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Posts Tagged ‘northwoods noir’

Sometimes a good first chapter bears repeating. Here’s one:

March 1978, Zenith, Minnesota

One of the harshest winters on record didn’t leave without a struggle, but the cold snap had finally broken, the temperature rising during the night to above the freezing mark for the first time in three weeks. At six a.m. the mercury hovered in the mid-thirties at the airport and slightly warmer downtown by the big lake.

Officer Adams of the Zenith Police Department wondered how the steaming wreck in front of him—a late model Olds with the crumpled body of a black man slumped against the steering wheel—had ended up a battered and broken mess at the bottom of a fifty-foot embankment. There was no ice on the streets, only a little ground fog in the low spots. Shouldn’t have any trouble stopping on that.

The location and condition of the auto suggested that it had blown through the railing at the top of the cliff and bounced down along the jagged rocks to the street where it now rested uneasily, crushed in upon itself like a four-door squeezebox, the front end dented and shattered and all four tires flat.

Poor bastard’s brakes must have given out, Adams thought. Pretty new vehicle, though, to have the brakes go out like that and pick up enough speed to rip through the guardrail.

Adams bent over and looked through the empty hole where the driver’s window had been. Chunks of glass lay on the broad but lifeless back of the man in the seat. His head rested at a crazy angle against the steering wheel, blank eyes facing the passenger window. There was a large bloody dent above his right temple.

A flare of recognition hit Adam’s gut and his heart got heavy in his chest. Something familiar about the shoulders and the dark wool overcoat and the shape of the head.

Adams bent in and peered at the bruised and bloodied face. Then he straightened up and filled his lungs with the damp air and squinted up at the top of the cliff again.

Once more he bent down and stuck his head inside the Olds. He was pretty sure now. The face was swollen and distorted but who else could it be? He heard Patrolman Hayes coming up behind him. Adams took another long look inside the wreck.

It was Johnny Beam, without a doubt.

Johnny Beam looking like he’d lost his last fight.

Adams stepped back and fought away the sick feeling as he watched Hayes bend over and study the body, hands in the pockets of his uniform like he was window shopping.

“Looks like there’s one less nigger on the planet,” Hayes said, snapping his gum.

“Don’t let me hear that kind of shit again, Dennis,” Adams growled, balling his fists. “I knew this man. Used to watch him play football when I was a kid. He may not have been the most responsible guy you’ll ever meet, but he wasn’t a nigger, and I won’t tolerate that shit.”

“Hey, I didn’t mean anything, you know—I was just saying…”

Adams stared down at the body, eyes narrowed. “This is Johnny Beam, used to be the state light-heavyweight boxing champion. Great athlete. And a good guy.”

“Ain’t he the one they brought in on that weapons sting back in January?”

“Yeah, that was him. He’d fallen on some hard times, made some bad decisions.”

“Well, it looks like he’s fallen on even harder times now,” Hayes said, the corners of his mouth rising into a smirk. “You might say he finally hit bottom.” He spit his gum on the pavement, hitched his shoulders and gave Adams a stare.

Adams returned the stare. “You really are an enlightened guy, Hayes. For a fucking cretin.”

A siren wailed in the distance as steam smelling of antifreeze, brake fluid and burnt motor oil drifted across the chunks of broken rock, shards of glass and colored plastic littering the pavement. Hayes kicked at a jagged hunk of metal and stared blankly at the wreck. “You sure pick some funny guys to defend, Adams,” he said. “Wasn’t this guy a bookie and a pimp and every other goddamn thing?”

“Fuck you, Hayes. I knew the guy, okay? It ain’t easy to see someone you know, dead.”

A few blocks to the east, an ambulance careened onto Superior Street and roared toward them with the siren screaming. Further back a tow truck and another squad car were also rolling toward the body of Johnny Beam.

“I got a question for you, Adams.” Hayes said, squinting at the approaching ambulance. “How do you think your friend went off that cliff? Think he was drunk—at six o’clock in the goddamn morning? Stinks like booze in there, but still—couldn’t the son of a bitch use the brakes?”

“That’s a good question, Dennis. A question I’m sure somebody is gonna want answered.”

“You never know, the brakes coulda failed,” Hayes said. “You know how them niggers are, never fixing anything.”

Adams swallowed hard. Was about to respond in kind when the ambulance came careening to a stop and the paramedics jumped out. Swirling red lights sliced through the steam and the fog and the grayness.

Like some kind of horror show, Adams thought. “We got a dead man in there, boys,” he said. “Go easy on him.”

The ambulance jockeys looked at the body with wide caffeinated eyes, searched for a pulse and grimly nodded to Adams.

Who’s gonna care about a dead nigger in this town? Patrolman Hayes thought. Sure, there’ll be a few like Adams who’ll moan about it long enough to make sure everyone knows they feel real bad. And then they’ll forget about it just like everyone else.

The tow truck rumbled up alongside Adams, who was scratching his head and trying to reign in his emotions. The gnarled-faced driver leaned out the window, cigarette smoke seeping from his nose and mouth. “You want us to drag that thing out of the way, officer?”

“You bet, Jack,” Hayes snapped, stepping between Adams and the tow truck. “We got traffic that’s got to get through here.”

Adams bristled. “We’re gonna have to leave it where it is until the chief and a medical examiner get a look at it. This could be a crime scene, Hayes. You go up to the top of the hill where he came through and look around.” He pointed at the arriving squad car. “Bring McNally and Ledyard with you. Put some tape around the area and make sure the tracks and everything are left intact. I’ll wait here for the brass.”

Hayes blinked and thought about saying something but instead launched a gob of spit on the damp pavement and strutted toward the patrol car. He leaned a hand on the driver’s door and filled in the inhabitants.

As the squad car pulled away, the chief of police and the chief of detectives arrived from the opposite direction in separate Ford Crown Victoria sedans, one blue and one brown.

Chief of Detectives Harvey Green was a friendly, heavyset man who was smarter than he looked and well liked by most. His personal motto was Do a good job but take care of you and yours first. He seldom thought or felt too deeply about anything and as long as the larder was full, life was good.

Police Chief Ira Bjorkman was old and tired and had been on the job for too long.  Everyone on the force knew it and so did he. A recent increase in local crime coupled with the intrusion of the national press covering the Norville murder trial into his previously serene existence had stoked his growing desire for retirement. There was just too much bullshit going on these days for someone who was raised on Live and let live.

Harvey Green let the chief walk slightly ahead of him as they approached the wreck.

Adams watched them come, waited for the slow-moving pair.

“What have we got here, officer?” Chief Bjorkman asked, bending over and peering in the car.

“What appears to be a dead man, sir, who I believe is Johnny Beam, the boxer. But I didn’t look for I.D. I haven’t touched anything.”

“Very good,” Bjorkman said. “Looks like we got another one for the coroner. That fat son of a bitch hasn’t worked this much in his whole goddamn career.” He turned around and looked east along Superior Street. “And the asshole better get here in a hurry.”

Chief of Detectives Harvey Green bent over and peered inside the Olds.

“Looks like this could be the end of the line on the ATF boys’ case, eh, Harvey?” Bjorkman said, pawing at the damp pavement with his worn wingtip.

“Maybe so, Ira, maybe so. You think someone got to Beam here? He’s pretty battered. Nobody ever hit him that much in the ring.”

“Driving off a cliff will do that to ya.”

Green pulled a clean white handkerchief from his trouser pocket, draped it over his left hand and reached inside the dead man’s coat. He came out with a long wallet that he placed on the roof of the car then leaned back in and sifted the outside coat pockets.

“Here’s a winner for you,” he said, holding up a set of keys. “Still got his keys in his pocket. Look at the little gold boxing gloves. Must be a spare set there in the ignition, just got a plain chain. That’s a little off, wouldn’t you say?”

“A man gets older, starts hitting the sauce, there are times he’ll forget just about anything. You telling me you never thought you lost your keys and then found them later.”

“No… but not like this. This is a heavy set of keys. Man’s gotta know it’s in his pocket.”

“Yes and no. If a man has been up all night hitting the sauce and the foo-foo dust, he might not know much at all. He may be stumbling out the door in a hurry and not know his ass from a tuna sandwich.”

“Yeah, s’pose that’s a possibility,” Green said.  “And it is March….”

“That it is, Harvey, that it is.”

Green straightened up and scratched his chin. Scowl lines formed deep furrows above his eyes. “I think we need to call in a professional accident guy on this one,” he said, turning to gaze at the frozen bay and the hazy outline of the grain terminals in the distance. “Someone whose expertise will override ours. The way the media is jacked up these days, with that goddamn Paul Richards sticking his beak in everything, I think we need someone out front on this.”

“You’re right. I agree,” Bjorkman said. “Your wisdom suits that of the next police chief. But Jesus, what the hell happened to this poor son of a bitch Beam? How did it ever come down to this? I remember when he was really something.”

“Me too, Ira. Me too.”

*  *  *  *

 

February 1960, National Guard Armory, Zenith, Minnesota

Smoke hung thick in the air, stagnant and stinking in the yellow glare of the ring lights. The buzzing of the crowd matched the buzzing between Johnny Beam’s ears as he sank down onto the wooden stool and struggled to clear his head. His opponent had given him all he could handle for seven long rounds but the son of a bitch had paid a price.

The corner man squeezed a sponge and Johnny basked in sweet relief as the cool liquid slid through the tight curls of his black hair and down his bruised, swollen face. All around him, the crowd rumbled. He straightened himself and leaned back against the turnbuckle, stretched his throbbing arms along the ropes and squinted across the blue haze at the cut man working furiously on Al Sparks’ right eye.

The bastard looks like he’s beaten, Johnny thought. Look at him over there, blood dripping down on the canvas. But then, Christ, look at me… the only black men in the goddamn building and we’re both bleeding from the head. But that’s what the paying public wants to see, and you gotta do what you gotta do….

His body was heavy; blood in his mouth made him sick. Legs felt like liquid lead, worse than back in high school football when the rain had turned the pads to concrete. He didn’t feel much like getting off the stool again to face the left-handed Canuck and his goddamn right-hand leads. But the road to the big time went through Sparks, and the big time was where Johnny Beam wanted to go.

He was the light-heavyweight champion of Minnesota—had been for two years. He was proud of it, but it really wasn’t much of a title, and he knew it. Only way to a shot at some real money was by beating better talent. At least better than the punching bags he’d faced so far in his career.

He drank from a glass bottle covered with tape and swished the water around, spit bloody goo into the tin bucket between his legs and ran his tongue over the sore spots in his mouth while old Ernie Callahan applied Vaseline to his eyebrows and dabbed more styptic on the ever widening cut above his left eye.

The ringside bell clanged sharp and shrill.

Trying to focus his thoughts, Johnny stretched his lips around the mouth guard and stood up to answer the call.

Flashbulbs popped. The crowd howled.

Their roar is my engine, Johnny thought; I’ll make sure there’s more of Sparks’ blood to see than mine. If you got two Negroes in the ring, one of them should hit the canvas. That’s just the way it is…

The two well-muscled fighters came together in the center of the ring. A drunk yelled, “Kill the goddamn Canucky, Johnny,” and a cheer went up.

Sparks was desperate and went on the attack. He fakes a right-hand jab and then launched a southpaw haymaker. Beam anticipated well, ducked under the punch, slid to his right, drove upward with his legs and unleashed a vicious right cross to Sparks’ cheekbone, eliciting an audible smack–leather against flesh.

The crowd exploded. Sparks stumbled, crashed into the ropes and grasped clumsily, gloved paws flailing for balance.

The cheers filled Johnny with energy. Just like the old days after busting off a long run or making a crunching tackle across the middle. He moved in for the kill, saw the blood and the look in Sparks’ eyes: dazed, struggling, fearful.

Beam’s jabs shot through and found their mark. Sparks retreated into the corner, struggling for breath and covering up, the cut spreading dark fluid down the side of his angular jaw.

His eyes are pleading with me, Johnny thought. Please don’t take me out. Not in front of all these goodamn white boys… let me stay on my feet like a man.

Johnny hesitated for a second then snapped off another jab, followed by a short, hard right to the mouth that rocked Sparks’ head and sent blood bursting into the smoky air, mixing with sweat in an artful pink mist that put a fever in the fans.

Beam stepped back and searched the Canadian’s eyes. Sparks’ right hand snapped out of its defensive position like a striking cobra, thumping Beam’s cheekbone. Seemingly revived, Sparks came on with purpose in his step and an all-or-nothing look on his bloody, battered face. He jabbed with the right hand, stinging Beam’s widening cut.

Johnny held his ground and they stood toe to toe. An explosion of punches fueled by desperation and anger juiced the screaming throng. Combination for combination, headshot for headshot and body blow for body blow. The crowd rose from the seats, howled for a knockout. The huge armory echoed as the referee stood with his hands on his hips, staring at Sparks.

Beam was tiring but his opponent was further gone.

Like he was lifting a boat anchor out of the mud, Sparks prepped for one more looping left hand, desperately hoping for the knockout punch. Johnny saw it coming and knifed inside. The roundhouse left bounced harmlessly off the back of his head. He came out of the crouch and snapped his own left into Sparks’ chin. Sparks staggered against the ropes and Beam swept in, launching a flurry of punches that were brought to a premature end by the dull sound of the bell.

End of round eight.

The fighters wearily took to their respective corners.

Johnny couldn’t avoid the pang of frustration lingering in his gut, nagging him. This guy just wouldn’t go down like the others. Even in the two fights he’d lost, he’d put the bums on the canvas at least once. Only reason he lost at all was inexperience. But this bastard was tough. Left-handed shit was a pisser.

Johnny drank heavily from the water bottle, trying to douse the fire in his head. The lights seemed to dim as Ernie squeezed the sponge and mopped his brow and chest. His manager, Harry Sloan, was squatting in front of him, a graying, balding head hovering in the fighter’s face.

Ernie worked on Beam’s eye while Sloan wagged his thick index finger and snapped off instructions: “You got him Johnny, stay on him and the fight is yours. Keep on him, keep on him.  Don’t let the bastard take a breath without hittin’ him. Go after the bastard, I tell ya. Keep him on his heels. Win one more round and you got the fight. You gotta want this thing, Johnny. You gotta want it.”

Beam nodded his head but the frustration just wouldn’t go away. Yeah, he wanted to put the guy down and walk out of there a winner—of course he did. But maybe he didn’t want it as bad as he thought he should.  Maybe it didn’t seem worth it quite as much anymore, at the age of thirty. Just look at that goddamn Sparks over there, he’s not right in the head.  Something about the way his eyes float loose in the sockets, and how his jaw takes that funny, crooked angle….

Round nine started slowly. Sparks clinched and held and used the ropes. Johnny lacked the energy to put him away. Both fighters were cautious and seemed reluctant to throw punches.

