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Last Chance

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Gambler Lew Carroll was down and out in Key West, looking for a high stakes game to put him back in the money. What he found was trouble and murder.

Mystery / Thriller
Bill Craig
Age Rating:

Last Chance

Lew Carroll looked at the cards in his hands and folded. His streak of bad luck continued. “I’m out,” he said. Grabbing the nearly empty glass of whiskey he pushed away from the table and headed for the bar. Lew Carroll was on a downhill slide. He still had his looks, thick brown hair streaked with blond from the tropical sun, blue eyes and his West Texas twang. Except tonight, his blue eyes were bloodshot and red-rimmed from exhaustion. His light gray linen blazer hung limply over his pale blue dress shirt that was starting to fray around the collar. He dug into his pocket and pulled out a pack of Camel cigarettes.

Carroll slipped onto a seat at the bar and sat down his glass, shaking out a cigarette, he stuck it in the corner of his mouth and pulled out a battered silver Zippo lighter and flipped it open and dragged his thumb across the striker wheel igniting a pale yellow and blue flame. He touched the end of the Camel to the flame, drawing the fire up into the tobacco, feeling the burn as he pulled the hot smoke into his throat and lungs. Carroll snapped the lighter closed and dropped it back in his pants’ pocket. He picked up his glass after exhaling and drained it, then held it up so that the pretty bartender could bring him another.

His run of bad luck had started in Memphis. A big loss and then the raid by the cops. Lew was pretty sure that Garner had set the whole thing up, but as he had been told to get out of town, things didn’t get any better. Even in small pick-up games in small bars heading south, his luck refused to turn. Most days he barely broke even. He was beginning to think that his life as a professional gambler was drawing to a close. If he couldn’t get his luck to turn, he’d have to give it up. Then he heard about the big Key West poker tournament. A high stakes game, winner take all.

Maybe his last chance. And where better for it than the place known as the end of the road.

The bartender brought him a fresh drink and sat it on the polished wood in front of him. He thanked her and took a sip, enjoying the burn. Lew smiled to himself. He sipped his whiskey to keep control, both of his drinking and so that others would think he had imbibed more than he had. It kept him sharper. He looked around the bar. It was getting late and the place had thinned out. The bar tender moved down to the other end of the bar. Lew Carroll surveyed the room.

That’s when he saw her. Sitting alone in a quiet corner, her red hair gleaming beneath the neon glare of a window sign. She was wearing a well-made black dress and heels, a small black bag on the table beside her. A nearly empty martini sat on the table in front of her. Lew got the bartender’s attention and sent a martini over to the table. He stubbed out his cigarette in a handy ash tray. He took another sip of his own drink before he became aware of a presence at his elbow. Carroll half turned in his seat. It was the redhead.

“I wanted to say thank you,” she told him in a sultry voice that was sweeter than a marshmallow soaked in honey. There was a trace of the deep south in her voice. South Carolina or maybe Georgia, he thought. She was older than he had originally thought, perhaps late thirties instead of early thirties. There were a few laugh lines starting to show around her eyes and smile lines at the corners of luscious red lips. A single strand of white pearls adorned her neck. God had blessed her with s sprinkling of freckles across a slightly up-turned nose. Her eyes were blue and intelligent.

“You’re welcome,” Lew said, finally finding his voice. “You looked lonely sitting there.

“Really? My date never showed up,” she said.

“He was very foolish then,” Lew told her.

“I really hate drinking alone,” she said. Lew nodded and grabbed his glass, following her back to her table. He appreciated the gentle sway of her heart-shaped ass as she seemed to almost float across the floor. He put his drink on the table and helped her with her chair, a sudden flash of chivalry that he had long thought forgotten, then he took the seat across from her.

“I know this sounds like a bad movie line, but what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” Lew asked. He had already examined her left hand. No wedding band there. Nor a white line showing where one had been removed. She rewarded him with a wan smile.

“It does sound like a bad movie line, but the question is a good one nonetheless,” the young woman replied. “I came down from Miami on a job. I was supposed to have a date tonight, but he never showed,” she shrugged.

