So, this is a currently untitled story that I'm working on right now that I hope to keep building into a complete novel. This is the first chapter, but I've written more. In weeks to come I may post subsequent chapters if I think that there's enough interest. It's meant to be a new take on a kind of Maltese Falcon-ish detective novel. Take a look and tell me what you all think. Who the hell came up with the phrase "Great American Novel," anyway?...
It was another Saturday night at King Harrod’s up near the Georgia border and I wasn’t winning any. The nickel slot crowd would hang around my table long enough to see me lose my shirt, then they’d lose interest and move on to dine on other more serious gamblers. No matter what magic spells I tried to breathe into the cherry red dice I never came out ahead. I would curse the miserable bastards that had the game loaded from the very beginning and retreated to the bar repeatedly to lick my wounds. I pushed away some vinyl palm fronds that hung over the long under-lit bar and hunched over it feeling sorry myself. Tim the bartender would come over rubbing a glass with a dirty rag.
Tough break, he said automatically. If you need anything, I’ll take care of it. Maybe give you a shot in the arm?
I nodded my head staring into the walnut counter top like a real sad sack, and another gin and tonic appeared in front of me. I gobbled it down and thought about what a good idea it would be to get up to my room, splash some cold water on my face and get some sleep. Just forget this whole night ever happened. Losing was just part of the whole thing, and now it was my turn. Now it was time to gather up what little I had and just call it the cost of doing business. I still had that option, but I could also tell that tonight wasn’t the night for teary goodbyes. I had driven an hour and a half. The MG purred like a kitten on a bowl full of cream the whole way. The air actually felt a little cooler than a hundred degrees, the humidity had retreated a little bit. The insects had gorged themselves on just enough of your blood and were now fast asleep. The stars were being whipped through the sky by the warm winds of fortune. It was a magical evening. I could keep it that way with just a little more luck.
Tim was still buying me drinks so I drained another gin and tonic before making my way heroically back to the tables. I reeled away from the bar and could now feel the tiny fingers of the spongy red carpet under my white alligator loafers. The drinks were taking effect now and it didn’t look pretty. The small money weekenders were away from their posts at the gas pumps and waffle houses where they gained little and lost more. They wandered gelatinously from one noisemaking gewgaw to another exhaling Bud Light, cheap cigarettes, and bad perfume. They lurked in the aisles not knowing what to do with themselves. Pausing only to sink their fangs into each other’s necks and feast on each other’s remains. This was the night where the Legion of the Black Lagoon arose from their watery cells to guzzle free booze and cannibalize the weakest among them. I could feel them all watching me. This was no way to start a winning streak. I would need some help. I made my way through the coin operated jungle and into the restaurant where they had the floor show. The girl that they had on now got me real interested in a big way. The light came up and she walked through the blue velvet curtain all covered in these white feathery boas and fans. Everything was covered up but her long pale legs and white satin pumps. A husky voice like raw silk emerged from somewhere within the feathers. I hustled up to the front row with all of the other slobs and lit up a cigarette. The waiter came by with some pink drinks that had fruit dangling out of them and I handed him a crumpled up bill.
The girl’s voice started roiling somewhere within the nest of white feathers and with each passing note, the fans and boas would be pulled away from her long white body, revealing more and more skin. Everything about her was white except her deep red lips and dark brown eyes. As I watched her in the darkness I imagined her on my arm at the craps table. She’d give me a smile and blow a kiss to the dice in my hand and they would jump off of the boards, landing me big money every time. As morning approached somewhere beyond the borders of the casino’s perpetual daytime I would gather up all of my chips into one big pile and the girl would look me deep in the eyes while I pulled her closer, closer.
Her song was winding down now and it was almost time for the big finish. She brushed the last remaining feather fan around her chest and then threw it away as her voice went into the final crescendo. Simultaneously, the lights went out completely, but you could still see the outline of her perfect, curvy figure in the dark while she belted out the last note. Then she disappeared behind the curtain. The lights came back on and the crowd went nuts. You could hear guys whistling and banging the backs of their chairs. They’d waited their whole lives for something like this and now they were going to tear the place apart. I sucked down what was left of the whiskey flavored fruit salad they gave me and I got up to make my way to the backstage. I had to get this girl to help me win. Just this one last thing was all I needed to get me ahead.
Sir, there’s no smoking in here, said one of the waiter’s while I was pushing through the swinging doors that led to the back of the stage.
Sorry about that. I’m going back there to say hello to an old friend, I said, dropping my butt into one of the potted plants.
I’m afraid there’s no guests allowed backstage, said the little flunky in a red vest.
Well, I’m no guest the young lady’s expecting me, I said flinging my whole body weight into the red vinyl padded swinging door and hurrying down the hallway. I took another right down a narrow little stairway that I knew had to lead into the girl’s dressing room. I went through a heavy black curtain and she was there unclasping one of her big dangling earrings.
She turned around to look at me and her big, round, perfect breasts stared right back at me. Sobriety hit me like a cold bucket of water. I had a made a terrible mistake. This could only end badly.
