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EXCERPT 8

I cruised by the Wisconsin Steak House and then a little seaweed green wooden garage in an open field with a hand-painted sign on the door advertising “Hubcaps For Sale.” As the sun began to sink below the western hillside, flophouses and greasy spoons and blockhouse bars cast dark silhouettes. On my right was the Viking Bar, famous for drinks as cheap as a boat whore and strong as a trucker’s breath. Then came the Nickel Street Saloon, the High Times and the Heartbreak Hotel. One Harley leaned on its peg in front of the High Times. On my left was the Boulevard Lounge where the strippers sold cocaine between dances and pussy after hours.

I was thinking maybe I should stop in after my shift was over.

Next up was Johnny’s Bar; where once a three-hundred-pound customer killed his drinking buddy by jumping onto the poor slob’s chest and crushing his heart. Good times. Then came Tony’s Cabaret, the Twin Port’s’ only gay bar at the time, and Al’s Waterfront Lounge, where huge Great Lakes ships rested on the frozen bay behind it like bathtub toys for giants. Up ahead past Tower Avenue Fifth Street came to a a dead-end at a big mound of dirt and a barrier consisting of three black-and-yellow-striped boards bolted to metal posts stuck in the pavement. Beyond that I could see a bleak flat area stretching out dark and endless, dead brown weed stocks and piles of snow-flecked coal lying next to rusty railroad cars and the ghostly hulls of semi-trailers. A phalanx of railroad tracks spider-webbed around a metal hangar and led out of town toward better places.

I turned left on Tower and headed uptown. The streets were pretty empty, as it was still early. Away from the waterfront the bars went upscale. In Bay City this meant they were cleaned once in a while and had bouncers. At least a few of them did. I drove by the Cave Cabaret, featuring The Zenith City Gloom Band, and past a “Girls, Girls, Girls” sign at the Castaway. Then in a blur of neon and exhaust came the Casablanca, the Brass Rail, Zanuzowski’s, Yellow Submarine, Tommy Byrne’s, the Poodle Lounge, Dugout Bar, the Capri, the Lamplighter, the Androy Hotel, the Elbow Room, D.T.’s, the Anchor, the Douglas, Betty Boop’s, the Kro Bar, the Trio, the Classy Lumberjack and the Red Lace Massage Parlor.

Just past Bob’s Chop Suey House, I turned left and went to John Avenue—appropriately famous for its three whorehouses—turned right, drove down one block and parked in the glow of the Port Town Hotel sign hanging from the wall of a dark brick flophouse. Across the street was a Laundromat and a closed café—DINAH’S KITCHEN, on a faded sign.

I was five minutes early for the pick-up so I pulled out a Kool from my pack above the visor and fired up with some matches from Jasmine’s Lounge, Where You Always Have A Good Time.  I flipped the button on the transistor radio lying on the seat. Jaggar came on wailing about love in vain. About that I thought I knew. Then something crossed through the glare from the naked bulb in the pea-green hotel entryway and I turned to see two good-looking girls strutting toward my cab. I remember thinking it was my lucky night.

I feasted my eyes on a tall, dark-haired, clean-faced beauty in a long brushed leather coat. Dark tortoise shell glasses, hair stuffed up inside a floppy brown felt hat and a black silk scarf tied loosely around her neck.  The other girl was a short blond with long straight hair—cute in a baby doll sort of way. She wriggled inside a bird’s egg blue high school letter jacket with a white W on the front. The girls got in the cab, followed closely by a rush of cold air and the scent of sweet perfume, alcohol and chewing gum.

I was putty in ten seconds flat.

(To be continued)

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Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.

https://bluestonesblog.com/category/dead-low-winter-excerpts/

 

EXCERPT 7

Despite the wind’s nip, Sam Cross was still flying high. And still laughing about his luck with the cards and his brother’s tantrum. He invited me along for a drink and a blast or two off the silver bullet with him and Miko. Sam was going to buy the Greek a lot of drinks and try to make the poor bastard like him and I had no stomach for the bullshit. I declined the invite and turned in the direction of my rusty 1965 Olds. Then I saw Peter McKay coming up behind me.

