They had all seen the number five horse cross the line first, and were waiting on the Tot Board to make the results official.
No one seemed to be breathing. Droplets of condensation slid silently down the bottles and pooled at their bottoms.
The results, though expected, startled them when the board lit up. First place, number five, two dollar ticket pays ninety-six.
Wait for it. The synapses in all of their heads seemed to flash the signal from their eyes to their brains in slow motion. Then came the reaction.
Other men lifted Nick off the floor and began patting and punching him.
“Damn, I put up a twenty. How much does that pay?” one asked.
Another man's joy faded as he realized he had only bet two. He sulked for a few seconds and shrugged. “What the hell,” he laughed. “I can get something nice for my wife and take her out to dinner.”
It was 1965. Ninety-six dollars was a good chunk of change.
Other men were calculating their winnings on bar napkins. Nick was the only one eating crab cake and sipping beer. He already knew his. He had bet one hundred.
The celebration sucked in everyone else in the bar. A bartender, a rummy, and two police officers who congratulated the men from the truck shop and almost felt as good as them even though they weren't part of the betting pool.
Twenty minutes later, Jeremy, one of the grease monkeys from the shop was delegated to go across the street and collect their winnings while the rest continued the celebration. Nick wanted to go but he was the center of attention and everyone wanted to hear the story again. “How did you get the tip?”
Nick explained it again. “I was driving home last night on the Jones Falls Expressway?”
“At three in the morning?” the bartender asked.
“Where the hell were you that late?”
“Frat party.” Nick was in his last year of law school at the University of Baltimore.
Milt waved everyone silent. “Let him tell the story.”
“Well, I'm on the Jones Falls Expressway when I pass a car on the shoulder.”
“Was anyone else out there.”
“No,” Nick replied. “Just me and the car on the shoulder.”
“Damn, bad time to have car trouble,” one of the mechanics observed.
“Yeah,” Nick agreed. “That's why I stopped.”
Everyone nodded in response. Maybe two or three of them would have stopped.
“The driver was under the hood when I stopped,” Nick continued. “I leaned in next to him with my flashlight but couldn't see anything wrong. Nothing obvious.”
“Might have been electrical,” one of the mechanics suggested.
“Might have been out of gas,” the rummy chimed in.
Everyone looked at the rummy and shook their heads. “Nah,” one responded. “Nick knows a thing or two about cars. He wouldn't have overlooked that, would you Nick?”
“No, I checked the gas,” Nick confirmed. “And I pulled the air cleaner and could see gas getting to the carburetor.”
“Must have been electrical,” the first mechanic insisted.
“Give him a break,” Milt insisted and shushed them again.
“I offered to take him to the gas station,” Nick continued. “You know, the one at the end of Jones Falls Expressway.”
“They're not open all night,” the rummy offered.
Everyone looked at him and wondered how he knew that.
They looked back at Nick as he responded. “I know that now,” he said.
“You said he had his wife with him,” Milt encouraged. Milt could have told the whole story by himself. He had already heard it six times.
“Yes,” Nick replied. “And a baby. She was holding it in her lap. I suggested they go with us.”
Everyone began shaking their heads. They already knew what was coming next.
“He said they would wait in the car,” Nick explained. “The gas station was only a couple miles at the end of the Freeway.”
“But it wasn't open,” the rummy reminded them.
“We know,” everyone else said in unison and scowled at the rummy.
“Go on,” Milt encouraged Nick.
“Yeah,” Nick said. “The gas station was closed. So, I mentioned that there was one in Lutherville that I knew was open all night.”
Everyone nodded in agreement, even the rummy.
“I explained that it was twelve miles there and suggested that we go back for his wife and child.”
“But he refused?” the bartender asked. He had heard the same story now three times.
“Lutherville isn't on your way home.”
“No, it's about ten miles the other way.”
“Where do you live?” the rummy asked and everyone turned to scowl at him again.
“Farther out on Falls Road,” Milt replied.
The rummy nodded and tried to make himself invisible to escape everyone's scrutiny. It wasn't hard in the dimly lit bar.
