Improving The Odds by Patrick Ritter

Inveterate gambler Rake Mosely owes money he hasn't got to California's Ukrainian mafia, and hopes he can do a job for them instead; by Patrick Ritter.

Rake Mosely picked up his pace. It was bad enough to be called in like this. But if he was late, no telling what the maniac Lisko would do. Hell, it was almost midnight, something was up. How did he ever let it get this far? Stupid question. He knew full well how. It was the Steeler's game.

He walked along Adeline Street in West Oakland's Dogtown district, so named in the early eighties for a large population of stray dogs. It was a split personality street, with blocky commercial and industrial buildings on the west side, and small residences that had seen better days on the east. Rake Mosely, fair-haired, fortyish, and wearing consultant sport coat and jeans did not look like a local artist, metal worker, or resident. Even in the dim streetlight, he stood out.

Rake spotted the big metal building across the street, built out almost to the curb and covered in graffiti. It was bordered on the north by a service yard, and on the south by an alley, fenced in with a high gate topped with barb wire. The gate was slightly open. South of the alley, the weathered sign on the next-door concrete building, entirely free of graffiti, announced: Dogtown Boxing Club. Rake could hear rap music coming from somewhere. A dog barked once, then again. Rake stopped. It was the bark of a large dog and it seemed way too close.

If not for his gambling debt to Lisko he wouldn't have to be creeping around like this, in a rundown industrial section of Oakland. And he had been so close to a big payout. Then he would have quit sports betting for good. Yeah, maybe. Rake crossed the street and walked through the gate. At the end of the alley, yellow light eked out through barred windows covered with sixty years of dust. He squinted in the dim light, looking for the door to the office.

And he had been doing so well on sports betting all year. Just had to take on a big Super Bowl bet. And borrow money to do it. Totally insane. He'd won a few prop bets in the first half, feeling pretty good. Steelers needed just one more score and he'd beat the spread and cash out big time. If the fuckup Everett hadn't dropped that pass. Now he owed thirty thousand, plus the weekly vig, to Viktor Lisko, the Pakhan: top dog of California's Ukrainian mafia. More like top wolverine. Couldn't have come at a worse time. Rake's environmental consulting business was way down and his adjustable mortgage way up. Since he couldn't pay Lisko the whole amount, the weekly vig was killing him, adding thousands to his debt.

Rake was almost at the door. Before tonight, he thought he had a way out. He'd negotiated the suspension of the vig, and relief of his debt, in exchange for his consulting services. He was managing the decommissioning and cleaning of the industrial building that Lisko had purchased dirt cheap and was going to flip. Having done many of these closures before, it was a sweet deal, right? Until tonight. Now not so sure. Of all the dudes to owe money to. Get it together he told himself. He knocked on the door.

"Zhat must be Mr. Mosely," a voice boomed behind the door. Rake put on a confident look. No, no good. The Ukrainians could react aggressively to that, kind of a male competitor thing. Ok, calm, everything's cool. No, this is Viktor Lisko who had summoned him. And it's midnight. Just look submissive, that usually works with these gangsters. He opened the door.

Lisko stood behind a tall office chair, thick arms perched on the top. The guy never seemed to sit down. Lisko was beefy, but still in shape, especially for 60 years old and a robust vodka regimen. He stared at Rake, black eyes drilling him, sizing him up. Rake wanted to look away. But that would be a bad move.

Leaning against the wall behind him was his associate, Deyman, or as Lisko was fond of telling people, "my breaker of legs." That he was, the enforcer of Lisko's unbending mafia code. Deyman was hard core scary, running at least six five and two fifty and looking perpetually pissed off. A tiny bead of sweat rolled down his shaved head and over the small cross tattooed above his forehead. Deyman the demon, Rake thought.

"So, Mosely, vee need talk about the cleanink," Lisko said.

"Yes, the cleaning is going pretty well I think."

"No, not well Mosely. Zhat is the big problem. You promise me cost of disposing cleanink waste no more than seven thousand dollars."