“Do you have a name?” Lew asked, intensely curious about the quiet, yet vivacious young woman sitting across from him.

“Sarah. Sarah Clark,” she replied. “I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself, Mr. …?” she let the unfinished sentence hang there.

“Carroll, Lew Carroll. I forgot my own manners, Sarah,” Lew replied.

“Why did you buy me the drink, Lew?” Sarah asked, genuine curiosity in her voice.

“You looked lonely, sitting here by yourself. It was, I don’t know, a gesture I guess. Something to let you know you weren’t alone after all,” he shrugged.

“And now I’m not,” Sarah smiled. This time it wasn’t wan, this time it was a full blown smile that seemed to light up her whole face.

“No, now you’re not,” he smiled at her.

“So why did you stay here alone after it became obvious your date wasn’t coming?” Lew asked. He took another sip of his drink. He dug out his cigarettes and offered her one. Sarah reached over and took it, her eyes never leaving his as he dragged out his lighter and lit it for her. Then he lit his own. The cigarette seemed to relax the girl and he was glad of it. She leaned back in her chair.

“Because I was lonely. This job, well let’s just say it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be,” Sarah shrugged. She took a sip of her drink.

“They were a fool then,” Lew said, meaning it.

“Life is a crapshoot much of the time,” Sarah shook her head.

“It is,” he agreed.

Do you always go around helping damsels in distress?”

“Rarely,” he told her.

“What do you do, Lew?”

“Usually I gamble. Professional poker player,” Lew shrugged.

“Can I trust you?” Sarah looked into his eyes.

“As much as anybody, I guess,” Lew shrugged.

“Will you do me a favor?”

“Sure, in for a penny in for a pound,” he shrugged.

“My Dad used to say that,” Sarah grinned.

“Ouch,” Lew winced. Sarah reached into her bag and took out a small package wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with string. She slid it across the table to him. There was an address written on it in slanting cursive strokes.

“Hold this for a couple of days for me. Then drop it in the mail. Will you do that?” Sarah asked.

“What’s this about? He asked.

“Remember that job I told you about?”

“Sure,” Lew nodded. Picking up the small package, he slipped it into his jacket pocket. Sarah stubbed out her cigarette and finished her drink. She stood and leaned over and kissed his cheek.

“Thank you, Lew,” she said, turning and walking out. Lew sat there a second then tossed back what was left of his whiskey and staggered after her.

Outside the night air was warm and humid, slapping him across the face like a wet blanket. Lew looked around but the girl was gone. The crowd was thinning out as the night wound down. But of the girl, there was no sign. She had vanished like a ghost, a spectral being that was there for a heartbeat and gone the next. Shaking his head, he started walking for his hotel.

Bright sunlight streaming in through his window awakened him. Lew Carroll rolled to a sitting position on the edge of the bed. What a night. It still seemed so surreal that he wasn’t sure that it had actually happened. He headed for the shower.

Half an hour later he was seated at Harpoon Harry’s eating breakfast and perusing the latest edition of the Key West Citizen. The more he read the more he decided that the island suffered from a special breed of insanity. Ron, the manager had greeted him when he entered and flitted around from table to table, checking on the guest in his establishment.

Then a small item inside caught his eye. A young woman had been run down the night before not far from the bar where he had been playing cards. The police were calling it a deliberate hit and run. Her identity was being withheld pending notification of family.

Suddenly Lew was no longer hungry. He thought about the encounter the night before. It was then he had remembered the small package she had given him. It was still in his coat pocket, back in his room. He wondered if it had anything to do with her being run down. If it had been her.

Lew shook his head, digging his crumpled pack of Camels from the brightly colored Hawaiian Aloha shirt he was wearing. His hands were trembling as he shook one free and stuck it in the corner of his mouth. He got the pack back in his pocket and dug out his lighter and fired the smoke up. He had already paid for his meal and left it sitting as he walked out into the bright sunshine. A cool breeze was blowing in off the Gulf, pushing the humidity back, but doing little against the oppressive heat. Lew slipped on a pair of dark-lensedsunglasses as he tried to decide where he wanted to go.

