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Frank watched the blond dancer click the heels of her silver cowboy boots together, turn around, bend over at the waist and touch her toes, showing the crowd her rear end. He was thinking he should go into work. At least for a little while. But maybe first he should call in and see if it was crowded. Frustrated now, he picked his drink off the bar and walked to the antique wooden phone booth up by the front door, the booth one of Jimmy Carl’s prized possessions. Frank sat down inside it and slid the door closed, sipped the whiskey and stared through the cloudy glass at a fading poster on the opposite wall of a beautiful blond standing alongside a stack of Miller Lite cases, the girl all dressed in green for St. Patrick’s Day.  Frank was digging in his pocket for change when two of Ray-Ray’s old druggie associates shuffled by the phone booth without noticing him.

Maynard Loy and Artie Autry.

Not too long ago, maybe a couple years now, Ray-Ray and those two, along with one other guy, Martie Span, had a drugstore cowboy thing going. Ray was small so he did any climbing or crawling or shinnying needed to be done to get inside the stores. And more than likely he never got his fair share of the spoils, either, with those guys. Autry was a real beauty, had done some hard time a few years back for killing a guy in a fight over a girl and stash of heroin. And Loy was just a dangerously unstable bag of shit whatever way you looked at him. But neither Autry nor Loy was what he used to be, Frank was thinking, both of them just burned trash now.

Frank would have a nice chat with those two after he called the Metro and let old Betty know what was up. Betty was always a trip, man. Some days she could have you believing whatever she wanted to, serve you dog shit on a platter and you’d gladly pay double for the privilege of slurping it up. Then on other days you couldn’t help but see her as the lonely, pathetic, money-grubbing old woman she mostly was.

After a fifteen-minute conversation that only occasionally became an argument, Frank’s resolve dissipated and he agreed to come in at nine-thirty so Betty could go home and have a nice hot bath, soak her aching old bones. She told Frank that maybe then she could forget how much of herself she gave to guys like Sack. How much she gave and how much they always took before they let her down. She might even have a brandy with her bath; she was in such pain. And what a dear boy Frank was for coming in on the day of his poor brother’s services. Truly a dear, he was, and she’d remember his kindness next Christmas, Frank could bet his brown eyes on that.

Stepping out of the phone booth, Frank figured Betty would forget about it before Thanksgiving rolled around. Glancing at the bar, he saw Maynard Loy looking at him. One of Loy’s eyes skewed off to the left and the other aimed slightly to the right. Frank wasn’t sure which eye was focusing on him but knew it was one or the other. Doughboy Loy was a career criminal and usually had his guard up. Upon closer inspection, though, it seemed that neither of his eyes was focused at all. There was gray in his close-cropped hair and his skin was pale and unhealthy looking. Smiling, Frank stepped in close to Loy’s pudgy, sweaty carcass. “What you up to, Doughboy?” he said.

Loy blinked his puffy eyes and rubbed a fat finger across his blotchy red nose. “Oh, ah, nothing, Frank.” His voice was scratchy and high-pitched. “Didn’t notice who it was at first—the funny light in here and all.” He swallowed and made a face Frank thought was meant to be sympathetic. “Um, sorry about Ray, man. That’s a real bummer. I always thought Ray would outlive us all.”

Art Autry, on the other side of Loy leaning over a mug of beer, was wiry and sharp-featured, his skin wrinkled and tough like old saddle leather, the furrows and folds seemingly locked in a permanent scowl. He turned his head to Frank and nodded, grunting something mostly inaudible.

(To be continued)

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It was four-thirty on the clock behind the bar when Frank pushed open the gold-painted door and entered the hazy but strangely sweet smelling environment of Jimmy Carl’s Gentlemen’s Club. Today the stale alcohol, tobacco, hairspray and cheap perfume were an aromatic bouquet, a pleasant antidote for the tightness in the chest Frank always got inside a church. Especially at a funeral.