“Mr. Waverly,” he said, “hold up for a moment please.”

I did. He caught up and pressed a twenty-dollar bill into my palm and gave my forearm a little squeeze with his other black-gloved hand.

“Just a small tip for your dealing tonight, Mr. Waverly,” he said. He looked me up and down and smiled a little. “I did well, in spite of the rather bizarre group we had assembled. Thank you. Do you do this sort of thing often?”

“Not much, anymore. I just owed Nick a favor—from the old days. Nick and I go back a ways.”

“I see, uh huh. Well, maybe I can use you some day.”

“Sure, anything,” I said, nodding my head like a puppy eager for a bone. By that time we were at my car door so I climbed in and cranked her up while Peter trudged off to his dark green Mercedes diesel. I buttoned up my brown corduroy Marlboro Man jacket and drove away.

*   *   *

It’s clear to me now that the card game was the catalyst for all the sordid events that followed. It was a night where Fate came in and shoved us all into the Big Mixer, threw in some glue and nails and pushed the puree button. But the beginnings of the story go back a little further. Back to earlier that winter when I was still wheeling hack for Minnie Green and her Blue and White Taxi Company.

It was late January of 1978. Football season was over; the lights from all the Christmas trees were out. On my right the ancient Arrowhead Bridge and a rusted railroad trestle watched silently in the cold distance as I rolled toward the John Blatnik High Bridge, the concrete-and-steel span that would get me across the water to the other side. I could see the yellowed ice of the bay stretching out to the mouth of the St. Louis River. It’s called the St. Louis River but it’s a long way from Missouri. Along the side of the road naked tree branches stretched out like arthritic fingers, straining for warmth that wasn’t there. Over to my left huge grain terminals loomed darkly behind rows of faded, empty boxcars.  The wind was coming hard off Lake Superior, pushing and shoving at the taxi’s aging suspension. The heater was on full blast but icy drafts whistled through. I was headed to the Wisconsin side of the bridge and the north end of Bay City—a low spot on the geological survey where the losers, the lost and the sexually disenfranchised washed up like flotsam and jetsam. A place where I felt strangely comfortable. There was nothing to prove and somehow that was a good thing.

Sure, Bay City had its good people and its quiet neighborhoods, like anywhere else. But there was also something strange over there, something peculiar—a feeling that lingered on the edge of comprehension. It was a place where you might find someone as indifferent or as desperate as you. Someone just as willing to go crazy, attempt suicide or commit a crime. Someone just right.

First thing comes to mind when I think of Tugtown is alcohol.  Booze. Liquor. Firewater. Rotgut. For guys like me who grew up on the other side of the bridge, Bay City was a place for first-time experiences. Maybe your first drink in a bar or the first time you bought beer with a fake I.D. Maybe the first time you had a pool cue broken across your back or your ear bitten off in a fight—could be anything. This was a town where anything could happen, when the stars were right.

From the top of the bridge now the three-story skyline spread out in front of me, dark, decaying and slightly greasy, like a 1930’s version of a Dickens’ novel from an alternate universe. I could see U.S. Highway 2 as it wound its way out of town toward a barren and gray frozen wasteland of snow and fir trees and the occasional country bar or small town. Wisconsin—Devil’s Country: birthplace and home of enterprising serial killers Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer. Endless miles of two-lane roads and a population of outlaw bikers second only to the great state of California.

Dahmer was probably busy grilling up his neighbor’s cat about the time I turned onto North Fifth Street, the primary gateway to the strip clubs and massage parlors, gambling joints, rock ‘n’ roll bars, whorehouses and bad restaurants that were the pulse of Bay City’s erogenous zone. Wisconsin’s legal drinking age was eighteen, recently brought down by the state legislature from twenty-one, and the party was always on. The town’s funky old saloons were filled with raucous hordes getting drunk and doing drugs and raising general hell. Cash flowed as fast as the liquor as wild-siding kids poured into town like beavers to a birch tree farm.

