(originally published in Sleeping With Snakes, Orange Labs, 2010)
Satan, with that uncanny ability of his to be magisterial even as he is plunged into a frenzy of activity, had found yet another opportunity to tempt one of that herd of God’s favorites – humanity – into error and sin.
“Don’t take what isn’t yours” is such a simple and useful piece of advice, and yet…
On this particular occasion, the Devil began his mischief by creating a bank error, a “mistaken deposit” of $50,000 in the account of a man named Roy Olson, whose actual wealth was more on the order of fifty dollars.
Roy didn’t give a moment’s thought to the morality of it. Who would? Particularly when money means the difference between life and death (or at least, a bad beating) as it did to Roy at that moment in his life. He owed money to his bookie; one of the bookie’s hulking employees had only recently knocked Roy down and promised to return and do permanent damage unless payment was forthcoming.
An electric thrill went through Roy when he discovered the astonishing condition of his bank account as reported by the ATM. At last, a break in his luck, and what a break! He’d heard of things like this happening. His heart was pounding and his hand actually shook a little as he dipped into his newly acquired $50,000. How much do these machines hold anyway? He decided to ask for a mere thousand and was deeply frustrated to learn the machine would dispense no more than three hundred a day from any one account. Some sort of fraud protection. Hmmm…. Roy wasn’t a particularly clever fellow -- he knew that much about himself -- but he knew someone who was very smart, and for some time now he’d been looking for an excuse to see her. Now he had it. He went to see Lydia.
Lydia ran the office for her Uncle Buddy at his body shop, a place where in fact all kinds of work was done. Buddy was genuinely concerned about Lydia’s well being and believed it was one of her smarter moves when she broke things off with Roy, clearly the kind of guy who, when he did go down for the third time, as he certainly would, would drag anyone attached to him into that final, fatal spiral. So, when Roy appeared, Buddy blocked his way with his body and various smart remarks such as, “Let me guess, you’ve got a sure fire way to double your money, only someone has to lend you some money to double” and “I know, the winning numbers for the Lottery came to you in a dream”. This was an exaggeration of Roy’s past appeals, but only an exaggeration. Roy had squandered money on a variety of disastrous schemes which had succeeded in swindling almost no one and cost him and Lydia more than one stake, such as the on-line time share, but that’s another story.
Nevertheless, Lydia had had fun with Roy before things had crashed; he had all kinds of ways of pleasing her. If she hadn’t been committed to eating on a regular basis and enjoying some of the other God-given rights, she might have stayed with him. So she was willing to hear him out. And he did have that transaction slip from the ATM that showed – sure enough, there it was! – a credit balance of $50,062.32. Lydia actually shook her head to clear her eyes. It had been so long since she’d seen any commas in a bank balance. She was cautious about allowing herself to believe something good had come their way at last, but there it was.
Now, not to screw it up. Not to let Roy screw it up.
“How,” she finally asked, “how are you planning to get the money since the ATM won’t let you take more than three hundred a day?”
“Tomorrow morning, the bank opens, I’m there with my checkbook,” said Roy.
“Do you really think they're going to just hand over that much money to someone like you without checking very carefully? I don't think so.”
Lydia’s earlier experiences with Roy and other like-minded dreamers of easy money had taught her to be ruthless in her assessments and brutal in expressing them.
At one time, Roy, desperate to maintain his relationship with Lydia, had shoplifted and then actually read a book on relationships, so he was able to say, “You have a low esteem for me, Lydia. That's always been our problem.”
Lydia hadn’t read the book. “I used to have hopes for you,” was all she said for a few moments. But the wheels were turning. Then she said, “You know what we could try? Cash a check for, say, five hundred. That might not set off any bells.”
“Five hundred?” Roy was disappointed. Five hundred, when there was over fifty thousand just sitting there?
This was only the first step in Lydia’s plan, the plan that was slowly forming in her mind, a plan that still had many possible outcomes, most of which she could not foresee. Along with that first check to Cash, Roy should also write one to her for a like amount.
