Authors: Richard S. Prather
I caught Bushy Hair's eyes on me, both of them, and he was watching me from about ten feet away, but he didn't rush at me swinging or even step toward me. Apparently they were content for the moment to keep me in sight, maybe work on me till I made a break for outside. And maybe they were waiting for the crowd to thin out, as it always does before dawn. I had a hunch that their knowing I had a gun in my hand helped them keep a reasonable distance, too. I circulated some more. I hadn't seen Dante again, but if he showed up things might get rougher. I was glad I'd clobbered him good.
Then Lorraine was alongside me again; she'd come up to me this time. She said, "I've forgotten your name."
That was sure going to break me up. That was the last straw. I said, "I'm Shell Scott, remember? And pretty soon I'm the late Shell Scott. Get the hell away from me."
"Please," she said. "Did you mean all that?"
"No. I was kidding. I was making a joke. You can die laughing at my funeral."
I started to walk away, but she grabbed my arm. My right arm. I jerked around and shook her hand off. "Keep your hands off my arm, damn it. Keep them off
Either she was putting on a good act, or else she was suddenly convinced, by the way I looked and acted, that I hadn't been kidding a bit. Because that cute face softened for a moment and the impudent eyes went wide, and she bit on her swollen lower lip. "Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she said, and it sounded almost as if she meant it.
I didn't believe her worth a damn right now; I wasn't believing anybody for a while. But if there was one chance in a hundred she meant it, there was no point in passing it up.
So I said, "O.K., you're sorry, and I'm sorry, so forget it."
"Can I help? Can I help you?"
"Sure. Once I leave this crowd and get outside I'm dead. A whole mess of Dante's hired hands are wandering around in here glaring at me and I don't know what half of them look like and they must all know me by now. All you have to do is tell me how in hell I get out of here."
She said, "Oh," again, and her face pinched up a little, and she said, "You won't get out; you won't get out," as if it actually made a difference to her.
I said, "That's exactlyâ" and I busted it off for five wonderful seconds, then I said, "Well, hell, yes, I will, sweet patootie. Don't get lost." Because I'd just had me an idea.
It was the last of about fifty lousy ideas, and I almost threw it away with the rest. But I grabbed it and looked it over during those five wonderful seconds, and when they were up I knew what I was going to do. It might not work, but it was better than not even trying; and it had a good chance simply and solely because I was right where I was: Las Vegas during Helldorado, and smack in the middle of a passel of keyed-up, having-fun people.
It was an idea rooted in the very temper and atmosphere of Las Vegas itself. Downtown, the clubs are shoved right up against each other and sound and laughter bubble out the doors and into the street. Even the drugstores and barbershops have slot machines in them, and usually someone is sticking in nickels or dollars, jerking the lever and listening hopefully to the whir of the dials as he watches for the ultimate: the three beautiful bell fruits that spell jackpot. It's a something-for-nothing hopefulness, and prosperity is just around every corner. Not only downtown, but especially here on the Strip, where there's more beauty and money and glamour. All around me now there was the rattle and whir of the slots, the click of the ivory ball settling into the random niche on the roulette wheel, the voices of the dealers: "Coming out now, place your bets; nine's the point, nine."
And there was the smell of excitement in the air: the smell of money, of women, of whisky; the smell of a crowd with gambling fever, and lust in its nostrils. It was all around us; you could get drowned in it, swept up and lost in it. And this wasn't just everyday Las Vegas; it was Helldorado. Anything could happen.
So I started in. Shouts and laughter crackled in the smoky air as I walked through the crowd a little, listening to the people, looking at them. And the atmosphere was just right: It was wild, a little drunken, and charged with a what-the-hell-abandon that got in the bones and sizzled. Damned if I didn't think it would work.
I said to Lorraine. "Stick around. Maybe you can give me a handâif you weren't kidding."
She followed along as I walked. There was big money on the tables tonight: stacks of blue and white and brown and gold and spotted chips. Most of the people were having fun, but a couple of times at the crap tables I saw faces that were gone, blank, washed-out, and empty. Somebody who'd finished having fun when the fever hit him and he couldn't stop, couldn't let go, and it got brutal and the man part of him died and withered up inside him and he shoved it out there into Mammon's gaping mouth till there wasn't any more. That's part of Vegas, too, and those faces looked like the faces on the walls.
