Otis fell to the floor, feeling like a slow quarterback leading an imaginary offensive line--sacked for a major loss, and crushed under the weight of an untold number of red-eyed linebackers. Whatever air had been in his lungs hit the ceiling and never came back. Gasping provided no relief. Otis was vaguely aware of voices--strident and angry--but his bell had been rung so hard, he couldn't make sense out of any of the words.
After far too long, the weight was lifted off his chest. He felt himself hoisted roughly to his feet, then thrown face-down on the bed. His hands were clasped, his writs cuffed behind him. His gasping slowly took effect. He'd never realized how good air tasted. Even stale hotel air.
Again, he was hauled to his feet, and spun around. It was then he realized the linebackers who'd sacked him were really large haystacks dressed in identical grey flannel suits. Huge men in cheap serge--each with a pig-tail wire emanating from his right ear.
Otis's first thought was Secret Service. But he hadn't send a critical note to the President for over a month. FBI, maybe? Nah. The FBI can't find a haystack on a needle, never mind a needle in haystack. Otis realized he wasn't thinking straight. He shook his head, watched imaginary cobwebs shake out. Then he remembered where he was, and it put it all together. Casino security.
Otis tried to reason with the haystacks. He tried to say, "I'm Otis Browne, Attorney." But it came out sounding like "O 'tis of thee."
The hugest of the haystacks sneered in his face. "Save your prayers, grifter, you're gonna need 'em."
Next thing he knew, Otis was propelled down the corridor and into an elevator obviously not meant for guests. The elevator lurched downward--just like Otis's stomach.
"Mistake," Otis mumbled.
"You got that, Jack. And you made it." A hard poke to the solar plexus left no doubt who 'Jack' was.
Otis maintained his silence for the rest of the downward trip while he tried to regain control of his faculties.
The elevator doors opened at Sub-Basement 2. He was 'ushered' down a wide, brightly lit service corridor. His escorts stopped him outside a metal door stenciled with the words: Special Services. One haystack produced a key, popped the door, then helped shove Otis in. He barely kept his feet. The door slammed and locked behind him.
The room's interior measured roughly the same as that of a box truck's. A row of harsh florescent lights buzzed above. Otherwise, the room was empty--except for a bare metal table flanked by six metal chairs. Three of the six chairs were occupied.
Otis stepped toward the table. "Aw, you shouldn't have. It isn't even my birthday."
Peanut Brittle, clearly cuffed--as they all were--bounced up and down on his chair. "This ain't no party, Otis. I demand to see a lawyer."
Otis moved closer. "Then it must be your birthday, Peanut. You just got your wish."
"Uh-uh! I mean a real lawyer."
"Let me assure you, Peanut, I am a real lawyer. Why don't you tell me what happened?"
Marci Toots broke in. "We bein' persecuted on account of bein' black in whitebread Montakota."
I turned to Tony Bland. "Tell me what you think."
He did a cuff-shrug. "Security saw us check in together, then disperse on the casino floor. Without cowboy hats, we do stick out. My guess is, they think we're runnin' some sort of scam--either on the casino itself, or one of their high-rolling guests. Either way, we've got to tell them something."
"I'll tell 'em to kiss my black ass," asserted Marci.
"I tell 'em I want a real lawyer," said Peanut.
Again with the shrug. "We got no choice, now. We gotta tell them the truth."
Otis heard the truth in Tony's logic, but he didn't want to give up on Runderstack now that they'd gotten so close.
Tony Bland sensed Otis's hesitation. "Let me put it this way, Otis. Can you think of a plausible, verifiable lie to explain our presence here?"
Hell, thought Otis, I'm not sure even the truth is plausible . . . let alone verifiable.
When you find yourself cornered in enemy territory...
switch sides. -- Otis Browne, Esq
Otis Browne, Esquire, Officer of the Court, never forgot his crack-baby origins. Bouts of self-doubt hounded him like the banshees of delirium tremens he was too young to remember. He faced just such a bout now.
