Larry had two things left by the time he reached
, a big blonde named Mathilda Derox and six cartons of Lucky Strikes. The cigarettes were a gift from a guy in Nevada , the blonde was just something that came to a man when he stood out there near Flagstaff Four Corners long enough.
It wasn't as if there wasn't a plan. Larry knew that in the
there was a signal emanating from the dunes of hopeless sand. Or maybe it was a signal coming from one of those great hopeless casinos along the Strip. desert of Nevada
Either way, Larry was twenty-eight years old, and all he had learned about the world was that the difference between winning and losing was vast. He had been a loser, he figured. No father most of his life. His mother had never understood him. He was a loner in school, and in college he found out that the big questions he had could not be answered there. His experiences in the real world were disappointing. He never wanted to wash cars, nor did he want to own a chicken franchise. He had dreamed instead, about a glorious world of gamblers and con artists and drifters. He had read about them all in the thin paperback novels that told of life on the run. It was going to be his life, he had decided. It started here, in the state of
, a place where winning and losing was easy to figure. The man with the most chips got the prize. Larry wanted to do whatever it took to be that man. To be a winner seemed like reason enough to do anything. Nevada
Mathilda was someone that Larry didn't want to leave behind, but she wouldn't fit in out there under the burnished light of the giant Sands Casino sign. Or perhaps--Larry secretly worried--she would fit in too well. Regardless, at the rest area overlooking the great Hoover Dam, while Mathilda was in the ladies room changing out of Thursday's clothes, Larry got into his big red Buick and got back on Highway 93 into Vegas. Mathilda was tough. He would see her again. Perhaps she would find him, hunt him down. Anyway, Larry felt that they would be together again, like great constellations in the sky, they would never fall too far out of favor. Why Larry thought this he did not know.
In Vegas there are three rules. Don't wear a watch. Don't wear silk shirts. And don't look straight at the pit boss. Besides that you've got just about free reign. The drinks that come are free, but they're watered down. Everywhere in life is there this balance. The casinos are interchangeable. It doesn't matter if you're in Bally's or the Dunes or the Sands or Caesar's. They are identical, right down to the carpeting, the hostesses and the dealers. Everyone here is named Darla or Eddie or Joe. Pit bosses carry walkie talkies. Dealers have huge white shirts and name tags. Waitresses wear short skirts, carry keno cards in a pocket, and bring you the watered down drinks. It's comforting. The sameness.
Larry knew about all of this. He knew the legend of Nick and Jimmy, the Greeks. He knew about Monte 'The Hat' Walsh, and he knew about the "hold 'em" poker games that a guy could get into if he knew someone or if he found someone who knew someone. But, Larry would have to wait for all of that. He would not be starting any of it until some other business was taken care of. There would be calls coming in and he had to take care of them. He would have to keep going over the plans. And then there were people here in Vegas he had to hire. He knew a little bit about it. Stooges, runners. He knew enough, he figured. Besides, it wasn't his show anyway.
He had come into Vegas on the Boulder Highway and had then gone west on Flamingo. It was daylight, but he could imagine the place at night. He had seen the photos of the endless rows of lights. He took a right on Las Vegas Boulevard South, the Strip, and cruised until he found the gaudy pink and white of the Circus Circus. A room had been reserved there at least a month before, but Larry would have stayed there anyway. It was a place that always advertised in the Phoenix papers for gambler junkets. It was everything he had expected, loud, garish, and full of money and people. Standing in the lobby, on a middle level, he looked around the place. Below him he saw the gamblers, savagely losing their money at the roulette table. Above him were the kids playing video games, getting their handwriting analyzed by computers. And in the middle of it all some 14 year old girls from Yugoslavia were walking the tightrope high above everyone.
"Just watch them," a voice said over the loudspeakers. "Every one of the little dears without a trace of fear."
Larry waved high up at the girls on the wire. They did the bicycle routine, and then Larry went to his room.
The first phone call Larry took was short. He heard the man say the three words and then hang up. He made a mark next to a name in the blue notebook and then circled the name, too. Larry had worked in
for about eight years, right after falling out of college. He spent two years at the Phoenix in University of Arizona taking business courses. And then he sold his roommate's car on a drunken binge and quit school. He had done fifty different jobs in Tucson , each one either moving toward or away from legitimacy. Altogether, they mostly didn't add up to one year of good money or good work. The worst had been the phone gig. He started at an answering service, did some time on a 900 line, and then finally got into sales. He sold non-existent shares in diamond mines. In fact, when the big police sting hit, he was just leaving the parking lot. Phoenix
"Fuck 'em," Larry thought. "They owe me a week's wages." He sat in his car and waited till the cops had taken everyone away in a paddy wagon, and then he went to the back door, busted in and took two photocopiers and twenty-seven phones. Got a fin for each phone from Big Star Pawn, and got $200 for the copiers. "It's a sweet life," Larry had said to the pawnie.
