“If you wanted to gamble with a couple of cheap thrills, go to Vegas. There’s a show or two to watch and some buffets to pig out on. If you wanted a real good time, you went to Calavera’s.
Folks said Calavera’s was a myth. A place on the move that appeared between the shimmering sands of the sunset or the dankest alleys in the middle of the city. A modern day El Dorado, where the alcohol flowed like water, the air choked a man with smoke and the women-ohh the WOMEN! Babes babes babes as far as the eye could see!”
The business card slid over the table like a snake, the hand attached to a lanky fellow with a missing ear giving a grin at his cohorts, “And I got us a ticket right inside here. Think we could stand for some celebrating, eh?”
His two compatriots look down at the card a long moment, before one with a sour disposition and a scar through his lip sneers, “Sounds like fucking bullshit.”
The man’s face fell, smacking a hand on the table, “It’s legit!! I knew a guy who’s cousin went and came out a millionaire!!”
The scarred man grabbed a leftover cigar off the table ashtray to bring to his lips, drawing a few puffs as he re-lit it. “Where’s the guy now?”
“His funeral was last week.” Their third compatriot spoke, a meeker man with a cut across his soft cheek. “Manuel went there. I saw them bury him.”
“T-that wasn’t the same guy!” Manuel laughed, drumming a finger on the card, “Look, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity here!!”
“You said that about the last heist.” The man bites down on his cigar as he says this, grimacing, “Now we gotta lie low till the cops get off our tails.”
Manuel crossed his arms, “You’re the one who escalated it, Diego.”
Diego grunted, chewing the end of his cigar before spitting it out to squash in the ashtray, “Back me up, Carlos. It sounds stupid, right?”
Carlos looked put on the spot, his eyes darting between the two like a nervous puppy, settling on Manuel, “He... was buried in a really nice coffin. Top notch ceremony. Lot of money needed for those.”
Manuel grinned, jabbing the card again before sitting back with a happy snicker, face only souring when Carlos spoke again, “But I really don’t wanna die.”
“Wipe that smirk off your face!!” Manuel snipped when Diego gave a silent laugh. “We’re not gonna die! I got a foolproof plan to make it out rich.”
“Again, like your last plan?”
“Yes-NO!” Manuel pouted, then grinned again, “Okay-even if we don’t win, chances are this place is gonna be full of money, right?”
Diego huffed, “Makes sense. A casino with no money is like a horse with no legs.”
“Right! So, I say we bring the guns.”
Carlos glanced up, “They don’t have security?”
“Don’t Trust em!” Manuel grinned wider, “Not even a bouncer. It’s on the down low.”
“Sounds like bullshit-“
“Shh! Lemme finish.” Manuel flicked the card over, “So if we don’t win at the tables, all we gotta do is pull out the guns and we’ll walk away with three times what we came in with. It all works!”
“Come on! No security at all?” Diego sits up, “You can’t expect us to buy that!”
“I’m just telling you what I know!” Manuel sat back down, “Which is we’d be idiots not to check this place out.”
The two glared at each other. In a stalemate like this, it’d take one more person to make or break what they’d do. Carlos answered that call, “Let’s do it.”
Manuel brightened immediately, grabbing Carlos in a big bear hug, “Look at you, taking a big risk mijo! I knew you’d pick right!”
Diego rolled his eyes, crossing his arms as he sat back with a huff, “I still think it’s a bad idea.”
“Ohhh but look at that smile!!” Manuel was grinning like a fiend, spotting the tiny smirk on Diego’s face, “You wanted in from the start!”
“Shut up Manuel.” Diego was trying his best to hide his expression under a fedora, Carlos picking the card off the table. It was astonishingly simple-a cream colored card with each of the corners blacked out, two words printed on the front: Manny Calavera.
“So where is this place?”
Calavera’s had picked a hell of a spot this time around. One of the older buildings in Mexico City had overnight turned into a marvel of lights, liquor and girls. A pair of them waved from the balcony window, beckoning whoever passed to step inside. There was one small hitch.
“Manuel you said there wasn’t any security.”
“There wasn’t supposed to be!”
“I don’t think that guy is official.”
The man they spoke in hushed whispers about leans by the doorway, his arms folded against his chest. He’s dressed entirely in black leather, his head obscured by a black motorcycle helmet. It was hard to tell from this angle if he was staring their way or not. It wasn’t til they shoved Carlos over that they got their answer. The taller man looked them over a beat, then looked right back towards the main drag.