Deep into the lackluster round, Beam reopened the cut above Sparks’ eye with a solid jab. In return, the Canadian exploded with a jab of his own followed by vicious upper-cut to Beam’s chin that sent the Minnesota Champion staggering backwards toward his corner, only to be saved from any further embarrassment by the dinging of the bell.

Johnny collapsed into the stool, fatigue and frustration sapping his will. Ernie chewed Dentine and stoically worked the Vaseline and the styptic. Sloan shouted sharply, cigar-breath in Johnny’s face: “You let up!  You let up! You let up, goddammit, man! You had him Johnny, but you let up.  Where’s the old killer instinct, man? You gotta show me…You gotta show the crowd… Listen to those fans out there…. They’re your fans, Johnny. They came to see you knock this Canuck bastard into downtown Chicago. It’s time you gave them what they want. It’s time you showed them who the big dog is.”

Johnny’s eye was swollen half shut. He had a fire in his chest, weakness in his knees and a twisted gut. This prizefighting shit wasn’t fun anymore. Not like football used to be. And fighting those hambones—back in the beginning—that had been fun. People had started paying attention to him again. Like the days he was setting the state record in the 100-yard dash in the spring and scoring touchdowns in the fall.

He’d been a two-sport star who the local newspaper had once called “the classy Negro dash man.” Sports, and most importantly, victory, had opened many doors for him in this northern town where you could count the number of blacks on the fingers of your hands and have a few left over—fingers, that is.

But this fight was bullshit. It was taking everything he had inside to summon enough desire to get off the stool and go hard for one more round.

Just three lousy minutes, he told himself as he crouched forward and touched the gloves to his forehead. Just whip this guy for three minutes and be in the locker room smiling, ready to celebrate.

The bell rang. The crowd chanted. “Kill’em Johnny, kill’em. KO, KO, KO. Beam, Beam, Beam.”

Sloan had one leg through the ropes as he brayed his final words: “This is it, Johnny.  Show him who the man is here.  Send him home sorry and sore.  This is your town, big fellah.”

The bruised combatants moved slowly towards the center of the ring where the squatty, balding referee with his prim white shirt and black bow tie waited tensely.

Beam’s nose was swollen; it was getting hard to breathe. He was wishing he’d done that extra roadwork over the Christmas holidays instead of eating cookies and drinking beer.

Sparks’ eye was nearly shut and his cuts were ready to flow red at the slightest contact. He looked beaten but still dangerous, like a cornered dog.

The fighters touched their gloves together.

Johnny glowered and Sparks stared grimly, facial muscles twisted.

The ref gave the signal and the fighters shuffled their weary feet, bobbing and weaving stiffly.

Beam jabbed and circled and waited for his chance. The circling continued while the crowd grew restless.

One minute in, Sparks’ hands dropped slightly and Beam threw a right-hand lead to the forehead, giving the lefty a taste of his own medicine. With surprising speed, Sparks bulled in, grabbed Johnny’s arms and clinched.

“Let him go, let him go,” the referee snapped in a thin sharp voice, reaching between the fighters. “Break it up, come on now, men. Break it up.”

Sparks let up on his grip and Johnny shoved him away.

The ref warned the Canadian.

Johnny moved forward.

Sparks circled.

Johnny threw an overhand right.

Sparks jerked back a half-second too slow and caught the blow on the tip of his chin. His head snapped back and the crowd let out a vicious roar.

Stumbling back into the corner, the southpaw struggled to lift his hands.

Johnny moved in carefully. He could see every past loss in Sparks’ eyes and sense the lingering scars from too many lonely nights on the road.

Beam threw a right hook that Sparks managed to block.

Fading fast, Sparks grabbed on, clinging to Beam’s sweat-drenched torso with all the strength he could summon.

The boxers wrestled. The referee shouted. The fans whistled and catcalled.

The men in Sparks’ corner looked damaged.

Beam’s corner men pounded on the canvas, yelling, “Take him out, take him out!”

The referee moved in to peel apart the writhing octopus.

“Break, damn it, break,” he snarled.

Ignoring the command, Sparks bulled Johnny around until the diminutive referee’s vision was shielded by Beam’s broad back, then, like a ram on the rut, he butted Beam’s damaged eye with his rock-hard forehead.

Gasps and boos filled the air as Johnny reeled backwards on his heels, dark blood spilling down across his cheek and into his mouth. The ref’s face turned crimson. He stared into Spark’s swollen eyes accusingly.

The fighter stood defiantly, like a rat in the corner of a basement.

The ref sent Beam into a neutral corner and issued a warning to Sparks. Then he signaled the fighters to the center of the ring and made them touch gloves before resuming the battle.

Dangerously angry, fists pumping and head jerking like he was swatting flies with his eyebrows; Beam attacked, driving his opponent into the corner with a barrage of thunderous body blows.

Cheers and shouts and calls of derision bounced across the brick walls of the cavernous armory.

Then a funny thing happened. Johnny smelled popcorn. And beer.

Strange, he thought, a transient jolt of mirth passing through him as he pummeled away at Sparks’ midsection, his arms like the limbs of a great tree, heavy and wooden.

Sparks was still on his feet, ducking and covering and absorbing blow after blow, bloodied but not going down. Johnny threw an uppercut that caught mostly glove and was relieved when Sparks snagged his arms and held on.

The ref separated the tie-up but the final bell rang before another punch was thrown.

Both fighters sagged at the shoulders with relief.

Johnny went to his corner reasonably confident he’d won the fight, but not feeling so good about it. It was a different game now.

Prizefighting. Only what exactly was the prize? The money wasn’t shit. Just enough to impress a few women for a couple of nights. And when it came down to guys like Sparks… that kind of fighter, this kind of fight… it was a different world. One that Johnny Beam wasn’t very fond of.

And a distant voice in his head was shouting that he was too old to change.

Truth was, he’d been adjusting to one thing or another all his goddamn life. Whether it was school or the army or white society in general, it didn’t matter. Black man in a white world had to bend or go down for the ten-count. It seemed about time that Johnny Beam—light heavyweight champion of Minnesota—started calling his own shots. Let the world adjust to him for a while, he’d been ducking and dodging long enough.

The fighters got watered down and toweled off and their cuts were treated. Sparks was going to need quite a few stitches and there was a murmur that maybe the fight should have been stopped. “Never seen so much blood,” said some.

Ernie was putting a bandage on the damaged eyebrow. All Johnny could think about besides the throbbing in his face was how badly he wanted to get out of this lousy shit hole of an armory. Hard to believe this was the place where Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson, known as the Big Bopper, had performed just a week before their fatal plane crash. Christ, they had Jeeps in here just like the ones in Korea. Goddamn military trucks, too. And all the assholes out there in the seats—shit—it was way too much like the army.

Sitting there feeling the pain in his hands and head, he recalled the months of training in cold, empty gyms. And all that running outside in the snow and ice so they could put up a ring in a goddamn military garage and come out on a frozen night to see two niggers beat the shit out of each other. But hell, he’d won. He’d beaten the guy; he could feel it. They weren’t gonna come up with some bum decision in this town. He was a hero here, Negro or not. They loved him. He’d won, goddamn it.

The judges didn’t take long to reach a unanimous decision in favor of Minnesota Champion Johnny Beam. But the key word here was decision. Johnny swore he heard a tone of disrespect when the ring announcer said the word.  But then some of the crowd started chanting, “John-ny, John-ny, John-ny,” and he felt better. He held up his tired arms in victory and smiled that famous smile that had won over so many.

As he made his way out of the ring and slowly across the concrete floor toward the dingy lockers in the basement, the crowd was friendly and encouraging, yelling “Way to go Johnny” and “Bring on Archie,” meaning Archie Moore, the current world light heavyweight champion. But the scene just made the knot in Beam’s gut get tighter and fueled his growing desire to escape.

After the tape was cut off his hands, he sat on the bench in the locker room staring at the dark green floor, wiping sweat from his chest with a worn towel and pulling on a bottle of beer from the case of Royal 58 a local distributor always sent over on fight nights. As he sat there letting his muscles relax, smelling the liniment and touching his fingers gingerly to the bump on his face, Johnny started to feel a little more comfortable about his future.

Removed from the ring and Al Sparks’ stinging blows, his victory seemed a little easier than it actually had been. Now it was possible to believe he could do it again. Maybe get a shot at the title. Wasn’t that what they were saying out there?

Ernie Callahan hovered around, squinting at the swelling above his fighter’s eye. Sloan was there, too, a cigar between his lips and a beer in his hand, his free hand slicing through the dank air as he paced around, talking excitedly.

“I think we can get you a shot with Kid Chocolate, Johnny. He’s been ranked as high as number five. We can get a big venue, maybe Chicago… at least the Twin Cites….  I know you want to move up. And y’know, it’d ah, it’d ah… it would’ve been be a sure thing, you know, if you had KO’d the Canadian.  But you know… anyway…  Sparks is well respected in the game. He once took Ezzard Charles the distance, y’know. So beating him in any fashion is good.”

“Wasn’t Charles a heavyweight?” Johnny asked peering up, his eyes showing skepticism as he swiped the towel across his forehead.

“Well yeah, when he was champion, he was. And that should be motivation for you. Charles started out light heavy, I think….  He, ah, put on weight—and then he moved up toward the end of his career.  First light heavy, than heavy. Didn’t reach his prime until his body was mature. Only weighed two hundred when he was champ. Our Mr. Sparks also put on some weight as he matured, you can bet on that. He was packing at least one-eighty-five out there tonight.”

“I sure must be maturing, too, Harry,” Johnny said, chuckling softly and pulling at the growing roll around his middle. “And it’s getting harder to take off, the more mature I get.”

“I told you, you should’ve started training sooner,” Sloan said through a blue cloud of cigar smoke as he returned the empty bottle to the cardboard case on the green bench. Then his head jerked toward the hallway, honed in on someone in the small crowd mingling outside the locker room. He leaned over and grabbed another bottle of beer, waggled his paunchy, late-forties body and said, “There’s some people I gotta see out here, Johnny boy. You hold tight a second.”

“Sure, Harry,” Beam said, turning to Callahan. “You can go home now, Ernie,” he said softly. “I’m going to be fine. You know I heal up real quick. I tell you what, my friend, why don’t you stick a few of those beers in your coat and take them home to the wife. I know she likes beer. Tell her that Johnny Beam wanted her to have a good time tonight.”

Ernie stuffed six bottles in the pockets of his gray wool overcoat, thanked Johnny and left. Beam felt that familiar lonely-in-a-crowd feeling coming back again so he hit the showers. The hot water and steam took away some of the pain. He dressed in his favorite black suit and a white shirt that he’d purchased just last week at Allenfall’s. The suit was from Chicago, acquired when he’d lived there after returning from the Korean War. That suit was the only thing he’d brought here from the big city besides his wife Ruby.

Suit was the only thing still with him.

Those were the days, Johnny thought. Chicago. That had been the way to live. Only it was way too big down there. He really liked it up north here in Zenith. This town had always been good to him. At least when you compared it to what else was out there. At least the places that he’d seen.

He’d thought about Florida after the war but it was too damn hot down there. He’d grown up in northern Minnesota and his blood was like a Finlander’s. Yep, you put Zenith together with Bay City, his place of birth across the bay in Wisconsin, and the place was just big enough. Big enough to contain all kinds of trouble and small enough that the trouble was easy to find. You had everything you needed in the Twin Ports. Yes sir, there were some strong positives to life up here, predominantly white citizenry or not.

The question now forming in the back of his aching head was how to bring a little of Chicago’s high living here to Zenith and cash in on his fleeting fling with fame. One way or another, this boxing gig was going to end someday. More likely sooner than later. There just had to be some elements of the Chicago life that he could incorporate into this locale. Some source of income other than getting the shit pounded out of you for chump change. No way he was going back to being the neighborhood nigger.

He was reaching for his coat when Harry Sloan came bursting back into the room, red-faced and ebullient, a large unlit cigar in his hand and a fresh one burning in his mouth. “Here you go, Johnny, victory cigar from Havana. World’s finest, compliments of Bob Nash.”

“Slow down, Harry, you’re like a whirling dervish. What’s that you’ve got there, a carrot from Bob Nash for one of the horses in his stable?”

Nash was the fight promoter and Johnny had always believed he was screwing the fighters one way or another, undercounting the gate or padding expenses or what have you. He wasn’t driving a Cadillac for nothing. But, giving credit where credit was due, Nash had always treated Johnny right. At least right enough to stay on his good side. And Nash had influence in this town. Had the keys to some of the doors that Johnny wanted to walk through. Nash knew the folks with money and the folks who liked to play—the gamblers and the ladies’ men and the lonely squares that needed someplace to belong.

So Johnny always smiled real nice and made with the jokes around Bob Nash. And hell, Nash wasn’t really that bad once you got used to him. He knew plenty of women who liked to party, and that was a redeeming factor in itself.

“Thanks, Harry,” Johnny said, taking the cigar and flashing his perfect set of pearly whites. “Grab me another beer, will you please? Where is Bob, anyway? He stuck his head in here for a few seconds, and then left. Didn’t seem that thrilled about the fight, if you ask me.”

“Whattaya mean, Johnny?” Harry said, handing over a brown bottle of beer. “Come on. He’s fine. Come on—Jesus man. Good crowd wasn’t there?  You’re always good here; you know that. Bob’s good, too, you know. He wants to meet us at the Flame later. Says he’s got some babes on the line—you know Bob. He wants to talk a little business too, he says. I’m positive he’s got some plans for you.” He paused and stared out into the hall. “You mean he didn’t say anything at all when he popped in?”

“Yeah, he said ‘good fight’ and all that shit.  But he just said it and left. I was getting the tape cut and his head jerked right in and out of here like he had a nervous twitch.”

“He must be preoccupied, thinking about your future.”

“That must be it. Yassuh, bozz, yassuh.”

“Oh, come on, Johnny, ease off,” Harry said, wrinkling his eyebrows. “We’ll go to the Flame. I’ll buy you a steak.  A couple of drinks and you’ll be good as new.”

“Since when do you buy me a steak, Harry?”

“Since tonight. My vote of confidence for our future together.”

“You’re a real prince. What’d you do, sell a car today?”

“Two to be exact. You know I couldn’t afford steaks on the money you pay me. Maybe tube steaks.”

Johnny laughed; his eyes twinkled. “You always said you were doing this for the love of boxing, Harry—the ‘sweet science,’ right? And of course you saw great talent and potential in me.”

“And that is still correct, Mr. Beam. And if you’ll down that beer and grab your coat we can get to someplace where it doesn’t smell like jockstraps and assholes floating in liniment, and they serve real drinks and thick, juicy steaks.”

“I’m ready for that,” Johnny said, as he thought more about his plans.

Yes sir, it sure did pay to be nice to some people. That’s what he liked about living in Minnesota; there were always a lot of nice people out there ready to help you out with things.