But Phoenix had been okay otherwise. The asphalt gig was good for about two years. He did estimates and bids for a paving company. Promised the families in the suburbs a brand new driveway. Took half the money up front. Drove by on check signing day with a phony truck.
"Looks like rain clouds. We'll come back in the morning."
"Looks like rain clouds. We'll come back in the morning."
Took the truck back to the place where he had rented it for 18 bucks and went and cashed the $200 check. It was nice. It really was. Comforting.
But nothing had properly prepared him for meeting the King of Kansas. The King had been a famous grifter in the forties and fifties, a good looking guy who now lived in a mobile home and was still wanted in fourteen states. Larry had met him at an RV park during a cemetery gig. He had tried to sell some guy on a bogus family plot deal, showing photographs of a 'major new acreage' opening in Paradise Valley. The King had wandered over and had listened in. After it was all over, and the first guy had turned Larry down, The King told Larry to come over to the trailer and he'd think the deal over some.
Larry did the thing again, and the King listened intently to the spiel, looked over the phony letterhead and then laughed when it was all over.
He told Larry he was on to him and he poured them each about three fingers of whiskey. They started talking in lawn chairs under a bright striped awning, and then the lessons had begun. The King didn't tell Larry much, just that he had worked the long con for a lot of years, and now he had quit the grift altogether. He had made so much money and had broken so many people that it was a very dangerous life. He had gone underground, to Mexico for a while, and had had plastic surgery. He took a new name and had a new life.
"Running is okay when you're young," he had said to Larry. "You get this fire inside you when you're twenty-five. And that fire tells you that you're going to change the world. Make your mark, am I right? Isn't that what this is all about? You think you thought it up by yourself? Every deal is the answer? Every time you beat some fish for ten bucks makes you believe you'll never get caught? The guy you were talking to over there? He's not going to bite. You see his tan? He's not dying. You got to find the guy with the hacking cough. You've got to find the mark who is ripe. Just waiting to get bit. You're young, you don't know it yet, but this is the only time you're invincible. You wait until the first time some guy puts a lead pipe into your knee. Or the first time your partner beats it out of town with your Buick and about $10,000. But that's okay, that's how you learn. Shit, that's how I learned."
Larry took it all in and the King kept talking. By about nine it had gotten dark and the guy told Larry he could come back the next day if he wanted to talk some more. Larry did.
Larry told the King everything he had been doing, and the King had pointed out the shortfalls in all the deals. "You think small," he had said. "Those folks with the driveways? They don't have roofs? Fences needing fixing? New garage?"
They spent most afternoons sitting at the small dinette table in the mobile home, talking, drinking whiskey from Mexico. The King could put it back an entire 8 ounce glass at a time, his voice never slurring, his eyes always remaining sharp. As the days passed, Larry started sleeping over in the big reclining captain's chair up front. The King would stand up at the end of the night and sometimes as Larry drifted off to sleep the man's voice would still be going. "I remember one time in Jacksonville. Me and this guy called 'Ain't Me.' We ran across the Gulf that same summer to
sixty-four times. You don't do that everyday." Cuba
One night, after Larry had fallen asleep in the chair, he woke up to the sound of scratching. He had gotten up, turned on an outside light, and there was a dog, a giant mixed breed of some kind, digging in the soft ground next to the mobile home. Larry watched for a while until the dog caught hold of something under the dirt. Just as the dog pulled about a ten gallon clear plastic bag out of the ground, he yelped, dropped it and ran. As the dog took off, a spray of rocks scattered behind him. Larry looked further out the window and there was the King, a handful of gravel in one hand.
"Goddamn dogs," he had said, dropping the rest of the rocks to the ground. He was dressed in cowboy boots, white boxers, and a white undershirt.
The King reached and picked up the unearthed bag. When he held it up to the window, Larry could see the pile of thousand dollar bills.
Larry came to his life naturally. Larry's dad, Leo, had been a floating casino operator when Larry was growing up. But when Larry was six years old Leo got eight to ten years in a North Dakota prison. Larry had heard from him from time to time while Leo was in the pen, but it was always just a phone call or a note on his birthday. When Leo got out, Larry was already fourteen. Leo came around a few times for overnight visits, but Larry's mother didn't like having him around much. The two never really had much to say to each other. Larry could remember the two of them sitting out on the curb in front of his mother's house, Leo smoking unfiltered Camels.
The last time they had seen each other was right after Larry's mother had died. Leo and Larry had a terrible fight and the two of them had not talked or seen each other since.
And it was almost a year later when Larry met the King. Larry kept trying ideas out on him, trying to come up with a scam that could really make some serious money. One time, as Larry was going through some ideas he had about selling real estate to two fish, the King had reached over and picked up the phone and dialed a number. He had motioned for Larry to keep talking, and then once he had held up his finger to his lips while he said something over the phone.
