Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hard Streak (published in Powder Burn Flash)

Every drunk had a story, Hurley thought; he didn’t need this guy going on about his poor luck. It didn’t matter to him. There was nothing different about what he had to say and it was nothing he hadn’t heard before.
He was somebody from the neighborhood named Danny Ryan; middle-aged with faded blue tattoos etched in his arms and a face that looked years older than it really was. A guy who worked day jobs unloading cargo at Port Elizabeth, then spent what he made on beer and cigarettes once he cashed the pay check.
Ryan leaned forward, his elbows digging into the bar, talking to an audience limited to the evening bartender wiping glasses with a soapy rag, some kid in the corner who hadn’t spoken in an hour, and Hurley on the stool next to him. Hurley took a sip of his Bud and pretended to listen without really paying much attention. The thing with most drunks was that they could carry a conversation entirely on their own as long as you let them go on and didn’t disagree too vehemently with anything they said.
A drunk unchallenged, fed a steady stream of beer and whiskey, could go on for hours.
“Haven’t had much luck in a long time,” Ryan said. He took a hard swallow of whiskey, grimacing as the liquor burned his throat. “Things been a little tight.”
There was always something with guys like him – poor luck, a bad day at the track, numbers that didn’t hit. Life was a lottery ticket they could never cash. Hurley had learned through the years that you had to work for everything; if you wanted it bad enough you had to take it, although he was a little down on his own luck if you believed in things like that. He had spread out his debt among three different loan sharks, just so he wasn’t in too deep to any one guy on the street, but he couldn’t cover the vig on what he owed without something changing soon.
“Welcome to my world,” he muttered.
The guy let out a small laugh.
Hurley didn’t see anything funny about that. He wasn’t desperate but he could feel the pressure mounting - there was nothing as worrisome as the fear that crept into your thoughts when you had no money. He had a twenty-two tucked inside the waist of his jeans, pressed hard against the small of his back; most times he felt the cold steel against his bare skin and got a sense of comfort and reassurance, but that was missing now. If something didn’t change soon he would be forced to take on the kind of high risk, low yield jobs like liquor store and gas station hold-ups he had done as a teenager. A handful of twenties was still better than nothing, he thought.
Ryan shook his head at the misfortune written in Hurley’s expression.
“Things are tough, huh?”
Hurley returned his own hard stare. “So how is it that you got all this shit going bad around you and you’re sitting here laughing?” he asked. “Parked on your ass all night, buying shots of whiskey if you got no money?”
Ryan smiled and patted his shirt pocket. Hurley watched the smile widen as Ryan reached into the pocket and pulled out a thick roll of bills.
Hurley let out a low whistle.
“Got almost three grand here,” Ryan said. “I’ve been playing the ponies all my life but never got a taste of anything meaningful at the track. Never had a winner that paid big money. Never had enough cash to put down on a sure thing I knew was going to come in. I never won.”
“Then last night I dropped a hundred on a thirty to one long shot at Monmouth Park. Never thought the horse would win,” he said. “Or I could get that lucky.”
Hurley stared at the wad of fifties and hundred in Ryan’s hand.
“Hell of a story.”
“Been going through some bad luck the last couple of months,” Ryan said, “but this will make things right.”
Hurley shook his head. “Let me buy you another drink,” he offered. “That kind of good luck deserves another round.”
Ryan shook his head.
“Ain’t like me to turn down a free drink,” he said, “but I got to get home before the old lady starts giving me shit.”
“The last thing I want to do is give her cause to be going through my pockets while I’m passed out on the couch in front of the TV,” he said. “That happens - I won’t ever see a dime of this money again.”
Ryan peeled off a twenty and dropped it on the bar, waving at the bartender as he slipped the remaining bills back in his pocket. “Keep the change, Eddie,” he called.
Hurley tossed a five on the bar.
“Wait up,” he said. “I’ll walk with you.”
A biting March wind tore into them, two solitary figures walking alone on the dark street, and Hurley turned up his collar against the cold. He wrapped a hand on Ryan’s shoulder as they turned a corner, slowly easing the twenty-two out of his pants with the other. “Three thousand’s a lot of money.”
“Maybe some of my good luck will rub off on you,” Ryan said with a laugh. “That’d be some story, huh?”
“Too bad your luck’s run out,” Hurley said.
He pressed the gun barrel into the flesh peeking out between the drunk’s wool coat and ski cap and quickly squeezed the trigger. Ryan’s throat exploded in a spray of blood and tissue; he clutched at the widening hole under his chin before staggering forward then crumpling dead to the concrete. Hurley took the bills from Ryan’s pocket then eased the twenty-two back inside his coat as he hurried down the street.
A score’s a score, he figured.
That was the only kind of story that mattered to him.