Nightingale’s Police Station had been, in the 1930s, the largest mortuary in the state of Nevada. In what is basically a two-city state, ninety percent of the population and businesses are situated in Reno and Vegas. But the folks who live in the sand and the sagebrush do their share of living and dying and are in need of the same essential services as cityfolk: restaurants for the hungry, motels for the weary and adulterous, hospitals for the sick, and mortuaries for when the hospitals are done with their sick. Evitch’s Mortuary, established 1929, serviced the entire top third of Nevada, from the California to the Utah border, for forty-one years. Franz Evitch designed the white building from its Ionic columned anteroom to the living quarters on the third storey.
In 1970 when the Nightingale police force had outgrown its antediluvian, silver-rush era jailhouse it was a no-brainer to convert the mortuary. It featured a boulevard-width driveway and a large windowless chapel that was easily transformed into a bank of holding cells. Viewing rooms were retooled into offices and interrogation rooms. And the mortuary already featured, of course, a morgue in the basement.
It was when speaking about this basement morgue that the original owner, Franz Evitch became excited: “It features with new electric refrigeration units and old-fashioned ice blocks,” he’d say in his almost incomprehensible Slovenian accent, “for caring of the clients both ways good.” Throughout the Depression and into the latter years of WW II the mortuary would have been shut down if not for the old-fashioned method of laying the corpses out on ice, because electrical failures were commonplace. When the electricity failed, Franz would light a few more candles and send his son to the icehouse. The younger Franz Evitch II would return in the mortuary’s flatbed Ford filled with iceblocks packed in sawdust. Young Franz would open a large hinged door over the ice chute, and slide the hundred pound blocks of ice down to the basement. When the Nightingale police force had first occupied the building the ice chute’s door was nailed shut and forgotten about. In the years since, the back of the building had become overgrown with sagebrush and greasewood. The old ice-chute had nearly been forgotten.
It was through this nearly forgotten chute that a ski-masked, black clad person entered the basement morgue of the Nightingale police station. By starlight and with the aid of a winch on his four-wheel drive vehicle, he pulled the frosty remains of Wanda Marie Tounens up through the ice chute. Headlights off, he motored away through the trackless sage. It had taken less time to liberate Wanda Marie and veil her in a tarp than it had been to order at Burger King, wait for and receive two Whoppers with extra bacon that he ate in the truck on the way back to Mauro Ballatore’s.
After work, Davis cruised the HumVee past his old house three times. The canvas top was folded down, allowing the night air full access to Davis’ sweat-soaked work clothes. He had to keep his jacket buttoned all night to hide the garish KFLO t-shirt. On each lap he slowed and almost stopped, staring at the twins’ dark bedroom window. On the fourth lap he stopped and said, “Good night, girls.”
The all-weather track at Sagrado State College was a solid urethane compound designed not to crack or fade in the desert sun. At forty degrees the track became as inflexible and unforgiving as concrete. At sixty degrees it was slightly spongy. At eighty-five degrees, the precise temperature at 12:07a.m., the running surface was perfect. The urethane was pliant and giving when the foot struck and springy as the runner rocked from heel-to-toe and pushed off. Davis, barefoot and stripped down to the black-and-orange-striped-Tigger-boxers the twins had given him for his thirty-ninth birthday, started his second lap. A three-quarter moon, bright enough to cast a shadow, lit his way around the oval. When Davis ran alone he always ran counter-clockwise around the track; opposite the direction that races are run. At work that evening he’d consumed seven mineral waters and four cups of coffee in an effort to dilute today’s—and this week’s—whiskey intake. He ran to chase away the aftertaste and mental cobwebs produced by the booze.
As Davis started his third lap he became aware of a legion of devils, but he couldn’t decide if he were the pursuer or the pursued:
DIVORCE: I can’t stand Joan, but sonuvabitch, I’m pissed and more than slightly embarrassed my marriage failed.
THE ELECTION: Rooster disproves Mark Twain’s statement: It’s so hard to find men of a so high type of morals that they’ll stay bought.
JOHN BARLEYCORN’S: The White Albatross around my neck. My unsanitary nestegg.
