Risk of Ruin is a novel about a professional blackjack player who becomes obsessed with a stripper who believes she's God.
Bart is an outlaw motorcycle bum who gets by in life as a freelance tattoo artist, a hack motorcycle mechanic, an occasional drug dealer, and sometimes professional gambler. He does not know when he takes up with Stacy that she is an underage runaway, as she was working as a stripper when he met her and her ID says she’s nineteen.
When her picture appears on a milk carton he discovers she lied to him about her age. He also finds out that she believes that she's God. He tells her good-bye, but when she pleads for his help, he agrees to get her out of Reno. He takes her to Las Vegas on his bike, only to run into a rogue cop in the desert.
Now they’re truly on the lam.
But being handcuffed wasn’t as much of a problem for Bart as it would be for most people. He had two dozen lock picks of different types stuck into his belt. It was legal to carry lock-picking tools, but if you weren’t a locksmith, getting caught with them could suddenly propel you into suspicion on lots of burglaries. So, he’d found a way to conceal a full set on him that wouldn’t be found even if he was searched. The picks were evenly spaced about an inch apart all the way around his leather belt, each one having a steel ball tip he’d soldered on to act as a handle, disguising the set as decorative studs on the belt.
Just from the feel, he was pretty sure the cuffs were Smith and Wesson Maximum Securities. Either them or Peerless, but same difference: both popular police models, heavy-duty reinforced steel, with a similar tubular lock. He’d practiced on a set of S&W 94s at his Uncle Jake’s lock shop for months on end when he was a teenager. His uncle would put the cuffs on him and he’d work on them with the picking tools until he got out. His uncle had a set of the S&W cuffs taken apart on his work bench so he could demonstrate how the locking mechanism worked and exactly what had to be done to unlock them with picks. It took him hours when he first started, but after a few weeks, he’d have them off in about fifteen minutes. Then his uncle showed him tricks that turned him into a Smith & Wesson master. By the end of that summer, he could get the cuffs off in thirty seconds flat if his hands were cuffed in front of him. Behind his back, it would take maybe ninety seconds.
The tools were pretty simple, though not as simple as for some of the old-fashioned cuffs his uncle had that didn’t have tubular locks and especially didn’t have the double-lock feature of the maximum security cuffs. With no double lock, you could just slide a shim into the opening where the ratchet teeth of the shackle arm caught the locking dog. The shim smoothed out the surface and the shackle arm just slid right out. You didn’t have to pick the lock itself, just foil the ratchet mechanism. Those old stories about Houdini being able to pick his way out of any pair of handcuffs with a hairpin weren’t bullshit. He wasn’t picking the locks on most of them; he was shimming the ratchet teeth. Hairpins made pretty decent shims for a lot of the old cuffs, though Houdini probably used piano wire with one end flattened, since hairpins weren’t very heavy duty. His Uncle Jake all but worshipped Houdini, whom he always referred to as the “Maestro.”
“Next week I’ll show you some tricks for working behind your back,” Jake said. “Maybe you’re starting to understand why Houdini was the greatest escape artist of all time. He never knew how they were going to restrain him or even what kind of a lock they would use. He not only had to pick locks behind his back, sometimes he had to use multiple picks one-handed, or hold the picks in his toes, or in his teeth. It’s easy to pick a lock when it’s sitting on a table in front of you. But can you pick it blindfolded? Or one-handed? Or behind your back? How many ways can you pick it?”
“What did he do if someone had a lock that he couldn’t pick no matter what?” Bart asked. “I mean there must be some kinds of locks you can’t get out of—combination locks or something?”
“The Maestro was always prepared,” he said. “If worse came to worst, he would use his top-secret last-resort method. The method he never wanted anyone to know about, and nobody ever did know about … until after he died.”
“What was that?”
“Well, he would sometimes get help from an accomplice,” he said. “Not very often. Only when it was absolutely necessary.”
“Isn’t that cheating?” Bart said.
“Not when you’re really in trouble. That’s the cool thing about magic,” Jake said. “There’s no such thing as cheating. As long as you leave the audience baffled, you succeed.”
Unfortunately, the double-lock feature of the modern cuffs made the shim useless. The double-lockers had a little toothed wheel in front of the locking dog, so you couldn’t get your shim past it. You had to pick the lock; there was no way around it.
