by Gary V. Powell
Gary V. Powell
Gary V. Powell's stories have appeared in several literary journals including moonShine Review, The Thomas Wolfe Review, and Briar Cliff Review. Most recently, his story "Fast Trains" was named a finalist for Cutthroat's 2010 Rick Demarinis Fiction Contest. A former attorney, he lives and writes in North Carolina near the shores of Lake Norman with his wife and son. He recently completed his first novel, Lucky Bastard. This is his third appearance in Amarillo Bay.
Lee's ten was up. The Asian chick who'd owned the table for the last two hours twirled her cue and eyed him through black-rimmed glasses. Twenty-five, twenty-six, and frosty under pressure, there was no denying she looked good. Better than good in those skinny jeans, five-inch heels, and tight t-shirt.
Her t-shirt read "Bitchin'" across firm, little breasts.
"Rack 'em, man," she said with a lilt. Black hair draped her shoulders.
"No problemo," Lee said.
Maybe she was tired or bored. Maybe she was playing him. Whatever, Lee was surprised to take her so easily. Nothing fell on her break, then he sunk the one and got the two before hiding behind the five. She missed a tough cut shot on the three and left him with a kiss off the four into the nine.
After the nine dropped, she took a seat along the side, put up her ten for the next round, and ordered a Dirty Asian. Trinity's was crowded for a Thursday night. An old three-story mansion in New Orleans's warehouse district, the owners had converted the lower floors to a bar and nightclub. On the third floor ancient pin-ball machines and video games with names like "Assassin," "Ghoul Hunter," and "Sniper" lined the walls. Air hockey, shuffle board, and foosball filled one end of the room, pool tables the other. Amateurs shot for fun on the four tables nearest the door. In the back, gamblers gathered around a classic Brunswick with leather pockets. They played nine ball and most games were over in less than five minutes. Winners played for as long as they held the table. The crowd varied from hot kids with their own cues to old-school hustlers. Cigarette smoke, Eagles music, and hard-looking women proliferated.
The Asian chick was the exception.
There were other places, but none as good as Trinity's. Even on slow nights Lee could pocket a couple of hundred dollars. With side bets, a thou or more wasn't a stretch.
But that was before the Asian chick started showing up.
The first two guys he faced were shooters who didn't know how to leave a man bad. One gave him a look at a combo off the seven, the other a duck in the corner. A giggly drunken girl, way over her head, followed the guys. After he sat her down, Lee encountered a procession of half-decent tournament players. They wanted to up the ante, twenty on the one, three, five, and nine — then, to the man, choked with money on the table.
The Asian chick smoked cigarettes and watched. Now and then, guys hit on her. She heard them out, tapped ash into her tray. By now, every guy in the bar had tried her at least once. She had one answer. Always a polite "no thank you."
It didn't stop them from trying.
An old black guy with prison tats proved to be Lee's greatest challenge. Once on the table, the ex-con dropped four in a row before missing the seven on a long green. Snookered behind the eight, with the nine against the far rail, Lee had little choice but to show his best game. He jumped the eight and cut the seven into the side. That left him with a bank into the corner and a rail shot on the nine.
The Asian chick didn't bat an eye.
From there on in, it was easy cruising — four other hopefuls rose and fell — until the Asian chick's ten came due. She mashed out her cigarette.
"Rack 'em," Lee said, mocking her from earlier in the night.
Her movements were precise, measured. The way she racked the balls. The way she chalked her cue. Like a goddamned machine.
He wasn't all that surprised when she walked over, stood on her toes, and whispered in his ear. "Care to make this more interesting?"
Lee studied her face, skin smooth as porcelain, mouth red with lipstick, eyes heartless black pinpoints. Yeah, for sure, she'd given him the game earlier to set him up for a hustle this time around.
"What's on your mind?" he asked.
She leaned in, leaving a wet memory where her lips touched his ear. "One game, all in."
He had fifteen hundred on him, six he'd won that night. "You don't have that kind of money," he said.
She leaned in again. "Here's the bet. I win, I clean you out. You win, I'm your girlfriend all night long."
