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CHAPTER 10, EXCERPT 3

Frank winced. “Is that it, Danny?”

“Patience is a virtue, Frank. Try some, why don’t you?” Moran took another hit of beer. “So here comes the good part. Judy’s standing there and she pipes up they’re planning to have some friends over tomorrow night and she and Pills thought it would be fun to go out to the river and try smelting. But neither Tricky Ricky nor her has ever done it before so she’s wondering if I might want to join them and give some pointers. Then she says bring the rest of the crew, too. So I tell her I wouldn’t want anyone to get washed out into the lake like happens every year, so I’d be glad to come out and show ’em the ropes. And I tell you; you shoulda seen the look on old Pill’s face. I thought he was about to swallow his goddamn tongue.”

“She really said that?” Frank said, feeling a tickle of anticipation in his solar plexus.

“No, I’m making it up, Frank. Part of the book I’m writing.” Moran knocked down the rest of his beer. “Of course she said it, man. What woman can resist the Irish charm of Daniel J. Moran?”

“Just about every chick alive, from what I’ve seen, Danny.” Frank said, finishing off the bottle of Bud that Moran bought him. “What time we going?”

Smirking, Moran eyed him. “Judy said they were going out to the mouth of the Lester around six to find a spot they can build a fire, roast some weenies and stuff. But we can show up anytime, ’tis a public beach, after all.”

Frank said, “Thank you Daniel J. Moran for that bit of tourist information. What time you planning on going?”

“Oh, I dunno, around dusk, I s’pose. Smelt start running at sundown, don’t they?”

Frank said, “Could be. Good a time as any, I guess. You coming, Keith?”

“Unless I get a call to drive cab.” Waverly paused, seemed to ponder something. “But—you know—the hell with it, I can’t stand sitting in that cab on a nice night when shit is happening. I’m going. You need a ride?”

“I’m not sure,” Frank said. “I’ll call you if I do.” He was tussling with the idea of borrowing Nikki’s car and the turmoil made him want another beer. Sure, he’d said he’d only have one, but everybody says that—and pretty much nobody Frank heard say it in all his years tending bar, ever stopped at just one. He had a pocket full of cash, so what the hell? “Another round, please,” Frank said to the muscled up college type in a blue polo shirt behind the bar. And now, Christ, Frank’s mind was jumping with new ideas, new demands, the chance to get close to Judy opening up possibilities he could previously only dream about. Had previously dreamed about. But he needed to pull in the reins and do some thinking. What would be his approach? Could he ply these people with alcohol and see if someone said something about Ray? That seemed unlikely. Still, you never know until you try. But did he even care about who killed Ray anymore? Wasn’t it Nurse Judy he wanted? Wasn’t she what was driving him crazy? But crazy was the operative word, man. He needed to be smart, in control and looking ahead.

That would be the hard part.

Frank left the Shoal after his third Bud. No shots of Wild Turkey. No joints in the parking lot with Waverly. No drinking games. No nothing. When he left them, Dan and Keith were deeply involved in a discussion about cocaine, both with glints in their respective eyes, and they hardly noticed his exit.

At home in his postage-stamp living room, Frank pushed the button on the answering machine and heard Nikki inquiring as to his weekend plans. Nikki saying she had to work both Friday and Saturday and maybe Frank could come out one night and hang out for a little while, a slight hint of concern—or maybe resentment—in her voice.

He pushed the delete button, wishing he had one for his mind. Last place he wanted to go was Jimmy Carl’s goddamn strip club. And thinking of Nikki made his stomach jump and twist. There had to be something wrong with him. Just a week ago Nikki was his whole world and now he was shitting on her. But hell, that was the kind of garbage you expected from a member of the Ford family.

It was becoming increasingly clear that Nikki was better off without him. And that thought set him off musing, mulling and contemplating.

Frank didn’t mind being alone; in fact, he was beginning to prefer it, but he didn’t consider himself a loner. When you’d spent as much time tending bar in a dive as he had, a place where you saw the human race at its worst—and anyone denies that is lying to themselves—you just tend to crave solitude, man. Sure, he knew he’d always have the need for occasional female companionship, which explained those nights bringing home some chick from the bar for a little of the horizontal tango only to feel bad and cheap afterwards, hating the smell of the stranger on him, but now he could see that this type of behavior—the one-night stands, the after-hours conquests and all that went along with it—was a form of self-abuse. Not self-abuse, like jerking off, but the real and destructive kind—the emotional torment. And he was a lot different now from when he first started at the Metropole. Back then it was a player’s dream, that old line about needing a stick to fight them off nearly true. Cute girls, too, most of ’em, and if you’d told Frank then that this seemingly limitless bounty would eventually get boring and tedious, he would’ve laughed in your face. But it in fact did turn tiresome—and oddly repetitive. And then after he met Nikki—a vision of loveliness working a waitress gig at a saloon just two blocks from his tiny house—Frank hardly ever looked a second time at the nubile honeys smiling up at him across the bar. Just occasionally, you know—but only if she was exceptional.

