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Frank watched the blond dancer click the heels of her silver cowboy boots together, turn around, bend over at the waist and touch her toes, showing the crowd her rear end. He was thinking he should go into work. At least for a little while. But maybe first he should call in and see if it was crowded. Frustrated now, he picked his drink off the bar and walked to the antique wooden phone booth up by the front door, the booth one of Jimmy Carl’s prized possessions. Frank sat down inside it and slid the door closed, sipped the whiskey and stared through the cloudy glass at a fading poster on the opposite wall of a beautiful blond standing alongside a stack of Miller Lite cases, the girl all dressed in green for St. Patrick’s Day.  Frank was digging in his pocket for change when two of Ray-Ray’s old druggie associates shuffled by the phone booth without noticing him.

Maynard Loy and Artie Autry.

Not too long ago, maybe a couple years now, Ray-Ray and those two, along with one other guy, Martie Span, had a drugstore cowboy thing going. Ray was small so he did any climbing or crawling or shinnying needed to be done to get inside the stores. And more than likely he never got his fair share of the spoils, either, with those guys. Autry was a real beauty, had done some hard time a few years back for killing a guy in a fight over a girl and stash of heroin. And Loy was just a dangerously unstable bag of shit whatever way you looked at him. But neither Autry nor Loy was what he used to be, Frank was thinking, both of them just burned trash now.

Frank would have a nice chat with those two after he called the Metro and let old Betty know what was up. Betty was always a trip, man. Some days she could have you believing whatever she wanted to, serve you dog shit on a platter and you’d gladly pay double for the privilege of slurping it up. Then on other days you couldn’t help but see her as the lonely, pathetic, money-grubbing old woman she mostly was.

After a fifteen-minute conversation that only occasionally became an argument, Frank’s resolve dissipated and he agreed to come in at nine-thirty so Betty could go home and have a nice hot bath, soak her aching old bones. She told Frank that maybe then she could forget how much of herself she gave to guys like Sack. How much she gave and how much they always took before they let her down. She might even have a brandy with her bath; she was in such pain. And what a dear boy Frank was for coming in on the day of his poor brother’s services. Truly a dear, he was, and she’d remember his kindness next Christmas, Frank could bet his brown eyes on that.

Stepping out of the phone booth, Frank figured Betty would forget about it before Thanksgiving rolled around. Glancing at the bar, he saw Maynard Loy looking at him. One of Loy’s eyes skewed off to the left and the other aimed slightly to the right. Frank wasn’t sure which eye was focusing on him but knew it was one or the other. Doughboy Loy was a career criminal and usually had his guard up. Upon closer inspection, though, it seemed that neither of his eyes was focused at all. There was gray in his close-cropped hair and his skin was pale and unhealthy looking. Smiling, Frank stepped in close to Loy’s pudgy, sweaty carcass. “What you up to, Doughboy?” he said.

Loy blinked his puffy eyes and rubbed a fat finger across his blotchy red nose. “Oh, ah, nothing, Frank.” His voice was scratchy and high-pitched. “Didn’t notice who it was at first—the funny light in here and all.” He swallowed and made a face Frank thought was meant to be sympathetic. “Um, sorry about Ray, man. That’s a real bummer. I always thought Ray would outlive us all.”

Art Autry, on the other side of Loy leaning over a mug of beer, was wiry and sharp-featured, his skin wrinkled and tough like old saddle leather, the furrows and folds seemingly locked in a permanent scowl. He turned his head to Frank and nodded, grunting something mostly inaudible.

(To be continued)

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It was four-thirty on the clock behind the bar when Frank pushed open the gold-painted door and entered the hazy but strangely sweet smelling environment of Jimmy Carl’s Gentlemen’s Club. Today the stale alcohol, tobacco, hairspray and cheap perfume were an aromatic bouquet, a pleasant antidote for the tightness in the chest Frank always got inside a church. Especially at a funeral.

