Jeff Curtis—who tended bar at John Barleycorn’s as Jeff Thomas—loved hot dogs. He ate them twice a day, at least. His favorite breakfast was a hotdog omelet with chili, onions, and pickle relish. Jeff’s favorite type of dog was a Skillet Dawg that his Scout Master had taught him to make. Slice six hotdogs open and place them face down in a cast iron skillet with some diced red onion, sauerkraut and bacon. Cover the skillet and turn up the heat. While the dogs were sizzling, prepare six toasted buns: a thick coating of mayonnaise on one side and good old plain yellow American mustard on the other. None of this fancy French gallimaufry made with white wine and spices and shit. When tendrils of smoke curled up from the skillet the dawgs were done. One per bun with the bacon and onions on top.
That, and a thirty-two ounce Pepsi, serves one.
Jeff’s Scout Master, a retired Army Colonel named Ronald King had lost his right leg, from the knee down, in a Korean foxhole. Colonel King, ret., was a surrogate father to Jeff, who had lost his real father in a foxhole in Vietnam. The Colonel was always there for Jeff, Little League coach, Scout Leader, and high school tutor. Jeff—a stereotypical athlete—was none too bright. He could only learn, barring Divine Intervention, by endless rote and repetition.
The Colonel reckoned Jeff would do splendidly in the Army.
Jeff was just dumb enough to mindlessly follow any order, but competent enough to carry it out properly. He sported an All-American crewcut, a body like a statue, reverence for the Stars-and-Stripes, he didn’t trust gays or minorities, and he treated women like shit.
The saddest day in Jeff’s life was when he had been turned down by all four service branches and the Oklahoma National Guard because he had only one testicle. Indoctrinated from childhood by the Colonel for Love of God and Country Jeff knew he must find a job that would serve the greatest country in the world, the United State of America. The FBI turned him down for lacking a college degree. The CIA laughed after he left the office. The US Postal Service hired him as a temp but didn’t renew his contract. The USDA had nothing for him. His search for GOVERNMENT EMPLOYMENT degenerated to the point that Jeff removed his autographed picture of Oliver North from his bedroom wall because the youth felt unworthy to be in the same room as patriotic Ollie. That’s when the Colonel suggested he apply for a position with the Internal Revenue Service.
A perfect marriage.
Everything in the IRS was codified and laid out for Jeff. Again, he was smart enough to execute orders and stupid enough to not realize that he was implementing procedures designed to keep the middle-class struggling, kicking the poor while they were down, and catering to the rich: all-the-while collecting enough money to enrich the economically imperialistic bureaucracy he worked for. So it was off to the Treasury Law School in Washington DC where Jeff learned how to fire a pistol, plan a raid, seize proper evidence, make an arrest, and testify in court. He rose through the ranks and became the youngest Inspector in the history of the IRS.
Life was good, working, finally, for an important and initialed branch of the United States of America. His picture of Ollie had been re-enshrined. For the last six-years, Jeff had moved around the country working for restaurant chains. He never had a true alias because he couldn’t quite muster up enough acumen to answer to anything except Jeff. He’d bartend for eight or nine months, then come to work one day in a suit, carrying a briefcase. The suit was tailored to accommodate his beefed-up chest, thighs, and biceps. The briefcase contained audits and summonses for his fellow-workers. John Barleycorn’s was the first non-chain restaurant he’d inspected in several years and he was disappointed until he’d been informed as to the involvement of reputed mobster Umberto Ciccarelli and that the information he gathered would be shared with the FBI. And even though Jeff earned nearly sixty-thousand dollars a year from the IRS, hotdogs remained the mainstay of his diet.
He returned from the concession stand at Nightingale Meadows with four hotdogs, two beers and a whirring microcasette recorder in his shirt pocket. He handed a beer and hotdog to Joan O’Kane.
“I hate mustard,” said Joan.
“Scrape it off,” said Jeff.
“Mustard doesn’t scrape. Once it’s on it’s on.”
“Then I’ll eat it.” Jeff reclaimed the wienie.
“Which horse did Davis bet on?” asked Joan.
Jeff dabbed his mouth, daintily, with a napkin. “Why?”
“Tell me,” said Jeff, “more about the success of his handicapping system.”
WHIRR, WHIRR, WHIRR.
“Dirk,” said Woody, “you’re notarized, aren’t you?”
