It was in the parking lot of a Raley’s supermarket in Reno. He was giving her a ride home from work and they’d stopped for a quart of milk and a Hershey bar. It was a sticky summer day. Leaning up against a side wall of the store, gulping down a few swallows of the icy milk, he saw her photo on the milk carton. He looked at the photo, looked at Stacy, looked hard at the photo again. It was definitely her. No doubt. He read the bad news …
Have You Seen Me?
Julia Gwendolyn Thomas
Weight: 112 lbs.
Last seen: Milpitas, California
She was licking chocolate off her fingers.
She looked up, responding to her name, then—in a split second—he saw a chill run through her. “Why did you call me that?”
“I’ve been reading about you.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Cut the shit, Bart.”
He turned the milk carton so that the side with her photo was facing her. “Thirsty?” he said, offering the carton to her.
She didn’t even look at it. “Why did you call me Julia?”
He jiggled the carton at her.
She grabbed it from him, stared intently at the photo for a moment, then slowly sank to her haunches, holding it tightly in both hands, never taking her eyes off of it. Finally, with a sick look on her face, she said, “Shit, Bart! What am I going to do?”
“I’m asking myself the same question.”
“What if somebody sees this?” she said. “I’ll lose my job.” She was working at a used bookstore in downtown Reno. Stacy was a book freak. They’d only been in Reno a few months and their apartment was nothing but books floor to ceiling. She devoured books. She could talk about any subject. Anything. Aeroballistics. Zymology. Anything. He suspected her IQ was higher than his and she was the first person he’d ever met about whom he’d had such a suspicion.
“Lose your job? That’s the least of your worries. More likely they’ll call the cops.”
“Dottie wouldn’t turn me in to the cops.” Dottie was the bookstore manager, maybe the owner. He didn’t know.
“Hey, any customer could recognize you and rat you out. You’re fucked, Stacy. You can’t go back to work. How in God’s name did you get that job in Sunnyvale?” When he’d met her three months earlier, she was working as a stripper in California. At a nude club. No alcohol. The state law said the dancers had to be eighteen.
“I’ve got fake ID,” she said. “And I have to go back to the store on Friday. They owe me a paycheck.”
“Kiss it goodbye. Should I call you Julia?”
She shot him a look that said don’t you dare, then said, “You’re serious? I can’t even pick up my paycheck?”
“Damn straight, baby. You have to leave town. Get on a bus to Vegas or something.”
“They have milk in Vegas,” she said. “This picture’s probably all over the country.”
“Yes, but they don’t know you in Vegas. People here see that photo …‘Hey, that’s Stacy!’ In Vegas, nobody recognizes that girl. A week from now, a new photo comes out and nobody remembers last week’s milk-carton kid. Besides, now you know which photo they’re passing around. You can change your hair style, put on some glasses. You’ve got to get out of town. You’ve got no other options.”
“You have to come with me, Bart. We’ll go to Vegas together. You have milk in your beard. You look like a derelict.”
He wiped his palm down his chin, smearing the white drops of milk into invisibility. “Stacy, you’re fifteen years old. If you get caught, they send your ass home. If I get caught with you, they send my ass to prison.”
“You can’t just abandon me, Bart! You said you loved me!”
“I never said I loved you. I said I don’t believe in love.”
“You lied to me,” she said.
“I lied to you? You told me you were nineteen! All those times you came into the casinos with me … Jesus Christ! It was bad enough I thought you were nineteen and they’d just kick you out. But fifteen? They could haul my ass to jail.”
“I told you a white lie. Age is an arbitrary distinction. When I told you I loved you, I meant it.”
“As I recall our exact conversation, Stacy, you said you loved me and I said that’s because you’re a girl. What I said and I repeat: ‘Boys don’t believe in love. Boys believe in getting laid.’ Do you recall this conversation?”
She just looked at him. Hurt. Too proud to pout.
“Are you saying you don’t recall this conversation?”
