Odds Against Tomorrow
Outside the fog drifted down Eddy Street like a wall of thick smoke. He hated the weather in San Francisco, always so damp and penetrating it chilled you to the bone. He tossed the cigarette out the window, but he couldn't see it hit the pavement. It just vanished in the fog as if it had never existed. He wished he could disappear in the fog as well, but there was no use dreaming about an easy way out. He had passed easy a couple months earlier.
Sitting on the window sill, he realized once again that he should have left town before all the trouble started. But that would have been the smart thing to do and he smiled bitterly to think he seldom did what was smart, especially not if a good-looking woman was in the picture. He had stayed in San Francisco because of Kate, a natural blonde with a baby face and a perfect ass. He told buddies he had scored one of the last three virgins left in town, but fortunately Kate only looked virginal. In reality she was part virgin—the forgetful part. Now she was long gone and he was up shit creek waiting for Benny to bring him a paddle.
He looked at his wristwatch and cursed under his breath. The little bastard was almost two hours late. He would go stir crazy if he had to wait much longer, but he couldn't leave the apartment. He might as well leap head-first out the window and get it over with rather than hit the streets defenseless.
He returned to the bed, lay down and fired up another cigarette with the gold lighter Kate had given him. He flicked the lighter on and off, recalling the day at the race track when she slipped the lighter into his coat pocket and laughed like a little girl. Her laugh always made him go soft inside. She was the only woman who ever did that to him and at first it made him feel uncomfortable, but after awhile he lapped it up like a puppy floating in milk.
A few minutes later he jumped when heard a loud knock. He scrambled out of bed and leaned an ear against the door, listening for more than one voice.
"Who is it?"
"Me. Open up."
He unlocked the door and let Benny inside, quickly locking it again.
"You sure took your sweet time."
"It's the middle of the night, man."
Benny was short and sickly thin with a greasy face. His baggy clothes made him look like he slept every night in the bus station.
"Did you bring it?" the man asked.
Benny pulled out a small-calibre revolver and handed it to the man.
"What the fuck is this?"
"It's all my friend could scrounge."
"It's a pop gun. I asked for a 45 automatic."
"We went to six different places. It's better than nothing."
"Not by much."
"Take it or leave it."
"Where's my change?"
"It cost the whole three hundred."
"The hell it did."
"Like I said, it's the middle of the night."
"You're holding out on me."
"This is the thanks I get for busting my ass?"
The man clipped Benny's temple with the barrel of the revolver and pushed him against the door as he let out a yell.
"You little son of a bitch!"
"Jesus, what a maniac. Take it easy, will ya?"
"I want my goddamn change."
Benny took a hundred dollars out of his wallet and the man snatched the money from his hand.
"I gotta make some money for my trouble, don't I?"
"You owed me a big favor, Benny."
"I have bills to pay just like you."
"Keep it. I hope you choke on it."
"Any whisky in this dump? I'm dying of thirst."
The man sat on the bed, opening the revolver cylinder to see if it was loaded. "There's a bottle in the top dresser drawer."
Benny poured himself a drink into a paper cup. "You want one?"
"No. I want to keep my head clear."
Benny downed the whisky in one swallow and shivered. "It's cold in here. Why don't you shut the window?"
"I like the fresh air."
"You mean those fumes outside? Don't make me laugh."
Benny poured himself another drink and took a seat in the only chair. "What are you gonna do?"
"I don't know yet."
"They'll find you sooner than later if you stay here."
"You have any more rounds for this pee-shooter?"
"Yeah, I forgot."
Benny emptied a pocketful of shells onto the bed and grinned at the man. "Guess who I saw tonight?"
"I don't play guessing games."
The man looked up at him. "Where?"
"At a bar on North Beach."
"I thought she left town."
"So did I."
"Who was she with?"
"Who do you think?"
"If you're screwing with my head—"
"I swear I'm not lying. They were sitting in a booth bigger than life."
"Did they see you?"
"I don't think so. I was only there a minute or two."
"I wonder if she kept her apartment on Lombard Street."
"You better forget her. She's back where she belongs."
"Watch your mouth."
"She's gonna get you killed, man. Only a damn fool would—"
"Don't you have places to go and people to do?"
"Okay, ignore my advice. You always were a stubborn bastard."
