A Gambling Man

David Baldacci | 6 mins

WITH A NEW DECADE LOOMING, Aloysius Archer was on a creaky bus headed west to California to seek as much of a life as someone like him could reasonably expect. A roof over his head, three squares a day, a pint of decent liquor every now and then, and a steady supply of his Lucky Strikes to keep his mouth supple and amused. And a job. Actually, more of a profession. He needed that right now. It was like seeking water while in a desert, you just required it and didn’t care how you got it. Otherwise, he’d be a chump, and there was no future in that.

He took off his hat and swiped at his short, dark hair before resettling the fedora into place.

Hell, maybe I am shooting for the moon after all. But why not? Archer wasn’t yet thirty. After fighting in the Second World War, he’d spent time in prison for a crime of which he was essentially innocent, though the law hadn’t recognized such nuance and stuck him behind bars anyway. However, he would have gladly pled guilty to a charge of gross stupidity. It had involved a woman, and Archer just seemed to lose all of his common sense when they were around.

He was a little over six-one, and his frame had been hardened first by the Army and then by prison, where the strong didn’t necessarily survive, but such an attribute certainly improved your chances. He had a serviceable brain, quick-enough wits, and a work ethic deep enough to carve a good life somewhere given the chance. Archer was hoping to find that opportunity in a town on the water in California where he was eager to start his new phase in life under the tutelage of a veteran private eye named Willie Dash.

But first, he had to get there. And these days, nothing was easy, particularly long-distance travel across a country that was so big it never seemed to end.

He looked out of the bus’s grimy window and eyed the street-spanning metal sign they were passing under:


He had no idea what that meant, but it sounded intriguing. They pulled into the bus terminal and he grabbed from the overhead rack his large, brand-new leather satchel. He had on a two-piece tan wool pinstripe suit, with a patterned green single-Windsor-knotted tie, fronting a starched white shirt and topped by his crown-dented fedora with a brown band. Everything else he owned in the world was in the satchel. It wasn’t much, but it was a lot more than he’d had when the prison doors had opened not that long ago.

He got a recommendation on a place to stay the night from a gal behind the bus counter with blonde hair that wrapped around her neck like a naughty mink stole and mischievous blue eyes to match. She had a curvaceous figure that reminded him of the photo of a swimsuit-clad Ava Gardner he had kept in his helmet during the war. After telling her he was headed to California, she handed him a map, along with a recommendation for where to grab his dinner.

“My name’s Ginger,” she said with a broad smile. “Maybe I’ll see you around town later.”

He doffed his hat to her, returned the smile, and trudged on, his grin fading to a grimace. He didn’t care if she was Ginger Rogers, he was keeping his distance, naughty hair and eyes be damned.

“You look lost, soldier,” said the voice.

Archer was outside the depot now, fully immersed in the delicious heat that seeped up from the pavement and gave him a hug. The speaker was a man in his late sixties, straight as a rake, thin as a lathe, with tumbleweed-white hair and a fluffy mustache that dipped nearly to his chin. He had on a dark suit that needed a good sponging and a creased black hat with a soiled burgundy band. A silver watch chain spanned his dappled white vest, which covered a sunken chest and belly.

Archer put his satchel down on the pavement, pulled a half-full pack of Lucky Strikes from his pocket, struck a match on the bottom of his shoe, and lit the end of the cigarette. He waved the spent match like a sparkler and tossed it down. The man looked so lustfully at his smoke that Archer slid one out and offered it to him. He accepted with gratitude on his features and used a dented chrome lighter to do the honors. They puffed for a bit, each squinting at the other through the spawned, mingled fog of twin Luckys.

“Just in town,” replied Archer with a bit of a shiver as the sun began its descent after a hard day’s labor, and the heat shriveled down into the pavement like a receding flame.

The man eyed both the satchel and the bus depot behind and nodded. “Can see that.”

“And I’m not lost. Just going to my hotel.”

“Didn’t mean geographically. More metaphorically.”

“You sound educated, or are you just fortunate with how words spill out of your mouth?”

“Time fills your head up, if you allow it. Some don’t. They just put a lid on and end their life as they began it, ignorant as babies.” He put out a shaky, thinly veined hand with dark spots here and there. “I’m Robert Howells, but my friends and some of my enemies call me Bobby H. And you are?”

Archer shook his hand but said, “Why do you want to know?”

“Just making small talk, son, don’t get jumpy on me.”

“I go by Archer.”

“Your first time in Reno?” asked Howells.

Archer puffed on his smoke and nodded slowly. “Just passing through.”

“On to California? San Fran? Los Angeles? That’s where Hollywood is. Most beautiful women in the world. Streets paved with gold, and the water tastes like wine.”

“And none of that is true.”

“Not a bit. Well, maybe the gals. But they ain’t free, son. And there goes all my standard conversation right out the window.”

“Fact is, I am heading to California, but it’s a place north of Los Angeles. According to the Rand McNally.”

“You have a certain look the camera might find interesting. Maybe I’m staring at the next Gary Cooper?”

“I have no interest in being the next Gary Cooper or looking into cameras. I’m not saying I can’t act, because I pretty much do every time I open my mouth.”

“What is your ambition then?”

Archer finished his smoke and patted it dead on the pavement with the heel of his right wingtip. “No offense, Bobby H, but I don’t know you. And trouble with strangers is not something I’m casting about for.”

Howells frowned. “You seem closer to my age, at least in your lack of adventurous nature.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Do you know why they call Reno the biggest little city in the world?”

Archer shook his head.

“It’s because you can get whatever New York or Philadelphia or Boston or even Los Angeles can provide.”

“And what do you think I want?”

“What do most young men want after a war? You fought, I take it?”

“That’s nearly five years gone by now.”

“But it was a big war with long legs. We won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.”

“So what do I want?” Archer asked again.

“A good time with no duties appurtenant thereto.”

Appurtenant? Now you sound like a lawyer. They run second to dead last in popularity with me to undertakers. And it’s a long way up from there.”

“Do you wish a good time with no consequences?”

Archer wondered if the old man was drunk or doped or both. “I never assumed there was such a thing.”

“In Reno there is.”

“Well, good for Reno. And what do you get out of telling me that?”

“You don’t believe in generosity for generosity’s sake?”

“And I don’t believe in Santa or pennies from Heaven either. Ever since age seven.”

“For a young man you seem old and gray in spirit.”

“And getting older every minute I’m standing here gabbing with you.”

“The passion of youth has been smote clean from you, and that’s a damn shame, son.”

Archer lit another Lucky and eyed the man, awaiting his next move. It was at least passing the time in the biggest little city on earth.

“Okay, I can understand your cynicism. But let me make another observation. One that has personal advantages to me.”

Archer flashed a grin. “Now we’re getting somewhere. I knew you had it in you.”

Howells fingered his chin. “You look like a man able to take care of himself.”

“That doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know.”

“Here it is then: Can you protect others?” asked Howells.

“Who are we talking about here?”

“We are talking about me.”

“And why do you need protection?” asked Archer.

“I have enemies, as I said.”

“And why do you have enemies?”

“Some folks have them, unfortunately, and I’m one of those folks. So what do you say?”

“I have no interest in making your enemies my enemies. So you have a good day.”

Archer tipped his hat, turned, and walked off with his satchel. Howells called after him. “You would desert an old man in need, soldier?”

Over his shoulder Archer said, “Just wait for a fellow to fall off a truck and he’s your man, Bobby H.”