It wouldn't have been a bad bet, if he'd been in it for the snatch.
"What makes you think I'm interested?"
"Because you've wanted to fuck me since the minute I walked in this place."
There might have been some truth to that, but who didn't want to fuck her? "I need more," he said. "I win, I want Trinity's back."
"Dude," someone called out, "play or pay." Someone else seconded the motion.
She showed a faint smile. "All right, if that's how you want it. I win, I take your money. You win, Trinity's is yours again."
"Plus, you're my girlfriend all night long."
She gave him that flicker of a smile again. "Plus, I'm yours all night long." She extended a hand and they shook on it. She was cool all right, almost cold, to the touch.
On the side, a contender hollered, "C'mon, play or get off the table."
When she turned to walk away, Lee grabbed her arm and spun her around. "This isn't for fun," he said. "I'm serious about this."
"Oh, Sweety," she said. "I'm serious as a scratch on the nine ball." She wasn't smiling now.
Lee dropped the three, five, and six on the break, but left himself blind. He took a safety, snuggling the cue ball into a cluster that included the one, four, seven, and eight. The two rested on a side rail. The nine lay at the far end, inches from the pocket.
He expected another safety and felt it like a sucker punch when she kicked off a rail, broke the cluster, and dropped the one into the side. Next, she ran the two down the rail and lined up on the four. He found spit when she tried a bank shot that was cut too thin. She didn't hurt herself, though, leaving Lee behind the seven.
He could have played it safe again, but knew that safe wouldn't win. He raised his cue high, came down hard, and unleashed a masse shot that broke hard to the left before skittering across the table and tapping the four into the corner. It left him clean on the seven, eight, and nine.
She didn't even bother to watch, packing up her cue and slipping into her coat with the faux fur collar instead.
Lee followed her ass, hard as an autumn apple, out the door and into the street.
Once outside, she slipped her arm through his. It was a raw January night. Fog rose from the river and slithered through the streets and alleys. They walked two blocks to St. Charles, then took the streetcar to Canal. Even on a night like this, revelers plied the bars and restaurants. She steered him across Bourbon to Rue St. Louis, then down to Dauphine. They found Mae Bailey's in the courtyard of the Dauphine Orleans hotel. A former bordello, a red light still burned over the entrance. Except for a couple of insurance salesmen on convention and a college kid tending bar, the place was empty.
Lee ordered Scotch. She went with another Dirty Asian.
"Anyway," he said, "I'm Lee."
"You can call me Kim. My family's Hmong, from Laos, but I grew up in Wisconsin." They shook hands a second time.
"Long way from home," he said. "What brings you to NOLA?"
Close up, she looked older than he'd thought. Tiny lines gathered under her eyes and at the corners of her mouth. Closer to thirty, thirty-five.
"This and that," she said.
He tried another tack. "Where'd you learn to shoot pool?"
"Here and there."
He sipped his drink. She had something to hide, but by a certain age he figured everyone had something to hide.
She lit a cigarette and blew smoke rings out of the side of her mouth. "I didn't see that masse shot coming. At least, I didn't see you making it."
He shrugged. "It's not a high percentage shot."
"But you took the risk."
"It was the only way to beat you, so it wasn't that big of a risk."
"You could do better than Trinity's," she said.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you're better than that place. Just think," she said, "how much we could make if we worked as a team. You know, combine our resources. Go on the road together."
"I like Trinity's all right. At least for now."
"Trinity's is nothing. You ever play Chicago, New York, Las Vegas?"
"You won't play there hanging at Trinity's."
"You were hanging there."
"I'm just passing through."
"Anyways," he said, "I've got a plan." He worked security at Harrah's, busting drunks who wandered in from Bourbon Street and grad students who thought they could learn to count cards from reading a book. Lee's plan was to win enough at Trinity's to stake a bigger game. One stake could lead to another, maybe a tournament or a shot in the back room with real money players.
She reached out, pushed the sleeve of his jacket up his forearm. "Military ink," she said. "Marines?"
Maybe she read it in his bearing, the crew cut, the square shoulders. Once a Marine, always a Marine, Semper Fi and all that shit.
"I was in that First Battle for Fallujah. It got pretty rough." It was more than he'd meant to say. Talking to civilians about war was like shooting pool for money with amateurs.
Through the smoke she asked, "You kill anyone?"
He threw back his Scotch and ordered another round. "That's kind of personal, isn't it?"
Her bluntness set him back. "You're the one offered it up."
"You took the bet."
When the college kid brought their drinks. Lee paid and left a tip. The insurance salesmen were leaving, eyeing Kim on their way out the door.
"I shot at people," he told her. "I expect they died. It was kill or be killed. You don't really think about it." He'd never told his wife, Lynn, but then she'd never asked.
"I killed a man once," Kim said behind the porcelain. "Cut him with a knife."
Lee felt a numbness settle over him. "You're full of shit."
She pointed to her carotid artery. "Right here. He bled out in less than ten minutes. He tried to rape me."
He didn't know if he believed her or not. But those blank eyes, that expressionless face. He wondered what it would take to bring her to life. "Why are you telling me this?"
She removed a fresh pack from her purse, unwrapped it. Tap, tap, tap, on the table. A flick of her lighter. Like a fucking robot. "I thought you ought to know what you're getting into."
"You trying to scare me off?"
"Are you scared?"
Wired was more like it. He wanted her right there, right then, under the table, up against the wall in the Lady's Room. "I'm not scared," he said.
Her fingers, the nails manicured perfectly, traced a line on the back of his hand. She paused at his wedding ring. "You love her?"
"She's my wife."
"Yeah, but do you love her? You don't always wear a ring."
"I wear it most of the time."
She blew more smoke rings. "How'd you meet?"
They'd met at Harrah's, where Lynn had worked as a waitress. They'd dated off and on. Then she got pregnant, then they married, then they lost that first baby. That was after Fallujah, after Katrina. Five years, and Katrina and RPGs still whistled through his dreams.
"At work," Lee said. "We met at work."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means we all get lonely sometimes, Lee."
She didn't look lonely. She looked like she could have anyone. "Look," he said. "I love my wife."
"That's all I was asking."
"We're having a kid together." Again, it was more than he'd meant to say, but he'd wanted to make a point.
"That's a lot of responsibility."
No denying that. He felt it, waking up with sweats in the middle of the night. "I can handle it."
"I had a son, once," she said, "But I lost him."
She finished her drink. "They took him away."
There in the darkened bar, a cold, wet night outside, it might have been the saddest thing he'd ever heard. "I'm sorry," he said. "I mean, that's terrible."
She mashed out her cigarette. "Probably for the best."
It raised more questions than it answered. This Asian chick, like an onion, layers on layers. Staring into his eyes, she dropped a hand under the table. Her fingernails raked his crotch. "You're a good guy," she said. "Maybe you should go home to your wife and call it a night."
"You backing out?"
"I never back out on a bet. I'm just saying maybe you should go home to your wife."
But he wasn't thinking about home. He was getting used to the idea of him and this Asian chick. Her nipples stood out like two inch Hex bolts. Plus, her ass. He couldn't stop wondering how it would be to take her from behind, slip a finger up that tight pucker.
"I don't think so," he said. "We had a bet."
She stroked him and he went hard in his jeans. "Okay, then. Let's do this thing."
They crossed Bourbon Street, where the last of the conventioneers assembled outside the bars and strip joints. A freezing drizzle greeted them on Jackson Square, the benches abandoned by even the pigeons and homeless alcoholics that claimed them during the day. The drizzle accompanied them to her apartment, an upstairs studio located between Chartres and Royale and not far from Esplanade. They were all the same, balconies overlooking the street, courtyards beckoning through wrought-iron gates.
She led him up a stairway and down a hall. No sooner was the door closed behind them than he pinned her to the wall and worked a knee between her legs. She kissed him, her mouth open on his, their tongues wrestling. He tasted cigarettes and liquor. That first time, they did it standing up, jeans and panties in a pile, her face pressed against the wall.
She came hard, bucking and squirming in his arms. So much for the robot routine.