Benny finished his drink and went to the door while the man unlocked it.
"Keep quiet about the gun," the man said.
"You know me."
"That's why I'm warning you."
"Now you've hurt my feelings."
"You'll get over it," the man said, ushering him into the hallway.
He closed the door and locked it, then returned to the bed to count the shells. There were twenty-two, plus the six in the chambers. He could win a war if he was facing jack rabbits armed with pellet guns. But the enemy would be big men with no necks and beaucoup fire power. The odds were against him unless he could manage to stay out of a gunfight.
The ground-floor apartment had a large bay window facing Lombard Street. After paying the taxi driver, the man pulled up the collar of his coat and stood across the street watching the window for signs of life inside. The lights were out and he decided to wait a few minutes before ringing the door bell. He lit a cigarette and shuffled from one foot to the other to get the blood circulating in his legs. A foghorn groaned in the distance like the wail of an animal in pain.
Before he finished his cigarette, a light came on in the apartment. He hurried across the street, clutching the revolver in his coat pocket. If Ross opened the door, he would shoot the son of a bitch in the head and then go get a cup of coffee. His free hand was as steady as rock when he rang the door bell and heard a muffled sound inside.
"Who is it?"
It was Kate's high-pitched voice.
"I didn't order any pizza."
"You forget my voice already?"
The door opened a crack and he saw one of Kate's brown eyes blink.
"What are you doing here?"
"Let me in"
"I thought you left town."
"Open the door, Kate. It's cold out here."
"You can't stay."
"I just want to talk."
She opened the door wearing a bathrobe. The man stepped inside and locked the door behind him.
"Are you alone?"
"Of course I'm alone. I was in bed."
"Don't get excited. You have insomnia or something?
"I woke up to get a drink of water."
"Seen Ross lately?"
"What's with all the questions? I thought you wanted to talk."
"I am talking. Benny spotted you with Ross earlier tonight."
"Then why did you ask me?"
"To see if you'd lie about it."
"I don't have to lie. I can go out with whoever I want to and it's none of your business."
"You certainly changed your tune since the last time I saw you."
"I thought you were gone. What was I supposed to do—sit around and wait for you to come back?"
"Someone told me you left town to get away from Ross."
"I did. I went to visit my mother in Oregon."
He took a seat on the sofa. "I thought she lived in Nevada."
"This isn't right."
"You being here. Ross is really pissed off at you."
"He's always pissed off at somebody."
"I don't want any more trouble. If he catches us together again, it's gonna be both of our asses."
"He won't hurt you."
"You don't understand. He gets crazy sometimes."
"This town is full of shrinks. He should get help."
"I want you to leave."
"I just got here."
"I mean it."
"Sit down and relax. I'll leave in a few minutes."
"Why are you doing this to me?"
"I haven't laid a paw on you."
"What do you want?"
"A drink would hit the spot."
She bit her lip and tears formed in her eyes.
"Never mind, I brought my own." He removed a pint bottle of whisky from his coat pocket and took a swig. "You want some?"
She was trembling now. "Please, Roger."
"Please what? Please disappear so you don't have to feel guilty anymore?"
"I never said anything to Ross."
"Bullshit!" he shouted.
It startled Kate so much she closed her eyes and braced herself. "I swear I didn't mention—"
"I don't wanna hear it."
She opened her eyes and wiped them with one hand. "What do you want from me?"
"I'm not looking for a pity fuck, if that's what you think."
She reached down and took his hand. "Let's get it over with so you can leave."
He jerked his hand away. "Forget it. Right now I wouldn't screw you with someone else's dick."
She sat down beside him on the sofa. "Look, I know I hurt you."
"Change the subject."
"I'm sorry things didn't work out between us."
"Knock it off, Kate."
"You have to accept the fact that—"
He slapped her hard on the face. She touched her cheek and stared at him with a bewildered look he had never seen before.
"I didn't mean to do that."
"You hit me."
"You wouldn't shut up." He rose to his feet and turned away when he noticed a reddish splotch on her cheek. "I'm sorry I came here tonight. I made a mistake, okay?"
"I'm all right."
He headed for the door.
He stopped with his hand on the lock.
"How can I get in touch with you?"
He forced himself to turn around. "Why would you want to?"
"Ross might get tired of me some day. You know how it goes."
