Volume 2, Number 5 -- May, 1997
Sympathy for the Devil - Book II
by Dean Shutt
(Ed note: Book I of this reportage can be found here)
We screamed into the darkness towards the edge of my associate's sanity. Even though he seemed much more calm now than he had in hours, I was still concerned. I'll grant you that the whole purpose of this trip had been to watch him go brilliantly mad when he met the deep-seated venality that is modern baseball. However, I had thought he would have the good grace to wait until we actually got to spring training before that would happen. Yet here we were, not yet to the Arizona border, and it had taken all of my professional training and skill to keep us from being pulped not once but twice. The radio scene was bad enough, but when you rush the stage at a strip club the best you can hope for is that they even need to bother with an ambulance. Lucky for him I am a professional.
As we headed deeper into the desert two thoughts plagued me. Why had he snapped so early and how was I to get him to maintain long enough for us to get the story? Neither question presented itself with a ready answer. A man once said that there were a lot of bodies in the desert that will never be found. In a pinch I was fairly certain I could have him under the wheels of the Über-Geo and out of my hair. Of course if I were to do that then my story would go the way of his skull, so realistically I needed a more subtle solution. I had to come up with something that modulate his outbursts long enough to get the story without completely sedating him. He might have to drive after all.
The bigger question was what had happened in the first place? I knew that he was high-strung, had counted on it in fact. I knew that when presented with the fact the sport he loved was populated by all manner of thugs at every level, he would snap, I would write about it and all would be well. Unfortunately, I realized, I had not taken into account how excited he was about this trip. He had managed to work himself into such a state before we had even left home that it was surprising he had lasted as long as he did. It's like rough-housing with a big dog. You can't blame the dog if it gets excited and snaps at you, you were the one that wound him up in the first place.
So the question remained, what was I to do with all of his excess madness. As I've said before, I couldn't very well kill him and dump his carcass in the desert, what would I write about? Sometimes fortune smiles on the deserving. Out of the darkness there arose a cacophony of light that awed us both. Right here in the California desert, just outside of Palm Springs, was a casino. Not one of those cheesy cardrooms either, but a full blown Indian Casino. This was just what we both needed, an all you can eat dinner buffet for me and a hour's worth of relaxation for my associate. With any luck at all, he would take his edge off and we would resume our journey a few dollars ahead.
As we wandered through the huge glass doors of the gaming palace, I kept my eyes open for potential trouble. He had snuck up on me with his outbursts earlier and I wasn't about to let it happen again. It was a fairly large place, not much by Vegas standards, mind you, but not bad for a wide spot in the highway. Directly in front of us was the sunken slots area. Glassy-eyed elders from LA mingled with the locals in a search for the American dream, the jackpot. You could tell the pros as they kept four and five machines spinning nonstop, waving away waitresses, totally focused. They were utterly convinced that some skill was involved here. More pathetic was the fact that they thought they possessed it. I have met more than one professional gambler in my time, and none them saw the slots as anything other than a way to get a drink for a quarter.
My associate was already on his way to the gaming tables. I had thought we might partake of the buffet first and then gamble. However, when you are with man who is hanging onto his sanity with piece of dental floss, you learn to make adjustments in your planning. We sat down heavily at one of the quieter tables and I felt a chill go up my spine. I had that feeling before - on Alcatraz, in an airport terminal in Orange County, and most recently at a Strip Club in San Bernadino. There was trouble here, it was just a matter of from what quarter would it appear? I glanced quickly about checking for signs. My associate seemed to be holding up well. The large plainclothes security men that were sprinkled about seemed relaxed. In fact everything seemed just fine. But in my line of work, you learn early on about seeing below the surface.
There was nothing to do but play some cards at this point. If I asked my associate to leave there would be a scene, quite possibly an ugly one. I certainly wasn't going to leave him alone until I was sure he had calmed down a bit. So I played a little lackadaisical blackjack, betting at the wrong times, hitting when I shouldn't, far more interested in the unsettling feeling in my stomach than the cards I was ostensibly playing. Finally, down about twenty dollars I decided it was time to check out the buffet. I said my good- byes to my associate, who mumbled something back at me and made my way to the restaurant.
I assumed that if anything could help me shake this uneasy feeling, it would be a good buffet. For my money, there is nothing that says "America" like an all-you-can-eat buffet. The invitation to gluttony, the bland approximations of ethnic cuisine, the promise of unlimited bounty for one low, low price. This much I can tell you, they never had all-you- can-eat buffets in the Soviet Union, and if we had shown Stalin a Vegas style buffet, the Cold War would have been over long before it was. So you can understand how deflated I was when the sense of unease followed me into the restaurant. I sat down and a young waiter type came up and gave me a menu. I waved it away and asked how the buffet looked tonight. He replied that he wasn't sure but he could check if I would like. Now thoroughly defeated, I shook my head and told him that I would take my chances.
