Part 3 – no debt too small

Van lays sleepless in bed staring intently at the pile of unpaid bills cluttering his dresser, determined to somehow think them out of existence by way of pure tenacity and willpower.

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His confrontation with Omar a few weeks ago had resulted in less work at the resort and fewer simoleons going into his pocket. The reduction in hours is a clear retaliation for some perceived slight on Van’s part toward the petty and histrionic manager. Van’s replacement has already struggled with the high number of rescues and nearly had to be rescued himself after becoming fatigued. If Omar was attempting to make a statement, he was doing so at the risk of his guests’ safety.

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Reduced income from his lifeguard job translates to fewer dives and less money from his salvage work. Scuba tanks and gear rentals are expensive. On a good dive, he can typically cover his cost plus a nice bonus for himself. The dive shop has given him a few discounts since his demotion. But he stopped short of actually going into debt to continue his salvage work. In all likelihood, Omar’s power play will end with Van losing the property Mitch and Wade abandoned when they left Isla Paradiso.

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Finding a new place to live is not a problem. He can think of half a dozen different families on the island who would gladly take him in. His primary concern is one of self-sufficiency. Any future with Benita depends solely upon his ability to find steady work. Van’s willingness is certainly not lacking. He would pick fruit fifteen hours a day if it meant he and Benita could be together sooner. But there just isn’t any work. Benita has fared much better than he has in terms of employment. She works nights at the tiki-bar mixing drinks and serving food, then cosmetology and massage therapy at the spa during the day. She’s already started building a base of wealthy clients who ask for her by name.

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Unfortunately, the more she works, the less time Van has to spend with her. And now that he has more time on his hands than ever, he finds himself becoming very restless. Catching and selling fresh seafood is one of the few remaining opportunities available to locals. Van finds himself having to compete with friends and neighbors by way of selling his daily catch – the one thing he resolved he’d ever do.

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Van finds only a few hours sleep before his instinct tells him that dawn is approaching. Fortunately, his own backyard offers as good a fishing spot as any on the island. Facing his friends at the fishmonger is awkward enough without having to spend hours on the same beach competing for fish. Van makes his way slowly to the shallows before regarding the ocean and its ponderous expanse. He baits the hook, then casts his line into the water, desperate to find a better way.

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Weekends are the most challenging and difficult shifts for Isla Paradiso lifeguards. The volume of guests doubles over the weekend, as does the number of adult beverages consumed. The combination never amounts to any good. Van has told resort management as much.  Their response was to promptly open a second bar so guests would not have to wait as long for beachside service. In addition to having his lifeguarding hours cut, Omar has obstinately scheduled him for long shifts both Saturday and Sunday. Van had specifically asked for Sunday mornings off to attend church with Benita. Since the confrontation, however, those two days have been his only scheduled shifts – including Sunday morning.

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The result is a physically and emotionally exhausting schedule. He works from sunrise to sunset with a long enough break in between to sleep. The income generated by the new schedule is barely sufficient to keep the utilities running. Although Van has attempted to fix whatever he had done wrong, his efforts have gone unnoticed. Evidently, this is about more than just showing up late for work a couple of times.

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Van is very popular at the resort. Both guests and employees alike often greet him by name. News of the rift between Van and Omar spread through the grapevine quickly. Isla Paradiso is a rather small island, so most of his acquaintances are also quite familiar with Benita and the details of Van’s relationship with her. It’s not unusual for him to stop and talk with near strangers. Most of the time they simply want to offer their encouragement. When a resort hostess named Skyler Gilscarbo calls him over to the commons area after his shift late Sunday, Van doesn’t think to wonder why.

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Exhausted from many hours of heat and physical exertion, Van considers avoiding her. But she seems fairly intent upon talking with him. After a bit of small talk, Skyler’s mood changes abruptly. She moves closer to Van, making no effort to prevent chest from pressing firmly into his side, then whispers so that nobody else can her. Van listens to her somewhat suspicious proposition. She (and just about everybody else) knows all about Van’s feud with Omar. She hates that he’s treating Van so unfairly, and she wants to help him. She works tonight at the blackjack table and is willing to play a few bad hands in Van’s favor. He could make up all the simoleons from lost work, plus some.

