Dying for a Bet, a Short Story by G. J. Brown

CARRIE OPENS THE DOOR ON HER ageing car that has threatened, on more than one occasion, to lie down and die. She leaves the engine running. It’s less than fifty/fifty that it will start up again. The cold of the late night sucks what heat there is from the car’s dilapidated interior. The headlights flicker. The electrics are on life support.
  Carrie knew that committing murder required better planning than this. As a minimum a reliable getaway vehicle was a necessity, but she was going to do it anyway.
  The lack of a weapon was also a bit of a miss. True, she could, and would improvise. After all, with a bit of imagination, you could turn most things into a killing aid — mainly because she was going to do it anyway.
  High heels, coupled with a short party frock were not ideal for killing in the countryside. The rain of the last four days would demand a pair of wellingtons, if not waders, to cross the field. But she had to kill. That was the one immutable truth about tonight.
  The rain falls. God is emptying the bath.
  Her perm, a seventy quid indulgence that she could ill afford, collapses under the weight of water, seconds after she exits the car. She has no coat. It will make little odds. A Sou’wester is the only reasonable protection on a night like this.
  The waterproof makeup is a lie. A blast of wind borne water sluices a swathe of foundation, another ill considered indulgence, across her face.
  Two steps from the car, the heel of her right shoe snaps as her foot plunges into a mud filled pot hole. She reaches down, pulling the shoe off. She throws it into the night, followed, a few seconds later, by the other. Barefooted her tights soak up the water. She’ll soon be dragging two clown’s feet of sodden nylon behind her.
  It all makes no difference. She has to do this. No she will do this. The bastard deserves it. In every way possible the bastard deserves what’s coming down the road. And it’s coming with the certainty of a runaway steam train.
  Lightning flashes hard across the sky. The gate to the field beyond is picked out in electric white. A padlock and chain secure it to a post. Carrie will need to climb. So be it.
  Once in the field she has one goal. A single light. A mile distant. It’s the only sign of life apart from her car. She looks back at the vehicle. She isn’t sure there is enough petrol in the tank. Will it still be running when she gets back?
  She steps in four cow pats before she stops caring. She has far more pressing issues at the moment. Killing someone is a big step. Not that she’s backing down. Her resolve is solid. A granite block embedded in diamond. Immovable.
  Earlier that night plays in her head. She switches it off. There’s no need for a replay. She was there. It happened. That’s the end of it.
  The field was ploughed recently, in preparation for spring. The sowing had been delayed as the promised shower had grown into a full blown storm. Part of the field was flooded. Drainage was poor in this part of the farm. The ground is thick clay; difficult to grow in. So the farmer will tell anyone that cares to listen. It cakes Carrie’s feet, replacing her discarded high heels with shoes of thick crud.
  Walking becomes difficult. The weight of the mud on her feet, the effort to lift each foot, the plunging into saturated earth — all takes its toll.
  Carrie is five feet six inches tall. She weighs in at less than a hundred pounds. Five days a week in Zumba has not prepared her for the muscle sapping effort involved. She fears that she will lack the energy to kill him. Depleted of the basic strength needed to carry out the task. She is growing in conviction that this is a poor way to achieve her goal.
  Yet it has to be done. It has to be done tonight. It just has to be done.
  She steps into the flooded part of the field. Ice cold water strips the protection that the mud was affording her feet. Her toes are already lumps of dead meat. The pedicure that seemed a luxury, will be a ruined wasteland.
  She reaches down. Grabbing the remains of her tights to pull them free. As she does so she overbalances, plunging into the water. Her heart seizes as she’s encased in the ice cold of the flood. She panics. Water enters her mouth. She gags. Her arms thrash around, trying to find purchase. Hands slip on the mud beneath the water. Her legs skate away from her. Another swallow of filthy water and she rolls on her back. Her head clears the surface. Rain cleanses her face. She hauls in air.
  Sitting in the field Carrie wants to cry. But she won’t do that. Not tonight. This is not the place for self pity. She chose to do this. She will carry on. She will finish it.
  As she stands, the wind whips her body heat away. She bites down. Hard. All in the mind. The cold is all in her mind. The house is close. Maybe the length of her street away. Not far. Not long.
  Putting her head down Carrie finds a rhythm. Foot down, let it sink, settle, wriggle, plant. Pull it clear of the mud, but still under the water. Then push it forward, through the flood. Place it and start again.
  She goes to the DJ in her head. Pulling up ‘Oops Upside Your Head’ by The Gap Band. In Zumba they use it for the slower moves. The ones that take real muscle.
  ’Oops upside your head. I said oops upside your head.’ That’s the timing for one single step. She doesn’t know the rest of the lyrics. It’s of no matter. She just needs to find a way to get through this. One step at a time. Disregard the cold. Put it in a folder marked ‘For Later’. Anyway when she was at university they used to sit down to dance to this song. At least she’s on her feet.
  Another shock of lightning provides a snapshot of her world. A small dry stone wall marks the edge of the field. The house sits a few yards beyond the wall.
