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S.O.L.

Doesn’t matter if it costs fifty cents or fifty bucks, Gordie realized.  One cigar can foul the air for a hundred feet in all directions.  That’s how he knew Purcell lay in wait around the corner up ahead.  Gordie’s grace period had expired.

And the pisser was, he’d had Purcell’s money that very morning.  All of it.  A hot streak and four jacks at an all-night Texas hold’em game in a motel room out on the sleaze end of route forty had provided enough cash that he wouldn’t have to test the length of Purcell’s legendary reach.

Gordon Beale had intended to pay and be quit of that psycho bloodsucker, hand to God.  But then he’d stopped at Sweeney’s for a beer and overheard those old dudes talking.  Mornings were Gordie’s favorite time in any bar.  No crowd, no jukebox, no smoke polluting the air.  After squinting through clouds of second-hand all night, his eyeballs needed the detox.  In the silence of the near-empty pub, the two men’s voices carried down the length of polished bar top to Gordie.

“Trust me, Rowdy’s Mr. Singh ain’t gonna win.”

“How you figure?  That booger’s running at almost even money.”

Gordie signaled the keep to beer him, using the brief time before the bored mick set down a bottle to move one stool closer to the chatty duo.

“For the price of a twenty, one of the paddock boys spilled that Mr. Singh’s been off his feed a week.”  He tapped the racing form spread open on the bar, as if to emphasize what the stats did not show.  “The owner’s keeping it on the DL.  Told the vet to shoot him up with whatever’ll get him through the race, even if he comes in dead last.”

“Makes no sense to run your meal ticket if he’s sick.”

Unless you’re betting against him under the table, keeping the odds long on another horse.”

Gordie drank his hops-based breakfast and listened attentively as the one in the gray felt porkpie explained why the second-favorite wouldn’t win either.  Seemed Moon Dancer’s jockey was balancing his account with some OTB gorilla by swearing not to come in ahead of show position.  The jockey’s kneecaps were on the line, and Gordie thought been there, seconded by hell, I’m there now.

“So, Moon Dancer slips back to show and, even off his feed and pumped full of antibiotics, bloodline guarantees the place slot to Rowdy’s Mr. Singh.”

His compadre threw him a skeptical look through cartoon-big eyeglasses.

“You saying Chatterbox goes from predicted third to a win?”

“You’d think so, but the invisible betting’s going on a nag that was supposed to stumble in just out of the money.  Nobody’s saying why, but that much smart and quiet doesn’t get wagered on a maybe.”

Gordie had stopped eavesdropping once he caught the sure winner’s name, turning his thoughts to how broke he’d be after giving Purcell the poker winnings to cover what he’d lost on football.  Maybe God was showing him a way to clear the slate and still have some walking around cash.

The cigar stench jerked him out of his reverie, assaulting his nostrils as he trudged toward the corner, cursing his own stupidity for believing those old touts had been preaching the Holy Gospel.  Purcell’s settle-up had been shat on by a horse named Carmody’s Commander.

Literally.

On the far turn, the three-year-old roan had hitched stride long enough to drop a load onto the track, ceding a length to Moon Dancer and never making up the distance, while Chatterbox blew in first, a neck ahead of Rowdy’s Mr. Singh.

Gordie had played it smart, conservative for once in his no-luck life.  Resisting the urge to go all in for the win, he had chosen the smaller pay-out of a show bet to be on the safe side, knowing he couldn’t afford to lose.  Not this time.

Rounding the corner with a horse-shit story ready on his glib tongue, praying self-deprecating humor could buy yet another week’s reprieve, Gordie was hit in the face by the acrid stink of Purcell’s fat stogie.

Oh, and two slugs from a silenced .38.

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