Bingo King

When his former boss at the DA’s office offers Henry Burkhart a job—“a little undercover work”—outside the official channels, he’s grateful to get paid in cash and piqued by what sounds like the perfect fit for his particular skill-set and, well, his disposition. But he can’t hide his disenchantment when he’s told that the criminal world he’s supposed to infiltrate is the Colorado bingo industry. The fact that the only legal gambling allowed in the state does $300 million a year and is solely regulated by the notoriously inefficient yet flamboyant Secretary of State does little to boost his rock-bottom expectations. Church raffles, pep club fund raisers, the Loyal Order of the Moose, and Catholic school basement gatherings, what could possibly happen? And after three weeks on the job at Clancy’s Bingo City, the low-rent version of the American melting pot peopling the room in front of him does little to inspire his thoughts from the absurd.

But when three men in black wearing masks and welding shotguns burst into the middle of a game and attempt to hold a hundred-plus hostages while they pilfer the office safe, Henry is inspired to new heights of ingenuity as he comes to the rescue: he throws the main breaker switch plummeting the entire room in darkness and chaos. While this works out better than more judicious minds might predict, it also ramps up the rivalries between the two main bingo operators in the metro area. These antics unfold at the level you might expect of a Godfather prequel: a small-scale mock gang war with drive by shots-across-the-bow, loud-mouth shouting matches, and rival advertising smear campaigns that conversely result in boosting attendance. But when it eventually escalates to the point of arson, and Bingo City is burnt to the ground, the next round of retaliation turns to murder.

The more Henry digs and the further he worms his way into a position of trust among this oddball clique of egocentric nerds, Tammy Faye lookalikes, and gun happy speed freaks, the more convinced he becomes that there is, indeed, a ‘bingo mafia’. And the closer he gets to Frank Coyne, the man who has the cheek to call himself the King of Bingo on the basis of a mastery of high school arithmetic and a disregard for misdemeanor tax law, the more he has to admit that this smug and nerdy halfwit could be a master of deception and manipulator of lives. But as Henry closes in on the true culprit of the murders he is yet again blindsided by the discover that it is among the women in the family, role-playing as complaisant and behind the throne, who are the most deadly and deceptive.

It is bingo noir at it’s hinkiest and it’s going to take dumb luck, a little romance, and a good deal of help from his friends for Henry to finally uncover the deadliest among them.

Praise for Bingo King

“This is a great read! Roehl is a really good writer and the story moves from one twist to another. I would like to read more about Burkhart’s (the protagonist) story. The book looks long but it is a quick read and a page turner. I’ve been in Denver enough to enjoy the setting.”

“Loved it!. A fun read, with humor and many wry observations. It’s an intriguing mystery with an interesting cast of characters and a surprising ending. Highly recommend!”

“A great and entertaining read. I haven’t read a lot of fiction lately, lacking patience for story and character development to hook me, but this book has a lot of action from the start that reels you right in. I found the story arc to be very realistic, and didn’t feel hindered by my unfamiliarity with Denver. Roehl is quite adept with character, scene and action descriptiveness; the result is a compelling page turner that I couldn’t put down. Highly recommended!”

Excerpt from Bingo King

Chapter One

“B-15!” the caller sang. “Be-e-e-e-e…fif-te-e-e-n-n-n.”

Saturday night and I found myself leaning against the pickle bar at Clancy’s Bingo City mulling over the meaning of life, or lack thereof. I wondered about time, the ebb and flow, its intractability, the excruciating minutiae of its passage. Standing here amid the game in full swing, change was barely detectable, marked only by the recurrent drone of random numbers called.

“N-37!” the man intoned. “E-e-e-n-n-n-n-n…thirty-seven-n-n.”

The congregation in front of me did nothing to inspire my thoughts from the absurd. Under dull florescent glow, the players slumped in rows along the end-to-end tables, heads bowed, shoulders hunched forward, hands hovering over their playing cards. Mostly white but quite a few Hispanics, fewer blacks and Asians, a low-rent version of the American pie. Every one my eyes lit upon was too fat or too thin and there wasn’t a fashionable piece of clothing in the place. They came to play, dressed for comfort, some looking like they only just made it out of their Lay-Z-Boys to get here.

A large number of older folks peppered the room but not so many as you might think, and women outnumbered the men by about four to one. Of the many variations on the family theme, the man of the family was absent from most of them and children under ten were scarce and knew to keep quiet during a game.

And then there were the hardcore players, compulsives on the cheap, sitting alone, marking their territory with three sheets fanned out in front of them—that’s eighteen games simultaneously. Their Day-Glo daubers dangled from crooked hands, pecking at their cards like a buzzard’s beak to road-kill, their faces intense yet flaccid, their eyes glazed over like someone who’d watched every minute of a Jerry Lewis Telethon. I wouldn’t put it past them.

