The Big Gamble

When John Middleton opened his hotel suite door, I shot him. The little .22 revolver popped twice, and a hole appeared in his right shoulder. I meant to kill the squirmy little sonofabitch, but he twisted away at the last second. My other shot imploded the big-screen LCD television behind him. I walked in and kicked the door shut with my foot. Middleton scrambled behind the white leather couch in the sitting room. The gun hadn’t been any louder than, say, a couple of firecrackers. Up here on the penthouse floor, most people wouldn’t have even heard it. Middleton didn’t say anything at first, just little “huh, huh, huh” sounds in the back of his throat.

I went over the couch like a swimmer diving into the surf, grabbed Middleton by the lapels and thumped him twice with the butt of the gun. The second time I thumped him, he lay still. I wanted to keep hitting him, but instead I got up and walked to the other end of the room. There was champagne chilling in a silver bucket. I grabbed the bottle by the neck and swigged down a couple of big swallows. I’m not a violent guy – not by nature. Then I set the bottle down on a glass-topped coffee table and took the ice bucket back to Middleton. He was trying to sit up, so I helped him. The carpet was thick burgundy pile and had probably cushioned his head a little. I put a couple of ice cubes in his palm and pressed his hand against his temple where the skin had split open.

He looked up, dazed recognition in his eyes. He tried to scramble away from me, but I was right there on top of him, tapping the muzzle of the little .22 against the bridge of his nose every time he squirmed. He was already woozy from the gunshot and the beating. Pretty soon he settled down.

“You?” He said.

“You stole my money,” I said.

“Like hell,” he said. “I won it. You don’t own that damn machine.”

“My name’s not on the papers, but that was my machine. That was my payout you stole.”

“Go to hell,” he said. “You’re not getting anything from me.”

“I already got something from you,” I said. “I got screwed.”

I hit him with the butt of the gun again, and this time he stayed out for a while.

I knew that machine was going to pay off big. Progressive slots always do. You know the kind I’m talking about, a row of slot machines with a big board across the top showing the big jackpot in blinking LED numbers. Go into Harrah’s on Canal Street, walk past the roulette, the craps tables, the blackjack and poker tables, past the penny-ante stuff that I can’t make sense of anyway, and there’s a row of six slots. The big board above them read $6 million and change when I started playing. That was one year, six days, three hours and eleven minutes ago. I play the second machine from the right. It’s a dollar machine, and if you bet the maximum–that’s three bucks a whirl–you could win it all.

In the year-plus I’ve been playing, nobody hit on the progressive machines. No big winners. I watched the numbers climb. On the progressive, every spin adds a few more cents to the pot. My first day in New Orleans, I won five hundred at the machine, and it had been paying out in dribs and drabs ever since. I hate to admit it, but I fell in love with that machine. It was like the girl in high school who led you on but never put out. I was determined that machine was going to put out for me.

I got a room in a fleabag motel two blocks from Harrah’s on Decatur. The room was grim and gray, but the towels were clean and there was cable television. I played that machine five days a week, eight hours a day. Sometimes I’d hit a hundred dollar spin, and that money would go into my pocket. One time I hit for two grand. But mostly what I won was walking-around money. It was easier than a real job. I could make five hundred a week, but that big board with its neon numbers had gotten into my head.

When I was away from the casino, all I could think about was getting back to it. I tried to work it from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. I took Monday and Tuesday off, but I had to be there on the weekends, because that was when the tourists came over from Mississippi or Alabama. I didn’t want some toothless hick getting his hands on my machine. It would be like finding out your girl was cheating on you. And when I went home at night to my little grungy room, I could hear that machine calling to me.

What happened was this: I was late. No two ways about it. I was late, and that was my fault. I stopped into the motel office to pay the weekly rent. Should have done it the night before, but I’d had a little too much of the watered-down firewater they serve for free at the casino. I had hit the machine for a grand and decided I owed myself a good dinner. The result was that I slept for about twelve hours, only to be awakened by the manager’s knock.

“You going to pay or get out,” he said. I’m assuming it was a question, but it didn’t sound like one. The sun was bright outside, and I knew I had overslept. I just didn’t know how badly.

“I’ll pay,” I said, blinking at the bright sun. “Where the hell else could I go?”

The manager didn’t know what to say to that, but he went away. I could tell I’d overslept, but I needed a shower and my mouth felt like the Chinese army had camped there on a two-week bivouac. When I was done in the bathroom, I stopped by the office and paid for the next week.

By the time I got to the casino, that little twerp Middleton was at my machine. Of course, I didn’t know his name at the time. That came later, after he got his picture in the paper. It made me nervous, looking at his narrow shoulders and balding head underneath the big jackpot readout. I knew it was going to happen. Don’t ask me how. Maybe it’s the fatalist in me. I ordered Jack and Coke from the waitress, drank it and watched that louse spin. In the months since I had begun playing, the jackpot grew. It stood at $17 million and change that morning.