Fred Demerest's life weighed uncomfortably in Otis's trembling hands. What was he doing? Following some cockamamie hunch, is what. He should be back in New York constructing some plausible defense. Instead, here he was in Buffalo Bladder, Montana chasing a ghost. A disintegrated, atomized ghost, at that.
The bedside phone rang.
He picked up the receiver. "Otis Browne, what's your squawk?"
"What? Did I catch you takin' a leak?"
"Something like that, Tony. What do you have?"
"Maybe somethin', maybe nothin'. But I think it's somethin'. I been chattin' up a chatty cocktail waitress, see?"
Otis pinched the bridge of his nose. "You drunk already, Tony?"
"Bite your tongue, Otis. Only amateurs get drunk. Pros maintain an intellectually-enhancing equilibrium of inebriation."
The attorney stared at the receiver in his hand. "' . . . equilibrium of inebriation'? Tony, have you ever thought about running for President? For the Incomprehensible Party?"
"Yeah, and you oughtta be on the Supreme Court . . . you an' Diana Ross. You want what I got, or don't you?"
Otis wasn't sure. "Okay. Lay it on me."
"Well, Chiffon, that's the cocktail waitress . . ."
" . . . she says there's a weird English guy been hangin' around, tryin' to pass himself off as a Montana cattle rancher. She says his American accent sounds like Margaret Thatcher upchuckin' John Wayne."
Otis's eyes bugged. "Wait! You told her you're looking for a Englishman? Tony, if Runderstack gets wind somebody's on his tail, he's over the border cavorting with caribou in an eye blink."
"Relax, Otis. See, I told Chiffon I'm a scout for a new Reality TV show about the colorful people you find at casinos. I asked her if she'd noticed any colorful people lately. She comes up with this English guy . . . all by herself."
"Reality TV? That's both twisted, and brilliant, Tony. Nothing is too farfetched for Reality TV. Did you get the name of this English John Wayne?"
"Name, room number, and favorite drink. Champagne Spritzer, in case you're taking notes."
Otis grinned, shook his head. "Yes, precisely what all the rugged Montana cattle barons are drinking these days. Listen, Tony, I want you to come back up to my room. We need to decide the best way to use this information."
"I say we go knock on his door and slap a confession out of the Limey sack."
"Let's call that Plan B, shall we? Come on up here so we can discuss Plan A."
You're the boss. Do you want me to collect Marci and Peanut brain on the way up?"
Otis hesitated. "Do we know what games this Englishman plays?"
"According to Chiffon, he's a dusk to dawn Texas Hold 'Em chump. The girl says he's got more tells than a scandal sheet."
Otis rolled his eyes. "Quite a gal, this Chiffon. Okay. Let's leave Marci and Peanut where they are for now. Give us time to strategize in peace. They'll come up at the prearranged shift change."
Otis replaced the receiver in the cradle and danced the first Irish jig of his life. Could he really be this lucky? Had his wild hunches actually paid off? Had he actually found the missing King Cracker in Teepee Town, Montana? On the first try, no less? He wanted to believe it, but he was afraid to.
Still, he decided to celebrate. He opened the mini-bar door, pulled out a frosty can of Coors. He popped the top, took a long, throat-tingling draught.
A knock on the door. Tony.
He released the deadbolt, twisted the knob.
Several gray blurs bull-rushed him to the floor.
Beware gifts wrapped in Chiffon. -- Otis Browne, Esq.
To get to the Fort Belknap Hotel, guests have to wade all the way through the Fort Belknap Casino. Otis recognized the arrangement as a sound business decision. If the casino could wipe out a guest's funds before he even checked into the hotel, said guest wouldn't get the opportunity to soil any sheets, or steal those tempting mini-shampoo bottles.
As Otis led his little tribe through the smoky, noisy casino, he scanned the floor hoping, against odds, for a glimpse of a living, breathing Hiram Runderstack. All he saw was a sea of cowboy hats. All kinds of cowboy hats. They were beyond ubiquitous. Even the casino employees sported ten gallon toppers as part of their theme-oriented uniforms.
