I wish we’d never met.
I remember the day I first learned of you…
Cara sulked in the back seat of the car. Her dad was such a jerk! Arms crossed, she stared out the window. At twelve years old, she should have more independence. She had been looking forward to spending the afternoon with her best friend, Stacey, but her dad had other ideas.
“You can play with Stacey any day of the week,” he told her. “I only get to see you on Saturdays.”
As far as Cara was concerned, this new arrangement sucked. Her dad had moved out a week ago, and though she missed having him around during the week, she didn’t understand why she needed to jump through hoops to accommodate him.
“Where are we going?” Brady piped up from the front seat. Two weeks ago, on Brady’s 7th birthday, their parents had gifted him front seat car privileges. Cara hadn’t been allowed in the front seat until age 8, but that decision was based on size rather than age and Brady grew faster than she did. So now she shared the honor of the front seat with her little brother. Added to that, his incessant chatter and clear adoration of their dad was getting on her nerves. More reasons for her to be annoyed. “We’re going for ice cream, but first I have to make a quick stop,” her dad said.
Cara snorted. “What if I don’t want ice cream?”
“You can get something else,” Brady said matter-of-factly. “I LOVE ice cream. Can I get a sundae? With hot fudge and whipped cream?” he asked.
“Anything you want,” Dad answered. “As long as you promise not to tell Mom...”
“I promise,” Brady said solemnly, as Cara stewed even more. She and Stacey had planned to bike to the local park and meet up with some friends from school. Secretly, she hoped Patrick would be there. She and Patrick had been best friends since pre-school. Or maybe even pre-pre-school. They had been school bus seatmates and recess playmates until second grade, when most girls and boys drifted apart. Recently, however, Patrick had caught her eye, and she found herself wishing they could spend more time together. The last thing she wanted to do was go for ice cream with her dad and little brother, when it might mean she’d miss spending time with Patrick.
She opened her mouth to object as her dad turned the car into a large, almost empty, parking lot. An enormous building with a gold dome and huge golden doors to match loomed in the distance. It looked like a scene out of a fairy tale.
“What is this place?” she asked.
“It’s called ‘Nuggets.’ I have to talk to someone here for a minute. I’ll be back before you can blink.” He flashed them a big smile as he got out of the car. “You two wait here.”
Cara and Brady waited. And waited some more. After a while, Brady climbed into the back seat.
“Those doors sure look cool. I wonder if they’re made of real gold. What do you think Dad’s doing in there?” Brady asked.
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” said Cara. She wished Brady would shut up. She wished her dad would hurry back. Maybe, if they went for ice cream soon, she could get back in time to meet up with her friends.
The minutes ticked by, and Dad didn’t come back in a flash as he’d promised. Underneath her anger, Cara worried. Brady bounced up and down in the front seat, then crawled to the back and started play-punching her. Cara cast about for ways to entertain him. They played patty-cake. Then she made up fairy tales about the castle in the distance. She hoped Brady couldn’t tell by her voice that she was feeling panicked their dad might never come back.
“I need to pee!” Brady whimpered.
“Great!” hissed Cara under her breath. “Guess we have to find a bathroom.”
“In there?” Brady pointed to the castle-like building.
“Where else, dummy?” she asked.
Cara held Brady’s hand as they walked to the gilded front door of the palatial building. They peeked through the window, jumping back as the door opened with a loud creak. A security guard stood just inside the entryway. Behind him they glimpsed a vast, neon-lit room with red-and-black checkerboard patterned carpeting. He beckoned them in, and they stared in awe at the countless machines lining the walls, with pictures in constant motion. Bells clanged, merging with the sound of clinking coins falling through the chutes of the machines into the trays below. People milled about without seeming to go anywhere. Brady gazed up at the domed ceiling, entranced, but Cara looked down at the patterned carpeting. To her, it felt suffocating. This was where their father had been all this time?
The security guard guided them to the coat check desk, where a matronly woman sat on a stool.
“Who do you belong to?” she asked.
“My daddy is Clyde Davenport,” whispered Cara, still not looking up. “He’s in here somewhere.”
The woman groaned. “A’right. You wait here and I’ll go find him on the floor. He’s probably at the wheel. Good thing we’re not too busy right now.” She called out to the security guard, “Jackson, watch these two ’til I get back!” With that, she bustled off.
Cara glanced at Brady, who stared, mesmerized, at the blinking lights. Then she remembered he needed to use a bathroom. Could she let him go alone in this place? Tears formed in her eyes as she struggled to figure out what to do. A moment later her father showed up, trailed by the coat check clerk. “You oughtta be ashamed!” she berated him as she pushed him toward the children.
“Okay, you two!” he exclaimed, rubbing his hands together. “Let’s go get some pizza and ice cream!”
