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Authors: John McFetridge

Tags: #Mystery, #General, #Fiction, #Hard-Boiled, #Mystery & Detective

Tumblin' Dice

BOOK: Tumblin' Dice
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Also by John McFetridge

Dirty Sweet

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Swap

For Laurie, always

ONE

The High had been back together and on the road for a couple of months playing mostly casinos when the lead singer, Cliff Moore, got the idea to start robbing them. Not the casinos so much, the shylocks working them.

It was two in the morning; they'd played the Northern Lights Theater at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino in Milwaukee, nostalgia show with Grand Funk and Eddie Money, and Cliff was in a minivan in the parking lot getting a blowjob. Out the van window he saw the bass player, Barry Nemeth, walking between parked cars, looking around like somebody might be following him, and putting a wad of cash in his jacket pocket. Cliff said, “What the fuck?” and the soccer mom looked up and said, you don't like it?, and Cliff said, no, it's good, honey, “Really good. I'm almost there.” When he finished, he signed another autograph, the mom saying the first time she saw the High was in Madison, must have been '78 or '79, her and her friends still in high school, sneaking into the show at the University of Wisconsin. She said, “It was you guys and Styx, remember? I had a crush on you ever since.”

Cliff caught up to Barry standing outside the tour bus having a smoke and asked him about the money. When did he have time to get into the casino? Barry said he didn't win it, he stole it.

Cliff said, “You mugged somebody,” and Barry said, fuck no, “The money's from a shylock. Come on,” and got on the bus. Cliff started to follow, felt a hand on his arm, and looked around to see two very hot chicks, had to be teenagers, but maybe legal, looked exactly the same — long blond hair, tight jeans, low-cut tees, like twins, same serious look on their faces — and he said, “Hey, ladies, looking for some fun?”

One of the girls said, “No, we're looking for our mom. She was talking to you before.”

Ritchie came up then, squeezed between the girls, shaking his head at Cliff, saying, “At least they're not looking for their grandma,” and Cliff said, “Fuck you.”

On the bus Cliff walked past Ritchie and sat down beside Barry, saying, “What're you talking about, shylocks?”

They were settled in then, heading to Niagara Falls, going to open for the Doobie Brothers, and Barry said, “You know, loan sharks working the casinos.”

Cliff said, “They work for the casinos?” and Barry said, no, “They don't work
for
the casinos, they work
at
them. They cash cheques.”

“We don't get paid by cheque,” Cliff said. “It's direct deposit.”

“They buy jewellery, cars, whatever. Usually the same guy sells the speed and meth.”

“So how'd you get the money?”

“This guy, I sold him a microphone,” and Cliff said, shit, “Now you have no mike,” and Barry said it was one of Grand Funk's. “So the drummer doesn't sing backup, so what?”

Ritchie walked down the aisle then, going into the bathroom right behind Barry and Cliff, and Dale, the drummer, sitting across the aisle beside his wife, Jackie, said, “You take one of your monster dumps in there, you fucking hot bag it,” and Jackie said, “Dale, please.”

She looked across the aisle at Cliff and Barry and said, “What is it happens to you guys, you get on the road and you're teenagers again?”

Cliff said, “Again?” pointing at Dale, saying, “He ever poke you as much as that iPod?” and Jackie rolled her eyes and looked away. She and Dale married nearly thirty years, she was the only wife left on the bus. Dale said, “Do not stink up this fucking bus — there's bags in there.”

Now Cliff was whispering but nobody was listening anyway, saying, “They fired a roadie. It was you? How much you get?”

Barry said he got two hundred for the mike, five hundred for the Stratocaster he lifted from Eddie Money — guy never played it anyway — and a hundred and fifty for the backup singer's leather boots back at the Northern Lights Casino in Minnesota. Cliff said, shit, “That chick was so pissed off, man. That was a catfight — she went after the black one hard.”

Cliff was looking right at Barry now and he said, “All this time we haven't seen each other — it's like I don't even know you anymore.”

Barry said yeah.

Cliff said, “They always have the cash to pay you, just like that?”

“Shit, these guys are mobile fucking pawn shops — they buy anything. They buy cars. It's all cash — people take it right back into the casino.”

“Full-service business.”