And that’s why his growing obsession with Judy Bruton was so goddamn troubling.

Fuck it, maybe he’d just order a pizza.

(End of Chapter 10)

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CHAPTER 10, EXCERPT 2

Moran was scanning the floor for anything needed picking up and Waverly was pushing back his hair with his fingers when Frank saw Nurse Judy standing at the bottom of the stairwell. And instead of going out the front door like she usually did, she turned and walked toward the side door, which Waverly was about to open. Keith stepped out of her way and Frank saw her give the guy a little smile. Kind of smile had some meaning behind it. Keith nodded to her, saying “Hello,” and gave her a nice look, no lechery visible.

Frank watched Judy say “Hi” back and then couldn’t believe it when she turned his way with what he thought was a randy grin, Judy saying in a husky tone: “See you later, men.” Then turning and walking out the door with Frank staring at her rear.

Now here was the faded, jaded, junky nurse Jagger sang about and Frank remembered. “You see that look she gave me?” he said in a low, hoarse whisper, not wanting the lord of the manor to hear him should the prick be lingering somewhere nearby.

“I think she had gas, Frank,” Moran said. “But wait’ll you hear what went on upstairs.”

“What was it, man? What’d she say? She say something about me?”

“You’ll have to come to the Shoal to find out, lover boy.”

*   *   *

“So I go up to the third floor and knock on the door,” Moran was saying, bellied up to the large rectangular bar at the Shoal Lounge, a workingman-and-college-crowd tavern on London Road that had the advantage of location, being the easternmost bar in the city. The only reason, Frank believed, that the characterless, generic dump did as well as it did. Afternoon on a rainy Friday and the place was nearly full, guys in work clothes drinking and letting off steam. “And Nurse Judy opens it and I’m expecting her to give me one of her snarl-ass looks, y’know, but she just smiles nice and says ‘Come on in, Dan.’”

Moran, standing between Frank and Waverly, continued. “So I walk in there, and Pills is acting kinda pissy. But I’m used to that so I don’t pay it any mind. I give him the time sheet and I’m kinda half-expecting him to start bitching about shit—like I’m trying to screw him or something like that—wouldn’t be the first time, but he just smiles and writes out the check and starts asking me what kind of wood I think is best for the deck he wants built. I say redwood or cedar, but he could go with something cheaper if he wants—I mean, I know he’s gonna want the most expensive shit available so the neighbors will think he’s the King of London Road—”

“Jesus, Danny,” Frank interrupted, “You writing a fuckin’ book? What the hell happened that’s so goddamn interesting—you two talking about wood?”

“I got some wood for you,” Waverly said, grabbing his crotch, earning frowns from both Frank and Moran.

“Just a goddamn minute, Frank,” Moran said, taking a nip of Windsor and washing it back with a gulp of beer. “So we’re standing there and I look over and see today’s paper on the counter. The story on the front page is about the smelt run starting up, all the people coming into town for the weekend and stuff like that. And I say—as a way of making conversation—I ask him if he ever went smelting before. I’m expecting some typical bullshit answer, y’know—like he isn’t interested or doesn’t like fish or whatever the hell—but he says, “You know, Dan, living in North Dakota, I heard about this smelt run for years. And now that I’m right here at the epicenter, so to speak, I thought it would be a good time to try it out.” Moran finished off the Windsor and slugged more beer.

“He really said epicenter?” Waverly said.

 

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 10, EXCERPT 1

The next three days were dry and mild and the crew made good progress on Pillsbury’s Palace. The dormers were roughed out and Moran was having daily discussions with King Richard concerning the details of the remodel. Moran would come back from the talks shaking his head and grinning, saying Pillsbury was constantly coming up with new ideas, new features that he wanted. Moran said the man was talking a showcase job, no expenses spared; make it the envy of London Road.

This was good news to Frank because he’d begun to realize the fallacy in thinking this gig would be a stepping stone to a better life, the first step down the path to respectability and steady employment and all that. The acid trip had clearly made him delusional. Temporarily. Now he was just hoping this gig would last until the leaves started changing and maybe he’d have time to find something indoors before full-on winter came to call.

Over the course of the week, Nurse Judy had made only rare appearances outside, and when she did cross Frank’s path she wore her prim and proper face and barely acknowledged his presence. And it was getting to him. Stuff he was feeling wasn’t going away. He’d avoided Nikki all week, not returning her calls and ignoring her pleas on his answering machine—if pleas wasn’t too strong a word—to come out to the club, “like he used to.” She also offered to let him use the Honda whenever he had a need and that made him feel like a total hangdown.

Thirty-six year old man needs to use his girlfriend’s car. Old perv’s got one hand in the girl’s pants and the other in her purse. Man’s a withering parasite. White trash.

And, man, he didn’t need any more reasons for self-persecution; he was a goddamn expert already.