In 48 hours, six guys from
had come out and Larry and the King sat at a table in the Biltmore restaurant and outlined the deal. The King came up with a $30,000 stake to work with and the eight of them made $250,000 in two afternoons. After, the six guys left for L.A. again with their shares, and the King suddenly was back in the business. Los Angeles
Shortly afterwards, Larry moved into the trailer. They worked very little, each time on a rough plan Larry had worked up. The King always had the say, though, making wholesale changes, setting it up with the right number of people, picking up the phone and getting whatever they needed, a limousine, two office fronts in Tucson, a barber shop right in downtown Phoenix, one time the penthouse of a famous apartment building in Denver. Each time Larry was right there, the King's assistant, more or less. Each time the King never took a cut for himself, and each time Larry learned a little more.
Larry started pushing harder, trying out new schemes. The King could always see the problem, but sooner or later he could cook up a solution. They began talking about moving out of Phoenix, going somewhere with big money and big fish. Larry was the first to suggest Vegas.
Larry didn't see much of him after that. The King would come out and get some coffee or something in the morning but then would go back to his room. Gradually, he started to confide a little in Larry. It was a new plan. He had said that he'd thought about it for awhile, and he was ready now to get all the way in again.
Larry could remember the King saying that. "All the way in," with that grin on his face.
The King was working up to ten or twelve hours a day, making phone calls, making visits to the library, looking at phone books, maps. One night after the King had fallen asleep Larry had seen the thick blue notebook, pages filled with black and blue ink. On the cover, written in felt marker was "Las Vegas."
On a Saturday morning the King had walked to the mailbox with 3 heavy brown envelopes. Larry had helped him stack $5000 in each in fifties and hundreds. The King had clapped him on the shoulder as they walked back. "We're moving to Vegas," he had said.
Two days later, Larry had been making breakfast in the trailer. He called out once, but the King didn't answer. After a couple more minutes, Larry went back and opened the door to his room. The smell of death was all through the place.
Larry got into his tub in the room at the Circus Circus. He arranged the furniture in the room so he had a straight shoot right out to the window. He could see the blue sky while he sat there in the tub. He sang a little song. He smoked a Lucky Strike and just laughed like you do when things are starting to get away from you. He would wait here for Lucky Jack Milford, Tony the "Big Cat" Dula, and Lewis "The Painter" Morgan.
Larry remembered the names from the big brown envelopes that he and the King had filled with money. Larry had guessed that these guys would be in on the plan, but he didn't know how. In fact, Larry didn't even know his end.
But after the King was dead, Larry saw it all in the notebook. The plan was made. It wasn't half-cooked. It wasn't just a setup. It was the whole damn thing. Right from the first moment the King had made notes about everything. The players, the setup, the shop, the scam, and the scatter. About two hundred pages of fine close handwriting. Codes, addresses, names, dollar amounts. Larry couldn't decipher a tenth of it, but he was bright enough to know that the timing of the thing couldn't be delayed an instant. Lucky Jack's and the Big Cat's arrivals were already set up. Lewis was scheduled a few days later. It was too late to change anything. Any further contact would be a signal to the other to call the whole thing off. Larry had to either abandon it, or do it himself. In the King's notebook it appeared that Larry's role was in Los Angeles, setting up the scatter. He wasn't sure about that of course, since so much of it was in code, but that's how it seemed to be. Larry had decided, however, to take over the King's role. Who better, he had thought.
He had bought the King the biggest headstone they made. He had put the King's new phony name on it, and had been the only one at the funeral. In the week before he left for Vegas, he had found nearly $400,000 in cash in the King's trailer. The money was in the panelling of the bedroom, and buried in bags all around the damn place. God knows how much Larry didn't find, but what he did was plenty.
Next to the tub at the Circus Circus was a gold phone. When the water in the tub got cool, Larry just emptied it out and started the hot water again. "Round and round she goes. Where she stops, nobody knows," Larry said to himself in the tub.
When the water got cool again he got out, dried off and sat on the edge of the bed flipping through the channels on the television. An ad for a steak place came on and Larry memorized the number.
"Do you deliver?" Larry had said on the phone. "Do you deliver to the Circus Circus?"
Leo was Larry's dad. Leo had run craps and poker games all through
and the Minnesota Dakotas from the time when Larry was first born. Leo was the guy everyone worked for, but no one knew. When Larry was six years old Leo got picked up by Feds at , running a game out of a semi. Leo had hired nine people to run the game, and while the workers skimmed the fish, Leo skimmed money from the workers. Fifteen federal agents in from as far away as Pennsylvania took Leo away in a gray school bus. Minot
Larry's mom and him moved to
to be near two of her sisters. Leo served eight of the ten year sentence and when he was paroled Larry was 14 years old. He tried to go back to them, but there was a stone wall up for that. Arizona
So during the last fifteen years he kept in touch when he could, when his schedule permitted it. He worked all over the country, doing anything he could manage, sometimes running cons as a Guide or leader, sometimes working for established shops. Either way the money was okay, and pretty easy to get. It kept Leo out of trouble, as he liked to say.
