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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Keith O’Neill’

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 7

Sam Arndt’s gut was still churning when he got up to take a leak at four-thirty a.m. Stumbling back toward his king-size bed, he wondered what was causing this intestinal distress, but was too zonked to care. Save it until morning—the beauty of downers.

But the next morning, as any experienced tranq user knows, he would feel dumb and pissed off and just a tad slow. Then you drink the coffee and maybe your gut tightens up again and you have to go back for more Pepto. Then you read the paper and see where the Blues scored three times in forty-two seconds and you lost a shitload. But the thing really upsets you is that goddamn Jimmy Ireno hasn’t called from Texas like he was supposed to and now there’s a message on your phone from Bob Ryan, the “Associate” whose money you are responsible for: “Sam. What the fuck is going on? Answer your goddamn phone, goddamn it.”

So now Sam had a pressing need for more of those pills. And would have to call the fat chick in St. Paul gets them from some Mexican by the carload, see what she has in stock. And to make matters worse, he was getting hooked on the goddamn things. Sammy’s little helpers.

Help.

Sam was thinking he’d personally skewer Jimmy’s balls on a shish-ka-bob if the kid screwed this deal up. That is if he could keep his own gonads out of Bob Ryan’s Mulligan stew long enough to get his hands on the wop-cokehead-weasel-bastard-sonofabitch Ireno.

 

Dan Henning was feeling loose. Texas Highway Patrol could kiss his ass goodbye this time. See how often Theodor lunched with the governor after Henning was gone. Goddamn Cyn could be replaced too. Woman was turning their boy Danny into a sissy the way she smothered him. Always preaching the “Christian Way,” and that’s suppose to be good, but Danny was getting too—not sure what to call it—just something not right about him these days.

Henning was thinking maybe he should take Danny away for a while, put a little distance between the two of ’em and Cynthia. But man, sometimes it got hard to be around the boy. So maybe Danny was better off with his mother. She could teach him to live the nice clean life—no drinking, no swearing, no whoring.

Poor kid.

Henning swung the red Dodge Ram pickup onto his hardpan driveway and rolled through the trees surrounding the trailer. Coming into the yard he cut the wheel hard, hit the gas and sent the truck into a dust-throwing slide. He’d polished off the beaner’s shitty lime vodka on the way home and didn’t have to be back on the job for two days. Planned to request a personal leave of absence his first day back. Tell them it was a family-based decision, take that route: personal problems sir, that kind of thing, easy for everyone to relate to.

He got out of the truck. He stood and watched the sun peeking above the eastern hills. Soon it would be up bright and hot. Expecting some kind of scene from Cynthia, Henning lit a Marlboro to mask his booze breath and went inside to face her. But in the coolness of the trailer’s mint-green interior he sensed the emptiness. No Cyn to greet him. No smell of his breakfast cooking. No sound of his son playing. Just dust floating inside a sunbeam and the soft hum of the refrigerator. All the dishes were clean and put away. Nothing in the sink. Coffeemaker was empty.

Scratching his head, Henning looked out the window above the sink and saw nothing out there but dirt and trees. Now he had a hole in his gut and thoughts he couldn’t control were pushing in.

So where in hell were they? What was Cyn pulling this time? Goddamn woman was always messing with his plans. Someday maybe he’d show her the error of her ways.

Heart pounding faster in his chest, Henning turned away from the sink and went into the bedroom. Bed was made and Cyn’s dresser drawers were open. Wasn’t like her to leave them that way. He saw a piece of paper on top his blond dresser, small piece of notepaper held down by a can of Gillette shaving cream:

Dear Dan,

     Please don’t be alarmed. Danny is at Furillo’s Day Care. You can pick him up any time before six. I’m not sure how to tell you this, so I’ll just come out and say it.

     I’m going away for a while. Maybe forever. I just don’t know right now. Back when we were first married, I never could have imagined the loneliness and emptiness that I feel today. And everyday, truth be told. Something has been bothering me for quite some time now, and you don’t seem to know or even care. You have become a stranger to me. You come home from another world expecting me to be at your beck and call, and although I was raised to stand by my man, it seems to me it should go both ways. Instead, you seem to be standing farther away every day. My mind is so full of questions and confusion I don’t even know what it is I want anymore.

     Reading this, you’re probably fit to be tied, but please try to swallow your anger and understand my feelings. I’m not abandoning our son. I will call you tomorrow so we can talk. In the meantime, try and get to know your boy a little. It will do you both some good.

–Cynthia

“Jesus Christ, here we go,” Henning said out loud. He couldn’t say he’d seen this coming but Cynthia and her instability were always just a short and curly away from total lunacy. And now here it was.