So you know how the story goes: The four diamonds rolled over, the bells went off, Middleton leaped up from his chair and screamed, and the LED over the bank of dollar slots exploded into one word, over and over: WINNER! WINNER! WINNER!
Security hustled over and confirmed that the machine hadn’t been tampered with. Kilkenny, the head of security, saw me watching the show and shook his head at me, as if in apology. We’d sat in the casino bar a couple of times and had a few drinks together. Now he was escorting this little guy up to the manager’s office. I ordered another drink and wondered what in the hell to do now. Around me, the neon glowed and the people played. I just stared at that backstabbing machine.

About half an hour later, Kilkenny tapped me on the arm. He sat down next to me. I was on my sixth drink by then.

“You were right,” he said. “That baby finally paid off.”

I didn’t say anything.

“They’ll be coming down in a minute to do the check presentation,” he said. I knew what he meant. The casino manager and the big winner would stand behind a huge fake check. The winner would be grinning from ear to ear. The casino manager’s smile would be much more cramped. Casinos are supposed to take money, not give it back. Some kid fresh out of college would come and take a picture for the Times-Picayune and ask a couple of dumb questions. The winner wouldn’t know what to say. I would have known. I had rehearsed it in my head a thousand times.

“It should have been me,” I told Kilkenny. He looked at me funny.

“I knew you’d see it that way. That’s why I’m here. Supposed to make sure you don’t do anything stupid.” He opened his right hand, big and square and hard like a stonemason’s. There was a roll of quarters in it.

“If you try to do anything stupid, I’m going to slug you in the kidneys with this before you can get out of your chair,” he said. “You’ll piss blood for a week. And as many drinks as you’ve had, you’ll ralph all over the floor.”

I nodded.
“Been keeping tabs, have you?” I took another pull of my drink.

“That’s the job,” Kilkenny said. “Just stay steady. You’ve won some good money here. No reason to get blackballed because you think somebody owes you something.”

“Sure,” I said and ordered another drink.

So I didn’t think I was going to do anything. Have you ever been hit by a guy holding a roll of quarters in his fist? It hurts like hell. But when the casino manager and John Middleton came out with that check, I couldn’t help myself. I wandered over to watch, just like nearly everyone else in the casino. I was conscious of Kilkenny off to my left and a little behind me. But when the newspaper guy told them to hold up the check and smile, I shouted.

“That’s my money! You were playing my machine, you little weasel!”

I was moving toward the little platform where the two of them were standing. People were turning to stare at me by the time Kilkenny got to me. When I felt his fist drive into my back, a wave of nausea gripped me and I folded like a card table. I hit the floor on my knees, and the drinks I’d had for breakfast came back up, burning and hot. Kilkenny was right there to pull me up. My eyes locked with Middleton’s for just a moment, and as they dragged me toward the Canal St. exit, I kept my eyes on him the whole time.

Outside, Kilkenny shoved me toward the steps. When I turned around, he moved in front of me. The hand with the roll of quarters in it came up about chest high, and I knew he was going to level me if I took another step.

“Am I blackballed?” I said.

He grinned.

“Stay gone for a month. Come back after that, we’ll let bygones be bygones.”

I turned around and went down the steps and back to my motel. There was a gun packed away in the bottom of my duffel bag back in my room, and I knew what I was going to do.

Harrah’s puts the big winners up in the Westin Hotel. It’s right by the casino and close to the River Walk. I knew some of the staff there – had met them, and even gone to bed with a couple of the cleaning ladies. Hey, sex is easy when you’re not picky. Of course, maybe they weren’t that picky, either. But I was on good terms with a few of them, and I used a five-hundred-dollar chip to bribe myself one of the magnetic cards that accessed the elevator to the penthouse.

So here we were, Middleton and me. He was in his boxers and robe, bleeding quietly on the floor from the gunshot wound to his shoulder and the gun butt to the temple. I pinched him a couple of times on the inside of his skinny, pale thigh to try to bring him around. When that didn’t work, I stepped hard on the bleeding shoulder.

He groaned and tried to move. I dug my foot in a little harder, and Middleton opened his eyes. I took him by the hair and yanked him up into a sitting position. He began to slump over, and it took both of us working to get him positioned against the couch so that he could sit up and talk to me.

“What do you want?” He said. His voice was slow and thick, like it cost him a great deal to dredge it up from the bottom of his throat.

“My money.”

“Not … yours,” he said, and passed out again.

