The Black Hole of Luck
by Anthony Neil Smith

......The breeze off the Gulf of Mexico whispers salt air and the smell of shrimp and fish as I stand at the back of the casino's parking garage, looking down at the marina while I wait. After tracking Lyle to Biloxi, I followed him on four nightly casino trips, all here to this ritzy joint, the locals telling me it's new, exciting, bigger. "It's got looser slots," they said.

......I don't want it to look like we arrived at the same time, so I'm giving myself ten minutes, standing in the breeze on an August weeknight, staring at boats I can't afford. I'm not a rich man, and I'm not chasing a rich man either, but he could at least share what he's got.

......The reason I'm here: a man made some kids, left his wife for a high school tennis champ, then dropped off the radar. The ex-wife can't collect child support, can't even find him on a payroll somewhere to dock his check. She paid me a visit after looking in the Laurel, Mississippi Yellow Pages, skipping the big agencies' fancy ads until she found Davidson Investigations. Maybe she thought I'd be a soft touch, an old-fashioned, low-tech PI who wouldn't send an itemized invoice. She was right. All cash, no paperwork, almost like I don't exist. People ask for my full name, I say "David Junior" and stick to it.

......She brought a stack of crumpled twenties, held together by a couple of twist-ties. "Find Lyle, get him talking, find what I need to know. Get the law after him. How does he expect us to live? Grow our own food? Even seeds cost money." She was angry, and she got me angry too, so I only took half her bundle for expenses and pushed the rest back across my desk.

......"Consider it a favor. Just so you'll know not all men are losers. I'll catch the bastard."

......She stood. Hair like frayed wire. "I don't like you calling my husband a bastard. This is business, not personal."

......I waved a palm. "Okay, sorry. Lyle's as good as a landmark, my guarantee."

* * * * *

......After ten minutes, I make my way to the elevators, ride one down and meander towards the gaming floor. It's a shoulder-bumping crowd along with toy fire engine alarms from slots. Not for me. I'd rather throw darts in a half-empty bar, or maybe drink a beer by the lake, pretending to fish.
I wander into Lyle's orbit at a blackjack table. We nod politely but keep to ourselves while playing. He's dressed to impress the waitresses: boots, black jeans, tweed coat. He's not doing badly at cards, but not winning much either. On the other hand, I'm up five hundred after three hours.

......"You're like a black hole of good luck," Lyle says.

......I shrug. "But most nights are just holes, anyway. Give me tomorrow, I won't do so good."

......"I know what you mean. Some nights up, some down. But I've done this long enough now to break even and stay that way."

......"You do this often?"

......"Just every damn day." He glances at the dealer and taps his cards. Then dealer lays a four on top of Lyle's sixteen. Lyle waves off another hit.

......The dealer flips over a king to go with the queen. Broke even.

......Lyle stands, tosses a chip to the dealer, and says to me, "Let's get a beer."

......At the casino bar, there's a large screen TV showing cable sports news. Quarter video poker machines are built into the wooden bar, covered with glass. We plunk a few quarters in, and the bartender gives us two bottles.

......"What do you mean you do this all day?" I say.

......Lyle punches buttons while talking. "I figured a system to win enough every day so I can live. If you spend enough, they'll comp you rooms, food, and drink. On other nights, there's Waffle House and cheap hotels. I brought three thousand down here once and told myself that as long as I could walk out of here at any time with a thousand left, I could keep going."

......"You cheat?"

......"No cheating. You play safe long enough, maybe the luck goes your way, you hit big. I'm telling you, I've never dipped under a thousand. And I've got a nice little nest egg tucked away, too." Lyle has four threes on the screen, holds them, and makes a nice heap of quarters. He cashes out, and the avalanche of plinking coins makes me flinch. He lifts his bottle towards me and winks.

......"Maybe you can show me some tips. I'll be in town a few days. My wife's visiting her aunt," I say.

......Lyle nods, turns his bottle in circles on its napkin. "Lucky woman," he says.

......"Maybe not. I don't like her aunt so much."

......Lyle shakes his head. "I mean to have a straight-laced guy like you. I was married once, but made bad mistakes. I love my wife and my kids, but got carried away when this girl shoved her perky breasts in my face. Whole thing lasted about a week. By then, it was too late. But if I win big here, I can go back and take care of my family, show them this was all for them. I won't leave until I can go home with a jackpot."

......What a sad story, and not the one I expected. I say, "You don't have to..."

......"No, please." He faces me, and the tired eyes let me in on the secret: gambling's a job for him. Like everything else we hate in our lives. "I need to tell someone, so you'll know I'm not a lying compulsive gambler or something."

......Lyle reaches for his back pocket and comes out with a bank book, hands it to me. I look at figures typed in, the dates. A savings account. Deposits nearly every week. A total of twelve thousand bucks. He isn't trying to sell me a sham after all.

......I hand it back. "You don't have to tell me this. Maybe I should go. I won't bother you anymore." Thinking I could find out where Lyle would stay that night, then call the authorities to move in next morning.

......"I'm sorry. Stay. I'll show you the ropes. Forget I said anything." Lyle wants a friend. Night after night of dealers and bartenders, buying conversation with tips.

......"Really, I should go pick up my wife, get a late dinner. One more hand." I plunk five more quarters to play a max bet. A king of hearts, a queen of hearts, and three crap cards. I hold the faces and draw.

......Son of a gun. Royal flush.

......The fire engine alarm goes off. The jackpot on the wall flashes. I win eleven hundred and eighty bucks.

......Lyle shakes his head and laughs sadly. "A black hole of luck."

* * * * *

......I cash out with big bills and think about how easy it was to win, then I realize how easy it is to get sucked in for more after winning. Big deal. What I want is my hotel bed, sleep a few hours, then head back for Laurel. Something about Lyle's story makes sense, no matter how stupid the thinking behind it. Why would I want to smash his last chance?

......I walk out into the parking garage counting my options. What I'd do instead is call the wife, pass on this cash I won and tell her it was the best I could get out of him now, and that he disappeared before I could get the law after him. Maybe that will satisfy her. At least. My head nearly caves in from behind as someone slams a pipe against it and sends me off to Oz. Half-awake, in a world of pain, I feel hands going through my pockets. I'm getting rolled! The cash gets lifted, my wallet rifled and tossed back at me. The guy runs away, but I catch a blurry glimpse of a tweed jacket and black jeans. Lyle.

......So that's his winning formula, to find clueless marks with good luck and take their winnings. The bankbook was a fake too, I'm guessing. He gains trust by showing it around: "You can win big like me." He probably keeps all his cash in a humidor under the bed.

......I try standing, have to lean against a Mazda to get some balance back. I touch the sore spot on my head. No blood, but a helluva bruise.

......What Lyle doesn't know is that I'm not just another mark. I know where he stays, where he hangs out, where he drops off his laundry. I'll bust in there and find his money stash, mail it to the ex-wife. And as I stagger towards my car, I grin and think about how nice it'll feel taking my roll back off Lyle's cold body.

Copyright (c) 2000 Anthony Neil Smith

Anthony Neil Smith is from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He is a fiction editor with Mississippi Review Web, and a co-editor of the internet crime magazine Plots With Guns (the latest issue of which is online now). His work has been published in Blue Murder Magazine, Absinthe Literary Review, Nefarious: Tales of Mystery, a few others, and is forthcoming in Murderous Intent. His luck in the casinos is nowhere near as good as David Junior's.

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