This short story is posted in Supernatural.
Time for another piece of fiction prompted by Chuck Wendig’s weekly Flash Fiction Challenge. This week’s is titled “The Who, The Where, and the Uh-Oh”.
by Rick Cook Jr
The day they killed me was the day Lucky Joe’s stopped being so lucky.
I could tell you the story of how I died, but let’s just say I was doing something stupid and dangerous against just pure dangerous and I lost.
But I’m still here. Locked to Lucky Joe’s, or so it would seem. If you remember Beetlejuice, you have some idea of what happens when I try to leave. Only instead of badly-animated graboids it’s a keening, wailing, sucking darkness.
Sometimes, like now, I stand at the doors to the outside world, staring at the blank abyss, and I want to step in. My brother must be beyond that. Maybe my first girlfriend who I’d later found out died in a bombing in Iraq. My grandparents, my ancestors.
Or maybe it is just the nothing it looks like.
I’m not done here yet, though. Lucky Joe has to pay.
So I turn back from that swirling nothingness. I find a gambler on his last dime, sweating over the Blackjack table. The whispering begins.
He rubs his forehead first, as if at a headache or some sinus pressure. Then he stares at the cards and hits on a seventeen. The dealer and the other players around him are stunned at an idiotic move. The dealer asks him to repeat himself, and he says he wants a hit, godamnit.
The dealer flips a three and the players sigh at the turn of fortune. He wins the hand, and I keep whispering. Soon he has a chip stack the size of a Chihuahua. The security staff are watching him closely, and I whisper that it’s time to cash out. Some listen, some don’t. Some are more receptive than others, and some just can’t quit on a streak, winning or losing.
This guy, though, he quits. But I’ve seen this show before, and Lucky Joe’s doesn’t like to let go its money. So I start whispering in the ear of an elderly woman smoking and drinking up a storm at a Texas Hold’em table, and she starts winning, much faster than the Blackjack guy did. I stick with her long enough to run off a few of the other players. Poker’s a good distraction but it doesn’t fleece the casino.
Over to the Craps table now, and a young hotshot is losing as much as winning. This one’s harder to manipulate, and I can’t do the dice and the man both. So I check his bets and get those dice rolling in his favor. He wins four for every one he loses.
And so it goes, night after endless night. Everybody I can get to is a winner, and Lucky Joe’s streak as the worst odds in town quickly changes. Business picks up, but because I’m here Lucky Joe is in a panic. He doesn’t know I’m here, of course. A subtle but cruel irony if your killer could see you after death. Small favors, I suppose.
Most of the players I help take their money and run, and Lucky Joe has got to feel like he’s cursed. Because of my attempts to get his casino caught cheating its players, he’s under a lot of scrutiny. He didn’t get caught cheating, and he sure as hell didn’t get caught for my murder, but he’s gotta lay low and that means he can’t just rough up the winners and make them leave town minus their earnings quite as often as he used to.
Eventually I’d get him. He’d slip up or go into hard debt, and if I knew a man like Lucky Joe, it wasn’t the banks he’d owe.
So I whisper and they win. I stare at that black abyss and wonder.
And then she comes back. I don’t have all my memories from before Lucky Joe ended it for me, but I feel like I know her. Middle-aged, blonde, always with the dark circles and the bags under her eyes. She drinks like a fish and gambles all through the night. I don’t know where she gets the money, she can’t be wealthy and still look so world-weary.
She only plays the slots, and the fucking slots are so hard to manipulate. I need moving parts, I need things I can see and maneuver, I need judgment calls to whisper in the ear.
I can’t figure this woman out, and I have never learned her name. I call her Ash because she seems like a life burnt out and ready to billow away in a stray breeze. There is no emotion in her stare. There is no kindness in her eyes. I’m reminded of that flick where the man goes to Vegas to drink himself to death. Curious that I remember banalities like film but I can’t remember what I had for breakfast the day I died.
She sees a server drop a tray of drinks and her face lights up like she’s seen the face of God. That’s what I didn’t mention. She seems to love the suffering of others.
She takes a seat at the usual slot machine, drops her card in and plays hour after hour. Winning actually causes her constant frown to deepen, and the drinks to drain faster.
