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by Alan Kaufman

The machine that stamped your name onto a flattened penny cost a dime to operate. It was owned by Tipper Flannagen, a convivial freckle-faced young man with flaming red hair who also owned the gun-fighting Black Bart robot that laughed when he shot you and the mechanical Fortune Teller whose great distinction was that it had once been rented by CBS for an original episode of the Twilight Zone, back when his father, Rodney, had owned the business, years ago.

That his father had found cause to leave his life's work to Tipper was nothing short of astonishing. For years Tipper had been off on his own, hanging around life in an unbuttoned, unlaundered flannel shirt, torn jeans, and Frye boots, partying with his homeboys in Washington Square Park, rebel to the bone. He'd call his father about twice a year to borrow money and hurl drunken and largely false accusations over his father's alleged mistreatment of Mrs. Flannagen, a thin, bony look-alike for her son and a drug addict hooked on high-priced pharmaceuticals which she took by the handful, and in the process eating up every last cent of Rodney's hard-earned profit.

If ever the business of arcade games knew pioneering days, it was during those years when entrepreneurs like his father introduced the latest innovations to their public, though what exact good this did -- societally speaking -- is difficult to say. Rodney Flannagen died bitter, his world littered with bogus astrological predictions, fake bullets, and flattened pennies, and leaving behind a business whose estimated worth ranged between fifteen and twenty thousand dollars.

Upon learning of his father's surprising legacy to him, Tipper's first impulse was to sell the works for anything he could get, cop a kilo of coke, rent a hotel room by the month, hook up a VCR, stock up on porn videos, and keep a woman of pleasure on one month's retainer to show up in something tight-fitting and cherry-colored whenever the urge took him. Instead, he cold-turkeyed for a week, got himself into an outpatient treatment program, and showed up pale and sick but dressed in a suit in the lawyer's office, to go over the books and finalize the papers effecting transfer of ownership.

There were five thousand dollars left in the bank. He used one thousand of this to begin repayment of debts that for years had hung over Rodney's head like a steeple full of bats; another thousand to secure rent on a business office and warehouse space for three months; and yet another thousand to repaint and refurnish his father's dingy but spacious apartment in a run down tenement on Ludlow Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The remaining two thousand he left as a cushion against unpleasant surprises. Then he went out to pound his turf, a string of candy stores, shooting galleries, bars, carnivals, amusement parks, and movie stores stretching from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to New Canaan, Connecticut.

He did the rounds himself in his father's sturdy black Oldsmobile, introducing himself with personable enthusiasm as the new owner, and a junior Flannagen with a vision. He tried to assess the situation from his customer's point of view. Some had machines in back of their establishment doing nothing more than occupying space. He tried to reinvigorate these accounts by doing something as simple as exchanging machines between two establishments. When those began to pay off he added a third, better-paying client into the loop and initiated the practice of rotation. He was the first to do it: no easy matter. Nervous or apathetic clients had to be convinced of the benefit in having machines hauled in and out through their doors every three months. Some took longer than others to see it. Eventually, though, everyone agreed.

Then came the malls, and Tipper Flannagen's salad days began. Soon he was game outfitter to every mall between New York City and Providence, Rhode Island, buying out the competition's inventory to expand his operational base and opening new accounts as fast as the malls went up.

When video came in, he jumped on it. In the mid-Eighties he partnered with two Japanese investors and by Nineteen Ninety had made his first million. In 1997, FORBES listed Tipper Flannagen among the country's three hundred richest entrepreneurs. NEWSWEEK hailed him as the Arcade Video Game King of America.

Now, he no longer oversaw his products, but had a team to run the show. He played golf and cut deals and dabbled mainly in research and development, cyberspace, virtual reality, and CD-ROM. The new technology obsessed him. He didn't understand all of it but liked to hang around the whiz kids in reversed baseball caps who drove themselves pitilessly, seeking more and more spectacular ways to engross the customer.

He had never been married or ever been in love. Games had been his whole life. The Fortune Teller, Black Bart, the penny stamper, all comprised a private museum collection in his palatial New York office on the banks of the Hudson River. He hired a ghostwriter to tell the story of his life and the result made the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list for a week. He was fit, powerful -- trained with a boxing coach, ran half marathons, and lifted weights. He tore up Route 9W twice a week to the Nyack-based research lab with a collie named Rapunzel in the passenger seat of his black four-wheel-drive Cherokee. If he needed sex he called a discreet escort service used by many of his friends: The girls were mostly gorgeous college students, smart and self-aware and kept as clean as possible under the circumstances.

*    *    *

One morning, his secretary, Blanche Dillard, told him over the intercom that a Miss Whitely was on the line. Would he take the call? He had to consider this for a moment. He had met Miss Whitely on only three different occasions, the last time in this very office, late one night when he had just not felt like having to take the usual steps to attend to his "personal hygiene", as he called it. Just this once he had allowed the service to send a girl over but only on condition that she or the service never under any circumstances ever attempt to contact him there in the future. And now, here it was.

He had to take the call, had no choice. It had to be important for them to break their promise.

"Put it through," he said.

Her voice came on, high-pitched, young, a good girl's voice. "Mr. Flannagen, it's me, Darlah Whitely. You know. Your occasional 'friend.'"

"Yes, Darlah," he said. "I guess there's no point in saying more than once what I thought I'd made perfectly clear."

"No," she said sadly. "There isn't, Mr. Flannagen. I'm afraid I've got no choice. The clinic kind of insisted I do this."

His heart missed a beat: "Clinic."