“Write one to me for, say, three or four hundred. Small bites. Then we’ll go to another branch and try it again. Take what we can.”
It was a plan, and it meant that Roy and Lydia would be together again, and that was more than fine with Roy. And with Satan, who was of course monitoring the situation. Satan smiled with what might well have been mistaken for benevolence when Lydia allowed Roy to spend the night with her.
The next morning, Roy approached the teller's window with his check made out to “Cash” for $500. He hadn’t written a check that size for… well, quite some time, at least not one that he would have dared present in person. The Teller checked his account… and then said to him, “How would you like that?”
“Huh?” said Roy.
“How would you like that? Hundreds?”
Roy nodded, not daring to speak. Five one hundred dollar bills. And while all this was going on, Lydia was at another window cashing her check, made out to her by Roy against the fifty thousand. Everything went much as it had for Roy, except that Lydia didn’t say, “Huh”.
Back in Roy’s car, in the parking lot, there was a moment when Roy thought Lydia was reluctant to hand over the cash she’d collected. She reminded him that some of what he had borrowed from her in the past had really come from Buddy, and she wanted to pay him back. But she gave Roy the money after he told her what the bookie had in store for him. And she didn’t want to fight with him, because they had other branches to go to. She’d even picked up a brochure which listed all the other local branches.
Another branch, another couple of checks cashed. And another and another. Sometimes, things do go your way. And they really were accomplishing all this on their own. Satan didn’t have to do a thing to assist them. Of course, the bank would want its money back but that was a minor problem in light of the benefit of paying off the bookie. The bank, as Roy pointed out, wouldn’t rip his lungs out or anything like that.
Roy was close, getting closer – he owed his violence-prone creditor just ten thousand, even with the accumulated charges – and then he had it and a chunk more, a total of nearly eleven thousand. He could pay the bookie. He was free.
Lydia didn’t see it that way. She didn’t want to give all that money to some bookie. She wasn’t the one who bet on games. Why should she have to give any of it up?
Of course, she didn’t put it quite this way to Roy. She did suggest that this windfall could mean the resumption of a plan they had once had, it seemed so long ago, that somehow they could have a life together. Tempted though he was, deeply tempted, Roy had enough sense of animal self survival to realize that the first order of business was to pay off the bookie. Anything else they collected, that could be put toward this new life. And so, on they went. They stopped at banks in Hollywood, downtown LA, Glendale. Pasadena was next. Pasadena was where things went awry.
“There’s an activity alert on the account.” A Teller at the Pasadena branch told them this, and then a Supervisor. It seemed the bank’s computer had a template which spotted patterns like this. And once the account was frozen, it couldn’t be unfrozen until someone had looked into the matter and that wouldn’t happen until that evening at the earliest. Lydia took over and was charming – she didn’t think seductive would be relevant with this particular Supervisor even though he was a man – but to no avail. The account was frozen pending a routine check, and that would certainly lead to discovery of the original mistaken deposit.
Once again, Lydia resumed her campaign for Roy not to give the money to the bookie, and once again Roy resisted. She suggested they leave town.
“And go where?” asked Roy.
“You have family in Philadelphia.”
“You wouldn’t like Philly”. He had lots of reasons not to want to go back to Philadelphia. To tell them all would have meant making bad jokes about how it isn’t really the City of Brotherly Love.
“Some place else then. Florida or some place like that.”
“Florida? Where in Florida? Who do we know there? What would we do?”
And so it went between them, Roy anxious to get the bookie off his back and Lydia determined they – well, perhaps she was thinking more of just herself – keep it.
And then Roy had his brainstorm. After all, they were already on their way. They’d been drifting east and north. If they just kept going, in a few hours they’d be in Las Vegas.
Roy promised to be responsible. His idea of being responsible was to put aside the money he owed the bookie, not to gamble with that and to bet only with the excess, nearly a thousand. He might run that up to… up to.. ten thousand. It happened all the time.