The last time he had seen Larry was a couple of years before. The kid was twenty-five, then, a man. The mother had died the previous year and it was the first Leo had heard about it. One of Larry's aunts told him all about it, how Larry had been in college but then had left. The aunt said she was worried about him, that she was afraid he was into some kind of trouble.
Leo had found him in a cheap apartment with four phones, working a travel agent scam. They had talked for a couple of minutes, but the damn phones kept ringing. Larry would take a call, take someone's credit card number for a reservation, give the fish some sort of phony airline number and gate information and then he'd answer another phone.
When Leo suggested that he take the phones off the hook for a while, Larry blew up at him. "Get out of here. When the hell were you ever interested in talking to me?" Leo had left then, and had promised not to return. He had told the son-of-a-bitch kid that he would never see him again. Larry had said good riddance or something like it.
Six months later Leo had gotten a call from an old acquaintance, the King of Kansas, a famous grifter who had crossed his path a few times over the years. The last Leo had heard, the King was in
or Mexico Puerto Rico, but he called and said he was in and had met a kid he was pretty sure was Leo's son. The King had recognized enough of Larry's sketchy details to scope it out. There weren't many floating casino operators in the north in 1958, and it wasn't much trouble finding Leo. Phoenix
Leo had asked the King to watch out for the kid, but Leo knew it was of little use. Once a kid gets a taste for it, its hard to convince them to stop. Either way, Leo felt a little bit better at least knowing exactly where the kid was.
It bothered him, there was no denying that. Leo could remember the visits he made to
after he had gotten out of prison. He always seemed to be passing through on the run. He could remember changing the license plates on his Caddy when Larry had come out after dinner. Leo had tried to explain why he was changing Phoenix plates to New York ones. They had sat there in the quickly cooling desert nights, and Leo always seemed to be running out of things to say. Florida
Larry had asked him one time why he stole people's money. Leo didn't have an answer for that one then, and he had tried to think of a way to answer it for the kid ever since.
It was a few months later when the King called again. He had a plan that he thought Leo might want to work. It was a big role, it involved some gambling gaffs, and he'd be working with a pro.
"There's a bonus," the King had said.
"What's that," Leo said.
"You'll get to see your kid again."
But Leo didn't like that one. He wanted more than anything else to tell the King no. He wanted to tell the King to ditch Larry and forget his role, too. If he could, he wanted to get Larry right out of it. But Leo had found out a long time ago that what you want and what you get are almost always different things.
He hadn't done a big con in twenty-five years. He didn't know if he'd ever see his son again. He told the King he was in.
With no help at all from Leo, Larry's mother had put him through the two years of college. But when he dropped out in the middle of a fall semester, he didn't even think of calling her. He went on a six week bender around the Southwest and when he got home his mother was already dead. Larry's aunt had done everything for the funeral arrangements, and when Larry went to her house to get all the news the uncle had looked at him with such hate. "Like your father," the uncle had said. Larry had never really gotten over that. Larry sold the house, sold her stuff in a garage sale and that was that.
Larry had drifted for a while, moving from apartment to apartment, actually getting a real job for about a month at a supermarket. But then he had met the King, and everything changed. During the time that the King was working on the Vegas plan, he would tell Larry bits of it over dinner. At night the King would go back down the small hallway to his room and close the door, leaving Larry to spin through the TV channels and listen to the still
Larry thought a lot about his mother, about how much she hated Leo and the life he had led. When Larry was ten and eleven, sometimes he'd talk about going to see his dad sometime, or maybe spending a summer with him after he got out of jail. His mother would look at him with these empty eyes. "He brought you in this world," she would say. "But you don't have to be like him." He knew that meeting the King of Kansas, or grifting, or going to Vegas were just other things his mother wouldn't want.
What he wanted--more than anything else in life--was to have a gang. And Larry told the King about it.
"You can have it," he had said to Larry.
Larry had gotten the call from the Big Cat first. Then Lucky Jack had called.
The fact that the King was dead hadn't attracted any notice yet. There were so many rumors over the year about his whereabouts that even if the others had heard something, they likely would have gathered in Vegas anyway.
Larry hadn't really thought much about meeting with the rest of the players, or what they would think when they found out the King was out of it. After all, who was Larry? They didn't know him from spit. Why would they pitch in with him?
But since Larry had gotten to Vegas he hadn't addressed it. In the time he had remaining, it was going to be all he could do to decipher the plan. It was all there in the King's notebook, and now Larry had started sketching out the parts he understood on legal pads in front of him. A con. A sting. The fact that Lucky Jack and the Big Cat had each called proved to Larry that he was doing the right thing and that the plan was going forward no matter what.
He had thought about nothing else during his trip to Vegas. He had even talked about it some with Mathilda Derox, the woman he had ditched at the rest area over the mighty Columbia River. She seemed to like him a lot, and Larry trusted her. She knew stuff about Vegas that made it easier for Larry to figure things out. He wanted to know where the rich people lived, where the slums were, where the loan sharks hung out. Mathilda knew some of it, but some of it Larry guessed she had made up.
