Playing the Fix (chapter three 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 three, with the clock ticking, Nick has travelled to Henderson for dinner with Samantha, a witness to the robbery. When, to his surprise, she asks what was in the green bag that the attackers stole, Nick finally receives a return phone call from Lester, who he’s blamed for the theft.   


I don’t remember what I said to excuse myself from the table. My heart and mind everywhere, trying to separate from each other. I do remember crushing the waiter. He returned to refill waters and take our orders, and I slammed right into him. He took the worst of it and reached for his forehead. Water spilled from the silver pitcher, soaked my shirt sleeve. 

“So sorry sir,” he said, taking the blame like any Vegas waiter. Phone in hand, I blew past him without answering, picked up the call while bulling through the exit doors. The air felt hotter than when I’d arrived, like I’d taken a shower and jumped into dress clothes without a towel.

“Lester,” I said, speaking his name too loudly. Wherever he was, skulled off his head, he would hear me.

“Mason.” His voice crackled through the receiver. “What’s the word, my man? I knew you’d be looking to groove.” Loud bass music in the background. He was somewhere on the outskirts, maybe a bathroom stall, I presumed, of an evening pool party, undoubtedly swimming in vices. 

“Lester.” My gravest, most demanding tone. I needed the next thing to say. Heart thudding the side of my neck. “Where are you?” A picture of Samantha snapped in my head, inside consoling the waiter, cleaning up the spill. Telling him that I was a no-good, lying asshole. If I could reach through the phone and tear through Lester’s neck.

“What’s with all the calls, Mason? Stalking?” His hyena laugh through the phone like we’re trading jokes.  

“Don’t play dumb with me.” I was behind the shopping center, a fiend pacing, exploding. Every word burned my throat.

“What’s with the string of rings?”

I banged my fist against the top of a dumpster. “Who were the fucking guys? You work with them?” On the verge of hyperventilating. I stopped to breathe. 

“What guys? I thought you wanted a party. You’re pretty worked up.”

“You screwed me. I’ll be dead this time tomorrow. And the peacock feathers? At the liquor store? He’s part of this?”

I didn’t care if it sounded insane. Someone was explaining this shit to me. And Lester owed me the gym bag with the fucking money. The row of dumpsters emitted the stench of trash. A garlicky-pasta smell wafted from Luigi’s. The odors, the sweating made me want to lose my stomach. No longer did I crave calamari. How fresh could it be in the middle of the desert?

“Listen, Nick.” I couldn’t hear the music in the background anymore. Lester had found privacy. “No idea what you’re talking about. You sound like you belong in a rubber ro—”

“You’re a fucking liar!” I barraged him with a string of curses and accusations. 

“Listen to me, Nick. Nick?” He waited patiently for me to stop screaming. “You with me? You can call me most things, but not a few things, and one of them is a liar. Check your tone, right now, or I hang up and you don’t get me again. Slow down. Tell me what kind of trouble you’re in. Breathe.”

I took the advice. He wasn’t ignoring me. I had the chance to explain, and I ran through my version of today’s events after he left Yuma in a hurry with the cryptic message for me to be careful. I told him about the crosswalk, how I couldn’t see, the anti-government freak, getting knocked out by assailants in a black SUV and swiftly robbed. For some reason I left out Samantha and when I thought of her, I imagined Lester already knowing her from a past tryst, and I nearly flew into new rage all over again. Whatever delusions I held of having a chance with beautiful Samantha were out the window, and I don’t know why this made me upset. I had much bigger problems on my hands, and a girlfriend, yet still I pictured her inside, tracking my time gone with her marathon-training stopwatch, shaking her head alongside the waiter while seconds—like my chances—ticked away. In another thirty beats, she’d be out the door for good.

When I finished, I heard only my pounding pulse in the pause. I had reached the far end of the shopping center and turned to pace behind the dumpsters for another lap. Now the smell of trash and authentic cuisine felt customary. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness. The backdoor of Luigi’s squeaked open. A cook in a white apron carried a cumbersome, clear bag of garbage to add to the fragrant dumpsters. My baby-blue button up, the one I’d worn to appear classy, stuck to my back. After what felt like an hour, I heard Lester’s voice at low volume.               

