On the way back from Perry’s office he had passed by the Salt River Tribe casino and for no reason pulled into the parking lot. On this first day he just sampled different games for a few dollars. Later Steve had returned and played for higher stakes, trying to divert his thoughts more.
The slot machine beeped at Steve for another try, bringing him back to the present. Steve stood up from the slot machine and wondered if he could get back into the snooze bubble, like trying to go back to sleep when you are wide awake.
Back to the poker table? He asked himself. It’s not as random as the slots. More volition.
No, I feel like a piñata there, waiting to get clubbed. And too many eyes on me.
Without thinking too much about it, just listening to the background noise of beeps and dings and tinny music, he drifted over to a roulette table. Fancy name for a coin toss, he thought. Let’s try $100 for starters. See if that works. He exchanged his slot chips with the croupier and put down $100 on black, hoping to get drawn in to the game, into the spinning of the wheel and the black and red colors and the small hard ball knocking about.
A woman next to him leaned over and said in a low voice, “Not black – it’s been black the last five times. It’s due for red.”
He looked at her, a fifty-something dyed-blonde Scottsdale wife, lots of time on her hands and money to spend. “That doesn’t affect anything,” he said, somehow thinking it necessary to explain. “Each spin is independent of the others.”
Could you be more pedantic? He asked himself.
Blondie looked at him and pushed back, irritated that her valuable advice was thrown back at her, her voice a little louder, not needing to keep gambling secrets. “Do you think a string of six blacks happens a lot? You would bet on that?” Steve looked more closely at her and noticed, unwillingly, that some of her mascara had flaked off and fallen into the wrinkles around her eyes.
“I’m not betting on six blacks”, he said, annoyed himself. “I am betting on one black. And you don’t see, no one here sees,” he looked at the two other players, “it doesn’t matter if you bet black or red. The risk is the same. It doesn’t matter,” he said again.
Blondie turned back to the table. “If it doesn’t matter,” she asked softly, “then why not red?” She added a few chips to her pile.
The croupier tossed the ball into the spinning wheel and looked at Steve with flat, assessing eyes. The ball bounced and caromed and finally landed. “Red 5,” the croupier said, looking at Steve and scooping up his chips.
Blondie couldn’t resist a peek at him over her shoulder. “It’s random,” Steve said aloud to himself, to the table.
It reminded him again of the conversation with his professor friend. “Keep in mind that the odds, whether good or bad, don’t mean much for one try, for one person,” Harry had continued his lecture. “You know exactly what will happen over a thousand tries. You don’t know what will happen with one try.”
Still annoyed at Blondie, and letting himself get caught up in the moment, Steve walked over to the cage and exchanged a thousand dollars for chips.
That shows a lot of confidence in the policy, he remarked to himself.
Okay I guess that means the life insurance policy. There, I said it. Will you shut up now? He went back over to the roulette table and converted the chips. Without looking at the last result of the wheel he put the entire pile on black. “On black, sir?” the croupier asked impersonally, to confirm Steve’s wager. “On black,” Steve said evenly. He saw Blondie discreetly move her chips from several black numbers over to red. The croupier spun the wheel. “No more bets.” The ball bounced and skittered and finally landed.
“Red 23,” the croupier announced and swept away Steve’s chips first, before other players.
He stood for a minute as the croupier paid out wins and took losses. He looked at Blondie. She was facing away from him toward the table, quiet and unmoving, not yet placing her next bets. As if she was waiting for Steve to place his.
One thousand, he thought. Actually, eleven hundred. You can do better than that. Eleven hundred and nothing. Try ten thousand, will that get a reaction?
Forget it, he said to himself. This isn’t working. Forget it.
As if I could, he thought.
He walked out of the casino, defeated at gambling, defeated at forgetting, defeated at diverting his thoughts. The bright sun, high overhead and casting hardly any shadow, seemed to pin him down to the pavement. The blazing light pushed away any other thoughts. I get it, he said to himself, nothing here but me.