"Well that was just the initial -"

"Nyet! I am talking only!" Lisko banged the desk. He rummaged through a drawer and pulled out a thin notebook. "I have now bills due for disposing this cleanink water that make," he peered at the notebook, "over forty-seven thousand dollars."

"Whoa, that doesn't seem, I mean, you are right Viktor, that's way out of line," Rake said.

"So now you understand your problem."

"My problem?"

"You have new forty-thousand-dollar problem Mr. Mosely. I pay seven thousand only. You take care of rest."

"Well, the seven thousand was only an initial estimate based on non-hazardous disposal. They must be hauling some wastes for hazardous disposal, which is a lot more. I'll have to talk to the cleanup contractor."

"Yes, ok, you talk. But now you have two problems, money you already owe me, plus extra cleanink costs. If this building not ready for selling on my schedule, vig payments start again."

Rake Mosely felt his pulse ramping up. Chest getting tight.

"You are my sookah, Mr. Mosely. That mean bitch." Viktor Lisko broke into a guttural laugh. After a few second delay, Deyman joined in.

As Rake walked away down the alley, he could hear them yelling things in Russian, or was it Ukrainian, and laughing.

Yeah, real funny. Driving home, Rake felt scared, and pissed, then back to scared. Viktor Lisko did own him, to the tune of over thirty large. If he had to pony up more for the cost overruns, he had nowhere to get it. Damn. The cleanup contractor, Eddie Fabrizi, was getting a visit first thing tomorrow.

The sign on the big tanker truck read, Fabrizi Decommissioning and Hauling in bright green letters, and below it, Lowest Prices - Guaranteed. Obviously a lie. Rake hadn't liked Eddie Fabrizi from the start. Maybe he did have the necessary haz waste licenses, but no recent references and Rake had never heard of his company or disposal services before. Fabrizi was one of those guys who talked over you and talked fast. When he didn't have an answer he talked faster, usually while waving his hands at you. But he came in with the lowest bid and Lisko told Rake to make it work. Only now it wasn't.

Rake walked past the Dogtown Boxing Club and entered the metal building, a former machine parts manufacturing plant. A worker in Tyvek jump suit was power-washing floors while another vacuumed up the rinse water. Eddie sat nearby munching on beef jerky, a clear violation of health and safety protocols to be eating during decon activities. But that was his problem. The cost overrun was Rake's.

"Hey, it's the Rakeman," Eddie said waving.

Fabrizi seemed way too young and uneducated to be running a cleanup company. And too many tattoos. "Good morning, Eddie," Rake said flatly.

"Place is looking real nice, huh?"

"Yeah the cleaning is good, Eddie. But we need to talk about the disposal costs."

"What do you mean, bro?"

"Viktor Lisko told me your invoices for disposing the cleaning rinsates are now almost fifty thousand."

"Yeah, a' course, man. It's all hazardous waste so nothing I can do. Has to go to Class I disposal, and that's not cheap, my man."

"Look, I'm not your man, Eddie, I'm your construction manager. And those costs are way over your bid."

"Ain't a fixed price bid. All haz waste disposal is on unit costs, which is just what I bill Lisko. He ripped a piece of jerky off and started chewing. "Better read up on the contract, mister construction man." Eddie started laughing, bits of jerky spilling out.

What a total ass. But Rake knew Fabrizi was right about the contract terms. If it was hazardous, each gallon was paid on set unit costs, with no upper limit on the amount of waste. But how was all that rinseate hazardous? A little, maybe, for the first pass cleaning. But all of it? Didn't seem possible. Rake watched the power washing for a few minutes. The rinse water sure didn't look that bad. He left, shaking his head.

That night Rake walked into the DoubleDown and sat at the bar, his favorite spot to watch a game, especially one he had money on. But tonight he had no money and no game. His head throbbed and his pulse raced. And everything looked wrong. No, not wrong, different. All three of the usual bartenders were gone. A new bartender came over to him.

"Hey, where are the other bartenders tonight?" Rake asked.

