Title: Casey’s Last Chance
Author: Joseph B. Atkins
Publisher: Sartoris Literary Group
Purchase on Amazon
About the Book: Tough, gritty, and atmospheric, Casey’s Last Chance unfolds against the backdrop of a treacherous, race-torn 1960s South that’s ready to explode with civil rights workers challenging an organized resistance itching for combat. The central character, Casey Eubanks, is a small-time North Carolina hustler on the run after an argument with his girlfriend Orella leaves his cousin dead. A crony steers him to a big operator in Memphis, Max Duren, a shadowy former Nazi with a wide financial network. Duren hires Casey to do a hit on labor organizer Ala Gadomska, who is stirring up trouble at one of Duren’s mills. Things go wrong, and Casey’s on the run again, this time from Duren’s goons as well as the cops. Enter Martin Wolfe, a freelance reporter investigating Duren’s operation. He tries to solicit Casey to help him and FBI agent Hardy Beecher bring Duren down. Casey dumps Wolfe, steals his car, and returns home to Orella. A bloody shootout with a Duren goon, however, convinces Casey to join Wolfe and Beecher. It’s Casey’s last chance. The three take off back across the South to execute a plan to destroy Duren. Everything works until the explosive end…but will anyone emerge unscathed?
July 1960 …
The night sky broke just as the Greyhound crossed the Tennessee line. Down came a blinding deluge that forced cars and trucks off to the sides of Highway 72 and under the shelter of the overpasses, but not the Memphis-bound bus that carried Casey Eubanks. He stirred through the troubled sleep that overtook him after the stop in Decatur, and stretched his arm across the newspaper in the seat next to him. He heard none of the rain that beat against the windowpane, only Clyde Point’s voice in his dream.
This is your last chance, Casey Eubanks.
The bus braked to make the left onto Union near downtown. It was a half-hour early.
I’m already way out on a limb talking you up to my boss like I did. He’s telling the Big Guy, the Big Mahah, you’re the right man for the job, but are you man enough to take the job?
Casey woke to the lights leading up to the crest of the hill where Union crosses Front and then descends toward the Mississippi River. People huddled in doorways and under awnings. As the bus pushed through the sheets of rain, he spotted two platinum blondes at the entrance of an open garage. Their lips worked feverishly as they stabbed the air between each desperate drag of their cigarettes.
He could still hear Clyde’s voice.
You get a new life, a new identity, the cops off your back, plenty of cash in your pocket, and maybe, someday, that pool hall you used to tell me was your big dream. And you get to forget the woman who put you in this mess.
Casey had been to Memphis before—when the sidewalks swelled with uniforms, drunk, swaggering GIs forcing the black zoot-suiters spilling off Beale Street to move to the side. He’d come with an AWOL high roller from Fort Bragg who promised to back him in a nightlong set of three-cushion, one-pocket, and straight pool at $200 a match. The high roller disappeared after he lost the second round of one-pocket, and the last thing Casey remembered was getting his head split open with a blackjack. He woke the next morning at the bottom of the levee, the Mississippi River to one side and Cotton Row to the other.
He climbed off the bus, groggy and in a bad mood.
Do it right, and both you and me reap the rewards.
He wanted his hotel room and his bed. Other than a few travelers and a Commercial Appeal hawker, the station was dead. He stopped to buy a paper. CUBAN STREET FIGHTING read one headline. His eyes moved across the page. KENNEDY OUTLINES PHILOSOPHY ON LABOR. He turned to the pages inside—EXOTIC DANCER OPENS AT THE SULTAN CLUB—then flipped from front to back, and back to front again. No news about the killing of Bux Baggett in Jonesboro, North Carolina, the woman who caused it, and the curly-headed fool who did it and who’s on the lam, a hustler and pool shark with a tattoo of Rita Hayworth on each arm.
Your last chance, Casey Eubanks.
Casey stood at the station entrance and checked out the street. The rain had subsided. Streams of neon red and yellow reflected off the pavement. The blondes were walking eastward, their heads side-by-side under a parasol, still gesturing with their cigarettes.
In the glass window to his right, just close enough to catch the corner of his eye, he saw another fake blond, himself, an alien named James Thompson, the burial insurance salesman who’d snatched his body back in Phenix City. He studied his new self, the dyed hair, the oversized gray suit Clyde Point had given him. For a moment he felt as if he were high. High on reefer. Like the time he dropped his favorite cue stick and watched it slither across the pool table. He knew it was no snake, but he never touched that stick again. Never even looked at it.
He thought of the woman who put in the dye, the scowl in the bathroom mirror, the stubby fingers that dug through his hair like grub worms.
“Curly, you gonna look weird as hell as a blond,” she’d told him. “You too dark to be a blond.”
He stepped out into the steam and made his way up Union, past the golden glow of the Peabody Hotel, through the airless night, when it’s a struggle even to breathe, toward what Clyde called a “little, easy-to-miss street named November 6,” where he’d find his hotel.
What he found was an alley lined with trashcans and fire escapes. At the far end of it was a neon sign: Hotel Paris. The alley served the side door exits for every building on it except the hotel itself, four stories of stacked brick, a lean-to with nothing to lean to. It was just wide enough for three windows on each of the three floors above the lobby. As he walked toward the hotel on the oily strip of tar and asphalt, he heard the scramble of claws against the pavement.
Casey jumped the puddle in front of the entrance and opened the door. Inside was a stretch of darkness broken by a lone bulb hanging over the counter at the other end of the lobby. A clerk in a navy blue shirt and dark pinstriped vest scribbled on a notepad. A young guy, early twenties. A cigarette dangled from his lips as he stopped to hum a few notes before jotting something down. Nearby was a black vinyl couch. On the wall behind it hung a photograph of a city boulevard on an overcast day—no people, no cars, only deserted sidewalks and empty cafés. A Swastika hung from the roof of a building. Beneath the photograph, in gold letters, was Champs Elysées, Paris, 1941.
An overhead fan buzzed. By the couch was an unlit stairway. You been a small-timer all your life. Now you get to play in the big leagues. The big leagues. A bus ticket to a cheap flophouse in a back alley.
He approached the counter.
“Name?” the clerk asked, ashes dropping from his cigarette onto his notepad. He blew them off to the side.
The clerk checked his ledger and reached below to grab a chain with a single key. He dangled it in the air. “Welcome to the Hotel Paris,” he said, dropping the key into Casey’s open palm. “Suite 13. Your lucky number. Bathroom’s at your end of the hall.”
He flipped the light and climbed the stairway to the third floor. The kid was right. His suite was next to the bathroom.