Time Kings of Las Vegas
January 30, 1994 – Buffalo
“God-damned. It’s like we’re fuckin’ cursed.”
Super Bowl XXVIII had ended almost two hours ago, in an all too familiar fashion: with Buffalo losing to the Dallas Cowboys 30-13. Most of the customers who’d gathered in Shorty’s Bar and Grill to cheer on their hometown Bills had left long ago, despondent and defeated. Only a dozen diehards remained, drinking away their sorrows in clusters of twos and threes scattered about the room.
William was sitting on a stool up at the bar, nursing a beer while his friend Mike ranted about the loss.
“Un-fucking-believable!” Mike spat, pounding his mug on the bar top hard enough to send beer sloshing over the side. “Four Super Bowl losses in a row? Four? Bullshit, man. Total bullshit!”
Mike had claimed his seat at the bar an hour before kickoff, right in front of the 40-inch Sony Trinitron mounted on the wall above the shelves of booze. In the seven hours since then he hadn’t moved – not even to use the restroom – despite downing what William estimated to be somewhere in the region of twenty pints of beer.
William had been here just as long, occupying the stool beside Mike. But he’d only had four beers, and he’d gotten up to pee several times during the game. Of course, he was also pushing fifty; almost two decades older than Mike.
“At least they made it to the Super Bowl again,” William offered as consolation. “Nobody else has ever gone four times in a row.”
“Nah,” Mike objected, shaking his head. “You don’t get it ’cause you didn’t grow up here. This is like a kick in the nuts. Losing is worse than not going.”
“He’s right,” Tom chimed in from behind the bar. “The whole country’s watching. All of America saw us choke. Again.”
“It’s like we’re stuck in a time loop or something,” Mike muttered.
“Time doesn’t loop,” William said, with a rueful smile. “It is fluid, though.”
“Fluid?” Mike parroted, blinking his eyes in confusion.
“Relative is more accurate,” William amended. “Time can speed up or slow down, based on the velocity of an object. The faster you go, the slower time moves.”
“Bullshit,” Tom snorted, wiping down a glass and crouching down to set it on the shelf beneath the bar.
“Hey, now,” Mike said, holding up a hand in his friend’s defense, “Billy’s a smart guy. He knows what he’s talking about. Einstein and shit, right?”
“More or less,” William acknowledged.
“Bullshit,” Tom said again as he stood up. “Time is time. It doesn’t change.”
“They proved it,” William assured him. “Verified with an atomic clock.”
“Atomic?” Tom said. “Like a bomb?”
“Shit, you’re stupid,” Mike laughed. “It’s not a bomb. Just real accurate.”
“Precisely,” William concurred. “An atomic clock is very, very accurate. In 1971 two men named Hafele and Keating conducted an experiment. They synced two atomic clocks and put one on a commercial jet. The other stayed on the ground.
“After the flight, they compared them and found the clocks were out of sync. The one on the plane had fallen behind by a few nanoseconds due to kinetic dilation.”
Seeing the blank stares of the other two, William clarified. “Because of how fast it was flying, time had moved more slowly on the plane.”
“Fuck me,” Mike muttered, though William suspected his amazement was more due to alcohol than the wonders of science.
“As I said, time is relative. Fluid. Malleable.”
“I still say bullshit,” Tom grumbled, tossing his dishtowel over his shoulder and disappearing into the bar’s back room.
“Level with me,” Mike asked after Tom had left. “Is that story true?”
“A bit over-simplified,” someone answered from over William’s shoulder, “but essentially accurate.”
William didn’t need to turn around to recognize the speaker. He’d been dreading hearing that voice for years.
“Who the hell are you?” Mike asked the newcomer, eyeing him suspiciously.
“William and I go way back.”
“That true?” Mike asked, as William stared pointedly down at his beer. “This guy a friend of yours?”
“Mike,” William said without raising his head. “Can you give us a minute, please?”
Mike hesitated, sensing something was wrong. Then he pushed his seat back from the bar and stood up. “Gotta take a piss anyway.”
The newcomer took the seat on William’s opposite side as Mike staggered off.
“It took us a long time to find you,” he said, his voice calm and relaxed, speaking softly enough so no one else in the bar could overhear. “I’m impressed.”
William didn’t answer.
“Where’s Dr. Schuller?” the man asked.
The question had no urgency. There was no malice or threat in the tone. But it was there, nonetheless.
“Lisa and I went our separate ways when we left the project,” Willaim replied, keeping his gaze fixed firmly on his beer. Thank god you haven’t found her, too.
“What about the girl?”
“Her name was Beth.”