Lydia almost gave up right then and there. If Roy had the self restraint to bet only the money he could afford to lose (what an odd concept, she thought, one of a slew of thoughts racing through her mind), then he wouldn’t be in a jam. And yes, running a thousand up to ten thousand… well, sure it happened all the time. That’s why there were so many rich gamblers and poverty stricken hotels on the Strip. But she said nothing, knew there was no point in arguing with him, this idiot, this fool sitting there with more money than he’d had his hands on in a long time or was likely to ever have again. Oh, wait a minute, she thought.
Lydia was silent. Roy was hopeful, always hopeful.
And then she spoke. She said, “Las Vegas. Why not?”
Roy, mistakenly believing the way was now open to a wondrous future, could hardly believe his ears. “You’re not mad at me?” he asked.
“No,” she said, “I’m not mad.” But she did want to eat something before they headed out. Could they stop at a coffee shop? After they ordered, she left the booth as though going to the bathroom, but what she really did was call Uncle Buddy.
She told Buddy the amazing story and when she got to the part about going to Vegas, he started keening like an old man, “No, no, no” he wailed. She waited until he had finished with his lamentations, then she explained what she wanted, why she was calling. As things stood, there was no way Roy was going to hold on to the money, He’d lose it all in Vegas or give it to the bookie and of course sooner or later the bank would be on him. The only thing to do, she'd figured out, was to take it from him before he got to the tables.
Buddy was surprised but not astonished. “Are you suggesting what I think you are?”
She was. “You know people who do this kind of thing,” she said.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Yes. It’s the cash, Uncle Bud. All that cash.”
The details were quickly arranged. It would take maybe a couple of hours to get someone to Vegas from L.A. Buddy would call her when his man was in place. In the meantime, they both agreed, Lydia would do her best to keep Roy out of the casinos. That, thought Satan, should be about as easy as keeping flies from sugar. Satan was enjoying this more and more.
At the crap table where Lydia found herself all too soon, Roy was having a real run of luck, good luck for a change. You could probably train a pigeon to play craps and certainly a chimp could master the game, but with all those numbers and all those chips laid out, things look complicated and Roy was impressive as he made his bets on the Pass line and then backed them up “behind the line” as he explained to Lydia and laid money out on the Come line and then backed up those bets… And he kept winning. Lydia needed to stay with him, to find some opportunity to get him away before he started losing, but she also needed to call Uncle Buddy and make sure the plan was underway.
Buddy told her a guy named Vincent was in Vegas now and where was she?
“Do you have a room there?”
“You got to get Roy up to the room. When you do, call Vincent on his cell.” The plan was for Vincent to knock on the door, for Lydia to let him in. He’d show them a gun, tie them both up, take Roy’s money.
“Tie us up?”
“He’s got to do both of you, so Roy doesn’t figure out you’re behind it,”
“He’s going to have a gun?”
“Vincent’s a very steady guy. Peaceful guy. Roy doesn’t carry a gun, does he?”
“No. Buddy, you know, I don’t want Roy to get hurt.”
“It’ll be all right. If Roy had a gun it could get dangerous. He doesn’t?”
“Okay, then, but you got to get him up to the room.”
Lydia hurried back to the table, where Roy was, incredibly, still winning. When she suggested he take a break so they could treat themselves to a self-indulgent feast (via room service, of course), Roy said he couldn’t possibly quit while he was on a winning streak. As long as he was winning, he wasn’t budging from that table. And of course, as long as he stayed at the table, he couldn’t be held up and his money taken and, in a way, saved.
Then he rolled a 7. His face fell. All the chips he had out, all his bets –the Stickman took them all.
“I thought seven was good,” said Lydia.
“On the come out,” said Roy bitterly. “When you’re trying to make your point, seven is craps.”
Oh. Whatever. Oh, well. Then Lydia got as bright as she could and said, “Maybe it’s a sign you ought to take a break.
Roy did need to piss. They’ll bring you drinks and sandwiches when you’re at the tables, why not hook up a catheter or something? Maybe he could sell that idea to the casinos. Naw, probably not. He did agree to take a break and have coffee with Lydia. In the coffee shop. He wouldn’t go up to the room. He had work to do.