He had to find out more about the girl, had to know if it had been Sarah who had been run down like a dog on the street. He had liked her. She had touched something deep inside him, something that he had thought long dead. His heart.

Lew walked down to the police station on Roosevelt Blvd. He hesitated on the steps. He had no proof that the dead girl was Sarah Clark. It was just a suspicion on his part. There was a good chance the cops wouldn’t believe him. Lew sighed. He had to try. He pushed the glass door open and stepped inside.

White tiles and white walls greeted him, stretching off in both directions. A brown door with the words information stenciled on it stood a few steps away. Carroll shrugged and walked over to it, his hand grabbing the gold knob and turning it. He pushed the door open and stepped inside.

A long counter bisected the room and there were three nice looking women behind it. Lew walked up to the counter, waiting on one of them to notice him. He stood there for a couple of minutes before clearing his throat loudly. Finally a Hispanic woman turned her chair to face him.

“Can I help you?” she asked, a slight accent tinting the words.

“I want to talk to somebody about the woman that was killed in the hit and run last night. I think I might know her,” Lew managed to get it out without stammering.

“I think Sgt. Ortiz caught that one. Hold on a second and I’ll call him and let him know you are here,” she smiled at him, turning and pressing a button on her phone. She spoke quietly for a moment and then paused to listen. Finally she hung up and turned back to face him. “Sgt. Ortiz is sending down Alvarez and Jones to escort you up.”

“Thanks,” Lew told her. He started to dig out a cigarette before he noticed the no smoking sign. Shit. He took a seat in one of the plastic chairs and picked up the latest copy of Sports Illustrated. He was thumbing through it when the door opened and two men stepped into the room.

One was dark with Latino good looks, the other a kind of grungy looking blond with a barely there mustache. Both were wearing expensive suits. “Mr. Carroll?” the Latino asked. Lew nodded and stood extending his hand. It seemed the polite thing to do.

“I’m Detective Alvarez. My partner, Detective Jones. You say you may know our vic from the hit and run?”

“Maybe. I met a young woman named Sarah Clark in the Smoking Tuna last night. We shared a drink and she left. She was about medium height, curvaceous and had red hair. She left a few seconds before me and by the time I got outside she was gone,’ Carroll told them.

“What was she wearing, this Sarah Clark?” Detective Jones asked.

“An expensive black dress and white pearls, black pumps and a handbag,” Lew replied.

“She have a bag?”

“A small one. What’s going on guys?” Lew asked.

“Her bag was missing. But you just described our murder victim,” Alvarez said.

“I was afraid of that,” Lew sighed.

“Why is that?” Jones asked him.

“There was something about her, I don’t know, a sense of loneliness. Like she was alone and afraid,” Lew replied. He really wished he could have a cigarette.

“Turns out she was,” Jones said.

"Who did this to her?” Lew looked at them both.

“That is what we want to find out,” Alvarez said. Alvarez gave him a card and Lew Carroll tucked it into his pocket. Alvarez walked him to the door.

“Thank you,” Lew Carroll told him.

“No, thank you, Mr. Carroll. You have given us the best lead we have,” Alvarez told him. Lew nodded and then turned and headed back along Roosevelt Blvd to where it intersected with Duval. He had a game to set up. It was a prelim to get into the big game.

Lew Carroll finally won a big hand at the Hog’s Breath. It was a back room game, but the stakes were fair. Lew was glad to see it happen. Maybe his luck was finally starting to change. He raked in the chips and tossed a couple of high ones to the dealer.

By 6 p.m., Lew Carroll was up by a thousand dollars. He bowed out of the game, hoping to keep his streak alive. He cashed in his winnings and walked back to his hotel.

The sun was setting as he unlocked the door of his room. Lew Carroll closed the door behind him, hearing the lock click shut. His gray jacket was still hanging where he had left it. He walked to the closet and fished out the brown paper-wrapped package. Lew weighed it in his hand as he looked as the pre-paid postage.

Lew thought about opening it, just to see what might be inside, but decided against it. He owed her that much. Lew looked at the name on the package, the name of the person she was sending it too. Carol Doyle. Carol appeared to live in Miami. Lew wondered about that. What made this address special? He shook his head.