I have on more than one occasion followed her right up to the exit, and once almost crossed that threshold into emptiness.
Tonight I’m sure I can jackpot this woman, this unhappy person, this Ash.
She starts to play, and I start concentrating on the machine. I didn’t understand computers in life, and I sure as hell don’t understand them in death, but with the proper focus and the right force of will, I have improved the odds on these machines.
Tonight I tweak Ash’s machine, and suddenly she starts winning a hundred, a thousand, a hundred, three hundred. Every time she wins her face sags a little more. I can’t understand her, but I have to press on. She cashes out her card from the machine and takes a seat two over, and starts the process over again.
Within minutes she’s losing comfortably again, and I begin tweaking. If only she’d sit still long enough! The bonus to her moving, though, is that people take her previous seats, and they start winning. Every little bit helps.
She moves. I adjust. Every time I get better, every time she wins more and faster. Every time she abandons the slot machine, drinks more. Soon the dullness in her eyes is replaced by a rabid weariness, a resigned anger, and she is on the point of furious tears.
But I can’t stop. I’m so close. I have to see what happens. And then Lucky Joe’s really will start losing big.
She sits at a new machine, but before I can tweak it Lucky Joe comes ambling over with some security staff, the fury I remember from when he killed me plain on his face.
He asks her to step away from the machine and she complies, a little unsteady from the drinks. She tells him there’s something wrong with the slots, they’re all paying by the hundred or thousand almost every play. A dozen slot machines ring and buzz with lights as people win all around the group.
Lucky Joe has them all shut down, seems baffled at how the odds on them have so drastically altered. I concentrate on the rest of them, at least as many as I already messed with, so that they can’t tie the tampering to Ash.
I wait. She is allowed to leave. She gives her card away, with its extra thousands. What is with this crazy woman?
Lucky Joe and his crew wade the angry mob of slots players in order to fix the odds. For a moment I think maybe they’ll just riot, but even drunks who are told they can’t win money are slow to physical violence.
The machines come back on, and the players are allowed to lose money again. Lucky Joe and his toadies observe for a while, and I bide my time at the craps table until the boss leaves. Before he can even get off the casino floor and back to his comfortable cameras, I tweak a slot machine with an elderly man cursing the losing streak after they kajigerred the machines.
It hits the jackpot and people lose their shit.
Lucky Joe comes sprinting back across the casino floor. He is furious, he is speechless, he is gracious, he pays. He has to.
It happens again the next day. He pays. He curses behind closed doors. He calls in favors. He increases security and institutes additional checks on the machines.
I cause a jackpot two days later. Millions now hemorrhage out of the casino.
Every slot machine is replaced. Jackpot.
State investigators from the gaming commission – my job before – show up. They clear everything. Jackpot three days later.
Lucky Joe is tearing his hair out and I’m just as happy as could be. Except…
Except Ash hasn’t come back.
So I let off the jackpots, and I leave the slot machines alone. I spend a lot of time watching the door now, and I never see her. I don’t know how many days pass, a week, maybe a week and a half. Someone wins the jackpot without my interference, someone loses all their money at the roulette wheel. Things go back to normal.
Finally she walks back through the door. Wherever she’s been it hasn’t been good to her. She has deep, sunken shadows around her eyes, and her blonde hair is dull, and she looks as if she’s been living off booze she’s so rail-thin.
But the first thing she does is order some food at the restaurant, and has only a beer with her dinner. Then she goes back to the slot machines and spends the entire evening losing thousands of dollars and drinking expensive wines. She only smiles when a man and woman get into a fight, and the two are violently thrown from the casino.
I’m still baffled by this behavior. This night she has her cell phone out as she’s leaving, checking the balance of her bank account. It is shockingly high for a woman who looks destitute and nearly homeless. As she passes from my world into the greater world outside the casino, she’s muttering a man’s name.
The next night she comes back and I instantly make her win the jackpot. Her entire presence wilts as her shoulders slump and she tries to hide her face.
She doesn’t want it, she says. Donate it, she pleads. But they have rules against that. She has to accept it and then she can donate it. She yells angrily at Lucky Joe that she’ll never get rid of all “his” money if she keeps winning, and Lucky Joe looks on in complete bewilderment. I admit I’m still clueless.