Frank saw Jimmy Carl at the far end of the room sitting in a booth, the man wearing a white pinstriped shirt and suspenders, smoking a big cigar and pouring over what looked to be his bills, likely deciding who got stiffed this month. Nikki in her uniform of black skirt and white blouse was standing close to Jimmy, her back to Frank and her arm cocked on her hip. Looked like she was waiting for something and seemed like Jimmy wasn’t in any hurry to have her leave his side. Frank knew Jimmy liked to bang his waitresses as a preferred side dish to his main course of strippers and prostitutes, and a cute and innocent girl like Nikki would be an A-1 conquest. Seeing the two of them within spitting distance was giving Frank another reason to be pissed. And worried. He felt a nervous smile coming on as he approached the booth. “Hey there, young waitress,” he said. “Can a person get a drink in this bar?”

Nikki turned around and threw up her nose. “Not for the likes of Irish trash like yourself, Ford.” Then she broke into a smile that warmed his heart and got him thinking good thoughts about the world again. He smiled back as best he could.

“Sorry about your brother, Ford,” Jimmy Carl said, tapping cigar ashes into a gold plastic ashtray. “He was in here a lot.”

“Yeah, sure, Jimmy. Thanks. I know Ray was a tough guy to get along with at times.”

“Get Frank a drink on me, Nikki honey,” Jimmy said, getting back to his bills.

“The usual, Frank?” Nikki said, giving him a quick hug as she went by.

“Make it a double.” Frank watched with admiration as his girlfriend stepped gracefully behind the bar. Five-foot-six of blonde-haired beauty. He loved looking in her eyes. Ass wasn’t bad either. He always told her if she got implants and lost a few IQ points she could be a stripper and make the real money. She always grinned and blushed in response. Working as a waitress in a strip bar had to give girls ideas, didn’t it?

Frank nodded thanks to Jimmy Carl and stepped across the floor to a barstool.

Nikki said, “Funeral pretty bad, Frank? I would have come along if you’d asked me.”

“Nah, better you didn’t come. Then I would have had to introduce you to everybody. Go through all that shit. I mean would you like the first time you met my mother to be at the funeral of her beloved baby boy?”

“I guess not, Frank. I really wouldn’t know about those things, though. I haven’t been to very many funerals. You off tonight?”

“Betty needs me to cover for Sack again. Wants me there at six. I’d like to put a sack over Sack’s head and beat it with a stick, that’s what I’d like to do. I think I’m going to call in and tell her I’m too grief stricken to work—especially for Sack. The Metro will just have to tough it out without me tonight. I need to hang out with my good friend the waitress and do some drinking, watch girls take off their clothes for money.”

Nikki crinkled up her face into a comedic grimace. “I’m sure Betty will go for that one,” she said. “You know how she gets when she has to work the bar.”

“Too damn bad. She can’t fire me for not coming in on the day of my little brother’s funeral. I’ll get the union after her.”

“I didn’t know you were in the union.”

“I’m not. But I’ll sure as hell join in a hurry if she fires me.” He grinned a little. “I see you’re working both sides of the bar today.”

“Only until five when the girls come on, then Jimmy puts in his two hours before Billy gets here. I might actually have some time to talk to you, if it stays slow.”

“No problem. You know me, easily amused.”

“Especially when there’s tits on stage,” Nikki said, the corners of her eyes and mouth turning up in that delightful way of hers. She took a bottle of Canadian Club from a shelf behind the bar and grabbed a lowball glass from a row.

“What? Tits? Me?” Frank stretched his hands out, palms up, his eyes getting wide. “Not me. I’m a Christian. Family values and all that.” Then he stared down at the stage at the back end of the room and got thoughtful. “You get along well with your people, Nikki?”

“Pretty good, most of the time. But they’re hundreds of miles away. I don’t hate being with them—but I don’t mind being away, either.”

