Three men in a tub, that was no blaze of glory, or none like Deuce foresaw. Yet there he stood, he and two longtime friends, in a clawfoot huddle downwind of a trigger pull. Finicky mise-en-scène, so he dreamt up a bright side and fast. No bath drawn so no soggy loafers, nor any splashes to wreck a nice crisp pleat. There—big plus. Juvie’s rayon blacktie was beyond the pale and wrinkle alike—if bloodied up—and Lester was in the shop coveralls he always wore except on church Sundays. But Deuce’s getup—worsted check with charmeuse silk in the warp—keeping that string in tune took an ear.
“Don’t worry, Deuce,” said the comedienne. “You won’t get that wet for now.” Atop all else, an extrasensory broad—terrific. Or she had caught his glances down to the two-button wonderland from her kraut thirty-two. Not a lot of iron but plug enough for three mere mortals. He took it for kraut but had never seen a piece quite like it. The slim build and cylinder screwed in for a less cocksure gunshot were downright aero.
“What’s the dizzy dame mean for now?” Juvie asked. The nosebleed from the head kick had got him adenoidal, and the black of his blacktie hid a pointillistic bib of red.
Lester spoke first and loud. “She mean blood you big dumb polack.”
“Who you calling polack, Jim? I’m bleeding here already.”
“A quarter pint down, maybe, with nine to spare.”
This from the comedienne. So much for bright sides. Yet Deuce knew his part to play, same here in a murder tub as anyplace. “Amigos, come on now! Think of this as our finest hour. And in a four-way diablo a little cool never hurt.” The charms swung back out. “Never mind them, Milady of Winter. It’s a lark—better friends there never were. So can I ask what’s the story here?”
The checkers had first gone on, straight out of the tailor’s box and tissue wrap, after a more standard-issue wash at his suite in the ay of em. Deuce always did prefer an early rise. Also, he got up at sunup. How late a night had run was no matter to him, though his two lady guests might disagree. Shirley Jean was dead to the world but Principessa, she’d already put the coal on a Kool, one leg stuck beneath the sweet snoring mess. Poor kid—all tuckered out. He would leave some pep on the table with the cab fare. Two pills would do her. From behind in the floor-length he saw Principessa take a gander. Her updo was a washout but a siren like that could only sing him serenades. “Nice blazer”—in mouth alone, no word spoke aloud—and then she blew the menthol. Blazer—as if it buttoned left. But damn if he didn’t know how that smoke ring felt.
Brylcreemed to a suave luster, racked up sharp and straight, Deuce lit out for the territories. He lived at the Strand, he worked at the Strand, and the horny devil and his two-prong sticker only knew how he played at the Strand, the finest hotel casino on the Strip. But there were other places he had to go. The Sprezzaturas had outside interests, and those within bounds of this latterday oasis were his to tend. The Strand—the expanse of tables, happy crowds day and night, the jinks at the Summit Lounge, where you might catch Frank, Dino, and that mutt with the glass eye and the melter voice—the Strand was Deuce’s Bali Hai, the big beautiful axis mundi on which he swung.
Through the courtyard and past the slots to grandmother’s house we go, with the handshake, smile, and chin-chuck paid thither and yon. That early in the shift it was mostly staff out. Twice a young lovely came up to stop him for a hug and to lay on the sweet crinkly-eyes. Remembrances of things not-so-past, like Proust had said of madeleines. Cookies were a strange choice for a fruit. On that last note a bellhop might have done the meet-and-greet, too, but, for one, there was a difference between flexible and fast, and for two, the q.t. there was maximal—the omerta beyond omerta. Never let an underboss catch any drifts thereto, no siree. Best keep the Jolly Roger down on that whole pirate vessel. Still, Ricky there in regulation pillbox by the grand stair—finook or not, top squire. To win the dimples and the pearly whites Deuce threw a wink.
Out to the curb, where the valet had his ragtop Eldorado ready for the easy two-lane slalom, cherry red with vanilla seats and two fuzzy dice loaded on the rear view. The color scheme was like malted in a glass, and the sunshine on it threw a gleam no less bright and tasty. Deuce Fix—he knew the handle for the jive it was, but therein lay the jingle. Neither part got close to line A on his birth certificate, the name on which could not have been more dello stivale if it came with extra moozadell. But a brand was easy to remember and fun like a thirty-second spot. Keep up the smiles—that was how the mob had broken the demon nag of the Wild West and trotted out the cash receipts, a nonstop pony show. Deuce heard no broadcast better than human joy and would swoop on a frown to adjust the knob as necessary. Yes indeed, dear Watson—come in for the fix.
Dig that sun, the fresh desert air. Top down was the only way to fly. Few were out on the strip so early, and he had the ranks of palms and the big blue beyond all to himself. He could see the drifts and bluffs in the distance past the architecture. Scrub on arid sand, the framework of a prehuman seafloor. The Strip could be a nutty place, but a desert, where Poseidon had lay to die of thirst, that was downright spooks. Nothing had ever lived there in the ghost of forty fathoms, not aside from a thirsty injun and the Gila monster he kept for a commonlaw wife. Pioneer times had left blood on the westing walk—Spanish, Mormon, red man and sundry—and even in the here and now people vanished every day. Some caught sight of nameless things, both up in the sky and scrawled out in the dust. Just an hour’s ride away eggheads were teaming up with dogfaces to test the instant sunrise. Clouds on that spectacle had drawn tourists into Vegas only a few years back, booking out all the higher floors to watch them loom, and sometimes Deuce had felt a rattle in the earth when the distant switch was thrown. But then some weisenheimer saw that gamma rays and alpha particles were not the best of souvenirs. It was goddam crazy, evidence to schemes of a lunatic higher power. Well the hell with the spooks and dead ocean boneyards, and a Gila monster was a bum. Look what the Sprezzaturas hath wrought here in the infernal waste, you injun lizard mooks.
Speaking of made-up names, Colonel Digby received him at the gentlemen’s club. Digby’s chic was whites and a string tie, a fry-free Harland Sanders. He aimed for class—no callout like Dom Merringue in his cream-pink Pontiac, who sat in the Strand at all hours to drop nickels into slots and vie for notice. What’s more, the Colonel’s mob-backed club was a discreet place. There they used every part of the vixen, as ought any thoughtful sous. And where honey traps went it was downright upright, with paneling and leather on the seats, not some habañero donkey show with fly strips playing chandelier. At six-thirty it stood empty and silent—no salivating clientele, no tasty haze, no five-piece jazz skelter with the be bop a dobbily dop bop a loo yeah. The two had a booth, a breakfast Bloody each, and European cigarettes from the Colonel’s golden breast pocket case—nice! But not so for the whorehouse brass, it seemed. “It’s embarrassing,” Digby said. “I know you’re good for a listen—that you are the party in matters of the utmost—but it’s just such a pother.” Southern accent—what a gas. Even if it was inconsistent and the guy behind it hied from Muncie.
“Colonel, don’t be like that! I’m in your corner and Don Casci has the six o’clock. It couldn’t be more peculiar than what we’ve heard six ways to Sunday. You know me. Need a whole steer for a pit in an hour? Come in for the fix. A chimpanzee that tells riddles themed to a banana? Come in for the fix. Army surplus? Live ordnance? Pick-me-ups? Writs of assistance? Letters of marque? Come in for the fix.”
“I am wholly cognizant of your, ah, resourcefulness, dear young sir. And my gratitude is—well. Okay. Okay. I broke it.” Bye-bye fancy voice.
“How now, Brown Cow?”
“I broke it.” Oh, damn—tears. “That’s a thing you can do. You know. When you have an, um, an erection, and you jam—. The doctor says I’ll never—.”
“Colonel, Colonel, baby! Stand up, stand up. Bring it on in.” Hug dealt, he gave a hankie assist and took answers in the form of nod and head shake.“Holy Moses! I didn’t know it would be tragedy. That’s Euripides and Aeschylus rolled into one. My heart’s busted wide. Tell me—who was this quacksalver who spoke the word of doom? Just your regular G.P.? Okay, nice guy I’m sure. Colonel, it seems to me that what you want for is a specialist. And you know what’s going on at the Arrowhead this weekend? A medical convention. Practitioners of physic clear up to your meaty tidbits. You know what they do at conventions—what those august gents get to when nobody is bedazzled by the Ivy League bill of sale and the stethoscope in extra long?” Deuce motioned to the club around them. “Would you look at that! A garden of earthly delights. You didn’t even need my help. You’re the one with infrastructure, am I right? Still, still—Uncle Serge and me, we’re going to rally troops. Get a shutterbug in situ behind a nasty little peephole once we comb the roster. One of those longbeards is going to be an eminent man of dong. And you know what we’re going to make John Thomas M.D.’s priority A-number one? The Lieutenant Colonel and his premature Waterloo. Clear your schedule, O mighty shaman, and hark ye to the village drum—from now on the Colonel will have care like care never was. You are the calendar, front page to cigarette ad in back. Damn straight, sweetheart. Damn straight.”
The waterworks had turned joyful like the knockoff Trevi at the Strand. Selling hopes mattered, even those between the slender and the none. It was the Hebrews who ran the Arrowhead Hotel and Casino, rivals of yore from the Lower East Side, but they could be reasonable as long as you never went and called them names. Also, a brothel baron usually ran hot, but damn, this old yeller was a ramrod!
So the Colonel situation was on the mend, but here came a wet blanket in the form of his girl Friday, Chelsea. Weird sister, and she and the Colonel might even have been related. There was a certain resemblance, the poor man-handed spinster, and moreover a certain deficit where it came to giving even one square damn.
“Phone call,” she said.
The Colonel was mopping up with the hankie. “Take a message.”
“Not you, Geoff.” Worrying enough but she added, “It’s the manager at the Strand.” Some of the misgiving may have shown, because now the Colonel started up again.
No matter for an open line, per signal word—that meant not only circumspect but dire. So the morning joyride turned heel and the Eldorado was soon back at reception.
“Early checkout,” Giancarlo said in his office.