He ditched Mathilda when he had gotten tired of her and when he needed time to think by himself. Larry was determined to get them talking about him like they talked about the King, and the way that they had talked about Leo. He knew it was nothing yet, and he knew he didn't have the answers, but it was coming together anyway. The gang was assembling.
What he knew about the others had come from the King's book. He had names and bits of information. Most of it he didn't understand. But Lucky Jack was the oldest of all of them. The book said he was Gambler #1. The book also said that he had lived in Nevada his whole life. He had been married a number of times, and had about a dozen children. In the King's perfect hand, it said, "Lucky Jack's got a teenage daughter? Possible freeze?"
The Big Cat was younger than Lucky Jack, and he was a big man. Next to his name in the book were two things, the word "muscle" and the name of a famous grifter, Louie Marko. The King had mentioned Marko, but only in passing. As for the Big Cat, the book said he was a car guy.
The room service at the Circus Circus was 24 hour, and Larry sat in a chair, wrapped in a huge white robe and looked out at Vegas. He hadn't heard from the guy named Lewis Morgan yet, but the others were scheduled to arrive in the next two days.
As he waited for the food, he looked over the pads one more time. What did all that mean? He closed the King's book and got a fresh page. He wrote the word 'Vegas,' and drew a circle around it.
A knock on the door came and Larry went to it.
"Mr. Lovers," the waiter said. "We've got your steak."
"Over there," Larry said. "Right over there."
The room service guy was Cuban. Larry moved the legal pads off the small round table. After the waiter left Larry could still smell the heavy cologne that hung in the room. "I'm the man," he said. "The man."
After Larry ate he got dressed and went downstairs to the casino. He sat on the bar stool and watched out the window while a valet twirled a ring of car keys around a silver baton.
The keno girl was within shouting distance and Larry held his card up in the air for her to see it. Six, eleven, sixty-one, and seventy. He had played the same four numbers now for an hour, five dollars each time.
"Five dollars," the keno girl said to him, taking the card and five dollar bill Larry had clipped to the card with a paper clip.
Larry hit the six and the eleven and the seventy and won two hundred and fifty dollars. The keno girl gave it to him in fifties. Larry handed her a ten dollar bill and smiled up at her. She was wearing a wig of some kind on top of her own hair, and Larry saw that the colors matched perfectly. She had on a white toga-like dress that was cinched at the waist with a gold belt, covered with bangles.
"Thank you," she said, twisting the ten around her finger and then inserting it into a small, hidden pocket in the hem of her dress. "Another?"
Larry handed her another card, this time with a fifty attached. "Fill in your phone number," Larry said, and laughed. Then he took it back, marked six, eleven, sixty-one, and seventy, and gave the card to her.
"You want a drink?" the bartender said to Larry.
"Ice water only," Larry said.
"Two bucks anyway," the bartender said, already filling a glass with ice.
Larry put down a fifty on the slick surface between them. "Keep bringing it," he said.
"Hey," the bartender said. "Didn't I see you on 'Lifestyles of the Dumb and Famous'?"
Larry laughed hard, but the bartender turned away, laughing at something else. Vegas was the only city in the world where this could all come together, Larry decided. He would never have to go back to the small time con. Never pick up another telephone, or mark a small fish.
The giant keno board began to light up. Twelve, forty-five, sixteen, seventy-four. Larry held his hand up to the keno girl he had given the tip to. "Winner," he said. "I got another winner."
"Where are you from?"
"Newark, originally, but now I live out at Lake Mead."
"How old are you?"
"Thirty-one, but I can play younger."
"Why did you answer the ad?"
"I need a job."
"Do you need a job bad enough to commit, how should I say, questionable acts?"
"Why else would I be here?"
The ad had been placed by a wire the King had sent weeks ago. It contained common code words that most con men would know. The jobs usually sounded legitimate, but the tip off was usually something like "Pension Plan," or in this case, "Retirement Benefits."
Larry marked a few things down on one of his legal pads and then looked up at the man sitting across from him. Larry was just following the King's schedule. He had picked up a sheaf of responses to the King's ad from the Las Vegas Review/Journal's offices. According to the King's book they needed townies for decoys and runners, spooks, relay people.
Most gambling cons require at least three people at a table. For a simple black jack scam, the player picks up signals from another player, the relay, who gets information about the dealer's hole card from a spook, a guy usually set up at a completely different table. With all the hypersensitive pit bosses and floormen, and the sophisticated video equipment, this old scam was still golden with three good men and an average dealer.
This guy he was interviewing now said his name was Ed, but that it wasn't his real name. He was the tenth guy Larry had interviewed this afternoon.
"What kind of record do you have?"
"Leave your phone number on that pad there beside you and I'll get back to you tomorrow."
"Listen, I can really do the job."
"Okay, Ed, I'll keep you in mind."
As Larry watched him leave he thought about ordering some room service. But as he reached for the phone it rang.
"Hello," Larry said.
"I know what you're doing," a voice said.
"What? What are you talking about?" Larry said just before he heard the click and then the dial tone.
