Let It Ride

by Richard Anderson


Colleen Vargas and her co-worker and best friend, Deidre Nelson, both single and in their mid-twenties, had just gotten off the elevator of the Las Vegas Stratosphere Hotel & Casino and were headed outside to the observation deck to check the night sky and evaluate the thrill rides one last time. It was a clear, starry, April night with a cool breeze from the west cutting the air.

Prior to leaving Terre Haute, Colleen and Deidre had promised their colleagues back at Indiana State’s library that they were going to test their mettle on at least one of Stratosphere’s legendary rides. Since today was the last day of their four-day junket attending the annual Archivists’ Convention, Colleen and Deidre couldn’t put off the decision any longer.

The young women were committed to prove one thing: to show that even Archivists can be daredevils. Colleen and Deidre were committed to experience at least one of the Stratosphere’s nerve-defying rides before grabbing a cab to catch the 11:35 red-eye home. As Deidre quipped, “It’s do or fly.”

The Stratosphere stands at the extreme north end of South Las Vegas Boulevard, past the Riviera and Circus Circus, alone and isolated from the slew of casinos that line “The Strip.” This spear-like edifice juts nine hundred and twenty-one feet straight up topped with a wide, circular observation deck; flat, desert surroundings flare out from its base. When viewed from afar, the tower looks as if it had been cut off the cover of a sci-fi pulp magazine and pasted on a distant, lunar-like landscape.

From the observation deck, the structure continues up another one hundred and sixty feet where the adventuresome can submit themselves to experiences aptly named: Sky-Jump, X-Scream, Insanity, and Big Shot. A roller coaster that used to whip around the exterior was removed in 2000, possibly because it didn’t provide new age thrillseekers with the gut-wrenching experiences they crave. However, when the coaster was still active, it was not unusual to spot graphic evidence alongside the bottom tracks that more than a few riders had gotten their money’s worth at the cost of losing some or all of their partially digested meals.

“Which one?” Colleen asked after they completed a circuit around the deck.

Deidre shuddered. “I’ve already bungee-jumped, so forget the Sky-thing. What about that one over there?”

“Insanity?” Colleen gulped.

The ride’s massive, curved arm was just returning eight riders to the solid floor of the observation deck. These vacationers, strapped into what looked like swings in a public park, had been whirly-birding in circles, like test tubes in a centrifuge, spinning round and round while suspended over the side with the desert floor far below.

“I’d kinda like to stay as close to the center as possible. What else?” Colleen asked.

They headed left, their necks craning up to check out the next ride.

“How about Big Shot?” Deidre asked. “At least we’ll have something solid below.”

“What’s it say?”

Deidre referred to the ride’s description from the brochure she had picked up in the lobby. “Says you get shot up a hundred and sixty feet at forty-five miles an hour, slowly come down then get shot up coupla more times. Wow! Four G’s goin’ up, negative G’s coming down.”

“No going over the side?” Colleen quavered.

“Nope,” Deidre said, shaking her head.

“Wanna’ watch it first?”

“No!” Deidre said. “Let’s do it now before—”

“We both chicken out,” Colleen finished.

Then, quickly grabbing Deidre’s hand, Colleen tugged her around the corner in the direction of the ticket booth.

Moments later, tickets in hand, they rushed back to the Big Shot’s queue. There was only a young couple ahead of them on line. The ride operator instructed Colleen and Deidre to choose any seats on the near side and directed the couple to walk around to the opposite side.

Seconds later, with feet dangling, their upper torsos securely harnessed with shoulder straps and a restraint bar across their waists, Deidre and Colleen giggled nervously, waiting to be blasted skyward.

Deidre turned her face to Colleen and reached to grasp Colleen’s left hand for moral support.

“Col, you can’t say a word to anyone about the psychic.”

“I still can’t believe you blew fifty bucks for Madame Angelina to con you with those Tarot cards.”

“Yeah, but she dealt me the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ card, didn’t she?”

The ride manager made a quick circuit to check safety bars and harnesses.

Colleen offered, “So maybe this ride is like the Wheel of—”

A brief safety warning crackled from tiny speakers embedded in the cushions near their ears followed by a NASA-like countdown.

“Ten... Nine... Eight... Aaaand... Liftoff!”

