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Chapter 1, Excerpt 6

Her first stop was at a Holiday station on 26th Avenue East and London Road. Frank pulled into the adjacent lot and left the Pontiac running. As Judy gassed up the Buick, he gazed out at the big lake, whitecaps rolling across it as night began to take over the sky. After a few minutes Judy came out of the store carrying a paper bag, got in the Electra and left in a hurry. He followed her to a brick apartment building in the Central Hillside neighborhood. He parked half a block back of the Buick and watched the nurse walk briskly up to the glass-paneled entrance doors of the building, a big black purse over her shoulder and the paper bag from Holiday cradled in her arms. Shortly after she disappeared inside, Frank saw a light come on in a top floor window.

He decided to wait.

A half hour went by with no further activity seen. Now the afternoon’s booze was wearing off and he was getting depressed, maybe a little grief coming in against his will. And he knew Betty would be getting anxious so he cranked the ignition. Nothing. Waited and tried again. Not a goddamn sound. Dead.

The Metropole was only a few blocks away—all downhill—so he thought What the hell and set out on foot in the rain after slamming the door on the Pontiac so hard a strip of chrome fell off.

Chapter 2, Excerpt 1

Damn bar was crowded, just like Frank had feared—why he no longer got scheduled for Friday nights. Thing about bartending, it was a pain in the ass if it was too busy and no good if it was too slow. What Frank wanted was a nice medium sized crowd of regulars whose drink preferences he was familiar with. Enough patrons to keep you busy but not so many you were chasing all night trying to catch up. Monday night during football season was good. Tuesday and Thursday nights were also good. Wednesday used to be good before Betty decided to have Quarter Taps on Hump Day, but now it was a goddamn zoo. Any day shift was fine with Frank, and he usually got to choose his shifts, one of the benefits given the bartender with the longest tenure.

Tenure. Shit, like this bar was a school and he was a teacher, Frank was thinking as he threaded his way through the crowd and the smoke. That was funny. Funny because ten years ago when he started working here he’d actually entertained ideas of doing good, putting his energies toward enlightening the unwashed masses dragging themselves up to the long oaken bar in an endless line. Yes, sir, Frank Ford would dispense his hipster wisdom and college knowledge for the uplift of all.

Jesus.

Just goes to show how youth, psychedelic drugs and a bit of a messiah complex can pull your shit off line. Christ, now Frank hated drunks. Was sick of looking at the impenetrable gazes, tired of hearing the same meaningless jabber. And that was the young ones. Your old drunks, your little old ladies, retired laborers, whatever—they never gave you much trouble—they were just sad. Lonely and sad. And it got to you once in a while, got you thinking about your own life, your future. Your old age. Your death. All kinds of troubling shit.

Frank nodded to familiar faces and glanced at Betty behind the bar, the squatty white-haired woman chewing her lower lip and looking half-crazy. Wondering how she’d stayed in this business so long, Frank watched her face relax when she saw him. She gave him a half-assed, tired smile and he smiled back at her, not feeling it, and walked behind the bar. He hung up his leather jacket on the wall hook next to the basement door, washed his hands in the bar sink, dug a clean towel out of a drawer, dried his hands and his rain dampened hair and put on his bartender’s face. The mask.

Betty thanked him again for coming in and then left without further ado. Who could blame her? Damn bar was full of young girls tonight and judging by the horde of dirty glasses crowding around the sink, they had ordered quite a few specialty cocktails, drinks Betty struggled with, usually getting behind—like now—with the washing of her limited supply of appropriate glassware.

Frank got busy at the sink. He greeted Jenny the waitress. Nice girl. Or woman. She was somewhere in between, another functioning alcoholic staying close to the source. Frank could tell she was already into the sauce but she usually held it together for the whole shift so he didn’t worry himself.