Cara stared at him. Did he even realize he had abandoned them all afternoon?
“I need to pee!” cried Brady.
“Okay, buddy. I’ll take you to do that, and then we can get our ice cream. Cara, you wait right here.”
She looked away and nodded, hoping he would be quick this time. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the woman at the coat check desk shaking her head.
“It’s wrong, what he’s doing to y’all,” she muttered. “He should know better.”
Cara stared again at the checkerboard carpeting, fighting back her tears. She heard them returning before she saw them. He was holding Brady’s hand, and Brady skipped alongside, looking up at him adoringly.
A short time later, as they enjoyed enormous ice cream sundaes, Cara asked, “Daddy, what’s the wheel?”
Her dad almost choked on his ice cream. “The wheel of destruction,” he muttered. “It’s the devil in disguise, Cara! Forget you ever heard about it. In fact, forget about everything that happened today. Let’s just keep it a secret between us. Your mom doesn’t need to know where we were. She’ll just yell at me and we don’t want that, do we?” Cara and Brady both shook their heads no.
“Our little secret, right, Dad?” Brady said with a grin.
Cara stared at the two of them. Deep down, she knew it was wrong, but she also knew she wouldn’t tell their mom. Mom was mad enough at Dad already, and Cara didn’t want to make things worse between her parents. If she kept quiet, maybe they’d get back together. She sank down in her chair, wishing she was anywhere else in the world.
Geraldine Major stared at the plot of earth in front of her. Though her father had been sick for the better part of the past year, she still couldn’t believe he was gone. How was she supposed to follow in his footsteps? True, he had given her a crash course on the business and she was a quick study, but at the moment, all she felt was despair.
She thought back to the first time he had brought her to the casino ten years ago. She was ten years old and the memory of that day was seared into her mind forever. After a fight with a girl at school, which turned physical, she ended up in the principal’s office and was picked up by her dad. The principal berated her (and her dad) for her nasty temper and then suspended her from school for three days.
“I suggest you ground her, Mr. Major,” the principal said as they left the school. Geraldine slid her father a look, praying he wouldn’t be angry with her, though she was more concerned about what her mom would think. As she climbed into the car, it seemed her prayers were answered when her dad spoke.
“I’ll bring you to work for a few days. Your mom doesn’t need to know about this. It’ll just upset her.”
She sat beside her dad in the car and stared at the gigantic building in the distance. An enormous sign, “Pair o’ Dice,” graced the front of the building. It looked like a castle, and she imagined her father must be the King. A doorman with a long, sharp nose opened the doors and bowed to her father. “Good morning, Mr. Major,” he said. “And who might this be?” He pointed his nose down at Geraldine.
“This is my daughter, Geraldine. She is home-schooled by her mother, who is feeling somewhat indisposed today. We thought it best if Geraldine came to work with me. She’s going to sit in my office and read.”
Geraldine gazed around the room, captivated by the blinking lights. At this early hour, there were few people around, but the room didn’t feel empty. The entire space was in perpetual motion. Slot machines lined the walls, and the pictures inside them moved, whether or not a player sat in front of them. Even the card tables, neatly arranged in the center of the room, seemed to undulate as dealers shuffled and reshuffled cards. She laughed in delight at the sound of a loud bell, followed by the deafening sound of dropping coins. Her father pointed across the room at a woman who raised her hands in celebration with a loud shriek. Geraldine watched in fascination as the woman poured all the coins she’d won into a bucket, then resumed staring at the machine, pulling the lever like a zombie. Her father nodded and smiled as he watched the scene unfold. The sights and sounds of this magical place enchanted her. She belonged here. She had never felt surer of anything in her life.
Geraldine followed her father down a red-carpeted hallway to a set of large doors. He pushed a button, and the doors slid open, revealing a cozy office with an oversized desk. There was a small sofa in the corner, and she sat there all day, listening to the muffled sounds of the casino, which increased as the day progressed.
“Daddy, why do you sit in here all day while everyone out there is having fun playing games?” she asked. It made no sense to her.
Her father studied her, his dark eyes penetrating into her. “They’re playing games all right, but don’t mistake that for having fun. It’s a temporary pleasure. The house ALWAYS wins, and I’m the house. I own this place. I will always come out ahead, but only because I never play. And some day, maybe you’ll own this place, but you need to remember what I’m telling you now. This may be your playground, but it’s not your place to play in. Those people out there are like hamsters, mindlessly spinning on a wheel. Watch when we leave here and notice if any of them are smiling.”
“But why are they here?” she asked innocently.
