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Jackpine Savages by T.K. O’Neill  

(ebook and paperback)

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CHAPTER ONE, EXCERPT FOUR

The wind was coming hard out of the southeast as I eased my Subaru Forester onto scenic Highway 61, a winding, predominantly two-lane strip of asphalt that traces the northern shore of Lake Superior all the way to Canada. It was the kind of day a travel magazine might claim we’re famous for around here. The lake was emerald green and churning with thin whitecaps. Seagulls circled in the air-conditioned winds that held the coastal area at a pleasant seventy-four degrees while the inland sweated in the nineties. The type of day that attracted the tourists, the throngs who’d changed the region from the remote and isolated area it once was to the RV and SUV magnet of the present. The old motor lodges and commercial fishing shacks were pretty much gone, replaced by rustic-look condo developments, trophy homes and upscale lodges.

Sky Blue Waters Lodge, where I was to meet Talbot and Sacowski for brunch, was part of the “New North Shore.” Freshly milled log structure, flowery name and all. But I didn’t care. It’s not as if it was ever going to become like Florida up here, every inch of coastline filled with development. No, it was still winter half the year this far north and that simple fact was a time-proven natural ceiling on high-end growth. Or so it had always been.

Traffic was heavy through Two Harbors even at ten-thirty in the morning. Farther north, up past Crow Creek, a paved bike path meandered along parallel to the highway. Thing had fancy wrought-iron bridges that seemed to have yuppie bait written all over them. I was exceeding the speed limit because I didn’t want to be late for my first client, especially one who seemed to be generous with the filthy lucre. A private eye has to be punctual unless danger has somehow detained him. The only danger I sensed at this point was the pop-up camper directly in front of me dancing on the back-end of a Chevy pickup like a johnboat in a hurricane. The shock absorbers on the trailer were obviously shot, and the ones on the truck not much better. It brought to mind a past incident on this same highway. A horrific incident that occurred when just such a trailer broke loose from its moorings on one of the very same curves we were approaching. The wayward trailer then flew across into oncoming traffic, severing the heads of a young couple on a motorcycle.

Death by trailer was not the way I wanted to go out. Especially not when my fortunes seemed to be on the upswing. But I knew the Forester was a real safe vehicle because the ads on TV had told me so. Also a symbol of earth-friendly progressive thought and an adventurous spirit. Fortunately, I saw the Sky Blue Waters Lodge sign coming up on the right. I took a deep breath and flipped on the blinker, found myself wondering what a wealthy paraplegic eats for brunch. Told myself it was a stupid question and not worthy of one such as I. But that’s the way it is for me, the thoughts just come flying through, quality control non-existent.

Shortly I found out that a paraplegic—Billy Talbot anyway—eats scrambled eggs and a pile of bacon for brunch. Just like nearly everybody else in the nearly full restaurant. Myself, I had the eggs, American fries and coffee. I don’t usually drink coffee these days; stuff gets me too edgy, but I wanted to at least create the illusion of alertness.

We had a pleasant meal and Talbot agreed to my terms and fees, all of which I’d obtained from The Private Eye Handbook, a handy tome purchased on the Internet.

And now I’m going to be perfectly honest. I need to tell you that my Drake Career Institute Private Detective diploma was about as worthless as a paper shirt in a windstorm. As if you didn’t know. Maybe it could have been helpful if I had actually studied; but in fact, I had cribbed the answers to the final exam off the Internet. You can find anything on the Internet these days.

(To be continued)

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Jackpine Savages by T.K. O’Neill  

(ebook and paperback)

nieaseal

Ebookit.com  https://bit.ly/2GME30V

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

Amazon.com  https://amzn.to/2km8F0f  

CHAPTER ONE, EXCERPT TWO

Six months later, after a June graduation from the Drake Career Institute for which there was no ceremony and no cap and gown, I put down the first and last month’s rent and a security deposit on a long, narrow one-bedroom apartment in Canal Park above a tony outdoor clothing shop.

My office.

I bought some used furniture: desk, chairs, file cabinet and a computer, splurged on a flat screen TV and started keeping regular hours like a genuine dick. My office was a block away from the Savannah Gentlemen’s Club and I took frequent advantage of this proximity, as they had a good lunch buffet. Which is, I suppose, like saying you buy Penthouse or Playboy for the articles.

The days rolled by.

As the vernal rapture of August came on I had yet to have a case. This wasn’t exactly surprising, considering that I hadn’t done any advertising. Except for my second ex-wife and a few close friends, the only people who knew I’d graduated from private eye school were fellow afternoon inebriates at the Savannah. I was beginning to get bored, thinking a few marriage cheaters or a landlord skip might be just the ticket for me.