Took him about an hour to catch his groove and get a line on what people wanted. There was old Mrs. Eckman (Edna) down by the television set, shiny black patent leather purse on the bar in front of her next to a brandy Manhattan with a cherry. Frank always had the impression Edna was wearing white gloves even though her hands were bare. Down at the other end of the bar with a shot of Windsor and a snit was retired UMZ custodian Harold Lundquist. Joel Blackwell, mentally ill offspring of one of Zenith’s influential old families, was on a stool at the middle of the bar drinking Johnny Walker and arguing with invisible relatives. A group of bikers by the front door was taking turns checking IDs and drinking tap beer on Betty’s dime. College jocks at the pool tables were doing Budweiser, and now a cute blond honey of a college girl was ordering screwdrivers and greyhounds for her and her friends.

And on and on it went.

(To be continued)

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Chapter 1, Excerpt 5

Frank took the free drink and nodded thanks to Jimmy Carl, Jimmy behind the bar now. Then Frank gave each of the two pill heads a hard stare and stepped around to the waitress station. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Autry give the Doughboy a backhand slap to his flabby midsection. Autry growled something at the fat man and Frank watched Doughboy gulp once and stare down at the stage, Loy’s face freezing in a weird forced smile he must have worked years to perfect.

The club was filling up with the after-work crowd. Jimmy Carl was zipping back and forth along the bar and Nikki was down by the stage taking drink orders from a group of college guys. Sensing it was the right time to leave, and never really caring much for strip clubs in the first place, Frank knocked back the free whiskey and started toward the door, giving the back of Artie Autry’s head a little shove with the heel of his hand as a parting shot. Artie threw Frank a dirty look and seemed like he might want to start something, but then he pressed his hair back in place with his bony hand and returned his gaze to the stage.

Frank made the short and lonely trek to his station wagon dodging raindrops. He put in the key and cranked the ignition. Thing turned over feebly but finally started. The wind was switched around now, blowing hard and cold off Lake Superior, kind of weather made you want to get the hell out of this town for good.

April is a good month to die in this town, Frank thought. At least Ray got that part right.

Frank was mad. Mad at Autry and Loy, mad at Ray-Ray, mad at himself. Didn’t occur to him that it was cool to be an angry young man but not so cool at thirty-six. Unidentified feelings swirled around in his gut as he drove. The people, the cars, the old brown buildings—they all seemed unreal, moving by out there in an indifferent world. But Frank was tough enough. Tough enough to handle his asshole brother when he was alive and tough enough to handle the poor bastard’s killers now that Ray was dead. Frank knew there was more to the story than Autry and Loy were offering, they pretty much came out and said it. Yeah, both of those boys knew far too much about Judy Bruton’s present situation to be merely casual observers. They had some scam in mind; it was almost a sure thing.

Frank drove around town watching it rain, the sky gloomy and low, total grayness. He turned on defrost on his car heater, listened to the classic rock station play “Dust in the Wind” and wished he had another drink. Cruising slowly down soggy London Road staring out at the big homes on the lakeside of the winding asphalt strip, he was searching for signs of construction. And when he saw it, it made him chuckle. In the front yard of a huge white, three-story house was a homemade sign saying Malomar Construction. Good quality workmanship on the sign. Danny Moran did good work, even though he drank like a fish. But that’s what you get from an Irishman, Frank thought, knowing he had more Irish blood than Danny but Moran had the Irish name. Both men had the disposition.

Frank made a u-turn a block past the big white house, rolled back along the north side of London Road and parked where he could see the long driveway leading to Mr. Pills’ not-so-humble abode. He reached back to stroke his ponytail and remembered he’d had it cut off two months ago. Sighing, he gazed down the well-lighted driveway at the faded yellow grass in Mr. Pillsbury’s substantial yard.

Mr. Pills. Can you believe it?

Left no doubt, did it? Shit, pills were what everyone wanted these days. You had carloads of customers flocking to Pillsbury’s stores for Valium and Librium, Phenobarbital and Percodan, Darvon and Demerol. And your junkies wanted the same thing. So maybe Artie and Doughboy did have a right to a piece of the pie. Maybe the entire pharmaceutical business was a sleazy scam, either legit or black market, and everyone was a player for the wrong reasons. Because clearly there was something wrong here that no pills were going to fix.

