John McEvoy John McEvoy
Riders Down by John McEvoy

Chapter One

Bernard ("You may call me Bernie") Glockner, at age ninety-eight Chicago's oldest active bookmaker, reached forward and again cautiously parted the curtains covering the east window of his living room on the condominium building's ninth floor. He peered down. The street below, lined with dirt-coated snow mounds, was virtually traffic-free, only an occasional taxi trolling the salted asphalt in search of customers. At 11:48 on this bone-chilling night, the scene below was nearly as quiet as its aged watcher.

A widower, Glockner had lived alone for some thirty years in the same condo unit, self-sufficient, comfortable, feeling safe. Until now. In the silence of this familiar home on the city's near north side, Glockner pulled back from the window. As removed as he was from the frigid air, and wearing a warm robe that swaddled his diminutive frame, Glockner nevertheless shivered. He had made his living making odds. Tonight, he figured the price on his waking to another dawn was one-to-five against. And it was his own fault. "Stupid. I was so stupid," he said disgustedly.

Glockner reached for the phone, then replaced the receiver without dialing. "I got myself into this," he said aloud. "I'll deal with it." He chuckled mirthlessly at his bravado as he settled back into his leather armchair. He thought of his wife Betty who, like most of his original contemporaries, had pre-deceased him by decades. "She never would have let me wind up in a jackpot like this," he said of the woman who for so long had loved him and gently curbed his few dangerous enthusiasms.

Ordinarily on a night like this Glockner, a lifelong insomniac, would be listening to his favorite Chicago radio talk show, one remarkable in that usually raucous field because it elicited opinions from many citizens who apparently had benefited from a decent education. Several of the callers each night actually knew what they were talking about. Glockner himself occasionally phoned in his views on various political and ethical matters. He delivered them in his soft, assured voice, identifying himself only as "B. G. from Chicago, a practicing Democrat." Bernie's most provocative statement had come during the last year's gubernatorial election campaign when he had said that "Many Democrats, unfortunately, feel somewhat guilty about their acquisition of worldly possessions, while most Republicans I've known are convinced they have coming to them everything they've inherited or stolen." Bernie never let on that years previously, before he went into bookmaking on a lucrative full-time basis, he had used an academic scholarship to earn a degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago. A memory of the university's broad midway in early spring, its new grass and budding trees bright in the morning air, came to Glockner as he shifted restlessly in his armchair. "Happy days," he whispered. Then the pressing concerns of the moment resumed command of his consciousness.

It had been gambling, not Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, that defined Bernie Glockner's life, beginning with his childhood on Chicago's near west side where he was widely known as "the kid who murders numbers." In his primarily Italian and Jewish neighborhood, Bernie handicapped foot races down Taylor Street ("Anthony, ya gotta give Sammy a yard and a half head start going a block.") He could still picture himself and his buddies running to Mario's Italian Ice stand at the end of a long, hot, summer afternoon.

A few of those kids he grew up with became Chicago Outfit guys. It was at their urging, and with their blessing, that Glockner, tucking his UC diploma in a drawer, began using his impressive mathematical skills to establish betting lines on sporting events. Again, with the permission of "the boys," he began booking the wagers of a small group of high rollers. His pleased associates dubbed Glockner "The Wizard of Odds." So did the authorities, who were never able to nail him in the course of his seven decades of illegal gambling activity.

Glockner rubbed together his small, brown-spotted hands. They were well cared for, as was the rest of this remarkably healthy and acute nonagenarian. Again, he shifted uneasily in his chair, as he had been doing frequently for the last three nights. The prescience that had carried him unscathed through a long career in association with some of the city's most vicious men evidenced itself in the sheen of perspiration across his forehead. After all this waiting, it was almost with relief that Bernie felt a quick rush of air on the back of his neck, heard the movement behind him as his front door was closed and locked again. He had hoped he was wrong in believing this was coming. But he wasn't wrong.