The S&W Maximum Security cuffs had four tumblers, each of which had to be picked to the shear line separately. For a tubular lock, in addition to a pick, you needed a tubular torsion wrench, and the one his Uncle Jake gave him with his first set of picks was fashioned out of the round sleeve of a ballpoint-pen clip.
The tricks his uncle taught him after he had the basic picking strategy down all had to do with the torsion wrench. You had to be very careful not to push it too far into the keyway, or you’d touch the tumbler you were working on, making your work more difficult. But with just the right pressure when it was perfectly placed, you could line those tumblers up, one, two, three, four, and you were home free.
The picking tools hidden in his belt were mostly made from various-sized bobby pins. He had only one tubular wrench and that would be a bitch to get to, as it was wrapped around one of the belt loops on his jeans, a loop on the right side, just over the front hip pocket. It was also squeezed tightly closed so it wouldn’t come off the belt loop accidentally. Normally, with his hands cuffed behind him, he’d have no trouble reaching that little bastard. But with his hands cuffed behind him and around the frame of his bike, he couldn’t maneuver his arms far enough to his side. It didn’t help much that he felt dizzy from the whack on his head. If he kept his eyes open for any length of time, the sky—that deep black Nevada desert sky pin-pricked with a million stars—started spinning. He made a mental note to get another tubular wrench attached to a belt loop on the back of his jeans, but that wouldn’t do him a lot of good right now. He was having what his Uncle Jake would call “a Houdini moment.”
Bart knew what he had to do. First, he had to get his boots off, standard motorcycle boots, what some people called engineer boots. They were pretty easy to pry off over his heels just by using his feet. His jeans, on the other hand, were something else again. Without the use of his hands, he couldn’t unfasten his belt, but by sucking in his gut and scraping his ass on the ground, he got the pants down to thigh level. Then it was just a matter of using his legs to get them past his feet and all the way off.
He had no underwear on—he always rode commando—so he was sitting there bare-assed in the dirt. With his feet, he was then able to move his jeans up to where he could reach them and he quickly had that precious little torsion wrench in his grip where he could unbend it from the belt loop.
He kept an eye on the cop’s flashlight, now way the fuck out there, maybe a half mile away. Stacy had a big edge on the cop. She could see him, but he couldn’t see her. And she was no dummy. Her brain worked faster than anyone Bart had ever known. Even if the cop managed to get his flashlight beam onto her, he’d never catch her. She was younger, healthier, and had a lot more reasons to not get caught than he had to catch her.
Still, there was something worrisome about the trooper’s strategy. Why didn’t he just stay with his car, radio for back-up, and get a few other cops out there to search for her? He’d also had no reason to knock Bart out. Why hadn’t he just handcuffed him and stuck him in the back of his car? Bart had a sick feeling in his gut that this was some kind of rogue cop who didn’t want assistance. He liked the idea of having a couple of captives out in the middle of the desert at three a.m. where he could do what he wanted with them, answering to no one. He remembered Stacy not wanting to get off the bike, insisting that the cop was crazy and wanted to kill him. Was she right? And was it even legal for a cop to be in Area 51? Isn’t this U.S. government property? Wouldn’t he have to call the feds, the FBI, CIA, NSA, some government agency or other before he went racing into Area 51?
Bart got the torsion wrench off his belt loop and unbent it to what felt like the proper diameter for use on an S & W tubular lock. He then went through a half-dozen pick choices on his belt searching for the best one. Doing this entirely by feel while he was shackled in a position that was becoming more uncomfortable by the minute—and with an unknown time constraint—was strangely exhilarating. This was the first authentic Houdini moment of his life. He wondered if Houdini had ever had to escape when he was dizzy, maybe from lack of oxygen or being bound upside down too long. The wooziness was causing mild nausea. He was breathing deeply to keep from vomiting.
Then he heard the cop shouting. Yes, he was shouting. In the city, at that distance, he never would have heard it. But out in the desert where the only sound is the wind and the bugs, the cop’s voice rang through the night air. Did he actually say, “Stop or I’ll shoot!”? He could see the flashlight beam bobbing frantically. The cop had spotted Stacy and now he was chasing her.
Run, baby, run. I just need a little more time.