Even for that euphemism he had shut the door and said it quietly. As Sidney Falco had put it, the cat was in the bag and the bag was in the river. Except for all the work ahead. No, that was a yowling floater with claws and teeth. Deuce made the sign of the cross. “Okay. On it.” Like Deuce, Giancarlo was a direct report. Neither held the higher ground, and each knew how to show the due and proper. Still, whenever candles were lit up Giancarlo made his wishes. He wanted to be the only big boy at the table. “What’s the urgency? The hotel’s never sewn up this time of year. There will be lots of rooms.”
“It’s the presidential suite”—reading Deuce’s face—“no, not a name, thank God Almighty. Thing is, though, a name is coming. A high roller and a plus one.”
“Dino. You want the plus one?”
No mere five-alarm fire—a goddam holocaust. “Wet?”
“Dry as a hambone at a dog’s dinner. So yeah, uh, dry. But once you clear it we’re replacing the shag and the mattress. There won’t be so much as an eyelash on the floor. It’s Dino and a plus one. Got to get it square.”
“Understood, Gianni. This is all for tactical—best practice. Hit? Lover’s quarrel?”
“No drama I can see. Just some lonely guy in his underwear.”
“Maybe, if he did it with a medicine vial. Or a heart attack. Sudden either way—and neat. But an hour ago the desk did get a strange call. It’s how we found out so early, and praises be, because otherwise we’d be good and punked. No answer at the knock.”
Before he took the dash upstairs Deuce went over to the Summit Lounge. The doors were not yet open—hours to go—but Juvie would be in back to place calls and take inventory. And there he was, unshaven, suspenders in a flipflop, eating borsht cold at kitchen prep and going over the cook’s ledger. Juvie was a big rascal. He bent chairs. They had met at nineteen and only now, mid-thirties, was he taking on a convexity where shirttails went into pants. What Juvie had did not wiggle or give. Too bad about the hairline, but that was a crapshoot for anybody in possession of a Y chromosome.
“Need you, pal.”
Neither please nor pronto need apply. Up with the bracers and off they went. Ricky held the elevator door with an Our Father and a shoe study. Juvie scared him—and scared any save the very bosomest of friends. Once back in civvies he had gone in on one of those newfangled biker clubs. Hairy guys, and they liked to flaunt trophies from the war—iron crosses, Reichsalers, and whatnot. You could almost mistake them for Wermacht, though they never did cotton to a swastika. After he fell for a cigarette girl in town Deuce had got him the gig. Juvie ran the Summit Lounge and did things on the side. Not much of a stretch—Juvie had gotten in dutch with MPs so often that, mighty centurion or none, he was put on PX duty for the close of Europe. He had not bothered with coat and collar, and soldier’s ink read in peacock triplicate up and down his arms.
“Trix good?” Meaning the wife, a third his size and prized above rubies.
“The tricksiest.” A churchgoing lady for all the pipeweed she slung, and Juvie was a project in the works. She would get him baptized even if he had to drown along the way.
Access took a special key in the panel. The car opened right on the private lounge. There was a conversation pit, a sectional in the round, and a Streamline Moderne–style hearth you could toast a space age heifer in. Behind that was a glassy sweep on all the Strip. Breathtaking, and best at night, but that was not where the sorry business lay.
In so sprawling a pad the master bedroom could only sprawl itself, and Deuce had to do a long walkup with what he now had in sights. The occupant was unremarkable except for the face he wore. A touch of sunburn, all over, no trucker’s tan. Nor brains, nor blood, nor shat britches, just as told. Sight of such unpleasantries was always a turnoff. It would ruin Deuce’s whole afternoon. But the eyes were open wide, and the mouth, and the telephone was still in hand with the ack-ack-ack of please hang up. A guy a little older but more or less like Deuce—maybe less thick of shoulder, more pencil to the neck—and he had died scared like a kid in his underwear. The free hand was at the chest, and the undone gaze could only plead. Sight of a demise was nothing new to a war vet and gangland concierge. But the dead did tend to relax once the dying part was over. Not this poor dope. His map was in a rigor, and not the mortuary kind. Deuce ran through the Ave, Hail Mary to amen.
“No company?” Juvie asked from back near the door.
“Find the ticket, okay?” Meaning the valet stub. Something had Deuce’s hackles up—a dead body was about to move of its own accord, sure, but these hackles came extra. He could not break his stare. The phone—that was the outlier. “After that go through the closets and pack the bags.” Movement of the unliving: such mysteries came with many a rule of thumb. Rooms that slept a lonesome stiff could not be booked out, not until the county swung by for a once-over. So wherever possible these “early checkouts” were relocated first. With respect, though—not fed to a body of water like a rat or a tough guy. Quick, but not careless. If it was a murder scene, the Strand had to let it play out. If other rooms were available, same. If there was a mess left to scrub up, well, win some, lose some, and pay out hazard rates to the cleaning staff. However, if doing so would cause no further grief, guest and flivver would take a spectral jaunt up onto the nearest mesa. Dig that view—of course the sort of vagabond who checked into a Strip hotel solo would want to see the desert city lights. Friends and relatives could take heart in that—a last razzle-dazzle on a peaceful au revoir. The coroner was as venal as any on the public paycheck, not to mention a poky old buzzard who had cattle rustling times in his living memory. Whenever corpus delecti and his one-horse open sleigh were found on the lookout the coro knew which down was up. Monthly gifts smoothed that cowlick for the class portrait—those and the usual promises of tip-for-tap. Same for the patrolmen, same for housekeeping, same for all the teeming whirl we dub the planet Earth.
“Holy cow—the guy’s face!”
“Juvie, please! This is a solemn undertaking.” Juvie gave over the ticket—and the billfold, too. Deuce had a look. “You pull the cash?”
“Aw gee whiz.”
“Kick back a little.” Snap snap, open hand. “Finder’s fee. Twenty per.”
“But I’m the one who found it,” Juvie said, thumbing up the tender.
Deuce read the name on the ID. Ernest Gumtree. Unremarkable once again, though fake-fake with an underscore. It was a Nevada driver’s license. That also meant little—nobody but nobody came from the sagebrush state. But tucked behind there was another card, this one utilitarian in a way that spoke of mortal peril.
“I’ll go fetch up the ride. Tell Les what’s coming. I have to swing the desk.” Coming back down the chute Deuce puzzled at it. Federal government ID, with a Special Access Clearance number typed on. And it began with a Q. That alphanumeric meant a guy inside and deep. “Hiya, Florimel. You were on this morning, right? Mind my gentle probe?” Deuce took the front desk clerk aside. He could tell from the look beneath the look that she knew what was up. “You okay? Need a breather?”
“I’ll be fine, Deucie. This is about the phone call?” No prompt needed. “He sounded all mixed up—Mr. Gumtree. He might have had a fever. His voice, it shook like that. He was slurring, but not like he was liquored up or nothing.”
“What did he say to you?”
“I couldn’t make out the most—something about what they’re doing out there. His words, not mine—‘They don’t know what they’re doing out there.’ What what, there, and who I couldn’t tell you.” Looking past him she put her voice low. “That redhead across the lobby is staring at us—no, at you.”
Deuce took a study. Sure enough, in repose there on the tuffet, no curds or whey in sight, a rouge femme petite. She wore a green dress and black lenses in a wireframe, tight and round and not at all the current style, and sat in a reception area chair, morning newsprint in a careless splay. She did not look away from him—not shy at all, no hint of caution—but gave a smirk, one eyebrow high, before the paper went back up. Deuce turned back. “Just the checkerboard here, I guess—draws an eye. When you dress up like the finish you let the crowd call the race.”
“What? It is a nice blazer, Deucie.”
Heaven forfend, sister-wife. “Anything else you remember?”
“Nothing that made much sense. I think I heard, ‘The cloud shaper.’ Something like that. But then it was just—he started to cry. I told Giancarlo right away. Poor man.”
“Thanks a million, Florimel.” A front pocket coughed up some blackjack clay. “Get thee to a day spa, all right? You’re a doll.” Steak and flowers later. Maybe a spin on the merry-go-round. Seesaw would be more apt, he supposed. The register gave up the license plate. Gumtree’s cursive shook on the rule but was legible. Before he went out for more alphanumerics—these far more ordinary—he stopped in with Giancarlo. Findings first—the federale ID in particular—and then he took the counterargument.
The valet asked no questions of the Gumtree stub. Left side, nod alone, that was all. Good man. The lot fronted the Strip and had breadth, and Deuce walked opposite each row to make the plate check a bit less conspicuous. Make and model had been listed, too—standard deal for a hotel register—but that did not much narrow it down. Half the cars were a Chevy Bel Air in the selfsame shade of cornpone. Hackles all the while—like he was being watched. Once he had the car—same blah inside as out, seats empty—he fired up the engine. And he felt a rock of impact. The mirror showed him the offender at right rear taillight—this car of a factory design he had never seen before. No tailfins to it—no features at all, really, not even a coat of paint on what looked like nude aluminum. Unbroken curves made it resemble a slipper. European maybe. Deuce got out angry—or made an angry face for a bit of leverage—until he saw the redhead again, stepping out of the driver’s seat with a green handbag to match the dress.
“Drat it, Missus—are you okay?”
“Wasn’t I the one to run into you? And hard?” She had put a smirk up again. The fun had never quit for her, nor the oddball sunglasses, worn both indoors and out.
“That’s on me, from the mea to the culpa. My attention fell short of the goal.”
No blush for innuendoes. “Would you like to take my information?”
“Your—? Well, I could always use a number. You know.”
Here came the valet. “Sorry, Deuce. Sorry. Ma’am, you don’t park the cars yourself!”
“How else was I going to break a light? Say what you will about my driving, but a fender bender does help a car stand out.” She motioned to the vicinity, the superabundance—Chevies Bel, like twins upon twins in a Beige Period orphanage.
“Rodrigo, it’s okay. Nobody’s the worse.”
“May I take your card?” she asked Deuce. That grin—this was somebody who knew how to enjoy a road for the bump. Either black lens had yet to give up an eye, much less an iris, but he had the hue for emerald green. She was like something off a paddock done up cosmopolitan. He gave the tile over. “Guest relations?” she said reading. “I’ll bet.”
