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Potter’s Wheel A novel by Andy Losik


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With a final keystroke, and a click of the mouse Potter sealed the fate of his latest victim and chuckled at the ease with which he now did this. The cyberthief who was becoming a bigger and bigger fish in the underworld of the Internet sipped from a thick, sweaty glass of Chivas Regal on ice and leaned back in his high dollar, ergonomically designed, office chair. Potter gazed at the Redwings hockey game stretched above him on the large plasma screen television that dominated one wall of his Royal Oak loft. Most recently, Potter had found himself enthralled with stealing the identity of others—a crime epidemic that has swept the world in recent years. The process was very simple and Potter had many different sources for acquiring the necessary basic information needed to steal someone’s identity—financial records, social security numbers, mother’s maiden name. These things were all available in some computer somewhere. Potter’s pattern was extremely basic. He would apply for credit in someone’s name and set up the billing addresses to dummy houses or post office boxes. With so many opportunities to buy products online, Potter had unlimited funds for anything he desired. He had the most fun going after the fattest cats and those with the most to lose— very Robin Hood-ish of him, except Potter was far from poor and he was the only one whoever received any of the money. By digging into someone’s credit record, Potter would find himself quite acquainted with the person. Our purchases tell the stories of our lives—where we like to stay, where we travel, what strange habits we might support with a credit card. This fascinated Potter and when he found someone especially intriguing, his crimes


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became personal. He’d scour the web for personal homepages, dig up old transcripts of their time in chat rooms, and hack into their home computers. He had even developed a piece of software that eavesdropped on the microphone built-in to a victim’s system. Potter had unlimited funds and fuel for another of his many addictions, big time Internet gambling. He loved nothing more than to visit an online casino and place huge bets with someone else’s money. If he won, he would direct the funds off shore to his bulging accounts under another identity. If he lost, Potter would change billing information and send the giant gambling debts back to the poor sap whose credit he had used in the first place. Proving Potter had at least a little bit of heart, he would often send flowers to unsuspecting wives on the days he calculated that the Visa or Master Card bill would arrive. Potter figured when the women saw the gaping financial holes their husbands had dug, the flowers might soothe things a bit. In most cases though, the flowers and vases became projectiles hurled like missiles when their poor husbands came through the door. The process of becoming a world-class hacker had not happened overnight, but was a gradual evolution. Potter was an analytical genius born with a burning desire to know how everything worked. He had torn apart every appliance his parents bought, but unlike most kids he always put them back together and often in better working order. Potter saw each part of any situation the way a scientist sees the present, yet invisible structure of the world through a powerful microscope. For him, the pieces were greater than the sum, because the pieces could be manipulated into something greater.


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As a high school student Potter had dissected the security infrastructure of a then quite primitive Internet through his family’s pc. For years, he snooped in files of all sorts, feeling a deeper rush of adrenaline each time he broke down a new barrier. In college, the obsession continued and Potter began breaking into the computers that held the deepest secrets of national security. One Christmas break, he had made a near fatal error that left traces of his activities online. Authorities were alerted of the trespass and tracked Potter to his parent’s home. He had tried to walk the tightrope without a net, and had stupidly fallen. Potter subsequently got his family booted from America Online and received a stern warning from the feds. He was threatened with prosecution, but the case was lost in government red tape and never pursued. After his initial brush with the law, Potter’s energy focused on what he referred to as a “cloaking device”. He knew he could hack into virtually anywhere; the trick was to make himself invisible while prowling in restricted areas. He had stolen the term from Star Trek, but the programming was completely original. Potter’s earliest methods allowed him to break into secure servers without having his computer’s IP or Internet Protocal number detected. He knew security was constantly evolving to eliminate threats like the ones he posed. Potter loved the thrill of the chase and had become deeply engaged in a constant race to stay ahead of those trying to lock down their networks. After each success, Potter’s fame grew throughout the secret cells of the hacking world. As word spread of this unknown’s talents, so did the excitement for Potter. He became bolder and bolder as


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casual mischief became high stakes criminal activity. Just like Babe Ruth, Potter began calling his shots. He once warned a stock brokerage that he would be stealing $10,000 from them sometime during the next morning’s trading. Potter dared them to stop him. Sure enough, the hacker stole the money as traders watched the heist on their monitors with no way to stop it. The company’s security team had spent the entire previous night plugging every possible hole, while still believing this was most likely a hoax. Not only did the money disappear. It disappeared without a trace. The name Potter was the latest alias used by the world-class cyber-thief. He had used several names throughout his career. Whenever Potter felt he was being pursued, he would take a new identity online. The $10,000 had come under the name Potter and now every government official remotely attached to crimes of this nature heard or spoke that name at least once a week. Most figured that the thief would change to another alias, but he hadn’t. Potter had become a legend among the Internet’s underworld and now was virtually untouchable. The name originated from two unlikely sources. As a child, Potter’s mother subjected him each Christmas to the Jimmy Stewart classic It’s a Wonderful Life. In the movie, a bitter and greedy old man named Potter owned most of Bedford Falls. Stewart’s character George Bailey, a do-good director of the local building and loan fought to save the town from Old Man Potter and his iron fist of greed. For the young thief-to-be, Old Man Potter was whom he idolized. He had no time for George Bailey and his ethics. There was no money in that.


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The other source of the name Potter came from the wildly popular children’s books featuring the boy wizard Harry Potter. The hacker had stolen a copy of the first Harry Potter book by manipulating an online seller’s shipping orders and became instantly addicted, returning to old childhood obsessions. As a boy, when the thief wasn’t dreaming of being a ruthless banker, he fantasized of having special powers. No, he wasn’t into witchcraft or the occult but just kept thinking about how much more he could get out of life if he could fly or change things he didn’t like with the cast of a spell. He was enthralleded with Merlin the Magician and King Arthur’s knights and had spent endless hours engrossed in fantasy role-playing battle games. Now as an adult, Potter was doing more than role-playing. He was a wizard, a wizard at taking people’s money through electronic means. He was a wizard at skirting the FBI, the Secret Service, and the Federal Security Exchange Commission. He was a wizard at doing all of this without blinking an eye over the lives he ruined daily. Potter had been successfully taking people’s money through a software device he kept secret. This “cloaking device” could have made him a fortune in underground sales, but to release such a revolutionary piece of equipment would be to risk the untappable vault of security he had built around himself. He called his invention the Potter’s Wheel—not very original he conceded, but practically unstoppable. The Potter’s Wheel basically scrambled transmissions and masked them with the user’s original information. But, the truly revolutionary aspect of the wheel was what it did physically to the data. Chunks of information travel the Internet in little bundles called


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packets and Potter had discovered how to quite literally spin the bytes of information into a threadlike pulse that ran at undetectable frequencies. Spinning data had turned into spun gold. As Potter did his dirty work inside a remote system, the user’s monitor would display a dummy program that allowed for most functions to operate normally but hid any movement behind the scenes. The first thing the Potter’s Wheel did when it entered a secure area was record and display the original data. If someone tried to manipulate or check it, the wheel would reflect those changes, but completely detached from the actual records that were being sucked dry by Potter. Most of the time, companies never realized the hack until long after Potter had sent the money through several off-shore accounts. The Potter’s Wheel was as effective getting away from a system as it was entering one. Any confirmation notices from banks of transferred funds were funneled away from the victim’s computers so firms had no clue as to where the money went. Sometimes Potter would leave a little note taking credit for the crime. Other times, he would just simply let the company try to close a deal months later only to find out that it had been tapped. If the authorities ever locked into a transmission, the wheel would send the pursuers on wild chases by bouncing the signal off to random computers in all parts of the world. The feds figured that Potter was planning something big. He had been keeping a low profile and recently no companies had reported any cyber related crimes to fit his m.o. Law enforcement was right. Potter had a huge, ground-breaking project in the works, but in the meantime, he was acquiring wealth as fast as the Potter’s Wheel would spin.


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Although profitable, all of the crooked keyboarding was starting to wane in excitement. It was time to raise the stakes and Potter’s biggest strike ever would soon take place. It would be one that news agencies across the globe would report with great vigor. Potter was about to take his life of crime into the three dimensional world and outside of the virtual reality in which he spent most of his waking hours. He wouldn’t physically have anything to do with the crime, but make no doubt this operation was all Potter’s. He had been orchestrating the project for over three years and his people were in place and on alert. It was just a matter of time before Potter gave the green light. There on Potter’s screen sat the comings and goings of one Charles Edward Fagan. Without much trouble Potter had uncovered that this Mr. Fagan, a teacher from the tiny town of Riverton, Michigan would be leaving tomorrow evening on Northwest Airlines from Grand Rapids bound for Las Vegas. He would be renting a car from Dollar and then presumably driving that car to the Rio Suites Hotel and Casino. Fagan and three colleagues would be staying in room 623. The four would be attending a conference at Bally’s the next morning and returning home on Sunday.

Sounds like a good time, Potter thought to himself. I could use a little time in Vegas myself. With click of the mouse, up popped the Riverton Community Schools website, one that Potter had viewed 1000 times since deciding the Michigan teachers would be perfect for his project. Chuck Fagan had built the site himself and after clicking on the link to staff


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bios, Potter was inside the lives of the four teachers who had no clue how their worlds were about to change.

Oh Mr. Fagan you have made life far too easy for me! the hacker thought as he scanned the paragraph explaining Chuck’s teaching assignment, his coaching experience, and the fact that he lived in the country with his wife, young son, and their horses. With the added security of the wheel, this whole game for Potter had gotten as routine as brushing his teeth. Soon Potter was reading about Chuck’s companions who were also teachers from Riverton. He saw that Bill Parson had two children in college and that Terry Van Eck was an avid runner. Kevin Stewart was the school’s gym teacher. Potter felt a bit of an evil twinge as he remembered how much he had loathed gym class. Potter sipped the Chivas and thought about the mayhem he was about to unleash as he forwarded a couple of instructions and images to his accomplices. He powered down the large system, and sat silently. As Potter gently rocked and finished his scotch, he thought about Chuck and the other three friends. Gentlemen, Las Vegas is

about to show you the time of your lives.


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Chapter 2 A sloppy December mixture of rain and snow beat against the windows of Riverton High School. The days had gotten shorter and shorter and this morning was seemingly extra dark and gloomy-gloomy to anyone that wasn’t about to jet off to Sin City in a mere nine and a half hours. “Three, three…roll again Kev. You want a six this time,” Chuck Fagan said as he handed his friend Kevin Stewart the pair of red and white dice that had rolled underneath the aging conference table in the teachers’ lounge of Riverton High School. “Look, you rolled a six to start, so in order to hit your point number, you have to roll another six before a seven shows up. It is a very simple game.” “A very simple game huh? It looks like a very simple waste of tax payers’ time,” Susan Vander Slice declared as she stepped over the two thirty-something men sprawled-out on the lounge floor on her way to the fridge. Both men just rolled their eyes at each other as Susan hurriedly left the room on her way to do something no-doubt noble and honorable for the children of the Riverton Community School District. That was Susan’s calling, and boy did she let everyone know it, any chance she got. Susan was one of those teachers who claimed to never have any time for anything but her teaching and of course the Riverside Christian Reformed Church. If you listened to Susan long enough, you would wonder how she ever raised her three children. A conversation with Susan was always very one-sided and usually focused on school, school, school, church, church, church, and of


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course progress reports on how well her children were doing in jobs and at college. At church she had pretty much made herself in charge of everything from the cookies served at social hour, the children’s choir, all of the way on down to the brand of toilet paper used in ladies’ room. That was one of her more notable projects—the ladies’ room. Susan knew that the décor was all wrong and that if the church truly believed its mission statement of attracting outside members, then these facilities were simply unacceptable. After strong-arming the appropriations committee, Riverside soon had a newly renovated ladies’ room. No, membership numbers didn’t change because of it, but the third and fourth grade boys had to postpone a camping trip to Indiana Dunes State Park because “there just wasn’t the money this year.” Susan wasn’t really in charge of a lot of things she tried to direct, but she should have been. If anyone dared to tackle a project, they always ended up hearing how Susan would have done it. It was Susan’s way or it was wrong and it didn’t matter how minutely either. She had led the charge against this Vegas trip since day one and she was going to get in every last shot she could sneak today. Although Chuck and Kevin didn’t perceive what they were doing as actually noble, they found no real dishonor in sneaking an early morning craps lesson. The two could use some time away—a little relaxation before the untold stress of the Christmas season hit its fevered pitch in the weeks to come. Chuck had found the upcoming seminar in one of the journals he received unsolicited every month. Somehow his name had happened


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onto a mailing list and now he received all kinds of little helpful tidbits to make him a better teacher. He and Kevin had long suspected Susan of signing him up because about three weeks after she had commented on the volume of Chuck’s classroom, he began receiving

The Journal of Effective Classroom Managers. Two weeks later ole Vander Slice shared during a staff meeting that she had “real concerns regarding the appropriateness of certain activities taught in gym class.” Soon Kevin was getting his own monthly set of self-help pamphlets. Finding this conference had been a magical moment. Chuck could think of no reason other than divine intervention to explain why he even opened last August’s issue. Usually The Journal of Effective

Classroom Managers hit the trash with all of the other junk that continuously clogged Chuck’s school mailbox. But something from above directed him to the magazine’s classified section. There, practically leaping from the page in magnificent splendor were two of Chuck Fagan’s favorite words: LAS and VEGAS. It took Chuck less than a second to decide he was going. Before he could get back to his impressively equipped computer lab, his mind was lost in a sea of heaping buffets, and heaping buckets of quarters, dollar tokens, and multi-colored chips from the craps tables.

Oh the irony! Chuck thought, Wouldn’t Susan be proud that he was taking the time and putting forth the extra effort to better himself as a teacher and improve the quality of instruction that the students of Riverton High would be receiving? He could see the look on her face already.


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Chuck had last been to Vegas when he and his wife Kelly had each taken a couple of personal days off of school and attended all of the hoopla surrounding the annual National Finals Rodeo. They had a blast at rodeo parties, talking to the cowboys, and attending the biggest Western gift show in the country, but this was the year before their son was born and their lives had changed since. He knew Kelly would love to go too, but next summer would be a more opportune time for the two of them to get away. Chuck’s mom and dad who lived in Arizona always spent a few weeks in Michigan each summer. It wouldn’t take too much to persuade Grandma into some quality time with her grandson. Maybe if Chuck hit it big enough on this trip he would save the money and take Kelly back in style. When he got home that evening, Chuck told Kelly all about his idea for the trip. “But, but, I want to go again too!” Kelly sighed while turning away from the big bowl of chef salad she was assembling on top of the flat cook-top stove to face her husband who was munching behind her. “We had so much fun when we went that year for the rodeo. But, if I give you a Christmas shopping list and you come home with enough money to take me sometime, then I guess it would all right.” Kelly pouted and looked up at he her husband with her sad light blue eyes. “Well, I knew you’d be a little jealous and that there might be a catch. Plus, the horses would miss you so much. I’ll go to the Cowboy Christmas show for you. Besides, Riverton is going to pick up a big chunk of the cost.”


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“You better come home with lots of stuff and lots of money! Honey!” Kelly teased as she neatly chopped baby carrots for the salad. “You know Kelly, coming back from Vegas with more money than we took last time was probably the worst thing that could have happened to us. Now we expect that to happen every time we go. They don’t build those buildings like they do because people win.” Chuck said trying to sober his wife with the lame Vegas cliché. But Kelly was already lost in dreams of fortunes. “So…who all is going on this little adventure?” Kelly asked. “You’re not planning on going by yourself are you?” As the heavy late summer air slipped through the open kitchen window Chuck thought for a second, “I guess I really hadn’t gotten that far yet. But, I am sure…” “Well, you know who you should take,” Kelly interjected. “Kevin,” the two said in unison. “He’s your best friend Chuck and I worry about him being lonely. At least he doesn’t have to deal with the Wicked Witch of West Michigan anymore, but the guy isn’t exactly a chick-magnet.” “No, but he thinks he is.” Chuck added as the two giggled together. “Believe me he’s not lonely. He has a close relationship with all of the sportscasters on ESPN and has really taken a liking to several of the ladies on the Fox News Channel. Throw in the Internet and pay-per-view and Kevin does a good job keeping himself entertained.” “That’s exactly what I mean. Besides I don’t want you going out there alone and Kevin is such a sweetheart. It would be good for him.


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It would be good for the both of you.” With that, Kelly turned to peek at their two-year-old who was deeply engaged in a pile of blocks and two small Tonka trucks. “Next year honey,” Chuck hugged his wife from behind. “That not-so-little bundle of joy is going to spend some time with grandma and we’re going to Vegas together.” “Well, let’s just wait and see how much this trip really costs us and what kind of mess you and Kevin end up in first.” “Oh Kelly,” Chuck laughed. “We’ll be good.” “I know you will. Just be good at winning!” Chuck knew that it would not take much to coax his best friend and fellow member of the football coaching staff into going as well. The school made available small amounts of money for professional development each year and what better place to be sent than Vegas! The next day, the two filled out the required paperwork for professional time away from school and allowable expenses. They were soon approved by Riverton High School’s Principal Carson Tanis. Tanis liked Kevin and Chuck and felt that they both gave a lot to kids in their classes and to the teams they coached. He had been in the principal game long enough to know that good teaching didn’t always come from the most conventional methods. He also had an uncanny ability to deal with all types of different people. He had tact, a special kind of tact. A kind of tact that told people to go to hell, but made them happy to be on their way. “I am probably going to catch hell from a few people for letting you guys take time off to go to Vegas, even if it is for a conference,” the graying principal told them as he switched the television monitor in


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his office from a security camera of the parking lot back to the morning rerun of last night’s Sports Center. “Heck, I just wish I was going too.” It didn’t take long for the word to get out that Kevin and Chuck would be using school time to go to a conference on managing behavior all of the way out in Las Vegas. Riverton is located close to the lakeshore in southwest Lower Michigan and only thirty-five minutes from Grand Rapids. There were conferences in that growing metropolitan area all of the time, not to mention Detroit or even Chicago. Why on earth did anybody have to go to Las Vegas? As expected, it was Susan who made her opinion on the matter known immediately. “Ridiculous, just ridiculous,” she pronounced one day at lunch. “Nothing good could ever come from a place known as ‘Sin City’.” Like a queen bee, Susan had a small but very loyal army of drones. These were teachers who when just starting out had been bullied by Susan to do things her way. Now they just blindly agreed with whatever she wanted. Right on cue, the worker bees expressed the same outrage of their leader and controversy was consuming the district. Not a whole lot of exciting stuff happens in Riverton. So when anything of note occurs it travels like wildfire from the grain elevator to the hardware store to the little grocery and from church social hour to church social hour. One of the most hallowed sources of information in Riverton is the Saturday morning gathering that takes place each week at Merle’s barbershop. More often than not, people call him “Merle the Butcher” instead of Merle the Barber. But Merle has a good sense of humor


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and handles the barbs as well as he dishes them out to all who frequent his little shop. He’ll carve you up for $10 and talk about just about anything you desire. A Saturday morning haircut might take up to three hours, but it is more like group therapy than a trip to the barber chair. Besides, by Monday or Tuesday the hair will fill in and Merle’s work will look like you had spent at least twelve or fifteen dollars. Kevin and Chuck were already regulars at Merle’s but this local controversy had risen them close to cult hero status among the Saturday crowd. A lot of the locals thought these two had pulled off a major coup d’tat. If only their bosses would send them to Vegas for work no less. If only their wives would let them go to Vegas. To many in the barbershop, Kevin and Chuck were an opportunity to live vicariously for a few minutes. It was a chance to fantasize about being younger and freer. “I tell you what boys,” Gord Hoeksema spoke in his nasal voice so typical to those born and raised in West Michigan. “If I was thirty years younger, I’d show you a thing or two about living it up in Las Vegas.” “Yeah Gord,” Homer Dykstra shot back. “You’re so Dutch that you’d show these boys how to get to Vegas and back on 52 dollars or less.” “You got that right Homer.” Merle jumped in as he stepped back from the head he was meticulously sculpting to perform his moderator’s duties. “The last time Gord and I went out to lunch at Russ’s, I paid and when the coins rolled down that little ramp into the change cup on the register, guess who grabbed it.”


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“Gord Hoeksema!” Homer shot back as the packed little shop erupted with laughter. The other great news organization operating in the Riverton area is the network of school secretaries that sit guard each day in the district’s seven different schools. No one is more privy to sensitive information than the school secretary. Together, these nine ladies have all angles covered. The five elementary schools serve five different and unique geographic areas that make up the sprawling district of rolling Michigan farmland and growing suburban homes. The elementary secretaries handle all of the information fit to share and some not so fit to share in their little corners of Riverton. Anything that happens with families of the older kids gets picked up by the two-lady teams working at the middle school and the high school Each secretary is her own bureau chief, dispensing info to the other correspondents over the phone, through email, or whatever means necessary. When Carson Tanis approved the conference for Chuck and Kevin, CNN could not have gotten the word out any faster. Most people had no problem with the upcoming trip but a few just seemed to enjoy controversy, any controversy, no matter how petty. The most vocal voices at school were the do-gooders who were often more worried about what was happening in someone else’s classroom than their own. Chuck had dealt with this before. Soon after he had begun teaching in Riverton, he had felt the eyes upon him. He was new and didn’t quite always do things the same way everyone else did. His teaching style was effective yet a little more laid back. He had heard whispers about whether his students were learning, so Chuck made sure there would be no room for doubt. His students


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completed multimedia projects using content from their other core classes and wowed the socks off of teachers and parents alike. The kids loved Mr. Fagan’s class and worked hard for him. Chuck had also gotten involved with many school and district projects and after a year or two his fellow staff members began to see who he really was. But when the Vegas trip came to light, some of the old critics knew they were right about this guy all along. Kevin had endured some of the same type of proverbial bumps in the road when he came to the district two years before Chuck did. Kevin had grown up and taught for two years in the suburbs north of Detroit. He had come to this side of the state when his former wife was transferred to the Holland corporate headquarters of her large auto parts firm. Karen Stewart had begun as a salesperson and quickly risen to an executive position. Soon after the move, her gym teaching husband seemed to be more of a drag than an asset. Karen traveled more and Kevin saw her less. Finally one day while she was in Mexico, Kevin was served with the divorce papers. Kevin was just getting to know Chuck at the time as the two coached the middle school track team together. Chuck was a great friend to Kevin as he faced the reality of his deteriorating marriage. Kevin returned the favor by helping Chuck adjust to the rigors of teaching with such nosey and critical colleagues. The bond had gotten stronger over the past four years and together they just laughed about all of the talk that now surrounded them. The talk went on, but none of the critics really ever talked to Kevin or Chuck about the whole deal. The chatter and noise in the staff lounge would inexplicably come to a grinding halt if either of the


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two would enter. “No need to hide it folks,” Chuck would say. “I know you are talking about Kevin and me again. For the record, we are going out there to learn how to be better teachers. This conference just happens to be held each year in one of the world’s most fun places. Good work if you can get it I guess. The funny thing is, deep down inside a lot of you wish you were going too.” It was about two weeks after the initial shock when things started to die down a bit. Football season was in high gear and Riverton was having an up and down season. They had won some games they shouldn’t and had lost at least two that should have been sure wins. Chuck was just getting into his dark green Passat when Terry Van Eck the head cross-country coach pulled up in his fading Taurus wagon. “Hey Chuck, good practice tonight?” Terry asked pleasantly. “Pretty good. Hopkins comes in this week and you know how tough they always are. What’s up?” Chuck wondered. “Well, that trip to the conference in Las Vegas has become quite the hot topic. How would you and Kev feel about Bill Parson and myself joining you guys in December? I mean, we hate to just invite ourselves. But, man does that sound like a great time.” Terry was a handful of years older than Chuck and taught a myriad of history and geography courses in the school’s social studies department. Riverton had hired him the same year as Chuck and they had become good friends adjusting to the new community. Terry and his wife had their second child right around the same time that Chuck and his wife Kelly had their son Rudy. During the pregnancies Kelly and Terry’s wife Allison compared notes and became pretty good


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friends. Allison had gone through the whole process two years earlier and helped Kelly know what to expect. “Of course you can come too. I mean if you can take the heat from the people around here.” Chuck said as the two laughed together. “Have you talked to Tanis yet?” “Yeah, Bill and I talked to him this afternoon. He said Vander Slice had been in to see him and expressed her quote unquote concerns about you going. He said this would really piss her off. He also said he would approve the same thing he did with you guysconference fees and the district allotted amount for meals and hotel. Other money for car and airfare was on us.” “How did you guys decide you wanted to go?” Chuck asked. “Well Bill and I were sitting around trying to work on some stuff for National Honor Society and we got to talking about the stink some of these people were raising about you guys going to Vegas. Then Bill says, ‘you know what? That sounds like a lot of damn fun. You wanna go too?” The lanky runner explained. “I said, ‘you know what? I have been thinking the same exact thing ever since Kevin told us they were going.” “Well great.” Chuck excitedly responded. “I was going to start working on plane tickets tonight. Hit some of the discount websites, maybe sweet talk some reservation agents over the phone. If I find anything great I will get a 24-hour courtesy hold and we will discuss things at school tomorrow. I can book the tickets if the price is agreeable and you just write my credit card company a check.” “Sounds great Chuck. I have to get home quick. Allie has aerobics tonight at 7:00, but thanks man. I didn’t think you’d have a


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problem with us going. Say hi to Kelly and that mammoth two-year old you’re raising.” Chuck waved to Terry and said, “Aerobics, seven, oh yeah. I think Kelly is going too. Oh man! I bet your wife and my wife will have lots to discuss tonight. Take care buddy and I will let you know what I find out.” Well, at least there would be strength in numbers now and for being in his early fifties Bill Parson was an absolute stitch—a sense of humor drier than a frat boys throat on Saturday morning, but a funny, funny guy. Oh, Chuck could hardly wait. As Chuck headed the Volkswagen west and tuned in a Chicago sports radio station he could get skipping across the sixty some miles of open Lake Michigan water, he looked into another beautiful fall sunset. The hues of orange and red in the sky matched the sugar maples lining Old Allegan Road. The picture perfect scene reminded him how much he loved this area. The towering dunes and quiet beaches that made up this part of the state were favored summer destinations for Chuck as a kid and now he was lucky to be living here. Sure, two or three people bugged him now and then, but he would have that anywhere. The Dutch had settled this foreboding wilderness in the early 1800’s and brought with them tremendous work ethic and determination. Through tough winters and other trials, families had stuck together and carried those values with them 150 years later. Sure, there were some quirks in the people, and to outsiders it might seem that they took some things to extremes, but one would be hard pressed to find a community that supported families, solid values, and


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hard work more than this one. The area was seeing an influx of more and more diversity which the Fagan’s had grown to really appreciate. Chuck and Kelly had met and become friends with so many great people in this area. Now, as new parents there was an underlying, almost subconscious sense of security they felt living in a place where neighbors still cared about one another—and where doing the right thing was still expected of you. There were probably Susan Vander Slices everywhere, but places like this were becoming fewer and fewer in America these days.


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Chapter 3 In one of Riverton High’s tiered Macintosh computer labs, Chuck was experiencing what was quite possibly the longest day of his teaching career. He found himself checking his Timex Expedition watch about every ten minutes. This time tomorrow, he kept thinking.

We will be hitting the tables, hitting the buffets, and hitting free drinks. Then Chuck remembered that actually at this time tomorrow they would be learning about child-centered classrooms, preserving the child’s dignity while disciplining, and a bunch of other hooey that sounded great when it was delivered by the overpaid presenter who hadn’t seen the inside of a school in ten years. Overall, Chuck was actually very happy about attending the conference. He might even learn something useful that will help his teaching. He’d love to start giving Vander Slice some master-teaching advice he had gained from the trip. What a great deal! The district was picking up the tab for a room in Vegas and was giving the four teachers the time away from school. For Chuck, attending some type of event was the only way to experience Las Vegas. The actual gambling wasn’t really the attraction he felt for the place. He could gamble all over Michigan and Northern Indiana now. It was the enormity of it all and the pure spectacle of Las Vegas that kept him returning. He had learned during his first couple of visits that the key for him was to stay busy for part of the day and away from gaming. Being in Vegas with too much time on one’s hands is a recipe for disaster. It has almost gotten cliché, the stories of wayward souls who have fallen prey to Sin City. Chuck was absolutely positive that the old phrase about an idle mind being the


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devil’s workshop must have been invented in Las Vegas. The word “overwhelming” hardly describes the over-stimulation a person’s brain endures in Glitter Gulch. The lights, the sounds, the piped-in smells all have an ability to transform the psyche. Getting away from the chaos for a little bit at a time let Chuck maintain his sanity and enjoy Vegas all the more. To Chuck, a responsible gambler set enjoying the casino experience as his or her number one priority. Money spent was money that had been set aside solely for entertainment purposes. The trick was getting the most entertainment out of the money. With that attitude, breaking even equaled success because it made the entertainment free. Throw in the free drinks and the incredible people watching and you were actually winning. Leaving the casino with more than you entered was the ultimate bonus, but for Chuck, never the goal. Chuck had learned this lesson the hard way. Chuck and Kevin were at the annual Football Coach of the Year Conference at a Northern Michigan casino when they blew off the last session to get a jump on the gambling floor. Chuck headed to the craps table and Keving peeled off for blackjack. Within fifteen minutes Chuck was down sixty dollars and breaking every rule of caution that he also used when throwing the dice. The more he lost, the more desperate he became, placing money on risky long-shot proposition bets that offer big pays but gave the house a huge advantage. When Chuck had twelve dollars left for the rest of the weekend, he finally had sense enough to leave the table. With the ten and two singles, Chuck began looking for his old friend Texas Ted.


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Texas Ted is the main character in Texas Tea, one of the new generation of high tech video slot machines. Ted and his pet armadillo dance, whoop, and holler as players try to line up icons of Texas and the oil boom—long horn cattle, Cadillacs, and jumbo jets. If a player is lucky enough to line up three pictures of Texas Ted, they are rewarded with a dividend check. Get three or more oil rigs and the big bonus starts. The machine shakes and oil runs down the screen. Ted whips out a map of Texas and the player gets to place the oil derricks. As the wells start pumping the credits on the machine keep growing all accompanied by the sounds of the West. Ted had been extremely kind to the Fagan’s and Chuck had gotten hooked on the game during his first visit to Las Vegas. Maybe it was beginner’s luck, but Chuck actually returned to Michigan with more money than he had taken to Las Vegas with him. He had sat down in front of a Texas Tea machine at the off-strip locals’ joint Terribles and after four and a half hours of playing nickels, Texas Ted’s generosity had built the foundation of a lasting friendship. On Chuck and Kelly’s last Vegas visit for the Rodeo, Ted met Chuck after breakfast just outside of the Gold Coast’s buffet. He turned the Fagan’s ten dollars into fifty dollars and Kelly was soon picking out a new silver watch at the Cowboy Christmas Gift Show. Hopefully for Chuck an old friend could be counted on once again and get him out of the hole he had dug at the craps table. Ted sure seemed happy to see his old buddy and within a couple of spins was writing the first of several dividend checks. Chuck played slowly and as credits began to build on the machine, he began to bet more on each spin. His ten dollars had now become just under fifty


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and the Texas Tea machine showed no sign of slowing. He drilled for oil once and kept on betting until he heard the “clink, clink, clink, clink” of four oil wells aligning themselves before his machine began to shake. Chuck placed four oil derricks and they began to gush. When the wells quit pumping and Chuck’s pulse had returned to its normal pace he happily read the machine’s credit line of $155. Chuck had come all of the way back from the damage he had suffered at the craps table and now had more money than he had brought. To a lot of gamblers it was a paltry sum. But to a selfadmitting low-roller like Chuck it was a good deal of cash. At that moment in the gambling life of Chuck Fagan, there was a terrible lapse in judgment. Instead of cashing-out and being happy with the gains, Chuck got greedy. He began betting up to five dollars a spin, waiting for oil wells and his buddy Ted to return with more money. Well, Ted must have taken offense at Chuck’s motives because credits began to disappear from that machine at an amazing rate. As Chuck kept betting and waiting, the money kept going away. He kept setting bottom lines where he would cash out. “Okay, I’ll play to a hundred,” but he kept going. “Seventy-five,” he said. But he kept playing and losing. “Fifty is it. I am out at fifty.” But Chuck didn’t stop. Well he stopped, but when he only had five dollars left. As Chuck sat in that seat and looked at Abe Lincoln—a portrait of honesty and integrity, he could hardly believe what had just happened. He was so used to winning that he didn’t think he was capable of losing that much money and losing it that quickly. Chuck went back to the room where he found Kevin who was sitting dejectedly in front of the television. He had just lost a similar


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amount of money after being entranced with the beauty of the dealer named Mary. After a couple of Rolling Rocks, Chuck’s desperation to get that money back made him do something he still has trouble believing he did. “Kevin, you put the room on your credit card right?” he asked his friend who was sulking over his own disability to walk away from a losing streak. “Yeah, so?” “So, you still have fifty-five of my dollars. Give me twenty-five and I will give it back in a half hour.” “Chuck, you think you really….” “Just give me the money. Come on. We have work to do.” Chuck and Kevin headed back toward the casino and sidled up to a bank of 5 cent video slots. Their luck didn’t change and the more they gambled the more they felt like scumbags. Well, at least Chuck did. He won nothing and eventually got the other thirty dollars from Kevin which he blew even faster. He had hit rock bottom and felt nothing but shame for the rest of the weekend. He bought breakfast at the buffet with his credit card and was sure to eat enough to last him all day or at least until he could load up on Little Debbie with his Mobil gas card. Actually, the experience had been good for Chuck. This was a valuable lesson in responsibility and he carried that feeling with him anytime he went anywhere near a casino. He had let himself get way too cocky and way too careless, falling into traps he swore he never would.


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Chuck had done a lot of thinking and gotten a lot of reminders from Kelly. By learning all he could about his favorite games he found that video poker and certain bets at the craps table provided the best mathematical bang for his gambling dollar. He had learned how to lengthen the amount of time he could play with the money he had allocated for gambling. When that money was gone, he was finished. As he remembered his own experiences, Chuck was simply amazed by the marathon players who would be in front of the slot machines when he left the casino in the morning and still at the same machine as he popped in and out of the hotel all day. How much

money, he would wonder have they pushed through that machine in their seven hours of sitting? It was hard enough for Chuck to hang onto a bankroll during his relatively short sessions. To gamble all day and then all night was a fate he did not dare tempt—again. Chuck leaned over to help a student who was having trouble lining up all of the tables in the web page she was building about Michigan’s tourist industry. After a couple of quick pointers, he walked to the class laser printer and extracted a stack of papers that he had just printed. Chuck ran the pages through the electric three hole punch and placed then in a rapidly growing three ring binder. That binder contained more information than a CIA dossier. Chuck had scoured the Internet for Las Vegas websites and come up with an amazing amount of information. Before his first trip a few years ago, he had found a website called “Las Vegas on 25 Cents a Day.” It had proved invaluable information in a hilarious format and Chuck had gotten hooked on this town, but more specifically hooked on how to find all of the inside information that the site provided. Only a jackpot


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could rival the thrill of running down a late night $1.25 steak and egg breakfast only a handful of people even knew existed. Now, he was almost an expert when it came to Vegas information on the Internet. In his binder, there were aerial photos of the strip and their hotel, lists of free hotel shuttles, steak and shrimp specials not listed on menus, maps of all kinds, and the coup d’gras, the gold nugget, the Las Vegas Advisor website’s list of top 10 values. That list alone was worth the time and effort it had taken to find all of the other recognisence. Seventy-five cent three-quarter pound hotdogs, $2.95 breakfast buffets, one dollar margaritas, and ninety-nine cent shrimp cocktails were just a few of the marvels that made up the monthly list that to Chuck defined Las Vegas as much as hotels shaped like The Great Pyramids of Egypt and dorks dressed up like Elvis. The other three teachers were just as antsy as Chuck, spending the last hour glancing at the clock and double checking the lesson plans they had left for the substitutes coming in tomorrow. Maybe that phrase about an idle mind being the Devil’s workshop wasn’t coined in Vegas after all and came from a substitute teacher. Oh, that last period dragged. But, when the bell finally rang, it was debatable as to who actually won the race to the parking lotstudents or their four Las Vegas bound teachers. Normally, teachers were required to stay an extra twenty-five minutes after the bell as preparation time. Claiming an early flight, that didn’t leave for three hours from an airport thirty minutes away, the four each piled luggage and a carry-on bag into the back of Kevin’s shiny new white Jeep Cherokee. They had all said their good-byes this morning and agreed that riding together would be easiest. The families would be waiting for


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them at the airport on Sunday afternoon as they arrived home. As Kevin shifted into drive, he cranked stereo and special mix of Las Vegas songs he’d burnt onto a c.d. As they turned onto M-40, the crew was giddier than a group of thirteen-year-old girls at an ‘NSYNC concert. Pretty soon, all four were singing along to Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady” and that venerable piece of cheese “Copacabana” by Barry Manilow. Kevin turned the Jeep’s stereo down after Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation” as talk quickly changed to the impending adventures ahead of them. “Now, I have all of the confirmation codes for our tickets. Since I put all of them on my credit card, I will have to present that at the desk. It should go smoothly since I reconfirmed everything this morning. I also called the Rio in Vegas and they have us in midlevel suite. Kelly and I had a smaller one last winter and it was awesome. These things are bigger than my first apartment. I bugged them until they gave us an upgrade. Hopefully the view is nice.” “I thought we were at some Holiday Inn.” Kevin asked. “You don’t remember me telling you the other day in the hallway that I had gotten a better deal at a better place?” Chuck shot back. “I remember a little bit, but” “But nothing,” Terry spoke up, “That was at the same time Robin Thompson was giving her new student-teacher a school tour. Chuck, you could have told Kevin just about anything and he would have never heard you. “


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Laughter broke forth from three of the four as Kevin just shook his head and directed the Cherokee onto the newly completed South Beltline toward Grand Rapids’ Ford International Airport. “Kevin, is that a hair drier stinking out of your backpack?” Chuck asked as he glanced down at the bag resting on the console between them. “Yeah, So?” Kevin mumbled as he eyed the road and the increasing traffic. “Hair drier? Why did you bring a hair drier?” Chuck teased his good friend. “I know you’re Mr. Single Guy this weekend, but do you think that is going to make a difference?” “You can joke all you want guys. But, you three will be the jealous ones when I am going home with some hot little number and you all are going home with each other.” Kevin boasted as they continued toward the airport. “Well, good luck with the ladies Kevin because I am the one coming home with the money--thanks to my honors stats class. Look at the latest projects my students did on probability. Mathematical studies on cards, dice, roulette wheels, you name it. This is the stuff the casinos don’t want you know. The kids did a good job. This one group rolled the dice 1000 times and made me all kinds of charts.” “Here we go again,” Kevin threw up his arms. “First it was the teachers whining about this trip, now the parents are going to be banging down Tanis’s door!” “Naw, naw! I disguised everything very cleverly and talked about predicting events. The numbers I chose are the only things that have any gambling correlations- like 312, as in a six deck shoe of cards at a


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blackjack table. Three hundred twelve won’t raise any flags. Take a look,” the graying math teacher retorted as he handed a couple to Chuck. “You guys can look at the math all you want. I have all of the help I need right here” Terry said as he held up a small computer game and thick paperback book. “Allison got me these last night- an electronic video poker machine and ‘Retiring as a VP-VIP 3rd edition’. My money is going in as quarters and coming out in royal flushes.” “Third edition, huh?” Kevin spoke like a root canal patient loaded up with Novacane through the wad of sunflowerseeds he had just packed in his cheek. “Is that because they poor sap lost his shirt the first two times and had to write a third book to feed his addiction?” “Yeah, funny Kev, we’ll see who really gets jealous when you implode with the women and go broke while I beat one of the few truly beatable games in Vegas.” “Terry, the only thing you’re gonna be beating is your..” They all laughed together as they pulled into the airport’s entrance and headed toward long-term parking. More sloppy rain and snow mixture slurped against the windows as Kevin stopped at the lot’s entrance, took the ticket, and headed for a spot up front Bill had eyed on the way into the sea of travelers’ vehicles. It had been a long time since Chuck had felt so much excitement traveling with a group of other men. Heck, it had been a long time since he had taken any trip like this. He had such a great feeling as the guys unloaded their bags and headed toward the terminal. It took him back ten years to his last spring break in college.


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Chuck and three of his fraternity brothers had piled into a Buick Park Avenue with a bum water pump and headed south for the white sand beaches of Clearwater and Sarasota, Florida. Instead of wild nights of spring break debauchery, the water pump went kaput and stuck Chuck and buddies at the Ship-To-Shore Motel in New Port Richie. Those were the days before the little blue pill, but today you could call the Gulf Coast Florida town: Viagra Falls. The trip hadn’t turned into anything MTV would want to document, but wound up being very relaxing. Chuck and his friends found an all-you-can eat shrimp joint and took great pleasure in whipping up on the weathered geriatrics who hustled the area shuffle board courts. It had turned into a quiet, but very memorable journey. Beer money had gone for a new water pump. But, it was money well spent none the less. The four returned as closer friends and amazingly refreshed, yet minus any sordid tales. That would be a nice formula for this trip, Chuck thought as he wiped wet snowflakes from his brow. He was ready to see the sun. He was looking forward to life without the daily politics of school. The last thing he wanted was complication. He had been looking forward to this for months and just wanted to relax, eat, gamble a little, eat some more, and enjoy quality time with good friends—the less eventful, the better.


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Chapter 4 Checking in at the Northwest Airlines counter was a breeze as the guys still had almost two hours before their departure. The four headed upstairs to the waiting area and found a booth in the corner of the airport sports bar underneath a huge monitor showing some extreme sport filler that the all-sports stations put on when no legitimate sports are taking place. Shots of girls in thongs flashed on the screen before cutting away to a kid on a surfboard dropping into some insanely huge Hawaiian waves. The camera shot back to the girls and then back out to the wave all while a score of punk rock or thrash metal wailed in the background. “People wonder why we have such a hard time keeping kids’ attention in the classroom anymore,” Terry raised his voice above what sounded like a chorus of circular saws. “We can’t compete with this crap.” After two rounds of Miller Lite, the four headed down to the gate area and through security without incident. Kevin was the only one who had to open his carry-on bag. The agent wanted a closer look at his hair drier. They killed the hour before their commuter flight to Detroit was ready to board by mainly debating the airline’s system of using hub airports for connecting flights. It didn’t make much sense to any of them that they would have to fly east in order to catch a flight west to Las Vegas.. At least the flight to Detroit was relatively short and the layover would be just under two hours, albeit in an airport voted several times the worst in the country. These four could wholeheartedly agree with the old Tom Petty song. “Waiting is the hardest part.”


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Finally, a gate agent made the announcement inviting passengers to begin boarding. Identification and tickets were scrutinized closely as several business travelers finished the day’s deals via cell phone and began their evening journeys home. The four Riverton teachers fell into line with the corporate masses and began the hunt for their assigned seats inside the tiny jet that reminded Chuck of the mailing tubes his favorite online sporting goods stores used to ship his new fishing rods. By the time the plane’s wheels left the ground, Kevin Stewart was already lost in his Las Vegas fantasy world. There had been several Vegas fantasies lately, but this one centered around a pair of tall blonde twins who were escaping the academic rigors of Northern Arizona University in somewhat nearby Flagstaff. To say these girls were bright would be a flat-out lie. In fact, Kevin imagined them dumb as a bag of hammers. He’d had enough of smart women lately— especially the one he had married. What these two lacked in brains they made up for in money from daddy’s multi-million dollar chain of car dealerships throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area. The girls didn’t know a thing about gambling so they latched onto Kevin to bet for them. Anything they won, they split three ways. It was quite a deal, Kev got to bet no less than a hundred dollars a hand at blackjack and never had to risk a dime of his own. The girls would always get in a big fight over who was going to be Kevin’s lady. A lot of men would take this fantasy deep into other realms; but for a five-foot-six-inch, 235 pound, divorced, and aging gym teacher having a hot pair of twenty-one year olds feed him high dollar gambling money and then fight over him was about all he could handle.