Soon as the coast was clear, the three men and their leather bags stepped inside. For all the bells and whistles outside, the inside was a simple and classy affair. A few slot machines by the front but the majority was table games. Poker, black jack, roulette, dice. As they eyed their options, Diego tried to hone his sights in on one spot in particular.
“Something catch your eye?” Manuel asked.
“We need to find the boss here.” Diego hummed, “Rest of these games are rigged. We find him, we can sweep him.”
“The boss, huh?” A puff of smoke had blown by them, the smell indicating a cigarette among all the cigar smoke. The shorter man suddenly standing by them was dressed to the nines in a white three piece, putting the cigarette to his lips and sticking his hands in his pockets, “Yeah, I got a minute. Are you kids enjoying the place?”
Carlos stepped up first with a cautious smile, “It’s a pretty nice place, yeah-“
“Quit sucking up, Carlos.” With Carlos shut up, Diego looks down on the man, raising a brow, “You Calavera?”
“Far as I know.” He smiled, pearly white teeth glinting under the flashing lights of the slot games. “So what can I help with?”
“I know what kind of game you’re running.” Diego nodded upstairs, “No dealers. Three of us on you, winner take all.” He gave a crooked smile, “You can even pick the game.”
Manuel leaned on Diego, hissing through his teeth, “Pump the brakes, dude-“
“Hah!” Manny gave a laugh, pulling out the cigarette to roll between his fingers, “Awfully bold. Feeling lucky, Diego?”
His crooked smile widened, giving a shrug while adjusting the leather bag on his shoulder, slipping it off to hand to Carlos, “Guess you could say that. Not scared, are you?”
Manny gave a softer laugh, “Oh, far from it, amigo. How about you kids follow me, eh?” He stepped around the trio easily to head up the curving staircase that led to his upstairs office, the two behind Diego sharing a quick glance before following their leader onwards.
“Feh! Calling us kids.” Diego spat, a sour look coming to his face again, “The hell does that pendejo think he is??”
“Diego-“ Manuel had gripped his arm, his eyes a little wide as he spoke in a hushed whisper, “When did you tell him your name?”
Diego looked like he started to talk, stopped himself, a look of genuine mystification on his face. His brows knit upwards, then right back down as he laughed, “Lucky guess! How many names are out there for Spanish guys, eh?”
“A lot. A lot of names.” Manuel’s jaw was tight, the line of it standing out as he lowered his voice even further, “I got shivers going up my spine man. I don’t like this guy.”
“ Hey. You’re the one who wanted to come here, idiota.” Diego growled, nodding towards Carlos looking around the casino as they walked up, “Cmon, Carlos isn’t being a pussy. Suck it up.” He stared Manuel down till he was sure the man was good and quiet before giving a smirk, “Besides-“ he wraps an arm around his shoulders, “You got that nice backup plan of ours, right?”
“...y-yeah.” Manuel breathed in and let it out slow, nodding as his hands gripped the bag tightly, “Yeah, I got it.”
“There’s a good man.” Diego patted his chest with that grin on his face before turning to head up the stairs, “Just follow my lead.”
Manuel glanced at the bag again, back down the steps, and over at Carlos. If the man sees him, it’s hard to say, since he heads through the open office door quickly after Diego. With no other choice, Manuel follows.
The office itself is like pitch. Closed blinds behind a dark curtain, blocking a perfectly wonderful view of Mexico City behind the desk. And speaking of, he must have been expecting this game tonight. The desk is pushed flat against the wall and in exchange, a table with four chairs has been set up in the center of the room. In the middle of it sits an ashtray and a single, perfectly stacked deck of cards.
“Have a seat, gentlemen.” Manny offers, sitting in the back, “Any drinks? Cigars?”
“Just pick the game.” Diego says gruffly as he takes a seat in the center, Carlos going for the right side and Manuel the left. “We don’t got all night.”
Manny just smiled like he told a funny joke, “Clearly.”
Manuel leaned forward, “Er...so what’re we playing, Mr. Calavera?”
Diego had snapped his head to Manuel, mouthing ‘Mister??’ when Manny gives his answer, “Old Maid.”
The silence that suddenly fell over the space could be cut with a knife.
