The Big Belly Deli buzzed with the chatter of happy losers.
"Who won the hundred million bucks last night?"
"I'll win when pigs fly!"
A dozen customers talked about striking it rich next time. Diet Cola looked over their heads as the TV news reporter interviewed the owner of the deli where the winning ticket had been sold. The skinny man looked into the camera and said he came from New Delhi.
No, the owner said, the winner hadn't come forward yet.
The winning numbers were posted on a white board for everyone to see: 1-2-3-4-5-6. Diet Cola crumpled a fistful of losing tickets. What kind of lame numbers were those? He picked up a family-sized bag of Doritos, a package of Little Debbie snack cakes and a quart of half and half, which would have to get him through until lunchtime. He got in line.
The bell over the front door jingled, and a white-haired couple walked in. The guy had a red bow tie and the broad had a straw hat with a flowing blue ribbon, straight out of a freak show if you asked Diet Cola. They stopped, looked at the board, and then traded puzzled expressions. The lady put on the glasses that dangled around her neck. The man, a tall dude, nodded as though analyzing each number in turn. Then he went back and did it again. Their faces brightened as though they'd gotten fixed up with new batteries.
"My God, Carrick," the woman said, "we w-"
The guy put his fingers on her lips, old Carrick's way of saying shut the hell up. The woman clutched her purse like it was a baby in a crowd of perverts. Without another word, they left the store.
Diet Cola had to think faster than usual. In the afternoon he had to see his lawyer and arrange to turn himself in for some two-bit rap or other-dealing dope, shoplifting, punching a hole in a wall in the downtown Burger King-no, just possession, and Attorney Bernie promised six months max.
He dropped his food on the floor and walked into the bright sunlight, spotting the couple arm in arm, half dancing across the parking lot. They had his ticket!
They jabbered on as he walked a few yards behind them. "We can't tell anyone yet, Brodie. Let's go home and take a deep breath."
"Can we set up a scholarship fund, Carrick? There are so many deserving children in the city."
"Anything you want. Of course we'll share with our boys and their families. And we'll go to Hawaii-I think I see a lei in my future."
She whacked his ass with her hat. "That would make three times this week. And it's only Wednesday."
Diet Cola scowled. Bopping at their age, who were they kidding? It was a crime against nature, like pizza without cheese. They didn't deserve the ticket, because they'd just waste the money on other people.
His eyes followed their Lexus-hell, they were already rich-as he got in his car and started the engine. As he trailed behind them down the main drag, he cursed the cosmic luck of some people who won all the marbles while all he'd ever won was a kick in the nuts and a stretch in the can.
While they led him down one side street after another, thoughts swirled and gelled into a plan. So far, only three people in the world knew they had won: them and him. He would have to take a chance, a big one. Would a neighbor see him pull in behind the couple? Would they have already called their kids on the cell phone? No, they didn't look like cell phone types. They would probably dance in the kitchen and then wait a couple of days to call their lawyer.
They finally pulled into a driveway next to a sixties-style ranch house with curling shingles that cupped little pockets of pine needles. Diet Cola stopped his car maybe thirty yards down the street. He peered through the stand of pine trees as the couple laughed and walked hand in hand to the side door of their house. The only time Diet ever saw his dad hold his mom's hand was to swing her against a wall. That night Diet took a baseball bat to the old bastard's head and caved it in like an eggshell.
The old couple walked up the steps of the side porch. The old dude opened the door and made a sweeping bow to the old biddy, who returned a radiant smile. Thirty years ago, she must have been hot. Forty years ago, she must have been irresistible. Today she was a used-up old bag with one hand on her purse and one foot in her grave. Her purse dangled on her shoulder as she went inside. Her husband Carrick followed and closed the door.
Now Diet Cola weighed the pros and cons of just going inside and killing them. On the pro side, the couple was old and weak and would snap like twigs. On the con side, he didn't much care to risk a fall for a needless double homicide. On the pro side, the meals and the shower sex weren't all that bad in prison. On the con side-
He ran, not wanting to think about any more cons-or to become one again, not for this. That cash could fill up a swimming pool, and it was going to be his. No, no, it was already his. He'd meant to bet those numbers, he was positive now. At the bottom porch step, he moved quietly, then tried the doorknob. The plan was so clear-lightning speed followed by patience. There would be two gut-ripped corpses with no evidence of any motive. Sigh. Just one of those sad, unsolved crimes.
The door was ajar, and he pushed it far enough to hear voices. "And we'll visit Mack in Arizona," Carrick said. "You've always wanted to go there."