“She died last year. Ovarian cancer.”
“So young,” the other man remarked, without any real emotion. “Her cancer… was it caused by the project?”
William shrugged, still staring at his mug. “Probably. No way to know for sure.”
“And her offspring?”
Offspring. So cold. So clinical.
“I don’t know. Made sure I didn’t know. In case you found me.”
“I believe you, William,” the voice said. “You’re a smart man; you know ignorance is the only way to protect them. But you’ll still have to come with us so we can be sure.”
He speaks with the ease of a man asking about the weather. What kind of person can be so casual while threatening another human being with torture?
William finally turned his head to look at the man seated next to him. Dr. Arvihd Singh had changed little over the last few years – short, thin, balding. He wore the same wire-rim glasses, perched on the bridge of his long, narrow nose. His black beard was still trimmed to a sharp point, though William noticed a few strands of gray in it now. And his brown skin had a few more lines around the eyes. But otherwise he looked as he always had: academic and professional in his manner and appearance; completely unassuming.
But William knew the things he’d done. And he could imagine the things Dr. Singh was going to do to him once they left the bar. The man was a monster.
He hadn’t come alone, of course. Two men in black overcoats hovered near the door, their features hard and chiseled, their eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses even though they were inside a dingy bar.
“What if I refuse to go with you?” William asked.
“You must decide,” Singh explained. “Do you come quietly, without making a fuss? Or do you resist and force us to kill everyone in here before dragging you out that door? Either way, it ends the same for you.”
His tone never changed. In all their years working together, William had never heard him yell. Or shout. Or even raise his voice. It was as if he knew his words – his orders – were inevitable.
William pulled a folded wad of bills from his pocket. He always paid cash for everything. He placed the entire stack on the bar – all the money he had on him – then slowly pushed his stool away and stood up.
“Let’s go,” he whispered. “Before Mike comes back.”
A minute later the younger man returned from the restroom to find only an empty seat and a pile of twenties where his friend had been. He never saw William again.
March 15, 2019 – Las Vegas
One month before the D Street Massacre
My name’s Carson. Carson Gaines. There are three things you need to know about me. The first is that I’m a professional gambler. I’m not an addict. Not quite. But it’s probably safe to call me a degenerate.
Carson shifted in his seat, trying to get comfortable. For the past four hours, he’d been hunched over a blackjack table in the Siegel Suites Casino, grinding away hand after hand, and the chairs weren’t built with someone six-three in mind. As the dealer flipped out another round of cards, Carson rolled his head from side-to-side, listening to the snap-crackle-pop of the joints in his neck.
Such is the glamorous life of the professional card counter.
The Siegel wasn’t one of the fancy mega-casinos that line the Strip. It wasn’t even one of the kitschy “old Vegas” joints down on Freemont Street, refurbished and cleaned up to draw in the tourists and suck the dollars from their wallets while giving them free drinks to numb the pain of losing. Conveniently located close enough to skid row to smell the piss, the Siegel Suites could be charitably called a “locals-only” casino.
Carson just called it a shithole.
Despite being a Friday night, the place was almost empty; the March Madness crowd wouldn’t hit the city until next week. At most there were two dozen people in the whole place, not counting the staff. The majority of the patrons were playing nickel slot machines, their eyes glazed over as they slapped the SPIN button in a repetitive, robotic trance.
Vegas had been built on the one-armed bandits, but the slots didn’t even have handles anymore. It was all digital video bullshit now – cheaper to make, and cheaper to maintain.
Carson never touched the slots; the house edge was too high. He was a stats guy. He knew the odds of every game in every casino in Vegas.
The slots will bleed you dry in no time.
Blackjack, on the other hand, was a game smart players could control. Counting cards and adjusting your bets when the deck was running hot shifted the odds in the player’s favor. It wasn’t much, but it was just enough to turn a steady, reliable profit over the long haul.
Carson had been counting cards in Vegas ever for almost two years. All the good spots – places that didn’t reek of stale cigarette smoke and weren’t crawling with hookers and junkies – knew him by now. If he sat down at a blackjack table in any respectable casino, it wouldn’t take long for security to swoop in and shut his action down. So, he had to set his sights lower.
And the Siegel is as low as it gets.
Besides the mindless slot jockeys, the rest of the crowd was a mix of hookers hunting tricks, junkies looking to score and stubborn players like Carson huddled around the four tables in the middle of the room that made up the tiny blackjack pit. Only two of the tables even had dealers; the others stood empty and abandoned. In any other casino, someone would have at least shooed the hookers and junkies away. In the Siegel, nobody could be bothered.