Barry said, you know it. “This guy tonight, he probably had twenty, thirty grand on him. I'd like to get my hands on that,” and Cliff said, what do you want to do, sell them the bus? But that's when he had the idea.

Ritchie came out of the bathroom, dropped a plastic grocery bag in the aisle between Cliff and Jackie, and said, “Here, you want it so bad,” and kept going back to his seat behind the driver.

Jackie said, “Oh for Christ's sake,” making a face like he dropped it in her lap, and Dale reached past her, grabbed the bag, opened the window, and threw it out in one motion, saying, “I'm not riding in a stinking bus.”

Cliff said to Barry, “Twenty grand? You think so?”

“Remember that hockey player's brother, guy on the Red Wings, got picked up at the casino in Detroit for loan sharking?”

Cliff said, yeah, vaguely. He remembered something about betting on games, too, wasn't the brother a goalie? “Wasn't he tied to the Saints of Hell, the motorcycle gang?”

“Probably. Gotta be tied to somebody to work the casino. They picked him up — it was on the news, him and his girlfriend, had forty-five grand in cash on them, a pile of jewellery they'd bought, government cheques they cashed.”

Cliff said, shit.

Barry said if they could get their hands on a big money item it would make the tour worthwhile, and Cliff said, “This whole reunion thing was your idea. You think I wanted to get back on the fucking bus, ride with these assholes?”

Barry said, no, “You wanted to keep selling yuppies million-dollar fucking bungalows in Toronto, bust your hump seven days a week, suck up to everybody in sight, hoping they don't do the deal with their brother-in-law.”

Cliff didn't say anything but he thought, yeah, the real estate is getting tough. Tough to get a listing, tough to keep a client, working eighteen-hour days, always on call, working every minute of long weekends. He was ready when Barry called with this idea of putting the High back together, heading out on the road.

Cliff said, “Maybe you don't have to sell them anything,” and Barry said, what do you mean? Cliff said he had an idea, but wait a minute, and he went in the bathroom.

There was a plastic bag full of other plastic bags in the little sink, and Cliff got one out and stretched it over the toilet seat, thinking it was just like all the dog owners in his neighbourhood back home, always carrying bags, always ready to pick up the shit. Won't give the homeless guy in front of the Tim Hortons a dime for the newspaper he's trying to sell, but they get on their knees to pick up dog shit.

He started to undo his belt and thought, no, really just need to take a leak, this is just nerves, butterflies, but bad ones, worse than getting up onstage ever felt, and then realized, well, you start thinking about ripping off connected guys in casinos, it's got to give you some nerves.

Gives you a rush, too, though. Cliff pulled the bag off the toilet and started pissing, thinking, yeah, add twenty grand to what we're getting for a night onstage, putting the band back together starts to look like a great idea.

• • •

The way it worked, Barry lifted Ritchie's white Gibson Flying V — like all Gibsons, the thing went out of tune soon as you took two steps with it, and who the hell did Ritchie think he was, jumping around with a Flying V — and Cliff went looking for the shylock, who wasn't hard to find, he just told the guy selling speed he needed cash and had the guitar. The guy pulled out his cell, set it up, told him to go out into the parking lot, look for a black Escalade.

Cliff said, you think there's only one?, and the guy said he wasn't finished, said, “Parked on the far side, facing the bridge. Talk to the guy in it. Bald guy.”

Walking through the lot carrying the guitar case, Cliff was thinking he was glad the speed dealer hadn't recognized him, but he was a little pissed off, too. There were posters all over the place for the show — the High, Trooper, and Peter Frampton — and it'd been good. Trooper, still a fucking twenty-minute band, going over their time, but they came on after the High, so let bigshot fucking Frampton worry about it. Cliff was backstage doing a flat-chested blackjack dealer by then — chick had pierced nipples.

He pulled on the door handle and the bald guy in the driver's seat took his time looking over, pressing the button and popping the lock.

Cliff got in saying, shit, it's cold out there, hoping this guy wouldn't recognize him either. “And wet, is it always so wet here?” Frizzing out his hair, even though he was wearing it short these days, looking a lot more like his picture on his real estate ads than like the lead singer of the High, but the chicks liked it, liked the way he was all grown up.

The guy said, “The Falls are right there, if you wanna see 'em,” and Cliff said, not particularly, and pulled the guitar case up onto his lap and opened it.

