It was around my fourth or fifth win that I noticed casino security watching me. A gigantic man in a black turtleneck was casually chatting with other players, but every time I put down a bet, his shaved, bullet-shaped head turned my way. I could feel him probing the area with his mind, the energy sparking across the table like static electricity. My winning streak was about to end.
The fact that the guard could focus his mind was nothing short of astounding. From the nonstop flashing, dinging, and buzzing of the slot machines to the quarter-scale roller coaster, The Big Queen, running continuously a hundred feet over the players’ heads to the showgirls strolling the floor in costumes with hardly enough cloth to cover a Barbie doll, everything in The Royal Giant Casino added up to one big distraction. It was a wonder that anyone could concentrate long enough to place a bet.
I was doing my best to blend in with the other players. I was dressed as your typical Vegas tourist in my Giants cap, a gaudy Hawaiian shirt, and some oversized sunglasses that, I had hoped, would keep anyone from recognizing me. But apparently it hadn’t worked. You win a little too often, at too many places, and people start to get suspicious.
It was time to make one last bet before I cleared out. Better make it a big one. I placed eight thousand dollars on twenty-three, half my night’s winnings. The dealer called “no more bets” and spun the wheel. He carefully placed the little, ivory ball, spinning it in the other direction. The ball gradually lost momentum, bouncing across the numbered slots, its dance finally coming to an end in twenty-three.
The dealer called “Black thirty-five!” I was about to protest, but sure enough, the ball was now sitting in the next slot over. Somehow, it had moved.
“Looks like a TK,” I thought. I scanned the other player’s bets. A few people had won low-paying outside bets, black beating red,or odd beating even, but no one had bet on thirty-five. “It must be the guard. He’s not just psychic security – he’s a counter-psy.”
I placed another bet on twenty-three, just five hundred this time. The dealer spun the wheel again, and the ball came to rest in twenty-three. An instant later, it hopped to the next space, the black four. It was telekinesis for sure. I was still seventy-five hundred ahead. Any sane person would have just taken their winnings and gone home. I decided to go all in.
I took a deep breath and put all my remaining chips on seven. I tried to stay focused on the game, but across the table, a drunk in a cocktail sauce-stained sweatshirt was hitting on a waitress, loudly slurring pickup lines, bad jokes, and other assorted sexual innuendo. She was forcing a polite smile, but was growing increasingly uncomfortable. The ball started bouncing, and my eyes darted back to the wheel.
Bounce, bounce, bounce… seven.
The drunk grabbed the waitress’s ass, and she grabbed his wrist, twisting back his arm and pushing him away. He slammed into the table, jolting the ball back into number seven. Before the security guard could react, the dealer called “red seven!” I grabbed my winnings, tossed a tip to the dealer, and headed for the door, hoping security would be too busy dealing with the commotion to follow me.
The night was just beginning and I’d already cleared over a quarter million dollars. I should have well over a million by dawn. Just enough to build my dream home in the desert, my own little oasis. My girlfriend, Rachel, had been after me for years to get us out of our tiny Boulder City apartment and into our own home, and soon, it would finally happen. I could finally give her something real. That is, if the Royal Giant didn’t send the cops after me. Nevada law forbade anyone with precognition, telepathy, telekineses, or remote viewing from entering a casino. As far as the law was concerned, I wasn’t cheating. Technically. But it’s hard to convince a cop you’re innocent when they’re grinding your face in the sand.
I made my way down the strip to Luna, a space-themed casino that had opened a few months earlier. Hanging over the front entryway was an enormous sculpture of the Man in the Moon, who was grinning merrily despite the rocket embedded in his left eye. The casino was sweltering, even hotter than the strip outside. By the baccarat tables, a hostess in a sweat-soaked cocktail dress was apologizing to guests about the broken air conditioning and offering free drink tickets if they would just keep playing until it was fixed.
Baccarat has always bored me, so I continued on to the blackjack tables, which were mostly empty. The handful of people who were playing through the heat had already been given their free drinks, Long Island ice teas that were mostly ice. I took a seat between an egg-shaped man with a mustache like a walrus and an elderly woman in a worn, brightly-colored dress that made her look like a disheveled parrot. Buying a couple grand in chips, I took a deep breath and waited for my cards.
Ace of Hearts and his buddy Jack. Off to a great start.
I quickly won five rounds, making modest wins and big tips to the dealer. Unfortunately, I would have to stop soon. Winning six hands in a row was unlikely, but possible, even without cheating. If I won eight, security would start to get antsy.
As we were about to start our fifth hand, a grim-faced pit boss tapped the dealer on the shoulder and whispered in his ear. The dealer forced a smile and said, “It’s been a pleasure, folks, but it’s time for me to take a break. A new dealer will be with you momentarily.” Apparently I’d already been playing too long.
The new dealer produced half a dozen new packs of cards and ran them through the shuffling machine. The shuffler virtually eliminated cheating, either by dealers with fast hands or players with TK. It was impossible to stack a deck with your mind when the cards were held so tightly by the black box.