The new guy stopped. Didn't know what to say. "Well, you would have to, I'd say, take that up with the owner," he said, looking away. Didn't want to say.

"Hey man, I've been a regular in here for years. Not trying to get you in trouble, but those guys were sort of like friends to me. Spent a lot of hours in here."

"Well," the bartender said, "you didn't hear it from me, but," he leaned in and lowered his voice. "The owner fired all three of them yesterday."


"Yeah, they were running a scam here. Siphoning off drink payments. All three of 'em were in on it."

"No way."

"Yes, way. About every five minutes or so, one of them would leave the cash register drawer slightly open, so the next drink wouldn't be rung up. Next guy up would open the drawer but put all the money into the tip jar behind it. Cameras didn't catch it, looked like they were ringing it up and putting tips away, just like normal."

"How did he find out?"

"To keep inventory correct, they were diluting the liquor bottles. The cash register record looked like they were selling the right number drinks based on the bottle inventory. But they were selling a lot more drinks and keeping the cash. Thing is, the drinks were getting weaker, people started complaining. That's when the owner checked and figured it all out. Fired them on the spot."

"Jeez, pretty bold," Rake said. "You know, now that I think about it, the drinks did seem weaker. I was buying more to take my mind off things, you know? Hey, those guys were getting people to drink more, weren't they? And keeping the extra."

"You got it, pal. Anyway, what'll you have?"

"I'll take a, wait a minute. Wait one minute. Holy crap." Rake stood up.

"What's the matter?"

"I think I just figured something out."

"You still want a drink?"

"No, I gotta get home. I think I now understand my problem. I just have to come up with a solution. Thanks."

Very early the next day, Rake let himself into the staging yard north of Lisko's industrial building. The Fabrizi tanker truck was parked outside a loading dock. Rake knew where to find the sampling spigot and he collected a liter of fluid from the truck. Before the construction day had started, he had transported the sample to a nearby lab and logged it in for expedited analysis of the suite of constituents that defined a hazardous waste. The rest of his day wasn't nearly as productive. He spent the entire time parked down the street from the building, waiting. Nothing happened.

Almost nothing. His sports bookie called to strongly recommend he put money on the Warriors game. Telling him, got it on inside advice, Utah's going to upset Golden State tonight. Durant tweaked something in practice and Green is still hobbled by a hamstring, although he's hiding it.

"Yeah, well, I have nothing to play with," Rake said, "and I mean less than nothing. Anyway, I'm getting out of sports betting."

"Hey, get Lisko to front the cash. Great odds for this one, Rake."

"No, definitely not. Gotta go."

The next day he set up there again. Finally, late in the morning, the Fabrizi tanker truck left the staging yard and rumbled past him. Show time.

Rake trailed the tanker a few cars back, going north. The truck turned right onto thirty fifth street and headed toward the Highway 580 onramp a few blocks away. The truck would be taking 580 east to get to Fabrizi's hazardous waste disposal facility in Tracy. But just before the onramp, unexpectedly it took a left turn onto Market Street. No, that's not right. Missed the freeway. The truck turned again onto MacArthur and then onto Martin Luther King Way, heading north toward the MacArthur BART station. What the hell, where is he going? A few blocks later, the truck pulled into a large construction site, one of the redevelopment projects near the MacArthur station. Wrecking cranes were busy knocking down an apartment and several residences on Martin Luther King Way to make way for a new high rise. Doubtful that Martin Luther King's dream included destruction and displacement of African American homes to build expensive condos.

Looking too obvious, Rake drove past and parked a block away. Walking back now, past the site from the opposite side of the street, casual, like he belonged there. He could see the Fabrizi truck pulling up to one of the wrecking cranes. The driver got out and hooked up a hose, and Rake suddenly understood why the tanker truck was there. Any big demolition project needed water sprayed for dust control, and Fabrizi was giving it to them. No, not giving it away, but charging them for it. Son of a bitch. That's where the rinse water was going. Fabrizi was over-billing Lisko for hazardous waste disposal, and then, instead of disposing it, was taking it here and selling it for dust control. The question was, was the stuff they're spraying still hazardous? That could mean mega liability for everyone involved, not just Fabrizi, but the project developer and demolition operator, as well as Lisko (the waste generator) and Rake (the construction manager). This could get ugly.