“Just one of the many hats I wear at KFLO, Woody.”
“Take a peek at these papers I drew up.” No briefcase for Woody, he pulled the documents from a rear pocket. “I’ll summarize for Rooster and Raymond. I’ve parceled off two fifty-five acre portions of my ranch. Both prime, with Lake Wally water rights and a western exposure. That means a view of the mountains, Ray.”
“I know east from west, garçon.”
“And,” said Woody, “if you two gents have the balls, I’d like to toss these parcels into the pot. Backing my Future Glue, of course.”
Rooster recalled Future Glue, torpid and unfeeling as he jabbed him in the haunch with the needle. “Against what?”
“Your half of M & R Mining.”
“I am interested,” said Raymond, biting his lip. “What have I to bet?”
“Le Bistro,” said Woody.
“The fruit of my sweaty brow? My restaurant wagered on a horse?”
“That makes the difference,” said Raymond, “where do I sign?”
“Gents,” said Dirk, “these papers, in legalese, entail exactly what Woody just explained. There is no fine print, no addenda, and no contingencies. If Future Glue wins, you lose a restaurant and a mine. Glue loses, well, welcome to the neighborhood.”
Woody extracted a gold Cross pen from his pocket. He held it, silent, midway between Raymond and Rooster. Six seconds, then ten; not a word spoken. Then Rooster, motivated by adventure, greed, or boredom took the pen between his hirsute knuckles and signed the document. He extended the pen to Raymond.
“It’s shit or walk, Frog Boy,” said Woody.
Raymond seized the moment and signed.
“I’m gonna clean your clocks,” said Woody. He inhaled deeply and, equine, rattled the air out his nose. “Just smell that air. Desert heat tinged with the smell of horseshit—what a day for a race.”
“Can’t we,” asked Kaitlyn, “turn on the air conditioning?”
“Not today,” said Woody. “Today’s my day.”
The horses were being warmed up. Woody poured champagne. Raymond continued chewing his lip. Rooster raised his binoculars and squinted. He had placed a hundred on the favorite to win, but he really didn’t care, the big action were the off-track, tax-free dollars he’d wagered with Woody.
Not to mention control of M & R Mining.
No matter what that sneaky bastard McGuire had planned, there was no way that Future Glue could win against a field of this quality. With or without a morphine hangover.
But studying the horse through the field glasses, there was something different about Future Glue today. He looked sleeker; healthier. The horse’s blue-black coat rippled when he walked. No, the horse wasn’t walking, Future Glue sauntered and promenaded; gamboled and swaggered. The horse, it seemed, wasn’t capable of leaving his hooves in contact with the earth for more than a millisecond. And, if this were possible for a horse, it appeared happier. Rooster rotated his torso in a slight arc, following the cantering Future Glue. He squinted again, his graying bush-monkey eyebrows furrowed in concentration. The goddam map of Louisiana in the middle of the forehead; that’s Future Glue. The morphine should have removed any bounce from the horse’s gait, but it seemed to have augmented the muscular tension and added boldness and assurance. “I’m just nervous ‘cuz I bet the mining stock,” said Rooster. “I’m hallucinating.”
“What?” said Woody.
“Nothing,” said Rooster. “Nothing.”
The horses broke cleanly from the starting gate. The track had been watered, which kept the dust down. No single horse had established a lead going into the first turn. The jockeys bore down on their horses, trying to eke out position. Future Glue was trapped on the rail. Midway through the first turn Future Glue faded to dead last.
THE LUXURY BOX:
“Cmon Glue,” said Woody. He banged his head against the box’s insulated plate glass.
“Tres Bien,” said Raymond. He mentally converted the sale of his 55 acres into francs and knew that his dream of owning a cafe in Paris would, in another four-fifths of a mile, become a reality.
Dirk was more enthused about getting that load of cash out of KFLO’s safe than the thousand he’d win.
Rooster lit a cigar.
Kaitlyn said, “Woody? Why isn’t Future Glue winning?”
“Shit,” said Chris. “I bet my student loan money.”
“I bet two-thousand stolen dollars,” said Zenny.
“The horse isn’t losing,” said Davis.
“Why,” said Rohn and John in harmony, “is he in last place?”
“You lied to us from beyond the grave, Wanda Marie.” Zenny, Lear-like, shook his fist at the heavens. “Future Glue is losing.”