(To be continued)    

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DEAD LOW WINTER

T.K. O’Neill

Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.

It’s the mid-1970’s and, in his search for a way out of the mire that had become his life, sometimes-cab driver Keith Waverly finds himself in deeper than his wildest nightmares. At odds with both conventional life and life outside convention, looking for a way to break free without giving in, Keith tries to control his fate, but ends up a pawn in someone else’s bigger game.  The vast darkness of the north woods provides a chilling backdrop and powerful force to Dead Low Winter.

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dead_low_winter COVER

 

Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.

https://bluestonesblog.com/category/dead-low-winter-excerpts/

 

EXCERPT 6

From his spot at the bar, Nick screamed, “YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE, SAM.”

Peter McKay glared at Nick and blinked his eyes several times. Then his benevolent pose returned. John McKay got up from the table and walked slowly over to a leather couch in front of the fireplace. He picked his brown cashmere topcoat off the couch. His face glowed yellow from the flickering flames as he said a perfunctory goodbye and walked up the stairs. A moment later I heard the outside door open and close. Sam couldn’t hold it any longer and broke down into a giggling mess. Tom Geno grinned along with Sam—he could afford to. Miko regained some composure after downing his brandy but still had the look of a stunned rat.

Now Nick screamed again—at all of us this time: “OUT. ALL YOU ASSHOLES GET OUT OF HERE. THIS IS THE LAST FUCKING TIME I DO THIS SHIT. OUT—GODDAMN NOW!!!” Then he raked his hand across the top of the bar, sending bottles and glasses and ashtrays flying, gave us all one last glare and stormed up the stairs.

That gave us something to smile about as we showed ourselves out into the blustery March night. And I needed a laugh real bad. The sky was cloudy and there wasn’t a star in sight. I shivered. The hawk was blowing from the North and the dampness went right through me. But it was more than the weather had me shaking. Things hadn’t turned out very good tonight. And my whole life was the shits. I was in debt to the brothers for ten grand and after that performance in there I felt sure Nick would soon lose all patience with my financial delinquency, You don’t throw good money after bad, one of his favorite sayings. And after I didn’t turn the cards his way, I definitely qualified as bad.

Things were worse than I knew. Funny how you can get started into patterns without realizing it, and before you know it you’re going down some road leading somewhere you don’t even want to go. You don’t know where you’re going till you arrive and then later when it’s too late you’re not sure how you got there. And for the life of you, no matter how hard you try, you can’t find the way back. That’s the way it was for me.

My love life was also the pits—too many classless, ignorant bar flies with a marked propensity toward procrastination and sloth. I read that last part on a men’s room wall somewhere. But what do you expect from a divorced guy for Christ sake—church socials and discussion groups?

My ex-wife Loraine and I were flower children sweethearts back in the sixties. Then after seven years of marriage she caught me in the car with a topless twenty-year old and kicked me out of the house. Losing Loraine wasn’t so bad though, because by then we really had nothing in common—and even the sex was stale. All she wanted to do was go bowling and eat, while I, according to her, only cared for drinking beer and “staring at little chickie’s chests.” Fact it was imported beer never seemed to make an impression on her. Sometimes I miss the early days when she loved me still.

(To be continued)

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dead_low_winter COVER

 

Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.

 

https://bluestonesblog.com/category/dead-low-winter-excerpts/

 

EXCERPT 5

Peter McKay’s chips lay on the table in neat little equal size stacks and his gaze was fixed on the Greek. Peter was trying to look into the little man’s eyes but Miko got up and walked over to the leather-covered bar along the back wall and poured himself a shot of Petri brandy in a lowball glass. Nick always bought rotgut liquor for these games.

Now old Pete pursed his lips and made a noise in his throat that sounded like hem and brought his cards in close to his body. After studying each player with his prying eyes, he slowly counted out enough chips for the call and slid them in the pot, peering around the table once again.