  It’s a small cottage. Fitting for a small man. An insignificant man. A man who is breathing his last few breaths. A man who signed his death warrant earlier tonight.
  Carrie stops herself before she gets further in thought. Keep it all together. One deed. One deed. All she has to do is to carry out one deed. Like taking out the rubbish. Emptying the dishwasher. Brushing the cat. It’s just one deed more. Written on the fridge door. Next to the note reminding her that she should be at the dentist tomorrow for a check up that she can’t pay for.
  She can’t pay for much. Not now that she’s been robbed of her life savings. Not now that she had seen the small man, with the poorly fitting wig, walk away with her money.
  She reaches the wall. On any other day it would be an easy climb. No need for much more than a foot up. Then over.
  This is now beyond her. Her lungs are inflating and deflating in a losing battle to supply the energy she needs.
  She turns round, sitting on the wall. A sharp stone tears her skirt. She lets herself fall backward, landing on the grass covered verge that separates the wall from the dirt road that leads to the cottage. She tumbles onto the road. If a car chose that moment to appear she would do nothing more than lie there; letting it run over her.
  She gathers her breath. Nursing what vitality she has left. She counts to a hundred. Things are getting a little confused in her head. Hypothermia is setting in. She shivers with force.
  Something tells her to move. She pushes up. Lifting her face to the rain. Embracing it. Welcoming it. Using it to wash away the desire to lie down again.
  The front door of the cottage is a heavy wooden affair. Three solid, metal straps cross it, splitting it into panels. A large mortise lock nestles in the wood. Designed for privacy. Carrie laughs. She’s made it this far. A door is the least of her concerns. All you need to do is knock. Most people, even in the countryside this late on, answer a knocked door. It makes the design of the door all but irrelevant.
  Next to the door is a curtain covered window. This is the source of the light. It rises and falls with the cadence of a TV. This late it could be a movie. The little man watching a favourite flick while contemplating his haul for the night. Maybe placing his wig on a small ceramic head he keeps for just such purposes.
  She imagines picking up the ceramic head, while his eyes are fixed on the movie. Maybe a dirty film. Maybe he has his trousers round his ankles. All the better when he’s found the next day. Ceramic debris in his pants. His head caved in.
  Horses. Horses. She tries to push them away. Coral them. They refuse to go. They want to run free. Not quick though. At least not hers. Her horse was slow. Not so slow that it couldn’t gamble and canter. Slow when it came to running against other horses, though.
  She staggers to the door. She has no plan. She never really did. She just knows that this has to happen. That he has to die. Then she can take what belongs to her. Get her life back to where it was, only a few short hours ago.
  It had been so swift. The descent had been as quick as the last bolt of lighting. She should really blame Karen. It was her fault she had even visited the bloody place. That didn’t absolve the little man. The little man is still guilty. Guilty as a man could be. Guilty because someone had to be.
  She looks at the door, raising her hand to knock. Even that takes effort. Her fingers have joined her toes in the land of dead meat. The rain picks up another notch. God is tipping the water barrel out as well. A waterfall dives on her from the roof. A crack in the guttering directing the flow onto her head. She doesn’t move the single step that it would take to avoid the torrent.
  Four to one. She didn’t even know what that meant before she stepped into the bookmakers’ premises. It had to be explained to her. Explained by the small man with the dodgy wig.
  Her friend Karen had met a jockey last night. She didn’t tell the small man that Karen had taken the jockey home and rode him hard. There’s irony in there somewhere?
   She informed him that the jockey was racing in the six thirty. The first race on the night card of a racecourse that lay not far from Karen’s house. Karen had asked Carrie to put ten pounds on the horse ‘to win.’ She hadn’t known what that meant either.
  A clap of thunder rolls across the landscape. If Carries’ nerve endings had been in better condition she would have felt the vibration. The storm is dead centre over head.
  Carrie didn’t blame herself for her situation. Although she could have. Had she not stopped for a glass of wine in the ‘Bricks and Mortar’ she would have been way too early to hang around for the second race. As it was she only just got the bet on the first race in time. The bookmakers, a private affair with more than a whiff of the eighties about the décor, was showing the race on a flat screen TV bought when flat screen TVs were a novelty.
  Carrie had watched, as the jockey, fresh from Karen’s bed, had won, and won well. The small man had handed her fifty pounds. Carrie had turned over the money in her hand. Was it that easy? Forty pounds in less than ten minutes. Why, her job paid less than that for a mornings work. Was it really that easy?
  She shouldn’t have taken the other money with her. A thousand pounds was the sum total of her liquidity. She should have left it in the flat. She had intended to put it into the building society but the glass of wine had turned into two. The door to the building society had just closed when she reached it. No problem. Just keep it and deposit it tomorrow.
  But was it really that easy to make money? If she had put the thousand on the jockey’s horse, she would now be staring at more money that she had ever seen in one place. Surely they didn’t take bets that large though. Who could afford to lose that much money. A small shop like this would need to be careful.