Rainy dat Dive Bartender                                

On Friday morning Frank was looking out his kitchen window at the gray, threatening clouds when Moran’s truck swung in. Minutes later, stepping in to mingle with the scent of old Coney’s, cheap cigars, puke and decaying fast food, Frank believed the stink was the worst he could recall, the aroma coming off Moran’s tall steaming paper cup of Holiday coffee only making it worse. And he could only open the window a crack because now it was raining.

By the time Moran turned into Pillsbury’s driveway, it was pouring. Frank saw Waverly across the road in the Olds, the hippie grinning behind the rain-streaked windshield, thin smoke escaping from the partially open driver’s window. Moran brought the truck to a stop at the end of the driveway and shut off the ignition. Old Chevy pickup gave a snort and a buck and went quiet. “No outside work today if this keeps up,” Moran said, gazing at the raindrops hammering and bubbling on the truck’s faded white hood. “But I think I can find enough for us to do inside to keep us here until noon at least. Today is payday, so maybe Pillsbury will be so pleased with all the work we got done that he’ll give us the afternoon off on his dime.”

“You think so?” Frank said, his voice rising in disbelief.

“Not really. But a man can dream, y’know? More likely he bitches about all three of us being in his house at the same time.”

Waverly came to Moran’s window, knocked on the glass and pointed at the sky, raindrops bouncing off his high cheekbones. “Okay, Keith, I know,” Moran said to the closed window. “We’ll go in the house so you can stay dry. Grab my tool box out of the back, would you?”

They went inside and checked all the new construction for leaks. Finding none, they completed the finishing stages on the interior of the dormers. Next they measured the outline for the new set of glass doors Pillsbury wanted at the back of the house—the rich man evidently desiring a showy deck to keep up with the neighbors. Every house you saw on London Road these days seemed to have a new and impressive lakeside deck.

Waverly, the gopher and lowest on the totem pole, had, over the course of the morning, made several runs to the dumpster with hunks of scrap wood and assorted debris and was now sitting on a sawhorse, his damp black curls pasted to his forehead, a trail of wet muddy prints leading to his green-striped Adidas sneakers. Watching Moran brushing sawdust off his blue denim Oskosh B’gosh overalls, Waverly said, “We get paid by check or cash, Danny?”

“Pillsbury gives me a check and I total up the hours of my crew and pay them accordingly. Got you down for twelve and a half hours, Keith. Ought to be enough for you to get drunk on tonight.”

Waverly gave him the finger. “Fuck you, man,” he said. “It’s thirteen if it’s a minute.”

“Thirteen hours it is then,” Moran said.

“Blow me,” Waverly said.

“Before or after I pay you?”

“How about both?”

Moran grinned and walked toward the stairs. “Thirty-six hours for both of you losers.”

Frank was standing where he could see the bottom of the stairway, waiting there in case Nurse Judy came down like she often did at this time of day. Behind him he heard Waverly say, “You know what this rain means, don’t you, Frank?”

Turning, Frank said, “Water is falling from the sky?”

“There’s that. But also, man, this time of year after a warm spell, first big rain usually brings the smelt into the rivers.”

“Ah, the smelt run, Zenith’s rite of spring. Hordes of drunken smelters littering the shore with beer bottles, biting the heads off little silvery fish and pissing in strangers’ backyards.”

“Good times, man. You partake?”

“Not for a while. The novelty has kinda worn off for me. My ex and I used to like going to those tents that sell the dinners—and I still like a good plate of deep-fried smelt every year, it’s a tradition I guess—but I haven’t actually smelted in years.”

“Speaking of tradition,” Waverly said, “You been back to the Metro since Sunday?”

“No, man. Betty left a couple pissed-off messages on my machine and I’m not quite ready to face her. Knowing her and knowing me, I might just end up behind the bar again if I let her start her rhetoric.”

“Is that a rhetorical statement?”

Frank threw him a frown and then turned to Moran coming off the stairs waving a check. “Here we are, boys, the goose has shat. I’ll take this down to the bank and meet you guys at the Metropole.”

“Ah man,” Frank said, “not there. Betty’ll tear me a new one if I walk in there. Woman’s got a bullwhip for a tongue. Also, I’m not sure if that’s the best place to be seen distributing cash. Based on my ten years of experience, y’know.”

“How about the Shoal then?” Moran said.

Frank said, “It has to be a bar?”

Moran said, “Best place to buy you guys a drink for making this job go so smooth.”

Frank said, “I was sorta hoping to stay out of the bars for a while, having spent half my life in one.”

“Turning pussy?” Moran said, a dull look taking over his freckled face. “Or just getting old?”

“Little of both, I think,” Frank said. “But all right, I’ll meet you at the Shoal—for one. The one you’re gonna buy, Danny boy.”