Marci whispered in his ear. "Don't look like no Indian casino to me. All I see is cowboys. I 'spect they's been a masacree."
Otis shook his head. "Here in the West, Marci, everyone wears cowboy hats. Even the Indians."
"Oh, yeah, I get it. Camouflage, right?"
Otis suspected there might be some truth behind Marci's cynical speculation.
Otis had reserved three rooms. One for himself, one for Marci. Bland and Brittle would share. It wasn't a budgetary issue--hell, Nikki and Ollie were funding this investigation, so money was no object. Otis just liked stirring the so-called melting pot. Those two men were cultural hardliners who came from similar sides of the tracks . . . only they didn't know it. A little close-quarter might do them both a lot of good . . . or send one to the hospital.
After squaring away their luggage, the four met in Otis's room.
Otis addressed them. "You all know our primary mission. We're here to locate Hiram Runderstack. Have you all acquainted yourselves with the man's facial features?"
Marci Toots pulled a folded picture of Runderstack from her back pocket. "He a white man with pasty white man features."
Otis stepped up to her, pulled the photo out of her hand. He waved it in the air. "This is precisely what we can't do. Runderstack does not want to be found. He's supposed to be dead, and he wants to stay that way. If he gets a sniff that there are people are roaming around the casino checking faces, he'll tear on out of here faster than a certain Trump can tweet."
Otis stood in front of Peanut, held out his hand. Brittle surrendered his photo of Runderstack.
"Besides, there are more cameras in this joint than Elvis Presley's Jungle Room. And the security people monitoring those cameras are eagle-eyes when it comes to spotting suspicious behavior. Hunting one of their guests--especially a 'dead' one--qualifies as suspicious behavior. So, we've got to keep our search on the down low. We have to--"
Bland cleared his throat by way of interrupting. "Why don't we just contact casino security and ask to scan through their tapes? If Runderstack is here, they've got him on digital--doin' everything but takin' a whizz."
Otis was both surprised and disappointed. Surprised Bland didn't know better, disappointed neither Marci nor Peanut had shown the creativity to make the same suggestion. Grading on a bell curve can reveal a lot.
Otis chose his words carefully. "In the first place, casinos protect their surveillance tapes as if they were the crown jewels. You know the term, 'What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas'? Well, that amounts to a holy oath adopted by all casinos everywhere. Basically, it means, 'Cheat on your wife, cheat the taxman, cheat your business partners, cheat on your diet. We don't care. All your secrets are safe with us. As long as you don't cheat the house.'"
Peanut spoke up. "I thought you were an officer of the court. I thought that was an 'Open Sesame'?"
"Without a subpoena, I may as well be an officer of the latrine. If we're going to find Runderstack, we're going to have to find him ourselves." Otis paused for emphasis. "But he can't know we're looking for him. Be discreet."
Marci asked, "What if he's wearing a disguise?"
Bland answered for me. "Good thinking, Marci. But I don't think he will be--aside from a big hat, that is. As far as he knows, no one's looking for his disintegrated corpse. And this place is pretty far off the beaten track. He won't expect to run into any of his gambling cronies way up here."
"Right," said Otis. "We'll operate in different sections of the floor, rotating sections every two hours. Marci, you start at the slots. Peanut, blackjack. Tony, roulette and craps. I'll cover the poker tables." He handed out envelopes of cash. "Gamble just enough so you don't draw suspicion. Any questions?"
Peanut raised a hand--as if he ever went to school. Otis nodded. "We get to keep what we win?"
Otis was amused by the man's naiveté. "Any winnings get turned in to me at the end of every two-hour shift, so I can redistribute it for the next shift."
Winnings, thought Otis. Fantasy springs eternal.
Life is a gamble that begins at birth, and ends in a box. -- Otis Browne, Esq.
Driving through Montana convinced Otis of one thing: Whatever the opposite of claustrophobia was, he had it. In spades. The vast open space, the huge sky, rolling monotony all conspired to crush Otis into a state of insignificance, and threatened to blow him away.
