King Randall was a professional gambler who never played hunches or bet on horses with appealing names. He didn’t even read fortune cookies. “No such thing as luck,” he was fond of saying. “There’s the here, and there’s the now, and that’s all there is. Period. Anybody who believes otherwise is a sap.”
King made a modest living picking ponies, betting pro football and National League baseball, and playing $25-a-hand blackjack every other weekend at Atlantic City. Oh, sure, he had to take an odd job every now and then to make ends meet, but he wasn’t dying of poverty. He had a nice address on the margins of Brooklyn Heights, and he always looked presentable. He even managed to make his child-support payments on time – most of the time, anyway.
He’d been married once, young, but it hadn’t taken. His wife had walked out after four years. “Wish she would’ve left sooner,” he used to say, and he wasn’t lying. He hadn’t contested the divorce, but he’d almost cried when he realized his ex-wife would get custody of their daughter.
Jessie Randall had a heart-shaped face framed by flaming red hair, and she was the only thing King had cherished since his mother died 20 years ago. He looked at her now, fast asleep, her hair curling over the edges of her pillow. King smiled sadly as he recalled all the times he and his wife had watched Jessie doze, standing next to her bed for hours at a time, marveling that they’d been able to create something so perfect. But, of course, even their child had been flawed.
At nine months, doctors had discovered that Jessie was suffering from a life-threatening liver disorder. Her condition went from bad to worse and, as it did, so did the marriage. Jessie had been three when the divorce became final. She turned six last week, and she wouldn’t reach seven unless she got a liver transplant.
The operation was going to cost $90,000. Medicaid would pay $50,000, but the hospital wouldn’t perform the transplant unless King guaranteed the other $40,000 by Friday. After that, Jesse would be dropped from the potential recipient list – a bureaucratic death sentence. He silently cursed the hospital for the thousandth time. He could no more raise that kind of money than he could join the College of Cardinals. He caressed his daughter’s head and reluctantly walked out to the living room to face his ex-wife. He flopped onto the sofa and asked wearily, “So what are we going to do?”
“What are we going to do?” she said. “What are we going to do? You’ve got a lot of nerve. We’re not going to do anything. I’m the only one who does anything around here. All you ever do is send over $400 a month and come by to say hi to the kid whenever you start feeling guilty for not being a decent father to her.”
“I give you all I can. You know that.”
“It’s not good enough.”
They glared at each other, but King wasn’t up to another fight. “You’re right,” he said softly, and he walked out into the moonless night.
* * * * *
Wednesday morning, King began turning all of his assets into cash. He sold his car, pawned everything worth pawning, emptied his savings account and paid the penalty to withdraw the money he’d been putting in an IRA. When he put it all together, he had $8,000 in cash. Now all he had to do was find $32,000 more by Friday.
King planned to make the money at the track by finding a pony going off at 4-1 and hitting it with the bundle. In a moment of weakness, he thought about covering the nag win, place and show, but that, he knew was a sucker’s bet. Still, the prospect of betting eight grand on a single race made him queasy. Not because he was worried about pissing away every last penny he had to his name. But he knew that once his nest egg was gone, so was any hope of saving Jessie. And he wasn’t sure he could live with himself if he let her down. Again.
Wednesday night, King decided on a stallion named Princely Despot. The railbirds liked it, and King liked what he found in the race charts he kept at home on his newfangled personal computer: Eight outings, one win early on and then a string of mid-field finishes. Reading between the lines, he saw all the markings of a horse that had been held back by its owner. But the smart money said Princely Despot would be run to win Thursday.
King went to sleep feeling confident that he’d picked a winner. He woke up Thursday morning feeling sick. It was pissing down rain, and he had a rule against betting on races on a muddy track. A couple of years back, after dropping $3,000 at Aqueduct during a thunderstorm, he’d sworn that he would never again bet on races run while it was raining. Not because he was superstitious. It was just that he was convinced there was no sensible way to handicap horses who’d be running in the slop.
