Start Up Downs

by: Michael Bradford w/ Michael Shields

Two friends, multiple cons, and the mark they’ve been waiting for……..

Horse

Part One: Daisy

The sounds of a bustling crowd fill the air. The smell of cut grass and manure, both perfectly fresh and slightly intoxicating, embraces the smartly dressed duo. They wear satin black jackets, jostling shoulder to shoulder with a sea of low-to-middle income English working folk clad mostly in brightly colored tracksuits. The close-pressed crowd all waddle slowly towards the grand, theater-like façade of the racetrack’s front entrance. Above the facade, in an art deco font forged of rusty metal and only partially glowing with neon lights, reads: ST. ARTHUR PROFFER DOWNS.

A few voices rise above the low roar of cockney accented commentary pertaining to “sure things,” “long odds,” and “smart money.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, get on with it already!” one of the black-jacketed men named Piyush gripes.

The crowd, eager and ready, projects a steady hum as it moves forward. It is an equal mix of polite cheers and sharp whistles and it has been building to a dizzying crescendo.

“You see that? What did I tell you? Even the fucking natives are restless. I mean, honestly, please tell me what fucking business a queue has here anyway?” Piyush continues in a distinctly American accent.

“Yeah, yeah. I feel you,” his partner Raj responds calmly, then pauses. He slows his gate and looks at Piyush in a way he does all too often. “Wait, what? A queue is a line, you dunce.”

“Oh no, it is most certainly fucking not a line,” Piyush snaps back. “A line is a goddamned shape, for Christ’s sake. From beginning to end, it is straight. A queue? At its capital-lettered fucking best, a queue is a circle with a tiny penis.”

Piyush settles himself momentarily, proud of his quip. He then unsettles just as quickly, unfastening the top button of his gingham print collared shirt.

“No fucking way in hell we are going to make it in before the fifth bell,” Piyush mutters, uneasy.

“The fifth  bell? Really?”

“Yes, the fifth bell. That’s the only one with the rain-maker.”

“A rain-maker? You just asked me about three seconds ago what fucking country we’re in, and all the sudden you have a line on the fifth?” Raj asks with disbelief.

“COUNT-ee, brainiac. Have you not been listening at all? And yes, the fifth. Number five in the fifth, that’s the golden ticket.”

Raj laughs briefly, the sound a bipolar wave of anger and amusement that is customary in Piyush’s company. “Ok there Charlie, ease up on the factory kool-aid.”

“See? What did I tell you? You are not even listening are you? It’s all of them,” Piyush exclaims as he waves his arms dismissively at the crowd consuming them. “Everyone here. You think these Limey fucks have the money to come here and just dick around? We need to get in there like they need to get out of here.”

“Trust me, we are all good on time.”

“Trust me, we better be. ‘These Balls Don’t Drop’ is still a dark horse at fifteen to one, but word is spreading fast. She’s the bitch they doped up and therefore a lock. The fifth is the next race!!”

“Calm the fuck down! Seriously. It’s scaring me. Why would they start before all these people get in? It’s the money in their pockets they are after. These races always start late in these….”

Piyush interrupts, incredulous at Raj’s words. “Always? The fuck do you know about always? A second ago you were asking me why I begged you to come to this “backwater PETA poster child,” and now you are giving me an always?”

“I just mean that I have actually been to one of these and they alwa…”

The two men raise their heads in unison with the crowd as the unmistakable sound of the starting bell intrudes upon their heated exchange.

“Well now we have done it haven’t we?! Bangers and Mash it is!”

“FFFFuck me!!!!!”

Piyush’s mood flips yet again and in his best English accent, which any and all who have been lucky enough to hear agree that it doesn’t only need work, but rather removed from the rotation in full, trumpets “Cheer up, ol boy, only cost you a ten pence, dinnit?”

“Please, just… don’t,” Raj pleads.

The crowd continues to engulf Raj and Puyish, finally driving them through the racetrack turnstiles. The duo strategically maneuver themselves towards the overflowing bathroom queue. The rush on the loo literally forces Raj and Puyish forward into the actual stalls, two at once, and the door shuts behind them.

On the track, horses are ushered with a heavy hand into the electric starting gate, a beauty Clay Puett would be proud of. The horses rage and buck back, flaring their nostrils and inhaling with barbaric huffs.

Raj and Puyish, in a practiced act, remove a small bag of cocaine from their pockets and dive in, rapaciously purging the end of keys, throwing their heads back and inhaling every last drop, snorting in the moment voraciously.

The horses flare their nostrils, foaming at the mouth and chomp their bits.

Raj and Puyish buck and stomp their feet from the strong snorts of powdery-white anarchy.