Manny glanced around the trio, a look of almost… pity coming to his face, “Don’t tell me nobody taught you Old Maid.”
“This is a casino-“ Diego sat up, glaring daggers right through that big forehead of Manny’s, “-why the fuck would we play Old Maid?”
Manny blinked, slightly tilting his head, “You said I could pick the game, mijo.”
“J-just play the game, Diego.” Manuel gave an uneasy smile, “What’s it matter what game it is-long as we win, right?”
Manny seemed to smile when he said that, but none of them noticed. Diego glanced between the casino owner and his cohort before sitting back down. “...Old Maid’s fine.”
Manny switches to a much warmer smile, “Perfect. Carlos can cut the deck then.” He nodded to his right, “If you would of course.”
For a second Carlos seemed to visibly tense up, giving a quick nod and fumbling for the deck, starting to deal out cards to the rest of the group. Bets were quietly set on the table, and the game quickly got underway.
Old Maid is simple. Take out the three queens and make matches until one player was left with the remaining queen. It was a game any child could understand. Not something you played at a casino. But having such an easy game meant you had to do something else to fill in the time.
“So are you boys from around here?” Manny started.
Carlos looked up, looking like he might say something before Diego shut him down with a look, turning back to Manny, “Doesn’t matter to you, does it?”
“I suppose not.” He gave a shrug, “Doesn’t hurt to ask, right?” Diego narrowed his eyes, focusing them back on his cards. So Manny kept going, “Just hope you’re not from Metepec.”
Carlos focuses hard on his cards. Manuel tenses all over, nearly dropping his hand. Diego glances up, his eyes thin slits when they focus on Manny.
“W-why Metepec?” Manuel finally asked when the silence became too much.
“Oh, it’s just terrible.” Manny began, a look of grief on his face, “Series of robberies all over the place. Thousands of pesos gone missing overnight. And that’s not even the worst of it.”
Manny set a pair on the table and picked up two from the deck, “I read in the paper that a lovely old woman got killed from one of the robberies. Mrs. Estavez I think it was.” He licked his thumb to switch a card around, “They said she was unrecognizable. Just packed with bullet holes. It was a brutal mess.”
“She only got shot once!” Manuel spoke. He stiffened, curling in on himself as Diego ground his heel into his toes.
Manny paused, staring at the three like he hadn’t even realized his mistake, before giving a laugh and a smile, “That’s right! I don’t know how I got that wrong.”
Diego’s lip curled, “I don’t know how you got it right either. Cops wouldn’t put that shit in the papers.”
“Tabloids would.” Manny gave another shrug, “And the news loves to make things bigger then it seems. If I remember right, one anchor was even saying it was a three person job the other night.”
Carlos’ fingers shook as he pulled out another pair and set it on the table. Manuel was still hissing at the pain in his foot, stifling a yelp when Diego stood up, “The fuck are you trying to say, cabron?”
Manny held up his hands, “Nothing, nothing! Just making some conversation here! We’re all friends, right? Amigos?”
“Yeah!” Manuel quickly cut in, standing to shake Diego’s heel off, “J-just friends here, I get it!” He nudges Diego, “C’mon, let’s get back to the game, yeah?”
Diego yanked his arm back, “Shut up, Manuel!” He looks back at Manny, “This pendejo has been fucking with us since we got here!”
Manuel stiffened a moment, grimacing, hands going up to run through his hair before he threw them upwards in frustration, “I told you that earlier!! We could’ve left right there!”
“ You wanted us to come here, tú hijo de puta!! Don’t put this shit back on me!”
“I’m going to if you’re gonna act like it’s all my fault when it’s convenient!”
“Hah! That’s rich coming from you! This whole fucking mess is your fault!”
“ MY fault?!”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen.” Manny waved his hand over the center table, “The game?”
“FUCK your Old Maid, man!” Diego snapped, turning right back to Manuel, “If you hadn’t shot that hag we’d be out of here by now.”
Manuel’s mouth seemed to go dry, a nervous smile and laugh coming out on shaky legs, “W-what’re you talking about?”
“She shot herself? Really?” Diego laughed, slamming a hand on the table, “You must think I’m stupid. Carlos and I both know it was you.”
Manuel’s eyes widened an inch, searching the table for something he could lock eyes on, “D-Diego, we didn’t shoot-I-you’re just tired, amigo. This game is stressing you out, right-”
“Shut up.” Diego laughed again, pulling the bag closer with his foot, pointing towards Manny, “This guy already knows what you did. Don’t act like you can keep hiding it and pretending it’s still just about the money.”
