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My name is Vincent, and I'm an herbaholic.
Recovering, that is. And this means, among other things, that I am honor-bound to the principles of sobriety and propriety, both of which are well-established stumbling blocks in the life of a private investigator. I have always believed that the truth shall set you free, but that a good lie, properly told, shall handcuff you to the bedposts, spread whipped cream about your body, and lick your nipples until they're red and raw, humming with vibrant ecstasy.
Not that that's my bag, mind you. I don't even have real nipples, and Vincent Rubio has never grooved on dairy. But I can fling out fibs with the best of them, especially if it gets me what I want, when I want it. Or, more precisely, if it doesn't get me what I don't what, when I don't want it. The problem is that I never know when to turn on the juice; I lie when I should be telling the truth, and I let loose with a burst of honesty just when a shotgun blast of bullshit would be best.
That's why I end up in the messes I end up in. That's why I regularly fulfill my monthly quota of flops, flubs, and falls. That's why I remain on a first-name basis with all of my friendly neighborhood bail bondsmen.
And it's probably why I'm driving down to a South Florida racetrack accompanied by two goons from the infamous Tallarico family, one of the less savory branches of the Cosa Lucertola, familiarly known as the dinosaur mafia.
Chaz is a skinny little thing, mop of blond hair up top, and I'd peg him for a skateboarder or surfer wannabe long before I'd ever place him in the mob biz. He smells of sweat-the human kind, bitter and acrid, but not so much that it makes your eyes water. Like a gym locker room after a heavy workout, only without the refreshing whip of soap to mellow it out.
His partner, Sherman, is one of those dinos who was never taught either good grooming habits or proper guise care, and, as a result, looks twenty years older than he should. Nearly all of the false hair follicles on his head have long ago relocated to some forgotten corner of the bathtub, and if the light hits his skin just right, I can see that the special latex has become worn across the elbows, daring the green scales beneath to poke through when he flexes the joint. I am well aware that Sherman has already killed at least one person I know; it would not surprise me to see him try and take out another. Sherman smells like cheese gone bad, jalapeños on the side. This is wholly because his entire diet consists of nachos, pickles, and cola, which have somehow wormed their way into his system and overpowered what should have been a more natural, less curd-intensive scent.
These are my new colleagues. That's what I get for skipping out on a college education.
I've been instructed by Eddie Tallarico, my new boss-don't worry, we'll get there-to listen to everything Chaz and Sherman tell me. To hang back, do what they say. Don't get involved unless I'm instructed to do so. Fine by me-it's ninety-five degrees, with 80 percent humidity. The last thing I want to do is exert myself.
The Lexus we're riding in has seen better days. The seats are ripped in a number of places, foam poking through a series of parallel slashes. Dark stains splotch the inside roof.
Chaz catches my look. "Kinda messy, huh? These things happen, you know?"
"Of course," I say. "Messes happen."
"That's right. Messes happen, that's what they say."
"Looks like . . . bloodstains," I say, running my fingers over the dark blotches. They're dry, at least.
Chaz and Sherman shrug at one another as the car shoots across a wide causeway, heading for the mainland and the racetrack beyond. Perhaps in order to stem future conversation down this path, he flicks on the radio, and a static-drowned voice fills the air.
"-standing on the shores of Haiti"-crackle crackle-"waiting for the winds to strike, but we've seen no indication that the hurricane will be moving-"
Sherman flips the radio off again just as quickly. "That's all they ever got on," he grumbles. "Wind this, hurricane that."
We drive in silence for a few more miles as Chaz riffles through a small leather bag by his feet. I can't get a good look inside, but I do manage to catch a glimpse of some white plastic. This helps me zero. "Like the boss man said, you just sit back and look intimidating."
"So I'm muscle."
"Uh-uh," Sherman corrects me, "you're pretend muscle."
The climate in South Florida, abhorrent though it may be to those raised to know better, is nevertheless perfect for horse racing, and, as a result, they've got four well-known and respected tracks located within a thirty-mile drive of each other. Calder Race Course, down in Miami proper, has been given the dubious honor of running the horses during the hottest months of the year. If you want to sweat and lose your bread at the same time, there's no better place on earth, except for maybe one of those Vietcong Russian roulette matches.
