[A short story for you today. Max Feinberg needs a breather. His laundromat business is lucrative but boring. His marriage is sound but irritating. His body is slowly turning to sludge. So he’s headed to Las Vegas for some restorative gambling and professional sex. The bonus he’ll receive will exceed his imagination. It will include a lesson about himself that he badly needs to learn. — FWP]
Max Feinberg, king of the Los Angeles laundromat business, always vacationed alone. Yes, he was married. His wife Ruth did not care to accompany him. They loved each other, but if the facts be submitted to a candid world, she looked forward to his quarterly solo jaunts to Las Vegas quite as much as he. It provided the two of them with de-escalation time. Both of them regarded whatever amount Max lost in such a week as the price of divorce averted for another three months.
He gambled at the Alhambra by preference. For one thing, he was known and welcomed there. For another, the food was good and the complimentary drinks weren’t watered. But the third thing was the decider: no matter whether he won or lost, or how much, no member of the Alhambra staff ever questioned his credit.
When you routinely push six digits worth of chips across the tables in the course of a week, the last thing you want is to have your credit questioned. Of course it helps to make good on your losses. It helps even more if you lose heavily only slightly more often than the Sun rises in the West.
On the October Sunday evening when our story opens, Max was of the opinion that the Sun might come up over the Pacific Ocean the very next morning.
He decided it would be a night for baccarat, and headed for the thousand-dollar table the moment he stepped into the casino. The dealer, a tall, slender Vietnamese woman resplendent in the Alhambra’s crimson and gold, smiled brilliantly and gestured him to a seat immediately across from her. Her smile widened even further as he arranged his quarter million in chips before him.
That was the high point of Max’s night. The dealer’s night went much better. The casino’s night went better still.
Before Max had his first inkling that it might not be his night, a croupier had raked his entire quarter million into the casino’s coffers. By the time he realized that cutting short his night was the only way he could cut his losses, he’d added a hundred thousand more.
He stalked out to his Lincoln in as near to a rage as he ever allowed himself. It had been his worst one-night loss ever. It wouldn’t come near to endangering him financially—few enterprises are as trouble-free and as steadily profitable as a southern California laundromat, and Max owned virtually every laundromat in Los Angeles County—but it would curtail his entertainment for the week to come. It might send him back to Beverly Hills, to Ruth, and to his terminally boring business without another stint at the tables. He berated himself savagely for having doubled down when he should have known that Lady Luck was not on his side. He pulled the flyer out from under his windshield wiper without looking at it and tossed it on the passenger seat before starting the engine and heading for the condominium that was his home away from home in Las Vegas.
But perhaps he was being too harsh with himself. For how could he have known? It would have required the ability to predict the future, an ability no man had ever possessed. An ability that would render every mode of gambling obsolete.
Surely it would be better to lose every now and then, rather than suffer such a catastrophe as that.
The greater part of Monday had passed before Max chanced to leave his condominium again. Recriminations over the prior evening’s bullheadedness had muted his appetites for food, sex, and other diversions. Thus it was not until the acids began to erode the lining of his fifty-four-year-old stomach that he begrudged to descend from the twenty-third floor of the apartment tower and board his car to search for dinner. Before he started the engine, he glanced at the flyer he’d found on his windshield eighteen hours earlier.
He’d found any number of flyers on his car in his years as a patron of the Vegas Strip. Most promoted the services of a brothel, an industry whose trade benefited as much as that of the casinos from overoptimistic gamblers. The pleasures of the flesh will often solace an aching wallet, and Max Feinberg was no stranger to their custom. But a bordello’s flyer is normally a flashy item, brightly colored and bedecked with snapshots of the young women whose charms could be found within. This one was anything but flashy. It bore only a simple message, centered on the page in twelve-point type:
I pick placers at Pimlico, Belmont, and Yonkers.
And I am never, ever wrong.
My website is https://placer-mine.com
Enter the code MF42J for one day’s free access.
Try it and see.
