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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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Jackpine Savages by T.K. O’Neill  

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CHAPTER ONE, EXCERPT ELEVEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They had an answer for that.

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

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

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

I refused to speak and asked for a public defender.

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

The court appointed a public defender.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would I be going—or coming?

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