THE WINNING - JAMES S. DORR
Originally published in Over My Dead Body, Spring 1994
He cashed his tickets in at the window and stuffed the money into his jeans. A lot of money. He smiled at the cashier, a pretty woman perhaps in her early thirties, then elbowed his way through the milling crowd. He left the racetrack and thought for a moment of taking a bus home. He thought of pulling the bills from his pocket, peeling one off to give to the driver, then decided he might as well walk.
He was used to walking.
He thought of stopping in at a restaurant, then decided he wasn't hungry. Time enough to eat in his apartment. He had to make plans.
He thought of the cashier, a curly-haired blonde who had smiled back at him, a little like Betty. "You take care," she'd told him. He'd nodded back.
He thought about Betty.
God, he missed Betty. She'd died just a few years after their marriage and that's when he'd started to go downhill. Drinking. Loss of his job. Other jobs. He was over the drinking now, at least, but not the bad luck that had dogged his footsteps. Until that morning.
That's when he'd found the ten dollar bill crumpled in the gutter. He'd picked it up, smoothed it out in his hands, and thought, "Why not?"
He'd gone to the racetrack, an institution that, like him, had seen better days. Factories had grown up around it, then fallen into disuse. Slums had followed. Tenement neighborhoods, scarcely better, even when new, than the one he lived in across the river. But he had become used to living in slums.
He'd started out small -- he had only ten dollars -- placing his bets at the two dollar window. But one had won for him. He graduated to ten dollar bets as the afternoon wore on, then finally, in a fit of bravado, chose a horse whose name he liked and put all he had to win at a hundred dollar window.
The horse surprised him -- surprised everybody. The odds were long -- he hadn't realized how long when he'd bet -- but it came from behind in the final turn and inched past the favorite to come in first.
He hadn't even counted the money after he cashed in. He'd just nodded blankly as the blonde lady shoved bills out toward him. He'd folded them over, still not believing, putting a rubber band around them and shoving them into his left pants pocket. He'd glanced once behind him, and then he'd smiled.
"Thanks," he'd said.
"You take care, you hear?"
He still couldn't believe it.
All his life, except for the few brief years with Betty, had been unlucky. He'd gone from one bad job to another, from one fly-specked, roach-infested apartment to another, as bad or worse. He realized he hadn't exactly helped himself that much either, but now things were going to be different. He had enough money now in his pocket to buy some new clothes, to pay off his rent, to leave the city. To find a new place where people were hiring -- he wasn't so old that he couldn't still work -- and make a new start.
He glanced behind him. Dusk was falling, but the streetlights were coming on and the evening was bright. He saw two men walking in his direction, maybe half a block behind him. Just sort of strolling, conversing quietly. Too quiet to hear them.
But hadn't he seen them somewhere before? When he'd glanced behind him at the track window?
He shrugged. Probably not, he realized. All he'd seen then was a racetrack crowd. All sorts of people -- most, at the hundred dollar window, better dressed than either him or the men behind him. Still, he began to walk a bit faster.
He began to become more conscious of his surroundings. Night had completely fallen by now and, while there were some lights, there were few people out in the street. This far from the track there was little action. Ahead, where the street sloped down toward the river, it seemed even dimmer, except for the bridge which had its own lights. And the bank across it.
The bank where he lived had its own kind of lighting. Bars. All-night diners. Neon and harshness, a tough kind of lighting, but one he was used to. He hunched up his collar -- the night was still warm, but a breeze was beginning to come from the river. A breeze that, as the city cooled in the night's darkness, blew out to the ocean.
He started to smell the smells of the river -- salt and mud. Dead fish and violence. Not many people lived by the river except for the poor -- people like him -- and the few who liked it. The people who lived by the river by choice, in part because nobody asked any questions.
He felt the heaviness in his pocket.
He looked behind him.
It was the same two men -- it must be the same two. A half block behind him. Now that he'd stopped, they'd stopped as well, one taking a cigarette out of his pocket. The other lit it.
He saw -- he was sure it was one of the people he'd seen at the racetrack -- a face pocked with acne. Not a young face, though. He saw, as the match flared out, a sneer. As if of anticipated violence.