There was nothing more.
Max put it aside and headed for his favorite Chinese restaurant. Perhaps some moo shu pork would help to assuage his anger at himself. At any rate, it would quiet the rumblings in his belly.
Max parked in the garage beneath the condominium tower, released himself from his seat belt, started to exit his Lincoln, and stopped. He turned toward the flyer and glanced at it a second time.
One day’s free access.
What’s the risk? Either he’s full of it, which I’ll know from the results, or he’ll have something worth investigating further…which I’ll know from the results.
The psychology of the gambling enthusiast, as well studied as it is, is not yet well enough understood to explain for the rest of us why such a person cannot resist the lure of an untried game. Even a phony game can exert an irresistible pull on the gambler’s mind. Max Feinberg’s ethics were not ironclad. He was drawn to the possibilities of a good scam as a trout is drawn to a fly afloat on the surface of the river.
It almost didn’t matter whether the operator of the “Placer Mine” could do what he claimed. The novelty of the come-on and the possible applications to other sorts of scams were too inviting. Max would try it. And for free…well, what could he lose?
I lost plenty last night. I’ll take this clown’s freebie. At least it’ll keep me from losing lots more tonight. I’ll just take down his picks and check them against tomorrow’s results.
I don’t have to bet a dime.
But he would.
The psychology of the gambler is well enough understood for anyone to predict that.
Before he’d retired for the night, Max had gone to https://placer-mine.com, had entered the magic code when prompted, and had taken down the names and jockeys of twenty-four horses, eight at each of the three racetracks, the site had predicted would place in the races to be run the next day. He’d debated with himself the folly of laying large bets on the site’s predictions for nearly an hour before calling the Alhambra and putting a benjamin on each horse, to place.
A casino “sales executive” took Max’s call and his bets and gave him twenty-four confirmation numbers. There was a distinct note of wonder in the executive’s voice throughout the exchange. Max wasn’t a ponies man. He’d always preferred the fall of the cards, games where a knowledge of the odds and a certain wry pessimism would give a man an edge over hungrier, more optimistic players. Betting on the horses marked a significant departure from his usual practices.
Upon the instant the call ended, Max undressed himself, slid into bed, and turned off the lights. He emptied his mind of all thoughts but sleep. Surely there would be more than enough to think about tomorrow…especially if his bets should pay off.
Max rose to a beautiful October Tuesday morning, showered and dressed for a day of leisure, and ordered breakfast sent up to him from the restaurant on the tower’s ground floor. He took his pancakes and sausages to the table on his bedroom balcony and enjoyed them in concert with the sight of the city glimmering below. When ten o’clock Pacific time had arrived, Max fetched his laptop, set it before him, and awaited the first returns from Belmont Raceway, one eye on the list of second-place finishers predicted by Placer Mine.
The horse the site had picked to place in the first race came in second. The payoff was 3.43 to 1.
The site’s second-race pick also placed. The payoff was 2.73 to 1.
The site’s third-race pick also placed. The payoff was 3.05 to 1.
It went on that way through the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh races. By the time the eighth race was scheduled to start, Max could no longer sit. His heart beat faster than it had since his first kiss.
The eighth-race pick placed. The payoff was 2.98 to 1.
Eight races, eight forecasts, eight placers.
Max swiftly went to the sites for Pimlico and Yonkers. There too, all eight of the placers were the horses Placer Mine had selected to finish second.
Twenty-four races, twenty-four forecasts, twenty-four placers.
One hundred percent predictive accuracy.
Max had won slightly more than eighty-two hundred dollars.
Nobody can fix twenty-four races at three widely separated tracks. Even if it were possible, he’d never let the information get out!
But there it was.
He immediately went to Placer Mine and re-entered the MF42J code. The site’s nondescript front page was immediately overlaid with a dialog box:
Further access will cost you $1000 per day,
Payable in advance.
I accept MasterCard, Visa, and Discover.
Max scurried for his wallet.
The fantastic run of Placer Mine continued uninterrupted.
Each evening Max went to the site, paid $1000 for the privilege, and collected the names of twenty-four horses. Immediately thereafter he called the Alhambra and placed twenty-four bets. With each day he increased the size of his wagers. On the subsequent day he would check the websites for the three racetracks, find that all his horses had placed as predicted, and would call the Alhambra to confirm his winnings. By Saturday afternoon, he had recouped the whole of his three hundred fifty thousand dollar loss of Sunday night, and was a hundred eighty-eight thousand dollars in the black.
It left him vaguely dissatisfied.
Gamblers dislike to lose, but they dislike a sure thing–a proven sure thing–almost as much. The gambler lives for the thrill that comes with risk. He savors his sense of himself as an adventurer, pitted against the capricious gods of Chance. He relishes the electric tension that comes from staking his fate on the fall of the cards, the roll of the dice, or the anticipation as the little steel marble chooses in which slot to land. He wants to win, but he yearns even more for the thrill of the stake–and the higher, the better.
Yet Max was about to return to Beverly Hills, to Ruth, to his laundromat chain, and to the innumerable nuisances to which a man of late middle age, his looks gone, his strength waning, and his erections dependent on a drug must submit, having played a sure thing and nothing but a sure thing from one end of his breather to the other.
He called the Alhambra once more to check his balance.
The sun was about to set and Max had just walked into the casino when he heard his name being called.
“Hey, Max! Max Feinberg!”
He turned to his right to see a short, portly figure with a fiftyish face and a fringe of graying hair trotting toward him. The face was vaguely familiar, so he stuck out a hand.
“How are you doing…?”
“Solly, Solly Ezekiel, the developer from Denver,” the man said as he shook Max’s hand. “We connected about a year ago over at the craps table. You were on a hot streak, and I muttered about not being able to roll anything but box cars, remember?”
Max grinned. “I remember now. We had dinner together, and then some laughs at that…what was it called?”
“The Cooler,” Solly said. “Gorgeous girls, but you know, I can’t remember anything else about them.”
Max chuckled. “My friend, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. You doing okay?”
“Yeah!” Solly broke out in a huge grin. “I dropped a small fortune Sunday night. It left me pretty pissed, but when I got to my car there was this flyer on it—”
Max went at once to full alert. “For Placer Mine?”
Solly’s eyes went wide. “You got it too?”
Max nodded. “Pretty hot stuff, eh?”
Solly nodded. “I’m nearly two hundred grand in the black on his picks. But why placers? He can’t be fixing races at three tracks simultaneously. If he’s that good a handicapper, why doesn’t he predict the winners?”
It was the question Max had resisted asking himself since Tuesday’s returns. It acted like a seed crystal, compelling all the too-weird-to-contemplate notions he’d entertained and dismissed to coalesce around it and cling to it.
People who fix races always concentrate on the winner. They want a particular horse to win the race. They couldn’t care less who comes in second…which is why they get caught. But a guy who can fix the second place finisher would tend to go unnoticed. Who in the racing world bothers to look at the betting patterns of guys who put their money on placers?
It’s perfect. Placers pay well, but no one ever gives them a second look.
Maybe he can fix twenty-four races at three separate tracks in twenty-four hours. Maybe he has help at all three tracks who are in on the game. After all, how else could he pull this off?
But why is he doing this? Is he using our grand a day to build up a stake so he can do his own betting…after which he’ll cut the rest of us off? How many of us are there, anyway?
“Solly,” he said, “have you had dinner?”
It developed that Solly had a friend, and the friend had a friend who was razor-sharp about computers, Internet communications, and the World Wide Web. After ten thousand dollars in U.S. green had been waved under his nose, the friend of a friend was quite amenable to a bit of research.
Every website, with very few exceptions, must have what‘s called a “fixed IP address.” Every fixed IP address that’s been assigned to a particular user is registered with a big, impersonal company that does nothing but track who owns which IP address and what he does with it. And it doesn’t take much to reverse-track a website’s URL to an IP address, and thence to the name and physical address of the very human being to whom it was assigned.
The very human being to whom https://placer-mine.com and the associated IP address were registered was listed as living in northern Nevada, about a three hour drive from the City of Sin. The name he’d given was, to neither Max’s nor Solly’s surprise, John Q. Smith.
They piled into Max’s rented Lincoln and were speeding northward within a minute after paying, thanking, and bidding farewell to the friend of a friend.
The three hour drive was conducted in almost perfect silence. There was one exchange of thoughts.
“Max, what are we going to ask this guy?”
“I don’t know. I just have to…you know. Before I go back to L.A.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
Max steered the big Lincoln off I-80, past a wholly conventional housing development, and through a final sweeping curve in the desert to arrive at a large trailer park. The nondescript lot was nothing but sand and several dozen single-wide trailers. He glanced at the address the computer jockey had found for them. They had arrived.
They debarked from the Lincoln in silence.
“How will we know which one?” Solly said.
Max shook his head.
They went from one trailer to the next for more than an hour, knocking discreetly on doors, asking gentle questions and politely thanking those who answered them, before they happened upon their target.
They knew it was their target from a most unambiguous indicator. The door of the trailer bore a slice of oak tag that said “Welcome, Max and Solly!”
The door to the trailer was unlocked. Max opened it and peered cautiously inside.
The trailer was all but completely empty. Its sole contents were a small television set hooked to an old videotape player.
“Easy, Solly.” Max stepped into the trailer and beckoned to Solly to follow him. A swift glance around confirmed that there were no other movable items in the structure. He reached for the wall switch nearest the door and flicked it.
The television and videotape player came to life. Seconds later the image of a tall, sparely built man in casual clothes appeared on the television screen. They dropped into crouches to watch and listen.
“Hello, Max. Hello, Solly,” the figure said. “You’re the first to decide that even if you weren’t going to kill it, at the very least you wanted to meet the goose who was laying the golden eggs. Well, that’s me, and as you’ve come a fairly long way to reach this point, I suppose I’ll explain it all to you.
“You’ve probably been asking yourselves several questions. ‘Why is he doing this? How is he doing this? Why doesn’t he do his own betting and keep the winnings, rather than sharing his knowledge with us? Speaking of us, how many of us are there? And of course, if he can predict placers, why not winners?’ At least, those are the questions I’d be asking myself in your position. I’ll answer them in reverse order.
“First, yes, I can predict winners. But winners are more conspicuous than placers, and they become much more conspicuous when an identifiable group of high-stakes bettors wins on them over and over again. The group in which I included you is small enough and well enough known that it would eventually draw a lot of attention neither you nor I would want.
“Second, there are only thirty-two of you: you two and thirty others. You all gamble habitually at one of four Vegas casinos. You all received your invitations to Placer Mine on Sunday night. And you all patronized the site continuously from Monday through Saturday, for which service I earned a total of a hundred sixty thousand dollars without having to make myself conspicuous by placing a bet.
“There’s the third answer you’re waiting for: why I sell my knowledge to you and thirty other high rollers rather than keep it to myself. I can’t afford to be conspicuous. What I’ve learned how to do would be of infinite value to a lot of very nasty players. That includes governments, and there’s nothing I hate more than governments. So I resolved to collect your access fees rather than to place wagers of my own, which would inevitably have exposed me to those nasty sorts.
“With that we’ve arrived at the key question, the one that really has your gears grinding: how do I do it? It’s quite simple, really: I have a chronoscope, a device that allows me to see forward in time. It has its limits—I can’t look forward more than about seventy-two hours, and the geographical range and scope of the device are about the same as that of a good spyglass—but for collecting the information you’ve made use of, it’s ideal. So every afternoon, I drive down to Vegas and use my device to scan the horseracing results boards twenty-four hours ahead. And of course, the device also allows me to keep track of my customers, which is how I know that you, Max, and you, Solly, are the first to puzzle out my name and address.
