by Ken Grimwood



Jeff slapped the cards down one at a time, face-up, on the dark green Holiday Inn bedspread. He flicked them off the diminishing deck as fast as his fingers could move, and as he did so, Frank droned a now-familiar hypnotic chant: ‘Plus four, plus four, plus five, plus four, plus three, plus three, plus three, plus four, plus three, plus four, plus five – stop! Hole card’s an ace.’

Jeff turned the ace of diamonds over slowly, and they both grinned.

‘Hot damn!’ Frank chortled, slapping the bedspread and sending the cards flying. ‘We are a team, my man, the team to beat!’

‘Want a beer?’

‘Fuckin’-A told!’

Jeff uncrossed his legs, walked across the room to the cooler on the table. The curtains of the first-floor room were open, and as he pried the tops off two bottles of Coors Jeff looked with fond admiration at his new grey Studebaker Avanti by the kerb, gleaming in the lights of the Tucumcari Motel’s parking lot.

The car had drawn curious stares and comments all the way from Atlanta, and would probably continue to do so for the rest of the drive to Las Vegas. Jeff felt totally at ease with it, even found a certain comfort in its ‘futuristic’ design and instrumentation. The long-nosed machine, with its bobbed rear deck, would have looked attractively state-of-the-art in 1988; indeed, he seemed to recall that an independent firm had still been manufacturing limited-edition Avantis during the eighties. To him, here in 1963, the car was like a fellow voyager in time, a plush cocoon spun in the image of his own era. Nostalgic as he’d felt about the old Chevy, this machine evoked an even stronger, reverse nostalgia.

‘Hey, where’s that brew?’

‘Comin’ up.’

He handed Frank the cold beer, took a long pull of his own. They’d taken off right after Maddock had graduated, at the end of May. Jeff had long since stopped going to classes, was flunking out, and no longer cared. Frank had wanted to drive the southern route, stop over in New Orleans for a few days of celebration, but Jeff had insisted they take a more direct path, skirting past Birmingham and Memphis and Little Rock. Outside the cities there were newly opened patches of interstate highway every couple of hundred miles, with speed limits of 70 or 75, and Jeff had used their smooth, broad-laned isolation to push the Avanti near its 160 mph peak.

The depression and confusion Jeff had felt after the abortive evening with Judy Gordon had been largely dissipated by the Derby win. He hadn’t seen her since that night, except in passing, on campus. And he’d stopped agonizing over possible explanations for his predicament, aside from the times when he’d awake at dawn, his brain demanding answers that could not be found. Whatever the truth might be, at least he now had proof that his awareness of the future was more than just a fantasy.

So far, Jeff had managed to deflect Frank’s questions about what had led him to such a spectacular win. Maddock now assumed Jeff to be a handicapping prodigy, with some secret method. That image had only been strengthened by Jeff’s refusal to make a follow-up wager on the Preakness, two weeks after the Derby. He’d been sure that Chateaugay would win two out of three of that year’s Triple Crown, but he couldn’t remember which of the Derby sequels the horse had lost; so, despite Frank’s protests, Jeff had insisted they sit out the Preakness. Candy Spots had taken the race by three and a half lengths. Now not only was Jeff certain of victory in the upcoming Belmont Stakes, but the resurgence of Candy Spots had driven the odds back up on Chateaugay.

The betting had given Jeff a new sense of purpose, distracted him from the hopeless quagmire of metaphysics and philosophy in which the answers to his situation lay buried. If he weren’t insane already, another month or so of brooding over those imponderables surely would have driven him to that point. Gambling was so clear-cut, so soothingly straightforward: win or loss, debit or credit, right or wrong. Period. No ambiguities, no second guessing; especially not when you knew the outcome in advance.

Frank had gathered up the scattered cards, was stacking and shuffling them. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘let’s do a double deck!’

‘Sure, why not?’ Jeff straddled a chair next to the bed. He took the cards, reshuffled, began to dole them out.

‘Plus one, plus one, zero, plus one, zero, minus one, minus two, minus two, minus three, minus two …’

Jeff listened contentedly to the familiar litany, the running count of aces and tens as they were dealt. Frank had been avidly memorizing charts and tables from a new book called Beat the Dealer, a computer study of betting strategies in blackjack. Jeff knew from his own reading how well the card-counting method actually worked. By the mid-seventies, casinos had begun barring anyone who played with those techniques. In this era, though, the dealers and pit bosses had welcomed any sort of system players, considered them easy marks. Frank should do all right, hold his own at the very least; and if he were absorbed in the thrill of his own triumphs at the 21 tables, it might divert his attention somewhat from the more spectacular win that Jeff expected to achieve in the Belmont.