Still, he was tempted, sorely tempted, to put his money on Princely Despot anyway. It was a once-in-a-month kind of bet, about as close to a sure thing as you could come with a horse going off at 4-1. Maybe, just this once, he thought, I should break the rule. He even went so far as driving halfway out to Belmont before turning around in Astoria. He drove back to Brooklyn and listened to the race on the radio in the crappy OTB office on Livingston Street. Princely Despot won by four lengths. King collapsed when they announced that the horse paid $10.40.
“I could’ve won $50,000,” he groaned.
“Right, bud,” somebody said as he hoisted King back onto his stool, “and I could’a been Bing Crosby if I hadn’t been Dominic Viscardi.”
* * * * *
At dawn Friday, King jerked awake from a 15-minute cat nap and found himself sitting at a desk shrouded by charts and legal pads covered with arcane notations. A green phosphor cursor on his computer screen was winking patiently. He’d spent the past 12 hours studying every horse scheduled to race at Belmont that afternoon. He rubbed his eyes and rotated his neck to stretch the cramped muscles as he recapped what he’d gleaned.
There were two possibilities. The first was a horse he had been following for quite a while – Silver Stockings, running in the eighth. It was a good nag with a good jock up, and King knew it was a good bet. Solid. But he was almost as sure that it was outclassed by another horse in the field.
The second possibility was more speculative. Shared Endeavors was her name, and that was one problem. She was a filly, and King had a rule again betting on fillies. The other problem was that the horse had finished dead-last in four straight outings. Still, there was something about the filly’s numbers that intrigued him. In each race, she ran one incredibly fast interval, sometimes early, sometimes late. She had the speed, but did she have the heart? At least Cordero was up, and nobody knew how to rate a horse like Cordero. The race was only seven furlongs. If Shared Endeavors got away clean and the rest of the field waited for her to wilt, who knows? Cordero just might be able to sneak her home first.
King drove out to Belmont after lunch. The morning line in the Post listed Silver Stockings at 6-1. Shared Endeavors, running in the ninth, was 75-1. King paced and twitched and agonized as the afternoon wore on. Silver Stockings was the conventional choice, but he was convinced the horse was going to finish second. Shared Endeavors had the potential to win, but he figured it would take something close to a miracle. So what do you do, he asked himself, bet the unexpected at 6-1 or the miraculous at 75-1? And don’t worry, he thought, your daughter’s just going to die if you choose the wrong horse.
The seventh race ended. Decision time. Was he going to bet on Silver Stockings or should he wait for the ninth race and Shared Endeavors? He hung his head in his hands and closed his eyes. Concentrate, he told himself. He opened his eyes and found himself looking at the newspaper in his lap. He realized it was open to the horoscope. Without wanting to, he glanced at the entry for his sign – Pisces: “Shared endeavors are the most satisfying. Stressful circumstances at work are soon to cease. You make a beneficial contract, one worth thousands.”
He threw down the paper and recoiled in alarm, as if it carried a highly communicable disease. Don’t be a fool, his mind screamed. Don’t pay attention to that drivel. Are you going to let your daughter die because you listen to the mumbo-jumbo written by some silly old biddy who believes that the future is written in the stars? You’ve got a rule about ignoring horoscopes. But then he remembered Princely Despot. You had a rule against betting on races run in the rain, and look where that got you. You’d have the money today if you’d played your hunch. Maybe you’re being a fool now. Lord knows the chances of a horoscope mentioning the name of a horse are longer than 75-1.
The eighth race began while King was still arguing with himself. Silver Stockings ran second. King crossed himself and hurried to the window. The odds dropped when he hit Shared Endeavors with his $8,000, of course, but they were still plenty long. By post time, King was so nervous he had to hurry to the bathroom. After emptying his bladder, he couldn’t bring himself to leave. For the first time in his life, he was afraid to watch a race, so he stood at a urinal and listened to the announcer’s call.