“This afternoon after I left the sushi spot?” He sounded nervous. “You were beat up, robbed?”

“Walking back to Hard Rock. And some crazy guy was shouting at the liquor store, wearing fucking peacock feathers.” It sounded so ridiculous. Not to mention I felt crazy, my concussion harvesting new symptoms. Again, the restaurant door squeaked and the cook went back inside. I tried to whisper but who knew if I was? If Lester had been behind the theft, he’d have no reason to call me or spend time hearing my story. I couldn’t trust him, but maybe we were in this mess together.     

“Bottom line, Sigfried’s not getting the delivery tomorrow?” Lester asked.

“Unless I play scratch-offs and hit jackpot, there’s nothing to deliver,” I said. We sat on the phone in somber acceptance of this reality. Wherever Lester had gone, all was quiet. I pictured Samantha and the waiter watching the stopwatch together, growing impatient, maybe even flirting with each other.

“This is serious. If Sigfried doesn’t get his funds, he’ll be one unhappy psychopath. He’s connected in this town, not someone to mess with. Heads will roll.”

“I get it.” My heart about doubled. It hadn’t quite hit me yet, even after speaking with Sigfried. Returning to San Diego, facing him with no cash. I couldn’t do it. I’d have to go on the run. A quick death would be merciful, and I envisioned that’s not what he’d have in mind. The old man propping my legs on a folding chair, breaking them with a baseball bat, my eyes gouged by something rusty. “What do we do?” I said. 

“Who’s we?” Lester laughed. I’d never heard him nervous before, not like this.

“Then I go it alone?” Where’s my fucking money? Sigfried screaming at me in a leaking room with one overhead light in the basement of a closed prison. I’d seen his gray, push-broom moustache whistle with rage tearing into Lem Kooper for laying ducks all over the practice field, but fucking with his finances would unleash something worse: damage that I wouldn’t walk away from.

“Kidding,” Lester said. Some joke. “Unfortunately, I’m as tied to this as you. I’m an employee, too.” I thought of the boss bigger than Sigfried. The boss bigger than the boss bigger than Sigfried. To them, I was flimsy and replaceable. “Eight o’clock now,” he said. “Meet me in thirty minutes. I’ll text the address.”  

Samantha sat inside waiting for me. I cursed the situation, pitying myself. My moronic life of missed inaction and regrettable action. I’d have to be the unreliable sketch-ball, breaking plans, announcing I was leaving before we ordered an appetizer. I ignored that I wouldn’t be in Vegas without this worst part of my job. If not for Sigfried, selling the sanctity of our sport to the highest bidder, I never would’ve met Samantha.

Maybe if I explained everything we could run off together and hide from those greedy bastards. They’d never find us in Bora Bora on the beach. Had Lester believed me? He only wanted me to meet him somewhere so he and his boys could ambush me. If I tried to bring her into the loop, Samantha would order me a straitjacket. I come back covered in sweat, espousing a tale of imminent danger. How did my life lead to this? I should’ve chucked my phone in the shit-smelly dumpster and followed it in, but I didn’t. Call it fear, family loyalty, whatever caused me to keep on the trail, to keep fighting.

“Text me the address.” I felt outside of my body. Me watching me speak and act.        


“What?” I spat the reply.

“Haven’t left anything out? The events, everything you’ve said is true?”

“No one wants this less true than me. The shit happened.” The next pause was our shared understanding that our nights were just beginning.

“We’ll figure something out. Peace.” The phone clicked and he was gone. Sure, buddy, I thought. Standing in one place behind a Henderson shopping center, I waited for Lester’s text. Within a minute: “Venetian lobby 8:30 pm.”   

I dreaded telling Samantha I was leaving, but cutting dinner short was in both of our best interests. We didn’t know each other. No hurt feelings. I’d agreed to the meal under duress, to satisfy an inkling of my curiosity. Lester had contacted me. My obligation was to resolve a crisis, to salvage my career and the safety of Claire and Ava. I phoned for a cab. A driver would arrive in ten minutes.   

I strolled into the restaurant, attempting nonchalance. My life in danger, my forehead dripping sweat, I still maintained the goal of looking cool in front of the fairer sex, like a middle schooler. I saw from the hostess stand Samantha’s empty seat and my heart dropped. She’d left and I wouldn’t get the chance to speak with her again. Then the waiter approached, carrying a plate of calamari. Probably she was in the restroom. More guilt for having to leave in a hurry with a bad explanation. I was an utter mess, confused, emotional, a greasy breakout of pure angst.

The chivalrous move was telling her in person that something critical had come up that couldn’t wait. I sat back in the chair, my posture slouched. The fried squid looked appetizing with a lemon wedge and side of marinara. I remembered my distant hunger. The conditioned air inside diffused my sweating body. I focused on breathing, slowly regaining calm.

Five minutes passed, then ten. The cab would be outside. Maybe she’d hightailed it after all. She’d assessed me as a liar, another shady tourist. I picked at a few fried pieces. My date would not be returning. Large forkfuls of the delicious calamari helped me come to grips with this fact, and combatted my appetite. The waiter left me alone to wallow in a miserable haze of unhealthy consumption. Servers and cooks in the back making fun of me, the bet-winners those who had rightly selected me as an eventual abandoned loser. 

My water empty, I reached across the table for Samantha’s, untouched. I noticed a small, folded slip of paper tucked beneath the pepper shaker on the edge of the table. The blue-lined white paper stood out against the tan tablecloth. I’d been so preoccupied internally that I hadn’t bothered to look around and see an obvious clue. I unfolded the paper, revealing sentences in black ink. I blinked to bring them into focus. Samantha’s pretty, curving handwriting, perfect penmanship.


Hey Nick- Had to run, sorry for the hasty leave. I ordered the calamari, please enjoy and eat something. You look famished! Hope you find what you’re searching for and are not in trouble. In this town, nothing is what it seems. L, Samantha.

The “L” she wrote, the comma, her name, Samantha, were squiggly, flirty, one connected line. I re-read the note at least ten times. Back and forth I debated if she was being cute or issuing a warning. Was there more to Samantha than I’d considered? Maybe she wasn’t just coincidentally jogging by when I’d gotten knocked on the head and had the money stolen. If she was a piece of the puzzle, why would she seek me out for dinner and then leave? Conspiracies dug tunnels in my brain. It was just a quick note. I was reading too far into it. I didn’t want to be late to meet Lester, but read the note again. In this town, nothing is what it seems.

I folded the paper and placed it in my breast pocket. I felt the light touch of the waiter’s hand on my shoulder, and his whisper in my ear.

“Sir? I believe your cab is outside.”

I resisted the urge to say something snarky, and the greater urge to close my fist and restructure the guy’s cheekbone. He wore this slight, smug smile, relishing the last laugh while I was leaving alone. He’d made the call, now proven accurate, that Samantha was way out of my league. I slammed cash on the table for the bill and rushed out of the restaurant.

The same cabbie, Bill Ross, picked me up outside. I despised the prospect of listening to more of his well-informed town musings.

“Back so soon?” he said, showing a gap-toothed grin. “I could’ve waited. Barely made it out of Henderson.”

I climbed into the backseat and slammed the door. “Didn’t work out the way I’d hoped,” I said. 

“Cruel world. No reason to fret. Know the best remedy in this town when a date goes belly-up?”

I stared out the window, ignoring what I knew was a pending bad joke, his plea for attention.

“Hookers!” Ross slapped his knee, admiring his humor. No mood, and like with the waiter, I was tempted to involve myself physically, not with a closed fist, however, but a tug on the back of his head to settle my curiosity on whether his frazzled curls were a toupee or real hair. I resisted and gave him my destination instead. He countered with a history lesson of the Venetian’s footprint, which used to hold the historic Sands Hotel and Casino. Ross spoke highly of Steve’s ability to see the desires of the gambling tourist and to meet those needs. 

“Steve considered the old Sands lot, the place Sinatra and the Rat Pack made famous. Ultimately he decided to expand the town elsewhere. I’d say it worked out okay.”

I sighed, sat back in the seat to listen like a good boy. For the moment, my world had reached a precarious equilibrium.

“Of course this weekend at the Venetian is particularly special. A well-known Saudi prince has a whole floor rented out. I’m not allowed to say names but it’s quite spectacular, to have royalty here in town.”

My equilibrium dropped from precarious to gone. A black SUV, like the one from the robbery, pulled up on our right side, close to my rear window. Ross was prattling on about the Venetian and didn’t seem to notice. The SUV dropped back by a few hundred feet and then sped up and blew past us. Its rear brake lights flashed, as if giving a signal, three quick blinks, and Ross’s cab caught up as the bigger truck slowed. The two cars were next to each other again.

“Are you seeing this?” I asked, interrupting Ross.

“Seeing what?”

“This car next to us,” I said. “I think they were flashing their brakes at us.”

Traffic littered the road. It wasn’t just the cab and the black SUV, though we were gunning side by side like a race.    

“There’s a lot of road rage out here,” Ross said. “It’s like the east coast sometimes.” Ignoring my concern, he picked up where he left off about the Venetian’s opulent design, how it leaned on influence from Venice, Italy and included architectural replicas of many landmarks from the famous city, like the Rialto Bridge crossing over the street outside, the Palazzo Ducale, and the sky-chasing St. Mark’s Campanile. We could now see the hotel in the distance and Ross kept on his tangent.

I focused on the SUV—a GMC Yukon Denali XL—beside us. I could hardly listen to Ross. The Denali pulled ahead. It had Michigan plates that I tried memorizing. Other than the out of state plates, there were no distinguishing markings. Before I could log the tag into my brain—my head was still hurting—the car sidled directly next to us again, and the rear back window rolled down.

“They’re rolling the window down.” My voice was a shout, and Ross looked back at me, a mix of disgust and concern on his bent face. Perhaps he was angry to realize I wasn’t listening to his endless Vegas story.  

“You okay, man?” he said.

As if on cue, a gun barrel peeked out of the Denali’s window. I knew I wasn’t imagining this.

“Look out!” I shouted.

“Hate to break it to you, those SUVs are a dime a dozen in this town.”

Calm as ever, Ross had his head so far in the sand, I didn’t know what I could say. He’d need his toupee shot off to stop the history lesson. The gun waggled back and forth, seemed to point at the cab.

“Hit the deck. It’s a gun!” I dove across the seat and wrapped my arms around the back of my head.

“Man, you need a vaca—”

I heard a single gunshot and felt the cab speed up for a second before starting to spin. A bone-pounding crash, metal and glass shattering, exploded around me. We were hitting something, another car, the median, a telephone pole, I didn’t know, but an object that sent the cab flipping and twisting and rolling. When we landed the cab was upside down and my face was close to Ross’s. He was moaning and a trickle of blood poured from his mouth. A shot of pain charged through my leg, but it felt like I could move my arms and legs. I didn’t wait, crawled out of the busted window, scraping my palms across broken glass, and ran.

I looked back once and couldn’t locate the Denali. There were several cars involved in the accident. I saw people out in the road checking damage but I didn’t stop for inventory. I had to get away. They tried to kill me. I needed to get to Lester. Crossing the median, I darted through oncoming traffic, nearly got hit by a bus, and made it to the sidewalk. I didn’t stop for several more blocks, drawing odd looks from pedestrians. Someone yelled, “Run Forrest run.” The crowd thickened as I neared the hotel and I finally slowed, thinking it’d be better to blend in than keep sprinting. I checked behind me. No mobsters picking their way through people after me. I had reacted so fast from the crash, instincts taking over, they could’ve still been searching for me at the scene. I was far away now. I stood and caught my breath, hands on my hips, until the air returned to my lungs.      

The Venetian rose tall and uniformly square before me like a beacon of ancient prestige. Keeping it from being just one long rectangle, the structure from the outside divided symmetrically down the middle, so the building rested as a hundred dollar bill would if it were folded down Franklin’s face and stood on its bottom edge. The exterior color, beige and tan and creamy light orange mixed with stacked rows of vertical bluish windows, added to the balance of liquid ambiance and historic decorum. At night, the bright white lights blasting the building from the base made it shine into the desert sky, a spectacle of grandiose wealth.

