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High Steaks Part II, Chapter 24,25,26
"High Steaks" by Rob Loughran: 2002 New Mystery Award Winner

24

Davis shuffled in his electronic footwear through the Ode to a Nightingale Casino.  Zenny had instructed him to stand at the roulette table closest to the rear exit.  He’d already purchased $2000 worth of chips.  The five, ten, and fifty dollar chips were in his pants pockets; the hundreds stuffed into his corduroy jacket.  He nodded at the croupier, a short, scowling man with horn-rimmed glasses.  Two players, a woman who resembled Imelda Marcos and a triple-chinned walrus of a chap, placed bets across the green.  Both seemed to be playing a system.  Casinos provided pads of paper and pencils for system players: any system at roulette is doomed, therefore encouraged.

Unless the system is a computer in your size fifteen EEE cowboy boots.

“Good evening,” said Davis.

“Only in Nevada is one fifteen a.m.,” said the croupier, “considered evening. Place your bets.”  Davis watched Imelda and the Walrus play twice, then he ventured five dollars on EVEN. He lost.  Davis played ODD-EVEN with five dollar chips for ten minutes. Roget played blackjack across the casino.  Zenny was missing in action.  The Walrus lost interest and wandered away.

“Are you planning a robbery, Jack?” said the croupier.  His nametag read ERIC~Nebraska.

“What?”

“You ain’t a roulette player,” said Eric.  “Your attention is everywhere except the table.”

Davis placed a hundred dollars on 00.  “I am, in fact, planning a robbery.”

“Well don’t shoot me, Jack.  I’m only the piano player.” 

Roget joined them at the table.

Tasha picked up Davis’ chip.  She stood on tiptoes and kissed him.  “You sounded so convincing this afternoon, what are you doing at a roulette table?”

The croupier spun the wheel.  The ball clacketed into 00.

“Sorry,” said Tasha.

 “Done with your contracts?” He handed Tasha a stack of ten dollar chips.

“The last of them,” said Tasha.  “What are you doing?”

“Trust me, I’m not gambling.”

An immaculately groomed, clean-shaven yuppie wearing sunglasses, a chronograph, and too much aftershave completed the group.

“Now we’re cooking with gas,” said Eric. “Place thy bets, all.”

Everyone lost.

Davis played ODD-EVEN and the occasional field number for the next twenty minutes. He repeatedly tried to make eye-contact with Roget, who ignored him.  “C’mon Tasha, lets get something to eat.”  As he turned to leave all eight solenoids tickled his feet.  He checked out Roget, the tiny lady, and the yuppie. The yuppie opened his jacket, touched the shutter release on is 35mm and the solenoids danced again.

“Place your bets,” said Eric.  He set the wheel and the ball in motion.

The solenoid indicating octet seven tickled Davis’ foot:  “Six, eighteen, thirty-one, nineteen, eight.”

“What?” said Tasha.

Davis spread five ten-dollar bets.   Just before the ball TOCKED into a cup Davis realized he’d bet octet eight’s numbers.  The croupier cleared the chips, paying Imelda on a column bet.

Davis sneaked a look at Zenny.  He’d shaved and wore a wig, a light-weight suitcoat over a yellow t-shirt, and Davis guessed, tasseled loafers. He’d changed the leather camera strap to a woven one reading:  I © CABO SAN LUCAS.

Eric spun the wheel and launched the ball.

Left midfoot—octet two—35, 14, 2, 0, 28.  Like a housewife chasing scuttling cockroaches across a yellowed linoleum countertop, Davis covered all but the 0 with ten dollar chips.

“What’s wrong with you?” asked Tasha.

“He’s playing octets,” said Imelda.  “Your boyfriend is a smart man.”

“Nothing wrong,” said Eric, “with playing a system.  House pays fourteen.”  He counted out two columns of chips and slid them across to Davis.  Eric spun the wheel and dispatched the ball.  Right toes—octet five—24, 3, 15, 34, 22. Davis fumbled a fistful of hundred dollar chips from his coat and spread them like a farmer sowing corn.  Imelda chased his bets, adding a two dollar chip to each number Davis had bet.  Zenny played 00 and a column bet.  Roget and Tasha played BLACK.  The ball’s trajectory deteriorated.  It skittered and hopped before perching in number 3’s hollow.  Eric calmly adjusted his horned rims and counted out $70 for Imelda and $3500 for Davis.

“You,” said Imelda, “are lucky for me.”

“Give that disk a twirl,” said Davis.

Eric smiled and spun. 

Tasha scrutinized Davis.  His attention was diverted, it was if he were listening to a symphony through invisible headphones—he was absorbed.  She played BLACK.

Roget played ODD; Zenny fingered his camera and Davis felt octet three—9,26, 30, 11, 7—but instead of nudging the sole of his foot it burned; Zenny’s electronics were overheating.  Davis spread his hundred dollar bets.

Imelda chased Davis with ten dollar chips.

“House pays twenty-six,” said Eric.  He paid Imelda and said to Davis,  “You are hotter’n pistol shit, Jack.”

Davis winced—all eight solenoids were heating up—and said, “You got that right.”

“Are you okay?” asked Tasha.

“I’m on fire,” said Davis.