When Rake returned to his office, the answer to his question was in his email inbox. He stared at the lab report for a long time, checking the units and the lab's quality control procedures. It was accurate. The rinse water in Fabrizi's truck wasn't hazardous at all.

Rake pulled out the bidder's files and reviewed the financials that Fabrizi Decommissioning and Hauling had submitted. Just as he thought. He closed the file and got in his car, heading to Viktor Lisko's office. On the way he listened to the last quarter of the Warriors game. Utah won by four, surprising everyone. That bet would have paid handsomely. Yeah, just forget it.

Rake parked in front of the building and headed down the alley. He could already hear Lisko's booming voice. Guess he was in.

"Son of bitch, you will sell zhat building to me."


Lisko screaming now. "Price is good price! Tomorrow you return signed contract to me. Otherwise, I recommend start running. But you will not get far. Neither your family."


"No, I finish talking. Tomorrow."

Lisko was likely putting the squeeze on another building owner to sell. No doubt going to be his next flipper project. Buy low, clean up, sell high.

Rake knocked and went in.

"You fix problem?" Lisko said immediately.

"Yes, I've figured it out."

"Good, so I throw invoices away."

"Here's the thing, Viktor. Eddie Fabrizi is cheating everyone, that's the problem." Rake summarized what he had learned about Fabrizi's scam. "There are two ways to do this, Viktor. The hard way is to go to the regulatory agencies and let them bust Eddie. Not the best way though. He'll be out of business, so we'll have to get someone else to finish the decommissioning. Plus, you don't want regulators nosing around. Bad for you, bad for me."

"And second way?"

"The second way is we go to Fabrizi with the evidence. Tell him all disposal charges are to be removed. Threaten to go to the agencies, or to sue. He'll back down. Your cleanup costs will be less than the bid. Keeps everything quiet for everyone."


"Why not?"

"Must be punishment. Nobody cheat Viktor Lisko without punishment."

"I know, I'm plenty pissed too, but -"

"No, I take care of it. This Eddie Fabrizi is dead man."

Rake thought carefully. This was now beyond ugly. He would be tied in with, if not murder, some serious violence. Good for Lisko's reputation, but not his. How to get Lisko to back off? Greed usually worked.

"Wait, there is another way, Viktor. What if I got this building sold for, say, thirty percent above your asking price? And sold right now so you won't have to even finish the cleaning at all. You can move on to another project with the cash."

That got Lisko nodding slowly. "How is possible?"

It was possible but a long shot. Unless the odds could be improved. "Give me a few days."

"I give you two days."

"Ok, and if I do this, my entire debt is gone, agreed?"

"Yes, ok. Must be thirty percent higher than my selling price."

"Agreed. And I will need to borrow Deyman for a couple of hours."

"For punishment, ok, fine."

"No, Fabrizi's punishment will be a huge cash outlay that will take up all of his company savings. He'll be working years to recover."

"Two days. Then we do my way."

"Alright, two days," Rake said, getting up. "Oh, one other thing, I need to look at your recent water bills."

The next day Rake parked outside the entrance to Lisko's building. He turned to Deyman the demon. The guy barely fit into Rake's car, a widebody howitzer with a trigger fuse. Had to be handled carefully. "Now one more time, Deyman, you aren't going to kill this guy, or break any bones. I know that's a big disappointment, but you know that Mr. Lisko is letting me do this my way, right?"

"Yeah, yeah, I got it. Scare only, no big hurt."

"Just stay here in the car and when I need you, I'll come out, ok?"

Deyman nodded, looking surly, and bored. No big hurt on the schedule.

Rake barged into the building. Eddie Fabrizi sat reading the sports page while his workers toiled.

