After the dust had settled, he remembered that the old broad had said something about the ending of a song.
35 Blood Alley
The old woman’s parlour of clairvoyance and spiritualism was a busy one. They came from all over the city to witness her divine powers, and ask how they could better themselves in business, choose a lover, reap petty revenge. And that was where the man was that Saturday night, a week before he lost everything. He’d borrowed two dollars from Wilma Briar Yeats to pay for the visit. He considered it an investment, and when the old woman beckoned, the man anxiously entered her inner sanctum. It was a familiar place; he was a regular.
The old woman’s name was Elga Coal and the room was dimly lit by cheap sputtering candles. She sat at a round table with what looked like a crystal ball in the centre. “The spirits told me of your arrival,” Elga Coal told the man. “An old gypsy knows.” Her thinning hair was grey and bound in a faded bargain basement scarf. Each of her fingers had a ring.
The man couldn’t help notice a distinct odour in the air as he entered the parlour. One that differed from the mouldy smell in the waiting room. Something was strange. There was a glossy looking fellow dressed in an expensive suit and bright red silk tie sitting on the settee. Next to him was a gold handled walking stick. Though he was a regular, the man had never seen this character before. But the crystal ball was familiar, a snow globe from the Chicago World’s Fair.
“Allow me to introduce Mister Shine,” Elga said, nodding at the interloper on the settee. “He has generously consented to sit with us tonight. Haven’t you, Mister Shine.” Mr Shine bowed slightly, where he sat. Shine smoked a slim cheroot. The man wondered if the cheroot was the source of the strange odour, but realised that it couldn’t be. The prevailing stink wasn’t that of fine or even inferior tobacco. Mister Shine couldn’t help it. He always smelled like a freshly lit match.
As soon the man handed over his two dollars, Elga Coal began to wave her hands over her Snow Globe and squint into the past and future, her face illuminated by candles. He’d had bad luck all of his life, Elga said. It was a fact well known to her, since the man was a constant customer. Coal then said that there was a woman, devoted but regularly disappointed. Again old news, the man had told Elga about Wilma many times.
“But there is an opportunity in your future,” Elga said. “A game of dice that travels through the city.”
“A craps game?” said the man, leaning forward.
“Yes,” said Elga. “And I see….”
“Tell me,” the man said.
“Yes? C’mon. Tell me.”
“Oh, for the love of God! Tell me what you see.”
“I see nothing.” Elga threw up her arms in frustration. Her snow globe had gone blank.
Now it was Mr Shine’s turn.
“Perhaps,” he said. “Perhaps I may be able to offer some assistance.”
The man had forgotten about Mr Shine for a moment. Now he looked over at him.
“I have certain charms at my disposal,” said Mister Shine.
“Charms?” said the man. He was suspicious. Mr Shine didn’t seem like a straight shooter. Besides, charms were a dime a dozen.
“Just so,” said Mister Shine, as he dug his hand deep into his breast pocket. From there, he retrieved two small objects and presented them in his left hand.
Elga and the man both looked, and saw a curious pair of transparent dice.
“Diamond dice,” said Mister Shine.
They appeared to be diamond dice, sure enough—if there was such a thing. Could it be? The two objects caught the room’s dim yellow light and returned it pure white and exquisite to the eye.
“They’re magic,” said Mister Shine, with a grin. “They’ll change your luck.” Then his smile disappeared as he leaned forward on the settee. His eyes blazing, he said, “They’ll change your life.”
The table trembled and the snow swirled in Elga Coal’s crystal ball.
“I can’t throw those in a craps game,” the man said. “It ain’t allowed.”
“But they’re only a charm,” said Mister Sine, smiling once more. “Their value is in their hidden magic. Keep them in the pocket nearest your heart.”
“But remember this,” said Elga Coal, interjecting and cocking an eyebrow. “The song never knows when it’s about to end.”
The man stood up from the table and looked at the pair of dice in the palm of Mister Shine’s hand. Then, with a tremor in his fingers, he quickly reach out to take them. But as he did, Mr Shine’s fist closed round them.
“Be certain,” Mr Shine said. “Be very certain that you want these.”
“I am,” said the man, though he wasn’t sure why. What could the dice possibly do for him? He could buy lucky charms anywhere, each one as useless as the next. But that was immaterial, he realised. He couldn’t help wanting these glistening items, seemingly free for the taking. He had to have them.
Mr Shine opened his hand again, and there they gleamed. The man snatched them up, quickly as he could. And as he did, it seemed that his name was at once confirmed on a list in some dark ledger in some far darker and unknowable place.