“I-18!” the caller said. “I-i-i-e-e-e-e…eight-e-e-e-n-n.”

Plumes of smoke rose and swayed and thinned out along the strip-lighting overhead. The incessant hum of ceiling-mounted blowers did little to dispel the haze. From where I stood, the simmering nachos cheese-food and the oily heat from the popcorn maker dampened the reek of secondhand smoke, creating a viscous mixture of aromas that, over time, coated my tongue and throat and tied my stomach into a knot. Maybe that’s all that was bothering me. I wouldn’t be the first armchair philosopher to mistake indigestion for angst.

Undercover for a month now, the job was looking as trite and farcical as it had sounded the first time my former boss at the DA’s office proposed it to me. But the severance they had packed me off with several months before had dwindled down to nothing and I wasn’t making dick as a private dick. It seems you had to do divorces if you wanted work and it didn’t take long for me to figure out why those haughty heroes in Chandler’s world disdained to take it on.

I came in early six days a week, hit the lights and pushed a broom, then loitered with the moonlighting cops that pretended to do security and pretended to do it for free. They get paid in cash and don’t report it and that’s about all I’d seen in the way of crime. As doorman, would-be bouncer and part-time go-fer, I wasn’t seeing anything that justified a fraud investigation by the Denver district attorney.

Still… The bingo industry: $300 million a year in reported revenues in Colorado alone, $5 billion nationally and I hear it’s big in Europe. Regulated here by the secretary of state and undertaken for the sole purpose of raising funds for non-profit organizations. Supposedly. Church raffles, Boy Scout troops, the B.P.O.E. and Loyal Order of the Moose, and every other Catholic school that had a pep club or soccer team in need of uniforms. So what if the operators skimmed some off the top? So what if the most recently elected secretary of state was soft on enforcement? The crime, if there was one, was as slow and boring and small-time as the game itself.

“G-52!” the man called out. “Ge-e-e-e-e-e-e…fifty…two!.” He was getting into it.

In spite of my mood, I had to admit that the crowd I looked down on was neither as bored nor as boring as me. And it was precisely in that moment of commiseration, of self-loathing, of wishing for something to happen, that headlight beams swept across the bank of full-length windows at the front of the building. The players, in the full stupor of the game, didn’t even cock an ear.

A late-model Caddy pulled up across the handicap spaces and then just sat there. Wide white-wall tires and a pastel paint job with the faux-leather top. Brand-new money or a pimp-mobile, not all that suspicious in itself. Could be someone’s ride or a curious cruise-by looking for action. The occupants remained shrouded behind lights reflecting on tinted glass.

The hall manager, a slick and wiry Caucasian named Eddie Lyons, rested one butt cheek on the hot-food counter and leaned toward the underage Girl Scout volunteer on the other side, talking low, making time. I thought about strolling over there, bringing the Caddy to Eddie’s attention. The girl smiled shyly then dropped her head with muffled laughter. I decided not to bother.

That was my first mistake. Just beyond them, the Caddy’s doors swung open and the short barrel and fat butt of a sawed-off shotgun appeared in profile above the car’s roofline. A jolt of adrenaline riveted me in place as I watched two men in black climb out, wool hats with eye-holes coming down over their faces. A third man—tall and gaunt, heavily inked skinny arms—circled around the driver’s side, sunglasses and a fake beard his disguise, a ZZ Top knock-off. As they came through the entrance, I slid out of sight down the hallway. My back against the wall, I thought about the gun in my car, and waited for something to happen.

“B-1! Be one, be one,” the caller joked. “Be-e-e-e-e-e-e-e…one!”

So quiet, I thought I might have dreamt it. Peeking around the corner, I watched Eddie being led by the collar, a good-sized handgun shoved into his ear. They made straight for the office. Eddie’s eyes bulged and his lips moved but no sound came out. The other two took up posts by the door, the ZZ Top look-alike dancing in place, striking Rambo stances, fending off imaginary attackers. The players, facing away from him, didn’t know to be impressed. The petrified Girl Scout finally squeaked out a puppy-yelp. Heads came up, eyes pulled reluctantly away from their numbered sheets. Behind the podium, his vision blinded by the spotlight on his face, the caller droned on oblivious.

“O-65!” he said. “O-o-o-o-o-o-o… sixty-five.”

“Oh my God!” a woman blurted and that finally got things going.

“Everybody fucking sit tight,” ZZ Top yelled, his voice high-pitched and edgy. “No one gets hurt.”

Finding that hard to believe, the crowd went into a kind of subdued hysteria. Whispers grew in volume, mothers beckoned to their kids, chairs scooted sideways along the floor. A few folks raised their hands reflexively, ready to surrender.

