MONDAY: Numbers Game

BY DARREN O’BRIEN

“NEW SHOOTER coming out, new shooter.”

The dealer looked at me as he presented five dice, scattered on the craps table like an overturned bowl of cherries. I caressed each one carefully, feeling the contrast of their cool, smooth sides and jagged corners, sharp as porcupine quills. I selected two and watched him swipe away the others with his stick. Staring at them as they oscillated in the palm of my shaking hand, I thought of all the losers that had cost me a ton of dough. The rookie point guard that clanked one off the rim at the buzzer. The wide receiver that dropped the ball in the end zone. That slimy blackjack dealer in Reno, baring his yellow teeth as his bony fingers snatched away my entire weekend’s bankroll in three minutes. I learned my lesson. It was up to me. My hands throwing these dice. The dealer stared at me with his lifeless eyes. “Ready when you are,” he said.

I looked at my watch. 2:40. I’d been up for 24 hours straight, hustling, stealing, cajoling. A whirlwind of theft that started with my face pressed against cold, wet concrete, Tommy’s hot breath warming the back of my neck. I’ve been chasing you for three months. I’m tired of it. Fitzy’s. Tomorrow, 3 pm. Fifty grand. I broke into a few houses. Knocked over a couple of buskers, lifted a pile of wallets. Jumped some poor sap in Central Park, Tommy’s final words in my head muting the sound of my fists breaking bones. Don’t even think about leaving town. I’ll find you. And don’t be one minute late or one dollar short. Or I will kill you.

Tucked away in the Lower East Side like a fading business card in the back of a wallet, Fitzy’s existed solely for certain types of customers: the broken, the desperate, and the ones who’d been banned from every casino in Atlantic City. For guys like me.

I grimaced as I looked around. The place was practically empty, save for the two barflies at the bar watching the ponies. The walls and ceiling were saturated in waves of nicotine, rendering their original colour unrecognizable. The hot air was thick with dust, every breath like inhaling the inside of a dirty vacuum bag. I rubbed my bleary eyes, heavy from the strain of peering through the dim light cast by the aging chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The dealer stared at me as he rapped the table with his stick like a jockey using his whip to urge his 50-1 shot through the finish line.

I reached into my pocket and opened my hand. Five $5000 chips glistened in my sweaty palms. Not a bad haul for a day’s work. More than enough to get out of town and start over again somewhere else, anywhere else. But I was tired of looking over my shoulder, living in fear, scurrying around town like a rat. No more running. My jittery fingers placed the chips on the table in a neat little stack.

“That’s a rather large bet,” a familiar voice behind me said.

Tommy. I went numb as he settled in beside me, his mere presence seemingly squeezing the air out of the room. How long had he been there?

“I can tell you’re apprehensive to see me. I assume you’re a little light on your payment?” He straightened his tie around his crisp white collar. “You obviously are desperate, in addition to being greedy and perpetually ignorant.” Reaching into his suit jacket, he pulled out a silver plated cigarette pack. He took out a menthol and lit it, the minty smoke swirling around us. He glanced at his watch. “It’s 2:45. You are clear about the details of our meeting?”

“Yes,” I said. Fiddling with the dice as I stared down at the carpet, I couldn’t meet his gaze. I felt like a little schoolboy with my pants pulled down, the principal whacking me on the ass with his belt in front of the whole class. I looked at the table. Twenty five grand. One half of what I owed. One chance to come up with the rest. One other option, cowering in the back of my mind, refusing to be dragged to the front, like a disobedient dog resisting his leash.

“Excellent. Well, best of luck.”

I ran my sandpaper tongue over my chapped lips. I grabbed the dice and closed my eyes. Roll a seven. Sevens are easy. Seven has the most combinations. Simple. Roll a seven, pay Tommy, and get the hell out of here. A six and a one, five and a two, four and a three. Just give me a goddamn seven.

The dice felt alive in my fingers, like Mexican jumping beans. I flung them down the table. They landed at the base of the back wall, spinning wildly as they caromed back, coming to rest right in front of the dealer. A three and a one.

“Four, four, the point is four.” The dealer corralled the two dice with his stick, sliding them in front of me with a swoosh.

Four. Not good. Odds two to one against. But I still had a chance. Just roll a four before a seven. The seven, one minute my saviour, the next my Judas. The seven, like a childhood sweetheart that dumps you for your best friend. The seven, like a seductress, on the first roll wanting you to love her, her and nobody else, and when you commit, giving her all your devotion, she disappears, hiding in the shadows, waiting to reappear as your executioner. Waiting like a snake coiled up beside your foot, waiting for the right moment to strike, sharp and quick, her poison fast and lethal.