  A second thunder clap shakes the house so hard a tile dislodges, crashing beside Carrie. She doesn’t notice. She is back in the bookies.
  Ok so she wasn’t ignorant of gambling. But the odd pound in the fruit machine was as far as she had ever got.
  She stood so long contemplating the money possibilities that the next race was lining up. She looked at the screen. ‘Matters Less’. Good name for a horse. Ten to one. She watched as it won. Outpacing another horse in the last fifty yards of the finishing straight.
  Really. Ten thousand pounds. If she had put her money on ‘Matters Less’ she would be up £10 k. That would be a quarter of the way to a deposit on a flat of her own. She thought of the thousand in her pocket. It seemed such a small amount now. Well it was, if you compared it to ten thousand.
  One more race.
  She lets her hand drop by her side. Away from the door. The rain has dropped in intensity — a little.
  She had almost gone for ‘Thrill Me More’ in the next race but at the last moment had chosen ‘BrightLightMight’ — a fifty to one shot. It was second at the last fence. A horse called ‘Willsome Time’ was well in the lead. Then it fell. ‘BrightLightMight’ won.
  Fifty thousand pounds. Carrie was transfixed. She’d seen a flat, only yesterday, a small one-bedroom affair for under ninety thousand. She could have been in her own place, deposit paid, money in the bank — if only she’d put her money on ‘BrightLightMight’.
  The light in a small window to her left flickers on. A small pause. Then the sound of a flush. The small man emptying his small bladder. He goes more often than most because of his small bladder. This last thought is a little incoherent in Carrie’s head. It forms more as an abstract concept.
  There had been two races left. The small man was watching her now. She was standing in front of the TV. Eyes flicking from the screen to her handbag, where the money sat. Three neat rolls of notes.
  She chose a horse in the next race. ‘Never In The Dark.’ It won. A hundred to one. She would have been able to buy the flat outright. No mortgage.
  Carrie sits down in front of the wooden door. She hasn’t the power left in her legs to keep standing. The waterfall drops in her lap. She doesn’t care. Doesn’t notice. Her eyes close.
  The last race was minutes away when Carrie unzipped her handbag, removing the money, fingering the paper. The odds flashed up. She saw one horse. Just one. Two hundred to one.
  She walked up to the small man. Placing the money on the counter, she pointed to the horse on the screen as it cantered to the start.
  The small man looked at the cash. He tried to refuse her. Too much. Not a good bet. It has no chance. Of course he would say these things. Why would he want to pay out two hundred thousand pounds? A business like this would sink? Wouldn’t it?
  The race was due off in three minutes. She heard him mutter something about laying it off. She didn’t know what that meant. Her hand pushed the money towards him.
  There was no one else in the shop. The small man had looked at the money. His eyes sparkled. Tonight’s profit. So Carrie thought. A big profit.
  With a minute to go, neither of them were speaking. Then his small hand reached out to clasp the money. A quick press of the computer. A deft tear from the computer slot. A slip passed to Carrie.
  Deal done.
  Carrie leans forward, resting her head on the door. The waterfall races down her back. She has stopped shivering. Not a good sign.
  In her head she plays back the race.
  Her horse was last out of the starting gates. There were seven runners. Her horse rounded the first bend in seventh. One mile and two furlongs later her horse finished. Seventh.
  She couldn’t remember leaving the bookmakers. Nor getting home. Nor drinking two bottles of wine.
  She did remember seeing a slip of paper on the counter of the bookies. It had an address on it. Next to the address was the surname of the bookie.
  She knew where the address was. She had seen the cottage from the road as she drove to work each morning. The cottage she was sitting in front of. One that she used to think was the prettiest cottage she had ever seen. Somewhere to aspire to. Maybe even somewhere she could have considered one day. If.
  The storm blew itself out by early morning. The clean up would take days. The main lead on the news would be the devastation left behind.
  Jean Ludgate opened her door at ten thirty. She was wrapped in a heavy coat, plastic rain mate, thick wellington boots and thermal gloves. She was intending to walk to the end of her road where her son, James, was due to pick her up. She was proud of James but didn’t talk about him much. Being the mother of a bookmaker had its downsides.
  She almost tripped over Carrie.
  When the police arrived, James was already there, staring at the dead girl.
  He recognised her instantly. He didn’t know for sure why she was here but he thought he might have an idea.
  As the police car and ambulance drove towards the house, he bent down. He’d spotted the familiar colour of one of his betting slips. Quickly he pulled it from her fingers. He pocketed it, as the doors began to slam around him.
  Later that day he would burn the betting slip and when interviewed he would tell the police that Carrie had been in his shop. Tell them about the ten-pound bet. He didn’t tell them about the thousand-pound bet.
  When he opened the shop, later than usual, he made his way to the back to scrub the CCTV. Once done he made himself a cup of tea.
  He sat waiting on the first customers of the day.
  Yesterday’s Racing Post sat next to him.
  He flicked it open.
  Turned to the last race last night.
  He read the names of the horses.
  He wondered, for a moment, why someone would call their horse —
  ’Dead Last’.