“I know what you said, Bart, but you said it in a way that meant you loved me.”
“So it was all bullshit you gave me about majoring in chemistry at Stanford? You’re not even out of junior high! Have you told me a single word of truth the whole time we’ve been together?”
“I graduated from high school when I was fourteen,” she said. “And I was going to Stanford, majoring in chemistry. That’s the truth, Bart. Honest. I only lied about my age.”
Now he didn’t know what to believe. “Baby, you’re fifteen years old and you’ve been living with me for the past three months, with me thinking you were nineteen. I’m a middle-aged anti-social biker with no visible means of support and a list of prior busts for possession of controlled substances, shoplifting, and various minor infractions that may soon include the statutory rape of a fifteen-year-old girl. That’s not minor. I could do hard time for this.”
“You never raped me!”
“Believe me, if I’m living with you, the court is not going to be kind to me. In the eyes of the law, I’m an adult. You’re a child.”
“But we never even had sex!”
He stared hard at her for a few moments, then said, “Not because you weren’t trying.”
“I’m not fifteen anyway,” she said. “I turned sixteen two weeks ago.”
At this point, he had no idea if anything coming out of her mouth was true. “Well, a belated happy birthday, baby. Sorry I didn’t get you a cake. But believe me, it won’t make any damn difference to the judge. And you can’t use that ID anymore. Even in Vegas, you can’t use it. As soon as someone here recognizes that photo, they’ll be looking for you and they’ll know the phony name you’ve been going by. You’ve got to get a new ID with a different name.”
“That’s no big deal. I can get another ID.”
“Where’d you get it?” he asked.
“Zoey makes them. She’s got the whole works, hologram and everything. It’s a real one. I mean, it’s made from real equipment. That’s how I got the job at Angel’s.”
He had initially met Stacy at Zoey’s apartment in Sunnyvale about three months earlier.
“So you were fifteen when I met you?” he said. “You were fifteen and working as a stripper? Where’d Zoey get the equipment to make fake IDs as good as that?”
“She paid a lot for it. It used to be in the DMV, I think in Sacramento. It broke down or something. The guy who was supposed to be scrapping it took it home and fixed it.”
“But why’d she buy it? She’s not on the lam, is she?”
“Zoey has a lot of friends who are card counters. What kind of business did you think she was doing with Clance? She’s living in Las Vegas now and has a pretty good fake ID business going, making IDs for professional players. That’s where all the pros are. She says Reno’s small time compared to Vegas.”
All news to him. Zoey had never told him she could make fake IDs. Clance never told him Zoey was making them. Zoey had mentioned to him that she was planning a move to Vegas. “Then, what do you need me for, Stacy? You’ve got Zoey to take care of you. She knows your secret and she can whip you up a new ID. You can stay with her in Vegas and hide out till you get a different look together.”
“You can’t abandon me just because of my age, Bart. Age is an involuntary thing, like race or height. It’s not my fault how old I am. You can’t just hear a number and say ‘I don’t love you any more.’”
“First off, I never said I loved you. Second, I never said I was going to Vegas with you. Third, you should have told me how old you were.”
It pissed him off that she’d lied to him about something so important. If she’d told him the truth, he never would have brought her to Reno. What was most upsetting to him was that he did love her, but her age wasn’t really why he’d never had sex with her. That was just what he’d told her. The fact was he couldn’t fuck. Anybody. Broke dick. None of her business.
“Look at me, Bart,” she said. “I’m sixteen years old. I’m just an innocent young girl with a hot body. Do you really want me to go to Vegas all alone and do whatever I have to to survive?”
“Don’t give me that innocent crap,” he said. “Are you going to drink that milk? You’ve been bogarting that carton for ten minutes.”
She took a swig then passed it to him. “I guess I’ll just hit the highway with my thumb out and trust my fate to the kindness of strangers,” she said. She looked comical with her milk mustache.
“C’mon, Stacy … Won’t Zoey help you get settled somewhere?”
She wiped her mouth with the side of her hand. “Oh yeah, we’ve talked about it before. Do you know why her husband is divorcing her? Because he found out she used to work at a whorehouse down in Pahrump. She made a lot of money and it’s legal. One of her old customers saw her in the casino and he talked with Jeffrey about her. She’s probably going back to work there again. She already told me she could get me a job in the brothel. Her IDs are perfect. I don’t look sixteen.” She said this as if she were bragging.
His stomach was churning. “You wouldn’t do that, Stacy,” he said. “Why don’t you just go home till you’re eighteen? The time will pass fast. It can’t be that bad at home, can it?”
“Do I have to talk about all this shit right now? Do you need to know the creepy details of my home life or can you just accept the fact that I would prefer blowing strangers to living with my parents? I’m a survivor, Bart. I’ll do whatever it takes to be in control of my own life.”
He made a move to take her hand, but she twisted away from him with a look of defiance. “Don’t put a guilt trip on me, Stacy.” He paused, trying to soften the tone of the conversation. “I could be charged with kidnapping, rape, child molestation, corrupting a minor, god knows what else.”
“I’m not trying to guilt trip you. I’m just telling you the facts. If I find myself working in a whorehouse next week, I’m not going to be fooling myself that it wouldn’t have happened if Bart really knew my situation. Bart loved me. Bart wouldn’t let this happen if he knew. He cared about me. He just didn’t know.”
“You’re not trying to guilt trip me?”
“Yeah, and then two years from now, I’ll be eighteen and I’ll call Bart and say, ‘Guess what, sweetie, I’m legal. I’m finally old enough for you to be in love with me. The magic legal number. Eighteen. Here’s another magic number: one thousand. That’s how many dicks I’ve sucked in the past year!’” There were tears in her eyes.
He started to respond several times, opened his mouth, but stopped. She was looking intently at him, waiting, as if daring him to put up his fists and have it out with her. The feeling in his gut was on the verge of panic. Finally, he said as calmly as he could, “I have never once come on to you. I never told you I loved you. You’re not my girlfriend.”
“Fuck you,” she said through her clenched teeth.
He waited a moment, then continued at a slightly higher pitch. “Every time you came on to me, I told you you were too goddamn young for me and that was when I though you were nineteen. Now I find out it’s fifteen, not nineteen. Fifteen! Fifteen!”
“Sixteen!” she spat at him. “You’re such a fucking hypocrite! You walk around in those biker duds, mister rebellion, riding your badass Harley, bragging about your disregard for authority, telling stories about all your wild rides and dangerous adventures, mister professional gambler, mister social renegade, the big casino scammer who’s never been caught. But I guess I’m an adventure that’s just a little too dangerous for you.” She looked angry. She looked scared.
Once more, he tried reaching for her hand.
This time she slapped his arm away. “You can’t even keep up with a sixteen-year-old girl, you wimpy sonofabitch! You call yourself a man? You and your fucking Satan tattoos? Big devil worshipper! You wimpy little phony. I’ll go be a whore and you can ride your big bad Harley off into the sunset!” The look on her face was almost vicious.
“C’mon, Stacy,” he said softly.
“Oh, fuck you! I’ve got more guts than you ever had! You’re just like my father! You call yourself a man and you’re just the same as every other ass-licking little turd who acts tough but does what he’s told! Maybe I’ll just kill myself! Like you even give a damn what happens to me! Fuck you!”
* * *
Clance was upset when Bart told him over the phone that he was leaving town.
“No fuckin’ way, man! We’re just startin’ to get a decent bankroll together. I’ve never met anyone that can read hole cards like you. What the fuck am I going to do without you?”
“It’s an emergency situation, Clance. I can’t even talk about it right now. I’m going to Vegas. I’ll call you when I get settled there. We can move the whole operation to Vegas. Reno’s too small anyway. This move will pay off. I just need to pick up my cut of this week’s win.”
“Jesus Christ, man, are you shittin’ me?”