Leaving him? Hell with that. He was leaving her. Just like her to bail at the same time he got rich, woman’s timing always piss-poor. Like the time he was facing suspension and she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant and he had to beg Theodor into stalling the suspension long enough to keep the medical insurance viable. Yep, goddamn Cynthia was getting like an anchor he had to drag around, and who the hell needs that?

Henning returned to the kitchen and took the bottle of Johnnie Walker Red from the cupboard where Cynthia always stuck it, the woman not wanting it out in plain view in the light of day. Typical of the shit he had to put up with.

But hey, not anymore.

From now on it’d be JW blue label sitting out where everyone could see it. Nothing but the best, goddamnit. Little Danny would learn how real men carried themselves. Maybe they could take a trip down to Mexico, just the two of them, pick up an RV from one of the used-car bandits down there, travel around and let the kid see how real men live.

So there was a plan.

Let’s see what she has to say about that.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 2, Excerpt 6

Corpus Christi was the kind of place Jimmy Ireno could get behind: big beautiful houses on his right, big beautiful houses on his left. Could still see the water in quite a few places. Feel the genteel comfort, the sea-breeze luxury and the laid back attitude, sending your troubles away into the soft night air.

But for Jimmy, reality was rubbing against the serenity. The stolen pickup was almost out of gas and he needed a nice big hotel parking lot to dump it in. Cops would likely be looking for it by now. And given his pressing needs, Jimmy thought it weird how the warm night air brought on the inappropriate impulses, the cravings.

Jimmy knew better, but just the same, he was thinking some cocaine would be nice. Shit would clear his head; help him think. But in the absence of any white powder, a drink at one of the numerous oyster bars in the area would have to suffice. Jimmy had no plan; no apparent options and only seventy dollars cash in his pocket. His wallet contained an overdrawn Discover card and two Master Cards, all three cancelled for lack of payment. He also had a checkbook from the Western River Bank of Commerce in Minneapolis, Minnesota, account closed.

As he navigated the light evening traffic in downtown Corpus, Jimmy’s gaze flicked back and forth between the gas gauge and the surrounding buildings. Be a drag to run out of gas and have a cop show up. Glancing around, nerves getting up, he locked onto a glowing green and red neon sign announcing The Bayside Motel, a two-level job with a sizeable parking lot on the side of the building.

Jimmy swung the truck in the motel parking lot, shut off the ignition and dropped the keys on the floor mat. No good reason to make it hard for the people at the ranch house, their truck had served him well. A nice old truck, a retro classic. No rust at all. Truck this old back in Minnesota would be a rust bucket.

After walking out of the parking lot Jimmy turned toward the darker, older part of the city and blended in with the night. Enjoying the salty air, he was drawn toward the blue-green pulsing neon above the Sand and Sea Oyster Bar. Soft light was coming out of a small porthole on the front door had tinted glass the color of seawater.

You didn’t see many oyster bars back in Minnesota.

Jimmy went inside to a pleasant, half full room, fishnets and sailfish mounts on the corkboard walls and blue padded stools in front of a long and dark, backlit bar. Leaning his elbows on the glistening wood, shivering slightly from nerves and the air conditioning, Jimmy scanned his environment.

Forty-something couple looking very Texas: tall and large boned in Western-style garb, shit-kicker boots and cowboy shirts, on his left. The gentleman two stools to his right seemed like a tourist: thinning white hair, Hawaiian shirt and a sunburn. Bartender looked to be around Jimmy’s age, tall skinny guy with a suspicious gaze and a brush of bleach blond hair on top a square head, the man wearing a yellow T-shirt and wrinkled, white, over-the-knee cargo shorts.

Craving something tall and cool and tropical with a southwestern twist, Jimmy ordered a tequila sunrise, pulled a twenty from his pocket and set it on the bar. When the drink arrived gold and glistening, tall glass sweating and a red ribbon of grenadine drifting slowly through the shimmering orange liquid, it conjured up two familiar images from Jimmy’s past: Cocaine swirls floating down and turning red in a glass of gold Clorox, and his former fiancé, Elizabeth. The two of them used to consume sunrises in excess back in their early days when things were still fun. Used to make them with two shots of tequila and one shot of gin.

