Authors: Will McIntosh
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General, #Action & Adventure
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“Nobody gets hurt. If anybody gets hurt, I’m out,” Frank said under his breath.
“Frank, how the hell are we gonna hurt anyone?” Marty slowed, held out his empty hands. “We’re old, we’re unarmed. What are we gonna do, bite someone?” He grunted. “I can’t even chew through a bagel.”
“I’m just saying. I spent my life on the right side of the law, and I’m not changing now.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re a saint,” Marty muttered. He lifted his head to take in the casino. It was a thing of beauty—shining chrome, flashing lights, whooping alarms to signal that some poor rube just won a week’s worth of the good stuff, and never mind that the suction cups attached to his arm had siphoned off a month before he made the big score.
A year ago Marty would have as soon vomited up his spleen as step inside one of these leech traps, but now it represented everything to him—hope, life, vigor. Fewer trips to the fucking doctor.
Thelma and Bill were in the bar, at the table closest to the slots, right where they were supposed to be. Thelma glanced Marty’s way, but didn’t wave or acknowledge him. Good—she was on the ball. He was uneasy about pulling this off with someone he didn’t know. It was a long shot as it was, even if everything went as planned. There were so many blank spots and question marks in the plan.
“Why don’t we play some of the five-minute slots?” Marty said to Frank, nice and loud, pointing at the machines closest to the security door that led into their Shangri-la, the inner workings of the casino.
Marty attached the five cool, sticky cups at the end of the payout line to the underside of his left forearm, like most people did. Theoretically you could attach them to any part of your body—your ass, under your armpit—but the point here was to be invisible, so Marty resisted the temptation. He pulled the lever, watched the electronic wheels spin and click into place one by one.
He felt nothing as the payout line sucked out the equivalent of five minutes of his life. They called it a payout line, but the sunken eyes of hard-core gamblers roaming the casino, dreaming of striking a thousand-year jackpot, told you it did more drawing in than paying out.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Thelma strain to stand, rising in slow motion. She was clutching an oversized purse that looked like a burlap grocery bag. Bill stood as well, muttered to himself just like they’d practiced. So far it looked, blessedly, to be one of Bill’s good days. Hopefully it would stay that way. Thelma took Bill’s elbow, led him toward the glassed-in security desk that sat beside the door to Shangri-la.
The seat of Bill’s white pants sported a big, wet, brown stain. Marty bit his cheek to keep from grinning.
“Excuse me, sir,” Thelma said in a sheepish stage whisper. The guy in the security cage looked up from a computer screen. Thelma sighed in exasperation. She was good—better under pressure than she’d been during rehearsals. “My husband had an
.” She hissed the last word; by now the security guy could no doubt smell what kind of accident he’d had. Bill was doing a nice job of acting like he was two years farther down Alzheimer’s Road than he was. “I
need to take him to a bathroom, but they’re for gentlemen or ladies only, and I need privacy to take care of this. Can you please help me?”
Marty couldn’t hear the security guy’s reply through the glass, but he was pointing, giving Thelma directions. Thelma’s eyes were big; she was nodding like she was hanging on his every word, although she knew exactly where the employee bathroom was.
The security guy buzzed them in. Thelma opened the door and led a shuffling, muttering, shit-soaked Bill inside. As easy as that.
“Why don’t we try our luck over that way?” Marty pointed toward the far corner of the casino, where the other security door was located—the one that had no security cage nearby because it was a fire exit.
* * *
There was nothing but day slots back there. By the time the door clicked open, meaning Bill had changed and got the fire alarm disconnected, Marty had lost two weeks of his life. Not that it would matter if everything went as planned.
He and Frank slipped through the cracked-open door. The narrow gray hall beyond was empty. “This way.” Marty pointed to the right.
When he’d imagined this scene in his mind, their strides had been smooth and confident, eating up carpeted hallway. Now that they were actually there, they were a sad-looking bunch, limping and shuffling. Marty was bent by such bad osteoporosis he was forced to crane his neck just to look straight ahead.
Thelma slowed them down because she was ninety-two. By rights she shouldn’t be able to walk at all, but although she moved slowly, she walked with a definite swagger. Marty liked that. She was a tiny woman with chipmunk cheeks and alert blue eyes. There was not a hint of that rheumy film of stupor in her old eyes.