The clubhouse itself is a beautiful homage to the days when horse racing was a sport for celebrities and diplomats, when lunching on the green was something other than a dirty late-night-television punch line. I close my eyes for a second as I walk through the wooden portico, and I can almost see the ladies in their white hoop skirts and bonnets, the men in full suits and cravats, the genteel manners and good nature of a day at the races.
And then I open them again to find a miasma of flesh and cash, tan and green waving at me from all directions, the press of human skin bearing down, nearly incapacitating in the crush. Mammals breathing down my neck, their breath fetid and rotten from the omnipresent beer and potato chips, their bodies thick with sweat and dirt. Their eyes, leering across the ground, harried, anxious, hoping to find a ticket, any ticket, maybe a winner dropped to the concrete in a fit of excitement. The depression when they realize that they'll never get their money back, and there's no magic fairy to wave her wand and make it better. Tinkerbell is dead for these folks, and clapping ain't gonna help.
"C'mon," Sherman says, "let's go on up."
We walk the stairs into the main grandstand, the peanut shells and beer-slicks underfoot reminding me of Dodger Stadium. I wonder if anyone goes to sporting events these days in order to actually watch the games, or if they've just become a new venue in which to ingest massive quantities of junk food. Miraculously, they've come up with new ways to pack more and more cholesterol into the same space. Beef on a stick. Hot dogs on a stick. Cheese on a stick. Chocolate-coated double-fried sticks on a stick. The mind reels; the heart attacks.
Up here, folks are shoving past one another in the rush to get to the edge of the grandstands where a metal bar keeps the fans from actually falling out onto the racetrack itself in prime soccer-hooligan style. I have no doubt that some of these folks would gladly leap the railing and push their horse on themselves. But there are security guards posted at thirty-foot intervals around the track, and although I see no telltale weapon bulges, I have no doubt they've got their methods of stopping intruders.
"Down here," Chaz calls, muscling through the crowd, clearing a space for me and Sherm at the bar. "Watch your step."
I wedge myself between Sherman and a man in a wrinkled brown suit, an older fellow who thinks it's still hip to wear fedoras. Hey, there was a time in my life when I donned a cap or two, but I draw the line at the 1950s and leave it at that. He's clutching a ticket in his hand, the knuckles nearly white as he grips it with a fervor.
"Do it do it do it," he's muttering, the steady stream of syllables spilling from his lips. "Do it do it do it . . ."
"You got a winner there?" I ask.
He jumps back; I must have startled him. His eyes cross, uncross, and focus, and now he's got me in his sights. "Lassie Liberty in the fifth."
"Lassie Liberty," he repeats. "The fifth."
I look up at the board on the far side of the grandstand. The results for the fourth race have already been posted, and the fifth is about to start. "This time around, huh? Maybe I should place a bet-"
"My bet!" he practically yells, drawing a little attention. "My bet! Lassie Liberty is mine!"
I back off as Sherman pulls me closer, away from the guy in the brown suit. "Best not to aggravate the civilians," he says. "They get a little jumpy."
"Like a Mexican bean," I say. "Hope he doesn't lose."
"Oh, he'll lose," Chaz mutters. "Lassie Liberty's a nag."
"I dunno," Sherm counters. "She ran nice last Tuesday."
Obviously, these two have done this before. I wonder if they've got any other jobs in the organization, or if they're permanently assigned to the ponies, placing and collecting bets for Eddie Tallarico, cutting the odds when they need to be cut, spreading out the action when the off-site wagers warrant it. Not such a bad job, I guess, if you don't mind the heat, the humidity, the manure, or the smell of beer, sweat, and desperation.
A sudden jolt runs through the crowd, everyone surging forward at once, pressing into those of us up against the railing. What do they know that I don't? I take a look around, wondering if there's a fight somewhere, usually the most interesting part of any sporting event I've attended-
"There he is," Sherman says, pointing down at the track. "Lookin' pretty bad today."