Steve walked toward his car with his head down, avoiding the sun’s reflections on the windows of all the other cars in the parking lot. He noticed one or two other people headed into the casino. I can’t believe he is wearing a sweatshirt, he thought, noticing a large black man headed in. A little automatically – not that it mattered now – he continued with that thought: how ridiculous to wear a sweatshirt in the desert…what a senseless concession to fashion.
As Steve unlocked the door of his Camry and bent to get in, he realized the sweatshirt man was next to him, right next to him. Before he could turn his head he felt something hard pushed against his head. “Don’t speak,” the sweatshirt man said quietly. “Yes, this a gun. Get in the seat and stay quiet.” Steve froze immediately, not understanding. The sweatshirt man reached over and unlocked the car’s other doors and, Steve still halfway bent, pushed on Steve’s shoulder to get him down into the driver’s seat. The sweatshirt man closed the driver’s door and nimbly slid in the rear. Later this would register with Steve as a deft move for a large man and a small back seat; but for the moment his brain was frozen. “Start the car,” the sweatshirt man said, “and head down to McKellips Road. Don’t talk.”
Still uncomprehending, Steve did try to talk. “I … I …what …” he stammered.
“Don’t talk. Just need the car for a bit. That’s all. Just drive like I say and keep quiet. You be fine. Oh, let me have your phone.”
Steve’s mind was still jammed, unable to reconcile the attack with the bright oppressive sunlight that somehow should have pushed all such things aside. He felt the gun pushed against his head again and slowly recovered some ability, going through the familiar motions of taking his phone out of his pocket and starting the car. He automatically buckled his seatbelt, which helped to bring him back to functionality at the same time he realized how incongruous the action was.
As his mind came back so did his body. His heart pounded hard enough to shake his chest back and forth. He couldn’t seem to hear anything. He was dizzy and disoriented. He raced the engine in neutral, jerked the car backwards in reverse, and then braked hard, rocking the car. “No,” he heard behind him. “Take a breath, take it easy.” Steve turned the car out of the parking lot onto the street. He tried again to speak, to plead as he was driving down Scottsdale Road, surrounded by other cars and drivers. “Stop that,” said the sweatshirt man. “I really only need the car for a little while. Just be quiet and drive to where I tell you. It’ll be fine.” The rear window rolled down and Steve heard his cell phone smash on the pavement.
The sound of the breaking phone shocked him back to a kind of paralysis. He could drive in a mechanical way but couldn’t get his mind to function. The man directed him toward the airport and in a few minutes they passed a group of run-down motels and came to an older industrial park with a few poorly-maintained warehouses.
The sweatshirt man made him stop the car outside one smaller warehouse and pulled him out of the car, with a firm grasp on Steve’s arm and the gun in the other hand. He led Steve through a large industrial door and across a large open space with a table and chairs in the middle but not much else. He was pulled further to the open door of an interior room. “Wait in here,” he said, brisk and implacable. Steve took his wallet out and handed it over. The man started to smile and then said “No.” He pushed Steve through the door and Steve walked in, still compliant. The door closed behind him.
It was a waiting room in a warehouse or factory, cheap furniture, a TV monitor bolted to the wall, fluorescent light panels overhead. No windows. No other door. The ordinary aspect, the dreary everyday-ness, made the situation even less understandable.
Gradually thoughts came back to him, thoughts other than his immediate terror. Gail, what about his wife Gail. His kids. What was he supposed to do today. The paralyzing sense of unreality faded away.
He heard voices outside the door. “Why’d you bring him? We just wanted the car,” said a new voice.
“We might need a driver,” heard the black man say. “This way we have one if we need one. If we don’t…”
Steve heard the shrug, and his stomach clutched and he felt sweat drip down his back. He tried the doorknob.
“Take the car,” he said.
“Relax in there, buddy,” said the new voice.
“Just take the car,” he said louder.
“Okay, we’ll take it.” Laughter.
Steve tried the doorknob again, rattling it a little, and was scared at the action. You’ll provoke them, he said to himself.