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While Kevin was lost in a world of ditzy twin coeds, Terry was transfixed with his miniature video poker machine. This little hand held device was spitting out full houses and straights as fast as Terry could push the buttons. It all seemed so easy. He had played enough nickel and dime poker through out college and afterward to know several old stand-by rules and figured he had this thing licked. As he read deeper into the help-book his wife had bought him, he began to dream of more and more riches. He was writing on the cocktail napkin each win from the little game and by the time the flight attendant announced they were on final approach into Detroit’s Metro airport, Terry had won a hypothetical $600. He thought of all of the nice things he could do to surprise his wife. He wouldn’t tell her about the winnings, just continue to pick up little gifts day after day when he returned. He also thought of the great Christmas he could give to his young son and daughter. He was hooked, and he was still over 2000 miles away from dropping his first quarter. After a relatively smooth touchdown in Detroit, the crew of four located a monitor with their Vegas flight’s gate information. They had plenty of time to trek the two concourses and nineteen gates to where their next plane would be waiting. The layover also gave Chuck and his friends time to leisurely grab a bite to eat and a drink or two. The airport had recently opened a new terminal, so connecting through Detroit was much more enjoyable now than it had been for years. There were now much nicer bars and restaurants for travelers to enjoy—although, that enjoyment came at the notorious airport prices. “This meal of a turkey sub, chips, and a Coke just cost me what I am going to spend at the Gold Coast buffet for three days of


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breakfast.” Chuck sighed as he joined the others at a high-top table in one of the remodeled airport lounges. “Are you sure all of these cheap deals in Vegas are for real Chuck?” Bill asked as he leafed through Chuck’s notebook that had now reached eighty-seven pages in length. “As far as I can tell they are. I confirmed a bunch of them in an online newsgroup. The best one is cab drivers’ list. They know all of the secrets.” As Terry, Chuck, and Bill poured over the amazing amount of information assembled before them, Kevin quietly slipped from the lounge and wheeled his bag to the nearest men’s room. The other three didn’t even notice he had slipped away, but they sure knew it when he returned. “What in the hell is that?” Bill Parson asked painfully slow with his mouth a gasped. Kevin had changed out of his Adidas sweatsuit and was now sporting a black silk shirt and an odd shade of purple, microfiber suit that shimmered and kind of changed color with every step of the gym teacher’s cocky strut. “This gentlemen is called a fashion statement. It is called being bold. It tells the ladies that I have confidence and any woman will tell you that confidence is sexy,” Kevin explained as he drew out the last syllable of “sexy” for effect. It wasn’t anything Kevin was saying that had the effect on the three others; it was what he was wearing. “You look like, like a plum Kevin.” Terry Van Eck commented, as he slowly shook his head in disbelief. “A gigantic metal plumb.”


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“I think he looks more like the world’s whitest pimp,” Chuck added as he tried to take in the whole picture. “ Pimp, plumb, I don’t know,” Bill continued his astonishment as he put his hand on Kevin’s shoulder, who had just climbed back onto his barstool. “One time, I got up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night and Sarah had left the vacuum outside our bedroom door. I never saw the damn thing and slammed into it causing all kinds of racket. I stubbed my big toe so badly, that it cracked in two places. When it swelled up, it looked just like you in that suit.” Kevin just smiled. He was ready for the teasing and knew from the moment that he bought the deeply discounted purple suit that this was the reaction he would get. In fact, he had been looking forward to this moment with great anticipation. He had debated whether to save it for Vegas or break it out early at the airport. He couldn’t wait to see the collective mouths of his buddies drop. Plus, he thought giving them something to laugh about would help the waiting game go a little quicker. Kevin liked his new suit. It made him feel like someone completely different from who he was. For many, that is the aspect of Las Vegas that becomes so addictive. In Vegas you can be anybody you want—and nobody ever thinks twice about it. Kevin locked his feet around the legs of his barstool as he found the seat of his new suit to be quite slippery. He knew his friends were just having fun with him and to show he was a good sport about the whole thing, he ordered a round of beers for the guys. As the waitress brought the four frosty mugs to the table, Kevin raised his glass in a toast, “To good friends, good times, and lots of luck!”


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“Here, here!” the others joined in the toast as they raised their glasses together. “Whoa, whoa,” Kevin suddenly became serious. “We have to do something about our seats.” “Seats?” Chuck asked confused. “Yeah, they’re in row 13. We can’t sit in row 13. On our way to Vegas? No way man. No way man!” As each began to reach the bottoms of their mugs, Chuck checked his watch and saw that they still had at least an hour before boarding. “Let’s head on down toward the gate guys. We can play some cards or something while we wait. The four collected their carry-on luggage and began the rest of the long walk toward gate 23. When they arrived, the waiting area was beginning to fill with Las Vegas passengers. The crew found four seats somewhat together and anxiously counted the minutes until they could get on that plane and get going. Bill pulled a deck of cards from the inside pocket of the light jacket he was wearing. Pretty soon, he was playing the part of dealer and a mock session of blackjack was heating up. It seemed so easy, sitting in an airport, playing with one deck, and having no money on the table. Kevin spent most of the time at the gate podium trying to get his seat switched, but had no luck. As departure time grew near, the game broke up and each of the teachers stretched his legs one last time, knowing the next four hours would be spent sitting. As the four loitered just outside of the boarding area, a tall, dark haired gentleman wearing an airport security badge of some sort approached the group from the concourse.


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“Excuse me sir,” the security agent tapped Kevin on the shoulder. “Due to increased security measures, we are performing random confirmation checks with passengers. Could I have a moment of your time please?” He had obviously delivered this line several times a day. “Sure, sure,” Kevin politely responded. “What do you need to see?” “Just your ticket sir and then some type of identification. Things have really changed in this country, so we are just working hard to keep everyone safe.” Officer Jeremy McClintick, as his badge identified him, explained. “Oh, I understand. Here you go.” Kevin handed him his ticket and i.d. “Are all of you traveling together?” McClintick asked Kevin as he nodded toward the other three intently watching. “Yeah, all four of us are together.” “Well, I had better check everyone’s stuff together. I hope it isn’t too much trouble. It will just take a moment.” “Oh no, no problem at all. Guys.” Kevin motioned to the others who began walking toward the two men. All of the boarding passes and drivers’ licenses were fished out of bags and wallets and then handed over to the agent who looked young enough to still be a student in one of their classes. “Thank you gentlemen,” McClintick responded as he carefully examined each piece handed him. As the young security officer checked the various documents, he jotted a couple of numbers down on his clipboard. “Just for our records


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sir. Everything looks great. Enjoy Vegas! Just be careful. I know things can get kind of crazy out there.” “Oh we don’t have to worry about that. We try to stay away from trouble as much as we can,” Terry answered as he put his license back into his wallet. “Thanks.” Kevin added as he took his license and ticket back from Officer McClintick who was already on his way over to check another man and woman standing near the ticket podium. “Well I guess we must look like the criminal element now that we are hanging with the Purple Pie Man.” Chuck laughed as he looked at his itinerary for about the thirty-second time that day. “Yeah Kevin that purple suit gets you noticed all right. It sent up some red flag over in airport surveillance.” Terry teased. “It wasn’t the suit guys. You saw him check those old people over there. The guy said it was a random check,” Kevin spoke as he continued to adjust his shimmering new pants. They made a swishing sound as he scooted around trying to get comfortable. Chuck checked his watch once more and decided to make one last pit stop before this final leg of the trip finally got going. His legs always seemed to get so cramped on long flights and the dry cabin air reeked havoc on his sinuses. As he was leaving the concourse restroom, the smell of brewing coffee drew him to a small espresso bar that offered not only high doses of caffeine but also a bank of computers for travelers to check their email and surf the internet. While Chuck thought about ordering a tall, skinny, mocha and watched the heavily pierced youngster behind the counter assembling some


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concoction, he heard the hushed voice of the security officer who had just checked his group’s tickets and identification. McClintick was speaking quietly into an extremely small lapel mike connected to his service radio and small clear ear pierce while standing between an unoccupied booth and the little shop’s entrance. “Fagan, Fagan, F-A-G-A-N. Yeah, yeah that’s it. Stewart is the other name. What? Yep, e-w-a, not u-a.” As Chuck confounded his coffee choice and turned toward the voice, McClintick’s and his eyes locked. Chuck took a step forward and politely asked the taller yet much younger agent, “Is there a problem sir?” “Problem? problem? No, no. Why do you ask?” “I heard you spelling my name into your radio and then my friend’s name. Is there something wrong?” “ Oh, no.” McClintick explained calmly. “I was radioing in my latest set of checks. Upstairs likes to document who we check in case any further episodes occur.” “I see,” Chuck left it at that and nodded. “You have a good evening sir.” “You too.” Something from this last little encounter just didn’t feel right to Chuck. The agent seemed honest enough. He seemed like a good kid, working hard, and following orders. Then what was it that bugged him so much? Probably just nerves. He figured he was just over-analyzing things again—a fault that had hampered him from youth in everything from dating to throwing the discus. Chuck and his wife Kelly had talked a lot recently about his traveling. She thought the trip was a


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great opportunity for him to have some fun, but had expressed how nervous she was to have him flying again. Air travel had been turned inside out during the past year or two. He had tried to calm her fears, but inside he too shared several of those same nervous feelings. Everything would be fine he kept telling himself. Oh he needed to get away and he needed to relax! The last thing he needed right now was a coffee so he doubled back for some orange juice. McClintick had moved to one of the computer stations and intently clicked his way through several web pages. After Chuck paid for his large OJ, he side-stepped behind where the agent was working and could hardly believe his eyes. On the screen were pictures of the four teachers, taken recently in the airport. They were obviously security camera shots, with time and location stamps along the bottom. When he returned to the others in the gate area, Chuck moved his bag from the chair he had saved for himself and sat down next to Terry. “Terry,” Chuck leaned over and spoke quietly. “When I was getting a drink, I overheard that security guard saying our names into his radio.” “What? Why?” “I asked him and he told me it was just routine that he had to call in the names and info to his supervisor upstairs in security. He said they had begun documenting who they checked.” “Well, I have never heard of anything like that. It makes sense I guess. At least they have some accountability and know who is where. Maybe they run deeper computer checks on people now.”


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“ Okay, so it gets worse. After I paid, he was at a computer with our pictures on the screen. What’s that all about?” “Probably just being thorough. It is serious business.” “I guess so. But, something just keeps eating at me about it,” Chuck shared his apprehension. “I guess it is just me adjusting to this new world we live in where we no longer have that inherent, subconscious, security that we never before even realized existed.” “Oh, I think you’re right,” Terry replied. “Allison and I have been talking a lot lately about those things. We were both pretty nervous about me traveling without her and the kids. We haven’t been apart like this in a long time.” “It just amazes me—the things that we now notice, especially in the airport. Actually, the increased security presence makes me feel much better about getting on a plane. I just can’t shake hearing our names being read into a radio.” “I don’t think it’s anything Chuck. I don’t know about you, but I am in desperate need of unwinding.” “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Northwest Airlines flight 53, non-stop service to Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport,” a short, curly haired woman, who appeared to be of Caribbean decent announced over the terminal’s public address system. “We would like to begin with pre-boarding,” she continued in her distinct accent. As people began to stand and gather their belongings in anticipation of departure, Kevin stretched his short beefy arms above his head in a yawn. “Well boys, this is it. We are on our way to the Promised Land.”


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After two or three boarding calls, Chuck, Kevin, Bill, and Terry worked their way into the meandering line of passengers, who at some level couldn’t help thinking that when they returned to Detroit, they just might have pockets full of new riches. The flight was fairly full for a Tuesday night but Chuck prayed with all of his heart that the empty seat between him and Kevin would remain unoccupied. That would give them a little extra room for the next few hours. Chuck was really supposed to be sitting in the dreaded middle seat on the long but narrow jet. But, he had slid over to the aisle seat and would remain there until he was forced to move. In most men, it is instinctive to leave an available empty seat between themselves and another man. It not only affords one a little extra elbow room, but subtly declares to all who pass that these two aren’t into one another. Bill and Terry were on the side of the plane that only had two seats together, so they were stuck side-by-side. Terry had his eye on two empty seats in the row just in front of him. If no one came, he would move up giving Bill and himself each their own rows. As more passengers continued to board the flight and approach where the four were sitting, Bill, Terry, and Chuck secretly prayed that no one would sit in any of the seats they so coveted. Kevin was the exception. He followed suit until a stunning red head with long straight hair and an obviously surgically enhanced figure made her way up the aisle. She continued walking past Kevin, but seemed especially interested in his purple suit. Chuck and Terry looked at each other across the aisle and expressed their awe to one another with giant eyes and with silent, wide grins. No words were necessary. The grins turned to frowns of putrid disgust as their brains registered the musky


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trail of perfume that lingered behind the woman as she found her seat several rows behind them. Bill had not seen the women, as he was deeply engrossed with the in-flight magazine’s shopping supplement that featured all kinds of overpriced and totally unnecessary dohickeys. He did look up briefly enough to make the same unhappy face, as he took in what smelled like an angry skunk in a flowershopAs the two went back to telepathically guarding the empty seats, Kevin was still trying to catch a fleeting glimpse of the woman and would soon be in need of a chiropractor if he didn’t remove the awful strain he was placing on his neck muscles as he craned up and over his seat back. Chuck glanced at Kevin’s fake Tag Heur watch he had bought on the street in Cancun last summer. They had passed the do-or-die point where ten minutes before take-off where late comers who hadn’t checked-in yet would be turned away or booked on a later flight. Soon the door would be locked and the seats would be theirs. No one had boarded in at least two minutes and flight attendants were performing all of their preflight duties. Finally, one visibly harried passenger, who must have had a good “why I was late” story for the gate agent came into view and rapidly tried to make his way up the aisle to his seat. Mr. Last-One-On was about thirty-five and it looked like he was desperately clinging to the style that had undoubtedly made him a stud in high school. He wore a black t-shirt of some 80’s glamour rock band like Cinderella, Whitesnake, or Great White under a worn and somewhat faded black leather jacket. His naturally wavy blonde hair was cut close to the scalp on top and dropped into a long curly mullet to just above his


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shoulders. Tiny beads of sweat formed near the passenger’s temples as he looked for his seat. Chuck watched closely and paid great attention to the man who likely had a rusty Camaro stashed in long-term parking. The man’s lips moved silently as he tried to locate his seat. Chuck was no lip-reader but he could spot a swear word clear as day when it inaudibly rolled off of the lips of an angry coach or frustrated athlete on television. He zeroed in on the man’s face and saw that he was repeating the same thing: sixteen, sixteen, sixteen. At that split second, Chuck felt like every drop of blood had left his body. He tingled all over with sharp prickly heat and a deep, sinking feeling that upset his stomach. Sixteen was his row which meant that the man with the Kentucky waterfall hair-do was looking for the seat Chuck currently occupied. Although he didn’t have a mirror, Chuck knew he must have looked horrified. Not only would the elbow room be gone, but the next four hours would be spent squeezed between a guy who looked like an exroadie for Motley Crue and a man who looked like a tick ready to pop when the light caught his shiny new suit just the right way. As their new traveling companion slung his old gym bag into the overhead bin, Chuck unbuckled the seat belt and slid into the purgatory of all travel spots—the middle seat. He and Kevin rolled their eyes at each other and took deep collective sighs. In an accent that was more backwoods than Southern, the man gleefully exclaimed, “Goin’ to Las Vegas are we fellas? Whooo-ey! Glad to meet you I’m Kenny Mansfield.” “Kevin, Chuck,” the man in the purple suit politely replied and nodded to his seat partner. Conversation wasn’t what they really


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wanted at this point in the day, but they weren’t going to escape it. They were hoping for a chance to catch a little nap on the plane in order to have a little bit of energy still in the tanks when they hit Vegas later that night. Those opportunities turned out to be few and far between because Mullethead, as he would be forever remembered by the four teachers, proceeded to perform a full scale inquisition into the lives and Las Vegas plans of Chuck, Kevin, Bill, and Terry. So much

for relaxing, Chuck thought to himself as he was now being forced to learn way more than he cared to know about Kenny Mansfield and the economic pitfalls of the septic tank business. “See Chuck,” Kevin huffed. “I told you this row was bad luck.” Back inside the terminal, the young Agent McClintick smiled as he slid back into the booth at the cybercafé and opened an email account as some free online service like Lycos. “Dear Potter,” he typed. “The pigeon has the package. --SSM”


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Chapter 4 Back on flight 53, Chuck and Kevin were trying to make as little small talk as possible hoping that Mullethead would take the hint that his seat companions weren’t in the mood to chit-chat. But, Kenny Mansfield wasn’t very adept at picking up such subtleties. The two Riverton teachers quickly learned that Kenny was as down on his luck as he appeared. He had made a career out of pumping septic tanks, but since more and more areas were incorporating into municipalities, public works boards were driving Kenny out of a job. All of the homes that used to rely on Kenny for service were now hooked up to public water and sewer services. The EPA and Department of Transportation had recently put their heads together and cracked down on the aging septic pumping trucks traveling Michigan highways. If progress wasn’t biting Mullethead in the shorts, then the bureaucrats were. The other booming areas that still could have used Kenny’s services were all controlled by big conglomerate septic companies. When these dukes of the drainfield weren’t pumping “honey”, as they say in the business, they were aggressively targeting little-guy companies like Kenny. “So why are you going to Las Vegas?” Chuck asked, figuring he might as well get to know this guy’s story a little more if he was going to keep yapping. “My old girlfriend took off out there about a year ago. She wound up working at one of those big fancy spas where the rich ladies go to get pretty while their husbands blow all of their money. She even gets to do make-up on some of the big shows now.” Kenny answered cheerfully thinking that he had finally made a breakthrough with these


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guys. “She said she has some friends who need my help. Said there was a ticket waiting at the airport. Said she missed me” “Help with what?” Kevin wondered out loud. “That she really didn’t say. It was really urgent when I got the call. She said to go to the airport and come see her. She said her friends would take care of everything. She promised me a little something for my trouble…if you know what I mean.” Kenny’s face was stretched in a big grin with a gleam in his eye as he elbowed Chuck a couple of times. “Well Kenny, you have a good time out there,” Chuck decided that it was time to shut this guy up. “I’m going to try to get a little bit of sleep before we get to Vegas.” “Me too,” Kevin added. “I have to be ready to entertain the ladies tonight.” “My lady is going to be entertaining me tonight,” Kenny laughed as he too put his stringy head of hair back against the headrest. A quick check of his watch showed Chuck that they still had about two hours left until their arrival. He slipped off his Timberland loafers and wiggled his toes, hoping his feet didn’t stink. At least he figured everybody would think it was the man in the leather jacket on his left. Chuck stretched his legs as far as they would reach under the seat in front of him. He leaned back to relax but still felt the tingle of excitement. Two more hours. Chuck thought. Two more hours. Chapter 5 Terry Van Eck’s long skinny frame stretched at an angle across the two seats in his row—well his newly adopted row. He had giggled to himself when the “honey pumper” with the bad hair had taken Kevin


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and Chuck's empty seat. He had even taken great pleasure giving the old “stink eye” to Kevin across the aisle as Mullethead kept yapping. Terry was hoping this was just the beginning of a long streak of good luck. With all that he had learned about the video poker game Deuces Wild, Terry was confident that big jackpots were around the corner. As he let the advice book close on his chest, Terry drifted into a semistate of sleep filled with soothing images of video poker cards coming up as four-of-a-kind, straight flushes, and full houses. He imagined crowds of elegantly dressed so-called beautiful people gathered around his machine cheering every hand. Women in little black dresses were bouncing up and down, showering Terry with hugs as tuxedo clad gentlemen slapped high-fives as the credits on the machine reached mountainous levels. As Terry sunk further into this imagined euphoria, he could see a large entourage of casino personnel whisking him away to a top-floor suite—just like they do to the high rollers in every movie ever made about Las Vegas. The four friends in his dream would be wrapped in long Hugh Heffner-like satin robes, puffing on big Cubans, while a personal butler poured from thirty-year-old bottles of Crown Royal Canadian whiskey. Behind Terry, Bill had fallen into a deep state of reflection on the past 25 years of his life. He wasn’t dreaming about video poker fortunes, but paying for the eight years of college his two children were currently completing. He was realizing he had already experienced a pretty good run of luck when he thought about his family and how both of his kids had worked enough to earn scholarships to two excellent schools.


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Bill’s daughter Katey had left the very conservative confines of the Lakeshore for all of the much more liberal atmosphere in Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. From the time she was a little girl, Katey had been quite the litigator. Her burning desire to know why she could not do something or why her older brother was given permission had driven Katey’s parents nuts. But, she had proven to be such a good student and trustworthy daughter that Bill and his wife Sarah quickly realized that this was a talent to be admired. Very few fourth graders put together a tri-fold pamphlet outlining why a trip to Orlando for spring break was a far superior choice than a trip to Washington D.C. Katey’s 4.0 grade point average from Holland High School and solid College Board scores had garnered attention from many fine schools. But, a visit to the U of M one spring had sold her on Ann Arbor. The beautifully designed old buildings with ivy covered walls and lush hardwood interiors were the essence of what Katey had always envisioned college. Michigan’s law programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels were excellent and Katey knew she would always be able to find many different people for the spirited debates she loved so much. Bill and Sarah were relieved when Michigan’s financial aid department offered the Parson’s several merit grants that reduced their costs greatly. Bill and Sarah’s oldest child, Taylor was and senior completing his second term as president of the Sigma Chi house at Michigan’s Hillsdale College. Bill was one proud father when his son accepted an academic scholarship to the small liberal arts school that just happened to be his alma mater. Taylor also received another special


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scholarship reserved for students with relatives who were Hillsdale alumni. He was now the fourth member of the Parson family to attend the college in Southern Michigan. Bill and Taylor’s Uncle Brian had graduated in the 1970’s while his cousin Scott was also a senior and a member of the same fraternity. Bill often worried that his son was having too much fun in college, but Taylor still managed to do well in most classes. Bill also knew that the social skills his son seemed to be perfecting would inevitably pay off when the business major began striking deals in the “real world”. The kid had a special charm kind of charm that had gotten him out of jams since middle school. Undoubtedly, this little gift would keep paying dividends.

It sure would be nice to land a little bit of money this trip, Bill thought as he adjusted his slightly graying head against the window. A little bit of extra money would go a long way in helping Bill take Sarah on a quiet get-away to the Florida Keys or Bahamas. Sarah had been working so hard lately trying to secure her place in a burgeoning Lakeshore real estate market. After she spear-headed the Parson’s selling of their last home, she caught the bug for the business and said goodbye to twenty-eight years of teaching high school Spanish. By buying a couple of years of service from the state retirement system, Sarah was able to take a full retirement and devote her energy to her new business. It helped keep her occupied as she dealt with an empty house. Bill’s mathematical mind had helped with the books and he had really enjoyed seeing his wife achieving success. As Bill closed his eyes, he was overcome with a relaxing peace. Look

at all we have accomplished. Look at how much I have already been


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blessed, he thought warmly. As Bill looked over at Kevin and Chuck finally enjoying some quiet he flipped off the overhead reading light and closed his eyes. This is going to be some trip guys! Bill smiled to himself as he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep for a quick nap. After catching just over an hour of sleep, Chuck yawned and sleepily peered out the window past a sleeping Kevin. As he hit the Indiglo on his watch, he was happy to see that if all was on schedule, they would be landing in about forty minutes. He could see the scattered lights spread sporadically through what he figured must be Northern Arizona or Southern Utah. After a few idle minutes of shaking off the little sleep he had mustered, Chuck could see the first glimpse of what looked like one brilliantly vibrant light glowing in the distance. It grew and grew as the plane got closer, and before long it began to spread out and more colors became visible. Chuck nudged Kevin gently to wake him and as he did the space age fiber of Kevin’s suit squealed like fingernails on a parachute. “What, what?” Kevin stammered as he tried to figure out where he was. “Oh Chuck, it’s you…I was dreaming that there were three strippers with a flat tire….” “Kevin, I do not want to hear about three strippers and a flat tire.” Chuck answered his friend who was still stuck somewhere between the images of stranded exotic dancers and reality. “Look, look out the window. See that glow over there? That’s Vegas over there.” “Wow, but we must still be at least a half hour away.” Kevin said now growing increasing conscious. “I know. It is just amazing coming in here. The pilot on our flight last year told us that pilots are able to spot Vegas from two to three-


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hundred miles away.” Chuck added trying hard not to sound like knowit-all mailman Cliff Claven from the TV series Cheers. Both Terry and Bill had both now returned from their short, but effective power naps and were gazing across the aisle at the lights Chuck and Kevin were discussing. They both looked at third man in that row whose head was painfully cranked at angle toward them and then simultaneously looked at each other quietly laughing to themselves. “Do you really think it was progress and politics that put that guy out of work?” Bill quietly asked Terry as they moved their heads closer together. “Well, to look at him now, I would say it probably has more to do with his own cerebral wattage than anything else.” Terry whispered back as he grimaced and slowly pointed to the long string of drool that was hanging from the corner of Kenny Mansfield’s mouth stretching down to a small pool on the forearm of his leather jacket. From there, another long string cascaded floorward and hung in a large glistening drop, perilously hanging just inches from the floor. Bill and Terry watched the spit drop bob and sway with every movement of the airplane, both amazed at drop’s clear disregard for the laws of physics. Terry was still pointing sheepishly when the captain announced that the flight would be arriving at Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport in about twenty minutes. Unfortunately, as fast as Terry tried to recoil that finger it was no match for the speed with which the drooling man with the long hair opened his eyes. As he wiped the saliva from


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his face with a violent jerk of the arm, his beady little green eyes narrowed in a fierce squint that pierced directly through Terry Van Eck.

If this guy wasn’t scary enough! Now he’s going to kill me. Right here on the airplane, Terry thought to himself while squaring up in his seat and trying to shake the stare of Kenny Mansfield. Bill had returned to a safer spot in his row but chuckled to himself about how terrified Terry must be sitting in front of him. He gave Terry’s seat a little kick and met eyes with the tall cross-country coach through the little space between Terry’s seat and the outer wall of the jet. Terry looked absolutely scared to death and Bill’s big grin didn’t make him feel any better. This is going to be the longest twenty minutes of my

life. If I live that long. Terry kept thinking. Get me off of this freaking plane. Now! Chuck leaned forward and looked over at Terry and was surprised to see such fear etched across his friend’s face. “Terry, do see Vegas over there?” “Yeah Chuck, great,” he nervously replied without turning his head from its fixed forward position.

What’s wrong with him? Chuck wondered as he returned a glance in Terry’s direction. Must just be flying. Chuck had missed the whole “Saliva-gate” incident and was beginning to worry a little. “You alright Terry?” Chuck’s concern was met with a quick glance and short nod. “Awhh! He’s all right. He’s just a little embarrassed that I caught him making fun of me slobberin’ all down my arm!” Mullethead said as he unexpectedly broke the tension with an unwelcome slap of Chuck’s thigh. “Heck if I seen one of you all drooling like that, I would have had


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all them pretty stewardesses laughing along with me. I can take a joke fellas.”

It’s “saw” not “seen”, “those” not “them”, Chuck told himself as he wondered how big the welt was going to be that was developing underneath the leg of his khakis. These were all-too common misuses of the English language that drove Chuck crazy and for some reason Michigan rednecks seemed to use them more than anyone else. “Hey Stringbean!” Kenny Mansfield called to Terry who was beginning to relax a little bit “You all were having fun laughing at me. So, I thought I’d have a little fun too. You see, I just have this way of looking at people that makes them do all kinds of crazy things. It’s kind of a little hobby. Planes are great places for giving people looks. I like to act real retarded sometimes and do the stewardesses ever give me special attention! You know, bend down to help me. Lean over to take my cup. Just a little bonus.” “That’s uh, quite a talent you got there,” Terry calmly smiled. “Bet your parents are real proud.” The lights of Vegas spread out on both sides of the plane now and the captain was back delivering his final messages in that uniform slightly Southern drawl that all pilots must have to learn at flight school. “Folks, on behalf of your DEE-troit based flight crew, I’d like to say it’s been a pleasure serving you tonight and thank you for flying Northwest. Local time is 8:52 PM and the temperature in Las Vegas is a very nice sixty-four degrees. Those of you sitting on the right side of the aircraft are going to get a nice view of the fabulous Las Vegas Strip as we make our final approach here in a couple of minutes. Good luck to y’all and flight attendants prepare for arrival.”


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The captain was quickly replaced by the head flight-attendant who made the obligatory “seat-belt, seat-back, and tray table” announcement. Just as she finished, Chuck made his move, a quick hop over Mullethead and into the empty aisle seat next to Terry on the right side of the plane. Before he could even get the seat belt fastened, Chuck shifted into full tour-guide mode and began pointing out all of the important landmark hotels and casino below them. “Look at the two big white ones up ahead a little bit. The first one is Caesar’s Palace and the other one with the lake is the Bellagio. Big money in there!” Chuck could hardly contain his excitement as he spit out information as fast as his mouth would move. “Where’s ours?” Terry asked trying to get a word in quickly as Chuck kept firing names of hotels. “Ours is the one right behind Caesar’s with the blue and red neon running up the side of it. There. See it?” “Yeah, you can see ‘Rio’ written on top of it. Cool!” Terry was getting as pumped as Chuck was. “Okay now, see that pyramid thing with the crazy lights running down the corners? That’s the Luxor. The big one next to it is Mandalay Bay. See the castle? That’s Excalibur and the big green one is the MGM Grand.” “Unbelievable,” was all that Terry could say. He had felt a sense of awe when he first watched the marathon of documentaries that Chuck had given him. Now he was quickly feeling overwhelmed and hadn’t even touched the ground yet. “That’s got to be New York, New York right there. I can see the Statue of Liberty. There goes the roller


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coaster! Man Chuck, we are going on that thing. This is amazing, simply amazing.” “Just wait until we get down there. Wait until you see where I am taking you guys tonight.” Chuck said with a look that was pure mischief. “Hard Rock, baby!” Kevin added from across the aisle. “Yep!” Chuck exclaimed actively nodding and grinning back to his buddy. “One time I met my dad out here for a coaches’ clinic and we went to eat at the Hard Rock. I thought the old man was going to have a stroke when the two babes in chainmail halter-tops strutted by our table in the coffee shop. “Seven dollar and seventy-seven cent steak and shrimp,” Kevin said ecstatically as the wheels of the plane touched the runway on the Nevada desert floor. “No kidding huh? That’s a hell of a deal. I do think I am going to have to check that out. Now you guys be careful out here. I don’t want to hear about any teachers who got themselves killed or thrown in jail or something.” The out-of-work septic hauler kindly advised. “Oh no,” Kevin replied. “We’re a pretty mellow bunch. You take care of yourself too.” “Well it’s been fun flying with you. Even if I scared your friend over there a little bit.” Kenny quipped as he stroked the hair running down his next. “Maybe I’ll run into you guys sometime, buy you one of those big ol’ hotdogs they sell downtown real cheap.”

God I hope not! Kevin wanted to say out loud. “Uh, yeah,” he managed. “Maybe.”


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As passengers began to collect their belongings around their seats, the plane came to a stop at the gate and the race to lose the most money was on when the captain turned off the “fasten seat belts” sign sounding the electric tone. Kevin, Chuck, Terry, and Bill all felt an added boost of energy as they began their walk toward the rental car shuttles. They all gave Mullethead a quick wave good-bye as he used his tongue to perform what looked like a tonsillectomy on the make-up artist the guys had heard so much about. They all looked at each other and shook their heads. Unbelievable, they all thought to themselves. They all had the feeling that the next three days would be filled with that word “unbelievable”. Chuck led the way onto the airport’s underground rail system that would take the four to the main terminal area. The little train was crowded and the excitement was contagious. There were probably several locals, but the majority of the crowd was made up of people looking to hit it rich or simply unwind trying. The first snag of the trip came when everyone’s baggage ended up missing. Luckily, each of the teachers had packed a spare set of clothes in their carry-on bags and made arrangements with the airline to have the missing pieces delivered to the Rio. The Dollar shuttle was waiting for the for just outside of the terminal doors. As they got on the little bus, they all noticed how odd it was not to be freezing cold at nine o’clock at night in December. It was good feeling that solidified the fact that they had escaped their real lives at least for a little bit. At the counter, Chuck presented the confirmation number, his credit card, and all four drivers’ licenses.


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They listened to the spiel about extra insurance and just as Chuck was going to flat decline upgrading to a convertible, the man in the purple shiny suit piped up and said, “You got it!” The other three looked at Kevin as he responded, “It’s alright guys. I’ll get the difference.” The other just stared at each other almost stunned. Bill, Chuck, or Terry never had to be asked twice if Kevin was volunteering to pay for something. Probably because they never ever had been asked once. Kevin had a unique ability to somehow weasel out of his share. It was never intentional. He just wasn’t ever the one to put up the money first. It was true. People could be anything they wanted in Vegas. “Alright. Sure,” Chuck finally said to the agent processing the reservation as he looked with amazement at Kevin. “Okay gentlemen, I need your four signatures on this form. Each initial down here and you will be all set.” The young college-aged rental agent explained. “Thank you guys.” He continued. “I have a row of Chrysler Sebrings out the door to your right. Just pick one and here is your rental agreement.” He said politely handing it to Chuck. “Enjoy yourselves. Just bring the thing back in one piece please.” If the guys weren’t all walking with a cocky strut before, they were now. “What got into you Kevin?” Bill asked as he eyed the shiny convertibles recently washed and shining under the overhead lot lights. “Just increasing my odds with the ladies, fellas! You know, I read that there are over one hundred thousand strippers registered in


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Vegas. At least one of them has got to like convertibles.” Kevin shot back. “Let’s see Kev. A hair blower, a purple suit, and a convertible. I’d say you’re going to be doing pretty well for yourself.” Terry added as each man was mentally deciding which of the cars they liked the best. “But,” he continued. “What are you going to do with us?” “Oh believe me. I have that all taken care of.” Kevin said confidently as the other three looked at each other fearfully wondering what the heck that meant. “C’mon guys. Let’s pick a car. I’m getting damn hungry.” Bill said while subtly expressing his impatience. “Well, I think you always have to bet on black while in Vegas,” Kevin suggested. “Yep, black is it.” Chuck confirmed. “I think so. I am just damn glad Kev didn’t want that purple one to match his suit. Chuck grabbed the keys, popped the trunk, and put down the top as the other three loaded their luggage and climbed aboard. Chuck turned the ignition over, had his agreement checked by security, and directed the convertible out on to Paradise Road in the direction of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino where hot babes and cheap steaks beckoned. Kevin reached into his suit-coat and grabbed the same Rat Pack c.d. the crew had listened too earlier. As he cranked the knob on the Sebring’s audio system, all four yelled as loud as they could, “Luck be a lady tonight. Never get out of my sight. Luck, if you’ve ever been a lady to begin with, luck be a lady tonight.” The elation they were feeling was something none of them had


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experienced in a long time. To each, it sure felt good to get away for a little bit. Now all they needed was just some time to relax窶馬othing really eventful, just a little fun.


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Chapter 6 “So,” Jaquie Elkington said as she popped the trunk on her aging Pontiac Grand Am that was parked in the McCarran Airport lot. “Did you get the job done on the plane?” “Oh yeah.” Jeremy Strayer said as he loaded his black duffle bag and leather jacket into the car. “I bugged the hell out of those guys.” “Well you didn’t use your real name or anything did you?” “No-ohhh!” snapped Mullethead. “I ain’t that dumb! I said I was in the septic tank business and that my name was Kenny.” “Kenny? Septic tanks? Where did you get that?” Jaquie wondered as she hit the power locks and climbed into the car that still bore its original Michigan license plates although she had lived in Nevada almost a year now. “Hell, I don’t know. There I was in a balls-out rush to the airport and I got behind a dripping septic tank truck with the name “Turdbusters” painted on the side and figured I couldn’t make up anything better than that. “ Jaquie just rolled her eyes. “And the name Kenny, well of course that is in honor of the Gambler himself. You know Jaquie,” he continued. “I know when to hold ‘em. I know when to fold ‘em. I know when to walk away and damn it. I know when to haul ass and run.” More eye rolling accompanied this time with a little head shake and a few inaudible profanities. Why did she even dare bring this clod

back into her life again, Jaquie thought to herself as she heard her ex still carrying-on with some lame explanation about how the rest of his


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alias had something to do with NASCAR. Jaquie really didn’t care as she interrupted him mid-sentence. “Here’s the deal.” Jaquie said with authority while heading for the neighborhoods north of the Strip’s glitter. “You’re going to follow these jokers for the next two days. All you have to do is not lose them. You’ll get a call and you will tell the guy on the phone what those four are doing. Pretty damn easy, don’t you think?” “And?” the former Kenny Mansfield pressed. “And what?” Jaquie snapped back at him. “Where’s the adventure in that? Where does my expertise fit into any of this?” “Expertise? Your expertise is like a black cloud that rains. No, I take that back pours buckets on anything we try to do. You’re just lucky I got the bosses on this job to even consider you. This thing is huge. It is almost too huge. Consider your job a privilege. That’s it. That is all you are doing on this thing. Do your little bit and enjoy the rest of the fireworks. There are going to be a bunch! “That’s it? That’s it? You made me drop everything. You give me a half hour’s notice so I can damn near kill myself trying to catch a flight. I had to sit next to two stiffs for four hours and their two stiff friends for four hours. Now do I get to have any fun in Vegas? Nope! I come out here thinking we’re taking down the Bellagio and I wind up tailing four dorks in the buffet line”. “Well, you know what Jeremy? First of all you’d last about eleven seconds trying to take down some big place like the Bellagio. Second of all, your track record hasn’t exactly been very impressive lately. Hell, your track record has never been impressive. Ever! I don’t even


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know if you can handle something this easy. You remember the Canadian quarter deal?” “Yeah, I remember. I also remember how you just let me take all of the heat when the stupid scam was your idea in the first place.” “Well, you screwed it up. We brought back five hundred dollars in quarters from Canada. They only cost us three hundred and some American dollars to get because of the exchange rate. If we would have just worked them into everyday cash purchases like I told you,” Jaquie poked Jeremy’s chest with a long artificial nail embedded with a tiny rheinstone. “We would have made about $175 in profit. But no, you had to go to Sears and plunk down 716 Canadian quarters for a new cd player. When the guy just laughed at you, you didn’t leave. You thought you would try your luck at Radio Shack. That guy called security and the rent-a-cops got you. Very smooth.” “No, I’ll tell you what is smooth—the way you just turned your back on me completely. I got six months probation and you kept the quarters.” “You’re damn right I kept the quarters. What was left of them. I took them back across the river to Casino Windsor in Canada and changed them into dollar slot tokens. I made a nice little profit when I found out that they’d work at the MGM back in Detroit.” “Yeah, thanks for sharing.” Mullethead sarcastically told his onagain/off-again lover as he gazed up in amazement at the lights of the Mirage and the pirate ship façade of the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino. “Hey, just because you screw something up, doesn’t mean I still don’t get my take. Just like the pop cans.” Jaquie answered as she


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always did when Jeremy wanted to argue. The next phase of any of their spats always led to the first con these two tried to pull involving Michigan’s ten-cent deposit on carbonated beverage containers. Since the late-seventies people in Michigan have saved all of their soda, or as it is known in the Great Lakes State, pop and beer containers and received a dime for each one returned to the store. For years, some poor kid or worker already earning minimum wage had to hand count every sticky, smelly, dripping returnable to ensure that each was stamped with the words “Michigan 10 Cent Refund.” Through the miracle of automation and for the sake of efficiency, stores installed machines that scanned bar codes and counted the containers automatically. Shoppers fed the big machines and then received a receipt to be redeemed at the checkout counter for cash or credit toward groceries. The system worked well until bottlers began to place the redemption stamps for several states on cans all over the country. This cut down on the cost and hassle of keeping straight where certain products went. When the words: “Michigan 10 Cent Refund” began appearing on cans in Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Illinois, low-lifes everywhere began bagging them up and heading north. Many just thought of it as free money while others felt a deeper sense of pride, a sense of family tradition. Their grandfathers had run moonshine across the Michigan line during prohibition and now as these cooters followed their forefathers’ footsteps in a 1978 Ford LTD loaded to the gills with empty Natural Light cans, they could almost feel the eyes from heaven smiling upon them. Jaquie had gotten her big idea to run pop cans while she and the newest love in her life Jeremy were in Kentucky visiting her dad and


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step-mom. The family was gathered around the television one night in a very non-Walton Mountain-like way watching a rerun of Seinfeld. It just happened to be the episode where Kramer and the very strange mailman Newman tried their hand at collecting New York cans and driving them to Michigan for the ten cent bounty. Before the show was even over, Jaquie’s dad piped up, “Cans?, man have I got cans! Get your coats and get in the truck.” Not ten minutes later, Jaquie, Jeremy, her dad, and brother were almost thigh deep in aluminum, or as Jaquie’s dad Willard called it: “aloomium”. Willard worked for a metal recycling outfit in Ashland and had been under heavy pressure to transport the cans environmentally concerned citizens had been donating. “Load ‘em up!” he shouted as he tossed the three others large clear plastic sacks. After about an hour, the bed of Willard’s dented old GMC was loaded. The next day when Jeremy and Jaquie left for their new Apartment in Ypsilanti, their rusty Monte Carlo was quite a bit heavier. All of the way home, Jeremy heard all of the things Jaquie was going to get with their riches that were currently in the form of old beer cans rattling around behind her. The first real set-back in the relationship happened the next day when Jaquie went to work at an Ann Arbor beauty salon and Jeremy went to strike it rich. But like the quarters, Jeremy hadn’t done very much prior planning. He was about three hours into feeding an automated machine at a Meijers Thrifty Acres store on Saline Road when he noticed that a group of Meijer employees were watching him and discussing something. As Jeremy glanced at the machine’s display his greed for easy cash began to get the best of him when he


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saw he was rapidly approaching the four hundred dollar mark and he still had two bags on both sides of him. “Excuse me sir,” grocery manager Cedric Hughes politely spoke as Jeremy turned to face the tall fifty-ish African-American man smiling at him. “That’s an awful lot of cans. Did you have a big party or something?” Caught completely off guard, all Mullethead could offer back was, “Uhh…uhh…party…uhh.” “I see.” Hughes responded still smiling. “This party didn’t happen to be out of state did it? You see Michigan loses millions every year due to this kind of fraud. Usually when one person stands in front of one machine for a long time and makes five trips to his car, we tend to get a little suspicious.” This time Jeremy strayer didn’t say a word. The dumb-ass look on his face said quite enough. “I tell you what I am going to do.” Cedric Hughes, who was beginning to enjoy this little exchange, said as his subordinates watched him craftily handle the situation. “I am going to give you one chance to hand me your receipt, leave your cans, and never-ever step foot inside another Meijer franchise again. I will be faxing the lovely pictures our surveillance cameras took of you as to alert other local grocers. Be assured they will be on the look-out for you and that greasy thing growing down the back of your head. Now get the hell out of my store!” As the other Meijer employees spontaneously gave a loud cheer for the strength their boss had just shown this can-smuggling hillbilly, Jeremy strayer hung his head in shame, handed Hughes the receipt


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and slowly walked through the meat and produce sections to his beater Monte Carlo. Things only got worse when what might have been one day an American muscle car failed to start, forcing him to walk the three and a half miles to Jaquie’s salon, all the while trying to figure out how to tell her that he had blown the can scam. Needless to say Jaquie wasn’t any too happy to hear Jeremy’s explanation and wound up having her paycheck garnished to pay for the mirror she damage when a bottle of nail polish she hurled at Jeremy ricocheted off of the big man’s cheek bone and put a bullseye on the mirror behind him. She was lucky she hadn’t lost her job. But with Jeremy’s stupidity fueling her anger, it was inevitable. Jaquie eventually got the axe as a result of the tirade she performed for a packed salon on the Saturday morning Jeremy called from jail expecting her to bail him out of the quarter mess. She tried her hardest to stay away from the guy, but eventually wound up going back to him. Finally after a typical evening of screaming and yelling Jaquie packed up the Grand Am and started driving. She had no plan. She had no direction. I-94 West just happened to be first exit she saw. Around Chicago she got bored and took another road and eventually made it to Oklahoma City. At a dingy Motel 6 across from an amusement park, Jaquie watched the train on the roller coaster traverse the lighted track. It reminded her of how her life had been lived since she was a little girl. It had been over three years since Jaquie had seen her mother who was now living in a small Arizona town outside of Phoenix. Jaquie decided that she was tired of the roller coaster ride and just wanted to find some type of solid ground. She reasoned that time reconnecting with her mother Fern in


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Arizona would be good for the both of them and a nice place for Jaquie to start building a calmer more stabilized life. Jaquie had lasted exactly nine days with her mother and her mother’s live-in boyfriend Smitty. Smitty and Fern lived on a piece of land that was just on the outskirts of Queen Creek but all Jaquie could think about was Jeremy. She missed him so deeply that at least twice in those nine days she packed the Grand Am and was determined to return to her man back in Michigan. But what Jaquie really missed was the drama. More than anything, it was the friction, the excitement, and the confrontation that made Jaquie long to be with Jeremy. She was too ashamed to admit it to herself but those were the things she craved most. She at least knew returning to Michigan was a step backward. So, she looked at a map thinking San Diego or even Hollywood might be what she needed. When she realized Vegas was only a few hours away, she was like a fighter pilot with missile lock. She loaded the Pontiac one last time and within eight hours she was up to her neck in more excitement than is humanly possible to endure—all of the drama she could eat-up was now available twentyfour hours a day. But, Vegas wasn’t home and for some reason she still missed Jeremy. He had come to visit once and she had flown to the Detroit area twice. Their visits were microcosms of the time they had lived together—lots of petty bickering and lots of time in the bedroom. Being together physically was the only place where these two excelled. For eleven, sometimes twelve minutes at a time, these they were the most connected couple in America—literally. Jaquie always wondered why they couldn’t take that same cohesion into other realms of the


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relationship. At least Jeremy was good at something. Now he was back with her for a little bit. As long as he kept it low-key, there would be a big payday for both of them. But, there were those deep down worries that ran through Jaquie any time Jeremy was involved with anything of importance. “Listen Jer! The less you know the better. If you go nosing around and mess anything up, the people running this show won’t think twice to take you out. Do your part and you’ll get paid. Period.” As Jaquie gave this warning, Jeremy noticed a little bit of softness in her voice. Jaquie made a left turn off of the Strip in front of the towering Stratosphere, looked over at him, placing her right hand on his knee, and with real tenderness said, “But it sure is good to see you. I knew when I left Michigan that I wouldn’t be able to stay away from you. I guess it is one of my biggest faults. No matter how big a mess you make our lives, there’s something about that big heart of yours that keeps dragging me back to you.” “Well thanks babe. You can take it to the bank that I won’t cause any problems this time. Besides, I am going to be too damn busy in the sack with you to get in any trouble.” Jeremy laughed as Jaquie pulled into the dark and dreary parking lot of her equally dark and dreary apartment complex. “Screw this up and you just might wind up missing the equipment needed to get into the sack.” Jaquie said as she parked the Grand Am next to a couple of run-down cars that matched the condition of her building. She sure felt a lot safer to have Jeremy here with her. The usual thugs who idly mingled near the steps to her apartment backed


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away as she and the beer can bandit lugged his gear toward Jaquie’s place. Before the door could even finish closing, the two began a marathon session of unlocking a bundle of pent-up long-distance passion. Jaquie was indeed entertaining Mullethead just as he had promised Kevin she would.


