Playing the Fix (a novel excerpt)

Nick Mason sustained a head injury playing pro football, and now works as a scout involved in fixing games with casino sportsbooks. On a sweltering September afternoon, Nick is attacked and robbed of a critical delivery at a busy Las Vegas intersection, setting off an all-night adventure. In this excerpt from chapter two, Nick has been knocked out following the robbery. After re-living part of the play from his on-field injury, he wakes up and meets Samantha, a concerned citizen who appears to have Nick’s well-being in mind.            


Green seven nine seven, red fifty-six, wildcat, six eight five Mississippi on two.  Green seven, nine seven. Red fifty-six. Wildcat! Six eight five, Mississippi. On two.  Ready, break! (Two claps). My number called, I’m the outside left receiver, lined up inside the hash mark. The slot wide-out and tight end will run go-routes to clear out the safety and cornerback playing a zone defense. With the space cleared, it’s all me over the middle. For a two-beat delay, I’ll feign something straight up the sideline, then run my twelve yard drag into the teeth of the meat grinder. 

The crowd at Arrowhead is losing their minds. Before the snap, leaned in ready-position, my right foot in front of my left, fists clenched tight to my chest, imagining a shoving match between opposing fans in the last row of the sold-out upper deck, spilling beer and sausage-grease on each other as they reach near-blows predicting the outcome of the game. I push down a smile, knowing I need to concentrate on beginning my route the instant the ball moves from the center’s hand to the quarterback. A false start penalty guarantees I don’t get my number called for another month, if ever, and that’s only with no mistakes in every drill in practice from Tuesday to eternity. 

Nothing can be heard but the crowd in this ravenous hornets’ nest. Pushing, screaming fans all the way from ground to the top row. Watch the ball and stay set, concentrate. That’s all. Watch the snap and watch the ball. Move when it’s hiked, full-throttle. Get to where you need to be or get fired.   

It’s mid-October in Kansas City and I wonder if we’ll get the same barbeque that we did last year after the Chiefs game. I didn’t dress in uniform for that one. Horsing around with the other inactive players and looking forward to the post-game meal was my top priority that day. Now parading over the middle of an NFL defense in one of the most hostile stadiums in the league. Run my route, catch the ball, extend my arms if it’s a high throw. Don’t get killed. A gambler would never bet that the franchise and shined-up fan-base on game-day puts the same importance on my survival as I do. Call it a hunch. Ignore the thoughts of smoked ribs and the fight in the last row and possible death and watch the damn ball to know when to start the route. No penalties. 

Simmons is out here on defense wearing number fifty-six, remnants of rabies spitting out of his mouth, the crazy motherfucker. Plays like he gets a bonus for sending guys off on stretchers. I should find him before the play but need to focus on the snap. He watches more film—studying every tendency of opponents—than anyone in the league. He moves around before the play starts, barking like a dog and picking up grass and mud and throwing it in the wind and saying something awful about our collective mothers, but I don’t think about that. 

The ball moves and the clutter of my mind clears. The linemen drop to their stances and form a pocket for the quarterback. The crowd noise is gone, no picture of the fans slugging it out in the nosebleeds. Time stalls, feels like slow-motion. I navigate the play the way I’ve done thousands of times since early April. Tight-end and slot receiver clear their space in my two-beat delay. Never mind that Simmons has watched so much tape that he’s seen this play coming at this point in the second quarter since the schedules were released. Ignore the fact that he calls the middle of the field the wasteland which is not an homage to T.S. Eliot. Fuck that it’s a high throw, not surprising considering QB Lem Kooper’s history of erratic play. My mandate, stretch my arms and catch the ball and move the chains and keep my job and subdue the Chiefs fan in the last row who thinks, with a gut full of beer and nachos, that they’ve got a chance against us. 

Stretch and extend my body is what I do.

When I woke on the Vegas sidewalk two people were shaking me. “Hey!” one of them said. “Buddy? You okay?”

 I had a devastating ache in my jaw. A cloud in my head prevented thinking, kept me from realizing that my big play at Arrowhead years ago was nothing compared to the quicksand pit I found myself in on a sun-baked sidewalk in Nevada. 

“Need an ambulance? You got walloped good.”

I was sitting up now. A man with a camera around his neck knelt next to me. I saw bizarre angles of my reflection in his aviator sunglasses. When he turned his head toward the other person, a woman whose comments so far I couldn’t understand, a kaleidoscope of my downcast features twisted and turned in the shades. I clutched my stomach, shaking my head. No ambulance. No police with their questions. My story sounded ridiculous. Distracted by a crazed vagrant in the parking lot. Then came the SUV. I don’t know what kind. Someone I never saw clocked me in the head and stole my bag of illegal cash.