Was it worth a trip to Miami to find out? Or should he just do what Sarah had asked of him and hold onto it for another day before mailing it. At that moment, his phone rang. The sound was unexpected and so jarringly loud he dropped the package and nearly fell down. He moved around the bed and picked it up by the third ring.

“Hello?” he said, having no idea who would be calling him.

“You have something that belongs to me,” a menacing voice told him.

“Who are you?” Lew asked, sweat suddenly beading on his forehead, despite the cold air blasting from the air-conditioner.

“Who I am doesn’t matter, Mr. Carroll. What matters is the package that Sarah gave you. It belongs to me,” the voice told him. It was deep and hollow sounding, reminding him of Darth Vader, a character from a movie he had watched as a kid.

“Sarah?” Lew decided to play it cagey.

“The young woman you bought a drink for last night, and then inquired about at the police station today.” Shit! The guy on the other end of the line was good.

“Oh yeah, the redhead,” Lew replied, swallowing hard.

“I know you have the package because her bag was empty. I know she gave it to you,” the voice said. Lew’s stomach was practically rolling now.

“Bring it to me tonight, after the sunset crowd thins out from Mallory Square. Stand by the sea wall. One of my people will come to you.” The line went dead. Lew put the phone down and immediately grabbed his crumpled pack of smokes. He pulled the last one out of the pack and stuck it in his mouth. He balled the empty cigarette package in his fist and threw it at the trashcan. It missed. He smiled ruefully.

Lew pulled out his Zippo and fired his cigarette. He walked back around the bed and knelt, picking the package up from where it had fallen. He sat back down on the bed. What in the hell was he going to do?

Obviously he was being watched, had been since the night before. He wondered about the voice on the other end of the line. He shivered at the memory. He looked down at the package, weighing it in his hands. He had an idea, probably a foolish one, but one that would honor Sarah’s last request.

Lew slipped his jacket on and put the package back in the pocket and then headed down stairs to the hotel gift shop. After spending some time there, he walked out to get a shoe shine from a Cuban boy in front of the hotel. After that, he returned to his room.

Lew opened a small bottle of whiskey and poured it into one of the plastic cups that the hotel provided. When it reached two fingers in depth and stopped pouring and capped the bottle. He had hoped to hit the big game tonight. Lots of high-rollers were going to be there.

Looked like now maybe it wouldn’t happen. He took a sip from the glass, then added ice to it. He had bought a fresh pack of Camels while he was down stairs. He opened it and shook one free after removing his jacket and hanging it in the closet. One side hung down. The weight of the package.

Lew lit his cigarette and wondered about Sarah. Who was she? Why had she been sitting alone in the bar? All he had done was buy her a drink, and he was fairly certain he hadn’t been the only one to do so. But she had signaled out him to pass the package too. Why was that?

Lew inhaled, listening to the fire burn the tobacco and the paper tube that surrounded it. He exhaled and took another sip of the whiskey. He wondered about that. What was it about him that had drawn her to him?

Lew hadn’t even known he was coming here until he had seen the ad on-line about the big game. Had that ad been a plant? Had somebody known it would draw him in? That was too much to hope for. How could they have known that he would come? Was his bad luck being manufactured?

Lew took another sip of whiskey. His last chance. Had it been a set-up? A last chance at the end of the road. Something that somebody had known would appeal to him.

Lew threw back the rest of the contents of the glass. He sat it down on the night stand and headed for the door. The jacket remained in the closet, hanging lopsided. The lock clicked shut behind him.

Lew found a small game at the Smoking Tuna and bought into it. He killed a couple of hours and ended two thousand dollars ahead. Yes, his luck was turning. Lew went back to his room.

His jacket was still there, and it was still lopsided on the hanger. It surprised him that the room hadn’t been searched. It was something that he would have done. Lew glanced at his watch. Sunset was less than half an hour away. He pulled the jacket on and headed for Mallory Square.