“I have to get even,” he said, as they waited for their coffee and pie.
“Even? How much have you lost?”
“Hmmm,” said Roy. He fingered the chips in his pocket. He had a system – fives in one pocket, tens in another, quarters in… well, that pocket was empty, and a small fistful of shiny black hundreds. “Ummm. Six thousand plus… “
“You had eleven.”
“Craps moves fast. I was up to twenty at one point.”
“Six thousand. You had nearly eleven and now you have six? I thought you weren’t going to risk any of the money you needed for the bookie.”
“I’m not through yet.”
“There are battles to be fought and won, my Lady fair. I’m off.” With that brand of reckless gallantry peculiar to the addict slamming his head against a wall, Roy lurched to his feet and headed back to the action. But he was determined to pace himself, to go a little slower this time, so he took a seat at roulette, where the action isn’t nearly as fast as craps.
Lydia was lingering over her second rum and coke, trying to keep from chasing after Roy and cold cocking him with whatever she could lay her hands on and dragging him off, when a man who seemed as broad as he was tall approached with surprising gentleness. “Excuse me,” he said. “Sorry to interrupt your thoughts… Do you happen to know Buddy?”
“He’s my Uncle. You’re…”
“Well, that’s half the plan in place.”
“Yeah. What’s your room number?”
“Where’s the guy?”
“In the casino. At the tables.”
“You gotta get him up to the room.”
“I know that.”
“Then you call me and I come up. But you guys have to be there. He’s gambling?”
“How’s he doing?”
Lydia’s grimace said it all.
“You gotta get him up to the room.”
“I know, I know,” said Lydia. “You know not to hurt him?”
Vincent nodded. He looked like he could handle Roy even without a gun, if Roy was dumb enough to take him on. And he did, after all, have a gun. But none of that would matter if Roy lost the rest of the money before he came up to the room to be robbed.
So Lydia set out to find Roy somewhere in the racket and bright light and forced smiles of the casino. Hope surged within her when she couldn’t find him at any of the crap tables. Maybe he’d stopped, was looking for her in the coffee shop right now, or was on his way up to the room. And then she saw him sitting at the high stakes roulette wheel.
There was an empty seat next to him, She slipped into it, and as he played she said things to him about how this adventure had made her believe in him again, she was willing to try again for the life of quick money and daring, and how she wanted nothing more right now than to take him up to their room and fuck him for hours.
“Thirty two, Red,” droned the croupier.
“I’m on that, Lydia!” Thirty two, straight up!”
The croupier pushed a small stack of high denomination plaques to Roy and as he was about to spin the wheel again, Lydia sensed a presence behind her, a player. More accurately a would-be player who wanted a seat at the table.
The croupier did his job, politely but very succinctly explaining to Lydia that she was welcome at the table if she played. Otherwise, would she please…
“I’m on my way back up,” said Roy. He didn’t mean to the room.
Disgusted with him and with her failure, Lydia relented, left the casino, went up to the room, turned on the television. Time passed.
At the roulette table, the numbers began going against Roy and slowly but steadily the House edge began to tell against his pile of chips. He was tired. This was a stupid game. He decided to take a break, wound up at one of those small open bars right on the floor with the video poker machines built into the counter top, where he had one of those encounters which Satan finds so exquisitely ironic. He sat down next to Vincent, the man whose fate was so entwined with his, although neither knew it at the time. Each thought the other was just a gambler hoping for a turn in his luck, which, come to think of it, they both were.
Vincent, a perfectly agreeable guy when he wasn’t putting on a face to do a job for Uncle Buddy, said to this man he did not know, “How’s it going.”
“Up and down,” said Roy.
“Maybe you ought to knock off.” Vincent said this from a genuine concern, not because he knew who Roy was.
“People keep telling me that,” said Roy, “but I’ve got work to do.”
They both drank for a while in silence and then Roy was ready to return to the great contest. Vincent wished him good luck and Roy returned the good wish. Of course, there was no way they could both have good luck. Satan savored this encounter like an old man enjoying a sip of even older Port.