Even through the adrenaline, the scene struck me as comical. Three guys with guns and a hundred and fifty hostages? Who holds up a bingo hall? What were they thinking? What would they do if the crowd panicked? Which gave me the idea. It seemed a little rash but I’m not one to stand by for bad theatrics. Besides, what could happen? I backed down to the end of the hallway and, in the furnace room, flipped open the fuse-box. I tripped the main breaker.

Darkness blanketed the entire hall and that’s when the real noise erupted. Screams and shouts filled the air, furniture clattered to the floor, and a terrible crash of glass exploded at the back end of the room.

I broke into a jog along the wall with an idea—not fully thought out—to outflank these amateur holdup boys on their way out the entrance. Rounding the corner with abandon, I slammed full-length into a body crossing my path. Long hair engulfed my face as we went down in a heap. The woman absorbed much of the fall but my head whip-lashed above her, hitting the floor with a thump. I saw stars as I turned my gaze towards the front of the room. Gray backlight cast the two men with guns in silhouette. The bearded one stepped forward and took aim at the ceiling. His shotgun went off with a tremendous blast. Flames creased the darkness at an upward angle like short-range fireworks, illuminating for an instant, the chaos of tangled human figures swimming drunkenly. The shrieking hit a wild crescendo. Pieces of ceiling tile rained down upon us. I huddled over the body stirring beneath me.

“C’mon!” yelled the high-pitched gunman. “Let’s get outta here!”

Two more shots sounded off from where the office was—pops from a smaller caliber gun. Then the third man appeared and bounded towards the exit.

Still dazed, I rolled away and struggled to disentangle myself.

“Ouch, goddammit,” the woman cried and clubbed me hard to head. I half rolled, half fell sideways as she kicked at me and pulled away.

“Jesus Christ. Take it easy.”

“Henry? Is that you?”


A second shotgun blast cut short the exchange, exploding through the transom window and taking out the Bingo City purple neon above the doors. Glass shards tinkled along the linoleum as I again huddled over Claire. The cacophony of human noises rose and united into one frightened outcry. Then the room went strangely quiet.

I heard the deep groan of the Caddy’s engine as the car pulled away.

Someone moaned in the darkness. Disembodied voices began to speak.

“Peter? Where are you?”

“Is that you, mom?”

“Martha? You all right?”

Rolling away from Claire, this time without getting kicked, I craned my neck around a fallen table to see the taillights of the Caddy fifty yards gone and turning out of sight.

“What’s happened?” Claire asked, sniffling loudly.

“It’s all right. They’re gone. You okay?”

She sniffled again. “I think you broke my nose.”

“Someone get the lights!” an invisible man demanded from a distance.

“Wait here,” I told Claire, then made my way down the hall. Still light-headed, it took a few tries to find the right door and the breaker box inside. When I flipped it on, a unified groan stirred and gathered force. Someone began to cry. Then children joined in as if on cue.

A man’s deep voice drawled, “Holy shit!” And as I came back into the room, I saw what he meant. Tables overturned or shoved out of line, chairs tossed and scattered, people strewn along the floor amongst the rubble. They moved slowly or not at all, exchanging wide-eyed stares, looks of surprised self-awareness. One of the floor-to-ceiling panes of glass that enclosed the non-smokers had shattered into a thousand pieces of costume jewelry. A beefy man in his fifties sat in the middle of the gleaming shards holding bloody hands in front of his face in disbelief.

The girl who had been flirting with Eddie sat scrunched against the counter, curled up in a ball, her forehead against her knees. A woman went there to comfort her, but the girl pointed towards the office, whining indecipherably. The woman’s eyes widened at what she saw and she moved that way. Something was wrong up there. But I couldn’t leave Claire bleeding at my feet.

“Aren’t you going to help a lady out?” she said.

Leaning back, she held one hand over her nose. Droplets of blood streaked the front of her white shirt. I pulled her hand away. It might not be broken, but it was already swelling.

“Let’s get you to the bathroom,” I said, bringing her to her feet.

A woman’s voice cut through the commotion behind me. “It’s Eddie! He’s shot!”

The desperate tone made Claire jerk from my grip and dash towards the office.

Eddie lay sprawled and slack-looking in the open doorway. A pool of blood formed beneath his dark-stained pant-legs.

“Eddie!” Claire moaned, shoving her way past two people crouched at his side. Kneeling down, she cradled his head. “Don’t you die, goddammit. Don’t you die.”

Eddie’s head lolled in her hands and his eyes rolled a bit. But then I caught a sidelong smile widening his lips as he looked up and focused on Claire’s worried features. He groaned and said, “I think I been shot.”

A man ripped open one of his pant-legs and I tended to the other. One bullet had entered his left thigh dead center. Blood oozed steadily from beneath it. We rolled him over and I applied pressure above the wound.

“Somebody call an ambulance,” I said.

“Better get the cops, too,” said a voice from behind me.

Yeah. Better get the cops.