T.K. O’Neill’s crime novel Fly in the Milk is available on ebook at online bookstores, including Barnes and Noble, ebookit, Google, iBookstore (Apple), Amazon, Sony Reader Store, Kobo (Borders) and Ingram Digital.

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CHAPTER 3, Excerpt 9

Sam had the pill trollop on the line when the call-waiting click hit his ear. Times like this, he wondered why he’d ordered the damn service. Leave this one waiting, you might lose her for days, twat sliding off to Sopor Land. Girl had all the new drugs the kids were getting hooked on these days: Oxies, Vics, Special K—that stuff—a new one coming along all the time it seemed.

Reluctantly switching over to the incoming call, Sam heard Jimmy Ireno’s nasal whine on the other end. Sam’s spirit lifted. Ah, sweet Jimmy, always giving you pause but then coming through in the end. The boy still like he was on the basketball court: making mistakes, being reckless, but coming through at the buzzer. “Eye” Ireno’s fourth quarter heroics had rescued Sam from financial disaster more than once, back in the day.

“Jimmy, my friend, good to hear your voice. I confess I was a little worried, but I should know better, shouldn’t I? Trickster that you are, always taking old Sammy to the brink. But everything is forgiven now that the vehicle has been delivered and you are all right.”

“You sitting down, Sam?” Jimmy said. “You better sit down and listen.”

“What is this Jimmy, more of your tricks? You haven’t given your old friend enough heartache already?”

“I’m afraid this is harsh reality, Sam. The van is now in the possession of the State of Texas. Fuckin’ license plates fell off somewhere along the line and the patrol pulled me over. I just barely escaped myself, had to run through the sagebrush for hours to get away.”

“Stop with the bad jokes, Jimmy, my blood pressure, you know.”

“No joke, Sam. Everything’s gone. But it’s not my fault. Whoever you had mount the license plates on the van, did one piss poor job, man. Must’ve been some real sharp guys. I know you’re a generous fellow, Sam, but did you have to hire the handicapped for this gig?”

Sam felt the heat rising to his face and his stomach acid jets blowing out volume. For a moment he feared passing out. Rubbing his forehead, he stared at the floor. This had to be a joke, yes, one of Jimmy’s pranks, the wop asshole just rolling him on the coals, seeing how much old Sam could take. But goddamnit, if what Jimmy was saying was actually true; they were both as good as dead.

Staring at the phone in his hand, Sam struggled to pull himself up from the nightmare. He tried to think but the thoughts just kept jumping around in his head like popping corn.

“Jimmy, you still there? Are these things you say really true? Maybe you’re trying to cut yourself in for the big payday? How can I tell, this far away from you? That vehicle was delivered to me by my client’s people. These are top-shelf people and not given to egregious errors such as you describe.”

“Doesn’t change the facts, Sam. I never would’ve been stopped if it weren’t for the missing plates. Never went over the limit the whole way. Your client must’ve hired temps that day.”

“You seem to be taking this lightly for a dead man, Ireno. You know I was responsible for that delivery. I told the man I’d be driving it down there myself. The only reason I didn’t was out of kindness to you, Jimmy. To let you make good on your markers.”

“And your charitable ways are known far and near, Sam. You think I’m taking this lightly? I’m stuck down here with no money, no clothes but what I got on my back, and more than likely a BOLO on me ringing across the police band as we speak. Consider yourself lucky that you weren’t driving. Really couldn’t see you racing through the briars and the brambles like I did.”

“If I was driving, maybe I would see the plates were loose. Were you high, Jimmy?”

“Fuck you, Sam. And no, I wasn’t high. Just a little speed for the driving. Toed the line the whole goddamn way.”

Sam was out of ideas. What the hell could he do, put in a claim with the Texas State Troopers? Call Bob Ryan and beg for mercy? Guys tried that became catfish food in the Mississippi. “Goddamn you, Jimmy, you have any idea who we’re dealing with? If Bob Ryan doesn’t hear from me or his man down there today, I’ll be the confetti in next year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. Drunken micks will be eating corned beef and Sammy.”

“I sympathize, Sam, but what the hell you want me to do? Seems to me the only play you got is claiming the van.”

“Claiming the van? You are high, Jimmy. Or are you telling me the highway patrol might not have found the money?”

Jimmy had an answer ready, his mind coming back to normal: “No way they didn’t find the money. A blind man coulda spotted the gap between the panels all the way from Mexico for fuck sake. Another amateur job done by your so-called top-shelf people. Way too much gap between the panels, dude. But think about this, as long as there was no dope in the van, why not cop to unlawful transfer of legal tender or whatever they call it and see what your legal sharpies can pull off. Might get something back that way. Shit, I don’t know. Only thing I know for sure is that I forgot my tennis whites and I’m beginning to stand out around here like the accidental tourist. I need to find a place away from prying eyes.”

“Don’t hang up, Jimmy,” Sam yelled into the phone. “I’m coming down there and you better answer your phone.” All Sam heard was a click and a buzz and emptiness ringing in his ears. He’d wanted to say to Jimmy that perhaps if he hadn’t run away the highway patrolman wouldn’t have looked in the van, but now the goddamn little dago rodent was gone. Made Sam momentarily forget the pill-pushing wench on the other line. Remembering, he clicked back, thinking he’d need a real good load if he had to fly down to the Lone Star State. But coming back, the line was dead; bitch was gone, Sam thinking she was off filling an anal syringe with Oxycodone… pill trollop floating away on a fantasy bubble.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 1 (Excerpt 1)

South Texas Tangle is a tribute to the work of Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, and follows Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Writing.”

Jimmy Ireno was strung out on speed, bad freeway coffee and fear. But the big problem was the state trooper with the absurd wide brimmed hat, shovel-blade chin and linebacker shoulders waiting at his window.

“Driver’s license and registration please, sir.”

Saying it nice and polite.

But those were the last words Jimmy wanted to hear anywhere, let alone the middle of flatlands nowhere, hundred miles south of San Antonio. Thing was, he didn’t have a valid driver’s license. Revoked last year for a couple of chicken-shit DWIs coming home from the clubs. Cops on that shift can be real assholes. And registration? Nothing like that in here. They run the VIN they’ll find the listed owner to be some long-dead Minnesotan or an incarcerated miscreant, maybe someone only exists on paper. That’s the system.

“Are you aware that your vehicle has no license plates, sir? Seems that the mounting hardware was, ah, substandard.”

Jesus, no plates?

And why was the cop dangling a gnarled-up garbage bag tie in Jimmy’s face? Did somebody back in Minnesota not know that screws work a lot better? Jimmy didn’t have a clue. And was also totally clueless about a lot of other things—like what the hell he was going to do now.

Looking up at the cop, Jimmy said, “What? No plates? Seriously? That can’t be right. They were on there when I left Minneapolis.” And coming up with the best lie he could think of on such short notice: “Someone must’ve taken ’em. Probably at the campground last night in Oklahoma. Some Mexicans were checking out the van, they must’ve—

“Your driver’s license, sir.”

Politeness fading.

But Jimmy’s really huge problem was the million dollars in small bills hidden behind the cheesy Chevy conversion’s simulated wood paneling. Jimmy and the cash were on the way to McAllen, Texas, just a short jaunt over the Rio Bravo from Reynosa, Mexico, a place where—Sam Arndt had told him—they might as well put up a sign: Cash Wash—Cheap. Come one come all to Javier’s Pawn Shop. Bills Cleaned Daily. We Don’t Ask No Stinking Questions.

Up ahead now in the near dark, Jimmy could see a green road sign in the splayed beams of the van’s headlights, fluorescent white letters spelling out Gamble Gulch Rd.

Gamble Gulch?

This was clearly an omen. And Jimmy believed in omens. It was all the impetus he needed. Reaching down like he was going for his wallet, Jimmy jerked the door handle, put his shoulder to the door and drove it at the cop’s chest. But the trooper, evidently no rookie, was standing far enough back that the door missed him by three inches. Despite his miscalculation, Jimmy continued his burst from the truck, raced by the surprised trooper, dove down the bank and rolled to a stop in the high weeds directly below the Gamble Gulch sign.

Jimmy Ireno could always run. And the trooper had a decent-sized gut hanging over his belt, making it unlikely he could catch up to Jimmy, now slogging toward a grove of trees, the image of a speeding bullet coming at his back filling his troubled mind. Once inside the sheltering foliage, Jimmy listened for the clomping of the cop’s long boots or the wailing of sirens.

Neither one came.

Whattaya know.

(To be continued)

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Excerpt from Thomas Sparrow’s crime noir Northwoods Standoff.

Available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers. Also available directly through the publisher. Contact bluestone@duluthmn.com

I woke up late the next afternoon and suffered through a lonely Christmas Eve. At dusk I opened a can of tuna and scooped it out with a few Wheat Thins. Happy Holidays. Then came Christmas morning, and I knew Santa had passed me by. Looked out the window of my bedroom at the gray morning sky and wondered what the fuck it was all about. Tried to fall back asleep but my head was spinning in counterpoint to the spasms in my gut. At dark I drove twenty minutes to the nearest convenience store and picked up another can of tuna, a fresh bag of chips and some macaroni and cheese for Christmas dinner. Glory Hallelujah.

Around nine, with tuna on my breath, I drove by Dotty’s Tavern. Finding it closed, I turned around in the parking lot and headed back home. Halfway up my driveway, I saw bouncing headlights coming toward me. Roy’s hulking Pontiac. My headlights flashed on his bad teeth and wicked grin. I wasn’t so sure I wanted company.

Seeing my truck, he stopped, threw his shifter in reverse and backed up to the house. He parked facing out and I rolled in next to him. Standing there with his door open, eyes bright and excited, yellow interior lights reflecting off his red parka with fur-trimmed hood, he said, “Let’s go ice fishing.”

I was too burned out to argue. Plus, it seemed like I had my first real friend in my new life. If I could only remember to call myself by the right name.

I went into the house and changed into my warmest stuff: Carhartt bibs, down jacket and Sorel insulated boots. Roy sat in the kitchen and rolled joints. Before we left I grabbed the last six-pack of Bud from the yellowing Kelvinator refrigerator.

We drove about thirty minutes through the blackness to a little road leading to a small lake. Up high in the clear sky, shining down on a little shack about twenty yards from shore, was a three-quarters moon. The new snow looked bright and soft and peaceful.

“We going after muskies here, Roy?”

“Nah, gotta go a little further for them. Here we might get a northern or some panfish. Maybe even a bass.”

After trudging through the shallow snow to the small wooden shack, we sat on canvas chairs in the glow of a Coleman heater and bounced tiny jigs tipped with minnows, using the bottom halves of old fiberglass spinning rods. The beer, the smoke and one of Madison’s rock stations coming out of a little one-speaker radio made the night a beautiful thing. In between catching four crappies, six bluegills, one perch and a three-pound northern pike that flopped around on the ice while we laughed hysterically, we talked a lot. More correctly, Roy talked a lot. I learned more about Roy Hollinday than he did about Randy Slade.

Roy said the name Hollinday came from his mother and was originally Hole-in-the-Day in the native tongue. Roy’s mother was a Chippewa Indian who had raised him alone after his French Canadian father ran off with a white woman when Roy was four. This arrangement lasted until eighth grade when Roy, experimenting with a bow and arrow that he and his friends had fashioned out of a willow branch and some fishing line, had the misfortune of shooting another kid in the ear.

As Roy put it: “Four white kids and one skin… and who do you think shoots someone with a bow and arrow? We had an old, broken arrow with a nail stuck in the end, and everybody was betting me that I couldn’t hit Charlie McMillan, who was about seventy yards away. I never thought I’d hit him, but I drew back that flimsy bow and let fly and the goddamn thing came down and stuck poor Charlie right in the fucking flap of his ear. You should’ve heard the screams. Charlie took off running and screaming like Apaches were attacking Silver Bay.”

Roy was placed in a reform school where his name was changed to a more-white sounding Hollinday. Adding injury to insult, there were constant attempts by the staff to beat him into submission and “change his attitude.”

Years later, in high school, Roy finally rebelled against the years of conditioning, punched a teacher in the nose and was expelled. According to Roy, the baseball coach/history teacher used to take great pleasure in saying Roy’s entire name—Roy Rogers Hollinday—in front of the class, often remarking how unusual it was for an Indian to be named after a movie cowboy, as they were always killing Indians. Roy took exception to this disrespect and after school did a John Wayne on the instructor.

Shortly thereafter, Roy left northern Minnesota and joined the Marines.  About said duty, spent mostly as a military policeman in Korea, he wouldn’t speak, only saying, with a haunted look in his eye while squeezing furiously on a red rubber ball, that he’d “done some things over there….”

Mustering out, he enrolled in journalism school at the U of Wisconsin on the G.I. Bill, where he “smoked a lot of reefer and fucked a lot of white girls.” A few years later, after discovering that the local TV stations were bending over backwards to hire “people whose skin wasn’t white,” he jumped at the opportunity.

Then followed a run of a couple years as an on-air personality where he became somewhat of a local celebrity known for his provocative stories as well as his womanizing. The bottom fell out of his little dreamland when the old temper flared up again and he punched out the station manager for cracking too many Indian jokes.

Now he was a lone wolf, who no longer thought much of reservations or big cities and was happy out here living off the land and staying away from trouble and troubling people.

That night he talked fervently about the ancient wisdom of his people and how he’d recently gained much knowledge of the “old ways.” Occasionally he’d refer, with much vitriol, to a group of people he called “the Locusts,” how they were growing in numbers in the cities but couldn’t get to him out here—at least not yet.

It seemed that “living off the land,”—at least like Roy was doing—was suiting him very well. Except for the need of some dental work, it looked like he was doing all right.

I never did say very much about Randy Slade or John Flint or Keith Waverly, my trinity of aliases. Just mentioned that I was originally from Minneapolis and was out here living off an insurance settlement for a damaged leg I’d suffered as a result of a car accident. Trying to find myself, after the accident and a terrible divorce, you know, just drinking and getting high…  Someday I have to find a job…. 

The day after the ice-fishing excursion I was feeling a little off. Dana’s return was looming on the morrow like an erotic brass ring, the carrot in front of the horny horse. I was sitting around stewing when Roy called from the bar. It was around ten o’clock and he said he wanted to come over, had a present for me. I begged off, told him I was going back home to Minnesota for a while over the holidays and needed to rest.

He wouldn’t have any of it. Hearing I was leaving only made him insist all the harder. Finally I gave in. I was too wired to sleep, anyway. In a few minutes I heard Roy’s glass packs rumbling. I stubbed out my Marlboro aside the pile of butts in the green plastic ashtray.

Roy came in alone, except for a big badboy between his lips and a case of Budweiser in his hands. “I got you a going-away present,” he said, setting the cardboard case down on the kitchen table. “The girls said they’d be here in a few minutes, but I have my doubts. Asshole Donny Ralston walked in right after you left and the two of them glommed onto him like flies on a turd. Those two are crank sluts and Donny usually has the trash, so I wasn’t going to argue with the likes of that.”