It had seemed so simple. Go up to his suite and get my money. But on the way up I had gotten so worked up, so angry, that I’d tried to kill Middleton the moment he opened the door. The winner’s suite was nice. Two floors, and the smoked glass walls on the second story let you see the city in 360 degrees. The Mississippi River and the big bridge that spanned it (I had never learned its proper name) were beautiful from this distance. But that was illusion. Any city looks beautiful from a distance. But the very nature of a city makes promises it can’t afford to keep. Up close, a city is messy and filled with problems. Just like life.

I didn’t really want to kill Middleton. I wanted my money. All I could see in my head were those flashing lights shouting WINNER! And if Middleton was the winner, what did that make me? I thought about it for a long time, and then I thought about going back down to my machine and putting my money in. Spinning slots for another year or maybe more? With no guarantee that it would pay out again? I couldn’t do it. No, I was committed. Couldn’t back out if I wanted to.

I went back to Middleton, and snapped my fingers along the underside of his nose. He came out of it slowly, and I remember thinking he either had a concussion or maybe a cracked skull.

“Please,” he said. “I have a family.”

“And my money,” I said. “Are you ready to make your wife a rich widow?”

He shook his head slowly.

“Good. Are you ready to pay me the money?”

He shook his head slowly again.

“Here’s the plan. You pay me, I go away. You get your head checked, get the bullet taken out of your shoulder. I go to some deserted beach in South America, someplace they don’t have an extradition treaty.”

This time he paused to think about it.

“How much?” He asked, finally. I laughed. This was good. This wasn’t robbery. This was a negotiation.

“All of it,” I said.

“Two million,” he said.

“Is that all your life is worth to you?” I said. “I’ll tell you what. You insult me again, and I’m going to shoot you in the head, right behind the ear. Little bullets like these bounce around in your skull. And then I’ll get your wallet and go find your rich widow.”

I let the threat hang in the air for a minute.

“I want it all,” I said.

“I won that money,” he said. “It was your machine, sure. You played it a lot?”

“Quit stalling,” I said.
“I’ll give you four mil,” he said. “That’s nearly a quarter of the money.”

I cocked the revolver. I didn’t need to because it was a double-action, but cocking it is a hell of a dramatic move. Middleton’s eyes widened.

“Half,” he said. “I’ll give you half.”

Hell of a deal. I took it. We spent the rest of the afternoon together – part of the time with him on the phone to his bank. Eight million in cash is heavy, too heavy for one man to carry. So we arranged nine bearer bonds to be sent to the penthouse. By the time the bank courier was there, I had Middleton up and dressed. We plugged the gunshot wound with a thick bath cloth, and I bandaged his head with supplies from the hotel-issued first aid kit under the kitchenette sink.

The courier checked Middleton’s ID while I stood out of sight behind the penthouse door. When he closed the door, I took the bonds from him and examined them closely. Eight million dollars.

“You really think you’re going to get away with this?” Middleton’s mouth was pulled down in a grimace. It wasn’t pain—not the physical kind, anyway. I’d have frowned like hell if eight mil of my money was walking out the door, too.

“I already have,” I said. “You got a nice life somewhere, and this way you get to keep it. The way I look at it, you got half of my money. You’re getting off easy.”

Middleton didn’t say anything. He just stared at me with an intensity that built and built. I knew if I didn’t get out of there soon, he’d make a jump for the gun. If I really wanted to kill him, that was my chance. I took the gun by the barrel and slugged Middleton with it again. But I was nice about it – I hit the other temple this time. He was out before he hit the floor, and that was the last I thought about the guy.

I spent seven months in Brazil, keeping a low profile and renting local girls by the hour. It was a routine license check on the way out of Sao Paulo that got me. They ran me through the computer, and I didn’t come up. Out came the handcuffs, and into custody I went. I don’t feel bad about it. ID is harder and harder to fake, even when you have millions. But I had enough money for a good lawyer. I figured I would be okay. But something had gone wrong somewhere. I’d been in the can three days and no lawyer – not even a mention of one. Every day the cops would question me. It would start off easy and then get more and more tense. At the end of the first day, I had been sweating and trembling like a used-up racehorse. The next day, they’d been questioning me for an hour or so, with my hands locked to a metal ring in the center of a drab steel table in the middle of a drab, cramped interrogation room.

That’s when John Middleton came through the door. He had thinned down in the months that had passed. Before, he had looked well-fed and happy, probably like any other middle class-American citizen.

Now he looked thinned down and honed. He looked hungry.

Middleton held out his hand to one of the officers in the room. The cop unsnapped his holster and handed his big 9-millimeter automatic to Middleton. Middleton reversed the gun and took it by the barrel.

I could see it coming, but I couldn’t move. I was locked down to the table, and I guess I knew it was payback. He swung, and stars exploded in my skull. The big bang. I could feel blood trickling down my face as my temple started to swell. From somewhere in another galaxy, Middleton said, “You stole my money.”

THE END

A version of this story originally appeared on Smashwords. If you’d like to download it for free, go HERE. Thank you for reading! –Bobby