This story is by Joe Arcara and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He was screwed. He owed too much to Manny. It would take him six months to pay off the money, and worse, Manny wouldn’t take his bets until he paid up. How was he supposed to bet? No other bookmaker in town would touch him. Charlie shook his head. Burned bridges.
Those damn Jets killed him. He could have scored big. The Raiders won, and he had them with the points. The Saints covered, but his big bet was the Jets, laying four against the pitiful Dolphins. So, what happens? Miami wins by ten.
He pulled into the high school parking lot. Cassie had Sunday band practice. Her school band had been invited to play in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and you would think the kid had won an Oscar. Charlie smiled. She was the one good thing in his life. The one thing he hadn’t screwed up.
There she was, waiting for him, a tuba almost half her size by her side. Tall for her age, thin, legs long like a gangly colt, his daughter was the reason he got up each morning.
He put the tuba in the back of the old hatchback, and his daughter, grinning, got into the seat beside him. Kissing his cheek, she appraised him with her wise, fourteen year old eyes. He often told her that despite her age, hers was the oldest soul he had ever known. “How did it go, Daddy? Any luck?”
He shook his head, his lips tightening. “Damn Jets. I don’t know why I bet them.”
“I guess we’re in the hole again, huh?”
“Don’t you worry, Sweetie. Your Old Man will get it back tomorrow night and then some. The Bears are a mortal lock.”
Cassie laughed. She had heard it all before. “Aunt Marsha called me today.”
Charlie cringed at his sister’s name. “She still pissed?”
“Oh, yeah,” she giggled. “I think she’d like to run you over with her Mercedes.”
“That woman sure holds a grudge.”
“Grudge? Dad, you told her I got run over by a truck. That I would die without an operation, but we had no insurance. Then, you took the money she sent and paid off your bookie. Some grudge. You’re lucky she doesn’t know any hit men.”
“Yeah, that was pretty bad. Manny was gonna have my leg broken. He told me that, and I believed him. I got a little desperate. But geez, that was six months ago. You’d think she would have cooled off by now.”
Cassie laughed again. “ Uh, Dad, she flew a hot shot surgeon in from California to save my life. God, was she mad.”
Charlie pulled up in front of the Old Glory Motel, their current residence. He got out to retrieve her horn, and was punched in the face. Hard.
Charlie looked up from the ground into the one face on this earth that scared him. Jasper Owens, smiling his gap toothed smile from his Mad Magazine face. Jasper stared down at him. This was bad. He was being braced by the Debt Collector.
“Hello, Charlie.” Jasper held Cassie by her arm. She was weeping.
“For God’s sake, Jasper. This has nothing to do with my daughter. Let her go. Please.”
“Oh, I would, Charlie. I really would, but my employer has decided that you need a great deal of motivation, and my keeping this fine young woman in my care should motivate you. Thirty thousand dollars, Charlie. That’s what you owe, and you have three hours to get it.
“I have booked the room next to yours. Three hours, Charlie. Not one second more.”
Charlie felt the air in his lungs turn to sludge. “Why is Manny doing this? I always pay.”
“Manny no longer holds your debt. He met with an unfortunate demise. Mr. Vasilov holds your chit, and he wants his money.” The debt collector’s eyes turned to flint.
Vasilov? It couldn’t be. Please, not him. The man was brutal. A butcher. “I can’t possibly! Not in three hours….”
“Wrong answer, Charlie. Mr. Vasilov has a client, an elderly igentleman who is looking for another wife.” He smiled at Cassie, who began to shake. Her tears became terrified gasps.
“Three hours, Charlie. Room seventeen. Until then, Your Cassie will remain in my care. Of course, calling the police would be beyond foolish. Mr. Vasilov has many ears.”
“Daddy! Don’t let him!” Her cry was one of desperate horror Cassie slumped, her terror taking her strength. Her legs would not support her. Her fear was too heavy a weight.
“If you touch her…,”
Jasper whirled around. “I am a professional, he spat. I do not molest children. She will be perfectly safe.” He looked at his Rolex. “It’s nine o’clock, Charlie. Midnight. You’d best get moving.”
“Baby, I’ll get you. I swear on your mother’s soul that no matter what it takes, I’ll get you.”
In the distance, a desperate wail, the cry of a despondent child. His child. “Daddy!”
In a panic, Charlie looked at his old Timex. He couldn’t get that much money in three months, never mind three hours. But, they had Cassie! Marsha. She wouldn’t even speak to him, but he had to make her listen. He had to call.
For half an hour he dialed, redialed, and dialed again. She wouldn’t answer his call. He left over thirty messages. Begged her to answer. Texted her a hundred times. In desperation, he offered to kill himself to appease her, if only she would answer.
That appealed to her. She answered. “What the hell do you want, Charlie? I told you, you’re dead to me. If you had even one shred of decency, you’d send Cassie to live with me. Give her a chance at a normal life.”
“Marsha, I’ll do whatever you say. I’ll send her to live with you, I’ll walk in front of a bus. I’ll do anything you want, just help my baby. Help Cassie.”
The phone went silent. He listened, praying. “Hello?”
Another minute of silence. “Charlie, what did you do?”
“I fucked up. I owe a very bad man thirty grand. He took Cassie. They’re gonna send her off to marry some old guy, I…”
“You lying son of a bitch! Her voice was shrill, disbelieving. Did you think I’d fall for this again? Fuck you, Charlie. Don’t ever call here again.”
“No, wait! I can get her on the phone! She’ll tell you…” The phone was silent. She had hung up. He called another dozen times. Straight to voice mail. She had turned her phone off.
Charlie began to shake, panic gripping him, his stomach heaving, vomit spewing the sidewalk. It was nine forty five. A sudden realization washed over him. No one would help. No one but the tong. He had to go to china town. He had to see Benny Linn.
He drove to the old district, to the smell of fried dumplings and hanging, freshly butchered ducks on overhead racks, sold by street vendors. He knocked on a red, ornate door on the street. A tattooed thug answered immediately. “I need to see Uncle Benny.”
A nod, a gesture to wait. Ten oh five. An old man in a suit entered the room. “Ah, Mister Charlie. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“I need thirty thousand dollars, Uncle Benny, and I need it in less than two hours.”
The old man shook his head. “That is not the way we do business. Perhaps in two days.”
“I don’t have two days. I have less than two hours. Please help me.”
The tong leader pointed to a chair. “Sit. Tell me your story.”
At eleven fifty seven, outside room seventeen, a knock on the door. Jasper opened it to find Benny Linn standing there. “Ah, Mister Linn. Charlie has more pluck than I gave him credit for. You will pay his debt?”
Uncle Benny nodded, handed over an envelope. “I will take the girl to see her father.”
Cassie ran to the old man. “Please, where’s my daddy?”
“I will take you to him. Come with me.”
They rode in silence, both in the backseat, two burly men in the front. Cassie felt very small. Very afraid. She wanted her father.
They drove to a small building at the edge of town. The car stopped and Uncle Benny helped Cassie from the car and escorted her inside to a small room. There, in a bed lay her father, his head wrapped in bandages. “Daddy! What happened to him!”
“He’ll be awake soon, child.”
“But, what happened? What did you do to him?”
“Why, only what he contracted for. I’m told that in some parts of the world, they are considered a delicacy. His eyes. He sold us his eyes.