“Let’s rock and roll then, boys.” Waverly said.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 9, EXCERPT 4

Frank and Nikki went in the building and took the elevator to the fourth floor. They knocked at apartment 404 and Frank’s mother came to the door. Frank felt the poor me vibe hanging heavy like cheap air freshener in the one-bedroom apartment. The television was on loud to the evening news and the air stunk of cigarettes. Frank could see his mother’s ever present pack of Kents on the coffee table in front of the TV. Joan looked a bit hazy and weak. Frank could tell she was surprised to see Nikki.  Mom was a little uncomfortable at first—Nikki too—but Mom came around after Nik gave her a hug and told her she was sorry for the loss of her son. Mom had a short cry while Nikki rubbed the old woman’s boney shoulder, and, miraculously, Mom’s face eventually brightened. Before long she was asking if they wanted coffee or a beer, not taking no-thank-you for an answer, and then going into the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee and open a can of Hamm’s for Frank.

Frank was lying back with his beer in the recliner mom bought for the old house the year he graduated from high school—shit—eighteen years ago. It was a little worn on the armrests but still comfortable. “See this can, Nik?” he said, holding out the Hamm’s.

“Yes, Frank,” Nikki said. She was across the room on the brown couch, her eyes narrowed in expectation.

“Someday this can will be part of one of those Hondas. It’s how the world saves its precious resources.”

“Really, Frank? Really?”

“Would I lie to you?”

They stayed for dinner. Frank’s mother heated up an Italian-style casserole one of the neighbors from the old Holy Rosary neighborhood had brought over the day of the funeral. After the meal the women had more coffee and Frank had more beer. Nikki washed the dishes and Joan insisted on doing the drying. Frank heard them talking in the kitchen about interesting shit like electric coffeemakers and fudge recipes. Mom preferred old-fashioned percolated coffee in a porcelain pot and liked her fudge with walnuts in it, while Nikki said she had no preferences in those areas—she liked it all. After the dishes were done the three of them watched The Six Million Dollar Man on Mom’s old TV. Frank thought Joan seemed better than she’d been since the day they pulled Ray out of the water, and that was saying something.

By eight o’clock Frank was drifting off. After one nod-off and a head jerking snap-to, he thought they’d better get going. He saw his mother’s disappointment when he announced it, but Nikki was there to save him, moving in to give Mom a long hug and some encouraging platitudes that Frank chose not to hear. This was one of many things you had to admire about Nikki; she was so good. She knew the right things to say and the right things to do. At least compared to Frank. Yeah, his girl was good and sweet and kind—an upstanding citizen on all fronts—and maybe that was the problem. All her goodness was becoming confining, tiresome and tedious. Boringly predictable. Sometimes it felt like an extra large anchor slowing Frank down, holding him back. From what, he didn’t know, but still it made him want to bust out and do something insane.

Like balling Judy Bruton.

There she was again, jumping into his head.

Frank gave Nikki the car keys and she gave Joan a hug and went out ahead of him. He was at the door giving his mother a goodbye hug when she said, “That’s a sweet little girl you got there, Frank. It’s nice that you’re dating up, even though she looks like she’s still in high school. But don’t you forget, Frankie; the police in this town are not going to help the Fords. You have to find out who did this to Ray and make it right. You’re the only one this family has left.”

This family—meaning her, Joan Bennet Ford. Everyone else at the funeral had seemed willing to let sleeping dogs lie. Maybe a poor choice of words, but even Frank’s sister Anne seemed willing to let Ray fade away quietly.

When Frank got to the Honda Nikki was sitting behind the wheel with the window down. To the west the sun was sinking behind the hills and lighting up the little red car like a flameless fire. Frank opened the passenger door and folded himself into the seat. “Thanks for coming along, Nikki,” he said. “Old Joan showed some life for the first time in days.”

“I like your mom, Frank. She’s sweet. Now I wish I’d come to the funeral.”

No you don’t, Frank thought. You only think you do. Man, the stories he could tell… But he didn’t say anything, just nodded.

On the freeway heading east Frank slouched in the passenger seat, occasionally glancing in the side mirror at the orange skullcap of sun dropping below the hillside. Nikki kept looking over like she was expecting him to say something but he just sulked and stared and brooded on his mother’s words. No, Ma, he wasn’t Barnaby Jones or Kojak or any of the TV heroes. He was just Tom Ford’s thirty-six year old son trying to find a life he could live with. But rest assured he was gonna do everything he could to find Ray’s killer, because he couldn’t live with this shit tearing at him any more than his mother could.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 9, EXCERPT 3

“Wow,” Frank said, putting on a happy face and squinting at the little red car. “It’s shiny, like a new penny. Parents buy it for you?” Shit, he was sounding like a dick. And he could tell Nikki was looking for something the way her eyes were studying him, digging and searching. “I’d give you a hug, Nik, but I’m pretty stinky from my day of labor. That and walking up the hill from Superior Street.” He started edging toward the house while Nikki stood there, hands on hips, at the side of the Honda her parents got her in an obvious attempt to buy her away from Frank Ford.

“That never stopped you before, Frank. You weren’t exactly rose-like on Saturday morning. We didn’t seem to have any intimacy issues then.”

Intimacy issues?

College girl coming at him with the latest buzzwords, showing off her education. Then he started thinking maybe Nikki was slumming and he was just another topic in her thesis. Maybe she was playing the same game that was going on all over the country. Young people living in dumps and hanging out in dive bars for the “experience.” Was he Nikki’s experience?