Rooster, who apparently slept at the Ode to a Nightingale, appeared at Eric’s elbow and said, “How much are we down?”

Eric said, “Ten-thousand, eight-hundred and change.”

“I didn’t know,” said Rooster, looking rumpled and feeling his age, “that you played roulette, Davis.”

“First time. Beginner’s luck,” said Davis.  “What’s the table limit?”

“Five-hundred,” said Eric.

“No limit,” said Rooster.  “But this is the last bet you place in this casino.”

“What’s that smell?” said Tasha.

Eric spun.

Solenoid one burned through Davis sock.  He frenetically placed stacks of hundred dollar chips on 21, 33, 16, 4, and 23.

“No one,” said Rooster, “hits eight out of ten field numbers.  The house gets even right now.”

Davis cringed and hopped.  The ball plopped into 6’s groove.

“Shit,” said Zenny.

Then the ball popped out and settled into the neighboring number 21.

Davis had already retreated from the table, “Eric, cash me out and send the check up to Ken Moro’s suite.  Tip yourself.  Big. Later, Rooster.” Tasha in tow, Davis hopscotched through the casino.

Eric figured Davis’ winnings and wrote the number down for Rooster.  “Pissant restaurant manager,” said Rooster.

“Smart man,” said Imelda.

Eric spun the wheel.  Roget played $10 on ODD; Zenny $2 on BLACK.  They both lost and left the Ode to a Nightingale casually, slowly, through two different exits.

 

25

 

Davis opened a bottle of Petrus and poured Tasha a glass.  His feet had frozen vegetables ace bandaged to the soles—emergency ice-packs.  Tasha’s chat noir  purred in his lap; Tasha snuggled, rubbing her chin against his shoulder.  They TINKED glasses, kissed, and Davis explained about the solenoids, the camera, and the fact that he was, in truth, thieving and not gambling.

“You look terrible.”  She spit on her fingers and smoothed his scorched eyebrows.

“It’s been a hell of a week.”

That’s when the doorbell rang.  Tasha yelled. “It’s open.”

Yurri Briscoe, looking awkward and on the verge of tears, entered and said, ”I’ve been looking for you, Davis.”

It only took the cops three hours to discover John Barleycorn’s burned down, thought Davis, I love this town.

Yurri swallowed with difficulty and said,  “Woody McGuire’s just been killed.”

 

26

 

Woody sat in the darkness.  Felicity bobbed up and down.  The hot wind from the eastern desert had whipped Lake Wally into near whitecaps.  “Goddam,” he said to the water, “I might regret not pulling the trigger.” He started the boat, motored to the dock and moored it.  The moon slowly appeared above the desert, illuminating Paiute Mesa and the rutted road to the house.  Woody had been in such a shitty mood that, rather than taking his pickup, he’d walked up to his racetrack with the rifle on his shoulder.  Throughout his life, whenever an unpleasant task faced him, it seemed a good walk helped. It wouldn’t cheer him up, but a stroll fortified and allowed him to accomplish the task at hand.  And again, throughout his life, he occasionally needed a moment of solitude to break down and cry; to violate every macho principle that had been beaten into him by his father.

This evening, for the first time in his life he’d let his emotions interfere with the task at hand.  He needed to destroy evidence; to wrap up this Future Glue thing so the money he’d won would be free, clear, and forgotten.  But he just couldn’t force himself to pull the trigger.

Now, one more task he’d been putting off; but a more pleasant task.  He needed to drive down to John Barleycorn’s and settle up with Davis.  He shouldered his rifle and walked back home.

 

Woody plopped onto a sofa with the rifle across his lap.  Kaitlyn watched a videotape of On Golden Pond.  She said, “I didn’t hear a shot.”

“I couldn’t do it,” said Woody.  “Goddam, but I love that horse.”

“You’re a cast-iron marshmallow, I’ll shoot the horse tomorrow morning.”

“Can’t we just put it out to pasture?”

“You knew that destroying Future Glue was part of the plan.  What if Rooster or Raymond or Svoboda came out here and saw—“

“Shit.  It’s almost not worth it.”

“It’s decided,” said Kaitlyn.  “Now shut up and watch the movie.”

“I’ve got to get down to John Barleycorn’s.  Davis is expecting me.”

“He’s gonna hemorrhage when you give him the money.”

 “I know.  Do me a favor?  Get me Davis’ money?”  She nodded and skipped down the stairs.  Woody picked up the phone and called Davis at John Barleycorn’s.

 

Woody tucked the Nike box full of cash under his arm.  He walked outside and breathed deep.  He looked up at the stars.  “There’s Orion.”  He made a resolution to learn the names of a few other constellations.  Maybe that would be his new hobby, now that he was finished with horse racing.

But how could you bet on a star?

He unlocked the truck, then withdrew the key. Kaitlyn had to drive to Nightingale Meadows and pick up the horse tomorrow.  If he took the truck tonight she’d have to stop for gas in the morning.

He opened the Jaguar’s trunk and tossed in the box o’cash.  He slipped into the leather seat and adjusted the mirrors.  He fastened his seatbelt and turned the key.

Almost a mile away Woody’s nearest neighbor, Dirk Januleski, heard the explosion.