~ Middle America ~
The croupier gave the wheel a good spin and released the small white ball to run counter to the wheel's rotation. It tracked rapidly around the outside ridge, then perceptibly slowed before taking a random dive into the red and black pockets.
"No more bets." He waved his open hand above the table. With its aristocratic pace and hypnotic silky-smooth click and rattle, the roulette table was a tranquil, almost relaxing oasis in the midst of the otherwise frenetic casino. No strategy was demanded; no skill involved. No complex system to learn in a futile attempt to beat the house. Just place your chips on a number and hope that you picked the 1-in-38 to make you a winner.
The ball settled on red, number 14. After placing the clear, cylindrical marker on the winning number, the croupier cleared the bets from the table. Special Agent Matt Greene's 35-to-1 straight-up bet on 18 was a loser, but his "2nd 12" bet for $5 won him 10 bucks. Time for a breather. His FBI paycheck didn't allow much room for an extended losing streak.
An eager cocktail waitress stepped up and delivered the complimentary Screwdriver he had ordered a few minutes before."Here you go sir, enjoy it. Can I get you anything else?"
"Thanks a lot." He accepted the drink, took a quick sip, fished a red chip from his pocket, and placed it on her tray. "That'll be it for now." Trading in his remaining roulette chips, he grabbed his drink and stepped away from the crowded table.
Well out of his jurisdiction, Agent Greene had taken a long weekend for a combination of a quickie vacation and personal fact-finding trip. He worked out of the Omaha field office, where his superiors unofficially encouraged such observational junkets to the new, controversial resort. The FBI had no influence or impact on what went on here, but it never hurt knowing how the other guy operated.
An even, athletic 6 feet tall, he'd allowed himself the indulgence of letting his hair grow out a full 3 inches from his former Marine Corps buzz-cut. He had the rounded, well-developed chest, flat stomach and clean-cut looks that screamed "law enforcement" to even the casual observer, though no one in his vicinity today seemed the least bit concerned.
He knocked back his drink and decided he'd been on his feet long enough. There was an intimately lit salon not too distant that looked like it would suit his purposes just fine. He threaded his way through the roulette and craps tables toward the beckoning oasis.
The lounge was located at the far end of a horseshoe-shaped alcove jutting out from the casino floor. The emotional temperature of the recess was, by design, noticeably muted. Where the main hall of the Snakebite Casino was done in snappy, summer prairie colors--bright, punchy yellows, turquoises, periwinkles and reds--the alcove was more understated in serene pastels. The mood music had transitioned from energetic pop to a more contemplative New Age style. The carpet was thicker and more comforting underfoot.
An automatic sliding door opened and allowed Agent Greene access. As he stepped into the reception area, he was greeted by a hostess, who, after jotting a note on her seating chart, escorted him down a series of dark, narrow aisles. It took him a moment to notice that there didn't appear to be a freestanding table anywhere in sight--the floor plan had been cleverly designed so that all guest seating was in closed-back booths. He sensed the salon was actually quite crowded, though the noise level was minimal and all the guests hidden away in the confusing maze of private nooks and crannies. Some had translucent, burgundy curtains drawn for increased privacy; as he passed Greene could see slow-motion silhouettes carrying on behind the drapes. The acrid signature of marijuana smoke was scarcely noticeable under a subtle veil of incense. The hostess drew back the curtain on an empty booth and saw that he was settled in the plushly appointed space before taking her leave.
Within minutes a tall, thin tuxedo-clad gentleman stepped up to the table and politely requested to see his resort "PlayPass." Agent Greene produced the digitally encoded identification card he'd received upon check-in. The overly severe, though professionally polite, gatekeeper swiped it through a portable card-reader and handed it back. The card contained, among other things, Greene's medical history and vital statistics, active drug prescriptions, allergies, risk categories, substance-abuse history and other data downloaded (with his approval) when he'd charged his vacation to his credit card. The hand-held computer instantly evaluated a guest's physical status and produced what was, in effect, a grade--a "Play Status," in the resort's official lingo. The gentleman smiled. He informed Greene that a server would be right with him and excused himself.
Almost immediately an attractive young lady, her hair a sharp pixie cut, stopped by and handed him a menu. "I'll be back for your order in a minute," she assured with a spunky Midwestern twang.