Manuel’s mouth twitched, eyes going down and back again, stuck on Diego as he went on, “Robbery and gang fights are one thing, but...you know...if it’s just about the money-” Diego leaned down, “Maybe I should help myself out too, eh? Probably a reward out there for the head of the fucker who shot a sweet old lady, yeah?”
Manny set his hand on the table with a sigh, watching the two men stare each other down, beads of sweat dripping down Manuel’s forehead. Diego’s smile widened, staring Manuel right in the eyes, “Of course...maybe I could just get the whole take and we can forget the whole night happened. What do you think?”
Manny dug in his jacket for a cigarette, giving a glance to Carlos-still holding his hand, now tight against his chest like a makeshift shield-clicking his tongue against his teeth, “Might want to move back an inch amigo.”
Carlos barely had time to give a questioning look before the table flew directly upwards to smack Diego hard in the face, pulling his hand back to lean as far as he could on the wall. It only felt like seconds, but in that brief moment one could hear the noise of rustling leather, metal clicks, and a clear struggle coming from the two men. Grunts, curses, a sudden gasp of alarm, and one, big-
The table fell, legs up in the air, and something else fell with it.
Manuel was still standing, the automatic steaming in his hand, his eyes wide and trembling in their sockets.
Diego hadn’t been so lucky.
Carlos stood up with a scream, “Fuck!!!”
Manny whistled, “One through the heart. That’s gonna be hell to clean up.” He looked to Manuel, “I’d think one to the head would’ve been faster.”
Manuel stood there, the blood of his friend beginning to run across the floor, lapping at his shoes. His toes still stung from earlier. His hands lowered, the look of shock slowly transforming into a more desperate one, a smile coming to his face as he looked to the two remaining, “You...you saw him, right?”
Carlos’ eyes darted from Manuel to Diego’s body, “I...w-we have to call somebody! Maybe we can-”
“ DON’T. Touch him!” Manuel had his automatic trained on Carlos now, breathing in shakily and letting it out in a rattle. “You saw him. He...he was gonna kill me! I had to do it!”
Carlos brought his hands up, “Manuel, drop the gun.”
Manuel laughed, high and strained, “I will if you say it! Say you saw him! He had a gun too!”
Diego’s hand was empty.
Carlos swallowed, “O-okay, he...he had a gun. He was going to shoot you.”
Manuel blinked, straightening up with a wider grin, “Y-yeah...yeah that’s right! So I had to shoot him! You see what I’m getting at! Exactly!”
Carlos nodded, his eyes wide as he forced a smile, “I do! He deserved it, even! So you can...put down the gun now.”
Manuel gave another laugh, the gun still in his hand, the other going to rest over his mouth, “He...he deserved it...Yeah. Yeah! Yeah you fucker!” He kicked Diego’s body, sending blood spurting against the door, “You fucking deserved it for all the shit you gave me! You piece of shit!” He kicked again.
Manuel’s ragged gasps were the only sound in the room, a spurt of blood from an errant artery having dashed a nice streak across his face, the manic, shaky smile wavering as he looked to the two left in the room, “...You’re both so quiet.”
Manny stared at him, taking a moment to breathe in smoke and let it out through his teeth, folding his arms to lean on the table, “What’s there to say?”
“You never said I was right.” Manuel clenched his hand around the gun, “In fact you’ve been real calm this whole time. Did you know I killed someone from the beginning?” Manuel started to lift the automatic, “Were you gonna try to kill me too?”
Manny looked at the gun for a beat, finished off his cigarette, and flicked it towards the long-spilled ashtray on the floor, “No. Just a lot of lucky guesses.” He stuck his hands in his pockets, “If you were really that smart, you would’ve shot Carlos first.”
The air sucked out of the room. Manuel’s eyes bulged, slowly looking at Carlos, who’d ended up white as a sheet. His hand was set on Diego’s former chair, while he leaned over to the leather bag on his right side, hand inside it. “...what the fuck is he talking about, Carlos?”
“Manuel, he’s lying-”
Manny tilted his head, “You didn’t see the wire he’s got on?” He gave an amused huff, leaning back in his chair, “You three really are a bunch of kids, huh?”