Two employees stepped out of an open door—dealers dressed in the casino’s signature blue-and-white jackets. Marty and the rest looked straight ahead, like they knew just where they were going. The dealers walked right past. Marty’s heart was racing, but he wasn’t surprised the dealers hadn’t challenged them. As he’d told the others: you go balls-up like you own the place and no one bothers you. Especially if you were a harmless-looking senior citizen.
Marty turned left at the end of the hallway, heading deeper into the guts of the casino, toward the nucleus, where there were no blueprints online, where, as far as Marty knew, no one but the aliens who owned the casino ever went.
When they reached the door of the utility room, Marty expected Bill to get to work, but Bill was having a spell. He was staring at nothing, breathing heavily through his open mouth.
“Come on, Bill. Open her up.” Marty took Bill’s wrist and turned him toward the door. Bill squatted, pulled his electronic pick out of his instrument pouch, and got to work.
A minute later, they were inside. They locked the door behind them.
Marty didn’t need to tell Thelma to get to work. She unslung her bag from her shoulder and pulled out the bomb. It looked as sophisticated as Thelma had promised, with microprocessors and slender wires visible inside a rounded stainless-steel shell. Marty found a plastic chair for her to sit in while she attached the bomb to the main circuit panel.
“It can’t go off,” Frank said from the door, where he was watching the hallway. “Not even by mistake. Not possible, correct?”
“Frank, would you relax? Please?” Marty said.
“I want to hear you say it.”
“Frank, take a deep breath,” Thelma said over her shoulder. “There’s no explosive material present.”
Frank raised his hands in the air. “That’s all I wanted to hear. Thank you.”
Thelma muttered something under her breath as she worked the bomb into the high-tech circuitry of the casino’s electrical system. Even knowing the bomb couldn’t go off, it looked scary. Security would shit a brick when they saw it. Marty had been afraid all of Thelma’s experience at the FBI had happened too long ago, that her electronics skills were of the horse-and-buggy variety. Evidently she kept up with things in her field.
Marty suddenly realized that there was no turning back now; they were really going through with this. In an hour’s time, Marty was either going to possess thousands of years of life force, or he was going to be in jail. He rubbed his face, felt his fingers pressing his skin. “This is not a dream,” he said softly.
“It can’t be. I stopped dreaming last year,” Thelma said without looking up from her work. Her hands were trembling, but her movements seemed sure. “I don’t know why. Some chemical in my brain ran out, I guess. Dried up. I miss dreaming; I got to be young in my dreams.”
“Thelma, I’m gonna make your dreams come true,” Marty said.
“When I was young, I heard that from men a lot.” Everyone chuckled, though they kept their chuckles to a whisper. “I was smoking hot. Have any of you ever seen a picture of me when I was young?”
“I was ugly as hell when I was young,” Marty said. “I had acne scars, squinty eyes. Aging has a way of evening us all out. It’s very fair that way.”
“Yeah. Now we’re all ugly as hell,” Frank said. “Very democratic.”
“All right, we’re set.” Thelma gripped Marty’s wrist, pulled herself out of the chair.
Marty drew a cell phone out of his pocket. He dialed the only number in the phone’s memory: the Atlantic City Police Department. A woman answered.
“Yes, hi.” He worked to sound breathless, scared. “I’m pretty sure I found a bomb, in the Lifespring Casino.”
“A bomb where, sir?”
“A utility room. I work here, and I snuck into a utility room to, um, smoke a doob, and there’s something new in here, and it looks like a bomb, and it’s counting down.”
“Your name, please?”
“I don’t want to get into trouble. I’m sorry, I have to hang up now.” Marty disconnected.
They waited, no one saying a word, as seconds ticked by. Based on his thirty-odd years on the force, Frank had estimated it would take the average police station less than a minute to get an evacuation under way after a bomb threat.
Despite knowing it was coming, Marty jumped when the alarm whooped. He checked his watch. “It’s twelve minutes after ten.” He had to shout to be heard. “At eighteen after, everyone should be out of the building. At that point we’ll have about three minutes to get down the hall and out of sight before the authorities start to arrive.”
