Read Something for Nothing Online
Authors: David Anthony
They recognized a few of the regularsâold guys shuffling around, a little lost, maybe a little too much to drink. Probably lonely. Ludwig
made a point of saying hello to a couple of them, but Martin hung back and avoided looking them in the eyeâmainly, he knew, because he was worried that this was the fate awaiting him. It might come sooner rather than later, he thought. Then the tables would be turned, and the younger guys he knew would pretend not to see him as he sat there mumbling to himself, writing shit down about odds and races on a scrap of paper with one of those little yellow pencils you got at the betting counter.
“Hey,” Ludwig said. “I'm gonna place a couple of bets on the seventh and then grab a beer. Do you want anything?”
Martin shook his head. “No, thanks,” he said. “And listen. I've gotta go downstairs and talk to Val, so how about if I track you down for the eighth race? That's the one I want to see. Down in the G section, where we usually sit.”
Ludwig nodded and Martin watched him walk away. Ludwig was a sorry bettor, no doubt about it. But the good news was that he didn't seem to care. Like most people, he pretty much just read the odds listed in the
or on a Past Performance Sheet, and maybe glanced at the “expert” picks at the bottom of the page. He didn't think about weight carried, who the jockey and trainer were, distance, or (Martin's personal favorite) recent quarter-mile splits. (Secretariat had run the final quarter mile of the Derby in twenty-three seconds, which was really, genuinely phenomenal.) Occasionally Ludwig would go on a winning streak, and then he'd strut around like a peacock, acting like an expert. But more often than not he'd leave the track with empty pockets, usually having borrowed money to place a last bet. If they went out for drinks and dinner, Martin had to cover him.
Ludwig loved the track, though, you had to give him that. And it was this, more than anything, that had convinced Martin to keep Ludwig on instead of Beaton. Beaton was the better salesman, for sure; that, Martin knew, was why Beaton had been so angry when Martin had fired him and not Ludwig. But unlike Beaton, Ludwig shared Martin's passion for the track. It wasn't the horses themselves so much as the
feeling you got just before and then during a race. He'd never been able to articulate it very precisely, but it had to do with the sense that so much effort and planning had all been boiled down and crystallized into a minute and a half or so of raw energy. Everything else dropped away, and you felt something completely different from what you experienced in your regular workaday world. Maybe that was itâthe sense that when you were betting on a horse race, you were betting that the stars would align, and that you'd get to step inside a little pocket of time in which, for a minute or two, you were part of something that had come together in just the way you hoped it would. And if you owned the horse when that happened . . . well, that was something really special.
It was getting late in the day, and the floor was blanketed with discarded tickets. Golden Gate Fields printed tickets in a range of different colorsâpurple, yellow, green, blueâso by the end of the day, the floor was a big splash of color. Peter loved this. He'd crawl around on the floor, gathering them up by the dozensâby the hundreds, sometimes. Martin had mentioned the possibility that someone might mistakenly throw away a winning ticket, and the next thing he knew Peter was down on all fours, burrowing around, gathering all the tickets he could hold or shove into his pockets. He'd get filthy; aside from the tickets, the floor was covered with dirt and food and spilled drinks and cigarette butts. He'd never found a winner (though every so often Martin would pretend Peter had found oneâwould walk up to the betting window and act like he was cashing it in for a couple of bucks). But eventually Martin realized that Peter really just liked the tickets and the fact that they were so colorful.
“He's like a magpie,” Martin always said. And though he thought it was a little weird, he didn't stop him, even when he got irritated looks from people who tripped over that strange kid on the floor. His son was having a good time, so those people could go fuck themselves.
Martin looked out at the big green-and-white board in the center of the infield, and saw that the seventh race was about to start. He was thinking about slapping down a hundred bucks on Big Bad Wolf in
the eighth. Actually, he wanted to bet more. He was listed as 8â1 in the
but Martin guessed it would go down as low as 6â1 or 5â1. Maybe lower. He'd run third his last time out, at Santa Anita, in a Grade 2 race, and he'd been second the time before that, at Bay Meadows. But both races had been longer than today's raceâa mile instead of today's six furlongs. And in both races he'd been in the lead pack until the final turn, when he faded. Martin was sure that six furlongs was the ideal distance for himâthat he'd be crossing the finish line in first place, just as he ran out of gas. And he'd heard that with Carmine handling him, his morning splits had been fantastic. It was obvious that this horse was due.