Frank shook the ice cubes in his glass and took a long slow pull of the fine Canadian whiskey. “My family was a pain in the ass from the beginning,” he said. “My older sister and my mother were from another planet, and the old man was never around long enough to have a positive effect. I remember thinking when Ray was born that I might finally have an ally. But then he turns out to be the craziest of them all, nothing but a torment all the goddamn time. But I still miss him, Nikki. Strange, I know. But I just can’t stand the thought of someone beating Ray to a pulp like that. Throwing him off the fuckin’ Arrowhead Bridge for Christ sake—even though I wanted to do it myself more than once. It hurts to think of anyone beating on little Ray-Ray like that and it pisses me off because he’s not worth the suffering.” Frank leaned his elbows on the bar and felt some tears leaking out. He rubbed his eyes with the side of his hands.

Nikki put her warm hand on his neck and stroked gently. “He was your brother, Frank,” she said. “Your flesh and blood. There had to be times when you loved him. I know you, remember?”

“You just think you know me,” Frank said, leaning over the bar feeling like a fool and an asshole at the same time,

Then “Shake Your Booty” exploded out of the sound system and the stage lights burst on down front. Frank wiped his eyes with a cocktail nap and tried to smile as a chesty peroxide blonde in a shiny platinum-colored cowgirl outfit high-stepped out from behind the dark red curtain on the small stage at the far end of the long narrow barroom. Frank pulled himself together, took another swig of CC and shifted his gaze to the dancer. Nikki gave him a funny look and walked off to wait on two guys who’d just arrived at a table near the stage.

(To be continued)

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This way and that way—go this way and that.

That bit of an old German children’s song cycling in Frank Ford’s head seemed to be a comment on the flow of his thoughts. In the aftermath of his brother’s funeral, he was bouncing between sad, happy and relieved—and then back again. And to top it off, he had mud on his pants.

“Goddamnit,” he said, brushing impatiently at the dark clumps ringing the cuff of his only pair of dress pants. Most guys would have relegated these sharply creased grays to painter’s pants long ago, but not Frank Ford. To him these trou seemed more than suitable for his brother’s goddamn funeral.

Frank’s temper was not improving as the remaining splotches resisted his vigorous rubbing. Thinking about the funeral service wasn’t helping his head either.

Frank gave up his grooming efforts with a grunt, lifted his legs into the front seat of his rusty blue Pontiac station wagon and slammed the simulated wood-paneled door. He normally had Fridays off at the bar but today was the second time this month Betty called him in because Douglas “Sack” Sackberger pulled one of his infamous disappearing acts. If you could call holing up inside a bottle at his lowlife-welfare-cheater-girlfriend’s dump, disappearing. Frank wondered why Betty didn’t fire the sorry bastard. Maybe they were related, Sack and Betty. He’d heard that.

“Goddamn families,” Frank said as he turned the key, the angry profanity fading into the empty street like a warning. The starter responded with a tired whine.

It’s not like Ray was a brother anyone should mourn.

The whining and buzzing, ground to a halt.

Frank cranked down the window and yelled, “Fuck,” into the damp, gray air. Christ, the way it went down was so typical of Ray, his body lying there with ID in the pocket of his jeans so we could all know who it was. Know what happened to him, what somebody did to him. Make his big brother feel morally obligated to do “the right thing.” Whatever the hell that was.

Why couldn’t the dirt bag have just gone away?

You know how at funerals people always say they’re going to miss the dead person? This ceremony was no different. But Frank knew they were all liars. Except Mom, of course, she always loved Ray no matter what he pulled. “Ray-Ray’s had a hard time of it,” she’d say, explaining why she gave her younger son money or forgiveness. Money Frank always knew would be spent at a bar or a drug house— and forgiveness surely to be taken advantage of by the receiver. Mom babied Ray and took his side most of the time, which never failed to piss Frank off, but now it was left to him to comfort her.

Forgotten, that’s how he wanted to remember Ray. But the lasting image of his grief stricken mother bent over in the church pew and the rising bile in Frank’s craw, foretold a different future. He didn’t know how to answer when she asked why. Why Frankie? Why did little Ray-Ray have to die like this? 