"Eddie, it's all over," Rake said.

"What you talkin' about, bro?"

"Your little scam, not so little really. That rinse water isn't hazardous at all, and you aren't even disposing it at your facility. You're selling it for dust control at the MacArthur redevelopment project." Rake tossed three photos onto Eddie's lap, showing the Fabrizi truck spraying rinse water for dust control.

That got Eddie to sit up, dropping the paper. His lower lip quivered while he thought of something to say. "That's bullshit."

"That's all you got to say?" Rake thrust the lab report into Fabrizi's chest. "Not hazardous at all, is it? But you're charging Lisko for hazardous disposal, aren't you?"

Eddie squinted at the report.

Rake said, "The odds are way in my favor, pal. I've got more than enough to go to the agencies with this. They'll shut you down flat, and you'll never work at this again. And when they raid your facility in Tracy, no telling what they'll find. I hear fraudulent disposal violations carry five to seven."

"Look, man, all you got is one sample."

"Yeah, then where are all your sampling results?"

Rake could see in Eddie's eyes that he had squat. "One more thing." Rake took out the water usage records Lisko had given him. "This shows an unusually high water use for cleaning operations of this kind. You're diluting the rinse water to get it to non-hazardous levels. That's another big no-no to the regulators. The solution to pollution can't be dilution. That could add a couple more years."

"Ok, maybe I did make a few bad assumptions. But look, I'll make Lisko whole. I'll go back to the seven thousand dollar estimate for disposal. Hell, I'll cut it to three thousand." Fabrizi talking fast now. "Ok? No harm, no foul, Ok?"

"You don't really know Viktor Lisko, do you, Eddie? He's not some foot soldier in the Ukrainian mafia. He's the boss, the Pakhan."

"The what?"

"Here's what's going to happen. I checked your financials and it seems this business model of yours has been pretty profitable. I see you have enough in reserves to buy this building outright. Lisko settled on a price of 1.3 million, about thirty percent above what he thinks he could get all cleaned up."

"What! I'm no building owner. I do decommissioning. How am I going to sell it for that price?"

"Yeah, you got a problem there, Eddie. Anyway, we're going to have a real quick close, all cash, by the end of next week. I've got a purchase contract in my car, ready for you to sign. How's that for efficiency?"

Now Eddie turned sour. "Ok, get the hell out a' here. I tole you what I'd do, and that's my offer."

"Gee, Eddie, that's kind of inflexible don't you think? I'm trying to get you a deal here."

"The hell you are."

"Well, I tried. Remember that, Fabrizi. Look, I'll go get that purchase contract for you anyway. Possible you may change your mind."

"Get the hell out a here, construction man."

Rake returned with the contract in one hand. Immediately behind him came Deyman unleashed. Eddie took one look at him and scrambled out of his chair, backing away. He kept his eyes on the huge Ukrainian, who was picking up speed, remarkably quick for that cut of beef. Eddie turned to run but Deyman was too fast, grabbing Eddie's collar, ripping most of the shirt off his back. Deyman spun Eddie around and slammed him hard against the wall, Eddie gasping. Sounded like a wide receiver getting clocked. Eddie dropped like a wet sack to the floor. Deyman grabbed him by both ears and pulled him to his feet. Eddie screaming now.

The workers just stared, not sure what to do. Power-wash the giant? That would enrage the beast and he might turn on them. So, they just watched. No real employee loyalty to speak of.

Rake had to admit, this was a satisfying spectacle. But it had to end before Fabrizi was crippled, or worse. Deyman was really fired up now, like a pit bull awoken from slumber. Even more unsettling, he was smiling. Holding Eddie by the throat with one hand he backhanded him with the side of his fist, splitting open his lip. Blood running down Fabrizi's face. Time to stop the fight.

"Deyman, enough!"

"Not enough," Deyman said, spittle spraying into Fabrizi's face. He delivered a vicious uppercut into Fabrizi's ribcage. Had to have broken a couple.

"Damn it, stop!"