“We’re done here then,” Mister Shine said, and then faded from the settee with his gold handled walking stick in hand. The smell of a freshly lit match disappearing with him.
* * * as luck would have it * * *
It was December in Vancouver, 1942. And Canada was at war with half the world.
Rufus Piggs walked down the street snapping his good fingers. The song on his mind had something for everyone, pessimist and dreamer alike. But though the tune ran endlessly through his head, he’d never really stopped to learn the words. Something like, Momma may have, Papa may have….. Billie Holiday with Eddie Heywood and his Orchestra. That’s about all he knew, and he didn’t care. His luck was going to change that December.
You see, Rufus Piggs was a compulsive gambler. And like all gamblers, he almost always lost. It wasn’t his fault. He was just born that way.
People love to point and whisper, though. And what they whispered, as they pointed at Rufus Piggs, was that he was a hopeless loser. They all said this while failing to practice much in the way of self-examination, since most of them were hopeless losers too. But that wasn’t their fault, either. They, too, were just born that way. Seemed the whole damn town was just a bunch of boobs waiting for the fast hand of chance to slap them silly.
By the autumn of ’42, Rufus Piggs’ losing ways had put him in Dutch with some of the fishiest characters in town. And his reputation was plummeting faster than a clipped Spitfire over the white cliffs of Dover. He had markers outstanding all over town, and he’d been living through one of the worst streaks of hard luck ever.
One outstanding debt was to Roscoe ‘The Pearl’ Margolis, who wasn’t a good person to owe money. His Jewish mother, the Widow Margolis, hated that her son was a loan shark. She dreaded the tag Shylock. And she knew ‘The Pearl’ would cut the throat of any wisenheimer who’d use it.
“Join the Navy and fight the Nazis,” the Widow Margolis told her son, during tearful telephone calls. “Be a hero,” she said. “You’ll look good in a uniform.”
But Roscoe ‘The Pearl’ wasn’t dope enough to enlist.
“I ain’t getting my ass shot off for some chump cause,” he said.
He sneeringly endured the contempt of all those who knew he was a shirker. In fact, he spent most of his time shooting pool and lending cash to suckers at the Commodore Billiards hall. And he’d blind anyone who gave him trouble with the silvery glint of his deadly bone handle switchblade.
For Rufus Piggs, on the other hand, joining-up might have meant some relief. He could have hidden a while from his creditors in Nazi occupied Europe or even Jap infested Borneo. He even considered the tank core. But he’d been wounded in the Spanish Civil War fighting on the republican side, and suffered partial paralysis in his left arm. He tried to disguise it by placing his left hand in his suit jacket pocket, a fashionable pose in Hollywood at the time. That might have made him look dapper, had it not been for his pockmarked face and unmanageable hair. All this combined, made him look desperate and sinister, which some were convinced he was.
Now there’re a couple of characters of consequence occupying this yarn, and some others of less significance who might just pop up here and there as events unfold. But the one worth bringing up here is Wilma Briar Yeats. She lucked into the Yeats portion of her name when her Swedish mother married a fellow by the name of Fergus Yeats, who was an Irish-American member of Clan na Gael, cooling his heels here in Canada after blowing up a railway station in Wisconsin.
Fergus named his daughter Wilma Briar Yeats because the name could be shortened to WB Yeats, after the Irish Poet and reluctant nationalist. This was a fact lost on most, including Rufus Piggs, who was all soft for Wilma on account of her brown melancholy eyes and ironic smile.
Wilma was more than a bit stupid for Rufus Piggs, too. They’d talk for hours over coffee at the Ham ‘n Egger Café. Everyone said they made such a great couple because not only was Rufus Piggs all broken up from the Spanish Civil War, Wilma Briar Yeats had six fingers on both of her hands.
It was like a romantic union of misfits that some said made each of them whole again. It was all ballroom manoeuvres in the Valley of Balloons, and screwy crap like that. Seeing them together even made some people weep a tear of two, and have hope for humanity after all. What a load of crap.
“I’m gonna score real big,” Piggs told Wilma Briar Yeats, more than once over coffee. His cold, nearly vacant blue eyes looking into hers a split second at a time, then darting away to track something unseen by the rest of the room. “I’m gonna roll big one night soon, and then it’s just you and me, baby.”
Wilma smiled weakly at this every time.
“Sure you will, doll,” she’d say. “You was destined for it.”
But she knew better, and she knew she could support him with the little she made from war work, if he’d just get sick of losing and stopped gambling.
