Authors: Jimmy Fox
Quarters still clinked rhythmically into the chrome lip of the fortunate woman’s slot machine, as if they would never stop—a mere trickle of the great river of crime-tainted currency that had flowed through the fingers of losers throughout the country, to settle like
contaminated sludge here, in the small town that Bayou Luck Casino, the most successful Indian gaming enterprise in the South, had put on the map.
Nick Herald watched the bedazzled woman scoop quarters into her plastic coin cup. He pegged her as a mid-level office worker, a smart shopper at factory outlet malls, on a short holiday from her job, kids, and husband. And Chihuahuas, according to her t-shirt, which declared: “I love my pedigreed Chihuahuas.”
Have fun, lady; the rest of us are paying for your luck
Personally, he could live without gambling, and any other situation that put him at the mercy of rigged rules. Only a sap thinks he deserves a fair shake in a casino—or in a college English department, for that matter. His days as a sap were over. He’d decided that Ben Jonson, the literary lion of seventeenth-century England, had it right: life is a big con, and the greatest rogue wins.
And yet, look at that ecstatic woman over there, he told himself. At this moment he understood what the addicted gambler must feel: a free-floating optimism, as irresistible as lust or adrenaline that quickens the heart and clouds the vision.
A few more hands of blackjack couldn’t hurt. His number was bound to come up sooner or later, wasn’t it?
The casino interior conceded nothing in gaudiness or size to its models on the famous Strip in Nevada. In spite of his innate scorn for what he’d always considered a front for organized crime, Nick was just a bit awed by the casino’s theme-park, over-the-top version of self-indulgent, fake Edwardian luxury. A few stylized American Indian touches hid in the background here and there, but the decoration was not intended as a history lesson. Mirrored ceilings and walls made it difficult for Nick to tell where the dim, hazy, glitzy reality ended and the illusion of good times began. Massive chandeliers dangling countless strands of
tiny lights dwarfed players, tables, and machines. The multi-level room seemed to have no physical limits.
“Busted!” Nick said and slapped down his cards. He watched the dealer smoothly sweep away his chips. She was good, too good. Gritting his teeth, he pushed a few more chips forward for yet another hand.
Like zombies, men and women clutching their coin cups, narcotized by the syncopating lights and the ceaseless, almost subliminal music, drifted amid the long rows of slot machines and clusters of gaming tables and open-air bars and cafés. Nick simultaneously admired and resented the subtlety of the deception: lull gamblers into a mental zone in which they freely traded their individual will to become suckers in a shell game that allowed them an infinitesimal chance at phenomenal wealth. Today, he was just another unlucky sucker.
A Vegas gambling mega-corporation, Luck o’ the Draw, was the managing minority partner of the Chitiko-Tiloasha tribe’s Bayou Luck Casino. A first-class place, the pleased, but fleeced, patrons left saying.
It was Tuesday afternoon, two weeks after the bizarre death of Carl Shawe. Outside, a cool, moist breeze from the Gulf of Mexico and the marsh blew north across the prairies of southwestern Louisiana. Acadiana it was called, fabled as the refuge of the ethnically cleansed French of Nova Scotia, the Acadiennes, or Cajuns.
The Chitiko-Tiloasha tribe had been here for at least half a millennium before 1757, when the first verified sizable group of Cajuns arrived.
In modern times, sugar cane, then rice, then oil had each reigned as king of this flat, ancient Mississippi River floodplain. Only a few powerful families had prospered from any of these enterprises. For centuries, the Cajuns had been reviled as backward interlopers, and the Indians had been hounded for being in the right place at the wrong time. Lately, the Cajuns had witnessed an about-face in their fortunes:
they were the darlings of Louisiana’s tourism industry, and anything with Cajun attached to it was an instant success. Now it was the turn of the Chitiko-Tiloasha Indians, who, armed with an arcane tomahawk of federal law, had established a new kingdom of interlocking corporations and gambling wealth.
Each month thousands of people traveled the interstate highways across the few miles from Texas or made the longer journey from Mississippi and Arkansas, to throw their money into the tax-exempt casino’s coffers. These gamblers were Middle Americans, not the standard Vegas habitués—gold-bedecked lounge lizards, gaudy women on the make, or overweight conventioneers on expense accounts looking for a faceless lay. The Chitiko-Tiloasha had succeeded in making a day at their casino as wholesome as a trip to the mall.
The buzz in the gambling industry was that Bayou Luck raked in more cash than many of the bigger and older casinos in Las Vegas—but nobody knew for sure because the tribe’s enterprises were legally shielded from complete public scrutiny.
Tommy Shawe had asked Nick to meet him here, roughly midway between Cutpine and New Orleans, on the Chitiko-Tiloasha reservation twenty miles southwest of Lafayette.
The Chitiko-Tiloasha had received federal recognition in the thirties. For decades, nothing much changed for the tribe: life continued to be a meager, isolated affair in the teeming marshland, on and near Bayou Grosse Jambe. Subsistence fishing, trapping, and farming remained the major means of support. They wanted it that way. To fight prevailing bigotry, the tribe even more resolutely turned its back on the white economy and the twentieth century. Their small reservation, hemmed in by new cities and highways, went begging for residents. Stagnation followed. The young ones of the tribe, seeing the empty future, fled their decaying heritage.
Things had changed dramatically in the last dozen years, and Bayou Luck Casino was both symbol and agent of the tribe’s resurgent vitality.
“So you’re a gambler?” Tommy Shawe asked Nick. “You look like you know what you’re doing.”
Tommy stood at the side of Nick’s chair, intently following the flow of the game.
“Everyday’s a gamble, when you live in New Orleans,” Nick said, peeking at his hidden card on the green baize of the blackjack table as other players received their cards. “Really, I’m no good at this. Blackjack’s the only game I’m comfortable with. Usually I try to stay out of casinos altogether. To paraphrase W. C. Fields, it’s not a game of chance the way
play it. I lose every time.” He’d made sure the dealer heard his half-joking barb.
Tommy put his hands in his pockets and looked down at the carpet.
Whoops. Wrong thing to say
Nick had really stuck his foot in his mouth. The last thing the guy needed was the Katogoula tribe’s newly hired genealogist talking down casinos and gambling—which would soon no doubt be paying his fee. And, of course, it couldn’t have been pleasant to have a brother killed, and then to be questioned by the local sheriff as, if not a declared suspect, a “person of interest,” in the way cops put it, so diplomatically and falsely.
Nick had heard about the peculiar murder of Tommy’s brother, Carl, from Chief Claude, before Tommy arrived at the casino.
No wonder he’s touchier than a moody teenager
Nick’s dealer was a young woman with gingerbread skin and jet black hair in bangs. He’d been flirting with her and was under the delusion that he was making some progress.
“Maybe you should think of this as charity, not gambling,” she said. “Don’t you like helping out a worthy cause?” She dealt cards around the table with beautiful fluid movements, keeping her hands visible for the surveillance cameras hidden in tinted hemispheres on the ceiling and for the stern Vegas pit bosses cruising the aisles. “We’re just one big happy family here, sir.”
“If you say so,” Nick replied. “But I’ve never had a relative pick my pocket before. Hit me.”
Busted again, over twenty-one.
Chief Claude had given him a twenty-five dollar credit; within an hour he’d lost that and twenty of his own. Now nearly out of chips, he was more eager than ever to tackle the job he’d been hired to do: helping Tommy’s tribe sort out the dozens of requests for enrollment that were coming in as a result of the federal recognition. Lots of people wanted a seat on the gravy train.
Proving individual Indian descent was one thing, difficult enough even in the most clear-cut cases; but proving the heritage of a whole tribe of individuals whose collective history had been mostly forgotten . . .
Well, we’re talking BIG genealogical bucks
The thought brought a slight smile to Nick’s face, despite his losses. Since he was going to be rolling in cash soon, he blithely shoved the last of his chips forward.
The dealer gave Nick a queen on top and a ten face down, “in the hole.” A strong hand—twenty. He motioned that he would stand with these. She had a six of hearts showing. When she flipped her hole card, Nick saw a ten of hearts.
“Dealer must draw.” She dealt herself a five of hearts. “Twenty-one,” she said with chirpy dispassion. She collected Nick’s chips.
“Great,” Nick said, disgusted. He hopped off his chair. “Tommy, pull me away from her table right now, before I lose any more and have to start calling my losses expenses.”
He waved at the pretty dealer. She smiled back, still dealing. Maybe another heart awaited him in a different kind of game.
“Chief Claude’s office is this way,” Tommy said.
“Yeah, I know where it is. I should have been there fifty dollars ago.”
Tribal Council Chairman Rafe Claude’s quiet office was a welcome haven from the low-level but nerve-racking pinging and dinging that was the sound of millions being made every hour.
Chief Claude had thrown lots of genealogical projects Nick’s way, mainly research for individuals wishing to enroll in the Chitiko-Tiloasha tribe. Two hours earlier, over lunch in his office, the chief had told Nick, “Carl Shawe didn’t die in a hunting accident, like people thought at first. Sheriff Higbee says it was murder, and a real strange one at that.” Tommy had been found wandering delirious in the forest near the crime scene. All he claimed to vaguely remember was being hit by a blowgun dart. The murder weapon was apparently an atlatl—a spear thrower used in ancient times by many American Indian tribes. And the atlatl had belonged to Tommy; he had confirmed that damning fact, even though he couldn’t explain it.
Now the three men sat at the round conference table where Nick and the chief had eaten their corned-beef sandwiches. Pictures of Chief Claude with Louisiana governors and other officials vied for wall space with paintings and drawings of Chitiko-Tiloasha life and history.
The chief had served twice as commissioner of the state Office of Indian Affairs, but he still looked like the man who had spent most of his sixty-four years on the bayous and the marsh of South Louisiana. He was short, stocky, and bowlegged, with tobacco-colored, leathery skin and just enough white hair to form a long ducktail. His facial features were fleshy and elongated, typical of many Chitiko-Tiloasha. He wore a dark-gray three-piece polyester suit, and a bolo tie with a handsome silver-and-turquoise clasp, a sixtieth birthday gift from the tribe. Medallions of beadwork decorated his cowboy boots.
Splendid examples of traditional tribal crafts, some ancient, some modern, lay on tables and shelves and the chief ’s desk, accessible to curious hands. Chief Claude encouraged this kind of direct contact with his tribe’s past. The office was clearly not a personal preserve, but that revered term in the modern Indian lexicon, a public trust.
Chief Claude had told Nick once, “The knowledge of our past is more fragile than these relics. We are not them, but they are us. I want them to be handled, as long as it brings one person closer to our past. If we lose one now and again, so it goes; if we lose the knowledge, we are truly dead.”
A young, pimply waiter with glittering braces on his teeth distributed coffee from a tray.
The chief said to his two guests, “Stu, here, is over at USL studying to be an engineer.”
“UL at Lafayette, Chief Claude,” Stu corrected.