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When Chuck pulled the black Sebring into the valet drop at the Hard Rock Hotel, all four teachers were quickly nearing hypothermia. Sixtyfour degrees felt mighty nice leaving the airport, but the dry desert air made it feel a lot colder in a convertible. With the top down, the wind chill factor brought the “feels-like” temp down into at least the forties. Purple neon from the massive structure located just off of the Strip reflected in the hood of the shiny Chrysler. Teeth chattered and extremities felt numb as the four climbed from the convertible hustling for the warmth of the brightly glowing casino. Chuck flipped the keys to the attendant, feeling like a big shot—a frozen big shot, but one nonetheless. As he hurried to join the others, the feeling began to return to Chuck’s frozen appendages and so did the excitement of being back in Las Vegas and ready to enter one of the craziest places he had ever visited. He couldn’t wait to see the looks on his friends’ faces as they experienced all that is the Hard Rock. “I thought the pilot said it was sixty-something degrees.” Chuck said as he entered now just a step behind the others. “Sixteen maybe.” Bill responded still rubbing his upper arms to get warm. “ Entering the Hard Rock down the narrow corridor that connects the hotel tower with the gaming floor always reminded Chuck of walking


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up on a fraternity party in college. You could often hear the mayhem for a block or two before you could actually see it. “Wait guys. Wait.” Bill said as he stopped and stared up at the moniker of the Hard Rock’s Mexican restaurant. “They don’t actually call this place the Pink Taco? Do they?” The look on the fifty-two year old math teacher was precisely what Chuck was expecting. The others laughed and shook their heads while looking up at the bright sign. “Pink Taco? That just doesn’t seem right.” Bill continued inamazement. “Pink Taco is original but I like their billboard by the airport that says, ‘Our slots are looser than your girlfriend.’” Chuck chided. As Bill’s normal core temperature returned so did his hunger-induced crankiness, “So where is this steak thing you keep telling us about Chuck?” “Keep walking. Go all of the way around the rim of the casino floor until you get to Mr. Lucky’s.” Chuck instructed trying to calm the hungry man’s edginess. As the group walked further, the hallway opened into the main casino. The centerpiece is a round, raised bar that is almost always packed with singles, or those single for the time being and tonight was no exception. One thing did stick out as different to Chuck as he gazed


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toward the excitement. He had never seen so many cowboy hats in the place before. For a Tuesday night, the Hard Rock was jumping. Lynard Skynard played over the house speakers as slots chirped and jangled that sound that intoxicated more visitors than the free flowing booze at this hotspot for the ultra cool. The cowboy hats Chuck noticed reminded him that the best bull riders in the World had joined the usual crowd for the week. The Hard Rock goes a little country every December during the ten days of the National Finals Rodeo and plays host to those participating in the bull riding competition. To climb on the back of a 2000-pound thunderously powerful animal for eight seconds takes a special type of individual, usually one Hell-bent and hooked on adrenaline. For some reason, that kind seems to feel right at home at a place like this. After all, it is just like what World Bareback Champion turned Country singer Chris LeDoux says, “Even cowboys like a little bit of rock and roll.” As the group reached Mr. Lucky’s, Kevin led the way with high hopes that his investment in flashy attire would soon pay dividends. “Four non-smoking,” he said while smiling at the petit redheaded hostess and rotating his right four fingers back and forth in a goofy gesture that obviously Kevin thought was cool. Kevin had lots of gestures that he thought were cool but would easily be classified as goofy by most other people. When he was at a social gathering, he would use the


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“shooter” gesture. Instead of going up and greeting someone he recognized he’d do it by making his right hand into a pistol and pointing like he was shooting. When he was being more subtle, Kevin liked to give the “mini nod”. He could say, “Hello” to someone eighty feet away with brief eye contact a tiny arch of the eyebrows, and a two-centimeter raise of the chin. Chuck always teased him with the old Carley Simon song “You’re So Vain” because Kevin always “walked into the party like he was walking onto a yacht.” But hey, Chuck would reason. If he is that happy with himself, then great! The guy deserved

to feel good about himself. Bill jockeyed ahead of Kevin as the hostess led them through the 1950’s diner themed coffee shop to a booth looking out onto the action. Chuck trailed the other two and realized that they had lost Terry somewhere in the last couple of minutes. As they sat down, Chuck asked the others, ”Did you guys see where Terry went?” “Nope.” “Uh uh,” was all any of the others could offer as two very young blondes took seats at the table directly across from Bill and Kevin. Bill tried not to stare, but Kevin was shameless and even garnered a little wink from one of the blondes who seemed to be either enjoying the attention or had a thing for torturing men who had absolutely no


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shot at ever going out with her. She really drove Kevin nuts when she reached down and leaned toward him in her very low-cut tight top to address some issue with the leg-breaker red high heel she wore. As Kevin hypnotically gazed, open-mouth and all, Bill delivered a sharp elbow to the big man’s rib cage beginning to feel embarrassed by his friend’s lack of discretion. Kevin shot up in the booth and jerked his head back toward Bill and Chuck with an “Ow” and a glazed look across his big smiling face. “You know, if you just walk across the street, you get to see the whole thing.” Chuck said while he snuck a quick peek himself. “C’mon Chuck. That’s no fun. Besides she likes me. Didn’t you see that wink?” Chuck just shook his head looking back at the activity in the casino “Well, I am sure glad that I sucked up all of that Dow Chemical stock when it hit rock bottom a few years ago,” Bill said quietly to the other two. “The number of implants in this one restaurant has got to have boosted my net worth greatly.” Kevin and Chuck just laughed—not so much at Bill’s joke, but also at how much Bill was enjoying himself.


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Hunger quickly overtook other interests and the three quickly scanned the coffee shop’s menu. “Chuck, I don’t see anything on here about steak and shrimp.” Bill said with worry in his voice. “Oh, it’s here but you just have to ask for it. It isn’t on the menu.” Chuck was trying to reassure Bill. “Where the Hell did Terry go?” “There he is,” Kevin pointed out of the window toward a line of Playboy themed slot machines. “Right by the cocktail waitress. Here he comes.” “He’s got a Labatt’s too.” Chuck added with amazement. Terry beamed through the window at his three friends as he carried the dark brown bottle with blue label toward the restaurant’s entrance. “Where have you been?” Bill asked as Terry slid in next to Chuck. “Just out getting everybody’s favorite kind of beer—free beer!” Terry was completely aglow, almost like the way people describe happy pregnant ladies. Chuck and Terry exchanged congratulatory nods as their waitress arrived in a huff. The girls working the tables at Mr. Lucky’s are pretty well known for their disposition or lack there of.


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“Uh, I hate to break up your little game here guys, but are you ready to order?” asked waitress Haley White in a tone of voice somewhere between highly annoyed and quite impatient. Chuck started the order with “Steak and Shrimp Special please. Medium rare, mashed.” He even added a smile but Miss White wasn’t having any of his charm. She just cocked head to the side with a slight eye. “To drink?” “Just Coke,” Chuck said as he was now trying not to laugh. The waitress’s snottiness was almost becoming comical. Haley’s routine painfully continued around the table as she took the other three orders. When she was finally finished and had left for the kitchen, all four erupted into laughter. “Talk about high maintenance!” Kevin joked. I thought my ex-wife was bad. “Holy crap. She was hot until she opened that mouth of hers.” “I dated a girl like her in college once.” Bill added. “If a girl like that is miserable, then I guarantee she is going to make sure everybody around her is equally miserable.” What Haley White might have lacked in disposition, she more than made up for it in promptness and thoroughness of service. The drinks came quickly and the food was delivered in minutes. Chuck even


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thought he saw her crack a smile once. Probably just laughing at

Kevin’s suit, he joked to himself. Everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy their meals, and before long were ready to try their hands at paying for their trips. “Alright,” Chuck said to the others as they stood up from the table littered with plates and an overly generous tip for Miss White. “Let’s meet back here in a half hour. I have some dice to roll.” Like the Blue Angels breaking their tight formation, each of the four teachers found his own direction and quickly began seeking his fortune. Terry had to look hard, but finally located the Deuces Wild machines that offered the highest paybacks. He slid his twenty dollar bill into the slot and hit the “max bet” button for his first hand of video poker. The first five cards were the biggest hodge-podge possible. There was a three of clubs, a nine of spades, a six of diamonds, a ten of hearts, and a five of hearts. Terry decided to keep the nine and ten in hopes of a possible straight and pressed the button for his new three cards. They weren’t any better, offering a King of clubs, another three, and another nine. The Hard Rock had gotten its dollar back and Terry was on a fast track to losing nineteen more. At the craps table, Chuck placed a twenty dollar bill on the purple felt and was handed four red chips by the pretty Hispanic dealer across


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the table from his corner spot at the table. Because the player rolling the dice had already established his point number, Chuck fingered the chips and would have to wait until the shooter either rolled that number again or rolled a seven. “How’s this table doing?” Chuck asked the tall cowboy to his right. “Colder than Hell,” said the man in the Wrangler jeans, button-down shirt, black Resistol hat, and big polished belt buckle that read Southern Utah Regional Champion with team ropers engraved in the shiny surface. “Thanks,” Chuck politely answered as the dice passed in front of him and bounced off of the table’s padded back wall landing in the form of a seven. “Aaaawwh,” went up collectively from the crowd at the table as the dealers quickly swept up any remaining bets. Every player had bet that the shooter would pass or roll his point before a seven and every player had wound up being wrong. “See what I mean?” said the cowboy as he placed a green twenty-five dollar chip on the “pass” line in front of him. “There is no way this can keep up. Somebody has got to make a point.” A cold table was actually a welcome sight to Chuck, because he liked to bet the opposite of most other craps players. He always bet the “don’t pass” line. He was betting that the shooter would roll a seven


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instead of repeating his point number. After all seven is the most probable roll. This strategy had been pretty successful for Chuck and he was sticking with it as he placed one of his red five-dollar chips on the “don’t pass” line in front of him. The cowboy’s friendly tone changed to scorn, as he looked at Chuck’s bet. “Now why you got to come up in here and do that to all of these nice people? We’ve all been losing money on our own. Now you going to help things along?” Craps players are a very suspicious bunch and one of the biggest suspicions is that if someone new comes to the table and starts betting against the shooter or on the seven then the seven will come up more often. Chuck just smiled and watched as the new shooter, a young man with heavily gelled hair picked up the red and white cubes and fired them down the table. “Nine, nine, centerfield,” called the young and lanky Asian man who was performing his duties as the stick man. He corralled the dice that had rolled a nine and pushed them in the direction of the shooter. Dealers placed the markers on the nines along the top of the table layout. Chips were placed on several other bets and the shooter fired again. “Five, five, no field,” the stickman called.


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The shooter rolled again, still trying to repeat the nine. The same old “Aaaawwh” came from the crowd as the dice showed a six and a one. This time, the dealers collected all of the chips on the table except the one Chuck had bet on the “don’t pass” line. The dealer that had changed Chuck’s money smiled at him and placed a red chip next to Chuck’s original one. At least one person was being nice to Chuck. “That’s it,” the Southern Utah Regional Team Roping Champion said as he whipped his long neck of Coors Original from the drink rail of the craps table. With a mean glean in his eyes, he squinted in a downward in Chuck’s direction and added, “Thanks Jinx!” before storming away. Chuck knew that this was part of the territory. Some people take the way he bets way too personally. Chuck was betting with the math not against any individual. One old codger at a dumpy downtown casino once told him that Hitler and Saddam Hussein used to bet the same way. It soon became apparent that if there was a jinx at the table, it had been the cowboy who had just left. After his vocal departure, things heated up tremendously—just not in Chuck’s favor. A shooter hitting the automatic wins of 7 and 11 was the one danger that plagued Chuck’s. Chuck was back to even on the next roll of the dice and would soon be down twenty dollars as the young brunette in tight


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Rockies jeans proceeded to make her next four points in a row. All of the pass line bettors were working themselves into a frenzy. Chuck toyed with the idea of changing another twenty but caught himself as there would be way too many more chances to try his craps luck again. He left the table and wandered off to see how the others were fairing. Chuck soon ran into Terry, who had long ago given up on Deuces Wild and was enjoying the scenery, while milking another Labatt’s he had gotten during his stint playing video poker. “How’d you do?” he asked Chuck as the two began walking toward the blackjack pits. “Imploded. It was like throwing gas on a campfire. I won the first roll and lost five straight,” Chuck responded as he looked around for Kevin or Bill. “How about you?” “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Got another beer,” Terry smiled as he held up the bottle in a toasting gesture. As Chuck and Terry walked deeper into the madness of the casino floor, two hands came up from behind and grabbed each man’s outer shoulders. Bill poked his head in between the other two and with a huge grin said, “You have got to see this. You are never going to believe this.”


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Bill led Terry and Chuck through a couple banks of dollar slots and then pointed in the direction of the same coffee shop they had eaten in a short time ago. “Take a look at that.” Leaning against the railing of the steps that led to the outer concourse was Kevin, holding a green Heineken bottle and holding court. A very tall and very curvaceous woman in a short knit dress hung on every word as Kevin gestured with great enthusiasm. Whatever line Kevin was selling, this girl who appeared to in her mid twenties seemed to be buying. “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while I guess,” Chuck laughed as he stole a line from an old football coach and checked his watch to see it was just after ten. “She can sure fill that dress, can’t she?” Terry said as the three continued to watch from afar. “She’s got to have at least three inches on him.” Kevin was now speaking with his arms stretched wide and his companion playfully tapped against Kevin’s chest pushing him gently and giggling at something Kevin had said. “Looks like that suit is working for him,” said Terry while nursed the last sip from his free beer.


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“I think he has been over there ever since we ate. He told me he was going to play blackjack, but I don’t think he ever made it to a table,” Bill added. “At least one of us didn’t lose his ass tonight, I would have been better off staying away from the tables As Chuck felt an urge to get headed to their hotel began to grow he asked Terry and Bill, “You guys about ready to get moving?” “Yep, I think I have had enough Hard Rock to last me a long time. I just hope my kid doesn’t EVER discover the charms of this place. This is the kind of place that gives parents of twenty-two-year-olds bad bad dreams,” shared Bill as he made reference to his Fraternity president son and all of the sordid trouble he could find himself in at a place like this. “I think Taylor could do quite well for himself in a place like this,” Terry added. “That is exactly what I mean. Now let’s go get Kevin. I’m getting a little tired.” “Me too,” agreed Chuck. “Let’s see if we can wrestle him away.” Chuck, Bill, and Terry snaked their ways through the tightly pack crowd toward the hard-working Kevin and his newest friend.


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As the three approached, Kevin glanced over his shoulder, spotted the approaching group of teachers and knew his opportunity window was rapidly closing. Not wanting to lose a second, he snapped his head back to the attention of the mocha toned young lady who had monopolized most of his short time in Las Vegas. “Yeah, so like I was saying, we’re out here on business. We have a couple of deals we need to close tomorrow and then we are scouting some locations until the weekend,” Kevin was beginning to bend the truth about his purposes in Vegas even more as hints of desperation slipped into his blood stream. “Kevin, you ready? We need to get rolling over to the Rio,” asked Chuck as he made casual eye contact with the object of Kevin’s attention and smiled. “Oh, hi guys. Let me introduce you to Chantel,” politely Kevin remembered his manners as he proudly showed off the latest woman he actually got to talk to him. “Chantel, this Kevin, Terry, and Bill. They are the associates I told you about.” As Kevin spit out the words, he painfully gave his three companions that “don’t-you-even-think-aboutscrewing-this-thing-up-for-me” look. Bill, Terry, and Chuck all smiled at Chantel who was just shorter than Terry. They responded with the politely “nice to meet you” formalities and then gave Kevin looks to get his butt in gear, because they were ready to unwind in their suite.


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“Well, you know what fellas. I think I am going to spend a little more time here. So, just go ahead and leave me a key at the Rio desk. I will catch a cab over there in a bit,” a very confident Kevin said as an even more interested Chantel initiated the first female contact Kevin had experienced outside of immediate family in some time. Chantel stood behind Kevin and wrapped her arms around his mid-section. Terry could not help thinking that this looked completely out of place,

Didn’t the man usually put his arms around the woman this way? Maybe she is just a take-charge kind of woman. “Fine, if that is what you want to do. Go ahead. We’ll take your bags up for you,” answered Chuck as he too was trying to make sense of his good friend being bear hugged by such a full-figured woman. “Let’s go guys.” “See ya gentlemen,” replied a widely grinning Kevin. “Yeah, see ya.” “Good luck,” added Bill as the three married guys began making their way back to valet parking. Kevin gave them all a salute, another goofy gesture that made him feel ever so cool.


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“Can you believe it? My best friend and I go to Vegas for the first time together and he ditches us for Chantel one hour and nineteen minutes into the trip,” Chuck said as he glanced at his watch and placed added emphasis on the girl’s name. “I mean, even if it was a pretty girl I could understand. But, Chantel could probably get the Detroit Lions a lot closer to the Super Bowl than anybody they drafted this year,” Terry laughed as he shook his head passing the Pink Taco. Bill glanced up in disbelief at the sign one last time and continued walking. “If Chantel is all the better Kevin is going do, then he better keep all of his ladies the Hell away from our room.” “It might be time for a little intervention session guys. We might have try a little tough love with our boy Kevin. We’re not going to let him waste him time on pursuits like that,” said Chuck as he handed the valet his claim check and watched the young man dash off for the car. It didn’t seem quite as cold as it did when they arrived and the three quietly waited for the Sebring’s return. Just as the car appeared around the corner, a huffing and puffing man in a purple suit with a beet red face appeared behind them. “What the Hell happened with Chantel?” Terry was the first to ask. “Don’t…don’t…” Kevin was desperately trying to catch his breath.


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“Don’t even ask!” “Well, we’re glad you’re back buddy!” Chuck said as the four resumed their spots in the convertible, this time with the top in its up-position. As Chuck tipped the valet and prepared to pull out onto Harmon Avenue, he continued with Kevin, “No, what really happened?” “Nothing! Now go.” Chuck persisted, “No, what happened?” “Just go,” an angry Kevin growled. “I don’t know about you two, but I have the feeling that there is probably a pretty good story to explain such a hasty departure. I hold the keys and this car isn’t going anywhere until we hear it,” Chuck was really pressuring Kevin now. “I think you’re right and I can wait,” Terry joined in. “Me too,” Bill playfully conferred. “Just go,” Kevin griped as he slapped the dash board and then smoothed back his hair.


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“Tell us,” persisted Chuck. “Fine. You guys had just left and we kept talking about Chantel’s room upstairs. I added some more crap about being interested. No. No. Just go.” “Nope. Tell us.” “Alright, I said something to the effect that I was up for adventure and that I had never been with a black girl before. The next thing I know, I have a big ole sharp fingernail in my chest and she says in a deep, I mean, deep voice, ‘I ain’t no woman and I ain’t black.’” With Kevin’s last words the three others absolutely exploded with laughter. Chuck laughed so hard that he had to actually reached down and physically check that he hadn’t peed his pants. “Alright, we can go now!” laughed Chuck as Bill and Terry continued to howl in the backseat at Kevin’s recent humiliation. Kevin just dejectedly slumped down into the front seat as Chuck navigated toward Flamingo Road and the Rio Suites Hotel and Casino. “It’s okay buddy,” Chuck consoled his friend while trying to contain his laughter. “You can do a whole lot better than Chantel.”


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“God, let’s hope so,” Kevin said while shaking his head. “God, let’s hope so!” +


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Chapter 8 After finding it difficult to unwind from all of the over-stimulation an arrival in Las Vegas imparts on the body, the four were finally able to get some sleep in their spacious suite. Having sweet talked the reservations agent at the Rio, Chuck was able to get the guys an upgrade into a bigger suite that gave them an extra bedroom and a level of luxury none of these men had ever experienced in a hotel room. They were middle-class, Middle-America and this room was a far cry from the their usual Days Inn level of living-it-up. The room was bigger than many of their first apartments, heck it was bigger than Kevin’s current apartment. Maybe it was the excitement of being in such an amazing place, but after tossing and turning for a half hour, all of the guys decided if they couldn’t sleep, they might as well get up and have some fun downstairs. There was no use fighting it. Gambling wise, the Hard Rock had been rather tough on the boys. But, it only took about ten minutes at a near empty five dollar blackjack table for the Michigan crew to realize Lady Luck and her hot friends must like to hang at the Rio on Tuesday nights. Chuck had figured blackjack might be a nice change of pace from the dice and after only four hands, he had easily won back more money than he had lost across town. On his first hand he was dealt a four and a seven against a dealer five—a no brainer time to double down. The two on the one card hit wasn’t that promising but the dealer flipped his hole card to reveal a seven giving him twelve. Since the dealer had to hit anything less than seventeen he drew again revealing a Jack of diamonds. The dealer had busted with twenty-two and the run was on.


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Chuck and Kevin both got blackjacks on the nest hand. The other two were doing almost as well. You could just feel it at the table. As the chips grew into larger stacks in front of them, so did their bets. Twenty dollars was the most anyone ventured and when the dealer drew a blackjack for himself, that sobered the fellas enough to pull back on their wagers and eventually decide it was time to cap their first night in Vegas. At 6:15 a.m., Chuck’s internal clock and the bright sunshine peeking through the floor-to-ceiling shades told him it was time to wake up. He had managed only about four and a half hours of sleep, but the three hour time difference and the gravitational pull of a city that was already hopping at such an early hour were dragging him from the pull-out sofa that would be his bed for the next four nights. Kevin was still conked-out, having finally escaped the haunting images of Chantel and last night. He was sleeping on the opposite couch, while Terry and Bill had taken the suite’s bedroom. They figured the king sized bed was big enough for both of them. They also felt secure enough in their manhood to share it. Chuck quietly made his way to the kitchen area and began a pot of coffee in the small maker he had brought with him. The Rio used to feature complimentary coffee makers in each room, but liability costs and new health codes made the makers too impractical. Most of the Rio faithful were understanding, but a handful hit the Internet chat boards with charges of conspiracy and greed. They claimed it was all a scheme to sell more coffee in the lobby. Some people, Chuck thought as he began to smell his coffee brewing, will complain about

anything!


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While the coffee dripped into the pot, Chuck stepped outside a second to pick up the copy of the Las Vegas Review-Journal left at his doorstep. As he began to step back into the room, he noticed one of the housekeepers making her way toward him. Chuck waved to flag her down while quickly grabbing a bill from the counter and discretely trying to insure his morning breath wasn’t too harsh. “May I help you?” the pleasant housekeeper asked as she neared Chuck now peeking out from the doorway. “Yes,” Chuck said carefully trying to hide his breath. “I was wondering if we could make a little deal. When you make your rounds today, I was wondering if you might be able to save me any funbooks or casino coupons you find discarded. I would really appreciate it.” “Well, I think that might be possible,” the Hispanic 50-ish woman smiled. “Thanks,” Chuck said as he reached to shake Olivia’s hand and slip her a five-dollar bill as a tip and incentive. This was a trick Chuck had learned from Las Vegas cheap expert and author of The Frugal

Gambler, Jean Scott. Just as Chuck was stepping back into the room, he noticed one of the hotel’s bellmen pushing a luggage cart with familiar bags. He waited and grabbed another five for a tip. As Chuck stepped back into the room, the bellman pushed the cart and unloaded it in the foyer of the suite. In the kitchen area, he could see Terry rubbing his eyes and quietly making his way toward the coffee. “Coffee smells good. Chuck,” Terry said shirtless and wearing a pair of Riverton High School Cross Country team sweat pants and turning to see Bill emerging from the suite’s bedroom. “Morning Bill.”


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“How long you guys been up?” Bill asked as he reached to pour himself a cup of joe. “Not long,” Chuck said as he looked over to see Kevin still dead to the world. “You guys sleep well?” “Oh yeah, great,” Bill replied as he reached for the front page of the Review-Journal. “So well, I woke up hungry. When we eating?” “As soon as Mr. Fashion wakes up over there,” Chuck nodded in Kevin’s direction. “I wonder what surprises he has for us today.” Terry walked around the couch in Kevin’s direction and said, “I don’t know, but I thought I was going to die laughing when he showed up in that get-up last night. Where does one get a suit like that? PimpR-Us?” “Probably at a Pimps-R-Us Sidewalk Sale,” Chuck added. As Kevin lay face down on the couch, wrapped in a sheet as covers, signs of life finally began to show. “ I have heard every word from the time Chuck started that coffee pot and no,” he grunted stiffly with eyes still closed. “I have no intentions of whacking anyone with a flashlight and there had better be some coffee left for me. I bought the suit at Marshall Fields.” “Glad to see you made it through the night Kevin,” Terry greeted his friend. “Dream of Chantel much?” Still having not moved or opened an eye Kevin continued, “And I am glad I could provide so much entertainment for everybody last night. Now somebody get in the shower because I am starving.” With that, Kevin sat up on the couch, stretched, and yawned. Creases from the couch cushions lined his face, chest, and stomach.


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After everyone had run themselves through the suite’s main shower, complete with porthole to allow television watching while bathing, they gathered the necessities for a day of academia and trekked across the street to the Gold Coast and its newly renovated buffet. For a long time, the Gold Coast Buffet was on the top of the “don’t” list—right up there with Circus Circus and the Boardwalk Surf Buffet. But, after a big overhaul it had escaped the jokes of two-bit stand-up comedians and actually started receiving many favorable reviews. Chuck, Kevin, Terry, and Bill

weaved their way through the

sprawling locals joint that was teeming with even more cowboys and cowgirls than they had seen last night at the Hard Rock. The rodeo crowd pretty much takes over the Gold Coast this time of year. There are viewing parties for fans without tickets and the winners of each round receive their gold belt buckle awards from Miss Rodeo America in ceremonies each night. After paying a grand total of ten dollars for four meals and waiting in a short line behind one cowboy who had an Ace bandage wrapped around one knee and his partner who was already working on a longneck of Coors Light at 7:30 A.M., the four were surrounded by a huge variety of international breakfast offerings. Terry loaded up on scrambled eggs, a couple strips of bacon, and a big plate of fresh watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple, and strawberry. Bill came back with a pile of steaming biscuits and gravy while Chuck opted for a ranch breakfast of eggs scrambled with Mexican chorizo sausage, refried beans, and warm tortillas. The cowboys, the beans, and the


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black coffee reminded him of the early mornings before cattle roundups on the Flying R Ranch. He and Kelly would visit their good friends who operated the ranch just south of Tucson, saddle-up, and help bring in the cattle with their new calves. Although Kevin was in his usual attire of khaki shorts, sweatshirt, and running shoes, he became the center of attention once again. He was the last to return to the table and with him he brought a plate of bacon in one hand, at least half of a pound, and a stack of pancakes layered seven high and covered in butter, strawberry syrup, and whipped cream. “I was shooting for a ten stack,” Kevin said as he set the two heavy plates down with a thud. “But, I got tired of waiting.” “I think you’d have better luck hitting 300 on your cholesterol,” Bill said as dragged another piece of biscuit through the heavy sausage gravy. “But, I think I might beat you to it.” “Man Kevin,” Terry teased. “I bet your mom used to throw big parties when you would go back to college at the end of summer.” “And why is that?” Kevin asked from a mouth already jammed with pancakes. “Because she didn’t have to feed you anymore.” After each made a trip or two back to the buffet, the consensus was to start toward Bally’s and the inevitable—the conference that was actually paying for a good portion of this excursion. As the four wound their ways out of the Gold Coast, Chuck remembered his last visit and found the same spot where he and Kelly had been so warmly received by Texas Ted and his nickel Texas Tea slot machine.


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Chuck knew now that nickel machines were really one of the worst bets in the house, but he still had to play this machine. He would stick to quarter and dollar slots later. “Let me stop for a second,” Chuck said as he slid his Gold Coast slot club member’s card into the reader and a five into the bill acceptor. His first two pulls were duds, but he connected on the third, winning a dollar and a quarter. Chuck increased his bet total to a dollar-fifty and hit the “spin” button. The machine made three loud snaps as three pictures of Ted appeared on the reels indicating a bonus was about to be rewarded. Ted and his pet armadillo went through their routine while a picture of a $20 dividend check flashed on the screen. As the machine returned to its normal play mode, the credit line now read 545 credits or $27.25. Chuck made one last max bet of $2.25 to even things at $25, but came up empty on the spin. He tapped the “cash out” button and heard the jingle of coins, but was greeted with a small slip of paper, instead of 500 nickels. The slips could either be redeemed for cash or fed into bill acceptors on other machines. Many properties had switched to this “EZ-In EZ Out” system and taken the coin lugging out of the process. Because there was no change attendant close-by, Chuck pocketed the slip and figured he would be back to the Gold Coast soon enough to redeem it. Just like that, Chuck had resumed the rally from last night and had beaten the house at one of its oldest tricks. That coupon was supposed to get Chuck into the Gold Coast for a cheap breakfast so he could lose money—not win money. Chances are if he had stayed, the house would have probably gotten its twenty bucks back, but Chuck knew when to quit—at least this morning he did.


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The first session of the teachers’ conference was officially titled: “Strategies for Distractible Youth”. It should have been titled: “Strategies for Distractible Adults”. The crowd was the usual mix of people found at teachers’ conference—mostly middle-aged women and a handful of men. The women, especially the elementary teachers, were mostly dressed in their typical apparel of comfortable jumpers and casual dresses. A few wore jeans and a few others wore dressier slacks. A gathering of teachers seemed so out of place in a Vegas Strip casino. A couple of the male attendees looked serious about the business while the others seemed to be operating on the same plan the Riverton teachers had hatched—go to a session or two, get the thing paid for, then go have a good time. The first session was led by a presenter from Covina, California whose Ritalin seemed to be waning. The more the fourth-gradeteacher-turned-consultant talked, the louder and faster his voice became. He actually made some good points and was quite entertaining. The second session about was much dryer and focused on discipline—or so it claimed. Some “sensitive pony-tail guy” in sandals, who looked like he had sampled a bit of cannabis over the years facilitated it by throwing out feel-good buzzwords and jargon like “positive choices” and “win-win” . After about the third reference to “time out”, Kevin looked over at Chuck and whispered, “I think there is some paint somewhere we could go watch dry. This guy sucks!” As Chuck leaned over to hear Kevin, he glanced at his Palm Pilot to see that Terry had interrupted Chuck’s game of Minesweeper by wirelessly “beaming” the following message:


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This guys sucks! —From Terry This guy sucks! —from Bill “Well, I think it is pretty much a consensus. Let’s go,” Chuck quietly said to Kevin while he gathered his stuff and gestured to Bill and Terry down the row that they were leaving. The four reunited just outside of the ballroom and began sharing their opinions of the last presenter. “He said that students should be allowed to leave the room and ‘cool down’ when they became angry,” Kevin said as they rode the escalator down to the main floor of the casino. “He said it would prevent violent outbursts. Well, I am leaving the room to cool down, because if I heard the word ‘time-out’ again I was going for the ponytail.” “Now that was a positive choice Kevin,” Chuck said mockingly. “Yeah,” said Terry as the four stepped off the escalator and stopped near the tunnel that connects Bally’s with the adjacent Paris Las Vegas. “I would love to see that guy survive five minutes in my ninth grade World Geography class.” “No,” Bill countered. “I would love to see that guy survive five minutes teaching the first presentor in your ninth grade World Geography class.” Chuck looked at his watch to see they had an hour and forty-five minutes until the next session. “Come on guys, I have a great deal for you,” Chuck said as he began leading the rest through the faux


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cobblestone streets of Paris toward the large parking structure housing their convertible. If cowboys had seemed out of place at the Hard Rock, scores of them hanging around a down-sized Eiffel Tower watching mimes seemed almost surreal. The tower and the fake Arch D’Triumph were just the beginning as the good folks at Paris Las Vegas left no stone unturned when it came to recreating a miniature “Gay Paree”. If annoying two-bit actors in white face paint, trapped in invisible glass boxes didn’t convince you, then overpriced foo foo cuisine and cocktail waitresses with bad French accents and bad French manners were sure to give you that Continental feeling. “You know Chuck, all these Cowboys look alike. Boots, jeans, buckles, and black hats that hide half their heads. Sort of like hockey players. They all have that generic look of a white guy recovering from a severe beating,” Kevin commented as they neared the garage’s elevator. “Well, I guess the two do have a lot in common—a lot of guts and a lot of scars. Cowboys dress a Hell of a lot better though—even if they only work off of one outfit. Makes it easy to get dressed in the morning,” Terry responded as the elevator doors opened. “Chuck, where are we going?” “You gentlemen are going to learn the fine art of rolling dice and you are going to do it with somebody else’s money.” After a ten minute ride south down the Strip and then on I-15, Chuck pulled the Sebring into the Silverton Casino. The Silverton caters a lot to locals but gets into the tourist market with its small hotel


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and R.V. park. The casino is fairly small compared to Strip standards at 30,000 square feet, but nicely appointed in a “gold rush” theme. “Alright guys, here you go.” Chuck reached in his pocket and pulled out three coupons offering $25 in free chips for anyone who becomes a new member of the Silverton’s slot club. “I got these from a guy off of the Internet for you. Kelly and I used the same kind when we were here last year.” Bill, Terry, and Kevin all filled out the necessary paperwork at the slot club’s window and were handed cards and a whole sheet of bargains. The next stop was the cashier’s window where they each received five special chips worth five dollars each. The stipulation on the free chips is that they cannot be redeemed for cash and must be played at the tables. All winnings were paid in “real” chips and the “funny money” got to be bet again. It wasn’t long before Chuck was teaching the game to his three buddies and it wasn’t long before they were winning, really winning. They all started out small, putting five dollars down on the “pass line”, but began to expand their bets a little as they gained confidence and became curious about all of the table’s other offerings. The five dollar “pass line” bets soon were backed by ten dollar odds bets that paid, depending on the point number, from ten to eighteen dollars. After about a half hour of playing, Bill came up with an idea,“I am buying lunch gentlemen. We need to talk.” “I’m still full from breakfast and we’re hot. I’ve got fifty in real money and fifteen bucks of the house chips left,” Kevin protested. “Just take a little break and hear me out.”


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After Kevin’s initial protest, everyone gave into Bill’s mysterious request and headed to the buffet where the four buffets cost the ever generous Bill four whole dollars as part of the Silverton’s famous $1 buffet during its Dollar Days promotions. Everybody went pretty light, starting with sandwhiches from the deli area. “So, what was so urgent?” Kevin said while munching on a turkey and swiss sandwhich. “Here’s the deal, and we should have done this from the start. We pool all of the funny money. We play it until it is gone and then split the winning. How much of it do we have left?” The three pooled the chips on the table to see they still had fortyfive dollars of the house’s money left to bet. “Sound good?” Bill asked and received nods all around. “I’ll kick in twenty-five of my own,” Chuck said. “We just have to separate any winnings from it right away.” “I’m in for ten more,” Bill said. “Me too,” Terry added. They all looked at Kevin. “Alright, my ten makes it $100,” Kevin said while slapping his money on the table. “I need some of that pie.” “Let’s stick with one plan: five on the pass, ten behind it for odds, and let’s try that six and eight thing,” Bill said while munching on some carrots. Nods again. Despite claiming to not be hungry, Kevin was the last to finish eating after his third trip to the buffet. The four returned to the same craps table and found it still as hot as it was when they left. This time, Bill placed the bets while the other


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three cheered the dice. It was not real busy, so everyone was able to get near the table. All plans were for the four to return to Bally’s for the afternoon sessions, but the dice would not stop coming up with their points. One lady claimed to have never played before, but hit five straight numbers. The place where the Riverton teaches did the most damage to the Silverton coffers was by placing six dollars on the six and six more dollars on the eight. That bet paid seven dollars every time those numbers appeared, and they came up a lot. It was well past four by the time the last phoney chip was taken back by the house. The “free” forty-five dollars and the additional fifty-five had multiplied into a whopping $388. They tipped out the table of four dealers $28 and wound up with ninety more dollars than they had brought. Once again, somebody’s bright idea in a casino promotions office ended up costing the house a bunch of food thanks to Kevin and even more money this time. After a consensus was quickly reached to take the money and run, the four headed for the car, but as Chuck fumbled for the keys, they noticed Terry was lagging behind, now hustling to catch the rest of the group with a worried look on his face. “Guess who I just saw. I think something weird is up,” Terry explained as he climbed into the back of the convertible. “Who?” Bill asked. “Somebody famous?” “Hardly, it was that guy from the plane.” “Guy from the plane?” Chuck wondered. “Dude with the mullet?” “Yeah.”


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“So? I could see him digging the Silverton. Sounds like a coincidence.” “Doubt it. I saw him coming out of breakfast at the Gold Coast and then I caught a glimpse of him playing slots near the escalator we took at Bally’s. Now he’s here.” “You still worried he wants to kick your ass for laughing at his drool?” Kevin teased Terry as he tried to mask some uneasiness with humor. “No, the guy is just freaking me out. I did a double take inside to make sure it was him. I was going to say something at Bally’s but figured it was just chance. When I saw him inside, he quick looked away before I could catch him watching me or make eye contact. Real obvious he didn’t want any part of me recognizing him.” Chuck scanned the parking lot for any sign of the man they all believed was just an out-of-work and out-of-luck septic pumper. “I don’t know,” he said. “But, let’s get the Hell out of here. Let’s buzz downtown and see what happens. Big public place down there. We’ll see if he follows, maybe ask the cops to eye him if he does.”


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Chapter 9 “Hello, hello?” a sleepy voice answered in the dark bedroom of the small house in West Las Vegas. “May I please speak to Rosa Vinatierri?” a very cheerful male voice asked. “This is Rosa,” the sixty-three year old change attendant at the Excalibur Hotel and Casino answered, still trying to get her bearings. “Bill MacAtee here from the Excalibur,” the voice continued. “Hope I didn’t wake you, but I have some very good news for you.” “Oh, it is no problem. I am pretty used to daytime calls, thanks to telemarketers. What is this news?” Mrs. Vinatierri had worked at the Excalibur since it opened in the early nineties and had never heard of a Mr. MacAtee before. But, that did not surprise her since the resort was part of the huge Mandalay Resort Group that included such Strip giants as Mandalay Bay, Circus Circus, and the Luxor—not to mention the several other properties in and outside of Las Vegas. “Tonight, instead of reporting to the Excalibur…you work from midnight to eight, correct?” “Yes.” “Like I was saying, instead of reporting to work as you normally do, we have a special treat for you tonight over at the Mandalay Bay Resort. We will be having a special dinner and an appreciation program for several of our most dedicated associates like yourself. We do one of these for every shift so a surprise like this won’t upset any schedules. You’ll want to wear something a little dressier. It should be a very special time”


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“You’re kidding. Really? Tonight? Is this a joke?” “Oh no ma’am, this is no joke. Mr. Thompson was extremely busy, so he asked that Hospitality notify the guests.” Eldon Thompson was Rosa’s shift supervisor at the Excalibur. “Oh, thank you. I thought my grandson was playing one of his pranks again. That sounds very nice. Please give Eldon my thanks as well. Will he be there tonight?” “I believe Mr. Thompson will try to make an appearance, but he will still be needed to oversee things at Excalibur tonight. Now, you will want to go into the new conference center and the Red Rocks ballroom. We will get things started at 12:30 A.M. with a little mixer and then you will be whisked away in limousines for all kinds of fun. Sounds nice doesn’t it Rosa ?” “Oh yes, very nice. I have never been in a limousine before. I have just seen lots.” “Well, Mrs. Vinatierri you sure mean a lot to us all here at the Excalibur. You enjoy your time tonight.” “Oh, I will. Thank you so much.” Potter was beside himself laughing at how well this was all going. He put down the phone spun around in his big chair to the computer that he had just used to hack into the Las Vegas traffic grid and its stoplights. Two other monitors showed closed-circuit cameras of jumbled and mangled intersections. The Michigan teachers weren’t going to let the intrigue of the chronic reoccurrence of the creepy man from Michigan cool their hot streaks. A whole secton of town was waiting to give them more money. Now if only the trafiic would cooperate. The four found it


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strange to be in near total darkness at such an early hour, but it works well for Las Vegas and all of its lights. Things were a mess at the Tropicana Road exit as the cars were immersed in total gridlock in four directions, and spilling traffic out onto the interstate. While they waited, Chuck, Bill, and Terry all called home on cell phones to share their good fortunes and which their loved ones good night. After finally weaving through stop and go conditions, Chuck navigated north along I-15, around the conglomeration of roads known as the Spaghetti Bowl, and over to the Fremont Street Experience—a canopied conglomeration of the downtown casinos that were once the focal point of Vegas before the billion dollar Strip megaresorts popped out of the desert floor. The idea that some creep was following the four of them still lingered but the guy seemed pretty harmless. With the added wads of cash in their pockets, they decided it was time to leave the world of one-dollar lunch buffets and find a comfortable, yet nicer restaurant for dinner. But before they’d do that, one of the most unique shopping experiences of their lives lie ahead of them. After parking behind the Plaza, the foursome headed a block to Pawn Shop Plaza at the corner of First and Fremont. A virtual treasure chest of everything from pinkie rings to circular saws at rock bottom prices awaited their browsing. Kevin was the big spender having dropped close to a hundred dollars on jewelry that would complete his mom and sisters’ Christmas shopping. Chuck was the only other one to buy anything, a fake Tag that matched Kevin’s—setting him back a cool fifteen dollars. As Kevin sang, “I’ll have a pawn shop Christmas without you.” Thoughts once again turned to food.


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“Let’s see what’s at the Gold Nugget,” Kevin suggested. “It’s the nicest place down here and besides if Camaro Cut shows up, we ought to be able to spot him. Lillie Lantry’s Chinese restaurant ended up being the big winner as they pondered all of the choices. The Nugget’s up-scale Italian eatery Stefano’s was already packed and a buffet left them too exposed and didn’t provide enough privacy. Plus as Kevin would later share, by eating Chinese he would most likely be hungry in an hour or two and ninety-nine cent shrimp cocktails were waiting at the Golden Gate’s deli right next door. After finishing all kinds of Cantonese and Szechwan offerings, the newly won money began burning holes so hot in the pockets of Bill, Chuck, Terry, and Kevin that if they didn’t get up and get gambling, they were liable to singe some rather sensitive areas. The streak demanded to continue, and the boys were going to give it their best shots. Terry had downloaded a bundle of notes about downtown to his Palm Pilot and set out on a mission to see all of the things he had read so much about. Chuck joined him as they headed over to the Gold Spike for a visit to the infamous Copper Mine, Las Vegas’s largest contingency of penny slots. They figured betting pennies had to be the best way outside of not gambling to hold on to their new found cash. Bill and Kevin tried to heed the same strategy and strolled to Binion’s Horseshoe for some dollar blackjack where they joined a group of rodeo fans watching the Finals on a big screen TV while


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ogling at a group of Crown Royal models in tight purple dresses, sent over to serve cheap shots of their employer’s whiskey. “You sip the Crown,” Kevin said as one eye watched the model pouring shots and the other eye kept track of his cards. “You don’t throw it back like that. But, a girl like that could persuade me to do whatever she wants with a shot of Crown. That is a girl, isn’t Bill?” “Yes Kevin, that most definitely is a girl,” Bill laughed while patting Kevin on the back. “Dealer has blackjack,” the short pudgy man in charge of the table announced while sweeping away the players’ chips. “They do that on purpose you know,” Kevin told Bill as he made excuses for his poor play. “They bring those girls through here to distract us. It gives the house an even bigger advantage. Why you think cocktail waitresses wear the uniforms they do?” “Kevin, you have to show a little self-discipline if you want to do well in this town.” “Either that or just decide ahead of time that you are going to blow a ton of cash.” “What do you think about Terry seeing that guy all over the place? Do you think he really is following us?” Bill asked as some of his nervousness began to show. “Even if he is, what’s he going to do? He seemed like a nice enough guy—weird though.” “I don’t know. There are a lot of psychos in the world. This guy sure latched onto you on the plane. Maybe you sent him some freaky vibe like those crackpots get who think the pretty little news anchors are sending secret love messages through the TV screens to them.”