“It’s no big deal, Clance. It’s time to move on. Barry’s team knows who I am now anyway and they’re going nuts trying to pick off my signals. Every time I scout, one of his guys sees me and starts following me. This town is too small.”
“This is going to fuck up everything, Bart. We’ve got thirteen flashers now and you’re the only one who can read half of ’em. And Barry left town last weekend. Didn’t I tell you? He’s gone. His team’s gone. What do you want to bet he’s in Vegas? Your eyes are worth a million bucks, man. Do you want a bigger cut?”
“Look, I’m sorry, Clance. It really is a goddamn emergency.”
“What about tonight’s play? You can’t cut out on tonight’s play, man. We’ve got to go after Dewey again before they fix him. I already got Sam and Lisa working on the new signals. Can’t you just stay around for another couple weeks? If we pack up and blow Reno now we’re leaving a shitload of money on the tables. I told you we’ll be going to Vegas soon, like in a month or two. But we’ve got some great games here, man.”
“Look, I’m going to tell you something but I don’t want you spreading it around, not the guys on the team or anyone. Stacy’s only sixteen.”
There was a long silence before Clance said, “So what?”
“So her picture’s on a milk carton right now.”
“So cut her loose.”
“I can’t. I’ve got to get her out of town.”
“You can’t live with her. Why the fuck are you living with her anyway? You said you weren’t bangin’ her. Tell her to hit the road. She’s got money.”
“She’s in trouble, Clance.”
“Shit, man, you’re gonna be in a lot more trouble than she is if you don’t cut her loose. Are you pussy-whipped?”
“I’m not fucking her, Clance; she’s not my type. She’s just a kid, but I like her. I care about her. I’ve got to get her out of town and get her set up doing something in Vegas.”
“They’re going to fry your ass, Bart.”
“So I should just tell her to beat it? I can’t abandon her, man. She’s not my girlfriend or anything, but … she’s special.”
Clance let out a cold, mocking laugh. “You’re PWed, Bart. You’re not fuckin’ her and you want her to live with you? Explain that to me, man. She’s the hottest piece of tail in Reno and you’re telling me you want to be her big brother? I don’t buy it. As I recall, you’ve got one bedroom in that pad where you two live, and one fuckin’ bed. I don’t really give a shit if you’re lying to me. If I was bonkin’ San Quentin quail I wouldn’t admit it to anyone either. But when you get to Vegas, at least rent a two-bedroom crib, because I don’t think the jury’s gonna buy it that you’re sleepin’ on the couch. And I repeat, your ass is gonna be fried.”
Bart caught himself feeling pleased that Clance thought he was having sex with Stacy. She was so smart and gorgeous and totally out of his league that he couldn’t bring himself to argue the point. “So I should just kiss her off and wait for the next girl genius to blow into town?” he said.
“That would be the smarter move.”
“I’ll stop by in an hour to get my money.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Risk of Ruin is a novel about a professional blackjack player tattoo artist biker who becomes obsessed with a girl who believes she’s God. When Bart meets the leggy, beautiful Stacy, she’s working in a strip club—a job she got using fake ID after running away from home. When Stacy’s photo appears on a milk carton and Bart discovers she lied to him about her age, he foresees himself getting busted for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Against his better judgment, he agrees to get her out of Reno. They head off to Las Vegas on his Harley—a plan that might have worked if they hadn’t run into a crooked state trooper in the desert.
Risk of Ruin is a story of crime, passion and redemption that attempts to answer a question that has tormented gambling men since Adam placed an all-in bet on Eve: Is she worth the risk?
Risk of Ruin is dedicated to the memory of Paladin, a Berkeley biker, knife maker, artist, poet and performer who did a lot of the art in the early Blackjack Forums. He was also a stage performer in a number of productions I directed in Berkeley in the mid- to late-70s. The illustration at left is a self-portrait he did for the poster of my production of Son of Hamlet, in which he played said Son.