Powder Burn Flash #381 - Tom Darin Liskey

The House Always Wins
by Tom Darin Liskey

My father was as luckless and broke as they came.

The old man was a house painter up in St Louis who liked to play the horses on the other side of the river. He only worked Spring and Summer, and maybe a little in September, if the weather was okay before the leaves start falling from the trees.

He’d always disappear on Friday afternoon after he cashed his check. Me and mom wouldn’t see him sometimes till Sunday morning when he’d come in the house with red rims around his eyes in a foul mood. And flat busted.

The thing is my dad never had much luck with horse flesh. Not much at all, expect for once. He actually won some pretty big money at the track.

So him and a couple of his buddies from work headed over to East St Louis where they could play craps or high stake poker in run down block of low income tenement houses.

The Sicilians and some brothers from the Panthers worked out a deal to use empty apartments in a public housing development near the river because the white cops were too scared to go over there at night. They’d never get busted.

My dad and his friends were more than willing to blow their track winnings on liquor and whores. They got into a game.

He said he was on a hot streak that summer night - high up in an apartment jerry-rigged with the neighbor’s electricity - and almost naked ladies who'd hang on your arm and pour you a drink if you had a pile of chips in front of you.

Christ, he’d almost get teary-eyed when he’d talk about how great that winning streak was. He said it was like a Hollywood movie. He was winning more money than he could count.

But for once, he added, knew when to fold his hand and walk away with his winnings. And that’s what he actually did.

He then said something happened to him when was stuffing the dollar bills into his pockets. He knew he’d never get alive with that money. His friends were gone by then. They’d blown their winnings on the watered down drinks.

When he left he knew the whispering between the Sicilians and one of the Black guys in a beret was about him.
My dad said he made it down five flights before they knocked him over the head in the stairwell. They broke three ribs, blackened both his eyes, busted it nose wide open and knocked out three teeth. They then busted his right hand by stomping on it. Because that was the hand he used to throw chips into the pile. His left shoulder was dislocated too.

Somehow he ended up St Mary’s Charity Hospital back on this side of the river. He had lost it all, almost $5,000, he reckoned.

My dad couldn't paint after that. So my mom had to work two jobs just to get us through the summer.

His gambling, the drinking and his broke ass ways was too much for her. She left us that fall. She hooked up with a trucker who was moving to Spokane. She had met him working the late shift at Denny’s near the airport because my dad was too beat up to pick up a brush.

When she left us she told me she had finally found some happiness in this life because she met the trucker. She promised me she’d send for me when she had the money. She never did.

My dad would still go to the tracks sometimes, but he stopped trying to get into those poker games. He painted houses now and then, but money was always tight with us. He’d spend most days at the kitchen table with a pack of Pall Mall and a fifth of Wild Irish Rose wine playing solitaire.

He’d slide the eight of diamonds or six of clubs or what ever card he had in his hand under the corner of another face-down card with the clicking of his tongue - if it was something he liked - or a hiss - if it was going poorly for him. If there was a ball game, he'd flip on the radio and listen to it.

Then he'd tell me the story over and over again, especially in winter when the sky was gray and no one wanted their house painted.

Sometimes his buddies would come over with a bottle of Wild Turkey and try to talk him into going back to one of those poker games on the other side of the river. He’d never raise his eyes from the cards when they asked him. He’d just kind of smile to himself and say, “nope fellas, the house always wins.”

The strange thing was, the old man actually learned to win at solitaire. Like always. The guy was the king of the solitaire. He didn't have to cheat to win.

BIO: Tom Darin Liskey is a journalist and spent a decade working in Latin America. He currently lives in Texas, which is not as bad as you'd think, but not as good either.

Powder Burn Flash #380 - Tom Pitts

At Four A.M.
by Tom Pitts

At four a.m., I always seem to be trolling around the track. Not many people out there flagging cabs at that time. Nobody but degenerates—and whores.

Down in the Tenderloin dregs where the aging hookers like to work close to the Mexican crack vendors, so the walk isn’t so hard on their varicose veins, I see a young lady waving from the corner. I pull over. She’s another lost soul. Tall and lean, she looks as though she may have been a knock-out in high school. I try to sneak a peek as she climbs into the back seat.