“Enjoy your vacation, sir,” the uniformed finest would surely say.

 I inhaled deep breaths to gain composure. My knee featured a big raspberry scrape courtesy of the sidewalk. “I’m honestly fine,” I said. “Just a false alarm.” 

 “Robbed? Should we call the cops?” The man touched my arm and swung his camera to keep it from hitting me.

“Nothing stolen.” I patted my pockets, feeling my wallet, keys and phone. Truthfully, nothing had been taken. Nothing besides everything. The money I needed to live beyond tomorrow. “Idiots must’ve thought I was someone else. Kids looking for kicks.”

The stranger looked at me blankly.

“Thanks for your concern.” I managed a meek smile. I could only squint against the brightness. Felt strange and loopy. Suddenly I worried about concussion symptoms.

 “If you say so,” the man said. Apparently content with my answers, he stood and walked down the sidewalk like he came across these occurrences every day. The woman, however—oh and how a woman can be with her questions and refusal to accept brief answers—was more quizzical, demanding.

“Are you sure you’re okay? You didn’t know those guys? I saw the whole thing.”  She was talking like her coincidental witnessing of the incident was some kind of accomplishment.

I rubbed the side of my hurting jaw. “I’m fine,” I said. For the first time I registered her presence. Her head was blocking the sun and I could see her without shielding my eyes. A wisp of strawberry blonde hair fell from her forehead, sweeping across her face. I noted moisture on her upper lip and her face looked flushed. She had been running, a possibility in this heat that I couldn’t comprehend, but it was true. She wore a royal blue t-shirt with the logo of a charity jogging event, the shirt knotted along her hip. Her compression shorts were skin-tight and dark blue and left her toned legs exposed, but the first thing I noticed in that initial glance was a slight crook in her nose about halfway down. It reminded me of something familiar but I couldn’t discern what.

 Her eyes were large, honey-brown circles, deeply set back behind that nose. Her forehead sloped in one smooth angle through her cute pointed chin. Like a jarring realization brought on by a strong drug, I could see in that moment that she embodied what it was to be motherly and nurturing, that her heart held compassion for those straddling the margins of despair, and that hopeful idealism guided her, that she was, in fact, creation itself, born anew with confidence in the fertile garden, uncertain and worried and optimistic, navigating the strangeness and unpredictability of life on earth in the midst of onward marching time. She was also pretty annoying.

“I’ve got to get going.” I rose to my feet. This brought a wave of wobbliness that made me doubt what I was saying. “I’m on a tight schedule. Thank you. I appreciate your concern.”

In pain, I limped down the sidewalk toward the parking lot of the Hard Rock. She allowed my escape before jogging after me, and quickly caught up. 

“Sure you don’t need to go to the hospital or something? You really got cracked. I bet you have a concussion.” She was behind my right shoulder, then like a gnat, took my lack of response as invitation to try the left. “You really shouldn’t go to sleep for a while. You might fall into a coma.”

I kept moving, trying to ignore her.

“I’m serious. Slow down. And you’re bleeding from your knee.”

An observant one.

“Say something at least.” 

“I’ve had concussions before,” I said. “Honestly I feel fine.” Dishonestly I felt fine. Honestly I felt like she was right. I probably was concussed. “If you’ll excuse me, I have meetings.” If fake formality couldn’t do the trick—especially forced in the face of my throbbing head and blank schedule—nothing would convey the message. I needed to be left alone.

“People who say ‘honestly’ are usually lying.” We were on the outskirts of the covered portion of the pick-up/drop-off area outside of the main entrance of Hard Rock. A road with four lanes beneath the overpass stood between us and the enticing row of glass doors encased with gold trim, a whirlwind of clinking casino games and eateries beyond.                  

“You can’t follow me all day. I’ll have to call the police after all.” I’d never call the police for being hounded by a woman so beautiful.

“You asshole.” She huffed and hit me on the arm. “I’m worried about your well-being. Seems I’m the only one concerned about that.” We waited at the crosswalk for a slew of town-cars, cabs, and black SUVs to pass, one of which could have been the crew that attacked me. We crossed and stopped again outside the front doors of the Hard Rock, among swarms of tourists coming and going with bags hoisted on their shoulders and rolling luggage and hotel doormen loading suitcases into cars and holding the swinging glass doors open for wide-eyed, excited guests.

“And I do appreciate that.” We turned and faced each other. Her skin shone with sweat. I smelled fragrance, her exertion, a faint mist of perfume. I pushed away every thought but the simple enjoyment of human company before nagging myself back into reality. “But I really have to get going.”

“Give me your phone number,” she said. “I’ll check on you later.” An order not a request. Her large eyes and pursed mouth, a look of genuine concern made me believe her. What was I going to say? 

“That won’t be necessary,” I said, trying. 

“You got mashed in the head. If you go up there, lie down and die, I can’t have that on my conscience.” She bit her lower lip and that was it. Me, done for. 

“Do you even have a phone?” I looked her up and down and then flushed red. She scowled at me checking her out. I kicked myself for a sexist lack of manners, but it wasn’t clear on her slim frame and jogger’s clothing where she’d store a cell phone. 

“I’ll memorize it,” she said. 

I touched my own phone through the pocket of my shorts. Claire had likely sent many angry messages since I’d last checked. This woman’s attention felt soothing and warm. Forget it. I rattled off the number. With each digit, she blinked and nodded her head like “I Dream of Jeannie.”

“Call you later,” she said when I finished. Then to the nearest doorman, “Watch out for this guy? He got smacked in the head. I’m worried.” She checked both ways at the crosswalk, and took off jogging across the road. Before she got to the edge of the parking lot she looked back and yelled above the noise of traffic. “I’m Samantha!”

“NICK!” My response echoed beneath the concrete overpass. A hundred hotel guests turned their heads to me. 

The doorman was eying me when he ushered me inside. “She hit you over the head alright,” he said. Another amused spectator at my expense.           

I navigated the packed lobby.

“Good afternoon sir!” the smiling desk clerks said in over-eager unison. My woozy, twisted head. The soundtrack of slot machines, roulette wheels, automated poker games running through their blinking rolodexes, mixed with the fake air and faint stench of cigarettes, got me sprinting through the casino to the elevators. I rushed past the glass encasings—Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Kurt Cobain—squashing the need to throw up in a trash cash. I managed to dredge my room key from my wallet and swiped it inside the elevator to access the tenth floor. The curving purple and blue carpeted hallway stretched before me like another planet. A group of partiers wearing bathing suits with liquor-filled plastic cups almost pushed me into the wall, taking up the entire width of the hallway like they couldn’t even see me.

Samantha had been right. My head got blasted. On one hand, I hoped I wouldn’t drop into a concussive coma. The saner side of me saw that if I couldn’t get the cash to Sigfried then a sleeping death would be the best outcome for this day. My body weight pressed the door. The key-card found its slot. I crashed into the room and tumbled onto the carpet. From the floor, the bottle of rum gleamed on the dresser like a trophy. Still a few servings left. Drink them. Forget everything. Escape. I thought better. Booze would do me no good, but what would?

Housekeeping had tidied the room and changed the sheets and towels. The queen bed looked pleasant, freshly-made. The fluffy white comforter offered an inviting cloud. I slid open the door to the narrow balcony and leaned on the white metal rails. It was enough space to stand and view the raucous pool scene. Techno music blared from the DJ booth. The sound connected to speakers around the concrete oasis, attached to palm trees. The crowds were filling in the mid-afternoon heat. Soon the muscle-heads and surgically enhanced string bikinis would extend to every inch of patio, party in full-swing into evening. I shut the door, pulled the opaque curtain across the glass. The room became pitch-black. Turning, spinning, dizzy, disoriented, a shot of pain hit my jaw and propelled through my head. I kicked off my tennis shoes, dropped stomach-first on the bed and laid perfectly still. As long as I didn’t move a millimeter, everything could end up fine. The pain slightly subsided. The rhythm of deep, lung-filling breaths. Over and again. Stay still. The techno bass pulsing through me. Didn’t take long. I fell asleep.

When I awoke, alive, nothing but confusion. I couldn’t remember what had happened. Blaring music vibrated the walls. Some pop-dance tune from the radio, Akon or Ajax, some grade A-shit. Green numbers on the digital clock on the black table between the beds read 6:26. Morning or night? Why wasn’t I in my apartment on Pacific Beach? I clicked on the bedside lamp. Ever slowly, like dissipating fog, the events from the afternoon returned to memory. Then all I could think about was Lester. 

Fucking Lester. The old sandbagger had finally pulled one over on me. He knew I was a sitting duck on all these Vegas trips walking around like a clay pigeon with a fat bag of unmarked cash. He already had the football plays and would have no issue getting them delivered to New England in time for Sunday’s game. I was the perfect fall guy because I had no recourse, no leg to stand on, no pot to piss in.

I couldn’t go back to Sigfried with no money or I’d be unemployed, if I was lucky, but probably much worse. The authorities were out of the question. I couldn’t face Claire or request any help from her. She would think me a bigger putz than she already did, if she hadn’t already run into the arms of some pilot. I’d find Lester, kick the shit out of him, find out why he did it, and get the money back. I needed my cut. Burning red rage at that fucker. 

We had a good thing going. Keeping the big-wigs fat and well-fed. Lester had to get greedy and toss it all away. What a fucking asshole. He probably already spent the dough on a pound of powder from Bogota and was partying in a cabana downstairs or a more posh locale on the strip, with a row of near-nude girls on each arm, the opportunistic piece of shit. I should have realized what was going on when he up and bounced from Yuma in such a hurry. I should’ve seen this coming. 

And the crazy homeless guy with the peacock feathers railing against the government in the liquor store parking lot, did Lester use him to distract me? I didn’t see or hear the SUV approach because of that guy and his maniacal ranting. Clever, Lester, pretty fucking clever.

Obviously, dialing his phone proved useless. After six, seven rings came his voicemail message, “Hey yo, you’ve reached the one and only Lester the live one Boxer.  Unable to find the line right now, hit me with what’s really good and I’ll get back when the time is right. Peace.” 

I pressed end and then send at least a dozen more times, thinking that power calling would somehow get him to pick up. He wasn’t going to pick up. Why would he?  He was well on his way to the best weekend of his life and certainly had no reason to field a desperate call from me. Each time I heard, “Hey yo,” I hit the end button and felt my blood pressure uptick a few notches. I resisted the urge to chuck the phone into the wall or give it a Lem Kooper seventy yard launch from the balcony. Luckily I had enough wits to avoid the calamity of that move. I sat on the edge of the bed rubbing my face in my hands. What now? The calls to Lester solved nothing. I paced to the bathroom and examined my jawline in the mirror, which was starting to hue a faint blue. I stared at myself in the large rectangle glass, looked deep in my cloudless-sky eyes and said out loud, “What the fuck now, Mason?” 

I didn’t know what else to do so I sat on the bed and dialed my boss, Jerry Sigfried. I called his private cell that could only be rung in a dire emergency. There was no other way to describe the situation. Despite Sigfried’s raw meanness and lack of sympathy, I needed to talk to somebody. Ignored by Lester, there was no one else I could tell. The isolation of my predicament brought to mind the movie on the island after the plane crash. The guy’s only friend Wilson had a better personality than Jerry Sigfried. I tried to make this a joke to myself, but was ungodly nervous about the news I had to break.  

“What is it?” Sigfried answered on the third ring, his voice grinding like a broken earth-mover. I pictured him with a three-fingered bourbon in hand, reclined on the wraparound veranda at his mansion in the La Jolla cliffs.

“How you doing, Jerry?” I said, trying to sound as casual as possible without stuttering. “How’s the weather out there?”

“I said ‘What is it?’ Mason. This is my time, not yours.”

“Got a bit of a problem out here at the Hard Rock,” I said, as if the issue was not landing Dolly Parton tickets.

Sigfried said nothing. I thought I heard ice clinking as he swilled a drink. I waited in case he was thinking of something to say. No comment came.

“You there, sir?”

“What the hell is the problem, Mason?”

He hadn’t exploded into yelling but was close. This was a man I’d seen scoop a toilet full of shit into a bucket and bring it in front of the team at halftime to describe their play. A man who, despite being in his seventies with a bird-watching hobby, struck physical fear into the souls of three hundred pound twenty-five year olds. Naturally, I was less than enthused with speaking further, but I wasn’t a person unwilling to face a problem, so I took a deep breath and summarized my afternoon after leaving the sushi joint. When I finished, the sound of breaking glass screamed through the phone, like he’d smashed his tumbler on the patio.   

“And what do you plan to do about it?” A sudden calmness in his tone surprised me.

“I don’t know, sir.” There was no reason to lie. “I passed out from the headache, and then called you.”

“This is a huge job, Nick. If the Pats don’t cover this week, we have a major problem on our hands, and I don’t mean in the standings. Didn’t anyone see what happened? What about the delivery guy, Boxer?”

“I can’t get hold of him. Worried he might be involved.’

“You get a hold of him. No excuses. If he pulled this heist, he just started a war he won’t be able to finish. No other witnesses?”

