Her skin was as black as freshly poured asphalt and her tall, thin legs resembled those of a roadrunner. Then there were her lips. They had a natural pucker that would make a goldfish cry. A pair of oversized sunglasses covered her eyes with thick aqua-blue frames and lenses resembling the peepers of a giant fly. In other words, she was the most beautiful girl Webster Mitchell had come across during his six-month stay in this dry, dusty land and he had nary a clue of how he was going to tell her he couldn’t pay up.
“Can’t you just tell Stephen that I wasn’t home?”
The guy next to her chimed in after shoving the corner of a crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwich into his maw. “Do you know how many people ask us to tell Stephen that?”
The sandwich looked like a cracker between his fingers, which wasn’t to say it was small but that the man’s hands were huge, as was every other visible part of his body. Not an inch of fat, either.
“I mean, do you honestly know how many people ask us to tell him that?” His speech was peppered with the sound of his lips smacking together and visible strings of saliva and moist white bread stretching from the tip of his tongue to the roof of his mouth.
Webster stood in silence.
Yeah, he had a good idea how many people came up with that particular notion. He wasn’t proud of the excuse and if he was smarter, he would have been more prepared. But that’s just the thing. Stephen never gave anyone time to prepare. Webster certainly wasn’t prepared for the goddess and the oversized lapdog standing before him.
The woman looked down at the open spiral notepad in her hands and ran her index finger along a handwritten list. Tiny pieces of dried skin hung off the sides of her chipped fingernail.
“Mr. Mitchell,” she said and then looked up.
Her voice sounded as sweet as he imagined it would, like the songbirds that sometimes fly over his slab looking for a better place to land. Webster grinned with both the upper and lower teeth he had left, which always made it look like he was squinting into the sun even though it was morning and he was facing west.
She removed her glasses and Webster thought he was going to faint. Those big brown eyes surrounded by a sea of white almost put him in a state of delirium.
“Mr. Mitchell,” she said, “you’ve already been given two extensions and you already owe an extra twenty percent. Do you know what happens when a third extension is requested?”
So many questions, Webster thought. And these were the types of questions he hated. Questions with answers that the other party knew the answer to but still insisted on baiting you with. He turned his head back toward the inside of his tent as if the answers were somehow there. All he saw was a tiny ten-foot by ten-foot canvas square with a low ceiling that added to an already growing hunch. He couldn’t spot an inch of ground because it was covered in dirty clothes, plastic bottles, and flimsy, discarded cereal boxes. The only two things visible above the debris was a cot topped with a brown, cotton-bleeding bunny for a pillow and matted faux-fur coat for a blanket. And then, of course, there was the bucket for when he couldn’t stand to get up and piss in those ass-freezing winds of the desert nights.
“Yes,” he said, “I know what happens.”
If only he could have come across this vision a year ago when things weren’t so bad. If she’s working for Stephen, Webster was sure she had her own sob story.
“I have twenty more appointments today, Mr. Mitchell. I have to come back this way. I expect payment when I return.” She spun around on her sandals and started walking down the dirt trail towards the next tent-covered slab a quarter-mile down. Webster took a moment to imagine the full aspect of her svelte body only hinted at beneath the floaty yellow dress decorated with a print of white flowers.
He was pulled out of his brief reverie when muscleman shoved the rest of his sandwich into his mouth and wiped his hands clean across Webster’s chest, leaving the sweet mix of sticky strawberry jam and sugar-laden peanut butter spread across his t-shirt and its scent floating up into his nostrils. It made him salivate. The man winked at Webster and followed the woman.
“Wait,” Webster yelled, “I didn’t catch your name!”
The woman kept on walking and muscleman floated two middle fingers over his back.
Options were limited, but at least they existed. Webster had that to be thankful for that, he supposed. After a half-hour of sitting in front of his tent with his knees pulled up to his chin, feeling sorry for himself beneath the warming sun, he reviewed those options.
He could head down to the limestone quarry and request more hours, but the possibility of them being granted was next to nil. Stephen controlled the mining operations even more tightly than he controlled the slabs. Webster was on the man’s shit list. Either Webster wasn’t producing enough or Stephen just didn’t like something about him. The boss didn’t require a solid reason because he only answered to those fellow slab lords with whom he traded.
Running out in the middle of the night was also out of the question. Stephen had boobytraps planted everywhere that would leave the person bleeding out, carrion for crows. The only safe exit from Stephen’s domain was via escort.
There was always the possibility of accepting the consequences of asking for a third extension. The whole idea of extensions was one of Stephen’s hilarious notions as no one ever managed to dig themselves out from under a first extension. And if Webster thought his options were limited now, they composed a veritable buffet compared to what he’d face once he was marked. He’d seen those people leaving the slabs, marching the long dirt road with eighty pounds of gear strapped to their back and shoulders. It didn’t matter if they were old, young, or some work-worn combination of both–their countenance foretold a swift and impending end as their entire face spoke of their debt to Stephen. The trademark D stood in contrast to their cheeks and forehead like a bas-relief, their identity as debtors forever seared onto their flesh. Most of them would die within a few months, down in the stretches of shadeless hills and waterless canyons, their marks forbidding them admission into other slab kingdoms.
No, he couldn’t leave, now. Not that he knew about her.
There was a single viable answer.
Webster dug through the trash spread across his floor until he found what he was looking for, then headed for Ying’s.
Before stepping inside, Stephen removed his battered tennis shoes and placed them in the wicker basket sitting beside the entrance flap. The musky smell of patchouli drifted out from the entrance into the still desert air.
If Webster’s tent was a hovel, Ying’s was a royal palace. There were at least three rooms, two of them separated to the left and right by thick, wool rugs hanging from the ceiling. The main room was three hundred square feet, its floor lined with more soft rugs. A wooden oval table sat near the back, maybe ten inches from the ground, covered with a thin green cloth and with a pair of burning candles sitting in iron stands at each end. Behind the table sat the cross-legged gambler Ying, flipping and shuffling playing cards in his hand, carefully examining the corners of each one.
Webster didn’t know how he did it, but Ying’s white, collared button-up shirt was always pressed as cleanly as those he’d seen on men in the old magazines. He seemed to wear a new tie every day, today’s being yellow with diagonal blue stripes. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows and his hair was combed back with the sides neatly shaved. One would never guess he worked the mines and that’s because he didn’t. Ying found a way to get people to work for him. Webster couldn’t fathom how he got away with it. Stephen had to have known, but they obviously had an agreement worked out.
To the residents of Stephen’s little slab town, Ying was a man of last resorts. Webster remembered how he had barely set up his tent before hearing of Ying’s special status. Things didn’t always work out when dealing with him. Winning was no guarantee. Still, he was an option to those that had need of money and also had something Ying was willing to play for.
Sitting beside the old gambler was a small girl with wavy, radiant blonde hair flowing down her shoulders and slightly across the sides of her face–a face covered in a thick layer of white powder like that of the old-world Geisha girls. She lay one hand in Ying’s lap and the other on her own, palms up as if preparing for meditation. Her age was puzzling as her make-up hid any potential wrinkles but her gray eyes held the air of experience.
Webster had no time to open his mouth before Ying spoke.
“You have nothing to offer me. I suggest you take the mark and leave,” he said.
News traveled fast.
“Don’t be so sure,” Webster said.
Ying laughed. “Unless you hold secrets from me, which I doubt, all I’m willing to give you at this point is a worthless wish of safe journies.”
“Ying,” he nodded. “Let’s play.”
Ying gently placed all but one of the cards down face-down on the table and held the remaining one up to a candle to examine it more closely. It was the Queen of Clubs.
“What is it that you think you have that you think I want to play you for?” Ying asked.
Webster reached into the back pocket of his jean-shorts and pulled out a flat, solid item wrapped in an old mechanic’s towel. “See for yourself,” he said, gently placing it on Ying’s table. It connected with a solid thunk.
Ying, still examining the card, nodded absently at the girl. She leaned forward and unraveled the dirty red cloth. Candlelight gleamed off the silver, oversized novelty coin, drawing Ying’s attention. He placed the card in his hand on top of the rest and reached for the coin.
“I feel I should be offended, but I like your sense of humor,” he said with a smile.
“If you think I handpicked that from a wide selection, you’re not as smart of a man as I believed you were,” Webster replied. He hoped it was enough to keep the gambler interested.