"Thanks." Matt studied the menu, one of several available for guests depending on their health profiles. Matt's unblemished medical and substance-abuse file qualified him for the unrestricted, "High Roller" menu. A glance was all it took to convince him that the resort was clearly beyond the reach of U.S. law.
The server returned. Never having been that adventurous, even in his college days, the straight-laced agent stuck with the tried and true. "Let me have a Johnnie Black on the rocks, with a shot of Drambuie on the side."
"A Rusty Nail?"
"I like to mix it myself. Thanks." Experience taught him that many a bartender would substitute cheap, speed-rack Scotch, assuming most drinkers couldn't tell the difference. Separate glasses assured that he would get the good stuff.
Waiting for his drink, Greene put his professional skills to work and unobtrusively scoped out his immediate environment. A waitress appeared at the table across the aisle from him carrying a book-sized black tray and a glass of water. Her customer was sitting in the booth by himself. Middle-aged, he had obviously already patronized a posh store in the shopping arcade, for the feet he ostentatiously parked in the aisle sported shiny ostrich-hide boots, tooled in pink and turquoise. Greene dubbed him Ostrich Boots. The waitress set the tray before him.
To Greene the tray appeared to be of a dense, hard wood--ebony, perhaps, though it could have been black plastic; the somber lighting made it difficult to tell. The tray seemed to have four grooves cut in it, each filled with a heaping line of sparkling white, crystalline cocaine. A gutter on the tray's left side held a wrapped, black plastic straw.
A serious-looking young man, also garbed in the apparently requisite tuxedo, followed right behind the waitress and placed an electric pipe on the table. Rather mystical looking, the device had a clear glass dome, about the size of a softball, to contain the smoke, and, given its overall mission, to keep the smoker entertained. He plugged it in, attached a 24-inch hose with a fresh, clean mouthpiece on the end, and gently removed the dome. Pulling a pouch from his pocket, he used a small measuring spoon to neatly scoop out the requested amount of Payette County sinsemilla, "grown in the foothills of southwest Idaho, just outside of Boise," Greene heard the young man announce. He tapped it carefully into the pipe's burner-tray and re-secured the glass dome. After demonstrating how to press and hold the red button to heat up the product, he excused himself and stepped away.
Agent Greene tried not to stare as Ostrich Boots wet his finger, touched it to the glistening white powder, and tasted. Puckering and smacking his lips, he took a sip of water, reached for the pipe, and fired-up the sinsemilla.
Half an hour later, Greene was waiting for the change from his check and Ostrich Boots was wasted. Toasted. He compulsively alternated between snorting sharply to clear his sinuses, rubbing his nose, and sipping water. He pulled himself together long enough to manage some unconvincing eye contact with the approaching server.
"How are you doing here, sir? All done?"
Ostrich Boots looked up at her with his mouth hanging open.
Even from the opposite table, Greene could tell that Boots' face and tongue must have been numb, completely anesthetized.
The waitress smiled at her hapless charge. It was top quality cocaine and one of the strongest marijuana strains they offered; she would have been surprised if he had been able to muster any coherent response. "Can I get you something else?"
Ostrich Boots took a sip of water and cleared his throat.
"Can I geth a hith of Ethscasy?"
"Excuse me?" The server graciously suppressed a giggle. Greene wasn't so kind.
"I'm sorry, sir, are you trying to say Ecstasy?"
"Yeth. Thorry. One hith of Ethscasy." He pointed to the colorful table tent.
Greene glanced at its twin on his own table. Featuring a soft-focus couple in an amorous embrace, it advertised "CLARITY" pharmaceutical Ecstasy.
"To go," Boots instructed.
"Sure thing," the server promised. "Will you be charging everything to your room?"
"Great. Let me take care of that for you and I'll be right back with your CLARITY." She scampered off to fill his order and, on her return, brought the bill. Like the one Greene had received a few minutes earlier, the bill was enclosed in an elegant black leather folder, accompanied by a small tray holding a chocolate mint. Unlike Greene's, Ostrich Boots' tray also held a blister-packed capsule of Ecstasy.
Greene smiled to himself; he'd seen enough. As soon as his change arrived, he left the salon.