“Who’s Donny Ralston? He make Purina?”

Ignoring my feeble attempt at humor: “He’s the ’skin with the ponytail that you had the pleasure of encountering the other night.”

“No shit. He’s the candy man, eh?  People do a lot of speed around these parts?” I was curious.

“Half these assholes couldn’t survive without their speed. Used to be just white cross, but Ralston learned how to make meth and he’s introduced the product to the people. Around here they drink to get through the long winter nights, and then they do the crank to get through the long workday, and then they do it all over again. Some guys work for days straight without sleeping and then crash for days. About half of’em eventually disappear into the city, only to have new ones roll in. You’ll never get rid of speed out here, as long as the guys are prisoners of the system and their own ignorance.

“And it’s nice to see you’re not one of them, Randy. This house here had a couple of genuine, high-volume speed freaks living in it before you came along. They both ended up getting busted, she for stealing drugs from the hospital where she worked, and he for stealing from the old people at the nursing home where he worked.”

“Sounds like a real lovely pair—must be some bad vibes leftover in this place,” I said.

“That’s what I’m here to help you with, my friend. I’m here to impart some of my primitive mystical powers upon you and your dwelling. I will have it all cleaned up for you in no time. But first you must swallow this.”

He extended his hand in my direction. His closed fist seemed to grow bigger as it came to a stop in front of my eyes, turned over, and opened up like a large brown flower, revealing a pill the color of red clay and about the size of an aspirin.

“No, man, thanks, but I’m too fucked-up as it is. I don’t want to be taking any goddamn pills. I need to drive to Minnesota tomorrow.”

“No, no, my friend, you’re are unjustly excited, don’t be alarmed. This is sacred mescaline that I acquired from some skins in South Dakota. They know some chemistry wizard makes this stuff. It will have you feeling great, I promise. Your body and your mind will get everything they need when you ride with Juan Mescalito, my friend.”

“You trying to lay that Carlos Castenada shit on me?”

“Who?  What shit?” His eyes flashed red.

“You know, that writer—from Mexico I think—he writes about the same kind of shit. Tripping out on plants—Juan Mescalito and everything.”

“Never heard of him.”

“Oh.”

What the hell, I thought. What could it hurt?  I could always wait another day. The thought made my stomach churn.

I pulled back the top of the beer case and lifted out a bottle, flicked off the top with a church key I kept on the kitchen table. Took a long swig of lukewarm suds and accepted the tablet from a grinning Roy, who was still dutifully standing there with his hand out.

“That’s better, he said.

So we sat at the table and drank beers—at least I did—and smoked from Roy’s pipe. The girls never showed, just as Roy had predicted. When the mescaline started kicking in I no longer cared. My mind soared towards the infinite. I understood time. There was no need to worry about the future or fret about the past, because things happen when they will. I became serene and invigorated, relaxed and energized. Roy’s face seemed to change color. A pulsating aura of red and green and blue surrounded him in alternating layers. He began to speak in a voice much deeper than normal that seemed to come from the center of the earth.

As an accompaniment, the sweet low sound of electric blues floated in from the living room, courtesy of a Chicago FM station. Warm air blew from the registers and the lights grew dim. My head got heavy as Roy began to move about the room, weaving a most fascinating and mind-blowing tale. A strange and absorbing saga that took me places I’d never been, made me feel things I’d never felt. The whole thing seemed like a dance. A crazy, shaman-like Native American dance with an eerie background of black blues and British blues-rock.

Sometimes Roy was a marine, down on the floor doing push-ups and extolling the virtues of physical fitness. The next moment he was a twelve-year-old kid, seeing his life collapse around him and watching the white man take over his destiny. Often, he was a glib and intelligent television reporter from Madison, reciting with charm and confidence his conquests and experiences in the city. But most often, the narrator that winter’s evening was a slightly feral, slightly mad creature.

In my dilated pupils, he ceased being Roy Rogers Hollinday and became a warrior/shaman. Maybe it was the French Canadian in him fueling the fire of the mescaline, as he tried to explain it, but I wasn’t convinced. Something bigger was taking place. I was lost in the cosmos. I was a student in front of the teacher.

I held him in my gaze and felt strange rumblings inside me, as his eyes sunk deeper in his head and turned momentarily empty, like marbles or an animal’s eyes. At one point, he glided way over to the edge of the living room in one effortless motion. After a pause he turned back to talk and his tone was more serious, more emphatic.

I was ready to believe just about anything.

He moved in so close I could smell the marijuana on his breath. He began to recite, in a rhythm that seemed to fit perfectly with whatever song was drifting out of the tuner, his warning. Standing above me, body pulsating, he looked into my eyes.

“I can see it in you, Randy Slade, and feel it in your spirit. You are one of us. You are simpatico of a dying breed; a breed I call the Primitive Mystic.  A breed that is both ancient and evolved at the same time. There are things you feel and know that you keep secret from the world. I can feel it in you. I sense it like I sense the pulse of the earth.  One does not need to be Native American to know the pulse of the earth.  Many blacks have the ability in their blood, but they’ve been living too long in the cities, away from their homeland. Here, in North America, most have lost their connection to the earth.

“There are others, white men such as you, who feel like we do. Men that observe all around them the slow but steady destruction of all that is wild and sacred. You feel the pain in your soul, but know not from where it comes. You seek to drown it in alcohol or run from it with hard drugs. But the white man’s powders and potions never give lasting relief and lead to death and destruction. At the very least, the mind and spirit become weakened.”

To which, I shakily responded:  “I’ve seen you drink rum and cokes, and a few beers once in a while. What about that? And you smoke a ton of fucking pot.”

“A few drinks never hurt a French Canadian, Randy,” Roy said, suddenly looking perfectly normal and straight. “Got to give the devil his due. Some drugs help you see and feel, while others put a cloak over you. A shroud, perhaps… take away your senses. Have you ever seen me drunk?”

“No, I guess not. But still….” My longtime toxic ways were hurting my brain. I tried to choke back the knowledge but couldn’t.

Dark and brooding electric guitar came creeping in from the living room and Roy slipped back into character, eyes glowing like a wolf in the firelight. “Listen to me now, very carefully,” he said, “it’s getting late.”  Jimmy Page’s axe growled and spit. “We are at a dangerous time in the history of the world, especially in North America. The very same forces that nearly wiped out the Indian nation and then enslaved us to their culture are stronger now than ever. The spirits of the blue-belly soldiers and the Indian killers and the buffalo butchers are all coming back together again for one final push at world domination.” A guitar howled and moaned. “Today they are cops, generals, corporate greedheads and right-wing Jesus freaks duping the common working man into being their unwitting foot-soldiers. A lot of ’skins have been made into fertilizer because of Jesus, we all can attest to that.”

He paused for breath, looked toward the heavens and then came back into the kitchen. He sat down on the kitchen counter, feet dangling above the cracked blue linoleum.

“As surely and as effectively as a swarm of locusts, they are preparing to denude the earth of all we hold sacred. The railroad barons and the mining companies are back together with the politicians who looked the other way the last time while their pockets were being filled with blood money. These are reptiles. You have the Reptiles leading the Locusts, and the Cockroaches there to feed on the remains. The cycle is starting all over again. You need look no farther than the president this country just elected in a landslide vote. Reagon used to play an Indian-killing soldier in the movies, for fuck sake. Now he’s waving his flag for all to see. This man will rally the Locusts for one last run at whatever is left out there to consume. They’ll cut down the forests and dam up the rivers and poison the air trying to satisfy their insatiable appetites. And it will be done so smoothly that few will notice until it is too late. Those that speak out will be effectively silenced.”

He stopped talking long enough to pull out a bud from a black, plastic film can and tap it into his reddish stone pipe. He fetched a stick match from the box above the stove and struck it with a quick slash up the thigh of his black jeans. His body seemed to vibrate as he drew on the pipe and handed it to me. My hand shook as I took it. Pressure was building from within. The pipe died and Roy fetched another match. He flicked the tip with his thumbnail and the room turned red and yellow. Smoke went up like a snake.

“You see, Randy, by not participating in their world, by not being a part of the locust swarm in any little way that you can, is at least doing something. You set an example for others by your non-compliance. Strong young men like you and I, however, can make a much broader statement.  We can make a lot of money and spend it on the underground. Local law enforcement must be shown the light, on a personal basis, because the Locusts will use money and influence to twist the laws in their favor. The lawyer is their weapon, and the law schools are churning them out like M-1’s for World War II. We might even have to kick some old-fashioned ass, from time to time.”

He went into a boxer’s stance, throwing jabs and hooks and bobbing and weaving. I puffed on the pipe. Each hit torqued up the mescaline and sent colored pinwheels dancing in front of my eyes.

Roy was grinning widely, not hiding his rotten tooth. For a brief flash, he looked like Keith Richards. And then suddenly, he turned calm and normal, almost flat.

“And that my friend is all I’ve got for you for tonight,” he said finally.  “You need time to digest what you’ve heard. Something to think about when you go back home to Minnesota. Something, to lively up your family’s dinner table, perhaps. I believe that the longer you think about it, the more you will find it ringing true down deep in your primitive soul. I believe you will eventually realize this, and for the first time in a long time, lose the discomfort that sits on your shoulders like a yoke. Consider tonight my Christmas gift to you.” He bowed slightly and walked over to his parka, where it hung from the back of a kitchen chair. “Enjoy your time with your people, and I’ll see you when you get back.” Putting on his jacket, “If you want, I can stop by and check out the house for you while you’re gone.”

Before I had a chance to answer, the door was open and he was going through it. I got up and walked to the door and heard the engine rumble to life, saw the lights come on. As the little cherry stars of his taillights faded past the bend and into the dark skinny trees, steel-gray light was coming over the trees.

Sunrise—and I hadn’t even slept yet. It was clear that Dana would have to wait a few more hours.

I was surprised how easy and painless the decision was.

I picked up the beer bottles in my kitchen as the sun came up, then went upstairs and soaked in the tub. Later, after toweling off, I looked at myself in the full-length mirror mounted on the bedroom door. My body seemed wild and beast-like, as if there was hair growing where there wasn’t. A primal strength inside me was closer to the surface than ever.

I dressed in sweatpants and a thick wool sweater, went downstairs and cooked a little oatmeal and ate it at the table, looking out the window at the gray dawn. The warm porridges brought me down enough to feel like sleeping. It was about ten a.m. when I hit the bed and fell asleep instantly.

I dreamed I was walking through an Indian burial ground at dusk.  Suddenly it turned into a cemetery like one in those classic horror movies, with ground fog, headstones and mausoleums.  It grew dark but I could still see clearly.  I walked until I came to a freshly dug grave that was yet unfilled.  The gravestone read: Keith Waverly. He Stood for Nothing and Died for Nothing.

My gut sank with sadness. I walked on. Soon I came to a small stream running along the edge of a forest. It was daylight again and the air was warm. Birds sang their songs to the morning sun and insects glided through the sweet air, felt about a hundred years ago. I knelt at the bank of the gurgling brook and watched the trout dart in and out of the shadows, wishing I had a pole and a can of worms. Extremely contented, I leaned back against a tree trunk and fell asleep.

I awoke for real. I was in my bed. The metallic-blue sky filled the bedroom window. It was three in the afternoon and the light was already on the wane. With a tired and very relaxed mind I dressed in a slacks and sweater combo, cooked some eggs and packed all my good clothes in my leather suitcase. I made sure to put plenty of cash in the bag before I put on my good boots and leather jacket and drove into Madison.

(End of excerpt)

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Excerpt from Thomas Sparrow’s crime noir Northwoods Standoff (available through major online bookstores):

State Street, Madison, Wisconsin—Halloween, 1979:

The street was blocked off to cars. Costumed freaks cavorted drunkenly; grotesque creatures drank from plastic cups. The Big Bad Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood and the devil himself were huddled together as I approached. Smoke seeped from their mouths as they caught site of me. Satan’s eyes met mine and the trio quickly separated, merged into the surging crowd.

I chuckled. Figured it was my Armani suit that drove them away. They probably believed it was the real me, didn’t know it was just my Halloween costume. A bit more expensive than theirs, that’s all….

I walked through the surging, laughing throng for a few minutes, checking out the fantastic regalia. Then I decided to have a drink, get myself in the mood. There were taverns everywhere and I went in the first one I came to.

Laughter and boisterous voices hit me; beer signs blinked hello. Fucking place was jammed. Costumes and masks mingled in the narrow, smoky space. Along the left side of the room ran a long wooden bar with a brass foot rail. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were tending.

I bellied up and ordered a Stoli screwdriver from the masked man before lifting a pack of Kools from the pocket of my white silk shirt. People seemed to be looking at me funny. Hadn’t they ever seen a successful businessman before, for the Christ sake? They didn’t know I had a quarter of a million dollars of tax-free cash locked inside a Samsonite suitcase in my hotel room. Nevertheless, I felt like I deserved more respect than I was getting.

I lit a cigarette, and then tried and failed to find the pleasure I’d lost years ago. After two drinks, I attempted conversation with a bearded guy on my left. He nodded politely to what I said, then moved away without a word. I tried my luck with a red-haired fairy princess and a prom queen in a faded, aqua, sleeveless gown to my right. They shuffled off to somewhere else, like I was contagious. They were curt. Cute chicks who were curt, it fucking hurt.

I ordered, received and promptly drained my third drink before deciding to hit the street. I put down a fiver for a tip, stood up and got dizzy. I’d forgotten how strong they make the drinks in the Badger State.

Nausea rolled through me. Must be the stress catching up, I thought to myself. Too much for the old nervous system. Circuit breaker must’ve popped.

I sat back down and rubbed my eyes with my knuckles, leaned my elbows on the bar and sucked deeply of the smoky air. Little green stars flew around the back of my eyes.

“You all right, sir?”

A woman’s melodic voice, smooth and warming, like good red wine, brought me back from the darkness. I looked up gingerly into a pair of mischievous, deep-brown eyes dancing behind a silken mask. Full and sensuous, honey-red lips lit up my world like the desert sun at noon. She was tall, with a sculpted chin. Wide across her back with slim shoulders and a delicate alabaster neck, auburn hair spreading deliciously against it. Knee-length burgundy velvet dress, black stockings and high black boots. The elegant mask that matched her dress covered prominent cheekbones.

I immediately felt better. “Yeah, I’m all right,” I said. “Must be jet lag or something.”

“Really… where did you fly in from—Europe?”

“No, ah… just, ah… California.” It was really Florida, but that seemed too low-ball to impress her, so I lied. Something I was pretty good at—lying. “I’ve been flying all over the country lately, and I’m afraid my ass is lagging behind.”