It was four-thirty in the afternoon and the afternoon sun still beat down ferociously on Vegas. In Larry's room it was cool, about 65 degrees, just like he liked it. The phone receiver in his hand felt like a hot iron, but for some reason he couldn't set it down. He heard the tone, but above it he could hear what the voice had said. He thought about the voice and tried to decide if he had ever heard it before. A knock came at the door and Larry put the phone down. The person knocked again but Larry just sat there quietly.
Once, after the person at the door had gone away, Larry picked up his list of interviews and stared at it for a while. Maybe one of them had called. Maybe someone had a bad interview and didn't like Larry's manner.
He wasn't sure what to do. He wanted to know what the King would do, but he didn't have any idea. He took the notebook, and his pads and put them in a small satchel. He cracked the door of his room and looked up and down the hallway and then put the 'Do Not Disturb' on the knob. On the ride down the elevator he looked everyone who got on with him in the face. He waited for someone to flinch, or blink, but no one did. He headed out the back to where his car was parked, but then he thought better of it. Instead he went back through the casino and out the giant painted doors. When he got out front, he got in a taxi and told the driver to head west. As they pulled out of the driveway, the lights on the Circus Circus sign lit up, all pink and white and neon. The Big Top.
The cabbie wasn't sure about driving out of the city, but when Larry flipped a fifty dollar bill over the front seat the driver pointed the car up the Strip, past the Sahara hotel, onto Bonanza Avenue, and then north and west, toward Reno and the slowly setting sun.
Larry sat in the back mostly and watched the city give way to the desert, a curious sight. The hotels giving way to houses, and then the houses giving in to the cactuses and the sand.
"How far, mister?" the cabbie said.
"Just keep going. When the fifty's gone, let me know."
"Well, I suppose I can do that, mister, but I like to know where I'm headed."
Larry looked at the driver. He was old and black. He had short whitish hair and thick glasses. Larry looked at the passenger side visor for the guy's name.
"No license, if that's what you're looking for," the cabbie said.
"Why not?" Larry said.
"Too old. Lost my license. Turned 70 a week ago. Haven't had a license in five years. Couldn't pass the damn vision test." With that the cabbie turned around halfway and held his right hand back toward Larry. "My name's Candy," he said.
The men shook hands.
"I love the desert, mister. I love the smell of it and I love the look of it. This whole place was one big dune all those years ago."
"Not anymore," Larry said.
"Yes, well that's a shame. I don't know if this town will ever go back to the way it was when I came here. I was old already, of course. But I wasn't running or anything. I was one of the first custodians hired at Caesar's Palace. You know that place?"
"Knew the guy who built it. Nice fellow. Hired all the custodial and all the maid service himself. I signed a contract on the hood of his truck. He was a big guy, owned the contracting company, and put up most of the money himself for the place."
The sun had continued its downward turn and Larry began to get restless with the old cabbie's story. Ever since they had left the city limits Larry had kept looking back at the traffic thin out behind them. He was looking to see if anyone was following them.
"Anyway, that was a long time ago. Got fired one day about ten years ago, and started driving a cab."
"How do you get around not having a license?"
"No one asks much. A young guy I know is a dispatcher. Every once in a while he puts my name through on a log sheet and my car number shows up as a good one. Cops check the car number and they find it somewhere. God willing, I'll be driving this thing till I die."
"Stop up here," Larry said.
The cab pulled over on a wide shoulder and when the car had come to a stop Larry saw the meter read $42.75. He got out of the back of the cab and told Candy to shut the car off. Larry sat on the trunk and watched the cars go by. Whoever had made that phone call might be watching him, and Larry wanted to think it over.
"Mister, what are you doing?" Candy said, getting out his door and coming back toward Larry.
"Nothing. Just watching the tourists."
Most of the cars that went by were full of families, and the only other traffic were buses full of gamblers headed to
Most of the cars that went by were full of families, and the only other traffic were buses full of gamblers headed to
While Candy walked around the side of the road some, Larry watched cars for ten more minutes. The cars just kept right passing by, none of them stopping suspiciously and turning around.
The sun by now was just an orange sliver in the west. Candy was standing at the hood of the car shielding his eyes some but watching it intently.
"Let's go," Larry said.
"Hold on, mister. You made me wait. Now you wait for me. I don't know how many more of these I'm going to see."
Larry got into the back seat and slammed his door. The meter had continued to tick all the while, and was now up to $60.00. "The meter's running," Larry yelled.
"I'll make up for it," Candy said.
When the sun had finally sunk and the sky had gone from blue to blue black, Candy got back in the car and turned to face Larry in the back.
