Alex had a lifetime prescription for sleeping medicine, although she never had any trouble sleeping. It was a mark of her trade. Five pills chopped into alcohol could put out a man up to 200 pounds in less than five minutes. Of course, you had to worry about those five minutes, because some men knew the gambit, especially men who frequented hotels and hookers. But this guy looked okay. A big, smiling, happy guy. He had some nice jewelry, and the wad of cash seemed to be real. It was unfortunate that she spotted him in this hotel. Emily would have to check out for them and move before he came to, usually in a few hours. But that was okay since there was no reason to stick around Circus Circus and its seemingly endless floor show of kids and gamblers and trapeze artists.
"He's getting tired," Alex said to Emily, and she was right. The guy had just picked up his chips and was headed for the bar area. Emily reached over, touched Alex quickly on the hip, and then disappeared toward the elevators to pack up their room.
Emily had moved to Portland on a whim in 1988. She had seen an HBO special about runaways and had figured it was just as good there as anyplace else. She ran a runaway gambit in Sacramento where she lived. She used different names and would get herself foster home locations by posing as a runaway. Once in a place she would loot the house, sell off the merchandise, and change her hair color, style of clothes. She worked the scam with a guy who had saved her from a fight one night in a biker bar. Her parents had split up and didn't even know if she was still in town or not.
The guy posed as a counselor from San Francisco who would give the local authorities a story about Emily needing to be located somewhere outside the city because of bad influences, or something like that. It wasn't a very good scheme, but it was enough to keep the two of them at the Holiday Inn on the highway. One night the guy didn't come back from the bar until late and Emily just climbed in his Nissan Maxima and drove up the coast to Oregon all in one shot.
Once she was there she met Alex, a pretty model who Emily watched picking pockets at a classy downtown shopping mall. Emily just went up and introduced herself, and told Alex she needed a place to stay. The two of them had been together ever since, working straight sometimes, sometimes hooking if they needed it.
Alex was from Phoenix, where she had worked cons on and off since she was twenty. She had worked with a guy named Larry Lovers when she was just starting out. She had been a receptionist for him when he was scalping tickets. They had worked together for about six months, but Alex caught a bus one night to Portland and they had only kept in contact through odd phone calls or letters.
It was only about a month before that Larry had actually shown up on her doorstep in Portland. It had been a pneumonia morning with sleeting rain and cold, dark gray clouds swarming in little circles above the city. He told Alex about what had been going on in Phoenix with the few people they had in common, and then he told her about this deal he was getting in on in Las Vegas.
"Major mover from the Carolinas," he had said. "A cat named the Train is setting it up. A gang. We need a girl."
Alex had thought it was a stupid move, overall, but Larry had given her an envelope with $5000 cash in it and the suite number of this guy in Vegas who was running the show.
"Trust him?" she had said to Larry.
"As much as I trust you," he said.
Emily came into the room about this time and sat down with them. Alex got her up to speed and Emily seemed a little interested.
"Five grand? What else?" she said, and Alex and Larry had laughed.
When Emily left the room to get some coffee Larry had looked at Alex, serious. "Forget the kid.” And then he had left, presumably for Vegas, and Alex had never seen him since.
After Larry had gone, the two girls had talked about the deal. There was some sort of trouble with the lease they were in, and there was nothing in particular keeping them in Portland.
"He started as a mule, I think," Alex said. "Ran numbers and worked phone scams.” She finished her sentence and then picked up a sweater that was on the floor.
"He looks small time," Emily said.
"You're a kid. The best ones always sound small time. Travel light. They dress bad. Larry's nothing to look at. No Pat Riley. He's okay. He's better than anyone you've ever seen."
Emily sat cross-legged on the bed. With Alex, she felt like the ugly little sister. Alex was tall and blonde with porcelain skin. You could almost see through her on a sunny day, and when she wore black, you felt like you were in church.
"I think we should go, just to go. We can't stay here much longer."
