam the phone down and get to his bath, the fatigue caused by incompetent help darkening his mood. “No, not at the moment,” he snapped into the receiver. “I’ll have to rethink a few things. I’ll call you if I should need you any further.”

He jammed the phone onto the cradle and felt a shot of heartburn seeping into his solar plexus. Where the hell was that Maalox? Some of that and a hot bath and he’d be right again. No negativity or second thoughts were going to pull Richard Xavier Pillsbury from his destiny.

(End of Chapter 5)

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Standing in front of his large bay window in a dark blue silk robe, Richard Pillsbury felt content with the current state of things. The sun was shining on the surface of Lake Superior, truly a magnificent sight, and the corporation’s profits for the first quarter of ’77 were the highest ever. His mother’s health seemed to be declining at a sufficient rate to put her in a coffin before next year’s first snowfall—so everything was indeed going well. Sweet Judy, his godsend, was, at the moment, downstairs keeping the old bat occupied and off his back.

Yes, soon it would all be his. The six pharmacies (four in North Dakota, one in Ashland, Wisconsin, one in Zenith), the house in Clearwater, Florida, Father’s old hunting camps in Canada and northern Minnesota, and let’s not forget this stately manor on London Road that would soon rival the finest houses in the city, if the drunken Irishman’s carpentry was as good as his self-promotion. God, how the man loved to hear himself talk.

But the game wasn’t over quite yet. His mother could be fickle and vindictive and might hang on out of sheer meanness. She’d held the family’s wealth and the inevitable inheritance over her children’s heads for as long as Richard—his mother called him Ritchie, which he hated, kids at school calling him Ritchie Rich—could recall. Just ask his sister Elaine, the poor girl disinherited for setting up house with a lesbian in San Francisco. Or his brother, Robert, written out of the will for being an alcoholic, Mother saying that an empire built on pharmaceuticals couldn’t afford to have heirs with a weak will and a predilection toward intoxication.

So that was Mother. And Richard still had to watch himself, but old Lucille just loved her new nurse. The day Judy walked in the old lady’s bedroom with Richard’s engagement ring on her finger—well, his mother said it was one of the happiest days of her life. Which was just what Richard wanted to hear—although he secretly feared mom might become so rejuvenated by the news that her “favorite boy was finally getting married” that she might live on for years.

And that’s why Richard made sure Judy kept feeding the old lady higher doses of Valium, Phenobarbital and Seconal than the prescriptions called for, Richard telling Judy it kept Lucille from thrashing about and getting herself all worked up over nothing. Having the old battleaxe dizzy and weak-legged, confused and dependent, was just one of the percs.

Drifting back to the day he met sweet Judy, Richard recalled how the events had seemed to be orchestrated somehow, as if the gods were pulling strings and putting two lonely hearts together. Two deserving people who, after difficult and trying times, had finally found each other and come to happiness. How else could you explain the way she took an immediate liking to him that day?

It was a luncheon for local business leaders at Lakeview Country Club, a situation that didn’t usually provide that kind of good fortune, a free meal and new business connections the usual reward for such events. But as soon as Richard laid eyes on the gorgeous blond in the tight black waitress uniform—and saw her eyes light up upon meeting his—he’d known it was somehow fated. And then when she lingered at his side at the luncheon table touching his arm and laughing at the jokes no one ever found very amusing in the past, he’d become filled with a joyous excitement, a feeling that all his dreams would surely come true with this woman at his side.

His mother, Lucille—Goosey Lucy, he and his brother used to call her in high school because of the way her neck would stretch out like a goose when she was lecturing them—had constantly admonished her sons to be on the lookout for gold diggers. “Don’t let your privates drain your bank account,” was her slogan. “There will be women ready to do anything to get their hands on your family’s money, so you must treat every prospective mate as a business proposition. Better safe than sorry.”

Which had led, of course, to a long list of female suitors for both he and brother Robert, rejected as unfit to wear the name of Pillsbury. “A name your father worked his entire life to raise up to the pinnacle of success and respect. And I’m not about to let some tramp come in and hook up her feeding tube because you boys couldn’t keep your pants on.”