"I once took a guy from the Sands Hotel up this way, all the way to
. We drove for quite a while without saying anything, but one time he just asked me to pull over like this. The guy wasn't as young as you. He was fifty years old, maybe. But anyway we stopped along the side of the road like this in the hottest part of the day, and he was wearing this suit. But he got out of the car and started walking north right over this dune and down into a small valley. Well, I didn't know any better so I followed him, at a distance. The guy got down into the bottom of this little valley of sand and he got down on his knees. Well right there I figured it was the last I was going to see of him and my fare. I pulled some rock out of the ground, put my hat up high on my head and sat there. I'll tell you. There are some things that men are not supposed to see. There are just some things that should go on without witnesses. But the man took off his suit coat and knelt on that and I could hear him talking, or moaning, or something. Just noises. Breathy noises coming from down in that little valley." Reno
Larry noticed that with the windows in the cab closed and the engine off that it was getting hot and close in there.
"I figured it was all over for that guy, like he had some trouble, that maybe he was running from something and he couldn't run anymore. Or maybe he was just looking for a way out. And just about when I was ready to give up on him, and just about when I was going to head back to the cab and head back to Vegas, this water starts to appear out of the ground around the man down there. The sand started getting dark, like it does when it rains, but this wasn't rain. The water was coming from below, not above, and the water started coming up from the ground all around the man in the valley. It became like a stream around him, a large circle of running water. Running water, do you get what I'm saying? The water rose out of the desert and formed a circle around this man down there."
Larry felt faint, and he was having trouble breathing. Candy's face was stoic, and his eyes kept staring out the side of the car, almost as if he were seeing the scene again.
"And then this man bends his head down toward the water and he drinks from it. And he tilts his head back and swallows the water. And then he plunges his whole head right into the stream and he brings that head back wet with water. And he's laughing. And all I know is it brings a chill to me even now, the sound of that voice. It wasn't...It wasn't even human. And then off comes his shirt and then his shoes and socks and pants, and the man steps into that ring of water around him and he disappears from my sight. I ran, I tell you. I ran as fast as I could, and keep in mind that I was not a young man then either. But by the time I got to the cab I was crying. And I was sweating from the heat, and all I wanted to do was drive away and never come back to this place. But as I was starting the car, just as I was ready to drive away, the man rapped on the passenger window and looked in at me. I felt my heart in my chest, and I felt as though I'd die right there. But the man smiled at me. And he made me open the window and he motioned for me to hold my hand out. And when I did, he reached into his pocket and poured a handful of sand into my palm. I swear I didn't know what it meant, or what I was supposed to do with it. But while I looked at it, he got in the back and we kept going to Reno. I held that sand in my hand all the way there, looking at it, moving it around sometimes. He just got out of the cab at some hotel there in Reno and I never saw him again. But you know sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night, and I know something's funny. I get up, or I look around, and then I feel it. It's still there. I can feel a little of that sand, right here in my palm."
Larry just sat there, his eyes fixed on Candy's open palm.
"I wanted to know what it was out there in the desert, you know?" Candy continued. "I wanted to know what had happened to that fellow, and what kind of an answer he got there. So a week later, I just turned the sign off and drove out there. The same damn spot. I parked on the shoulder, walked down into that valley, and I could see from way up on top there a ring of something in the sand. Black, tar, something. And as I got close, I could tell that there had been fire there, and the whole damn place was charred. Well I stood there and looked down into it and poking up through the sand was a single white object. When I reached down and cleared the sand away, I saw what it was. It was bones. There was bones down in that ring of fire. A man's bones."
The two of them didn't say anything for a bit, and then Candy turned the meter off.
"What do you think that means?" Candy said, starting up the car and the a/c.
"I don't know," Larry said.
"That guy knew something, didn't he. You know I've thought about it nearly every day since. You think maybe that guy was a little crazy. You know, I think he knew what he was doing."
Larry didn't know how to respond to that one. All he could think about was getting back to Vegas, back to his room. He touched the blue notebook through the soft sides of the satchel and realized that it was just two more days until it all started.
After another minute had passed the old cabbie started the car, made a slow u-turn in the desert, and headed back for Las Vegas.
Leo was pretty sure that this was the right thing. The years since he had last seen Larry had been hard ones. He had begun to get old, he felt. He was fifty-five now, and it didn't feel right to be on the road anymore. He had given up good years to the prison, and now he had nothing to show for his life but the stuff in his suitcase.
He had high hopes that with Larry, just this once, all could be forgotten and forgiven.
When Leo had gotten paroled those fifteen years ago, his first goal was to get to Larry and get him a message of some kind. Put the kid straight. Give him something else to look forward to. He wanted to tell the kid that crime didn't pay, and all of that. But by the time he had made it down to Arizona to see Larry and his mother, Leo had already started right back in. Being on the outside didn't suit Leo any better now than when he had been sent to prison in the first place. Where was it, he had wondered, that a convicted felon with 8 years on the inside was going to find a real job? He was a lifetime thief, and on a cold night in Kansas City, his $100 of State of North Dakota release money already spent, on his way to give his son the message about the right life, he discovered that breaking into a motel room at the Super 8 Lodge on the bypass was a minor misstep.