But most of it was just for kicks. A man's hand lingering on a woman's warm thigh, or brushing her breast; too-shrill laughter and honest laughter; and a kind of pleasant tension over all of it. And a number of women by themselves, as there always are at a time and place like thisâand maybe there's a mink coat in the morning.
I was ready, and the crowd was ripe for plucking. Come on, Scott, be a magician or a dead man, but get with it. I picked my spot and went to the bar.
I got out my wallet, well stocked of necessity for a trip to Vegas, and pulled out a hundred-dollar bill, a ten, and a single. I caught the bartender's eye, grinned, crumpled up the ten, and threw it at him. He fumbled it, picked it up, and came over.
He looked at the bill. "What's this for?"
"For nothin'. 'S yours." I raised my voice a little. "Hell, man, I just picked up forty grand at El Rancho Vegas. Here." I shoved the single across the bar. "Gimme a water ball."
He grinned. He liked to see people happy. When they gave him ten dollars. He started fixing the drink.
And that "forty grand," though it didn't cause any sensation, hung in the air for a little while and fluttered. I was standing at the bar, at the spot I'd chosen, between two stools occupied by two blondes. The one on my right was slim and healthy-looking, wearing a red-and-brown cowgirl outfit; the one on my left was short and shapely, wearing a black velvet dinner dress, strapless.
The left one didn't even look at me; she reached slowly up to the top of her dress, already pleasantly precarious, and pulled it down an extra half inch. The one on my right said, "What's a grand?"
I said, "Thousand dollars. Money. Thousand. Drink?"
She had bloodshot brown eyes and too much make-up, but she also had a willing disposition. She said, "Love one."
I looked at the gal on my left, and she was a doll. I glanced at the bodice of her dress, doing its bit for the cause it had very nearly lost, and she raised two little fingers to her lips, and she coughed. She coughed and she coughed. She went, "
Choo, choo, choo
," and then she said, "Whoops! Oh, my goodness."
She didn't have any cold, maybe, but she sure had a nice cough. And she sure had plenty of goodness.
"Golly, pardon me," she said.
I told her it was all right, she could cough all over me if she felt like it. She was as cute and cuddly as a kitten: about twenty-one, maybe a year or two over, and she had a little doll's face and a ripe, red mouth. The blonde hair was down around her shoulders, and a thick strand of it fell forward over her right shoulder and gleamed against the pale white skin.
She asked me, "You been gambling?"
"Like mad. Shooting craps. I'm hot tonight, baby; made nine straight passes."
"You like to make passes?"
I grinned at her.
"Oh, mister," she said.
My drink had been in front of me for some time now. I said, "Three more," and wiggled my head from blonde to blonde. I shoved the hundred across the bar. "Give me my change in dollars, will you?"
People along the bar on either side of the blondes were looking at me now. I drained my drink chug-a-lug like they say, and picked up the second one the bartender brought. The girls both beamed at me and thanked me and I asked the bartender, "What's the biggest glass you've got?"
"Well, a chimney glass is. About eighteen ounces."
"Fill it with bourbon and water for me."
He blinked, but he went away on his mission. The blonde with the hot cold said, "What's all the dollars for, honey?" Already I was honey.
"I'm the new Rockefeller. With inflation. Tonight I'm throwing money away." She didn't know whether to be alarmed at such a horrible thought or pleased that she might get hit with some of it.
The bartender came back with a huge glass shaped like an old-style oil-lamp chimney turned upside down. It was full of highball. He said, "If you drink all this, it'll kill you."
I thought that was funny. I paid him, picked up my one-dollar bills and the big highball, and stepped back from the bar. In unison the blondes spoke. The one on my right piped, "Don't go 'way," and the one on my left said, "You're not
I said, "I'll be back. Stick around."
I turned and there was Lorraine still behind me. She asked me, "Did you flip?"
I pulled her away from the bar and spoke softly. "Nope. You still want to help?"
She nodded, frowning.
"O.K., Lorraine. You saw all that business just now?"
"Could I miss it?"
"All right, now scatter. Buzz around and latch onto blondes and brunettes and redheads, men and women and grandfathers, anybody and everybody. Tell them you've found a crazy man. Point me out. I've just won forty thousand dollars. I'm off my rocker, I'm a live one, I'm drunk."
"Get with it."
She shook her head, but she turned around. I felt so full of hell that I just let my hand come up gently, and I patted her gently, and she stopped stock-still and looked over her right shoulder like in that pin-up picture of Betty Grable, and she gave me a slow, warm smile.
Goddamn! Maybe I was about to be murdered, but these last few minutes were wonderful.
I wandered around making noises like a
winner for ten minutes, so Lorraine would have time for what I'd told her, and during the ten minutes I bought a cowboy hat from a drunk for five dollars.
Then I let go of the gun in my pocket, put on my hat, crumpled the bills a slight bit in my right hand and spread them, and gripped my monstrous highball in my left hand. I walked out into the center of the crowded casino, stopped, cleared my throat, and yelled at the top of my lungs, "Yippeeeeee!
About nine hundred startled faces swung around to look at me. I took a sloppy pull at my silly highball, then yelled, "Yeeeeaaah, dogies! Yippee-ti-yo!" And I hauled off like Dizzy Dean and threw a whole fistful of pretty green bills way up into the air, and they separated wonderfully and started fluttering down like green snow. Nine hundred faces turned up toward the ceiling, and about five hundred mouths dropped open, and they all looked very foolish. Then the heads, a dozen at a time, then two dozen, then just about every head in the place swung around to look at the crazy man. There was no doubt about it: I was the center of attraction.
Maybe I wouldn't be safe if I left the crowd, but if I could, by God, I was taking the damned crowd with me.
I DIDN'T get the whole nine hundred, but I got very close to thirty in no time at all. There were several couples, but my crowd was predominantly feminine, and I mean
I began wishing that this caper wasn't designed to keep me from getting killed, and that I really had won that forty thousand. But right away I realized the foolishness of that thought, because, though what I was thinking might have been slower, it, too, would have killed me.
After my apparent fit, a buzz of conversation had swelled up and few people drifted toward me. I heard snatches of conversation that I assumed were about me: "Yeah, that's the goof. . . " "Up at the bar. . . " "Hundred grand crapping?" "No, stupid, not Costello. . . " and so on. I kept up my act, pretending to be somewhat drunk, and I shouted come-one-come-all-everything's-on-me-and-yippee-ti-yo-I'm-a-ring-tailed-billionaire.
Evidently Lorraine had done her work, too, because it didn't take long for half a dozen gals and two couples to gather around me and start shooting questions at me. Then the two blondes from the bar joined us and the cute little doll face came up and grabbed my arm.
" she bubbled, "don't you
throw any more money away. I couldn't stand it."
I gave a little wave of my hand and shrugged as if that money were for the janitor. Maybe it was. Most of it was still on the floor. My God! We were walking on it.
"'S nothing," I said. "I'm gonna take ever'body out and buy ever'body ever'thing."
A tiny, dark-haired cowgirl clapped her hands together and squealed, "Oooohh, this is fun!"
We were getting a bit of attention and more guys and gals, mostly gals, came up and the gathering grew like a downhill snowball. I saw Lorraine on the fringe of the swelling group and she shook her head and smiled when I winked at her. I was trying to act a little drunk, and I was a good actor. Those two fast highballs on top of what I'd had earlier were starting to feel mighty good inside me. I looked at my milkshake glass or whatever it was, and that was down about four inches too.
There was a mess of us milling around now and I repeated my extravagant claims and yelled, "Let's go," and yipped a couple of times. We just sort of surged toward the wide door. Some of the others yelled, "Yea!" and "Yo!" and some more exciting things as we moved, picking up drunks and curious and what-the-hell characters on the way.
We picked up speed and at least thirty of us, but probably a lot more, mushroomed out of the Devil's Room and poured through the lobby, laughing and whooping and scratching, and everybody, honest to Christ, having a wonderful time, even me. The damn thing was contagious, like the spread of sullenness and anger through a lynch mob, only with that kind of crowd psychology in reverse. This was fun for everybody and it caught you and got hold of you and you couldn't resist it. I felt so good that when I saw Bushy Hair standing almost helplessly in the middle of the doorway leading outside, I blew him a kiss. The crowd went through him or over him and he just disappeared. Poof, he was gone. I was a magician: Give me a wand and I'd light up the sky.