Big Shot blasted the thrill seekers skyward. At the end of their unrehearsed primal screams, just as the seats reached the top of the ride, Deidre’s body experienced an exhilarating pulse of low-voltage energy originating in her sternum and spreading down her legs, through her arms, exiting her body through her toes and fingers.

Big Shot glided halfway down the center column and suddenly blasted skyward again. After the first jolt, the second and third launchings seemed to Colleen and Deidre, at best, anti-climactic.

As the pneumatic pumps eased the four riders down to the observation deck floor, Colleen turned to Deidre. “You OK?”

“Did you feel anything on the first time up?” said Deidre.

“Yeah. Pure fear.”

They undid their harnesses, pushed the lap bar aside, and followed the floor markers to the exit. Deidre presented her hand for Colleen to shake.

“Well, we did it!” said Colleen proudly as they grasped hands. “Ow! Static electricity!

Colleen released Deidre’s hand, rubbing her fingers with her left.

“Oh, and you’re not going to say anything about the psychic, right?”

“Right,” Colleen said, still a bit shaken up.

“Save your ticket as proof,” Deidre said, as she checked her watch. “We’ve got just enough time to get our luggage at the Concierge Desk and catch our flight.”

They entered the enclosed area of the observation deck and walked to the bank of four elevators. Deidre pressed the “Down” button with her index finger just as the young couple from the other side of the ride came around the corner.

“Hey, weren’t you guys just on Big Shot?” asked Colleen.

“Yeah,” said the guy as he pressed the already lit “Down” button that Deidre had activated. “Ow!” he said, shaking his right hand, thinking he had either caught the tip of his index finger in the receding button or had gotten a tiny shock.

The elevator doors opened, and the four of them got in.

“Lobby?” Deidre asked.

“Please,” his companion answered.

Colleen asked, “So what did you think about the Big Shot?”

“It was OK. We liked X-Scream the most, then Insanity,” his companion replied.

Deidre pressed the button marked “Casino Lobby.” The doors shut and they plummeted from nine hundred to zero feet in eight seconds. Their knees flexed as the car eased to a halt.

After the doors hissed open, and they entered the glitzy, noisy casino. Deidre turned to the couple. “Well, have a great time.”

His companion said, “Where you guys from?”

Colleen responded, “Terre Haute, Indiana. You?”

“Columbus, Ohio,” he answered.

“We’re on our honeymoon. Just got here today,” she announced.

“Congratulations!” Deidre said. “Well, have a great time and good luck.”

Deidre and Colleen turned away and headed to the lobby to retrieve their luggage, while the newlyweds went off hand in hand to decide which slots to play. They scoped out a row of machines, some with oversized pictures of Drew Carey, others with Howie Mandel.

“Whadya think, hon? Try here?” he asked.

“Yeah, why not,” she answered. “Just don’t lose more than what we agreed on.”

“I promise.”

They sat next to each other, he at The Price is Right, she at Deal or No Deal, inserted their casino cards, and pressed the red “SPIN buttons.” His machine was the first to hit, then, seconds later, hers.

Both screens flashed the same message: “$$$$100,000$$$$,” and they both screamed in unison to the machines’ bells, gongs, and sirens. The sights and sounds accompanying a payout were carefully engineered not only to announce the munificence of the Casino’s owners but as audio and visual hooks to entice patrons to bet more and more.

Gamblers reacted to the noises and screams by crowding around the couple, patting their backs, and shaking their hands hoping that their own turns might be next.

By this time, Deidre and Colleen had retrieved their luggage and were being helped at the busy taxi stand outside. They didn’t hear the bells or see the spinning red lights but were settling cozily in the back seat. Bernie, the polite cab driver with a distinctive Brooklyn accent, shut the trunk.

Colleen was leaning over to pull the door shut when Bernie said, “I got it, miss” and gently closed it. As their cabbie let go of the silver handle, he felt an odd tingling in his right hand.

“Damn arthritis,” he thought.

Bernie slid behind the wheel, checked his mirrors, and eased out from the curb. As he spun the wheel, he flexed his fingers to try to work out the tightness. “Where to?” he asked.

By this time, the area near the Stratosphere’s elevators was in an uproar. Gamblers who finished congratulating the winning couple had returned to their games of chance and began hitting on every machine and table game they played. Dozens of alarms and bells went off as more and more slots were paying off their maximums.