ALOYSIUS TUGGNUTT: Len lost; we’re even. I’m done gambling.
WOODY McGUIRE: The weasel who talked the farmer out of the keys to the henhouse. What’s he got going with Future Glue?
LISA: Bless you for taking care of my babies.
WANDA MARIE: I was just in love with the idea of being in love after a dire and arid marriage.
YURRI BRISCOE: I want Wanda Marie’s letter.
Davis used to think that each run had a life of its own. Ten years ago, after he’d stopped training for 10Ks and marathons, he realized that every run is a life of its own. In its course, no matter how long or short the run, there are twangs of pain and despair; flickers of joy and release. There are the opposites of ease and exertion. And on rare occasions, catharsis.
He started his fifth lap.
DIRK: Here’s my resignation. Thanks for the shot at radio, I love it, but I suck.
FREDDY: He’s dead and not coming back in a sequel. I’ll miss the polluted, sirloin-mooching sonuvabitch.
JOAN: Goodbye and good riddance.
FUTURE GLUE: It’s the old gambler’s saying, I’ll bet this one sure thing, then I’m done.
BOB: You’re fired. I can’t see you four days a week and not treat you like a brother; even if you are in bed with Ciccarelli.
He started his sixth lap.
BLUE SAMSONITE: Two-hundred and seventeen thousand in cash. Hm.
KAITLYN McGUIRE: Not just the kept woman. Not just the Keep Your Breasts woman.
MAURO BALLATORE: You’re being used worse than I am, Amico, but you’re still an intolerable prick.
UMBERTO CICCARELLI: Stromboli the Puppet Master; but who’s hooked to strings and who isn’t? Who’s pulling Umberto’s strings?
JEFF: All is not what it seems.
GAMBLER’S ANONYMOUS: I hate those inane meetings, but I’m slipping out of control—which ironically, is the attraction, charm, and allure of gambling.
JENNIFER AND ALEXI: I can’t live without them.
TASHA: I really don’t know...
He started his seventh lap.
Polonius asked the reading Hamlet, “What’s the matter?” and the Prince of Denmark replied, “Words, words, words.”
That’s all that filled Davis’ head: Words, words, words.
Davis had always felt the lack of a Unified Theory in his life. Something that connected his mind with his emotions, his mystical musings with his rational reality. Most things he tried—running, corporate America, meditation, cynicism, music, immersion in Mark Twain—he attempted wholeheartedly, but none of them worked and all of them left him feeling stupid, used, and incomplete.
That’s when he’d immerse himself, again, at the horse track.
The track was a microcosm that accepted and encouraged all modes of human thought-process. Pouring over Speed Ratings and numerically, logically, eliminating each horse until you established a clear favorite was an intense, engrossing, and rewarding-unto-itself activity. But equally acceptable and exciting was a bet placed on a hunch. The horse’s gait; its name. A gut feeling that today is the day for this horse. An implacable, serene certainty. These were the times Davis felt most alive: the divergences of human thought and emotion were unified at the track, and Davis loved it. He’d skip work at Shearson and drive down to Del Mar or over to the Orange County Fair and spend his days handicapping; surrounded by horses, harmony, jockeys, concordance, odds, bliss, and contentment.
Until the cash advances on his charge cards were disallowed.
Davis always knew that there was more to the world than rational scientific skepticism: reducing it to that single dimension did the world and yourself an injustice. But he also knew that giving away his rational thought process to a cult or a guru, to a religion or an outmoded ancient tradition was surrendering a large and important part of his individual human identity and responsibility. The three situations in life when he felt whole and happy and non-self-conscious were at the track; when he was cross-eyed and drooling during an orgasm; or on those rare occasions when his running clicked.
Ten strides into his eighth lap Davis’ mind, that insistent, irritating, always talking persona faded.
The only thing that existed for Davis was the muted slap and recoil of his naked feet after each stride. The temperate, almost cool, night air on his sweat-sopped chest and back. The ebb and flow of air in his lungs. The active relaxation of his limbs as he pumped around the track. There is a moment, when you’re on your stride, warmed-up and running in perfect time with your breathing, that it feels like flying. Your feet touch the ground because your humming gyroscopic gravity pulls the earth toward you. You’re the center of creation; the night air is created for you to breathe, the moon is there to light your way, the speed and momentum of Davis O’Kane’s body keeps the universe from spinning out of control.