"I don't care," Emily said. "I've got nothing, I see nothing.
"Exactly what I'm saying."
Alex went to the patio window and looked out at the pool area. "Vegas is great. I was there about four years ago and did a call girl scam. Work from 2-4 a.m. and then sleep and then gamble. Didn't make any money but saw some shows."
Emily picked at a scab on her knee and looked at Alex's back. "Do you love me?" she said, finally.
"You're a kid," Alex said. "And therefore, of course I do.” Alex went to the side of the bed and kissed Emily tenderly on the top of her head. "Wash this hair, pack your bag."
While Emily was in the shower, Alex started packing what they couldn't live without. Then she made reservations for Las Vegas.
After the gambler sat down at the bar Alex moved a few feet closer. She had been drinking club soda and lemon and when the waitress came over to her, she asked for another with lime. The bar was empty except for a table of tourists, the guy with the money, the bartender, Alex, and a middle-aged man watching a baseball game on TV.
When the guy ordered vodka and tomato juice, he turned and looked back out at the casino. Alex was sitting right by the opening to the main room and her eyes met his.
"Winner or loser?" Alex said.
"Winner in life, loser at love," the guy said, happily.
"The tables?" Alex asked.
The bartender brought the guy his drink and looked out at Alex. "You need one?"
"She's got it," Alex said, pointing at the short waitress who had just reappeared from some door. Alex looked hard at the guy's drink. In the tomato juice, the particulates from the sleeping pills might show up as tiny flecks of white. It wasn't something she'd had to deal with before. When she was watching him at the tables, he was drinking something clear and fizzy, something that would camouflage the pills until they completely dissolved. She felt in a small pocket in her dress for the tiny, folded up piece of paper that held the already crushed powder.
The guy turned to the man watching the baseball game. "What's the score?"
"The Dodgers, 3-1. Sixth inning."
"Good," the guy said. "Got a grand going on those boys.” He drank from his glass and then looked around for something. He stood up and tried to peer back over to the table he'd been at.
Alex was tempted to keep talking to him, but she didn't want to seem eager. The bartender, she figured, had already made her as a pro, and she didn't want to ring any more bells.
"Hey, did you see me with a phone when I came over here?" the guy said to the bartender.
"How about you?" he said, turning back to Alex.
"Didn't see anything."
Just then, a croupier with icy white hair came up the stairs to the bar with a portable cellular phone, all gray and a short, whip black antenna.
"Hey, you found it," the guy said. "You're a prince."
"It was ringing," the croupier said. Right under the table. Guy with the shoe almost threw his money in the air."
The guy laughed and took the phone. "You didn't happen to answer it did you?"
"No, sir. Didn't know how."
"No big deal. Thanks.” The guy tried to give the croupier a dollar bill, but the croupier just held both hands up, palms out.
"Uhh, no thanks."
As soon as the guy sat back down, the bartender brought him another red drink and the phone rang again.
"Yeah, I'm here, who's this?"
The guy talked loud and long to someone named Marty. He kept talking about moving units and shipping units, bullshit like that. As he talked he kept drinking the vodka and tomato, and by the time he hung up with Marty, his forehead was bright and shiny as the outside of his slippery glass.
"So, what's your line?" he said to Alex, coming over with the phone in one hand and a drink in the other.
"I sell," Alex said, smiling.
"Really?" he said. "Me, too."
He was getting very drunk, and Alex liked the idea. She waved to the bartender two fingers and he frowned a little and then nodded.
"Yeah, I'm Stan...Stan, the telephone man."
Alex laughed. "Stan Stan?"
"Just plain old Stan," the guy said. "Oh, I get it.” And then he laughed. "I'm the guy for telephones, let me tell you. I move about a hundred units a day when I'm home. Oh, I live in L.A., by the way. Venice Beach? You know. Muscle Beach?"
The bartender set down the drinks in front of Alex and Stan and Alex asked him for soda and white rum.