He jogged over to the betting area and found the shortest line. Charlene was at the window. She was at least sixty, but she tried to look thirty. She had tall, jet black hair, bright blue eye shadow, and heavily caked red lipstick. He'd placed bets with her before, but he usually did his best to avoid her window. She gave him the creeps.
“Hi there,” Martin said. “A couple of bets for the eighth,” he said.
She gave him a crinkly-eyed smile, then took a big drag on her cigarette and blew the smoke off to the side. He had a feeling she wanted to blow it right into his face.
“Okay,” she said. “I'm ready when you are, big spender.”
Martin took a deep breath and peeled off four crisp fifties. “Two hundred on the two horse to win,” he said. It felt good. Yes, he'd planned on only betting a hundred dollars, but what the hell. He was going to win, and he knew it. Sometimes you could just feel it.
Next he put Big Bad Wolf into an exacta with High and Mighty, who was drawing 9â1 odds (down from 12â1, but that was all right). He put fifty dollars on this, and boxed it, so he paid a hundred dollars. Two more fiftiesâboom, boom. So any combo of Big Bad Wolf and High and Mighty at oneâtwo would be a winner. If he got both the win and the exacta, he'd make some serious money.
HE STABLES WERE IN
a separate building. You could only get from the grandstand to the horses through a tunnel that ran underground.
But Martin knew the way, and the big security guy with the Golden Gate Fields jacket waved him through the double doors. Martin liked that. He didn't have an official track pass, but he liked being able to move around freely, to get access to the insider places. He ought to get something for all the money he'd plunked down here over the years, right?
The stable smell hit him the second he walked through the doorâhorse manure and hay. He could tell that the horses were alert, tensed up, maybe excited. They knew they were going to race. A few neighed or made that blowing sound with their lips as he walked past. He tried to remember what that was called. Chuffing? Did horses chuff? He wasn't sure.
A couple of jockeys were milling around, lithe and colorful and maybe a little goofy in their racing gear. He was struck as always by how small they wereâ120 pounds at the most. Peter was heavier than that (though he was fat, of course). The first time Martin took him down to the stables, a few years ago now, Peter got scared. He saw that he was about the same size as the jockeys, and thought he was going to have to ride their horse in an actual race.
Off in the distance he heard the seventh race start up. Val was over in the paddocks area, standing with a guy Martin had met a couple of times. A big shot. He had a bunch of horsesâthree or four, at least. The guy was about Martin's age, but he was loaded. Some sort of commercial real estate thing.
Martin could hear the announcer rattling off names during the race, and he could hear the crowd cheering, but he couldn't make anything out clearly.
Val looked over and gave him a quick nod. Martin hesitatedâdidn't want to interruptâbut then Val broke away from the guy and walked over. He put a hand out to shake Martin's and put the other hand on his shoulder. He was a good-size guy, with thick hands and a big nose. Slightly receding black hair, kind of bad teeth, not great skin. A few pockmarks. But also handsome in a rugged kind of way. He was
wearing khaki pants and a maroon sweater, with a yellow collared shirt underneath. Not a great look. In fact, Val Desmond was a pretty lousy dresser. Maybe it was a requirement when you were a trainer. Maybe if your trainer looked too sharp, it was a problem.
“Martin Anderson,” he said. “My long-lost client. Good to see you.”
Martin nodded. He told himself to maintain eye contact with Val (which, he realized, was exactly what he told Peter to do when he was talking to his supposedly scary P.E. teacher, Mr. Richards).
“So Val,” he said. He talked carefullyâjust like he'd rehearsed to himself earlier at work. “I've been thinking things over. About the plane runs and everything.” He glanced around, to make sure no one was eavesdropping. “And so, yeah. I'm definitely interested.”
