The Wheel of Fortune
by Bob Brill
As they approached they discerned that two of them were teenage boys in swim trunks and snorkeling gear. They were exploring the water near the shore. A man stood on the beach. He was short, slight of build, dressed in slacks, sandals and a T-shirt celebrating a rock concert. He wore large sunglasses and a floppy white sunhat with a wide brim that hung down on all sides.
There was no sign of a wrecked automobile, but Laura reported that Charlie said he could just make out the broken guard rail at the top of the cliff through which his car had plunged. They all looked up at it, but it wasn’t till Oscar brought out his binoculars that he confirmed the sighting.
“This is the spot,” he said. “Let’s talk to these guys. Maybe they can tell us something.”
When it became apparent to those on shore that the approaching boat was heading toward them and slowing down, there was a flurry of activity. The boys emerged from the water and stood on the beach, looking awkward in their long flippers.
Oscar brought his boat close to the shore, skillfully avoiding the rocks. He hailed the strangers on shore and asked if they had seen the wreck of a green car anywhere along the coast.
“Oh, it’s gone,” said the man. “They came early this morning and hauled it away.”
“Police boat. Came with a barge and a crane. Picked it up and off they went with it. You reporters?”
“No,” said Oscar. “We’re friends of the guy who drove the car. Trying to find out what happened to him.”
“Dead, of course. Look at the height of that cliff.”
“So, what are you guys looking for?”
“Just messing around. Nothing special.”
Tyrone leaned toward Oscar and Laura. He whispered, “So who are these guys? What are they doin’ here?”
Oscar spoke to the man onshore. “If it’s salvage you’re after, it’s yours. We’re not interested in salvage. We just want to find out about our friend. Somebody told us he had an accident and went off the cliff.”
The three strangers then went into a huddle. Finally, the man straightened up and said, “It was like this. I was out here this morning with the barge crew. The police don’t have their own barge. They hire us from time to time for jobs like this. We got out here and there was the wrecked car and hundred dollar bills scattered all over the place. On the rocks, in the water. Your friend was carrying a fortune. It all spilled out in the crash.
“The police picked the place over pretty thoroughly. Had a couple of divers here. Picking up money and every scrap of wreckage they could find. We loaded the car on the barge and the police took it away. It’s kind of strange, but there was no sign of your friend’s body.
“I came back later with my sons here and we found a few bills that had been overlooked. Not bad for an afternoon’s work. We even found a piece of the car.” He walked over to some rocks, reached in and pulled out a hood ornament in the shape of a dolphin.
Tyrone gasped. “That really is a piece of Charlie’s car,” he muttered to himself.
To Laura he said, “I gotta hand it to you. You knew what you were talkin’ about.”
To Oscar he said, “We got everythin’ we came for. We can leave these guys to their loot, even though it was all my money and it hurts like hell to have lost it.”
“Thank you,” said Oscar to the man and his boys. “You’ve helped explain a lot. Good hunting.” He turned the boat and moved off into the bay.
As soon as they were out of earshot of those on the beach, Tyrone said, “Tell Charlie I’m sorry what happened to him. Now I know your story was true and I know who did it. Was it murder? Well, it was meant to be murder, but it was botched. Then while Charlie was chased by a guy tryin’ to finish the job, there was an accident. Would a jury call that murder? I don’t know, but it sure smells like it. The man behind it was Police Commissioner Lester Bohack, tryin’ to get double payment out of me. Probably wasn’t his finger on the trigger. Probably some hitman brought in for the occasion. But you see, Charlie, only Bohack would be expectin’ you at the Indian tradin’ post.”
Tyrone had slipped into talking directly to Charlie, so complete now was Laura’s credibility with him. “And Charlie, I’m sorry about two-timin’ you with Gwenda. I won’t be doin’ that no more. You can be sure of that.”
There was silence for a while, then Tyrone smiled and said to Laura, “I got this idea. I was thinkin’ about the way you had Charlie standin’ behind me readin’ the cards to you. I could set you up in a high stakes poker game. Charlie could tell you what all the players were holdin’. We could clean up.”
Laura gave Tyrone the sort of look she might have given to a charming cat who had failed again to use the litter box. She answered with the patronizing false patience she remembered from her fourth grade teacher. “That would be dishonest, Tyrone. I know you wouldn’t want to do anything dishonest, would you?”
“I wouldn’t mind,” said Tyrone, “really I wouldn’t.”
“I know the cheat has been the real appeal for you,” said Laura, “much more than the money. But frankly, neither the money nor the cheat have any attraction for me.”