“Sit down, buddy,” he heard from the other room. “Take a nap. It might be a little while.”
Steve knocked again harder on the door. “Let me out of here,” he said loudly. “Take the car, but let me out of here!”
He heard steps and realized too late the door swung inward. Before he could get out of the way the door burst open and knocked him back, off balance. He managed to stagger backwards and fall on the green couch without falling on the floor.
A white man stared at him. Thirties, grim face, some sort of handgun tucked into his pants. “Buddy, relax and take it easy,” he said sharply. “It might be a couple of hours for all of us. Just stretch out and keep quiet.”
“What do you want from me?” Steve said, trying to keep his voice level.
Whitey looked through him and answered impersonally, “We need to use your car later on. For now I just want peace and quiet from you. I may want to doze off myself, so don’t get me up again.” He closed the door, lock clicking.
Through the door Steve heard the other voice complain: “A couple of hours?”
“Yeah, Mario called before you got here. He’s late, construction on the interstate from Tucson.”
“Shit, man. Will they still be at the restaurant?”
“I don’t know. But Tommy is waiting there now…he’ll let us know if they go anywhere.”
“I don’t know, man. Maybe we go without Mario. Why be chasing them all over.”
“Well, Mario is bringing the artillery. Special ATF delivery from Mexico.”
“Yeah, that’s how it is. Eat your burrito. Take a nap.”
Locked in the room, hearing the conversation through the thin walls, Steve felt a new kind of fear crawl through his insides. It was a more pointed fear, pushing aside for a moment, if he had thought about it, if it mattered, the more familiar depression and despair. Why is this happening, he thought. Why me, isn’t there enough happening to me. This is unbelievable. This is unreal, he tried to tell himself, but he was looking down at very real-looking dirty linoleum floor. He sighed, almost a sob, and leaned back on the cigarette-burned couch and looked at the ceiling. Oh God, he thought. What is happening? He looked at the ceiling panels. He thought fleetingly about whether there was anything above the panels. What’s the use, though. It doesn’t even matter. It doesn’t matter but why am I so frightened? My heart is still pounding, I am shaking and sweating all over. Stupid body, frightened out of inertia.
The minutes dragged past slowly, no sound from outside. He started feeling sick again and remembered that he was supposed to get the refill at the pharmacy. I could try to trade them the pain killers, he thought. I’ll say they need to take me to get the prescription, and then they can have it. He sat up and thought about what he could say to the men outside.
That’s a long shot, the pain killer thing, he said to himself.
Well, it’s 60 pills, they would want that, he answered.
Maybe …maybe don’t drag it out. What’s ahead anyway? Ruined family life, can’t enjoy anything, nothing gets through. Lost a thousand dollars back there and it didn’t feel like anything. What’s the big deal? What’d they say anyway, six months? Of eating food that tastes like crap, six months of being more and more of a burden on the family? Gail is supposed to like doing diapers?
“It’s not supposed to get like that for a while,” he said aloud.
Well, it’s not like the heels are clicking now. It’s not like there is some great benefit now.
He looked at the locked door. Another wave of despair came over him. No, there isn’t some great benefit now, he thought. Maybe I can just stay here on this lousy couch. He felt the ache start up in his belly and hunched over more. The pain was a little less that way. He hunched over, his face pushed against the couch, focusing on the growing pain and letting it drive away other thoughts. This is as good a place as any. Why do anything at all?
Suddenly he heard some low voices in the other room, then shouting, from Whitey and the sweatshirt man, and heard a new voice, loud and cursing. He got up from the couch and moved toward the door to listen. There was thumping and banging along with the new voice. The commotion grew louder and he backed away from the door just as it burst open again and the sweatshirt man pushed somebody into the room, a short and skinny younger guy covered in tattoos. The new guy stumbled backward and fell against the far wall, cried out, and immediately jumped up and ran to the closing door. He leaped and slammed against the door as it closed, cursing and kicking the door. “Fuckin’ pimps!” he shouted. “I don’t know anything! Shit eating pigfuckers!” He kicked the door a few more times and then noticed Evans. “Help me bust this door,” he demanded, “We’ll both rush it!” Steve was dazed anew by this development and found it hard to react. “Come on,” the new guy cried, “We’ll hit the door at the same time, take it off the hinges!”