“I’ll re-park your car for you, ma’am” the valet said, with a double take. He had never seen the like either, and Rodrigo saw a lot. “Just, uh, just let me borrow the key.”
“There is no key,” red said. “It came from a future without locks.”
Beneath Deuce’s chuckles there was no engine sound—nor even a dent to the bodywork, unlike on Gumtree’s iron swan, where shards of plastic dressed a bumper thrown askew. Dig that quietude—like the work of a watchmaker. Those European motors sure were something else. Off went the funny coupe, likewise the mystery-mobile she drove. He waved the valet back toward the podium. Cherchez la comedienne—this would be a meetup for the ages.
Lester waved him into the motor pool garage and brought down the door. He was chewing a cigar, unlit. Were he not cued up so it would have been strange indeed. A colored guy—even a standout, a prince among Nubians such as Les—might not take the same perks as front-door folk but on the Strip a top-rate smoke was fair game for every man. Like any mechanic he kept his sleeves rolled, and there showed awful burn scars. The cookery had come from a machine gun in a snowy nest, picked up and repositioned while hot to keep the onslaught of krauts good and mown down. So many boys rescued by that sacrifice alone—just like Basilone had done against the Sendai Division on the other end of the planetary scuffle. But Les would never get the chance to weigh a ribbon, not even on a casket lid. Dealt a hand of spades at birth, not of hearts—no fault of his.
“Got to kill some white folk,” young Les had said in triage with a wink.
“Hallelujah,” Deuce had said back, through a bandage. He had lit up two loosies and he held the second to the unsung hero’s mouth. Years later Deuce had got him the fattest job he was able—run of the pool with some chop shop action a la carte. Lester had the back of the casino to himself, his own separate but, mind you, equal kingdom. A table, some folding chairs—when the other colored staff weren’t sitting in for the daily shuck and jive, a few hands of cards, Les would kick up heels, switch on a transistor radio, and read through his second love, the newest issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact.
“Not much boat here for the trouble.”
Juvie must have filled in blanks. Any was too many. Trust might have been implicit but that Chatty Cathiness called for an audit. “Ain’t it the truth,” Deuce said. “How’s Judy Lee?”
Wife and high school sweetheart. Big smile. “Fine, Deuce, fine.”
“Standard shenanigans here, okay? Lockup till night, then tail Juvie in the wrecker. Where’s he got to?” A laundry cart threw wide the swinging doors—crash—with guess who shoving at the load. Not the best pall bearer and no fit honor guard for a government man. “Easy!”
“He’ll live,” Juvie said. Nerves, Deuce could tell, so he let the flippancy slide. “Let’s drop him in the trunk.” He wrinkled his nose at the car. “A Chevy Bel Air? Will he fit?”
“Is he stiff?”
“Yeah, Juvie”—this in from Lester, sure as a tax bill—“how hard you grab him?”
“Don’t start with the get-cute. It’s early yet.”
“Sorry bout that. After Sammy got with Kim Novak I guess I lost my place.”
Even four years on this was a sore point on the Strip—proof that cracks could show in paradise. “Chrissakes—would you give it a rest?”
“That what Harry Cohn said.”
“Can it and shelve it,” Deuce said. “And listen, both of you, keep an eye out. No,” he said to cut off a joke, since the topic of the mutt hung fresh in the air. “There’s something—I don’t know. This doesn’t feel right—like there’s some scrutiny.”
Both friends knew about those hackles. A sixth sense was a good sidekick on patrol. “Seen anything strange?” Lester asked. “Anyone act suspicious?”
“Nobody comes to mind. Tonight I’ll sub for Juvie at the lounge. Your errand should only take, what, an hour’s time, maybe two.” He had come up to the cart and Lester took the driver’s seat to man the lever. Gumtree had been wrapped up in bedsheet, a slipshod pharaoh. Juvie was really spooked. Deuce patted down Tutankhamen, then had a closer look. “Why the hell ain’t he dressed?”
“Check the suitcase underneath,” Juvie said. “He tore up all his clothes. Every last stitch of them.” Spinny index finger and a ding-dong whistle. “Putting him in a bunch of rags—wouldn’t that wreck the angle on this? The loner gone out for a city view?”
“Hm. Guess I get to run an errand. Forty-two regular?” Between the two of them they got Gumtree toward the back of the car. The neck was rigid in the shroud but limbs and trunk were pliable. “Let’s lie him down like he was seated,” Deuce said with strain. “By six he’ll drag harder than a plank.” Fool me once. “Pop it, Lester. That reminds me. Go through everything. Glovebox, under seats. Look for anything that might show where the car has been today and get it good and lost.”
“I know the score, Deuce.”
Heave-ho, and fetal in the Chevy’s berth. Come the designated hour and a spot up on the lookout, Juvie would manage. Nobody could say he lacked for strength. But suiting up a mannequin whose arms never bent, and that might get a tad poopy if squeezed too hard in the wrong spot—that would take some patience.
“Can I go wash my hands now?” Juvie said. “I work near food.”
Play along, he was screaming to his bathtub pals through the back of his scalp. What came out of that sweet mouth would be off-kilter, he wanted to tell them, and it was crucial—like a ring thrown to rough seas—to make her feel understood.
“De Winter,” she said.
“You said Milady of Winter. It’s de Winter—The Three Musketeers?”
“Never read it,” Deuce said. “I’m more a movie guy, if you’re up for a matinee.”
The smile tightened to her skull. “Tonight, in earshot, you’ve called me Milady de Winter, Cruella de Vil, and Natasha Fatale, and you don’t even read books?”
“Hey, no offense. I talk to people—about books they’ve read, about other things. Better yet, I listen. That’s the gold standard right there—a sympathetic ear. Anyways the last two are cartoons. What, you never caught Rocky and Bullwinkle?”
“This is not how we die,” Juvie said.
Lester said, “Speak for yourself.”
Deuce had more to add but the comedienne had leaned out to one side. “Hey, big fella back there—Juvie, right? What’s that short for?”
“It’s not short for anything. I faked my age when I signed up. The guys in my unit found out.”
“We found out,” Deuce said to draw the bead back, “I mean the guys in our unit—”
“Shh.” To Juvie, “You said, ‘This is not how we die’—isn’t that right?”
“Being funny—or trying. Got some jitters. Sorry.”
“Don’t be! Funny’s good. Strindberg sure could have used a couple of laughs. Did you want to know how you die?”
“Did you want to know how you die.”
No forethought, Juvie said, “That’s a loaded question.”
For all the absurdity—and danger—Deuce cracked a smile, and Lester gave a spare chuckle. Gallows humor. None of them had relented in the sweats department, though.
“Huh?” Juvie asked again. “What’d I say?”
“You didn’t mean what you said about knowing, of course. I know it was rhetorical. But ontologically speaking it does raise an interesting point. Outcomes are in flux, but the more likely they are the easier they are to see. It’s the same deal as physical distance. In truth it is distance—what physical distance actually is without the ruse of space and time. Diminishing probability of interaction, ergo a slowdown in cause and effect.”
Deuce was lost—so much crazy here to weather—but thanks to his preferred reading Lester had less trouble. “Alls you just say, that call for time to function.”
“Holy hell,” Juvie said.
“No, he’s right—well spotted. Language, frame of reference—those are no small constraints. I can assure you that the strongest likelihood, for now, is that inside of two minutes I hit each of you, pop pop and pop. You bleed out and drain cleaner wrecks the forensic evidence while I make my hair nice again. But that might not be true even half a minute on, once you decide it’s smartest not make another lunge for the service weapon—a weapon I don’t need to do the job, except that it leaves my hair in place. Where it heads from here depends on choices, see—your choices, mine. Outcomes are visible—that’s material reality, no less so than train tracks in a switchyard. But the mind is what directs the switches. That’s a mystery—and that’s you. All that you really are. What you choose, or better said what you don’t. Free will. Free won’t.”
“We dead men,” Les muttered.
“Still, it’s not as if the deviations are invisible from here. Put fog in the switchyard if we stick with the picture. The steeper the curve of branching tracks, the less shows farther down, because more fog is in the way. The second most likely outcome—if a gun doesn’t go off—that’s plain enough even now, though not quite dead ahead. So to speak.”
“Sure,” Deuce said, not.
“I could tell you how you almost die, if you want—and if I don’t kill you.”
Stymied three times over, but out of politeness Juvie said, “Okay?”
One by one she pointed to Deuce, Juvie, and Lester. “Bullet, old age, cancer.”
Silence. A chuckle broke it. “You got cancer,” Juvie said to Les.
“Oh ha ha. She see my cigar, Hercule Poirot.”
A minor snag for Deuce: “Wait—why do I still get shot?”
“Different bullet,” she said. “Maybe rethink your day-to-daily?”
Les leaned close. “This aydee-lae might be from a nother-ae imension-dae.”
How she laughed at that. “Like the one between up and down? No, what I’m from is a different superposition on the wave-function manifold that underpins material reality. And I’m the one who’s armed. Does that clear it up?”
“Psst, fellas,” Deuce said, taking the chance. “Go easy. She’s nuts.”
“And if my bike had no wheels it would be a grandma.” Wink. “Nut joke. Okay. The story, Deuce, going forward, will be told in a Q and A. The Q stands for questions, the A stands for answers.” Her watch took a glance. “I guess the carpets are safe enough. Step on out, you three. And slow. Juvie, twist up some toilet paper for that nose.”
Seeing Deuce cross the threshold—back in so soon—threw Mr. Szabó-Zsigmond into a reel. “Somethingk wrong with coat?” On came the gnome from the Pest bank of the Danube. Behind him the dummy spun from the wind he had raised. He had busted out chalk and tape to go over the checkers with the jolly blue lamps. Thick glass warped his eyes into a scope that was downright supernatural.
“Not at all, Mr. Szabó Zsigmond, not at all! It’s a triumph! A win through-and-through. They always love the cut of your jib up in the Strand—especially the ladies.”
A finger waved. “Careful, careful, youngk man, or someday pecker fallingk off.”
“Ha ha ha! What a gas you are, Mr. Szabó Zsigmond. Here, get a nice hot lunch.” Deuce fed clay to the spotted hand. Strand Chips—in Vegas they outshone the treasury.
“So what can?”
“I need a full suit, and quick.”
“I am measuringk?” Up came the tape for the inches. “I have on file.”
“This’ll have to be off the rack.”
One struck gnome: the stare dug tunnels. “Rack? I hearingk right?”
“That you are, and more’s the pity. Forty-two regular—that’s all that counts.”
Light came into the Coke-bottle blues. “Not your size! I see. You want for makingk gift? No high roller, eh? Prêt-à-porter—pvoo!”
“On the contrary—the beau of the ball. Ad hoc, but ad astra.”
“I don’t know what means.”
“Anything’ll do it, good sir. Anything at all. Poly linen, dish towel, blue jean to go.”
As Mr. Szabó-Zsigmond got it square—whisking some tan nondescript off its boomerang and folding up shameful origami on the countertop—he said, “How come hangksome boy like you not married, eh? Make girl happy! Make yourself happy.” Deuce could only shrug. But the tailor had a further thought. “Mr. Fix, I have somethingk just come in. I was goingk to show to Vrankie, but I show you.”
“That’s swell, but—whoa. Frankie?”
“Yes, yes. Vrankie Blue-Eyes. Not about this”—motion toward the blah—“but for you for later. I can for you make coat with byssus.” Deuce had never heard the word but excitement ran ahead. He had unshod his feet and stood this hallowed ground many times before, and he knew when miracles were nigh. “Here—I show bolt.” Coming back with the exhibit at parade right shoulder, the gnome laid two yards flat. A golden fleece.
Covets hotted up Deuce’s face. “What, what, what is this?”
“Byssus. Sea silk some are callingk it. You touch?”
Deuce lent the stroke. A glide between atmospheres. And where he pressed it, chatoyancy like in a jewel, rainbow depths. Merest touch had summoned forth the aurora borealis. “Mr. Szabó-Zsigmond, this, this is a treasure. But Frankie. Those are toes you don’t step on, and I wouldn’t even have the heart. I’m his confidante in town.”
“Frankie, he does not know of! Not yet. Bolt enough, three suits. One more bolt is comingk. Six total. Your wear first cut, all high rollers seeingk you at Strand.”
“Oooooh—Mr. Szabó-Zsigmond! Cornering the market, you sly dog you!”
The gnome shook his head at the cloth, reverent to a mistiness. “Light. Strong. Weaingk summer, wearingk cold. Almost none are makingk now. The sea snail, she die. Last few womengk on little island, Sant’Antioco, by hand they are cardingk it. Loom this much—years, years, years. High quality, high price. Blazer for you?”
“Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!” Out came the money roll.
“No, no—you are good for, and your measurements in book. For byssus, I throwingk in off-the-rack for nothingk.”
So out came Deuce with a garment bag and a ray of sunshine. No fit drape for a glueworks mule, but it would do. Win it again, checkered flag, and ahead lay troves. Speaking of which, here was the comedienne, just up the street and looking on without the least hesitation. Lucky him! Perhaps she had come down for a manicure. On his eye-stroke back in the lot at the Strand her nails had looked a mite short, even bitten. They were the cuticles of a woman whose form of trade was strictly hands-on. The century had grown late for Rosie the Riveter to flourish, so milking cows, say—an udder tugger. No—he owed this one gallantries. On closer leer it seemed she chose no heel, either, nor ankle strap to keep shod on a stilted walk. Now that—save every last thing between insoles and fingertips—was downright androgynous. No pinup hopes for this lady-friend. And no need.
On sight of him she was smiling in her sunglasses, and laughs were close. Time to milk the bull. No, no. “Hiya,” he said. “Coffee?” This let the sputter break through, but she went along. The nearest joint served cappuccino—wee friar, nella lingua, for the brown of its frothy cowl. Just the foreign-friendly thing for a dame who had blown into Vegas with a Freedonian Batmobile. For himself he ordered an Americano, black, sugar. Before he slid into the booth he hung the garment bag.
“Unreal,” she said. The ticklishness had not let up.
“You’re in good spirits—nice to see, what with the whiplash. How’s your neck, sweetheart?” Again with the sputter. “You can let me in on the joke,” he said.
“But you already are in, and deep.”
Awkward, but here came hots to the rescue. “It’s on the house, Mr. Fix,” per the girl.
“See—she knows who I am, so she gives me the chance. That’s the Vegas way. One big friendly place. The scratching of backs is an open market, no strings. Maybe you should, too. Find out who I am, I mean, not scratch backs. Though I do have a hell of a knot between my scapulae.”
“I got your card, Andrea. Pretty good for backwater.” Of the sip.
“Tea service out here has come a ways. What did you say?”
“‘Backwater.’ But I’m betting you meant the name part.”
“How’d you know I’m … that?”
“But that’s not what the card had on it. Say—you’ve been asking around! Ho ho! Murder! Will! Out! This sure brightens up my day, I’ll tell you that.”
Down blew the gale. She took her sunglasses off to smear back jolly tears. Here he got to see whether he had been right—green for the win, blue to place. But at what he saw the grin went wooden. True, there was a band of color to either eye, but only wire thin. Green or blue was too narrow to call. Mostly you could say her eyes were black—pitch black and deep. All pupil, blown out to hollows. Gaze into the abyss, and the abyss gazes also he forgot the rest.
“Uh—missus? I never did catch a name.” Double pits, unblinking. “Okay. Skip the names and the friendlies. I think you might have conked your head. In, uh, the tap back at the Strand. Maybe see a doctor? Hey, tell you what—I know just the guy.”
“What’s funny,” she said, “is truth. Every word I’ve said to you is true. Nothing hidden, not one word a joke or a lie or even a stretch. I can lay out plots, plans, existential horrors, dot all the ais, cross all the tees, and you’ll think I’m being cute. I straight up admit that I followed you and watched you go shopping—and you crow victory. Narratives versus qualia.”
“Qualia? What’s the what there?”
“Couldn’t have said it better. Okay, let’s use a metaphor. How about data entry? Input? Ten-key? You’re still drawing a blank? A walking numbers racket like you?”
“So like an accountant? With the green visor and the books and such?”
“Better yet. Yes, books. How do I get away with it? Even when the books sum it up?” Both thumbs inward. “Tit one, tit two.” Index fingers. “In a dress.” Again. “One tit, two tit, sitting in a dress. Even now, for all you’ve seen and all you’ve heard. Nothing could be funnier than that. These really are simpler times—simple for me.”
Back on went the sunglasses. The last-ditch was a boyish pout.
“Coming on too strong, eh?”
Laughs afresh even as she rose. To the door, never a turn as she spoke loud enough for him to hear. “Las Vegas is fine. It’s what surrounds it that’s the backwater.”
A bell left wiggling on the jamb. Lose some, win some. At least the golden fleece was on its way. Though now Deuce saw he had forgot to ask Mr. Szabó-Zsigmond to cut a sport coat and not a blazer. Oh well—for a swaddling of byssus he would button left.
Hours later the Summit Lounge was open and free to swing. Before coming down to sub Deuce had neglected to swap out for blacktie. Decked in his own, Juvie had to point this out. Rules were rules. “Deuce, it’s a supper club.”
“Huh?” They were in the vestibule. Marjorie helmed the pen and ledger for any incoming reservation, though none was ever needed for a VIP. People of distinction had a better view on the stage and a separate velvet rope. On post all Deuce and Juvie had to do was gladhand with guests, smile, and hoist the velvet now and then, as fit. Deuce looked down at himself, the natty but wrongful checkers. “Oh, rats. I’ve been a bit distracted.” Musing on cats and fiddles all afternoon, the moon not yet out. Mother Goose was growing sparse. Try Hubbard. She had a cupboard.
“What’s eating you?”
“I don’t know, pal. It’s like something’s on the tip of my tongue. Some obvious conclusion that even a mouth-breather would have drawn by now.”
“Are you going to be able to work a rope? You know—while …?”
“Nuff said. My portion here’s easy. Hey, you been outside?”
“You look like you got a bit of sun.”
“Huh. You too, Deuce. That rag top Eldorado you love so much, it does no favors. And a desert, that’s no homestead for us two palefaces. I’d better head out.”
Left to reveries, doling out smiles for tourists as Marjorie did the lifting. Even at the roughest girls played nice. What haunted him, and had since cappuccino, was nonsense.
Still. Gumtree. Trouble on the prowl.
“Hey, Deuce—got a minute?”
“Dino! Sorry, must have zoned out!” Here at last, the high-roller, plus one just behind, waiting to wine, dine, and dig the band. “So lovely to see you again, my fine sir.”
“Whoa nelly! Is that the Hunky national flag?
“That hand stitching—you know it so well! Right this way. We’ve got French bubbles on ice and shrimp cocktails in the LZ.” He unhooked the rope and the plus one came into view. A biped would have listed. With courtly bow: “Mrs. Dickinson.”
“Angie. Please. And tonight it’s Miss.”
Good for one more bob of the head. Behind the velvet the VIP maitre d’ stood with menus, ready to lead. “Feathers” in the flesh, so to speak (per Rio Bravo). That would make for shockwaves in town, just like those old tests. On the slip of a Ben Dino threw a wink—savvy? Thus a night to remember became a night to forget, even for all to see. There were two kinds of invisible. This was not the other kind.
The Chevrolet was in idle as he ran into the garage, tow truck likewise, churning up a diesel stink. Deuce threw himself in front like an umpire calling off a pitch. As Lester and Juvie came on with the inevitable curiosity he caught his breath and yanked his tie loose from the strangle. Bare bones only as he hauled on the chain fast as he could—down with the garage door, good and tight—and then he laid on the beef.
Powwow done with, the convoy set out. They could never leave an early checkout in the garage overnight, but the motto of every good Boy Scout had become a creed. How much caution was called for, that was a matter to debate. “Heater?” Juvie had said, going Runyon. “I can handle a frail without ammunition, thank you very much.” As for Les, he had spread light-palmed hands to mark himself exhibit A.