Frank saw Jimmy Carl at the far end of the room sitting in a booth, the man wearing a white pinstriped shirt and suspenders, smoking a big cigar and pouring over what looked to be his bills, likely deciding who got stiffed this month. Nikki in her uniform of black skirt and white blouse was standing close to Jimmy, her back to Frank and her arm cocked on her hip. Looked like she was waiting for something and seemed like Jimmy wasn’t in any hurry to have her leave his side. Frank knew Jimmy liked to bang his waitresses as a preferred side dish to his main course of strippers and prostitutes, and a cute and innocent girl like Nikki would be an A-1 conquest. Seeing the two of them within spitting distance was giving Frank another reason to be pissed. And worried. He felt a nervous smile coming on as he approached the booth. “Hey there, young waitress,” he said. “Can a person get a drink in this bar?”

Nikki turned around and threw up her nose. “Not for the likes of Irish trash like yourself, Ford.” Then she broke into a smile that warmed his heart and got him thinking good thoughts about the world again. He smiled back as best he could.

“Sorry about your brother, Ford,” Jimmy Carl said, tapping cigar ashes into a gold plastic ashtray. “He was in here a lot.”

“Yeah, sure, Jimmy. Thanks. I know Ray was a tough guy to get along with at times.”

“Get Frank a drink on me, Nikki honey,” Jimmy said, getting back to his bills.

“The usual, Frank?” Nikki said, giving him a quick hug as she went by.

“Make it a double.” Frank watched with admiration as his girlfriend stepped gracefully behind the bar. Five-foot-six of blonde-haired beauty. He loved looking in her eyes. Ass wasn’t bad either. He always told her if she got implants and lost a few IQ points she could be a stripper and make the real money. She always grinned and blushed in response. Working as a waitress in a strip bar had to give girls ideas, didn’t it?

Frank nodded thanks to Jimmy Carl and stepped across the floor to a barstool.

Nikki said, “Funeral pretty bad, Frank? I would have come along if you’d asked me.”

“Nah, better you didn’t come. Then I would have had to introduce you to everybody. Go through all that shit. I mean would you like the first time you met my mother to be at the funeral of her beloved baby boy?”

“I guess not, Frank. I really wouldn’t know about those things, though. I haven’t been to very many funerals. You off tonight?”

“Betty needs me to cover for Sack again. Wants me there at six. I’d like to put a sack over Sack’s head and beat it with a stick, that’s what I’d like to do. I think I’m going to call in and tell her I’m too grief stricken to work—especially for Sack. The Metro will just have to tough it out without me tonight. I need to hang out with my good friend the waitress and do some drinking, watch girls take off their clothes for money.”

Nikki crinkled up her face into a comedic grimace. “I’m sure Betty will go for that one,” she said. “You know how she gets when she has to work the bar.”

“Too damn bad. She can’t fire me for not coming in on the day of my little brother’s funeral. I’ll get the union after her.”

“I didn’t know you were in the union.”

“I’m not. But I’ll sure as hell join in a hurry if she fires me.” He grinned a little. “I see you’re working both sides of the bar today.”

“Only until five when the girls come on, then Jimmy puts in his two hours before Billy gets here. I might actually have some time to talk to you, if it stays slow.”

“No problem. You know me, easily amused.”

“Especially when there’s tits on stage,” Nikki said, the corners of her eyes and mouth turning up in that delightful way of hers. She took a bottle of Canadian Club from a shelf behind the bar and grabbed a lowball glass from a row.

“What? Tits? Me?” Frank stretched his hands out, palms up, his eyes getting wide. “Not me. I’m a Christian. Family values and all that.” Then he stared down at the stage at the back end of the room and got thoughtful. “You get along well with your people, Nikki?”

“Pretty good, most of the time. But they’re hundreds of miles away. I don’t hate being with them—but I don’t mind being away, either.”