Texas bartender wouldn’t know to put gin in the thing, Jimmy thought, rolling his shoulders in an attempt to ease the lingering tension. Was probably a good thing, though, he needed his wits about him, was in one hell of a fix this time. Jimmy picked up the tall glass and sucked the drink down like it was life itself, keeping his eyes focused straight ahead at the bottles and amber-colored glass brick behind the bar, not wanting to give anyone a full frontal. But halfway through his second drink—shit was tasting good—Jimmy was swinging around on the barstool checking out the stuffed fish on the walls. Sailfish, marlin, billfish—he didn’t know the difference. Then it wasn’t long before he was going to the men’s room and stopping along the hallway to scope the old photos of ships and bridges and paunchy men in hats standing next to huge dead fish hanging from large metal hooks.

Yes sir, Jimmy was in another world now.

Tequila World.

Next ride coming right up.

(To be continued)

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CHAPTER 1, Excerpt 5

Patrolman Henning jogged back to his darkened cruiser where it sat idling, lights off, a hundred yards down Gamble Gulch Road from the Chevy minivan. He’d considered putting a few rounds from his sidearm into the van to give it that Texas “been-here-a-while” look but decided against it because noise carries and crime lab nerds can identify slugs.

Having stuffed the cash in a military-surplus duffel he’d found in the back of the van—Christ, a ton of money in wrapped packets, all denominations—Henning threw the olive-drab bag into the trunk of the cruiser and drove back to the Interstate.

Nothing on I-37 but blackness.

Good.

His watch ending soon, Henning needed to get the hell down the road and make a bust a long ways from Gamble Gulch before some citizen called in the abandoned minivan. Tearing down the highway at eighty-five, passing everything in sight, which fortunately wasn’t much—couple tourists and a few semis—Henning got to Lake Corpus Christi Road in a few minutes, made a U and started back north. Wasn’t long before he came up behind a blue Ford Focus with its rear license plate light out.

Henning pulled the loser over. And when the kid rolled down the window, reefer smoke floated out thick as the pubes on a Jaurez whore. Just like I figured, Henning thought. Young spic doper out for some fucking and sucking. And the girl was white. No crime, but maybe her parents would want to know the company she was keeping. No doubt he’d find contraband if he searched the car—but Henning was feeling too good tonight for complications. And it was getting late. And hell, when you got down to it, spics weren’t that bad. Worked hard for shit wages and were better than niggers any day.

Going through the motions, Henning scanned the kid’s license with his flashlight, wrote out a ticket for the faulty light and gave his usual stern lecture about the dangers of inattentive driving. And how kids should be home doing schoolwork or sleeping this time of night instead of out on the highway looking for trouble.

The driver, likely thinking he was off the hook, seemed about ready to jump out the window and give Henning a kiss. Kid was looking at the ticket and slobbering. “You’re right officer, it is very late. I lost track of the time. We’ll go directly home, I promise.”

Something in the boy’s tone annoyed Henning. Now he couldn’t help himself. Staring down at the nervous kid, he said, “Before you leave, Alex, I’d like you to do one thing for me.”

“Yes, sir?”

Henning believed Alex would get down on his knees and slurp the snake if he asked him to, anything to avoid a search of the car. Grinning slightly, enjoying his power and rushing behind thoughts of the cash in the trunk of his cruiser, Henning said, “Come around to the passenger side with me, Alex. I have a favor to ask of you.”

Alex got out of the Focus and moped around to the other side, glancing warily at Henning. “Alex,” Henning said, stopping by the passenger window, “Open this door and reach inside the car. Push the button on the glove compartment with the back of your hand and then step back out of there. I have this sneaking suspicion there’s something in there going to do you and your friends harm. Would you do that for me, Alex?”

Henning stood there grinning, watching the kid and tapping his fingers on the butt of the Glock 17 in his hip holster. Henning saw subservience in the kid’s eyes, the boy’s hands trembling. Henning hoped there wasn’t a weapon in the glove box. There was, he’d have to brain the dumb kid, same as the last fool he baited into trying something.

Alex Ruiz looked scared shitless and did exactly as told, leaning in to push the button on the glove compartment with the back of his right hand before backing out quickly. Then Henning’s flashlight beam settled on a pint of lime vodka inside the glove box. And reaching in to lift it out, Henning saw the edge of a plastic bag peeking out from under some papers. He lifted out the liquor bottle and set it on the roof of the Ford, reached back in and grabbed the baggie and let it unfurl, saw a few brown buds of marijuana. “Just as I expected, Alex, you were about to travel down this public thoroughfare without your rear license plate light and in the possession of dangerous drugs and cheap alcohol. I wonder what Mr. and Mrs. Ruiz would think about this, Alex? You do have parents, don’t you, boy?”

“Yes sir.”

“That’s good, son. A boy needs two parents in this world today. What about your girlfriend here? What’s her name?”

“Jenny.”

“Jenny what, son?”

“Jenny Lang, sir.”

