A meaty fist slammed into the man’s jaw with great force. The man, mid 30’s with medium length brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and a distinctive goatee and mustache took the punch. His head rocked to the side and spit mixed with blood flew from his mouth.
“Now… I’m gonna ask you again!” yelled the tall, burly man who had just thrown the punch, “What’s your gimmick? Huh? C’mon tell me how you do it. Nobody’s that lucky!”
The man with the goatee turned to look up at his assailant through squinting eyes. Sweat poured from his brow as the bright light shone in his face. The left side of his head was already colored an angry red and the tissue around his left eye was swelling. In another hour it would be so bruised he’d have trouble seeing through it.
“I told you, there’s no gimmick,” he said in a smooth, confident voice that betrayed no concern over his current predicament. “I’m just good at picking the games, that’s all.”
“Just good at picking games, huh?” asked the burly man. “A couple o’ wins might be lucky, asshole. Five or six in a row might be real lucky. But you ain’t lost all season and you’ve been bettin’ on every game. That ain’t luck, that’s… I don’t know, somethin’ else.”
“He knows something, someone,” said another voice. To the left of the man with the goatee stood a second bruiser, his hair slicked back and greasy. He reached up to his mouth and pulled the cigarette from his lips. A large, gold watch adorned his wrist.
The man with the goatee sat in a chair, his hands tied behind his back. He faced his attacker, a bald man who stood about 6’2′ and weighed at least 280 lbs. Knowing he was risking another punch in the face, he smiled and said, “I’ve heard of guys getting roughed up for not paying their gambling debts, but I didn’t know this came with winning. What do you want me to do?”
The bald man loomed in close. The man with the goatee could smell his rancid breath.
“You know how much you’ve cost my boss already?” he asked. Without waiting for a response he yelled over the shoulder of the man with the goatee. “Hey Charlie, how much is the boss into for this guy?”
Another voice came floating up from well behind the man with the goatee. “Over seven hundred G’s.”
“Ya hear that? Over seven hundred G’s you’ve taken from the boss and he don’t like it.”
The man with the goatee smiled again sheepishly. “Maybe your boss shouldn’t be backing these bets if he can’t afford to lose,” he said.
“Crack!” Another punch landed and the man with the goatee groaned in pain this time.
“You best watch your mouth, smart guy,” said the bald man. “You might still be able to walk outta here if you’re… ‘lucky’.” He and the man with the slicked back hair both laughed at that.
“You’re right,” said the man with the goatee. “I’m sorry, that was stupid for me to say. Look, I promise you, I’m not cheating anyone. How could I? I’m just a guy. I don’t have any connections. Tell me, what could I possibly be doing to cheat? It’s not like I have some kind of super psychic powers right? I can’t just make a team win because I want them to.”
“He’s got a point there,” said the man with the slicked back hair. “This guy’s a bum. Just look at him. He dresses like he shops at thrift stores.”
The bald man paused as though he were weighing his options. Finally he looked down at the man with the goatee.
“Here’s the deal, lucky man. No more bets. Nothin’. I don’t want to find out you even bought a lottery ticket, you got it?”
The man with the goatee nodded. The bald man went in close again.
“And you leave town. Tonight. We see you around here again… and your luck will run out. Am I making myself clear?”
The man with the goatee swallowed hard. He nodded again.
“What was that? I can’t hear you!” yelled the bald man.
“I got it,” said the man in the goatee, his voice quivering a little. The confidence had left him. “No more betting, get out of town, don’t come back. I got it. Really.”
The bald man stared for a moment longer as if trying to decide if he was convinced. Finally satisfied that his message got through, he nodded to the man with slicked back hair.
“Alright, cut him loose.”
Ten minutes later the man with the goatee was walking down a sidewalk in Atlantic City. He rubbed his chaffed wrists gingerly. The icy November air swirled around him but even though he was dressed in a thin grey sweatshirt hoodie and tattered pea green jacket, he acted like he couldn’t feel the cold. The stars were out and the streets were sparsely populated. He turned into a doorway and walked into a bar. The usual sounds and smells assaulted his senses. It was a familiar setting for him. The TV above the bar was broadcasting the post game show.
He walked to the bar and seated himself on a stool. Spotting him, the bartender walked over.
“Hey Manny, how’s it going?” the man with the goatee asked.
“Still alive and kickin'” replied Mann the bartender.
Looking directly at him, the man with the goatee replied, “Yes you are.” In his mind he thought “For another six months anyway.”
“So what will it be? Beer as usual or are we celebrating another big win?” Manny asked, nodding towards the television.
“Just a beer, thanks.”
“Comin’ right up,” replied Manny as he walked away.
The man with the goatee looked up at the TV and was able to catch the audio. The network sportscaster, a former NFL stud quarterback from another era stood on the cold football field decked out in a long, navy blue trench coat that showed off his expensive, brightly colored tie. He held a microphone in his hand and he stood next to a young football player still dressed in his uniform.
“So tell me, D’Jaspaquan, when you guys were down by six points with only 37 seconds left on the clock, did you really think you could drive the ball all the way down field and score? I mean, that catch you made in the last seconds of the game was amazing. How did you do it?”
The young football player looked directly into the camera. “Yeah, uh, you know… it was like… we just knew we had to play our game, ya know what I mean? And I never lost faith, ya know. I just want to thank my lord and savior Jesus Christ for this win. Thank you Jesus!” The football player pointed to the sky.
The man with the goatee reached into his jacket pocket and caressed the large roll of bills he had tucked away. He smiled.
“You’re welcome,” he thought as Manny brought his beer.
An hour later the man settled his tab with cash. He slipped Manny an extra twenty-dollar bill.
“Hey thanks!” said Manny appreciatively. “See you next week?”
The man with the goatee was turning to go. He stopped and looked over his shoulder.
“No, I’m leaving town tonight. Heading out west to Vegas. I hear the weather is warmer there.”
He smiled, turned and walked out of the bar.