Eventually she signs the paperwork and gets the money. It was almost a week before I realized I could have learned her name that night, but I was busy watching her from a distance while I made the Blackjack tables flip miraculous hands.
She doesn’t come back for weeks. I lose the casino millions and every day Ash doesn’t come through that door I get a step closer. This existence is excruciating.
Lucky Joe has made his fourth back-room deal, securing financing via less than legal means. It won’t be long for him, now, and my work will be done. He sits in his comfy chair in his spacious office night after night, mumbling to himself about how this place is going to turn around any day.
She comes back again, this time so wasted I feel like she’s already a spirit. I think I finally understand.
Instead of tweaking the slot machines in her favor, I tweak the one next to her, and it jackpots. A young woman out for a night of gambling with her girlfriends starts screaming and they go into fits of hilarity and excitement. This is the final straw, I know, for Lucky Joe.
I whisper in her ear that it’s time to go. That it’s okay to go.
Ash presses her fingers to her temples, and her face softens. She smiles at the women dancing and cavorting and congratulates the winner.
She leaves and enters the ladies’ restroom, and I follow. She lifts a locket from around her stick-thin neck, kisses it, and then collapses to the ground in a dead faint.
I don’t know how it is for most people when they die, but perhaps it’s different if you accept it. I sure as hell had a bad couple hours after my violent murder. She is merely standing next to me, looking much younger and full of life, which makes me want to chuckle.
She stares at her body on the ground, already gathering a crowd. Another woman performs CPR. It does no good.
She says, “Well, this is unusual.”
“You get used to it.”
Her face turns to me. “I’d wondered what became of you after that inspection.”
It all snaps into place. Through merest coincidence she helped me get evidence against Lucky Joe, because she wanted him to feel pain. Not for any personal reason. She just liked the suffering of others.
“Sometimes people get murdered for what they believe in.”
“And sometimes they just give up.”
“Was it cancer?”
She nods. “Spiritual and physical. It’s very hard to see the joy in life when your body begins to fail, and then your love begins to fade because of it.”
“Your husband left you because you had cancer?”
“Not so hard to believe in this day and age. But I had another after.”
“I guess the cancer got him, too?”
She reaches up to her eyes, as if expecting tears. “I don’t suppose spirits can cry.”
“But we can sure whine a lot.”
At this she smiles. “Yes. Cancer took him. And the money stopped being important. It couldn’t save me, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to make others happy if I couldn’t be.”
“Well.” I’m not sure what to say. “I’m sorry you passed on in this hateful place.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m not staying.” She reaches a hand out to me. “And neither are you.”
I back away. “But it’s just darkness beyond the casino.”
“How can you be sure? Will you stay here forever, waiting for someone else to die, lonely and afraid, in a den of greed and stupidity?”
“Says the woman who- what’s your name?”
“Ashley. You were Mike?”
“Close enough. Mac.” She nods.
“So what?” I ask. “Oh. Says the woman who spent all her live time losing money and drinking herself to an earlier grave.”
“What can I say? I hold a grudge and cast a wide net for blame. Now come on. I’m not walking through this black curtain alone.” And there we are, standing in front of that swirling darkness. I cast one last look at the casino, at Lucky Joe sweating and swearing even as he’s congratulating the jackpot winner. I suspect he’ll find himself in my place soon enough.
She grips my hand, and even though we are spirits it has the feel of another person, and I squeeze her hand, as a bird embraces the wind after a lengthy injury.
She smiles at me, and I gather my courage.
The final step through never ends.
This one turned out quite a bit different than originally intended, and there’s a prologue that’s almost twice as long as the story itself that I won’t be posting on account of how it didn’t fit the writing prompt quite so much.
The prompt was to take a randomly rolled item from three different lists, and those lists would provide me with a protagonist (The Who), a place (The Where), and a thing that goes wrong (The Uh-Oh), and then using those elements, write a ~2,000 word story. Twice as long as The Wendigo normally allows, which suits me fine because I break it every time anyway.
Hope you guys enjoy it!