"Hey," Stan said suddenly. "I'm feeling a little crazy, but did you tell me your name?"
"Susan," Alex said. "And I told you already."
"Susan. That's right. Just like Susan Dey from the Partridge Family, right? God, I loved that show."
Emily and Alex had only been in Vegas for about an hour when they found Larry at Circus Circus. Across a few tables from the registration desk, they saw him leaning over and hollering at a waitress who was passing him by. They came up from behind him. He was playing blackjack and hit a queen and a five with a perfect six of clubs.
"Shower me with good fortune, Ray," Larry said to the dealer. The dealer shot two $100 chips at Larry and dealt cards to Larry, a Chinese man and a red-faced woman wearing a strawberry muumuu.
When he looked up Alex and Emily were standing right next to him.
"What's up?" she said.
"I'm hoping that Ray here will throw one of those sweet red queens he's got there.” Ray held up his hole card to Alex. He had a six down and a five showing. Ray dropped a jack of hearts on top.
"You're like the cat from Monte Carlo," Alex said.
"Hey," Emily said. "Am I the dumbwaiter?"
"You're Emily," Alex said. "You remember Larry."
Larry looked at Emily a beat and collected the stack of chips he had in front of him.
"Listen, Ray, you got to work on that wrist flip, buddy. You're letting me see that hole card.” Larry winked at the dealer, too, and got up. The woman in the muumuu twirled a straw around in her drink.
"We just checked in," Alex said. "You staying here?"
"Right-O. The man said stay at Circus Circus and here I am."
"What floor are you?"
"Seventeenth," Larry said. "Wouldn't you know it? My lucky number.” Larry smiled big, and then went back to the blackjack table for his drink.
Larry looked pretty drunk, and more than a little disheveled. It didn't matter much with him, though. With him, it was mostly you got what was coming to you anyway.
Emily tugged on Alex's blouse and gave her an evil eye.
"Where can we talk?" Alex said. "Em here wants to get on with the show."
"Follow me," Larry said. "I've got a table over there in the bar. We'll do some sandwiches and maybe a piece of huckleberry pie for the kid."
"I'm no kid," Emily said. "I'm 21."
The waitress who served them brought ham sandwiches for Emily and Alex and an open-faced rueben for Larry. The three of them sat around a round table crowded against a wall in Circus Circus' busiest bar. Larry had started talking but once the food came, the acrobats had started up above and Larry ate and watched them with great interest.
Emily got up once and went to the ladies room and while she was gone, Alex had filled Larry in on her story.
"Runaway, you know the deal. Found me in Portland and we've been working since. She's okay, not very smart, but pretty. She'll walk across glass for the right word."
"You know the word?" Larry asked.
"I know them all."
"Yeah, well," Larry started, and then his complexion turned almost red black. "What is she doing here?” Mean.
"She's mine," Alex said, sweetly. "From what you tell me you're not footing this bill, so don't you worry about it."
"The man is not going to use her, and you know how people get in the way."
"I wouldn't worry about it, if I were you."
"Wouldn't you? Well, you're not the one who's got a lot at stake here.” Larry leaned over to her and started whispering, fast, low. "I'm in this deal for life, if you get my drift. I owe this man a good sum of money, and I may have always been a little too careless in the old days, but there is absolutely no margin of error on this one, got it? I don't care what you do with her; I don't care what or who she is. But, listen to me, don't let her screw things up or I'm in way over my head. I thought I could trust you, Alex."
"Stop it, Larry. It's me and her. I don't know about you, but I'm stung. I don't know about you, but I can't do it alone anymore. I've been alone since Phoenix, since before Phoenix. I know she's not much, but God knows sometimes I don't need much.”
Emily started coming back through the dining room tables and Alex saw her.
"You're breaking my heart," Larry said, sarcastic.
"Don't break mine, then," Alex said.
Emily came back and sat down. "I'd like to be filled in, if that's okay. Alex tells me you're a Mister Whiz-Banger from Phoenix."