Frank shook the ice cubes in his glass and took a long slow pull of the fine Canadian whiskey. “My family was a pain in the ass from the beginning,” he said. “My older sister and my mother were from another planet, and the old man was never around long enough to have a positive effect. I remember thinking when Ray was born that I might finally have an ally. But then he turns out to be the craziest of them all, nothing but a torment all the goddamn time. But I still miss him, Nikki. Strange, I know. But I just can’t stand the thought of someone beating Ray to a pulp like that. Throwing him off the fuckin’ Arrowhead Bridge for Christ sake—even though I wanted to do it myself more than once. It hurts to think of anyone beating on little Ray-Ray like that and it pisses me off because he’s not worth the suffering.” Frank leaned his elbows on the bar and felt some tears leaking out. He rubbed his eyes with the side of his hands.

Nikki put her warm hand on his neck and stroked gently. “He was your brother, Frank,” she said. “Your flesh and blood. There had to be times when you loved him. I know you, remember?”

“You just think you know me,” Frank said, leaning over the bar feeling like a fool and an asshole at the same time,

Then “Shake Your Booty” exploded out of the sound system and the stage lights burst on down front. Frank wiped his eyes with a cocktail nap and tried to smile as a chesty peroxide blonde in a shiny platinum-colored cowgirl outfit high-stepped out from behind the dark red curtain on the small stage at the far end of the long narrow barroom. Frank pulled himself together, took another swig of CC and shifted his gaze to the dancer. Nikki gave him a funny look and walked off to wait on two guys who’d just arrived at a table near the stage.

(To be continued)

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For lack of a better option, Frank limped back toward the Black Cow, his knee and back hurting and his head throbbing like a Paul McCartney bass line. Feeling a need to get off Garfield Avenue he walked around to the back of the brick restaurant, saw a light on inside the building. And the sky was full of twinkling stars now but they didn’t give a shit about Frank Ford.

Is anybody up there?

Feeling like the last man on earth, he squeezed the tire iron for security. His little sword, just like that hobbit in the Lord of the Rings, Frank having finished the final book in the trilogy back in March.

And it was a long way across Mordor from here.

And where were those goddamn orcs?

Then, as if the stars were listening and sending him an answer, Frank saw licks of white light coming down the short street alongside the Black Cow. Hustling across the back of the restaurant, he jumped behind the wall and pressed against it, edging back along until he could peer around the corner. Now the street was flooded with light and a beaten down Checker was idling in the middle of it, Blue and White Taxi on the door. Frank heard the back door of the restaurant opening. Heard voices and laughter and saw two men coming out the back door inside a ball of yellow light, their faces flushed. They were soused. But wait a minute, he knew the guys. Had served them a lot of drinks. You had your Christian Brothers and water for the skinny guy and a Miller and a shot of Petri for the fat guy, the cook. Chef. Skinny one was Larry Seline and the cook was Bruce Munkwitz. Both of them at the Metropole nearly every Tuesday, the one night a week the Black Cow was closed.

Frank dropped the tire iron to the damp grass and tried to make himself presentable, running his fingers back through his black hair and wincing as his hand bumped against a large lump on his forehead, the pain reverberating back to the beginning of time. As the two men were getting in the taxi, he came out from behind the wall and crossed through the cab’s headlight beams. The cab’s interior light was on and he saw the looks of disbelief on the faces. The grizzled, gray-haired cabbie was trying for a pissed-off, authoritative stare but not quite making it.

Arriving at the still open back door of the cab, Frank put his hand on the roof and leaned in. “Hey guys,” he said. “Care to share the cab? I’ll pay the fare.” He pulled a fistful of ones from his pants pocket— tonight’s tip money—and showed it. “Afraid I had some car trouble.”

“It’s Frank fuckin’ Ford,” Bruce Munkwitz said, grinning like he knew something special, his head cocked to the side. “Sure, Frank, come on in. You okay, man, you look a little under the weather?”