Down below, the horses have been released from the paddock and are slowly being led toward the gates. Eight in all, each one a proud member of its species, walking tall, walking strong, those flowing manes waving in the light breeze, their hooves kicking up the dirt. I am a Thoroughbred, these horses exude. Ride me, whip me, throw roses around my neck, but never forget that I am born to run.
And then there's number 6. Poor, pitiful number 6.
"Jesus," the old man next to me coughs. "What the hell's wrong with that one?"
His gait is slow, almost limping, as if his front two legs have been broken, and then reset by a correspondence-school veterinarian. The hooves themselves are a dirty, mottled brown, cracks visible even at this distance. Those legs that do seem to work are shaky at best, trembling along like seismographs in earthquake country. Patchy fur covers the smallish beast, clumps of hair clinging to the skin with desperation, strands dropping off to the track below with every passing moment. The torso, at least, looks strong, firm and tight, but there's a hint of a swayback forming in the middle, as if he'd been ridden too hard and too long by someone much too heavy for the task. He lopes along in a depressed, addled stagger. Think Eeyore on sedatives.
But it's the head-held low, staring down at his wrecked hooves-and the shamed cast to the eyes that tell the whole story. This horse knows he is finished. Don't ask me how, but the creature understands his shortcomings, and, I believe, secretly longs for the glue factory. A ridiculous notion, of course. Everyone knows that Compies make the best glue.
"Here," Sherm chuckles, "hold on to these."
He hands me a sheaf of wager tickets, the wad thick in my hand. I look down to see which horse Tallarico has placed his hard-earned money on, and a giant number 6 looks back up at me.
"That's him?" I say incredulously. "That's our horse?"
"That's the one," Sherman affirms. "Love My Money."
"Hold on, hold on." This can't be right. "We're betting on number six? The one with the-the one that's barely a horse?"
Chaz laughs. "You don't know the half of it."
"Look," Sherm says, drawing me closer, dropping the volume. "Don't make bones, okay? You'll understand it after. For now, hold the goddamned tickets and keep your mouth shut."
I shrug and check the big board. Love My Money is running at 35-to-1, which, should the completely impossible happen and he actually win the race, would pay off these tickets to the tune of somewhere over fifty thousand dollars. Of course, were that to occur, I would immediately duck and cover for fear that I'd be crapped on by all the pigs flying through the air.
The undersized jockeys-predominantly Compies, I am sure, though the great Willie Shoemaker is supposedly an undersized Coelophysis, which would explain the predilection for jodhpurs-ride their horses up to the gate and lead them in. The number 4 horse is particularly antsy, refusing to go anywhere near the metal cages.
"See that?" the guy in the brown suit belts out. "See that? Lassie Liberty. She's a feisty one! Do it do it do it! Feisty girl!"
Lassie Liberty is indeed feisty, enough so to take a sizable dump just before her handlers are able to squeeze her into the cage. Perhaps this will increase her odds of winning. At the very least, she'll be pushing along a lighter load.
As for Love My Money-well, he just glides right into the gate as if it's the most natural and depressing thing in the world. Somewhere in that little suicidal horse brain of his, I'm guessing, he hopes it's the entrance to a slaughterhouse.
"We're all in place?" Sherman asks Chaz.
"So far's I know."
I don't have time to ask them exactly what they're talking about, because a hushed silence falls over the crowd, a giant hiccough of sound as we all anticipate the break. The track announcer holds it for another second, teasing us, drawing out our excitement, our anxiety-
The buzzer sounds, the gates clang open, and they're off. The number 2 horse is the first out, running hard, fast, her legs tearing up the course, her flanks rippling in great waves of muscle movement. But number 5 is close behind, and Lassie Liberty herself darts out in third.
And-surprise, surprise-Love My Money is dead last, eating dirt, his pitiful legs clawing at the track surface, already five full lengths behind the leaders with barely an eighth of the course run.
"Nice choice," I mutter to Sherman. "Remind me to bet against you guys next time you run a Super Bowl office pool."
"Shut up and watch."