Frank was waiting for this current bout of madness to pass when he saw his former sister-in-law strutting out the front door of Pillsbury Manor wearing a long black coat that flapped open as she walked, revealing a tight white nurse’s uniform. Her chest was still proud and noteworthy, Frank observed. He watched her approach a dark blue Buick sedan, snapping a cigarette into the bushes with a flick of her fingers before climbing into the big sled. It was eight o’clock and Frank still had an hour to kill before he had to rescue Betty from the drunks.

Why not take a little ride, eh?

Nurse Judy backed the Buick around and drove slowly out onto London Road, a fresh cigarette hanging from her lips. She turned the Electra toward downtown and hit the gas, white smoke billowing from the exhaust pipe as she rolled away.

Frank was so mesmerized by seeing Judy again he’d forgotten about the ignition problems on the station wagon. Watching her taillights fade, he hit the key. Miraculously, the Poncho caught on the first try and he was soon in pursuit of the junkie nurse with the great ass. She looked a lot better than he’d anticipated. Hard to believe everything was still so taut. Maybe his eyes were going bad. Could be the foggy weather or the distance. No way she should still look that good. With her lifestyle? Come on.

He’d get a closer look before long.

(To be continued)

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Chapter 1, Excerpt 4

Then out of the corner of his eye Frank saw Nikki go behind the bar. He watched Autry turn his head and blow her a kiss. Frank shot the alligator-skinned prick a sideways glance then moved around Doughboy’s bulk to wedge in between the two lowlifes. “Must be something big going on if you two guys are out of bed this early, Artie,” Frank said. “It’s still light out,” He made a fist with his right hand and set it on top of the bar close to Autry’s left hand.

Autry narrowed his eyes. “Your brother’s funeral, Ford,” he said. “Ain’t that reason enough for two old friends of his to have a drink together—in his memory?”

“Don’t remember seeing either of you two at the service, Artie.”

“Nah,” Doughboy Loy said. “We didn’t think it was a good idea to show up, given our past enterprises with Ray, and all.” He was talking slow and getting slower. His eyes were red, but not like he’d shed tears.

Frank said, “Look, you guys, I appreciate your sympathy, if that’s what it is—but what I’m really interested in is some answers. Like how and why did Ray end up floating in the bay all beaten to shit? And who the fuck, did it, man? You know, just simple questions.”

“Man, Frank, I don’t know,” Doughboy said. “You know how Ray got when he was fucked up. Must of been a dozen guys around town wanted to kick his ass. Somebody could’ve caught up to him, you know? Don’t necessarily mean it had anything to do with Ray jumping—but he could have been depressed or something. You take a beating and you might start hating yourself afterwards, right? You seen those billboards they got around town about untreated depression, how it’s a time bomb and all that?”

“You and I both know Ray didn’t commit suicide, Maynard,” Frank said. “He was too chicken shit, too much of a survivor for that. Thought too highly of himself in some twisted way. So maybe it was you guys did it to him, eh?  Say for example you wanted him to pull some tunnel-rat job for you so you could get something to put in your arm and Ray-Ray said no and you two were jonesing so bad you wouldn’t take no for an answer.” Frank turned to the wiry, wasted Autry. “Maybe Artie here flipped out and started beating on the little dick. Knocked him unconscious and he wouldn’t wake up right away so you guys freaked and threw him off the Arrowhead Bridge.”

Frank looked at Doughboy, wanted to squeeze those puffy cheeks until they bled, see what came out of his saggy mouth after that. Instead he turned back to Autry. “Maybe I should pound your scrawny buzzard beak into the bar a few times, Artie, see what your story is then. I really think I might enjoy that.” Frank put his right hand on his lowball glass, turned it slowly and stared at Autry.

“Aw, come on, Frank, this is bullshit,” Doughboy said. “We didn’t do anything to Ray. At least I didn’t.” He glanced at Autry. “And Artie liked Ray. And we like you too, Frank.”