In their room, Lydia stirred from sleep and then woke as Roy entered. It was very late. It got abruptly later when Roy asked her if she had any money. Shock, confusion, despair. Anger. Yes, he was busted out, flat broke. Yes, he’d started with eleven thousand dollars (of which he had sworn to risk only one thousand) and it was all gone.
“But I know my luck’s gonna turn.”
Lydia actually, for a moment, tried to explain to Roy that… that… that for once in her life she had been close to a nice fat score and this… this.. oh, what was the point of trying to explain?
Again, Roy asked for whatever she had, a few hundred, something. He needed it so badly. The bookie might very well kill him if he didn’t pay him when they returned to L.A., and the only way he had a chance of making any money was to bet, and to bet he needed…
Lydia threw the money at him, threw it on the floor and said something about how he was a loser and she was a loser for being mixed up with the likes of him and now she was giving up all hope of ever having anything worthwhile.
Quite possibly for the first time in his adult life, Roy felt a cold tide of shame sweep through him. Until then, he’d been afraid of being caught at this or that, but guilt was always a matter of definition and who was doing the defining; petty crime and swindling were games; gambling, gambling was heroic, a matching of his wit and his luck against the mysterious forces of the universe.
Now, the way it’s supposed to happen in the lives of mystics and visionaries, he suddenly saw things altogether differently. He realized he had the power to make another human being happy, and he wanted to make Lydia happy. As a matter of immediate survival, he had to save himself but he made her a promise. He promised that if he could just win enough to pay off the bookie – he’d deal with the bank some other way – he would never gamble again. And then he disgusted her and astonished himself by dropping to his knees and praying, right there in Room 1516 of Bally's on the Strip in Las Vegas.
“God, please help me. Get me out of this and I swear to you I'm through with gambling, through with it. Please, God, help me.”
“Fat chance, sucker,” said Satan to himself. He knew God never helps gamblers.
But gamblers do get lucky and a gambler who has shed his arrogance might just walk away ahead, if it really is his last time at the table, ever.
Lydia had somehow fallen back to sleep and was furious at the pounding at the door. Some drunk trying to get into the wrong room. She almost called Security, then, needing to take out her accumulated rage on someone, went to the door, whipped it open.
“What the fuck do you…” she was saying as she saw that it was just idiot Roy. Had he managed to lose the door card along with everything else?
No. He wanted to make this a dramatic moment. He stepped into the room with the strangest look on his face.
“Room service,” he said as he closed the door behind him. That look on his face – it was happiness. How odd.
He was carrying a small canvas bag. He pulled a wad of cash out of it and threw the bills into the air. What the hell was going on? And then another bundle and another. Then he started pulling packages of bills out of his jacket, his pants. A magician of moolah. Money fluttering all over the room, like a scene in one of those old black and white comedies with lots of crazy people running around the room and feathers from a pillow and sometimes a duck or a horse or something. Of course, this was no comedy and this moment marked the beginning of the slide down to the final catastrophe.
“You should have been there, Lydia. You should have been there.”
He chattered on as they collected up the cash he had thrown around the room like play money but it wasn’t play money and as it accumulated back into bundles it emanated that irrefutable authority cash has, an authority unlike any other in the world.
Roy was anxious to get back to L.A. Lydia tried to stall him so she could contact Vincent and get the plan back on track. She suggested they stay for another day, indulge themselves here in Las Vegas in royal style, the style a winner like Roy deserved.
Roy was determined to keep the tragedy on course. No, they would return to LA, he would repay the bookie and the bank, there was that much and some beyond that, and then he would settle down to something honest, make an honest life for them both. What had be been smoking?
Lydia did manage to get Roy to agree to take a shower, so she could have a few minutes to herself to try to get hold of Vincent.
Vincent’s cell phone was ringing… had he gone back to L.A.? In any event there wasn’t time to pull off the hold up in the room. She was thinking this just as Vincent answered. He’d been asleep in a motel, a local motel. Quickly, they worked out the details.