But Rufus Piggs would never stop. Wilma knew she was just a moon orbiting his compulsion, like a million other dames that had fallen for a sucker. She watched as his obsession tore him to pieces. Gambling was going to kill him, and then she’d be alone. But that didn’t matter. He was her man, win or lose.
It was on a foggy night that December when Rufus Piggs really got himself into a jam. He’d been following a floating crap game, suggested to him by an old broad named Elga Coal, for a week and was actually doing pretty good for once. He was up for the first time in a long while. Up by over $3000.
But when a guy like Rufus Piggs starts to win, people he owes start coming outta the cracks like cockroaches. And one of those people was Roscoe ‘The Pearl’ Margolis, who Rufus Piggs owed $1739.87. The amount was growing daily due to the peculiarities of street economy, and ‘The Pearl’ wanted his money before the amount owed made payment impossible.
That night ‘The Pearl’ stood at the rear exit of the Balmoral Hotel with a brawny associate named Gleason Quinn. The Balmoral was that evening’s location for the floating crap game. They stood in the back-door gloom because ‘The Pearl’ knew that the rear exit was always the deadbeat’s exit. He had a chain smoking heel by the name of Nester Dayton watching the front.
Hastings Street had a haloed neon glow that foggy Saturday night that made things seem exotic, in a dime store sort of way. There were cops on Harleys and working girls smoking in dim doorways. There were radios playing jazz in the windows above the street. And a drunk had caused a near-riot by wondering out onto Hastings to direct traffic. It was unseasonably warm, and deals were being made on every dark corner. It was greasy wartime port city chaos.
Nester Dayton was watching dames hanging off the arms of sailors, rather keeping his eyes peeled for Rufus Piggs. He lit an endless succession of next cigarettes on the ones preceding, and scratched himself nervously while trying not to pick his nose.
Upstairs, Piggs had been rolling point numbers all night, and had turned his $3000 into $12,000. From a radio somewhere down the hall, he could hear Billie Holiday singing God Bless the Child. He knew that tune, but was damned if he could ever remember the words.
He figured his luck had really changed, the dice were hot, and players were betting on him for once. He wondered how long it could last, even with the charms in his breast pocket. The ones that the strange Mr Shine had handed him.
His last rolls that night went like this.
He placed his twelve large on the pass line. Then he blew on the dice and let ‘me fly. The dice soared down the green felt, past the stacks of chips and loose currency. And then they tumbled until they hit the rubber on the back wall and finally came to rest. Two threes smiled up at the crowd. The point was six, Rufus Piggs’ favourite number. Winner! He blew and rolled again, a four and a two. Winner! The crowd gasped then cheered. Rufus Piggs’ eyes bulged. Mr Shine’s charms were working, all right.
It was the kind of luck that always causes consternation and suspicion. Which in this case was leading to some profound eye contact between the dealer and a heavyset zoot-suited boxman named Smoothy Cox, sitting in a chair near the door. Then a barely perceptible nod passed between them.
The dealer stepped forward and checked the dice Piggs was throwing. They were legit, but he removed them anyway. The stickman offered a bowl of new dice to choose from. Piggs was too hot to care. He snatched up a pair, indiscriminately. Then he rattled them in his fist and let ‘em go. Six again. The crowd dropped a collective jaw and then cheered once more. Piggs was relaxed now. Suddenly, winning was what he did. It was what winners naturally did. And he was a winner. No need for excitement here, folks.
Smoothy Cox didn’t see it that way, though. He stood up and blocked the doorway out of the room.
Rufus Piggs let his stacks of loose bills stand. Winning the next roll was worth nearly a hundred grand. Every promise he ever made to WB Yeats was about to come true. The house in the country, the nice car and the respectful neighbours. All only a roll of the dice away. And he had the diamond dice next to his heart. He was made in the shade.
He pitched the dice and watched, knowing in all confidence that another six was just around the corner. The dice flew again, like a couple of fiery ivory meteors flying past the unbelieving eyes of onlookers and fellow punters.
But this time, when the ivory meteors hit the end of the table, the six never materialised. He had rolled a twelve. The crowd moaned quietly, stoically.
“Bastard,” one of the losing players muttered.
Rufus Piggs watched his hard won money disappear in the hands of the dealer, and Smoothy Cox moved away from the door and took a seat once more. Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition of God Bless the Child had come to an end down the hall, without Piggs noticing. And now that it had, he remembered what Elga Coal had said — The song never knows when it’s about to end.
Piggs’ good hand fell at his side. He felt a nickel in his pocket. Enough for a morning time cup of java.
