Fiction by Ewan Davis
Sullivan didn’t usually let his daughter in the room while he was working. The job was safer when Clara kept a lookout, but he felt like giving her a pass tonight, what with it being her tenth or eleventh birthday this week. The real medical examiner tended to announce his return anyway, taking advantage of the morgue’s flattering acoustics to belt out jaunty 80’s hits after his midnight gin break. And with Clara here to assist him, Sullivan at least had a chance to give her something close to an education. It was still too risky to register her with the local school system, so playing I Spy with the digestive system would have to do for now.
“Hmm,” Clara murmured. She tucked a bramble of hair behind one ear to keep it from dipping into the abdominal cavity. “Is it that one?”
“There’s no organ called that one. What’s its name?”
“Correct.” He answered without a trace of praise or playfulness. He simply ladled the organ from its stew and transferred it to a Ziploc bag, which she labeled with puffy bubble letters.
“OK, my turn!” She leaned into the cold edge of the table, letting her legs dangle below.
Clara always loved the way they opened up. While the outside of the cadaver was a dull shade of poultry-aisle beige, its unstitched innards were pure sci-fi splendor. A miniature alien wilderness of tentacles and blobs that glistened iridescently under the humming surgical light. She didn’t even mind the smell anymore. The first time her dad let her inside, she’d braced herself for a heady decay, when really it was more of a woozy, chemical sucker punch that sent her clattering a tray of scalpels. It was ages before he renewed the invitation after that fiasco, but once she regained his confidence, she forced herself to build a tolerance for the odor. Anything to ensure their father-daughter bonding activities would continue.
Her eyes lit up. “I spy with my little eye something indigo.”
“Indigo?” Sullivan pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose—an old tell that had resurfaced in his two-and-a-half years of sobriety. “Is it the renal artery?” he asked, plucking at the slick ribbon bridging the kidneys.
“Nope, that’s blue!” she chirped. “Indigo’s halfway between blue and violet.”
“Sounds like one of the bullshit colors Crayola makes up to pad out a box of crayons.”
“But it’s my favorite color,” she mumbled.
Sullivan grunted. He couldn’t tell whether this esoteric choice suggested an artsy proclivity in his daughter or if it was just another instance of her generation’s need to give special status to every little thing outside the norm. In any case, the indigo organ would remain unfound, because the chorus of Solsbury Hill suddenly came echoing down the hallway.
“Goddammit!” Sullivan hissed. “This is why you never leave the post.” He scooped the rest of the guts into a single bag and tossed them into a red Igloo cooler. Before Clara could even apologize, he ushered her into a locker and crawled into the bunk above it, where they shivered silently in the dark until the muffled karaoke outside faded to a drunken snoring.
“Welcome, welcome!” Oscar stepped out from the counter, spreading his arms with the cordiality of a Michelin-starred maître d’. A bitter divorce had left him starved for conversation, and since his pawnshop attracted a rather mumbly clientele, he didn’t get many opportunities to chat with a real intellectual. That is, anyone who spoke in complete sentences and could weather a few seconds of eye contact. A visit from a bonafide doctor—disgraced or not—was akin to hosting royalty.
Sullivan and Clara had spared no time to defrost, and their arms were still goosebumped from the morgue’s lockers. Oscar led them through the main retail space, featuring your standard fare of garish jewelry and mall ninja shit, and passed under a curtain heavy with cigar smoke. The backroom at Pay-U-Pawn was a one-stop shop for all the illegal sundries that most fences wouldn’t touch, from exotic pets to serial killer collectibles, but nothing that carried a whiff of human trafficking. A man had his principles.
With his porcupine hairdo and the puggish wrinkles around his eyes, Clara always felt like Oscar fit in with the endangered animals he peddled. He smiled, flashing his bat-like teeth, and said, “You catch the Eagles last night? Looks like we’re in for another embarrassing season.”
“I don’t watch that stuff anymore,” Sullivan muttered. He heaved the cooler onto the table. “Besides, I was at the hospital all night.”
“Well, I bet those stiffs had more life in ‘em than the defensive line.” He gave a wheezy laugh as he fished out the organs bobbing in the ice water.
While they sorted through the recycling, Clara followed the alternately brackish and musky fug that wafted from the kennels. She passed a janky menagerie of dragon fish, cobras, and ocelots—which were somehow always asleep despite the flickering lightbulb—and sat cross-legged at the last cage, pulling a book from her backpack.
“Hey, Adobo!” she said. “Let’s start with feelings today.”
The spider monkey hopped forward, its black limbs draped over the bars like scarves on a coat rack. He sniffed the book and wrinkled his nose at its history of odors. Clara had swiped the Beginner’s Guide to ASL from the library after catching a staticky nature special on the TV at their motel-and-temporary-home. The documentary featured a talented bonobo that learned enough sign language to communicate with its trainer in full sentences. It was like sorcery to her, as magical as Mickey Mouse coaxing the personality out of a lifeless, wooden mop. And since she couldn’t free these animals from their cages, she could at least try to release all their silent, trapped up thoughts. She had high hopes for her first pupil, imagining that his exaggerated limbs would lend an extra theatricality to his words, but Adobo mostly spent his lessons goofing off, taking greater interest in his own genitals—a subject in which he was an avid scholar.
Back at the counter, Oscar squinted into the bag of assorted organs. “What’s this wormy looking thing? There’s no label on this bag.”
“Oh, that’s the appendix,” Sullivan muttered, sheepish.
“The hell am I supposed to do with an appendix?”
“I don’t know. Clara must’ve tossed it in when I wasn’t looking. I’m sure you’ll find a use for it.”
Before he could protest, Clara came bounding around the corner and shouted, “Dad! Oscar! Adobo learned a word.” She stopped to catch her breath. “I taught him the sign for Hungry, and he signed it back.”
“Oh yeah?” Oscar said. “What’s that one look like?”
She shaped her hand into a claw and ran it down her chest.
“He was probably scratching himself,” Sullivan grumbled. And when he saw the way she drooped at this, he thought that maybe he’d been too hard on her this time. Even if he didn’t think much of her hobby, he knew the passion she showed for it could help her go far in life, once properly applied. Still, Clara wouldn’t get anywhere until she realized that raising your hopes only makes you easy prey for this world, and if she wasn’t careful, she’d end up chasing after a light that dangled over the jaws of an angler fish. So when he tried to gently rein in her naivete by adding, “I bet that monkey’s covered in lice,” he didn’t understand why this made her wilt even smaller.
Oscar noticed his confusion and tagged in. “But I haven’t fed him today, so you might be on to something. How ’bout you give him this and see if he likes it?” He plopped the appendix in her palm, and she dashed off again.
They wrapped up their business and planned out the next pickup, same time, same place. When he stepped out of the backroom, Sullivan bumped into another client loitering behind the curtain. The man stared at him for a hot second before nervously glancing away. He had greasy blonde hair and a busy, familiar face. If Sullivan wasn’t so preoccupied with the cash in his pocket, he may have even recognized the scar on his cheek and fled town before it was too late.
Still in town a month later, Sullivan and Clara were on their usual stakeout in the UPMC parking lot, where the medical examiner ducked out at the usual time and strolled to the usual pub down the street. Sullivan swiped in with his wife’s access card—the hospital had never bothered to deactivate it—keeping his eyes down so he didn’t have to look at her grainy photo. Before stepping inside, he gave Clara the usual lecture about how she must never leave her post, and she gave him the usual gripes about the man-eating mosquitoes native to this parking lot. He ignored her and hauled the gear to the morgue, where a body was already laid out on the table.
This was very unusual. The examiner was a drunk, but he never left the goods lying around like that. Even stranger, the cadaver was draped in a white sheet, like furniture in a storage unit. Of course, none of this was as odd as when he pulled back the sheet and the body sat upright, grabbed his throat, and shoved him against the wall.
Sullivan groped for his scalpels. The cooler tumbled over. Ice spilling across the floor. He gasped, half from the jagged thumbnail pressing into his larynx and half from the rancid breath seeping out of the strangler’s yellow teeth.
“Please,” he managed to choke out, “I have a daughter.”
The kielbasa fingers tightened around his throat. Just as the lights went fuzzy, the door swung open, and he’d never been so thankful for that erratic boozer to cut his break so short. But there was no singing to be heard. And when he craned his purpling neck toward the entrance, he saw three figures step inside. Another brute, muffling the shouts of his squirming daughter, and a woman wearing a bulky ring on her right hand.
That’s when Sullivan realized why the stranger with the scar had seemed so familiar.
Before he pivoted into the organ-theft business, Sullivan mended the organs of professional football players as a team physician. Whenever an athlete cracked a rib or two, it was his job to get them up and running again. The league sought out doctors who were efficient, thorough, and flexible with the Hippocratic oath when it came to diagnosing brain damage. Sullivan wasn’t exactly comfortable with this last requirement, but for a twenty-something who’d spent every year waiting for football season and every football season waiting for Sunday, it was an absolute dream job. And he ruined it all with one stupid haircut.
He still had all his hair back then, but he never knew what to do with it. So he bounced from barber to barber, hoping to find someone who could give him a decent cut without relying on his inept guidance. For this particular butchering, he was smocked up at Angelo’s Cuts, where he overheard two of the regulars debating the home team’s prospects. The masochist gene runs dominant in the DNA of sports fans, and one of the carriers at this shop was openly reveling in the certainty that their season was doomed. His wisdom was based on the fact that the star quarterback had left the previous game on a stretcher, clutching his leg in agony. ESPN was reporting a torn ACL—a season-ending injury—but Sullivan had just left the office with the player, having diagnosed him with a simple Charley horse. Nothing that an extra yoga session wouldn’t fix. These customers didn’t know that he knew this. These customers didn’t know shit. So when the smug oracle put his money where his mouth was, it wasn’t greed that made Sullivan take the bet. Just the spiteful urge to expose a false prophet.
Team physicians were strictly forbidden from participating in sports betting, but Sullivan, who still hadn’t outgrown the invincibility cloak of his adolescence, didn’t see the harm in treating his MRI readings like any other inside scoop. And after he won fifty bucks off the barbershop bet, he realized his hair might benefit from a weekly trim. Soon enough, these friendly bets were too small-pond for him, and he turned to the not-so-friendly wagers of the city’s criminal operations. At which point, the inside scoop wasn’t enough for him either, so Sullivan started tipping the players’ health in his favor—nicking an artery here, slipping in some HGH there. He was meticulous in covering his ass, until he wasn’t. Then came the stripped medical license, the public shaming, and sixteen months in the state prison, minus time served.
Looking on the bright side, if he hadn’t bottomed out when he did, he never would have met Rosana. But even a half-full glass eventually empties, and when his spilled everywhere, it left him a single father, practically penniless, with a resume that read like the logline for a hit true-crime miniseries. The plasma donations weren’t paying the bills, so he started his own business, combining his medical expertise and rubbery morals to become the top black market plastic surgeon on the east coast. Whenever a police sketch got a little too close for comfort, America’s most wanted would visit the auto-shop basement that served as his office, where he’d retune their facial features and send them back into the world, deadly and nondescript.
One day, a woman came to him with a unique request. Nina Morozov’s face wasn’t circulating in any police stations, but no legitimate surgeon would accommodate her. The lone survivor of a slaughtered Ukrainian crime family, she was determined to rebuild the Morozov name at any cost, and with an enviable mastery of Texas Holdem, all she needed was a flashy hook that could lend her that iconic outlaw prestige. So she sought out the perfect poker face. One that was incapable of displaying emotion, whether she was holding pocket aces or suffering another flashback to her parents’ bloody anniversary dinner. Sullivan obliged, snipping away at her flesh to make way for a mask molded from the clay of the uncanny valley.
Her newfound opacity became the stuff of legends. It lured the hungriest card sharks from every continent, all of whom fell prey to her unstoppable winning streak. Nina welcomed—and even boosted—the boogeyman mythos attached to her name. All her life, she’d seen beet-faced mobsters shouting that women were too emotional to run a crime family, and though she resented their double standard, she savored every delicious opportunity to make them regret their words. When rivals tried to replicate her surgery, she personally disfigured the doctors who provided it (e.g., that nosy customer at Pay-U-Pawn). With Sullivan, however, she offered the carrot over the stick. If he promised not to perform the procedure on another client, she would cover half the buy-in any time he cared to sit at her poker table. Half. He’d have to be stupid to pass that up.
“It’s a shame it had to come to this.” Nina spoke with the taut command of a ventriloquist, her mouth frozen in a nutcracker sneer. She traced a scalpel feather-like across Sullivan’s neck, while Clara struggled helplessly against the henchman’s grasp. Sullivan tried to project a sense of calm to her, but the surgical light glaring off his sweaty pate betrayed every drop of his fear.
“I can get your money,” he stammered. “I only left town because I could pay off the debt faster here.”
She pressed the blade to his lips and whispered, “You’ve gotten rusty, Sullivan. I used to admire your bluffing skills. If you hadn’t been an even better surgeon, you may have stood a chance at my table.”