Worse to ask Giancarlo for backup—they could never live that down, such terrors for a damsel. So Deuce had tucked a gun into the checkered coat right aside the poker chips. He chose to drive, Juvie on shotgun, per figure alone. Three cars back was Les in the wrecker. Two winks on the beams should anything strange and European-built come in sights. And what sights they were. Lester was renowned for an eye and had been since boot. Too bad about the politics—he had always been a much better shot than Deuce, kept off the roster only because shadows doth offend. But no bribe would have cooled the boil with the Vegas cops. Even a trunkful of wrapped cadaver was more forgivable than a colored man gunning down Miss Lillian.
Cool and easy, radio on, as they took a roll down the Strip, top up on the Eldorado. Deuce and Juvie had cigarettes going, windows down a crack to pull smoke clear, and they kept a vigil on side mirrors and on the streets ahead. Nighttime palms were a different animal. Lester called them triffids, and whatever triffids were they lent no optimism, not with all the sharp points and scales drawn in silhouette. Even at a stand the Strip was in motion. So much neon, so much flash. One cashbox after another thirsting for square money. House wins.
“Never much did care to gamble,” Deuce said aloud.
“Me neither, pal.”
“Shit, the headlamps.” And twice, brightening Deuce’s eyes in a quadrangle thrown from the rearview. Two postures became impeccable, each man straight as a post.
There were cars between the wrecker and the Chevy, one coming on but not in any visible rush. No funny petit French slipper, anyway.
“Must have seen something. But what?”
In truth deeper in the field Lester was stepping on the gas. But a wrecker like that, strapped and yoked for anything up to a rig tractor, was never any Formula One.
Juvie had turned around to stare, squinting through beams in the back window. “Pontiac Bonneville sport coupe. Hard top. White all over with a custom pink trim.”
“Only a pimp would—wait. That’s Dom Merringue’s goddam car.”
The Pontiac hit a blinker and took a gentle veer into the faster lane. Never a hurry, even as it sidled up. Deuce had a look—and here was the discount middleman himself, at passenger side, wet tongue and bullet hole put up on the glass. From behind him the comedienne had leaned forward, hunching into the steering wheel, to meet Deuce’s eye.
Hard right. The rear wheels skidded out and the junk-trunk on the Chevy overswung them, but the Bel Air made the side street. Coupe de pimp did not stop or even slow from the limit. Juvie had clamped hard on the dash.
“What the fuck was that? What the fuck was that?”
“Sound the retreat,” Deuce said. He thought of adding something about king’s horses and king’s men but that struck him as puerile. Nor did he want to be the egg.
“What the fuck was that?”
The wrecker’s lamps were right behind them, eye-high in the rear window. Deuce turned to Juvie but had no comeback. Toying with them. Only then did he remember the sixgun in his pocket—and he knew he was not that guy, never was, never would be.
“We need the soldiers,” he said. Pride cometh before the fall, but there were falls and then there were falls. Take a powder, Humpty Dumpty—a corner stool and a dunce cap were not too steep a shill.
The wrecker idled in both lanes on the side street, blocking the Strip. Up ran Lester.
“What the fuck was that? What the fuck was that?”
The audience took their seats—three of the four around the Eames dinette. Bottle and card were still dead center, three shot glasses damp, the well-chewed cigar gone cold. One by one she had had them pluck electric cords from table lamps. This dimming of the light scheme not only lent ambience—intimate, like a fancy dinner—but kept hands to backs and asses fast to seats. Whatever she did to tighten the grip—a single jerk, no wiggle left—spoke of a hitch well past basic seamanship.
Deuce had chosen optimism. “You trust us not to shout?”
Juvie and Lester gave faces. “I do, Andrea,” said the comedienne. “Plus you’d have to be pretty loud. You know.”
Great—two more stiffs someplace close, and prime goombahs no less. That was a lot of meat for a freezer haul. Deuce sought to keep the count flat.
“What’d she call you?” Juvie said.
Lester won the laugh. “That a lady name!” The comedienne joined them.
“Okay, you got me,” Deuce said. “Never was an Andy, dead to rights over here. Mind if I have something to call you back, Ishmael aside? Or Red?”
“You can call me Mary-Kate Ultra.” Whatever that meant was plenty funny to her.
“Aha!” Juvie said. “I knew it! That’s a spy name! She’s a Soviet!”
“Russian? I was born in Dubuque. Anglo-Irish stock. And what kind of spy would use a, what, a ‘spy name,’ you said? Unlike Fatale I’m a pretty good spy.”
“I thought you say you were from a different superposition on the wave-function manifold that underpin material reality.”
“Sure, Lester—and Dubuque. With a radically different experience of here and now.”
Deuce was not about to call anybody Mary-Kate Ultra, not even with a Cracker Jack decoder ring. So, “Red, if it’s not too impertinent, may I pose a question? Why aren’t you asking us some questions? If this is a brace—a sweat under lights, like the cops go for—you know, isn’t interrogation a part of that?”
She checked her watch. “Ten more minutes,” she said. “Maybe.”
But Juvie leapt in. “Okay, so if you’re a spy, but not a Russian one, that must mean you’re one of ours.” She said nothing. He went on. “And that would mean what’s-his-face, Gumption, he’d have to be the Russian, since you kept tabs.”
“That does make some sense,” Deuce said. “He had government ID in the wallet. Q clearance. And the name was Gumtree, pal. Ernest Gumtree.”
“By Doctor Seuss,” Lester said.
“One fewer question for me to ask,” said the comedienne. “Thanks, Deuce. And thank you, Dr. Seuss.”
“What’s Q clearance?”
Deuce eased back as best he could, the height of complacency. “Well, Juvie, you see, some government secrets are more secret than others. To know everything all at once—code names, projects, the color of the presidential briefs—you have to have the highest government clearance.” The comedienne took a seat and let him tumble. “Q is the most special I know of, and I only got that much because some of those eggheads were a mite loose on gin and tonics. They come in from the testing range for weekend R and R.”
“Go on,” said the comedienne, chin to palm.
“No, no, wait,” Juvie cut in. “Let me finish. If Elmer Gantry was a Russian spy and the redhead here is one of ours, then we’re all on the same side, right? We three, we’re servicemen, mustered out or not. We swore an oath. To defend the homeland? I might not have a Q but I know my alphabet and my word is my bond.”
The comedienne raised a finger to flag for silence. The smile had left her face. Something in her bearing made the room go tense. At rest her face wore creases from the grin deep as age. She put down the handgun and reached for a shot glass. Into this she poured whiskey from the bottle clear to the brim. A forefinger hook scooted it back in front. She took off her lenses. Juvie and Les saw her blown-out eyes. The sight shut them up as she began to speak—each phrase and word a nonsense, but somehow dire. She tapped each out with a fingertip on the table.
“Paperclip. Tuskeegee. Pain maudit. Sea spray. Guatemala. Ohio State Penitentiary. Chatter. Naomi. Delta. Midnight climax. Artichoke. Rendition. Black sites. Prison camps. Vivisectors. Heard of that book The Manchurian Candidate? That’s the Sunday funnies. That’s Mutt and Jeff. Offshore stuff, that’s a lot worse, but what’s at home is plenty awful.” She took the whiskey all at once—no winces—and kept them in a rivet. “Substances,” she said, pouring out a second belt. “Substances and materials. That’s your role here in the grand curiosity. That’s how each of you is a lab rat. I’ll cite the page that isn’t here, verbatim.” Her voice grew sharp. “One. Substances which will promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness to the point where the recipient would be discredited in public. Two. Substances which increase the efficiency of mentation and perception. Three. Materials which will cause the victim to age faster or slower in maturity. Four. Materials which will promote the intoxicating effect of alcohol. Five. Materials which will produce the signs and symptoms of recognized diseases in a reversible way so they may be used for malingering, et cetera. Six. Materials which will cause temporary or permanent brain damage and loss of memory. Seven. Substances which will enhance the ability of individuals to withstand privation, torture, and coercion during interrogation and so-called brain-washing. Eight. Materials and physical methods which will produce amnesia for events preceding and during their use. Nine. Physical methods of producing shock and confusion over extended periods of time and capable of surreptitious use.” Her recital sped. “Ten. Substances which produce physical disablement such as paralysis of the legs, acute anemia, et cetera. Eleven. Substances which will produce a chemical that can cause blisters. Twelve. Substances which alter personality structure in such a way the tendency of the recipient to become dependent upon another person is enhanced. Thirteen. A material which will cause mental confusion of such a type the individual under its influence will find it difficult to maintain a fabrication under questioning.” She took the dram in a belt and spoke yet faster, pouring out a third. “Fourteen. Substances which will lower the ambition and general working efficiency of men when administered in undetectable amounts. Fifteen. Substances which promote weakness or distortion of the eyesight or hearing faculties, preferably without permanent effects. Sixteen. A knockout pill which can be surreptitiously administered in drinks, food, cigarettes, as an aerosol, et cetera, which will be safe to use, provide a maximum of amnesia, and be suitable for use by agent types on an ad hoc basis.” Now she was shouting. “Seventeen. A material which can be surreptitiously administered by the above routes and which in very small amounts will make it impossible for a person to perform physical activity. Eighteen. Eighteen.” Drink taken, she threw the glass—a fierce overhand. “Eighteen, eighteen, eighteen eighteen eighteen eighteen eighteen eighteen eighteen!”
The audience had not one clever word to share. They sat in a terror, too afraid to move. Shards and whiskey drew straight tracks down the wall. Their shuddering breath was the only sound.
“I forget.” A faint smile. “Maybe there never was an eighteenth. Reply hazy. Try again.” Without threat she stepped up close to touch Juvie’s cheek. A rueful tone—like a grownup might use to tell a kid that she broke a promise—as she said a lone quiet word.
Juvie hung his head. Deuce came in, and his voice shook no less.
“What’s in the bottle, Red?”
Nothing but the tension.
“What’s in the goddam whisky bottle?”
Lester came in. “No, no, there can’t—there can’t be nothing, Deuce—she just, she just drank from that herself.”
The comedienne said, “LSD-25. I’ve been on it for seven years.” She took up the handgun to check the clip. “Seven years straight.” Clapped tight, palm to weapon. “If the bastards only knew.”
Giancarlo had four goombahs on standby. Fat heads, ungenerous faces—each of them looked like a hospital corner put on a bear trap. Large guys, so big laughs, one of them with a wheeze atop the thunder like a rubber duck on the tweak. The biggest and the ugliest, Deuce assumed without a look, who had probably not only slain his fellow man but eaten him medium rare with a nice pan sauce. Fantastic suits on each of them, though—herringbone, sharkskin. Fiends did like a good set of clothes.
The jolly triggermen were behind Deuce’s flinching threesome, who in turn stood before the desk in the office. “A girl.” Giancarlo said. “One girl.” No laughs except from the gallery which did not mean unamused. Giancarlo ran cold like that—an introvert, maybe, but one who knew how to play to a room. “One.” Finger up.
“Yes, Giancarlo. Girl. One. Short, too, and a redhead. Slim. Couldn’t weigh past a buck twenty soaking wet. And boy did she ever get the drop on us. Hell, maybe there are other players and we just haven’t caught a glimpse.”
“Russians,” Juvie said. “She might be a Russian spy.” The drop of ambient heat iced his mouth shut.
Giancarlo asked, “You brought a thirty-eight along, you say?”
“Thirty-two,” Deuce said. “S and W long. Bigger would have spoiled my lines.”
“May I see this thirty-two?” The sixgun lay the desk. “Were you going to start a soapbox derby?” The goombahs were really going now. Giancarlo looked on with an analytical bent. “Okay,” he said at last. “Here’s what happened. The Jews.”
“The tribe down at the Arrowhead. How they love a badger game—back on the Lower East Side they ran one every day. This redhead, she’s been skulking out in the lobby, waiting to overhear. You were loud at the front desk. You are always too damn loud, just like that godawful sport coat. Marjorie was it?”
“Florimel. Leave her out, Gianni.”
“Oh, I shall, I shall. It’s you who tests me. The redhead—nobody noticed her there until the early checkout was discovered in the presidential suite. Just one more floozy on a smoke break—who’d ever gripe about a piece like that on the loiter? And who was it you saw in that Pontiac? A pimp named Merringue? She might have played fools there, too—pretended to be part and parcel to keep in good position. And a crack shot of theirs, that cinched it once his usefulness was over—someone like Rothschild or Vach brought in to play Dot the Swami, then prop him up for your divertissement. The theatrics got you spooked so you came back with the early checkout—here, the one place where he does not belong. They have untimely stiffs of their own down at the Arrowhead. More so—those Christ killers are a glum and clannish bunch, am I right? But their in-house operations—surreptitious removals—those would work just like ours. See? They’d know just how to trip us up. It’s the scenario that speaks to me.”
“Except why? What do you do with a, a spare left in the trunk?”
“And the trunk left in a garage on hotel grounds. What’s coming next—what’s coming tonight, soon—will be a federal agent. A tip or a favor, either way. Local cops have a good thing going—they let it ride—but a G-man, some Washingtonian carpetbagger feeling light on his resume, he’d strap on the lobster bib and get the butter melted.” Giancarlo shook his head with a scoff. “Jews.”
“Jews,” the goombahs said with nods.
Deuce was blushing but kept the furies on the bench. Giancarlo was not done yet. “You, my friend—you fancy yourself mercurial, a trickster god, so you ought to know a game or two. They played you like a klezmer clarinet.” Next would come the shofar because that had more Yid on it. “They blew your shofar.” Big laughs brought up the rear. “So here’s what we’ll do. Gabby and Lou, you’re going to take the Chevy and one of your own for a desert Rose Parade up onto the mesa. Rocham for who drives what to the lookout and what back. Take trench brooms in case this rundown is just a fever dream of mine. Raffle, Eddie, you’re here on guard—the floor five stairwells. Like I said, just in case. We’ll shut down the elevator stop. That’s all staff housing. No complaints.”
Deuce knew floor five. Did he ever. “Home quarantine?”
“You and your bookends here—you’re overnighting. Once the early checkout is done with and the coroner is on the case it won’t make no difference. Who takes couch, who takes bathtub, that’s none of my business. Reception will send up extra pillows.”
“Gianni, they’ve got wives to go home to!”
“So do I, Don Juan Cockamamie. So do I. Anyway, I’m sure Mrs. Shemp and Mrs. Moe know about midnight oil. Want I should give you each a dime for the booth?”
“That won’t be necessary, sir,” Juvie said.
Lester had been quiet. A colored guy knew how to bide. Now he fished out his keys from the coveralls and laid them on the desk. “For the loading dock.”
“Good man. You’ll go places. One last thing before we break huddle. Deuce, this will all need thorough spelling out—to Sergio. You and me together, tomorrow noon—I’ll arrange a little conference call. Unless you want Eddie Spaghetti there to run a handwritten note like that Greek jamoke to Athens.” Right—Eddie—that was the ducky wheezer cannibal. The noodle choice was wordplay. “Remember it well—none of our four friends here are errand boys. Sprezzatura regulars—they’re here for Don Casci, one hundred percent. And so am I.”
“‘And so am I.’ Goddam brown-noser. Welcome to my humble commode.” He dropped the plaque on the outer knob. Mere formality since the corridor would be empty.
“No need to cuss,” Juvie said.
“What, commode?” The dish took the keys. Deuce let the houseguests pass and shut the door. “When you get so hung up on bad words, anyways?”
“Trix, she likes a clean mouth.” To Lester, “Run with that and I make a doormat. Anyways it’s not all the words, just the one.”
Juvie meant the Almighty. “I think I swore worse in the Chevy, pal.”
“I was too busy swearing over you to hear.”
“Hey, hey.” Lester stepped aside to enhance the view. On the dinette was a bottle in a box—good whiskey, and an import, actual Scotch scotch. There was a gift bow on it and a card propped on the ribbon. “Don’t tell me boss man up and grew his self a heart.”
Deuce read. And brightened. “Ho, ho, ho—Dino, baby! What a guy!”
“That bottle from Dean Martin?” Lester scouted out glasses. “Never had me a movie star drink before.” And an ashtray. “Can I light up?” Sharing was a given. They took their seats, Lester in a spicy cloud. “He got something to be happy about?”
“An assignation. Bottoms up!”
On the ahh, Juvie asked. “No talk out of school, but celebrities are everybody’s business. What’s said at this table stays at this table. So, uh, who?”
“Whoa!” From Les and Juvie alike. Another round, two more whoas. “Hang on,” Juvie said. “Are you telling me there’s a chance that even now, somewhere overhead, Dean Martin is playing flute for Angie Dickinson?” He caught himself. “Sorry.” To Trix.
“You got that instrumentation in reverse,” Lester said.
“No, no, like playing the part. Being the flute. Okay. Whatever. Down the hatch.”
“That more like it.”
“Palomine,” Deuce said, “it’s no first rodeo. What a life that guy must lead. He’s having a better night than us anyway, with Cruela de Vil clamoring for our spots.”
“Not enough fly in all of Spain,” Juvie said, of Dino, not de Vil.
“Damn sunburn,” Lester said. He was rubbing at a hand.
“What did you say, Les?”
Leave it to Juvie. “Didn’t think you could burn. All that brown considered.”
“Oh—I see some on you guys, too. Like a cock smack on a albino.”
“Hey,” Juvie said. “That’s uncivil.”
Deuce was stuck on the burn. “Lester, when did you ever get the chance? You were in the garage all day long. And on the loading dock. Indoors and in the shade. And you were only outside after dark, when Natasha Fatale did the sidecar act. How could you get sun?” And he would have made it further if not for a faintest step. She had kicked off her flats and opened the green handbag.
“Something’s happening. Something’s happening. Something’s happening.”
“Try to relax,” the comedienne told Juvie. “I could have always just shot you.”
“No help there.”
“Point is, it won’t hurt. LSD has never killed anybody. Well, that chemist died of jumping from a window, but that’s incidental.”
“What chemist? What window?”
Deuce saw, too—the onset. Every hue in his visual field was brightening and dimming like an ember in a hearth. But not with any cosy warmth, not at first. Light had grown cold, metallic, and every pigment false. Madness in a bottle.
“How bad does it get?” he asked. “How long’s this stuff take to go full blast?”
“Two hours. Three.” She had set the gun aside and brought out something else—a rectangle scarcely bigger than Colonel Digby’s cigarette case. She laid it flat on the tabletop, and Deuce would have asked for a smoke until he saw the glow. A glassy surface—she tapped at it with a fingertip. Colored lights shifted and music came on. What played was negro bubblegum—kid’s stuff, a girl group—but the tiny speakers caught it better than any hi-fi Deuce had heard.
“That the Shirelles?” Lester asked. “It sure sound like the Shirelles.”
The comedienne smiled and did a dance. Surprise—a sort of twist or sock hop or whatever the youngsters called it. She pumped fists on hooked arms held close to her body, and her face was stern. She sang along:
“Got a baby who can kiss
In thirty-one flavors
And we like tutti-frutti best
I call him ice cream Joe
He is the most delicious boy I know”
On it went. “My mistake,” Lester said.
She quit the teenybopper Salome. “No, you were right. Maybe off by a couple of years. Let me show you something.” She tapped at the case and the music quit. “A decade,” she said, hooking through more colored lights with a fillip. Music came back on, if you could call it that, and loud: drums in a smack hard and stuttering, guitar atop like an air raid siren. Deuce was flinching—that was no radio, no music station, whatever the device had inside other than a transistor. No home console had ever played so rich, loud, full. She sang along:
“If it keeps on raining
Levee’s going to break
If it keeps on raining
The levee’s going to break
When the levee breaks
We’ll have no place to stay”
Music had more weight than usual, and this stuff was leaden. Nevertheless it flew, crept up all over him, and he tried to shake it off. “Goddam! Quit that noise!”