Fortunately, the apathy of the staff worked in Carson’s favor. Counting cards in real life wasn’t like it was portrayed in films. It wasn’t possible to just grab a chair and win right away. It took focus and patience; it was a marathon, not a sprint. Every hand Carson would squeeze out tiny mathematical advantages that would gradually add up over time… as long as he didn’t get caught.
That’s the real trick to counting cards. The math is simple. But staying off the casino’s radar takes work.
He was dressed to avoid attracting attention: faded jeans and a long-sleeved, black t-shirt. More importantly, he was keeping his bets small. Even a dump like the Siegel had security cameras everywhere. Lower bets cut into his profits per hour, but it was a necessary sacrifice. Winning too much too fast would draw unwanted scrutiny from the eyes in the sky.
Carson looked over at the king sitting in front of the dealer, then glanced down at his cards: a pair of 4’s.
Don’t like those odds.
He tapped the table for a hit. The dealer flipped over a ten, giving him 18. Now he was stuck. He couldn’t take another card without busting, but 18 probably wasn’t going to win.
He waved off, and his fears were realized a few seconds later as the dealer flipped up another king, giving herself 20.
Sometimes you can see the train coming but you can’t get off the tracks.
“New shoe,” the dealer announced, snatching away his bet before shuffling up the cards.
Even with losing the last hand, a quick count of his chips confirmed Carson was up a little over $500.
Not bad for three hours work. Enough to buy Ella something nice. That’s the second thing you need to know about me: I have a daughter. Ella’s four. She lives with her mother in LA. We got divorced two years ago, and I moved to Vegas right after. My gambling wasn’t the reason we split up. But it sure as hell didn’t help.
Knowing he had a few minutes before play would resume, Carson scooped up his chips and stuffed them into his pocket before heading for the restroom. Unlike the higher end casinos, the Siegel wasn’t the kind of place where it was safe to just leave your money sitting on the table.
He took a quick piss, hurrying so he could get back before the next hand was dealt. He washed and dried his hands, then stepped back out onto the casino floor… only to find two men in dark suits waiting for him.
One looked to be about forty; the other was probably ten years younger. Square heads, thick jaws, identical grim expressions. Both men were very large and didn’t try to hide it; their suits were cut to accentuate their thick, muscular frames rather than concealing them.
If you looked up “casino security” in an illustrated dictionary you’d find a picture of these two gorillas.
“Can I help you boys with something?” Carson asked, putting on a thick Southern drawl.
“You need to come with us, Mr. Gaines,” the older one replied.
“Think y’all are a bit confused,” Carson said, staying in character. “Name’s Stevens, not Gaines.”
“There’s no mistake, Mr. Gaines.”
Carson didn’t know what had tipped them off to his real identity. He wasn’t betting heavy, but maybe someone watching from upstairs had gotten suspicious about the new player hanging around the tables the past few nights. It wouldn’t have been hard to grab an image of his face from the cameras and pass it around to the surveillance crews at a few other joints. The casinos watched out for each other like that. Someone probably recognized him and was only too happy to tell the Siegel all about Carson Gaines, notorious card counter.
I just can’t catch a fucking break!
“Let’s go to the security office in the back and have a little chat, Mr. Gaines.”
The bigger casinos, like the ones on the Strip that target tourists coming to Vegas to blow their wad, wouldn’t actually do much if they caught someone counting cards. They might ban a counter from the blackjack tables; maybe charge a player with trespassing if they tried to sneak back into the game after being warned. But they were too worried about their reputations to do anything drastic.
The Siegel was different. The people running it cared a lot more about a few hundred dollars in chips then their already worthless reputation. And the goons in front of him clearly weren’t going to shy away from the rough stuff.
“I’d love to stay,” Carson said, “but it’s getting late.”
“This won’t take long,” the older man said, stepping forward and reaching out with a meaty paw.
*** FREEZE! ***
The man halted mid-stride, instantly paralyzed. His clutching hand hung motionless in the air, only a few inches away from the collar of Carson’s shirt. Over his shoulder, Carson could see the other security guard’s lips had curled up in a cruel grin, and his eyes were wide with the eager anticipation of impending violence. But like his partner, he was completely frozen in place.
That’s the third thing you need to know about me. I can stop time.
It wasn’t just the security guards who were affected. Every person in the entire casino was completely immobilized. Some were fixed in place with their hands hovering over the SPIN buttons of the slots; others were held fast as they feed more bills into the insatiable money-eaters. A $5 chip tossed towards a blackjack dealer as a tip was suspended in mid-air.