Richard believed it was at least two abortions financed for Robert. And Richard being sent to military school for two years was likely connected to his romance with Laura Rousch, a Baptist minister’s daughter in his high school, whose flaws were a “goofy religion” and a tendency towards chubbiness. But Richard had genuinely liked Laura, and found it very difficult to accept his mother’s influence after that, making up his mind then to never cave in to Goosey Lucy’s demands. Unless, of course, it looked like she was really going to cross him off the inheritance list. A man had to have his priorities, after all.

(To be continued)

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Man, his eyes had a distant look, his white shirt was filled with greasy finger smears and the gray slacks had a rip in the inseam and stains on the knees to go with the preexisting smudges. Painter’s pants for sure now. He splashed water on his face, toweled off with a small towel that smelled like a girl and scanned the feminized bathroom. Seeing some Ban deodorant on a shelf, he lifted up his shirt and applied the handy roll-on ball.

Christ, now he smelled sort of like Viola Stemwaggen, a little old lady who frequented the Metropole. She’d pull up a barstool, hand her black velvet jacket over the bar for Frank to hang up and then order a vodka Gibson. Usually had at least three before asking Frank to call a cab to take her the four blocks home to her high-rise.

Trying to come to grips with smelling like an eighty-year-old woman, Frank put his palm to his mouth and blew out a breath reminiscent of the backwash from the sewage treatment plant. Seeing a bottle of Listerine on a shelf to the left of the mirror, he twisted off the cap, poured in a splash and swished it around. Now his mouth tasted like a science lab, but it was markedly better than eau de sewage.

Coming into Nikki’s bedroom was like entering a beautiful garden, everything green and fresh and inviting. Nikki was sitting up in the bed, pillows propped behind her back, green floral-patterned bedspread pulled up above her breasts, bare shoulders looking oh so sweet. Frank wanted to jump right in and start fooling around but knew he had to follow the proper procedure. He got a chair from the corner of the room and pulled it up next to the bed. He fumbled around in his pants pocket for the matches and brought out the flattened green book. He fished the roach from his shirt pocket, handed it to Nikki and struck one of the two remaining matches, leaning in close as she inhaled.

They smoked.

Frank tapped the ashes in his palm while telling the story of last night’s adventures, leaving out the parts about the braining of the big orc with the tire iron and the battle with the giant crab. Frank had concluded from the looks he got describing Artie “Praying Mantis” Autry and Doughboy “Cockroach” Loy, that Nikki would not only think he was insane—which he could live with—but that he had a violent streak she found unacceptable.

Oh the games people play.

What he did tell her:

“So after the cockroach and the mantis drove off I got in the wagon and started cruising around. I just couldn’t get away from the image of Ray-Ray’s body lying on the fuckin’ ground, y’know. And the next thing I knew I was down at the bay on my knees, staring at the goddamn spot. Stayed there for a good hour or so trying to find some kind of peace or understanding, but I never did find it. And then all I wanted was to do something for Ray, Nik, avenge him or something. Seems like what a brother should do. But nothing changed and nothing came to me, so I left. Then I was going down Garfield Avenue when I saw Bruce Munkwitz and Larry Seline standing outside the Black Cow hitting on a bottle. I didn’t feel much like going home so I stopped for a visit and they invited me inside the Cow for a drink. When I came back out the Poncho was all crushed to shit. I figured it had to be Autry and Loy. Probably used one of those old bangster cars Autry keeps in his backyard.”

Look on her face said she wasn’t totally buying it. “You didn’t hear anything at all?”

“Nah. Bruce and Larry had the radio cranked. We were banging pans and shit, cleaning up the kitchen, y’know.”

“It still seems like you’d hear something as loud as a car crash.”

“I was parked a block away from the place, obviously out of earshot.”

“Well, at least you weren’t in the car. But, um… then how did you get that egg on your forehead?”

