This month we are re-publishing Daniel Woodrell’s three Rene Shade novels, Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, The Ones You Do in one beautiful package called THE BAYOU TRILOGY. We will be excerpting the first chapter of each of the 3 novels here over the next few weeks. We began last week with Under the Bright Lights. And continue this week with Chapter 1 of Muscle for the Wing, a book which had the New York Times “swooning” and of which the Washington Post Book World raved, “Off-the-wall characters, quirky and bizarre, yet as authentic as any I’ve ever met in a novel. Woodrell succeeds—in fact triumphs… and spins a hell of a yarn to boot.”
WISHING TO avoid any risk of a snub at The Hushed Hill Country Club, the first thing Emil Jadick shoved through the door was double-barreled and loaded. He and the other two Wingmen were inappropriately attired in camouflage shirts and ski masks, but the gusto with which they flaunted their firearms squelched any snide comments from the guests seated around the poker table.
Jadick took charge of the rip-off by placing both cool barrels against the neck of a finely coiffed, silver-haired gent, and saying loudly, “Do I have your attention? We’re robbin’ you assholes—any objections?”
The table was a swank walnut octagon, with drink wells and stacks of the ready green on a blue felt top. The gentlemen who had assembled around it for an evening of high-stakes Hold ’Em were well dressed, well fed, and well heeled, but now their mouths hung loose and their poolside tans paled.
“Hands on the table, guys,” Jadick said. “And don’t any of you act one-armed.” A short man with an air of compact power, Jadick moved with brisk precision and spoke calmly. He pulled back the hammers on his archaic but awesome weapon and said, “Scoop the fuckin’ manna, boys.”
“Check,” said Dean Pugh. He and Cecil Byrne, his fellow Wingman, went slowly around the table shoving wads of cash into a gym bag that had St. Bruno High Pirates stenciled on the side.
Twelve hands were palm-down on the blue felt. Manicured fingers twitched in obvious attempts to covertly twist wedding bands and pinkie rings so that the flashy side was down.
Jadick watched the fingers and rings business until two or three had indeed been twisted into seeming insignificance, and the owners began to relax. He then said, “Get all the jewelry, too.”
“Check,” said Pugh, a daffy man who oddly relished the orderliness of military jargon.
Pugh and Byrne both carried darkly stylish pistols, and as they went around the table they pressed them to the ears of the players. While they raked up the money and jerked fine gems from plump fingers, Jadick scanned the room, nodding his head at how closely it resembled what he had expected. Tournament trophies and low-round medals were enclosed in a huge glass case, along with antique wooden-shafted clubs and other golfing memorabilia. A long horseshoe bar of richly hued wood halved the room and several conference tables were dotted about the other side. Just beyond the poker table, nailed at a dominating height on the wall, there were scads of stern portraits, presumably of the exclusionary but sporty founders.
“Hah!” Jadick snorted. Some long-festering desire took hold of him and he shoved the shotgun against the neck of the privileged man before him until he was rudely rubbing an upscale face against the tabletop. “I bet all of you sell city real estate to niggers and live in the ’burbs—am I right?”
One of the wide-eyed, harkening faces turned to Jadick. This man was younger than the other players, with a big bottle of Rebel Yell in front of him and an empty spot where his small heap of money had been. His hair was closely cropped and blond and his cheeks were full and flushed.
“Your accent,” he said, “it ain’t from around here. It’s northern. That’s why you don’t know you’re makin’ a mistake, man—this is a protected game.”
“Really?” Jadick said. “If this is ‘protected,’ I’m goin’ to get over real good down here.”
Despite the low hum of air-conditioning, the victims sweated gushingly and shook with concern, for, not only were they being shorn of their gambling money, but history was staggering and order decaying before their eyes. The swinging side of the St. Bruno night world had been run as smoothly and nearly as openly as a pizza franchise for most of a decade and now these tourists from the wrong side of the road somewhere else were demonstrating the folly of such complacence. Auguste Beaurain, the wizened little genius of regional adoration, had run the upriver dagos, the downriver riffraff, the homegrown Carpenter brothers, and the out-of-state Dixie Mafia from this town and all its profitable games in such an efficient and terrifying manner that no one had truly believed he would ever again be tested this side of the pearly gates.
