••• The International Writers Magazine - 23 Years on-line - Win or Lose
Twitchell handed the deck of cards to the Chinese woman on his right to cut and she did without taking her eyes off the stack of chips in front of her. She had been playing blackjack at his table since he began his shift nearly twenty-five minutes ago and seldom lost two hands in a row. Her stack of chips was so high it almost grazed her chin. She barely uttered a word while the guy next to her, who had on a Stetson hat that he claimed John Wayne wore in Rio Bravo, talked all the time. Mainly he spoke to his cards, trying to convince them to be kind to him, but he also implored Twitchell to deal him the cards he needed. The third player at the table was almost as quiet as the woman except when he lost and then he would emit an exaggerated whine that sounded like a chair being dragged across a hardwood floor. He, too, wore a western hat but didn’t mention it was ever worn in a movie. If so, Twitchell would have guessed Hondo.
Win or Lose
Promptly, after everyone placed their bets, Twitchell dealt the cards, two face-down to each player, one face-down and one face-up to himself. Hondo stood pat which was unusual because he nearly always asked for at least one additional card. Bravo tapped his cards for a hit and was dealt a six of spades. Frowning, he immediately tapped for another hit and received a six of hearts. He then waved his hands over his cards, and Twitchell looked at the woman who also stood pat.
Twitchell’s face-up card was an eight of hearts. He then turned over his hole card, a three of clubs. “The dealer shows eleven,” he announced then dealt himself a five of diamonds. “He has sixteen and must take another card.”
He did, and it was a three of spades.
“Whoever beats eighteen wins.”
Hondo, sighing, turned over his cards to reveal two nines while the others each had twenty.
Just as he got ready to deal another hand, he noticed a man with bushy eyebrows staring at him from the end of the bar. Quickly he looked away and dealt the cards, his pulse throbbing in his ears. The last time he thought he was being watched he was so sure of it he went over to the person and asked if he wanted something and the man appeared startled by the question and walked away without saying a word. He had expected to see him again in the casino but so far he had not returned.
“Dealer, please,” Hondo said, curtly tapping his cards.
Nodding, he dealt him a card then one more, annoyed at himself for letting the man at the bar distract him from doing his job.
Moments later, near the end of his shift, the Chinese woman got up from the table with her mound of chips and walked over to the bar where she embraced the man Twitchell thought was looking at him. He was relieved but only for a moment because he knew he would soon suspect someone else in the casino was watching him. Of course, he could quit and find work in some other part of the state but he suspected he would be found there too. This was already the third job he had in the past eleven months and at each one he was convinced he was being watched. So far, he had been mistaken but one of these days he wouldn’t be he was sure of it.
Last summer, for the third summer in a row, Twitchell worked at a dog racing track operated by a prosperous Serbian family. With an ice chest strapped around his waist, he roamed the stands selling beer and soft drinks and flavored water. One vendor he worked with last summer, Sid Brasher, always sold twice as many beverages as any of the other vendors. Not only was he very aggressive but he had a booming voice that easily could reach every row in the stands.
Late one night, after the track closed, Brasher invited him to go for a ride in what he said was his uncle’s Mustang. He claimed it was a replica of the model Steve McQueen drove through the streets of San Francisco in Bullitt.
“Where are you going?” he asked with some hesitation.
“Just around here for a few minutes.”
He had barely got his seat belt fastened when Brasher bolted out of the parking lot, the tires spinning angrily in the gravel. Turning right, he headed north, accelerating even more, and shot down the dark two-lane road as if he were Detective Frank Bullitt. Twitchell was tempted to ask him to slow down but didn’t want to reveal how nervous he was so he kept quiet and braced his knees against the dashboard. Thankfully, they had the road all to themselves because they were going much too fast to share it with anyone else. Hunched over the steering wheel, Brasher scarcely reduced his speed at all as he swept through one curve after another. Trees and billboards whirled by so rapidly that, at times, Twitchell wasn’t sure if the car was even moving.
“Is this the life or what?” Brasher shouted, dodging a dead possum in the middle of the road.
Seconds later, as they surged out of another curve, he slammed on the brakes but it was too late and the car plowed into an abandoned trailer on the side of the road. The sound of the collision was almost as loud as the screams of the occupants of the vintage Mustang.
Twitchell was fortunate to suffer only a few cuts and bruises while Brasher suffered quite a few more, including a broken nose. The left side of the car was caved in, the axle bent, and the engine inoperable. It was totaled, according to Brasher, who admitted as they walked back to the dog track that the car didn’t belong to his uncle but to a nephew of the owner of the track, Zarko Bibic.
“Did you have permission to drive his car?”
“Sid, what were you thinking?”
“That I wanted to drive a car like that so I did.”
“Zarko’s not going to be happy.”
“That’s an understatement, Twitch.”
“I know. He’s going to make you suffer a lot more than you did in the crash.”
Twitchell, who never went back to work at the dog track after the accident, soon learned from another vendor that a couple of security guards broke Brasher’s right hand during the course of a beating Zarko ordered them to give him when he discovered what happened. He also was told that Brasher blamed him for taking the car on the joy ride, even said he was the one who drove it into the trailer. He knew then he had to get out of town before Zarko’s guards broke one of his hands and left the next day.
Twitchell drew a soft seventeen so he was compelled to deal himself another card and did, a three of hearts. No one at the twenty-five dollar table had a better hand, and as he collected all the bets he spotted a guy in tinted aviator glasses watching him from the lounge upstairs. He thought he looked familiar but the guy was too far away for him to be sure and he wondered if he was a regular player at the casino. He wondered, too, if he might be one of the guards from the track. Whoever he was Twitchell was sure he had seen him before and knew he should probably leave the casino right this minute but he was tired of being a fugitive and decided to stay where he was and take whatever he had coming.
© T. R. Healy November 2022