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“Dealer has blackjack,” Kevin and Bill heard again, and again, and again before deciding it was time to lose their money somewhere else. Meanwhile, over at the Spike, Chuck and Terry had hunkered down amongst a group of hardcore locals, but were still a little unnerved and the surroundings didn’t seem to be helping much. “Chuck, do you think we’re in any trouble?” Terry asked while he pulled the big handle on the aging slot machine. “I don’t know. What’s really pissing me off right now is that instead of relaxing, unwinding, and enjoying myself we’re worried about some greaseball who keeps popping up like a bad penny. Speaking of bad pennies, why the Hell are we are playing these?” “I was beginning to question that myself. I am just not finding much thrill in risking pennies—not after the cash we generated at that craps table today. A lot of money can be made there in a hurry.” “And a lot of money can be lost in a hurry too. Pretty exciting though when you’re winning. Today was great and it was a lot more fun than how I usually play—just waiting for a seven. You ready to try some more?” An hour later, Bill and Kevin spotted Chuck and Terry leaning over the edge of a craps table in the smallest casino on Fremont, the Golden Gate. The tables at the ‘Gate are usually a three dollar minimum, but Terry and Chuck were placing twenty-five to thirty dollars behind their initial five-dollar bets. They weren’t doing well and should have stuck with the boring old “don’t pass” strategy because the players at the table were hitting fewer points than Ray Charles with a dartboard.


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With every “seven-out” called by the stickman, Chuck kicked himself, thinking he should have stuck with the old system. But, he knew nothing caused more mental anguish at a craps table than the words “should have”. An occasional win helped recoup losses, but it was a crazy roller coaster. They both anxiously glanced at their dwindling stacks of chips and grimaced each time they changed more money. In a half hour, they had gone up and down, but mainly down. Chuck had ten dollars in chips left so he changed another fifteen and determined that this was his last roll. He dropped the five-dollar chip in front of him on the “pass line” and watched as the shooter tossed a four.

A four? Chuck thought. A four? This guy isn’t gonna hit a four. Chuck didn’t care though at this point. He placed the remaining twenty dollars in chips behind the line for an odds bet and figured he would be heading back to the Rio without anything left of today’s winnings. Both he and Terry rolled their eyes at each other as the shooter, a wannabe cowboy in pointy boots and Guess jeans, was reprimanded sternly by the husky female dealer for shaking the dice with two hands like he was playing Monopoly. Finally, the youngster weak-armed his second roll and took another lecture for not hitting the back wall with the dice. The crew running the game let his roll of a nine stand and corralled the dice back toward him. What Chuck and Kevin figured was a lost cause, turned out to be a pleasant surprise as the kid’s next roll resulted in a pair of two’s. The two teachers looked at each other in amazement as the dealer matched their initial bets with a red tfive dollar chip and then added a green tweny-five dollar chip and three more red ones in


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reward of the 2 for 1 odds that hitting a four delivered. Just like that, a hunk of the money was back. The made identical again. This time the kid rolled a ten, an number just as improbable of hitting as the four. But, he came though in just two rolls. “Amazing Chuck,” Terry said with great relief in his voice. “Let’s go.” The adrenaline still tingled in the tall, lean runner’s veins. “See how addicting that game can get. At least we weren’t worrying about that Kenny loser.” “No, we were worried about being losers.” “You guys left to go play penny slots and we find you playing green chips. What happened?” Kevin teased Chuck and Terry as they stepped out of the casino and under the canopy that stretched for blocks over Fremont Street. “We got bored,” Terry replied “We got bored and Terry got the fever,” Chuck added. “I got the fever?” Terry snapped. “Okay, we both got the fever,” Chuck conceded. As the four wandered further down Fremont Street, the overhead canopy turned into a huge video screen and music began to blare as the evening laser-light show was about to begin. The four stopped and leaned back against a large planter, while the amazing display of image and sound transformed the entire district. “Psst. C’mon!” Kevin tried to whisper as he gestured for the others’ attention. As they turned to look at him, they noticed the man who had made their plane ride so memorable. The man they believed to be Kenny Mansfield, Mullethead, Le Mullet (pronounced “lay MOO•lay” with a French Canadian accent), Mullet Ray Cyrus, or a


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bundle of other nicknames the teachers had devised since arriving in Las Vegas, was standing about 35 yards behind them near the entrance to Fitzgerald’s Hotel and Casino. The other three instinctively followed Kevin as he began to weave his way through the standing masses whose necks were cranked upward and whose minds were miles away in a world of flashing lasers and video display boards. “Hey Chuck, Kevin, Chuck,” Kenny Mansfield/Jeremy Schaefer yelled as he watched the four teachers leaving. Hearing their names just intensified the instinct to flee and they could not get back to their cars fast enough. A quick nonchalant exit quickly became a full fledged chase. The flashing images and pounding music were all blurs as escape became the number one priority. The ocean of people provided cover, but made the task all the more daunting. Chuck was the last in the line as they snaked through each standing group. Kenny continued yelling something and was quickly trying to remain in range of the four. “Faster, faster,” Chuck tried to yell over the loud country music that accompanied the computer generated horses streaking overhead. “Hurry up. Go!” he shouted as he pushed Terry through the crowd and glanced back to see their pursuer was gaining ground. Kevin shoved his way through the standing crowd in the direction of their waiting car while each of the others worked to steal glances of their following menace. They were lost in a maze of humanity, but still couldn’t shake Mullethead. The only conscious thoughts form Kevin, Bill, Chuck, and Terry were those of the fastest route out of this mess. But for a moment, Chuck thought to look for a Metro Police officer, but quickly realized that other than


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being in several of the same public places as them, this guy hadn’t actual done anything but give them the creeps. In a couple of open areas, the quick walk turned to full sprint as the four hurdled benches and dodged barricades set up for a concert later that night. The entire length of Fremont Street was now covered in a huge lighted American flag. As The Star Spangled Banner played and miniature fighter jets streaked across the massive screens above, the four reached the end of the Fremont Street Experience and dashed across Main Street for their car on the third level of a nearby parking garage. The last sounds any of the four heard before the garage’s stairwell door slammed shut was Mullethead breathlessly screaming, “Chuck, Chuck, I got to tell you something. You guys are in big…” followed by the squealing of tires, screeching of brakes, and the shattering of glass. As the four desperately climbed the stairs, in the fluorescent lit cement shaft, Terry froze and leaned on one knee. “Let’s go. Let’s go,” Kevin yelled to him. “No, we should go back,” Terry said breathlessly with panic in his voice. “Did you hear that crash?” “Yeah, we heard. All the more reason to get out of here,” Bill yelled from the landing just above the two. “He’s right behind us.” Terry turned with a weak and worried look across his face and continued the climb with the others. Finally they reached the floor near their rental and sprinted toward the black convertible. Chuck hit the automatic lock button and with the precision of an Olympic bobsled team, the four piled into the car that Chuck had rolling in seconds.


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There was no sign of their nemesis, but all expected the stairwell door to fly open at any point revealing their hunter. Chuck chose a back exit knowing that the recent crash in front would have traffic tangled. He weaved through a series of side streets and alleys, avoiding homeless gathered around burning barrels. Emergency vehicles continued to move toward the scene along with a couple of television crews. The tension in the car was nearly paralyzing and all Chuck could do was navigate via the massive Stratosphere tower directing them south with its neon blinking beacon. Chuck reached Charleston and headed west to the Interstate where he turned South toward Flamingo Road and the Rio. The red and purple vertical neon that line the Rio’s towers appeared over the horizon and a bit of relief began to sneak into the emotions of Bill, Chuck, and Kevin. Terry still stared blankly out the window, frozen from the night’s traumatic turn of events. When the Sebring was finally parked in a spot outside of the Rio’s main entrance, the four teachers all breathed a deep sigh, but silently maneuvered through the casino and up to their suite. They all sat in continued silence trying to process the last couple of hours. Chuck stepped over to the room’s small refrigerator and pulled out a two liter bottle of Coke and retrieved a big bottle of Crown Royal he had brought from Michigan. “I have always made a rule not to drink if I’m feeling stressed or if I am down. But, gentlemen I think a little Crown and Coke is in order after the shit we went through tonight. Can I interest anyone in a little drink?”


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All hands went up and Chuck began pouring the smooth Canadian whiskey. After a few sips, the tension began to subside a little and Bill grabbed the remote to the T.V. He flipped through a few channels and landed on Channel 3 as the eleven o’clock news was just beginning. “Thanks for joining us tonight,” distinguished looking KVBC anchor Victor Miramonte began. “Our top story takes us downtown tonight where what Metro Police are calling a hit and run accident has left one man dead and cloud of mystery hovering over it. We go now to reporter Jessica Alderson standing near The Plaza and just outside of the Fremont Street Experience.” “Thank you Victor,” the very polished looking brunette reporter began. “A man, identified by police as Jeremy Schaefer of Wayne, Michigan was killed by a motorist this evening just steps outside of the downtown Fremont Street Experience. Witnesses say they saw Schaefer run out into the street before being pinned between a minivan driven by Utah visitors and a large gold colored sedan that sped from the scene seconds after striking the Michigan man.” Cameras cut away from the reporter to focus on investigators processing the scene and the mangled front of the mini-van. “Other eye witnesses also stated,” Ms. Alderson continued, “that the mysterious vehicle seemed to appear from nowhere and actually swerved into the direction of the van and the pedestrian.” The picture on the screen switched over to a split-shot showing Miramonte in the studio and Alderson at the scene with the words “Downtown Accident” in bold colorful letters below. “Do police have


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any leads toward the identity of the fleeing vehicle or any information on the victim?” “Yes, Metro Sergeant David Rumsey told me they are looking for a late model vehicle similar to a Ford Concorde or Lincoln Mark 8. It was described as being tan or gold in color and most likely has noticeable front-end damage.” While she spoke, a side bar of graphic information flashed the number to call Metro Police with any information and gave a further description of the suspect’s car. “Police are also saying that the victim Jeremy Schaefer had a checkered past of petty crimes and was still wanted on at least three misdemeanor warrants in Michigan.” “Thank you Jessica. Jessica Alderson, at The Fremont Street Experience,” the Hispanic anchor in his early fifties spoke. “One last item Victor. Police are also interested in talking to a group of four men that several witnesses described as being chased by the victim Schaefer. Police do not view the men as suspects, but feel they may be able to provide some information for the investigation. Jessica Alderson, live from downtown. Victor, back to you.” “Dead? He’s dead?” Kevin shot up in his chair and gasped with amazement. “Wait a minute. Our guy said his name was Kenny. Kenny…What was it?” Chuck was trying to remember. “Mansfield. His name was Kenny Mansfield,” Kevin said as he began to pace the main living area. “We didn’t see the wreck; we just heard it. How do we know it was him?” Bill was trying to bring a level of calm to the situation.


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“Well let’s see, I can’t imagine there were too many other Michigan men with checkered criminal pasts getting ready to jump out in the street just after we crossed,” Chuck countered. “And what was he trying to tell us? Sounded almost like a warning,” Bill wondered. “You think the car that him was intended for us?” “Maybe,” Chuck began to reason. “But think back to the plane. He said he had to come out here because his girlfriend needed help or her friends needed help. He was real vague and then he kept showing up wherever we did. And remembered how he kept asking us all kinds of questions about what we were doing. Think he was sent to tail us?” “Who would want to tail us?” Kevin asked. “Probably Vander Slice was waiting to see us do something wrong and then she could nail us at the next school board meeting,” Bill sort of chuckled as he tried to lighten the mood. “That guy was all the better she could do?” Chuck laughed. “Vander Slice probably found the cheapest rat available,” Chuck said as the Crown Royal began to soothe the nerves. As the three continued to try to sort through the chaos of the day, Terry remained withdrawn and solemn until Kevin noticed him reach for the phone. “Who you calling?” Kevin asked him. “The police. They want to talk to us,” Terry said as he began to dial. “Oh no you’re not,” Kevin said as he reached to grab the receiver from Terry. “Besides, we don’t know anything. If we talk to the police, what are we going to say? We had nothing to do with it. Guy chased


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us out into traffic and got nailed. It sounds like somebody was already gunning for him. Plus, we’ll probably get stuck as part of the investigation and maybe testify and that is going to be a real pain in the ass.” “I say we get the Hell out of Dodge as soon as possible. Terry, you okay?” Chuck asked as he reached for the phone. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. You guys are right. I just have never experienced anything like this before.” “Terry,” Bill said in a way to console his teaching partner. “I don’t think any of us have.” Chuck picked up the phone and was soon connected with his airline’s reservation department. The soonest he could get four seats reserved was for 10:55 in the morning. “We can get out mid morning tomorrow if you guys want.” “Yes, book it,” was all he heard from the other three. Chuck grabbed his credit card and charged the the fees for changing itineraries and thanked the agent. “Alright. We’re set. By 11:00 a.m. we will be out of this garbage for good,” he told the others. “Well, I don’t know what that was all about. We will probably never know what that was all about,” Terry was beginning to relax now. “I just feel a lot better that I am leaving this place. This was way more than I had bargained.” “It wasn’t that bad,” Kevin said with obvious relief in his voice. “We just had one Hell of an adventure and wonder a bundle of money. But, as much as I love this town, when you’re ready to leave nothing feels better than the wheels of the plane leaving the ground.”


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“Oh yeah, some adventure,” Bill shook his head. “All I know is that I am completely exhausted. Let’s get our stuff organized and ready to go so we can sleep a little later and head to the airport about nine. That gives us plenty of time to take back the car and avoid any hassle with the tickets.” The remaining nervous energy made their packing go quickly. Of course it also made Kevin and Chuck hungry so before they could get to bed, they had to make a trip downstairs for some late night nachos at one of the Rio’s bars. It was about 12:30 before they returned to the room completely drained from the day’s doings and each up another fifty a quick craps session. A hot-headed overweight Italian was the only other player at the table and kept plunking down $100 to $250 on the pass line. The more he drank, the worse he threw until the table was so cold Chuck swore he could write his name in the frost gathering around the rail. He and Kevin stuck to the “don’t” bets and kept the dice in the big spender’s hands. Chuck had tried to remain as calm as possible through the whole ordeal, not letting his emotions feel the severity of the situation. But, when he laid down on the pull-out, it all hit him. As quietly as he could, as not to wake Bill and Terry, Chuck fully expressed his feelings about the day to Kevin with the longest strand of profanities ever uttered by one man in Las Vegas who was neither in the passionate throws of a woman or in the process of losing his life’s last dollar. With a simple, “I hear you brother. I hear you,” Kevin turned out the last light glowing on a truly heart-stopping day.


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Chapter 10 Chuck was once again the first of the four teachers to get out of bed. As he walked to the kitchen area, still trying to shake the events of the past 24 hours, he wished he hadn’t already packed his coffee pot. So much for using all of the coupons the maid had snagged, he thought to himself as he eyed the large stack she had placed under a drinking glass. As he thought about resurrecting something for breakfast, he remembered he still needed to claim twenty-five dollars in cash from the Gold Coast. He threw on his shorts from the day before and found the slip of paper in his front right pocket. Chuck grabbed his Tigers hat, a sweatshirt, quick brushed his teeth, and headed back across the street. He figured he would cash the stub and then pick up breakfast for the rest of the guys with the winnings. When he returned with a tray full of all kinds of fried and fattening offerings, he found the place just as he had left it. The smell of greasy hash browns and breakfast burritos must have some great awakening powers, because within minutes, the other three had risen and were grabbing at the tray Chuck had brought from across the street. As Kevin got comfortable in a large chair with coffee and a bacon, egg, and cheese something, he turned on the T.V. to see the words “Special Report from KVBC Channel 3” flash across the screen, accompanied by the ominous musical score usually indicating some great tragedy had just occurred.. From the fancy graphics, the picture switched to the same studio Victor Miramonte had brought the world the tragic news of Mullethead’s death. A young blonde anchor man with an amazing tan for December began describing how a group of


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crooks had robbed the Excalibur last night, caused a full evacuation with a bomb threat, and gotten away with close to $1,000,000. “Guys, guys, come here. Look. Somebody hit the Excalibur last night for almost million” As the other three hustled near the television, Kevin boosted the volume so all could hear. “We now go live to Kerry Harrison,” the tanned anchor spoke slowly for added effect. “Who is live on the Strip at the corner of Tropicana and Las Vegas Boulevard with this exclusive report.” “Thank you Jerry,” the lean African-American woman spoke with the castle-like front of the Excalibur visible over her right shoulder. “Police say that three men entered the Excalibur’s casino just after 3:35 this morning armed with what they claimed were detonating devices. One of suspects approached the main casino cage and delivered a note stating that large bombs had been placed in the spires outside and that if he was not given all of the cash on hand, he would destroy the hotel and casino.” As the reporter continued to explain last night’s heist, the picture switched from the live stand-up to footage of police investigating the scene. “While cashiers busily filled bags with cash, two other suspects armed with similar devices approached separate casino workers and demanded more cash. One worker handed over money recently removed from the higher limit gambling tables that was being transported to the counting area. Another worker was on her way to restock the large denomination slot machines. Officials say she handed over several thousands of dollars in tokens that are playable at any of the numerous Mandalay Group Resorts here in Las Vegas.


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All three suspects escaped through separate exits and just minutes before Las Vegas Metro Police officers could reach the scene.” Kevin, Chuck, Bill, and Terry were completely transfixed by the unfolding drama that had occurred just blocks from them. The picture now switched to footage of the gridlock from the previous evening. “Making matters worse for police and investigators was a series of traffic snarls caused by a stalled vehicle in the eastbound lane of Tropicana and continuing problems with the stoplights at one of the city’s busiest intersections. A fourth subject is believed to be involved as the get-away driver. Witnesses saw a white cargo van pick up each suspect at a different exit then burst through a row of hedges from the Excalibur parking lot out onto eastbound Tropicana. Somehow the driver managed to maneuver through the traffic and disappear on I-15. Metro was able to launch one of its helicopters minutes after the initial call, but did not spot the vehicle until this story took quite possibly its most dramatic twist.” The reporter paused for a second as grainy footage from the police department’s helicopter began to roll. “Approximately twenty minutes after the suspects escaped from the scene an explosion rocked the Silverton Casino’s RV park south of town on Blue Diamond Road.” The dark black and white tape rolling in a continuous loop showed what looked like something the military would show at a press conference following air strikes in Afghanistan or Iraq. A few yards from the perimeter of the dim park, a large explosion lit up the night sky. Police spotlights focused on the wreckage to reveal a cargo van tipped on its side and fully engulfed in flame.


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“Police believe the suspects ditched the get-away van near the campground and are now traveling in a motor home or some other type of recreational vehicle. Amazingly no one was injured in any of this ordeal.” “Kerry,” the anchor back in the KVBC studio interrupted. “Let’s take a look at this new picture we are getting from Skywatch 3.” Aerial pictures from the station’s helicopter filled the screen to reveal how the crooks had used a frontage road and a short off-road trek to ditch the van and then bomb it, most likely in an attempt to destroy evidence. Jerry the anchor continued with his ringmaster duties, as a young male reporter appeared in a split screen with the helicopter footage. “Thank you Kerry. We are going to switch live now to Austin Hopkins who is following the situation at the Silverton.” “Hey, there’s our craps table,” Terry said with excitement as he sprawled across the suite’s floor like a kid watching cartoons on Saturday morning. It seemed that the excitement of this real-life drama had made their brush with trouble almost forgettable. “Yes Jerry,” the young Mr. Hopkins began. “You can see from the pictures what police believe was the get-away vehicle in last night’s heist at the Excalibur. The van was completely destroyed by the explosion, but sources are telling us that some trace evidence remains as well as a series of footprints that lead to a hole cut in the back fence. Police believe the suspects had a second vehicle, most likely a large RV, waiting and are most likely traveling in it now. For viewers not familiar with the property south of Las Vegas, the casino hotel is separated from the camping area by a large parking lot.” As the reporter continued speaking, the helicopter’s camera pulled back


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to show a full view of the area. “The area around it is mainly desert. It is both a remote location, yet very conveniently located near the Interstate. Investigators continue to sift through charred remains of the vehicle and and are searching for any clues that remain. Amazingly, no one was injured and the only other damage came in the form of one broken car window, shattered due to the concussion of sound waves.” “Austin,” the picture shot back to the anchor. “What can you tell us about operations at the Silverton?” “The hotel and casino remain open while the campground has been evacuated and completely closed to unauthorized personnel. There are several agencies investigating, including the FBI and Secret Service who are looking for any possible further explosives or boobytraps. But, overall business seems to be at about normal levels.” “Thank you Austin. We are going to head back down to the Excalibur where Kerry Harrison has been standing by. “Kerry, what can you tell us about operations at Excalibur following the robbery?” “Thank you Jerry, Immediately following the robbery, several special task forces arrived in response mainly to the bomb threat. The hotel was immediately evacuated and guest were not allowed to return to their rooms until just before 6 a.m.” Footage changed to tape of hotel guests mingling along the Strip in the middle of the night, many in pajamas and robes. “Metro Bomb Squads, the FBI, and Secret Service have all been working together and have determined that no bombs or explosives threaten the property. However, the casino remains closed as officials continue to search for clues.”


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“This place!” Terry exclaimed after taking a sip of coffee. “There is never a dull moment. Can you imagine living here?” “No I can’t,” Chuck said as he continued to watch the story unfold. “I bet security will be really tight at the airport today. It’s 7:30 now so let’s get cleaned up and headed over there. “Sounds good to me,” Bill said as he started for the bathroom. The special report ended and KVBC switched back to the Today Show. Kevin made a couple of comments about how much he had always been sick in love with Katey Couric and Terry lost the remainder of his appetite thinking about such a disturbing scene. After all had showered and were making final checks around the room, KVBC interrupted the Today Show with another special report. The same tan anchor man was back and dramatically welcomed viewers, “We are going to pre-empt the Today Show in order to take you back out to the Excalibur and the police command post that has been set up to investigate last night’s robbery and bomb scare.” As a different reporter appeared in the split screen, the anchor continued, “Crimetracker 3 reporter Thomas Kincaid is live on the scene. Thomas, we understand that Metro has an announcement regarding suspects. Is that correct?” “Yes it is Jerry,” the athletically built reporter began. “We are waiting for a press conference in which we have been told Metro will announce that it has identified four prime suspects in last night’s robbery. Criminalists have been working frantically, viewing surveillance footage, and processing clues.”


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“Any word yet on who these men may be? Are we looking at an outfit like the Vigoa Gang that most recently terrorized several properties throughout Las Vegas?” “Jerry, police have been extremely tight-lipped about suspects— not wanting to tip off anyone who may have a chance of escaping. Let’s go to the podium now where Metro Police spokesman Karl Ash is about to begin.” Karl Ash, a graying ex-prosecutor who had turned to public relations as a way to save a crumbling marriage and avoid a worsening heart condition stepped to a skinny, flexible microphone behind a portable podium brought down from one of the Excalibur’s meeting rooms. “Thank you,” he began. “As you know, a large scale robbery occurred here at the Excalibur last night.” As he continued to rehash the events, gray surveillance footage began to run, showing a tall, lean man in probably his early thirties approach the casino cage and then flash the cashiers what appeared to be one of the lighted buzzers given out to inform waiting restaurant patrons when their tables are ready. “You sure you were sleeping here last night? That dude kind of looks like you” Kevin teased Terry who had returned to the floor to watch more of the story. “Unfortunately yes,” he responded. “Besides, I’m a lot better looking than that guy. “Hey,” Kevin said pointing. “That guy kind of looks like Chuck.” Footage rolled of a second crook unloading one of the portable cases used to transport money from the floor to the vault.


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Getting ready for the airport had taken a backseat to the drama being reported. “I was right here all night Kevin.” The picture returned to the spokesman who had finished laying out all of the already known details. “We now have the names and identities of the four suspects. Thanks to our great forensics staff hear in Clark County and the FBI, agents have been able to process the initial threat note left by the subject. Although no fingerprints were found, specialists were able to lift valuable information. Investigators found an Internet web address that had been written on one of the previous sheets. Using that website, the team has been able to match the four suspects recorded on house surveillance to these four men.” The next seven or eight seconds seemed like seven or eight years for Chuck, Bill, Terry, and Kevin. The four would have this moment in time burned into their memories with recall better than where they were when the Challenger exploded or even how they learned that terrorists had struck the Twin Towers on September 11. There on the screen for all of Las Vegas, and soon all of the World, to see were the smiling pictures of Chuck, Bill, Terry, and Kevin. It was quickly obvious to Chuck that those were the pictures he had used for the “Staff Biography” section of Riverton High School’s website. The pictures were set against a red background with the fancy Excalibur logo and the word “HEIST” written in matching script at the bottom. Names appeared under each picture with physical descriptions written off to the side the way America’s Most Wanted profiles its suspects.


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“The four suspects,” the spokesman continued. “are Terry Van Eck, Charles Fagan, and William Parsons. We believe these men carried out the robbery while Kevin Stewart is believed to have been the driver of the get-away vehicle found near the Silverton Casino. All four men are from the Holland, Michigan area and all are teachers and coaches at Riverton High School.” The spokesman’s voice dropped off dramatically as he quite intentionally showed just how amazed he was to be actually announcing that four high school teachers had pulled this huge job. “ We currently only have leads on the location of these men, so anyone spotting the suspects should use extreme caution. We do believe them to be armed and dangerous. Please contact Las Vegas Metro Police if you have any information regarding these subjects.” A series of numbers flashed on the screen under the spokesman’s picture and just above the crawling messages now constantly running facts and tidbits about the crime. Off in the lower right corner of the screen, a looped video montage of previous footage was running constantly. “We were very careful examining this case and have put together several bits of information that lead us to these four men,” the spokesman was nearing completion of his prepared statements. “Needless to say, it is shocking to think that the people we trust with the education of our children could be capable of performing such detailed criminal acts. Finally, anyone who may have seen or interacted with the suspects in the last several days are also asked to call our tip-line. Thank you. I will take questions now.”


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As Karl Ash fielded questions shouted from a gaggle of eager reporters, Kevin, Chuck, Bill, and Terry stood silently and stock still in their luxurious suite. Obviously some terrible mistake had occurred, but not one of the men in that room could even process what had just been announced in that police news conference. Each was experiencing mild shock, but it was Chuck whose body was the first to give in to the mental anguish. Within seconds, he was on his knees in front of the toilet purging the recent Gold Coast breakfast. This was nothing new for Chuck, he often reacted this way to heavy stress. Last night as the four ran through the streets of Las Vegas, Chuck tried with all his might to keep his dinner of Kung Pao chicken from running the wrong way and slowing him down. Luckily, he was able to control it. This nervous vomiting had almost become a pre-game ritual on Friday nights before big football games. It had become no big deal. But, it hadn’t started that way. It was a big deal the night a sixteen-year-old Chuck borrowed his parent’s van two days after getting his license. He secretly picked up his girlfriend and headed to a moonlit lake. Chuck got so excited that he lost control, drove the van through a bait shop, and threw up all over his date. So much for Chuck getting anything that night other than grounded for a very long time. Hearing it announced to the world that you are the prime suspect in a huge crime and wanted by the feds and every law enforcement agency in the state elicits a different response from every individual. Some whimper and crumble. Some lash out with rage and that was exactly how Kevin was expressing his reaction to the incredible news. “F-bomb” after “F-bomb” dropped from his mouth, mixed amidst a


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myriad of other curse words. This tirade made the blue streak Chuck sent up last night sound like “awe shucks”. As he stormed around the suite, he clenched his meaty forehead that was getting redder by the second. The anger and astonishment spilled from his mouth as his vocabulary of adjectives and adverbs was reduced to just one word and its several variations. “This is an f-ing joke,” Kevin would say as he stomped. “We’re fed! This is one big f-ing mistake! Some f’s robbing a mother f-ing casino in Las f-ing Vegas, in the middle of the f-ing night when we’re all f-ing sleeping. They get a half an f-ing million, and we take the f-ing blame? No way man! No f-ing way.” Terry seemed to have slid back into the withdrawn state that last night’s chase had brought upon him. He sat with his head buried in his hands while he stared at the floor. He had retreated inwardly and prayed as the outside world seemed to have lost all motion and sound. Terry’s faith had always been a cornerstone of his life. He held it close to his heart and shared it with close friends but simply tried to live it by being a good friend and person. As he deeply talked to God a small bit of calm began to seep into the chilling grip of panic the announcement had delivered. It was just enough calm to allow him to consciously rejoin the others, but remain solemn on the couch. Bill was the oldest of the group by ten years, but he had never experienced anything close to the trauma that this type of news brought with it. In fact, he was in such shock that his mind refused to register what had actually occurred. He actually laughed when he saw the pictures on the news. But, as the minutes dragged by the situation began to grow clearer. Here were four respected members of their


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communities, acting responsibly in a place where most don’t, and now

they were wanted in the biggest casino robbery in years. The remoteness and the incredible odds of something like this occurring were overwhelming. Of the 35 million people who visit Vegas every year, how could these four nobodies wind up in the eye of this unthinkable storm? Bill had always lived by the idea that a healthy dose of denial was not all that bad. It was that denial and numbness that allowed Bill to remain the clearest thinker of the group. As Chuck emerged from the bathroom he seemed to be feeling somewhat better. It’s weird how heaving your guts out can actually be

a relief, he often told himself after one of these episodes. He tried to calm Kevin, but the big man was still mumbling and clenching his fist in rage. “So gentlemen, what do we do next?” Bill asked while standing in front of the group like a commanding officer in the military trying to determine the battle’s next offensive maneuver. “In a perfect world, we could just go to the police and explain we didn’t do it. We would let justice and the legal system prove our innocence, but…” “Yeah,” Chuck cut him off. “While we wait for Justice to run its course, we spend the next two months in the Clark County clink with every low-life this fine city has to offer.” “Guys we have no alibi. Our alibi is ourselves. We were all together with nobody to verify anything. Plus, it sounds like the cops somehow have it engrained in their heads that we did this. I know it is impossible, but you heard the guy. We have to somehow prove we didn’t do this. But until then, we are public enemy number one”


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As a hard, loud knock sounded at the door, the four faces of Chuck, Bill, Terry, and Kevin stared at each other in abject terror. Mouths dropped open and piercing stares told the others that each man felt the decision of what to do next had just been made for them. Their fate appeared sealed. The cops must have followed those leads and any chance to avoid prosecution seemed almost certainly doomed. Another knock and the four remained frozen. Another knock. “Maintenance,” a voice called as the tiny sound of a card key being inserted into the suite’s lock filled the silent room. “Maintenance here. I need to fix a sink,” the plumber employed by the Rio said again as he cracked the door, found no one and began to work in the kitchen area. After a couple of twists and a test run of the faucet, the plumber gathered his tools and left—but not before filling his tool belt with the little bottles of Tanqueray and Jose Cuervo from the suite’s mini-bar.


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Chapter 11 “Smash,” was the noise of Clark County Sheriff Walter Haygood’s coffee cup shattering against the far wall of his office as he watched department spokesman and now political rival Karl Ashe performing before all of the news cameras at the Excalibur. “I want to know what son of a bitch authorized that bastard to go public already,” he shouted as an aide scrambled to pick up pieces of the mug left over from Haygood’s last successful campaign for sheriff. “All that S.O.B. Ashe wants is my job. He is all about publicity and he is abusing his job to get mine. Get me Darwood at crime-scene right now,” the sheriff barked at the assistant. After a minute or two of Haygood fuming, the aide handed the sheriff the phone, “Dr. Darwood on the line sir.” As he handed off the phone, he quickly slinked to a more tranquil refuge of the department. “Dick,” Haygood shouted. “Did you give Ashe the go ahead to hold that press-conference? Son of a bitch went and told the world before we could even finish investigating.” “Easy Walt. Easy,” Richard Darwood, head of the Clark County crime lab tried to calm his long-time colleague. “Believe me. I am as pissed as you are. I got people in the field trying to process evidence and track these guys down and Ashe took it upon himself to go public. He’s not picking up his cell phone and nobody from his office will give me a straight answer.” Karl Ashe had recently announced that he would be running in November to unseat Haygood as Clark County’s top lawman. The two had butted heads when Ashe ran the prosecutor’s office and Haygood


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was establishing himself as the Sheriff. Now that the two would be squaring off for one job, tension and mistrust had grown to new levels. “Anything new in terms of evidence?” Haygood asked, switching his attention back to the real issue at hand. “No, not really. We are still looking at both scenes. Dunn is leading the show. He is a bit frustrated because the initial clues led us right to these guys, but we’re not finding anything else physical. All of the prints are unrecognizable, but it will be a while on some of the other stuff. This might be the Vegas Crime Lab, but we don’t do things like on TV. Everybody wants a crime solved in an hour. FBI and Secret Service have been in and out and they are still working on getting a hot trail. Gonzalez with the “Fibs”, is trying to track some credit card records. Just as Darwood finished relaying the most recent information, Adam Gonzalez of the FBI’s Las Vegas field office entered the Sheriff’s office flanked by a couple of high-ranking Metro police officers. The hulking agent, who was an All Big 10 defensive tackle on Purdue’s football team slapped a computer printout in front of Haygood. “Gotta go Dick. Gonzalez just got here and he looks like he used to just before burying some poor quarterback from Northwestern. At eleven, I want an all agency meeting at the command post. Inform your people because I think we have something getting ready to go down here. All right. Stay close.” “Whatcha got?” Haygood asked as he popped up from his desk and shook the big hand of the big FBI investigator.


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“Right there,” Gonzalez pointed to a list of Chuck Fagan’s credit card records. Highlighted in blue marker were the purchases for airline tickets, three nights at the Rio, a car from Dollar, and a white cargo van rented yesterday from Dollar. “Just called the Rio,” Gonzalez continued. “Housekeeping said they were there this morning. Car is in the garage still. But, I told them not to approach the room until we got there and had people in place. I have a guy who works in surveillance at the Rio trying to find when they came back after the robbery. Also, the rented van is the one they blew at the Silverton last night. I sent two plain clothes guys over there to watch for them.” “Hell, let’s go!” Haygood exclaimed while standing and slapping his desk. “We ready Bobby?” A gleam of excitement shined in the corner of the 58 year-old sheriff’s eye. There was still a bit of cowboy in Haygood from growing up the son of cattle rancher near Elko. “All set sir,” Sergeant Robert Henry said in a very business-like manner. “Tactical One is set to go. Perimeter security will escort. We are simply waiting for your signal sir.” “Roll ‘em,” was all Sheriff Haygood needed to say. With a quick nod from their boss, the two Metro officers quickly left for their waiting troop of officers—eagerly waiting to apprehend the four suspects. Gonzalez tossed the Sheriff his jacket from a corner post, not far from where remnants of the morning’s coffee still marred the white stucco wall. “Are you going to the scene sir?” Gonzalez asked. “Betcher ass I am. Let’s just hope these boys don’t watch too much TV. If they’re gone, it’s that son a bitch Ashe’s fault. Nobody at the FBI gave him the nod for that did they?”


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“No sir,” Gonzalez broke his intense demeanor for a brief period. “We were all madder than Hell at you for that,” the massive agent chuckled slightly. “You mean he did that all on his own?” A level of disbelief now began to creep into the voice of Special Agent Gonzalez. “Yep. All by himself. Little prick,” the Sheriff cursed as the two hustled for waiting cars. “Thanks for your work Adam. I’m glad some

people in this town can put egos and publicity away to do a job. See ya down there.” The sheriff and the FBI agent both slid into their waiting rides and quickly joined the caravan of dark sedans and the trademark black and white LVMPD cruisers headed south for the Rio Hotel and Casino. The four suspects’ hideout had been revealed and Sheriff Walt Haygood was about to nab them.

Daniel Roberts, a nineteen-year veteran investigator with the Las Vegas crime lab stared at the conference room wall where a working chart had begun to categorize the evidence already collected from both crime scenes. On the wall hung a large piece of butcher paper, with columns labeled “Excalibur” and “Silverton”. Green and pink sticky notes filled each column with descriptions of the evidence found. The table in front of Roberts and investigator Roman James was crowded with bagged pieces of evidence and divided amongst the two scenes. James had worked in the Vegas office just under a year, but had logged a previous ten working crime scene for the Cleveland Police Department.


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This was the real world of investigating crimes in Las Vegas. A slough of television series had glamorized the industry into slick, hightech jigsaw puzzling that neatly wrapped itself up on the hour each weeknight. On those shows, a handful of workers analyzed and assembled data faster than the speed of the electrons flying around inside of their scanning microscopes. With their ultra-hip fashion, these “beautiful people” solve mysteries with the utmost glamour and the latest space-age gadgets. None of em would be caught dead with butcher paper and Post-it notes. On TV, crimes are solved by three, sometimes four people. In the real world, several teams of three, sometimes four work on each specific aspect of the case. One group works trace evidence. One group focuses on handwriting. There are chemical specialists and whole ballistics departments. Cases take months to crack sometimes. But, with the rate of information delivery and exchange increasing daily, the media and public expect answers sooner rather than later. The shows only increase the demand, making more than a handful of forensic specialists resentful of the new-found fame their profession had begun receiving. Roberts picked up an evidence bag and through the clear plastic examined again one of the most incriminating pieces of evidence—a laminated Riverton High School identification badge bearing the name of Mr. Terry Van Eck and a head-shot that was a dead ringer for the man leading the heist on the Excalibur’s surveillance video. To think of all the planning a job like this would take, and to leave a piece of identification at the scene was almost unthinkable.


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Another crucial piece of evidence was the demand note itself. The video tape clearly showed the badge and note slipping from the pocket of the man the cops believed was Terry. The police not only had a sample of the suspect’s writing, but record of other notes the assailant wrote before making the big deposit. A few simple tests revealed impressions left over from writing done on the pads previous pieces of paper. All kinds of information came forward about a teacher’s conference this week at Bally’s and the Internet address for Riverton High’s Homepage. Investigators would have eventually gotten around to hitting the Internet for Riverton information, but that link on the note spurred the sleuths a bit and gave them quick identification of the other three suspects as Bill, Chuck, and Kevin. It was an old cliché in forensics investigations that crooks rarely plan their get-aways as well as they plan the execution of the crime. An oversight as little as falling paper in connection with the slip of the badge could very likely being this caper’s undoing. Even though the school’s website put names to faces, the accompanying biographical information on the page was just as important, giving details and a glimpse into the lives of Las Vegas’s most wanted men. There was information about families and personal interests. All of these would prove quite valuable to the investigative teams that profiled and probed the psyches of perpetrators. Karl Ashe had come through the lab early that morning digging for the direction of the investigation and had gleaned just the surface of a very preliminary set of findings. He had taken a quick conversation with Director Darwood, a sneak peak at the first evidence processed and had sewn this thing up just like he was solving this


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stuff on the small screen. Ashe knew this was a hot media topic. He knew the general public would eat up such a crime and such a chase. And he knew that they would all remember him for bringing the information to them. He was the slickly dressed, hip crime fighter that voters would name the sheriff in the fall—not some country oaf like Haygood. However premature Ashe’s self-scheduled press conference might have been, this thing was pointing nowhere but the four believed to be still holed-up at the Rio. But, no matter how open and shut this thing looked, investigators had to continue to process all of the findings—not just those fitting a theory. How did all of the evidence fit together? How did these four manage the tremendous logistics it takes to pull such a heist? Techs had recovered other bits and pieces from the Excalibur including some type of grassy mixture believed to be hay, several different types of hair—some believed to human and other likely animal, a type of greasy residue on the counter, some sand, and a book of matches from the Rio. After learning about the lives of the suspects through the school website, clues began to make sense. West Michigan is obviously very sandy and Chuck had stated that he enjoys the horses he and his wife own on their little piece of land in the country. “All of that stuff fits these guys,” James said as he continued to mentally record the bits and pieces to the puzzle. “Yeah, and it fits Las Vegas, the Excalibur, and Rodeo Week perfectly as well,” Roman James replied playing devil’s advocate. “It’s a hotel with horses in its shows and there are cowboys all over that


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place this week. If trace can break it down quickly enough, we can try to fit it geographically. Not doubting you Dan, just thinking out loud.” “I think you’re right about that, but man does it feel like a waste of time not putting those together with what we know of these guys. But, yeah, let’s see what trace says. Plus, I want to figure out what they tell us about that greasy residue we found on the counter.” The two directed their attention to the other side of the table and what had been initially returned from the charred remains of the get away van. It appeared that the blast had occurred by the crudest of means. Teams were still out in the vacant land behind the Silverton retrieving pieces scattered in the explosion. Pieces of an old travel alarm clock with wires attached to the ringer mechanism and splinters of a plastic gas can had all of the markings of an easy to make detonator. The alarm was set to ring at a certain time. The ringer closed the circuit between the wires that had been placed inside the gas can. One spark ignited the fuel vapors and “boom” evidence was destroyed, but not until after the crew had stealthily left the scene quietly through the darkness. Another team on another floor worked to reassemble was left of this “bomb”. Investigators searched for serial numbers and anything else that might help them determine the origin of the device’s ingredients. As in most explosions, tremendous amounts of damage had been done to the vehicle and what clues may have remained. Big things often come in small packages and luckily for the forensics teams, not all evidence had been destroyed, in fact the smallest pieces were beginning to look very promising. A couple of other clues were found wedged in a corner of the smoldering van making it harder


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on the Michigan men. Found was a partial boarding pass from the Northwest Airlines flight the suspects had taken as well as a membership card from the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association with the name Kevin-something on it. Both pieces were covered in soot and badly charred, but easily legible after a quick sweep by James’ small soft-bristle brush. The focus of the two investigators’ attention was now directed toward the only piece of clothing that had been recovered from the van. Other clothing had incinerated and was in ashes or melted clumps. But, one half of a pant leg had survived. More importantly though, the pant leg’s cuff had survived. Cuffs on pants are a treasure chest for investigators—containing a scrapbook of minute evidence from a suspect’s many movements. Roberts and James each inspected the small evidence bags housing the “cuff stuff” as they had nicknamed it on their chart of Silverton evidence. The mixture from the cuff had been carefully sorted with samples sent off to the team working to identify it make-up further. There was a fine and grainy black powder, a couple of hairs; three small, blue, plastic discs with a hole in the center of each, more sand, a grassy mixture similar to that found at the first scene, and tiny shavings of red plastic. Samples of the pant legs themselves had been sent down to trace as well in order to fully dissect where heavy khakis had been. “Anything back on prints?” Roberts asked as he broke the intense silence of the room.


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“Not yet,” James answered with a bit of a smile. “Just glad I wasn’t lifting prints. Can you imagine the number of hands that touch that casino cage’s counter everyday?” “Yeah, or a rental car? Hopefully something will come back soon from the stuff we have in here. I know they found some partials on the note and that i.d. But, you know how long we have waited in the past for prints.” “Yep,” Roman James agreed. “And it’s not like this is the only case being worked or like this is the only crime to have occurred in Las Vegas during the past two days.” Daniel Roberts placed the envelope containing the mysterious blue discs back on the table as he checked his pager vibrating on his hip. An alpha-numeric message scrolled across the small window on top. “Raid on perps in Xcal 413 @ Rio. Process needed,” the information scrolled. James was receiving the same message and looked up at Roberts before saying, “Looks like this is going to wait. They’re going after our boys at the Rio and we get to clean up.” Across town, the Rio Hotel and Casino appeared to be anything but the site of an impending raid. All appeared normal except far behind the hotel where teams of highly skilled special operations officers were assembled and ready to deploy. The police had planned on maintaining as much of an element of surprise as possible by operating “behind the scenes” in the resort’s huge kitchens and laundry facilities.


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The operation had been choreographed back at headquarters and units of law enforcement were quickly making their ways along catwalks and through the back passages of the hotel to their designated “go” positions. A traffic detail had blocked off the area around the Rio by diverting traffic away from Flamingo Road and allowing only authorized personnel into a section of Industrial Road to the south and west of the big Brazilian themed establishment. Access would be granted onto the grounds themselves once the initial raid had taken place. Another detail monitored traffic leaving the resort. Most drivers were politely asked to remain on the grounds for a couple more minutes, while Rio employees were allowed to carry on business as usual after a quick question or two from police. “Tactical One is in position,” a Kevlar clad member of the Metro Police Department softly spoke into the radio clipped to his shoulder, while carefully gripping his assault rifle and inching closer to the door of Chuck, Kevin, Terry, and Bill’s suite at the Rio. The hip hotel’s corridor was filled at both ends with officers, heavily armed and in full body armor. “Tactical Two-set,” a squad leader whispered in another part of the resort. “Perimeter ready,” a third voice called. Sheriff Haygood nodded to another high ranking officer who grabbed his radio and very calmly spoke, “All teams set. Launch on my go. Three…Two…One…Go!”


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The leader of Tactical One lowered his rifle briefly and very calmly knocked and announced, “Open up. Metro Police. Search warrant. Open up.” After no answer, two officers flanking the leader gave the heavy hotel door a kick, opening the floodgates for a sudden rush of cops eager to end this manhunt. The suite was instantly filled with officers, heavy artillery, and noise. The police swarmed over closets, bedrooms, and the bathroom, tossing aside anything in their way while flipping beds, ripping off the doors to cupboards, and tearing down curtains. All 1200 square feet were filled with heavy armor desperately trying to find the four men expected in the heist. “Well, well? What the Hell is going on up there?” the Sheriff barked into the radio over the noise and commotion of a dozen searchers tearing through the room. “C’mon. Where are they?” The leader of the search blankly looked at a fellow officer and spoke dumbfounded, “Uhh…uhh…It’s clean sir. It’s clean.” “Clean?” Haygood said in amazement. “What do you mean it’s clean?” “There is nobody here. They were here. Beds are a mess. Food in kitchen. But, the place is empty now. Just the typical left over junk.” “Well keep looking.” After a minute or two, the leader was back on the radio, “We are pulling out sir to preserve the scene. There is no one here.” “You boys sure you have the right room?” the sheriff barked. “Yes sir. Correct room. Got away I guess. Notify Two and Perimeter. Hopefully they haven’t gotten far. Tactical One is out,” the officer said obviously dejected.


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“Well I’ll be damned,” Haygood swore. “They gotta be here somewhere. I thought we had everything covered. “Two, what do you have?” “Nothing sir. We’ve had no one anywhere close to the description through here. House security said they have been monitoring everything. Guests on the floor have been very cooperative. Will continue to monitor.” “Perimeter?” Haygood barked now as he grew ever impatient, silently cussing Ashe and his announcement. “Monitoring all traffic sir. Not allowing pedestrians in or out. Searching vehicles. Authorized only. Crime scene has the suspect’s vehicle on a flat-bed already. If they’re on this property, we will find them.” An exasperated and quite impatient Sheriff Haygood lay the radio on the table in front of him as members of the Rio’s security staff, Metro officers, FBI agents, and a handful of others working this case milled around looking at each other, silently expressing their frustration through the looks on their faces. Agent Adam Gonzalez was the first to break the silence as he put his large hand on the sheriff’s shoulder. “It’s like we used to say in the fraternity house, ‘Loose lips sink ships.’” Haygood just shook his head in disgust. “Think they got away?” Gonzalez stared at the floor for a second. “Good bet,” he said. “I don’t know how. The security here is very good. But, I still don’t see how these guys pull a job like last night. Can you see your high school math teacher knocking off the Excalibur?”


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“Adam,” Haygood replied. “Nothing surprises me anymore in this business. “Don’t give up yet sir,” Gonzalez replied. “We’ll get these guys.” Haygood just nodded in response and poured himself a cup a coffee. “I guess we are going to be here a while.” The Sheriff picked up his radio. “I want everyone on full alert here. We have to find these guys. They have to be somewhere. Now let’s do it.” A group of television trucks had set up in the Rio parking lot and reporters were scrambling to get their live reports onto the airwaves. Police continued to scour the resort, but there was no sign of Chuck, Kevin, Bill, or Terry anywhere.


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Chapter 12 At Pier Cove Elementary School, Kelly Fagan smiled as she glanced at the picture of Chuck holding their son Rudy at the Lake Michigan beach just a couple of blocks from where she waited the return of her second graders from lunch recess. She smelled the bouquet of roses that had surprised her that morning. A smile crossed her face again as she read the card for about the fifth time. “Missing you, but took quite a haul at the Excalibur last night. Wait ‘til you see it! Love, Chuck” Kelly looked down at the lesson plan book lying open on her desk and mentally went over the afternoon schedule. As she looked up, she noticed a troubled look and watery eyes on the face of Jody Wright. Behind Jody walked Kathy Barrett, another of Kelly’s good friends at school. As Kathy closed the door to the classroom, Jody began crying and walked to hug Kelly behind her desk. “What? What?” Kelly asked as Jody began to cry even harder. “What is the matter? Kathy Barrett found the remote control to the television mounted in the corner of the classroom and turned on the set. She switched to channel 8, the NBC affiliate in Grand Rapids, and a young reporter stood in front of the newly completed Riverton High School. As he gave his report, the words: “Casino Shocker” appeared in big bold letters at the bottom of the screen next to the station’s logo. Before any of the ladies could give any explanation, still shots of the four Riverton teachers accused in the Excalibur robbery flashed on the screen.


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Kelly Fagan sat in complete shock as she watched casino surveillance video show what appeared to be her husband and three of his close friends pulling an armed robbery. Her heart sunk. Her hands grew cold and her throat instantly became sore and dry. Her eyes immediately drew back to the roses on her desk. The card appeared the size of a billboard and she read one last time: “Missing you, but took quite a haul at the Excalibur last night. Wait ‘til you see it! Love, Chuck” Utter disbelief filled her mind and in an instant there was a flood of emotion. No way could this be happening. It was like a bad dream she was trying to claw her way out of. That disbelief moved into a panic of anger. Kelly looked at the picture of Chuck and Rudy. No way could this man she loved and trusted so deeply do something so awful. But as she shook her head, Kelly could hear the reporter saying over and over again the name of the casino—Excalibur. She glanced at the roses again. This time all she saw in black letters was: EXCALIBUR. Out of rage, or confusion, or still in disbelief, Kelly unloaded her emotions on that vase of roses bearing the name of the Camelotthemed hotel. As she picked up the roses and hurled them across her neat classroom in agony, she tried to yell—only to have no sound emanate at all. As the reality of the situation began to hit fully, she hugged both her friends and began sobbing uncontrollably, “No. No. No. Not Chuck. No way. Chuck wouldn’t do this. No way!” Kathy and Jody began to lead Kelly toward the teachers’ lounge where the staff had been already ordered to vacate. It was during lunch when the rest of the Pier Cove staff had gotten the terrible news.


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Someone had turned on the set in the lounge to get a weather update and stumbled across this special report. Kelly was a regular in the lunch group, but had eaten in her room today while trying to put some finishing touches on her weekly class newsletter. Amidst strange looks from bystanders, the two supportive friends helped Kelly to the lounge where principal Carla Bryant was waiting with the district’s counselor. Mrs. Bryant gave Kelly a hug and helped her to the lounge couch close to the television that hung from the adjacent wall. Kelly reached for a tissue and wiped away tears as bits and pieces of Ashe’s earlier statements ran. The local reporter stated that neither Riverton Principal Carson Tanis nor the Superintendent were willing to comment. A written statement was expected momentarily however. No one really knew what to say. What do you say when a colleague who you trust and believe is a fine upstanding citizen has her husband accused of a massive armed robbery? It was Kelly who broke the silence. “Well, I have to get back because those kids are coming back in five minutes.” “Kelly, honey,” Principal Bryant was trying to console her. “I already have a substitute on her way. Don’t worry about the kids. We have you to worry about.” “But, I need to get my newsletter done and there is the vocabulary list. We have a spelling test…” “Kelly, that stuff can wait.” Kelly nodded softly and smiled at Mrs. Bryant as she looked up at the screen to see the loop of the surveillance footage now running.


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She looked closely, and then, even more closely. Sure there was a resemblance, but quickly she realized that was not her husband. Her husband didn’t stand that way. That was not Chuck! Chuck’s shoulders were much broader and the left one dipped just slightly from a high school football injury. Chuck the crook on the video had narrow shoulders that remained perfectly aligned. “That’s not Chuck! That is not Chuck,” Kelly shouted as she leapt from the couch in the teachers’ furious now that her husband had been accused of such a crime. “Kelly,” the school counselor began. “We all want to believe your husband is innocent. But, we need to be honest with ourselves and…” Before the words could even get out of the counselor’s mouth, Kelly shot her a look that made it plentifully clear to all that there would be no talk of facing reality, or denial, or any other psycho-babble. “I know my husband would never do anything like this. I know everything about him. I spend everyday with him. And I know that is not him!” The red-headed mother and wife was fuming as she stomped around the lounge. “Somebody call somebody and tell them they have the wrong guys. I don’t care what they base this on. That is not my husband on that tape. You get Channel 8 over here. I’ll give them a statement. I’ll tell them to quit splashing my husband’s name all over the screen. He’s innocent. He didn’t do it.” With her final outburst, Kelly Fagan collapsed into cushions of the lounge couch. It had all become too overwhelming. One minute she was admiring her thoughtful husband. The next minute she was informed that the same man had just robbed a casino and was on the


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run from the FBI and Secret Service. Emotion had overtaken her as she pleaded for his innocence. In her heart of hearts, Kelly knew Chuck could not or would not do something so terrible. While the video told the world that Chuck and the others were the robbers, it had told Kelly just the opposite. It proved to her that Chuck wasn’t the one. Ten percent of her felt completely relieved, but the other ninety felt enraged. The court of public opinion had already convicted these four. Her heart went out to him so many miles away. How could she prove

his innocence? Kelly wondered helplessly, knowing Chuck must be feeling even more helpless so far away. Jody sat next to Kelly on the couch and placed her hand on Kelly’s leg as she tried to console her troubled friend. “Turn that off.” Kelly said softly while shaking her head. “It’s all lies. All of it. Turn it off,” The counselor who was eagerly looking for some way to be helpful, quickly jumped toward the set. “I gotta go. I have to get Rudy and then I need a lawyer,” Kelly said a matter of factly while standing to leave. After frantically grabbing her coat and teacher bag, Kelly Fagan left the Pier Cove Elementary parking lot with the tires squealing on her shiny blue Chevy Silverado pick-up. Where she was headed right now she didn’t quite know. Her son was safe and protected at the babysitter’s. Should she go home? Should she call a college friend of Chuck’s who was a lawyer? With the big 4x4 on autopilot, Kelly found herself headed for the most tranquil spot she knew, Pier Cove Beach. As she pulled into the tiny lot, she found herself to be the only vehicle there. The sun had come out that day, a rare occurrence for late


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autumn or early winter, and small waves lapped against the Lake Michigan shore fifty or so feet below. How could this big lake seem so peaceful when the lives of the Fagans had been so suddenly sucked into a terrible storm? Kelly sat numbly looking in the direction of Wisconsin and Illinois. She did not think of anything in particular. She just sat in shock trying to digest all that was happening around her. The lake before her seemed a fitting metaphor. It was calm and steady now but had the ability to erupt in towering seas that had sunk 700-foot ships in seconds. One thing Kelly did know for sure was that she wouldn’t let this storm sink them. Chuck and his friends were all quality people, and by God, she was going to move Heaven and Earth to clear their names and end this mess. As students began to make their way from the main dining hall at Hillsdale College to their one o’clock classes, Scott Parson frantically inched his way upstream against the tide in a desperate search for his cousin and Bill’s son Taylor. Scott had been sweet-talking a girl he had met last night at some off-campus mid week party, when he caught a glimpse of the news coming out of Las Vegas. He was sitting away from the big-screen TV located in the main student lounge with his mind on far more pressing issues until the name “Bill Parsons” sounded louder than a gunshot. Scott’s head turned just in time to see his uncle’s face disappear and a CNN field reporter give an update to the search for the fugitives and the money. He sprung up from the overly soft couch with all thoughts of little Miss What’s-her-name completely gone from his head. Scott stepped toward the large set, increased the volume and stood stunned listening to details of the crime and a recount of the investigation. The surveillance video played


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over and over again and when the initial shock began to wear off, Scott’s thoughts turned to his cousin and best friend Taylor. “Tay?” Scott yelled as students passed him on both sides. “Taylor?”

Where was he? Scott wondered as he continued to scan the crowd. There were only 1,100 students in the whole college and Taylor always, always ate lunch at 12:15. He had to be around here somewhere. “Taylor,” Scott said with relief as he finally spotted his cousin carrying a half-eaten vanilla ice cream in one hand while draping his other arm around some blonde in a Chi Omega sweatshirt who seemed to be enjoying extra warmth on the chilly December day. Taylor could read the panic in his cousin’s face and gently bid the blonde goodbye. “What?” he asked concerned walking with Scott in the direction of the adjoining lounge and TV. “C’mere. You aren’t going to believe this. I still don’t think I can believe this.” “Believe what?” “I was sitting in the Ethan Allen Room with that girl from the party last night when I heard your dad’s name on CNN.” The Ethan Allen Room is the nickname Hillsdale students long ago gave the lounge for its varied grandma-style living room sets spaced neatly apart resembling the showroom at a furniture store. “My dad? What do you mean my dad? My dad is in Vegas.” “Exactly,” Scott replied.


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“What’s going on? What are you talking about?” Taylor asked completely confused as he neared the TV area directing his attention toward the big screen now showing “The Young and the Restless”. Scott caused a near riot of sorority girls when he switched back to CNN. Taylor’s confusion quickly cleared up as within seconds a picture of his father and the three others flashed on the screen with some witty caption about the robbery. He quickly recognized the other three men, as all had been either his teachers at Riverton or over to their house for staff parties. It all seemed like a bad joke to Taylor. His dopey dad was one hundred percent incapable of robbing a casino. His dad was the first to tell a cashier that there had been an error, even when it was in his favor. His dad had taken groceries back to the store when somebody else’s order was mixed into theirs. No way. Was this some kind of prank? Had somebody from the Fraternity house gotten carried away with his video editing project for a multi-media class? Soon it became terribly obvious for the more Taylor watched, the more he realized this was serious. “Taylor, Taylor ?” Scott asked his cousin who seemed frozen and completely detached. Taylor may have been frozen, but the ice cream cone he had been carrying was anything but. Vanilla liquid dripped down his hand and ran in little rivers past his wrist and into a small pool on the floor. Taylor turned and looked at Scott with a look that was a mixture of amazement, confusion, and fright. This was like watching one of your nightmares knowing full well that there was no way of escaping


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by waking. Tiny tears began to well up in his eyes as he turned back toward the set. The reporter was giving the same information for the third or fourth time, when Scott decided there was a better place to digest this. “Let’s go,” he said as the two silently piled on their coats and walked to the adjacent parking lot. Quickly, Scott fired up the ’95 Celica and sped down West St., squealed the tires as he turned onto College, took a quick right and pounded the divots in the alley that led to the back lot of the big yellow Sigma Chi house. When the two reached their room at the top of the stairs, the light was blinking frantically on the cousin’s answering machine. Taylor’s sister in Ann Arbor had left three messages for her brother. She too had seen the news and as she sobbed through the calls, she told Taylor that there was something wrong with dad and that she was going home at one to be with their mom and he had better do the same. She said not to say anything to their mom until they had gotten home. It would have all sounded very cryptic if Taylor hadn’t seen the news yet. He tried to catch Katey, but her roommate said she had already left. The two talked briefly, but mainly about Katey’s state of mind. The roommate had offered to drive her, but she said Katey’s stubbornness would have none of that. Taylor put down the phone and quickly threw what clean, or semi-clean clothes he could find lying around into a big blue gym bag. Scott did the same, as he felt it was important for him to go along. Scott’s family lived only about twenty minutes away from Taylor’s family in the Grand Rapids suburb of Grandville. No doubt Scott’s dad who was Bill’s brother Brian would get heavily involved in trying to


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figure out this mess. Brian had been a corporate attorney in Grand Rapids for twenty-five years. His knowledge of the law had never been more necessary than it was right now. Scott quickly called his dad and told him to turn on CNN. It had been a slow news day, and the Vegas story was getting the most run. Scott quickly could tell his father was reacting with the same shock and disbelief his cousin had shown only a half hour or so ago. As his dad choked back tears on the phone, Scott noticed a change in the old man. Brian had switched into attorney and big brother gear instantaneously. There was no time to feel sad now. Brian was on his way to find Bill’s wife Sarah in Holland and all would meet at Taylor’s house as soon as the boys could safely make the 125 mile trip from Hillsdale. There was very little talking between the two cousins as they gathered last minute items. Each tingled with a mixture of fear, adrenaline, and an emptiness from being simply unable to process the whole ordeal. It was a controlled panic, a harnessed raged that these two, but especially Taylor were running on now. A group of five other fraternity members had come to the room as word had quickly gotten out to the rest of the house that something was wrong with the Parson’s. Scott motioned them outside into the open hallway and gave what he knew about the situation and told them what their plans were. All of them were amazed. They all knew Bill from his visits to campus and could not believe he would be involved with anything of the sort. They all gave their support to the Parson’s and said they would serve as damage control around campus. Tiny incidents had the potential to blow up into major crises


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as gossip spread like wild fire across the quaint hilltop college. This thing would soon be the talk of everyone. Very little of real importance ever happens in Hillsdale, and seeing that the Parson’s were quite well known in social circles, this thing would be followed hotter than a Republican primary or sale at Talbot’s by the largely upscale, conservative student body. Not only was the story beginning to spread across the college campus, but the state and nation as well. All of the all-news networks had picked up the thing and were giving it all of their attention. Anchors and producers were really pressing the buttons of their viewers by heavily stressing the public school teacher angle. These were the very people with whom a big chunk of the network’s audience had entrusted their precious children’s care this morning. Education was a hot-button topic, especially amongst all of the minivan pilots. These over-zealous parents, with too much time on their hands, usually have Fox News or CNN on in the background each day as they find new ways to micro-manage their children’s lives. Very subtly the networks played on the fear factor questioning the safety of every child in a public school right now. Even one of the third rate, ultra-conservative, radio talk show hosts used the story as a “sign of the wretched state of decay our Government schools had become.” The story seemed to be everywhere. Over and over again, networks told of the preliminary crime scene evidence. It all seemed so easy to understand, which for the networks was all the better. Terry Van Eck’s high school i.d. badge had been left right there at the counter where he and his cronies had taken tons of loot. The explosion and the grainy surveillance video made for great visual


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stimulation while the mystery of where these four and all of that money were hiding supplied all of the necessary intrigue. This was the very thing that 24 hour all-news channels did best. They took a few facts, added some thrilling footage, and neatly sewed it up into one little package that could be easily digested by the general public. A good story like this one could be played over and over again. When it started to get tiresome, it could be instantly expanded by probing the lives of the suspects, digging up old skeletons, and bringing in experts from far reaching corners of academia. The possibilities with something like this were endless and the wheels were already turning in the minds of executives figuring out how to make the most out of such a spectacle. The pulse of the media moguls bringing this developing story into American homes took a collective jump as word came down that a statement was about to be read by Riverton Schools superintendent Carlton Fisher. More video, more sound, and more information were on the way. Networks patched into the satellite feeds as local affiliates covered the quickly approaching press conference to be held in the school’s auditorium. Reporters elbowed for space like teenagers cramming for the stage at a rock concert. Camera operators bumped and jostled each other. The anticipation was thicker than Christmas morning. New video to loop. New sound bites to edit. Can’t let the American public get tired of the old stuff. Have to throw new, fresh, fluff at them before they get too bored and go looking for the Price is Right. A hush settled over the frenzied crowd of journalists as they saw the distinguished looking administrator approach the microphone


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podium flanked by principal Tanis and the president of the teacher’s union. Carlton Fisher the superintendent would do the talking with other two there for moral support and the image of a united front. “This is a very troubling time for the Riverton School District,” Fisher began. “Mr. Van Eck, Mr. Fagan, Mr. Parson, and Mr. Stewart have all demonstrated a great deal of character while working with the students of this school district. We are all saddened by these accusations, but we still reserve judgment until presented with further evidence. Further more we must hold true to our Democratic principles that all citizens are innocent until proven guilty. We are cooperating with law enforcement and pray for a quick solution to this ordeal. Our thoughts are with the families of these men and wish to offer any assistance they may need. There will be no questions. Thank you.” With the polish of politicians, the trio made a quick exit as reporters screamed questions all at once but received absolutely no response. The united front had purely been for show because the rest of Riverton High School was in absolute chaos. Word had gotten out about the fiasco quite by accident. Mrs. Lydia Otis had turned on her classroom television to show a Civics video to her freshman government class when channel 3, the Kalamazoo CBS affiliate, first aired its special report. Trying to optimize on a teachable moment in current events, Mrs. Otis allowed her students to continue watching. It was amazing that room hadn’t become a vacuum because at the moment the names of the robbery suspects were announced and the four famous pictures flashed on the screen. The collective sigh was so great that it could have sucked the air from the entire school. The


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raucous group of fourteen and fifteen-year-olds sat with stunned faces in silence until Clay Santos spontaneously broke the silence with a “No friggin’ way. No way!” That ice-breaker unleashed torrent of adolescent reaction. There was laughter and there were tears, but overall a sense of astonishment filled the students and especially their teacher. Some students rushed closer to the screen and listened intently with mouths agape. What was Mrs. Otis supposed to do now? There would be no redirecting her class or regaining their attention for a civics video. She could hardly control her own emotions and thoughts. She was transfixed by this incredible revelation. It all seemed very unreal. She quickly wondered who else on campus knew. With a quick push of two buttons, she was connected to the school’s office. “Mr. Tanis please,” Lydia Otis asked in a very business-like manner. “One second please,” the secretary responded and connected Lydia to the principal. When Mr. Tanis learned of the news report, he left three students sitting outside his office and sprinted the halls to Mrs. Otis’s room where he found a class of bewildered freshmen. Great speculation had already started among the students and all wanted to be the ones to tell Mr. Tanis the news. Tanis tried to quiet the students as he listened intently to the reporter rehashing the little, but very shocking information available. He saw the pictures flash and learned about the identification badge left behind. Before he could even begin to sort out the vast array of jumbled thoughts spinning through his head, he grabbed his Nextel


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phone and paged Superintendent Fisher. They would meet in his office in two minutes. Before leaving the classroom, he ordered Mrs. Otis to turn off the television and the students back to their seats. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he calmly spoke to the teacher and students. “We have a serious situation here. The important thing is that we wait to find out all of the information before we jump to any conclusions. Please, please be responsible with what you have seen. I will ask you to keep this to yourselves until we can make some more announcements. Is that understood?” Before Tanis left, he used the classroom’s telephone to tap into the school’s intercom system, “Uhh…uhh,” his voice crackled with nerves. “Teachers, staff, students. This is Mr. Tanis. We are having some problems with our classroom televisions and our network. So…uh, uh I am going to ask that you keep all classroom televisions off until you hear further. Teachers, if you have any questions, you may inquire in person in the office at your next break. Uhh, thank you.” Of course none of those quick fix strategies worked. That was four hours ago, and that one group of students had changed classes twice, plus eaten lunch. Each had ignored Tanis and had told as many people possible their version of events. By the time the story had been recycled twice, there were shoot outs with police and exploding casinos. Teachers had rushed to the office as classes changed and were quickly faced with a dilemma of trying to continue teaching while simultaneously trying to come to terms with the shocking news. Actually, teaching was pretty much shot for the day anyway. The only


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thing anyone would talk about was the robbery and with all of the misinformation being spread, most teachers made their own administrative decisions to turn the televisions back on and at least diffuse the rumor mills. Riverton High School had for the most part shut down for the day. Bells rang, but students merely switched from one television to the next. Today’s curriculum was all about the latest from Las Vegas. “What are going to do now Carlton?” Tanis asked his boss as the big superintendent paced the district’s main conference room while all of the other administrators from the district’s schools sat dumbfounded in a collective meeting of the minds. “What can we do? I have heard the term ‘media blitz’ used before, but man. This feels like the whole defense blitzed along with rest of the team, the cheerleaders, the bus driver and five thousand fans pouring out of the stands. I can’t believe our guys could do something like this. Hell, I know our guys couldn’t do something like this, but the electronic story-tellers of the world don’t want to hear that. America doesn’t want to hear that. I just hope our guys have sense enough to get to authorities and explain their innocence. Then we can help them. We are accessory if we do anything else. The rest of you get on the horn to the families of these guys and Carson keep trying to hold the lid down on that high school of yours. The county mental health department should have a team of counselors over there relatively soon if anybody gets too shaken up. And no, we aren’t sending anybody home early. What do people think this is?” The other principals divided into pairs while grabbing for staff directories and area phone books. Carson Tanis slipped from the


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small administration building and pressed the button to his GMC Denali’s keyless entry system. He grabbed his wireless phone and began to dial Chuck’s cell phone number for at least the eightieth time that day. There was no answer and Tanis proceeded to dial Kevin’s number and then Terry’s. There was no answer. There had been no answer during the other attempts. “Come on guys. I know you’re probably scared to death. Just don’t do anything stupid.” As Tanis pulled into the main entry of Riverton High School, he was stopped by an Allegan County Sheriff’s Deputy who had been called out to help control the traffic now snarled by irate parents picking up students, all types of media vehicles, and a growing number of law enforcement officers who needed to talk to school officials and serve recently granted warrants for the search of the four suspects’ classrooms. Tanis muttered to himself as he flashed his i.d. to the deputy and navigated the big SUV through the throng of people cluttering his usually quiet staff and visitor parking lot. “Should have listened to that old bag VanderSlice. Should have listened.”


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Chapter 13 Chapter 13 in a book about Las Vegas? Come on now. Aren’t these guys having enough bad luck as it is?


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Chapter 14 “Hey buddy let’s go,” the man in the big afro wig and rhinestone covered, star-shaped sunglasses shouted from the back of the Rio shuttle bus. “We have got to get to Harrah’s in the next ten minutes or the production people are going to have our jobs and yours. Chuck Fagan had never worn anything so hideous in his life. He was all of six or seven-years-old when this garb was popular the first time, but the 1970’s, polyester-laden fashions he currently sported were buying him and his other buddies some time. If all went well, they’d sneak through the police dragnet under the cover of casino performers. The escape plan had been hatched quite hap-hazardly as the four anxiously tried to make it to their rental car after hearing the news on television that morning. When the Rio’s plumber was safely under the sink, the four had grabbed their small suitcases and sprinted for an adjacent stairwell. Chuck directed them to a service corridor he had found by accident that morning while retrieving breakfast. As the four blindly snuck down the passage without a clue as to how they would ever make it to the car, two uniformed guards approached from the opposite direction. Neither guard seemed to be looking for anyone or for anything special and gave a “good morning” smile to the four as Chuck and friends ducked into a surprisingly unlocked doorway. The room was obviously some type of dressing room with long counters and corresponding mirrors lined with large round light bulbs. To the left of the counter were racks and racks of odd looking costumes.


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“I know where we are.” Terry said with a little bit of hope in his voice. “This is where they get ready for that “Parade in the Sky” show they do in the afternoons.” A big attraction at the Rio is its free show that entertains guests in the Masquerade Village portion of the casino. A stage pops up from the floor with large Brazilian Carnivale style floats that hang suspended from a steel track in the casino’s ceiling. Performers throw bead necklaces from their floats while singers and dancers perform a floor show on the stage. The thing is hugely popular and most find it worth a trip over to the Rio to see. This year’s floor show was all about the 1970’s and disco, so the costume racks in that dressing room were loaded with relics from the era. The four quickly disguised themselves with whatever they could find and it was Chuck who came up with the getaway plan. “I got it. I got it,” he shouted with great angst. “This is what we are going to do. We are going to go over to Harrah’s on the shuttle. See if we can get out of here. We will tell them that we are promoting this show over there. We’ll hand out these beads and flyers. I found this whole box when we were digging for clothes. It at least gets us out of here. There was a bit of hesitation as Chuck reminded himself just how desperate of a situation this had become. “I think we’ve been humiliated enough. If they take us down in this garbage, I don’t think it really will matter.” The four had walked past several different members of law enforcement before they ever reached the shuttle--each person’s gut tied in excruciating knots, trying to contain the greasy Gold Coast breakfast. They each worked as hard as they could to stay calm while


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simply acting like they knew where they were going. It was hard enough of a job anyway, but when you are decked out in day-glow polyester, funky wigs, platform shoes, and lots of fake gold chains it is darn near impossible. The disguises had worked so far. Every minute seemed like an hour as they managed to find a waiting bus and now sat coaxing the driver to take them to their next stop. “I didn’t get nothing on taking nobody nowhere,” the Hispanic driver said while turning his head slightly and looking at his oddly dressed passengers in the rear-view mirror. “Cops don’t want us leaving unless they check things out.” “Well let’s go man,” Bill jumped in. “We got to get rid of this big box of junk before noon so we can be back for the one o’clock show. Mr. Henderson said you would take us. Should I get him out here or are we going?” “Alright man. Alright,” the driver gave in. The shuttle bus began to move slightly before a uniformed Metro officer approached the driver. “I got to take these fruitcakes to Harrah’s for some gig,” the driver stated to the officer peering in the windows of the bus. “Let me see your I.D. please.” The driver obliged and exchanged nods of concurrence with the officer and the bus was off to the what would no doubt prove to be another challenge in the life on the run of Chuck, Bill, Terry, and Kevin. As the officer waved the bus through the next line of police, relief crept into the bloodstreams of the teachers.


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It’s amazing, Kevin thought to himself. The body and mind have an amazing ability to stay relaxed and still function even under amazing stress. He had just figured out the group’s next move when they arrived at Harrah’s “Just follow my lead when we get over there,” Kevin whispered to the other three. Three nervous looks that said, “You had better not screw this up” was what Kevin received in exchange. The bus snaked down side streets, dashed across the Strip and past the shimmering Wynn. The rest of the group had begun to feel the same type of mild relaxation Kevin was experiencing and felt more relief as the small bus made the turn and soon stopped in front of Harrah’s. Kevin led the group in a bee-line for the hotel’s check-in desk. Although Kevin was a bit of a clod, Chuck knew he did have a way with working a situation to his advantage. He had seen Kevin talk his way in and out of several situations. But, those usually were no more serious than getting to upgrade their seats at Red Wings hockey games or getting an extra side of hash browns for no extra charge. Kevin quickly scanned the counter and located just the right Harrah’s employee for the next phase of this caper. “How ya doing today?” Kevin rhetorically asked a pimply faced young man who was likely taking some hospitality courses at nearby UNLV. He appeared to be no more than nineteen and Kevin had picked him as the softest.


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“We’re from the Rio, have to do some promoting.” Kevin spoke quickly with a hint of an East Coast accent. “Heard you got some people gonna go over there. That right?” “Well sir, I uhh, I mean, I just” the worker stammered. “Right. Right,” Kevin laid a little more wise-guy voice and attitude into the act. “So you got that room ready for us?” Terry and Bill watched in awe. Where on Earth was this thing

going? They wondered. “Room sir?” the desk clerk asked while squinting in confusion. His name tag indicated his name was Dirk and that he was originally from Grand Forks. “Yeah the room. What do you mean, ‘What room?’ The room that’s in our contract. We hand out this crap two at a time. The other two get to hang out in a room

and then we switch.”

Had Kevin rehearsed this on the bus or was this all adlibbed? Chuck wondered anxiously. Kevin smiled proudly over his shoulder to the others. “I have no record here sir,” Dirk said with just a tiny bit of conviction in his voice. “Of course,” Kevin said rolling his eyes. “How long you been working here?” “A week tomorrow.” “A week tomorrow huhh? We do this at least once a week. We always get a room. They can’t write it down. Some accounting something. A real mess with accounts. Just give us the keys and we’ll get out of here.”


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Kevin, as well as the others were beginning to feel this was taking too long, but miraculously, and without another word, Dirk handed over keys. “Great,” Kevin smiled as he grabbed the plastic cards. It had worked. It had really worked. Kevin had picked on some twerp behind the counter and gotten them a temporary hide-out. Bill and Terry grabbed the boxes of beads and the four hustled over to an elevator and up nine floors to an empty hotel room. They entered and collapsed from the stress of the morning’s activity. As good as the beds and couches felt, the disguises were driving them insane. The ‘70’s garb was ripped off as quickly as they could get it into a pile in the room. The wigs were itchy and the polyester was sharp on the seams and scratchy. “That, that was amazing Kevin,” Terry stated with sheer admiration while searching his bag for some new clothes. “Great Kevin,” Bill added. “But, what do we do now?” “We blend,” Kevin replied. “Blend? How the hell do we blend?” Bill snapped. “We have everybody with a badge from Texas to California looking for us.” “How long do you figure we have here?” Chuck asked the others concerned about where they were headed. “Probably not too long and I’d say we have more badges than that after us,” stated Terry as he nodded toward the room’s television. CNN was running its montage and recapping the events. There was Tanis and Fisher giving the school’s statement. Special agents in blue windbreakers with large gold FBI letters on the back carried boxes from the school as well as each of the teachers’ classroom


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computers. Several familiar faces from their short time in Vegas also began to appear as witnesses. “Oh yeah, they came in here,” Hard Rock Hotel waitress Haley White spoke while tucking a strand of hair behind her right ear. “I knew they were definitely up to something. You could tell it.” The next to appear was Kevin’s friend of uncertain gender. “That one… the round one,” the large black man in a blonde bobbed wig and sparkly t-shirt that read “nasty” in purple letters said with a heavy lisp. “He tried to get me to be a part of it.” “Great!” Chuck said sarcastically exasperated. “This is just great.” “Terry, turn that off,” Kevin directed. “Here is phase two. The best place to hide is often in the open. It’s like that book about the letter where the guy hides it with a bunch of other letters but the cops tear apart his house looking for a hiding place. Some French book. Can’t remember the name. Had to read it in college.” “Hide out in the open?” Chuck asked with heavy doubt. “Our faces are all over the media. We can’t hide out in the open.” Chuck shook his head as he finished pulling the leg of his Wranglers over his black roper style boot. “Yes we can,” Kevin responded with a sinaster look. “And you are the one that is going to make it happen.” “Me? How?” “This town is crawling with cops, yes. But, it’s also crawling with cowboys. Every single one of them looks the same. I thought hockey was the sole remaining sport for middle-sized white guys, but I think I found another one. All we have to do is get us some cowboy gear, pull


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our hats down low and sail under the radar. We’ll look just like the other ten thousand in town this week. Get over to that Cowboy Christmas thing you won’t shut up about and get us some stuff. We don’t know anything about what we need. Chuck felt a pulse of heat run the length of his spine and lightly shook his head. “Come on Chuck. It’s all we’ve got unless you have something better,” Kevin coaxed. Chuck knew this was probably as good of an idea as anything. But, it was far more risk than he had ever dared. “You already look like one of them. Just get a big black hat. “Fine. Let’s get some money together. It’s not going to be cheap. I’ll need at least a grand,” Chuck told the others starting to feel queasy. Each fished for his wallet, and tossed rolls of bills on the bed. The minutes grinded as Chuck straightened the money and started taking down sizes. He would have to be as inconspicuous as possible, yet had quite a chore in trying to rustle up all of these outfits for three very differently shaped men. “Give me some sizes,” Chuck instructed as he grabbed one of the hotel’s pens and note pads. “Shirt, waste, inseam, hat, and boot.” After jotting down some sizes, Chuck warned, “I can’t guarantee anything on the boots. Boots fit funny. Anybody got real wide feet? The ones I get you might kill your feet but that’s the risk we have to face.” “Triple E’s,” Kevin said. “Get them as wide as possible. My feet are damn near square.”


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As Chuck finished up the formalities he was noticing a much easier feeling in his stomach. He almost felt guilty to not only be running from the law, but not to be terrified about it anymore. The only consolation was the fact that these four had absolutely nothing to do with the robbery and that somehow they would prove that to the rest of the world. “Alright, here I go,” Chuck said as he tried to control his body’s adrenaline string. He threw on a dirty baseball cap with the National Finals Rodeo logo on it, ripped a long strip of beef jerkey and put it in his mouth like a pinch of Copenhagen. “Proof right there,” Kevin said with a pointing gesture toward Chuck. “You look just like every other one of those rodeo people. Now go get us ours.” “I’ll be back as quick as I can. I’ll try…” As Chuck was about to finish his sentence he shouted, “No!” and dove on the bed to knock Terry’s cell phone from his hand. “What are you doing?” Terry snapped. “No, what are you doing?” Chuck growled back. “Playing a game on it. Easy man. Just solitaire.” “If you even turn that thing on and it gets a signal, we’re cooked,” Chuck explained as he began to get up from the bed. They have people monitoring everything, cell phones, credit cards, email. We can’t tip our hats one bit. Come on and be smart now.” “Yeah, when we get out of here we can’t even use a players’ club in a machine or a computer somewhere will locate us,” Kevin added. “Like we’re going to gambling?” Terry shook his head.


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“Well, we might have to,” Bill said as he looked in his wallet at his dwindled bank roll. “I didn’t plan on dropping $300 on western wear. This had better work. Does anybody have any other ideas?” “Not aside from going incognito amongst the homeless downtown. That was my only other idea,” Kevin explained. “We might end up there anyways,” Chuck added. “If I am going to do this I better go. I haven’t figured out how I am going to get down there. I’ll figure out something. Okay, again, nobody do anything stupid. Chuck felt almost naked as he snuck from the hotel room, out into the hallway, and down to the bank of elevators. The jeans, boots, and rodeo hat did give him a sense of cover as he stepped into the elevator already stuffed with men and women in similar attire. Chuck made sure not to make eye contact with anyone and stared at the floor. He still felt like every eye was upon him as the elevator descended toward the casino. At every floor, more and more people crammed into the car and Chuck inched further back into the crowd. After what seemed an eternity, the elevator doors opened to the jangling of slot machines and typical midday casino noises. Chuck directed his eyes downward, hoping to give as few people as possible direct looks at his face. Luckily for him, he reasoned, few people playing in the casinos or vacationing in Las Vegas spend much time watching television. Maybe, just maybe they weren’t as big of celebrities as they seemed. That notion was quickly tested and put to rest. One big paw grabbed Chuck’s right shoulder while another hand reached from behind for Chuck’s left shoulder. Chuck felt instantly nauseous, for he


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knew that his short-lived life as a fugitive was about to end. At least this whole ordeal would be over. “Chuck Fagan, you crooked-ass son of a bitch.” The voice was oddly familiar, from somewhere in the past. Chuck turned expecting to see uniformed guards or police officers but found himself face to face with two tall cowboys that looked like they could be identical twins. They weren’t though, just cousins. Rusty and Rebel Hutchins were two of most certifiably crazy people Chuck had ever known. He had grown up in Arizona with them, well at least in the same town. The Hutchins were from one of the richest cotton growing families in the Casa Grande area. They had more money than anyone at Union High School could spend. Their fathers were brothers and had made a fortune by selling off poorly producing cotton land for strip malls, apartment complexes, and sub divisions. Rusty and Rebel were classic examples of what happens to people who have more toys than sense. Each was a pretty good athlete, but they were constantly injured from spills on ATV’s or the pursuit of their own rodeo dreams. When they were all in junior high school, Chuck had witnessed one such wounding at Rusty’s house on the side of Hutchins Mountain. Rusty’s dad had bought him a new gokart engine and was in the process of swapping it with the old engine. The job was about half way done, leaving the go-kart with no power source. That didn’t stop Rusty and Rebel though. They grabbed a water ski tow rope and tied it to the back of a big Honda threewheeler. As one cousin drove the ATV the other held onto the rope while sitting in the go-kart. After a couple trials, the Hutchins just couldn’t get the go-kart to follow right. So, they decided to let gravity


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do its work. Rusty hopped in the driver’s seat while Rebel climbed on the frame behind him where the motor would normally sit. Chuck gave them a push and soon they were off down a steep winding driveway that would rival the start of most Olympic bobsled tracks. All was going well until the g-forces from a sharp left turn got to be too much for Rebel. As he tried to catch himself, Rebel sat square down on the rear axel’s sprocket. He may as well have sat on a circular saw. The yelp Rebel gave rang off the mountain like an air-raid siren. He rolled off to the side of the driveway, Levis shredded but laughing uncontrollably through it all. That ride got Rebel a dozen stitches in his left cheek, but cost him the rest of that year’s football season. As an effort to keep their sons out of trouble, Rebel and Rusty’s dads talked some rancher friends into teaching the boys how to ride and rope. The cousins were hooked the first time they sat in a saddle and had gotten pretty good at a bundle of rodeo disciplines. They rode wild bucking broncos in the saddle and bareback—probably a lot safe than gravity driven go-karts. They tried their hands at bull riding, but were too tall and lengthy to avoid getting cracked like a whip every time the big beast jumped and turned. Team roping turned out to be the cousins’ most successful pursuits. They had the best bred roping horses money could buy and gifted athletic ability. Although they weren’t twins, let alone brothers, the two had an almost telepathic mental connection. One always knew what the other was thinking and where he was going to be with his horse. Although quite intelligent, academics weren’t where the Hutchins attention focused very often. That got in the way of having a good time far too often. After the inconvenience of high school was put


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aside, all of the cousins’ resources, which were vast, went into perfecting their rodeo skills and having fun. Although they were legendary partiers, the two never let it interfere with their dreams of winning gold buckles in the rodeo arena. “Oh my God,” Chuck said while turning around to face his two old friends. “Shhhhh.” The three stepped aside and Chuck was careful to use the Hutchins as camouflage in the crowd. “What are you guys doing here?” Chuck asked as felt the clock ticking on his mission to acquire the necessary disguises. “Finals man. We made the finals.” Rusty answered with the big grin that had been his trademark as a kid. “Question is ‘What are you doing here?’ You better get all of that money out of town. Man Chuck, you wouldn’t even come to our parties because you were scared to get in trouble in high school. Now you’re robbing casinos?” “No, no!” Chuck exclaimed through a whisper. “We got framed. Big time. We’re just trying to buy some time. Let’s walk.” The three started toward a more secluded area near the Carnival Court. “I have to get a bunch of stuff for the others,” Chuck continued to whisper. “Then we have to figure a way out of here. I have to get to Cowboy Christmas first.” “Let’s go. We’ll get y’all out of here,” Rusty said nodding with the same gleam he’d had moments before the doomed go-kart ride. “Let’s get in the truck.”


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Chapter 15 “It’s surreal, truly surreal. I can’t believe we are sitting here watching the entire country talk about us. What is even weirder is the fact that the whole world believes we committed this huge crime when we know we didn’t do it. It’s like it’s millions versus four. The thing that freaks me out is the fact that my mind will even begin to question itself. For a split second I start to wonder, Did we do this, but we can’t

remember it? It is really bizarre,” Bill Parsons quietly spoke as Kevin Stewart flipped through the news channels on the hotel room’s television. “I’ve thought the exact same thing,” confided Terry. “My mind has just been racing trying to figure this mess out. I have come to the conclusion that there is no way to figure it out. We’ve been railroaded. Period.” “Railroaded is exactly what we’ve been,” added Kevin. “But by who? Why would somebody pick us to frame? Thirty-six million people come to this city every year and they pick us. That is what boggles my mind. We are so stuck. We don’t know who we can trust. Are the cops in on it? Was that greaseball from the plane who kept following us in on it? Even if he was, who did he work for? That guy is dead and we might as well be.” “I know whom we can trust,” spoke Terry as Kevin made another loop of channels. “They’re just two thousand miles away. I keep trying to console myself a little knowing that hopefully the people I hold the dearest still believe we are not involved in this thing in any way.”


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“Yep, I keep telling myself the same thing,” Bill said as his face carried the same look of bewilderment shared by the other two in the room. “Well the media sure isn’t helping our cause at all. I just wished there was a way we could tell people back home that we are okay and to reassure them that we are completely innocent. But, the second we contact somebody, the cops will know our exact location and whoever we talk to will be roped in as well.” “We just received word that Las Vegas Police are ready to deliver another statement,” one of the pretty, young, blonde talking heads on one the national networks spoke as Kevin paused his constant channel flipping. “We take you live to reporter Trey Allen who is now downtown where we understand Sheriff Walter Haygood will be delivering the latest on the investigation and the hunt for four Michigan teachers and the estimated 900 thousand dollars they allegedly nabbed from the Excalibur casino last night. “That’s right Cassie,” an enthusiastic Trey Allen spoke. “We are awaiting a statement from the Sheriff who has informed the press that he will be handling all further announcements. Not only has more evidence incriminating the four suspects come to light but there is a developing story about political in-fighting amongst the department brass. It seems that many within Metro and the other agencies working this case felt spokesman Karl Ashe was premature in his announcement of the four suspects this morning. Inside sources with the department have told CNN that Ashe’s statements were viewed as grandstanding and many fear he may have actually disrupted the hunt for the fugitives by tipping them off. The announcements came shortly


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before an unsuccessful raid on the suspect’s room at the Rio hotel and casino this morning. The Sheriff is coming to the podium now.” “Thank you for coming today. Surprisingly, this case seems to have grasped the national spotlight,” spoke a very calm and articulate Walt Haygood. The drawl and cowboy mentality had easily shifted into the Ivy League polish he had attained while spending four years away from the family ranch studying for his degree in pre-law at Columbia. “The attention is both an aid and a hindrance to this ongoing investigation,” continued the Sheriff. “We believe the four suspects may have been tipped off by premature announcements that were made by our department. As Sheriff, I am ultimately responsible for the conduct of this entire department. For that I apologize. Mr. Ashe’s statements were unauthorized. We are just lucky that the evidence continues to confirm that subjects he named are most likely those responsible for these crimes.” These were the qualities that had made Walt Haygood such an appealing choice for the area’s top lawman. He was one of the locals. He could ride and rope. He drove a big truck. But, he was always a very “stand-up” individual. Here he was shouldering all of the blame for a departmental mistake and he loved every minute of it. Any heat would easily roll off his back by focusing on his overly ambitious political opponent. He would get old Karl Ashe by exposing his screwup for more than what it really was. Although still a bit of a “good ole boy” the poise and intellect that Haygood displayed gave the people of Clark County a real sense of security. This wasn’t just some old-west lawman. Haygood really knew what he was doing.


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“But, the real issue at hand is the where-abouts of the four men,” he continued. “After questioning personnel at the Silverton, we have learned that the suspects are most likely traveling in a large motorhome or other recreational vehicle. We believe this vehicle provided their escape from the Silverton moments before the van exploded from a crude timing device recovered by our technicians. The motorhome had been registered in the campground under a false name but we have all available resources here and in neighboring state searching for the vehicle. I have provided the press with bulletins detailing the RV and its license plates. I will ask them to publish and pass that information to the general public. We have also recovered a small portion of the money that we have confirmed was taken from the Excalibur last night. It was found in the suspect’s hotel room at the Rio in a sachel under the sink. “ “Money under the sink?” exclaimed Terry as he bolted up from the bed on which he had been sitting. “Money under the sink?” “The plumber,” muttered Kevin as he nervously spat sunflower seed shells into an empty water bottle. “This morning. He was one of them. He must’ve planted it.” The rest of Haygood’s statement was just repetition. He stressed that the teachers were likely armed and dangerous. Haygood yielded the podium to FBI Agent Gonzalez who went on to allude to some of the findings on the computers back in Michigan. “Evidence of extensive research into Las Vegas, including several maps of the crime scene, casino floor plans, and even aerial photos of the Las Vegas Boulevard-Tropicana Avenue block where the Excalibur is located was recovered from the school computer of


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Mr. Fagan,” explained the former football star. “We have also attained warrants and agents are in the process of searching the homes of the four subjects.” The thought of their families having to endure the invasion of federal officers ate through the stomachs of Terry and Bill as they sat sadly in their finagled hotel room. “I already feel completely helpless on my own. I feel trapped out here,” a dejected Terry spoke as he stared at the floor. “But I feel even more helpless not being able to do anything to protect Allison and the kids from all of the fallout I know is raining down on them right now.” Bill glanced at the clock. Chuck had been gone close to an hour and a half. What if Chuck never comes back? What if somebody with

Harrah’s gets suspicious? What if the kid without the Accutane prescription wonders where the performers are? All of these thoughts began to swim through Bill’s head as he too felt the same helplessness of which Terry had just spoken. The first thought quickly became a moot point as a breathless Chuck Fagan burst through the door with arms loaded and a wild looking character following close on his right hip also buried in shopping bags and boxes. “Thank God you’re back,” said Kevin as he jumped to shut the door behind the two. “Who the hell is that?” “Yeah,” joined Bill. “Who the hell are you?” “Rusty Hutchins,” answered the tall team roper. “I went to high school with your boy Chuck here. We’re going to get you fellas out of Vegas tonight.” “What?” Terry yelped.


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“Yeah. We have a plan, but we have to get changed and get out of here quickly,” urged Chuck as he started throwing articles of western clothing to each of the others. “A plan? Really?” Bill said with doubt in his voice. “Yeah, yeah But get dressed first. We have to be mobile in ten minutes tops,” responded Chuck as he sorted through the bags and boxes while tossing hats and shirts to their new owners. Within minutes the three had transformed themselves into the masses of cowboys. The last step to the process was putting on the big shiny belt buckles. Rusty had six thrown behind the front seat of his big dually diesel pick up. He had won so many that he was quite proud to donate these three to the adventure. “Alright, you guys don’t look half bad. Bill pull that hat down a little bit in front,” Chuck instructed like a sergeant readying his battalion for a big mission. Kevin had engineered the last successful operation, but now it was Chuck’s turn. “Here’s the plan. Kevin made a good point about blending with the masses. We are headed back to the Gold Coast. That is the number one rodeo hangout right now and will provide the most cover. Besides Rusty here and his cousin Rebel have a room over there because they’re in the rodeo. I played football with both of these guys and we know we can trust them. We have to stay split up though until we get to the Gold Coast. Terry you’re going with Rusty. Bill, you’re riding with Rebel who’s downstairs to the Orleans Hotel. Then you’re hopping the free shuttle from the Orleans back to the Gold Coast. Kevin, you and I are going up the block to the Barbary Coast casino then jumping the free shuttle back to the Gold


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Coast. Rusty and Terry will get to room 529 first. We each will nonchalantly make our way up there. Everybody understand?” Chuck received small nods from the others, but a puzzled Bill asked, “You said we’re getting out of here tonight. How does this get us out of here tonight?” “That’s where these guys come in,” explained Chuck as he nodded in Rusty’s direction. “We are going to rendezvous at the Thomas and Mack Center tonight during the rodeo. Rusty and Rebel are going to take us in their horse trailer north into Utah. A small plane will pick us up once we get far enough out in the sticks at an old ranch these guys know. That will take us into a little town where there will be a car waiting for us to drive home.” Shocked was the best way to describe the faces of Bill, Terry, and Kevin. “And you guys just came up with this idea while shopping?” stammered Bill. “Yeah, why? You don’t think it will work?” asked Chuck. “Work? Work? Sure it will work. Jesus Christ Chuck. This is some serious shit we are talking about now,” an equally surprised Kevin answered. His dealings with the oily faced kid at the desk were nothing compared to what Chuck had just brokered in the last ninety minutes. “It’s amazing what cell phones can do for you,” Rusty excitedly joined the conservation. “Besides when I told my buddy with the plane who we were dealing with, he couldn’t wait to have a little fun.”


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“Alright now let’s be cool about getting out of here,” coached Chuck. “Nice and slow. Terry, you and Bill go with Rusty. Everybody knows the plan right? Room 529. Good luck everybody.” One by one each member of the group easily walked to their stations. Going to Las Vegas had been thrill enough for these four men, but to be planning a secret escape under the cover of darkness to awaiting planes was ratcheting up the level of risk into realms comparable only to something they might have rented at the local Blockbuster. Terry and Bill split off with their assigned Hutchins cousin and began making their ways to the Gold Coast, Bill via the Orleans. Kevin and Chuck had to squint as they stepped out of the front doors of Harrah’s and into the bright midday sun of the Strip. Their pick up point at the Barbary Coast casino was a couple of blocks to the south. Neither tried to make much eye contact with the slough of on coming pedestrians and talked quietly between themselves. “How the Hell did you run into those guy?” Kevin asked while trying to get used to the tight boots and the stiffness of his new jeans. “They came up from behind me after I got out of the elevator. They scared the crap out of me. I thought we were fried. I know I can trust them and they have serious bankroll for anything we might need. But, I still feel a little guilty about getting anybody else hurt because

we’re getting screwed.” “How come you sent Terry and Bill with those guys?” “Terry is obviously the most rattled. Rusty will take good care of him, might even loosen him up a bit. I want Terry exposed as little as possible. Bill just doesn’t know his way around Vegas much. Rebel will


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help him. We have the riskiest connection, but I’d much rather go this route than have one of those two wind up missing.” “So what’s the plan when we leave the Gold Coast?” Kevin asked a bit too loudly for Chuck’s taste. “Shh,” elbowed Chuck. “Rusty and Rebel are bringing up some food. They have the run of the place anyway because the rodeo puts them up there for the week. We hang out and I WILL TELL YOU THERE.” Kevin and Chuck sped up their pace as they saw the shuttle that runs between all of the Coast resorts pulling up to its station on the corner of the Strip and Flamingo Road alongside the Barbary Coast. By the time the two reached the waiting shuttle bus, there were already two passengers waiting, a young couple whose attire suggested they were in town for the rodeo as well. As Chuck stepped onto the bus, he tugged at the front of the black felt Resistol hat that he now wore. While looking down at the floor and aisle of the little bus, Chuck slapped a five dollar bill on the driver’s console, patted the large woman driving on the back and said, “Let’s go honey. Let’s make it quick.” Kevin hardly made it through the door before Stacey from West Virginia, that’s what her nametag said, had her big tipper and the other passengers headed west toward the temporary safe-house. Terry had been the first to arrive and was nearing the bottom of a glass of Jack Daniels and Coke when Kevin and Chuck arrived at the new hideout. Rusty poured glasses for the two newest arrivals as everyone sat around nervously waiting for Bill and Rebel. No telling how long that could take. As they waited, Rusty and the three teachers


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figured taking separate cabs to the Thomas and Mack Center tonight for the rendezvous was probably the best way not to get noticed as a group, but anytime the group got split up, there was always the risk of one of them getting nabbed and the others not knowing it. Rusty picked up his cell phone and began dialing the number of his cousin Rebel. “Where are you?” Rusty snapped. “Lost? How did you get lost? Well screw that then. You’ve been gone way too long. Get back here. Huhh? Can’t you see the Rio or Palms? Just drive in that direction and then find Flamingo. Hurry up.” “What happened to them?” Kevin asked with a look of worry. “They couldn’t find the Orleans and have been driving around looking for it. They should be back here any minute,” answered Rusty. “The whole point of them going over there was so we wouldn’t get here at the same time. Now we should be fine,” added Chuck while Kevin flipped on the television. There didn’t seem to be much new to the their story. The networks were back to regular programming and the big all news channels were focusing on the results of trading on Wall Street. That pesky crawl that all of the stations had invoked after September 11 was the only mention of the Michigan teachers. It was nearing late afternoon and the sun was beginning to set on Las Vegas. Nighttime comes early to this the extreme eastern edge of the Pacific time zone, a formula that seems to work well for Glitter Gulch and the land of neon. Darkness it seemed would provide added cover if this run through the desert at night was to really happen.


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It only took Rebel and Bill about two minutes to arrive at the room. At least this step of the process had worked. It was detail time now that everyone was safely at the Gold Coast. “Here we go gentlemen,” Chuck began. He couldn’t help but feel like Frank Sinatra and George Clooney as they played the role of Danny Ocean and laid out the operation plans in both the classic and remake of the Vegas heist film Ocean’s 11. “We meet at the back stable behind the Thomas and Mack Center at precisely 8:55. That is just after the night’s session of the rodeo ends. There will be a lot of activity and enough traffic for us to blend with the other rigs going in and out. We stash ourselves in the living quarters area of the horse trailer. It’s not the safest place to ride, but at least its got beds and a couch. Is everybody with me so far?” There was no response just the exhausted gaze of three men who had been through an awful ordeal mentally and the two big grins from a couple of trust-fund cowboys. “Now, Rusty and Rebel,” Chuck continued. “You control everything from here on out. You are driving us to the ranch in Utah where the plane will be. It is all in your hands. Are you sure your man the pilot will come through? How much do we have to worry about being detected? What about DEA surveillance?” “The way I figure,” said Rusty as he stood up from the corner chair. “There are actually quite a few small planes in and out of where we are headed. The government works nearby on a big field of fossils they discovered and oil companies are doing a ton of scouting in the area. Besides the local ranches are all owned by darn near billionaires so there are small planes in the air all of the time. Our partner goes in


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and out of there about every other week on some business or other so he doesn’t even raise an eyebrow any more.” “Good, good, good,” smiled Kevin. “Sounds like quite the adventure. I just wish I was watching it with a beer and nachos in my basement instead of starring in it.” “Alright. Let’s get you guys some grub,” spoke Rebel for the first time since returning. “Then we are going to take off and square up some loose ends before this all goes down. Let’s go Russ.” Nobody said a single word for a very long time. There were no words that could do justice to the way four lives in Vegas and numerous others across the country had been turned upside down during the last eight or ten hours. What were the parents of these men going through right now? There was no telling how Riverton was reacting to the news. Sheer chaos was probably the best way to describe the scene back home. Chuck had horrible visions of angry mobs led by the likes of Susan Vander Slice storming his family’s little farm with giant signs reading “Heathen” and “Gambling Hurts Children”. About 15 minutes later the cousins popped in and out of the hotel room with two trays of cheeseburgers, fries, and onion rings from Terrible Mike’s, the fast food outlet in the casino. This was hardly the food to be putting into empty queasy stomachs, but it was nourishment and these big eaters hadn’t had anything since breakfast. Poor Chuck didn’t even get that luxury, having lost his breakfast at the first announcement of trouble. With two and a half hours to kill, there was little to do except continually go over and over the escape plan. It seemed the more they


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talked about it, the less it helped the situation. But when they sat there doing nothing they felt they should be working on the getaway. It was painfully clear that no one in the room was even remotely suited for a life of crime. This HAD to work, it just had to work. 15B Watching the news through the day had been as equally excruciating, but all felt it was crucial to know the latest. The KVBC anchor who had revealed the identity of Mullethead and the tragic details of his death was back and leading off the evening news with the story that had captivated the masses. Victor Miramonte led with a three minute recap of the information that had played throughout the day and then yielded to his middle-aged blonde co-anchor who segued to a face in the split-screen the four Riverton teachers found very familiar. “Rachel Ruiz joins us from our Grand Rapids, Michigan affiliate WOOD TV with the very latest from the home of the four alleged robbery suspects,” the Vegas newswoman began. “Rachel what can you tell us about progress law enforcement is making on your end?” “Thank you Heather and Victor,” spoke the reporter in front of the Riverton High School lighted marquee on M 89 in downtown Riverton. “Today was a very chaotic day for the people of this very small and usually quiet West Michigan town. News that four of their most respected community members had committed such a crime sent a shockwave through the school behind me. Administrators have declined to make any public comments other than the prepared


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statement read earlier, but told me off camera that their biggest challenge today was to keep students and staff as calm as possible.” Ruiz continued to give details of the crazy school day, but what Chuck and the others wanted to know about the most was how their families were handling the stress. Finally the focus of the tiny Hispanic reporter with long straight hair that --had evoked a special liking by Kevin-- switched to the information they were eagerly awaiting. “Suspect Bill Parson’s brother is an attorney in Grand Rapids and he offered a statement late this afternoon.” A tape rolled of Brian flanked by Bill’s wife, son, daughter and nephew Scott. “We are absolutely certain that a terrible, terrible, mistake has been made in the accusation of Bill Parson in this crime,” Brian spoke with tremendous poise that countered the obvious distress being felt by the rest of the family. “Bill is a wonderful father, church leader, and upstanding citizen. We pray for Bill’s safety as well as that of Chuck Fagan, Terry Van Eck, and Kevin Stewart. These are also all very fine men and important parts of this community.” After Brian finished, Sarah Parson stepped forward and made a plea to Bill and the others to surrender to police and to let their innocence be proven. The camera refocused on the Grand Rapids reporter as she introduced a quick video montage of items being removed from the home of Terry and Chuck. There was also a snippet of Allison Van Eck driving the family mini-van into their attached garage and a clip of Chuck’s wife Kelly pushing a television camera aside as she tried to maneuver her big pick-up down their driveway lined with half a dozen news crews.


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As the shot switched back to Ruiz, she wrapped up her segment, “We do know that the families of these four men have gathered at the Parson home and are currently meeting with attorneys, clergy, and other supportive friends of the families. From WOOD TV, this is Rachel Ruiz. Heather and Victor back to you.” “Rachel Ruiz reporting from Riverton, Michigan. Thank you,” Miramonte resumed his anchor duties. “KVBS has also learned that investigators from this case are working with MGM Mirage officials in an attempt to figure out why forty-six regular employees failed to show up for their shifts at the Excalibur last night. What has management most puzzled is the fact that not one of the employees called the automated substitute line to inform the casino that they would not be coming to work. The missing workers left the casino extremely shorthanded last night with some workers and members of management performing sometimes as many as three different jobs for the first time. The robbery came shortly after the previous full shift had just left and the piece-meal crew was attempting cover all areas of operation. The big question police and executives at the Excalibur want to know is if this was in some way tied to the robbery. Officials from the gaming resort conglomerate that operates several Vegas properties concede that the casino was extremely vulnerable at this time. Police will look to see if this was an organized type of sick-out or if it was masterminded as a way to increase the odds of pulling off the heist last night.” “This thing just gets bigger and bigger,” Bill spoke. His eyes had welled-up with tears after hearing his wife and seeing his family on the


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front steps of his home. “I know they want us to give ourselves up, but I don’t see how we can.” “Either way we are going to have to face this thing sometime,” conceded Chuck. “I just want to do it on some friendlier ground, at least some other place than Vegas. I would gladly take the confines of the Allegan County Jail over the freakshow we would have to endure locked up here. Besides we all know Sheriff Koops would make sure we got a square deal. He still owes me for all of the hay I helped him put up for his daughters’ horses. I don’t want to spend Christmas out here anyway. I just want to get home, kiss my wife, and hug my little boy.” “I have been working really hard to avoid thinking much about Christmas,” Terry dejectedly added. “Our families are heads and shoulders the most important things in our lives and it just absolutely kills me to be away from them right now. I am never coming back to this damn place again. I guess Vander Slice was right!” “Well guys, I don’t have much family,” Kevin spoke quietly while some local stories ran on the news program. “But, I can’t begin to imagine how much you must be needing them right now. I just wonder how our parents are handling this.” “Oh God,” Chuck exclaimed with exasperation. “I hadn’t even thought about that. I bet my old man has come completely unglued. I bet he’s on a plane up here already.” Chuck’s family had left the Midwest for new job opportunities when he was little. His mom and dad had stayed, but Chuck had to get back to someplace greener and with more water. Chuck’s dad Hank was a great father but a real takecharge kind of guy—even when the situation was completely beyond


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his control. Being only an hour away on the cheap air shuttles that flew out of Phoenix, Chuck knew Hank soon would hit the ground ready to solve this mystery all by himself. He might just be a retired gym teacher and football coach, but if something needed straightened out or fixed, all anybody had to do was call Hank Fagan. Chuck chuckled to himself a little as he imagined his dad taking on the feds, local law enforcement, and the casinos trying to prove his son’s innocence. As clock eased near 8:15, one by one the teachers made their breaks for the Thomas and Mack Center. All connections were made easily and the loose of caravan of cabs from the Gold Coast delivered the fugitives to their rendezvous point at the stables. Chuck and the gang hung close together while trying to avoid drawing any special attention to themselves. They wound through the area filled with competitors who were still focused on tonight’s performance and soon figured out that determining which of the truck and trailer rigs belonged to the Hutchins would be more difficult than they had thought. There must have been easily one hundred outfits and the dim parking lot conditions made it all the more difficult. Every time they found the truck they believed they were looking for, it turned out to be matched with the wrong trailer. It took the teachers at least twenty minutes to locate the big Featherlite trailer and crew cab truck. Together the rig cost more than Chuck, Terry, or Bill had paid for their homes. The trailer slept six very comfortably. Chuck let a huge sigh of relief knowing he was minutes away from leaving Las Vegas for good. The diesel engine idled in the Nevada coolness set to transform the current most wanted men in the


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West back to the tranquility of Riverton. Chuck knocked solidly on the trailer door while the other three stood close by. Again Chuck rapped on the door. There was no response so he jiggled the handle a little. Before entering, he took a step backward and double-checked the name written above the trailer’s goose-neck front. “Hutchins Rodeo Co.,” it read in black script. This was definitely the vehicle. Chuck jiggled the handle again and pulled the door open. He popped his head inside and looked. There was no sign of anyone so he and the other three climbed into the rig and found their bags already stowed. Rusty had thought they would look less conspicuous if they weren’t carrying luggage. “Where the hell are they?” Kevin asked as he took a seat at the dinette table near the little kitchen. “I don’t know,” replied Terry. “Everything looks ready to go.” Bill had been nosing around admiring the digs when with great surprise he yelped, “Here’s one…and…uh…he has a friend.” The other men rushed to the master bedroom door to see a passed out Rebel Hutchins laying flat on his back with a mostly empty bottle of Wild Turkey and a naked blonde passed out face-down on top of him. “Great! Just great,” Chuck angrily spat. “Rusty had better be doing better than this one.” “Well, I’d have to say he was doing better than Rebel,” Bill shook his head while peering into an adjacent sleeping area. Rusty lay passed-out like his cousin, with some sort of bottle with him. But, he was wearing his cowboy hat still and had not one, but two naked girls piled atop of him.


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The elation of being nearly out of Vegas turned quickly to deep, deep despair as guts clenched and all energy seemed to be sucked from the collective bodies of the Riverton men. “Nice job Chuck!” Kevin snapped. “Oh yeah, we can trust these guys. They will help us,” he mocked. “Now we’re screwed. No ride and now no room. We have nowhere to go no. Hell, let’s go to the cops. Bet we could find one real close.” “I can’t uh. I can’t believe that,” Chuck stammered from exhaustion. “Chuck it’s not your fault. It all looked like a great plan,” Bill countered. “I guess the ‘loose ends’ these boys were talking about sealed our fate, at least for a while. Do you have any idea where that ranch is?” “No,” was all Chuck could say in disappointment. “Well, let’s go,” Terry quietly said. “Where are we going? We don’t even have a room now.” a Kevin who was growing angrier arugued. “Oh yes we do,” Terry responded with what almost looked like a smile. With a careful step, Terry slid into the small room where Rebel and his girlfriend remained comatose. He located the cowboy’s Wranglers and pulled out a worn and weathered wallet, desperately searching for something. He had no luck in his search and soon Terry was sliding into th room where Rusty had succumbed to “too much excitement”. He soon found another wallet and pulled from it a plastic card, the key to the room back at the Gold Coast. Terry flipped the


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wallet back to the jeans on the floor, but not before grabbing close to eighty dollars. “It’s the least they could do for us,” he smiled. Somehow Terry seemed the least affected by this turn of events and had stepped up to take charge of the group for the time being. It was probably because his psyche had been the numbest the longest. He just seemed cold and completely unfeeling. “I don’t know where we go from there, but let’s grab a hotel shuttle.” Spoke Terry as he handed luggage to the appropriate party. “Let’s go,” he urged. The group decided that at this point in their careers on the run they could risk all riding together. They sat silently on the small bus and soon were under the canopy back at the Gold Coast. No one said a word as the four men filed up the stairs to an elevator and then down the hall to the familiar room that seemed more like a prison cell right now. Terry slid the card in the door, and walked toward the dresser lamp in the completely pitch black room. As he twisted the switch and the room filled with light, a shadowed figure from the corner chair easily spoke, “Mr. Fagan, Mr. Stewart, Mr. Van Eck, and Mr. Stewart. Good to see you all again. It has been a long time. You do remember me don’t you?”


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Chapter 16 Earlier that evening, the citizens of Riverton had gathered for a public meeting. It was called by the school administration in association with and at the urging of several other smaller community organizations as a way to clear the air a bit and sort through what was quickly becoming an out of control situation. Half-truths and rumors had completely clouded the facts surrounding the astounding news coming out of Las Vegas. Over 1,500 people had packed the sanctuary at the Riverton 2nd Reformed Church, the largest public meeting area available. Many came out of curiosity, others to stand on an available soap box, but most were there because this was possibly the biggest thing to go down in the area since the nearby Hope College students had a big beer party busted in one of the local farmers’ fields. The news crews were there with baited breath looking for more sound bites, and what many expected these country folks to turn into a good old-fashioned witch trial. Only Riverton High football games drew crowds this large, or this loud. Waves of chit-chat rolled through the sanctuary and upper seating loft. There was a good dose of venom in the crowd and you could really feel it. Susan Vander Slice was there and bouncing from one news crew to the next. She was the only staff member who had broken ranks by commenting. Now, she was in high demand and loving every minute of it. Other teachers just walked by shaking their heads but knew this was typical Susan behavior. Other more vocal opinions were coming from Riverton Schools tax payers who chose to send their children to area parochial schools but especially those who


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opted for the newly opened North Oaklawn Christian Charter Academy. Exposure to such haughty criminals in the public schools was precisely why their children attended elsewhere. Of course only a minority was speaking for the whole body of people gathered. “Just listen to them,” one Holland Christian Schools mother remarked disgustedly to her husband after hearing another private school parent rail on the public schools. “This isn’t about where we send our kids. Those people make us all look bad. Anyway, her kid got kicked out of Riverton.” In all truth, most people didn’t know how to feel. They were still numb from the news. It was almost like the awkward gatherings after funerals where people make small talk about anything but the sadness they were all experiencing. When the controversy and fates of their four teachers was discussed most chose their words carefully, not that they didn’t want to make a stand for the teachers but that they didn’t feel like rocking the boat. They couldn’t yet believe this could really be happening, but every news outlet in America told them their neighbors were big time crooks. The uneasiness the subject brought upon them caused many to avoid it all together. Fathers recounted this year’s take from their soybean crops and expressed dread over the lack of snow and the possibility of that big Arctic Cat snowmobile sitting unused in their pole barns for another winter. The women of the crowd gossiped about upcoming events at their own respective churches and concern for the demands being put on their children by the local youth sports programs. Taylor and Scott Parsons were the only family members who chose to attend the meeting and they stayed out of direct view most of


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the time, saying they had no comment when approached and accepting the occasional consoling hug or handshake. They could hardly believe the way the loudmouths were going on and on with little fact behind haughty opinions. Then there was Vander Slice. Once the news crews left her alone, she proceeded to tell anyone within earshot about how her son Jason was doing so well that he was flying everyone to Key West and renting a villa to celebrate Christmas. Taylor and Scott hated that kid. He was the biggest cheat ever to go through Riverton High. Because they were roughly the same age, Susan had tried to organize play opportunities between the Parsons and Jason—that was until Taylor caught the youngest Vander Slice loading his pockets with Taylor’s Star Wars men. To this day, Taylor believes that a thorough search of the Vander Slice home would turn up a bunch of his missing Hot Wheels cars. At 7:15, Superintendent Carlton Fisher stepped to the pulpit and politely informed the crowd that the meeting would be starting in two minutes. Parents corralled their children and scooted for seats in the long pews. The church’s main sanctuary had been rebuilt five years ago and was large and airy with lightly colored walls and coordinating upholstery. State of the art audio and video systems rounded out the project that had been the crown jewel of area churches, well until Susan Vander Slice railroaded her church into redoing that restroom that rivaled only the spa at the Mirage back in Vegas for poshness. News crews from all over Michigan and the national cable networks horned their ways into a front row section that had been roped off for them as Fisher headed back to the microphone and the murmurs in the audience dimmed along with the main house lights as


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a lamp above the tall school administrator spotlighted him against a dimly lit backdrop. The fancy lighting system had come as a bonus when the adjacent egg farmer realized he needed some serious tax deductions and donated the system late last New Year’s Eve. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Fisher began while adjusting his volume level to the building’s amazing acoustics. “We find ourselves and our community faced with very troubling times. I am sure you are all aware of the accusations being made against four of our teachers and community members. The purpose for this meeting is to primarily set the record straight as to the events and known facts of the case. There will be a short briefing from involved authorities, an explanation of where the district stands on the issue, and statements from a number of area leaders. There will be no audience commentary.” There was a low groan that rumbled from those hoping they would have a chance to tell their neighbors, and of course the waiting cameras what an outrage this all was and how their community would never stand for such characters living among them while teaching their children. Fisher yielded the microphone to an FBI agent who had been involved with investigating evidence from the four suspects’ homes and classrooms here in Michigan. It was a bare bones speech, basically recounting statements that Haygood and Gonzalez had given previously. He highlighted the video tape, eye witness accounts, the identification badge, the membership card, and the cash found in the room. He highlighted the credit card records that linked the vehicles but did stress that this was an ongoing investigation with many pieces of the puzzle still waiting to be processed. Nonetheless the fact that


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the four had seemed to vanish was troubling to authorities. The young agent played to the cameras while urging all in attendance to please report any contact that might be attempted by the fugitives. He finished by warning that any assistance given to Chuck and the rest would be considered aiding and abetting the crimes. The sobering mood continued as Fisher returned to the microphone and read a very canned, very stale statement about disappointment from the president of the school board. He had been unable to attend this meeting because he was away on business in Florida. His small machine shop had struck a deal with a Miami based firm that built equipment needed in the process of quickly unloading and reloading cruise ships for their next voyage. The board president had been making several trips to Florida recently and there were all kinds of speculatory rumors about what he might be doing down in the sunshine state. When the superintendent had finished the letter, he introduced Colton Barnes, current chair of the Greater Riverton Chamber of Commerce—really a small conglomerate of business owners whose name made them sound like a much, much larger group than what they actually were. “These are troubling, troubling, moments in the storied history of our fine community,” the round bespectacled man spoke as if he were Winston Churchill addressing his fellow Britons in the darkest days of World War Two. The owner of a small furniture store on the town’s tiny main street resembled a modern Ben Franklin and often conducted himself as if he too shared the same importance as the American forefather of similar build. “Like tarnish on fine silver, the appearance


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our fair town has been soiled and portrayed as both home to ruthless criminal and amoral educator who abuses the public’s trust to fill their own pockets amongst the grime of greed. But, we the fine citizens of Riverton must rise up and polish away the tarnish to reveal once again a community which shines a sparkling example of morality and neighborliness.” Before Colton Barnes was half-way done, eyes began to roll in the crowd and whispers floated about how somebody needed to get this blowhard out of the spotlight. If there was one person in that whole church who was most in love with the sound of his own voice, it was the large man who currently held the microphone. He finally ended his epic with some thick bundle of vocabulary words that most in the crowd had forgotten the meaning of ten minutes after that quiz in ninth grade English class. The audience had been nearly lulled to sleep and more than a few were beginning to look at their watches wondering what they might be missing on television. This meeting sure was not turning out the way they thought it would. Where was the excitement in listening to these people speak? Broadcasters were still holding their collective breath, waiting for something they could use. So far all they had gotten was a Lazy Boy salesman trying to get everyone to come load up their living rooms in America’s newest beacon of hope—Riverton, a city on a hill. Charles Bailey, the president of the Rotary Club spoke next and picked up where Barnes had left off by urging people to shake off the bad wrap being given by the nation’s media. Tourism is a huge industry in this part of Michigan and any bad press might send visitors


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to other locales. With every word the pace and intensity of Bailey’s speech continued to increase. He was hitting all of the hot-button topics and soon people were sitting up and rhythmically nodding with every word. Bailey was working this crowd like he hoped to work voters for another stint as Manlius Township commissioner. How dare these four men bring down with them the name of a great people who stood for all that was right in this country? How dare these four dupe so many people into giving them the responsibility of molding the minds of the town’s young? Charles Bailey had found the pulse of this group and was stroking all of the areas that had grown distracted and numb while listening to Ben Franklin. He could have sold just about anything to these people at that point in time. Some commented later that they were surprised the commissioner hadn’t made a call to arms, deputizing his own band of bounty hunters, ready to set course for the barren Nevada desert, and return victorious with the loathsome souls who had brought such trauma and heartache to such a town of truly righteous people. The emotions of the town of Riverton had been bouncing all over the place since hearing such mind-bending news. The same had been true about this meeting. No one really knew what to think. There was mistrust, there was confusion, and for a good many in the crowd at that moment, there was absolute rage. When Brandon Tompkins stepped to the microphone, he felt as if he was following Elvis or The Who on stage after they had just worked 60,000 people at Sheah Stadium into a frenzy. But, what happened over next twelve and a half minutes was a very grounding experience


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for all in attendance. Well, maybe not all. There were still a few stubborn knot-heads in the bunch and most of the kids had long since turned to figuring out if they would have a chance to squeeze in a quick session of Playstation 2 before being shuffled off to bed. Tompkins had asked Principal Tanis and Superintendent Fisher for an opportunity to speak very shortly after the meeting was announced. He was no politician or businessman, just one of the teachers at Riverton High School who was a close friend of all four men currently running from the law more than 2000 miles away. His voice was the quietest that evening, but for some reason it seemed to be the one that struck the most chords with the rest of those in attendance. The chemistry teacher in his early forties had been born and raised in this very community, had married a local girl and now was raising his three children just a mile and half from his boyhood home. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he stammered while trying to adjust to the lighting and large group focusing on him. “This definitely is unfamiliar territory for all us and we have all been trying to deal with this situation in our own ways. Such stress is undeniably hard on all of us. Over the past half day we have been awe struck, filled with doubt, and continually amazed. Dealing with an event like this actually wears us down both physically and mentally, whether we know it or not. When we begin to fatigue, we are more easily moved by suggestion, especially that which is tied to strong emotion. Tonight we have heard very emotional words persuading us to somehow regain an image that has been as Mr. Barnes called it ‘tarnished’. Although I do not argue with the fact that the world must be looking at all us with a judgmental


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eye, I would like to ask all of us to back things up a bit, take a great big deep breath, and calm down for just a second.” Mr. Tompkins took a deep breath himself, and sipped from a bottle of water he had brought to the microphone with him. “Sure our image is important,” he continued in a calming, conversational voice while stepping out from behind the pulpit with the wireless microphone. “But, having spent almost all of my forty some years in this area I have gotten increasingly annoyed at how a few people feel they must put on an air or show for the rest of the world. You all know the type of people I am talking about. There are those among us who talk the big game on all of the elementary school committees to show how involved they are only to be missing in action when there is real work to be done. Then there are those who look with a jaundiced eye at someone enjoying a glass of wine in public, only to run home to their bottle of Johnny Walker Red stashed out in the workshop. Putting on a show of moral superiority or trying to take charge of town events aren’t the qualities that have made all of us so proud of this town or the values held in our part of this wonderful state. The things that make us a great community are the things we do for one another when we are not looking for public acknowledgment— things we do when no one is looking.” The large church was silent. “We have a choice here. We can all run to the nearest reporter and tell them until we are all red in the face about how we condemn such barbarian like behavior, how everyone attends church three times a week and how hard all of our darling children study each night, or we can practice the faith and values so many of us wear on our sleeves by reaching out, embracing, and taking care of our own. Right


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now in a house on the South side of Holland, there is a group of our neighbors huddled together, scared to death, and feeling increasingly more and more alone. Their loved ones, the four men the world has already convicted of unconceivable crimes are somewhere in this big world no doubt feeling the same fear and isolation.” Every eye in that sanctuary focused on the man of no more than 140 pounds standing before them. “I have known Chuck Fagan, Bill Parsons, Kevin Stewart, and Terry Van Eck for a very long time and I consider them to be some of my best friends. I know them all to be the very embodiment of the values we claim as the soul of our community. Criminals they are not. Criminals do not reach out to and befriend new families in town like the Van Eck’s. People with the lack of character to rob casinos do not give up hours of their weekends to take a set of twins fishing like Mr. Fagan and Mr. Stewart did after the Walter’s boys lost their father to Leukemia. The greed it takes to perform such acts is nowhere present in a man like Bill Parsons whose family has made it a holiday tradition to serve Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner at the Ninth Street Mission. I stand here before you and the eyes of the nation and state whole-heartedly that I believe in the innocence of these four men and I pray that you will too. All through my life I have clung to one piece of scripture and it has carried me through the strongest storms. You would think that I would be able to tell your where besides somewhere in Proverbs it is located. It is short and goes like this, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and rely not on your own understanding.’ As hard as it might be to resist getting caught up in the emotion and the barrage of images thrown at us, I beg you to keep a place in your


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heart for those who are really suffering through this ordeal. I only hope for the sake of all involved that this matter is resolved quickly. Thank you.” For the first time that evening, there was the faintest echo of applause that soon became a quiet rhythmic clap and finally ended as a standing ovation that lasted for an entire forty-five seconds. The response was as much self-affirmation for those listening that this indeed was what they were all about as much as it was praise for the public speaking of a local science teacher. Brandon Tompkins had told them it was all right that they hold onto a presumption of innocence no matter what the preliminary evidence might be showing. The momentum in that church had turned the same way a Riverton interception or kickoff return for a touchdown could turn the momentum in one of their hallowed Friday night football games. Tompkins had spoken rationally with his heart and had turned the tide from the vengeful mentality of a lynch mob to a community that now wanted to stand up for and embrace its own. Carlton Fisher had planned to wrap up the evening with a lengthy speech he had prepared, but wisely chose to say very little at all. He restated the school’s position of reserving judgment and said that in no way could he have said better what the group had just heard. The Superintendent thanked the audience for giving up its evening and even encouraged the press to now show the world the character of this town’s people. There was a somber mood, yet recharged mood amongst those leaving the church that night. It was at this point that something truly spontaneous occurred. Riverton High School’s pair of secretaries both were members of the


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church and had excused themselves while the crowd was standing and applauding. They quickly found the keys to the foyer closet where the candles for the upcoming Christmas Eve service had been recently stashed. Each lugged a box to the two main exit doors and waited for the group to begin departing. As each family approached to go home they were given candles and asked to meet in the Holland Rite Aid Pharmacy parking lot at the corner of South Washington and 40th Street. Most jumped at the idea and within minutes a convoy was headed down the back roads of Allegan County toward the nearby city of Holland. The drug store’s parking lot was soon jammed and traffic clogged the intersection as carloads of Riverton residents were spilling into the nearby medical complex’s empty lot. Inside Bill Parson’s home just two blocks away, another marathon session of strategizing with lawyers and counseling was going well into the evening. The families of Bill, Terry, and Chuck had gathered earlier in the day and were also joined by Kevin’s parents. For hours, the people in this modest ranch seemed to be the only ones in the entire world who weren’t calling for the four missing men to be strung-up for such heinous acts. It had been them against the world. The usually quiet street outside had been choked with federal agents and news crews. The drapes had all been drawn, windows and doors locked. It was Allison Van Eck who while pacing by the large living room bay window heard the commotion beginning to stir outside in the front yard. Expecting the worse, she peeked through the curtains to see something that had amazed her almost as much as the initial news from Vegas. She had shut off her emotions much earlier in the day, but actually began to feel something quite foreign. It was a


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warmth that began to creep over her body, a sense of peace and calmness. “Come here everyone,” Allison softly spoke. “Come here.” “What is it?” Kelly Fagan asked while standing up from the sofa where she and her church’s minister had been talking. What Kelly saw at the window astounded her as well. Candlelight filled the entire street, including all of the neighboring yards. As far as the eye could see, in both directions, supporters with lighted candles jammed the small street. Kelly called to the others in the house and soon most of those gathered together were cramming for a glimpse. A couple of ambitious Riverton football players had corralled a pair of “road closed” signs from a nearby construction sight, sending traffic around the impromptu gathering. Soon the door to the Parsons’ home swung open allowing those at the inside window to step out onto the white wrap-around porch before the large crowd that had assembled. Chills trickled up and down the spines of the family members as they looked over the sea of candlelight. Some faces they quickly recognized while other faces simply warmed them in the chilly late fall air with a smile. A spontaneous round of applause rose from the crowd. The hours of loneliness and desperation didn’t seem quite so difficult now. There were people who still believed in these four men. There were no speeches, just a moment of prayer led by the Fagan’s minister. Holland city police soon arrived and politely asked the group to disperse. It seemed too that they had been touched by this display of community support. Kelly Fagan was the last to return to the Parsons’ living room. She sat on the pine porch swing until the last of their recent guests


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had made their ways back to their vehicles. She watched the steam from her breath hang in the night air while she gently swung pondering the entire day’s events. It had certainly been a day she would never forget. The skies had cleared, promising a night even colder than the way she already felt. As she looked up at the constellation of Plaedes, the one she and Chuck always looked for as they walked hand in hand each night to put the horses to bed, she just shook her head. “Chuck Fagan, where are you? And what have you done?”


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Chapter 17 Potter shuffled from the Northwest Airlines ticket counter on his way toward the security checkpoints and his waiting plane to Phoenix. Potter had chosen to make this trip under the assumed identity of a young optometrist heading west and then into Mexico. He was carrying in his checked luggage several pairs of computer-enhanced eyeglasses. The well-rehearsed story on the eyewear was that the tiny electrical implants would be used to help nearly blind children in an Agua Prieta orphanage. The truth was that Potter would soon be rendezvousing with his four crooks and their huge take from the Excalibur. Potter had carefully recruited this band of thieves and was quite satisfied with their work so far. There were two main qualities that they had to possess—no criminal records and huge gambling debts. The former quality would allow them to move freely and keep fingerprint evidence hard to verify. The latter would leave them forever indebted to Potter. He would pay their tabs and relieve them from the pressure of too many unsavory pursuers. In turn, they would go to work for Potter. The four crooks had been together for just under three years and working as a card-counting team in and out of Las Vegas. The crew usually frequented lower budget gambling halls, carefully moving about as not to become too recognized at any particular establishment. They possessed most of the basic skills, but the one thing they lacked was the most important ingredient—luck. The group would split up at different tables, do their best to keep track of the


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number of face cards, aces, and tens already played. A rover would hop from table to table looking for a buddy to signal him that now was an optimal time to bet big. Sometimes the rover would pull down a big windfall with a blackjack, but more times than not, it seemed the dealers were the ones working the system. Blackjacks would come out of absolutely nowhere for the dealer while the rover and counter who had pushed the table limit ended up being dealt sixteen after sixteen against the dealer’s one visible face card. The only thing to do in this situation, unless the cards are a pair of eights is to hit or take another card. Blackjack players are taught to assume that the dealer’s card facing down is worth ten or eleven. No matter what card the counters were dealt, they always seemed to lose. In legal terms, card counting is not against the law. Most casinos call it advantage play and often simply ask players to take their games elsewhere. Signaling to other players while trying to take advantage of the count is not technically illegal either--just severely frowned-against. So far this unlucky band hadn’t even raised an eyebrow, probably because they didn’t win very much. To keep from getting too well-known by casino personnel, the band of counters stayed far away from “markers”. A marker is a onemonth interest-free loan casinos issue to players based on their credit ratings. Basically these guys had no credit to begin with anyway, but by remaining as unnoticeable as possible they felt they could turn the corner with this venture and make a lot better livings than the ones they had tried to escape years ago in different parts of the country. The group had gone to funding sources not recommended by the Better Business Bureau. Loan sharks and assorted thugs had been


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sought for the bankrolling of this operation. The team’s “investors” were less than impressed with the syndicate’s prowess at the tables, or lack there of, and were tightening the screws on the counters. When Potter put this deal on the table for them, it didn’t take them long to accept. They had never considered knocking off a casino, let alone a mega resort like the Excalibur. Potter’s plan was amazingly intricate and with the tech support he would be providing them, they figured it was at least worth a shot. The heat was on them from their creditors. One of the bunch had even recently left his apartment one morning to find his car missing from his spot assigned by the complex. In its place was a manila envelope of pictures detailing its current location in the middle of Lake Mead. A note with “Money now or you’re next” scribbled across it accompanied some nice shots of the Merkur being blasted with a shotgun, set on fire, and then launched off the top of a steep canyon wall. The young thief had actually considered it a mercy killing. How he hated that piece of ‘80’s garbage. But now he’d be riding the free casino shuttle circuit or scraping by to ride public transportation. He couldn’t really go to the police or he’d surely be next. He didn’t have insurance because he had blown the money on this ill-fated attempt at gambling riches. It was just another event in a growing list of bad things that had happened since he’d dropped out of Northwest Missouri State and had come to town with the fellow members of their band “Sweaty Man Crack”. Needless to say, the name of the group didn’t help their appeal with the Vegas music scene. They played a few gigs but found the chore of breaking into a saturated market too tough. The other members had either headed back to school or had left town for good.


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But not this one, he was still chasing the money only to wind up with a death threat printed in black and white on extra glossy paper. This offer from Potter didn’t seem half bad. These unlucky mavericks had all skirted the law for years. They might as well take this leap because they really had little to lose. As long as no one opened fire on them, what was the worse that could happen to what they all consider their mighty pathetic lives? Even if they did get caught, the Nevada Department of Corrections would provide far better food than these four were currently eating at dive casino coffee shops at all hours of the night. Besides, those big prison walls kept people out of the joint as well as they keep people in the joint—state funded protection. At least nobody would end up in Lake Mead for many years. So, why would Potter take such a chance on a group that had proven to be nothing more than a bumbling set of bad card counters? Technology was the answer. Just about anyone could nave pulled off the robbery at the Excalibur with Potter’s technology. The stolen identity was the key to the scam. As Potter sipped a gourmet coffee and anticipated his trip to Arizona, he marveled to himself how the world had latched onto the notion that Chuck Fagan and his teacher buddies were the ones responsible for the crime. That had been an absolutely marvelous day for the hacker. His personal favorite part of the whole caper was the way he had prank called an entire shift of casino workers making them believe that they were being honored at Mandalay Bay that night. There must have been quite a scramble as the brass tried to fill those jobs without any notice. Potter had gotten slightly nervous because a few of the workers had to be repeatedly


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convinced that the call was for real. Luckily by a little name dropping from the employment roster Potter had attained he was able to convince all that they were indeed set up for a night of luxury . He also had taken great joy by actually being able to link into the city’s traffic control grid and control stoplights in the area around the Excalibur. He felt as though he were playing with the ultimate Hot Wheels play set. Potter had watched all of the mayhem from a series of Internet web cams located across the Strip at the MGM Grand. As Potter watched the news coverage, he continued to pick up on little battles he had won along the way. For example there seemed virtually no way that the police helicopter couldn’t have jumped the get-away van as it headed down the highway toward the Silverton, except that Potter had weaseled into the department’s dispatch system and sent the helicopter in the opposite direction on a wild goose chase thirty miles north out into the desert just minutes before the robbery went down on the south end of the Strip. Potter grabbed his ostrich skin brief case and readied his boarding pass and identification as the first boarding call for the Phoenix flight echoed in the newly finished gate area. If Potter was flying on someone else’s dime, then he of course was flying first-class. He proceeded past the jet bridge doorway after surrendering the boarding pass and showing his driver’s license. As he placed it back into his wallet, he chuckled to himself, “You are one damn good looking eye doctor.” “Sir, excuse me sir,” a deep voice called from behind Potter as he walked toward his awaiting seat.