Later on, they took their time. She stretched out on top of him, her face buried in the nape of his neck, breasts flat against his chest. She ground against him slow and deep. Rain pecked at the window pane. Candlelight flickered on the walls.
Afterwards, she smoked in bed, propped up on one elbow, the fingertips of her free hand tracing a line from his chest to his belly. He told her about growing up in Gulf Port, everything gone now except the imported white sand and the casinos. He talked about that year on the oil rig, about his buddy Carl who'd lost a leg to an IED, about his plan to take his stake on the road.
She kissed him on the forehead. "Like I said," she told him, "we could do this together. It's easier if someone's got your back."
He imagined crossing the lobbies of fancy hotels with her glittering on his arm. He imagined winning money with her under the glittering lights of fancy pool rooms, driving around the country in fast, glittering cars. All of it he imagined in one amazing glittering fucking moment.
"Let me think about it," he said, and didn't know if he meant to or not.
"We could leave tonight."
He turned away, slid off the sheets. "We can't leave tonight."
In the bathroom, he peed and splashed water on his face. "What the fuck?" he asked his reflection in the mirror. "What the fuck?"
In the other room, she sat naked on the edge of the bed. He pulled on his jeans, began buttoning his shirt. He thought it was over, thought they'd say goodnight and that would be the end of it. Instead, she opened her legs, leaned back on one hand, and touched herself with the other.
"I can't," he said. "I need to go."
"Don't move. I just want to look at you."
He waited until she finished, then lay down and held her again. "Jesus Christ," he said.
"I don't want this to end," she told him.
"How'd you find me?"
"What difference does it make? I'm here now."
"Who else is in your life?"
"No one," she said. "Who else is in yours?"
He didn't answer, didn't have to. Above them was a ceiling fan. It was turned off, but rotated slowly, inspired he supposed by the heat from their bodies.
By the time Lee reached his place near Tulane, daylight was only a couple of hours away. He sat in a rocker and watched his wife sleep. She lay on her back, snoring softly, the rise and fall of her swollen belly like waves slapping a beach. She'd grown up on a farm in Arkansas, dropped out of high school, and caught a ride to New Orleans with a truck driver. Katrina might have been the best thing that ever happened to her. Regulars had departed the city, leaving job openings for the inexperienced. She denied it, but he wondered if she'd tricked him with that first baby. Maybe it was his, maybe not. Anyway, it didn't matter now.
She'd never bring the heat like that Asian chick.
He slipped off his leather jacket and boots and lay down next to her. Kim's scent remained strong on his face and fingers. He wouldn't wash it off. He'd savor that scent until the next time. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but all he could see was Kim bucking in his arms, glittering at his side. Just before dawn he got up. He kept twelve thou in a bank account for his stake, plus there was the fifteen hundred he'd had at Trinity's.
They could be on the road before the day was out, Lee and Kim.
Except when he fished inside his jacket for the fifteen hundred, it wasn't there. It wasn't in his jeans or wallet, either. He hadn't left it on the nightstand or the counter. No, it was gone. Gone with the fog, the rain, and the glittering fucking glitter.
He collapsed into a kitchen chair and thought it through. He always kept his playing money in his jacket, his spending money in his jeans. He'd paid for the streetcar, their drinks at Mae Bailey's out of his spending money, leaving the playing money in that inside pocket. She'd been alone with his jacket for only a couple of minutes when he'd gone to pee. And after that he hadn't been thinking about money.
That Asian chick had made sure of that.
Dawn, gray and wretched, peeked through the window. He felt like he imagined it would feel to be blown apart or cut with a knife. He imagined blood pouring from his wound, leaving him empty inside.
She'd given him her phone number, but he knew without calling that it was out of service. Even if he could find her apartment again, she wouldn't be there. Like the money, she was gone.
It's easier if someone's got your back.
He was still sitting at the table when Lynn came into the kitchen. She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, then started making coffee.
He watched her, face puffy with sleep, ass broad as a wash tub beneath the worn robe, belly low and round. She said that meant they'd have a girl.
She must have felt his eyes on her, and turned to face him, one hand on her hip. "You all right, Honey?"
He didn't know where to begin.
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