“Why am I doing this? For the money, of course. I don’t need vast riches, just enough to support myself and to fund my researches. And I’m aware of the danger inherent in the big score, the sudden killing that makes others sit up and take notice. I have no desire to be a celebrity, and the things I’ve learned about time would be fantastically dangerous in any hands but mine, so I decided to reap my revenues in a quieter, less attention-grabbing fashion.
“So there you have it, gentlemen. Of course I’ll be gone and the site will have been shut down by the time you get here. I made no promises of perpetual access. Anyway, leaving the site up for any great length of time would attract exactly the attention I’ve resolved to avoid. So I hope you’ve made good use of it, but it’s over and this is good-bye.
“I do have a parting gift for you. Consider it a door prize for being the first to find me. The two trailers next to mine belong to a pair of perfectly delightful young ladies. The one to the east is a blonde. The one to the west is a redhead. They’re both ‘in the trade,’ as they say here in Nevada, and I’ve already prepaid them for services to be rendered to you two. Just decide which of you will go to which, give your names, and accept their ministrations with my compliments.”
The figure on the screen started to turn away, paused, and faced the camera once again.
“Oh, and in case you were wondering, my name really is John Q. Smith. Farewell, gentlemen.”
The screen went blank.
Max turned to Solly. “I’d never have guessed.”
“Me neither,” Solly said. “But we recouped our losses and made a few bucks, and he’s right that he never promised us a moonshot, so I guess we’ve got nothing to complain about. Anyway, we have an important decision in front of us.”
“Red or blonde?”
Max chuckled. “I’ll take the blonde.”
“Good. I’ve always wanted to try a redhead.”
Max invited Solly to join him for a Sunday evening farewell dinner in the Alhambra’s restaurant. Max was enjoying a generous portion of tender veal Florentine and Solly was finishing off a nice filet mignon when Solly asked the question Max had awaited since their return to Vegas.
“Max, why us? I mean, with all the big shots running around this town who could buy us and sell us—”
“Because he’s a nice guy,” Max said.
“I can’t prove it,” Max said as he forked up a bite of spinach, “but I’d bet that all his customers are guys who dropped a pile Sunday night, just like us. Maybe Smith’s a retired gambler himself. Maybe he knows how bad it stings to lose like that, and as long as he was selling a sure thing, he might as well sell it to guys who could use a little salve for their wounds.” He popped the spinach into his mouth, chewed, swallowed, and set down his fork. “Besides, you heard him. He wasn’t out for a killing, so why go for the really big fish when guys like us’ll do just fine?”
“You don’t think maybe he was selling the really high rollers something else? Something worth even more?”
“Doubt it.” Max dabbed his lips with his napkin. “One guy, one grift. Too easy to get in over your head if you try to play too many games at once. That’s why I always stuck to laundromats. They’re boring, but I know them, and they pay steady. Why go looking for trouble?” He grinned. “I can get into enough of that here.”
“Good point. Real estate’s the same.” Solly smirked ruefully and looked off. “But I don’t think I’ll be back here. Knowing there’s a guy somewhere who already knows where the ball’s gonna land takes the thrill out.”
Max nodded. “I know what you mean. And you know, he might have had that in mind, too. Kind of a bonus.”
“Maybe. But you know what I really want to know?”
Solly cocked an eyebrow. “How was your blonde?”
Max chuckled. “Silk and velvet, my friend. Silk and velvet and sweet as the morning breeze. I didn’t even need a pill. How about your redhead?”
“The same,” Solly said. “Max, just how much do you think Smith knew…knows about us?”
“Enough to do us a lot of good. Does it matter?”
“I guess not.”
Max stuck his hand across the table, and Solly took it. The two beamed at one another in a quintessential male bonding moment.
“He really is a nice guy, isn’t he?” Solly said.
“You know it.”
Copyright © 2015 by Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.