Sometimes I swore the bastard was fixing on me. All night long when I eyeballed him he had this weird glazed look on his pasty face. Seemed like he was checking me out. But it made sense; I was the dealer.

Sam Cross plucked an unopened Marlboro box from the table and tapped it three times hard against the palm of his hand. He removed the cellophane, tore a hole in the bottom of the box, shook out a cig and left the flip-top unopened. He rolled the unlit cig in his fingers, stared at the pot, avoided Nick’s gaze and checked his cards. Then he brushed the ash off his beard, counted out two-fifty worth of chips and quietly called.

Nick’s face was red, matching fifty percent of his checkerboard wool L.L. Bean shirt. Maybe some gray hairs were popping out. He rubbed his temples like maybe there was an aneurysm. I wasn’t sure if it was one of his signals or the onset of a stroke.

Mayor McKay said, “Too rich for my blood, I’m afraid. Even though I had trips—I’m done. The cards were bound to loosen up. That’s the last hand for me gentlemen.”  He flipped his cards over to me then leaned back and sighed.

Nick—who seemed to be about to swallow his tongue—gripped tightly at the front of his shirt and glumly slid in his chips. “Call,” he said with a weak rasp.

Now Miko was back in his dark captain’s chair looking like John Barrymore waiting for the right dramatic moment. His chest seemed to swell as he looked around at the remaining challengers and proudly slapped his cards down.

Aces over eights, full.

“Full house,” Miko said, big smile on his face. “Beat this, you mothers.”

“FUCK,” Nick screamed at the top of his lungs. “Ace-high flush and I fucking lose. GODDAMNIT.” He tossed his cards in Sam’s direction, stood up and stormed across the room to the bar. He stood there chugging from the Petri bottle and swearing to himself.

“Beats me,” Peter McKay said, smiling. “I’m afraid it’s a bad end to a good evening.” He flipped his cards over toward me, turned and looked smug.

All eyes went to Sam Cross.

Sam could hardly contain his glee. His body jerked with suppressed laughter as he plopped down his four sevens. Little bursts of air squeaked out the sides of his pressed-tight lips as he raked in the monster pot with both arms.

Miko groaned and his body went limp; he sank down into the chair in utter defeat.

Ain’t it funny how the lucky ones stay lucky and the rest of us keep losing.

 

 (To be continued)

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dead_low_winter COVER

 

Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.

https://bluestonesblog.com/category/dead-low-winter-excerpts/

 

EXCERPT 4

At this point of the evening even I thought I could read Nick’s mind: You fuck this up, Sam, you’ll never get another cent from me as long as you live, you scabby little cockroach—which may not be very long if I don’t win, you fucking dirt bag.

After Nick’s raise, Tom Geno folded, much to Nick’s distaste.

Miko was up next. He sucked hard on a Camel squeezed between his first two fingers, smoke curling around a tattoo on the back of his right hand, some kind of fancy sword in the middle of some flowers. There was at least a thousand of his cash in the pot already, from my guess, and a lot less than that in his shrunken pile.

Miko counted his chips carefully. Touched them softly one at a time and then slowly slid all but one into the pot.

I thought for a second Sam Cross was going to lay them down and give us the old read- ’em-and-weep. But suddenly Miko chirped up in an accent as thick as the syrup in a baklava.  “I like to make raise,” he said, “but I have not enough cash. May I write marker? This I have for collateral.”  He slid back the high-backed oak chair, glanced briefly at the knock-off Tiffany lamp hanging above the poker table and bent over at the waist. Pulling up his blue denim pant leg, Miko reached inside his black calf-high boot and lifted out a small handgun, set it on the table for us to appraise. Nick looked nervous.

Miko’s voice rose. “Is this value for marker? Any takers?”

“No markers to foreigners,” Nick Cross snapped.

John McKay grimaced and glanced over at his brother Peter who grinned thinly and put his hand to his upper lip to cover the oncoming sneer.