I breathed deeply and tried to clear my mind. The hot, stale air dried out the back of my throat. I couldn’t think about that number any more. I needed to think about a four. Four. Number four, Bobby Orr, sashaying down the ice as I cheered in front of the TV, the puck seemingly taped to his stick. Four. The Fantastic Four, my favorite comic book, hidden under the pillow with my penlight. Giggling as I longed to be Mr. Fantastic, stretching my rubber arms out to eternity. Four calling birds, my line in the Christmas pageant, sung at the top of my lungs. Wishing that Christa Matthews, the prettiest partridge in a pear tree I had ever seen would magically fall in love with my voice.

Four. The Four Seasons, “Sherry” blaring from the record player as I made out with Debbie Walker on the couch in-between gulps of warm rum and cokes. The pounding four-four time of the marching band as they high stepped across the end zone, trombones and tubas swaying in unison as I spiked the football to the ground. Two by fours, laid out on the construction site, as I laughed at Dad and all the other suckers working for the man, dragging their weary asses every day. Four. Two twos or a three and a one, just give me a goddamn four.

I picked the dice up quickly, and heaved them to the far side of the table. They bounced off the back in unison and tumbled into the middle of the table. A five and a three looked up to the ceiling.

“Eight, eight, it came easy, eight!” shouted the dealer.

I wiped my eyes and exhaled. The pounding of my heart filled my ears, distorting the buzz of the vents in the ceiling grinding to separate the smoke from the oxygen. The drunks at the bar seemed to have lost interest in the daily double, their bloodshot eyes fixated on me and Tommy.

Tommy cleared his throat to get the dealer’s attention. He reached into his front pocket, and one at a time, dropped five $5000 chips on the table, like the slow, steady drips of an IV.

“No four.” His beady eyes looked straight ahead, barely hiding his disdain. My cheeks filled with blood. The shame and humiliation were swept away by a wave of rage. Betting against me. Greedy son of a bitch. Roll a four. Take the cigarette out of his mouth and take a big rip on it, blow the smoke right into his face. Shove the fifty grand in his pocket and walk out.

“You seem upset.” Tommy said. The words dropped from his mouth like the bits of dust he was sweeping off the lapels of his Zegna suit. “Roll a four, pay me my money and I’ll be on my way. Or, roll a seven. Either outcome is acceptable to me. But if you wouldn’t mind, please get a move on. You have a deadline, and I have reservations for an early dinner uptown.”

I grabbed the dice again and closed my eyes. Four. Four on the floor of Dad’s Chevy, grinning as I popped the clutch, tires screaming down the highway. Donny and Pete laughing as they threw empties out the back window, the cop’s lights blinding me in the rear view. Four years at Harvard, no degrees or diplomas, just an aptitude for cheating, backstabbing and lying. Four. Four big tits, shoved in my face by those hookers I nailed in Vegas, my reward to myself for pulling off my biggest scam ever. Four years probation for fraud, the judge yawning as he mumbled his decision at the sentencing. My lawyer frowning as he shook his head, muttering that this was the luckiest day of my life.

I grabbed the dice and paused.

The four inch piece of steel on my switchblade, waiting patiently in my back pocket, ready if need be. Waiting to be sprung open, to slice Tommy from his chin to his stomach, dissecting him like a frog, before I ran for the door and kept on running.

My stomach fluttered as I flung the dice down the table. They bounced hard off the back wall, ricocheting off each other, the light catching their sharp edges as they sped back down towards me, twisting, turning. My heart jumped as one die lurched to a full stop, a two facing the ceiling. The second die continued on, spinning, staggering as if having a heart attack, before finally dying right in front of me. Five white dots looked up.

“Seven. Seven out.” The dealer whisked my bet away. Tommy smiled as he received his winnings, taking a drag of his cigarette. I reached inside my back pocket, feeling for the slick ivory blade, my palm itching in anticipation, my fingers fumbling. But nothing was there.

“Looking for this?” Tommy plunged the switchblade into my abdomen, slicing me open. I gasped as he used the ground for leverage, violently thrusting his hand upwards, sending an electric chill through me. He leaned in close and whispered in my ear, “I’m glad it worked out like this.” He withdrew my knife, dropping it to the floor. My head bobbed down, leaving me to stare at the five and the two. A splat of blood from my mouth landed on the table. Then a steady stream, soaking the green felt. My knees buckled, unable to support the dead weight of my torso. Light headed, I spun around and fell to the ground.

Too weak to close my eyes, with no control of my muscles to turn away, I watched as Tommy’s manicured hands wiped down his blood streaked Bruno Magli loafers. I tried to breathe, but couldn’t, as if I were sucking on a bag of wet cement. As the darkness set in, I watched as Tommy made his way to the door, counting his steps as he strode up the stairs. One. Two. Three. Four.

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