The woman who pulled into the No Parking Zone resembled her colorless sedan. George pegged her to be 40. Maybe younger. Then he saw a kid in a car seat. Definitely younger.
He sipped black coffee and lit a Lucky Strike, apt for his morning ritual outside the Aces Casino and Bingo Hall. Inside, night ebbed eternal. But out here, hope dawned evermore. For despite his rugged pragmatism, George was an optimist. Somebody would hit it big.
But it wouldn’t be George. No, for him, life itself was a gamble. Life and death. And that was enough. He wondered, though, if he could ever take a chance, even if the odds were with him. Probably not. What if life depended on it? He shook his head. He had lost everything to chance. To bingo. Bingo, of all things. His wife had left their two-year-old boy in the car so she could play a few games of chance. His Henry never had a chance. Bile seared George’s throat.
No, he played it safe and chose each morning to venerate his son, here, where the boy died, by watching people. People who took chances. Like the woman parked where she shouldn’t have been. With the scuffed car idling, she punched numbers into her phone. He wasn’t eavesdropping—no, that was beyond his sensibilities. But he clearly heard her gravely monotone through the open window.
“Mark, it’s Suzanne. I’m here.”
She lit a cigarette. An experienced people-watcher, George often analyzed people by what they drank or smoked. He surmised that Suzanne was too detached for menthol. Too conventional for Virginia Slims. Maybe Marlboro. She blew the smoke out the window, probably because of the child in the backseat. George wondered if it was a boy or a girl. He allowed himself a full heartbeat of Henry.
Suzanne glared at the door to George’s right. He followed her gaze and inhaled sharply as the door opened, revealing the plush red innards of Aces. A well-dressed man stepped out, yanking on sunglasses. To protect his eyes or his identity, George wondered. The guy looked up and down the street, glanced at a fancy watch and walked away. Presuming the man wasn’t Mark, George noticed the glint of a handgun holstered to his hip. Cop, he speculated. No, too obvious. Mafia muscle? No, too cliché. Maybe recon for a heist. That bothered George. It was probably time to leave.
“Son of a bitch.” Suzanne’s voice pierced his reverie. She shouted into her phone, pounded the steering wheel, and jerked her head back toward the child in the backseat. Every few minutes, she repeated the routine. Call. Swear. Slam. Check. “I need the money, Mark. Get out here with it. Now.”
Was Mark the baby’s father, George wondered. A drug dealer? Did Suzanne need money for drugs? George hoped not. For the baby’s sake. He preferred to think it was for food, rent, or medicine.
Without turning the car off, Suzanne bolted out the driver’s door and charged at George. He averted his eyes. He was an observer, not a participant. He should have left when he saw the gun. But it was too late.
“Keep an eye on my car, will ya?” It wasn’t a request. “Just for a minute.” The woman wore baggy jeans and an old plaid shirt. Definitely a Marlboro girl. “Don’t let ’em tow it. My girl’s inside.”
With a dozen steps, she transitioned from her world of chaos to one of chance. She bet on the house. Or at least on finding Mark in it. With eyes bouncing between car and casino, George paced between the two. Stuck. He lit another cigarette.
Pop. He dropped it. Pop. Pop. Pop. Gunfire.
A jean-clad body fell into the doorway, propping it open. It was Suzanne. With eyes wide open and blood oozing from her arm, Suzanne thrust her head toward the car. Instinct told George to run. Away. Far away. Instead, he willed his feet in the direction Suzanne had indicated. What to do? Grab the baby? No. That would mean he’d get involved. Damn. He was involved.
From a side door, a bearded guy in jeans sprinted toward him carrying a duffle bag and a drawn gun. Was this Mark?
“Get outta the way,” he shouted as he approached the car. George raised his hands in surrender. The guy jumped into the passenger seat, then jumped out. Definitely Mark. “What’d you do with my old lady, you, you …”
“Wait. She … she ran in …” George gestured toward the door where Suzanne slumped. Looking for you, he wanted to say, you son of a bitch. Did Mark even see her? “Said she’d only be a minute. Asked me to look after the baby.”
Mark jerked his head toward the back seat. “Shit!”
Kicking George to the curb, Mark yanked the toddler from the car. As George crawled to his feet, Mark tossed him the screaming child. Then he raced to the driver’s side, put the car in gear, and sped away.
George cradled the girl against the uproar, until Suzanne’s screams broke through it. He realized he was smiling. The baby was smiling. He’d taken a chance. Against the odds. And hit it big.
“I got her.” Standing tall, he waved at Suzanne. “We’re okay.”