‘… minus one, zero, plus one – stop! Hold card’s a ten.’

Jeff showed him the jack of clubs, and they slapped five. Frank drained his beer, set the bottle on the nightstand next to half a dozen other empties. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘One of those drive-ins we passed on the way into town was showing Dr No; want to check it out?’

‘Jesus, Frank, how many times have you seen that movie already?’

‘Three or four. It gets better every time.’

‘Enough already; I’ve OD’d on James Bond.’

Frank looked at him quizzically. ‘You what?’

‘Never mind. I just don’t feel like going; you take the car, the keys are on top of the TV.’

‘What’s the matter, you in mourning for the Pope? I didn’t even know you were Catholic.’

Jeff laughed, reached for his shoes. ‘Oh, what the hell, all right. At least it’s not Roger Moore.’

‘Who the hell is Roger Moore?’

‘He’ll be a saint someday.’

Frank shook his head and frowned. ‘Are we talking about the Pope dying, or James Bond, or what? You know, buddy, sometimes I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.’

‘Neither do I, Frank; neither do I. Come on, let’s go to the movies. A little escape from reality, that’s what we need.’

They drove straight through to Las Vegas the next day, spelling each other at the wheel of the Avanti. Jeff had never been to Nevada, and the neon-lit Strip seemed emptier, less thoroughly gaudy than he recalled from movies and television shows of the eighties. This was pre-Howard Hughes Las Vegas, he realized, before the influx of Hilton and MGM money had built the massive, ‘respectable’ casino hotels. Those that now dominated this surreal little segment of Nevada State Road 604 were low-slung, racy legacies of the postwar gangster era: The Dunes, the Tropicana, the Sands. ‘Rat Pack’ Vegas, straight out of old caper movies with jivey, finger-snapping soundtracks. There was still a provocative hint of evil in the hot, dry air.

They checked in at the Flamingo, put sixteen thousand dollars in cash on deposit with the hotel casino. The assistant manager, all teeth and swagger, comped them to a three-room suite and all the food and drink they wanted for the duration of their stay.

Frank spent the evening checking out the blackjack tables: number of decks used, rules on splitting and doubling down, speed and personality of the various dealers. Jeff watched along with him for a while, then grew bored and went off to wander around the casino, absorbing the bizarre ambience of the place. Everything seemed illusory here. The brightly coloured chips representing enormous sums of money, the flashily dressed men and women … desperate façades of sexual bravado and a pretence of limitless, uncaring affluence.

Jeff went back to his room early, fell asleep watching ‘The Jack Paar Show.’ When he got up the next morning he found Frank pacing around the living room of the suite, grumbling to himself and periodically referring to a set of makeshift flash cards.

‘Join me for breakfast?’

Frank shook his head. ‘I want to go over these one last time, and hit the tables before noon. Catch the dealers at the end of the morning shift, when they’re starting to fade.’

‘Makes sense. Good luck; I’ll probably be out by the pool. Let me know how it goes.’

Jeff ate alone at a table for six in the hotel restaurant, reading the Racing Form. The odds were still climbing on Chateaugay for the Belmont, he noted happily; but none of the dozens of other races mentioned in the paper meant anything to him. He wolfed down a double order of scrambled eggs with a thick slice of country ham, then had a large stack of pancakes and a third glass of milk. For the last few years he’d got in the habit of skipping breakfast entirely, maybe grabbing a Danish and the first of many cups of coffee on his way to work; but this new, young body of his had its own appetites.

Frank had gone down to the casino by the time Jeff went back to the room to change into his bathing suit. He grabbed an oversized towel and a copy of V, stopped by the hotel gift shop for a bottle of Coppertone (with no PABA rating, he noted), and found himself a lounge chair by the pool.

He saw her right away: wet black hair, sculpted cheekbones. Breasts ample but firm, belly trim, legs elegant and shapely. She raised herself from the pool, smiling and shining in the desert sun, and walked towards Jeff.

‘Hi,’ she said. ‘Anybody using that chair?’

