Craig Shaw should have pulled over an hour ago. He can hardly keep his eyes open. He is just on the other side of fifty and getting too old for this shit. He makes a mental note: The next time his literary agent tells him he has twelve hours to get his ass to Las Vegas for some sort of “public relations” bullshit, he will tell him where he can stuff all those cheap bourbon “meet and greets” in the smoke filled back rooms.
The Vegas photo op is always the same. Craig waves away the cheap cigarette smoke, while a cocktail floozy keeps his bourbon glass full. Craig nods his silver grey head with feigned interest, as a retired, octogenarian hoodlum with a glaring speech impediment tries to tell him how he used to break kneecaps for a long dead, Sicilian Capo. The hoodlum is suffering from early onset dementia. He repeats the same little story details ad nauseam; and he keeps assuring him “yep, those were the days,” like he is a greasy Italian Archie Bunker. The oldster is losing his marbles, but he has not yet lost his roving eye. He pinches and slaps the cocktail floozy like she is a punching doll with incredibly big bazookas, and for the tips she pretends to like it.
For all of his grisly tales, the hoodlum is usually pretty colorless in person. He is like the faded wallpaper in the back room. He blends in with the 1950s décor of an old casino. He is meant to be in a place like that, but that alone does not make him all that interesting. Still, Craig gets a “certified mobster endorsement” for his next book, “Sin City Undercover,” and his literary agent gets a photograph of the author and the mobster that he can post on Facebook.
Everyone wins, in theory at least, except that it is Craig putting all those miles on his Chevy. It is Craig paying the bourbon and cigarette tab, when the hoodlum has left with the cocktail floozy for the night.
And it is Craig who has to drive all night, so that he can get back home in time to push pleadings and briefs from one law firm desk to another. Until one of his mob books takes fire, he has to pay the bills in a more conventional way, and since he has failed the state bar exam three times already he has to do so as a paralegal instead of an attorney. The work is as time consuming, but the pay is much less, and the cuties do not give him hand jobs under his desk. He does not have enough cache among the legal eagles and the rainmakers for the fringe benefits package apparently.
The only good news tonight is that he got a text from his immediate boss, an attorney whippersnapper half his age, informing him that he does not need to work in the office tomorrow. The attorneys and the cuties are travelling out as a group to Palm Springs for a golf charity event. The attorneys get to walk around with drinks pretending their Dean Martin, while the cuties try to pry them away from their rich bitch wives back home. It is supposed to be fun in the sun for everyone, and no one wants the middle aged paralegal with the paunch there to ruin it.
Craig is okay with that. He does not want to be there, either. Indeed, as soon as one of his mob books finds an audience, he will be outta there like he is a rapper, and the law firm is Compton. This is why he always agrees to drive out to Las Vegas at the last minute. He no longer gives a damn about mob stories. He lost his interest in his own books a long time ago, but he knows that there is no other way out. Craig is never going to pass the state bar exam, and no rich woman is going to hand him a couple million dollars and a Ferrari. All he has left are his books, his agent, and those old hoodlums still able to recount their war stories.
From where he is right now Craig reckons he will need to drive another four and a half hours to get to his own bed. That is formidably long with his eyes half shut and his stomach growling. Normally, the “meet and greets” provide some finger food for the participants, but this time the cocktail floozy only passed around bourbon in Styrofoam cups. He ate nothing there, and he was too anxious to get home to grab a bite afterwards. Now, out in the middle of a Nevada desert, his stomach is screaming that he had made a mistake. He thinks from now on he will call his stomach ‘Evelyn’ after his ex-wife. His stomach is nagging him as much as she did before she left him.
Craig turns on the radio. The only station that can be reached way out here is broadcasting, “Coast to Coast AM.” George Noory is interviewing a guest who claims to be an interdimensional tourist. The guest explains that she is “legal,” because she got a visa from an angel named Barry that allows her to be here. Craig thinks the she sounds like a crazy cat woman. He tunes into “Coast to Coast AM” on these overnight road trips to stay awake. This time it is not working.
He opens up his window. Cold air should do the trick, and at night the desert is usually very cold and dry. This helps a little, but when he has to swerve twice in a span of ten minutes in order to stay on the two-lane highway he knows that that air is not going to work for the long haul.
He can pull over to the side of the road and take a nap. When he was a young man that is what he would have done. Ignorance is bliss. The problem is that he is no longer so ignorant. He has done a lot of research these past few years about this part of the state. The desert may seem to be dark and lifeless after hours, but in fact there is considerable criminal activity hidden just beyond the moonlight. Most of it is what we may call the organized kind: Eighteen Wheelers hauling contraband for the Mafia (Italian in some areas, but also Russian and Vietnamese); Mexican drug cartel mules in pickup trucks moving cocaine to safe houses out in the middle of nowhere; creepy and erratic meth dealers working all night in their homes just off the road, much like bakers do when preparing bread for the next day; and the human smugglers moving their sex slaves when they surmise that the law is getting too close to them. Though rarer, there are also the lone wolves: The serial killer hitchhiking for his next victim; the druggie who needs to find some cash on his way to the meth house; and even an old school Hell’s Angel who will bust up your automobile (and you) for no particular reason. If Craig falls asleep on the side of this road, then likely nothing at all is going to happen, but something really bad could happen.
Craig decides to stop at the next twenty-four hour diner or motel he finds. He hopes to find a bed for the night; but if that is not possible, then at least he hopes for a cup of coffee beside an old jukebox somewhere.
It is a long time before he sees something, and again he almost drives off the highway. He brightens up a little when he sees twinkling casino lights ahead. Desert highway casinos are always small and ramshackle. The clientele at this time of night will be the deadbeat variety. The whores will be the old and hairy kind who cannot make it in Vegas or in one of the bunny ranches. Even the coffee will be bad, but the night is not offering any other refuge.
Craig drives closer, and can read the flickering neon sign on the top of a high pole: “Get Lucky. Get Laid.” Not very subtle, but for all the miles of desert wasteland there is still no room in Nevada for subtlety.
The casino is a twenty-four hour diner with an add-on that houses a bunch of poker tables and slot machines. The add-on looks like something Helen Keller would have built if she were a contractor. It is hard to imagine a real Planning Commission somewhere would have approved a permit for that design. The bad architecture has been hidden somewhat by the sheer multitude of flickering lights. On the roof of the casino is a waving Yosemite Sam rip-off that looks a lot like Charlie Chan. Up there is also a statue of a pretty, busty woman mooning the parking lot. She is glancing back at the lot while holding up a plate of hamburgers. Beneath her red flashing rear end is another flashing sign that reads: “Got Buns?” Not very original, but the old whores, greasy drunks, and long haul truckers in cowboy hats milling around the front doors (one for the diner, and one for the casino) are not looking for Shakespeare.
Craig parks his Chevy by a big rig truck. As tired as he is he notes the bumper sticker: “Haulin’ Ass for the Holy Spirit.” He doubts he is going to find the Holy Spirit in this place. A burger and a cup of coffee will be fine enough.
Craig hurriedly walks passed the loitering deadbeats. He hears the loud and obnoxious ding-ding-ding from the slot machines in the adjoining building. If there are a couple dozen slot machines operating in there, then one of them is likely to hit at least a small jackpot at any given time. The zombies inserting their quarters, and pulling down on those levers, may be oblivious to everything else, but they are very much aware that someone is winning something in the room. That will keep the red-eyed zombies going until they run out of quarters. Everything you see and hear is all about keeping them there until they are broke. There is no middle ground here. The patrons either leave a few bucks richer, or they leave penniless. Craig thinks there is no purer example of capitalism elsewhere except for the Mafia and the drug cartels.
Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Craig opens the front door, and steps inside the diner. He hears the door ding a bell above him. How oddly quaint for a place like this. It is like he is stepping into a barbershop operated by a bunch of Italian geezers. He has been in those places. The cutters are ancient, skinny, wear too much black gel in their hair, and trade crude jokes in Italian. They move their hands when they talk, and it is a wonder they do not stab their patrons with the scissors.
Strange it is that Craig thinks about an old barbershop; but he is tired, and his mind often takes odd detours when it is sleep deprived. When he was younger, Craig did some of this best writing at night while pushing back sleep. He does not have the energy for that now, but his imagination still surprises him now and then.
The diner is full, but it is more subdued than what he had observed outside. It is a place where people sit and stay for long hours. Though the patrons talk with one another, their conversations are whispered; and the tone seems tenser than what he would have expected.
Craig takes note, but really does not care. It is not like he is in here looking to be excited. He wants a burger and a cup of coffee. He could care less if everyone else seems like they are in another world.
A big cowboy pays his check, and steps away from his stool at the counter. He walks passed Craig on the way out the door. He seems a little nervous, and is careful to avoid eye contact with Craig.
More strange behavior, but again Craig does not care. He moves fast to snatch the stool. He rests his elbows on the counter, and rubs out a headache in his temples.
The server is a pretty, bosomy woman in a pink waitress dress. She wears an old fashioned, white apron in front of her pleated skirt, and her black hair is a Jackie Kennedy bouffant. She keeps a smoldering cigarette in an ashtray up by the register, and she takes a puff on her smoke whenever she passes it.
The waitress sees Craig, puts down her cigarette, and pours a cup of coffee at once. She moves fast, and keeps her eyes down. She gives him his coffee with a smile but does not stick around for chitchat.
The coffee is much better than he had expected. It is not that Sanka shit that they normally serve late night along the desert highways. Outside, the restaurant is pretty tacky, but inside at least the coffee suggests an eatery trying to be a lot more gourmet than it looks.
Craig observes the menu. The name of this diner is Phil’s Place. He does not remember seeing that on any of the signs outside, but of course he was pretty damn tired then. There are a lot of little details he may have missed while pulling into the parking lot and making his way to the door.
He opens the menu. Clearly, this is wrong. The prices make no sense: Grilled Porterhouse Steak, $3.00. Filet Mignon with Bacon, $2.75. Grilled Club Steak, $1.00…
He finds the hamburger further down the page. It is a whopping 50¢. Add two slices of cheddar cheese, and it is 55¢. The cup of coffee he is now drinking is a dime.
This is a vintage menu, obviously. They probably put it on the countertop for nostalgia. Like Flo’s Jackie Kennedy hairdo, management apparently has decided the diner should have a late 1950s vibe. That is pretty cool.
Craig gestures for the waitress. She sees him and immediately looks troubled. What does she think he is going to do? Smack her? Craig shrugs it off. He is tired, and perhaps she is too.
The waitress walks up to Craig. She stands before him like a girl waiting to be punished by the principal.
“I like the vintage menu,” Craig states with a smile. “May I have the real one?”
The waitress looks at his face. She does not know what to say at first, but she finally thinks of something.
“Would you like us to cook you something that’s not on the menu?” She asks with as pleasant a smile as she can muster.
“No,” Craig answers. “I’d just like to see the real menu.”
The waitress looks down. She is expecting something bad to happen.
“That’s okay,” Craig says. “I’ll just have the hamburger.”
“Yes, sir,” the waitress says, relieved. “I’ll top off your coffee.”
That was a weird exchange. Again, Craig chalks it up to the late hour. No one over the age of thirty is functioning one hundred percent when pushing back sleep.
Thinking about “everyone here,” Craig swivels upon his stool to take a better look at the other customers. They remain as subdued as when he first noticed them. They are not only quiet, but also reserved, even formal, in how they interact. Though the hour is late, he expects more energy in a casino diner as brilliantly lit up outside as this one is.
He zeroes in on one older woman sitting opposite her husband. She looks and dresses like Mamie Eisenhower. Her pink dress was definitely a hot something sixty-five years ago. Her husband is as antiquated in his blue cowboy shirt and black bolo tie. Craig looks at the others. They are similarly dressed, and overwhelmingly male. The Mamie Eisenhower lookalike is among the very few women in here who is not a waitress. Perhaps, in our sexually liberated times, men are more likely than women still to go out after midnight, but should the disparity be this great? Craig has been in a lot of casinos since he started writing his mob books. He has seen many women at all hours dragging on their cigarettes and pulling down on slot machine levers. Even the poker tables are not the exclusively male dens they used to be.
Curious, Craig steps away from his stool. He walks toward where the add-on building should be. Presumably, there is a doorway where diners can stroll onto the casino floor and vice versa.
There is no doorway on that side of the diner. There are two doors: One that leads into the restroom, and one that leads into the kitchen. Interestingly, there is no separate restroom for women. Apparently, there are not enough women customers to justify a separate space for them.
As for a casino all he observes is one slot machine propped against the wall. It looks like something from a carnival at the turn of the century. A stylized sign on the top reads, “Get Lucky.” Unlike that flashing, neon sign out front it says nothing about “getting laid.” Different sensibilities for a different time…
A tall, hefty man dressed as a short order chef steps out from the kitchen. His black, textured pompadour and granite face call to mind Johnny Cash back before he updated his look for The Highwaymen. He is smoking a cigarette. This is odd even in a casino given that he was just preparing someone’s food a moment ago. Based upon his commanding presence, Craig figures this is ‘Phil,’ and this fine diner is his ‘Place.’
“Can I help you, sir?” Phil asks.
Notwithstanding his usually strong presence, Phil takes on a deferential tone just then. Craig notices that. It is as weird as how the waitress responded to him. He also wonders why Phil is taking the time to speak with him. Has Phil been watching him all this time? Is it odd that Craig is checking out this side of the diner? Perhaps, Craig looked more surprised than he realized in not seeing a doorway to the casino.
“Yeah,” Craig says. “How do I get into the casino?”
Phil gestures toward the “Get Lucky” slot machine.
“Very nice,” Craig says dismissively. “I am talking about the main floor with that Chinese Yosemite Sam on top.”
Phil says nothing. The waitress walks up to Phil. Both of them look at Craig like he just escaped from the loony bin.
Irritated, and more than a little frightened, Craig rushes out the front door. He almost bumps into a Roy Rogers lookalike waiting for a seat. Roy Rogers moves faster than his famous doppelganger, and gets out of the way in time.
There are no deadbeats loitering outside. The parking lot is there like before, but is occupied only by vintage automobiles and pickup trucks. There are no big rigs or eighteen-wheelers. His Chevy is gone. In that same spot is a 1957 green and white Oldsmobile. The vehicles glisten in the moonlight like new. Of course, they cannot be new, but he has never seen so many so perfectly restored in one place.
Craig glances up at the high pole. A neon sign is still there, but it is no longer flashing, “Get Lucky. Get Laid.” Instead, there is a much simpler, non-flashing, neon sign that says, “Phil’s Place.” The cursive font reminds him of the TV title card for “I Love Lucy.” Had he imagined the modern day vehicles and the provocative sign that he saw before? Had he been so sleep deprived as to hallucinate something so totally contrary to what he sees right now? His gut tells him he had not been hallucinating, but what other rational explanation is there?
Craig runs over to where the add-on should be. There is no separate building, no Chinese Yosemite Sam, and no woman mooning the parking lot. The ever-present ding-ding-ding is gone. In its place is the rustle of desert sand being kicked up by the wind.
Craig stands there in the parking lot rubbing his temples. He must have gone a little mad earlier, or maybe he is going a little mad now. Either way, this is all very disconcerting. He wonders if the cocktail floozy put something in his bourbon back in Las Vegas. She would have nothing to gain from doing so; but, really, who knows what seedy games they play on unsuspecting customers in joints like that one? The hoodlum may have thought it would be funny to spike his drink, and ordered her to do so. Craig did not eat anything for the longest time. Spiked bourbon is even more effective on an empty stomach, or so he presumes. He is no doctor, but right now he is reaching for the nearest straws.
If Craig is suffering from a mind-altering drug, then the best solution is to go back inside, and to drink more coffee. He should eat the hamburger he ordered, too. Let time tick away, and eventually he will get over this thing. Perhaps, in time he will find himself again in the glitzy casino diner he had observed before; or, perhaps, this vintage spot will turn out to be the real deal. If there are quaint, alien themed diners down in Roswell, then why not have an equally quaint, 1950s themed diner just off a desert highway in Nevada? This State is full of quirky people. In a way, it is a bit like what California used to be. Perhaps, this peculiar, little place is a hangout for vintage automobile restorers and nostalgia enthusiasts. Regardless, the folks inside seem to be harmless enough, even if they are strangely deferential.
Craig steps back into the diner. He hears the bell ding above the door, and he sees that his stool is still available. There is a full cup of warm coffee waiting for him. If any one had observed his erratic behavior out in the parking lot, they pretend not to notice. Indeed, no one looks directly at him, and he senses that this is what it must be like to be a ghost. He recalls when he used to believe in ghosts. Back when he had written stories for no other reason than to indulge his imagination, before he wrote mob books for the elusive promises of big money, he believed in the whole gamut of supernatural phenomena. He even called in to Art Bell’s radio show a few times, and never would he have written off an interdimensional tourist as an eccentric cat lady.
Someone puts a coin in the jukebox. The singer is Hank Williams, Sr., and the song is “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” The warbling sound is almost ghostlike. It sounds like it belongs to a distant past, but here and now it also comes across as contemporary. That is the power of nostalgia, and yet as Craig retakes his stool he senses that there is something more real than make believe at play here. He is not sure what that truly means. Perhaps, the people here are more committed to nostalgia than he assumed. Perhaps, this is a strange cult of some sort, and these people have been brainwashed into thinking that Dwight D. Eisenhower is still President of the United States and an Edsel is the next big thing from Ford Motor Company.
Or perhaps he is caught up in something supernatural. He thought he had put that belief system aside a while ago, but as he sips on his coffee he finds it difficult to scoff at that possibility. He had convinced himself a few minutes ago that this is just a drug-induced hallucination from which he will awaken before the night is finished, but with every passing moment inside this diner he is finding that harder to believe.
The waitress serves him his hamburger. It is a thick beef patty on a white bun with French fries and A.1. Steak Sauce on the side. There is no lettuce, onion, tomato; no special sauce that only the diner knows how to make. In its simplicity this burger too is as old fashioned as everything else. Craig remembers the hamburgers that his old man used to barbecue in the back yard.
The cowboy sitting beside Craig pays his bill, and steps away. His stool in not vacant for very long.
A tall, gaunt man with long, black hair steps into the diner. He is leaning on a cane, and there is a trace of emphysema in his breath. His apparent ill health has not dissuaded him from smoking, though. He puffs ravenously on a cigarette, and he has a pack of Marlboros in his shirt pocket for when this one is done. He is donned in the kind of jacket, trousers, and loafers an elderly, distinguished banker or attorney may wear; but the .357 Magnum holstered alongside his right upper thigh tells everyone that his real business is not pushing paper. The psychotic look in his beady eyes says on the contrary that his real business is getting other people to push up roses. He is sickly and advanced in age, but there is a stigma of malice about him that scares any person who gets too close to him.
The gaunt man takes the stool beside Craig. He pats Craig on his upper back. The pat feels friendly enough, but there is a cold menace in his eyes.
“Hey, Mickey, how’s business?” The gaunt man asks.
Craig is startled. He puts down his hamburger, and looks at the gaunt man in silence a moment. He figures the old timer has confused him with someone else, but he is afraid to say anything. The old timer looks like he could strangle a baby with no moral reservations whatsoever.
“That bad, huh?” The gaunt man says with a small chuckle.
The waitress pours the gaunt man a cup of coffee. She tops Craig’s coffee, too.
“What would you like, Sal?” The waitress asks the gaunt man.
“The usual,” Sal replies. “And tell Phil not to overcook the steak. I like it better when it’s trying to run away from me.”
“Sure thing, Sal,” the waitress says before walking away.
Craig notes how much friendlier the waitress is with this Sal fellow. Sal must be a regular. Craig is a first timer, but apparently he is a first timer who resembles a guy named Mickey. If this Mickey is one of Sal’s buddies, then Craig figures Mickey is not the kind of man he would want to add to his Christmas card list.
Sal turns his attention back to Craig.
“So talk to me, Mickey,” Sal says.
Craig realizes he had better let this old guy know he is mistaken. He clears his throat, and hopes for the best.
“Sorry,” Craig states, “but I think you’ve got me confused with someone else.”
“Oh, yeah?” Sal asks with a menacing wise guy grin.
“Yes,” Craig continues, while holding out his hand for a friendly handshake. “I am Craig Shaw. I write books. You can find me on Amazon.”
“You write books, huh?” Sal asks.
“Yes,” Craig responds.
“In the Amazon,” Sal teases. “Like where Humphrey Bogart did ‘The African Queen.’ Is that right?”
“Well, no…” Craig mutters before he is interrupted.
“Down there with the monkeys,” Sal teases.
Craig does not know what to say. He drops his open hand, since Sal has not indicated that he is going to shake it any time soon. He sits there blankly waiting to see what this old timer is going to do next.
Sal presses his face close to Craig’s. The wise guy grin is gone. Sal is terrifying at that moment, but Craig senses that he should not show how he really feels. Sal is a shark looking for blood in the water, and Craig does not want to give him any reason to pounce on him.
After a tense moment, Sal breaks into a wide grin, and laughs. He lightly taps Craig’s left cheek. The laughter is too much for his emphysema, so he starts to cough.
“Is that the story you gave the state trooper?” Sal asks after his cough passes.
Craig decides he had better play along. Sal will not likely respond all that well if he realizes he has been wrong the whole time. Moreover, Craig remembers that he cannot just skip out on the old man. Until life returns to the way it was when he first arrived here, his Chevy has been replaced with an Oldsmobile for which he does not have the key. Craig could try to run away, but Sal’s bullets can run faster than he can.
“Yeah,” Craig says hesitantly.
“You’re a slippery fox, Mickey,” Sal says with a grin. “I like you.”
“So long as I steer clear of any fox traps,” Craig says.
Sal thinks a moment about what Craig has said, and then laughs. He starts to cough again, and snaps for the waitress. She hurries over to him with a tall glass of water. He drinks it; and that awful cough settles into something phlegmy and raspy, but less powerful. He sets aside the empty water glass, and puff again on his smoke.
“That’s life,” Sal observes. “Setting traps, and not stepping in them.”
“Yeah,” Craig says with an agreeable nod.
Sal stops speaking for a while, and Craig returns to his hamburger.
The waitress serves Sal his usual steak. It looks red enough to run, and Sal is pleased. He pours so much A.1. Steak Sauce that the steak is lost beneath it, and that pleases him, too. He chomps on his steak fast and loud, while constantly looking side to side with his beady eyes to size up the crowd.
Craig notices Phil step out from the kitchen again. Phil whispers something to the waitress, and then stands by the kitchen door staring at Craig. Interestingly, he is not paying any attention to Sal, the obvious gangster, but instead is concerned to see that Craig is still there.
Sal notices. Without looking up from his steak, Sal offers quiet reassurance to his old friend beside him.
“Don’t think about it, Mickey,” Sal says. “He just doesn’t know you yet.”
“Yeah,” Craig says. “It’s like he thinks I’m casing the joint.”
Sal turns to face Craig. He stares into Craig’s eyes, and then smiles devilishly.
“Maybe you are,” Sal remarks.
Craig looks away. He finishes his coffee. This whole situation is getting a heck of a lot creepier, if that is even possible. He contemplates again running away as fast as his legs will take him. The old man is probably still lightning quick with the gun at his side. Craig has interviewed hoodlums as old as this guy who can draw and shoot as fast as any cowboy in the movies. Is he likely to fire at him, while still inside of the diner, though? If the old man holds his fire in Phil’s Place, then Craig has a chance to get away. Isn’t that true? Craig feels the cold menace beside him, and decides the old man very well could shoot at his back while still chomping down on his rare steak at the counter. There is no line this guy will not cross, if necessary. Craig looks down at the counter, and gives up on the idea of escaping on foot.
Sal finishes his steak. He also finishes his Marlboro, and crushes it out on the same plate. The waitress removes the plate at once without leaving behind a check.
“Time for us to go,” Sal says to Mickey while removing another cigarette from his shirt pocket.
Craig looks back at Sal, and fumbles for something to say in response.
“Um, I haven’t been handed a check yet,” Craig remarks.
Sal lights his cigarette. He puts out the match, and tosses it onto the counter. He takes a deep drag on the smoke, and knocks out a gut-wrenching cough. He does not seem all that disturbed by his own cough, though. Instead, as soon as he is able to catch his breath, he focuses in on Craig, and smiles.
“Come on, Mickey,” Sal says. “When’s the last time you paid a check?”
Craig looks toward the kitchen door. Phil is still there staring back at him. It seems as if Phil told the waitress not to hand him a check, for the waitress is staying clear of him.
Mickey stands up, and pats Craig on the upper back. He leans forward, and he whispers into Craig’s left ear.
“Let’s beat feet before Wanda gets hot,” Sal says.
Who the hell is Wanda? Craig knows better than to ask. He also knows better than to defy the gangster literally breathing down his neck. He glances down, and he sees the holstered revolver. It shines in the light that hangs over the counter, and he has no doubt it will shine just as much if and when Sal fires bullets into his backside.
Craig steps away from the counter, and follows Sal outside. Idling by the front door is a 1950 Series 60S V8 Cadillac. The luxury Caddy sports a deep black coat and a shiny chrome trim that sparkles in the neon from the “Phil’s Place” sign.
A heavyset goon steps out from behind the steering wheel. He opens the back door, and helps Sal inside. The goon looks back at Craig with contempt, but holds the door open for him, too.
Sal also looks back at Craig from inside the dark vehicle. Sal’s eyes seem to be glowing red in there. Craig wonders if he has imagined those eyes. This would not be the first time his imagination has been overcooked by his anxieties. Regardless, right now there is nothing else Craig can do, and so with an unspoken prayer he slips onto his leather car seat. He stares ahead blankly, as the goon shuts the door hard on him.
* * *
Sal does not speak, while the Cadillac drives through the intense darkness. As Craig looks out the window, he notices that the few distant lights he had seen before arriving at the diner are gone. There are no median lights on the two-lane highway, either. It is as if the Cadillac is driving ever deeper into a black hole.
Craig mostly looks outside, because he does not want to look towards Sal. He can see the glowing red eyes in his peripheral vision, and he is too frightened to look at them directly. Unless everything that has happened since he arrived at the diner is a hallucination or a dream, which deep down he does not believe anymore, it is not all that likely that he is imagining the red eyes. An overactive imagination may inspire a visual bump in the night, but it will not continue to act on him like this for as long as he has been in this vehicle.
So what does this mean? Craig has no idea, and he is scared shitless frankly to entertain any options, rational or otherwise. He finds a momentary respite in simply staring out the window at nothing. He will see where Sal takes him, and he will have to respond then to whatever happens next.
The Cadillac turns off the highway. It bumps and grinds over a dirt road for a few minutes, and then a single white light appears in the distance. They are coming up to a mid-century house surrounded by miles of sand dunes. There is a gate at the property line, and a goon with an oversized pompadour and a revolver pulls it open for them. Inside the grounds the Cadillac passes by two more goons standing watch by a grove of Blue Hawaiian palm trees. Those trees are incongruent with the desert landscape, and Craig wonders if like so much else in the 1950s they are artificial. He sees some plastic pink flamingoes posted into the sand beside the trees. They too do not fit the terrain. Though the light from the house is dim, Craig sees enough of the front yard to conclude that the owner is trying to simulate a Miami or Havana oasis in a desert hideaway. The mob loves Battista, so it make sense that one of their own would create way out here a gaudy love letter to the Cuban Generalissimo of Illicit Gambling and Prostitution. This house may as well be his Presidential Library.
The Cadillac stops in front of the house. Several Mafioso types step out of the house. Unlike the driver and the guards, who are no nonsense men in black, the wise guys approaching the parked car wear Hawaiian shirts and pink trousers. They keep the tops of their shirts unbuttoned so that their long chest hairs and gold chains can be observed. They have clunky rings on each of their fingers just in case someone in the world is unaware still of their considerable wealth and power.
The Capos escort Sal and Craig into the smoke filled foyer. They treat Sal as an elder demanding respect, but hardly conceal their contempt for Craig. He senses he would be dead already, if the higher ups did not want to keep him alive for some reason. He stays silent, and pretends not to notice how hard they are squeezing his arms as they move him from the foyer to the living room.
The living room looks like a production set for a TV sitcom from the era. It is an extreme vision of 1950s retro: Atomic starburst wallpaper and geometric printed draperies; low-slung furniture upholstered in bold tweed with tapered, wood legs; a black and white, Zenith TV with oversized antennas; and a Maime Eisenhower pink, trapezoid, wall clock. The dominant color scheme is pink and mint green, though in spite of the bold color contrast the overall feeling is suburban and sterile. Ironically, it is a garish expression of domestic conformity and plastic conventionality. This is the living room of a Mafioso Don who actually imagines he is “Father Knows Best.”
A pretty, blond, wholesome woman in a flared, pink skirt and white blouse is seated on the mint green sofa. She looks like Doris Day from about the time she was in “Pillow Talk.” Craig thinks that he recognizes her face. He has done a lot of library research about mobsters from this era, and her face has appeared in one or two old photographs from the time.
Like almost everyone else, she is smoking a cigarette. She dabs her smoke in an ashtray beside the sofa, and stands up to greet Craig warmly. Her social manners are impeccable. She could be the perfect hostess of the times.
“Thank you for coming,” the woman says with a slight Southern accent, while reaching out to hug him like an old friend.
Craig accepts the hug, but is too stunned to hug her back. She does not seem to notice or to mind his stiffness.
“I’ve heard good things about you,” the woman says. “Sal assures me that you are dependable.”
Craig realizes that she has never met “Mickey” before, so he does not need to pretend that he knows her already. The less he knows her the more he can ask. He is sure he has seen her face before and wants to learn more.
“Forgive me,” Craig says, “but I don’t know your name.”
“You don’t know me?” The woman asks suspiciously.
The woman darts her eyes to a man Craig feels but cannot see behind him. He presumes that he is one of the wise guys and that he is there to make certain that the woman is safe the whole time. Craig regrets having said what he said.
The woman stares intently into Craig’s eyes a moment, like she is trying hard to search for the real man inside what she can see. She relaxes finally, and puts back on her amicable Doris Day persona. Craig notes that she can turn on a dime, though. Sal had referred to a “Wanda” who can get “hot.” If this is “Wanda,” then Craig saw a bit of the crass fire beneath the Southern charm. He will need to be careful with her.
“Of course,” the woman says. “You only knew my husband.”
The woman gestures toward a framed photograph beside the ashtray. Craig focuses on the scary, gruff, elderly Sicilian in the black and white photograph. