TKnC are proud to welcome Chris Leek to their pages with a story that's as noir and gritty as they come.
Jacks, Queens and Evens
When Jacqui and me weren’t dealing cards at the Fitzgerald we’d go get drunk at the Cal Neva, or maybe just hang out at her place drinking cappuccino from a packet and watching crappy movies on HBO. I told her that I loved her once - I was hoping someday she'd get around to saying it back.
Like I said to that cop who came around, Jacqui might have done a line now and again, but it was about a million miles away from being a habit. He wasn’t interested, to him Jacks was just another junkie checking out in the can, she didn’t rate the paperwork. He said they had analyzed the stuff she hit up and it had been stepped on pretty hard with a crystalline alkaloid, but they were still writing it up as an overdose. Case closed.
I nodded like knew what the hell an alkaloid was, after he left I went to the library and looked it up. It turned out he meant some bastard dealer was cutting his shit with rat poison. When I found the asshole he wouldn't need a copy of Coleman’s Pharmaceutical Dictionary, but a Bible might come in handy.
At work it was like Jacqui had never existed. The only memorial to her passing was the out of order sign maintenance hung on the splintered washroom door.
Most people did their best to avoid me. Entering the lunch room was like walking through the saloon doors in an old western movie: conversations would stop mid-sentence and everyone became suddenly fascinated by their shoes. All that was missing was the fucking piano player.
The only one who talked was Ray. He liked nothing better than to run his mouth although he usually did it behind my back. I held my tongue and waited. Working casinos you get to know people, not all of them deal in cards so I asked around.
It must have been around a week after they planted Jacqui up at Mountain View. There was another convention in town and the Fitz was packed out with sweaty middle management types whooping it up on a big corporate happy.
I was pulling the afternoon Blackjack shift. Sammy Seventeen was at my table. We called him that because he’d always hit a hard seventeen, mostly he’d bust, but not today. He hit two in a row and took them both. When he cashed in he slipped me a five, folded inside it was the address of a club west of downtown and a name, Ramón.
There were four other players on base, all of them waiting for a ticket that would never hit the felt. I dropped the shoe like a fat girl on prom night and made for the door.
“Hey Colbretti, where the hell do you think you’re going?” Ray shouted after me, his short legs treading water as he tried to push his way through a gaggle of Philly housewives clutching change cups the size of trash cans.
He was blowing like a steam train when he caught up to me by the blarney stone out front.
“Get back in there you dumb bastard before I fire your sorry ass,” he said, grabbing my arm and yanking on it like he owned me. I swung a rusty haymaker and dropped him too. It didn’t take much and besides he had it coming.
Touching the blarney stone was supposed to bring you luck. To me it just looked like someone had squashed a fat wad of chewing gum on the wall. I stepped over my ex-boss and patted it anyway. I figured it couldn’t hurt.
I walked the six blocks back to my building with my hands shoved deep in my pockets and my mind spinning out of gear. Jumping the back fence, I slid around the dumpsters to the fire escape. I was running behind on the rent and the manager was out for my blood.
I got to my door to find another one of his yellow ‘pay up' notices pinned to it. I ripped it down and hidden beneath was a message from the loser in #4C bitching about how he was disturbed by my music. I could have complained about the noise from his place as well, hearing those boys he rented getting played loud was pretty fucking disturbing too. I left that thought swinging in the breeze along with the note and went inside.
The two things I inherited from my old man when he died were in an old shoe box under the bed; his Marine Corps ring and his nickel plated .45. I stuffed both of them in my jacket. At the bottom of the box was a grainy Polaroid of me and Jacks. It was taken out by the lake last summer or it might have been the summer before. I looked pretty drunk in it, Jacqui just looked pretty. I slipped the picture in my pocket and hunted for a pen. Finding only a stub of pencil I scribbled a note for Gigi, telling her to take anything she wanted before the manger hocked it all in lieu of the rent I was about to run out on.
Gigi Trativelli had the apartment two doors down from mine. Her real name was Donald Johnson. She, or should I say he, was a transvestite stripper at one of those AC/DC clubs south of Ryland. You can think what you like about that, but Gigi was one of the few people I knew that hadn’t tried to fuck me over, which was a damn good thing however you looked at it.
I wrapped my key in the letter and slid it under her door on the way past. I was walking out through the parking garage when Gigi came running up to me - hair in curlers and make up only half done - she looked like maybe she was going to cry.
“Take care Pete,” she said, and hugged me like a bear. I guess maybe I hugged her back.
I headed back towards downtown, stopping in at Liquor Box to buy a fifth of Jim Beam. It was Jacqui’s favorite drink. The barman at the Cal knew that better than most. I don’t know if that’s what made me choose it, but like Ray, it went down real easy. I sat on a crate in the alley alongside the store and concentrated on drinking. I was nearly done with this town, but I had a couple of stops to make on my way out, both of them would go over easier if I was a good way towards being wasted.
I tossed the empty bottle into a vacant lot and started walking again, turning left on Virginia and heading for Palace Jewelery & Loan. Pawn brokers in Reno are right up there with the fire department as an emergency service. One of the pit bosses at the Fitz told me he had them all on speed dial; I told him he should think about getting a life.
The Pawnshop was rammed. It smelt of bus stations, dime bags and desperation. I stood in a snaking line that resisted any sort of movement for better than twenty minutes. I could feel the buzz from the bourbon already wearing thin as I started to sweat it out. Looking around me I saw the same expression on every face. They all knew you didn’t get a deal worth shit in this place.
After a long wait that felt more like a short custodial sentence, I was stone cold sober and at the front of the line. I slid my dad’s ring under the grill, the guy took it with nicotine stained fingers and looked at me like I'd just run over his dog. I know what its worth and so does he, but first we have to do the dance.
“There ain’t much call for this sort of thing nowadays,” he said, starting the music.
“I saw you sold one just like it last month for $1150,” I shot back at him.
“Hmm, I’ll give you $200 for it, cash money.”
“Listen can you here that? My old man’s spinning in his grave. I need $800.”
“No way can I do eight; I might stretch to $300.”
“Do you want to borrow it or buy it?”
“Listen buddy I’m in this to make a buck.”
“That makes two of us, so how about we stop with the foreplay and start to fuck?”
We knocked it back and forwards for a while longer and I ended up walking out with five pictures of Benjamin Franklin in my pocket and a real bad taste in my mouth.
Club Nouveau was an ugly two story red brick that loitered on the corner of Ralston and West 4th. I’d been in the place once when I first hit town, it was just an overpriced titty bar with Hispanic chicks swinging on poles. Following Sammy’s instructions, I passed by the front and went down a side alley to the service entrance, knocked and waited.
I was just getting ready to hammer on the door for a third time when it opened up on a swarthy looking dude in an expensive silk shirt. His sleeves were rolled up showcasing a fine collection of needle tracks and prison tattoos.
“What the fuck do you want?” he asked, rubbing his chin.
“I’m looking for Ramón.”
“Nobody here by that name, get lost.”
He started closing the door in my face, so I stuck a boot in it to stop him.
“Wait up pal I’m a friend of Jacqui, she said Ramón would, you know, help me out.”
“Jacqui? You mean that new girl - little blonde piece with the tight ass?”
I thought hard about capping him right there, but in the end I just nodded.
“Okay Rocky, so what do you need?”
“Show me what you got,” I said, pulling out five bills and waving them under his nose. His eyes lit up like a carousel of dollar slots and he motioned me to follow him.
I was led down a narrow, twisting hallway to a windowless little back room.
A sagging couch filled one entire wall. In front of it was a scuffed coffee table littered with dead beer cans, a half smoked joint spluttered out in the ashtray. In the corner a muted TV showed an early evening matinee of girl on girl porno. I’d lay ten-to-one he was beating off to it when I knocked.
Ramón crouched down by the couch, pried up a loose floor board and started rooting around in the hole beneath it.
“Jacqui huh, that’s one roller coaster I’d like a ride on,” he said, finding what he was after. “I ain’t seen her around much?”
“She ain’t been around since she huffed your crap,” I said.
He stood up with a bag of brown dope in his hand, but he was more interested in the shiny .45 I held in mine.
“Hey, what the…”
I didn’t feel much like talking it over so I just emptied the clip. I was no marksman, but from four feet away I didn't need to be. The impact of the first round knocked the bag from his grip and slammed him back against the wall; the rest squashed him there like a bug on a windshield. He slid down in slow motion, leaving a dirty red smear for the cleaner to worry about. I sat on the arm of the couch and watched for a while as he bled out, it seemed like it hurt, which is all I really wanted to know.
Bio: Chris Leek lives mostly in Cambridge, England and when he can in Henderson Nevada. Honky-tonk bars with nine ball and a killer jukebox are hard to come by in Cambridge so he hangs out here instead: nevadaroadkill.blogspot.com