“Of course,” Ying said. “Then maybe it is not you with the sense of humor.” He picked up the coin and flipped it back and forth. One side was stamped with a tall building covered by hovering words: Emperor’s Palace. The other side said Las Vegas housed inside a sideways diamond.
“It’s cute,” Ying said, “but it is not worth nearly what you need.”
“Let me worry about that,” Webster said.
Ying’s shrugged his shoulders. As if the gambler and the girl were of the same mind, she picked up the sitting deck with her delicate hands and began to shuffle.
The round was over before it started. Even with a pair of Jacks in his hands, Webster had no chance against the full house Ying laid down on the table.
“I’m sorry,” Ying said. “Lady Luck is fickle. Maybe we’ll meet again under better circumstances.” The dismissive look on his face did nothing to convince Webster that that was anything beyond an impossibility.
“Don’t be sorry,” Webster said, pushing himself to his feet. At least on the spots where callouses had not formed on his soles, the softness of the fuzzy wool felt like heaven. “I didn’t actually lose.”
Ying began to laugh. Webster watched as the man’s right hand slid beneath the table. “It would appear otherwise. The cards speak from themselves.”
“Oh, that?” Webster said. He turned his head and neck, working out the kinks. He banked on Ying not having an itchy trigger finger. “Is that the game you thought we were playing?”
Ying’s eyes narrowed. Webster was trying hard not to get ahead of himself, but he had Ying exactly where he wanted him.
“You know, your partner has a beautiful face,” Webster said. “I’m sure that layer of sugar you have her coated in makes her all the more sweet, eh?”
The girl’s eyes darted up and met Webster’s, but she quickly dropped them back to the table as demurely as a beaten dog. She was obviously not as well-versed in hiding her emotions as Ying.
“You should leave,” Ying said. “Before someone gets hurt.” Webster stood strong. He was still gambling, hoping Ying would let him finish before popping off a round or two.
“I bet that if I were to see her without all of that sugar, I wouldn’t even recognize her. I might even think she’s someone else. There may be some revealing beauty marks, no? Marks that would make it difficult to make one’s way in the world.”
Despite what were likely his best efforts, Ying’s face began to resemble a boiling kettle. Webster decided it was time release a little steam before things went south. “It’s a good thing I haven’t told anyone my theory yet. Or, wait…” Webster held a finger to his chin. “I may have mentioned something to…” He scratched. “Gee, ya know, I can’t remember who I may have told.”
Ying slowly turned to the girl and nodded. She rose quickly without saying a word and disappeared into the room on the left.
Ying spoke through gritted teeth. “Even if I give you what you need, you’ll be back on Stephen’s shit list next month. Don’t think that this is going to be a regular installment.”
“Let me worry about that,” Webster said.
There was plenty to worry about as he wasn’t yet done gambling.
“Where’s your pet gorilla?” Webster asked.
“He’s handling another case,” she said. The notepad was hanging from a silver beaded chain around her neck.
Somehow, with the sun now setting behind her, her beauty seemed to increase ten-fold. She lifted her sunglasses so they rested in her kinked hair like a pair of eggs in a nest, revealing, if Webster wasn’t mistaken, eyes that hinted at some semblance of sorrow.
“You have until sunrise tomorrow to report to Stephen’s office. Technically, I don’t have to let you know this until–”
“Here,” he said. He pulled his hand out from a back pocket and waved a stack of scrip in front of her face.
She hesitated but eventually grabbed it. Her eyes left his only long enough to verify that the money was legit.
“How did you get this?” she asked.
“A little bit of work, a little bit of luck,” Webster said. She didn’t need to know the full story, yet.
“You’re very resourceful,” she said.
Webster tried to come up with something clever, but instead, he said, “Yeah.”
A squawking flock of birds flying overhead filled the gap between drawn-out moments of silence. Webster felt a renewed sense of confidence. Something he hadn’t felt in months. Something that he thought had been beaten out of him by the hardships of life in the modern world of dog-eat-dog and slab lord-eat-slab lord.
“You know,” he said, “I feel like the two of us could probably accomplish a lot if we weren’t tied down to one place.”
He wasn’t sure how she was going to take that, but at this point, he didn’t care. He had nothing to lose.
The woman chuckled under her breath, then extended a hand. “I’m Stella.”