“That Memphis Minnie,” Lester said through uneasy breath, “or the words, but—”
“Hold on,” she said. Again with the glowing pane, the hooking fingertip. “Twenty-five years.” The audio came on slow, a sound of rainfall and concussive triple drum strikes. From a distance the caterwaul of some inhuman thing, mournful or wounded. Then a theme amid war drum triples, broken and alien, redoubling in sick harmony. Rhythm burst like a head caught in a motor block—each rip and gush crystal clear. The comedienne threw a breeze with her pretty red hair, thrashing at the neck and waist like a maniac. The tempo sped double and the theme became an atonal flurry. The three men writhed. Juvie wept. The comedienne began to sing—better said rant, snarl:
“Trapped in purgatory
A lifeless object, alive
Death will be their acquittance
The sky is turning red”
Juvie was shouting—no, no—again and again. Shell shock. He had been there before after the Siege. “Red!” Deuce was teary-eyed. “No more. Let him be—please!”
She jabbed the slate to a glowless silence. Through the witchy muss she looked at them with honest surprise. “It’s only music. I hadn’t even got to the 1990s. That stuff’s my favorite. Try this.” She tapped and for all the dread what came on was the Hot Club—a frisky five-piece jam at moderate volume. “Better?” She smoothed her hair back.
“What is that thing?” Lester asked.
“A transistor radio, pretty much. Towers have to go up.”
“She a time traveler—she a goddam time traveler!”
The comedienne found patience. “Set aside that there’s no such thing as time and nobody to do the traveling, every last person you’ve ever met is a time traveler. You guys got acquainted in what, 1944? Yet here you all are, seventeen years up the road. I’m not magical and I’m not from the planet Venus. I was born in August 1928 and I die in April 2021. The only difference between you and me is that I have a higher vantage point.”
“Superposition,” Lester said.
“Who wins the World Series this year?” Deuce asked. Colors had begun to thaw and jokes felt possible again.
“How would I know? I hate baseball. Never watch it.”
Deuce laughed, and a laugh felt good, driving out the chill. For him, that was—Juvie was having a harder time. “Twenty-five,” he was saying, slick with sweat, tears spilling down. “Just twenty-five years and we’re all devil worshippers. Do they drop the bomb? What hell is left for that to be the music? Dear Lord in heaven, save us all.”
“Poor man. I’ll get some tapwater.”
While she was off Deuce leaned in as best he could. “Listen, you two. Remember what she said about secrets? Okay—first I thought she was a lunatic. Well, before that I thought she was a kidder, but let’s skip the big prelude. She’s not crazy, or not mainly crazy. This is more like a practical joke—a boondoggle—to shake us up, get us off our pins. Chin up—it’s cool. We’re just working on our tans here at poolside.”
Thought of a gag seemed to relieve Juvie. His breathing slowed.
“He’s not wrong,” the comedienne said, back with a glass. “Psyops are a part. Though he could sure learn to whisper.” A tilt lent Juvie the welcome sip. “Plus, Deuce, got to say—if I’m the clown here, why am I doing most of the laughing?”
Deuce was distracted from the lesson. Tans—something about working on tans. He thought hard. Lester noted the inattention and said, “We don’t know nothing.”
“You don’t know what you know. Litter in the wind. That’s why I needed to compare testimony. Gumtree was a runner. I was just keeping tabs, waiting for the call.”
“So you didn’t,” Deuce said. “Or not with him like you did with the pimp.”
“Hm? Oh. Right. Chickenhawk—I’ll take a mulligan. Gumtree would have vanished. All very neat. None of this would be going on right now. I think what ailed him aside from a big bout of conscience was his heart. Arrhythmia, not valentines. Don’t ask me the what got him scared. They sent me with minimum information, same as always.”
So this was about the desert again—the strangeness of an empty quarter blowing into town. Dunes crept, dunes swallowed. Cities lay at the bottom of the sand. The room had begun to spark. Sound had taken on an echo deeper than the walls—vast spaces beyond matter. And the inanimate was in a seethe. Subtly for now, but a swirl of geometries in tabletop and wall alike, draining in reverse from nothingness.
“Damn it,” Lester said. “You only forthcoming because we the ones going to vanish now. Thank you for leaving my baby out of it. Judy Lee.”
“Sweet. But no. That’s not how it will wind up. As of two minutes ago.”
Juvie was all in. “It’s true? You were going to? And you’re not?”
“And I don’t know why.” No callout of foul intent ever brought more relief. But she went on. “It’s rare. Something changed and I haven’t found out what yet. That means I’m not driving things. We’re in the dark.” She turned to Deuce and read his face. “You could say that,” she said. “Crazy. But only because no one has the full take. Crazy—it means cracked. I am like that—broken out. Here, let me give you some pointers for the ride. None of this comes from beyond you. Go in bad and you wind up in hell. Calm, and it’s a wonderment—a glimpse. First trips won’t take you far. Seeing past takes a long time. Same with developing a reach. I am far gone.”
“I’ll stick with crazy,” Deuce said.
“How are you feeling? You look a little red in the face—you and Juvie both.”
There. Seen so clearly now, even in four walls fluid like the bottle imp itself. “In the dark, eh? Well, surprise, surprise, Red—I just saw the light. And I’m here to testify.”
“Let me make a phone call.”
“Will the cord reach? Come on, Deuce.”
“I’m dead serious. Pun most definitely not intended, and better shown than told. The front desk—I can have something sent. I know people. This is a place of resource.”
“That wasn’t a pun. I’ll admit this is fun, though.” Lester and Juvie were no less absorbed in whatever it was that would save their lives.
“Half an hour, tops. No funny business, I swear. Later I won’t be able to do—I can tell. I won’t squeal and I’m too dumb to speak in codes. Trust me.”
“You are too dumb to speak in codes,” the comedienne said, weighing it.
Principessa was on desk that hour, which made for a tougher bargain, thanks to all the counteroffers. “Want I should come up later?”
“Daddy like, but raincheck, baby.” Cradle on the table, receiver to his ear, sound suppressor on his temple. “The room is spinning ring-around-the-rosie. Man, that new bartender can sling that sting from Singapore, I’ll tell you that.”
“Company, eh?” Principessa said. “Like I’d mind.” He told her whom to call and for what, and to drop his name good and hard. Because it was Las Vegas and Principessa was a consummate professional, no questions were asked, even for so oddball a ticket. When he nodded for the hangup, the comedienne burst into laughter.
“Sorry, Deuce. The way you talk to us—to womenfolk—it cracks me up.” Still, something ate, Deuce could see, and had been noshing since he had put the name to the errand. Not twenty minutes, but fifteen. There was a tap on the door. Nice—the Fix brand held sway, even in the last. The comedienne went to the door to open it a fissure, as prearranged, and she kept the weapon out of sight. Deuce heard giggles. The floor had taken up the rippling by then, and he could feel each duck and heave in his bones. Something else—the low light in the room, it had a flavor to it. Peach and mint. The name of the cocktail eluded him. But he kept it together. He even smiled.
The comedienne came back. “Was lady fair flirting with me?”
“Such are the delights of a desert oasis.”
“Ouch,” Lester said. “That hot.”
“Open up the box and switch the doo-dad on. Maybe read the manual.”
“I know how it works.”
“Go ahead then.”
Harsh—a squall dropping off to sparer clicks. Once more, once more.
“What’s that mean?” Juvie said.
The comedienne had no smiles, nothing to say. So Lester threw in. “Hot. We been irradiated—all of us. The car, Gumtree, they took a bad zap somewhere in the desert.”
“Jesus Christ Almighty.” Not a cuss.
Deuce said to the comedienne, “Maybe point it at yourself.” She shook her head—no need. “I know you know. We’re not gloating. Nobody’s happy about it.”
Gumtree had not said shaper to Florimel on the phoen, but chamber. That was how the wisenheimers of science realms saw things move that were too small and too fast for a human eye. Fields of vapor shredded through, trails that veered and curled and even cut a zigzag. To flaunt the virtues of the atomic age magazines ran photos of such, and these Deuce had seen, whether in lobbies or sat down for a shoeshine. A cloud chamber was no esoteric thing, but even a chump who liked to skip words for pictures knew that tracery—the hieroglyphs drawn—could spell out something damnable.
With a frown the comedienne did the self-check. A harsh burst. And she threw the geiger counter into the kitchenette, overhand and hard. Such language, like a fury lashed to the roost. The three ex-GIs were impressed—even Lester, who heard much the same every day when friends showed up in his garage for rounds of cribbage. In time she composed herself, showed her face. Mascara had run. All the surfaces were really twisting now, a moire pattern draining up. But not her. The comedienne was resolute.
“I’ll have to have to hash this out with the clientele,” she said. “My words will be stern ones.”
“You weren’t told?” Juvie asked.
“Oh, these perverts. These goddam reptiles. How they love to hold back. Smug about it, too—self-congratulating, greater good, schoolmarm little bitches. Keep it from me? Well you’re about to perfect the art, you beta male motherfuckers.”
The word again. She went into the kitchenette and came back with a chef’s knife. No strong flinches as she cut bonds. Though she did keep the gun in hand—only good form.
Lester rubbed his wrists. He seemed far away, smaller with a distance. “We dying?”
“We are, but not of this,” she said. “Not us four. Some might.” A private smile had come back. “No, I see the way out.” A titter escaped. “Oh boy. Oh boy oh boy. Everyone into the bathroom. Chop chop. Double quick.”
“Red, not with the tub again!”
“No, no—not the tub. The shower stall.”
The three men stood mute. Lester was quickest. “Oh—we can wash some of this off. It like fallout. A residue, not gamma rays.”
“Dibs,” Juvie called, and they stood up to run for the door. The sudden movement unsettled the balance or the very surface. All three men fell and the floor caught them like a cartoon glove, billowing inward, puffing out. They rose to try again.
“All of you,” the comedienne shouted, halt brought. She was no longer pointing the weapon though it remained in hand. “In the shower stall. All at once.”
