This Isn’t a Game

This Isn’t a Game

A smart debut sends Jackson Oliver, head of online gambling casino VegasVegas, headquartered in San Jose, Costa Rica, to a New England village where he suspects someone has gotten away ...

About The Author

David Moss

David Moss is an advertising copywriter who has worked for many national agencies. After writing in every conceivable medium from ...

Read an Excerpt

Thursday

VegasVegasCasino.com posted the movie director’s murder trial on its entertainment page alongside odds on The Bachelorette and The Voice.

Will Kristen chose Jake or Richard? Will Ian or Tina land the record deal? Did Andrew murder Audrey?

Too many customers were betting “Yes, Andrew did,” so Jackson Oliver, the VegasVegas owner, asked his linemaker to adjust the odds to attract acquittal money.

“No time for your sideshow bets,” Kenny said.

Which was his derisive term for celebrity trials, political elec- tions, reality TV shows, and all the other novelty propositions that defiled the purity of sports wagering.

“Maybe your next prop you can ask if Jake and Tina are having a boy or girl? Or what color wedding invitations they’re going with? Fuchsia, 5 to 9. Mint green, even odds.”

Jackson resisted the urge to antagonize Kenny by pointing out her name was Kristen, not Tina, and actually the smart money had her choosing Richard over Jake.

“BigFatJackpot.com made more off the Michael Jackson trial than the World Series. Twenty-eight percent of their bet- tors on the Phil Spector murder trial were new customers who stuck around to play casino games. Andrew Marvel’s a big-time Hollywood director, and we’ve got unlimited space on our site. Why shouldn’t we get in on the action?”

“My uncle finds out I’m setting odds on celebrity trials, he’ll never talk to me again.”

“Save you the hassle of remembering inmate visitation hours.”

This didn’t offend Kenny. If anything he’d repeat it to his uncle, who’d actually been out of prison for over a year.

“Maybe I should thank you for posting your murder trial. I already moved the numbers twice, and wasting time on this thing is giving me a killer headache, which is making me forget about my ulcer, which has been driving me nuts. So, thank you.” Like most online casinos, VegasVegas was located in San Jose, Costa Rica. The long, rectangular betting room was formerly a restaurant. A blue seascape with colorful fish still covered the walls. More than one of the bet-takers had likened the writhing sailfish with the hook in its mouth to the bettors on the other end of the computer and phone lines.

Kenny had on his Yankees cap, circa 1961. He might live in Costa Rica now, but he’d never give up his New York Yankees citizenship. Dark hair curled out the bottom of his cap. His pale skin was untouched by the Costa Rican sun. The circles under his eyes, pushing outward like ripples on a pond, gave the illusion he only slept a few hours a night when in reality he never slept at all.

Baseball and soccer games with muted volume played on a row of TV monitors bracketed to the wall. The streaming broad- cast of day one of the trial was on the monitor farthest from Kenny’s workstation. It looked like the prosecutor was about to deliver his opening statement, so Jackson unmuted the volume. The prosecutor hunched his shoulders and lowered his head like an angry bull. If he had a tail, it would be twitching. “Audrey Marvel returned to her home in Greensboro, Vermont, from an antique fair in Chelsea. She was excited to call a friend and send pictures of a vase she found. She never made that call. The call she made was to 911. But loss of blood from eight knife wounds made her too weak to say anything when the dispatcher answered. The police arrived seventeen minutes later and found Audrey dead on the living room floor, phone beside her hand.

 

They found a knife and Andrew Marvel’s clothes, with traces of Audrey’s blood, at the bottom of the lake behind the house. They found Andrew Marvel’s footprints near Audrey’s body. What they didn’t find was Andrew Marvel.”

Kenny didn’t want to show interest in a novelty prop, but he couldn’t help himself. “I don’t know about murder, but the guy’s guilty of being a stupid fuck. Like the cops won’t check the lake.” “If someone framed him, the lake’s perfect,” Jackson said. “Make it look like he tried getting rid of the clothes, but pick a place the cops will check.”

The prosecutor jerked his head at Andrew and pawed at the floor. “…Andrew rode up to the house on his bike the next morning and told the police a story. If he tried to sell this story to his Hollywood studio friends, they’d laugh him out of the room. His lawyer is going to try to sell the story to you, ladies and gentlemen. He’s going to tell you Andrew was having a drink on the porch waiting for Audrey to get home from the antique fair. When he went inside to use the bathroom, a mystery person drugged his drink. After a few more sips, Andrew passed out and came to the next morning in an abandoned barn on Barr Hill, a mile and a half away, his bike leaning against the wall. He rode home and found the police waiting for him.