“Oh, too bad. You have a way with cards. You and Charlie would be so good at it. But maybe you’re right. I’m gettin’ weary of my cheatin’ games.”
“Charlie’s certainly not interested in the money and... what’s that, Charlie?... He says he’s lost his taste for the shady side of the law. Oh, Charlie, you’re not going to be around much longer, are you?”
* * *
Next morning Tyrone called the Commissioner’s office to ask for a meeting at the secluded park bench where they conducted their business. Tyrone came fifteen minutes late and took up a position behind a tree where he could observe the bench.
Lester Bohack came along five minutes later and sat down to wait for Tyrone. He was visibly annoyed to find that he was the first to arrive. Tyrone watched the big man fidget. When after ten minutes it looked like the Commissioner was about to get up and leave, Tyrone made his appearance. He sat down by Bohack’s side and without apology or prologue said, “There ain’t gonna be no payment, Lester, since you already took your payment in wet hundred-dollar bills.”
“Don’t make me angry, Tyrone. You know I don’t like to be crossed. I want my money.”
“Are you pretendin’ you didn’t hear me, Lester? I said the bills were wet. So was Charlie’s car and so was Charlie after he went off the cliff with a bullet in his body. You set one of your goons on my pal Charlie just to line your already bulgin’ pockets. Don’t you make enough sellin’ the dope your boys confiscate in drug raids? That’s greedy, Lester. It’s worse than greedy. It’s murder.”
“Where do you get off accusing me of murder?”
“I got witnesses, Lester. And just in case you’re thinkin’ you could do the same to me, I set up a dead man’s switch. You know what I mean. If anythin’ happens to me, like if I should turn up dead or missin’ or even if I should be busted, the story of Charlie’s murder will automatically appear in the papers. So you better hope I remain in good health. That bein’ the case, you can stop buggin’ me for protection money. I don’t need your protection anymore. It’s the other way around now.”
“You’re bluffing, Tyrone. You cry murder, you’ll need a corpse. You got one?”
“Call my bluff then. And oh, by the way, I’m sellin’ my casino. I’ve grown tired of milkin’ the suckers.”
“Joining the suckers then, are you?”
“Ha, that’s good Lester. You could think of it that way. No doubt I’ll come up with a new game, maybe even legit. So here are a couple of really fine cigars.” He handed one to Lester. “Let’s light up and celebrate our new relationship.” Tyrone lit his cigar and blew out a long fragrant stream of smoke.
Lester sniffed the cigar and frowned. “I’ll save this for later.” He put the cigar in his inner coat pocket. “I’m not in the mood to celebrate.”
“Come, Lester. Let there be no hard feelin’s. It’s all a game. For high stakes, to be sure, with a fortune ridin’ on every card. Some hands you win, some you lose, as the sayin’ goes. The game goes on. You get so deeply invested in the outcome you can’t have no fun. You know, Lester, I don’t think I ever seen you smile, except only when you got some poor sorry loser trapped in a corner.”
“Careful what you say, Tyrone. I’m getting pissed off and that’s when I get dangerous. You know how dangerous I can be.”
“Right. And for that very reason you the one gotta be careful now. Or you’ll blow your whole game. So lighten up, Lester, and fire up your cigar.”
“You’re awfully cocky, Tyrone.” Lester stood up, towering over Tyrone, clenching and unclenching his fists. “I’m going to fix your ass. You’ll see.” He stalked off, still working his fists.
* * *
Tyrone showed up at Gwenda’s door with a bouquet of roses.
“Oh, Tyrone, how beautiful.”
Gwenda patted her hair in place, one of her many unconscious gestures that annoyed Tyrone. He saw these gestures as evidence that she never felt entirely comfortable with herself, and as a result, he came to feel less and less relaxed in her presence.
“Think of it as a farewell gift,” he said.
“What are you saying? Are you dumping me?”
“Gwenda, some big changes are happenin’. First I have to tell you that Charlie was murdered.”
“Oh my god.”
“You know that woman, Laura Battaglia with the Tarot cards, she told me. I didn’t believe her, but she proved it to me. That put me in a tailspin and everythin’ is changin’ for me now. I’ve kissed off Lester, I’m givin’ up my casino and I’m leavin’ town. I don’t know what I’m gonna do next, but one thing I do know. The life I been livin’ is finished. It’s time for me to move on. So goodbye, Gwenda, it’s been great. Wish me luck.” Tyrone headed for the door.
“Wait, Tyrone.” She ran to him and clutched his jacket. “What about me? What am I going to do? I got nobody now with Charlie gone.”