Steve finally found his tongue and said confusedly, “But they’re right out there…they are on the other side, aren’t they?”
The new guy looked disgusted and kicked the door again. He is so agitated he is vibrating, thought Steve. He stared at the tattoos on the back of the new guy’s neck, in a kind of arabesque pattern that flowed up until covered by short brown hair. Suddenly the tattooed man grabbed one of the plastic chairs and with a guttural cry threw it against the door. The chair broke apart and fragments flew back toward Steve, and he ducked and covered his head. The tattooed man looked at him with disdain. He had a swollen bruise on his cheek, from what looked like a blow from a fist or club. “Did … did they do that?” he stammered, pointing at his cheek.
“What? Of course they fucking did. What do you think? They’re fucking assholes,” he said, loudly.
“Shut the fuck up in there,” they heard Whitey say.
“Fuck off,” said Tattoo, but lowered his voice.
“Have you done anything in here?” he said to Steve, looking around.
“I .. I just got here. I mean, I was just put here,” he said, trying not to sound feeble.
“You were put here. Yeah, you are going to be put somewhere else pretty fucking soon,” Tattoo said. He looked closer at Steve, at his clothes. “What are you doing in here? Who the fuck are you?”
“I don’t know why I am here,” he said, being quiet himself, and this time trying not to sound shrill. “The black man made me drive over here. He kidnapped me. Why? What are they going to do?”
Tattoo looked amused within his rage. “He kidnapped you? Like, you’re Patty Hearst?
“No, I don’t know. He made me drive here.”
“He made you. Darnell made you. He pull a gun?”
“Yes,” Steve said more confidently, having the detail to provide. “Yes, he had a black handgun. He – Darnell? – told me to drive here and then locked me in this room. Do you know him?”
“I know of him, the asshole.” Tattoo looked unbelieving. “Why you?”
“I don’t know– he said he needed a car.”
“A car, huh.” Tattoo thought about it. “Oh. A Camry?”
“Yes, that’s what I have – why?”
Tattoo shrugged. “Someone else has a Camry. They probably want to decoy them.”
“Then they can take the car. Just take it!” Steve said urgently, trying to be assertive, but still talking just above a whisper.
Tattoo looked at him. “You would report it and then the cops would be out looking for your Camry, which is the opposite of what these assholes want.”
“When they are done, then they let me go?”
“Well, you know, witnesses,” Tattoo replied.
“I’m not a witness,” Steve said defensively. “I don’t know anything.”
“Neither do I, but that doesn’t count with them,” Tattoo said.
“Either way nothing will happen for a while,” he added. He seemed to have lost his anger.
“What is this place?” Steve asked, seeing that Tattoo was calmer. “There’s nothing in the warehouse, but they’ve got the air conditioning going.”
“Hell, I don’t know,” said Tattoo. “Just some place that these guys use. Just be glad the air conditioning is on. This place would be an oven. Hey, you dropped something,” he said and picked up a paper from the floor. “Shit, a prescription for 60 Narcos! And thousand milligrams! How the fuck did you get a script for 60 Narcos?”
“Do you think that can help?” Steve said, hopeful. “Wouldn’t they want that? I can get this dispensed at any pharmacy,” he said with a little more animation.
“It’s a thousand bucks there, I could turn that.” He looked at Steve suspiciously. “Why do you have this?”
Don’t tell him, he said to himself.
“I’ve …” he started.
Don’t say it.
“I’ve … got … cancer,” he said. It was the first time he had ever said the words aloud. “Stomach cancer. The pills are for the pain.”
“No shit,” said Tattoo, slightly interested. He looked at Steve. “For real? Aren’t you supposed to be bald or something?”
“They don’t always use chemo,” Steve said. “I was diagnosed a few months ago.”