No one round the table would lend him a dime to start over. He knew it. Maybe he could go to ‘The Pearl’ for another loan. A small one this time, just to hold him over until his luck changed. After all, this wasn’t how it was supposed to have happened. That bastard Mr Shine had promised the world was his, hadn’t he? But what a nickel and a promise could get you in this town wasn’t much.
He shouldered past a grinning Smoothy Cox on his way out.
“You’re still a loser,” Smoothy said. Then he said, “Come back anytime – and bring money.”
Awaiting him was the familiar lonesomeness of hallways and stairwells navigated after all the money was gone. He’d broken distance records walking these. He ignored the elevator and left through a door with an exit sign above it. Then he descended the stairs and went out through the lobby onto Hastings Street. He was blind to the carnival there, but Nester Dayton spotted him in a second. Dayton nodded to a newsy across the sidewalk, and the boy ran round to the back of the hotel to alert ‘The Pearl’ and Gleason Quinn.
Dayton watched Piggs through the dense crowd as best he could, while looking back over his shoulder for ‘The Pearl’. ‘The Peal’ appeared in a minute, shadowed by Gleason Quinn, and the three of them ran to catch up with Piggs.
They did at Columbia Street. Gleason Quinn grabbed Rufus Piggs by the collar, and dragged him into the alley behind the Broadway Hotel.
“I hear you been winning big,” said The Roscoe ‘The Pearl’. “Maybe it’s time to share the wealth and pay me back what you owe.”
“I ain’t got nothin’,” Rufus Piggs said. “I bet it all and lost.”
“That’s too bad,” said ‘The Pearl’. “I think you ain’t never gonna pay, so that means you’re only good for one thing. You know what that is?”
Piggs looked down at his shoes and shook his head, like he didn’t know what ‘The Pearl’ was driving at. But he knew good and well.
“A deadbeat bum like you,” ‘The Pearl’ said, “is only good for being made an example of.”
“Yeah yeah,” Nester Dayton said, lighting another cigarette. “An example of, yeah.”
Gleason Quinn pulled a knuckle knife out from under his coat and ran its point down Piggs’ cheek.
“I ain’t gonna squawk,” Rufus Piggs said, looking Gleason in the eye. “Maybe it’s better like this.”
“Give it to him in the belly, Gleason,” said Roscoe ‘The Pearl’. “Let’s watch him roll round on the ground fer a while.”
“Yeah, on the ground, on the ground,” said Nester Dayton, as he scratched himself and picked his nose.
And that was how it might have ended in that moment, but then Rufus Piggs remembered the charms.
“Wait!” he said, as his hand went to the pocket nearest his heart. “I’ve got something you might want instead of money….” Then he pulled out the diamond dice. They shone in the palm of his hand, under the single naked incandescent bulb that swung above them.
“What the…?” said Roscoe ‘The Pearl’, as his eyes bugged out. He seemed to recognise, with his street cunning, what the dice truly were.
“They’s just some glass dice,” said Gleason Quinn.
“They sure as hell ain’t,” said ‘The Pearl’. He reached out and was about the snatch them up, when another man spoke.
“Sure as Hell?” said Mr Shine. “It’s funny, that little turn of phrase. You all pray it doesn’t exist. And yet you say it everyday – sure as Hell.”
“Who’s this chump?” said Gleason Quinn. “And what’s that smell?”
Piggs saw Shine and knew why he was there.
“Don’t worry, Quinn,” Piggs said. “He’s here for me.”
“Yes I am,” said Mr Shine. “You’ve had your little moment in the sun. Now it’s time to go.”
“I thought there’d be more,” said Piggs. “More to win and more to keep.”
“Well,” said Mr Shine. “Like the lady says, You can help yourself, but don’t take too much.”
Suddenly, Rufus Piggs knew the words to the song in full. He looked down at his shoes again and shook his head, his good hand still clenching the diamond dice.
“I want ‘em,” said ‘The Pearl’. “I want them dice.”
“Are you certain?” said Mr Shine. “Really, really certain?”
“Walk away, Roscoe,” Piggs said.
“Shut up, Piggs,” Roscoe greedily shouted. “Hand ‘em over.”
“Do it,” said Mr Shine. And Piggs handed the diamond dice over to ‘The Pearl’.
“Now you two scram,” ‘The Pearl’ said to Piggs and Mr Shine.
“That’s fine,” said Mr Shine. “See you soon, Mr Margolis.”
“That’s the spirit,” said Mr Shine. And he and Rufus Piggs faded into the fog.
read the other two stories in the Elga Coal trilogy
Billy Romance and the dirt