“I do have some other leads,” I said, thinking about Samantha. I didn’t even have her number.

“This falls on you, buddy,” he said, though I knew he didn’t mean we were buddies. “You better get on the chase. I wouldn’t be wasting time talking to me if I were you. Keep me posted.”

Before I could answer, the line went dead. He’d said his piece and hung the hell up. Slamming my phone on the bed, I went back to the bathroom, and splashed water in my face. I was so mad I could’ve head-butted the mirror. An endless ringing tunneled through my ears. My head pulsed with concussion. Sigfried had made the right point. I should’ve canvassed the scene, interviewed every pedestrian, the motorists at the stoplight, but I’d missed my chance. I had nothing. There was Samantha, but no way to get in touch with her, or any likelihood she knew anything that could help me.

Crossing from the bathroom toward the balcony, I saw my phone buzzing on the bed, an incoming call. A 702 number, Vegas area code. My forearm hairs stood at attention. Had to be Lester disguising his number. Maybe to gloat about putting one by me. To warn me—never trust someone like him, and to wish me good luck fixing the unfixable, replacing cash so Sigfried doesn’t kill me. Lester was on his way out of the country. I picked up the phone, defiantly unable to mask my voice from someone insane. 


“You didn’t die after all. Everything alright over there?” A female voice, not Lester. In truth, I was relieved. Even understanding that this likely solved nothing, didn’t reduce any pressure on me from screwing up my job, hearing Samantha’s voice calmed me. I could at least try and mine her for information. It was something. Enough to sit in the desk chair, lean back a bit, even let myself laugh. 

“Takes a lot more than that to take me out. My head hurts like hell.”

She had a great little giggle and flirty suggestion in her voice that brought me back to growing up. It had been some time since I’d spoken to a girl on the phone without the weight of doom in every one of her words. Like back in high school, simple, girl plus boy. Or was I this badly concussed? 

“You had me worried. Never seen anything like that before. Random assault, no robbery.” She sounded quizzical but didn’t pry. I felt comfortable, not enough to spill the beans on how screwed I currently was. However beautiful they may be, it wasn’t smart to spill trade secrets to strangers, something Lester often liked to say.  

“No doubt the wrong guy. I’m sure they checked my wallet, saw I wasn’t their man. Honestly the details are pretty fuzzy.” The details were fuzzy. Come to think of it, I barely recalled the SUV encounter at all. Samantha, my warm headache, melted my concerns.

“Could’ve been a lot worse,” she said. “You’re lucky.” 


We chatted and got to know each other a bit. I wavered between wondering whether we were flirting or if she was just nice to strangers. She worked as a server at the Tropicana pool on the weekends between putting herself through nursing school so she’d “have something to do when I get old and lose my looks.” The training was for the Downtown River Run, a marathon in Reno in the spring. She swore that anyone could get used to running outside when it’s almost a hundred degrees out, “even a concussed ex-football player.” I expressed my disagreement. 

In no time, she had me planning to visit her neighborhood, Henderson, for dinner at eight p.m., one of her favorite restaurants. “Since those thugs couldn’t get you, maybe you could take me out,” she said. Most definitely sounded flirtatious. I didn’t forget Claire or how my life would end if I didn’t show up in San Diego at practice tomorrow with the delivery, but now I had something to do, and as Sigfried suggested, could see if there was anything else she remembered without tipping my hand. I looked forward to a meal. I still had barely nibbled any food all day.

A shower, change into nicer clothes. I checked in with Claire. I had many angry text messages from her, delivered throughout my afternoon of sleep. I’m not sure exactly what made me call her but I amused myself thinking that of all the people who might want me dead by the end of the weekend, she was the most likely to implement a snuff-plan and her method would probably contain the highest degree of torture. Call it wise to appease her with a phone call updating my whereabouts.     

“Looking forward to seeing you, Nick. I’m sorry I’ve been super-stressed lately. But it’s going to work out fine. Honestly, I believe it will.” I thought about what Samantha had said when I used that word, “honestly.” It’s often an indicator of lying. Strangely gone was Claire’s mood from earlier. She sounded downright pleasant, like the tender soul with whom I’d fallen in love. I wanted to tell her about what happened, but how would bringing her into the problem help anything? 

“I’ll be home tomorrow. Can’t wait to see you.” I closed the call, unsure of whether this was true. Technically I had a date with another woman. It was most likely a waste of precious time to see Samantha, but this plan wasn’t changing. 

Tim Cyphers has been published in Dime Show Review, the Scarlet Leaf Review, and an upcoming publication in Aethlon.