Frank gazed out at the cloudy sky and the small, well-kept houses in the blue-collar neighborhood surrounding his mother’s apartment building and felt the sourness growing. Maybe he should tell her about that time last fall. The time he saved her little darling from an ass kicking. Tell her about driving downtown one night and seeing this gray-haired guy in a dark suit pounding his fists on some turd in a worn-out fatigue shirt. Tell her he got a look at the smaller guy and realized it was Ray. Then maybe he should tell her that his first thought was—Good, he’s probably getting what he deserves. But Ray was Frank’s little brother and Frank had to stand up for him for that goddamn reason and that reason alone, so Frank jerked the car to a halt right there on the main drag—double parking on goddamn Superior Street for Christ sake—honked the horn and waved to his wacko brother. And when the gray-haired guy glanced over, Ray took the opportunity to scramble away and jump in the front seat of Frank’s big station wagon. Then Mom’s sweet little boy Ray-Ray gave the natty dresser the finger and hocked a gob of spit at him as Frank drove off. When Frank asked him what it was all about, Ray said he was fucking the guy’s wife, which Frank thought was a crock because any woman married to the dapper dude was not going to play around with snotty, greasy, Ray Ford. More likely Ray was sniffing around the guy’s teenage daughter, trying to get her high or something.

Frank twisted the key in the ignition again and this time the Pontiac V8 fired up, sending clouds of oily exhaust into the air. He pulled away from the curb and pointed the wagon in the direction of Jimmy Carl’s Gentlemen’s Club. Nikki was out there doing her waitress thing, the master’s degree candidate working in a strip club for her sociology thesis. Girl was the only joy Frank had left in life. Kept him from thinking about his ex-wife and her asshole new husband or the way the country was going lately, everything costing so much these days. Sweet little Nikki made him feel alive, feel something good inside again. Her company and a couple stiff bumps would get him through the afternoon, but tonight at the Metropole was another thing altogether.

(To be continued)

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Jackpine Savages by T.K. O’Neill  

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CHAPTER ONE, EXCERPT ELEVEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They had an answer for that.

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

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

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

I refused to speak and asked for a public defender.

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

The court appointed a public defender.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would I be going—or coming?

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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  

(ebook and paperback)

Ebookit.com  https://bit.ly/2GME30V

BarnesandNoble.com   https://bit.ly/2sc4w2q

Amazon.com  https://amzn.to/2km8F0f  

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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Jackpine Savages by T.K. O’Neill  

(ebook and paperback)

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CHAPTER ONE, EXCERPT NINE

By six o’clock Friday afternoon, my electronics-wizard friend Tommy Basulio had tiny cameras and voice bugs set up in strategic areas of Talbot’s house: kitchen, living room, carport entrance and Billy’s bedroom. I stressed to Billy that if he was going to confront Rose or accuse her of anything, it was best done in one of these areas. I was feeling pretty good as Tommy and I left that fabulous house on the cliff. Besides being blown away by the view, I felt we had gone a long way toward solving my client’s dilemma. Billy Talbot must have felt the same, because he’d written out a nice large check and told me my services would no longer be needed, at least, until further notice.

I could have taken this as a rude dismissal but chose instead to look at it as an acknowledgement of a job completed satisfactorily.

I took it easy for the next few days and tried to enjoy the fruits of my unlikely success. But I couldn’t shake the lingering feeling that the job was unfinished. That there was something more I could do to help Billy.

And then one day I got the chance.

I was at my office researching possible forms of advertising, idleness having proved to be not as fun now as it had been at age thirty or forty. The only marketing plan I’d come up with was an ad in the yellow pages of the phone book. I was nearly finished with the Brown Investigations ad copy, having rejected What can Brown do for you? and Brown gets Down, in favor of the straightforward Brown gets it done.

My desk phone sounded.

