LOVE OR MONEY - MATTHEW C. FUNK
It wasn’t like Stagger to run from a bet.
“Having second thoughts?” Hugo asked. The calluses of his hand made the tap of the machete’s flat into a metronome.
“I’ll have a second thought when I see the Second Coming.” Stagger smirked though he wasn’t feeling it.
“Not at all?” Hugo said.
“Not a chance.”
Now it was just a matter of convincing himself he believed it. That would take some doing, Stagger figured, looking at what was working its jaws in the bayou below the dock. Some doing and a few belts of Maker’s Mark.
It didn’t help that the alligator was staring back at him as it feasted.
“He done ate Ramon’s arm, though,” Hugo pointed out.
“Don’t make a wit of difference.”
“Well,” Hugo said, doing his best to heft his belt around the gut that ballooned below his stained tank top. “You better get going, then.”
“He ain’t gonna take you by the hand and ask for a dance.”
“Reckon that’d be an unpleasant experience for the both of us.”
Stagger used the space of Hugo’s chuckle to figure this all out. The question of why—why in God’s Creation he would dive in there with the gator—drowned out most rational thinking. Stagger figured that was probably for the best. Rational thinking just got in the way more times than not.
“I don’t reckon he’d much mind taking your hand, but I doubt he’d ask first.” Hugo angled the machete at the feasting gator. “He got his grub on with Ramon there eager enough.”
Stagger lost his smirk for a second. Hugo had sent his train of thought careening off of its rickety track, right to the sight of Ramon.
“Nah. He don’t seem the discriminatin’ type.”
The corpse of Ramon Villaramon was getting uglier by the bite. That was saying something in Stagger’s opinion. If Ramon had been anything more than he had been mean, it was ugly. Stagger had been partial to remarking that Ramon was the reason behind the legend of the chupacabra—the Mexican Goatsucker.
Was that how this whole trouble with Ramon got started? Stagger recalled it was something like that. Maybe something to do with Ramon pushing meth in Stagger’s club.
However it started, it had ended here—with Ramon dead from a blast of Hugo’s shotgun, tossed into the bayou.
“Remind me,” Stagger began stripping off his blood red bowling shirt. “How did I end up saying I was going to do this?”
“Swearing you was, I believe.”
“See,” Hugo had enough smirk for the both of them, “I knew you was having second thoughts.”
“Nah,” Stagger said, folding his shirt and setting it on the fishing dock. “Just making sure you get the story straight.”
He was only half kidding. Hugo would run his ten-gallon mouth about this however it turned out. If all of New Orleans and half of Texas were going to hear about it, Stagger wanted to make sure Hugo had it right.
“Same as usual with you. Love or money.”
“And the biggest set of stones this side of King Kong, son.”
And one hell of a case of stupid, Stagger thought. He also thought better than stripping off his jeans before jumping in. Why give Mr. Gator any ideas?
“Hell, yes.” Hugo chuckled. “If you actually pull it off. Otherwise, our scaly buddy there will be eating your nuts and twig.”
Stagger stepped from his Bruno Magli loafers. “They’d go right through him like cannonballs.”
“Whatever you say, Stagger Lee.”
Stagger took a deep breath. Deep enough to give it the proper savor. It could be his last, after all.
“Love or money.” he echoed.
“Love or money.”
“And it is a beautiful specimen of both.”
“Mhm. 24 karat at least,” Hugo said.
Stagger nodded. He shot his hand out. Hugo filled it with the machete.
“You’re actually going in there, ain’t you?” Hugo now sounded amazed. The passing of the blade made it real—not just a bet, a brag, a folk tale. And making those things real was what Stagger was all about.
“Just like wrangling a Kentucky thoroughbred,” Stagger said. Yeah, he thought.
Think of it like that. The gator gazed back with its agelessly blank eyes as it gorged on Ramon. It was just a racing horse with some dental work to Stagger.
Stagger believed that for a split-second. That’s when he jumped.
The cold of the bayou water shocked him—it was the kiss of a meat freezer. The gator was even more shocked. The animal only had time to slide a chunk of Ramon’s shoulder from its jaw.
Stagger’s feet pushed hard at the swamp mud. It sucked more than pushed back. It was just enough to send him lunging atop the gator.
“Whoo-wee!” Hugo yelled.
The gator’s back felt like a sawhorse studded with nails. Stagger had long enough to feel it gouge him before the beast started thrashing. Its long body became a storm cloud of scratches and stabs.
Stagger tightened his arms, looped them around its neck. Rational thought began screaming colder than the river water. He shut it down. He focused everything he had on squeezing.
Then the gator rolled. Its weight lashed around and, in the space of one mule-kick heartbeat, Stagger went underwater.
“Oh shit,” from Hugo was the last he heard.
Then it was just the boiling of the beast in the water. Stagger twisted his wrist, feeling the articulate neck of the gator throbbing against it.
Then he only heard his pulse popping fireworks. Stagger wrenched his shoulder up to get leverage as the gator’s weight bore down.
Then he didn’t hear a thing. Stagger felt the gator crushing him, its half-ton body like the entire weight of prehistory. He felt it grind him into the mud. He twisted his hand in towards its body.
He felt the machete go in.
The damn thing kept thrashing for a good two minutes more. Two solid minutes of silence passed with only the mud and the weight and the bloody bayou water to tell Stagger he was still alive. He had to remind himself of that before he found the strength to surface.
“Hot damn!” Hugo greeted him.
Stagger just took breath, each deeper and longer than the last, as he dragged the machete down through the beast’s body.
The gator opened easy enough. Stagger figured that was thanks to adrenaline. He finished the slice at its belly and jabbed a hand into the open anatomy.
It took a minute of rummaging before Stagger hauled his hand out.
“You actually did it,” Hugo breathed.
Stagger nodded as he turned the gold bracelet around in his hand. It was still knobby with chunks of the gator’s stomach and the remains of Ramon’s wrist. Stagger admired its enduring gleam as he cleaned its color of all the red and gray.
“Was there ever any doubt?”
Ramon was one ugly cuss, but he sure accessorized pretty enough.
“You one crazy Kentucky hillbilly, Stagger,” Hugo said as he helped him from the bayou with a still-shaking hand.
“Who’s twenty dollars of your money richer.” Stagger’s grin slid on smooth. “With one very lucky, soon-to-be-very-happy girlfriend.”
BIO: Matthew C. Funk is a professional writer in marketing for corporate America, a writing mentor and the author of several manuscripts that illuminate the beauty of human extremes. A graduate of the Professional Writing MFA at USC, his online work is featured at sites such as Powder Burn Flash; Thrillers, Killers and Chillers; A Twist of Noir; Pulp Metal Magazine; Flash Fiction Offensive; ThugLit; Six Sentences Volume 3 and his Web domain.