Sam Cross said, “Let me see that. I’ve always wanted a sweet little gun like this, I—”

“You’ll blow off your putz with that thing, Sammy,” growled Nick. He had a sour look and was chewing on a cigar.

“This is Walther PPK,” the Greek said, putting his palm down on the table next to the finely crafted pistol. “The double-oh seven—James Bond—he use this to kill many communists. Is worth seven hundred American.”

Sam said, “I’ll give you two bills—two hundred—for it.” He waved casually at his considerable winnings. “But if you want it back, it’ll cost you four—whether it’s tonight or next week. Savvy?”

“Is not enough. Is worth seven hundred.”

“Take it or leave it, pal, the clock is ticking,” Sam reached across the table and picked up the gun. Miko eyed him suspiciously.

Mayor McKay said, “Yes, please do,” his tone superior and weary. He stubbed out his cigarette in a square glass ashtray. ”If I would have known you were bringing a gun, Miko, I certainly would not have given my okay for you to join our game. Did you know about this, Peter?”

Peter McKay shrugged his shoulders and straightened up to the full effect of his large torso. He smiled benevolently at his brother and the rest of us. “I’m sure Miko feels a little worried,” he said, “about carrying a large sum of money in what to him is a strange town, thousands of miles and an ocean away from his homeland. Bay City can be a little threatening in some sections, late at night. Something my brother and I firmly resolve to change. Isn’t that correct, brother John?”

“That’s correct, Peter. But we aren’t here to discuss work.” Looking at the rest of us now. “How about we take care of business and get on with the game? You people don’t know how Evelyn can get if I’m too late getting in.”

“Relax, John,” said Tom Geno, chuckling. “You’ve still got time to get some lipstick stains on that nice shiny shirt of yours.”

Miko’s brow furrowed until his thick eyebrows met in the middle and formed a single row of bushy black hair. He glared at Sam. Sam had his back turned and was busy aiming the gun at the chandelier and the overhead fan and at successively all of the numerous antiques lining the walls and shelves of his rich sibling’s basement rec room. Truly a child at play.

“Okay,” Miko said. “Two hundred. I take it. I win hand and buy back tonight.” Then he hid his mouth with the back of his hand and leaned toward Tom Geno, Miko muttering a barely audible, “Man is a-hole.”

Mayor Geno coughed and almost did a spit take with his Whiskey-and-Seven.

Sam slid the diminutive weapon into the pocket of his worn sharkskin suit coat and counted out twenty ten-dollar chips. As soon as Miko got his hands on them they were tossed into the pot along with a fifty-dollar bill. The little guy was shoving it back at the politicians and the businessmen and the crooks.

“There you go, assholes. There you go. I sell my gun—only protection from the crazy drug sick maniacs you have here. And I have reason to fear. Some of you know. But I shall win this game and return to ship with pockets stuffed and then I will stay there until business is done and I can return home.”

 (To be continued)

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dead_low_winter COVER

 

Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.

https://bluestonesblog.com/category/dead-low-winter-excerpts/

 

EXCERPT 3

The next guy around the poker table was a Greek sailor name of Miko, a small wiry guy with tight black curls, long thick sideburns and a bushy coal duster mustache. He wore a blue denim shirt worthy of a first mate on a boat docked in town, which he was. Miko was a last minute replacement for the captain of the ship who had begged off to tend to some late-breaking emergency. That’s what I was told, anyway.

Miko tapped his cards on the table and brushed away my offer of a draw. The stand-in was standing pat.

The game was draw poker, Jacks or better progressive, trips to win. This meant that every time a hand was played where no player possessed three of a kind or better, the cards were reshuffled and a new hand dealt.  As long as you didn’t fold you were still in the game. The pot carried over and kept growing from hand to hand. It was one of Nick’s favorite games, and he usually waited until near the end of the night when most everyone was half drunk before requesting it. Tonight he was scrambling to find any game that might bring a large pot—big enough to recoup his losses.