Roger hesitated before he spoke. "Benny knows where I live."
Kate stood up and smiled. "You don't have to look so awful. It didn't hurt that much."
"I wasn't trying to hurt you."
Earlier that night Benny showed up at Roger's apartment with one eye swollen shut. He babbled about what happened at his place and pleaded with Roger to understand that he held out as long as he could with Ross' two thugs. Before he left, Roger tried to give him a hundred to go see a doctor, but Benny wouldn't take it. The little bastard was so rattled he ignored his basic instinct for greed.
It was after two in the morning and Roger felt a strange sense of calm lying on the bed in the darkness with the revolver resting on his stomach. Any time now, he thought. They wouldn't come until the streets were empty and everyone was fast asleep. No witnesses to identify them in a police lineup. He wondered if there would be two of them or maybe more. It didn't matter because he was tired of hiding. If he fled to Los Angeles or back east, he'd have to look over his shoulder every day and that was a lousy excuse for living. It was better to get things settled one way or the other tonight.
When he thought about it, he realized his life had been circling the drain ever since he came to San Francisco. The money was all right, but it was dirty work cleaning up the messes Ross made all the time. Then he met Kate and she helped him forget the dirt for awhile, but it didn't last long. Nothing good ever does because only bullshit had staying power.
He shoved the revolver into his pants pocket and went to the window. The fog was back again, thicker than ever. He could barely see the traffic light quarter of a block away. He leaned out the window and breathed in the moist night air, smelling the hint of a strange odor like sulfur. Maybe he was already in hell and didn't know it. He lit a cigarette and blew smoke rings into the fog outside. Ashes to ashes, smoke to smoke. In the midst of life we are surrounded by death.
He wondered if the slap had set the wheels in motion. It left a mark on Kate's face that Ross must have been very curious about. Kate probably didn't volunteer any information, but she was as easy to intimidate as a kitten and it wouldn't have taken much of a threat for Ross to drag it out of her. At least Benny absorbed some real punishment before he spilled. None of it really mattered because it was all blood under the bridge now, but still he wished he hadn't slapped Kate. Not because Ross planned to retaliate, he was going to do that anyway for other reasons. It was the look on Kate's face he couldn't forget—the deer in the headlights look. She had never seen his bad temper before and it bothered him to lose control with her.
He tossed his cigarette and returned to the bed, propping himself up with pillows to insure a good view of the door. It was unlocked on purpose. He wanted it to open fast so he could get a clear shot at the first one who came through. The guy would be an easy target silhouetted by the hallway light. The darkness inside the apartment would conceal Roger and he could drop the first guy quickly and try to get off a few rounds at whoever was left in the hallway. If he had to reload, it would be a bitch to do in the dark. Without a little luck on his side, Roger realized he would get hit before it was over, but there was nothing he could do about luck. You either had it or you didn't. It was as simple as that and you never knew in advance.
He glanced at the window curtains wafting lazily in the cold night breeze. A moment later he heard a sound in the hallway and climbed out of bed. He kneeled beside the night stand, took the revolver out of his pocket and cocked the hammer. In his ears he could hear the rythmic throb of his heart beating. He noticed a bitter taste in his mouth and tried to swallow, but his throat was too dry. He held his breath, waiting for the door to burst open.
In apartment 210 the old man woke up when he heard several shots ring out. Slipping into his clothes, he heard more shots and and stopped dressing long enough to call 911. Then he opened his door and peered into the hallway, looking both ways before he ventured out. A man in a raincoat lay face down on the floor in front of an open door. His hair was soaked in blood and a pistol lay just beyond the reach of his right hand. The old man stepped over the body and looked inside the apartment. In the dim glow of the hallway light he saw two more men sprawled on the floor, as still as mannequins. A puddle of blood formed a dark outline around the man adjacent to the bed. The other man had three small holes in his chest where his coat was open.
The old man left the apartment building and sat on the front steps to wait for the police, shivering in the cold fog. When the first marked car finally arrived, two officers got out and approached the old man unlatching their gun holsters.
"They're all dead," he said, shaking his head. "Three of them."
"Where?" one officer asked.
"Apartment 202. I'm not going back in there until you take the bodies away."
"Take it easy, pop. You stay right here."
The old man spit on the sidewalk and looked at the cop. "Didn't you hear what I just said?"
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