The starting bell ignites the horses and they storm out the gate as Raj and Puyish charge out of the bathroom, maneuvering through the crowd with a newly fueled potency.

Raj and Puyish lunge forward, wide-eyed and aggressively rubbing their noses, not a care in the world if eyes are upon them or not. They light cigarettes in perfect synchronicity and walk to the betting gate and as they wait, survey the crowd. Unbeknownst to them they too are being appraised by two men with similar skin-tone, both in dark suits and dark sunglasses. Puyish flamboyantly liberates a grip of bills from his pocket, a stick three-quarters of an inch thick, bundled by a stout gold money clip.

“I had no idea you were willing to walk in here and lose your shirt. Shocking really, a man of your means and education. Kind of a hack move, no?” Raj implores.

“I was about to say, about your little tactic,” Puyish says looking at Raj’s empty hands.

“Oh, don’t you worry about me sweetheart, I will be just …”

The piercing shriek of a Constable’s hand-whistle seizes their attention, turning their gaze towards a mild insurrection breaking out between two middle-aged men. They are wrestling over a ticket and screaming bloody murder as they are swarmed by a blue mass of uniforms.

“Well there is always the alternative, no?”

“The snatch-and-grab??? What are you, twelve? Why not ‘The Lost Ticket?’” Raj inquires.

Puyish responds with a glimmer in his eye, “Close. What about ‘Daisy’?”

Raj is immediately impressed, “F. Scott? Here?”

Puyish nods. “Trust and believe,” he says as he pats his jacket indicating that he has the necessary component.

“The orgiastic future that year that precedes us,” Raj says, which lights up Puyish’s face with unquestionable joy.

With Raj fully on board, Puyish removes himself from line and marches through the crowd determined. Raj slinks back but follows sheepishly. Puyish climbs a set of stairs, then another, finding himself in the grandstands where the wealthy lords reign over their cattle and peer down upon the minions. Not Scotland’s wealthiest folk, as they wouldn’t be caught dead in an establishment such as this, but still the kings of this here castle. Wasting no time, he approaches a group of preoccupied kinfolk and before he reaches them turns and places a matchbook carefully on the railing nearby, while whispering to himself, “minute and far away.” He then shrinks back and blends in with the crowd.

Raj, already in position, removes a small cylindrical silver object from his pocket and coyly holds it to his side. He, stealthily and while continuing to smoke his cigarette with his other hand, engages a barely noticeable ray of green light from a laser pointer aimed directly upon the nearby matchstick.

Raj mouths the numbers “Four…..three……two……one.”

The matchbook ignites causing little stir, until Puyish forces the issue.

“Ohhh FUCK…..what is that!!!!, What the FUCK is that!”

The crowd turns in unison, then a woman shrieks. The group, as expected, overreacts and all but a few hurry away from the undersized blaze. Raj and Puyish waste no time and huddle with the mass, clamoring about as if in fear.

“Relax. Relax. Relax!!!” A large bearded man with dark sunglasses and the look of someone who fears little in life snatches the smoldering matchbook between his inflated fist with an inquisitive grin.

“It’s just a matchbook, nothing more.”

The crowd shrinks back to normalcy laughing off their overreaction. Puyish and Raj, looking relieved, shy smoothly away and descend the two staircases back to the Main Concourse.

“How many you get?”

“At least three…..you?

“The same.”

“It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther,” Puyish declares with grace.

Raj smiles. “Let’s get back in line. Got money to burn and time is a wasting. We have to have our bets placed by the seventh bell. That’s the golden ticket Puyish, I’m telling you.”

Ticket in hand, and reinvigorated, Raj and Puyish hover above the crowd in the Club Terrace that Raj smooth-talked into, using only the most elementary level of his skill set.

“Ok, so who is who?“

“Really, P? When have you ever been anything but a fanboy?”

The two exchange understanding glances, and immediately scan the crowd. Raj strikes first.

“There!” Raj exclaims spotting a smart dressed women taking out a gold-plated Zippo to light her cigarette. She is alone.

Raj and Puyish part ways and Puyish makes a beeline to stand behind their new objective as Raj makes a wandering loop, asking people for money like a bum.

“I have learned to never bother a beautiful woman as she sits comfortably breathing the night’s air, but I see little choice as we are surrounded by mostly the adversaries of taste and merriment, and I wonder if I could bother you for a light?”

The target smiles knowingly and seductively reaches into her purse for a light. Confidence pours off of her, as does an aged variety of sensuality. It was not the first time a younger man had made an advance upon her and she knew full well it was not due to her presentation, a fact she had learned to live with; learned to use.

“Sit down young man. Contrary to popular belief, I do not bite.”1

To Be Concluded…..

  1. Header art by Maxwell Dickson. []

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