“So, Jenny Lang,” Henning said, bending over with the baggie in his hand and leaning in closer to the frightened girl. “You have an ID with that name on it, young lady?”

The girl had her driver’s license ready and handed it up to him.

“Well, Alex,” Henning said after examining the girl’s license, the nervous eighteen-year-old boy shifting from foot to foot on the shoulder of the Interstate. “What do you think the Langs would think about this trouble you’ve gotten their pretty young daughter into tonight?”

“There’s only a Mrs. Lang, sir. Jenny’s old man split a long time ago.”

“So you thought you’d take advantage of a poor fatherless girl, huh, Pedro?”

“It’s Alex, sir, and it’s not like that at all. It’s her dope—her booze. I—”

“That’s where you’re wrong, boy. From now on, this contraband belongs to the State of Texas. And I’ll hang onto your driver’s license in case anything bad happens to cute little Jenny Lang here. In the case of said event, or any other goddamn stunts you might pull in the future, I will take this bag of dope with your license inside it and mail it to Ms. Lang’s mother. And I hope Jenny here has some second thoughts about givin’ it out to a whimpering snitch like you. So get your sorry ass down the road and have that light fixed or I’ll chase you down and bust your ass.”

Alex did what he was told.

(Chapter 2, to be continued)

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South Texas Tangle, Chapter 1, Excerpt 4

An hour later Jimmy Ireno was still sloshing through the creek bed, Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans” cycling in his head. He was tired but thanking his lucky stars as he waited for the cover of total darkness to hide his sins and his ass. Getting pulled over for no plates was bad juju, no doubt, but getting pulled over next to one of the few patches of greenery in this dusty, vacant lot country was truly fortunate. Like other-wordly fortunate, dude, good luck on top of bad.

But after another seemingly endless period of struggling through the brush led to nothing, Jimmy began to resign himself to being overrun by sirens and dogs and inbred giants toting shotguns and cattle prods. He was about ready to let himself get caught, this running-through-the-briars-and-brambles shit being hard work. He could cop a plea, throw himself on the mercy of the court; give up Sam Arndt in exchange for clemency, tell them Arndt was threatening to kill him if he didn’t deliver the cash to the proper destination.

Jimmy saw himself in court standing in front of the judge, man up there in his robes looking stern: It was gambling debts and an addiction to terrible drugs that put me in contact with an evil guy like Samuel Arndt, your honor. The man’s an Arab, might be a terrorist. Sure looks like one, used to have a beard. And he changed his name from some unpronounceable Arab thing. I am so ashamed of myself I’d do anything to atone, your honor.

But if Jimmy pulled that, Sam might really have him killed, instead of just enslaving him for the rest of his life paying off the markers. So what was to gain from rolling over on Sam? A job selling shoes in Sandusky in the witness security program? Trustee gig in the slam proofreading license plates?

Gimme a break.

In frosty Minneapolis, Sam Arndt was searching his kitchen cabinet for Pepto Bismol. Trying to relax, he was gazing out his eighth-floor penthouse window at the mighty Mississippi and the glowing bronze embroidery of the city lights. But his heart was thumping in his chest and bile was climbing up his larynx, all for no reason he could put his finger on. Had a lot of cake riding on the Redwings-Blues playoff game, but the score was tied with two minutes left, no way Detroit would win by two unless there was an empty-netter. Wasn’t a big thing even if it happened; NHL playoffs are long. He’d recoup. Always did.

Baffled by this sudden attack of panic, Sam was glad he had some downs for moments like this. Must be worries about Jimmy and the cash bothering him. And he had reason to worry, didn’t he? This was a relatively new gig, this arranging for mountains of cash to be transported to the border. Profitable, yes, but this was only the third time. Drove it down himself the first two times, making sure things went smoothly to insure future business from the associates. But Sam hated driving long distances. He had numerous food allergies and couldn’t tolerate freeway fare. And he trusted Jimmy Ireno. Trust starting to wear a bit thin now.

Sam liked Jimmy. Kid was a degenerate gambler and a drug abuser, but still a nice young man. And most importantly, Jimmy was a coward, too big a chicken to pull anything stupid.

But something still felt wrong.

Standing there staring out at the lights, Sam drifted back to the days when Jimmy was playing high school ball at De LaSalle, little shit running the fast break like Ricky Rubio. Sam had some good nights with the book when Jimmy Ireno was throwing ’em in from downtown.

Deep in the heart of Texas, Jimmy “The Eye” Ireno was coming out for air. Out of the bush and up under that big starry sky they always called lonesome in the songs. Tonight he knew what they meant. He wanted to believe things were going to work out, like the voice in his head kept insisting, and now he could see the lights of a farmhouse up ahead.

Getting closer, it was more like a ranch house: sprawling two-story, reddish-brown modern with a two-stall garage and a blacktop driveway. On the edge of the driveway nearest to Jimmy, a yard fixture on a tall pole shined a cone of light on a glistening light-blue pickup truck, the pickup creating a shadow that a person might use to keep from being seen as he crept along.

Minute later Jimmy was looking inside the truck.

Keys were in the ignition.

More good luck.

Another omen?

Was there a lottery outlet nearby?

Truck door squeaked a bit on opening and creaked on the close, stoking Jimmy’s nerves as he turned the key and fired up the cherry Ford. Glancing toward the ranch house, Jimmy eased out the clutch and backed down the pavement to the dirt road, headlights off. Swinging the truck around, he headed away from the main highway, and, he hoped, the law.

Jimmy had often wondered what you might find on one of these strips of white dirt you saw running out from the highways in ranch country. Shifting into third, he watched the dust kicking up behind him in the red tint of the taillights, Jimmy thinking, This road could take me anywhere. Or nowhere.                             

Inside the tidy ranch house, Rachel and Dr. Robert Hayden couldn’t hear anything over the commotion from the most recent of their increasingly frequent fights. This time it was about the lazy hired hands and the amount of time the doctor was spending away from home, the reasons du jour Rachel chose when she really just wished Doctor Bob would stand up and face himself—perhaps accept responsibility for his actions—if it wasn’t too goddamn inconvenient. But honestly, these days, just about anything could set the two of them off.

Recoiling from his wife’s angry salvos, Dr. Robert huffed and mumbled as he retreated toward the sanctuary of his lockable home office, Rachel saying to his departing back: “You better start taking more of a part in this marriage or there’s going to be trouble, Bob. You can’t hide from the truth forever, Doctor.”

Calling him “Doctor” to express her growing indifference.

(to be continued)

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South Texas Tangle, Chapter 1, Excerpt 2

Cynthia Marie Mathews Henning felt light and airy, except for the tugging in her stomach when thoughts of her son came around. And now as the cool of dawn gave way to the heat of late morning, the elation of breaking free from Dan was fading with the dew. And as much as she believed what she’d done was necessary—mandatory even—second thoughts and second guesses were creeping into her head like scorpions seeking shade. Maybe she shouldn’t have listened to her sister Jean. Maybe she should’ve talked to Dan about marriage counseling before walking out. Maybe she should’ve stayed at home. But darn it, she couldn’t do things over, and Jean was probably right about Dan, her big sister saying Dan would pull a John Wayne and refuse any kind of help or counseling.

Cynthia knew state troopers could get mental health counseling within the department if they requested it. She also knew Dan would never request it on his own. Probably say he’d taken enough crap already from the guys about his “chicken-shit suspension.” Talk about a stubborn streak, the man was still sticking to his claim that the Latina whore was forcing herself on him, Dan insisting he’d pushed the tramp away just a second after the cell phone photo was taken. And the picture wasn’t that clear—really—so Cyn did have some doubt.

Just a little.

Or maybe not.

Yes, she was trying very hard to believe her husband. But sadly found herself coming back to the way she’d felt for the last few months: a big, aching hole inside her and despair when she looked ahead even so far as next week. Freedom demands eternal vigilance was one of her father’s favorite sayings, but what, exactly, was there to be vigilant about here? Was she supposed to be following Dan around 24/7? Hacking in to the NSA to track his movements? It was all too confusing and draining.

Her sister Jean kept telling her she just needed time on her own, Cyn having gone right from college into a “dead-end marriage trap,” Jean never bothering to soften her rips at Dan. And maybe it was good advice. Cyn wasn’t sure so she was giving it a try. But what the heck should she do with this time on her own?

That was the question all right.

Money wouldn’t be a problem if it came down to that. Her Daddy would be more than happy to help her cut loose from the “cretin with a badge,” her father’s exact words six years ago when Cyn told him she was marrying Dan. And perhaps a few weeks on her own was what she needed to get her thoughts in order. Her mother always said Jesus would guide the way and Cyn was hoping old J.C.—or anyone, for that matter—would come along and point her in the right direction. At the moment she could barely imagine spending much time away from her baby boy, so that needed some adjustment. And, well, a few days away might be long enough to get things straight, but if going back to her husband meant putting his penis in her mouth like he was always asking, she just didn’t know, thing smelling like stale Vienna sausage under the covers. Maybe after a shower….

And that was the actual truth, but she wouldn’t be putting it on her Facebook page anytime soon.

(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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