Manuel managed to lock eyes with Carlos, boring holes right through the other side. He held up the automatic. “It was self defense.”
“ Manuel- ”
“It was self defense .”
“Please, listen to me-”
“Say it. Say it was self defense right now- ”
“ MANUEL, STOP- ”
Manny got up, moving over to his desk to check one of his drawers.
“...” Manny came back up with a two cigars, trimming the ends of both and lighting them, offering one in his free hand. “Here. You could use it.”
Carlos was still standing upright, pistol held tightly in both hands. His hands started to shake, face contorting until the first choked sob bubbled up.
Manny let out a brief sigh, taking a few puffs off his own cigar, resting the other on the ashtray at his desk. Cards had scattered, floating on the lakebed of blood taking up the office floor. Carlos had begun to shake so badly he had to drop the gun, tears streaming from his eyes to drip down to the floor. “...Why did you tell him?”
Manny considered his answer, “Think a better question is... why didn’t you?” He looked down at the mess on his floor, “They were your friends, weren’t they?”
“...And he’s gone quiet again.” He let out another puff of smoke, moving to the side as Carlos stepped over, shakily taking the other cigar to puff on it, hacking after a second or two. “No no, Mijo you have to do it slowly. Hold it…” The next puff was a smooth exhale, a plume of smoke that curled when it hit the ceiling. Manny smiled at that, “There you go…”
“You know, feels fitting you’d end up with the Old Maid.” Manny couldn’t help but laugh when Carlos looked up, startled at that, “Yes, yes, your poker face was excellent. But you can’t fool an old hand. Probably wanted to lose the first round at the start so you could report back, eh?”
The look down at the floor told the casino owner all he needed. Carlos brought the cigar to his lips for another puff, Manny taking his draw at the same time and snuffing out the cigar in the ashtray, “Well, you tried your best. That’s all somebody can do in life, right?” He offered a hand to the young man, a smile on his face. “Least you put up a good fight while it lasted.”
Carlos looked to his hand and back up to Manny’s face. The carpet squished when he adjusted his feet. In the glowing light of the cigar, Carlos for a split second could have sworn that Manny’s hand looked almost skeletal as he took it.
“And here is your payment, señoras.” Manny handed two billfolds to the girls, giving them a wink as he leaned back with his cigarette, “There should be some extra there for the little ones at home. Maybe you can buy them something nice.”
“Just call if you need us, Mr. Calavera.” One of them giggled, waving a hand as they headed down the street. Manny waved as long as he had to, letting his face relax once the two had gone down a hill. No matter what town they went to, the girls usually acted the same once they got paid.
“So...we’re done here, I take it?”
Manny let out a plume of smoke, the smoke rising around his head, vanishing into the night sky and leaving a skeletal figure in their wake, Manny dropping the smile completely to give his poor jawbone a break, “Yeah, we’re finished here.”
“You took your time with the last three.” Eddie spoke up, moving off the building to look over the casino as the last few lights clicked off on it, “Special case?”
“Just some kids in over their head.” Manny focused on the top floor where his office laid, his expression an unreadable one with the skin gone. “Maybe in another life, things will go better for them.” Eddie’s silence lingered, Manny looking over after a moment, “...Who did you pick to go?”
“There was an older guy.” Eddie seemed to breathe in, holding it till he spoke with the exhale, “Said his grandson had his birthday tomorrow.”
Manny nodded, “Did he win big?”
“Well the guy left with a duffle bag he didn’t come with.”
Manny shook his head, putting the cigarette to his teeth again, “You’re still too soft for this.”
The streets were quiet for a moment. Some of the lights of the later opened cafes began to flick off one by one. Snuffed out to get replaced by darkness. “...We’re done here for the night. Why don’t you find something to do? Mexico City’s a pretty big place.” Manny looked over, “And you still need to do your job.”
Eddie stayed silent. The sigh from Manny was a genuine one, the worry knitting his brows staying put as he quickly patted the man’s upper arm, not lingering too long. “At least get this place cleaned up before you go. I’ll be at the motel.”
Calavera’s was a place you could go to forget a lot of things. Debt, a lover lost, the day before last-and maybe the day after if you were lucky or drunk enough. Those who walked away rich only had good things to say about the joint. Course, nobody could ever prove if these stories were legitimate or just the fabrications of somebody who struck it big.
After all, no records usually survived the fire.