We were, like, eight or nine deals into this one and I think we were on Queens to open. It’s pretty unusual to go that long without a winner but some nights the cards just shut down for a while. There was a small fortune in the pot. Nick and Sam were betting and bluffing like lunatics and going through all these crazy tics and scratches and movements of body parts like they were warming up for a third base coach-impersonating contest. Nobody else seemed to take notice and this made Nick even more brazen. One time he raised his right eyebrow so high on his forehead that it nearly blended in with his receding hairline.

The next and final player was Peter McKay, brother—or half-brother as Sam told it—of John McKay. Also Deputy Mayor of Bay City. He was a tall one with close-cropped, sandy hair and big ears that stuck out a little more than average. Not quite Dumbo but getting there. He had a square head like G.I. Joe and was wearing an ugly green polyester sport coat with a darker green turtleneck underneath. A heavy gold watch flashed on his left wrist and a gold ring sparkled from his right hand. He fingered the ring while he studied his cards.

The guy made me nervous. Dude had a pushy, prying way about him like a cop or a high school principal. And his eyes were cold when he smiled. Guess I just wasn’t used to high society. I was thinking he was getting wise to Nick Cross and his spastic routine, when Peter grimly asked for two cards.

Sam Cross was ready to bet. He fingered a pile of chips, smile still on his face and a Marlboro dangling from his lips, a small flake of ash resting on his oily brown beard. Brought to mind a pudgy Bob Dylan. He took a hundred-dollar bill from the pocket of his baggy seersucker trousers, wrapped it around a fifty-buck stack of chips and pushed it all into the mix.  “Hundred and fifty beans,” he said.

Mayor McKay called and then looked at his watch.

Nick Cross raised it fifty, all the while licking the left corner of his mouth and scratching his chin with his index finger. He kept glancing over at Sam. That was the scam, see. According to Sam they’d done this when they were kids. He told me they had some sort of psychic connection on account of they were so close as children, and they could almost read each other’s minds. These signals they were exchanging were supposed to communicate what cards one possessed or didn’t possess and other things, like when to raise or call. I was kept in the dark about the meaning of the individual signals. They had to keep some secrets, they said.

Remind me never to play poker with you, I said.

They already knew enough not to play with me.

(To be continued)

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dead_low_winter COVER

 

Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.

https://bluestonesblog.com/category/dead-low-winter-excerpts/

 

EXCERPT 2

On the night before the game, I told Sam Cross I wouldn’t be dealing seconds or off the bottom of the deck like the old days. The cheating always gave me a queer feeling, even back then. The old days were three or four years ago when I ran a card game for Nick Cross out of a little shack in the north end of Bay City near the warehouses. Nick would give me the cash every month and I’d pay the rent on the house, using a false name, and keep the fridge stocked with beer. I provided fresh decks of cards when needed and dealt with the delivery people if somebody had food sent in during a game. I took the house’s ten percent rake out of every pot and was also the bouncer but we never had much trouble. At six-foot-one and two hundred pounds, most guys thought twice but every now and then you’d have to put the hand on someone. But I never liked it much and I could usually talk my way out of tight situations. And people—even drunken losers—usually liked me.

Worst I ever got hit was by a three hundred pound woman. Big, mean, fat thing smacked me hard in the mouth one night and chipped a tooth, all because I had to escort her skinny little wimp of a husband out of the place for being drunk and obnoxious. What the hell you going to do, hit a woman? Broad like that—next time I might.

Occasionally we’d get a bunch of drunks that the Cross brothers felt like ripping off. Then I’d get to practice my little games of deception with the pasteboards—the tricks I’d learned in my senior year of high school during the several months I was laid up with a broken hip after crashing into a goalpost during a high school hockey play-off game. Early March, I think it was. The goalposts didn’t move in those days, driving the net took guts. Always a shitty month, March. I mean, just the word March, think about it. It’s what they say when they want you to go someplace you don’t want to go. March upstairs to bed, young man. March up there and take that machine gun nest, boys. But I put the downtime to good use, learning to handle a deck of Bicycle Brands like Bret Maverick at a sucker’s convention.