“Been a long night,” Frank said, folding himself into the faded red vinyl seat of the Checker hoping he could hold it together just a little while longer, any control he might’ve had over his mind now dissipating like air in an old balloon.

“How ya doin’, Frank?” Larry Seline said.

“Hey, Larry,” Frank said, shutting the cab door and wishing everybody would stop with the gawking looks.

The cabbie turned to the back seat. “Where we goin’, gentlemen?” Voice like a foghorn with gravel in it; face tired and filled with resignation.

“Fifth Avenue East and Sixth Street for us two,” Munkwitz said, gesturing at Seline. “You’re somewhere in that general direction, aren’t you, Frank?”

“Close enough.”

His adrenaline ebbing slightly, the acid currently on a downswing and the belief that the two orcs would be arriving soon turning him cold, Frank flipped up the collar on his jacket and slumped down in the seat as the cabbie pulled the shifter down, hung a U-turn, drove out to Garfield and turned right.

Passing by what was left of Frank’s Pontiac, the derelict wagon wrinkled like an industrial-sized lasagna noodle in blue, Bruce Munkwitz said, “That your sled there, Frank? Somebody plow into you, man?”

“Needs a battery,” Frank said, scrunching down behind the collar of his jacket and staring out the window, not wanting any one to know what he was seeing out there in the vast wasteland.

End of Chapter 3 – order ebook or paperpack at Amazon, B&N or other online stores!

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Things were beginning to slow down a little, the swells upon the asphalt ocean ebbing slightly, when a blinding light hit him from the left. Then a loud snarling roar kicked up a fresh rush of fear as a giant white sand crab burst out from behind the north side of the Goldfine’s building, its four huge eyes shooting out laser beams and blinding him.

Frank’s foot instinctively jabbed at the brake pedal but the crab was coming in broadside, ram course. Frank jammed the gas and jerked the wheel hard right and all he could see was glaring brightness as the crab slammed into the backdoor of the wagon with a hard, loud thump and a grating crunch, snapping Frank’s head into the side window.

Now the wagon was dead in the water and it was time for the baseball-bat-wielding orc to come out for the coup de grace.

But no, the giant crab was backing off.

Fuck—making another run.

Frank covered his head with his arms and curled into a fetal ball across the front seat as the monster smashed into the driver’s door and kept grinding away, pushing the ’69 Pontiac wagon all the way to the curb. Roaring there, huge industrial bumper breaking glass and crunching metal, exhaust clouds and the smoke of burnt rubber filling the air, the crab was trying its best to flatten Frank’s old car and him with it.

And then one more back up.

And one more charge.

Frank gripped the armrest on the passenger door and took the blow, felt the wagon rock back and forth, heard stuff hitting the pavement.

He rode it out.

The crab eyes were backing off again. The guy had to be coming now. Soften you up with the truck and then move in to finish the job.

Frank readied himself, lifting the tire iron from where it had fallen between the seat and the door. But the monster truck spun around and roared back in the direction of the port terminal and orc number one.

Truck must belong to the big one, Frank thought, watching the taillights disappear under the bridge. And those two could be coming back for me real soon. He pulled down the handle on the passenger door and pushed but it would only move about six inches before crying out in protest and pushing back, wagon’s frame obviously bent. Frank shifted around, put his feet against the door and shoved with his legs until it popped open with an angry metallic snap.

He got out and examined the Pontiac. Was a bit wrinkled. But also flush against the curb. Nice parking job. He gazed back in the direction of the port terminal but could only see shadows. Then he noticed a small glowing orb seemingly levitating in the air, a block back on this side of Garfield Avenue. Squinting and concentrating, he determined it was a sign from a restaurant, the Black Cow. Surely closed at this time of night. Struggling to think straight, Frank was reminded that there was only one road coming down here and only one going out, unless you wanted to cross the bridge to Bay City. He’d have to walk several miles along a stretch of closed businesses, darkened railroad tracks and lonely grain terminals, to get home. No safe havens. No shining oasis. Only darkness. Loneliness. Industrial stench.