Diet Cola caught his breath as he stepped inside and into the kitchen, but the couple seemed to have gone to the other end of the house already. "Oh, I love you, Carrick," Brodie said in her geriatric voice, and they made a sound like lots of loud kissing. Two people smoothing out each other's wrinkles-he didn't even want to picture it. The kitchen smelled like a roast cooking in the oven, and damned if that didn't distract him for a few seconds. His mouth watered, and he fought off a fantasy of the old couple setting a place for him at the table and piling slabs of beef on a plate and drowning them in gravy. What was in the fridge? He opened it and saw a birthday cake with white frosting and blue writing that said "Happy Birthday." There was a drawing of a rocket ship, too. A pang shot through his chest, because nobody ever gave him a cake when he was a little kid. His grandmother had burned her guts out with margaritas, and his father had called him a wad waste. Diet began to feel sad about all the birthday parties he never had, was never invited to. Well, screw that. One day he'd be the one having parties and not inviting people.
He wrenched his gaze away from the food and quietly closed the fridge door. To his left was the living room with its brick fireplace. The woman's coat lay on an upholstered chair, and a leather purse strap poked out from underneath it. The couple giggled and became quiet, and he stopped and listened. Eventually, the man grunted.
"Brodie, darling," the old man said. "Where there's a will, there's a way."
"Where there's a willy, there's a way," she said, and they giggled some more.
If the ticket was still in the purse this could turn out easy, with the old farts busy with their slow-motion perversions. They had what, almost two centuries between them? He opened the purse, which had a red leather wallet inside. When he snapped it open with a soft click, there it was, like the world's biggest piece of platinum: the lottery ticket with exactly the numbers posted on the white board at the convenience store. It took his breath away, made his heart pound, his hands sweat.
He put everything else back in place. Then he pulled a long, serrated knife out of its holder on the counter and wrapped the handle with a paper towel. A knife this long, he would pin them both to the mattress with one fierce stab. Killing them was pointless since he could escape with the ticket, but he felt like being pointless today. With his fist around the handle, he tiptoed down the hallway toward the bedroom. He put his hand on the doorknob and raised his knife.
No turning back now.
The telephone rang in the bedroom. Once. "Oh Lord," Brodie said. "Why now?"
Twice. "Let it ring."
Three times. "Hello? Oh, hello, Mack. No, that's all right, dear, we weren't in the middle of anything." The old lady started chattering.
Diet Cola turned away from the door. The phone call was a complication he didn't need. The ticket was everything-well, almost everything. He tiptoed back into the kitchen, where he opened the fridge and cut a large slice of chocolate cake that he washed down with a gulp of skim milk from the bottle. He thought about eating the other half, but he had things to do. Meet his lawyer that afternoon about that lame possession rap, for one thing. Diet Cola had a size 50 orange jumpsuit in his future, and that was a sure thing.
So he figured okay, hide the lottery ticket and take the hit for six months in the joint. Naturally, he couldn't hide it in his own apartment, the way cops went through there with search warrants. Hell, his own mother might even come in and clean. There was a first time for everything, and if she found the ticket he'd never see the hag again except on television. Of course the sensible thing to do was sell it for ten, maybe twenty percent and then skip the country. Sure, he could forget jail altogether and live on the twenty mill. But why give up so much so easy when he did all this work? Just be patient, pay the blindfolded lady with the scales, then cash in on the full value of the ticket.
The old folks seemed well occupied for the rest of the morning at the rate they were going. Diet Cola looked around the living room. The mantel over the fireplace had family pictures and a small white container that had painted flowers on it. He lifted the cover and saw a mishmash of jewelry sitting on top of a bed of ashes. He shook the contents and saw small bits of bone. Hmph. An urn, a cheap resting place for a dead guy, and the lady must be treating it like a jewelry box. Underneath the ashes could be the perfect hiding place for the ticket, which naturally meant he'd have to kill these folks another day. He trembled as he folded the gorgeous slip of paper, slid it under the ashes and arranged everything neatly. It wasn't like the deceased had any big travel plans, right?
An hour later, he sat in his apartment and guzzled a pint of half and half-not that skim milk shit the old people had. He felt excited yet at peace. He could just relax in the slammer for half a year. Behave the whole time, don't bang anyone's head on a wall, don't tell a soul, don't talk in your sleep. Then walk out one day and start a whole new life.
That afternoon he got a whole year and a lecture from the judge, who said enrolling in an anger management class might gain him early release. He wet his pants and told the black-robed witch that yes, he would take the class; then he went off in handcuffs to serve his time. For most of a year, the little square of paper was all he could think about. That and all the whores he could keep on sun-drenched beaches in the Caribbean. Sometimes in his cell bunk in the middle of the night, he imagined hot babes licking the sand between his toes. Six little numbers. A hundred million dollars. He could wait, as long as he got out before the one-year limit for claiming the prize.