"That I am, but you don't need to know anything right now. We've got a couple of days until everyone's together. I've only talked to the man a couple of times myself. He'll let us know when it's time. For now, spend your stake. There's more coming."
"I worked here a few years ago," Alex said. "Did you know that?"
"Doing what?" Larry said.
"Hooking mostly. Mickey Finn stuff. Didn't get caught, and when I left I had a red Cabriolet and a watch."
"When did you have a red Cabriolet?" Emily said.
"Well I sold it before I met you. You sell everything eventually."
Larry had tuned out completely, and was looking back to the acrobats and forking the last of the sandwich into his mouth. When he was done, Larry picked up his plate and set it on an empty table beside them. Alex and Emily started talking about something to do with leaving Portland and Larry just watched them for a while.
"What's the gig?" Alex tried one more time.
"I don't know," Larry said. "Just stay out of sight today and tomorrow. I'll contact you when it's go time. Don't call me. I'm in 1713. If you see me around the tables, leave me alone. We might be doing some work here and I don't want all of us on tape anywhere."
Alex and Emily got up to leave and Larry leaned into Alex's ear. "Get rid of her," he said.
© Emily and Alex went to their room, and while Emily unpacked and took a nap, Alex found her way to the indoor pool. She sat on a patio chair and watched the lone male swimmer do laps. She thought a lot about what Larry had said, thought about this deal, and she thought about Emily. She was a kid, that was for sure, but she had become part of Alex, like her conscience or heart. Alex was thirty-six now and she felt as if she were in all of this for the last time. The figure wasn't as easy to keep as it once was. She worked out when she had a place to do it, but it wasn't fun and it wasn't easy. Playing the beauty con was easy at twenty, but it took a lot of work and makeup at thirty-six.
Just as she was getting ready to leave the pool Emily came in, giant white bath towel wrapped around her boyish figure and her blue one-piece.
"Just who I was looking for," Alex said.
"Sure," Emily said.
Emily pulled a pack of cigarettes out from under the towel somewhere and lit one with a Circus Circus match.
"You're a beautiful girl," Alex said, reaching over and touching Emily's free hand.
"You're a good liar," Emily said.
Emily put the cigarette out after two more puffs and then she got up, leaving her towel on the white, plastic chair.
"Going in?" Alex said.
"Yeah, for a while."
The guy in the pool got out and wiped himself dry with a small blue shammy. He was good looking, about twenty years old. He looked over at Alex the whole time he dried himself. Emily laughed a little as he left.
"I'm going to go change," Alex said. "I'll be right back."
Just as Alex was going to leave, Emily reached out and touched her on the arm, spun her slightly toward her and kissed her, softly, her small tongue darting once inside Alex's mouth.
"Don't leave me," Emily said. And with that, she turned quickly and dove into the blue water.
Alex waited until Emily had come up for air, and then she went to the room to change into her suit.
As the gambler fumbled on about Susan Dey, Alex spotted Emily out of the corner of her eye. She motioned to the suitcases at her feet and then walked over toward the front desk. This was going to be a little easier than she thought. Stan Stan the telephone man was nearly falling down drunk now, and with the pills in a glass of rum, she'd be home free. The only problem might be getting him upstairs.
"Listen, I hate to be forward, but would you have dinner with Stan Stan the telephone man?” Stan leaned forward and offered his palm up to Alex. "Say you will, Susie. One time for the Partridge Family, hey?"
"Sure, Stan. But is it okay if I stop by my room first?"
"Sure, go on up, I'll be right here.” And with that, Stan slammed his hand on the table, spilling the last of his vodka and tomato. "Shit."
"Oh, look, Stan. You got some on your pants. You better let me wash that out with a little club soda. I've got some up in my room."
"Hey. Hey. Are you trying to hit on old Stan, here?" Stan muttered.
"Not me, Stan. I'm a nice girl. I'm like your mother. I'm going to take care of you."