“So give me another!” he begged. “One more shot to break even. Please, for my daughter’s sake.”
She swiveled the gaudy ring around her finger, as if considering the request, though there was no sign of contemplation in her porcelain face. After a brutal, drawn-out pause, she finally replied. “If you can scrape together the buy-in—the full buy-in—you are welcome to join my next game.”
She cut him off before he could grovel. “But do not mistake this for an act of mercy. Your debt is worth more to me than your life. If you welch on it again, then the next time you lay your eyes on your pawnbroker friend, they will be floating in a Ziploc bag.”
Sullivan gulped, grazing the scalpel against his throat.
“I’ll see you Thursday at sunset. And since you’re so forgetful these days, here’s a reminder.” She took his wrist, and Sullivan looked on as if he were watching the mutilation of a stranger’s hand, only shuddering at the sound of his daughter’s muffled screams. The monogram carved into his palm was almost beautiful—like a henna tattoo—until the ruby-red ink spilled out to smudge the penmanship.
Once the goons released them, Clara flew across the room to hug him tight. She could feel his heart pounding against her ear, like a fetus kicking in the womb. Sullivan felt it too and twisted free, clenching his fists in a show of temerity. “And Nina,” he hissed, “if you touch my daughter again, I’ll pay you back for that too.”
She stopped at the threshold, staring at him with that rictus grin, those unblinking eyes. He thought she might cut his throat on the spot, but she only gave a tight half-nod and walked out the door. Her footsteps receded, and he unclenched his fist. The pain burst into it at last. But it didn’t matter. He was alive. And even better, he had a chance.
“Would you rather see me dead?” Sullivan fumed. He banged on a crate of rhino horns, setting off the angry wasps bandaged up in his fist.
Oscar usually struggled to repress his friendly nature when shooting down a supplier’s plea for an advance, but Sullivan had chosen to interrupt him in the middle of his nightly routine. Every day after he closed up, he would review the activity on his ex-wife’s Facebook page, recording the names of everyone who liked her posts into a wrinkled steno pad. What he would do with this list, he wasn’t sure, but he had been performing the ritual for five years and couldn’t just neglect it every time one of his associates ended up in a jam. “That table’s the real death trap,” he eventually replied, staring gluey eyed at his computer screen. “You’d have better luck paying off the whole tab. How deep are you, anyway?”
Oscar let out a low whistle and closed the browser, exchanging the steno pad for the whisky bottle he kept in his filing cabinet. He sifted through the wreckage of old take-out containers that cluttered his desk, dumped the dregs of a McCafé, and poured out two generous fingers. Sullivan ignored the slurry of mold swirling at the bottom, knocking it back in a single gulp.
“Which is why,” he started, wiping his mouth with the bandage, “it’d be easier if you could lend me the 5K I need to buy in. I’ve already got the other half.”
Oscar sipped from the bottle. “She’s toying with you, doc. I’ve seen too many buddies pawn their family heirlooms for ‘one more shot’ at Nina’s table. You know what they call her, right?”
“Yeah, the Huntress.”
“The Huntress!” he shouted over him, spraying whisky spittle across the desk. “Because she keeps a trophy from every bastard in her debt, and if you don’t pony up, it’ll be the only proof you ever existed.”
“Yeah, I know, she made a show of waving around my old Super Bowl ring. But ever since the night I lost it, I keep replaying everything I did wrong, and I know how to beat her now.”
“Can’t be done.”
“Do you ever follow the chess pros?” Sullivan poured another round and continued. “Back when I used to bet on them, there was this grandmaster from Senegal who was the epitome of a sure thing. He had this freaky orderliness that let him instantly see every potential threat on the board, as easily as you’d spot parsley in someone’s teeth. For years, he was undefeated. Then this teenager came outta nowhere and knocked him out on her first match. She wasn’t even some chess prodigy, but she was very clever. Every time she moved a piece, she’d set it down slightly off-center, and this sloppy placement was like total chaos to the grandmaster. Checkmate in six minutes.”
“But that won’t work on Nina.”
“I know. I’m saying that a strength often masks a weakness. And I don’t think Nina’s as cold-blooded as everyone assumes. When you live through a tragedy like she did, you do everything in your power to stop feeling, but no matter how deep you bury your heart, it’s still in there somewhere. Just waiting for the right kind of organ thief.”
“This is desperation, Sully. Even if that’s true, you’ll never win her sympathy.”