Then one hot summer day I was standing in front of an open window in my office hoping to catch a breeze off Lake Superior, acutely aware that in a similar situation, Philip Marlowe would likely be drinking from the office bottle trying to ease the pain from losing the femme fatale on his last case. As I gazed out the window at the tourist traffic and contemplated happy hour at the Savannah Club—coming up in thirty minutes—I saw a brown Ford van pulling into the handicapped zone in front of my building, sun glaring off its smooth, polished roof.

I started to get annoyed. No way somebody driving that humongous vehicle could be handicapped. I wanted the space to be open for my own personal use, should the need arise in the course of the business day—or if I was tired.

I watched a man climb out of the passenger door of the van. The thick potbellied body and curly thinning gray hair were familiar, belonging to an old associate of mine name of Dick Sacowski. A resident of Taconite Bay, a small company town on the northern shore of Lake Superior, Dick was one of the few privileged souls who knew I was in the private eye business, as he’d been at the Savannah one afternoon when I’d been blabbing about my new occupation.

Sun glinted off the bald spot on top of Sacowski’s head as he slid open the side door of the van and leaned inside. A ramp with a wheelchair on it oozed out of the van and moved slowly down to ground level. Sacowski rolled the wheelchair off the ramp and again reached into the van. The ramp smoothly returned to the interior of the vehicle. Dick then wheeled the chair around to the driver’s door, opened it and helped a skinny loosely put together man with a slightly disoriented look slide out. Sacowski held him firmly under the arms and eased him down into the wheelchair.

Seeing them approaching my door brought to mind a story Dick had told me about a friend he occasionally did errands for, taking him to the doctor and the Ford dealership and other things. I recalled that it was a couple years back, during a blizzard, when the poor guy was T-boned by a Rourke Mining Company truck and sent catapulting off the highway into an unforgiving ancient pine tree, crushing the man’s lower spine. The resulting insurance settlement was allegedly gargantuan. Set the guy up in a fabulous cliff-side house overlooking Lake Superior equipped with all the fancy devices needed by a paraplegic, such as elevators and lifts and remote control everything. Including, according to Dick, a custom-made, specially equipped boat, which the man could operate with just his hands. Hardly a fair price for one’s spine but better than nothing, I suppose.

I craned my neck as Sacowski bumped the wheelchair onto the sidewalk and started toward the stairway leading up to my office. Dick’s large tanned biceps rippled out of a lemon yellow strap undershirt. He swung the chair around, opened the door, held it there with his work boot and started up backwards.

I heard the thumping and clumping on the wooden stairs and wondered if I should help. I quickly rationalized that the stairwell was too narrow for all of us together—and my back wasn’t right for lifting. Any guilt over this quickly faded away as I recalled Dick Sacowski handling one end of my first wife’s newly purchased upright piano—all by himself—as three of us struggled at the opposite end while attempting to traverse the front steps of my old apartment.

Dick was one sneaky-strong son of a bitch.

(To be continued)

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

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

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

Jackpine Savages by T.K. O’Neill  

(ebook and paperback)

Ebookit.com  https://bit.ly/2GME30V

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

Amazon.com  https://amzn.to/2km8F0f  

CHAPTER ONE, EXCERPT ONE

I had wanted to be a private eye ever since I was a kid. Got the bug from watching detective shows on television. We had Mike Hammer and Michael Shayne, two trench-coat-wearing tough guys quick with the fists and the gunplay, and Peter Gunn, tough as railroad spikes but still cool, handsome and sophisticated.

These programs had a lot of things a kid could get behind. Hammer and Shayne never took guff from anyone and seemed to find a willing woman in every dive bar or lowball diner. Peter Gunn hung out in upscale nightclubs while the glamorous Julie London sang him torch songs. And he always looked like a million bucks at the end of a case. These guys’ world was exciting and dangerous and they had it all handled

In my teen years, I discovered the paperback detectives: Marlowe, Archer, Spade, Spenser and the rest. I was still hooked on the dream. But like it is for most of us, I suspect, the future turned out unlike anything I’d imagined in my youth.

Never did become the detective. Ended up getting married and divorced and married and divorced again. Went through a heavy drug thing in the late eighties and lost my longtime job at the county highway department. Drifted from there, with stints on the railroad, bartending, dealing blackjack at the Indian casinos and house painting.

And those were the legal jobs.