Back in the casino he headed to the main exit--impossible to miss from anywhere on the floor, as it was flanked by two life-sized, bronze bull buffalo, posed heads down, as if ready to charge each other across the thick river of casino visitors. The broad portico would take him back into the massive resort's central atrium, where he could get re-oriented before moseying off to his next destination--at the opposite end of the bustling mall, almost a quarter-mile distant.
That proved to be crowded, too, though not in nearly the density of the casino floor, and not as noisy. Acres of overhead skylights bathed the space with cheery sunlight, a physical dynamic requiring aggressive air-conditioning to offset. A moving walkway ran the length of the expanse, available to less athletically inclined guests. Resort employees could be seen scooting about in electric carts.
He paused to admire the scenery to his right. Beyond the huge wall of glass, past the complex's handsomely landscaped fire buffer and walkways, lay seemingly endless miles of rolling prairie, a rich green carpet bountifully speckled with purple and yellow wildflowers, under a vast blue sky. Scattered signs of civilization, farm buildings most likely, were visible in the distance.
Agent Greene's pastoral moment ended rudely with the thunderous, almost demented, rise of screams and catcalls echoing from the hall behind him. Curiosity heightened, he cautiously approached what was the first of four (apart from the casino) adjoined buildings, abutting, and open to, the atrium.
The Homesteader Arcade was ostensibly an entertainment area for the under-21 set. Stocked with the latest generation of holographic immersion games, the sprawling room was more crowded than the casino, teeming with guests as determined to spend money as the gamblers were to lose it. Gamesters crowded into sensory-immersion booths, up to six at a time, to don state-of-the-art 3-D holographic headgear, shoulder their low-amp laser weapons, mount their techno-steeds and challenge each other for game-points and glory. Some jousted and dueled with heavy, realistic swords and maces against each other, or chose life-sized, 3-D digital opponents for superior decapitation effects. Some armed themselves with modern military weapons for 15 minutes of heart stopping, bloody house-to-house combat; others competed in outrageous road-racing games, while the better-coordinated adventurers with strong stomachs jockeyed spacecraft in violent dogfights around the moons of Jupiter. Younger children were offered educational and entertaining interactions with their favorite Saturday morning cartoon characters.
Looks like fun, Greene thought. This place, he decided, warranted further exploration later on. He drifted back into the atrium, circling around a bustling section of small dining tables and past the rampart of fast-food outlets dutifully guarding the wall to his left.
The next building, almost 100 yards beyond the arcade, was far more sedate. It housed a dozen restaurants, ranging from modestly priced, family-style establishments to the finest, world-class haute cuisine. One of the most popular was the Final Frontier Grill, perched atop the building, 400 feet above the open plain that Greene had been admiring minutes before. Semicircular, tri-level seating and wall-to-wall observation windows allowed a spectacular view from every seat in the house. The menu was un-ambitious and, like almost everything here, a tad overpriced, but the atmospherics kept seating in demand and cemented the restaurant's status as one of the highest-grossing and most reliable moneymakers at the resort.
He proceeded along the atrium, past clusters of shops offering jewelry, electronic gadgets, fine clothing and other expensive items (like Ostrich Boot's footwear) that even the wealthiest consumer would never purchase at home but which somehow seemed attractive to the same people after a big casino win. He kept walking.
The next building housed the resort's hotel complex. The lobby featured a 40-foot "wall of water"--a relaxing, soothing contrast to the frenetic activity in the nearby open mall, it featured thousands of gallons of water rushing down a locally quarried, polished red sandstone face. More than 7,500 rooms were available, divided between three major luxury hospitality providers--Hilton, Marriott, and Hyatt--and a Motel 6 for the budget-minded. Bottom floors were occupied by three large theater/nightclubs, each with its own recreational-drug salon. Live music throbbed from one of the nightclubs. Greene continued on.
Another 100 yards down the atrium, past still another flight of stores, was the final building in the complex--Matt Greene's destination, the Playhouse. He hung a hard left into the entry corridor.
Here too, both sides of the ground level were flanked with nightclubs, these of a decidedly more adult nature. A bank of elevators lined the back wall. Agent Greene entered a waiting car, took a moment to check the directory and pressed the appropriate button. The elevator rose quickly and smoothly.
The door opened silently into a deeply comforting, very masculine reception area. It was plush, just short of smothering, with enough Western trappings to keep it from looking like a stuffy, East Coast, Ivy-League private men's club. A drop-dead receptionist rose from behind her desk to greet him. She wore a shamelessly low-cut black dress that revealed a length of legs so perfect he stopped, frozen in his tracks. Perfect teeth, perfect smile, perfect hair, perfect make-up. Perfect breasts (from what he could see, which had to be at least 90 percent of them). She offered her hand in greeting. Perfect hand.
"How are you today? Have you used our services before?"
"Hi. Uh, no...first time here." He wanted to tell her that he was just looking, but was actually a tad intimidated.
She placed her hand gently on his left shoulder blade and gestured ahead with the other. "Let me show you the facilities."
He was ushered into a cozy, private room with subdued lighting, furnished only with an easy chair and computer screen perched at the end of an adjustable swingarm. Soft music played in the background. His hostess sat gracefully on the arm of his chair, adjusted the computer, and, her hand now draped ever-so-softly across his shoulder, leaned in and explained how to use the online search and reservation system. She helped him swipe his resort PlayPass through the card-reader. His lack of any STDs and other microbiological no-goodsies and his spotless criminal record allowed him maximum access to the system. He had no idea how her breasts managed to remain secure inside her dress.
She finally, gracefully, took her leave and silently closed the door behind her. On the computer he was able to do a simple search for height, body type, hair, eye color, ethnicity, sexual proclivities, and other such characteristics that men deem most important to short-term relationships with the opposite sex. He could elect a picture of a woman that caught his eye, review her particular vital statistics, and watch her cavort playfully in a professionally produced video. Most were modestly seductive, non-threatening, girl-next-door presentations, set with the subject talking softly about herself while traipsing through tall prairie grass; brushing a horse; washing an already sparkling red Corvette while wearing a bikini top and impossibly short, frayed denim cut-offs; or perhaps strolling through an idyllic woodland glade before perching herself and her skin-tight jeans on a log. The women seemed uniformly well-spoken, polished and beautiful. Given a better roll of the dice, perhaps a better education or access to a better selection of men, just about any could have found work as a trophy wife for a successful Greenwich, Connecticut, executive. Some still might. He was able to read a short bio and check the price list for the proffered services. Another click gave him a look at the subject's calendar and availability.
He took a good 20 minutes to leisurely browse through the selections before getting up and leaving the small room, giving the hostess a chipper smile, a wave and a thank-you before heading to the elevator.
Special Agent Matt Greene knew, as many liked to say at a moment like this, that he "wasn't in Kansas anymore." Hell, he wasn't even in the United States anymore.
But he was about 30 miles west of Billings, Montana.
~ August 2019 ~
him. Word spread quickly that the former governor of
six-hour journey from the Shining City to the small town just past
the western border of South Dakota, Ben and Joe joined about
750,000 other souls who had traveled from far and wide to Sturgis,
whose full-time population of 5,000 was hosting the world’s
largest biker party for the 79th year. It was the
so-called Sturgis Massacre of 2013 that many felt had tied the
Henderson administration’s hands during Ben’s constitutional
face-off with that president—the death of 11 innocent Americans at
the hands of the military, effectively denying the president
popular public support for a military option with which to
threaten Montana’s reactionary government. Because of that, the
normally sleepy town nestled below the legendary
Over the years, Joe had known several friends who’d built homes in the Sturgis area, and was able to secure a room for a modestly cranky Ben to call his own, and a couch for himself to crash on. The house was about five miles east of town, which put it three miles past the famous Full Throttle Saloon, the largest bar and entertainment complex in Sturgis, or in the State of South Dakota, for that matter. The location allowed them the luxury of not having to stew in the solid two-mile backup, running all hours of the day and night, from the center of town to the Full Throttle’s parking lot.
After a welcome shower and a nap, Ben was ready to accompany Joe on a mission to scare up a couple of burgers and an evening’s supply of beer. Neither took long to find. Nor did it take long for the raucous mob at the Full Throttle to realize that Ben Kane was partying within their midst. As Joe dragged him around the complex, pointing out the strategically located 15 service bars, the mechanical bull, the BBQ pit, the outdoor amphitheater and the bikini-clad bartenders, Ben was stopped every few feet for a handshake, an autograph or a picture. Things soon got so out of hand that a couple of industrial-sized bouncers had to clear a path through the crowd of admirers, and parked Ben and Joe at an outdoor service bar, where they could keep a safe eye on them.
Finally in a comfortable, familiar position, Ben was able to settle down and concentrate on drinking away his road fatigue. Even that took some effort. Satisfied with quenching his thirst with a frosty bottle of Heineken—the apparent weapon of choice at the Full Throttle—he was inundated with admirers insisting on buying him shooters. Milky-looking concoctions in disposable, plastic shot glasses started lining up in front of him.
“What are these things?” he asked Joe.
“White buffalos. Vodka, white crème de cacao, a drop of vanilla, and a little cream. I’ve never seen ‘em before, but they seem to be big this year.”
“Great.” Ben held up a shot in a salute to the crowd and knocked it back. He made a face. “Help me out with these, will ya?”
“Always ready to answer the call to service…” Joe grabbed a shot and did his duty. “Ugh. Maybe if we let them sit long enough they’ll spoil. Do you think they have an expiration date?”
“More likely a half-life.”
As tenured bar professionals, both knew the value of pacing to finish, so the shots sat piling up in front of them until the inevitable, and frequent, call for a toast arose from somewhere in the crowd.
“They get better after you have a bunch of them,” Joe said.
“Not so bad,” Ben agreed.
After about an hour, one of the partners approached Ben to welcome him for coming by. They made small talk about the business for a while, and Ben politely waved off another offer for free shots. He did accept an official staff T-shirt—it had the bar’s logo and “staff” designation on the front and “BARTENDER” boldly emblazoned across the back. In presenting the gift, the owner held the shirt high and loudly proclaimed Ben an official Full Throttle bartender, which was immediately followed by calls from the crowd for him to get to work. At this point Ben didn’t need his arm twisted, and quickly found himself behind the cramped but functional service bar. The regular bartender stayed on the job, doing the volume work and collecting the cash, while Ben poured shots of whiskey, lit cigarettes, and pulled beers for the increasing crush of fans. He did his best to stay out of the bartender’s way, signing autographs on bar napkins and smiling for the endless series of snapshots that were continuously flashing in his direction. Revelers equipped with tiny wireless-digital-video-camera-Internet-telephone contraptions were sending live pictures of the former governor to friends and family around the country.
As the party rolled on, a couple of out-of-work
“Is this the guy who single-handedly fucked up the economy of the rest of the country?”
“Oh yeah!” Joe said, sensing some real fun. “Hey Ben! Someone over here wants to meet you!”
“How are ya?” Ben stuck out his hand and greeted his new friends. “Ben Kane.”
“Here we go,” Joe said, not even bothering to suppress a devious grin.
“Must be nice to be so popular in your part of the country, while the rest of us are left picking up the crap you left behind.”
The biker was feeling his oats but not yet nasty drunk, Ben instantly concluded. “Whoa! Sounds like you boys are a couple of politicians.”
operators. At least we used to be before the company locked its
doors and moved to
“And why do you think they did that?”
“We know why he moved … no fuckin’ taxes, no fuckin’ benefits, no fuckin’ regulations…”
“And what would you do if it was your money?”
“What would you do if it was your business?” Ben asked again. People within earshot of the conversation started nudging each other to be quiet. Video devices were subtly shifted into position. “Would you stick around in a community that treated your hard work, your sacrifice, and your financial investment like a jobs program, like a privately financed front operation for the distribution of government entitlements, or would you prefer to make a few bucks on your investment?”
“Hey, I agree, everybody’s entitled to make a buck, but what are we supposed to do? Another couple of months and I’m going to be packin’ bags in a 7-Eleven.” His friend grunted in agreement.