“You mean you got nobody to pay your bills,” said Tyrone as he pried her fingers loose. “Charlie was just a meal ticket to you.”
“You know that’s not true, Tyrone. Charlie and me had some terrific times. But that’s over and now I gotta know what’s next for me.”
“Gwenda, you’re gonna have to figure that out for yourself, just as I’m doin’.”
“Tyrone, take me with you. We could have great times together. Haven’t we always had great times?”
“The best, Gwenda, the best. But now I need to walk alone and figure things out. I’m startin’ over and I need to travel light.”
“Hey, Tyrone. Maybe when you got it figured out you could send for me. I’ll come if you want me.”
“Sure, babe. If it comes to that, I’ll sure let you know. So long, Gwenda.” He moved quickly to the door, slipped through and was gone.
Gwenda’s legs were trembling. She scooted over to the couch and sat down. She looked vacantly around the room, then at her fingernails. She patted her hair. She bit her lip. She cried out, “That son-of-a-bitch dumped me. He dumped me!” She leaped up, grabbed the roses, threw them against the wall and burst into tears.
As Tyrone put his car into gear and pulled away from the curb he was singing an old song he knew as a kid. He hadn’t heard that song for years. It just came bubbling up in his memory. I’m free of them all now, he thought. So how do I get free of myself? I want to do it right this time.
* * *
Lester Bohack was a big man. He drove a big car. A crescent moon and the evening star hung low over the water as he drove along the twisting coast road, one hand on the wheel smoothly negotiating the curves, one feather-light touch of the foot monitoring the powerful engine. He was puzzling over his encounter with Tyrone that morning which altered the balance of power between them and cancelled his advantage. He felt a strong desire to eradicate Tyrone, but he could not find a loophole in the logic of the situation. It was a standoff, like the Cold War.
Though the Police Commissioner was unaware of it, he was growling in the back of his throat.
Can Tyrone be bluffing? What kind of evidence or witness can he produce? Besides me, Lewis is the only one who knows. But, Jeez, he’s a pro and he’s already blown town. So it’s impossible that Tyrone could know. And besides, no corpse, no murder. And yet somehow he knows. He described the scene pretty well. That’s what gets me. How could he know?
Bohack didn’t dare to call Tyrone’s bluff. Once again his mind returned to the spilling of all those hundred-dollar bills. That was messy. Somehow information had leaked too. And gotten back to Tyrone. He tightened his grip on the wheel as though that could restore his control of the situation.
He was heading for his favorite brothel in the hills. The couple who ran it looked to him for protection from the law and paid him the same kind of percentage as Tyrone once did. His exorbitant pleasures were always on the house. As he liked to say to himself, rank has its privileges.
He stopped gnawing on the Tyrone issue and began to relax. He remembered the cigar in his jacket pocket and drew it out, fired it up and took a long pull on it. Nice cigar, Tyrone, he thought. He saw up ahead that the guard rail that Charlie’s car had ruptured was not yet repaired, although he had put through an order to get it fixed right away. This was annoying, another sign that somehow events had gotten out of his control.
Ever since Charlie learned who was responsible for his death, he had been dogging Lester Bohack’s heels. At this very moment he was riding in the passenger seat next to Bohack. For the last several miles he had been calling him names, the foulest names he could think of. He had even shouted “Boo!” All to no effect. Charlie knew that somehow he had to make an impact. He concentrated then on summoning up all the spiritual energy at his command and, when he felt that he would burst from the effort, he knocked the cigar from Bohack’s hand.
At the same instant that Bohack realized he no longer held the cigar, he felt a searing pain and jerked his leg to the side. He looked down and saw the cigar still burning on the floor. He reached down, struggling with his big bulk against the steering wheel to grab it. He got his fingers around it, straightened up and was about to stick the cigar back in his mouth when he sailed through the gap in the broken guard rail and out into space. “Shit!” he cried. He stuffed the cigar in his mouth and took one enormous final drag.
* * *
Laura and Oscar were on the ballroom floor dancing the tango. “Oscar, I’m getting a message from Charlie. Hold me tight.”
Charlie’s words seemed to come from a great distance and were fading as he spoke. “Ah, Laura, Laura. Fire and water. Fiery cigar, watery grave. My murder is avenged. Read the papers. Goodbye, dear friend. All my life I loved you the best.”
Laura hung on Oscar’s neck, her face nestled against his chest, tears streaming freely down her cheeks. “He’s gone, Oscar. Charlie is gone.”
Copyright © 2009 by Bob Brill