The old man tried to rise but a large hand pressed heavily down on his right shoulder. Bernie sat back resignedly. He shrugged when another large hand extracted the revolver Bernie had hidden beneath the chair's cushion. A remnant of his education flashed into his mind. Socrates, he thought it was: "When a man has reached my age he ought not to be repining at the prospect of death."

The taller of the two invaders maintained his iron grip on Bernie's shoulder. Bernie could see him in the wall mirror across from where he sat. He was dressed in a brown leather car coat and jeans.

The other man--shorter, broader, powerful looking--moved around the chair to face the old man. He wore a gray tweed sport coat with leather elbow patches, a black turtle neck sweater, black slacks and well-worn New Balance cross trainer shoes. His large, shaven head was bordered by two the smallest ears Glockner had ever seen. "Hello, Bernie. It's truly a pleasure, and I mean it, to finally meet you." Behind steel-rimmed glasses his gray eyes were alight with amusement as he rubbed his large hands together. Bernie recognized the voice. During their first phone conversation, he had thought to himself that the man's husky tenor reminded him of a sinister-sounding Garrison Keilor. The man noticed Bernie glancing at the mirror. In a quick, fluid motion he pivoted and with a karate kick shattered the glass inside the frame.

"So, the so-called Professor," Glockner spat out. "Believe me, the pleasure is all yours.'

Glockner felt a combination of fear and embarrassment as he recalled the long conversations he had had with the menacing figure that now stood before him. Some six weeks earlier, the man had first identified himself as Professor Harlan Kornkven of the University of Wisconsin economics department. The envelope containing the letter carried a post office box as a return address. The Professor had written that a certain mutual acquaintance of their had identified Glockner as one of the country's "greatest experts on gambling." The Professor said he was engaged in a study of pari-mutuel horse racing to be included in a book he was writing on "gaming in contemporary America." It was him, he wrote, a brand new field of study. Could he submit some questions for Mr. Glockner to answer in writing?

No, Bernie had replied in a short, formal note, he would prefer to provide any information via phone calls. The Professor called Bernie two days later. He asked permission to tape their conversations. Certainly, Bernie had replied—this, after a career of assiduously avoiding any sort of recording device. But that, Bernie would come to realize, was what vanity and boredom could do to man on the far side of his better days.

Glockner and The Professor set up a schedule of thrice-weekly calls, usually in early evening. The Professor said he would describe Glockner in his book as "a rare research source," but would not identify him by name. That was fine with Bernie. In the course of the fourth week, the Professor confessed that he had become "intrigued by the race-fixing aspect of the sport. How common are fixed races?" he asked. "What methods are most effective."

Bernie had responded readily, an old man's pride in his knowledge serving to stoke his volubility. He gave his questioner an extensive overview of how the outcome of horse races might be manipulated, then went on to provide details of past betting coups, plus a description of the few potentially successful avenues still open in this sport that was so stringently regulated and overseen by state authorities. Tonight, remembering how he had prattled on, Bernie blushed. "Forget about doping horses," he had said, "the laboratory tests are too good now. Somebody doing that would eventually be caught and then banned and maybe imprisoned.

"For a brief time there was a window of opportunity involving computers. Remember the Breeders' Cup Pick Six scandal a few years ago? A kid programmer who worked in computers for the big totalizator company got into the system and changed bets after the races had been run so that he and a couple of his buddies held the only winning tickets of the day. Talk about past posting! But they were caught within weeks. And racing officials soon installed new security systems to prevent that from ever happening agains. So, that door to larceny is nailed closed.

"So your best bet, as always," Bernie had continued, "are the jockeys. They have more control over the outcome of races than anyone. Al Capone, when I was new in the business, had so many jockeys in his pocket they were bumping into each other. And Capone had big pockets.

"Oh," Bernie continued wistfully, "having a jockey or two under your control, that's the best way. Nobody can lose a race better than a jockey who wants to."