It was Talbot, croaking in a weak, hoarse voice: “Brown? This is Billy Talbot. I need your help again. Things here are getting out of hand.”

Seemed to me they’d been out of hand for a long while. “What can I do to help, Billy?”

“Today I got three credit card bills for a total of thirty-seven thousand dollars. Cash advances at the maximum rate of interest the bloodsuckers can charge.” His voice trembled.

“Jesus fucking Christ—that’s a lot of scratch. Have you thought of communicating directly with the companies that issue the credit cards? Get Rose on some list or something?”

Suddenly there was strength in his voice: “You think I should start contacting every fucking banking conglomerate that might issue credit cards? Not to mention the retail outlets and other financial institutions and whoever the fuck else…”

“It’s not like I can pull her over and confiscate her wallet or anything, Billy. My hands are pretty much tied. I can’t mug her at the steps of the post office. You’d think the recent state of the economy would limit the number of offers out there.”

“Maybe you could do a better job of surveillance, Mr. Brown. She’s gotta be doing something with all the cash. And she’s also become more violent, as of late.”

“Are you getting it on tape?”

“I’m afraid Rose discovered the cameras and broke them. Took out the tapes and destroyed them, as well.”

“Are you shitting me? That’s some expensive equipment.”

“Tell me something I don’t know. I’ve already contacted Mr. Basilio and informed him. I called the number on the business card he left with me when the two of you were here.”

“Oh. I see.”

“Got any other bright ideas, Brown? Things are worse now than before you set out to help me.”

“All right, Billy, I get the hint. Do you want me to put a tail on her again? I can find another vehicle and bring a partner. I’m sure we can stay with her this time.”

“If that’s the best you can come up with, I suppose it will have to do. Excuse me if I don’t jump for joy.”

Dude and his sarcasm were beginning to get on my nerves, disabled or not. Then inspiration hit me and washed the annoyance away. All private eyes had their little group of assistants and confidantes. I just needed to gather my own gang of cohorts together for a bit of subterfuge.

“You know what, Billy?” I said. “You’re right. I was piss-poor at surveillance. But now I’ve got a plan that will solve all your problems with your wife. All you need to do is have her home and in the house at a prearranged time and date. I’ll have some friends of mine pay her a visit with a message she’ll find hard to deny.”

“My ravaged heart is fluttering with anticipation.”

“That’s a start. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

I clicked off, relieved to sever the connection with Talbot, who seemed to have the power to suck out my energy through the phone line.

It took ten minutes of deep breathing before I could call around about renting a Ford Crown Victoria, preferably in black. I settled for a maroon one. Found it in the West End at the rental agency that used to try harder. I figured it would suffice, maroon being one of the Minnesota state colors.  Rah, Rah for the old Maroon and Gold and all that.

With transportation taken care of, I began recruiting players for my upcoming theatrical production of  “Scare the Hell out of the Misbehaving Wife.” I delved deeply into a mixed bag of old associates—burnouts, recovering alcoholics, head cases and general refugees from the past. I already had Dan Burton and Tommy Basilio on board and needed one more willing participant.

The spinning wheel stopped at the image of Jeff Tormoen—local actor, radio DJ and barroom brawler with the size, authoritative voice and upright bearing needed for the role I had in mind.

Being somewhat “between gigs,” Torm was more than willing to jump on for the ride.

The next step was ordering phony badges and blank identification cards off the Internet. After that, I assembled the cast of characters for a morning photo shoot with Tommy Basilio. We spent the afternoon going over our roles. Three days later, the ID cards arrived in the mail. We were well rehearsed and ready.

On the morning previously arranged with Talbot, Dan Burton, clean-shaven and dressed in a cheap brown suit and brown wingtips, and Jeff Tormoen, similarly clad in a navy blue suit and scuffed black oxfords, motored up the North Shore in the big maroon Crown Vic. I followed close behind in the Subaru, staying in voice contact through the police-style radio system Tommy had installed in the Ford for the sake of realism.

(To be continued)

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