The luxury hotel felt like the perfect headquarters for Lester and whoever Lester wanted me to meet. There were so many rooms and wings and elevator banks, I couldn’t grasp how anyone could know the entire layout. It made sense that a wall-street titan or middle-eastern prince or gilded-age-heiress could have a whole floor reserved, barely blipping the place’s radar screen. The sheer size and population provided the perfect cloak of anonymity.

I spotted Lester in the lobby, scrolling through his phone, leaning forward in a chair that resembled a king’s throne. I approached him. When he noticed me, he stood, and simply said, “Follow me.” If he thought I looked like I’d just been in a car accident after being shot at, he said nothing to indicate it, and something told me to keep this to myself. We then walked out the front doors and back outside.

I trailed Lester by a step, nervously scanning for anyone I wouldn’t recognize who might be looking for me. We navigated the crowd outside the entrance. Cabs, town cars, SUVs in waves of constant motion, pulling up, picking up, dropping off groups of girls in high heels and tight dresses and guys with carefully gelled hair, designer button-downs and dark jeans headed for the world-famous TAO Nightclub, eager to burn down a big Thursday evening. We walked straight across the road at a crosswalk without waiting, drawing mad honks from irritated drivers.

A black Cadillac Escalade waited for us on the shoulder of South Las Vegas Boulevard, as we made our brisk beeline from the Venetian. Lester, first in. We took up the two captain’s chairs behind the driver. The driver said nothing while we got settled and shut the door. He hit the gas and soon we were peeling down access roads and back-alleys, avoiding evening traffic on the strip. I recognized the turn onto East Flamingo, another main drag, and then a right onto Paradise Road, seemingly back to the Hard Rock where I was staying.                         

Lester didn’t speak. I wasn’t about to break the weird silence. I wouldn’t be volunteering any information about what just happened. There was no one I could trust. Maybe we were headed back to the robbery scene for my full explanation. But we sailed by the spot, taking the same right onto Harmon that the guys who jumped me had, maybe the same guys who just tried to take me off the map. The driver wore white gloves. He flipped his turn signal to make a left from Harmon Avenue. We pulled into a dimly lit parking lot—the Alexis Park All Suite Resort, a cheap hotel compared to the Hard Rock across the street, pennies compared to the Venetian at the north end of the strip. 

The Alexis was a dump, comically outfitted with a wedding chapel. While the strip embellished electricity, here a string of light bulbs on the main sign were burnt out. I knew of this “resort” because of my past trips and light research on area hotels. It wasn’t a place I would ever stay. Lester thanked the driver and we got out in the parking lot. The Escalade pulled back onto westbound Harmon Avenue. 

The full resort was bigger than I expected. Sprawled back over several hundred yards extended astro-turf lawns between a few dozen two-story orange stucco lodgings, providing outdoor access to the rooms like a giant motel. The lights outside contrasted with clean-white mainstream Vegas. These buildings glowed a dull orange, the style of old city streetlights. An eeriness glistened the atmosphere. Nothing anywhere looked unsoiled. Skipping the front entrance, Lester led the way around the side of the gray building. We headed into the orange abyss.

“The hell are we going?” I asked in a hushed whisper. 

“Roberts.” He matched my whispered tone. “The boss man.” 

Now it was pushing nine o’clock, the air still sticky and hot. Nerves and sweat reappeared in their uncomfortable places. Weighing possibilities, my mind took the fatalist route. I presumed this seedy meeting would lead to the definitive end of Nick Mason. I was already pushing my nine lives. There was no one around. So quiet I could hear our footsteps pattering the sidewalk. I prayed for a painless death, feared being tortured like a terrorist. 

We veered from the main pathway, down a sidewalk, leading to one of the orange stucco buildings. I followed Lester up an outdoor stairwell made from the hardest, most unforgiving concrete I’d ever set foot on. We stood in front of a red door marked 502 above a thin gold knocker and peephole. Before knocking, Lester waited until I made eye contact with him. I was a sweaty, heart-pounding mess. Lester gave me a wry smile. “Relax, Mason,” he said. “What’s a missing five million among friends?”             

He rapped his knuckles against the door and it creaked open. 

Tim Cyphers has been published in Dime Show Review, the Scarlet Leaf Review, Litbreak Magazine and an upcoming publication in Aethlon. This is the second Litbreak Magazine excerpt from Tim’s novel “Playing the Fix.”