The Professor had asked for elaboration and the old bookie eagerly complied. "Let's say you're betting a Pick Four. That's when you have to pick the winners of four races in a row, which is not easy to do, believe me. The horse you want to lose would be the favorite, or maybe the second favorite, in one, maybe two, of the races involved. You'd want them to lose because most of the bettors are depending on them to win. If you know that horse is going to lose, then you structure your bets to include all the other horses, most of them at good odds. You'd be assured of a profitable payoff. If you get real lucky, you'd get at least one real big long shot to win one of the races. Then you're talking big money.

"They've got these National Pick Fours now, where you have to pick four straight winners at races at four different tracks across the country. There's usually one race in the East, a couple at Midwest tracks, the windup on the West Coast. Sometimes the order changes but whatever way they do it, these National Pick Fours attract huge amounts of money, in the millions, even though it's a hard bet to win, like hitting back-to-back daily doubles. If you had jocks holding the big favorites in a couple of those races, you'd have yourself some kind of Saturday.

"But, Professor, things have change," Bernie went on. "Today you'd have a problem with the jockey faction. First, the vast majority of jockeys are honest. Then, the jockeys who are adept enough to pull off this stuff without getting caught are already making so much money they have no motivation to take yours. It's no good fixing races at the smaller tracks. Their betting totals aren't big enough to make it worth your while. And to fix races at the major tracks you would have to try to deal with the best jockeys. I don't believe it's possible anymore. As I said, your bribe money wouldn't be enough to attract the top riders even if you could find some crooked ones."

Bernie now recalled the Professor remarking softly, almost as if speaking to himself, "Then you'd have to find a motivation other than money, wouldn't you?" He had then quickly changed the subject.


It was nearly midnight. Looking down at the little bookmaker who was regarding him with a combination of defiance and dread, the Professor said, "Aren't you going to ask me how we got in here?"

"No," Glockner said. "I figure you came in through the service door in the rear of the building. You probably made a copy of the master key to the building. People don't know it, but they're easy to make, they fit doors all over the city. I've warned the building management about this for years. Nobody listened. Once you got in you came up the back stairs, nobody to see you at this time of night, and the master key got you in here, too."

The man nodded approvingly, his eyes bright, obviously relishing the sense of power he felt. His expression as he regarded the old bookmaker bordered on the benign.

"I want to ask you something," Glockner said. "Who the hell are you? And why are you doing this? I presume you are no professor. And I think I have the right to know," he added.

The Professor nodded, looking down at Bernie with apparent fondness. "My name, Bernie," he said softly, "is Claude Bledsoe." He looked at the watch on his thick wrist. "You have about, oh, perhaps six minutes during which to remember it. Bernie," he continued, "when I picked your brain, I cashed big, as your clients would put it. Too bad for you that you were so smug, so vain, that you weren't able to see through the flood of flattery I hit you with. Had you done so, you never would have gotten yourself into this position."

"So, smugness - vanity - these are reasons for me to die?"

"No. What's going to kill you isn't what you are, but what you know. When we succeed with our first big betting coup, you'd hear of it. You'd start thinking about who questioned you about fixing races at big tracks. You'd put two and two together. That's what you were good at, wasn't it, Bernie?"

When the Professor's phone calls had abruptly stopped coming two weeks earlier, Bernie had been at first disappointed, then puzzled. He did some research. Using his computer he examined the University of Wisconsin faculty roster. No Harlan Kornkven. A phone call to Madison confirmed that no such person had ever taught at the UW or had a local phone number. Bernie chewed on that information for a day and concluded that he had been deftly misled. It didn't take him long to figure out why, and that is when the possibility of this frightening night became alarmingly real to him.

Bernie looked on impassively as Bledsoe put on a pair of thin rubber gloves and walked over to the computer. As the screen came alive Glockner said, "Okay, so you're plotting to pull something off, using information I was fool enough to give you."

"Oh, yes," Bledsoe smiled, "that's what we are preparing to do." He began writing on the computer.

