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Ebook and paperback now available at all online bookstores for $2.99/$15.95!

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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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Lowering his hands to his sides, he yelled, “Goddamnit”, across the water, and as the sound died away in the breeze, he got a little nervous. Anticipating a lightning strike or the scolding of a heavenly voice, religious conditioning was wrinkling his mind like a cold wind.

He was still waiting for relief when a flash of light caught his eye. Then the rumble of an engine on the road coming in caught his ears. Frank knew right away what was going down, he was tuned in. Getting the cosmic wake-up call, it seemed, he went to the station wagon, pulled open the tailgate and grabbed the tire iron and the length of tire chain he kept back there wrapped in rags to keep from rattling. You tended bar in a dive you needed weapons in your car because you never knew when some squid you eighty-sixed was outside waiting for you in the dark and harboring ill intent.

Someone like Ray-Ray.

Fuck.

Frank stood there waiting, anticipating; tire chain in his left hand tire iron in his right, the Stones blowing hard and heavy out the window of the station wagon.

You can’t always get what you want…

Squinting into the searing headlight beams of a big white pickup truck rumbling out of the blackness, Frank was thinking, But sometimes, man, you get what you need. Peace and love had turned to violence and hatred—and it felt pretty damn good.

Time to exorcise some demons.

Truck coming at him was a beast with two dark spotlights mounted on a bar across the roof, a grill of steel bars on the front bumper and red-hued exhaust trailing behind it like a vapor trail. Frank watched the big truck swing across the road and stop, effectively blocking any avenue of escape.

And that was just fine with Frank. His internal force was all the way live now and ready to get it on.

With his senses peaking, Frank locked onto the car radio and the Eagles wailing “One of These Nights.” He felt a smile coming on as the wack hit him full frontal. Christ, he wanted to hit the high notes with Henley and Frey, but he never could sing and this wasn’t the time for it.

(To be continued)

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On Garfield Avenue heading toward the docks, not knowing how he got here, Frank was cruising past Goldfine’s By the Bridge, a discount appliance and furniture store, feeling like something was pushing him along. He angled off Garfield onto Port Terminal Road, wound the Pontiac underneath the Interstate Bridge and looped around past the terminal building. He parked near the water and left the engine running, the radio on, the window down and the headlights off. He got out and went to the spot. Stood right on it. He could still see it there in his mind, the police outline. Shit, see him there, fucking Ray, Frank’s goddamn little brother, the kid’s bloody, swollen face with no peace showing on it. May he rest in peace. That’s what they always say, isn’t it? Was Ray peaceful now? Christ, who knew? Could be more religious hypnosis, they’re always sending it out. What about the living? Don’t we get peace? Comfort in the Lord?

Frank couldn’t find it. Didn’t know where to look so he stared across the dark waters of St. Louis Bay toward the old Arrowhead Bridge way down there in the distance, the long arc of ancient wood and steel stretching across the sky from Minnesota to Wisconsin, a lone set of headlights moving slowly across it now on the way to Zenith, Bay City bars closed for the night.

Cops’ theory was that Ray jumped off the Arrowhead Bridge and the body floated down here, couple of miles or so to the east, took it a week or two to make the journey. So maybe the cops were right. But it didn’t seem like Ray’s style. Goddamn kid was resilient, always seemed to bounce back. He could take it as well as he dished it out. Ray had taken a few beatings in his time and the hell of it was he always came back stronger. Some bouncer knocked him around; Ray would lift weights for a while and come back at the guy. Usually got whipped again but had fucked up a couple over-sized creampuff bouncers in his day. And it seemed a long way for a body to float to get all the way down here to the port terminal but what did Frank know? He was just a goddamn bartender. Maybe it all just finally caught up to Ray. Frank had seen it before, some hard guy spends a few years on the booze and the pills and then one night decides to pick a fight with a green-behind-the-ears kid who proceeds to kick the shit out of him. Next time you see the guy he’s staring down at his shoes and acting apologetic and nervous. Got a permanent cowed look on his face like all the guys he fucked over in the past are trailing behind him in a pack shouting threats and obscenities.

So maybe that’s the way it was with Ray. Little brother was never a tough guy but he did have way more than the average load of bad karma. Ray ripped people off on deals, stole money off bar tops, kicked old drunks, borrowed money and never paid it back—Christ, he died owing Frank more money than Frank wanted to remember. And that was from way damn back, Ray having burned that bridge eons ago.

And that, in a nutshell, as they say, was why damn near everyone who knew Ray was less than saddened by his passing. But not mom or Frank’s sister, Anne. No, those two had, at some point, made a choice not to know how Ray lived. At least that’s how they always acted. And there were also some grieving aunts and uncles at the funeral who knew Ray when he was a kid and hadn’t seen him much since then.

And all of them were living in a fantasy world.

Ray was a shit.

So why the hell couldn’t Frank let it go? He was trying, man. Here he was, standing in the dampness on the edge of the bay and lifting his hands to the stars, waiting for the pain to go away, giving it a pathway. Frank repeating Let it go, let it go, to himself and waiting for the bad shit to magically fly out of his body and leave him happy ever after.

But no.

(To be continued)

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