Six paintings sold! Carey pumped her arms overhead and swayed to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” Apropos. Her gamble on an unknown artist had paid off. Humming, Carey locked the gallery and set the alarm. The mess and champagne bottles could wait. Besides, a seat at Soboba’s Casino’s poker table, and a couple of martinis, would top off her night perfectly.
Except for the smokers loitering outside the dance clubs, the street was empty. The theater wasn’t out as yet. If she’d locked up an hour ago, she could have begged a lift to her car. Carey’s footsteps echoed on the pavement. The long walk to the dirt parking lot was unappealing, but tonight finding parking at all was pure luck.
After six blocks, the arts district merged with a once-stylish neighborhood awaiting gentrification. Carey’s feet rebelled in her narrow, new boots. But there it was, right after the fire hydrant—a cobbled alley she knew was a shortcut.
Carey hesitated at the entrance. During daylight hours this was just your typical graffitied alley, but after dark it was, well, dark.
“Drama queen,” she muttered. “What are the odds?”
Carey’s aching feet told her to shut up and take the shortcut. The overhead lamp in the parking lot beckoned from the far end of the alley. She straightened her spine and quickened her pace. Her high-heeled boots echoed on the rounded stones.
He stepped out of nowhere, blocking her path. Pale light from a high, semi-curtained window glinted off the garish chain around his neck.
“Hey there, hot mama. Slow down. Be easy.”
The man was skinny and twitchy. Tendrils of scraggly blond hair escaped his baseball cap. Carey fingered the car FOB in her coat pocket, wishing it was a mace canister.
“I don’t want no trouble, lady. So quick like, what’s in that fancy bag you carryin’?”
“Not much.” Her breath caught, and her voice wavered. “My driver’s license, mints, tissues, tampons….”
“Don’t dis me, woman. I’m asking nice. You got some coin?”
His smile twisted into a sneer—his breath rancid in her face.
“I have some twenties and a five. Maybe sixty-five dollars?”
Carey handed over both the cash and the breath mints.
“Hold up. What’s that flashin’ on your finger?” He held out a flattened palm.
The glitzy ring was just a bit of fun. The emeralds and diamonds were excellent fakes. If the punk needed to hold the winning hand, she’d fold. Carey sucked down the rising panic and managed a contrite expression. She twisted off the ring and wordlessly handed it over. A satisfied smirk stretched his cracked lips. Exhaling a relieved breath, Carey swept her long hair behind her ears. Her stomach clenched as she realized her mistake.
“You holdin’ out on me bitch? That bling in your ears the real deal?”
“Real?” Carey stifled her fear and forced her brain to shuffle possibilities. She affected a nonchalant camaraderie. “Depends who you ask.”
“Say what? Stop messin’ with me.” He took a step forward.
Carey stood her ground. Fingers trembling, she touched a bedazzled earlobe. A gift to herself, her VVS2 diamonds symbolized her hard-won success. Talking fast, she kept her tone conspiratorial.
“Here’s the thing. My boyfriend bought these. ‘Very expensive,’ he said. ‘Insure them.’ The appraiser laughed in my face. They’re worthless fakes. But, if they go missing, and I don’t file for insurance….” Carey lifted her chin. “Do you want to make another man look like a fool?”
The punk grabbed her arm, pulling her close. A look of confusion muddled his features.
“I don’t give a crap about—”
“Hey! You alright down there?” The male voice came from a balcony, three stories up.” A flashlight beam encircled them. “Need me to make a call, lady?”
Carey and the punk locked eyes. He gave her arm a menacing squeeze and backed into the shadows.
“I’m okay now, thank you,” Carey shouted. Relief almost brought her to tears. “My car—that one at the end of the alley—could you keep your flashlight on me until I’m inside?” Car FOB in her palm, she ran as quickly as her heels would allow.
Carey locked the doors and hit the start button. Her bravado ebbed away, leaving her limp and drained. Her heartbeat resonated in her ears. She leaned her forehead on the steering wheel before facing herself in the rearview mirror. Her lips compressed. How could she have been so blasé and reckless? Light from the street lamp refracted off her prized earrings, and she smiled.
“The luck of the draw controls the game, and lady…you just pulled a diamond flush.”
Carey shifted the car into drive, hit the gas pedal, and moved forward.
© Copyright 2021 Lynn Nicholas. All rights reserved.
Lynn Nicholas’ first novel, Dancing Between the Beats, was published in 2019. Short fiction and poetry publication credits include Story Snacks and The Storyteller (published by Society of Southwestern Authors), Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, SandScript Arts & Literary Magazine, The Wild Word, Every Day Fiction, The Rose City Sisters, Wow! Women on Writing, Leaves of Ink, and the AARP Bulletin. Lynn is a member of Sisters in Crime and the Society of Southwestern Authors.