“True,” Frank said. But I did have your roommate’s Ban roll-on.”

The skin around Nikki’s eyes crinkled and then she smiled that wide Irish smile that lit up like a flower in the desert, putting Frank solidly back in her camp. “I tell you what, babe,” he said. “I’ll go in and change and then you can take us for a ride. I really need to get out to my mom’s. Haven’t seen her since the day of the funeral and her messages on my machine are starting to sound ah… sort of needy.”

Nikki gave him a kind look. Generous. Forgiving. Meaningful. “I’d like that, Frank. I need to give your mother my condolences.”

Frank was picturing his mother sitting alone in her living room, the furniture as tired and worn as the woman, all of it a package. Could see her on her faded brown couch all limp and surrendered, no fight left in her. So maybe Nikki would give her a lift. There’s truly something infectious about youth and beauty and Irish smiles.

 

Nikki insisted Frank drive and he got in behind the wheel. Being a General Motors guy all the way, he was a little suspicious of the tiny vehicle. There was something about being surrounded by three tons of steel and iron that made you feel safe, and these miniatures gave you one ton of Japanese steel that the mining guys up north on the Iron Range claimed was substandard. Stuff like that was in the local papers all the time. But all Frank knew for sure was that the stuff cost less; these pregnant roller skates were priced to sell.

“How do you like the car?” Nikki asked as they pulled to a stop in front of the Merry Dale Assisted Living Facility, a six-story, government funded complex on the west side of Zenith.

“It’s cute, Nik. But it seems a little vulnerable, y’know? Seems like anything hits you you’re gonna get crushed like an old beer can. Isn’t that what they make these things out of?”

“Yes, Frank, they do. But they use those really old ones. Those thick old cans you find in abandoned cabins or on the ground out in the woods. The cans that stay the same for, like—forever.”

“Really? Okay then. But don’t take it up to the Iron Range. They hate these Japanese cars up there. Kick the hell out of them if you leave ’em unattended.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

(To be continued)

 

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CHAPTER 9, EXCERPT 2

Walking up Lake Avenue, the revolver digging into his lower abdomen, a big hole seemed to open up in Frank’s mind. A window to a vast open landscape where he could see all the bad shit that could happen now that he owned a gun, all of it there waiting on the periphery and ready to drop down into the diorama. He didn’t need to make a list; shit was pretty obvious. And it did feel weird carrying a gun. Like maybe he was crossing over into fantasyland or starring in his own movie, The Amazing Adventures of Frank Ford. Yeah, he’d stepped into a new arena with a whole new set of rules, and damn if it didn’t look like Johnny Beam was living in that same ballpark. And it wasn’t treating Johnny very well, judging by the look of the man. Couldn’t really say a black man was looking pale, but shit, Jesus—Johnny was definitely not his old lighthearted self.

But hey, Frank thought, good things come to those who wait. And then he wondered what the hell that had to do with anything.

By the time he got to Fifth Street after five blocks straight uphill—and after a full day of work besides—Frank was sweating heavily under his denim jacket. And the pistol against his stomach seemed to have worn a hole down to his liver. Man, how did those gang dudes live with this shit? Was there some product out there to deal with rod rash? Prickly pistol chafe? Handgun hives?

Maybe Mr. Pills’ pharmacy had something.

But for now he’d just have to tough out the remaining three blocks to his house. He wanted to take off the jacket but couldn’t because of the pistol. So he had to sweat—and that wasn’t a bad thing, mind you—cleansing the river of life, an old football teammate used to say— but shit, that dude was fat and full of poison now, so what the hell.

Finally arriving at the alley above Third Avenue East and Fifth Street, Frank looked down the pavement at his house and saw an unfamiliar car in the driveway, a little red foreign job. Jap car, little brother Ray would’ve called it. Frank’s heart kicked up a few beats and a shaky shot of adrenaline got his feet moving faster. Who in hell could it be? All sorts of foreboding shit was gathering behind his eyebrows as he walked past the playground and stared ahead at the red car. He could see now it was a Honda. Go little Honda. Hear the Beach Boys sing.

And then the driver’s door opened up and lovely Nikki Clark stepped out looking oh so clean and fresh and delicious in jeans and a green T-shirt. Nikki liked green, looked great in green. It seemed to make her eyes bigger.

Frank was feeling green around the gills.

“I came to show you my new car, Frank,” Nikki said, short blond hair glistening in the sun and white teeth sparkling. But her eyes were sending a slightly different message.

But God she looked good.

Frank was wondering what was wrong with him, how he could let Nurse Judy override this beautiful young girl, this breath of fresh air. But that was part of it—she was young. Too young? That’s what people said. You know her parents had to be questioning it. Why Frank is nearly forty years old, dear, surely you can’t have much in common. It might seem okay now, but soon he’ll be middle aged and you will still be in the prime of life. It’s time you started thinking about your future, dear. What kind of father would Frank make? Why, he’d be an old man when your children graduated from high school.