“I don’t want to win her sympathy. I want to win her money. Nobody can read her face, but if I can find a way to get under her skin, maybe I can throw her off her game.”
Oscar grunted, and Sullivan knew he was right. It was a shitty plan, but it was all he had. He slumped forward, his head fully submerged in the cadaverous funk of leftover General Tso’s, so that his misery was on full display when Clara stepped out from behind the curtain.
“Clara?” Though her voice was soft, it had hit him like the frigid drip of a leaky AC unit. “I told you to stay in the car!”
“But I know how you can get the money.” She pulled something from her backpack and placed it in his palm. A ring with a simple band that hugged a murky gem. Caught off guard, Sullivan had to close a fist around it when his hand began to tremble.
“Clara, where did you get this?”
“I found it in your duffel bag,” she said, unable to meet his eyes. “I never had anything of mom’s, and I know I shouldn’t have taken it, but I’ve been careful with it.”
“I thought I’d lost this. Do you have any idea how I…” he started but couldn’t finish.
“I’m sorry,” she said, raising up again. “But now we can pawn it and get the money to win your game.”
Sullivan worked his jaw, grinding each word like a leathery porkchop. “Clara, your mother was a gambling addict. She couldn’t hold onto anything valuable. This is just a worthless trinket I won at a carnival.”
Then the gem caught the light, and his green eyes flashed in response. He ran his thumb in a familiar motion around the stone, its edges smoothed from a decade of grief. Deep in thought, he whispered, “Though this may still come in handy.” Of course, by then, Clara had already run out and shut herself in the car, where she wouldn’t disappoint him any longer.
Oscar couldn’t take it anymore. “Jesus, Sullivan,” he muttered, “I’ll lend you the goddamn money.”
Somewhere off I-76, they waited at a desolate parking lot, a soft gasp of dust in the endless farmland. Or the perfect place to wind up dead in a ditch, as Oscar put it, so he’d stuck around to make sure Sullivan wasn’t walking into a trap. They leaned on the hood of his pickup, while Clara dangled her feet off the truck bed, watching her shadow slink away from the sun. After hours of waiting with nothing but the occasional rabbit sighting to break up the monotony, an RV rolled up to the lot, popping gravel under its wheels. It stopped on the shoulder and flashed its headlights.
“Is that it?” Oscar asked.
Sullivan shrugged. He wasn’t expecting a limo service, but this still threw him. “Sure you don’t mind watching her while I’m gone?” he said, grabbing the satchel of cash.
“Please, she can help me with some errands.”
Clara had mostly kept to herself since the night before, which made this next part a little easier. Sullivan rounded the truck and patted her on the shoulder, managing to avoid the terror of eye contact. She raised her hand and made a gesture like the devil horns that bob over metal shows.
“What’s that one mean?”
“I love you,” she mumbled.
After a moment’s hesitation, he patted her shoulder again. “Don’t worry. I’ll be OK,” he said, a creak in his voice—he would have to handle that before playing the part of Scheherazade tonight. A weight pulled at him as he walked off, telling himself with each step that he could still look back and return the gesture. But he held the satchel in one hand. And the other was bandaged. So what could he do?
On board the Winnebago, Sullivan realized it wasn’t taking him to the game—he was already there. The vehicle had been renovated into a close quarters poker room, with a card table, a minifridge of beer, and some sleepy guitar licks drifting from a Bluetooth speaker. Three other players were already hunched in a tight circle, like a throwback to his days of huddling around prison cot poker games. They didn’t seem deterred by the unexpectedly hill-people ambiance of the place, not that anybody chose Nina’s table for the decor. She shuffled the deck at the head of the group, her fingers working nimbly even with the bulky Super Bowl ring on display. Sullivan sat at the last open chair, and the room rumbled off.
“Welcome back, Sullivan,” Nina said, her Zoltar eyes scrolling up to read him.
“Nina,” he nodded back. “So what’s the deal with the RV?”
“A loophole in the Pennsylvania code. As long as this vehicle remains in motion, we’re legally immune from any gambling laws.”
The bearded player nudged Sullivan and joked, “The house can’t take a rake if there ain’t a house. Eh, mate?” His Australian accent was so obnoxiously cartoonish that it just had to be a put-on. Yet it put Sullivan at ease. If that was the kind of cheap misdirection Nina’s table was attracting, this might be easier than he’d expected. Beside the Aussie sat a player in sunglasses and hoodie doing his best impression of a mannequin, the stoic type that Sullivan always hated, even though he’d used the same strategy back in the day. Rounding out the group, the eldest player went suddenly bug-eyed, jumping from his seat to vomit into a paper bag.