Why so chatty with this guy? Don’t even know why he is here.
“Are you Tommy?” Steve asked.
“Fuck no. Who the hell is Tommy? Stomach cancer, huh? That’s fucked up. Shit. That’s usually bad, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Yes, it’s bad.” Steve felt a little lightheaded as he spoke more. Somehow the stomach pain was less as he talked. “You’re right, it fucks everything up. Everything.”
“Do the pills help?” Tattoo asked.
“When they stay down. They won’t for much longer. And they don’t help the ….” he trailed off.
“…the knowing,” said Tattoo. “No, as good as these fuckers are, they wouldn’t help the knowing.”
Steve felt a rush within himself to explain.
What? Talk here and now? With them outside? This guy is just going to use it against you, to his advantage, with them.
No, it’s okay, he thought.
“I can’t get past that, the knowing,” Steve said. “It’s unbearable, it’s every second.” The words poured out of him. “It’s like I’ve got twelve tracks of thought in my head all going at the same time and every track is the same thing. I can’t think of anything else. It’s been months like that. I can’t even just sit in the same room with my wife, can’t even just sit doing nothing. It’s too tense and awkward. I can’t take any more.”
Tattoo was looking again at the prescription. “Kids?”
“Yes, two, under 10. I haven’t really talked to them yet. Have no idea what to say,” Steve said, a little more invigorated. He hadn’t spoken like this outside of the counseling sessions.
“That’s pretty fucked up. And here you are with these shitheads! How about that. How long?”
“About an hour, I guess. I’m not sure.”
“No, doofus, how long did the docs give you?”
“Oh. Sorry. The doctors say the median is about six months.” As soon as Steve said it he corrected himself: “Well, it’s like an average, six months.”
Tattoo looked at him closely. “Fuck you, pal. You don’t have to translate.”
“No, I didn’t mean …”
“You meant,” Tattoo interrupted. “You meant. So you think half a year? Did the docs say you could go longer?”
“They don’t know,” Steve said curtly.
He thought about talking with the doctors. The talking done by the doctors, he reminded himself. He never got to do much talking.
Steve continued, “The docs who are trying to be optimistic, who are trying to pump me up and get me to be positive and optimistic, just sound like bullshit. They will say: ‘The truth is, we can’t say how long,’ or ‘Sometimes in these cases your guess is as good as ours,’ as if that is supposed to make me feel better, give me hope.” Steve shook his head in frustration. “How can my guess be as good as theirs? They are the damn doctors! They know what is going on, not me!
“You know what I mean?” he asked Tattoo. “How can my guess be as good?” Tattoo looked back, not speaking.
“And then they will say: ‘A lot depends on the patient.’” Steve looked down. “A lot depends on me. Like I need more things to depend on me.” He felt his weariness and depression coming back.
Doesn’t seem like it’s helping to talk, smart guy.
He went on anyway. “And then there are the matter-of-fact docs. Jesus. The ones that don’t want you to have too high hopes. The realists. They tell you that you failed, they really say that. ‘You failed the Avastin therapy.’ Then they tell you the median time, your time left, and then they have to go. They have ten other patients to see and can’t spend a lot of time on you personally, you know? To see if you might be different somehow.
“So from one doctor you get a death sentence and from the other doctor, ‘it’s your own fault if you die’.”
He looked at Tattoo. “I can’t seem to talk to them, you know? They are off the mark. Or I am off the mark. It doesn’t help. ‘Median time left,’” he said mostly to himself, and shook his head.
Tattoo was looking at Steve. He nodded and said, “It’s like how you look at rolls at the table, the craps table. You know?”
Steve stared back. Talk about off the mark, he thought. What the hell is this? “No,” he finally said, “I don’t know how you look at rolls. What do you mean?” At the casino Steve had headed toward the craps tables once but never got there. Too many eyes on him.