A screwdriver as a shim close to the lock, a gentle press between the hinges, and the door's bolt got loose. He pressed a credit card in softly and the door slid wide open on a king-sized bedroom with a reclining chair and two end tables. Leo left all his clothes on and left the lights out, locking the door as he had found it. When he drifted off to sleep that night he swore that he would go straight, somehow he'd find a way. But until then, a man had to live.
The hot weather in Vegas didn't suit Leo much. But it was a good city in many ways. Leo loved the shows. If there was one memory, besides family, that he had held onto in prison, it was of his honeymoon in Vegas. Him and Larry's mother had stayed at the Misty Motor Lodge just a few miles off the strip. It wasn't a good time for Leo, and it was about all he could afford. They skimped on accommodations, but not on the shows. That one week in Vegas they saw four shows, Dean Martin at the Tropicana, Tony Bennet at the Sand's, the Follies at the old Flamingo, and finally, Sinatra at the Dunes, on their last night in Vegas.
Sinatra started there on a Saturday, and Leo's reservation ran out on Friday. Leo and his wife spent the day walking around the downtown casinos, and then went to the Dunes an hour before show time. Leo had tipped the doorman a twenty, and they had gotten in about ten rows back, in the full-dinner section of the room. After the show was over, they walked back to their car and started their long drive back home. Leo had never forgotten how the desert air had felt to him that night walking out of the Sinatra show. "Three coins in a fountain..." he had sung to her as they drove out of Nevada.
Vegas was different now, of course, but it was the same, too. When the King had set the date for the plan, Leo had gone ahead to Vegas to get a place to stay. He wanted to, if possible, have some sort of stability when he met up with Larry again. He leased a three room condo in the north part of the city. He had decided that he had to make amends for everything. Now, with some time on his hands, and a pretty good stake from some jobs in Texas, he wanted to take his best shot.
Leo had had the King send his money to "Lewis Morgan, General Delivery,
." It was a name he was using, plus it was a name that wouldn't draw Larry's attention. Both he and the King figured it was better not to spook the kid until they were all together. El Paso
"Is the kid okay?" Leo had asked the King.
"He's a good kid, Leo. He hasn't been into much. He's a rube even with the short con. He's just in it for the taste. He's not married to it like we are."
Leo didn't have an address for the envelope of money to be sent to, but he was working through Texas and El Paso was on the way to Vegas.
So Leo waited, and on the day before he was scheduled to meet with the King, he saw Larry while eating lunch at the Circus Maximus dining room inside Caesar's Palace. Leo was killing time like he sometimes did, watching the gamblers.
He had a big porterhouse steak smothered in A-1 sauce and a baked potato. When a waitress went by he pointed at his glass. "Bring me another of these."
"Water and what?" she said.
"Water and water," he said. "Just water."
The girl had been gone for a long time and Leo filled in a keno card while he waited. He had finished eating the steaks, and was now just watching the suckers at the wheel of fortune, a giant wheel with 100 bills of different denominations pressed under glass. People would lay their own money or chips on a denomination in front of the wheel, which was laid out with more ones than fives, more fives than tens, and so on up to a single 1000 dollar bill. A single somolian could win you a hundred bucks, and the trick was that the worst you could do was break even. But in Vegas no one plays to get even, and hitting the one only got you your own dollar back. In fact, the casino's take on the wheel of fortune, strictly a game for the fish, was the highest percentage in the entire house. People liked it because it was fun and easy. What they didn't realize was that they should just have thrown their money in the wading pools out front of the hotel when they came in as play the game.
But as Leo watched the wheel spin for about the hundredth time that afternoon, Larry walked across his vision.
It had been a few years, but there was no doubt that it was Larry. Leo thought that the kid even bore a resemblance to him. As Larry walked by, one hand in his pants pockets, the other flipping a single $100 chip, Leo watched calmly. It was if it were any other day. Larry hesitated at the wheel while Leo watched, looked once at the pretty girl running the game, and walked away. Leo was proud, just a bit.
"Water and water," the waitress said, as she came back. "Joe wanted to put scotch in it, but I wouldn't let him."
"Good girl," Leo said, but his eyes never left Larry.
After she had gone, and after Larry had disappeared from view, Leo began to put the thoughts together that raced around in his mind. It had never occurred to him to stop him the first time he saw him. He had decided to wait for tomorrow, when the King would bring it all together. At least now he knew it was all true. Larry was there, and the King must be, too. It was going to happen. When he finished his water he took a cab over to a bar near his condo. This was a phone number and the address he had given the King in case of an emergency. It was a neutral place, a place where it wasn't uncommon for strange messages to come in. It was an old-time grifter hangout from the old days. Behind the bar on an inky black board would be chalk marks. "Mary, call Hector." "Tony says 'Go' to Edward." "$300 @ 4 p." Leo looked the board over, but nothing was there for him. If the King had wanted him a day early, likely this is how he would have found out. Leo had made a friend of one of the bartenders, and when he finished looking at the board he called him over.
"No calls? No one to see me?"
Leo hung around for the length of two rum and cokes and then he headed back to his condo. Tomorrow he would see his son.