“What’s his problem?” Sullivan asked.
“Don’t mind the old-timer,” the Aussie replied. “He gets car sick.”
“Every time? So why’s he keep playing?”
The old-timer slumped back and grumbled, “Fuck knows. Why do any of us?” He wiped the last specks of puke on his sleeve. If this was another put-on, then the level of commitment was impressive. Then again, they were sharing the table with a woman who’d disfigured herself for the sake of a bluff.
“I’m Sullivan, by the way.”
“I know who you are,” the old-timer said. “You’re the reason my kids lost their college savings.”
The Aussie did a double take. “Wait, you’re the Sullivan? The one who pulled the jiggery-pokery on Nina’s face?”
“Well, I don’t know whether to shake your hand or crack your jaw,” he laughed with a giddy dolphin skirling.
“So, now that we’re all best friends,” Nina cut him off, “let’s play.”
The sycamore’s branches choked out all the moonlight, so Oscar used his phone to illuminate Clara’s path up the tree. She scurried up the trunk with ease, then tip-toed across a winding branch to where it reached the fence that bordered the park. “Wow,” he raised his voice over the pulsing cicada chatter, “if I didn’t know any better, I’d think Adobo was the one giving you the lessons.”
Clara beamed, grasping for the binoculars he swung at her. She aimed them at the townhouse with the double gables.
“So? Can you see anything?”
She focused on the only lit window and called back, “She’s making tea in the kitchen.”
“Good. That’s good.”
“You want her to be lonely?”
“I want her to miss me.”
“Oh.” She inched out to where the branch narrowed. “Why’d you break up again?”
“Because she doesn’t know what’s best for her.”
“Is that why we’re spying on her?”
“We’re not spying.” He turned against the wind to light a swisher. “I’m more like her guardian angel. And you’re like the cherub babies in all the paintings.”
“I’m not a baby,” she protested. “I just turned nine. Wait—a man just walked in.”
“Dammit,” Oscar grumbled.
“He looks nice. Like the dads in medicine commercials.”
“Does she love him?”
“How should I know?”
“Y’know, think of how your dad looks when he says he loves you.”
Clara lowered the binoculars. “I don’t know.” The branch started to wobble.
“Careful up there.”
Suddenly, the binoculars swung wildly as she flailed out and thudded into the dirt. She stayed there on her hands and knees, not moving. Her shoulders trembled as she took in silent, jagged gasps of air.
“You OK there?” Oscar lifted her up and brushed the dirt from her palms. “Yeah, you’re OK. Nothing broken. No blood.”
“Oscar,” she said, barely audible. “How do you tell when someone loves you?”
“Oh.” He nodded, taking a long drag to buy some time. “People show love in funny ways. When I first started seeing Amy, I was about as happy with her as all the other girls I was dating. Then one night we were supposed to go bowling, and she was really late. At first, I thought she ditched me, then my mind started racing. I kept thinking, what if she wrecked her car? Or her house burned down? Or some creep threw her in his van and chopped her to bits? I spent half the night pacing the lanes, picturing all these gruesome deaths, and that’s when I knew it. I was in love with her.”
Clara wiped her nose. “What? That’s crazy.”
“Someday you’ll understand. Love’s sort of like a coin—on one side is happiness, and the other is fear. When you spin a coin, both sides blur together. And when you love somebody, it’s like a blur of happiness and fear. That’s why your dad’s so tough on you. He’s afraid of losing you.”
She chewed this over. “But he’d have to be happy sometimes too. I’ve never even seen him smile.”
Oscar sighed. “He ever tell you what happened with your mom?”
“He won’t talk about her.”
He flicked the swisher against the fence, catfishing the fireflies with a burst of sparks. “Well, let’s just say some poor bastards always end up on the wrong side of a coin toss.”