As I settled down with my plate of food I noticed my associate making his way through the room. He didn't looked pleased and again I went to alert status. This was quickly becoming more work than it was worth. He sat down muttering about "lousy, thieving, Indians..." and I asked how bad he had been hit. He said they had tagged him for one hundred and forty dollars and he was sure the game was rigged. He said he was going grab some food and then teach those bastards about blackjack. This really ought to have been my cue to get us out of there. If ever there were audible warning bells going off now was the time. Still, he hadn't actually done anything yet. As a matter of fact, he had walked away and found me rather than starting any trouble. Maybe he had calmed down, maybe when we were finished eating he would just as soon leave as lose any more money.
It was not to be - he started in on our waiter. The poor soul who didn't know how the buffet looked caught a load of my associate's attitude. Either through heroic restraint or perhaps just plain stupidity, our waiter would not rise to my associate's attacks. Now I was nervous. My associate had a gleam in his eye that screamed malice. Perhaps worst of all, I was fairly sure it was directed at me. This puzzled me until I realized he was on his way to a story as well and his tale didn't prominently feature me. The swine was going to try and throw me to these wolves and make off with the Über-Geo and literary stardom.
All of a sudden it was clear as day. He hadn't walked away from that table to calm down at all. He had come here to set me up. He wanted to make sure that everyone, including the oversized security men, knew that we were together. At least I had found him out before he had finished his preparations. He may have already linked me to himself in the eyes of the staff, but he had tipped his hand too soon. When he made his move I would be one step ahead of him.
I excused myself to the men's room, a plan already forming in my mind. Once I was out of sight I flagged down one of the security goons. I explained that my friend suffered from strange unexplained seizures of a rather nasty variety. We were on our way to Phoenix so that he might take a cure. I had brought his medication along, but he hadn't had any in a while, would the goon mind keeping an eye on him for me? Seeing an opportunity to possibly put someone in a headlock, the guard readily agreed. He also assured me that he would let the rest of the staff know of the situation.
When I returned to the table my associate was paying the tab and seemed at ease. He suggested it was time for another crack at the blackjack tables and I acquiesced. We sat down at a fairly crowded table and began playing. My associate would glance at me from time with pure malice in his gaze. For my part, I felt rather sorry for my psychotic compadre, how could he know what was coming next. We played for a full hour, I was doing well, having recouped my earlier losses and my dinner. Occasionally I would look up to exchange knowing nods with security.
Suddenly my "friend" made his move. He jumped up and whirled to face me. "Stop telling me what's coming next, you card counting sonofabitch...I play for the sport of it, damn you!!!!" he screamed at me while I sat there feigning surprise. It would really have been elegant if I hadn't caught on earlier. As it was the bouncers moved in and plucked up my "buddy" like a rag doll. I followed along reminding them not to hurt him. He was sick after all. My associate was now screaming at the top of his lungs that I was the filthy cheat, that they could have me if they would just let him go on his way. Pathetic, really.
I made it to the Über-Geo at the head of our little convoy. When the others arrived I was already waiting for them with a syringe full of horse tranquilizer I had procured before the trip. To those of you out there wondering just why I might go to the trouble of buying horse tranquilizers, all I can say is, "you never know". My associate calmed down almost the minute the needle pierced the skin. I strapped him in the passenger seat just to be safe but I needn't have bothered. He would easily be out until we hit Phoenix. I thanked the security guards for their care in handling my very sick friend and accepted their wishes of luck. I also gave them all of my associate's chips to split amongst themselves. This of course had the desired reaction of making us all the best of friends. I apologized again for my "friend's' behavior and they assured me not to worry about it. With hearty handshakes all around (including our long suffering waiter who followed all the commotion out to the parking lot) MY now nearly comatose associate and I were on our way.
So once again we were headed for the story. This time I was certainly a little wiser than I had been before. Obviously I would need to keep a much closer eye on my associate than I had imagined. I had misread him totally, he wasn't insane, he was just a greedhead who thought he could get the story all by himself. Unfortunately for him I had dealt with his ilk before and I had yet to be taken by any of them. We would have a little chat he and I, about journalism, about professionalism and about teamwork. Just as soon as he awoke in a few hours.
To be continued...