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by Danny McCaslin
Time slows to a screeching halt when there's a gun pressed against your head.
Andrew suddenly remembered something that someone once told him right after the first "incident." It was his uncle. Uncle Lou. He had said, "Boy, you always have to ante up, and the more you put on the table, the more you have to lose. The only way to be sure of anything is to stack the deck or stay the hell out of the casino." Uncle Lou had a bit of a gambling problem.
And as Andrew knelt there, knees digging into the cold wet pavement of a September night, those words kept creeping through his head. The symbols of the fast life: cards,cash, roulette, slots, chips, dimes, quarters, and nickels. They were Vegas to him. That cold pavement was Vegas, too; the nights of Las Vegas where the desert air drops to a shiver, and the wind blows the sand onto the streets and into gated communities. The dry heat of the day was replaced with a cold that made your lungs ache for the comfort of warm air.
He also remembered something else, something in a book about the mob in Vegas. Sooner or later, the house always wins.
Andrew always won in slots, due to what his mother used to call his "incidents". The rules were simple; play a hundred bucks and win five hundred, then play a couple hundred more. The trick was not getting greedy. So far the house had never won when Andrew Larkin was playing.
"So," Andrew thought to himself. "If that's true, then why am I on my knees in the middle of a street in North Vegas while a cop I've never seen before holds a goddamn hand cannon to the side of my head?"
The answer, he thought, was probably Charlie. The answer in situations like this was usually Charlie. But there were more pressing things to think about right now, like what that baggie half-full of what appears to be cocaine is doing in this cop's hand and why the barrel of the gun smelled more like an electrical fire than gunpowder residue.
That last part, of course, was easy. Las Vegas, along with a lot of major cities with crime problems, had recently begun to equip their officers with these new high-current energy weapons, what the street gangs and cops were calling "lasers". These guns used an electric current focused by a couple of mirrors and projected from the gun as a pin-sized beam of electricity. The military special ops units liked them because they left almost no visible wound. The heat sutured the mark, leaving just a small scar.
Andrew knew this. A cop friend had even shown him one.
The cop searched Andrew's jacket. Then he knelt down, breath stinking of stale cigarettes and coffee. Andrew knew a lot of cops around here. So why didn't he know this one? And for God's sake, where did all of that blow that the cop was waving in front of his face come from?
Think, think, think, think, think! Damnit! Andrew didn't do coke. Not anymore. Coke made him hyper, and when he was hyper he had a much harder time controlling his incidents. The only people Andrew knew who did coke were all in the movie business, they didn't have any reason to frame him. Besides, he knew perfectly well that the cop could put him away just as long with the bag of grass tucked beneath the spare tire in his trunk where Charlie stashed it earlier that night. Why bother to frame him with coke?
Because it wasn't a cop, something inside of him said. Because it was someone else.
The concrete was starting to hurt his knees, and his shoulders and elbows were starting to ache from holding his hands behind his head for so long. His mind kept going back to Charlie.
* * *
Charlie was blonde with a gorgeous smile and the body of an eighteen-year-old. She reminded you of that cheerleader you always wanted to bag in high school but never had the balls to ask out. She lived in Beverly Hills with her father, an action-movie director. He did low-budget movies with lots of pyrotechnics that didn't quite match the big box-office numbers but always brought in high returns on the investment. In the Hollywood that Charlie's father lived in, high returns were the only things that mattered.
Charlie was smart, street smart, in a way that Andrew appreciated. She always knew where to find the good weed and she was always up for a good time. She knew all about his incidents, and knew how to use them to her advantage. She also knew how cute she was and wasn't above flashing a little skin in order to get out of a few parking tickets.
When he was with Charlie they drove around town in her Beemer. It sure beat his Ford P.O.S. with no air-conditioning and the passenger-side door that wouldn't open. Sometimes, if she was feeling lucky, she would let him drive. It gave Andrew a kick to roll down Melrose in a fancy car with his ratty clothes and wave at all the rich broads as they shopped.
He and Charlie had met at a Hives show at the Whiskey. He offered to buy her a drink. She shook her head and flashed a platinum card at the bartender, who immediately hopped to and started pouring the both of them martinis. Andrew hated martinis, but never gave up a free drink. He learned that lesson from his father. They went back to his place and she stayed all night. With the flash of that platinum card, he knew he was in love.
She even invited him home, taking him out back where her father was sleeping topless by the pool. She showed him their private theater. She even showed him her father's impressive gun collection.
His arms and knees still ached, and the cop was saying something about calling for backup. He stood behind Andrew and talked into a radio. Except that Andrew never saw a radio on his belt.
Of course, Charlie hated it when Andrew brought up ripping off her father. "We could get half a mil' for that antique Remmington he has hanging in his den," he said once. "I know a fence. He'll handle it."