Val raised his eyebrows, and folded his arms. His forearms were tanned and hairy.
“Definitely interested?” Val asked. “What does that mean? That doesn't sound like a yes.”
Martin sighed. “For Christ's sake,” he said. “What do you want me to say? One minute you're a horse trainer, and the next you're a fucking dope dealer. It's a little confusing.”
“Look,” Val said. He glanced around, then looked right at Martin, his eyes hard and serious. “I know what you mean. But I'm not a dope dealer. And who cares if I am? Because believe me, this is small time. I'm small time. I'm just out to make a few bucksâpay for the horses, pay off the house. You should see some of these guys. There's real money in this, you know. And besides, I'm just the guy who picks it up and delivers it to the real dealers. They pay me, and then they're the ones that get their hands dirty with all the shitbags that buy the stuff. But yeah, if you're gonna pay me to deliver it, I'll do it.”
As he talked, Val began to exude that quiet, calm assurance of his. Previously this had been something Martin had liked and admired. It meant Val was a good horse trainer (or suggested it, anyway). Now, though, it seemed like it might mean something different. Martin wasn't sure what was different, exactly, but it was there. It was as if Val
had been wearing a mask, one that was an exact replica of his face, down to the last detail, but a mask just the same. And now that the mask was off, his face (though it looked exactly the same in every detail) . . . well, now it was different somehow.
“So look,” Val said, finally. “You've been ducking me for a while now, which is fine. It's a big decision.”
He smiled, but then it faded.
“I think it's time to decide, Martin,” he said. “What do you say?”
Martin felt a second slide by, and then two. But then he nodded, feeling suddenly impatient. “Look,” he said. “I'm here, aren't I? I've thought about it. I'm all set. Count me in. Absolutely.”
Val looked at him for a second, and Martin could tell that he was trying to read him.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “Because once you're in, it's like losing your virginity. You can't go back.”
“Val,” Martin said. “I'm sure. Really. I'm sure.”
Val stood there for another long moment, then clapped him on the side of the shoulder with his fat right hand. Martin resisted the urge to wince. Val really was a strong guy.
They talked for a while. Or Val talked and Martin listened. But Martin's mind kept wandering. He posed questions to himself, and answered them just as quickly as they became thoughts. Do I really have the balls to do something like this? (Probably not). What's it like on the other side of the border? (Scary. Terrifying.). What will I say to Linda if she finds out? (I did it for youâa lie she'd throw back in his face so fast he'd have to duck.) And of course he asked the most basic question of all: What if I get caught? (I'm fucked.)
And that was that. They talked for another minute or so, with Val saying they'd make a run as soon as two weeks from nowâthat he'd have to make some calls and then phone Martin with details, have him come out to the house and pick up the money for the buy. And then Martin was retracing his steps through the underground hallway and back up to the main area.
As he walked he felt a strange elation. A burden had been lifted. He knew this feeling might change, and that he'd probably start to regret what he'd just done. But for now he was just glad the conversation with Val was over, and that he had a plan. He'd been drifting, rudderless, for months. For more than a year, in fact. He'd hoped Radkovitch would be his ace in the hole (and despite his shit-bird idea about the Buick dealership, Martin was still hoping Radkovitch would come through with the Wells Fargo loan). But time was running out, and he needed to try something else. If someone had told him a few months ago that that something else would involve running drugs up from Mexico for Val Desmond, he'd have laughed out loud. But he was desperate. Debt was chasing him around like the Headless Horseman in that old cartoon that came on every year around Halloween. It was closing in on him, in factâhe could hear the horse's ghost hooves pounding close behind him. And so really, what choice did he have? He'd worry about the repercussions later.
When he got back to the grandstand, he stood looking out at the big board in the infield, checking out the odds on Big Bad Wolf. They were still at 8â1. Okay, he thought. Good.
He also noticed that there was a ripple on the water of the big ponds they had out there in the infield, and that the geese and seagulls looked cold and unhappy. The fog was starting to drift in.