“That’s the funny part. I was helping with the cleanup and we were hitting on Bruce’s pint of Windsor, y’know. I was lifting this big cast iron skillet up to its hook and my hands kinda went numb and I dropped the goddamn thing right on my forehead. Damn near knocked me out. Bruce and Larry sure got a kick out of ‘old fucked-up Frank,’ thought they’d never stop laughing. Remind me to spit in their drinks, next time they’re in the Metro.”

“Maybe it’s not such a good idea to give so much of yourself to the dead, Frank. You need to be there for the ones that are alive, like your mother and your sister. You can’t help Ray anymore.”

Frank knew she was right. Also knew there was something inside him that wasn’t going away anytime soon. “I guess you’re right, Nik,” he said. “That’s why I came here, to give some of my energy to the living.” He stood up and started unbuttoning his soiled shirt, wolf’s grin on his face.

“Frank, you are so forward,” throwing out a coquettish grin and batting her eyelashes.

(To be continued)

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It was good in the kitchen, bright and cheery. Normal, just what Frank needed. He took the roach out of his jacket and put it in his shirt pocket, hung the jacket on the back of a yellow wooden chair and leaned back against the sink while Nikki put a pan of water on the stove. Frank could smell the gas from the burner as Nikki went to one of the cupboards and opened the nicely painted door. Reaching up high for a mug, her t-shirt climbed up over the curve of her butt, revealing frilly white panties. Frank’s breath caught in his lungs and he couldn’t help but stare, a vast and deep appreciation for the beauty of the universe’s creations taking him over.

Nikki brought down the mug, turned and caught him staring. She shook her head, smirking. “Looks like something is still in working order,” she said, gazing down at his crotch.

Frank felt his face heating up. “Yes, well, it’s hard to control oneself in the presence of beauty such as yours.” A touch of Irish brogue coming into his voice.

Nikki opened another cupboard and Frank saw the squatty jar of Maxim Instant on the middle shelf. He was hoping for another flash of ass.

“Stop staring, Frank,” Nikki said, turning to him, a wicked smile on her full lips and a glint in her big blue eyes. “I wanted men staring at my ass I’d be a stripper. Make the big money, remember?”

“Yeah, okay. Sorry. Guess I’m just weak in the face of such overwhelming greatness.”

“And full of shit, don’t you know.”

“Just the blarney, darlin.’ Can’t begrudge an Irishman a little blarney can you?”

“Certainly not,” she said, dropping a heaping teaspoon of freeze-dried crystals into the white mug.

“Aren’t you having any, Nik?”

She shook her head. “Nope. I was hoping to get back to sleep. My parents are coming into town today and I don’t want to be looking like Wendy Williams when they get here.”

“Understandable,” Frank said. “But you’ll always be better looking then Wendy.”

Nikki made a face.

Frank gazed around the kitchen at the quantity of empty beer cans and wine and liquor bottles on the table and the countertops. “You guys have a party last night?” he asked.

“Jenna and Laurie had a few friends over but it was pretty much done, by the time I got home. But, uh, what’s that you said about some super grass?”

The water on the stove was boiling now. Nikki lifted the pan and poured the hissing liquid in the mug, stirred it and brought it to Frank standing at the sink, set it on the counter next to him.

“Waverly gave me this joint of Jamaican. Said it would pull me right down from the acid, should I need such a thing. Turns out I did, and the shit worked like a charm. Might’ve added some embellishment to my reality as a bonus, but it was memorable, to say the least.” Frank took a sip of the Maxim, burned his lip and put the mug down next to the sink.

“You smoked it all?”

“No, sweetie; must be nearly two-thirds left. Waverly rolls fatties. Soon as I finish my coffee and use the facilities we can have at it.”

“When you’re in there, Frank, you might want to wash up a bit, you’re pretty ripe and colorful—to say the least.”

“Oh sure,” Frank said, feeling momentarily self-conscious and small.

Nikki walked out of the kitchen, lifted her T-shirt over her head and carried it with her, the skin on her back glowing like fine silk as she entered her bedroom. Hearing the door close, Frank had another sip of coffee, put the cup down and went to the small bathroom under the staircase in the front hall, hoping there was some deodorant in there didn’t smell like a cosmetics counter.