Sullivan always loved the way they closed up. Everyone comes to a poker table thinking they’re unreadable, and he took such vindictive pleasure in rooting out their tells. The old-timer’s cards bled every time he covered a belch. The Aussie’s neck flushed under his beard when he bluffed. And try as he might, the stoic fucker couldn’t suppress that flare in his nostrils. All of which seemed downright maudlin up against Nina’s perfect, Vulcan composure, somehow even stonier now than when Sullivan played her last. She’d let the opacity seep into her veins, transcended the impassive facade to empty her gaze of all life and humanity. If there really was anything left inside, Sullivan couldn’t waste any time making his move. He wore Rosana’s ring on his left hand and rapped the stone against the table whenever he checked, but nobody remarked on it. He’d figured Nina wouldn’t be the one to take the bait, and all the better—the con would be too obvious if she was the story’s main audience. Luckily for him, the Aussie seemed like a perfect mark.
So he nearly missed it when the old timer finally bit. “That’s a funny looking ring for a man,” he said. “Some kinda good luck charm?”
He held back his response—couldn’t seem too hungry—then replied, “It’s more like a reminder of what’s at stake. Long story, really.”
“I like stories,” the Aussie said, practically on cue.
Sullivan raised by a thousand and took a deep breath. “It was my wife’s. Rosana. She caught my eye from our very first GA meeting. In a room full of blubbering degenerates so eager to spill their guts, she was the only other person with a decent poker face. Rosana hardly ever spoke during the meetings, but she would do a killer impression of all the whiners when we’d chat at the coffee machine.”
The old-timer grunted, “Their coffee always tastes like ass.”
“Anyway, she was a doctor too, so we hit it off pretty easy. An anesthesiologist, actually. Some of her patients worked at the fortune 500s in Philly, and sometimes they’d let their trade secrets slip when they came out of the gas. That got her playing the stock market, then the recession got her playing blackjack.”
He set his cards down so they wouldn’t tremble. “We started going steady and cleaned up our act. Both got jobs at this shitty free clinic and rented a shitty apartment near the river. A little while later, Rosana tells me she’s pregnant. Neither of us really wanted a kid, but it’s funny—even though I’d made thousands of bets in my life, this was the first time I felt like I’d beat the odds. The first time I ever felt…lucky. The carnival was in town that night, so I carried that lucky streak to the darts game. I won her this ring and proposed on the spot.”
Incredibly, it was working. Nina’s eyes were as inscrutable as ever, but they stayed on Sullivan, as if entranced, and he was catching up to her chip by chip. Now, nearing the story’s awful conclusion, he held a Broadway straight off the flop’s face cards. Nina kept raising, and he kept calling, playing it safe until he saw the right moment.
“Few months into the pregnancy, we set up a due date pool with some friends. I thought it’d just be a harmless little wager, but it shook something loose in Rosana. I…I should have seen it. She had this feeling she’d deliver two weeks early, so she started taking these alternative supplements that were supposed to speed the pregnancy. In a way, I guess they did, since the liver failure led to an emergency cesarean. Rosana…she never even got to meet our daughter. But that’s not what haunts me the most about the night she died. Because it was also the date I’d picked for the delivery pool. So even while my wife’s body was losing the last warmth it would ever have, my blood was burning from the thrill of winning the bet.”
A long silence followed, ticked out by the bluetooth speaker’s clinical low-battery alerts.
“Crikey,” the Aussie muttered, no doubt wondering if he’d feel that same shameful thrill. From the looks on the other players’ faces, they were wondering the same. Except for Nina, who sat still, not saying a thing. She kept her eyes down as Sullivan made his move, going all in after the turn.
Then she turned to the old-timer and spoke at last. “Jerry, do you have a spare paper bag?”
He patted his coat pockets. “Yeah, why? You getting carsick too?”
“No. But that pathetic manipulation attempt was so sappy that I just might puke.” She pushed her stack in to match Sullivan’s bet.
“What?” Sullivan croaked, pushing his glasses with a shaky hand. The RV hit a pothole, and the mountain of chips quaked between them. Nina flipped her cards, not even bothering to look at his. But he turned pale at the sight of her kings—a full house. Something changed in his eyes, and Nina, well acquainted with the look of someone who had nothing to lose, was ready for what came next.
“You motherfucker!” he shouted, lunging across the table to claw at her shoulders. “You goddamn monster!” One of her goons appeared from nowhere and slammed Sullivan’s head into the pile of chips. The other players moved aside as casually as if they were clearing space for a waiter.
“It’s over, Sullivan,” Nina said. Her face had maintained its blank, lizard dispassion throughout the fracas, but her jacket was ripped at the collar.
“No! It’s not!” He thrashed about. A trapped animal.
“Your credit is expired. You have nothing left to give.”