She smiled thinly and motioned to the Lone Ranger as he flitted up and down the bar in a failing attempt to satisfy the clamoring horde. She caught his eye and he seemed to recognize her, came without hesitation. Sliding up in front of us, the masked man grinned and asked the Velvet Lady what was her pleasure. She smiled sweetly and handed him a folded white card with a ten-dollar bill pressed against it.

I couldn’t stop looking at her.

“This is for Raymond,” she said to the Ranger. “Make sure he gets it.” Then, turning back to me: “I’m glad you’re feeling better, sir,” leaning close enough that I got a blast of her sweet scent. “You’re kind of cute, I think. Maybe we’ll run into each other again someday.”

She said, “Ciao,” turned from the bar and me and walked away in a burgundy hurricane, the scent of cinnamon and money lingering. By the time I regained my composure, she was out the door and gone and I was feeling blue. Couldn’t believe she’d said Ciao.

I grabbed for my drink.

I sipped cautiously and watched the Lone Ranger as he slid the little white card into the frame of the cloudy bar mirror. An idea sprang to life inside my cluttered head.

“Hey Masked Man,” I said, loudly, waving a crisp twenty in the air. “I think Silver needs a few bags of oats.”

He was on me in an instant.

“What can I do for you, sir?”

“Twenty bucks says that I’m Raymond, and I get to read that card.”

“You fucking crazy?” he puffed up his chest and frowned.

“Forty?” I pulled out another fresh double-sawbuck and waved it at him. Unlike the real Lone Ranger, this guy could be bought. He grabbed the bills, looked up and down the bar quickly, lifted the card from the mirror and threw it down in front of me.

“Read it and then give it back,” he said bluntly. “It’s just an invitation to a private after-hours party. They won’t let you in, anyway, without the card.”

My heart sped up as I opened the folded white card:

Admit one treasured guest

Halloween Night, 1979

Wolves and Lambs

314 John Avenue

Midnight

Wolves and Lambs? What kind of cockamamie shit was this? Too damn intriguing to pass up.

I stood up, feeling much better. Dropped another twenty on the bar, now drunk and cocky. “Thanks a lot, Masked Man.” I said, as the bartender served a beer to a guy dressed as a toilet.

Then the front door burst open and a loud crowd of masks and costumes came pouring in. I stuffed the card in my trouser pocket and wove through them like O.J. Simpson shredding the Dolphins on a cold day in Buffalo. Out the door and gone in a flash, I heard the bartender yelling after me.

I hit the street and looked to my left. Just another maze of freaks. Turned right and kept moving, just in case the bartender had any heroic ideas in his head. Maybe the Lone Ranger bullshit was getting to him; you never know.

I searched the swirling mass of color. Caught a glimpse of the burgundy-clad beauty disappearing into a group of beer-bellied elves and wasted dwarves. Satan was there, too. He was everywhere.

I raced past a porcine Porky Pig, only to find myself at an intersection where sawhorses with City of Madison printed on them demarcated the endpoint of the party. Beyond the barrier, the street was open to traffic. A few cars rolled by slowly as people walked away from the party. Two tired and impatient–looking policemen held their nightsticks at their sides and stood at the curb, watching.

Looking every which way, I frantically searched the crowd for the mystery woman. Couldn’t find her anywhere.

I sunk.

I started walking toward the cops, thinking they would know where John Avenue was. I was about ten yards away when they raised their bullhorns:

“PARTY’S OVER, CLEAR THE STREETS. BACK IN THE BARS OR TO YOUR CARS. EVERYBODY’S GOTTA GO. PARTY’S OVER. CLEAR THE STREETS”

My heart pounded. I stared, cringed and stopped dead in my tracks. They started toward me.

They passed me by with only an authoritative glare to show for it and I breathed a sigh of relief. One of the most underrated feelings in life, relief.

I moved in the opposite direction of the cops, searching for the nearest bar out of the party zone. My mind drifted in the cool autumn air.

I don’t know how long I’d been walking before I realized I was totally lost.The search for John Avenue had sent me down these windy streets until they were dark and empty.

I kept on walking aimlessly and time again drifted. Then I found the street sign. Or it found me. There it was, beneath the only light for blocks.

Yogi Berra used to say: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” So I did.

Down another narrow, darkened street with the wind at my back pushing me along.

There wasn’t much there.

After a nervous block, I noticed a bunch of parked cars up ahead, filling up both sides of an otherwise empty street.

I kept on walking. It wasn’t much brighter except for the gleam of the fine automobiles. The first one I came to was a dark green BMW. Then a Mercedes, a Corvette, a Jag and another BMW—a black one. Almost all the vehicles were world-class, not a junker in the bunch.

This must be the place, I thought to myself. But where was the party? The buildings all looked empty; some of them even boarded up. I moved further along into this car booster’s dream world, searching for signs of life. I crossed the avenue and peered in the darkened windows of abandoned storefronts. Then, right in front of me, above an iron door on a three-level brick building, was the number 314 in big, brass numerals.

The building was dark as pitch. I craned my neck, scanned the second story and found no signs of life. Something flashed below me. I looked down. Steps and a metal railing led to a doorway.

Then it flashed again, a plastic, paste-on, light gizmo above the door. Little yellow light blinked every thirty seconds or so.

I went down the steps and pounded on the blue, freshly hand-painted steel door. After about thirty seconds, it opened slowly and a large white man wearing a sleeveless black T-shirt and pirate’s hat became visible in the glow of a black light. Dude had biceps the size of tree trunks, a black eye patch over one eye and a skull-and-crossbones earring in one ear lobe.

He flashed a gold-capped grin. “Invitation please,” he croaked, deep like a bullfrog.

I pulled out the card and handed it to him. He rolled it in his massive fingers, had a quick look, stepped back and opened one of two glass doors behind him. “Right through here, sir,” he said politely, with the deference I’d been craving all night long.

I stepped through to a set of fancy stairs, going down to yet another level. The sound of Huey Lewis and the News’ “I Need a New Drug” hit me like a wet newspaper to the face. I cringed but kept on going.

Each stair was shiny black, rimmed with brass. There were lacquered black handrails and you could see your shoes in the darkened side mirrors with gold filigree around the edges. At the bottom was a vestibule with purple walls and another set of glass doors that opened into what at one time must have been a nightclub.

Big disco ball spinning above a large dance floor. A few people tripped the heavy fantastic, some in costume and some in fine evening wear. To the right was a large bar area. In a darkened corner, a lesbian couple dressed as baseball player and umpire groped each other with more show than go. A guy with oily hair and a thin mustache, like Rudolph Valentino, stood behind them staring with glazed eyes.

I made my way through the bizarre dance crowd. Behind the bar, shirtless bartenders held their pumped-up chests high as they struggled to keep pace with the hard drinkers lined up three deep. I watched a group of guys in fine suits putting the hustle on a couple of sweet young things in Shirley Temple costumes. I had found the Lollipop Fair but not the lady in burgundy.

Most of the men around the bar had gelled, slicked-back hair, looked like they were living in a wind tunnel. Made me wonder if I was falling behind the times with my recently dyed-blonde, surfer’s do.

Bartender came over to me and I caught myself staring at his nipple ring. First time I’d ever seen one on a guy. Wondered what it felt like.

I ordered a Stoli and cranberry juice.

“So, are you a wolf or a lamb?”

The slight lisp and lilting tone caught me unaware. My prayers had gone unanswered. I turned toward the sound.

A diminutive guy in a tuxedo had moved in next to me. He held a burning cigarette in a white holder in one slightly cocked wrist and a wineglass in the other. Reminded me of Joel Grey in Cabaret.

“I’m a muskellunge.”

Tres amusant,” he said dryly, moving closer and leaning his head toward mine. “But you must know that the reason for being here tonight is to play the game. You can’t even get in here unless you play the game. You look like a wolf to me, and I’m getting excited. Or are you just a tease?”

“Look, ah, mister—I’m only here because a beautiful woman in a velvet dress invited me here. I don’t see her here right now, but she’s the only reason I came. I’m new in town. This is my first visit to Madison, but I’m starting to like it.”

“So you’re one of Dana’s lambs, and you don’t even know it.” He reached out and ran his fingers down the lapel of my Armani. “She always seems to pick the ones with the best taste.” He looked coyly around the room. “Would you like some blow?” he said casually, eyes studying mine.

“Cocaine?”

“Of course, silly. My lord, what did you think I meant?” he smirked.

“Ah—nothing. But no thanks, anyway, I don’t do coke, anymore. It’s a waste of money.”

“One of those, are we? I didn’t mean that I was selling. I was offering, sweetie. I must be too subtle for my own good. Ever free-base? I swear you’ll love it.” His reddened lips puckered slightly and his eyes had a glint in them.

“No ah, really—no thanks. I appreciate the offer, but I think I’ll just sit here and drink until Dana comes looking for me.”

“Suit yourself Captain Hunky. It’s your loss. But I should tell you that some of her flock have been known to wait for a long time—wait so long their little pee-pees shrivel up. Ah, but what the hell—youth. Ciao.” He spun on his heel and glided away toward the dance floor.

I sipped my drink and watched the dancers, synapses popping from the strobe lights and the spinning mirror ball. Then I saw a door open up in the middle of the wall on the other side of the dance floor. Two freaks staggered out bound up in shiny black bondage gear and slid through the crowd. They made their way toward the back of the room until I couldn’t see them any longer because of the stairwell.

I ordered a shot of tequila as two Shirley Temples walked off with one of the men in the nice suits. The guys at the bar turned their attention to a devil with a blue dress on as the Shirleys escorted their lucky hombre towards the door in the wall. Dude looked weak in the knees as he pulled open the purple door with a lightning bolt on it and disappeared into the dim light, Shirleys chattering at his side.

The bartender loaded me up with Jose Cuervo, salt and a lemon wedge. I put down a ten and said keep it. Licked the salt, sucked down the burning nectar, tasted the sting and jammed the lemon in my mouth. Said Whoa and held up my hand for one more.

I was riding the tequila train when she appeared at the back of the room. All of a sudden she was just there. Tall and thin but curvy, with an elegant chin and a chiseled nose, her deep brown eyes telling me there was a lot going on behind them. Just the kind of woman I was looking for.

She came striding elegantly toward me. I prepared to say something profound and clever but she walked right on by, only a miniscule moment of recognition flicking across her statuesque features, leaving me to stare after her forlornly. The lady in velvet, in a matter of seconds, had taken possession of my dick and my heart and was making rapid inroads on my head.

I watched, totally absorbed, as she approached a couple of the suits at the end of the bar. They were smoking cigars, holding martinis and singing loudly to “All That Matters is the Money,” along with the old-time jukebox.

I was fascinated as she motioned to the Brylcream Boys to be quiet by putting her finger to her lips in the way of a schoolmarm. And I’ll be goddamned, if they didn’t shut up.

I almost fell off my chair when she nodded in my direction before turning her attention back to the erstwhile choir.

The hackles on my neck started up. I wanted to turn up the collar of my coat, the way it was when I came in. I was thinking maybe I should leave before I had to fight my way out. I stared into the mirror behind the bar and saw her coming toward me. Little old me.

I was still young enough to think that true love was going to save me. I couldn’t help but hope that Dana was the one holding my ticket to ride.

She slid into the barstool next to me and I drowned in her sweet scent.

“I know you must have an invitation,” she said, studying my face intently. “Eric wouldn’t have let you in, otherwise. The unusual thing is—I don’t remember giving you one—and I never forget a guest.” She put her slender fingers to her chin and looked at me thoughtfully, wise beyond her years.

“That guy at the door is named Eric?” I chuckled and tried to meet her penetrating gaze. “Seems like it should be something more frightening, like Thor or Odin or something. And anyway, don’t you remember me? We met earlier tonight. The hands of fate guided me here.” Her eyes remained steely. “You’ve forgotten, haven’t you? Well for me, anyway, it was memorable. Back at that bar on State Street. Jimmy’s or Billy’s or whatever it was.”

“That invitation was meant for Raymond,” she said, touching one of her crimson fingernails to the bridge of her nose. “He’s not even one of mine. I mean that someone else invited him—not me.” She folded her arms across her chest. “And how did you manage to get hold of the invitation Mr. ah—” Her gaze got more steel in it. “I don’t believe I caught your name.”

“This is all very explainable, if you’ll give me the opportunity. Raymond sent me along to express his regrets. He had a headache and wasn’t up to attending. Said he thought it better that at least someone had some fun tonight, as long as he couldn’t, and all. Poor boy was just going to go home and wash his hair, so why didn’t I get out and kick up my heels.”

She moved her hand over her mouth. She was smiling underneath.

No rings on her fingers.

“Who are you then?” she asked, eyes smiling.

Here was where I had a problem. I didn’t want to give her my real name—Keith Waverly—and I couldn’t try any of the other aliases that I had used in the past, either. One never knows when an old identity will come back to haunt you. I needed a new name, something with a little panache, gravitas.

“You first,” I said, finally regaining some semblance of wits. “How about you tell me your name first—and then after that, you can explain to me about this Wolves and Lambs stuff. Then I’ll tell you all about me, if you’re still interested. Even my social security number—I promise.”

I fiddled out a pack of Kools from my coat pocket and offered her one.

“I don’t smoke and I don’t reveal my name to strangers,” she said, firm but not angry.

“I guess we’re in a pickle then, aren’t we,” I said, lighting up and blowing the smoke toward the bartender. I leaned forward on the bar and stared at the rows of top-shelf liquor glistening in the amber light.

“You are in a pickle, I should think,” she said laughing haughtily. “What if I have you thrown out of here?”

“Oh come on, please—that won’t be necessary. If you really want me to leave, I will. But I think it would be nice for both of us, if you sat down here and had a drink with me, told me all about yourself and your little get-together. I’m just a lonely boy out on his own, looking for someone to show him the ropes in a new city and maybe have some fun. It is fucking Halloween, after all.”

“Yes it is.” Her eyes went down to her elegantly manicured hands. “Are you a cop?”

I damn near spit. “Me? Are you kidding? I don’t even like cops.” I turned and faced her, longing on the rise.

“You didn’t answer my question,” she said, blinking slowly.

“No, I am not a policeman or a member of any law enforcement organization, I do solemnly swear. How’s that?”

A gleam in her eyes. “What if I told you this was a cop party?” she said, cracking a crooked smile that made my dick twinge.

“Than I’d say to you that I now know why they call this town “Mad City.” Never seen cops that dress and act like these people do. You know—the obvious signs of wealth—not to mention the fetish gear.”

She seemed to settle down into her stool a little bit, looked across the room at her gel-haired friends. They noticed her attention but turned away and pretended they weren’t the least bit interested.

“Champagne, please, Rick,” she gestured to the nipple ring-wearing barman, ran her fingers through her hair and tossed her head back. “You must realize Mr.—”

“Jones.”