And so it was that the Cross boys began to exploit my talents like the bloodsuckers they were. Every so often the boys would throw a big “Las Vegas party.” And part of the hype was “professional dealers.” That would invariably be me and some other douchebag, dressed up in fancy shirts and green plastic visors.  I guess people don’t mind getting ripped off if the rippers seem up-scale enough.

Boy, could I do some things. Only once did anyone complain and he was a lawyer so what do you expect? Nick gave the guy his money back and told him if he ever came around again he’d be sorry. That was the last we ever heard from the lawyer.

It was good fun and decent money for awhile and you got free beer and met some interesting characters that helped keep your mind off what you were doing. Then one night the cops busted the place while I was outside in the backseat of my car trying to get some kind of a job—be it blow or hand or whatever—from this tart I’d met in a bar that very afternoon. Nick lost everything in the house that night—around two grand—and blamed me for a while, so we became estranged. A year later he realized he would have lost it all anyway—no matter if I was inside or not—and at least his pal Keith didn’t get popped, he says. What he was probably thinking was that I might have ratted him off if they’d gotten me. Must’ve figured he was lucky in at least one way.

One thing about Nick, he’d do anything to protect his holdings. The string of low-ball rental properties, the two dive bars and his precious antique store gave the fat man a nice cash flow. But he still continued to invest in his little brother’s fast-money deals. I guess Nick couldn’t help himself; the more he had, the more he wanted.

Younger brother Sam’s personal capital was born out of a whiplash scam he’d pulled off a few years back. Used the insurance money to set up a sports book. Book as in “bookie.”  He was also good at investing his brother’s money in drugs and having some fool like me do the retailing for him.

It was a natural progression for me to start selling, I guess. I was just going with the flow. At first it was weed and that was no big deal—like I had a history with that stuff. Getting a student loan and using it to buy weed was common practice when I did my stint at university.

Everything was going along all right there for a while. But then a ten-pound load I’d fronted out got popped and I was suddenly a maximum debtor to the brothers. And when you owed money to them, you were the collateral. They owned you and they made you feel it. You were on call twenty-four hours a day just to keep up with the interest. No job was too small or too large when you were into the Cross brothers’ pockets.

What choice did I have? I just went along with what they said. They knew guys who would kneecap you for a few bucks, the sheer joy of the act being the main reward.

So what do you do if you’re in debt? You up the ante.

So I started selling cocaine, the new drug on the Cross brothers’ menu.

And then I got into real debt.

(To be continued)

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dead_low_winter COVER

 

Originally published in somewhat different form as “Social Climbing,” one of four stories published under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow in his 1999 debut Northwoods Pulp: Four Tales of Crime and Weirdness and later translated into Japanese and published by Fushosha.

https://bluestonesblog.com/category/dead-low-winter-excerpts/

 

In an age that is utterly corrupt, the best policy is to do as others do. — Marquis de Sade, 1788

ONE:  Social Climbing

The high rollers had me surrounded. They were all staring at me, waiting.

“Three, please,” said the Mayor of Bay City. He was polite, as usual.

I thumbed the cards off the top of the deck and slid them across the smooth brown surface of the round wooden table. Mayor John McKay took them and settled back against his straight-backed chair, spreading his cards out like a fan as he always did. Then he took a white-tipped filter cigarette from the pocket of his tailored white shirt and lit it with a silver Zippo and a flourish of his long-fingered almost feminine hands, blowing out the smoke in a slow upward moving cloud.

I figured he must have hit on his pair.

“I’ll take two,” said large-headed and balding Nicholas Cross on McKay’s immediate left. Cross squinted and tugged on the bridge of his previously-broken-but-nicely-set nose as if a fly was up there. “Make it two of the same kind if you please.” He grinned strangely at the rest of the players, pulling at the loose skin around his Adam’s apple like the fly had found its way down there. After seeing his cards he made a quick swipe across his forehead with a hairy forearm and sat back.

I looked over to my left at the ever-grinning mug of Sam Cross, Nick’s younger brother. His index finger was jammed in his ear, the rest of his stubby hand wiggling with gusto, his other hand resting comfortably against his slight paunch. A good-sized pile of chips and several empty beer bottles formed a barrier around his neatly stacked cards. He’d opened right off the get-go and drawn two.

The Cross brothers were cheating and I knew it. But it only seemed to be working for Sam. Nick had been losing big all night long and was down to writing IOUs. And the jing wasn’t only going to his sibling; he was spreading it around.

Tom Geno, the slick-haired mayor of Zenith City, had a few of those IOUs and also a gigantic collection of chips stacked up in odd-sized piles like rice cakes at a vegetarian picnic. And him the compulsive degenerate gambler that everyone loved to play against. The big fish from the bright side of the bay where the streets are a little cleaner and the sun shines a little brighter. The boys from Bay City always enjoyed cleaning this fish, but tonight the finner was having the last laugh. Yes sir, the Mayor of Zenith City was showing the Bay City boys a thing or two about poker, letting them know he wasn’t the sucker they thought he was.

Geno took one card and slid it in his hand and mixed them up slowly, one at a time, without looking. Having the last laugh on these assholes would definitely be frosting on the Mayor’s cake.

Myself, I was laughing on the inside, where it counts. Imagine—me hanging with the rich and influential. Just a punk nobody finally old enough to grow a decent mustache and here I was, in on the “fleecing of the elite,” as Sam Cross called it.

But the brothers were fucking up their scam right in front of me.

The show was going to be better than I thought.

(To be continued)

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AUTHOR T.K. O’NEILL RECEIVES NATIONAL RECOGNITION FROM NIEA

Noir writer switches gears with hard-boiled Lake Superior detective novel

The 2014 National Indie Excellence® Awards recognized Jackpine Savages by author T.K. O’Neill as a finalist in the category of crime fiction finalist in this year’s competition.

This prestigious national award is open to all English language books in print from small, medium, university, self and independent publishers. Also this year, O’Neill’s detective fiction was judged “outstanding” in the 22nd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards.

A trending Christmas gift favorite for fans of the genre, Jackpine Savages is hard-boiled detective fiction in the tradition of Ross MacDonald and Robert B. Parker, set on the rugged north shore of Lake Superior. It features novice private investigator Carter Brown, who, thanks to an inheritance from a well-to-do uncle and a mail order P.I. diploma, realized a boyhood dream. When word spread of a homegrown private eye in the backwoods of northern Minnesota and Carter landed his first case, Brown Investigations was born. Before he could cash his first check for services rendered, Brown found himself locked up on a murder charge and soon entangled in trying to solve a murder of which he was also accused.

Bluestone Press published T.K. O’Neill’s latest crime fiction in both ebook and paperback formats. O’Neill is also author of the noir Fly in the Milk, exclusively on ebook, and has also authored three pulp/noir books under the pseudonym Thomas Sparrow, one of which was translated and distributed by Fusosha Publishing in Tokyo, Japan.

Bluestone Press was established in early 1999 in Duluth, Minnesota. Jackpine Savages (trade paperback ISBN #978-0-96-720066-8; ebook ISBN #978-0-9672006-5-1) is available at major online retailers, including Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Google, iBookstore (Apple), Sony Reader Store, Kobo (Borders) and ebookit.com. Book sellers can contact Ingram/Lightning Source. Excerpts from Jackpine Savages and other publications are available at www.bluestonesblog.com .

http://www.amazon.com/Jackpine-Savages-T-K-ONeill-ebook/dp/B00DH8JA8U/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1417328779&sr=8-1&keywords=jackpine+savages+book

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/jackpine-savages-tk-oneill/1115718708?ean=2940016711300

http://www.ebookit.com/books/0000002959/Jackpine-Savages.html

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