Bernie said, "Well, so be it. Do what you want. But what makes you think I'd tell anybody about you? Do you know who you're dealing with here? My connections? I've made a good, long life by keeping my mouth shut, never having contact with the cops or the feds. Why would I start now, at my age?"

Bledsoe paused in his typing. His look bore into Bernie. "You think I'd want to worry about you the rest of my life? Not a good idea." He resumed typing.

A minute later Bledsoe hit the print command on the computer. He waited for the single page to emerge from the printer, rapidly scanned it, then nodded, satisfied, and placed it on the small table next to Glockner's armchair.

"What's that?" Bernie said.

"It's your suicide note, Bernie. Shall I read it to you?"

Glockner's breath seemed to catch in his throat. Finally, he said, "You're a cold-hearted bastard. May you rot in hell. I'm done talking to you." He turned his head away. The second man's iron grip continued to hold the old man down.

"Bernie, Bernie," Bledsoe said, smiling again, "you're the maven with numbers, percentages. You're the fucking 'Wizard of Odds!' Tell me why I should even consider taking the chance that you, maybe when you finally hit your dotage, are in some Alzheimer's moment and start talking about me. Perhaps someone figures out what you're rambling about. Would that be smart business for me? Au contraire, Bernie," he said, mockingly drawing the syllables out. "There wouldn't be any percentage in that for me, would there?"

Bledsoe didn't expect a reply and didn't get one. He stood up from the computer table and made an over the shoulder motion with his right hand, thumb protruding. His smile seemed to widen as, for an instant, the old bookmaker struggled stubbornly, attempting to hold onto the arms of his leather chair. But the man standing back of Glockner lifted him with ease. He was almost as solidly built as the Professor, and at least four inches taller. Placing a huge hand over Glockner's mouth, he moved swiftly to the window the Professor had opened wide. Then he sailed little Bernie Glokner out into the frigid Chicago night.

Bledsoe turned off the lights. As the two men hurriedly moved to the door, the taller one, Jimbo Murray, said, "I give him credit. The little fucker never made a sound going down."

"I'll lay you 1-to-10 he did when he it the pavement," Bledsoe said.

Bledsoe drove rapidly but carefully from the Ohio Street ramp onto the Kennedy Expressway heading north. He was tapping his fingers on the steering wheel as he zipped past slower vehicles. Jimbo was silent, looking out his passenger seat window at the sparse traffic. Finally, he said, "You know, Claude, you kind of took advantage of me with this deal."

Bledsoe looked at him. Sharply he said, "What's your complaint?"

"You never said anything about us tossing that old man. Scare him into silence,' you said." Jimbo shook his head and turned to look out the window again. "I've never killed anybody before. I never wanted to kill anybody. I don't know why in hell I let you lead me into this." His big jaw set, Jimbo stared straight ahead as they passed the Touhy Avenue exit.

"Well, Jimbo old buddy," Bledsoe said angrily, "isn't that a goddam shame? I told you this was the first step in a plan to make big money for both of us. You were cool with that. I didn't seduce you, you dumb son of a bitch. You wanted in, and I put you in, and now we're going to put my plan in motion."

He curved around a pair of huge, speeding trucks before adding, "What did you think, we were going to come down here and pick up some cash lying in the Chicago streets?"

Cowed by Bledsoe's angry statement, Jimbo sat quietly. "Don't fuck with Claude" was a motto he had come to live by not long after first getting to know Bledsoe.

Bledsoe broke the silence. "The thing is," he said softly, "it doesn't make any difference how you feel about it. You're in. End of story, my man."

Bledsoe reached into the rack of tapes he kept next to his seat, then popped in "Uncle Anesthesia" by his favorite grunge band, Screaming Trees. The sound was so loud that Jimbo cringed. Bledsoe just snapped his fingers and bobbed his big head, grinning, as they left the Edens Expressway and continued north on the interstate.


End of Chapter One. Want to read more?

Riders Down is available from Poisoned Pen Press, Amazon, and other major bookstores.

 


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