Ken said, “Fuck it.” He’d already decided this was his first and last trip to Nightingale Meadows. He contemplated a disguise that would allow him another trip to the baccarat table; but he didn’t have a kimono and couldn’t allow himself to dress like an American woman.
“That horse isn’t Future Glue,” said Davis.
“I can’t believe,” said Tasha, “your great grandfather slept with Florence Nightingale.”
Falling to the rear was strategy, not fatigue. At times the only tactic available to a boxed-in horse is dropping back and going wide. The jockey, a wiry, red-bearded Scot named Ian Ridpath had never ridden a horse this responsive before. The horse was overjoyed simply to run. It ran with the enthusiasm of a rookie mount savoring the rush of the race for the first time. Ian decided to reward that enthusiasm by going wide in the backstretch and giving the horse its head.
It paid off.
Future Glue glided wide, striding even with the pack, then the leaders. The race announcer’s patented drone grew fervent: “A surprise entering the final turn as Future Glue is on the same lap with the leaders….Glue is even with the leaders…Glue is PULLING AWAY….GLUE IS PULLING AWAY….GLUE BY A LENGTH….IT’S GLUE, OH MY GOD!, CLEAR AT THE WIRE IT’S FUTURE GLUE.”
Chris and Zenny spun like dervishes. They moshed their neighbors sending hats, beers, and hotdogs flying.
“My roulette stake,” said Zenny.
“My college fund,” said Chris.
Bob, sitting apart from the John Barleycorn’s crew said, “I’m China bound and I’m gonna miss this town like a case of inflamed hemorrhoids.”
Rohn and John high-fived.
Len decided to bank his winnings in a two-year, high-yield CD and use the money to run a real campaign next election.
Davis said, ”It wasn’t the same sonuvabitching horse.”
THE LUXURY BOX:
Raymond’s dream of boating on the Seine, past his riverfront café, disappeared like a broken-stringed kite on a gusty Parisian spring afternoon. Kaitlyn opened a bottle of champagne and began pouring. Svoboda took the entire bottle, sat in a corner, and drank. She opened another bottle and circulated, the perfect hostess.
Woody sat quietly. He had already prepared himself to be a gracious, only slightly condescending winner. He shook Dirk’s hand, slipping him back his marker, “For the trouble of storing the bets,” said Woody. “We’re even up.”
“Thanks,” said Dirk. “Just get that cash out of my office pronto.”
“On my way home, Dirk.” Woody extended his hand to Rooster.
“You cheated,” said Rooster.
Woody pointed at the phone, “Call the Track Steward.”
Rooster smiled, thinking of the Steward’s ruling when he found morphine—a banned substance—in Future Glue’s blood. Rooster made the call. Woody and Kaitlyn tinked champagne glasses. Raymond studied the carpet. Svoboda drank, mumbling, “Retirement. Impossible. Oh God.”
“We’ll be okay,” said Rooster, “Svoboda. The horse will be scratched.”
“Why?” Dirk asked over his coffee cup.
“’Cuz I whacked Future Glue with enough pharmaceutical grade morphine last night to keep it cross-eyed and bow-legged for a week.”
“You just admitted to tampering,” said Dirk.
“And all we have to do,” said Woody, “is wait an hour.
Rooster answered the phone, then threw it across the room. “You bastard, Woody McGuire. How’d you rig the test?”
“His horse ran and won; then passed the drug test,” said Svoboda. He licked the final drops of champagne from the bottle. “He wins.”
“I’ll get the result overturned. You bribed track officials to get the fleabag entered.”
“I chased that angle for KFLO Sports,” said Dirk. “He paid three horse owners to scratch right before the race. The track stewards, in order to start a full field had to select replacements from Nightingale Meadow’s paddock. No full field, no race and the bets are off.”
Yurri mentally calculated his winnings and said, “Thank you Ms Tounens, for the tip.” He patted the shirt pocket that contained the letter Wanda Marie had written to Davis. Yurri tucked away his winning tickets and, as always did when confused, massaged his temples. He knew, to avoid suspicion, he’d have to be last in line to cash in is tickets. His confusion stemmed from the fact that he didn’t know, now, how he could best use Wanda Marie’s letter. If he turned it in as evidence he’d be responsible for solving a murder and could, probably, parlay that into a position with the State Police.
Or he could just blackmail Woody McGuire, have the cash up front, and take an early retirement.