The wind blew relentlessly. He vaguely remembered lyrics from an old Broadway show tune . . . "when the wind comes whippin' down the plains". Surely, they'd been singing about Montana. But what would Otis know? A lifelong New Yorker, the closest he'd ever gotten to a Broadway musical was a 42nd Street peep show. Most common New Yorkers believe Broadway is only for tourists. Peep shows are more egalitarian.
He thought about relinquishing his driving duties to Tony Bland, but that would require stepping out of the car. What assurances did he have that the wind wouldn't pick him up and carry him off to someplace even worse? He wasn't certain where 'worse' might be, and decided to keep it that way.
Otis thought of trying the radio again, but feared they'd be playing that 'wind comes whippin' down the plains' song. He glanced over at his front seatmate, Peanut Brittle, and realized paranoia is indeed contagious.
"Only about an hour more to go," said Otis, mostly to himself.
"They gonna be Indians where we goin'? asked Marci Toots.
"Of course. According to my research, the reservation is shared by the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes."
"Cinnibon? Yum. These be feather-head Indians, or turban-head Indians?"
"They prefer to be called Native Americans, Marci."
"These Native Americans ever seen black Americans before? I don't like bein' stared at."
If Marci was to get stared at, Otis was pretty sure it wouldn't be because of the color of her skin, but the sheer magnitude of it. When it came to food, Marci left nothing in her wake. Pac-Man in a parachute bra.
"Native Americans and blacks have always enjoyed good relations, Marci. In the old days, many escaping slaves found refuge and acceptance among the various tribes. Lots of black blood runs through Native American veins."
They'd passed a Welcome to Fort Belknap Indian Agency sign a full thirty minutes before being directed off the Interstate and onto Montana State Highway 2. Twenty minutes later, they came across a few ramshackle structures. Most had vegetable gardens out front, and an assortment of rusted-out vehicles off to the side. A solitary sign informed them Harlem lay eighteen miles ahead.
"See," Otis said to Peanut, "I told you there's a Harlem in Montana."
Peanut, ever brittle, responded, "Sure, it's where they keep all the black folk what wander into their trap."
The center of the town of Harlem had the feel and smell of cement still drying. Several new buildings clustered in the shadow of the biggest new building--The Fort Belknap Casino and Hotel.
Among the other new buildings were a couple of mid-level chain restaurants, a gentrified General Store and Souvenir Shop. A unisex hair salon. A tiny U.S. Post Office Branch. A Western Wear haberdashery. A few storefronts hawking Native American arts and crafts. And, at the point farthest away from the casino, an EconoMotel.
Clearly, the town of Harlem had sprung up to both support and leech off the new casino. Recently, too. The white lines marking the blacktop parking lots were still breathtakingly white.
They self-parked the rental. Otis, only an occasional-driver, had never used valet parking before and was unsure of the etiquette. He believed that, in social circumstances, avoidance was always preferable to embarrassment.
They piled out of the rental, stretched. Or, in Marci's case, settled.
"Don't look nothin' like Harlem to me," Peanut remarked.
"This Harlem be new," answered Marci, "give it time. The Good Book say, 'Build your city on the gamblin' road, five'll get you nine, you gonna lose."
Peanut scowled. "Where the Good Book say somethin' like that?"
Marci scowled back. "Cover to cover."
When you've never lived outside a major metropolitan city,
rural Montana may as well be Mars. -- Otis Browne, Esq.
Otis whispered into Marci's ear, "Even without all the snow on the ground, Bozeman, Montana is whiter'n a frog's belly."
A confirmed 'Big City' man, Otis Brown, Esq., had never seen a live frog. Nor was he in the habit of speaking such rural colloquialisms. But you don't go from being a crack baby to Officer of the Court without developing a knack for adaptation.
Otis, Marci, Peanut, and Bland were crowded into a midsize rent-a-car zipping north on US Route 2 headed for Harlem. Harlem, Montana, that is. Their mission was to find Hy Runderstack, thus conclusively proving Otis's client was innocent of the Cracker King's murder. Bland was convinced they'd find Runderstack gambling at an Indian casino somewhere near the Canadian border. Fort Belknap Casino in Harlem, Montana seemed a logical place to start looking.
Otis drove while Ray 'Peanut' Brittle occupied the front passenger seat. Marci Toots and Tony Bland sat in the back, staring at nothingness out their side windows.
"I got sight, but I ain't seein'," Marci muttered. "I wanted to see grass, I coulda stayed home and grown my own."
"This isn't a sight-seeing trip," Otis reminded her. "We're working. Besides, you don't have anywhere to grow grass."
Marci snorted. "You ain't seen my closet with the purple light. Be amazed what I got growin'."
Otis eyed her in the rearview. "The less I hear about that, the better. Remember, I'm an Officer of the Court."
"An' I'm Queen of the Green," she laughed. "Put that in your pipe, and smoke it, Officer."
Peanut wrestled with a road map unfolded to roughly half an acre. "I can't find no Harlem on this map, Otis. I think we lost."
"We're not lost. And we don't need that old-fashioned map, either. We have GPS."
"Yeah, well I got ESP, an' it's tellin' me this is all a rust."
"You know, a trick?"
"See? You think so, too." Peanut has a hyperactive imagination set on 'paranoia', and stuck in a conspiracy theory loop. He can read sinister portents in Pringles crumbs. And he has.
With a three-hour drive ahead, and nothing on the radio but jabber about wheat futures and 'dad-gum' ergot remedies, Otis decided to give Peanut his head. One takes his entertainment where he can find it. "Okay, man, tell me about this rust."
Peanut paused to gather his thoughts. It took a while. Finally, he said. "Every Arab in the world wants to go to Mecca, right?"
Otis played along. "Right."
"So, where do all black folk want to go?"
"Jim Crow, Mississippi?"
Peanut scowled. "I'll make it easy for you, Otis. Mecca is to Arabians, as blank is to blacks."
"Ah, of course, Harlem! The Cradle of Afro-American Civilization. I should have guessed sooner."
"Stop jivin' me, Otis, and hear me out. So, here we are--two brothers, a sister, and an ugly I-tie--way up in freakin' Montakota, or some damn place. Whitebread capital of the world, man. They prob'bly ain't even got real chocolate milk up here. On'y that offay white chocolate stuff." He took his frustrations out on the map. "So, they see us comin' off the plane, what do they do?"
Otis was enjoying this. "What do they do?"
Peanut leaned over, whispered, "Plan H."
"H? Law school taught me Plan D is the limit, man. Beyond D, there be monsters."
"That's 'cause you a brother. Bet your white classmates heard 'bout Plan H . . . Plan Harlem?" He sat back, smug. "Them Whitebreads at the rent-a-car place sent us chasin' off to Harlem, man. They knew we couldn't resist no place named Harlem." He rustled the chart draping his lap. "Only there ain't no Harlem nowhere on the map, brother. Closest I can find is a Helena. Helena ain't no Harlem. It's a cosmetic, man." He stared through the windshield, talking to himself. "Plan H, man. Plan H."
Otis shook his head. "Relax, Peanut. Harlem, Montana is a real place. It's on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. That's where the casino is. Look here at the GPS--says 'Harlem' right there."
He leaned over, looked, nodded. "What you think GPS stand for?"
Otis shrugged. "Global Positioning System."
Peanut nodded. "Uh-huh. That's exactly what they want you to think."
We all harbor minor paranoiac tendencies.
Some welcome the fleet. -- Otis Brown
Author’s note: My research shows there is an Indian casino in Harlem, Montana, at the Belknap Reservation (shared by Gros Ventre and Assiniboine).
Not far away, is the Kid Curry casino. The perfect set up for my story. The name Harlem is a fortunate bonus. Peanut's views are not necessarily those of the author.