She suppressed a grin. “What Mr. Laugh-a-minute Jones doesn’t understand, is that this is a very expensive little get-together he’s crashed. He must understand that many people have put out good sums of capital to ensure that all the right ingredients are present. These people give the invitations to those they know will give them favors or services in return. Thus, with you here instead of Raymond, we have somewhat of a financial imbalance, if you will. Not to mention the other awkward possibilities.”

This was sounding too good to miss. “If it’s a matter of money, I can certainly kick in my share,” I said, nice and polite. “I’ve been doing quite well lately. Or are you hinting that Raymond was supposed to blow someone or something, and I might not want to play the same nasty game?”

She sniffed, nostrils flaring, eyes fiery. “Let’s not worry about it any longer. I’ll take responsibility for you—you shall be here as my personal guest, so you better not screw up. My only request is that you leave after one hour. Out of respect for me, and my position with these people. I can pass you off as an old friend. That way, I won’t lose favor with the bosses.”

“Now that were old friends, I have to tell you that you’ve really got me intrigued, Dana old pal.”

Her neck snapped erect. “How did you know my name?”

“Joel Grey told me.” I pointed at my one-man greeting committee, who was busy chatting up some androgynous types. “He said I was one of Dana’s lambs and didn’t even know it. Although you don’t seem like the shepherd type, I put two and two together and got you.”

Mirth wrinkled across her perfect eyebrows: “I’m not sure you’d quite fit the bill. As a lamb, that is.”

“One never knows, I guess. And what exactly is the deal with the wolves and lambs?”

“It’s from Steppenwolf.”

“The rock band?”

“The book,” she said with a withering glance. “By Herman Hesse. Are you at all familiar with it?”

“Yeah, read it when I was in college. All I remember is that the guy took drugs and had a strong aversion to being confined in an office or a barracks or anything like that.”

“That’s one theme, I suppose,” she said. “There are others.”

I mumbled about not recalling and downed a shot of cactus juice in one long swallow. I reached casually for a lemon slice from the nice white bowl stud-muffin Rick put in front of me before he poured Dom Perignon into a hollow-stemmed glass for Dana.

Suddenly nervous, I swung around and faced the dance floor, feeling the edge of vertigo as the booze hit my gut. I couldn’t keep my curiosity in check. “What’s behind door number three over there, Dana? Secret doors in the middle of walls fascinate me. You gonna show me? Dana’s a real nice name. I like it.” I couldn’t believe what a douche I was sounding like.
She looked at me, smiling slightly—or maybe painfully.
“Could you take me behind the magic portal before I have to leave?” I asked. “One hour is hardly time enough to take this party in.”

She tossed back her bubbly in one gulp, looking incredibly wild and sexy, like the blood was flowing to all the right places. “So tell me, Mr. Jones, what is it that you are doing so well at, lately, if I may ask?”

“I’m a businessman. And my name, isn’t Jones, it’s Flint. I was just keeping with the anonymous spirit of things. John Flint is my name, business is my game.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere, Mr. Flint. What kind of business are you in?”

“I’m sure it would bore you to death.”

“Oh no, please tell me, I’m truly interested, I assure you. I’m a businesswoman; I have my MBA—maybe I’ve even heard of your company.”

“I doubt that. But, it’s ah, Kirby Enterprises—out of Orlando. But right now, I’m trying to get out of Florida. Myself, personally, I mean.”

“Don’t like the weather?”

“It’s not that.”

“Didn’t you tell me you’d just flown in from California when we talked downtown?”

That she remembered our conversation made my confidence rise.

“California, Florida… what’s the difference? The weather’s nice and they’re both too crowded. Guess I don’t like crowds very much.”

“You are quite a little fibber, aren’t you Mr. Flint? Which one is it then, Florida or California?”

“I just flew in from LA, and my business is, like I said, in Orlando, Florida. I had an import-export business, but I’m searching for other opportunities. Thus—California. ”

“I see. And you swear you’re not some kind of cop?”

“Back to that, again? If you only knew… But come on now, this is supposed to be a party. And I have but a few short moments left in which to savor your beauty.”

“You really do go off, don’t you, John.”

“Must be the jet lag. But now it’s time for the magical mystery tour you promised me, darlin’.”

“If you insist. It’s time for your journey to the dark side, Mr. Flint. Perhaps it is indeed fate that finds you here. Before we go, I must tell you that our back rooms here are for the purpose of losing all inhibition and surrendering to one’s own desires. If this is going to be something you find difficult, then I suggest we cancel the trip.”

“I think I’ll make it.”

“Come along,” she said. “We’ll go through my entrance at the back of the club.”

“But I always wanted to go through a secret door like that one on the wall.”

“We’ll come out that way, honey, just for you. Now come along.”

I caught up to her and she grabbed my hand with an iron grip far beyond what one would expect from such a slender, delicate wrist. “I hope you’re not from the Midwest,” she said. “Your sensibilities might be offended.”

“I am from the Midwest. But my sensibilities were offended a long time ago. And to tell you the truth, I kind of liked it.”

We went past the bathrooms to a purple and white zebra-striped wall with a door in the center. Through the door to a narrow, dark hallway, dimly lit by a red bulb on the ceiling. As Dana was closing the thick door she looked deep into my eyes.

“You remind me of a wounded animal, Mr. Flint,” she said.

That threw me for a loop and no response was forthcoming.

My eyes struggled to focus; my senses struggled. The air was thick with the sharp odor of sex—raw, primal sex. Also heavy incense and pot smoke—high-grade—maybe a hint of opium’s sweetness lingering on the edge.

We walked along, shoes creaking on the wooden floor. Moans and muffled cries came from behind one of several crudely painted black doors bordering the dim hallway.

“Here is where the wolves and lambs play out their parts, John,” Dana said with a dramatic tone. “So you see, one must choose his role before he comes in here. And also prepare for it. Do you like to watch, Mr. Flint? Many of our participants encourage voyeurism. Some like to show, and others like to look. Some like to give, while others like to receive. This is the balance of the world.”

“Some like to pitch and others like to catch.”

“Exactly.”

Behind door number, two came the crack of a whip and a long, male groan, somewhere between pleasure and pain.

“Come with me now,” she said, holding out her hand like I shouldn’t say no, making me feel like a little boy—putty in her soft hands.

I could feel the stirring down below. I’d follow her anywhere.

We lingered by the third door. Behind it, bedsprings bounced and squeaked out a backbeat to the voices, laughter, grunting and screams of delight.

“We also respect those who desire privacy,” she said, moving down the winding hallway. “Perhaps they don’t want to be interrupted by strangers at the wrong moment, you understand—so we leave closed doors closed—although none have locks.”

I tried to speak but there was a lump in my throat.

Door number four was halfway open, affording a narrow look at a naked guy kneeling on a mattress on the floor with a black leather mask over his head. He had a hard-on the size of a bull while a black-leather-clad dominatrix twisted his nipple with her studded-gloved fingers and demanded he bend over and beg forgiveness with his ass in the air like “a bitch dog in heat.”

Flashbulbs popped from behind the door and a skinny kid in a beret came into the picture as he searched for a different camera angle.

Door number five was pretty tame. Just a couple of the slick-haired dudes getting blown by one of the Shirley Temples while the other Shirley crawled around on all fours shoving her ass at a naked guy who was chasing her around trying to hit her in the head with his huge dick. There were vodka bottles strewn around and a mirror with mounds of white powder on it, as well as a cardboard box full of plastic sex toys. That’s amore, I guess.

Door number six was closed but the room had a viewing window in the wall, like maybe it had been an office at one time. A special office preserved for those who like to show it off to the world. Strange off-kilter jazz music played inside. The display was boys only: six nude gay boys in a blow job daisy chain on top of several mattresses. Two other blue boys dressed in cowboy boots and black leather bondage gear stood above them giving each other hand jobs and swapping spit. I recognized the nipple ring on Rick the bartender. Must have been on break or busy working overtime. A slick-haired dude in black was catching all the action with a shoulder-mounted video camera.

My knees were weak and Dana was in total control. She seemed so superior. My over-priced clothes and my forty-dollar haircut weren’t cutting the mustard. I felt like a rube—a dirt farmer.

“Gosh,” I said. “All these people sure know how to have fun. Too bad my hour is going so fast.”

“Here,” she said softly, pointing toward a narrow passageway between the walls of the labyrinthine enclave. “This is the way to the door that opens onto the dance floor. I wouldn’t want to deprive you of your fun—after you went to so much trouble finding me. And tell me, exactly how did you find this place?”

I ignored her query as we wove our way along through the crimson shadows. Close again to the throbbing music, arrows of colored light swirled under the door. On the other side, voices rose. Laughter. Shouts. Crazy fast talk.

Aroused, appalled and confused, I had bad hots for this Dana. But I couldn’t shake the lingering edge of fear. Once burned, twice shy, I guess. Except in my case you’d have to multiply those numbers.

I stumbled out through the secret door and had to dodge quickly to avoid the lesbians in baseball garb, who were doing the crocodile rock. Like a drowning man struggling for life, I wove toward the bar. The object of my desire followed behind me at an awkward distance. Awkward for me, that is. I was searching for a glib comment but had none at the ready.

I fell against the bar like I’d just crossed the wide Missouri without a boat. Dana glided up, looked at me inscrutably and motioned to the bartender.

“In answer to your last question,” I said, leaning closer. “I found this place by just walking down the street until I found John Avenue. Just lucky, I guess.”

“More than lucky, I should think. You don’t realize how difficult it is for crashers to find one of our galas. We go to great pains. You see, John, John Avenue doesn’t really exist.”

“Come on, I saw the sign. You, my dear, made one incorrect assumption— and now I’m here. That’s all, end of story. No big deal. I’m not going to do anyone any harm, I promise. I don’t care what these people do to each other in the privacy of these rooms. Fucking Christ, I could care less. Truth be known, I was only looking for you. Like I said before, I’m just a lonely boy looking for a friend. You seemed like someone I could like, that’s all.” I looked at my Rolex: “And goddamn, if my hour isn’t almost up. My, how time flies.”

“Have another drink on the house Mr. Flint. I’ll join you. Maybe we can get together some day, who knows.” She looked soulfully into my eyes and I thought I was going to melt like a hunk of butter on a radiator. “More champagne for me, Alex, and whatever Mr. Flint desires.”

“How about a rum and coke, Alex. You know,” I said, looking at her. “I’d like that—the getting together part. Can I call you someday when the sun is shining?”

“That would be all right.”

I couldn’t believe it.

“I’ll give you my card,” she said. “I’ve got some around here, somewhere. Then I’ll walk with you to the door and see that you get started out in the right direction. Did I hear correctly? You said you walked here?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Not a good place to walk at this hour.”

“I’ll be all right. I can take care of myself.”

“I’m sure you can, Mr. Flint—John.”

“I could take care of you, too, you know.”

“What if I don’t want to be taken care of?” She suppressed a laugh.

Realizing that I was very hammered and sounding like an idiot again, I shut my mouth and stared out at the dance floor.

What a sight to see.

And somewhere back in Florida, my poor wife was pining for me. At least I thought so.

This new and strange woman had made me feel funny but I liked it. One moment you’d think she was mature and strong willed and then the next moment she would seem a child, vulnerable and needy. She’d made me feel small and unimportant at times. And other times I’d sworn she wanted me to kiss her.

I took a swig of the freshly arrived drink and stood up.

“Well, I’ll be a good lad and get me arse up the stairs and onto the bleedin’ street,” I said, Cockney accent. I often go to the accents when I’m uncomfortable and stupid drunk. “Hate to cause trouble in a new town, ya know.” Somehow, Norwegian slipped in.

I went back to my normal voice, slightly loose. “You can just write your phone number on a matchbook, if you want, like in the movies. Save you the trouble of searching for business cards.”

She pressed her finger to her upper lip. Her eyes softened and she smiled sweetly, reaching over the bar and coming back with a black and orange, glossy matchbook.

“Got a pen mister?” she asked, playfully, her voice a sexy growl like Lauren Bacal in “To Have and Have Not”.

“No, but there’s got to be one at the cash register, don’t you think?”

“Of course. Why don’t you come with me and I’ll walk up the stairs with you. We can both say hello to Eric.”

“Yeah, you can introduce us. Maybe someday I’ll need a ski-joring partner.”

Her eyebrows arched while my heart ached.

“I’m sure Eric would love being your dog,” she said slyly. “Should I ask him for you?”

“Ah, no… never mind. I need a little work on my stride, anyway.”

We slid haltingly over to the cash register where, sure enough, there was a ballpoint pen.

Dana was opening the matchbook, pen in hand, when the glass doors at the bottom of the stairs opened. In strode a tanned, good looking, expensively dressed couple of indeterminate age. They moved like monarchs while we were mere commoners. For companionship, instead of basset hounds or Dobermans, our king and queen kept a member of the opposite sex on a leash. The nubile pets were clad in head-to-toe, black, skin-tight latex.

“Shit.” Dana hissed under her breath. Then to me: “I’ve got to go now. Sorry. Call me sometime.”

She quickly scribbled, handed me the matchbook and whisked off to greet the King and Queen of Deviance.

I slipped the matchbook in my trouser pocket as Dana reached their table and greeted the royalty. Pretty soon the entire entourage rose and made a stirring migration over to a large table at the edge of the dance floor, which had obviously been reserved for the hotshot king and his vampire queen.

The pets took their places on the floor, supine at their master’s expensively shoed feet as the festivities raged on.

Dana played the hostess-with-the-mostess, bringing their drink order up to the bar and generally bowing and scraping. At least that’s the way my drunken eyes were seeing it. These people either had something over her or had something for her, like cold hard cash. It quickly became apparent my new love was going to be gone from my presence for the remainder of the evening.

I quietly made my way up what now seemed an extra long and steep flight of stairs. By the time I hit the top my legs were like cement and my head was mush. My heart raced and my stomach flip-flopped. Visions of Dana danced in my head.

Big old funky Eric smiled at me as I came through the door. Guy must have been a sergeant in the German army in a past life. “Have a good night, sir,” he fog-horned, lifting the steel bar and shoving open the door.

I stepped to the doorway and was greeted by pouring rain, coming down in spikes.

“Whoa,” I said. “It’s raining. Maybe I should call a cab. It’s coming down in sheets out there.”

“Sorry sir, no outside phone lines tonight.”

“Well shit. There a payphone anywhere near, do you know?”

“Not that I’m aware of, sir. Is there something wrong with your car?” he said, rubbing his meaty hand underneath his nose.

“Fuck, man. I don’t have a raincoat or a car or even a goddamn hat. I’m staying at a hotel on State Street, and that’s a long ways from here in weather like this. I’ll ruin my suit in this kind of rain.”

“I do have a box of garbage bags, sir.”

“Garbage bags?”

“Yes, sir. We use them for the cleanup. But you could put one over your head, tear a couple holes for your eyes, and have yourself one bitchin’ rain poncho. Been known to use them myself, once or twice.”