“When he told the police this story, they gave him a urine test and guess what they found? He was drugged with a sleep- ing pill called chloral hydrate. Andrew Marvel had a bottle of it in his toilet kit. His doctor had prescribed it for insomnia four months prior to the murder.

“It didn’t take the police long to piece together the true story. Audrey Marvel returned home from Chelsea. She and Andrew had a fight, and he murdered her. He used his kayak to dump the knife and clothes in the lake. But he didn’t have an alibi. So he invented a story about a mystery person who drugged his drink and framed him for the murder. He rode his bike to the abandoned barn and took his chloral hydrate so it would show up the next day when they tested him.

 

“Andrew Marvel’s legal team had fourteen months to locate this mystery killer, but they couldn’t do it. Of course they couldn’t.  Ladies and gentleman, the killer of Audrey Marvel   is no mystery. He’s sitting right in front of you. Her husband, Andrew.”

The camera cut to the forty-three-year-old Andrew Marvel, his hands folded on the table, his head tilted like he was watch- ing an actor audition for the part of prosecutor who wanted to put him away for life.

Shattered Worlds was a pretty damn good movie,” Kenny said. “I liked Frontier Zero best.”

“What’s a Hollywood director doing in a little town in Ver- mont anyway?”

“Most of the houses on Lake Caspian are owned by summer residents. It’s  an exclusive place. Greta Garbo used to have     a house there. William Rehnquist, too, not on the lake, but nearby.”

“That guy killed it in Jackie Brown.”

“He wasn’t in Jackie Brown. He was a Supreme Court justice.” “My bad.”

Kenny got a text that lit up his eyes like a kid handed an autographed baseball. “Can you believe it? Fucking Van Gogh left Stinton’s. He’s the new linemaker at ParadiseCoastCasino.” Vincent Belasario, nicknamed Van Gogh for his linemaking artistry, was a fixture at Stinton’s sports book and an icon among linemakers like Kenny. It pretty much summed up the status of online gambling that the arrival of a guy with two racketeering convictions under his belt had boosted the industry’s legitimacy.

###

Of the twenty-two VegasVegas bet-takers who worked differ- ent shifts, two thirds were locals, with about a fifty/fifty split of students and adults. The rest were Westerners, either expats or travelers on an extended pit stop from the Lonely Planet caravan. Over ninety percent of the bets came in on the Internet. Kenny or his assistant Jorge monitored incoming bets, adjusting the line whenever they started taking in too much money on one side or the other. Periodically, one of the bet-takers would call out to Jackson or Kenny, asking if a customer could exceed the betting limit.

Maria sat at her terminal importing bets. She worked part time to help pay her tuition at the Universidad de Costa Rica, where she was studying literature and probably inspiring it, too.

Jackson picked up the book off her desk. The Idiot. “You know Dostoyevsky was a huge gambler.”

“Yeah, I do know that, Jackson. It almost ruined him.”

Wait…was her tone saying he indirectly shared some of the responsibility for Dostoyevsky’s gambling habit?

“It’s a good thing he lost. He might have written How to Win at Blackjack instead of all those classics.”

“Ha ha.” She tossed her hair back and smoothed the outer tip of her right eyebrow with her finger.

She toggled to another page. “Twenty-eight ‘guilty’ bets came in during the prosecutor’s statement. Total of seventeen hundred dollars.”

“Hopefully the defense attorney earns his money and gets us some ‘acquittal’ bets.”

The latest odds were at the top of the screen.

No murder trial equals no action

Will be found guilty 2 to 5

Will be acquitted 7 to 4

Trial will result in mistrial 11 to 1 Charges will be dropped 100 to 1

Kenny’s contempt for novelty props was understandable. When linemakers favored North Carolina over Middle of Nowhere State by twenty-four points, people thought they had to be pulling an arbitrary number from the whiskey fumes of some back room. But after the final whistle, they were almost always within one or two points if they didn’t nail it exactly. With sports, you knew everything, from the scoring average of the star to the free throw percentage of the back-up point guard in the last minute of a tied game.

But you could never take a peek at the ethical makeup of a juror or project the group dynamics of twelve strangers thrust together in a cramped room and forced to stare at each other’s expanding sweat stains until they reached a unanimous decision. Or as Kenny put it, “I’m a basketball encyclopedia, but we don’t  know jack shit about dumb fucks who can’t get out of jury duty.”

To guard against too much exposure, which was the maxi- mum amount of money a casino could lose on a given proposition, VegasVegas had a five hundred-dollar betting limit on novelty props. The objective here was to balance the “guilty” and “acquittal” betting so VegasVegas took in more than it paid out, regardless of the verdict.