“Thanks,” she says with a Mae West slur. “Two stops. Leavenworth, between Eddy and Ellis, then back here.” Round trip: dope run. I quickly translate: “To the man’s to cop and then back to the track.” She wrinkles her nose. No admission; no denial. Her status as a working girl is confirmed.

She immediately pops a ten spot onto the front seat. It’s supposed to make me feel more secure, and, of course, it does, so I pull out and make a right on O’Farrell and we’re on our way.

At the end of the block, she notices me glancing at perhaps the saddest whore in all of San Francisco. This creature is on the corner of Hyde and O’Farrell every morning before dawn, shuffling nervously back and forth with all the grace of a stoke victim. She’s been there for years. In a job with no longevity, she’s a dinosaur. Eyes sunken so far into her skull you can see no eye at all, only shadow. She’s a matinee movie zombie selling herself at rock bottom rates. To any commuter stopped at the light she’ll shuffle up and offer the best blow job of your life though a near toothless mouth, for whatever ya got.

I involuntarily shutter.

“Man, some of these girls out here look so fuckin’ rough,” says my fare, “I don’t know how they do it.”

“Hey, everybody’s got to make a living.” Which I think is a safe neutral response. A cabbie response. I keep it in my arsenal right next to Hey, what’re ya gonna do? and How about them Giants?

“She’s actually quite nice, you know,” my fare adds, “I’ve met her once or twice.”

I try to drive and not to judge. Taxi driver ethos.

We pull up at her stop and she says, “Wait right here. Don’t worry; I don’t even need to go inside. I just knock on this asshole’s window.”

I turn to watch her get out and I notice that she is twisting, opening the door with her left arm instead of her right. And as she gets out, I see that it’s her only arm. Her right sleeve flaps empty. She is missing her right arm entirely. I watch her stride to the window and begin knocking. The window opens and a young Hispanic face appears. They argue in both Spanish and English. It’s crack, not smack, so the deal is never simple.

As she haggles, I see her face for the first time, clearly, under the streetlight. It is horribly grotesque. She has been mangled and deformed. Scar tissue tightens the right side of her face into a permanent grimace. Large portions of her mouth and jaw are missing. Scrapped or eaten away, it’s hard to tell and I’m not sure if it matters. She is a monster.

She climbs back into the car. Now I’m trying not to peek. I’m going to have trouble forgetting that tragic face.

“Thanks for waiting,” she says with that same Mae West drawl. I drive her back to the corner where I picked her up. The fare came to $9.15. She tossed me another fiver over the seat and climbed out of the cab.

“Thanks,” I say.

Everybody’s got to make a living.

BIO: Tom Pitts received his education firsthand on the streets of San Francisco. His work has appeared in Junk, Shotgun Honey, A Twist of Noir, Punk Globe, and others. His novella, Piggyback, will be released by Snubnose Press later this year. See more of his work at:


Powder Burn Flash # 379 - Robin Ray

The Haunting in Belltown
by Robin Ray

The clubs were beginning to fill up. It was Friday night. Time to let the games begin. Soon, Belltown would be filled with revelers, hot dog carts, the sound of car horns crashing against each other like a cacophonous symphony awash over the masses, and the occasional drug dealer.

Marnie and her new boyfriend, Alden, was club hopping when it happened. Alden only smoked herb when he’d been out drinking, and tonight was no exception. Before continuing to their next dance hall, he had to obtain some bud come rain or high water.

With Marnie in tow, they walked to seedy, darkened areas in the nooks of Belltown. She was a little scared and protested outright, but since there was a slight bump in police presence, she decided to just go along with him. All of the unsavory characters he ran into were selling crack, a drug he had no interest in.

“Come on,” she pleaded. “We’re wasting time.”

“It’s around here somewhere,” he promised. “I’ve never been unlucky.”

“Well, there must be a dry spell.”

Alden, himself, was beginning to give up hope until they passed an alley. The distinctive whiff of marijuana emanated from the narrow passageway. Looking over, they noticed five youths standing between dumpsters. Puffs of smoke hovered above their heads like mist on a lake.

“What d’ya think?” Alden asked Marnie rhetorically. “Should I go ask them?”