The square was packed with people hoping to see the fabled green flash, rumored to bring good luck to those who saw it. The Green Flash, not a comic book character, but an atmospheric event - that startling glint of neon green that appears just for a second on the upper curve of the sun just as its last little sliver dips under the horizon. An optical sunrise or sunset atmospheric phenomenon, it lasts but a second or two and is the piéce de résistance of an etheral event, if you are lucky enough to see it. So elusive and mystical, it’s the stuff of movies and books.

Lew had no real belief in that particular superstition. People made their own luck. Many gamblers were superstitious, but Lew was not one of them. No, the cards were something easily manipulated, just like most people. The problem he was facing in this particular game was that he didn’t know who he was playing against and had not had the chance to learn their tells.

Lew scanned the crowd with his eyes, trying to pick out anyone who might have a particular interest in him. His sunglasses hid his eyes and gave him a chance to look around without looking like that was what he was doing. That’s when he spotted them. Two men moving through the crowd almost like guided missiles. Lew puffed on his cigarette and looked around. He saw a familiar face close by. Detective Alvarez. Lew pushed his way through the crowd. He tapped the cop on the shoulder. Alvarez turned around.

“Detective, so good to see you. Have you found out anything more about that poor girl?” Lew asked.

“Mr. Carroll?” Alvarez looked surprised.

“I saw you and wanted to ask,” Lew shrugged. Lew maneuvered around so that the detective was between him and the two approaching torpedoes. One of the men frowned and they slipped into a holding pattern amid the throng of oohing and awing tourists. He knew the sun was sinking closer to the horizon behind him.

“I appreciate your asking, but no, so far we don’t have anymore information,” Alvarez shrugged. Lew picked that moment to slip the thin package into the cop’s jacket pocket.

“She seemed like a really nice girl. I hate what happened to her,” Lew told him. Alvarez nodded and Lew turned and walked away. He was pretty sure that the two torpedoes were tracking him again. He allowed himself a smile as he worked his way to the rail. He flipped his cigarette to the ground and crushed it under his shoe.

Suddenly the two men were on either side of him. “Mr. Carroll, will you come with us please?” one asked politely.

“But what if I miss the green flash? I was hoping to change my luck?” Lew said nonchalantly.

“No optical illusion is gonna help you, Pal,” the other man said as he grabbed Lew’s arm hard, his thick blunt fingers digging painfully into muscle. Lew half-turned, driving his hand into the man’s throat, the webbing between his thumb and forefinger smashing his Adam’s apple crushing the hyoid bone and his larynx, causing him to start choking on his blood. Lew spun, his fist shooting out and cracking the other man on the jaw and dropping him. Lew slipped off into the crowd, leaving the two men behind him.

People started shouting as he walked away, but most of them didn’t notice him. Lew headed for a piano bar called The Keys. There was a jazz quartet playing there when he entered. Lew walked to the bar and ordered whiskey. The bartender poured him two fingers of single malt scotch and Marlow slipped him a c-note. “Any games going?” he asked. The bartender looked him over and nodded towards a door near the back of the bar. Lew nodded back and took his drink with him.

The room was dingy and smoke filled. Four men sat around the table. Lew recognized three of them. There was an open chair and he dropped into it. Lew tossed a thousand dollars on the table. One of the other men pushed a stack of chips at him and the money disappeared from the table. Lew dug out a cigarette and lit it as the cards were dealt.

It was dark when Lew Carroll left the bar and the game. He was up $5,000.00 from when he had arrived on Key West. He had thought about hailing a cab when he left the bar, but had then decided not to endanger anyone else. Whoever had sent those guys to Mallory Square was playing for keeps. Lew decided he didn’t want to get any innocents involved. He walked towards his hotel.

The door to his room was partially open when he reached it. Lew stood outside, wondering about going in. He couldn’t hear anything from inside. Lew pushed the door open and stepped inside. He hit the light switch and checked the room. It was empty, but it had very obviously been searched.

Of course he had known it would be. He figured whoever was after the package might think it was in his room. He shut the door behind him and had begun straightening up the room when the phone started the ring. Lew let it ring as he gathered his things and put them back on hangers and into drawers. The phone stopped for several minutes and then started to ring again. This time he answered it.