This time, I got an ace and a nine. I could have hit, but that seemed like a big risk, even for me. It was safer to wait for the dealer to bust. With me, they always did.
“And the dealer has twenty-one.”
Well, almost always. The next seven hands were losers. “How is he doing this?” I thought. “He hasn’t busted once. It’s like he knows which cards are coming next. Could he be a PC? If he has precognition and still takes a job like this, it must be a very limited window, like a minute into the future, or less. No, it’s too easy to make money with PC, even with a thirty-second window. He’d never take a job like this, no matter what they paid him. Then how?”
I decided to run a test. I flagged down a waitress, a curvy brunette in a form-fitting, silver pencil skirt and jacket, like a stewardesses on the Apollo 11. While she was reciting Luna’s cocktail list, I kept one eye on the dealer. As he dealt a new round of cards, he ignored the waitress’s ample cleavage, but stared intently at the edge of the table that was blocking his view of her lower half.
So that’s how he kept from busting: x-ray vision. Well, even making the cards transparent couldn’t keep me losing forever. The bet limit on the game kept me from increasing my bet by more than double, but I could take advantage of other rules. My next hand was a pair of tens. Any pair could be split into two hands. The dealer dealt me two more cards. Amazingly, two more tens. I split my hand again. I now had four hands started, with four separate bets. This would be enough to get back my losses, as long as my next four cards were winners.
Three. Five. Two. Nine. The nineteen was a decent hand, but if the dealer didn’t bust, I could be sunk.
Suddenly, I heard a humming, and a chill blew across the back of my neck. The air conditioning was finally fixed. Apparently, someone had turned it on full blast. A nearby air vent kicked on, and the sudden gust blew the dealer’s cards face up.
The man with the walrus mustache laughed hysterically. “That’s the first time I’ve seen someone stand on a pair of threes!” I grabbed my winnings and rushed for the door before the pit boss could return. Waving farewell to the man in the moon, I returned to the street.
Despite my haul, the night wasn’t exactly going well. Usually, I could go months between casinos getting suspicious, but this was two in one night. I expected to hear sirens behind me at any minute. I decided to leave the strip and the tourist hot spots and drive out into the desert, where casinos offered smaller winnings but also had smaller security budgets.
I found a jungle-themed place called The Monkey’s Uncle. The building was covered in neon green vines and plastic parrots squawking “Welcome!” and “Polly wants a winner!” Whatever entertainment this place had to offer, it apparently wasn’t enough to pull most tourists away from the strip. There were only a couple dozen cars in the lot. Inside, the place was filled with fake palm trees, animatronic animals, and maintenance workers discretely spraying termite killer.
A neon sign flashed the words “High Limit Slots” over a monkey winning a bucket of bananas. I found a machine off in a corner, where I hoped I wouldn’t be noticed or inhale too many bug spray fumes. I inserted a dollar and pulled the lever. Five bananas. Fifty silver coins rattled out of the pay slot, where a sticker announced that the maximum payout was ten million. “Looks like I’ve been playing the wrong games…”
I played for half an hour, winning fifty or a hundred a spin. I slipped a host a twenty to get me a gift shop tote bag to haul away my coins. And then, just as suddenly as it started, my winning streak stopped. The machine devoured coin after coin, giving nothing in return. Something had gone wrong.
I took off my sunglasses and, pretending to check my teeth in the mirrored lenses, searched the aisles behind me. Sure enough, I was being watched. A man in a black suit was standing behind a row of flashing slot machines, his ice blue eyes staring in my direction. He was tall, thin, and pale as bleached bones. Something about him gave off an aura of authority, as if he was more than your basic counter-psy.
“How is he stopping me?” I wondered. “It’s a video slot machine – no parts to move around with TK. Telepathy or PC wouldn’t matter. Then what is it?” For once, I was stumped. Maybe I was just being paranoid. Maybe he wasn’t counter-psy at all. Maybe he was just the casino’s creepy accountant.
The high limit slot machines let players place up to a thousand-dollar bet for a bigger shot at the grand prize. Most players thought it was crazy to spend that much for a five or six percent advantage, but I had a plan. I went to the cashier and had my night’s winnings put on a stack of slot cards. On my way back, I asked a waitress to bring me a pitcher of beer. If this didn’t work, I would need it. I took a deep breath and a big risk and ran down the aisle, putting a card in each slot. “If he is a TK, let’s see him try to control thirty machines at once.”
I pulled and pulled but, one after the other, the machines came up empty. I’d lost nearly half a million, but there was one machine with its wheels still spinning. My waitress returned, carrying my pitcher on a tray. She came into the row and tripped, sending the tray flying. The glass exploded against my machine, covering the expensive electronics in alcohol. The screen flickered and the sound stuttered, but the wheels kept spinning. I grabbed my tote bag and held it under the payout slot. The wheels slowed to a stop, landing on 77777. And then the screen went black.
“Oh god, no…” I yelled for the pit boss. I told him what happened, but he claimed I had been blocking the security camera’s view and they didn’t see the winning screen. “You’re going to pay,” I said, clenching my fists, “one way or another.”