But here and now these strangers, too ignorant of local folklore to know how much danger they were in, were taking the test and deciding on their own grades.
“I think we should make ’em drop trou,” Pugh said. He widened an eyehole in his ski mask with a finger from his gun-free hand. “These are the sort of hick sharpies who figure money belts are real nifty.”
Jadick nodded and stepped back so that he had a clear shot at all concerned.
“A fine notion,” he said. He raised the barrel up and down. “You heard him, dudes—stand up and strip.” Jadick added scornfully, “Don’t be shy.”
At this coupling of humiliation with monetary loss, there were some sighs and whimpers. But all of the men stood and unbuckled their pants; then, five of the six dropped them to their ankles.
“What’d I say?” Pugh said. “There’s a money belt.” Pugh advanced on the man with the thick white money belt and pulled on it and it stretched like a big fish story. “What the hell?”
“Man,” said the shamefaced tubby, as the released elastic snapped back, “man, it’s a corset. Over the winter I got fat.”
“Shit,” Pugh said, then noticed that the blond man who’d earlier yammered about “protected games” had yet to bare his butt to financial scrutiny. “Say, Jim,” he said harshly, “take ’em down!”
“Come on,” Cecil said, “I got the dough—let’s cut.”
“Not ’til this guy does what I said. He’s holdin’ out.”
The blond man’s face was red and wet. Fear was wringing his features like a sink-washed sock. He was too jammed up to make a definite response: he looked from one face to another; studied his feet; blinked rapidly; then said: “This is a protected game. I’m telling you all…”
“Shut up, Gerry,” the corseted man said. “If you’d been at the door like…”
Jadick rapped the shotgun barrel on the table.
“He’s the guard,” he said. “Get his piece.”
But as that final sentence was still being uttered, the blond, with one hand holding his unbuckled trousers, slid the other hand behind his back where holsters clipped on, and began to spin away, grunting and sucking for air.
Pugh screamed, “Yeah, right!,” then cut him down before his pistol cleared his shirttails, spotting his shots, tearing the man open in the belly, the thigh, one wrist and, finally, just above the left ear.
The body slumped against the wall in an acutely angled posture that nothing alive could withstand. Blood pumped up out of the wrist onto the wall, and instantly washed down in a wide smear.
“Anybody else?” Pugh asked, expecting, as a response, silence, which he received. The Jockey-shorted high rollers were immobilized by the noise, the blood, and the lingering scent of gunfire.
“Hit the door,” Jadick said gruffly. He used the gun barrel to point the way. “Let’s go.” He was not upset that murder had been required, for, in the short run, the only run that really mattered, it might set a useful precedent. Yeah, the hicks will know that some new rough element has dropped in on their town. “I’ll be right behind.”
Pugh and Byrne backed through the door while Jadick acted as rear guard. He looked out of the Chinese-shaped eyeholes and saw so many of the things he’d never liked reflected in these tony, awestruck, half-dressed money-bag types that he couldn’t pass up a chance at scot-free revenge.
The silver-haired man whose neck he’d used for a gun rest was at a handy remove so he hopped forward and chopped blue steel across his fine, blue-chip nose, heard the crack and quash and knew the gent would now have a common Twelfth Street beak he would be ribbed about on the nineteenth hole from here ’til the grave. With considerable satisfaction he watched the dude sink to his knees, torrents of red ruining his tasteful silk knit ensemble. He did a little swivel, flourishing that ominous piece, and all of the men went belly-down on the carpet with their hands uselessly over their heads, and Jadick, as a signature of his scorn, blasted the fancy tabletop, scattering cards and whiskey-sour glasses, a liter of Rebel Yell, a pint of Maalox, and the thoughts of all those prone below him. The blue felt was tufted and ripped and unsuitable for any more games, and Jadick, as he left, said, “The universe owes me plenty, motherfuckers, and I aim to collect!”
© 1988 Daniel Woodrell
Five of Daniel Woodrell’s eight novels were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. A recipient of the PEN West Award, Woodrell lives in the Ozarks near the Arkansas line with his wife, Katie Estill.