Lydia made sure they dawdled over breakfast, several cups of coffee, and then she said she’d better drive. She told Roy this was because his driving really couldn’t be trusted, him having been up all night. That was one reason.
Lydia went to get the car and be sure Vincent was in place while Roy checked them out of the room.
As Roy turned from the check out desk, he felt the pull of the casino right behind him. The hotels are designed that way. There’s even a slight slope built into the floor so that if you were to faint at the front desk or one of the entrances, your body would roll into the playing area. And this is only one of a battery of features which can be dangerous for people like Roy. Despite his determination, his promise never to gamble again, he knew he was at risk, so with the cunning of Ulysses, he navigated a circuitous course around the casino’s perimeter, until he dared the shortest direct route past the tables and the video poker machines to an island of safety where he could mark and seal his resolution not to gamble ever again. Like the drinker emptying his stash down the sink, he approached the Cashier.
He turned over all the money, all of it, to the Cashier in exchange for a Certified Check. Then back to the main desk and an envelope and a stamp, and he mailed the check to Lydia’s address in L.A.
He went outside and found the car waiting with Lydia behind the wheel. Deeply contented with himself and the world, he climbed in next to her, and settled down for a nap.
As Lydia pulled out to begin the trip, she looked in the rear view mirror to be sure that Vincent, in the car he’d rented, was following.
About half an hour outside Vegas, Roy woke and wondered why they weren’t on the I-15, the most direct route to L.A.
“It’s prettier cutting through Lone Pine,” said Lydia.
“Pretty? Okay,” said Roy, amused male tolerating the sensibilities of the fair sex. “Okay, wake me when we get to the pretty part.”
So she drove on, taking one side rode and then another off that, Vincent all the time following them.
As Lydia slowed and stopped, Roy woke again. “Now what?”
Lydia said nothing and then out of the cloud of dust which the cars had stirred up appeared Vincent, gun in hand.
“Just stay calm,” said Vincent. “This is just a stick up.”
Roy remembered Vincent from the conversation at the bar. “I know you.”
“No, you don’t, but I know you won a lot. So hand it over, okay and everything will be fine. I won’t hurt you if you just hand it over.”
“I don’t have any money.”
“Yes, you do.”
“No. You can search me. Search the car.”
Well, this wasn’t in the script. Vincent looked to Lydia for clarification.
Lydia was out of patience with both of these idiots. “Roy, goddamnit, give him the money.” It struck Roy that she was irritated, not frightened.
“Lydia,” said Roy, “what’s going on?”
“Stop fooling around. Give him the money.”
“I don’t have it.”
“How could you lose that much that fast? I didn’t leave you alone for more…”
“I didn’t lose it.”
Vincent was so confused by all this that he lowered his weapon. Was Roy really going to talk his way out of this?
It happened fast. Lydia said, “I’ll shoot you myself if you don’t come across.” She grabbed for Vincent’s gun. Instinctively, he pulled it away from her and it went off. Everyone was shocked, as people so often are when guns do exactly what they’re designed to do,
Lydia was lying on her side, a spreading red seeping out from just under her left breast. Vincent was babbling about how it was an accident, you saw what happened, it was an accident. Roy, kneeling by Lydia, was shouting at Vincent to call 911. Then, even though he knew she had betrayed him, Roy tried to buoy her, to keep her alive. He told her why he didn’t have the money, that he had sent it to her because he didn’t trust himself with it. And he had sent it to her, he said, because he wanted to show her how much he loved her and trusted her. And he forgave her and they could still be partners. The only merciful thing that happened to Lydia in those final moments was that she heard little of this as she died.
You might like this to be a story in which Satan is beaten, and some day I will tell you such a story, but this time Satan won. There was nothing accidental about how it all worked out. Roy hadn’t been the challenge, there’s no triumph in tempting a man whose life depends on getting some money. No, the challenge, the one Satan had been after all along and who could have so easily saved herself from this terrible fate, was Lydia.