“Well, Eric, let me tell you this—your boss told me your name was Eric. And your boss—Dana—and I, have become good friends, you see. I shall tell her what a true gentleman and fine doorman you are—certainly worthy of a fine raise—if you should find it in your power to fetch me one of those bitchin’ ponchos that you so kindly remembered.”

I held out a twenty.

“Certainly sir. Right away.”

(Northwoods Standoff available at major online bookstores)

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Enjoy Chapter 15 of T.K. O’Neill’s crime/noir enovel Fly in the Milk–and order the whole thing for just $2.99!

CHAPTER 15

William “Big Cat” Edwards always thought it peculiar how he grimaced when the cops passed by on the road. City cop, highway cop, sheriff or goddamn game warden, it didn’t matter. Every time he saw a vehicle with a flasher on the roof and a uniformed driver, he felt the stirrings of anger and resentment and maybe hatred. There was possibly a little fear, but he would never admit it.

Driving north on Highway 53 in his ’69 Buick Electra four-door, he wondered what his old parole officer would say if he ever told her that one. Like if he just came out and said I hate fucking cops, Marlene. The bitch would be busting her ass to get him back inside, that’s for sure. At least until after her period was done with and she mellowed out again.

The bitch. He’d see her in the bars all the time with her old man—her husband—both of them drunk as skunks. Yet they always found a way to look down at you, didn’t they? Give someone a job with power over others and they start thinking their own shit don’t stink.

Sure, he knew that all cops weren’t bad. And yeah, they were necessary to keep the real assholes in line, but he still swore to himself whenever they passed by on the road. Back when he was a kid, his teachers were always preaching that the cops were there to help you. He’d never seen much of the helping, only the throwing in jail part. His daddy… his uncle… him…

Sometimes he wished he were still a kid, innocent and playful, only worried about if his mother might embarrass him with her alcoholic incoherence or her lunacy. Now and then when he was a little down, he wondered if he’d be better off a retard like his younger brother. Ride around all day in a window van with all his tard buddies, making weird faces at the passing cars. Wouldn’t have to go through the grind anymore. Wouldn’t have a care in the world, except maybe if you crapped your pants or not. But maybe that wouldn’t bother you either.

Yeah, this life was getting to be a grind, that was true, but none of the straights would ever believe you if you told them. They think it’s because you’re lazy that you make your money on the other side of the law. They think it’s an easy life, running a blind pig. They don’t know it’s harder than running a regular bar, and you always got to worry about getting busted, besides. These days there’s lots of competition and the money is tight. People would rather stay home and get stoned and watch cable TV. And you’re always looking over your shoulder to see who’s coming after you. Is it the cops or just some crazy drunken asshole you eighty-sixed a month ago?

They think because the blackjack tables and the roulette wheel are always busy, it means you’re rolling in the dough. Nobody thinks that you got partners like anyone else in business. And you got cheaters coming in and trying to rip you off, and you got your own partners trying to skim every nickel they can get away with.

Nah, man, it ain’t easy being an outlaw. You got your times of underemployment just like anyone else. And if you fuck up, you don’t just get fired, you get thrown in the slam.

Big Cat, like his bud Johnny Beam, believed it was time to move on to sunnier shores. Bring the wife and kid down to where it was warm all year long. Score a nest egg and roll down to Florida; maybe buy into a bar or a liquor store and sell gin to retirees. It would sure be nice to not have to see Artis and Gary again. Why in fuck he’d ever partnered up with them, he didn’t know. Maybe it had been God’s will….

The rusty Electra rode like a pillow on a wave, floating along as the sky tried to decide if it was going to rain or shine. Twenty minutes past the Three Lakes Road at the first right after Dunston Road, Cat turned onto the gravel and pushed down the pedal, watched in the rearview as the dust kicked up behind him like an exploded vacuum bag. Two miles on the dirt and he’d be at the house, the sleazy shithole with the dilapidated chicken coops out back that Artis called home.

He was still kicking himself about the past, wondering how he could have let it happen like it did. If he’d been thinking back then, he would’ve asked Johnny to let him run the Hanging Dog. Just him alone, not the other two lizards. But the Big Cat, so named because of the three white vertical steaks along the left side of his full, dark head of hair and the feline grace he’d shown in the boxing ring, could never hang onto money. And Johnny had needed the bread up front. Gary Masati always had cash because there was money in his family. And Artis was Gary’s strong-arm guy. That was how the deal came together. But that was a long time ago and the Cat had always been Johnny’s man, the only one of the three that was smart enough to keep an enterprise going.

Artis Mitchell paced back and forth on the cracked, yellowed linoleum in his spacious and filthy kitchen. Dirty dishes were piled high in the sink and the place was getting too dirty, even for him. Time to get Elizabeth Hardy from down the road over again to do some cleaning. Maybe this time he would get her inside the bedroom and get her pants off. She was only sixteen but she could clean up the house real good. Three dollars an hour and she earned every cent. Watching her ass in them tight Calvin Klein jeans was worth two-fifty an hour alone.

Warmth flooded him as he replayed in his mind the night that had changed his life and brought a ray of hope into his otherwise bleak existence. That time when there was a knock on his door and Elizabeth was standing there in her red wool car coat, pretty as a pin-up. When she smiled that toothy smile, her lips all curvaceous, and asked so sweetly if she and her friends could come over to his house and party sometime, you know, hang out and smoke dope and drink beer—well, old Artis was thinking a miracle had happened. He’d hesitantly agreed, using every bit of his will, to keep from drooling and babbling like a diseased monkey.

On the evening of the much-anticipated party, five kids had showed up on Artis’ front porch: Elizabeth, her friend Jenny, and three boys whose names Artis kept forgetting. Ricky and Billy and Tommy or some shit like that. They’d brought their own weed and a partially consumed half-gallon jug of Red Mountain wine. Artis kept his own stash of Colombian pot a secret, but he did share a few cans of Pabst from his fridge.

The kids were nice to him but a little afraid of the man with the big beer gut and the huge, hairy arms. Artis chose to believe that their standoffishness was, in fact, respect and shyness.

After the get-together was over and the kids had stumbled out, leaving his little house quiet again, Artis had parked himself on the lumpy gray couch, beer in hand and cigarette burning on top of an empty Blue Ribbon can on the cluttered table, and come up with a grand scheme.

He would invite the gang over again, someday soon. Make sure he had everything set up just right before they got there: some nice Boone’s Farm apple wine for the girls and Steinhaus beer for the boys. Cheap booze always worked better. Then bring out the good weed and the Penthouse magazines and get the kids horny, tell’em to feel free and use the spare bedroom if they want to have a little fun. After a couple had been in the room going at it a while, he’d say he was going to roll a joint and go into the closet of the other bedroom where his camera was mounted on a tripod.

He could work the hole-in-the-wall action all night long.

When the film was developed he’d have leverage on the kids. They wouldn’t want their parents to know what they been up to, so they’d do some favors in exchange for the pics. Maybe some free weed or some stolen goods from the boys—maybe a grab-and-dash job or two. The girls—they got things they can do, too. Let your imagination work for you on that one.

Artis sighed, scratched a stick match on the window molding and fired up a Marlboro, looked through the dusty glass at the brush and scrub trees along the edge of his backyard. Dark clouds like buffalo turds were moving slowly across the steel-gray sky.

He was starting to get pissed off. Where in the fuck was that goddamned Masati? Fat fuck was supposed to be here an hour ago so they could work on their story… excuse… alibi… explanation for the discrepancies in the accounting books at the Dog. Porky son of a bitch was probably into the Valium again and would more than likely be totally useless in convincing the Cat of their innocence.

As Gary Masati bounced along the highway in his Ford Bronco in the direction of what he often caustically referred to as “Artie’s Acres” or “Mitchell’s Mansion,” he had indeed been into the Valiums. Trying to cut back on his coke and speed usage, he had ingested the tranquilizers as part of a self-prescribed therapy regimen.

Masati had two nicknames. One that you could say to his face: Assram, or Ram for short, which referenced his unique ability to break through locked doors using his sizeable hindquarters as a battering ram. The second nickname, “Gag me Gary,” referred to his predominantly rank body odor. You only spoke this behind his back, unless you wanted some trouble. At this moment, his jaw was a bit loose and his mouth hung open. He seemed to breathe and snore at the same time and he didn’t give a fuck about much of anything.

That’s the thing about Valium, take enough of it and you just plain don’t give a shit. No matter what you do, have done or are about to do, you care not. The little pills, be they yellow or big blue, were often prescribed as a means of putting the mind on an even keel, freeing the unhappy user from the sufferings of anxiety and fear and guilt. And they worked. Empathy, patience and tolerance were also frequently banished from one’s emotional repertoire by diazepam, but this side effect was one about which Gary Masati could not have cared less.

As far as he was concerned, the meeting was more for Big Cat and Artis; they were the ones who cared about the Hanging Dog. He, you know, didn’t give a fat fuck. He didn’t need the club and the club didn’t need him. He had an income, a monthly inheritance check from a long-dead uncle that kept him in the necessities of life, like food, dope and alcohol and a place to crash. And because of his ingenious method of entering locked rooms, he was a valuable addition to any burglary crew—and a damn good auto mechanic besides, if he had to work. If you had to work a steady, at least in a garage you could stay stoned on something all day. Currently, he had a tricked-out pick-up on the market that he’d assembled from all “borrowed” parts.

Sure, he’d skimmed a little off the top here and there at the Dog. Fucking anybody would, working that place. It’s not like there were any tips or anything. But the kind and size of the losses Artis was talking about had to be from something else. Like maybe fucking Artis was stealing a pile and concocting some kind of intrigue bullshit to cover it up.

Gary knew how easy it would be to start out small, lifting a few bucks here and there, telling yourself you were going to pay it all back later when you got ahead. But then you never got ahead and all of a sudden you were looking at a pretty big hole in the bookkeeping. That’s probably how it went down.

The road went by in a soft haze. Hardly seemed like any time at all before he was cutting the ignition and staring blankly at the dust as it swirled down on his hood and drifted into the side of Artis’ shitty house. Gary’s brain was a jellied mess, the last twenty miles a total blank.

He had risen that morning with a fierce craving for a burst of illicit chemical energy in the form of powders or pills, a habit that, in its infancy, he had told himself would be good for him, help drop a few pounds. Having finally assessed the damaging nature of such a habit to both his pocketbook and his mental health, Gary often fought the urges with a ten-milligram Valium, which usually reduced the craving to a muffled moan. He had boosted at noon with another blue tablet and nearly passed out during lunch at Silk’s pool hall. Then Peter Klang had given him a white cross in the men’s room to help him revive.

Gary climbed out of the fading orange Bronco, steadied himself on the doorframe and fired up a Viceroy with a black plastic lighter. Mellow but mean; he hoped nobody gave him any shit because he wasn’t in the mood. Didn’t want to pull out the .38 from the waistband of his jeans under the tail of his blue flannel shirt. All he wanted to do was rest. Rest and think about the burglary job that Tommy Soderberg had clued him to, a small safe with cash, old coins and jewels. The picture in his head glowed with warm colors that promised satisfaction like a five-course dinner.

He staggered up the incline and let himself in through the dirt-smudged, scratched-up wooden front door. In the nearly empty dining room, dust floated thickly inside an angled column of sunlight streaming through a high window on the west wall, the sun having found a break in the bank of clouds.

He saw a blurry Artis sitting on a wooden chair in the kitchen, nursing a can of Old Style, huge forearms resting on the rickety wooden table with a cigarette burning between his thick fingers. A steady blue-gray stream of smoke rose toward the yellowed ceiling. Artis looked worried.

“Jesus Christ, Artis, you pig,” Masati snorted, jiggling across the litter-strewn floor. “Don’t you ever clean this place? I remember that peanut butter jar over there from three weeks ago, for the Christ sake. You’re gonna get some kind of rat-shit fever or something. Smells like the fucking landfill in here.”

“Fuck you, Ram. Clean enough for a shitbag like you.” Artis bared his yellowed, tobacco-flecked teeth in an artificial smile that looked more like a grimace.

Masati sat down heavily. The wooden chair creaked and sagged. He dropped his cigarette into an empty Old Style can on the table and took a deep breath. His eyelids were heavy and so was his lower jaw.

“Well I’m heerrrrr…” he slurred.  “Whasss with all the drama? You knock up a sheep an need bread for an abortionnn?”

“I thought it was a sheep at first but then I discovered it was your mother.”

“You would fuck my mother, Artis, you sick fuck. Even the old man won’t do that anymore.”

“Who could blame him after you came out.”

“Fuck off. What the hell you call me out here for? What’s this goddamn emergency you’re all worked up about?”

“Big Cat’s on his way out. He’s gonna want to know why we’re out of liquor at the club and why we don’t have his usual share. Then, in a couple days, when he hears from Randall that he ain’t been paid, he’ll be ready for it.”

“It’s that bad, uh? We got to prepare him for the worst? Fucking shit. You never can tell… it ain’t my fucking fault.”

“Nobody’s saying it’s anybody’s fault. I’m saying we lost a ton at roulette last summer. I think someone was past posting. I think there was a team working us. Remember all those new guys? Them assholes with the Ohio plates?” Artis’ eyes pleaded slightly, hoping for backup on his grasp at straws.

“Nahhhhhh…… but, y’know… there’s new faces every summerrrr.  You can’t catch da same fish everrrryy day.”

“You better remember those faces when Cat shows up, Ram. You better remember how they slicked us. Otherwise he’s gonna think it was you and me been stealin’ him blind and causing the Dog to go tits up.”

“We’rrre tittsss ubp?”

“Like a beached sucker. We only got enough booze left for you and me to get drunk. We can’t afford the rent or the skid to Randall, and the women don’t want to come around no more  ‘cause nobody wants to spend anything on them. Dudes’d rather sit home and whack it to porn videos. And there just ain’t any money around. Not enough for a place like the Dog to stay goin’, anyway.”

“Hell’s gonna happenn to da stuffff?  Jukeboxss an pinball?”

“’Magine someone will come for them.” Artis said, watching the dust-filled column of sunlight as it faded away. “Can’t see Lambert or Johnny Beam leaving them behind. Unless the cops get there first. I think it was just a matter of time before we got popped, anyway, you know what I’m saying? It’s like, we’re getting out at the right time.” He heaved a heavy sigh. “You want a beer, man?”

“No thanks, I’mm watcchhin my waistline.”

“What are you watching it do, take over the county?”

“Fuck you.” Masati shot Artis the bird in slow motion.

Artis snorted, raked the empty beer cans off the table, pinned them against his barrel chest and stood up. He paused to gape at Masati’s head as it lolled on his thick, fleshy neck like a beach ball on a rhino, the chair creaking sharply each time it jerked back upright.

Then they both turned their heads at the sound of a blown-out, window-rattling muffler. Artis looked out the window above the sink and saw a big Buick pulling up, followed by a cloud of dust that swirled around the house. He dropped the beer cans in a plastic garbage pail under the counter by the sink and wiped his hands on the front of his blue denim coveralls.