The noise level ratcheted up in adjacent sections. Every blackjack player hit twenty-one while the dealer busted; every poker hand beat the house, and Baccarat, Texas Hold’em, and Pai Gow players couldn’t believe their eyes as dealers were forced to pay out once, then again, and again.

Croupiers and pit bosses were scrambling to shut down tables as fast as they could, but the players demanded to play and couldn’t put their bets down fast enough. It was like watching a feeding frenzy during Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, but this time the food fish were taking big chunks out of the makos and hammerheads.

Colleen and Deidre were Bernie’s last fare for the night. After dropping them off at the Departures gate, he decided to ignore the same nightly promise he made to his wife and pop into the Shot and Slot for a quick beer. It’s only fair, he thought. Why should tourists have all the fun?

Four blocks off the Strip, the S&S was the last place in Vegas where one could put a quarter into “one-armed bandits” with actual levers to pull. With change from his beer, Bernie approached his “lucky” machine, inserted a coin, and pulled the arm. His first quarter hit with a $500 payout and, after paying out, the slot automatically turned off.

Another quarter at the second machine hit for $1,000. Bernie forgot all about the arthritis in his right hand and almost ripped the arm off each machine, straight down the line with payout after payout. After cleaning out the bandits and cashing in, he ran outside, got back in his cab, and made a bee line for Circus Circus. Estelle can wait.

Like a norovirus on a cruise ship, the luck spread from the Stratosphere and Circus Circus to every gambler and object touched by the newlyweds or by Bernie.

Adjacent to the departing gates at McCarran International Airport were three banks of slots, the final tease most people could never pass up.

“One more try, Col,” said Deidre, as she changed a dollar for slot chips, selected a machine at random, and pressed “SPIN” which was immediately followed by bells and whistles. The matron was counting out ten hundred dollars bills just as the final boarding was announced.

Soon, Flight 734 was easing into a slow bank in the cloudless, Nevada sky, circling around to the northwest for a quick stop in Reno before heading to Indianapolis.

Far below, the Stratosphere’s managers were scrambling to shut down power feeds to electronic games, cashing players out at the tables, and sending all casino employees home.

“I still can’t believe you hit that airport slot,” Colleen said, as she looked out the window.

“Look, Dee,” Colleen said. “Something’s going on down there.”

“Fireworks?” Dee mumbled.

“No, it’s more like—”

“Heard you can see the Bellaggio’s water show from up—“

“No.” Colleen’s nose was now touching the window. “Looks like the Stratosphere’s havin’ some kinda power failure.”

Deirdre leaned diagonally from her middle seat, craning her neck past Colleen’s left shoulder to look out the window. “Wow! Pretty neat. David Copperfield was at the MGM Grand.” She settled back into her seat.

“Poke me when they serve the drinks,” Deidre added. She closed her eyes and snuggled into her seat, a slight, steady tingle still buzzing in her fingers and toes.

“Dee?... Dee?”

“Huh?” Dee moaned.

“So when’s our next conference?”

“May... Louvil,” Dee mumbled.

“What?

The back of Dee’s head eased back to touch her headrest as her eyelids lifted halfway. “Louisville, Kentucky. May.”

“Isn’t the—”

Dee’s eyelids dropped, her head slowly gliding forward in a tiny nod. “’Tucky Derby... Horse racing.” And off to sleep she went.

“Wow,” said Colleen, and she imagined herself as one of the belles at Churchill Downs.

“Wonder how long it’ll take ’em to get the lights back on,” Colleen said aloud to herself as she refocused her attention on the spectacle below.

Colleen noticed that the concentrations of the brightest lights nearest the Stratosphere also started to go out, slowly at first, one section, then another, then more steadily down The Strip, like the progress line of a loading computer program.

Below the Delta Airbus, the lights continued to go out, marching steadily down the boulevard, left then right, as if the feet of an invisible giant were stomping out thousands of bulbs at a time with each step. The pace increased as the blots broke from a trot to a sprint, until only one small, brilliant section at the far south end of the Strip remained. Then, like the last candle on a birthday cake, it too went out.


Copyright © 2017 by Richard Anderson

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