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Potter turned his head slightly to see a uniformed security guard approaching from behind. “So,” the young worker who had recently become a federal employee smiled. “When do I get my money?” Potter was stunned. Was somebody on to him? Was his career of secret computer piracy about to unravel? He squinted through the plastic frame, horn-rimmed glasses to read the badge of the agent. “McClintick,” it read. “Shhhhh,” hushed Potter. “Not here.” He looked around with a pained expression. “You’ll get your take. If you’re not careful though, we are both going to get nothing.” More passengers began coming down the jet way and McClintick quick grabbed the metal detector wand to perform what looked like a typical security search. Potter couldn’t believe that he had been recognized, especially by one of the players with the most minute role in this drama. Forwarding some updated pictures to the make-up artist was hardly sticking his neck out. Potter had met with McClintick only briefly and in a dark barroom downtown. Sure, he had performed his little duty, but it’s not like he was a major player. Potter had dealt with people like this before and knew how to end this awkward situation. He reached into his long black wool coat’s front pocket and retrieved a bundle of hundred dollar bills. It was twice McClintick’s agreed share and this should effectively shut him up. When there was a lull in passenger traffic passing them, Potter stuffed the bills in his stocking cap. With a smile he turned to look at the guard.


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“Thank you sir. You have been a big help.” and stashed the cap full of cash into McClintick’s hand. “Say a word about this and you’ll never get to spend that.” “You have a nice flight…doctor!” McClintick smiled while quickly stepping back up the ramp to the waiting area. Potter just shook his head and smiled as he once again began toward his seat in first class. Within minutes a pretty flight attendant was taking his dinner order and pouring him a Chivas on the rocks. “Life is so much fun,” Potter smiled to himself. “And it is only going to get better.” Potter was headed to what he considered easy pickings in Arizona. Those glasses weren’t going to any orphanage. They were the tools that would turn a mediocre bunch of card hacks into serious high rollers. Just as Potter’s technology had turned the group into master thieves, the glasses would improve their counting abilities tremendously. Plastic frames similar to the ones Potter was wearing had come back enough into mainstream fashion that his counters could wear them without drawing any special attention. The bulkier glasses were perfect for implanting tiny cameras and transmitters. Potter would watch the action from each player on a monitor in the parking lot or hotel room. The feeds were connected to small handheld devices that mathematically counted and sorted cards. When the conditions were optimal for the players, tiny electrical impulses from the glasses would alert them to make bigger bets. The reason Potter considered Arizona to be the place to run this scam first was due to the fact that the numerous casinos had only recently been given permission to operate blackjack tables. There had been slot machines, video poker, keno, live poker, and bingo since the


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early nineties, but fears of corruption had kept table games out of the gambling halls. During the first part of 2003, casinos had begun making the switch having to train crews of supervisors and dealers. They were still working out the wrinkles as former slot techs and bar tenders were now dealing the cards. Potter thought combining his technical help with the game operators’ lack of experience would multiply the take from the Excalibur exponentially. Besides how else was he going to launder all of that money? But before this new set of gambling adventures got under way, Potter and his crew would enjoy a week of luxury at the Scottsdale Bluffs Spa and Tennis Resort. They would practice their games, test the equipment and run nightly recon missions to the casinos they would later target. They’ d look for soft dealers, inattentive floor supervisors, or anyone else who could make their cheating all the more easy. Legislators had feared table games were too susceptible to corruption when gaming returned to Arizona reservations in the 1990’s. It was awfully ironic that lawmakers would be so concerned about corruption considering that prior to the gaming boom, a boatload of Arizona lawmakers were nabbed in a million dollar sting operation. Only eight ended up being indicted, mainly because the Arizona Republic blew the lid off of the whole thing while the county Attorney General office’s ex-gangster operative was still gathering dirt. The reformed agent posed as a Nevada gaming lobbyist and set up a series of bribes for the pro-gambling votes in any future debates about bringing casinos to Arizona.


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The bright idea of this being a target-rich environment had come to the multi-talented hacker while he was vacationing out west last spring, all financed by breaking into the checking account of some shrink in Moosejaw, Saskatchewan. Potter had made a big haul playing 21 at the Harrah’s on the Ak Chin reservation near Maricopa. His wallet was so heavy, he hardly noticed the sinus-inflaming stench from local cattle feed-lots that greets visitors as they leave the glittering casino perched in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The card dealer was so bad that Potter could actually see the value of the dealer’s down card every single time. Maybe the dealer was working his own scam with another player at the table, but it didn’t matter to Potter. He threw all he knew about basic strategy right out the window. He would double in improbable situations. But, by knowing the exact card he was playing against there was little need for statistics. Potter left after he had turned $100 into $2500 in under two hours. There was no need to raise anymore suspicion beyond what his erratic play was no doubt already causing. As he drove north down the dark highway leading back to a brightly glowing Phoenix metropolitan area, Potter salivated at the thought of how much money could be made by well funded full-time cheats in this “emerging market”. The cyber-crook who was already one of the most wanted men in America smugly sipped his Scotch and smiled as he noticed a headline from another passenger’s newspaper giving more credence to the guilt of Chuck Fagan and the poor other three souls. The whole world knew the face of those four by now, but not one single secret agent had even a clue as to what Potter looked like. All systems were go as the next phase of this adventure was about to unfold. There had


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been the messy little matter of Jeremy Schaefer trying to ruin it all, but that had been easy enough to remedy. The crew that took the Merkur swimming gave five grand to a homeless guy to cause the wreck and then sent the stolen Concorde to a similar deep-water parking spot. Two thousand and fifty-two miles away from where Potter sat on the tarmac in suburban Detroit, the four thieves busily separated bundles of money in a deserted Phoenix campground and stashed it into the trunk of the 1998 Volkswagen Passat. They had just purchased it with the stolen cash from one of the unscrupulous dealers on Van Buren St. who doesn’t require a title and prefers to know as little as possible about his customers and the vehicles he brokers. They had even struck a deal for the dusty motorhome that had taken from the scene of the crime and across the miles of nothingness between this eerie graveyard for old campers and Las Vegas. They all remember the laugh they had as the flames shot up from the Silverton—by then several miles away. Their trip to Phoenix had been extremely uneventful. Potter had mapped a course that would keep them off of the beaten path and out of the way of the most police traffic. Lots of snowbirds in motorhomes would be traveling this route, so one other with Illinois plates should fit in pretty well. The crooks were almost all of the way to Phoenix before the news even broke about what type of vehicle police were trying to locate. They had made two stops before buying the smaller car. There was a rendezvous at a small gas station between Laughlin and Vegas where the one operative who would pose as the Rio plumber and stay behind met the crooks for a quick transfer of money and disposal of more evidence. The other stop was at a Waffle House for a victory dinner of


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greasy eggs and scattered, smothered, chunked, and covered hashed browns. The frazzled waitress must have been shocked to find a $250 tip rolled up under an over-turned coffee cup. Once the gear and dough had been stuffed into the aging blue VW, the four slapped high fives all around celebrating the end of a very long day. They had caught four or five hours of sleep in the R.V., but it was a nervous sleep as the four expected the doors to burst open at any moment. All that was left now was to drop the motorhome at some mobster’s house in Paradise Valley who was getting a share of the take. After that they would be checking into their plush digs at the resort over in Scottsdale where their benefactor would soon join them and lay out the next phase of the matter.


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Chapter 18 “Gentlemen,” the voice from the corner chair called from the dimly lit Gold Coast room. “I thought I might find you here.” The day’s stress couldn’t possibly get anymore intense for Chuck, Bill, Terry, and Kevin. After all they had been drug through that day, all they wanted to do was cacoon themselves away from the world and let all non vital body systems quite literally crash for a good twelve hours. “Seems your cowboys let you down,” the voice spoke as he clinked an ice cube back into the Coke he was sipping. With an easy move, he illuminated the bedside table to reveal his identity. “Nick? Nick Bender?” Bill was the first to speak. “How did you wind up here?” Nick Bender had been one of Bill’s most accomplished students, excelling in math and earning an Ivy League academic scholarship. He had been a state finalist for Terry during his first season of coaching cross-country at Riverton. Kevin had admired Bender’s raw athletic ability in gym class and had tried unsuccessfully for years to convince him to defect from distance running to football. Basically, the kid was what every parent dreams his or her son will grow to become. Chuck had just come to Riverton the year Nick graduated, but had quickly come to admire this quality young man. Bill stepped forward to shake Bender’s hand and repeated his question, “I am just shocked to see you. Seriously, how did you find us?”


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“Well it was pretty much out of dumb luck,” the good-looking exstudent began. “I have actually been looking for you all day. Heck, the whole town has been looking for you all day. Anyway, I just happened to be downstairs having dinner with my girlfriend and her two roommates. I slid off to try a video poker machine that had been paying off for me lately while the girls went to get some drinks. Next thing I know, they’ve got cowboys hanging all over them. Well two of the cooters started bragging about knowing you guys and how they’re going to skip town with you guys tonight. One of them even gave Lydia, my girlfriend his key. He told her to meet him here after they dropped you guys later tonight. Real subtle those two were. I figured I would drop by just to see what might happen and then you all walk through the door. Amazing.” “Yes, really amazing,” Terry agreed while shaking his head and collapsing onto the made bed in front of him. From his back with legs dangling over the end he continued, “So, what does this girlfriend of yours look like?” “Oh man, she is hot. Thin, nice little waist and she has this tattoo of interlocking…” “Hearts, on her back, right above her ass,” Terry laughed as he completed Bender’s sentence. “Now, how did you know that?” “Let’s just say,” Kevin jumped into the conversation as he leaned against the window heating-unit. “Your girl and her roommates are doing a good job keeping those cowboys well occupied.” Nick Bender just shook his head. Despite Lydia’s obvious unfaithfulness, this news seemed not to surprise him much. “Awe


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Heck,” Bender muttered. “It was over anyway. I just found out she had been working at Hooters for the last six months. Of course considering what she could be doing in this town, working at Hooters is on the same par as teaching at a Christian school in most other towns. I guess it is just one more piece of evidence that Vegas is not my kind of town. I am headed back to Michigan for good after the holidays, probably law school.” “Last I heard,” Terry spoke still lying face-up with his feet dangling. “You were a cop. Is this it for us? Have you made the call? Are they coming to get us?” “Well, I am a cop and you all will be surprised at how nicely things are going to work out for you—now that you’re not running. You could have saved yourselves a lot of headache by just showing up downtown when this thing broke.” “Yeah, we probably should have,” Chuck conceded. “We were just too stunned and the flight response seemed to kick into all of us at the same time. I think we were more scared of the Clark County correctional facilities than anything else. I guess we will find out first hand now what they’re like.” “No, you’re not going to jail. While you were running, a lot was happening.” Bender began. “When I first heard the news, I rushed down to ‘Robbery and Homicide’ and walked past four secretaries into the Deputy Chief’s office and told him there was no way this could happen. I told him all about each of you. He half-listened while he walked me to the door. He told me to stay away from the investigation because he didn’t want it compromised by someone with bias or or a


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relationship with the suspects. I was getting really frustrated. I wasn’t getting anywhere. You are just lucky you have such powerful friends.” “Powerful friends?” Chuck asked. “Yeah, I was sitting there all dejected and a lawyer named Gilbert Espinosa came storming through the doors. He’s only been in town a few years and has made quite a name for himself. He’ll take on anybody he thinks is screwing the public. He just got this family owned casino a big settlement while fending off a big corporate take-over from some giant down on the Strip. How’d he pick you guys to help?” Bender had been wondering all day. “Gilbert Espinosa, huh?” Chuck laughed. “Let’s just say that Gil and I go way back. He had been friends of my dad for years so he was the one we called when I put our van through a bait shop the third day I had my driver’s license. I knew he’d retired as a judge and had moved to Vegas. I didn’t know he was doing so well.” “That he is.” Nick Bender continued. “He’s the one who really opened the investigation for you. He plays cards with some supervisor in surveillance at the Rio who in turn ran tape of you guys checking-in against police footage of the robbery. Their facial recognition software flagged the crooks as being disguised and returned definite mismatches when it compared you to them. Metro wasn’t completely sold until it got word that your twins decided to make a little noise on the Strip before pulling their job. A lady who was working the monitors at Caesars recognized the description and said the real crooks were harassing a cocktail waitress and playing two to three hundred bucks a hand Caribbean Stud there just minutes before the heist. Techs


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compared that video to the Excalibur and you guys at the Rio, again no match between you and them.” The relief felt at that moment by the four Riverton teachers was indescribable. Never in their lives had such a heavy burden been lifted from their shoulders. There were sure to be a zillion tangles and snags to plow through with police and of course the media, but at this point all anyone could do was rejoice in not being the most wanted men in America anymore. John Walsh would have to cancel his bit on Saturday night’s episode of Americas’s Most Wanted. The smiles were unmovable and a new wave adrenaline was coursing veins for the upteenth time that day. “Do they have any idea of who really did this?” asked Terry. “They were so quick to tab us as the perps. Does the World know we didn’t do it? Are they as ambitious to clear us?” “You have no idea what a mess that unapproved news conference caused. It worked perfectly for the crooks. They got out of town while everybody focused on you. The new plan is to keep it hush-hush for a while to see if the real perps try to pin something else on you or screw up some other way.” “Oh, that is great! Just let us continue to get hammered by the media,” Bill spoke with frustration. “Well, I have been arguing that for a while now. I got called back into the fray as a consultant. I did work a little deal for you though, with the help of your attorney friend of course. We set upa plan that as soon as we found you, we would have flights set up for your families a big media event where the department will pretty much give you all carte blanche in exchange for your cooperation and as a way to


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acknowledge that they made a mistake. All I have to do now is call-in that I found you. I will step outside and you can use your cowboy friends’ dime to call some mighty anxious people back home. You must swear them to silence until they get here. We want nobody to know about this until tomorrow.” Like clockwork, the four men dove for the only phone in the room. Kevin, Bill, and Chuck backed away as they knew deep down, Terry was the one having the hardest time with the whole ordeal. As Terry dialed, his hand started to shake. All of the emotion he had been bottling inside was beginning to leak. By the time his groggy wife picked up, he was sobbing uncontrollably. The raw feelings poured into the receiver and undoubtedly his wife Allison was doing the exact same thing. A similar scene played out when Chuck called Kelly to give her the news. “It’s me honey. It’s me!” exclaimed Chuck. “We’re free. We’re free.” Kelly was just so thankful to hear Chuck’s voice that she was having a hard time processing what he meant by free. Had he made it out of the country? “What do you mean you’re free? I am just glad you’re alive!” she asked. “The cops know it wasn’t us. They know somebody tried to frame us.” “Well they did a pretty good job. Wait ‘til you see the number the feds did searching this place. They surely weren’t very polite about it either.” “Now, as hard as it is going to be, this has to be kept secret. We are in essentially protective custody. The cops are waiting to see if the


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real crooks continue any criminal activity under our cover. They promise though to make a big deal out of us and identity theft, and whatever else is involved in this fiasco. It’s been one heckuva day babe! Apparently the police are flying you and the families out here to be with us while they question us. A kid from Riverton who is now a cop actually found us. He also helped prove we weren’t crooks. Speaking of Riverton….” “Oh, this town is on its ear. I am surprised you couldn’t feel it. If your ears were burning when news broke you were planning this trip, your head is lucky it didn’t catch on fire today. You should have heard them. News trucks have been swarming us. Most people are just in awe and didn’t have a lot to say—well except the pious big-mouths. Your friend VanderSlice was on every newscast giving her two cents worth. But you know what Chuck, an amazing thing happened tonight. I finally got to see the true spirit of this town,” Kelly reflected as she explained the whole impromptu candle-light vigil and how wonderfully the other families had supported each other that evening. “I knew right there that everything would be alright.” Both of the Fagans felt exhaustion over any other emotion. They each longed to embrace each other the way they did each morning before heading off to their respective schools and little Rudy’s babysitter. “Well honey,” Chuck spoke. “I am going get off so that Bill can call home. I will keep you updated. We know absolutely nothing yet. Hopefully they will get you out here tomorrow. I can’t wait to see you. I love you sweetheart!” “I love you too. Goodnight.”


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“Goodnight.” Bill called his wife and exchanged the same emotions he had watched the other two exchange with their wives. Kevin had actually remembered they all carried cell phones and had called his mom and dad who were very relieved. Despite being at least partially out of the woods, he still ached a bit knowing he wasn’t going to be showered by a wife and kids in the coming days. He had worked hard to have people believe he was the stud bachelor, but the fact that he probably would never have kids would creep up on him in odd places. He’d see a father hand his son a foul ball at a Cub’s game or he’d see a dad carrying his daughter on his shoulders and there for just a second Kevin would think about how he’d always figured he would make a great dad or he’d think about the disappointment he knew his mom felt not having grandchildren. Kevin wasn’t getting any younger, but like these feelings always did, they quickly faded and his thoughts were back on the astounding 24 hours he had just lived. Almost immediately after Bill had hung up the phone, Bender reentered the room smiling. “Alright fellas. Here is the deal. I just talked to the supervisor in charge of this thing and he told me that if you cooperate, they will make it as painless as possible. In fact they will have your families out here by lunchtime. Anyway, this is still topsecret. We don’t want any media attention so I am going to have to somehow sneak you out of here. “Just wait a second Nick,” Bill said. “We owe you everything we have. For you to stand up for us like you did is amazing. I don’t mean to insult you, but you can’t exactly be a senior officer yet. It took a lot of courage to back us the way you did.”


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“Come on now,” responded the young policeman trying to remain humble. “It was nothing. Somebody had to help you. After all you guys did for me in high school, the least I could do was provide a little support. Okay, let’s get you to my house. There is a GMC Envoy in the parking garage, third level. A white one. Get there without being seen, or at least noticed,” Bender instructed while answering his cell phone. “Nick here. Yeah, Mr. Espinosa. Glad you called. They are right here. Did you talk to Metro? Right. Do you have the address? We’ll see you soon.” Seconds after Brian hung up, the phone rang again. “Hi this is Nick. Yep, yep. We’re still on. Bring everything you have. That is great. Really? She is? Yes bring her. Wow! I have a surprise myself. What? Bigger. No, way bigger than that. You’ll see. I am on my way. Give me a half hour. See you then. Alright. Great. Bye.” That was your friend Espinosa. He’ll be at my house in a few minutes. The second call was my buddy who also works security at the Rio. He helped run the tapes this morning and was coming over to help me work on finding you all. He doesn’t know you’re with me. He is bringing over some stills from the comparisons they ran and is bringing his aunt who is a private investigator. Man will they be shocked to see you.” “Are we ready? We’ll get some food for you after you’re tucked out of sight,” Bender urged. Each of the five exited at different times and eventually worked their ways through several exits to the waiting S.U.V. The dry winter air chilled the men but it seemed to them forever ago that they had


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first enjoyed the Hard Rock their first night in town. All piled into the vehicle and headed west on Flamingo toward Chinatown, the cultural district that brags itself up as America’s only master-planned Chinatown. Chuck looked over at the glorified strip mall and thought to himself about how as far as he was concerned, the whole world could stick its “master planning.” Somebody out there had “master planned” one heck of an intricate robbery and used ths as collateral. His thoughts quickly began to focus on what lie ahead of him. Seemingly irreparable damage had been done to his life in a matter of hours. The day had been such an emotional roller coaster that the elation of no longer being a fugitive was starting to meld into a rage at whoever had carried out this crime at his expense. Chucked blinked hard to rewet his contact lenses that felt like they were superglued to his eyeballs. His vision began to twitch slightly, telling him just how tired he was. His head rested back against the vehicle’s plush seat. How he wished he was home. He wished he had never come on this trip. He wished he had listened to Susan Vander Slice. Okay, maybe that was going too far, but he just needed the warm breath of his wife against his neck as they snuggled into their pillow-top bed on a cold December night. Tomorrow, he thought. The security of his little piece of the country was so very far away right now. Will they really be here tomorrow? Chuck wondered fighting off the loneliness that still lingered despite Bender’s good news. They were a long way from being completely out of the woods. Their lives would be forever changed and that just ate at Chuck’s core. “We’re gonna hunt down these s.o.b’s!” squalled Chuck breaking the silence as the others were also lost in deep thoughts.


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“Easy Orenthal,” Kevin tried to calm his friend by making reference to almost comic plea one O.J. Simpson made to find the “real killers” after he was acquitted of those two horrific murders. “Just let the cops handle things.” “No, he’s right,” retorted Nick. “That is exactly what we are going to start doing tonight. Espinosa has an army of snoops so we’ll start with the stuff my friend is bringing. We’ll let the detectives do their things, but any additional evidence we can find will only speed the process. I guess his aunt is quite good and does a lot of work for the big Strip casinos.” “Your friend’s aunt wouldn’t be named Stacy Collins by any chance?” asked Kevin with the hope in his voice of a teen-age girl asking daddy for the car. “Uh, yeah,” responded Bender. “How did you…?” “Yes, yes, yes!” Kevin exclaimed. “She was on a Travel Channel or TLC Vegas documentary,” Chuck shook his head trying to explain. “Kevin has been fantasizing about her ever since he saw her on TV.” “Oh my God,” Kevin hopped in his seat while shaking Terry in exuberance. “Wow! We spent all day thinking we were going to wind up in prison or dead over this caper, and now I get to meet Stacy Collins. She is so freaking hot.” At that moment, the vehicle erupted with laughter as the occupants let go of all of the stress and Kevin led them in an impromptu chorus of Sinatra’s “Luck be a Lady”. He was especially boisterous on the part about “a lady doesn’t wander all over the room and blow on some other guy’s dice.” The spirits of these four went up


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and down faster and more often than the Nasdaq. The fatigue factor was also playing into the slap-happy aura about them. “When we get to my house, everybody stay put until I get into the garage and the door goes down behind us,” instructed Nick. “I have some horribly nosey neighbors—old people from Sault Ste. Marie that are either spying or pissing away their Social Security checks playing video poker. We’re only a couple minutes away now.” Once the garage door locked into place behind them, an extremely exhausted quartet of haggered men stumbled into the newly built, yet sparcely appointed house. It was typical bachelor home, lacking in posh furnishings, but excelling in home electronics. There was a 52 inch high-definition television and a huge stereo that integrated the DVD player, VCR, and video game system into a networked surround-sound unit that could be accessed remotely throughout the house. “Make yourselves at home guys,” Nick said as he returned from the kitchen with a round of beers for his newest houseguests. Kevin, Chuck, Bill, and Terry were slunk across the mismatched couches and recliners that occupied the shockingly white room. Suddenly, there was a faint rap at the living room’s sliding glass door that opened to the backyard’s patio. Nick’s face pained with a worried look as he stepped closer to the door and peered behind the mocha colored drapes. With hesitation, he flicked on the patio’s light revealing a shivering Brian Hartman carrying a plastic grocery bag from Albertsons. “What are you doing?” Nick asked his friend who had brought prints from the surveillance tapes.


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“I rode my bike. I went down your alley and then hopped the back wall. The last thing we need is that snoop across the street trying to figure out why a bunch of cars are arriving at this hour. Ten o’clock isn’t late to most people in this town, but that lady across the street would have the 9 and the 1 dialed on the phone just waiting for a reason to press that last 1.” As Brian turned around he froze in shock. There they were. The most wanted men in America. “I told you I had a surprise,” Bender smiled. “Thanks to your help, Metro is dropping charges. But, we still need to track down who really did this. I found these guys at the Gold Coast tonight.” “Wow!” was all Brian could say as he set down his bag of tapes and introduced himself to the others. Shortly after Brian’s arrival another cop friend of Nick’s showed up. He had owed Bender a bunch of money for a long time, so Nick had gotten him to make the food run. The officer who had been reduced to delivery boy was standing on the doorstep with three sacks of Fatburgers and a case of Rolling Rock. Before opening the door Nick shuffled the teachers into a bedroom. There was no use giving up the secret to this guy. Nick opened the door, took the food, made some small suggestions that the man find a way to pay off the rest of his debt and shoed the visitor along on his way. When the coast was clear, Kevin, Bill, Chuck, and Terry took seats around a large oak dining table that was probably the nicest piece of furniture that Nick owned and descended upon the food like refugees cutting open the first sack of rice they’d seen in weeks. The table had been bought for a song at a casino-closing sale. Some relic hotel of the Rat Pack days was due to fall prey to dynamite


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and a wrecking ball, so all of its insides had to go—quickly. The big oval shaped table had served its prior owners well. Countless Asian high-rollers had sat down to exotic dinners of lionfish or some other gawd-awful delicacy that could cause instant heart failure if improperly prepared. The piece had been an original item in one of the old casino’s penthouses, but now it was about to become the centerpiece of a make-shift war room. The real crooks may be on the lamb someplace, but this group was bound and determined to get them. Moments later, a big Cadillac STS pulled up in front and out stepped a very polished looking hispanic man. Chuck rushed to the door, opened it and embraced the long-time family friend. “Thanks Gil! Thank you so much,” Chuck squeezed. “Well, this took a little more work than settling things with that bait shop,” the lawyer smiled. Soon Chuck was introducing Mr. Espinosa to the rest who were studying pictures Brian had captured form the tapes. “I can’t stay long. Chuck, I am picking your dad up at the airport. He’ll be happy to hear this news. I just wanted to touch base with everybody and give you some information on tomorrow. They have quite a day planned for us. Try to get some rest and I will be back early tomorrow,” the attorney still had a lot of work left that night. After saying goodbye, the group began to work on a time-table the crooks’ movements reported on the news. As Nick handed pens and legal pads to Chuck and the others, the doorbell rang again. Brian peeked out Nick’s front window to see his Aunt Stacy impatiently crushing a cigarette on the front walk. “It’s my aunt,” said Brian as he swung around to the front door.


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Kevin quickly ran his fingers through his hair and puffed a quick breath against the palm of his hand. “Chuck, Chuck,” he huffed. “Gimme some gum.” “I don’t have any gum,” Chuck said tersely while rolling his eyes and shaking his head at the same time. Kevin felt his pockets for something, anything to improve his breath. He was about to meet a lady who had caused him to watch the same documentary three times, and currently his mouth had the same taste it did when he drove past a cornfield freshly spread with turkey or pig manure. As the door opened, Kevin clamped his mouth shut and just smiled. There she was. Stacy Collins was for real, not just some imaginary Vegas character cooked-up for the Travel Channel. She was naturally a tall woman, but the black heels and heavily teased bleach blonde hair made her appear well over six feet. She wore painted-on black Capri pants that hugged muscular, yet long, skinny legs. She was darkly tanned, even for December and a clinging, scooped neck top, revealed just a bit of cleavage from a somewhat disproportionately large chest. A lot of make-up and a red vinyl jacket rounded out the look—a retro look, like straight out of a Loverboy video from 1986. “Well, here they are,” the private detective twanged. As Stacy sat down at the table across from Kevin, he quickly averted his eyes from whatever curve he was currently imagining beneath the tight clothing. There she was just across the table and he could hardly function. But little did Kevin know, Stacy was digging him as much as he was digging her.


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Chapter 19 “The kid found them huh?” detective Mike O’Brien muttered as he peered up from a series of evidence reports he was attempting to dissect. “Yeah, dumb luck it sounds to me,” responded partner Craig Gainey as he shuffled through a stack of plastic bags containing items found at both crime scenes. “I hope those teachers had better luck at the tables before getting roped into this thing. Man, the media has just been filleting those guys.” “Well, I would take any luck, dumb or otherwise right now as we try to get a handle on what really happened here,” said O’Brien while shoving the papers to the side, leaning back in the office chair, and stretching with a yawn. “It’s all right here. We just have to see the pattern.” The two sat in frustration staring at what appeared to be a random collection of junk. “Forget this stuff for a second,” O’Brien said as he stood up and began pacing. “Let’s go back to thoughts about this being some kind of inside job. The perps’ moves inside of the Excalibur were so welltuned that they must have been casing the place for weeks. They knew the exact routes and the exact times that big money would be most vulnerable. That is amazing because they cracked what is supposed to be a random process. Nobody off of the street would have been that precise.” “Did you hear anything more from the geeks working this? Who were they James and…?”


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“Roberts,” answered Gainey. “They did the prelim stuff and then had to go process the hotel room and car from the Rio. I saw them downstairs a half hour ago. I’ll page them right now.” Before he could even grab his phone Roman James and Daniel Roberts burst into the tiny room carrying binders of reportswith something obviously important to share. “We got it!” Roberts exclaimed as he unloaded his arms onto the conference table. “Got what?” O’Brien returned. “All that crap you have in front of you,” Roman James replied. This was no time to be formal. “That junk. We figured it out. Make-up, hay, sand, and a sequin. At first, we couldn’t place it anywhere specific. The make-up could have come from any woman in town. We did know that it was good quality stuff-—not Wal Mart variety. Still, no way to narrow it down. The hay could lead to three-quarters of people in Vegas this week. There was sand high in nitrates. We can’t put that anywhere because like the hay, it’s from some type of agricultural area. So, we were stuck trying to figure where these four pick up that much make-up and sequins on their person?”

“Easy!” O’Brien exclaimed, “At a strip club. A few sequins probably rubbed off of a dancer during a close-encounter. Plus, those broads get greasy crap on you during a lap dance. I always end up looking like a twink with body glitter all over me. That body glitter sticks to everything. It gets me busted every single time I stop by the Olympic Gardens. You find any body glitter?” “No,” Roberts replied with a smile. “We went with the inside job idea. The big draw at the Excalibur is the midievel dinner show. You


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know, knights on horses jousting, all that. On a hunch we took a team down to the stables, asked to look around. Boom, the hay matches. The sand matches and yes gentlemen, the make-up is the exact kind used in the show. We’re thinking the sequin is something off a costume.” “Insider!” Gainey grinned feeling the excitement of progress. “Betcher ass it’s an insider,” added Roberts. “Slow down,” O’Brien began playing Devil’s advocate and flipping through a report. “Couldn’t this stuff have just been trapesed up to the casino floor by anybody?” “Sure,” Gainey answered his partner. “But this stuff came from the pants in the van right?” “Right,” replied Roberts. “We found the same evidence in the casino, but we know those pants were used by the perps in the crime.“ “I don’t mean to sour the mood gentlemen,” Gainey redirected the group, “But are we still stuck with nothing on prints? Do we have anything matching anybody?” “We have all of the prints organized. We ran the locations of every single print through a database and came back with a fully detailed map. I can tell you where each of the original suspects rode in the convertible. I can tell you what bed each guy slept in. I can even tell you that Kevin Stewart stuck a big booger under one of the lounge chairs in the hotel suite. That is all really neat, but we don’t have a single suspect print where we need them,” investigator Daniel Roberts joined the conversation. “Need them?” James questioned the wording of his partner. At least the investigators were supposed to be unbiased.


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“Of all of those prints we lifted,” continued Roberts the only one that gave us a name belongs to an ex-con from Summerlin. We hotfooted it over to his place and it turns out that guy has reformed into a youth minister and took a group of kids hiking at Red Rocks last week.” “So we still have too many prints to narrow down to anybody. Just a jumbled mess--right?” Gainey asked. “Pretty much, Remember the money we recovered in the room?” Roman James began. “We got a set that keeps popping up all over the place.” “They belong to a point-man, a likely fifth subject who’s working for the real perps,” Roberts continued the explanation. “He’s just trying sell the set-up. The print on the cash matched a print on the mini-bar and a print on the doorway. If we can only get an i.d. on this guy, we’ll be golden.” As the group pondered this mystery accomplice, James reached down and removed the small handheld computer that served as pager, cell phone, and camera. “James here. Really? You’re sure? What? Are you sure? Anything on the prints from the money? No. That’s fine, great. Thanks” the bald headed black man returned his phone to his hip. “Good news and bad news men. The good news is that we have a positive i.d. on a print,” James explained. “On the money?” O’Brien asked. “Nope, the bomb that destroyed the van. They found a serial number and traced the timing device, that old alarm clock, to the


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manufacturer who in turn checked records. That alarm clock was bought at a Kmart in East Lansing, Michigan.” “Michigan?” Gainey gasped. “Belong to the teachers?” “Nope. That alarm clock belonged to one Jeremy Strayer.” “That obviously is the bad news!” Gainey explained. “Jeremy Strayer is the stiff lying in the morgue from the downtown hit and run two nights ago.”. “Yep, Dr. Alexander entered Strayer’s prints into the database after he was done with the autopsy and got the hits just a couple minutes ago.” Roman James relayed more information to the team. “They also matched a partial print from pieces of the gas can used and matched two of our unknowns inside the van.” “So, now we add a sixth figure,” O’Briend said feeling overwhelmed but intrigued at the same time. “Finally a name and a face, and a...” “Death certificate,” Gainey said finishing his partner’s sentence, feeling another challenge unfolding. “Looks like Strayer was involved but became expendable,” reasoned Roman James. “Somebody must have wanted his share.” “Either that,” countered Roberts, “Or Strayer found out too much.” “Remember,” James said attracting everyone’s attention. “There was a report that our deceased was seen chasing four men down Fremont Street toward the Plaza just before he got whacked. Those four were the teachers and Strayer was giving them a heads-up or those four were the real crooks trying to ditch, or even lure our vic out into the street. Either way, something from that case ought to help us.”


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Soon a series of folders were brought to the conference room by a young assistant at whom O’Brien winked. She smiled politely and left as the foursome started to pass information around the table. “Does anybody know what this guy was doing out here?” O’Brien began the brainstorming. “Vacation, gambling addiction, looking to run away from problems elsewhere like so many of our city’s newcomers?” “It says here,” Roman James cited a report from the preliminary investigation. “Mother in Michigan was contacted as next of kin. She didn’t know he had left the state. It says they hadn’t talked in two weeks, but that one of his ex-girlfriends named Jackie Elkinngton lives in Vegas and he was probably visiting her. Motor vehicle returned no records of her registering a car or license. No Vegas cell phone and no other utilities were ever hooked up in her name.” “Didn’t the girlfriend claim the body?” Gainey asked. “Nope,” James answered. “We don’t even know if she knew this guy was in town. We don’t even know if she even lives here.” After another six or seven minutes of flipping through coroner reports and police reports, all of the folders were slid into the middle of the table as if this was a poker game and the investigators were surrendering all of their remaining chips. “Yeah, that was productive!” O’Brien spat sarcastically as each investigator reached for their pagers now vibrating in unison. “I’ll check it,” Gainey said as he picked up his own phone. After a moment of waiting, he was connected with a lieutenant who was heading to a hot scene that appeared to have something important to do with this case. “Where is it? … Yeah, worked a couple of scenes


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there… We’re on it. James and Roberts are with us. Sure. What’s the name?… Elliott? Sure it’s not Elkington?…Great! Great!” The other three seated at the table waited anxiously, but could read the huge smile on Gainey’s face that a break-through had occurred. “Y’all ain’t gonna believe this!” the detective shared while throwing grammar to the wind in his excitement. “They found Strayer’s girl’s place, some dump down by the Stratosphere and I guess it is one blazing crime scene. Erickson wouldn’t give me any more but said he thinks this might help us tremendously.” “Alright, let’s get down there,” O’Brien instructed as he hopped up. Both sets of partners broke off for their respective vehicles and soon were headed south toward Jackie’s shabby complex. Within minutes, the four were amassed in a sea of cop cars parked outside of the strip of apartments. The four investigators climbed a set of wobbly cement stairs to discover a tiny apartment bursting with police. Lieutenant Erichson was busy talking to an officer and civilian at the kitchen table, so the four began looking on their own. Their eyes could hardly believe the good fortune. Evidence was everywhere. Four chairs sat neatly in a row, surrounded by all of the remnants of serious masquerade work. Men’s clothing, wigs, make-up, high dollar facial prosthetics all lay scattered. This was definitely ground-zero. One of the other techs at the scene nodded at James and Roberts while motioning them toward him. There in a neat matrix, the he had arranged a series of photographs. There were at least a dozen of Chuck Fagan with his family, Kevin, Terry’s family, and the


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Parson’s. The tech was prodding a trash can with an extra long pair of forceps, trying to probe for anything further. The four investigators “gloved-up” and began passing the pictures. It didn’t take too much intuition to figure these must have been the models that had guided the disguises used by the four crooks. “Oh yeah,” the tech working the scene laughed, “If you want to see something real nice, take a look at the bedside table.” The four stepped over another pile of clothes being processed and examined a picture of Jackie and poor Jeremy. In the picture she wore a cut-off Bud Light tanktop and he wore a pair of gym shorts just shorter than the ones Larry Bird wore most of his career. But, the attire wasn’t the attraction in this picture. It was the post-developing artwork that would prove most useful to investigators. Someone had taken a Sharpie and drawn two black x’s over Mullethead’s eyes and had drawn two big green dollar signs through Jackie’s. “Very nice,” O’Brien laughed in astonishment. “I guess we know why she never claimed the body.” “Yep, that is the guy who bit it the other night. Looks like we know who got his share,” added James. After another couple of minutes of nosing around, the four returned to the kitchen to speak with their Supervisor. The lieutenant shook hands and then began introducing the men seated at the table. “This is officer John Whitmore and this isMr. Terry Hendricks. He’s manager of the complex. They uncovered the scene.” “Tell us how you wound up here,” Gainey wondered.


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“Well, my girlfriend had been asked to feed her friend’s dog.” Whitmore pointed to a beast of Rottweiler and Pit Bull mix gnawing on a giant nyla-bone in the corner. “She was too busy. So I said I would do it on my way in. I was just about to go on duty.” He glanced to make sure the Lieutenant had heard that correctly. “stopped by and realized I didn’t have a key. Mr. Hendricks helped me in. We battled Cujo over there, and then just literally bumped into a trashcan on the counter full of the pictures.” The investigators nodded approvingly and O’Brien asked a question, “How does your girlfriend know this person?” “They work together—at Excalibur. They’re make-up artists for the shows. They get that Beatles knock-off group ready for the lounge and then put the Kings back together between jousting rounds in the medieval dinner show.” “That would explain access to the make-up and costuming,” interjected Gainey. “Where was this friend heading, that she needed her dog fed?” “Tammy didn’t say, just that it was last minute. She wasn’t coming back to the Ex and was taking a vacation to celebrate something. Tammy said she was flake to begin with. It didn’t surprise her. Triple X over there needed to be fed so we tried to help—no idea we’d find anything like this.” “Well, officer you just completed some serious police work tonight,” Roberts reached a hand out to thank them. “If I were you, I’d go find a Megabucks machine, because this find is just the luck a whole bundle of us needed.”


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James had slid away to talk with a tech who was processing prints. The investigator lifted a set from Jackie Ellis’ Excalibur i.d. badge found in the kitchen. No wonder they couldn’t find her. She was working under an aliases. He took another set from a used birth control dispenser and fed them through a tiny scanner no bigger than a pen. He plugged the scanner into his Palm Pilot, tapped twice and waited as the prints were checked against all of the others recovered in this case. “Get in here,” he yelled to Gainey, O’Brien, and Roberts. “Get in here! We found our point man. Except it ain’t a man. Jackie Elkington planted the cash and I know how she did it.” At his foot lie a size small maintenance uniform from the Rio. “Can we call it night already?” O’Brien laughed while patting James on the back. “We’ve made some serious progress and I have no idea how we did it. Stuff just started falling in our laps. Erickson is issuing the APB on Elkington and told us to get out of here.” The others soon joined and after a couple of minutes of laughing over the turn in the case, the focus switched to their immense hunger. “We’re celebrating and I am buying,” O’Brien nearly howled. “Steak and eggs at the Gate is where we’re headed.” The Golden Gate might be the tiniest hotel downtown on Fremont Street, but it was O’Brien’s favorite. After a nice run on the craps table one night, he grabbed a handful of their legendary shrimp cocktails and bumped into a well-dressed gentleman sneaking an ice cream sandwich from the snack bar. It turned out to be the hotel’s owner and Mike O’Brien figured anywhere the owner mingled among the commoners in search of an ice cream sandwich was his kind of


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place. You didn’t see old man Kirk Kekorian sneaking snacks with the paying public at the Bellagio. As the four headed downtown, they could hardly believe what the last five hours had yielded, an amazing turn of events. They could almost smell the grease of Fremont Street. What a great night in Vegas!


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Chapter 20 “Hey Kev. Gotta get up buddy. They’ll be here in a half hour to take us,” Chuck Fagan said through a bedroom door trying to stir his friend. Kevin rubbed his eyes, stretched, and smiled as he watched his Riverton Football t-shirt move in and out filled to capacity with the chest of Stacy Collins. Needless to say, the two had hit it off quite well last night. While the others were digging into the facts of the case, Kevin and the P.I. were digging each other. They had snuck off together as the others were slowly unwinding and finding their own spaces for the night. There really hadn’t been much action beyond a kiss or two. Kevin was so spent from the hardest day of his life and Stacy was whipped from a day of chasing philandering husbands and suspected card cheats. The two new friends just enjoyed having someone close and fell asleep easily together. Chuck’s heart was racing as he tried to control his nervous energy and consequently his stomach. He could hardly ever sleep well in Vegas. It was a combination of too much stimulation, a fear of missing something, a terrible diet, and the adventure of the coming day. Throw the anguish of yesterday and the excitement of his family coming on top of that and it was plain to see why Chuck managed only about an hour and a half of sleep last night. He was tired, but had shifted over to reserve energy mode. There’d be time to rest when this was all over. Bender’s shower had felt exceptionally good this morning and as the water pounded Chuck’s shoulders and back, he realized he was beginning to relax—although it was ever so slightly. After throwing his khakis in the dryer for a ten minute freshen-up and


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ironing a polo shirt he had brought, Chuck checked his watch and then checked to see how the others were coming. Bill and Terry were each finishing bowls of peanut butter Cap’n Crunch and by reading their faces, Chuck could sense the same mix of weariness, relief, and anticipation that had come from the past twenty-four hours. Just as Kevin was joining the others, Bender’s phone rang. “Yep,” answered the young cop. “All set.” In less than thirty seconds, two black and white Metropolitan Police cars pulled up along the curb, trailed by three black Ford Excursions and two more police cruisers. Uniformed officers soon formed a tunnel from the door to the first big sport utility vehicle and the four Michigan men were hustled aboard. Kevin winked at Stacy and smiled. All of the baggage was loaded into the trailing Excursion by a couple of other officers and the caravan was soon headed southeast for McCarran Airport. The train of vehicles moved south down Valley View, turned east at Sahara and quickly merged onto Interstate 15. Traffic seemed to respect the large police presence and gave the caravan plenty of room as it lumbered adjacent to the Strip giants just to its left. Traffic cleared even more as the group of vehicles exited at the Beltway and proceeded east toward the tunnel running under the airport’s tarmac. Cars pulled over to both sides as the black and whites leading the charge engaged sirens and lights. The four men were quite stoic during the whole procession, feeling calm as they moved along. It was Terry who first broke the silence, “I had always dreamed about getting the V.I.P. treatment in


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Vegas, but I sure never planned on having to go through the crap we just did to get it.” “Nothing is worth what we just enduried,” added Bill. “And I have a good idea, we still have some more hurdles to clear before it is all complete.” Chuck just sat quietly, looking at the crazy morning traffic. Kevin sat quietly as well, still marveling at the fact that he had spent the night with a girl of his dreams. He kept drifting between thoughts of Stacy and all he would have to deal with today. After bypassing several areas used by airline passengers, the caravan came to a highly secured gate, complete with guard station. Two uniformed security officers pulled back the chain link fencing allowing the vehicles to proceed. The squad cars each pulled off to the sides and parked, letting the big black Excursions pass toward a private jet that had just taxied to a spot marked MGM Mirage. The department had been owed several favors by the conglomerate that ran New York New York, MGM,the Mirage and a few other casinos in town. Since the company’s jet wasn’t already out rounding up high rollers, it was sent in the middle of last night to fetch Kelly, Terry’s wife, Bill’s family, and Kevin’s parents. Bill’s brother was serving as the families’ representative and reluctantly was persuaded to let his son tag along as well. Chuck’s son was staying with Kelly’s mom and dad at their house and Allison Van Eck had made similar arrangements with Terry’s mom and dad. This was going to be trying enough on the adults. They thought it best to keep the little ones in the places where they felt the most secure.


