THURSDAY: This Is Not a Love Story I Wanted to Tell, Part Four

BY FRANK T. SIKORA

Copyright is held by the author. This is the fourth part of a five-part story. Check back tomorrow for Part Five. Read Parts One, Two & Three.

Part Four: Generosity
AFTER THE police took Slander away, Amy returned to The Hole. She bought another Coke and another slice of pizza, then sat and studied her program in preparation for the night’s final two races. She had missed the previous five races sitting with Slander; the Kenosha County police spent more than an hour taking statements from Amy and other witnesses, separately and in different rooms. Amy did her best to paint the scene in a favourable light, going as far as to suggest the fight might have been in self-defence. The police officer took long and detailed notes and showed no emotion or skepticism at Amy’s version of the event. When he completed his interview, he applied shackles to Slander’s feet. Amy didn’t want to watch the cops haul Slander away, but she did, out of respect. Slander did not say anything as he shuffled out the door and down the long hallway toward the parking lot. He kept his head down as a group of spectators formed a line to rubber neck.

After a quick read, Amy dismissed the 12th race as untenable — she couldn’t discern a winner among the contestants — and decided to throw her remaining cash at the last race. It was a good crowd tonight, and she expected more than $30,000 to be wagered on the superfecta, a bet that required picking the order of finish for the first four places. With eight dogs racing, that meant there were 1,680 possible combinations. It was not unheard of for someone to box the whole field of eight dogs for $1,680, purchasing all possible combinations, but that did not guarantee a payoff of more than the amount invested. Depending on the odds of the winner, superfectas generally paid between $500 and $3,000, depending on how many gamblers had picked a winning ticket.

Amy considered this plan, but she had only about $700 left, and she never went to the Tyme machine for cash. After all, she thought, you have to maintain some discipline. Besides, she hadn’t checked her savings and checking balance in the past week, but suspected the amount had dwindled menacingly close to zero. She would have to go a more conventional route: use her remaining cash alone or find an ally.

As she focused on the race, images of the police hauling Slander away intervened. It was tough watching the police haul Slander away. She had briefly considered going with him, but to what end? There was nothing she could to do tonight to help him. Perhaps, she thought, I will visit him tomorrow.

Get lost in the data, she told herself. Immerse yourself. Find the path hidden among the maze of information. Enjoy the process, the analysis. The track offered daily programs and pamphlets filled with statistical information on all the competitors including winning percentage by post position, grade drops, weight gains or losses, race times versus similar competitors, performances based on track conditions, and the greyhounds’ running styles, which indicated whether they slashed toward the rail or preferred to run wide. It was not unlike studying stock data or any market research. Even more intriguing were the unknowns, such as the animal’s health. Despite the track veterinarian’s best efforts, many owners and trainers raced injured dogs. Was the dog a racer who enjoyed the chase of the lure or just loved to run with the other dogs? Until her losing streak, Amy could invariably look at the data and pick a winner or know enough to determine whether the race was too difficult to resolve and any wager would be nothing more than a monetary prayer. She wasn’t perfect, but she had won considerably more than she had lost.

Then it had all gone to shit. Since she met Slander, she had squandered an average of $3,000 a day, or $21,000 dollars a week. She didn’t blame Slander for her losing. Other gamblers might have refused to take responsibility for their decisions. She bought hundreds of dollars worth of lottery tickets, and lost. She tried late night poker games and lost more. You can’t beat the track, the house or any gambling method: How many times had someone older and wiser and poorer than she told her that? You had to love your addiction unconditionally because in the end the track would eat away all your resources.

Amy loved the track and she had lied to Slander. It did matter whether she won or lost. When she ran out of money, she would have to decide what the hell she would do next. Get a job in the real world? She would then be expected to develop lasting and mature relationships. She would be expected to have a plan and goals. No more living in the moment — no past and no future. The idea of any of these scenarios caused that snake living in her stomach to hiss and coil with dread.

Amy looked up as she heard laughter behind her. A half dozen more gamblers had entered The Hole. Amy recognized the faces but only knew one by name, a cut-by-the-numbers, tall and soft white male about 40: Tobin, a.k.a, Square Head, Christoferson, who owned a furniture store. Amy thought about Tobin’s backstory, one of the better-known track tales of degenerate woe. Tobin had inherited his family’s store about the time he had discovered pari-mutuel wagering. Initially, he was quite successful at both: Sales were excellent at the store and he had won a Pick 6 at Arlington International Racecourse in Illinois for more than $75,000 in August 2001. Now it was rumoured he lived with his grandmother and performed daily errands and household duties for her for free room and board as he struggled to keep his store fiscally sound.

She watched him as he bought himself a hamburger and a beer. She overheard the usual inane weather banter between him and the aged female, mousy clerk. After the sale, with his program tucked under one arm and the beer and hamburger in his hands, he walked directly to the self-betting machine, placed the food and drink on top of it, and entered what appeared to be six 20-dollar bills into the cash slot. He placed a single wager.

At least he has money, Amy thought.

Without checking his ticket for accuracy, he gathered his late night dinner and moved toward the first row of seats in front of the main television where his friends had gathered.

Amy stood and waved. “Tobin.”

He stopped. “Amy?”

“Yes, who else?” she said. “Come here.”