And they weren’t even engaged, for Christ sake.

But Frank had thought about marriage. And yeah, he’d heard it all, the dirty old man jibes, the robbing the cradle accusations. Perv. Sleaze. Lecher. But man, society is just a fancy name for a mob. A mob that gets its jollies from tormenting the non-fits.

And talk about your non-fits, now he had to get the goddamn gun out of his belt before Nikki saw it, the pistol possessing all the characteristics of the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to Nikki keeping the faith. But maybe it was really better for everyone if she found out. Give the young thing a chance to escape before she got roped into Frank’s mess of a life. Keep the sweet girl from getting permanently tarnished by his mongrel heritage.

Son of Tom Ford, family abandoner.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 9, EXCERPT 1

It had to be past five-thirty when Frank knocked on the glass door of the Storehouse, Closed sign at eye level. But in just a few seconds Johnny Beam was there with his familiar Satchmo smile, Frank thinking it looked a tad forced today. He followed Beam through a showroom of used furniture, toys, dolls, appliances and other collectables, to a doorway at the back of the store with a green curtain across it. They went through the curtain to a large storage area with a concrete floor, a ton of boxes and loose stuff lying around on it.

Johnny said that he thought Frank wasn’t gonna show, said he was about to leave. Frank explained about his new job, a day job, one he didn’t know he’d have when he’d talked to Johnny yesterday. Beam gave him a knowing chuckle and stepped into a small office cordoned off in the southeast corner of the expansive back room.

Lotta old shit in this place, Frank was thinking. Hope Johnny doesn’t bring out a flintlock dueling pistol or some junk piece from the Korean War…

“So you quit on old Betty, eh, Frank?” Beam said, sitting down behind a dark green metal desk, on a worn cloth chair with wheels. On the desk were papers, a phone and one of those rectangular metal address books with the little arrow on the side pointing at the letters of the alphabet. Frank’s mother had one of those things when he was a kid and he used to play with it for longer than he could now reasonably explain.

Frank said, “Yep, that’s a fact, Johnny. I quit. Goddamn bar just finally got to me after all those years. Got so I fuckin’ hated the smell of the place.”

Johnny was chewing gum and drumming his fingers on the desk, fidgeting in the squeaky wheeled chair. “I hear you, Frank. More power to you, man. Change can be good for a person. Been trying to make a few changes, myself.” Then Beam reached down under the desk and brought up a rectangular wooden box that reminded Frank of those silverware boxes he’d seen at Pills’ Palace.

Resting on the burgundy velvet-lined interior of the box were four handguns, two revolvers and two semi-autos.

“I’m not gonna ask you what you need a gun for, Frank,” Beam said. “But I will say that this little popper here,” touching the smaller revolver, “is only gonna be effective at close range, three to ten feet. After that it’s gonna be iffy. This bigger one, the thirty-eight, will give you a little more range and better stopping power but it’s heavier and harder to conceal, if that’s something you’re concerned about. One advantage you get with the revolvers, they don’t kick out any shell casings, don’t leave evidence scattered around. Again, if that’s something that matters to you.” He pointed at the semi-automatics. “The autos hold more cartridges, so that’s an advantage. We got a nine-millimeter and a three-eighty, essentially the same caliber, just one is metric and the other one is American. Some guys don’t like the autos because they say they jam. But these two are top shelf, man, Baretta and a Browning. Go ahead, pick one up; see how it feels.

Frank liked the look of the Baretta. He picked it up and hefted it. Thing was solid, heavier than he expected. Felt good in his hand, strangely satisfying. “How much for this one, Johnny?”

“New, that’s a seven hundred dollar piece, Frank. You can have it for three-fifty.”

Frank only had two hundred and twenty-three dollars in his pocket, all the cash he had in his house when he left for work this morning. “Fraid that’s a little out of my league at the moment, Johnny. What’s the cheapest piece?”

“That would be the thirty-two, the snub-nose, your basic Saturday Night Special. Let you have that for a yard and a half. But I warn you, man, the piece is off brand, could be a hunk of shit. I hear they’re stamping these things out by the carload these days; demand in the big cities is so high.” Beam put his hand across his upper lip and leaned back. The chair squeaked.

Frank picked up the thirty-two and bounced it around in his hand. It felt cheap and tinny. He put it back in the box, sat back.

Beam said, “Tell you what, man, you want a revolver, I’ll give you the thirty-eight for two bills. Smith and Wesson. Good solid weapon. Bluing’s a little tarnished and the wood on the grip’s got a little crack in it, but still very functional.”

“You got a deal, Johnny.”

“Good man. But remember, Frank, ain’t gonna be no bill of sale. You get popped with that thing; heavy shit could come down on you. I ain’t lyin’. And sure as hell don’t try to pawn it.”

“Okay, man, I hear you.” Frank stuck his hand in the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a fold of wrinkled bills.

Johnny said, “You gonna need a holster or a shoulder harness or anything?”

“Nah, man, I’m good. I’ll stick it under my belt and put my jacket over it like they do in the movies.”