He double-checked Thelma’s bomb. The red readout was at fifty-seven minutes and counting. Out in the hall, anxious voices rose and then fell as people passed, heading for the exit.
At seventeen minutes after ten, Marty signaled to Frank. Frank opened the door a crack; looked left, then right; then waved them out into the empty hallway. Marty led them to the left.
A hundred yards down was the security suite, where they watched for cheaters and filmed everything that happened in the casino. Bill got the door open, disabled the cameras, and wiped the recordings. They were in and out in less than three minutes.
They were two turns and about two hundred yards from the unmarked core. Things were about to get interesting. Marty realized a snippet of song was playing in his head:
Now you’re messing with a son of a bitch.
Just that one line. He couldn’t remember the rest of the song or who sang it, but it felt right. His subconscious had done well.
“Now you’re messing with a son of a bitch,” he sang under his breath. Balls-up. Nothing to lose, everything to gain.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Bill whispered.
They all stopped. “Jesus. Did we give him too much Kaopectate?” Marty asked. They’d attempted a fine balance that would induce a single bout of diarrhea, but maybe the added excitement…
“I have to take a piss.”
“Holy shit,” Frank said. “Can’t you hold it?”
“He had three shots of Jack at the bar,” Thelma said.
” Marty said, struggling to keep his voice low. He glared at Bill “Why the hell would you do that? It’s ten in the morning.”
Bill shrugged. “To take the edge off. I was nervous.”
Marty looked at Thelma. “Why didn’t you stop him?”
She gave him a stern look. “I’m not his mother.”
Marty looked around, trying to remember where the nearest bathroom was on the blueprints he’d studied. The thing was, while he was studying the blueprints, it never occurred to him to note where the goddamned
“Wasn’t there a bathroom down the last hall we passed?” Thelma asked.
“Yeah. Come on, this way.” Truth was, Marty didn’t know, but he figured the odds they’d find a can closer to the core, where only the aliens went, were low. He didn’t even know if the Procyoni
“Hold on. We lost Bill,” Frank said. They stopped. Bill was a hundred feet back, staring at a framed print on the wall. Marty cupped his hand around one side of his mouth, called Bill’s name in a low growl. Bill went on staring. Marty hustled back down the hall, gave Bill’s arm a shake. Bill gave a little start, like Marty had waked him.
“Sorry,” Bill said.
“Try to stay focused.” Marty gave his shoulder a squeeze.
It turned out Thelma was more observant than Marty, because there it was, a bathroom halfway down the last hallway they’d passed. They filed in; then Marty locked the door behind them.
“Christ, what if he goes off to la-la land at just the wrong time?” Frank said, his big brow pinched into a series of ridges, while Bill returned his three shots of Jack to the ecosystem.
“He always snaps out of it if you shake him hard enough.”
Frank shook his blocky head, like he felt sorry for Marty for being stupid enough to put their lives in the hands of a guy with Alzheimer’s.
Speaking in a ragged whisper, Marty snapped, “You know another tech guy we can trust?” Most of the people Frank knew were dead, and even when they’d been alive, most of them were cops who barely knew how to turn on a computer.
Bill zipped his fly, rising onto his tiptoes.
“Okay, let’s boogie,” Marty said.
His heart stopped when the bathroom door rattled. “Is someone in there?”
Marty held a finger to his lips as they waited for whomever it was to move on. There was a sharp rap on the door. “Hello?” They heard keys rattling, looked at each other in wide-eyed panic. Marty cast about for somewhere to hide, but there were only two stalls in the little bathroom and not much else. Frank gripped Marty’s shoulder, motioned for him and the others to move away from the door.
“Hang on,” Frank called out.
“Didn’t you hear the alarm?” the voice called through the door.
Frank unlocked the door, gave Marty a last, forlorn look, then opened it just enough to slip through. Through the door, Marty could hear him say, “Sorry. I had a bad case of the shits.”
“We have to get you out of here. The bomb squad is on its way.”
Their voices grew dimmer, then faded completely. Marty stared at the floor for a moment, feeling both grateful and terribly sad. Frank had forfeited his own chance for a thousand years of life force so Marty and the others could have theirs.