A photo from Andrew Marvel’s IMDB profile was pasted beside the odds. With his dark tortoise Hugo Bosses and lips pursed into the near-smile of ironic insight, Marvel looked like he made independent, boundary-pushing character films far outside the mainstream. In reality, he was known for movies where aster- oids and other oversized objects blew up, usually in slow motion. Jackson recalled watching the “making of” portion of Frontier Zero. He’d expected a brash loudmouth, but Andrew Marvel was quiet and precise, almost shy. He spoke in a soft voice you had to strain to hear. He had so little to say that most of the sound bytes came from the assistant director and special effects crew.

Was this the face of an unlikely killer? Was there any such thing as an unlikely killer?

Maria’s phone rang, and she used the eyebrow-smoothing hand to shove Jackson away. “Actually, Sir, the run line is a combination of the money line and point spread. So you’re betting one-twenty to win one hundred, but you’re also getting

1.5 runs. So if the Brewers lose by a run, you still win your bet. Does that make sense?”

Probably not, but the “sir” on the other end of the line wouldn’t acknowledge betting-related ignorance to a woman.

He’d end up doubling whatever he intended to bet, in the hopes of earning back the status he’d lost through imperfect knowledge of the run line.

One seat over from Maria was Jeremy, formerly Jake, who’d left his home in Albuquerque in a big hurry one day ahead of something—a warrant-bearing marshal, angry spouse, deterio- rating sense of self-worth, Jackson wasn’t sure and he didn’t ask. It was time for the opening statement of the ambulance chaser Andrew Marvel hired to the shock of the world, or least to the TV legal-commentator part of the world. The lawyer stood in front of the jury box, his suit uncreased, his hair frozen in neat layers. “I was listening to Mr. Damron’s statement, and I kept wait- ing for him to get to Andrew Marvel’s reason for killing Audrey. But he never did. Maybe he felt he’d already gone on too long. Maybe he’s saving the reason for later in the trial. Or maybe he realizes Andrew Marvel never had a reason for killing the woman he loved.

“Here’s a statistic that will tear your heart out. I know it does mine. 34.6 percent of female murder victims are killed by husbands or boyfriends. The police know this statistic. So do prosecutors like Mr. Damron. Going after the husband improves their conviction rate. Does that sound cynical? I’m sorry. But I’m angry. This man suffered the loss of his wife and now he’s being unjustly accused of killing her.”

“How’s he doing?” Jackson said.

Maria checked incoming bets. “Two for acquittal. Fifty bucks and twenty-five.”

“This lawyer sucks.”

Kenny called out from his work station, “Where the fuck’s Johnny Cochran when you need him? ‘If the motive isn’t worth shit, you have to acquit.’”

“I know the facts are against him,” Jackson said, “but don’t our bettors have any faith in the incompetence of juries?”

The defense attorney gestured at the prosecutor. “Mr. Damron said I had fourteen months to track down the person who murdered Audrey and framed Andrew. Mr. Damron had those same fourteen months to interview all Audrey’s friends, all Andrew’s friends. Were there problems in the marriage? Dark hidden secrets? Fights? Squabbles? No, no, and no. Andrew and Audrey Marvel had a happy marriage. The kind of marriage we all want to have.

“The prosecution isn’t obligated to prove a motive. And that’s a fortunate thing for them. Because there is no motive. Mr. Damron is quick to ridicule Andrew’s story. But if someone wanted to murder Audrey Marvel and he didn’t want to be found out, doesn’t it make perfect sense to frame the person the police always suspect first? How hard is it to take some of Andrew’s clothes from the bedroom and soak them in Audrey’s blood? How hard is it to dump the clothes in the lake? How hard is it to walk into the Marvels’ bathroom and take some of Andrew’s chloral hydrate? The Marvels didn’t lock their doors. Nobody in Greensboro does.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this sad business, it’s this: people kill for a reason. They don’t kill for no reason. They kill for a reason. And the man sitting in front of you didn’t have a reason to kill the woman he loved.” Jackson muted it again.

Maria said bettors placed another two hundred dollars’ worth of “acquittal” bets. “I’m surprised, that’s all,” she said. “The lawyer’s right. He’s the husband, but he still needs a reason.”

Shattered Worlds was like ten years ago,” Kenny said. “He hasn’t done shit since. Maybe that pisses him off and he took it out on her.”

Jeremy pulled his headphones off his ears. “He could have a reason nobody sees.”

Jeremy seemed a bit too familiar with undetectable homicidal impulses. It squelched the conversation.