Nick took another sip of his beer and resumed the story. “I waited at the gas station while he made arrangements for the mechanic to drive him back to his car in the tow truck.”
“That's when he gave you the tip?” one of the policemen asked.
“Yes, he asked me if I recognized him.”
“Sort of,” Nick answered, “but I couldn't put a name to the face.”
Everyone nodded. Most of them had forgotten someone's name like that.
“He told me that he was a jockey and asked if I ever bet on the horses.”
“Not that often,” Nick insisted.
Milt laughed and looked at each man making a face that assured them that Nick bet the races fairly often.
“So, that's when he gave you the tip?” the policeman asked.
“What was his name?”
Nick looked at the policeman as though trying to remember. “Sorry,” he said. “I forget.” He didn't.
“But you didn't forget the tip,” Milt coaxed.
“Number five horse in the fifth race,” Nick said and everybody repeated it.
Then everyone shouted, clinked bottles all around, and drained them.
The bartender made quick work of the puddles on the bar before they could set their empties back down.
“Another round,” Milt shouted and the men cheered again.
They were taking a long lunch, already an hour late getting back. The boss wouldn't care. He was there with them, and had bet a hundred on the race, too.
“Where's Jeremy?” one of the mechanics asked looking around as though the young grease monkey might have sneaked back in while they were listening to the story.
“Yeah,” another agreed. “He should have been back by now.”
Another hour passed. The boss shepherded them back to the shop leaving Milt to keep Nick company while they waited for the kid.
The policemen waited another hour before heading home. They were off duty.
Only the rummy and the bartender remained. The rummy smelled another free drink when the money got there, if it got there.
The mechanics wandered back when the truck shop closed at five and the grumbling resumed.
Six different forms of punishment, some involving death, were devised in his absence.
A couple of the mechanics wandered off a few times to search for him.
Jeremy arrived at nine that night. His coveralls looked as though he had crawled through a sewer. He had.
Several hands grabbed him and shoved him roughly to a booth at the back of the bar and everyone gathered around.
“What the hell happened?” they demanded.
Jeremy jerked his eyes from person to person, then began unloading his pockets. All of them. Then he pulled bundles of bills from his sock tops. The last of the money was tucked in his waist band inside his bib overalls.
Everyone's eyes got larger as the pile on the table grew.
“What happened?” Milt coaxed him to explain.
Jeremy pointed to him mouth and the bartender ran to get him a beer.
The rummy reached for the money and someone slapped his hand away.
Jeremy chugged the whole bottle without stopping for a breath.
“You better bring another round,” Nick said.
The rummy looked expectant. “One for him, too,” Nick added and the rummy smiled his thanks.
Jeremy finished half of the second bottle before he could speak. “I swear they were after me,” he said.
“Who?” everyone asked at the same time.
“Everyone!” Jeremy blurted out.
Jeremy explained that he cut through the stable area to throw off anyone on his trail but couldn't find a way out from there. Pimlico was surrounded by a high fence and the gates all had guards who wouldn't be happy to find someone without a pass trying to get out that way, and the money he was carrying would raise questions.
“How did you get out?” Milt asked.
“I found a storm drain,” Jeremy explained. Unfortunately, it drained into Jones Falls Creek about five miles from Pimlico.
“You crawled through five miles of storm drain?” Nick asked. “How did you keep the money dry.”
“It wasn't wet,” Jeremy answered.
“So you got out of that,” Milt prompted him. “What happened then?”
“I had to walk back here.”
“Why didn't you get a cab?” the rummy asked, and everyone nodded their agreement.
“You can't get a cab in that part of town,” Jeremy responded with disbelief. “Everyone knows that.”
“He's right,” the rummy responded, nodding.
Everyone scowled at the rummy.
The men elected Nick to count out their winnings while they celebrated. He bought the rummy a pint of Jack Daniels to keep him occupied and away from the table.
Everyone went home a little richer that night, thanks to the tip.
Nick never bet the races again. They're rigged, he decided.