Davis, mindless—aware of nothing and everything—started his ninth lap.
And he flew.
Barefoot, shirt unbuttoned and still sweating, Davis arrived at Zenny’s trailer twenty minutes later. He reviewed the, fairly typical, Friday evening at John Barleycorn’s on the drive across town: a fight in the bar, a greasefire that—had the sprinkler system been operable—would have shut the place down, a visit from Grimes, and a shouting match between Jeff and Barbara. But Davis handled it all perfectly.
He sat in the office, drank coffee, and listened to the phone messages accumulate on the office line:
“Davis-ah? This is Umberto. Pick up.”
“Hello Davis? His is Joan. Where do you keep the children’s aspirin. Pick up? Goddamit—please just pick up?”
“Davis? Len here. Shit, I guess I cared more than I let on about that election. I’m at my uncle’s now, and if I don’t stop drinking right now I won’t be able to run with you tomorrow. Later.”
“Rooster here. What do you know about that horse of Woody’s? The old fart is covering side bets for the Sagrado Derby. Big, serious bets. He’s giving odds and wants to bet his half of the mining company against mine. Call me. I’ll pay you a consulting fee. Call me.”
“Davis? I had fun at the Silverpanners’ game today. Let’s do lunch before the Derby tomorrow. Le Bistro at 11:30? I just assumed we were going to the Sagrado Derby. Together. I left my number at the bar. Call me.”
“Davis? This is Lisa, your babysitter? Joan keeps calling me, asking about bedtimes and baths and aspirin. I’m going over to take care of it, I just thought you’d like to know the girls will be okay. I’ll spend the night if I have to.”
“Davis, this Kaitlyn McGuire. Have the Theroux boys call me. I have some work for them at the ranch. Toodles.”
“Davis, this is Mauro. Answer the phone, you prick. Umberto’s been calling me every ten minutes. I know you’re in the office drinking coffee, Porco Dio, answer the phone.”
“Davis, this is Woody. You just remember what I said about investing Futures in my Glue industry, boy. Am I right?”
“This is Len. You’re running alone tomorrow.”
“This is your MCI customer service representative. Are you satisfied with your current long distance service?”
Then finally, the twins: “Goodnight, Pops. Mom went for a drive and Lisa let us sneak out of bed to call. We love you.”
Davis erased the messages. He had heard, years ago—probably in college—that a person’s life is like a sculpture. You begin as an unblemished and virgin portion of stone; then parents and preachers and teachers start chipping and polishing until you’re shaped and final and whole. Davis’ sculpting process for the past few years more closely resembled a pack of vandals gouging, scraping, defacing. He felt less like a proportioned statue and more like an amorphous, shapeless, meaningless exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.
Three hours later Davis, while closing up, had popped a steak on the grill before he remembered Freddy was dead, his car impounded, and he would be spending the night at Zenny’s
Zenny’s trailer sat on a bluff overlooking the desert to the east and the twinkling little burg of Nightingale to the west. Davis parked the HumVee next to Zenny’s Saturn. A strange light flickered inside the trailer, like the reflections from a mirrored disco ball. Davis, small suitcase in hand, walked up the three steps to the front door and rang the bell.
It didn’t work.
“Hey Zenny,” yelled Davis. But his voice floundered in the CHUFF-CHUFF, CHUFF-CHUFF of a US Navy helicopter that bulleted down the valley about forty feet off the ground. Davis spit out sand and tried again, “Hey Zenny?”
“It’s open, man.”
Davis pushed the wafer-thin door open. The kitchen, spotless and polished, was to the right. A pot on the stove simmered, filling the small trailer with a humid saffron smell. In the hallway, a framed portrait of Carl Sagan, and three guttering votive candles stood watch over an open copy of Cosmos. Davis looked to his left. Zenny and Roget stood beneath a hooded light fixture. The green-glass fixture illuminated a spinning roulette wheel that had been erected in the center of the living room. The wheel was a B.C. Wills with electrical wires protruding from it like a patient on life support. One of the electrical leads connected to a hand-held calculator cradled in Zenny’s left hand. Three stacks of chips stood like sentinels on the emerald, numbered grid. Without looking up, Zenny said, “Welcome, grab a beer, wine, smoke, whatever.”