Sighing, her father took hold of her arms. “Most people come here to escape the pressures of everyday life. And for them, I suppose it is fun.” He paused for a moment, deep in thought. “I’ll tell you a little secret—just between you and me, okay?” She nodded and stared back at him, her big brown eyes wide open.
“I can watch them have fun and not feel like I have to be there playing. But some people can’t stop playing, and they’re the ones who drive our business. They’re called addicts. Remember that, but don’t tell anyone. It’s our little secret. We try to help addicts by supporting programs to assist them. But underneath it all, we want them to keep coming. We want their business more than anything. Understood?”
She nodded again, not sure she understood, but willing to go along with what he said. He seemed so serious when he was talking to her and it made her feel so grown up. As they walked out at the end of the day, she gazed at all the people lined up at the machines. She wondered how many of them were addicts. “Like hamsters,” her father had said, though to her they looked more like robots, mechanically inserting tokens and pulling the levers to make the pictures spin. Her father was right about one thing though… she didn’t see a genuine smile on anyone’s face, except for brief moments when the bells clanged and coins dropped after a big win.
“Remember, the house always wins. We don’t need to play these games the way they do to have fun. We make plenty of money off those who come here. Casinos aren’t built by luck. They’re built by understanding and exploiting the weaknesses of other people. Addiction is one of those weaknesses. We don’t force addicts to come here. It’s their choice.”
As she stood at her father’s graveside, a voice jolted her back to the present. “I’m sorry for your loss.” She looked up to see one of her father’s business associates, Senator Richard Bly. “Your father ran quite an operation. We will all miss him.” He smiled down at her.
She looked off in the distance, avoiding the Senator’s gaze. “Yes, well, I’m sure you will all manage. He put a lot of things in place so his business could continue.”
“I understand you will be in charge of his major holdings,” Bly pressed. “Please, feel free to call on me if you need any advice.” He gave her a weak smile, which didn’t quite cover the patronizing look on his face.
She glanced at him, wondering at his use of the word “major.” Was that an intentional snipe at her dad’s name and legacy? Her dad had named his corporation “Majority Rules” as a way to incorporate his own name into his life’s work. She remembered her dad’s recent words to her. “Others may not think you can run this company, but I know you can do it. Go out and make our name great.” Her dad had also told her that some politicians may seem arrogant, but they were important people in this business. She needed to make sure she could call in a few favors if needed.
She had learned from an early age that gambling was a business, and she now needed to rely on the countless hours of training her dad had provided. He had put his faith in her to carry on his legacy, and she wasn’t about to let him down. Perhaps others thought she couldn’t do it. If so, she would have to prove them wrong.
She pasted her best smile on her face and made direct eye contact, exactly as her dad had taught her. “Thank you for your kind words. I’ll remember that. Good day, Senator.”
Geraldine stood in her father’s penthouse office overlooking the city and the bay, cigarette in hand. Her office now, she mused. Her empire. Such a beautiful place. She had worked damn hard to get here, and she intended to stay in control.
Her father had trained her well. He wanted her to be prepared—and prepared she was, though the pain of losing him still burned within her even after all these years. She would carry on with his legacy and make him proud. She recalled his words to her at the very end of his life when he knew his battle was over: “Show them Majority Rules!” he had said.
She liked that. It had been a driving force for her since she took control of the corporation seven years ago. She had recently branded a new line of casinos with that name, though she also had her own idea of another direction for the company. Her father had built his dynasty with brick-and-mortar casinos, but she was banking far more on the online business.
She had the best minds in the business working on the development of a new platform, and the sky was the limit. She even had a name picked out. “Pairadice,” she would call it. She let the name roll around on her tongue.
She could taste the success of it, though two recent reports from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta linking online gambling to suicide had her worried. I must stop this before it takes root, she thought, staring at the glowing tip of her cigarette. A careless bit of ash landing on dry tinder might turn into a wildfire in a matter of hours. She would not allow this minor flare to escalate that way. She needed to snuff it out at its source before it could take root. Angrily, she ground out the cigarette she was holding. Though she knew smoking was a nasty habit, it was the only indulgence she allowed herself. Much to her father’s chagrin, addiction to cigarettes was one of the few traits she had inherited from her mother. As she contemplated wildfires and cigarettes, she pondered how the tobacco industry grew, despite clear evidence of the dangers. A germ of an idea formed in her mind. Maybe she needed to fight fire with fire….
Geraldine had always been a bit manic. Once she got an idea, nothing kept her from exploring it fully. She could disappear into research for weeks at a time, barely surfacing for meals and occasional catnaps. She set her phone to “Do Not Disturb,” then opened a new file on her laptop, labeling it “Tobacco Industry.” Closing her eyes, she pondered the question: How did that industry flourish despite the growing awareness of public health danger, and what ultimately caused its failure?