He nodded and smiled, obviously pleased to be invited to sit with track royalty. “Hey, it’s been a long time since we’ve talked. Good to see you.”

She couldn’t recall when they had last spoken. “I need a bit of assistance — your help.”

“Really? You want my advice?” Tobin asked, and sat to Amy’s left.

“Of course,” said Amy. “I want your opinion on a puppy.”

“You want my opinion?”

Christ, show some confidence, she thought. “You’ve picked your share of winners. I need a fresh perspective. You see, I’m on a bit of downslide, and …”

“I’ll say,” Tobin said, interrupting. “What is it now, 90-odd races in a row?”

“No, it’s not 90 races. Not even close.” She frowned. “News travels fast around here, especially when it’s bad.”

“That’s true, and tonight it’s no different. You and your pal what’s-his-name are the lead story.”

“His name is Slander.”

“Well, Slander sure did a number on that Russian from Chicago, not that he didn’t deserve a good ass-kicking. That scumbag stole money or owed money to almost everyone here, a piece of work.”

“That scumbag was a friend,” Amy said. “At one time, a good friend.”

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t know,” Tobin said, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. He took a drink. “In a way, if you think about it, it must be flattering to have two men battling for your affection.”

“Flattering is not how I would describe it,” Amy said. “Look, if you’re through winning me over with your charm and wit, do you want to hear my proposal?”

Tobin thought for a moment. “A proposal?” he said and to Amy’s disgust, he flashed a flirtatious smile. “Sure, what do you have in mind?”

Mercy, she thought. How badly do I need his money?

Badly.

“Don’t get all excited. I don’t need you suffering a stroke on me here. I want you to look at this race and tell me if you think the seven dog, Justin Time, has a shot of winning.”

“Didn’t mean anything, Amy,” Tobin said meekly, obviously stung by Amy’s manner. “I’m just trying to keep things light, friendly.”

“Please, take a look at the dog. Do you think he has a chance of winning or coming in the top four?”

Tobin leaned forward and opened his program to the last race. He had placed an ‘X’ by the favourite, Holly Girl. “The seven? He’s 20-1? It’s possible. He’s in the race. A bit of a reach, no? A prayer?”

“Totally.” Amy withdrew six 100-dollar bills and an assortment of smaller denominations from her wallet and fanned then on the table. “There’s almost $700 there, give or take. I’m betting that the seven will hit the ticket. I could play him myself in the top three spots for the trifecta, but I have grander plans. I want to play the rat in all four spots of the superfecta. This rat could chug in last or go box to wire and win. He could come in second, third or fourth, but he will hit the ticket. He’s unpredictable, which means no one else has the guts or the intuition to play him in all four spots.” She stopped, thinking: Slander would make the play. He may whine a bit, but he would risk it. He would do it because he had guts and because he would want to please me, and because the greater risk would increase the stakes and reward. It would make a better story.

“Amy?”

“Sorry, I got distracted. It’s been a long, stressful day. Look, my proposal is simple. I need about $125 from you to complete the wager. And because this is your lucky day, I will give you half the winnings when we win. Interested? Speak quickly: This offer expires in 60 seconds.”

“Half?”

“Half.”

“What have I done to deserve such generosity?” Tobin asked.

“Nothing. Some days fortune craps all over your picnic and some days it smiles upon you. Today it’s smiling. You’ve got 30 seconds.”

Tobin reached into his pants for his wallet.

The Tower: Part Four
Amy watched the doomed men and women of The Nest jump from the tower. They jumped alone and in pairs. They jumped in groups. They exited from openings to her left and right and below. Amy was amazed how few had screamed. Once in the air, a handful fought, but most fell graciously. They seemed relieved, as if they had rushed through the five stages of death before making their final choice.

Amy bent to one knee and leaned out over the ledge. One hundred two stories. More than 1,000 feet. How long would it take to fall? she wondered. Seconds? Would she pass out before hitting the ground? Would she scream? Although her gut felt as if it had tightened into a tangled knot, she realized her trembling had ceased and she felt an unexpected calm. Was this how the others felt? Was this how Julia felt as she and The Prince descended to their deaths?

Peaceful?

No, she thought. This wasn’t peace; it was resignation, the absence of hope — nothing else. They had descended inward, to their core, where all beings cursed with self-awareness flee to in their final moments, seeking answers, seeking absolution for sins, seeking comfort in their final moments.

For me there is no comfort. I am alone, she thought.

The tower shuddered. Metal and steel creaked. The tower was about to collapse. She knew it was her time, the moment that awaits us all. The moment we push aside, pretending it will never come. She started to sob. She thought of her father. She thought of all she had lost and would miss — love, children, growing old. What have I done to deserve this? she thought. What sin or sins have I committed to deserve this choice? Was it vanity? Hubris? Ambition? If so, is this fair punishment?

A low rumble rose from below.

Amy straightened up and peeked one more time over the ledge. To her further horror, she discovered she was not only trapped by the smoke and fire prowling behind her but also by the fire and smoke stalking from below; even if she did jump, it wasn’t certain she would avoid burning.

It did not matter. She had to escape the heat: 3,500 degrees and rising.

She executed the sign of the cross and stepped off the ledge.

She did not notice the eagle descending from the east.

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