With the goon’s meaty palm stamping his forehead into the felt, Sullivan’s face underwent another transformation, to the look of someone who did have something to lose. Something to wager. “Clara!” He shouted, blood spurting from his nose. “My daughter. She’s a bright kid. She could make a good assistant. She’s worth at least another buy-in!”
Nina adjusted her collar, then clasped her hands and nodded to the henchman, who shoved Sullivan into his seat. And when he put his glasses back in place, Nina’s rigid grimace seemed almost a smile. As if she’d foreseen this very outcome. As if she was maneuvering toward it ever since he threatened her in the morgue.
“Of course,” she said, “a new contract calls for a new token of agreement. So I’ll take that ring as well.”
Sullivan jerked his hand back like he’d touched a hot stove. Then he slackened and handed it over, glaring as Nina slid Rosana’s ring onto her slender finger. She shuffled the cards and spoke with palpable disdain, “Honestly, at this point, I hope you win. I’d hate to hold on to such a hideous trophy.”
“Just shut up and deal,” he muttered.
Oscar wiped his brow with a tattered handkerchief embroidered with Ted Bundy’s initials. They’d returned to the rendezvous point just before dawn, and now the truck was broiling in the morning sun. “Any sign of your pop?” he asked Clara, who was yawning in the backseat. “He should’ve been here an hour ago.”
She shook her head. “Wanna play I Spy while we wait?”
She explained the rules, and they played a few rounds until it became clear there wasn’t much to spy that wasn’t green. They considered getting pancakes from the diner advertised on a faded billboard when the RV rolled up to the lot. It stopped at the only exit, blocking them in. Oscar tensed and started the engine.
“I don’t like this,” he whispered. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Wait.” Clara pointed at the door creaking open. Sullivan lurched out and hobbled toward them, an increasingly alarming sight with his disheveled clothes and the Hitler-stache of crusted blood. Then, most alarming yet, he looked up at them and smiled.
The RV chugged off, and they cautiously stepped out of the truck. Every moment in which they didn’t speak extended the possibility that it might be true. Oscar finally broke the spell. “So? Did you win?”
Sullivan tossed the satchel onto the hood, where it answered with a hefty clang. He reached inside it, and with a hoarse voice, said, “Here’s your half of the buy-in, plus a little extra.”
Oscar looked even more puggish than usual with his eyes bulging at the stack of cash in his hand. More bills spilled out and skittered off in the breeze. Clara chased them down, getting dizzy trying to add up the hundreds in her head. She lost count when she handed them back to her dad, as something else caught her eye. “You’re wearing mom’s ring,” she said, grabbing his wrist and tugging it closer. “It looks so different on you.”
He nodded. “It is. Have I ever told you about this ring?”
She shook her head. Of course not.
“Your mother and I, we kept our feelings close to the chest. But when we got engaged, we promised to always be open with each other. So we each wore one of these to make sure we kept that promise.” He ran his thumb around the gem. Its pixelated colors glinting in the sunlight. “Do you know what a mood ring is?”
Clara had read about them in a book, but she shook her head again, so hungry for his stories.
“It changes color based on your emotions. And it saved my life tonight.” He laughed, still in disbelief. “I just needed to get it onto Nina’s finger, and then I was playing with X-ray vision. When the gem turned violet, I knew she felt nervous about her cards. And when it turned blue, I knew she was happy with them.”
“You wily sonofabitch,” Oscar whooped, slapping him on the back. Sullivan grinned, and Clara could hardly believe that this glowing, loosened figure was her father.
He leaned against the hood, so dazed that he barely noticed its scalding metal. Then he let out a heavy sigh. Gazing somberly at Clara he said, “I think it’s about time I wear it regularly again. If you don’t mind.”
“Totally,” she said. “You don’t have to be afraid.”
He wrinkled his brow. “Who said I’m afraid?”
She pulled at his wrist, raising it from the shadow. “Isn’t that what violet means?”
Sullivan squinted at the ring and said, “Looks kinda blue to me.”
“Maybe it’s a little of both?” Clara suggested.
“Sure. More of an indigo, I guess.”
Ewan Davis is a technical writer in New York with an interest in screenwriting, fiction, and comedy. He studied English at George Mason University and sketch-writing at the Upright Citizens Brigade. His screenplays have been semifinalists in the Los Angeles International Screenwriting Awards and the PAGE Awards. You can find his short fiction in LandLocked.
Photo: “Silver Slipper Gambling Hall’s sparkling neon pump” by mscommunikate613