What the fuck are you doing in here? she said. Who are you?
Two giant men seized me on either side like an octopus in a movie. They pulled me out of the dressing room and showed me to another guard who was waiting outside. I knew the guy. he was a big black kid named Reggie who’d been working steady at King Harrod’s for a couple of years now. Reggie had a heart of gold and would never hurt a fly.
Good to see you again, Mr. Cruz, he said to me.
Hiya, Reggie. How’s the wife? I said. He nodded.
Sorry bout this, man.
He pulled back and slugged me full on the jaw with his big fist, but I knew that he could’ve done a lot worse. I fell like a bundle of dirty laundry into the arms of the two other guys. There was darkness. I could see the girl looking angrily at me like I was something small and scaly that had slithered into her dressing room. I could see the mad face of the craps dealer lording over the crowd.
SNAKE EYES. No help for the gentleman in the white hat, he howled. The fluorescent lit, chain-smoking zombies all around him cheering and laughing.
I came to and I was slunk into a wing-backed chair in some spacious mahogany paneled office upstairs. An old clock ticked immensely somewhere. The side of my face was numb and my head felt like a box of dancing hammers. Across a massive desk full of handsomely bound ledgers and fountain pen sets sticking up at rakish angles sat Paul Blackbench, the owner of King Herrod’s. He finished writing what he was writing in his book before carefully placing his pen into its little holder and looking up at me.
Hello, App. Had a late night, haven’t we?
‘Lo Paul, I said rubbing my temples. It’s either a late night or a very early morning.
I guess the tables aren’t treating you well. These things happen to the best of us. I like it whenever you come out to see us, App. I try to get you everything that you need, make sure that you’re well taken care of.
Thanks, I said, hearing my swollen jaw click as I tried to close it.
Crystal said that you tried to rape her. Said that you looked like you had a knife, but she didn’t seem sure.
The jaw was starting to swell up now but I managed a smile.
Crystal’s alright. No, I wasn’t trying to rape her. I saw her act and I decided I was a big fan, wanted to see if I could get her autograph.
You wanted to get her autograph, he said very slowly.
I need more money, I said, figuring now was as good a time as any.
Paul looked at me for a moment and then let out a long weary sigh. He got up from his wine-colored executive chair and made his way over to the high window at the side of the office. He gazed sadly out into the blackness. He looked out somewhere beyond the acres of parking lot and the highway. He had made sure that they were built by securing all of the no-bid contracts in this part of Florida. All of them won by weeks and months of pumping the right hands and leaving all of the right palms good and greasy; playing golf with politicians and letting them play slap and tickle with his girls whenever they came to his town. He looked out somewhere beyond into the southern Georgia woods. A prehistoric frontier full of faceless, tooth gnashing abominations, a land of unspeakable horror. He looked out over all that he had built and finally despaired. Heavy lies the crown, indeed.
He said, when I was a boy in Arkansas we spent a lot time camping. We’d do that whenever it wasn’t raining buckets and the roads weren’t washed out. We’d just go up in the woods, my brothers, and my uncles, and my pa. We’d never take a thing with us but our guns and our sleeping rolls. We’d get ground squirrel, pheasant. Even caught a razorback hog a time or two. We’d cook that over a fire and my uncles and my pa would pass the jug around and tell all kinds of stories. I don’t know how we did it. We lived, all eight of us, in that little one room shack and it never bothered me. It bothered me later, but it didn’t bother me then.
He stood there a moment looking sad. He stuck his hands in his pockets. I could hear the loose change jingling around in there. He walked over to his chair again and sat down.
How much did you need? he asked.
Three thousand dollars, I said.
He opened up a large book that had pages of oversized blank checks in it. He took out his pen and wrote the three thousand dollars out to me, and then he took out a piece of silk cloth and pressed away the wet ink. Then, he tore the check out and handed it to me.
Care for a drink? he asked.
I thought he’d never say so.
Don’t get up I can make one myself. What’ll you have? I said standing up. The blood rushed out of my head and I could feel the floor rising up to get me. I stumbled once, and then fell with all of my weight onto the little liquor caddy that was in the corner. Decanters of scotch and rye spilled onto the bearskin rig, glasses shattered, ice went everywhere. I didn’t know my own strength. Reggie opened up the door.
Everything’s alright Reggie, Paul said, helping me up. Can you please go find someone to help us clean up in here?
I leaned heavily onto Paul. Sorry about the mess, I said thickly.
He sat me back in the chair and opened up a cabinet behind his desk. He poured us two glasses from his own private reserve. I drank mine down in two gulps. I had taken up enough of the man’s time.
Well, it’s been swell, but I’d better be off. Thanks for everything, Paul. Come over to my place and I’ll let you break a couple of dishes, just for old time’s sake.
Paul gave a small laugh and helped me out of the chair. He made sure I was steady to walk this time. He held onto my shoulders and looked me into the eyes.
It’s nice to have friends in Jacksonville, App. Maybe, I can call you up next time I need something?
I nodded my head vaguely. He patted my shoulders and steered me out the door.
Get some sleep, huh? he said.