He shivered despite the fact it was still warm. He strode, quickly now, another half block, a full block beyond that, on toward the river. He heard, behind him, the clack, clack, clack of footsteps following on the pavement. He stopped again, whirled to confront his pursuers, still half a block behind him. He saw they had stopped too.
"What do you want?" he demanded. He stood and waited, his hands on his hips, one hand protecting the bulge in his pocket.
The men were in shadow. One pretended to look in a window, making no sign that they'd even heard him. The other began to whistle a soft tune. They were the same men he'd seen at the track -- that much he was sure of. Who'd seen him put the bills in his pocket. Who'd followed him this far, but never approached him. As if they were waiting.
But waiting for what?
He backed off slowly -- the men made no move until he'd turned again, then he was sure he could once again hear their following footsteps. He thought about how, if he reached the bridge, if he crossed the river, if he reached his walk-up apartment, he'd lock the door and hide the money. He'd stay awake and guard it that night and then, the next morning, he'd find a bank and deposit it there.
He'd open up a checking account and write a check to buy decent clothes. He'd buy a bus ticket -- maybe a plane ticket -- maybe look up his sister down south. He'd find a place to stay for a while, away from the city. To make a new life.
He thought about Betty, the victim of sharks that lived by the river. The ones that lived by the river by choice. He remembered the evening he'd had to work late. His foreman calling him to the phone. The trip to the morgue, his wife laid out, her chest ripped open. The big cop putting his hand on his shoulder.
He turned again -- the bridge was only a block away now. He saw only shadows -- no -- something was moving -- a half block behind him. Two men in the darkness, trying to be still, yet subtly moving.
"Is it the money?" he demanded.
He heard no answer.
He thought about running -- the bridge, with its lights, was just one block away -- but he was no longer that young a man if they wanted to chase him. He turned again and just kept walking, the wad of bills chafing against his thigh. The hesitant at first, then steady clack, clack, clack of footsteps behind him.
He reached the abutment, then started up the sharply ramped footpath, the breeze, now that he was on the river, blowing up into a miniature gale. He crossed under the first of the bridge's lights, the first of several as he approached its center span. As soon as he got home...
He heard a booming as his pursuers mounted the bridge too, their hollow footsteps amplified by the wind and the water.
If he got home with his money safely, he'd leave the city the very next day. But sharks lived on both sides of the river.
The ones on his side had murdered his wife for nothing more than her shopping money.
And he had lots more.
He stopped again, under a light beneath the bridge's high central arch, and confronted his followers one final time. He knew they had friends on the other side, friends who would stop him as soon as he crossed. Just as they stopped too, under their own light, their hats pulled low to hide their faces, standing, watching him. Watching and waiting.
"Is it the money?" he asked again, again hearing no answer. He pulled the folded bills from his pocket.
He rolled off the rubber band that was around them. He thought about winning.
He thought about finding a ten dollar bill.
About being lucky.
He looked down below him -- the oily river. Behind him, two shadows, already gliding out of the pool of light that was around them, moving now, ever so slowly, closer.
Ahead, more shapes moving -- now he could see them.
"Here!" he shouted. He threw the money as hard as he could, up, into the air. Watched as the bills peeled off, catching the light as the river wind took them, whirlwinding higher.
He thought of the river. Of water and death. Of shadows melting back into the darkness.
Of flecks of paper, one or two caught in the bridge's cables, the rest of them blowing out to the ocean, ever upward, until he could no longer tell them apart from the distant stars.
BIO: James Dorr's new book, DARKER LOVES: TALES OF MYSTERY AND REGRET, was released December 2007 by Dark Regions Press as a companion to his earlier collection, STRANGE MISTRESSES: TALES OF WONDER AND ROMANCE. Other work has appeared in ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, NEW MYSTERY, THE STRAND, ABORIGINAL SF, FANTASTIC, DARK WISDOM, GOTHIC.NET, CHI-ZINE, ENIGMATIC TALES (UK), FAERIES (France), and numerous anthologies.
Until the Absolute End
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