The guy said, “I'll give you two hundred.”

“It's worth three grand — it's vintage.”

“Yeah, if it was Johnny Winter's, but it's not. Five hundred.”

“I played with Johnny,” Cliff said. “And Edgar. We opened for them in '76 — I was just a kid.”

The guy said he thought he looked familiar. “Maybe if I knew one of your songs.”


KISS
that summer, Ted Nugent, too. You know
Cat Scratch Fever
? We opened for Alice Cooper and Bowie, man.”

The guy said, “Five hundred.”

Cliff said, okay, and closed the case.

The guy flipped open his cell phone, hit a button, and said, “Five.” Then he said, “What's your band called, the Sky?”

“The High. I guess you weren't at the show.”

“Was anybody?” and Cliff said, yeah, man, “We do okay on the casino circuit.”

“Just not quite good enough.”

“Blackjack,” Cliff said, “it's my weakness,” and the guy said, yeah, among others. Then, “Okay, you go back through the lot to the casino. Somebody'll meet you.”

“You don't have the money?”

“The way it works, pal. There's fucking cops everywhere.”

Exactly the way Barry said it would work, but Cliff played along. “It's against the law to sell you a guitar?”

“We're full service. Cheque cashing, payday loans, mobile pawn shop. Buy a lot of pink slips, I could open a car lot.”

Cliff said, “Shit,” and opened the door. For a minute he didn't like being lumped in with all those pathetic losers gambling their lives away, he was an artist, but then remembered, oh right, I'm more than that.

• • •

Barry stood by the door of the Korean restaurant at the back end of the parking lot, watching Cliff get out of the Escalade and walk back towards the casino. When he was between a minivan and a pick-up, a short, fat guy stepped in front of him and it was like they just barely bumped — Cliff didn't even slow down and the guy slipped him an envelope. Barry dropped his smoke and followed the short, fat guy to a Lexus, coming up behind him close and saying, “Hey, buddy.”

The guy turned around, saying, what?, and seeing the gun in his face.

Barry held out a grocery bag and said, “Put it all in here.”

The guy said, “You don't know what the fuck you're doing,” and Barry said, “All of it.”

“You'll never make it out of the fucking casino alive.”

Barry said, maybe, maybe not, “I don't give a shit,” and walked in through the front door, looking like a desperate gambler.

• • •

On the tour bus Cliff wanted to see the money right away, but Barry said, no man, not here. He pointed out the window, and Cliff saw the bald guy from the Escalade talking to the short, fat guy, a couple more guys coming over, all of them pissed off.

Barry said, “They're going to spend all night looking through the casino.”

“But I told them I was in the band.”

Barry said, relax, man. “I'm the one took the money. They'll never make the connection. Would you think some guys in a rock band would be robbing people?”

Cliff said right.

Then Barry said, “Hey, man, this was your idea. I was just gonna get the five hundred for the guitar, never mind the thirty grand we got.”

“Holy shit,” Cliff said, “thirty grand,” thinking, what a plan, it went so well, but then he was thinking, was it really my plan? Barry sure got into it quick, didn't even need to be talked into it much.

“Besides,” Barry said, “if they ever do put it together, they'll think it was you and Ritchie, you sold him a guitar, not a bass,” and Cliff said, fuck you, thinking Barry was joking, but not totally sure. Now that he was thinking about it, he wasn't sure any of it was his plan. Barry'd told him the guy buying the shit didn't carry the cash, and Cliff said it wouldn't be hard to find, though, follow him, and Barry said, oh I get it, and Cliff said yeah, but then he said, no, it won't work. “The guy won't just hand over the money. We'd need a gun or something.”

That's when Barry said, “Okay, leave that to me,” and Cliff was so into his plan he didn't think about where his bass player would get a gun.

What the hell, it worked. Ten more stops on this leg of the tour . . . could be good.

• • •

Onstage Ritchie felt good, the best he had in years. Ripping through the intro of “I-95” from the first album,
Higher Than High
, that same G-minor–B-flat–F–C from the Stones' “Ventilator Blues,” he could feel the vibe. The place was hopping and Cliff worked it, playing to the women, making each one feel like he was singing just to her, wanting to get away with just her and “Drive, drive, drive, the I-95.”

BOOK: Tumblin' Dice
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