Deuce was whipping off the checkerboard already. He folded it in half and slung it over a forearm. Good thing—looking at the pattern had begun to make him feel dizzy. They were not squares but the faces of cubes—or of cubes that were more than cubes, submerged in higher-dimensional space. “Red, have you seen it in there? Close quarters. We can go one at a time. We’re all on board.”
“All at once,” she said again. “And you’re going to soap each other up.”
Juvie was appalled. “What?”
“Swallow that pride,” she said. “You three have been to boot. I know you know what it’s like to share a shower. Hell, those low toilet bowls didn’t even come with stalls.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, “all true—but why soap each other up?”
“Look! I’m not the threat! What’s on you will kill you dead, Juvie. You’re going to have to be thorough. Head to foot. Hands in places you never knew hands could go.”
Lester was laughing, stripping nude. His limbs stretched like taffy where he pulled clothes. Deuce turned to him. “Hey, a little consideration for the lady present?”
“She going to watch,” Lester said.
Deuce turned to meet the smile. But she had advice.
“Don’t throw the clothes all around. Leave them in a pile. They’ll have to be buried in concrete—among other things.”
“Not my checkerboard!”
“Your wardrobe or your life,” said the comedienne.
Like the Benny bit. I’m thinking it over, Jack had told the stickup artist. But a wallet, a coat—these were not the firm ground they had been earlier in the day, and the flood was on them. What was that lyric? Deuce let the checkerboard fall away, and the carpet drank it up. “Thought I’d die in that,” he said. More clothes were piling on.
“No,” she said. “You’ll button left.”
“Don’t look at me,” Juvie said to the comedienne, covering up with a hand.
“No need to be scared. Plus I like how a man looks, even before the rooster crows. It’s cute—like a funny nose and glasses. Though I suppose that’s a chicken and egg argument. Inside, inside—and if you slam the door on me I’m shooting off a knob.” Word play meant. She followed. “You guys are in good shape,” she said. “Get the water the right temperature,” she told Deuce. “Warm but not too hot. It’s going to run for a while. A hotel like this has a big boiler—good thing. Leave the shower curtain wide.”
Something had changed about the water—about water itself. Each droplet struck with a musical chime. Soft, subtle, but in concert it was the sound of a music box in the wind. That choral music gave peace. Deuce put a hand to the rain and felt himself relax.
The feeling was not mutual, not at first. “Darn it,” Juvie said into the steam. The stall was narrow and he found a corner. The three could scarcely fit without touching. The comedienne was throwing bars of soap from the cabinet.
“Lather up,” she said.
Deuce felt hands, and more—not a first time for him, but neither was it his favorite circus. But these hands—the hands themselves, like the water drops—these were new. He was going to say something smart to the comedienne, mock her voyeur stare a little, just for a joke, but as he looked out past the vapor he saw her throw the pistol in the wastebasket. And she began to take off her own clothes, too, turning to him, staring back. She bit a lip. His two friends had also turned to gawk, and Deuce felt a pressure. He looked down—never so hard, like a sculpt, recurving to himself. Off came her blouse, her skirt, never to be worn again. She unhooked her brassiere and pulled free the straps and cups. The skin was cream with cinnamon shook on. Off came the hose and the panties underneath. He saw the red triangle, all the curves wrought around that simple shape, a body sleek and muscular. No seethe, no geometries unclocking—she was more here than here. She stepped in—slipped between all three men and stood as one flesh, her eyes and Deuce’s very close, in a lock. Her red hair melted down. She smoothed it back from her face. “Help me,” she said, and he felt her hand take his cock. Just the touch was enough to throw every last thought of self. “Help me.” Mouths met his and her lips parted, tongues in play. The kiss spread through head to foot, and her gentle grip began to work him. Juvie had hands on her, too, and Lester on the other side, and they were no less hard and ready. Deuce felt her breast, the nipple at thumb and finger beneath the film of soap, and she drew in a sharp breath. You’re so beautiful—never spoken, never heard, rain chiming down. All limit fell away in a swirl on the drainpipe.
Just past sunrise three changed men stumbled out to open sky. Under hotel robes they wore no more than undershirts and boxers, these lent out from one man’s private chest of drawers. Little choice—the other clothes, the squalling pile, had disappeared, and buttoning a shirt and trousers felt like a lot of work. Shuffling feet, six eyes haunted, pupils shrunken down. The phony Trevi was frothing up in waterworks. They stared on, and whether it was for the mickey lingering in their blood or the newfound nature of reality itself, the sight of water standing like a living thing, blossoming, pouring back down, was stranger than a dream.
Speaking of. Waking in a sticky pile with two man-friends—not picture perfect, once the one woman who had been there to buffer them was gone. While madness was still at work Deuce had had a vivid experience of some sort, if not quite wakeful. Very early, still dark out—she had gone into that selfsame chest of drawers to put on his things. But as they slid in place the clothes were other clothes, women’s clothes, and of a style he had never seen. Here the overlap of dream went to nightmare. She was not alone. Two others, maybe, had come into the room, not even firm silhouettes on backlit drapes. An ultraviolet beam shone from where faces should have been and a telegraph key served for a clicking voice. She spoke back in a whispering that had no language. Wherever the beams fell constellations lit up, ghostly on bare wall and furniture. Gone, then, those chaperones, and one last fond regard as she stared on from the foot of the bed. He could not see enough of her face to read it. Fond—maybe that was hope. Her stance was like that of a vulture in the dunes, waiting for a thirsty crawl to stop.
Juvie burst into tears. “We touched meats,” he said.
Lester covered up his mouth—a laugh held back while he hid the grin—but Deuce was more sympathetic. “Juvie, sweetheart—don’t let that fret you! Happenstance! You know how it is when three hot bloods rush the gate. Here, bring it in—”
Hug denied. “What am I going to tell Trix?”
“Not a goddam thing,” Deuce said. “Since you love her so. And friend, for righteous silence you know you’re in the right place.” On a sweep of the arms once again the town became his exhibit A. Juvie staggered away from the water dance. Deuce gave a nod to the valet, who waved a cab over. No need to pay fare, which was good since the morning getup had not come with pockets. Once Juvie was in and off, Deuce turned to Lester, who was still hand-to-mouth, a twinkle in his eye.
“You’re going to tell your wife, aren’t you?”
“Every damn word.” He was almost beaming. “Marriage a sacrament. Plus Judy Lee always up to hear how we got one up on a fay.” The merriment came down. “And even aside from that, uh, you know, there that whole other thing.”
“What other thing, pal?”
“She say cancer. She didn’t say when. But she say cancer.”
Deuce was thinking on it long after Lester’s cab was gone, the down note played flat. And then he saw it—what would keep the seal on the affair intact, and just what the comedienne had done. The omerta beyond omerta—the jolly roger on the masthead. Psyops, she had said, and though the word was new the use was not. All made up, orchestrated, and this was the result—airtight government work.
He began to laugh, and each hoot walloped hard, left him doubled over. Isn’t she funny, he said to himself. Isn’t she just the funniest. He found himself backward in the Trevi lite, sopping wet, and though that water was cold, chlorinated, less forgiving than a shower fuck, it did not cut short the happy gasp that shook him through and through.
“Working that backstroke, Deuce?”
Dino, bright and early, standing above him, and Miss Angie Dickinson at his side. Both were done up in Bermuda shorts, bucket hats, and smiles. Out for an early round of miniature golf, perhaps. Fame—what a strange kind of racket.
“It’s been a long night,” Deuce said. “Long and rare.”
“Amen,” said Miss Angie Dickinson. She and Dino each held out a hand, and so angels brought Deuce back to earth. Only later did he learn of the vanishing act and feel the chill come back. Four Sprezzatura infantry, the car, the stiff, and even Giancarlo—gone without a trace. Just like the checkerboard, taken to a secret spot. That made for upheaval, a temporary loss of face, but another day’s chaos had yet to visit.
Thus the wartime trio broke up, each friend gone his own way. Only Deuce kept on at the Strand, now done up in the golden fleece so lovingly tailored by the gnome. Once the stink had passed he had replaced Giancarlo as manager, but he remained visible. A talent was a talent and nothing to waste. The Rat Pack soon wore the same mystic threads, as foretold, even that mutt with the glass eye.
Juvie had opened a pentecostal revival tent back in rural southern California, and he left the desert behind. What a minister he made, slinging gospels to a big congregation, faithful cigarette girl at his side with an earmarked Bible in her lap. He wore a funny getup—deep sleeves like a wizard in samite. This hid all the tattoos, and he meant every word he said about the workings of the devil and tribulations to come.
Lester, that was different. Judy Lee had not been so keen. They split up, and soon after he began to wear a bow tie with a dark suit. He had changed his diet to vegetarian, his outlook to militant, and his last name to al-Shabazz. New York City was his new home, and he no longer much cared for tales of science fiction. Though his new crew did have flying saucers in the backstory, which was nice.
Hoodwinked, Deuce wanted to tell them. Merest theatrics. But they never spoke anymore and he still loved the role of gangster emcee. Two years later he went to a Vegas premiere—It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the cast of which included every funny person who had ever roamed the earth except for Don Rickles. There Deuce wore the golden fleece as he did anywhere in public. That byssus was a well-vaunted thread—resplendent, indestructible. It would outlast him. His date that night was a married woman, and he had a married man right behind him there in the auditorium, not husband to this particular she but to a whole different can of worms. In the man’s own coat was a small caliber handgun, and he stared with great intent at the back of Deuce’s well-combed and shiny head of hair. The lights went down. Before the half—long outing, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World—Ethel Merman’s character tried to phone up Dick Shawn, who portrayed her wayward idiot son, Sylvester. The telephone was left ringing on a tiki head because Barrie Chase was doing a dance that had Sylvester baying like a hound. A sort of twist or sock hop or whatever the youngsters called it. She pumped fists on hooked arms held close to her body, and her face was stern. “Go, baby, go!” Sylvester was saying. The Shirelles were on the hi-fi in a nutty boho beach shack palace, a song that had not theretofore been put out on 45 or radio. Got a baby who can kiss/ In thirty-one flavors/ And we like tutti-frutti best.
“Wait a minute,” Deuce said, and that was all. No more nursery rhymes.