A little black cat trotted up to Jackson. “¿Tienes hambre, Tomás?”

Sometimes he said “Are you hungry?” instead. He liked the idea of a bilingual cat. Tomás was a stray who’d wandered in a few months after they opened and lived there ever since, though judging by his appetite, he would have preferred the all-you- can-eat buffets of the Vegas casinos.

Kenny cursed an incoming text. “Got to pull the Reds game off the board. Carne’s a scratch. How the fuck do you strain your back getting in the shower? I’ve been taking showers over thirty years and every one’s been injury-free.”

Jackson fed Tomás in his office and watched a gray tour bus stop in the middle of Calle 3 outside the Teatro Nacional. The door in front swung open and a slow line of people with that weird American combination of obesity and wanderlust filed out and stood in a circle beside the bus, blinking in the heat. The American package tour crowds loved the Teatro Nacional. They’d go in with their sandals and straw hats, camcorder strap sunburns and worldviews lifted straight from the lyrics of a Jimmy Buffet song. They considered countries like Costa Rica just another of America’s many theme parks, the only difference being there were natives instead of costumed characters and they needed their passport to get in instead of a coupon from a soft drink cup.

Maria called out from the betting room. “Well, this is inter- esting. One of our customers lives in Greensboro, Vermont. His name is Cass Gallaway, and he wants to know if he can bet more than the limit on the trial. He’s on hold.”

“How much?” Jackson said. “A thousand.”

“On guilty?” “No.”

“Take it. We need all the ‘acquittal’ money we can get.” “Not that, either. Dropped charges. 100 to 1.”

Jackson had heard of charges dropped in the middle of a murder trial when an eyewitness testified the police instructed him to lie. And no doubt charges were dropped in other trials when important witnesses died. But the Marvel trial didn’t rely on witness testimony. The DA would never drop charges.

“A ‘dropped charges’ bet balances out the ‘guilty’ bets, too,” he said.

He didn’t want to lose money on their first celebrity trial and have to listen to Kenny say, “I told you so.”

Maria shifted into conspiracy-theory mode. “A local. What if he knows something?”

“That the cops and DA don’t?”

“Maybe a new witness came forward who saw the real killer dump the clothes in the lake.”

“They’d recess the trial.”

Kenny snapped his fingers. “I know who the real killer is. It’s the same guy who murdered Ron and Nicole. He’s older now, but he keeps in shape. That’s how come he could carry the passed-out director to his car.”

Maria wouldn’t let go. “Maybe the witness hasn’t come for- ward yet, but our bettor knows he’s about to.”

“Do you really believe that?” Jackson said.

“No. But now that I hear myself say it, kinda maybe.”  “The DA’s had investigators crawling over that town for over a year. He wouldn’t let a murder witness fall through the cracks.” “I grew up in a small town. People know secrets. The bettor could be dating a secretary in the lawyer’s office. Or his niece cleaned the Marvels’ house. Or he was sitting on a bar stool beside someone who saw something that didn’t make the news.” “Or he was sitting on a bar stool and got hammered and he has no clue what he’s doing.”

Kenny squinted like he was deep in thought. “So before I flunked out of junior high, I took this subject called math. One of the things I learned, a thousand at 100 to 1 equals a hundred grand.”

“You’ve got to turn down the bet,” Maria said.

But Jackson wasn’t in the business of turning down free money from fools. “The murder was fourteen months ago. Nothing stays hidden that long. We should tell Cass Gallaway we’re having a two-for-one special on dumb ass bets. Dropped charges and the Sixers to win the NBA championship.”

“Take the bet?” Maria said. “Take the bet.”

Reviews of

This Isn’t a Game

“Jackson Oliver, the hero of Moss’s thoroughly enjoyable first novel and series launch, owns a Costa Rica–based online betting site, VegasVegas. In addition to sporting events, VegasVegas is giving odds on the outcome of the trial of Hollywood film director Andrew Marvel, who’s charged with murdering his wife: acquittal, guilty verdict, and—at 100 to one—dropped charges. When a punter logs on asking to place a $1,000 bet on dropped charges, Jackson obliges, convinced there’s no chance that he’ll have to pay out. A few days later, a video supplying an airtight alibi for Marvel turns up. Thinking that the timing is just too pat, Jackson sets off for Vermont, the scene of the murder and the place where the bet was made. He has only three days to discover if his bettor is a murderer, an accomplice, or just lucky. After that he must pay up or be blacklisted from the gambling industry. This winning debut offers insights into gambling odds, antiques, the raising of buffalo, the film industry, and small-town morality.”

Publishers Weekly

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