"It's the Redgrave Clinic on East Fifty Eighth Street, Mr. Flannagen. You know, my boss, Miss Colbert, takes good care about these things, and she says that it's nobody's fault, such things happen and she'll pay all my medical costs right to..." Her voice broke. His heart pounded. "Oh, Mr. Flannagen, I'm so scared."

"Well, we'll just abort the thing," he said impatiently. "Heaven's sake, accidents happen. I'll pay for it. Some place out of town. The best money can buy."

Taken aback, her voice jumped a decibel, became squeaky. "Abort?

"Mr. Flannagen, what are you talking about? There's no baby. I wish it was a baby. Oh, I'd be so glad if it was that, Mr. Flannagen. It's AIDS, Mr. Flannagen. I've got full-blown AIDS."

They both stopped speaking and she quietly sobbed. He switched off the intercom with caution, a soldier dismantling an unexploded mine, and stared straight ahead at his thoughts.

"Bull," he said finally. Then again: "Bull."

But in her antiquated glass booth the mechanical Fortune Teller didn't seem to see it that way at all. She came to life, winking slyly. And he knew with the dreadful certainty of many years experience that her wink could be relied upon absolutely to bode ill, having come all this way on the advice of her deterring winks and encouraging, if tattered, prediction cards.

Still, it was human to hope against hope, and so in one last, desperate bid for life, he thrust a dime into the lucky penny machine which had produced so many strokes of marvelous luck for him in the form of flattened pennies, and punched in his name, but for the first time in all these years the mechanism stuck, and in a rage he struck the jammed machine with his fists again and again but nothing budged.

He was dead in the water, and knew it, having relied on these machines for the only part of his life that had ever meant anything to him, and he would depend on it one more time. Collecting himself, he stood before the mirror in his office, staring into his own eyes, struggling to make a decision. He weighed the pros and cons of the situation. Full-blown AIDS meant certain, painful death. His mind was made up.

From his desk drawer he removed a single bullet and holding it up before him like a ceremonial object practically marched over to Black Bart and loaded the round into the next chamber set to fire on the robot's gun. Then he stood before the black-garbed machine gunslinger, drew his last deep breath in this world, dropped a quarter into the slot, and placed his hand on the handle of the revolver in the holster at his side.

Black Bart creaked to life. "HaHaHaHaHa!" he bellowed. "Why, look at you! A dude! Pardner, you just bought yourself a world of trouble! Why, I'm the deadliest shot in the West. When I say 'draw', draw, and heaven help you if ya miss, cause I sure won't."

"What a windbag," Flannagen remarked under his breath. In all the years of seeing Black Bart in operation he had never before remarked it.

"Awright," snarled Black Bart. "DRAW!"

Half-heartedly, he drew to activate the gunfight. Black Bart fired. The round struck Flannagen in the ear and sent him hurtling to the floor, screaming with his hand cupped to the side of his head, blood gushing through his fingers. He rolled on the ground in blinding pain. But when it had eased enough that he could bear to sit up, he realized that it was only a flesh wound.

Furious, he shouted at Black Bart: "You're a lousy shot! You damned windbag, you shot me in the ear!"

Cursing, he crawled to his feet, staggered to his desk drawer, removed another bullet, dragged himself over to the haughty robot, and kicked it with all his might, though with little effect. He loaded the round into the next chamber set to fire. Then he resumed the position of adversary, though he moved to the right and kicked a telephone book, knocked to the ground from a nearby shelf, and stood on it to place his heart directly in the six-shooter's line of fire. Weak from the pain, now wanting it all to end as quickly as possible, he dropped his coin into the slot.

"HawHawHawHawHaw!" Black Bart bellowed. "Comin' back for more, are ya, ya pantywaist! Well glad to oblige!"

"You idiot!" Flannagen spit. "Shoot straight, damn you!"

"Say bye bye to this world, Old Stuff. I'm taking you out on this one."

"Let's hope so!" snarled Flannagen.

"DRAW!" Black Bart howled.

He drew. Black Bart's bullet capped his knee, pretty much blew it off, but didn't come even remotely close to killing him. The injury, though, was unbearable. He wept and wailed and prayed to no avail while Black Bart stood there, frozen, waiting.

The fury which now possessed Flannagen was beyond comprehension. He literally had to drag himself over the floor, leaving on the rug a broad swath of blood in his wake; only just managed to fumble a handful of bullets out of the drawer, dragged back, and loaded them all into Black Bart's six shooter. Then he jerked up the cuff of Black Bart's jeans, exposed a mechanism that only repair technicians know about -- a rapid-fire switch which, when thrown, would cause the robot's trigger finger to squeeze without pause until every last round had been discharged and even then, continue clicking. Then he crawled to his station facing Bart, hoisted himself to his feet, dropped in a quarter.

"HawHawHawHawHaw! Don't you know, city slicker, you can't win against the likes of me. I'm the meanest hombre west of the Pecos. Put your hand on your gun and prepare to meet your maker."

"Please," gasped Tipper Flannagen. "Please don't miss."

He drew. In rapid-fire succession he received non-lethal, searing wounds to his wrist, elbow, shoulder, hip, and for good measure, as Flannagen's agonized body spun to the ground, Black Bart blew off the tip of his nose.

"HawHawHawHawHaw!" he barked as Flannagen rolled in a delirium of pain.

"Black Bart at your service, I always aim to please." Click, click, went his trigger finger.

"You're a horrible villain," Flannagen gasped, barely above a whisper. "A horrible villain."

"Course I am," crowed Bart. "Course I am...." his trigger finger clicking.*

Story copyright ©1999 by Alan Kaufman < >

Artwork "Black Bart" copyright 1999 by Duncan Long <>





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