With that, she knocked his phone off the table and onto the floor. While he bent over to get it, she slipped the packet of powder out of her pocket, unfolded neatly with one hand, and deposited it into the rum. When he got up again, phone in hand, she handed him the glass.
"One more for the road, Stan."
"You've got it," he said, and drained it.
Alex got him up and started walking toward the elevators, when a loud voice came from behind her.
"Hey, wait up there, lady."
It was the bartender, and for a moment, Alex was frozen. She looked for Emily and she was back, near the entrance to the bar, waiting to see what was going to happen next.
"Who's paying the bill here, Susie?"
"Oh, sorry," Stan said. "Bill it to the telephone man. Room 1124."
The bartender frowned some more, and then turned around and went back to the bar, muttering.
Alex waved Emily to follow right away. With Stan as out of it as he already was there was no need to follow later. The three of them got in the elevator and headed up to the girls' room. It wasn't as good as going to Stan's room, but as they were in the elevator, Alex couldn't seem to find Stan's key in any of his outer pockets.
When they emerged in the hallway of their floor, Stan was barely able to stand. A little spittle came out of his mouth as Emily opened the door and pushed it open. Stan collapsed in a hump on the unmade bed.
"Get the wad out of his pants," Alex said. "I'll get the jewelry."
"Help me," Stan said once, lightly, and when Alex looked into his face it was bright red, his eyes half-closed. He didn't seem to be breathing. In fact, his skin had gone cold and clammy, and he began to choke violently.
They turned him over onto his stomach and Alex whacked on his back, but nothing seemed to change the choking or the wheezing. Emily stood there, transfixed, the roll of hundreds and fifties in her hands, the jewelry that Alex had taken off him laying carelessly beside Stan on the bed.
When the breathing stopped, it was almost calming. The seizure, or whatever it was that he had had been terrifying. Alex wanted to turn him over, somehow hoping that he was okay, now, that he was quiet. But when she touched his skin with the back of her hand, she knew it wasn't true.
Suddenly, Emily bolted toward the door and disappeared into the hallway. Alex started after her, stopping to grab the jewelry first.
Alex grabbed her hard by the elevator. "How did we get in the room?"
"How did we get in the room?"
"I palmed a key when I checked out...My God...Alex...he's dead. We killed him."
"We didn't kill him. Where's the key?"
Emily was crying now, and when the elevator opened, Alex pulled her away from it, down the hallway in case anyone was on it.
"Give me the key, right now."
Emily went through her pockets and gave Alex the key and Stan's money. Alex went back into the room, checked everywhere for anything else that might have been left behind and then put the room key deep inside Stan's front, pants pocket.
When she got back to the elevator, Emily was scrunched way down in the hallway, crying. Just then, Stan's phone began to ring, and Alex led Emily toward the stairway exit.
Alex knew that they were making a mistake leaving Stan there, but at the moment, there was nothing else she could do. If Emily had remained calm, they might have been able to salvage something. But her screaming and crying would eventually bring other guests to their doors, and then even more people could place Alex and her at the scene. Alex thought about the bartender, and about how good his memory might be. She was the last person anyone saw with Stan, and surely, she would be remembered. But those thoughts all came to her jumbled as she led Emily down the hallway.
What she didn't see at first, waiting, hidden by shadows, was Larry. He opened the stairway door, grabbed Alex hard by her arm, and led them both down the narrow, gray stairwell, dropping down three or four steps at a time, dragging Emily out of control to the first floor exit.
When Larry and Emily swung the metal door open onto the hard black-gray asphalt parking lot, Alex ran behind them, straight for Larry's rent-a-car. She felt a sharp twinge of the night air hit her lungs, and she felt her heart pound against the inside of her chest. As Larry drove out of the parking lot, Alex looked at Emily, and saw her vacant eyes, unfocused, staring back at the hotel, up toward the room.
"Don't slow down," Alex said to Larry. "Keep moving.”