Even the slot machines were frozen, the whirling images of their virtual reels stuck in mid-spin. There was no sound – the omnipresent cacophony of the chiming slots and the disgruntled mutterings of frustrated players had been swallowed up in an eerie, oppressive silence. The entire scene was motionless and still as a painting, or a video after someone hits pause.
That’s my power. My gift. With a single thought, I can stop the entire world. But here’s the kicker – whenever I do, I’m just as helpless as everyone else. While the world is in stasis, I can’t actually do anything. Not even move my eyeballs to change what I’m looking at. I’m just… stuck. Trapped until I start everything up again.
When that happened – when Carson let the world snap back to normal and time began moving again – nobody would have any idea that they’d been temporarily frozen. Nobody would have any awareness of what he’d done, or that anything strange had happened.
Nobody but me.
But even though Carson couldn’t move when the world is frozen, stopping time still had its uses. It gave him time to think. Analyze the situation. Formulate a plan whenever things took an unexpected turn… like running into a pair of security goons on the way back from taking a piss.
He surveyed the situation carefully, evaluating his options. He was taller than either of the guards, but they each outweighed him by at least thirty pounds. He wouldn’t stand a chance against them, especially not two-on-one.
Not a problem. I usually prefer flight to fight anyway.
The guard reaching out to grab him was leaning forward. Anticipating Carson might try to scramble backwards, he’d shifted all his weight onto his front foot in a quick lunge. He was motionless now, of course, but from his position Carson could tell his center of mass was over-extended. Easy to knock off balance.
That’s my angle.
He’d use his eagerness against him. Catch him off guard by doing the unexpected: attack instead of retreat. And then hope his partner couldn’t react in time.
At least, that was the plan.
*** GO! ***
The world exploded back into life with a burst of motion and sound. The slot machines whirred and chimed as players resumed their robotic pawing at the buttons, completely unaware they had all just been released from a temporal prison.
The security guard’s clutching hand snapped forward, but Carson was ready for it now. Stepping nimbly to the one side, he grabbed the sleeve of the guard’s jacket and pulled down, hard.
The sudden ploy caused his surprised opponent to stagger forward and fall to the floor. Behind him, his less experienced partner looked on with an expression of shock and confusion.
Carson seized on his bewilderment by stepping forward to deliver a swift kick to the younger man’s crotch, causing him to double over with a loud groan.
Dirty move, but I don’t have a lot of options.
As the younger guard clutched his balls and sank to the ground, Carson hurdled over him and started running. Weaving his way between the tables and slots, he made a beeline for the doors leading to the street outside. Behind him, one of the guard’s shouted out for someone to stop him.
Curious about the ruckus, a frail old woman stood up from her slot machine and turned to see what was going on, stepping right into Carson’s path. He swerved to the side, narrowly avoiding barreling her over. But his left knee clipped the corner of one of the slot machines and the impact sent him crashing to the floor.
He scrambled back to his feet, trying to ignore the throbbing pain in his bruised knee as he limped towards the exit. As he burst from the casino the cloying curtain of stale smoke gave way to the crisp air of a mid-March night. But Carson didn’t have time to stop and appreciate it.
Favoring his injured knee, he half-ran, half-hopped down the block. He only made it to the next corner before one of his pursuers crashed into him with a flying tackle from behind. They both slammed into the pavement, knocking the wind from Carson’s lungs as the heavier man landed on top of him.
Momentarily stunned, Carson rolled onto his back, gasping for breath. Before he could recover, the second guard caught up with them and the two men yanked Carson to his feet. The younger man pinned his arms behind his back while the older man started unbuttoning his jacket.
“You stupid son of a bitch,” he snarled, tossing the jacket to the ground and rolling up the cuffs of his shirt. “You think just because we’re a small casino that we can’t spot a fucking cheater?”
“Counting card isn’t cheating!” Carson protested, struggling vainly against the iron grip of the man holding his arms. “And it’s not illegal!”
“Tell it to someone who cares, fucktard!” the man replied, crouching down and cocking his fist before launching it toward Carson’s mid-section in a vicious uppercut.
*** FREEZE! ***
His fist stopped mere inches from Carson’s gut. Carson’s head had already recoiled slightly in anticipation of the blow, making the muscles of his neck taut. Despite time being frozen, he could sense the man holding his arms had shifted his weight forward, bracing for the impact.
I don’t know why I have this power. I’ve been doing my trick as far back as I can remember – even as a little kid. It’s like walking or talking; just a natural thing I don’t even remember learning to do.
But it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Stopping time never really solved my problems. Not the ones that mattered. It couldn’t make me popular with the cool kids in high school. It couldn’t make the girls like me. It couldn’t bring my parents back after they died in a car crash. It couldn’t save my marriage.