Ford glowered and leaned his elbows on the bar, stared down into his empty glass. After a moment he glanced up at Nikki across the bar and her eyes were on him. “Another, please, Nik,” he said, holding up his glass. She came and took it, flashing a look of concern, woman always finding a way to comment, it seemed. Frank straightened up and looked Autry in the eyes. “If you didn’t do it, Artie, who in hell did?  I have this funny feeling that you know more than Doughboy says you do.”

Autry said, “I know Ray was getting squirrelier by the minute, Frank, that’s what I know.”

Doughboy piped in, “I was his brother I’d have a long talk with that nurse chick Ray was banging. She was mixing him up some really weird cocktails—if you catch my drift.”

Frank said, “Who in hell you talking about, Maynard? Not Judy Bruton, his ex-wife?”

Loy got a smirk on his puffy lips. “It is, Frank, I swear to God. I forgot they were married back in the good old days. Three months, wasn’t it?”

“So he was hanging with that bitch again,” Frank said, watching Nikki pour his whiskey. “That chick is evil, man. Used to steal from old people at the nursing home she worked at, to support her habit. Just your kind of babe, guys. But I heard she got busted, so how in hell can she still be a nurse?”

“She was never arrested. Just fired a couple times. They could never prove anything, I guess.” Doughboy said.  “Now they say she’s gonna marry a pharmacist. Guy with his own drugstore chain. Imagine that, would you? How lucky can you get?”

“Shut the fuck up,” Autry snarled. “They’re not married yet, so let’s not jinx it.”

Frank’s interest perked up. “So where is sweet Judy sleeping these days, boys? Her former brother-in-law might like to reminisce with her about old times.”

“She works out at a big white house on London Road,’ Doughboy said, drawing an angry stare from Autry. “She’s nursing her boyfriend’s mother. Old bag’s got this big mansion on the lake. She lives on the second floor and Mr. Pills is on the third floor. Quite a pad, they say. I think Judy’s been doing a lot of nursing on the pharmacy dude’s dick as kind of a side project.”

Frank said, “Mr. Pills? That’s the guy’s name? Really?”

“Actually it’s Pillsbury,” Doughboy said, a stupid grin wrinkling his fat red lips. “Me and Artie just call him Mr. Pills ‘cause that’s what he is, really, you think about it.”

Frank said, “How can a guy like that—with all that money—how can he not know she’s going to steal him blind?”

“He probably doesn’t care,” Autry said. “Man’s a fuckin’ geek. Judy’s got him so strung out on her pussy he’d do anything for her. She’s probably got him spiking Demerol by now. Wouldn’t be surprised. But I ain’t saying any more. That would be gossip. And I was never one for gossip. Doughboy is also going to change the subject if he’s as smart as he thinks he is.”

“Y’know, Artie,” Frank said. “I think maybe we should go outside and introduce your balls to the toe of my boot.” Frank leaned his muscular, six-foot-two frame in close to Autry. “Your lack of concern is pissing me off, man. I need to get a line on Judy for personal reasons and you think you’re going to cut me off?  What kind of shit is that?  Be real nice if one time in your life you weren’t an asshole, y’know.”

“Fuck you, Ford. What more do you want?  Big white house on London Road… guy name of Pillsbury… figure it out for yourself for fuck sake.”

Frank clenched his jaw and was just about to grab Autry when he heard Nikki’s soothing voice coming from what seemed a very long way off. “Jimmy bought you another drink, Frank. He said he doesn’t want any trouble in the bar. He’ll fire me, Frank, if you start anything.”

Frank wanted to tell her not to worry; her parents would pay her bills if it came down to that—and for that matter, it was about time she got out of this sleazy environment—but he kept his mouth shut.

Then “Afternoon Delight” burst from the sound system and a brunette with extra large eyes hit the stage down front jiggling inside a frilly red bustier.

With his bloodshot eyes trained on the new dancer, Doughboy Loy said, “Your buddy Danny Moran is remodeling the first floor of that same house, Frank. Maybe he needs some extra guys.”

Which got Doughboy another eye dart from Autry, Artie’s face getting redder and tighter as he glowered at Loy.

(To be continued)

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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.

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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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