The Buick jerked to a halt in the dirt. Big Cat held his breath as the dust cloud passed by and settled on the patchy lawn. The massive, copper-colored two-door hardtop with white vinyl roof shuttered and shook, chugging for twenty seconds before it finally wheezed and went quiet.

“Sounns like Cat couldd use hisss timing adjustedt,” Masati slurred.

“Why don’t you offer your services?” Artis asked, grinning.

“I hav in tha passst, I’ll havv yuu knowww—but he never sidts down long enough to gedt it donnne.”

“That’s another thing, man,” Artis said, eager for the opening. “He’s hardly ever at the club anymore, only shows up when we’re closing, to count the cash. Shit, lately he doesn’t even show up at all, half the time. Fucker’s been having me drop it off at his house. Trouble is… I ain’t brought nothing over for the last three weeks.”

“Thisss isss whadt I gedt when I de-le-gate yuuu sommme re-sponnsa-billlidty?”

“Fuck you, Masati, if you hadn’t been passed out in the office or not there at all every goddamn night, I wouldn’t have had to do it.”

“So it’sss my fauldt thattt you spennt the housse’s casssh?”

“I had to pay my rent and electricity, and I had a shit load of parking tickets—they were going to throw me in jail,” Artis frowned until the thick hair of his eyebrows joined at the bridge of his nose. “What fucking choice did I have?”

“I forgive you Artis,” Masati said, his speech momentarily returned to normal due to the rush of apprehension and fear brought on by Big Cat’s arrival. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. But you’re going to have to ‘splain that to our boy Mr. Cat. And I think I hear his footfalls a rustling on the porch right now.”

Then the front door scraped open and the screen slammed behind it. The six-foot-two former boxer and part-time musician known as Big Cat, came striding in, the heels of his blue and red cowboy boots knocking on the decaying wood floor.

“Greetings from the Land o’ Nod,” Masati said from the kitchen, his tongue thickening.

The three men jerked to attention as a clap of thunder ripped the sky. In an instant, a hard rain came ripping down from the black clouds, large oval drops hitting the dry dirt and bouncing. Drumming on the tops of the cars and tapping like a thousand tiny hammers on the shingled roof of the house.

“At least it will keep the dust down for a few days.” Artis said, looking out at the deluge as he moved slowly into the dining room. He kicked at a crumpled McDonald’s cheeseburger wrapping. “Hey, Catman, how’s it hanging?”

“Long and thick, as per normal,” Big Cat said, deep and mellow. He was a large man with wide shoulders, a strong chest and a square head, features that some mistook for Polynesian or Samoan.

“Beer, William?” Artis inquired, gesturing toward the kitchen and the grease-stained refrigerator that only a year before had been a shiny new unit, part of the swag from a warehouse rip-off on the Zenith waterfront.

“Yeah, I’ll have one, Arty.” Then, seeing Masati’s obvious intoxication, Cat went into the kitchen, bent down and looked into the fat man’s eyes. “And how are you today, Gary?”

“Pretty mellow, I guess.”

“Sampling the mother’s little helpers again, are we?”

“You might say that. Just a couple three, my man.”

“Blues?”

“Yessir. Want some?”

“No thanks. Maybe later. I got to stay sharp these days. These are trying times for the Cat. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. We’ve got to make some changes, I’m sorry to say. We have to shut down the Dog.”

Artis felt his nerves lighting up as he returned from the fridge with a can of Old Style and set it down on the table. Big Cat grabbed a paint-splattered wooden chair, spun it around backwards and sat down with his arms resting on the back. He picked up the beer, popped the top and took a large pull.

“Annnd jus exacly why does the Dawg haf to die, oh great leader,” Masati slurred, his lips undulating in a failed attempt at a smile.

“It’s losing money,” Big Cat said. “There ain’t enough cash left to keep it running. Fact is, it’s been going downhill for a while now, as you’ve probably noticed. You guys—”

Artis shuffled his feet nervously, stuffed his hands deep in the pockets of his worn, Oshkosh coveralls, lowered his eyelids and studied his feet. “Look, man, I’m sorry—”

“I’m sorry it’s over, too,” Big Cat blurted, “but it’s partly my fault. I gambled away the capital. It’s that simple. I got into this big poker game with some real high rollers. Big-time dudes with deep pockets that I thought I could clean out. To make a long story short, I lost. I came so fucking close on one huge pot—I still can’t believe the cocksucker hit the third ace. He pulled a full boat over my spade flush. I was tapped. Blew like nine grand, right fucking there. That’s why I haven’t been comin’ around.” He took a chug of beer and sat up straight, a serious look on his face.

Artis and Gary shared subtle “do-you-believe-it?” glances.

“Jesus Chrise, Cat, shhit,” Masati said. “I hat three gran in the Dawg but I made that a hunert times over. You can take yer time payin me back, buddy, I donn’t giv a shit.”

“You don’t owe me nothing, William,” Artis said.

“You guys take all the machines that are left,” William the Big Cat said. “The pinball and horserace machines are gone already. Had the guy in there today from West Side Games. You got the bag of quarters, Artis?”

Artis shook his head and tried to look solemn, when in actuality he was relieved. “No… I don’t. Sorry man, I had to use that to pay off these parking tickets I had. I swear, Cat, they were gonna throw me in jail.”

Big Cat took a sip of his beer and shrugged. “C’est la vie say the old folks. So ah, in lieu of a bag full of quarters—anybody know any guaranteed moneymaking scenarios? I need something, real bad.”

“Hey ah, lissen yu guyss,” Masati said. “I, ah, wasn’ goin’ say nothin’ bout thisss, but Tommy Soderberg tole me about this job. He ah, ah—wants me to do thiss job with’im, ya see.  As lonng as yu guyss are’n such rough shape, y’know, why ah, ah—don’t we doit arselfes.”

Cat was disbelieving. Masati was a chronic bullshitter and Tommy Soderberg always worked alone. “Tommy Soda told you about a job? You fucking sure about that?”

“I swear ta Godt, Cat, I ain’t gonna shit you.”

“I can hardly wait to hear this,” Artis said.

“Shut up Arty, let him talk. It takes him long enough, already. You got any coke or speed or something to give him? It’s like listening to a walrus croaking.”

“But, guys, I’m tryin’ to wean maself from stimulants,” Masati insisted, eyes widening slightly.

“Bullshit,” Big Cat said. “I’ll wean you from your nuts if I have to listen to anymore of your mumbling.”

“I shall make an effort to enunciate.”

“Here, then,” Artis said, shaking his head. “Maybe this will help.” He reached in the pocket of his coveralls and came out with a silver bullet filled with coke, set it on the table in front of Masati.

Assram fish-eyed the dull gray metal vial with the tiny hole on the tip. “I do believe it will, gentlemen, I do believe it will.” Moments later, the life was back in his eyes and he was ready to go. “So anyway, as I was saying. Tommy Sodapop told me about a lovely little safe job that he has researched. A safe that is full of old coins, cash and jewelry, he says. Old man used to own a business, but now he’s retired, but he keeps this office to make him feel like he’s still got what it takes, y’know? Maybe he does a little business once in a great while, y’know? Anyways, Soda said he was in the building doing some painting—doing some work for Harold Greene of Meridian Realty— and he seen the old guy going in the safe and pulling out these books of old coins and shit.

“And then he says that later in the day he’s sitting around at the Golden Flow and the old guy comes in, still dressed in his suit and bow tie. The geezer sits at the bar and has one tap beer and then leaves. Soda asks Paul the bartender if he knows the guy and Pauly says Sure, the guy comes in five days a week, always at the same time of day, has one beer and then leaves. He says the guy is loaded, owned a jewelry store for sixty years or some shit like that.”

“Sounds good, Gary,” Big Cat said. “But what the hell did Soda want you to do? I mean, can’t he get in there by himself?”

“He wanted me to help carry the safe out. Said the two of us could haul it out of there and throw it in the back of my Bronco.”

“Thanks for clueing us in, Ram,” Artis said, sarcastically.

“When can we do it?” Big Cat said, setting the empty can on the table and rubbing his hands together like he was washing with unseen soap.

“We hit the place and Soda’s gonna know it was me,” Masati said. “Not sure I want him on my case for jumping his gig.”

“How much of a cut is it gonna take to get you over your guilt and fear?” Big Cat asked, dryly.

“Half should do it.”

“Half the take?” Artis sputtered. Little balls of spit flew from his mouth and stuck in his scraggly brown beard. “You gotta be fucking insane, you fat bastard.”

“Listen, you hairy Greek fuck, not only do I deserve a chunk for finding the job, I should get another bump for crossing Soda. He’s not exactly going to want to hug me for this, in case you’re thinking otherwise.”
“Soda ain’t gonna do anything to you, Ram,” Big Cat said. “Fucker won’t get near you.” He gave Artis a wink on the sly. “All he wants to do is get high and play ball. He’s not the violent type. He’ll just spread the word around town about your deed and hope you get what you deserve.”

“Which is?” Masati asked, warily.

“Judge not, lest you be judged, has always been my policy, Ram. I’ll let someone else decide your just desserts.”

“I’ve got some good ideas about that,” Artis said, wiping at his beard.

“I bet you do, you sick fucking pervert,” Masati said, eyelids growing heavy. “Got another hit of blow?” he said to the air, his gaze directed at a place on the ceiling where a crack in the plaster resembled the letter Z.

“Maybe I do,” Ram, Artis said. “Providing you stay right where you are and give us all the details on this job.”

“Can do, Artis, my friend, can do. It’s not like I was going for a jog or anything.”

Big Cat got up from the table and walked into the dining room. This was the kind of shit that drove him crazy, the way those two dorks carried on. Took them forever to do anything. How he’d gotten this involved with these two was beyond his comprehension. He must have been lonely back then—or maybe he’d taken pity on the pathetic bastards.

He stared out the window at the puddles and the splashing water and the wind pushing the leaves on the popple trees to their silvery backsides. Now it seemed he was getting in deeper with the diet-challenged duo. When he’d thought that all was lost, opportunity had fallen out of the sky. More correctly and certainly stranger, out of Gary Masati’s rubber-lipped mouth. This was as close to “out of the blue” as you were going to get.

Curiouser and curiouser, Cat thought, wondering where he’d heard that before. Way back in the anterior lobes of his brain, another tiny voice was trying to be heard. But it sounded too much like his parole officer—the bitch—and he tried to ignore it.

You seem to look for trouble, William, it was saying.

(End of Chapter 15)

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PART SIX

(published in 1999)

The sunlight hit my eyes and I was reeling.  Life on the street seemed normal as I staggered toward my car.  I was parked in front of Tony’s Tap, a bar that had recently been closed down by federal marshals for amphetamine trafficking.  I was feverishly working my key in the lock when the front door of Tony’s opened up and a tall distinguished looking man with light brown hair and a receding hairline stepped out.  He was wearing formal clothing, like a butler or something:

“Just in time for happy hour sir; we have Black Stag on special today.  Won’t you join us?”  He smiled.  His teeth were brown decaying stumps.

The door lock popped up and I jumped in and jammed the key in the ignition.  Unlike the movies, the engine started immediately.  My intestines had a life of their own as I squealed out of the parking space and hot-footed-it out of town.

I was running scared down the highway at eighty miles an hour when I popped over the crest of a small hill into a construction zone that I didn’t remember being there on the way down.  About thirty yards in front of me, a big, red, Mack truck was pulling out from a side road on the right.  Another big, red truck was bearing down in the oncoming lane, doing about sixty and throwing up dust like a stagecoach on “Death Valley Days.”  All I could see in the rear view mirror was a large, gold grille and the word MACK.  They had me boxed in.  My mortality was as real as a February morning in Duluth—right here, right now.

I swerved to the right, hurtled off the bank, flew twenty feet in the air and slammed hard onto the new roadbed.  I fish-tailed and got her straightened out.  Gaining speed, I rocketed off an up-sloping piece of hardpan like a four wheeled Evel Kneivel, flew forty feet in the air and hit the old highway with tires spinning.  Behind me, dust filled the air and my tormentors could not be seen.

All those big red trucks got me to thinking: I wondered if the color had any significance… nah….

The road ahead was clear.  I sped on.  Five, ten, fifteen miles.  I had the thirst of a thousand slaves and a headache that a crate of aspirin couldn’t touch.  Then I heard a siren.

I pulled over for the cop, figuring I had no choice.  He seemed like a normal small town officer: slightly paunchy and slightly sleepy.  He walked slowly along the shoulder as I rolled down the window.

“Your driver’s license, please.”

I showed him my license.

“You know you were going pretty fast, Mr. Kirby.  What’s the hurry?” His dark aviator sunglasses hid his eyes.

“The devil made me do it.”

“Speeding is nothing to joke about, sir.  What is your business in this area?”

“Just visiting the Harper family, in Hell—er, ah—Shell Lake, sir.”

     “Oh… I see… well then, you may go.  Have a nice day.”  He gave me back my license, turned on the heel of his jackboot and went back to his patrol car.

It’s so good to be on the road again….  I was singing, yeah, but my skin was the color of a lily pad and nature was making all of its calls at the same time.  I needed a roadside rest, and—as if by magic—one of those blue signs appeared ahead of me.  I angled off into the oasis and pulled up next to the facility.

After I disgorged, I was walking out of the little toilet shack when I saw two geeks standing next to my car.  One was wearing an orange Sunkist T-shirt and a matching, sweat stained baseball cap, while the other had on a grease-stained, gray work shirt and a blue cap.  Both wore blue jeans that sagged below their pot guts.  Beavis and Butthead gone to seed.  I could see no vehicle anywhere.

“What the hell are you doin’ here, you long-haired, big-city faggot?” they croaked in unison like a two-headed lamprey on PCP.  “We don’t like your kind around here.  We are gonna mess you up.”

I jammed my hand through the open car window and grabbed a hold of the Penthouse magazine I had purchased at Hammond Spur for those lonely moments.  With a quick flick of the wrist I sailed the skin mag onto the grassy area by the john.  My two friends raced and dove for it, while I jumped in the Ford and got the hell out of there.

What seemed like hours but was really only minutes later, I began to feel safe.  By the time I could see Lake Superior, the whole thing seemed like a dream.  I’m still not really sure what happened….

Is their ritual satanic activity in Wisconsin?  Probably not.  Nothing organizes this demon, it thrives on emptiness and mind numbing boredom.  Lack of love is its siren’s call.  Does the devil live in Dairy Land?  I really can’t say for sure, but if the Packers make it to the Super Bowl, ask me again.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  The Green Bay Packers went to the Super Bowl both 1997 and 1998, beating New England in ’97 and losing to Denver in ’98.  Also in the late nineties, one of the largest internet child pornography rings ever investigated was traced to a man who lived just outside of SHELL LAKE, Wisconsin.

(The end)

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