And in this case, stopping time didn’t change the fact that Carson was about to get his ass beat. He could hold his attackers at bay indefinitely. Just keep the world frozen, with that punch stopped a few inches from his gut. But to what end? Eventually he had to let the world start up again. And that swinging fist headed was going to land. Some things were inevitable.
Sometimes you can see the train coming, but you can’t get out off the tracks.
*** GO! ***
The punch slammed home, just beneath his rib cage. Carson grunted in pain, gagging and coughing. The man pinning his arms chuckled, the sound echoing loudly in his ear. Two more blows caught him in the stomach; if he wasn’t being held up, he would have doubled over on the ground.
With their victim gasping desperately for air, the first man scooped up his discarded jacket and wrapped it around his right hand. The he slammed his cushioned knuckles into Carson’s jaw. The impact turned his world into a swirling mass of lights and colors; he barely even felt the next two blows.
The man behind let go and Carson crumpled to the curb. Still dazed, he felt something warm on his lips and chin, and there was a sticky taste in his mouth. It took him a second to realize it was blood gushing from his nose.
“Those chips are property of the Siegel Suites,” one of the men growled, as they rolled him over and started rifling through his pockets.
Carson clutched and pawed at the men; an instinctive – yet futile – attempt to stop them from robbing him of his winnings for the night. All his efforts earned him was a swift kick to the midsection.
“Hey, you worthless bastards!” a woman’s voice suddenly rang out. “Leave him alone!”
His assailants stood up and took a step back, wary of the unexpected interloper. Carson gingerly rolled onto one side to take a look at his savior as she came into view, materializing like a guardian angel from the darkness.
*** FREEZE! ***
The pain and disorientation clouding his thoughts vanished, but he knew from experience they’d return with a vengeance as soon as time started moving again. At least this gave him a clear-headed moment to take stock of the situation.
The woman was a stranger. White. Tall and thin. Older; sixty, maybe. Platinum-blonde hair cut a few inches above the shoulder; sensible yet stylish. Her expression was hard and determined – eyes narrowed, jaw clenched. She was wearing dark pants, black calf-high boots with a low heel, and a long white coat belted at the waist. Her right arm was extended straight out in front of her, clutching a small can of what looked like mace. Pointing it right at Carson’s new best friends.
On the edge of his peripheral vision Carson could just make out the older of the two thugs. He looked worried.
It’s one thing to beat the shit out of some punk card counter. But roughing up a random woman in the street isn’t in his job description.
Carson had no idea who the woman was, or why she decided to step in and help me.
But right now, I’ll take all the help I can get.
*** GO! ***
Carson’s world was once again enveloped in a concussive fog, his head still woozy from his recent beating. No longer frozen by the stoppage of time, the woman came closer with quick, deliberate steps, the can of mace held before her like a talisman.
“Back off!” she snapped at the still hesitant security goons. “Get your steroid-stuffed asses out of here before I call the god-damned cops!”
The older one tilted his head back in the direction of the casino in a silent signal to his partner, and they slowly backed away.
“They stole my chips,” Carson tried to say, but all that came out was a low groan.
“We better not see you around here again,” the older thug called out to Carson as they retreated.
“Keep moving!” the woman hissed in response. “Get out of her before you really piss me off. Go!”
She stared them down, keeping her mace at the ready until they disappeared around the corner. Once they were out of sight, she pocketed the mace and dropped down on one knee to help Carson into a sitting position. By this time, his head was clearing enough for him to try and speak again.
“Thanks,” was all he could muster.
“This will probably hurt like a son of a bitch,” she whispered to him as she cautiously felt along his ribs. Carson moaned loudly as her fingers found a sore spot.
“Don’t be such a baby. They’re just cracked, not broken.
“Let me check the nose,” she said, grabbing him firmly by the chin.
He flinched as she roughly wiggled the tip back and forth.
“Huh. That’s not broken either. Guess it’s your lucky night.”
“Yeah, I won the fucking jackpot,” Carson replied, gritting his teeth against her continued poking and prodding of his face.
“Jaw and orbital bones seem intact. Can you stand?”
“I think so.”
He leaned on her more than he meant to as he struggled to his feet, but she bore his weight with surprising ease.
“Let’s get you to a hospital,” she declared.
“I’m fine,” Carson said, with a shake of his head.
The movement made his world lurch and sway, and he would have stumbled if she hadn’t grabbed him.
“Don’t be a dumbass. You’ve got a concussion. It could be serious. You need to see a doctor.”
Realizing he was in no shape to argue, Carson let her lead him away.