“The way it works,” Tattoo continued, “you roll until you crap out. Until you roll a bad number and someone else takes the dice. The average hand length…“ –he looked at Steve — “…the average number of rolls at the table is 8 and a half. The median is seven. Half the people go out before seven, and half go longer than seven. Some go a lot longer. People roll twenty, thirty times before they crap out. Low odds but still there. I saw a guy roll 58 times…58 fucking times. Incredible, but I saw it happen. The record is like 150. Four and a half hours. So if you are rolling at the table, how long do you give yourself? Tell me, how long?”
He didn’t wait for an answer. “The dealer, he looks at you and says to himself, ‘He’s got about 7 rolls,’ if he thinks about it at all, because that’s what he sees every day, with a hundred rollers. But the roller, what do you think the roller tells himself? Do you think the roller comes to the table and says, ‘Seven rolls and that’s it and I will probably lose’ ? Fuck no. He says ‘This could go fifteen rolls. Let’s see if I can get twenty fucking rolls.’ Every time. The roller can’t think what the dealer thinks.”
Sure, craps is just like cancer. Before Steve could say anything Tattoo suddenly jerked his head up. “Smell that?”
Steve looked up confused. “No, I don’t smell anything…wait… no, I’m not sure.”
Tattoo took a deep breath. “These guys are getting fucking high! I can’t believe it! Can you smell that? I thought they were going to roll on Vargas. How can they be smoking weed now? Did they say anything about that to you?”
“No…” Steve was trying not to be confused again. Roll on Vargas? He wasn’t going to ask. “They said something about it taking a couple of hours, someone was driving up from Tucson.”
“When did they say that?”
“Maybe an hour ago? I am not sure, they took my phone.”
Tattoo looked annoyed. “Not sure? Fuck, you need to be sure.”
“Will the … the smoking help? Will that calm them down?”
“For the next 15 minutes maybe. Shut up and let me listen.” Tattoo put his ear to the door. He looked back at Steve. “You think about an hour ago?”
“Look, I…” Steve faltered. Why are you saying anything to this guy?
“Yes or no,” Tattoo said sharply.
“Yes, I guess,” Steve said. I don’t know why it would matter to say or not say anything, he thought.
Tattoo jumped over to the couch against the wall. “Let me stand on your shoulder,” he said quietly. “Come on, Jesus, hurry.”
Without thinking about it Steve moved over and braced his hands on the couch. Tattoo ground a foot into Steve’s shoulder and stood up high enough to move one of the flaking ceiling tiles and poke his head above it. Steve watched him turn his head back and forth as he scanned the facilities space above the tiles. The head-turning seemed to animate the arabesque patterns on Tattoo’s neck; made the design move around.
“Okay, okay, let’s go,” Tattoo said quietly to himself.
Tattoo lowered himself quietly on the couch. He began talking urgently and seemed to slip back into the agitated state in which Steve first saw him. He’s high himself, Steve thought.
“I am going to get out of here,” Tattoo said quietly but insistently. “I can get up above the ceiling panels, and there is a crawlway up there, a catwalk, for the janitor or somebody. It follows the air conditioning tubes. It goes over the room outside and I think over another office with an outside door. But listen, coming in here I saw that they’ve got the outside doors alarmed…you can get past that but it takes two people.”
He looked into Steve’s eyes. “You have to help me, okay? And we’ll both get out of here. But you have to come with me.”
Don’t do this, it will make it worse.
“I…I don’t know, I mean we’ll get caught…we would have to crawl right over them,” Steve said weakly.
Tattoo put his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “ ’We’ll get caught? ’ “ Tattoo mocked him. “What do you think we are now? You don’t have a choice, guy. Do you get that? You have to go. And I need your help with the alarm. They will be quiet for the next few minutes, but we have to go now.”
Without asking Tattoo stepped up again on Steve’s shoulder and with a skillful maneuver pulled himself up past the ceiling panel.
This will just get them madder. They only want the car. Just stay put.
Tattoo turned his body around slowly and quietly, dust and flakes drifting down over Steve through the open panel. He reached down with his arm from the ceiling. “Come on, guy,” he urged. “We just said it. Roll the fucking dice.”