“Hello?” he said.

“I’m not happy, Mr. Carroll,” the deep sepulchral voice announced.

“I’m really not sure I give a fuck. You tried to set me up for a fucking hit,” Lew replied as he fished out a cigarette and lit it. He knew that the other man could hear the cigarette burning through the phone.

“You have my property, Mr. Carroll. I will get it back.”

“What’s to say I haven’t already given it to the cops? There was a detective in Mallory Square tonight,” Lew replied, blowing smoke rings towards the ceiling.

"Are you saying that’s what happened?” the voice asked.

“I’m saying nothing. But you want what I have, I want compensated.”

“Compensated how?”

“Cash. Untraceable small bills.”

“It would be so much simpler just to kill you.”

“But then you might not get what you want. Are you willing to risk that?” Lew asked, smiling.

“How much?” the voice asked wearily.

“One hundred thousand dollars,” Lew told him.

“Outrageous!” snapped the voice on the other end of the line.

“Have it your way,” Lew broke the connection and sat there waiting. He didn’t have to wait long. The phone was ringing within thirty seconds. Lew answered it.

“When and where?” the voice asked.

“Harpoon Harry’s about 10:00am,” Lew told him.

“See you then,” the voice replied and the connection was broken.

Everything was in place. Lew dialed the Key West police station. He asked for Sgt. Alvarez.

“Alvarez,” a familiar voice said.

“Did you get the package I left in your coat?” Lew asked, exhaling more smoke.

“I did. That was a slick piece of work. You responsible for those two guys in Mallory Square?” Alvarez asked.

“You want the guy that killed the girl?” Lew asked.

“You know I do,” Alvarez replied.

“Be at Harpoon Harry’s in the morning at ten o’clock,” Lew told him. He broke the connection and after locking his door, stripped down to his skivvies and slept like a baby.

Lew Carroll was up with the sun. He took a long shower and dressed and then went downstairs for some coffee. He killed time by reading both the Citizen and the Miami Herald before walking over to Harpoon Harry’s. Ron greeted him as he entered and Lew ordered a café con leche as he perused the menu.

At five till ten, a large black man entered the bar, a small package under his arm. Lew had already spotted Detective Alvarez a few tables away. The cop ignored him and Lew was fine with that. The black man slid into the seat across from Lew.

“Mr. Carroll,” the man said.

“You are?” Lew asked. The man looked very uncomfortable.

“Jonas Griffin,” the man replied.

“Nice to finally meet you, Jonas. You say Sarah had something that belonged to you. What exactly would that be?” Lew asked.

“None of your business, Mr. Carroll,” Jonas replied.

“Wrong. It became my business when you murdered Sarah,” Lew told him.

“Are you a sentimentalist?” Jonas asked.

“More of a romantic,” Lew shrugged.

“You had feelings for the girl? Someone you met only once?”

“Love at first sight, what can I say?” Lew shrugged. He stubbed his cigarette out in the crystal ash tray.

“I’m going to kill you, Mr. Carroll,” Jonas said softly.

“No, you’re not,” Lew replied.

“Why is that?” Jonas asked. Lew pulled out his cigarettes and shook one free. He tucked the unfiltered Camel into the corner of his mouth and put the pack back in his pocket before fishing out his battered silver Zippo. Lew rolled the striker wheel under his thumb and a burst of blue-yellow flame appeared. He touched the end of the paper tube to it, drawing the flame up through it. Lew clicked the lighter closed and looked at the man across the table from him.

“Because you’re under arrest for the murder of Sarah Clark,” Lew smiled. Sgt Alvarez came up behind Jonas, snatching his arm up and slapping a cuff first on one wrist and then the other. He began reading the man his rights. Lew Carroll smiled. Alvarez hadn’t bothered the package that Jonas had carried in. Lew made it disappear in his pocket.

Sarah had been a reporter investigating the drug trade and corruption on Key West. Carol Doyle was her editor. Lew had copied the information and gave it to the police after sending a copy to the Miami Herald and knowing that the Key West police knew it. Lew Carroll lit another cigarette and watched as the police dragged Jonas away…

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