Everything changed when my wealthy uncle Carl died last year at the age of ninety-seven. The resulting inheritance—twenty-five grand in a lump sum and a guaranteed two-thou monthly for the next ten years—was truly manna from heaven. Carl was one of the precious few fortunates who’d purchased 3M Stock at twenty-five cents a share. His lifelong business was used cars (always drove a late-model Cadillac) but he’d made his big score in the stock market.

The money came as a pleasant shock, as Uncle Carl and I hadn’t communicated in any way since the late sixties. It was then, while arguing politics at a family reunion dinner, that Carl had icily offered his belief that Abby Hoffman and I were ruining the country. And I’d never even met Abby. But, although younger, I did have long curly black hair like his and had read his literary masterpiece, Steal this Book. I actually paid for it.

Upon learning of my windfall, I immediately assumed my uncle had acquired some wisdom before his death and finally accepted the truth in what I’d been saying back then, although, to be perfectly honest, I no longer remembered what it was.

I found out later that Uncle Carl was suffering from Alzheimer’s at the end.

With these incoming shekels from such an unexpected source, it seemed like the right time to pursue my dream of private eyedom. Then one winter morning, the path became clearer. It was a snowy Sunday and I was fantasizing about the future while browsing the morning paper. I opened the sports section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and a card dropped from the fold and fluttered into my lap. I immediately felt the stars align, the planets jog into concurrence and Jupiter enter the seventh house. It truly was a message from above:

50 exciting careers to choose from!

Choose your CAREER DIPLOMA stamp, affix it to the postcard, and MAIL IT TODAY.

Sure enough, there it was in row four, column two, next to Psychology/Social Work DIPLOMA and directly above Interior Decorating DIPLOMA.

Private Investigator DIPLOMA.

Could the message be any clearer?

All I had to do was pop out my CAREER DIPLOMA stamp, paste it in the little box on the reply card and drop it in the nearest mailbox (no postage necessary). In a few short weeks the Drake Career Institute would have me on the way to a “brighter future.”

Sam Spade and Lew Archer would have nothing on me.

Now don’t misinterpret here, I held no illusions that being a private dick in Duluth, Minnesota would entail much besides spying on cheating spouses or tracking down deadbeats. That was all good with me. Creaky knees and a balky back made a lack of violent adventure a positive.

I mailed the card.

(To be continued)

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Frank Ford is a survivor of 10 long years at the Metropole Bar, where he’s babysitter and alcohol dealer to Zenith City’s derelict class: the misfits, the losers, the crazies, the old fading lushes and “the budding young alcoholics unaware of or indifferent to what lies ahead.”

Writer T.K. O’Neill introduces Frank in the aftermath of his little brother’s funeral. Ray was an addict and a constant irritant. “Forgotten, is how Frank wanted to remember Ray.” The police, who also lost no love for Ray Ford, lean towards a verdict of suicide for the swollen, pulpy body that washed ashore near the port terminal. Frank thinks it was murder, but he’s willing to let it ride. His grieving mother has other ideas.

Set in 1977, Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry combines elements of David Goodis and Raymond Chandler with the popular culture of the era to form a pulp-style novel filled with sex, drugs, violence and smelt fishing—the essence of classic northern noir.

Ebook and paperback available at all online bookstores for $2.99/$15.95!

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EXCERPT 4, FLY IN THE MILK

Ever read a boxing scene so vivid that you can smell the sweat, see the desperation, feel the tension? Round one through eight from Fly in the Milk, ebook available wherever ebooks are sold:

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 faked 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.

(To be continued)

Fly in the Milk – $2.99 at https://amzn.to/2LbNJ8j

Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry – $2.99 ebook, $15.95 paperback at https://amzn.to/2Lp48GT

 

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On with the story:

 

EXCERPT 3, FLY IN THE MILK

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.”

*  *  *  *

(To be continued)

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We’ll get to Keith Waverly’s earlier TK O’Neill crime novel Dead Low Winter appearance later, but for the next several days we’re excerpting from Fly in the Milk, where boxer and outlaw Johnny Beam’s story is first told.

Johnny, if you read Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry, “was over in the corner by the jukebox holding court with a small entourage. What was it with fighters and entourages? Beam hadn’t fought since the sixties but he still had a following. And in some circles, like that of the gambling crowd, Beam was more popular now than in his pugilist days. From what Frank’d heard, and you heard a lot behind the bar at the Metropole, Beam was the man to see about a gun, the former champion said to be trafficking in stolen firearms to pay off some allegedly large gambling debts.

Johnny Beam is the man to see, Frank was thinking as he went to the cooler to get a nice green bottle of Heineken for his friend Keith Waverly, closest thing the Metropole had to Owsley Stanley.

EXCERPT 2, FLY IN THE MILK

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.

(To be continued)

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