Shared Endeavors broke cleanly and went straight to the front. Halfway, she led by four lengths. At three-quarters distance, she was up by five. “Please, God, let her win,” King whispered to the lever of the urinal. An old man looked on benevolently. The four horse made a run at the top of the stretch, but Cordero went to the whip and the gap stabilized. At the sixteenth pole, the two horse began closing fast. “Please, God, think of my little Jessie,” King prayed, now rocking on his knees in front of a urinal. The old man eyed him suspiciously. Cordero went to the whip again – and again. At the wire, it was Shared Endeavors by a head.
“Thank you, God,” King moaned. “I’m the luckiest man alive.”
“Lucky not to be committed,” the old man muttered.
* * * * *
Exactly twenty-four earlier, while King had been manning a stool in an OTB storefront in Brooklyn, a young man with wide eyes that gave him a look of perpetual surprise was suffering a crisis of conscience in the back-shop of the Post. By accident, he’d just destroyed two columns of type while running them through the waxer, and now he was looking at a giant hole on the paste-up page where tomorrow’s horoscope was supposed to go. Under other circumstances, he would have confessed to his boss and asked for his forgiveness. But his boss was an asshole, and he was a new hire who was desperately afraid of being fired before he made it through his probationary period. So while he was throwing away the ruined columns of type, he surreptitiously rummaged through the garbage can for something he could use as a substitute.
To his immense relief, he found what he was looking for. After a furtive look around the back-shop to make sure nobody was watching, he fished another sheet of type out of the garbage. He set it on the paste-up board and, working quickly with a pica pole and an X-Acto knife, started hacking it into pieces.
“Hey! You! Rookie. What the hell you think you’re doing?”
Looking even more surprised than usual, the new hire whirled around. The booming voice had come not from his boss, thank God, but from an old-timer named Red.
“Just trimming the horoscope to fit.”
“You’re not supposed to have to trim the horoscope. Did that blonde bimbo copy editor screw things up for a change? Let me go talk to that stuck-up – ”
“No, no, no, no!” the new hire said before Red could march off. “She didn’t screw up.” He took a deep breath and forced himself not to look down. “I screwed up.”
“What’d you do?”
“I put the horoscope in the waxer wrong, and the type got mangled.”
“So what’s this shit here?” Red said, pointing the type the new hire had been slicing into pieces.
“Yesterday’s horoscope? Don’t you think somebody’s going to notice getting the same fortune two days in a row?”
“Well, that’s the thing. I figure the Capricorns look at Capricorn and the Virgos look at Virgo. But why would anybody look at anybody else’s horoscope? So my idea was to, you know, just kind of mix them all around, so Pisces got Aries’ fortune and Libra got Scorpio’s. You understand?”
Red didn’t say anything for a long time. The new hire couldn’t tell if he was angry or disgusted or amused or what. “Are you going to tell Covaleski?” he said. Covaleski was his boss. If Covaleski heard what he’d done, he figured he was a goner.
“Fuck, no! I’m not going to tell that little douche bag a goddamned thing.”
“Great!” The new hire felt almost weak with relief. “Should I ask the copy desk to send out a fresh copy of the horoscope?”
“Oh, and have to listen to them lord it over us. Those twats can eat my hairy dick.”
The new hire smiled tentatively. “So you’re saying I should, you know, just jumble up yesterday’s horoscope and paste it up on today’s page?”
“Absofuckinglutely. Look it, I’ll help you.”
“Are you sure? You’re not going get into trouble or anything, are you?”
Red grinned like a pirate. “What do you think?”
“But what about the people who, you know ….?”
“Think the horoscope is for real?” Red laughed as he pulled out his own pica pole and X-Acto knife. “Anybody who believes in that shit deserves exactly what he gets.”
Preston Lerner is the author of a novel of suspense, Fools on the Hill, and several short stories in the mystery and fantasy idioms. A longtime journalist, he’s also written several non-fiction books. He wrote A Literary Horror Story in issue one and Sweet Dreams in issue two.