Holy shit, who’s that wild man in the mirror?

(To be continued)

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The sun was up over the lake by the time Frank walked down the small hill at the back of the big yellow frame house Nikki and two roommates called home. Frank scanned the surroundings. Everything seemed cool. Thinking about Nikki and her softness, her warmth, the nice way she smelled—well—it was getting him going, filling his body with that delightful syrupy longing. He moved quietly across the damp grass and went up to Nikki’s first floor bedroom window at the rear of the house. The window was shut, a shade pulled down behind it. He tapped on the glass. Didn’t hear anything so he tapped again and called softly, “Nikki, wake up, it’s Frank.”

No response.

He tapped again, louder this time. “Nikki, wake up. You in there?”

Christ, maybe she was pissed off because he didn’t call her last night after work. Maybe she went home with someone else. That goddamn Jimmy Carl. Maybe the sonofabitch was in there right now.

Frank began rapping the glass with his knuckles and speaking in a daytime volume. “Nikki, wake up, goddamnit. It’s Frank. Sorry I forgot to call you last night, but something came up. Let me in and I’ll get you high. We can talk.” And I hope something else. He gave the window another rap then heard the throaty, moist tone of someone just awakened. “Jesus Christ, Frank, hold your water, I’m coming.”

Shit, not the best of starts.

Frank saw fingers with green nail polish poke under the window shade. He watched the shade rise. Now she was looking at him, making a face, still groggy, short blond hair mussed. Cute. Standing there in a long green t-shirt, perfect nipples forming sweet little bumps. “What are you doing here this early, Frank? I’ve had maybe four hours sleep. And you look like shit. Oh my god, what happened to your head? There’s a knot the size of a golf ball on your forehead. And your clothes look like you crawled here. What the hell have you been doing?”

“I had an altercation with an unruly crustacean.”

He watched her face flick from quizzical to concerned to skeptical and then to disturbed. “What the hell is that supposed to mean, Frank? You wake me up for this?”

“Sorry, babe, that was supposed to be a joke. But the truth is a long and winding story, so let me in and I’ll explain. I’ve got some really good weed. Open the window and I’ll crawl in, we’ll get stoned. Everybody must get stoned.”

“Are you on something, Frank? Your eyes look wild.”

“Just a bit of the acid. But it’s fading a little. Reduced to a gentle whisper, it is.”

“God, I don’t believe this.”

“C’mon, Nikki, open the window before the cops come.”

“This isn’t Huckleberry Finn, Frank. There’s a screen on the inside of this window. Come to the back door and I’ll let you in. But be quiet, my roommates are asleep—like normal people.”

They’re missing all the fun then, Frank was thinking as he walked with contentment across the back of the house to the white wooden door on the east side. Waiting at the door he felt a stirring down low. But when Nikki opened it the look on her face wasn’t what he’d hoped for. “C’mon in, then,” she said in low tones. “I’ll make some coffee. Looks like you could use some.”

“Sounds good, Nik. I’ve got a bitchin’ roach Keith Waverly gave me. Said it was Jamaican.”

“You hanging out with Waverly now, Frank? That sort of explains the way you look. Trouble seems to follow that guy around.”

“I wasn’t hanging out with him. He was just at the bar last night. I was all fucked up after the funeral, so I thought a little of Keith’s acid might help me fly the prison walls. Way up high in the sky—that shit—you know.”

She was shaking her head. Frank saw her face change, looking older for an instant—more like the picture of her mother she kept on her bedside table—but then she shrugged and Frank sensed her mood lightening and he watched her face return to young and beautiful. “Come on then, Mr. Ford,” she said, “I’ll make you a cup of instant and you can tell me all the gory details.”

“Still got that Maxim stuff? Those freeze-dried crystals?”

“Yes, Frank.” She walked into the kitchen, a bright yellow room with tall white cupboards, old-but-clean appliances and a porcelain sink. Frank watched her rear end jiggling beneath the long green T-shirt, the delicious movement above her honey-sweet thighs dragging him along like a hound on a leash.

Let me be your dog.

(To be continued)

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