Ben reached into the ice barrel and pulled out a couple of cold beers for the royal opposition. “I’ll agree that the states have real problems. But your problems aren’t our fault. Yes, we have low taxes. But we don’t have ‘free health care,’ or an unlimited government that sticks its nose into every aspect of your life. If you want that, you have to pay for it. You pay for it, we don’t. We have no FICA tax, but we have no Social Security system. If you want the younger generation to pay for your retirement, they have to pay. Your employers have to pay. You have to pay. You want a taxpayer-supported public school system, whose bureaucracy moves only to support the employment and security needs of its own cadre of civil servants? You have to pay for it, whether you have kids in the system or not. We have a private school system, which needs to be responsive, competitive and answerable to its customers: the students and their parents. You want to support armies of police, prosecutors and prison guards to throw your ass, or your children’s ass, in jail when you get high—you’ll have to pay for that. We don’t do it, so we don’t have to pay for it. Your part of the country is living the life you want to live, or at least the life you keep voting for, so don’t complain to us when you and your employers have to pay for it.” He was just starting to get warmed up.
By now the crowd clustered around the bar was as silent as a mob of intoxicated bikers could be. Shouts of “You tell him!” and “Go get him, Governor” started to rise from the peanut gallery. His two accusers were beginning to look as if they’d bitten off a bit more than they could chew—they knew this was as wrong a place as there could possibly be to pick a fight. Ben softened his tone a bit.
“Look … opponents to our way of looking at things always talk about social justice, right? What about the little guy? What about giving back to the community? Am I right?”
The two nodded gratefully in agreement.
about this. Let’s say you’re a rich
Joe helped himself to another nasty shooter and quietly sipped his beer. The trap had been set.
“Slaves?” the biker answered, now aware that scores of ears were hanging on every word.
“Right!” Ben said, slapping his hand down on the bar. “Today any rational person would ask, rightfully: Who the hell are you to ‘give away’ the forced labor of another? Right? Another person’s labor is not yours to give.” Heads nodded in agreement. People elbowed each other to give their video devices a clear view of the lecture.
“But,” Ben continued, “That’s what your government does every day. It takes the fruits of your labor, and gives them to another.”
“But we’re not slaves,” the biker protested, “We can vote for programs and taxes and stuff. The slaves had no say in what happened to them.”
“True enough,” Ben admitted. “So let’s say we let the slaves vote. The 100 slaves vote ‘hell no!’—we don’t want to work for nothin’. But the other thousand people in the town vote against them; they vote for their ‘free’ services. Is that okay? Hey, everybody voted.”
“Because slavery’s not right.”
“Thank you! That’s my point exactly!”
“Look, let’s get this straight…” Ben was tiring of the game. “…You rightfully recognize a problem when someone is forced to supply their labor in service of another, without compensation. But you have no problem when someone is paid for their labor, and is then forced to give up the results of that labor—their money—in service of someone else. Is that about it?”
The two sat sullenly.
“Joe!” Ben shouted. “A couple of shots for my friends!” Joe slid over a couple of icky-looking shooters to the mentally weary combatants.
Ben joined them in a toast. “Listen guys, I know things suck, and I know you’re not in charge of national economic policy.” The two joined the rest of the crowd in a laugh. “But as far as I’m concerned, the rest of the country outside our borders has got everything they wanted. The people wanted, and voted for candidates that supported government medicine—they got government medicine. They wanted a government Ponzi scheme of a retirement system—they got it. People want a legal system that uses lawsuits to redistribute corporate profits—they got it. The people want government-determined payroll controls, so-called living wages on one end and confiscatory taxes on the other—they got it.” He took a healthy swig of beer. “And you guys are left paying for it.”
Ben looked around at the mesmerized crowd and continued softly.
ago, the feds showed up in this town with flack jackets and guns,
big men thumping their chests, powerful, omnipotent. Today, they
sit hunkered down in
By the following morning, video snippets of the former governor’s performance could be found all over the Internet. By afternoon, the major cable networks had them on air; by evening, CNN had spooled together a tight montage of video and sound clips that gave a fairly accurate, if choppy, rendition of Ben’s performance, which they ran above a comically alarming graphic declaring:
SEPARATIST STRONGMAN DECLARES
Slouched in his easy chair in the vice presidential mansion, Tim Hinderman was reviewing advance copies of tomorrow’s Washington Post editorials when Ben Kane’s slightly disheveled image appeared on the muted television set. Quickly pressing the remote to turn on the sound, Hinderman focused intently on Ben’s words. He hit the mute again when the usual assemblage of talking heads started their hysterical spin and counter-spin.
“Damn! Is this guy back again?”