Jeff shook his head, motioned an invitation for her to sit beside him. She stretched out on her back, flicked her dripping hair over the back of the canvas chaise-longue to dry.

‘Can I get you something to drink?’ he asked, willing his eyes not to linger too long or too obviously on her droplet-beaded body.

‘No, thanks,’ she said, but smiled and looked straight at him, taking the edge off the refusal. ‘I just had a Bloody Mary, and the heat’s making me a little dizzy.’

‘It’ll do that if you’re not used to it,’ he agreed. ‘Where are you from?’

‘Illinois, just outside Chicago. But I’ve been here for a couple of months, think I might stay awhile. How about you?’

‘Atlanta right now,’ he told her, ‘but I grew up in Florida.’

‘Oh, so I guess you’ve always been used to the sun, hmm?’

‘Pretty much.’ He shrugged.

‘I went to Miami a couple times. It’s nice, but I wish you could gamble there.’

‘I grew up in Orlando.’

‘Where’s that?’ she asked.

‘It’s near-’ He almost said ‘Disney World,’ stopped himself in time, then started to say ‘Cape Kennedy,’ though he knew that wasn’t the real name of the place, even in 1988. ‘… near Cape Canaveral,’ he finally finished. His hesitation seemed to puzzle her, but the awkward moment passed.

‘Did you ever see any of those rockets go up?’ she asked.

‘Sure,’ he said, thinking of the drive he and Linda had made to the Cape in 1969 for the launch of Apollo II.

‘Do you think they’ll ever really get to the moon, like they say?’

‘Probably.’ He smiled. ‘Oh, my name’s Jeff, Jeff Winston.’

She extended a slender, ringless hand, and he grasped her fingers for an instant.

‘I’m Sharla Baker.’ She took her hand back, ran it through her straight, wet hair and down her neck. ‘What kind of work do you do in Atlanta?’

‘Well … I’m still in college, actually. I’m thinking about going into journalism.’

She grinned good-naturedly. ‘A college boy, hmm? Your momma and daddy must have plenty of money, sending you to college and to Las Vegas.’

‘No,’ he said, amused; she couldn’t have been more than twenty-two or twenty-three herself, and he’d been automatically considering the age difference from the opposite perspective. ‘I paid my own way here. Won the money on the Kentucky Derby.’

She raised her delicate eyebrows, impressed. ‘Is that so? Hey, have you got a car here?’

‘Yeah, why?’

Her long, tanned arms arched lazily above her head, swelling her breasts against the nylon of the demurely styled, old-fashioned bathing suit. The effect, to Jeff, was as erotic as if she’d been wearing one of those outrageous French-cut designs of the eighties, or nothing at all.

‘I just thought we might get out of the sun for a little while,’ she said. ‘Maybe take a drive over to Lake Mead. You interested?’

Sharla lived in a tidy little duplex near Paradise and Tropicana. She shared the place with a girl named Becky, who worked the 4:00 P.M.-to-midnight shift at the information booth in the airport. Sharla didn’t seem to do much of anything, except hang out in the casinos at night and by the hotel pools in the afternoon.

She wasn’t really a hooker, just one of those Vegas girls who liked to have a good time and weren’t insulted by a little gift or a handful of chips now and then. Jeff spent most of the next four days with her, and he bought her several small presents – a silver ankle bracelet, a leather purse dyed to match her favourite dress – but she never mentioned money. They went sailing on the lake, drove up to Boulder Dam, saw Sinatra’s show at the Desert Inn.

Mostly, they fucked. Frequently and memorably, at her apartment or in Jeff’s suite at the Flamingo. Sharla was the first woman he’d been to bed with since this whole thing had begun, the first other than Linda since he’d got married. Sharla’s eagerness for sex more than matched his own. She was as wanton as Judy had been coy, and Jeff revelled in the heat of her unrestrained eroticism.

Frank Maddock took occasional advantage of the outright play-for-pay girls who were a feature of every lounge and casino, but he spent most of his time at the blackjack tables. Winning. By the day of the Belmont, he’d run his own stake up another nine thousand dollars, of which he generously offered Jeff a third for having bankrolled this venture in the first place. Between them, they now had almost twenty-five thousand dollars on deposit with the hotel; and Frank was, with some reservations, willing to go along with Jeff’s insistent notion that they bet it all on the one race.

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