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Van nearly dismisses the idea without giving the matter any thought. Skyler manages to inveigle her way past his better judgment, however. Her rakish, outgoing manner and warm, sympathetic smile provide the opening. Although it hadn’t come from Benita, the gesture is not entirely unwelcome. It has more than a week since Van last spent time with  Benita. Their most recent conversation was by phone, and it ended in frustration over Van’s Sunday morning schedule. He smiles in return and agrees to meet her in the casino.

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Now running purely on herb-infused, caffeine energy drinks, Van finds Skyler’s unoccupied blackjack table. It’s already a slow night thanks to a big horse race at the track and a match between the home team and a hated rival at the stadium.

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Casino slot machines have always been a much bigger draw for low stakes players than the card tables. Van sits, barely acknowledging Skyler, then sets his chips on the table. He knows absolutely nothing about gambling, past the basics he’d learned from watching visitors lose small fortunes in the casino. He hesitates for a moment and considers how the pitiful pile of chips represents his last remaining monetary assets.

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Van and Skyler say very little to each other as the small pile begins to grow. They’ve established a pattern where the house would win the smaller bets, but she would draw too many cards and bust on the larger bets. It is very early in the morning when Van reaches the agreed upon winnings.

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In what would be the last hand, Skyler’s hands begin to shake nervously. An odd sensation of being watched washes over Van a few seconds later. Then he senses the unmistakable stirring of air that precedes a sim invading his personal space. Skyler’s hand, which is still trembling, drops the card she had been holding – a Queen.

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Omar’s quivering, effeminate cadence sends a shiver down Van’s spine and  causes him to startle out of reflex. He congratulates Van on his winnings while sliding into an empty seat across the table from the young lifeguard. Using his best, practiced pleasantry, Omar instructs Skyler to deal another hand. He produces a stack of chips five times the size of Van’s pile, then places them on the table. Van takes a deep and nervous breath. His flight instinct kicks in and he hurriedly rakes the chips into his cupped hand, excusing himself to get some much-needed sleep.

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Omar snarls angrily, instructing Van to sit back down. After the demonstration of authority fails to achieve its desired motivation, Omar continues with a disturbing edge of charming cruelty. He asks whether Van would consider staying long enough to watch Skyler being removed from the premises by security for cheating, then delivered to local authorities for theft. Van stops cold amid a fearful squeal and sob from Skyler. He turns coolly toward the sneering resort manager, realizing there is no good outcome to this situation.

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The best he can do now is minimize the damage while denying Omar the satisfaction of humiliating him publically. Van digs in his pocket and roughly counts out his winnings, then deposits them on the table in front of Omar. Despite his rage, Van remains calm and concedes that even if he were fully awake, he’s no match for Omar at the card table.  At least this way, he’s saving himself the trouble of losing at cards when he could be asleep in his bed. Omar clicks his tongue and agrees with the assessment, but stops short of allowing Van the easy way out. His next words are delivered with a bitter coldness unlike anything Van had heard.

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I want all of it …every, last, chip…

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Van’s eyes narrow at Omar’s smug and indignant grin. When Van fails to comply, he adds that he not yet reviewed the security video of the conversation between Van and Skyler earlier this evening. But he’s sure the authorities would find what they needed to implicate them both for theft and gambling fraud. Van glances at Skyler who is now breathing in gulps and wearing an expression that conveys equal measures of confusion, fear, and panic.

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Stone-faced, Van reaches into his pocket and deposits the remaining chips, every simoleon of his net worth, onto the table in front of Omar.

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Flashing a wicked smile, Omar dismisses the young and embattled sims. Then he begins laughing. It’s not a maniacal or particularly despotic laugh. It’s more the punch-line-of-a-good-joke kind of laugh. Still, it is entirely unsettling given the seriousness of the situation. Then, after they’ve covered enough distance so that his voice must carry across the entire room to reach them, he half-laughing and half-shouts after them,

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You’re fired! You’re BOTH fired! You have sixty seconds to get off my resort before I call the cops!

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