Deyman looked at Rake, dumbfounded, and disappointed. "Americans no balls for heavy work." He flung Eddie to the floor.

Rake crouched down to Eddie, now moaning softly.

"Could have ended it for you right here, Fabrizi, but I let you live. Clean yourself up and send me the signed contract by tomorrow noon. Otherwise expect a return visit from the big man. And I won't be there to stop him."

Rake put the contract on Eddie's chair, and turned to the workers, still frozen in place. "One word about this to the police, or anyone else, and you'll both be getting the same. Got it?"

"Got it," they both said in unison, accompanied by a lot of nodding.

Late the next day Rake knocked and entered the office. Lisko and Deyman were sitting at the desk, eating pyrohy baked pies. Must be good, they barely looked up. Between bites Lisko said, "Mr. Mosely, bring good news, yes?"

"Yes, excellent news Viktor," Rake said, holding up the signed purchase contract.

"Fabrizi agreed to one point three after all, no contingencies and all cash. Very favorable offer, I'd say."

Lisko wiped his mouth. "Da, favorable."

"This pays off all my debt, right?"

"Yes, debt paid. Now we drink!" Lisko pulled out a bottle of Stolichnaya and three glasses. "Mr. Mosely, perhaps you like to work for me, yes?"

"Well, no, I don't think so, Viktor." Gotta be respectful. "I think you've got all the help you need," Rake said, nodding at Deyman.

"Ok, you think about it. Anyway, I likely see you again after more bets."

"No, I don't really think so. I'm getting out of sports betting."

"Getting out? Nobody gets out, comrade," Lisko said, laughing, and offering a vodka. Rake took a swig. Wasn't just the straight vodka that gave him a jolt. Lisko could be right.

That night, Rake headed to the DoubleDown, needing to celebrate. No, that wasn't quite right. More like try to forget everything and put a rough week behind him.

The bartender came over. "Hey, did you solve your problem?"

"Yeah, it's over, I think. I hope."

"So, what'll you have, pal? You know, I didn't get your name."

"I'll take an Anchor Steam. Name's Rake, Rake Mosely."

The bartender brought the beer. "How did you get the name Rake?"

"From my old man. He ran a poker card room in the City for many years. Took a small commission fee from each pot, called the rake. Guess he liked the name. It did keep the family solvent though. At least for a while."

Rake took a swallow of Anchor Steam. Then his phone buzzed. He glanced at the screen and saw it was his bookie, no doubt calling with another can't-miss bet.

"You need to take that?" the bartender said.

"Do I need to?" Rake took another long swig. "Now that's a really good question."


  1. Great story. To be honest, I have hard time starting stories that Charlie has labeled as "long stories." (not because they aren't usually very good but because I have serious attention span deficiency). This story, however, read so well and held my interest completely. Loved the character of Rake . . . a good man fighting demons (both imaginary and real) who is smart enough to find a solution to his problem.

    Again, I really liked it. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  2. Agree with James, this tale was engaging enough that the length didn't feel tedious. Rake would be well-served to get out of this business before his luck turns on him again...except he seems to have quite a knack for the hustle, both in terms of pulling one off and sniffing one out...I suspect his talents will keep him in the game for a while.

  3. Few stories hold my interest as well as this one. Tight limited 3rd POV. Well paced, the prose never gets in the way of the plot. I even liked the ambiguous ending. Seemed well researched, too. Rake made me think of Hunter Thompson, who once lectured for the mob to pay off sports betting debts.

    A couple minor typos, if anyone cares.

    "the big taker truck"

    "one of the wreaking cranes"

    1. I care. (And it irks me that I didn't catch them.) Fixed!

  4. I agree with the other comments, an absorbing action packed story, the atmosphere is set at the beginning with the Oakland industrial area description and Rake's dilemma. I like the character driven theme also.

  5. Great story! Very engaging and well paced, despite the length. Like other posters, I usually don't stay on board for longer stories, but you kept me in it 'till the end!

  6. The odds are I’ll read more stories by Patrick Ritter. Well done.