Davis tossed his suitcase onto an opened sofabed. The brothers continued their intense vigil over the wheel. Roget, the same height as Zenny, seemed taller because he shaved his head. The intense light reflected from his pate.
“One. Two. Three,” said Zenny.
On three Roget started the wheel spinning clockwise and a roulette ball into a counterclockwise orbit. Zenny punched buttons on the calculator. As mesmerized as the Creator after setting Newton’s Universe in motion, the brothers tracked the ball. “Octet six, octet six,” said Zenny.
Roget spread five bets on 00, 27, 1, 13, and 36.
The ball PLIK-PLOK-PLUNKED into 36’s cup.
Roget smiled and paid himself from a rack of chips beneath the table, “What’s up, Davis?”
“I was about to ask you,” said Davis.
“One. Two. Three,” said Zenny. He punched, Roget spun and launched a ball. “Octet three, octet three,” said Zenny.
Roget scuttled chips across the table to 7,11,26,9, and 30.
PLIK-PLOK-PLUNK. Lucky number 11.
“Sonuvabitch,” said Davis. “Hitting back-to-back field numbers at thirty-five to one? That’s over twelve-thousand two-hundred and fifty dollars.”
Zenny nodded. “One. Two. Three.”
With accuracy nearing eighty percent the brothers hit bet after bet for the next forty minutes. Then Roget said, “I’m tired.” He walked across the room and stood silently, eyes averted, in front of Carl Sagan’s picture. His lips moved, barely.
“Roget,” whispered Zenny, “is into Saganism.”
“Isn’t that Paganism?”
“No,” said Zenny. “He worships Carl Sagan. Since nineteen eighty-one he reads one page of Cosmos before bed.”
Davis nodded and watched Roget turn the page. Roget performed a convoluted Sign of the Cross that included his ears, nose, and testicles. Then he exited the trailer.
“Davis,” said Zenny, “would you like some paella?”
Halfway through his second bowl of paella, Davis said, “What’s up with the wired roulette wheel?”
“Roulette is the only game of chance whose outcome relies on the same Laws of Physics that govern planetary motion, man. The rotor spins this-a-way, and decelerates at a given rate.” Zenny gestured and gesticulated, bobbing and twirling his fingers, arms, and torso. “Different for each wheel, but it can be determined easily enough. The ball orbiting that-a-way also decelerates at a given rate, depending on altitude, humidity, temperature, initial speed and whether the ball is made of Teflon or ivory. C’mon.”
Davis followed his host to the roulette layout with his paella and ate during Zenny’s explanation: “In order to develop a computer program which predicts where the ball will fall on the wheel you have to take in the parameters of tilt, bounce, scatter, and drag. Tilt is obvious, the wheel can’t be perfectly level. Bounce and scatter is the equal and opposite reaction of the ball hitting the wheel.”
“And drag,” said Davis, “is dressing like a woman.”
“Surprisingly, wind resistance and not friction is responsibly for the drag. That’s why altitude and humidity must be factored in. On the same wheel a ball will decelerate quicker at sea level than up here.”
“Anyway, we divided the wheel into eight pizza slices. Octets. When the little computer I built is tuned in accordance with the predictable variables it will forecast, more often than not, which octet the ball will fall into.”
“That’s impressive. Hell, amazing. But Zenny, no casino in the world will let you wire up one of their wheels and take their money.”
Zenny walked over to Sagan’s picture and removed it from the wall. He pulled what looked like a credit card from the frame’s back.
“A miniaturized microprocessor that runs my roulette program. It should be twice that size, but I stacked it like a sandwich and filled the circuits with micro crystalline wax.” Zenny touched four copper leads, “The wires from the battery pack plug in here. These output switches send out a pulse of electricity. I’ve tried several ways of using it at a real roulette table. One almost worked.”