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The families had been able to really bond through all of the craziness and so the early morning flight was a good way for all of them to finally sit back and relax a bit, knowing this mess was at least headed in the direction of being resolved. There wasn’t any real celebrating, but the tension that had been hanging over them was noticeably lighter. A few slept in the plush leather seats, while the Parson boys honed card skills in the rear lounge area of the plane. They got a kick out of thinking this was how multi-billionaires were ushered into Las Vegas, all for a shot at their wallets. The teachers were asked to remain inside the big SUV until the plane’s door opened. But, when those steps swung down and Sarah Parsons poked her head out, all of the armies in Europe could not have held those doors closed. Bill opened the door, sprinted to his wife and zipped her around in a circle. Chuck and Terry swept their wives off of the ground, squeezing them for dear life. Tears rolled down cheeks and lips locked. Finally, big pieces of themselves that had been missing were now reattached. The legal system could throw whatever it wanted at them now. It didn’t matter because they felt whole again. Both men felt a little sad that they couldn’t hold their children, but they each agreed that this was not the place or circumstances for the kids. There was reassurance knowing they were being smothered with love at home. The Parson entourage was escorted toward the first Excursion. Kevin and his parents were given the middle one while Chuck, Kelly, Terry, and Allison rode in the third. Bags were unloaded and the caravan was off again, this time headed downtown to police headquarters where the media had been alerted that “major”


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developments and announcements were forthcoming at a 9:30 AM press conference. Rumors had already begun flying. Surprisingly, none of the pertinent information had leaked. This was most likely due to a new resolve to keep things quiet after Karl Ashe had blown the lid off of things yesterday causing headaches for everyone. Speculation was mainly coming from Michigan where reporters had trailed the families through the darkness to the waiting MGM jet at Holland’s Tulip City Airport. Chuck and Kelly held hands and talked quietly while Terry and Allison did the same behind them. They had so much to tell each other. “Awe, utter awe,” shared Chuck, “Was all we were feeling. We were on auto-pilot, instinctively fleeing. There is no other way to describe it. I would find myself doing something, and feel like I was completely detached, that it wasn’t really me doing all of this.” “Yeah,” agreed Terry, “And then there were times when we would actually question ourselves as to whether we really did this or not. We’d start to think we’d been sleep-walking.” “Well,” Kelly reassured them, “We never doubted you. As soon as I saw the tape I was completely reassured. But even before, I knew you all couldn’t do this.” “I wish I could say the same for the rest of the town,” Allison said. “But, I actually think they are coming around to the realization.” “Hopefully, today will clear up any doubts,” Terry said the caravan neared headquarters. When the vehicles finally arrived downtown, the place was a swarm of reporters, camera crews, and news satellite trucks from as


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far away as Tucson, San Diego, and Portland. The national crews were there as well, all salivating for more feastable information. Chuck laughed to himself that those reporters had the same looks he had seen on the people waiting for the Rio’s Seafood Buffet to open Wednesday night. Additional patrolmen on foot and on bikes parted the sea of reporters as the caravan swooped past and dove into an underground entrance to the police station. This was all becoming too overwhelming and Kelly instinctively handed Chuck a Rolaids from the stash she constantly carried for moments like these. After each vehicle parked, the families were ushered into the complex, past a booking area, and into one of the squad briefing rooms. Several big shots were already waiting and milling around an area outfitted with coffee, tea, bagels, and what else but doughnuts. Sheriff Walt Haygood was the first to introduce himself and rapidly began apologizing profusely, “Folks, you have all been victims of a terrible crime and let me be the first to tell you that on behalf of all law enforcement in Clark County and the State of Nevada that I am deeply, deeply sorry. Unprofessional and irresponsible behavior by one of my subordinates caused an already terrible situation to become an out-of-hand situation. I assure you that my department and I will do all in our power to restore your good names and bring the criminals responsible for these crimes to justice.” Haygood’s monologue was sincere and it showed. The families were already feeling relieved. “Now in a few minutes, we are going to go up to our press area where we will be addressing the national media,” continued the


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Sheriff. “We will brief them on many of the facts of the case as we know them and again stress your alls’ innocence. Afterwards, there will be a short question and answer period. Feel free to speak as much or as little as you would like. This news conference is for you. It has little to do with us.” “Okay,” Chuck thought to himself, “The guy is still a politician. It has a lot to do with them—like trying to cover their asses. Soon another officer poked his head through the door and received a nod from a lieutenant. Gil Espinosa and Hank Fagan stepped in behind their escort and Chuck rose to meet them. He bearhugged his dad and shook hands with the only prior legal representive Chuck had ever needed. Chuck could only imagine what goosechases these two had been on. They spoke in whispers before Hank stepped over to hug Kelly. Gil and Hank would catch up with Kelly and Chuck once the media had been addressed. “Okay,” one of the lieutenants in charge of part of the case said, “Let’s get you upstairs.” After the long line of people climbed a couple of metal staircases, they were all led into a large room that was already hot from a slough of television lights and bodies. Name tags and microphones were set up around a large horseshoe shaped desk. Big, bouncy office chairs sat behind the glossy table top. Spaces had been reserved for the Michigan teachers and Bill’s brother Brian the attorney. Another area of chairs had been corded off for the other family members. As people began taking seats, Brian stepped aside to speak with Mr. Espinosa. They quickly agreed that they could use each other’s help and would begin working together as soon as this


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media event was finished. Several members of the department including Haygood, who sat front and center assumed their assigned seats as well as members of the FBI and the Nevada Gaming Board. Quick, and apologetic speeches were delivered by the Sheriff and a couple of high ranking subordinates. Agent Gonzalez gave some information about this being a well-planned robbery that was based on obvious research and stolen secrets from in-house casino files. The feds were now tracking a computer security breach and the likeliness of insiders at Excalibur committing or at least assisting with the crime. He then went on to state some statistics about identity theft and the ways the agency was aggressively going after Internet pirates. The four Michigan teachers just sat nervously waiting for the spotlight to come to them. After a couple of more statements were read, a representative from Harrah’s Corporation, the parent company that owns the Rio and its namesake casino, explained how technology used by his company had helped to clarify that the Michigan men had in fact been impersonated. He also went on to announce that the Rio had reserved a number of suites for the Fagan’s, Van Eck’s, Parson’s, and Stewart’s while they were being asked to remain in town assisting police. In the wings, Kelly Fagan smiled and began whispering to Allison about how the Rio was her absolute favorite hotel in Las Vegas. Too bad its beautiful sand bottom pools with grottos and waterfalls were closed this time of year. Finally Haygood read a closing statement and opened the floor to questions. Reporters from all over the country began shouting questions. A representative from the police department finally singled out a stunning blonde who Kevin of course instantly recognized as


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being from the Grand Rapids Fox affiliate. Her question was addressed to the teachers and basically asked what they might have to say to their friends and extended families back home where they were no doubt glued to their televisions. “I, uhh I,” stammered Chuck, “Just want to thank all of those who supported our families when we couldn’t. I know there are a great deal of you who stood behind us from the minute this story broke. I would like to think that helped all of us a great deal.” Another reporter who identified himself as being from an ABC station in Lake Tahoe asked the simple question of why they just didn’t go to the police right away. For a few seconds after it was asked, there was silence. The four just looked at each other. “That is a great question,” volunteered Bill, “I think we are all trying to answer that one. I think we were just scared, buying time you might call it. None of us had ever faced anything like that. It is really hard to say.” As Bill finished, more questions were shouted. A couple of times, like when a reporter asked what these four men knew about the mysterious hit-and-run downtown, Brian Parsons jumped in to say the men would be cooperating fully with police. Questions continued and continued. Finally after almost thirty minutes, Haygood thanked the media and the press conference was finished. When the NBC reporter wrapped her report for her West Michigan local affiliate, a huge cheer erupted from the auditorium at Riverton High School. Students and faculty, who had gathered to watch the news on a large screen were giving a standing ovation to the announcement. Tears were flowing after all of the emotion the


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school had experienced in such a short time. Deep down many had known this was impossible, but now they had their proof. Their very own teachers were being exonerated and the World was watching it live. Despite what was a bitter cold day outside, everyone felt warm inside as part of that cheering audience. Back in Vegas, the family members all embraced and were being congratulated while reporters struggled to get more questions answered. Gilbert Espinosa used one of the microphones to announce that all media requests needed to be submitted to his office on West Charleston. The families were led back down to the same briefing room and then filed back to their big black coaches. A couple of event secretaries had been put in charge of insuring that everyone would be well taken care of at the Rio. They boarded the Excursion with the Fagan’s and Parson’s and began explaining to the couples what was about to happen. Suites had been provided, along with meal vouchers and even spa treatments. A conference area would serve as a makeshift investigation hub and media center where questioning, debriefing, and any further press events would take place. This was all being done for the convenience of the teachers and their families. Commercial flights had been booked for Monday morning. The police had hoped to not need anything further from the Michigan residents at that point. It was quite a scene when the caravan pulled under the valet canopy at the Rio, hotel staff was already waiting inside and as each group disembarked, they were whisked by a host through the casino toward the elevators in the new Masquerade Tower and up to their accommodations for the next few days.


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Since there were no weddings scheduled this weekend, Chuck, Kelly, Terry, and Allison were each given the exclusive honeymoon suites located next to the chapel on the third floor. There are only two on the entire floor and each is incredibly lavish. The Fagan’s were given the Rainforest themed suite, while the Van Eck’s were being hosted next door in the Hollywood themed suite. The couples could not believe their eyes as they entered their side-by-side palaces. Inside Chuck and Kelly’s room, which was actually bigger than the main floor of their house was a giant rock wall that formed the backdrop behind their couch and huge rock entertainment center. There were two bathrooms, one even had a Jacuzzi and an amazing rock shower complete with a seat under a waterfall that rained down warm water. After exploring their own digs, the Fagan’s jumped next door to see Terry and Allison’s suite. It was configured in a similar fashion, but instead of rocks, the suite was done in an old Hollywood glamour look with lots of navy and gold trim. Taking center stage among the old movie memorabilia was a Jacuzzi that merged the master bath and bedroom and allowed for t.v. watching while soaking in the jet tub. One floor above, the Parsons were settling into a pair of suites that weren’t quite as lush as the honeymoon suites, but were none the less nicely appointed. Bill, Sarah, and their kids had their own two bedroom set-up while Brian and his son Scott were sharing a one bedroom across the hall. Kevin had his own similar suite, that he no doubt hoped to be graced by Stacy’s presence sooner rather than later. His parents had been given one as well, but they had decided to


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return back home later that night. They would spend the evening and hop a red-eye now that things seemed to under control. After getting settled, the families rested. They napped a little, but basically basked in the relief and love of having their most adored back together again. They had been only away for a few days, but it seemed like months. The comfortable suites were just the place to unwind, something the four teachers had expected to be doing a long time ago. But, what had they been thinking? Vegas was no place to unwind whether you were being framed for a casino heist or not. Vegas was a place for action. That was precisely why Chuck kept the drapes closed over the floor-to-ceiling windows that gave them spectacular views of Bellagio, Monte Carlo, and New York New York on the Strip. They couldn’t help but peak at the news channels. There they were stuttering through questions as analysts dissected every aspect of the case. Chuck’s dad had called and everyone would catch up tonight down at the Golden Gate. Hank would be coming over to the Rio tomorrow as Espinosa had made him a special assistant. At five o’clock, everyone met outside of the honeymoon suites and went down together to the Rio’s seafood buffet. Hosts ushered the group past the growing line and led them to an area already reserved. As the danger had subsided, appetites had returned. The buffet was an absolute feast of lobster, shrimp, steamed clams, different types of fish, and all kinds of exotic dishes from around the world. Only the college kids were brave enough to eat the sushi. After dinner, a trio of Rio hosts sat down with the Michigan group and asked what they felt like doing. Limousines had been reserved for a tour of the city or to take them to any specific spots. Despite having


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been through Hell, there was still a piece of Vegas pulling at each of them. The Parson kids were ready to cut loose a little, while their parents were ready for something a bit tamer. The older adults decided to go over to Bellagio for a drink and to watch the dancing fountains at the waterside Fontana Bar. Chuck and Kelly convinced the two other couples that they also needed to experience more of downtown. Hopefully nobody would get killed this time. Brian was invited but declined as he needed to start working with Gil Espinosa compiling notes. Kevin was meeting Stacy fifty-six floors up at the Voodoo Café, but vowed to meet up with everyone downtown. The limos all set out for the desired hot spots, and after some thirteen dollar martinis at Bellagio, ninety cent margaritas downtown at the Fremont, some dice at Binion’s, and too many shrimp cocktails with Hank Fagan at the Golden Gate, the older crew was headed back to the Rio. Kevin had joined them as promised and gave Stacy a long, long kiss goodbye before hopping into the limo for the return leg. She had to go tail some lady whose husband needed ammunition for a custody battle. The night wrapped up with a couple of drinks while gathered around one of the Rio’s craps tables. Harvey, one of the more entertaining dealers in Las Vegas kept everyone laughing, even if the cold dice made it hard to smile as chip stacks dwindled. The younger set made its first stop at New York New York’s Coyote Ugly Bar. Katey had surprised her brother and cousin by being the first girl of the night to dance on the bar for the complimentary moonshine shots. Scott and Taylor dragged her kicking and screaming before she could climb up a fourth time. Across the street,


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MGM’s Studio 54 hadn’t heated up yet, so they decided the Hard Rock was as good of place as any. As the limo pulled up they found it just exactly as they had hoped, packed and jumping. What exactly happened that night is still debated every time all of the Parson’s get together. However anytime Katey needs a favor from her brother, all she has to do is threaten to mention the name “Chantal”.


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Chapter 21 After ordering room service for breakfast and enjoying their amazing waterfall equipped shower, Chuck and Kelly got cleaned up for what would prove to be a busy day. Then men were due downstairs at 8:00 and the wives would be meeting at 9:00 for a morning of spa treatments including massages, facials, and pedicures. The first order of business for the Riverton teachers was to explain the circumstances surrounding the death of Jeremy Strayer. They explained all of their interactions from the flight to discovering they were being watched, and finally the chase down Fremont Street. This helped investigators confirm that Mullethead must have been some type of accomplice. Police shared that his girlfriend was now a prime suspect in the robbery and at least connected to what was now being investigated as a murder. Police explained to the men and their two lawyers all that they knew so far. They explained how the mastermind was likely a skilled computer hacker who had pulled all kinds of strings through cracking police, city, and casino databases and control centers. They explained how the writing on the note had led them quickly to the website and how the tracing they had done revealed the same Riverton Schools web address as the Internet Protocal tag for the hacker’s doings. “Wait. What do you mean the web address showed up as an IP address? That is impossible,” contested Chuck. “No, it’s quite possible,” explained Agent Gonzalez, “Everything came back with the ‘riverton.k12.mi.us’ tag—the same as the URL for your school’s site.”


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“Then, something is screwy with the trace because whoever hacked the systems set this up as a disguise. All IP addresses at Riverton and throughout our wider consortium of schools are done numerically. There was wide debate over this and at one time we were going to make the switch. In fact,” Chuck now remembered as he stood to look closer at Gonzalez’s reports, “I had developed some software as part of my doctoral program that would easily make the switch if we decided to do it. But, all of the hard copies I had burnt to disc went missing in October. I figured I had just misplaced them. Luckily I had stuff saved on a different Mac. May I use your laptop?” he asked the agent. “Sure,” responded Gonzalez as the two stepped to a cubicle that had been recently erected. “Okay,” muttered Chuck, “I have a hunch.” Chuck used remote access to log into the Macintosh on his desk, but before he could get more than a step into the process, he remembered that the machine was likely sitting in a crime lab somewhere. He changed plans and logged into one of the student iBooks that were part of his wireless lab. As Gonzalez and a tech from Metro watched intently, Chuck pointed, “See. There is a real IP address.” It was all numbers like he predicted. “Okay, now let me use this machine to go to another site.” Chuck then accessed D2football.com where he helped compile news at the small college football website. After entering an administrative area that showed information on visits, he pointed to the screen again, “See right there—the same numbers. So, we know whoever did this didn’t do it with a school computer, but still wanted


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you to think they did. Do you have any records here of the other IP addresses?” “Sure, let me get one,” the Metro tech said as he reached into a cardboard box holding a number of folders. “Let me see the other deeper stuff,” said Chuck knowing exactly where he needed to look. “Yep, got it! Do you see those two accompanying numbers? 43 and 54? Those were my two football numbers. They have nothing to do with anything but a little signature I added to the code. Somebody stole my discs! Whoever is behind this stole my discs!” “Or,” challenged Gonzalez, “They hacked the network and got it from your back –up.” “Nope! They physically had to steal it! Somebody else from Riverton took it!” “How are you so sure? I know how weak your network security is. I have a report right here.” “That program though never was part of the network. The only place it was besides my discs was on an old beater of a Mac crammed into my back office that I use for secure file storage. It is not part of any network. Somebody would have to manually retrieve it.” “What about when you created it?” “I didn’t want to risk it somehow mixing in with other operations so I did it on a lap top that was detached from the network. This program was never, ever connected. I even removed the wireless card to secure it. No, whoever left these traces did it deliberately and did it with a program I created.” “You’re sure?”


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“Absolutely! Whoever framed us is a lot closer to us than we know. ” “If you are right about this, then we narrow the field tremendously.” “Well, it would go a long way to explain how we wound up being the targets of this thing.” By this time, an army of techs was swarming over the laptop and the other Riverton men had been motioned over by Chuck. For a second Chuck’s brain flashed the idea that it could be one of the other three friends, but that was improbable and Chuck felt ashamed for even suspecting of the others. Nothing could ever be as shocking as finding out they were robbery suspects, but learning that whoever was masterminding this whole caper was someone with access to Riverton High School was crushing. All four valued their corner of Michigan for its inherent safety that they rarely thought about, but dictated the ease with which they lived.. They hardly locked their cars or houses. Now, one of their neighbors was behind this and obviously had been violating their trust for some time. At least the field had been narrowed greatly. The brains of the Riverton men raced as they tried to think of who this might be pulling the strings. A minute ago, this creep was a faceless geek amongst all of the geeks causing trouble with computers in the world. Now, whoever they were looking for was someone they had most likely seen before in a pool of no more than five hundred—and that was counting students. None of the former fugitives could think of anyone with deviant enough or that possessed the computer skills to pull something like this.


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“Let me make some calls,” Gonzalez said as he dialed the Grand Rapids field office. While Gonzalez phoned his colleagues, a half dozen other drone like techs hovered to see what Chuck had been explaining. This was a huge breakthrough, one that finally after days of fishing gave authorities a place to start digging. The perp ought to be easy to find and several law enforcement agencies were being alerted to the lead. The two lawyers huddled their clients away from the hub-bub and celebrated Chuck’s find quietly. “Alright guys,” Espinosa smiled. “Great work Chuck, but we have a circus to get to.” “Circus?” The teachers were puzzled. “Yep, the media circus. There are suits up in your suites and we have to get downtown to Fox 5 first. We’re taping some local interviews first and then hitting the East Coast news shows, finishing with all of your local affiliates at 3:00. That will be 6:00 back there.” The Riverton men looked at each other with exhausted looks and rolled their eyes. “Let’s get this done,” said Terry as they headed back to their rooms. As the men crossed the casino that was becoming crowded for a late Saturday morning, news crews were entering bound for one of the conference rooms where police would give more information on the hunt for Jackie Elkington. It had been quickly decided that there would be no news on the most recent development other than that the men had been extremely helpful and that more suspects were being zeroed in on.


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“Okay, that deck is loaded with big cards,” Potter spoke into a tiny microphone while sitting in the parking lot of the Wild Horse Pass Casino, just south of Phoenix on the Gila River Indian Reservation. One of the hacker’s crime associates increased his usual $10 bet up to 25 with some disguising comment about how he could feel his luck aobut to change. What made it really easy for the partner at the table was that he didn’t have to concentrate a bit. The plastic frame glasses he wore sent a crystal clear picture back to Potter’s newly purchased Audi A6. A sharp little monitor showed 3 picture of tables with plus and minus numbers under each. The numbers were controlled by Potter as he watched cards play out in each game. When the players needed to bet big, Potter would signal them. His eyes focused on the player he had just signaled and watch the hands being dealt. First card was a four. Then came a seven to give the counter eleven. Potter felt a jolt. “Double, double,” he coached not even looking at the dealer’s card which turned out to be a six, the worst possible card for the house. The thief added five more of the red chips to his bet and the dealer dealt him one more card. “A nine,” Potter clapped hidden amongst all of the other cars. “Twenty. Yes!” The rest of the players played out their hands and Potter continued to focus on the cards, methodically entering them into the PDA on his lap. The dealer flipped over her hole card which was a ten. “Sixteen,” she said while drawing another. “Twenty-two, dealer busts,” she said


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as the players at the table who hadn’t busted themselves anxiously awaited their winnings. After watching his crew turn fifty dollars each into close to a thousand, Potter gave the signal to play their last hands. This little test had run flawlessly. Sure, a thousand dollars was nice, but really seemed quite paltry compared to the three-quarters of a million stashed at their luxurious resort back in Scottsdale. They couldn’t start throwing around large sums of cash until long after the excitement of the robbery had died down. They would test their strategies and live it up a little while the heat was still on. In a couple of months, they would increase the stakes and really pound the Arizona casinos with their technologically enhanced card counting methods. “We’ve got a hit,” a LVMPD tech shouted as he hung up the telephone. “Elkington was sighted in West Chester County, New York.” “I’ve got another one on her,” a second tech yelled as he completed some notes. “This one says she’s on Siesta Beach in Sarasota, Florida.” The calls were just flying in to the control center. Within an hour, there had been twenty-five sightings of Jackie in nineteen cities. Local authorities were notified and the list was distributed to other investigators working other aspects of the case. Gonzalez sat down with his copy and was soon joined by Gainey and O’Brien who were just being briefed of the latest developments. Before them sat a list of charges the suspected mastermind had put on the credit cards of Chuck and Kevin. There were flights from Vegas


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to all parts of the country and a couple even out of the country. There were tickets to different sporting events all over the country and hotel reservations to go with them. The detectives knew this was obviously done to spread them so thin, that they couldn’t possibly cover all of these possible locations. “What a mess,” said O’Brien as he leafed through the three pages. The accounts had been purposely left open by authorities, hoping something in them might be a lead. “Where do we start,” asked Gainey. “There is a lot of Michigan. Think they went back that way?” “Possibly,” said Gonzalez. “But of all of the hits on the girl, none were in the Midwest and I have a good feeling she is still close to the money. There were two sightings in Arizona and her mom is out there.” “Didn’t the cops already visit her mom? Didn’t she say she hadn’t seen or heard form her in a week?” O’Brien asked. “Right,” returned Gonzalez. “But look at the list. Two hotels in Phoenix, and hockey tickets.” “Hockey tickets?” Gainey gasped. “What the hell do we care about hockey tickets, in Phoenix of all places?” “A, she has a connection to the place and b, they’re playing Detroit,” as Gonzalez was explaining himself to the detectives he was handed a note from another FBI agent. “And now C, we have a third sighting of her in the area. I’d say at least we have a shot at her. If we’re lucky, she’ll have the rest of them with her.”


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Excitement shot through the veins of everyone in that room as law enforcement in Phoenix was alerted to the possibility of the suspects planning a big night at the Coyotes and Red Wings game. The robber who had spent that last few days impersonating Bill Parsons left the tip on the table at Majerle’s Restaurant in downtown Phoenix. The joint belonged to former Suns basketball player Dan Majerle and is a hot spot before and after any event in the recently reinvigorated area. Potter passed out game tickets as the five men began walking for the limo that would zip them out to Glendale Arena. A couple felt a little twinge as the limousine neared what appeared to a heavy police presence for a Saturday night hockey game. But, after three days on the run, they were getting used to going on with life despite cops in the area. They were well decked out in red and white as were the majority of fans walking into the arena. Michiganders that have relocated to the desert jump at the chance to see their beloved Wings and often make the Phoenix arena more like a home game for Detroit. After being carefully eyeballed by arena security and state police, Potter and his boys grabbed some overpriced beers and located their seats. “Didn’t Whatsename want to come?” the crook from Missouri asked Potter. “She’s already in Mexico. Besides, we want nothing to do with her now. Cops are onto her. I don’t know how. I gave her the money and cut her loose.” Outside of the team dressing areas, a coalition of police officers from several agencies made final preparations for their seizures. They


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had Potter and his boys lined in their sites. As soon as all of the mayhem of team introductions began with the smoking coyote heads, fireworks, and spotlights, the crooks would be nabbed. A sergeant checked his watch and nodded to arena personnel as the lights went out. Within seconds, cops shot up the aisles, blocked the exit portals and soon had five men handcuffed on ushered away to a holding cell in the arena’s basement. “What? What are you doing?” one of those in custody screamed as he was placed in a cell. “Why are you doing this?” “You can give up the act now,” a husky state trooper growled. “The game is up.” “Up? What game?” another of the men in custody argued while trying to adjust his Wings jersey. “The only game we came to see was a hockey game. I paid over five hundred bucks on Ebay for these tickets. I know there are rules against that in some areas, but this is freaking ridiculous!” “Ebay? Nice try!” an arena guard jeered. “Let’s get some i.d. on these guys,” an FBI agent directed out of breath from running to the holding area. “No really. We bought these tickets on Ebay. It was completely sold out. What is this all about?” The agent and a couple other feds reached for the men’s wallets. “This isn’t them! These guys are still in high school,” dejectedly said one of the agents. It turned out that the kids really had bought the tickets through the online auction service. Two of them were brothers who grew up in Toledo before their dad moved the family west. The other three were


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some friends who played drop-in hockey together at one of the Valley’s ice rinks. Agents apologized for the inconvenience and arena personnel soon had the boys new seats a lot closer to the ice. After the game, Potter and his associates sat laughing in the back of a limousine bound for their nice digs at the resort. “Did you see the look on that those kids’ faces when they got hauled out by the cops? Priceless, priceless,” quipped one of the crooks originally from Michigan. “Then there….how…sock…new shoes,” garbled the limo’s intercom system in the driver’s area. Hardy Kemp had told his bosses about it three weeks ago. The thing kept shorting between on and off which made it really difficult to carry conversation with passengers, but did provide some entertainment to the drive if the mike keyed open long enough. Hardy had learned to tune out most of the static, but as he turned north on the 51something caught his attention. The passengers were talking about the recent robbery in Las Vegas. It truly was a small world because he had played Little League baseball with Chuck Fagan and had been in the same fifth grade class. “Big deal,” one of the passengers joked. “We knew they’d figure it was a frame job. That just gave us time to get out of town without a chase. Look at us now.” Hardy Kemp could hardly believe his ears. He wished he had a little tape recorder. It was highly unethical, or at least against company policy to eavesdrop, but Hardy knew what was going on in back was really important stuff related to a huge crime that a friend had at least temporarily taken most of the heat for.


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What do I do? Hardy thought. Should I just drive them to the Police? No. They’ll just deny it. Finally, hardy knew exactly what his plan was. He continued to listen and took the group in a somewhat round about way back to the hotel. After dropping them and receiving a generous tip, Hardy tipped off a friend who worked in the concierge office at the resort. Soon, Hardy was breaking all kinds of traffic laws while burning up Scottsdale Road in his company’s limo. The black stretch Lincoln bounced hard up on the curb as it turned on a side street just before Tempe. The long luxury car that seated twelve soon came to rest cockeyed across his girlfriend’s lawn. “What in God’s name are you doing?” a petite brunette yelped as she raced out to meet Hardy. “I found them. I found them.” “Found who?” “The real crooks that framed Chuck Fagan, the guy I told you about from high school.” “How?” the girl named Wendy rolled her eyes. “I heard them in back, laughing about how scott-free they were getting away, all kinds of details. But I need your help. Call the lab. We will take the car there right now.” The two went back into the house for Wendy to change and were quickly on their way to the state police crime lab where Wendy was a ranking criminalist. She made three or four calls on her cell phone and when the limo finally arrived, a flock of police technicians were swarming the back of the vehicle. The last group of passengers had been quite thirsty and dirty glasses were stacked throughout the


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vehicles. A wealth of fingerprints and saliva samples were rapidly scooped up by the army of authorities working the vehicle. The evidence was handed over to another army of techs waiting to process it. “Where is it? Where is it?” barked Detective Gainey in his Las Vegas office as he anxiously awaited what the lab in Arizona had found. “Okay, here comes something. Great! The detective tapped impatiently for all of the reports to finish printing in his fax machine. As soon as the last page was starting to poke out of the machine, he grabbed it, yelled to O’Brien and bounded down three flights of metal chairs to the fingerprint lab. His partner soon followed only a bit slower and huffing all of the way. “The hockey game may have been a set up. But they crooks were there anyways. We just got prints and DNA from ‘Zona. Let’s pray they match,” explained Gainey. The lab was quickly filling up with investigators as word spread of the latest find. James and Roberts were soon shoving their ways to the front where an obviously frazzled young scientist worked as fast as he could trying to match evidence from the limo to evidence found at the three Vegas crime scenes. He had never ever been on such a stage, not even in drama club. As them room continued to fill, the tech very slowly removed his glasses, placed them on the desk next to his equipment, wiped an acne scarred forehead with his labcoat sleeve, spun 180 degrees in his chair, smiled, raised his arms above his head in a “V” and yelled, “Bingo!” sending the rest of the room into euphoria.


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Chapter 22 The phone ringing next to Chuck and Kelly’s bed at 6:15 Sunday morning was a shock to their systems. The media appointments were a circus yesterday and Chuck was hoping there wouldn’t be too many of them today. He had asked for an 8 AM wake up call. Why was the blasted thing ringing now? At least they had finally slept well after taking it easy last night, having swung through Cowboy Christmas, and then capping the night with some dinner across the street at the Palms buffet. “Hello,” grogged Chuck. “Say that again. Sure, give me ten minutes. Wow!” “What is it?” Kelly asked rolling over and pulling up the comforter. “They think they have them cornered. They’re in Phoenix at some resort. A big time raid is about to go down. They have it on closed circuit communications downstairs. I have to get down there.” “Well, let me get dressed!” exclaimed Kelly. “I am not going to miss this.” Within what seemed like seconds Chuck and Kelly were on the elevator with the Van Eck’s making the three floor drop to the casino that still had many revelers left over from Saturday night. They hustled through banks of machines, past the main cage and then down a side corridor where the Parsons were talking with Kevin while eating bagels and Danishes. Huge anticipation was written all over everyone’s faces as they took seats at a large conference table close to a series of television monitors.


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“Good morning, good morning,” one of the Metro detectives greeted then briefed the West Michigan people on what was about to happen. It would all play out before them and hopefully with in a few minutes, this whole mess would be neatly cleaned up. One of the monitors crackled to life and a black and white picture that looked like something from a Fox TV special on the World’s Worst Drivers appeared showing a quiet bungalow and palm lined courtyard. A crew of Metro Police and FBI agents sat impatiently at another table. Radio traffic from the cops on the ground in Arizona counted down their readiness and within seconds, the placid courtyard was filled with law enforcement dressed in full combat gear. There was running, shouting, yelling as Maricopa County Sheriff deputies crashed through the lavish doors of the posh hotel room. The monitors and radios showed nothing but craziness and it was debatable whether anyone back in Vegas had a clue as to what was happening at the hotel. “Got one! I have one at gunpoint,” an officer shot through the radio. Mouths were agape in the Rio conference center. “Another! Got another!” another officer reported. But after what seemed like a decade of silence, the Lieutenant leading the raid reported, “That’s all that is in here. Just two.” Mixed emotions ran through the Vegas control center. At least two were in custody but where did the others go? The two suspects had been rousted from their beds and sat in boxer shorts and handcuffs in complete shock. Their short lives as criminals appeared to be close to the end. Being already down on


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their luck, the two were looking to be as helpful as possible, hoping for some type of deal. They had never been in any trouble other than being pursued by their creditors. Maybe the cops would cut them some type of break. “Where are the others?” barked an FBI agent. The two on the floor just looked at each other. They had no idea where they might be. They hadn’t heard them leave. “Where’s the money? Where’s the money?” the same officer screamed with adrenaline in his voice. Both just leaned their heads toward a fireplace. “Chimney,” one of them said. “Behind the bar,” the other shared while beginning to feel he’d been double crossed. What seemed like an entire Marine Corps platoon descended upon the spots just named and found absolutely nothing. The handcuffed suspects again looked at each other in amazement. They had been double-crossed. Potter and the two others had taken the money and run. “Mexico,” shouted one of the crooks. “Rocky Point, Mexico. They must have run. The girl is already there. Hotel Viña Del Mar.” A trio of detectives stood the two overly cooperative former fugitives up and helped them to a pair of chairs. The crooks kept singing and soon their was an all points bulletin across the West for an Audi A6, occupied three times, likely headed southwest to the Sea of Cortez port city of Puerto Peñasco, or Rocky Point as the Americans called it. The captured crooks had recalled a partial Texas plate on the rental.


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An official from Arizona was soon on the big monitor at the Rio, updating those in Las Vegas as to what had all gone down in the past ten minutes. The two suspects were on their way to jail and had been identified as being from Kansas City and La Habra, California. Both were twenty-seven years old. A pair of twin helicopters were launched from Department of Public Safety headquarters, Arizona’s highway patrol. Cruisers from all over the Phoenix metropolitan area descended in search of the Audi and more importantly all of the cash missing from the Excalibur. Immigration officials sent out bulletins and road blocks were set up south of Tucson and near the tiny town of Why that served as the last outpost before Sonoyta and the Mexican border. “Gimme that ‘scrip one more time,” DPS officer Buddy Price called into his radio. “Got it!” The veteran state trooper swung into the “high occupancy lane” and was soon side-by-side the fleeing suspects while heading westbound on a virtually abandoned Superstition Freeway. Price swung into position behind the A6 and lit his red, white, and blue flashers. As the officer engaged the siren, Potter floored the German built vehicle and the 2.7 liter twin-turbo engine dramatically increased the distance between him and the pursuing DPS Monte Carlo. Price buried his gas pedal and quickly narrowed the gap. “I am in pursuit on 60, headed east,” he calmly reported. “Just passing Country Club. Speed is 110. Get me back up on I-10 in both directions. This freeway is gonna end soon. Speed increased as the chase passed out of Mesa and into Tempe. “Just past Mill. He has to make a decision quick. He better slow down though.”


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As predicted, Potter moved over to the 10 South exit, but the trailing officer shuddered as he peeked at how fast they were going. The exit rivaled bobsled tracks for tightness and as he eased off his gas and began to break, a shower of sparks shot off the left side of the gold sedan ahead of him. Potter quickly regained control and glanced at his mirror as he merged at the bottom of the ramp. “Good thing you got the damage waiver,� one of the crooks from the back seat laughed after slapping the driver on the shoulder, intoxicated by the danger. Traffic had been stopped ahead and the four lanes of the freeway belonged to the fleeing criminals and the four DPS cars behind them. In attempts to limit the damage, the state patrol had been instructed to simply escort the car wherever it wanted to go. The troopers were to stay in contact, but not to attempt to overtake the Audi. Potter looked down and the speedometer was bouncing between 140 and 150. The smooth road ahead appeared to g straight forever. How long could he keep this up? Did he have enough gas to make it to Mexico? The border was at least an hour and a half at this speed. For the first time ever in his criminal life, Potter felt desperate. No piece of technology could help him in this situation. He would have to rely on German engineering. He would have to make a move soon. The sprawling suburbs of Phoenix had given way to barren desert and small jagged mountains popping up from the scrubby brown desert floor. The Audi and its trailing DPS escort crossed the empty Gila River and the crooks grew more desperate every second. Potter noticed an exit sign for Casa Blanca Road, a strip of blacktop


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disappearing into the nothingness to the west. He had missed the exit he had planned to use and was descending too far south. Maybe this little road would get the trio back on track. Besides, Potter was hoping that by getting on to one of the Gila River Indian Reservation Roads, the DPS would be out of jurisdiction and have to give up the chase. Tires squealed as the gold, scraped-up, sedan wheeled itself around the banked exit. There’d be no going west though. Two reservation police cars blocked the road and officers fired as the Audi continued south down an old blacktop road that paralleled the highway. The highway patrol had no problem gaining permission from the tribal official and continued pursuit. Overhead, a DPS helicopter relayed information to the cars in pursuit. The Audi’s speed climbed to 160 and as the road deteriorated, the troopers eased back. Potter and his two passengers breathed a deep breath of relief as they seemed to finally be losing the cops. Only the helicopter overhead continued chasing them. The blacktop became broken in spots and the sedan shuddered. Potter regained control but began squinting at what lie ahead. It appeared to be a blockage. He eased back to 100 as he looked ahead. It was a blockage. A huge mound of earth had been laid across the road, creating a dead end. When the criminals in the car saw the faded sign, riddled with shotgun blast, they couldn’t help but feeling the sign was about to become far too literal. Potter braked hard and the Audi’s tire slid on the broken pavement, dirt, and rocks below them. It was the point of no return and as hard as Potter tried to correct the vehicle, he lost total control and began feeling himself and the others hurling and turning through the air.


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A news helicopter caught the end of the chase perfectly. The gold Audi rolled at least six times up the large berm of dirt, coming to rest in a smashed cigar shape amidst a cloud of dust and dirt that shot all of the way up to the hover chopper. As the dust settled, it appeared to be raining or snowing, but this part of Arizona wasn’t about to have a white Christmas. No, the brown baked dirt was rapidly greening up as hundreds of thousands of dollars fell from the sky and scattered in a huge circle around the Audi. Amazingly, the three crooks inside were able to climb from the vehicle and began running. Within seconds, the pursuing officers were carefully detaining the fugitives. Reservation paramedics had anticipated such an ending and had joined the chase. E.M.T.s were carefully administering first aid and assessing the suspects who each collapsed as their adrenaline subsided. How no one was killed in such a dramatic end to the chase was simply miraculous. These three would be in tremendous pain and would likely require a number of surgeries for broken bones, but all appeared to be surprisingly in good shape. MedEvac helicopters swooped into the scene and soon had the fugitives on their way to a trauma center in Mesa. Back in Las Vegas, very few in that Rio conference center knew exactly what to feel. There were no demonstrations of any emotion at all. The way the things unfolded a few hundred miles away was hard to digest. But the bottom line was that for all intents and purposes the horrible ordeal that had engulfed a good part of the past week and the lives of the unsuspecting people in the room was over. Well, it wasn’t completely over. The capture of the five suspects and the recovery of the money was like an onion. The layers would be peeled back and


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probably for months to come new facts would be revealed as authorities dug deeper into the planning and execution of one of the highest profile cases of identity theft ever. Still, the Michigan families wanted to know who it was that pulled this thing off. But, that person was in an emergency medical helicopter on his way to surgery. Hopefully, someone would be able to identify these three. There were still lots of questions to be answered, but at this moment all that mattered was that it was over. Thoughts quickly changed from the drama of the past hour to getting the Hell out of Vegas. West Michigan awaited them. The rest of their families and all who cared about them waited. After asking if it was okay, the families returned to their suites and quickly started throwing all they had as fast as they could into their suitcases. Chuck’s dad had come over with Espinosa and had sat with his son and Kelly while this unfolded. “Thanks for coming up Dad,” Chuck said as he hugged the big phys. ed. teacher. “It’s good to know you always have our back.” “Aw,” he gushed. “I just thought Kelly was gonna bring my grandson.” “See, I told you,” joked the pretty redhead. “They don’t come to see us anymore.” “No, I am joking. I would do anything for you guys.” “We would too,” Chuck laughed as the incredible burden of this trip finally began to leave his shoulders. “I have to get back to your mom. She must be thrilled this thing is all done. Hug that kid for me.”


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“You give our best to his grandma,” Kelly said as they parted with smiles for the first time in quite a while Shortly after returning upstairs, word came that flights had been arranged. They would leave within two hours and fly directly into Holland’s Tulip City airport. The parent company of the Excalibur was so thrilled to have its money back and thankful that Chuck and his buddies had been so cooperative that one of their jets would be taking the families home. Since packing only took a matter of minutes, that left one more hour to soak up all Vegas had to offer. As the psyches absorbed the relief, a feeling of celebration was rapidly coming over the Riverton teachers. Terry headed for the Deuces Wild machines while Chuck looked for his old friend Texas Ted. In a Mesa, Arizona hospital room an FBI agent sat next to a bruised and bandaged Potter who was sitting up in his bed, while handcuffed to a railing. “Your license says your name is Robert Stupak,” spoke the agent. “So?” “Bob Stupak built Vegas World, ran some crazy ass promotions, and then built the Stratosphere. If you’re Bob Stupak, then I Jay Sarno, I built Circus Circus and Caesars Palace. Gee Bob, you look so much younger. Come on now what’s your name?” Silence “Give me your name or you’re going in as John Doe. John Does are a pain in the ass for me to file and a bigger pain in the ass for you to be. Our Sheriff here is pretty famous for his tent city jail. As John Doe, you could sit down there a long, long time.”


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More silence. “You’re just lucky that you’re alive.” Potter didn’t say a thing. He just stared at the gray wall, trying to ignore the pestering agent. The other two suspects were still in surgery. One who was identified as Rudy Perry, a twenty-three-year-old originally from Farmington Hills, Michigan had to have his spleen removed due to internal injuries. However, the doctors expected him to pull through and lead a normal life—well as normal of a life that could be led inside of a penitentiary for a good deal of his future. Perry had worked for two years at the Detroit Motor City casino, another Mandalay Bay owned casino. He had grown disgruntled and figured this was a great opportunity to get back at his former employer. The other suspect was also in surgery having plates put in both legs. Ismael Taylor was born and raised in Vegas and had met up with the others through their card counting efforts. He was another disgruntled Mandalay employee from the Excalibur. Ismael had been hired as a dealer, but as budget crunches hit the casino, he never made it to the tables. Instead, he was bounced to the basement level guessing kids’ weight in the carnival midway area. “I can not believe we both hit jackpots within minutes of each other!” Terry giggled as the jet got closer and closer to home. I mean to be dealt the four deuces on the game as soon as I sat down was just a miracle.” “I know,” agreed Chuck. “I guess Texas Ted had been watching the news and wanted to congratulate for getting out of this mess. I am


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just glad I hit the five oil wells on a dollar machine instead of a nickel machine.” One thousand one hundred thirteen miles miles ahead of the corporate jet, a welcome home celebration was being organized. The community had been through a lot of emotional highs and lows as well. As a gesture of support people were beginning to assemble in one of the hangars. They would form a human tunnel when the Mandalay jet had taxied to the little terminal area. One of the local grocery stores had provided doughnuts, cider, and hot chocolate and the hangar was beginning to take on a real festive air. Many of Kelly’s colleagues from Pier Cove were there and almost every staff member from Riverton school system had brought their families as well. One noticeable absentee was Susan Vander Slice. “I don’t know why they need all of this attention,” Susan said to her husband with her hands on her hips as she watched a live news report from the airport. “They had no business going there in the first place.” Susan was still shaking her head as she picked up the telephone. “Hi Jason, how are you? An accident? Where are you? Arizona? Why are you in Arizona? Yes, yes we’ll be there. We will call the airlines right now. Honey, how did this happen? Yes, we will be there in the morning. Lawyer? Why do you need a lawyer? Okay, we love you son.” When the big private plane finally landed, the Riverton families felt like returning war heroes. They were truly humbled and touched by the outpouring on affection. They deplaned and made their way to the hangar where they shook hands and exchanged hugs before talking


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briefly to a pack of television reporters. The party continued awhile after the families had made it home. Chuck and Kelly tucked their little boy into his bed and Chuck stood over him for what seemed like a very long time. Then they walked out to their barn and gave their horses one last flake of hay for the night. They embraced in the December chill and reveled in the warmth of being back on their little five acres of the world. They walked back inside and turned on the eleven o’clock news as they got ready for bed. The newscast started off with footage of the return celebration, but then jumped quickly to even bigger news of the day. “As the community was celebrating the return of the falsely accused men, FBI agents stormed the Riverton home of Dirk and Susan Vander Slice. A search warrant was issued when Police officials learned that the identity of the Excalibur mastermind is former Riverton resident Jason Vander Slice, whose mother has taught in the school district for nineteen years. Vander Slice is now also believed to be the elusive cyber criminal Potter. Authorities say that he has wreaked havoc throughout the Internet since the late 1990’s. Arizona authorities say that Vander Slice was injured and hospitalized after the dramatic end to today’s police chase. The suspect had been extremely uncooperative, but finally gave up his true identity after officials confronted him with evidence found in his posh resort hideout. Vander Slice and the four others apprehended today will face extradition hearings once they are determined to be healthy enough to travel.”


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Chuck and Kelly looked at each other in amazement. After all they had been through, neither one could believe what they were hearing. At the same moment they both exploded with laughter, flopped back in bed and covered their heads with their pillows. They laughed and laughed long into the night. “See,” Kelly said. “You should have listened to Susan.” The two shared one last kiss and finally turned out the bedside light. As Chuck rolled over he giggled one last time to himself, “Merry Christmas Susan Vander Slice. I hear you’re going to Vegas.”


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Afterword Jason Kyle VanderSlice, as the world came to know Potter, was convicted of the most felony fraud counts ever given to one individual in the state of Michigan. The trial became a real fiasco as prosecutors tried to sift through all of the wreackage he had secretly created. Conservative figures estimated his thefts totaled somewhere in the forty to fifty million dollar range. The trouble for authorities was that since he had been so go at hiding the money, they could never find where it had all gone. Kyle’s mother Susan was so distraught that she immediately resigned her teaching position and moved into seclusion in Boca Raton, Florida. That was until the Feds realized her condo had been bought by her son with somebody else’s cash. No one in Riverton has heard from the VanderSlice’s since. As you can imagine, there is specualtion--lots of specualtion. Jackie Elkington remains at large and is believed to be in the company of former airport security officer Jeremy McClintick. She seems to be the big winner in the heist. Officials figure she still got away with close to $150,000. The pair is likely living it up in one of Potter’s Mexican villas. There has been no word on how she is dealing with poor Jeremy’s passing. The Riverton teachers were big celebrities in West Michigan for a while, but life seems to be getting back to normal. With Brian’s help, they won a large class action suit against Potter. However, it will be some time before they see any money. Bill Parson finished out the year at Riverton High and retired. He and Sarah now focus full-time on their growing real estate business.


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Terry Van Eck and Kevin Stewart still teach and coach in Riverton. Every chance Kevin gets though, he heads to Vegas where he helps Stacey chase deadbeats and cheats. She keeps talking bout settling down, but Kevin isn’t quite ready. Chuck Fagan continues teaching technology classes at Riverton High School, fishes a lot with his son, and enjoy the quiet country with Kelly. He also works consulting the Michigan state crime lab and the FBI on computer-related identity theft cases. He has vowed to never ever return to Las Vegas...uh, yeah, right!


Potter's Wheel, a novel by Andy Losik