A hand grabbed my shoulder. The pale man. “Please, come join me in my office.” He was stronger than he looked. He half shoved, half dragged me to a stuffy back room and handcuffed me to a wobbly, wooden armchair. The room was empty, save for a rattling, wooden ceiling fan and some old filing cabinets that looked like they hadn’t been opened in decades.
“My name is Larkin. I’m the head of anti-psy for the corporation that owns the casinos you hit tonight. I’ve been watching you rob our competitors for quite a while now. I’ve been trying to convince the Nevada Gaming Commission to add your name to the black list, but without any proof that you’re psychic, they have refused. But I am tired of watching you, so tonight, you are going to give me the evidence I need.” He reached behind a filing cabinet, producing an aluminum baseball bat. “Are you a PC? Let’s see if you can predict what’s going to happen next…”
“I’m not cheating!” I said. “I swear, I haven’t done a thing!”
Larkin swung the bat, pounding me in the stomach. “I know you’re one of those psy cheats! You stopped winning the moment I got near you. Do you know why? Because I’m a null, a black void. My parents were both psychic, so I carry the psy gene. But instead of having powers, I bring them to a stop. If you think of psychic energy as a river, I’m a dam.”
“That must have been hard for your parents to deal with,” I said.
He sighed, letting the bat clatter to the ground. “The moment I was born, my parents’ powers stopped working. They couldn’t get near me without losing their precious abilities. I turned them into normal, decent people, but they acted like I’d struck them blind and deaf. To people like them – like you – psy is their whole world. You dance your way through life because you think you won the genetic lottery, but you never bother accomplishing anything real. My parents could work in the financial sector because they had PC, but they never bothered to actually learn anything about finance. Save for a ten minute warning about stock prices, they never contributed anything to the world. And you’re probably the same way. You’ve probably never held down a real job in your life. I bet you have nothing going for you but cheating these games.”
“I’m telling you,” I said, “I don’t cheat. I can’t see the future or move objects or anything.”
“Fine,” Larkin said. “I have a telepathic assistant who is not quite as nice as I am. He will probe your mind for the answer. But be warned – when he draws the thoughts from your head, it will feel like he is pulling out your bones.” Larkin left the room. He would have to move far enough away that his power wouldn’t deactivate his assistant’s.
For a few minutes, I was alone with my thoughts. Years earlier, I’d heard about a young woman who had been the victim of a violent, psychic attack. She was a junior executive at a bank, and a computer hacker ripped open her thoughts, searching through her memories for bank account numbers and passwords. He took everything, and left her with the mind of a drooling infant. The only defense against an attack like that was to meditate, to clear your head of all thoughts, leaving the psychic with nothing to find. Of course, it was a little hard to meditate when you were choking with fear.
The door banged open and a man in a red ski mask entered the room. I said, “You’re going to murder me for cheating? I thought the mafia left Vegas decades ago!”
“What the hell are you talking about?” The masked man said. “We don’t even know who you are! I was looking for the damn safe!” He pulled a walkie talkie from his pocket. “George, you’d better get in here.”
“I’m busy, Frankie!” a voice said. “And I told you to not use my name during our robberies! …Hold on, let me grab this albino-looking cracker. I bet he knows what’s up.”
A moment later, Larkin was kicked into the room by a man in a blue ski mask, presumably George. “Tell me where the safe is!” George yelled.
“I told you already,” Larkin said slowly, as if he were explaining it to a small child, “there is nothing worth stealing in the safe. The only thing in there is old paperwork. So you are wasting your time, unless you want me to unlock the slot machines so you can try to carry off eight hundred pounds in small change, you dumb motherfu – ” George’s pistol cut off the word. The dam was broken. The river was about to flood.
“Why the hell did you do that?” Frankie said. “Now we’ll never find the money!”
“We should go hit a pawn shop,” George said. “At least they’ve got cash.”
Frankie shook his head sadly. “I guess you’re right. Well, now we’ve got to kill this other cracker. Can’t leave any witnesses.” The thugs took aim at my head.
“Now, fellas,” I said, “I don’t even know what you look like. Even if I did, I wouldn’t tell. I’m glad he’s dead. So, fellas, I – ”
With a sharp crack, the ceiling fan fell to the floor, spraying wooden shrapnel. George dived out of the way, tumbling to the floor. His gun went off, the bullet ricocheting off a filing cabinet. This time, it was Frankie’s turn to fall.
“Y-you, you shot me!” he sputtered, blood gushing from his chest.
“It was an accident!” George insisted.
“Yeah, right. I knew you didn’t want me dating your sister!” Frankie returned fire, hitting George in the throat. A few choking gasps later, and the two men were dead.
At last, the police and an ambulance arrived. As one of the officers unlocked my handcuffs, a homicide detective took out his notepad. “What exactly happened here? …I’m Murphy, by the way.”
“Nice you to meet you, Murphy,” I said. “I’m Lucky.”