Davis finished his midnight meal. A good run and some real food had fortified him. “What was that?”
“I mounted it on the back of a gutted thirty-five millimeter camera. The f-stop and focus knob I rigged to set the wheel’s parameters. I pretend I’m taking pictures while I’m setting scatter and bounce. The camera body contained a big battery pack.
“To indicate the octet with a number of shocks. Three shocks, octet three. Eight shocks, octet eight. And it worked. It predicted three straight numbers. I didn’t double up my bets ‘cuz I didn’t want t draw attention to myself.”
Davis looked at Zenny’s unruly ponytail, multiple turquoise earrings, and two gold eyeteeth. “Good call.”
“I was up over six-grand. A crowd started gathering, along with a couple of Rooster’s goons. I started sweating, the croupier spun the wheel, and my moist shirt caused the electrodes to arc and the batteries discharged and almost electrocuted me, man. My knees buckled and I stumbled backwards and fell. Shit, what a mess. They rushed me to the hospital—heart failure—but not before Rooster’s goons busted up my camera.”
“I remember you calling in sick from the emergency room.”
“And you thought I was shitting you.” Zenny smiled. “The system works, but I need some heavy duty NiCads and a housing to smuggle it into the casino. And I’m outta money.”
“How much do you need?”
“Fifteen-hundred. Maybe two-grand.”
“What’d you do with the Samsonite?”
“Hall closet, between the Geiger counter and Roget’s spare parachute.”
“Woody swears Future Glue’s a lock tomorrow.”
“You shouldn’t be betting.”
Davis waved that away, “Let’s put down a couple thousand each. We’ll leave IOUs.”
Zenny switched on the hall light and retrieved the suitcase. He opened the valise and counted out equal stacks of twenty, one hundred dollar bills. Davis scribbled out an IOU which Zenny initialed. Before re-locking the case Zenny pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. “Read this.” He handed the letter to Davis.
dearest soulmate zenny:
i know you understand when i say: “life is a mountain and death is a feather. both of us, having had a furtive taste (what else is available, tell me please?) of the infinite, intimate reality know the frustration of having to function in this tedious, aggravating, infuriating, insane daily grind.
that is the mountain.
make your unique sojourn up that mountain easier by betting on my horse in the sagrado derby. this tip about future glue is my favor to you. please do this for me in return:
try to explain to davis about the feather.
Zenny held one pile of cash just out of Davis’ reach, “Is this sure thing tomorrow on Future Glue?”
He handed Davis the cash, “With Wanda Marie’s blessing, and only because of her.”
He returned the letter to Zenny. “What about this feather?” Davis could hear the sounds of the desert: the echo of a far-off coyote above the wind.
Zenny crinkled his brow, “Who taught you how to run?”
“Various coaches. Books. Runner’s magazines.”
“They improved your running; who taught you how to run?”
“She helped you to walk. I see you jogging around town with Len. There is a practiced and carefree confidence in your stride. Who taught you how to run?”
Davis sat stumped and silent; like a third grader puzzling over his first long division problem.
“Answer that question by forgetting that the question exists,” said Zenny, “and you’ll understand the feather.”
“Sounds complicated and mysterious,” said Davis.
“A bean burrito would be complicated and mysterious if you could only talk about it and never taste one.”
“Too much for tonight.” Davis yawned, dusted, then removed his cowboy boots. “Thanks for letting me crash here.”
Zenny pointed at Davis’ boots. “Do you special order those gunboats?”
“There’s a Big-and-Tall shop in Reno that sells them.”
“I’m gonna check on Roget.” He left.
The trailer swayed and rattled. The gusting wall of wind sweeping down from the Sierras sandblasted the town of Nightingale. The lights in the trailer flick-flick-flickered. “Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it.” Davis plopped down on the sofa bed and began counting the cash. Three bills into the stack he noticed the words IN GOD WE TRUST had been overwritten with BULLSHIT! in a broad black Keno crayon. “Sonuvabitch,” said Davis. “Wanda Marie had Woody’s money.”
There was no reply from the roulette wheel or Carl Sagan.