"I can't do that," she said. "I'm my daddy's little girl." She started to giggle. He laughed along with her and they started to kiss. But the idea, that big score, was always there.
"Don't you worry about money, baby," she would say. "Charlie's gonna take good care of her little Andrew."
* * *
"Is this your cocaine?" the cop was asking. The pain in his shoulders was really starting to get to him. He blinked twice and looked straight into the cop's eyes.
"Nope," he said.
"Well if it ain't yours, do you mind telling me where it came from?"
Andrew had a good idea what was going on. He now knew where else he had seen the gun, and he had some idea of why he was being set up. "You must have put it there," he said. That cold, hard look, the look of a killer, flashed through the cop's eyes. Before Andrew had a chance to react, the cop flipped the safety off of the gun, pressing it more firmly against Andrew's sweaty skull. Then there was a sudden explosion and everything went black. Andrew hit the pavement hard.
* * *
The first time Andrew had one of his "incidents" he was in the third grade. He and his father had been wrestling on the floor in the family room. His father pinned him and he let out a loud scream. The next thing he remembered was seeing his father put out the television with a fire extinguisher
It happened again at school. This time he was taking a test and he felt the hair rise on the back of his neck. Suddenly the fire alarm blared to life and the twenty children in his class started screaming. They ran down the stairs in a panic.
The principal checked the alarm computer and the alarm apparently was triggered from Andrew's classroom, even though no one had even broken the glass cover.
After that Andrew learned how to short out surveillance cameras and cheat at arcade games. He could break and complete circuits, blow fuses, and destroy electric mechanisms. He was a criminal in the making, but all he could think about was the big payoff.
The closest thing he could find to explain what it was he could do, what his mother called his "incidents," was an electromagnetic pulse. An electromagnetic pulse disrupts electricity and shorts out radios and televisions. The military has been known to use it to create black-out conditions when they move into an area. He could do all of that. Better yet, he could control it.
In the end his uncle was right. Everything in life is a roll of the dice. Everything is chance. Andrew's existence proved that beyond doubt. But Andrew was different. Andrew was born with a stacked deck.
Andrew was 18 when he first set foot in a casino. That was in Atlantic City, and he walked immediately over to a poker table, laid down some money, and lost it. Same with roulette. He had better luck at blackjack, but ended up losing to a rich New Yorker in the fourth game. He lost five hundred dollars in just over an hour. He had one hundred left. The casino was happy.
He walked over to a slot machine, played two quarters and won his five hundred back. He switched slots and after playing a hundred more in quarters, he came out with another three in winnings. At the end of the night he walked away with almost six hundred in profit. Pit bosses stalked him; casino guests cheered him on. No one picked up. After all, how could they?
But even though they couldn't prove he was cheating, he knew from the look on the manager's face behind the cage that he would not be welcomed back to that casino again. That was okay by him. He used his winnings to go west to Los Angeles, out to where Vegas was just a quick hop over the desert.
That's why he was so good at the slots. Good and smart. He moved away from a machine as soon as he started to look suspicious. He always lost the right amount. He always knew when to quit, usually with a couple of grand in his account with the Bellagio, his favorite slot spot on the strip. That made the casino feel even safer. They knew that with a permanent account he would be back to play another day.
* * *
When Andrew came to, he felt a warm liquid trickle from his ear. Blood. The sound of the explosion had ruptured something in his ear. The pain was unbearable. He saw the cop lying on his back, his arm on fire. He was dead.
He caught his breath and ran to his car. Throwing open the trunk, he dug around beneath the spare tire to where Charlie had hidden the weed. What he found was half a bag of grass, the antique Remington pistol, and four stacks of fresh, crisp, banded one-hundred-dollar bills.
He smiled. This is what Charlie meant by "taking care of him." He put the gun in his waistband, closed the trunk, and got into the car.
Before he took off, he checked the gun. He knew there would be six perfect bullets inside even before he opened it. He knew this because Charlie was smart; certainly smart enough to rip her father off and have it pinned on the one guy who could put the old man away without getting caught. She knew he was going to Vegas tonight. She knew her daddy would send one of his cheap goons. She knew that Andrew would figure everything out and she knew, as he knew, that it was a long drive back to Los Angeles and that anything could happen.
As Andrew knew full well, the house doesn't always win. He was living proof.
As he drove away along Highway 15 toward L.A., he did remember that day at Charlie's house. He remembered seeing her father sunbathing, overweight, and covered in tiny white hairs, his belly looking pale. He also remembered, as Charlie knew he would, that scar that his own father had during his last years, that unmistakable marking on the chest. He smiled.
Charlie's father has a pacemaker. Excellent.
Story © 2003 by Danny McCaslin email@example.com
Illustration © 2003 by Romeo Esparrago firstname.lastname@example.org
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