And giant crabs, orcs and who knew what the hell else.

Christ.

(To be continued)

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Staring down the road through the swirling dust cloud, the truck’s exhaust rumble fading away into the night, Frank was alive with muscle spasms, pounding heartbeats, chills and hot flashes. Breathing deeply and concentrating on slowing his pulse, he returned to the fallen giant, the creature still out of it but breathing, at least. Frank set the chain on the pavement out of the orc’s reach, kept the tire iron in his right hand and went through the creature’s pockets with his left, ready to pop the thing if it so much as twitched.

Wisconsin driver’s license: Lewis Timbers, Ashland, Wisconsin. Really ugly photo. Not much to work with. “Shiver me timbers, matey,” Frank said out loud. “Found yourself in uncharted waters tonight, eh?”

Frank tossed the wallet away, picked up the tire chain and returned to the station wagon. He threw his weapons on the front seat and got behind the wheel. Morrison and The Doors were pushing out the bluesy slink of “Cars Hiss by my Window,” as he slapped the wagon in gear and hit the gas.

Adrenaline was still kicking up the LSD as he drove out, but he felt a hint of a letdown and started wondering again. Should he go home? The question brought on a dark grayness and images of prison cells. Hello Walls. Should he go to Nikki’s place and try to wake her? No, that wasn’t going to work, middle of the night with a head full of acid not the best time for making a positive impression. Hadn’t Nikki warned him to stay out of trouble?

Lot of good it did.

Then paranoia crept in with the starlight and he was alone on the moon. Middle of outer space, man, no one around. No way home. Mind floating away on a shooting star. Body quivering with cold.

He squeezed the steering wheel and bit his cheek.

Struggling with his vision, he kept driving. Seconds later he was sensing something different, something not right, as he stared out at Goldfine’s by the Bridge, a single spotlight on the wall shining down on the empty parking lot.

But, hell, Frank, you’re tripping. What do you expect, order, familiarity and sanity? Jesus Christ, man, you’ve done this shit before. Ten years ago the last time, sure, but you know what to expect. You’re a cosmic fucking cowboy, ride the goddamn roller coaster, boy. Yell if you have to but ride it out.

(To be continued)

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Hoping the cretin had no stamina and less resolve, Frank began a hopping, circling approach, like a rooster in a cockfight. He bounced from one foot to the other, moving to his right and waving the chain from side to side with his left hand while his right hand gripped the tire iron. Searching the big orc’s eyes, he saw nothing much in there. This was a job to this guy and he didn’t care much for working. Frustration was creeping in around the edges. Also a snippet of bewilderment as Frank continued his rooster dance, taunting the cretin with shouts of “C’mon, chickenshit, let’s get it on.” But then Frank saw something else in those flat, dull eyes, a little spark, a momentary flash of determination; the big guy maybe thinking he could end it fast and be home in time for his bedtime cheeseburger.

The beast charged, swinging the bat at Frank’s head. Frank ducked, felt wind fly past his skull and backpedaled left. Shuffling his feet for balance, he attacked, slashing the chain down across the creature’s huge forearms. He saw pain and anger ripple the spongy jowls and the creature’s eyes turned black. The mouth on the red balloon face was open and sucking air as the orc charged again, bat held high above the head.

Frank feinted left and jumped to the right. The monster’s feet, tiny things compared to the rest of him, tried to stop and change direction but seemed to stick to the pavement. But, shit, the thing managed to dance out of it and now was charging again, bat up high. Frank set his feet, faked a throw of the tire iron and watched the big head jerk, saw the oversized body struggling to stop itself, the muscles fighting each other. Frank dropped down, flattened out and whipped his legs at the monster’s ankles. There was a loud hard smack as bone hit bone and Frank watched the tower tip, saw it come crashing down with a thud and a grunt and sounds like a cow giving birth. Still gripping the tire iron, Frank jumped to his feet, darted in behind the giant and crowned him King of Garfield Avenue with a shot to the back of the skull, a dull doink that brought to mind a snow shovel hitting a frozen jack-o-lantern.

With the big one out of commission, Frank turned to face number two, the dude’s feet like they were stuck in mud, his eyes unsure, the man thinking about it, wondering. Frank grinned, felt the crazies rolling in. “The Force is with me, man,” Frank hollered. “The Force is with me, asshole. You wanna piece of it?” Then he reached down and plucked the chain from the pavement, twirled the tire iron and restarted the bouncing, circling dance, feeling a wide, crazy grin spreading across his face. He watched the guy’s hands squeeze the bat tighter. He saw questions burning through the prick’s head. “Come on, douchebag,” Frank said, loosing a gob of spit on the pavement, “let’s get to it before the cops show up.”

His face twisting like Silly Putty, the smaller orc cocked the bat back and threw it. The metal stick helicoptered toward Frank’s head in slow motion, label up. Frank ducked, and the bat whirred over his head and hit the pavement, bouncing and rolling with a clanking sound. Frank straightened himself and prepared for the charge, but the smaller orc turned around and beat feet for the white truck, jumped behind the wheel and roared away spewing dirt and rocks.

Watching the huge truck disappear, Frank thought he heard a metallic voice inside the cab say, “Ten-four, good buddy,” but it was probably his imagination. Hard to say what was what anymore. He tried to get the tag number but there was too much dust.

(To be continued)

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He watched the doors on the monster pickup open, saw two big goons step out. Exhaust drifted in the headlight beams, refracting the light and bending it, but Frank’s vision was clear. The acid was like a spotlight shining right to the core of these two assholes. See the tension in their muscles, the way they’re bent and twisted and walking crooked. The driver was the bigger of the two, offensive-lineman size with oily blonde hair falling over his ears. Bad haircut gave him an inbred look, the goon probably raised on abuse. But a nice brown suede jacket, double extra-large, maybe even triple or four X. Other guy was a tad smaller but still bigger than Frank. Look at him hovering back a step or two, not really into it. Watching the big guy and following his lead.

Take out the body and the head will follow. Or was it the other way around?

“You boys lost?” Frank said, feeling the smile taking over his lips as the adrenaline flowed like a river in spring, shaking his muscles awake. “The boat whores are across that little bridge up there.” Pointing up at the Interstate Bridge.

The bigger guy scowled, Frank thinking of an angry steer. Frank almost laughed; dude wasn’t very enthusiastic. Autry’d probably promised him ludes in exchange for an easy stomping job but now the situation looked a bit different than advertised. Frank could see every muscle twitch and the movement of every thought in their thick heads as the two guys exchanged glances before going back to the monster truck.

Is that all, boys? All you got? Leaving before we get to dance?

Frank got his answer when they reached into the truck and their hands came out gripping baseball bats, the new kind, made from aluminum instead of wood, the light from the pole lamps glinting off the shiny metal. Frank could see the doubt on the smaller guy, the man still hanging back, but the big bastard must have wanted his dope because he was coming on, moving in, gripping the bat like an axe, empty-headed meanness written on his white and blotchy face.

Having played football in high school—a running back—Frank knew these ham-huffing mongoloid lineman types were usually top heavy and often had a hard time stopping or changing direction. And the storm trooper mofo coming at him now looked to have fallen off his training regimen some time ago. If Frank could get him moving, get him off balance—he’d have a chance. Second dude would probably split in a hurry should the big guy fall. Problem though was Frank’s left knee, torn ACL when one of those giant lineman types fell on it in the Central game, senior year. Never had surgery and the damn thing never really healed right. So he knew he had maybe five minutes of fast movement, ten at the very outside, before his knee or his wind gave out.

Fuck.

(To be continued)

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