(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?

Read the rest of Jackpine Savages–available at most online bookstores, including

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Jackpine Savages by T.K. O’Neill  

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CHAPTER ONE, EXCERPT TEN

It was another beautiful day in northern Minnesota: baby-blue sky, white puffs of clouds, not a breath of wind and temps in the mid-seventies. The lake was flat and glassy—the kind of day you wanted to bottle and save, not waste on a cheesy deal like this. But everybody knows that a P.I. must be steadfast and finish what he starts. A case must be seen through to its rightful conclusion for the good of all.

I pulled into the roadside rest as Burton wheeled the Crown Vic up the hill towards Billy Talbot’s castle made from heartbreak. My gut was jumping and I sensed something haywire, like the proverbial monkey wrench dropping into the gears. I tried to reassure myself. I’d spoken to Talbot and he had seemed confident and positive. I dropped the windows down and soaked up the lake air, trying to clear my head, shake the doubt and fear. Then the shortwave crackled: “Here we are, Brownie,” Tormoen said in his powerful baritone. “We’re going in.”

“Break a leg,” I said.

All that was left to do was wait. I kept an eye on the road. My neck was in knots. Thirty minutes went by and then time stood still.

I thought something terrible was probably going down, but I also knew how windy Tormoen could get when enjoying a role. I could almost feel sorry for Rose, with the big Norwegian hounding her in his cop voice about forged signatures on credit card applications and the dire consequences this type of behavior can lead to.

Yessiree, Mr. Tom Higgins, Assistant Director of the State Bureau of Fraud and Financial Crimes, could be a hard and unforgiving man. Relentlessly, he could hammer away at you, holding possible punishments over your head like the blade of a guillotine. But Torm could also bring out his soothing good-cop voice to reassure Rose that her husband had only her best interests at heart. Hadn’t Billy firmly refused to press charges as long as no further credit lines were opened? Surely only the most foolish and churlish among us would refuse an offer such as this. The presence of one in such a high position of authority as Mr. Higgins spoke volumes on both the severity and sensitivity of this situation.

Despite my anxieties, the boys eventually came down the hill and turned toward Duluth. I gave them a few minutes start and followed, joining them down the road at a predetermined wayside.

I climbed into the huge backseat of the Crown Vic. Burton had a grin like a lemon wedge. Tormoen’s chest was puffed out, his face flushed. They were sharing a joint and laughing at the memory of Rose’s deer-in-the-headlights look after being told she could go to jail for ten years. How the tears running down her suddenly pale cheeks and the shudders in her torso were indeed a sad sight.

“I was the Barrymore of Bullshit,” Tormoen said proudly. “Olivier would’ve given me a standing ovation. I had the wench writhing in agony and begging for mercy.”

“A gifted performance indeed,” Burton said, blowing out smoke and grinning like a leprechaun.

Later that night when I walked into my apartment carrying a slight celebratory buzz, I couldn’t shake a vague sense of uneasiness, possibly from a residue of unfamiliar scents picked up at a primitive level. Simply put, I had the feeling that someone had been there while I was gone. Because we all have atavistic instincts buried beneath the many layers of complacency civilization has piled upon us, I took the feeling seriously.

I searched through the place but found nothing obvious missing. Told myself I was just paranoid. Could have been Mrs. Swanson from upstairs checking to see if I was building a meth lab. But something still nagged at me. I went around the front of the house and knocked on the Swanson’s door. It was a little late and I was a little tipsy but Mrs. Swanson smiled knowingly and told me that two workers had come that afternoon to install new water meters.

There was my answer. I was in too good a mood to question it.

A couple days after the performance, I was at the office, staring out the window at the seagulls circling manically in the hovering exhaust of a nearby Burger King. The phone rang. It was Billy Talbot, informing me that he and Rose had begun marriage and financial counseling sessions and that Dick Sacowski was on his way to Duluth with a sizeable bonus for me. After I cradled the receiver, I couldn’t help but smile with satisfaction at a job well done.

Sacowski arrived an hour later with Billy’s check for fifteen grand. My career as a private investigator was off and running on all cylinders. And if the business suffered a seasonal slowdown (summer had quietly turned to fall), I had more than enough money to get through the winter. And in the downtime between gigs, I would certainly be entertaining many at the Savannah with the colorful tale of my first case.

During the early days of autumn, I savored my recent success and basked in the beauty of an Indian summer. Then one mild and starry night my joy became somewhat tempered as I emerged from a late-night session at the Savannah to discover that someone had sideswiped my trusty Subaru, damaging the front end and passenger side. Liquored as I was, I shrugged it off and assured myself that this was just another opportunity for profit. I would bring the car to my friend Jack Running for repair and old Jack would kickback some of the insurance money my way. Things were still coming up roses.

But everything changed in late October, just before Halloween.