“It’s kinda dark down there,” she answered. “Just signal ‘em or something.”

“It’ll be all right,” he hoped as he walked towards the smokers.

Just then, they started walking towards the club-hopping couple. The five young black men – Yung Prez, Dru’wan, Lil Jeep, The Future, and Run E. Gunz – had a sway and a swagger that belied their inner city upbringing. Marnie could feel the lump in her throat get bigger.

“What y’all want?” Yung Prez asked.

“Bud,” Alden answered.

“Like this?” Dru’wan wondered, holding up a fist-sized baggie half-filled with herb.

“What you looking to spend?” Yung Prez queried.


Alden removed a crumpled $50 bill from his pocket. Yung Prez took it and put it in his pocket.
All five young men then turned to walk back down the alley.

“Hey!” Alden yelled. “That’s a fifty!”

Lil Jeep turned around.

“Get lost, punk!” he shouted.

Alden, however, was already seething with fury from the slight.

“You motherfucker!” he shouted at Yung Prez.

Like a pack of feral wolves, the boys turned and set upon the couple. Marnie screamed as punches and kicks flew. Alden got in a few licks of his own, but the youths were just too strong, too powerful, and too angry.

The beating lasted about a minute. Though no metal weapons were used, Marnie and Alden sustained contusions, black eyes, bruises, broken ribs, torn ear lobes from earrings being yanked out, fat lips, bloody gums, scratches and several spots of hematoma throughout their bodies. And they were still out of $50. The paramedics thought the two were lucky to be alive. It could’ve been a lot worse.

About one hour later, the thugs were walking around Yesler Way near downtown Seattle when a squad car came rolling up the street. The young men kept walking, acting as casual as possible. When the car’s lights finally came on, they scattered. One officer jumped out and chased after Yung Prez, the other after Dru’wan. Run E. Gunz and The Future disappeared between the buildings. Lil Jeep ran down a nearby flight of stairs, cut through a park, and hopped over a railing. On his way over, his shoe laces got caught on some nettles from a spindly bush. When he fell, the audible “crack” of his right arm could be heard for a block.

Screaming, he carefully took off his jacket. Rolling up his sweater’s right sleeve, he moaned when he saw his broken right ulna protruding through his skin near the wrist. Painfully, he got to his feet where he also soon realized his left ankle was sprained. Carefully, he limped towards a friend’s house. No one was home. Still in pain, he walked the few blocks to Harborview Medical Center.

Two hours later, he was lying in a recovery room with a splint on his right arm, a bandage around his left ankle, and an IV stuck in his left forearm. Although he’d been sedated, he could still overhear the hospital staff talking among themselves.

“What is this city coming to?” one asked.

“It’s time to get that gun permit I’ve been putting off,” added another.

“Where are there fathers?” a third asked. “There’s no discipline, no love, no guidance.”

Unable to sleep, Lil Jeep got up, stood near the entrance of his room and looked down the hall. He saw a crying little girl sitting in a wheelchair near the nurse’s station. A CNA was comforting her. Just then, a woman in her 50’s came walking around the corner.

“Mommy!” the girl shouted, hugging the woman.

“It’s okay, Marianne,” her mother said. “Your sister and her boyfriend are fine. They’re in surgery now.”

“But she promised this city was safe!” the girl bawled.

“It is, dear,” the woman reassured her.

“So why did they do that? Why did they beat them up like that?”

“I don’t know, Marianne,” she sighed. “They love it here. They think it’s vibrant, full of energy, but some people just don’t see it that way.”

“It’s not fair!”

“Yes, dear, I know. Let’s wait inside.”

The woman and the little girl went down the hall and walked into a room where a police officer was sitting just outside. Lil Jeep tried getting the image of Marianne out of his mind. He started to walk back to bed, shook his head then limped towards the nursing station.

“You should be resting,” a nurse cautioned him. “You lost a lot of blood tonight.”

“I’ll go lie down,” he admitted then looked down the hall, “but first, I have to make a confession.”

BIO: Robin Ray is a musician and author who lives in Seattle, Washington. He is the proud author of six screenplays and several short stories, poems, fairy tales and songs.

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