I remember the day as damp and foggy, pea soup rolling in off the lake. I was at the Savannah Club for happy hour, elbows on the bar and eyes on the television, two beers already down. It was a slow day at the club; the evening news was droning on. They were showing footage of a wrecked car at the bottom of a ravine along the north shore of Lake Superior. The ground glistened with dead, wet leaves and the hazy air was popping with blue and reds from the lightbars of law-enforcement vehicles.

It took me a while before I realized what I was looking at.

A red Ford Focus all crushed to shit.

The footage had been shot the previous night. It was foggy and wet but it sure looked like Rose Talbot’s vehicle. My ears began to burn and ring. The room swayed; I thought I was going to puke. I sucked in a breath of beer-scented air, stood up and listened to the reporter’s words.

Young woman killed in late-night crash… signs of impact with another vehicle… possible hit and run… airbags failed to activate… no witnesses have come forth… investigation continues…

Then the tube blinked and a commercial for Ryan Ford of Two Harbors came on the screen. Stunned, I walked out of the bar—not saying anything to anybody—and drove home in a brain fog that matched the soup in the air. I stumbled into my apartment and flopped down face-first on the bed, passed out for three hours and woke up in the dark, my brain racing in circles like an Indy car on a short track.

 

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Jackpine Savages by T.K. O’Neill  

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CHAPTER ONE, EXCERPT EIGHT

I rode the bumper of the Suburban in front of me, pushed down the turn signal and checked the rearview. Dan was hopelessly mired behind three other vehicles. I got on the squawk box and filled him in.

Minnesota State Highway 1, along which Rose was rapidly racing, flows north from Lake Superior to Ely, gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a destination where thousands of tourists arrive yearly to paddle around in pristine, uncrowded waters and be harassed and shot at by drunken local youths.

Soon Dan’s big truck was right behind me as we sped along between the pines. I got on the walkie-talkie and told him to turn around and head home, I’d pay him tomorrow.

It seemed I didn’t want to share Rose.

I watched in the mirror as Burton pulled off at a forest road and turned back toward the lake. I sped on, came to the crest of a hill and caught sight of the Focus about a mile ahead, approaching a bridge construction site, flagman standing in the road. I felt my heart drop into my gut. I hit the gas and watched with growing frustration as the flagman (actually an aging blond woman with leathery, sun-baked skin) waved Rose through.

I had to hit the brakes when the flag bearer spun her little orange sign on its axis, showing me the STOP. I was forced to wait as the traffic from the far side trickled across the bridge in the only open lane, my gut like the inside of a beehive.

Again I had blown it.

Five minutes later, after ten or fifteen vehicles had gone past, the chesty blond spun the sign to SLOW—CAUTION. I raced ahead recklessly but Rose was nowhere to be seen. I drove all the way to Ely, futilely searched up and down the town for the Rosemobile before turning around and making the long drive back to the lakeshore.

First bar I could find with a view of the lake, I ordered a double-vodka on the rocks and called Talbot, told him the sorry state of affairs. The edgy tone of his voice let me know he was losing his patience. But the words he spoke were again understanding and sympathetic, ending with: “Tomorrow is Friday. What say you have one more try at it?”

Of course I agreed. The money was too good to quit. As long as Billy wanted me on the job, I’d be there for him.

Later that night I was collapsed on my couch drinking from a cold bottle of Molson Canadian and watching the Twins getting pounded by the Yankees. The phone jangled on the end table. I picked it up. “Hello,” I said.

“That you, Carter?”

I recognized Dick Sacowski’s voice. “Yeah, Dick. What’s up?”

“That fucking cunt smacked Billy again tonight, man. This shit has got to stop, Carter. He’d just come home from fishing with me—he’s sitting in his chair looking out the window—when she comes up behind him and snakes his bag of pot out of his jacket pocket. He grabs at it and she slaps him in the goddamn head, says she’ll call the fucking sheriff if he raises a stink. That’s the second time she’s done that shit.”

“Not good, man,” I said. “Not good at all. I tell you what; I got an idea. A change of tactics.” Inspiration had come to me just a few minutes prior while watching a TV replay of a stand-up triple by Twins first baseman Justin Morneau. “I got a friend here in town that’s pretty good with video. I was thinking we could get inside Billy’s house and set up some hidden cameras and microphones and stuff. Then if she pulls anything, Billy will have his bargaining chip.”

“Great idea,” Sacowski said. “I’ll tell Billy. How long you gonna need inside?”

“I dunno, couple hours at least, more if possible. Can we get away with that?”

“I think so. Rose usually hits the Safe Harbor Bar in Beaver Bay on Fridays for happy hour. They run a special on them Long Island ice teas. Bitch can really throw’em down. Usually stays a while.”

“Great. Tell Billy that my assistant and I will be up there tomorrow around one. I’ll call him when I get close.”

“Gotcha. See you then.”

After the connection severed and the line buzzed in my ear, the first thing that came to me was a question: Why didn’t somebody think of the hidden-camera bit a long time ago? Just about anybody who ever saw a reality TV show could have come up with it. But what the hell, that’s what I was getting paid for, coming up with clever plans to trick the evildoers. The kind of shit we dicks do.

(To be continued)

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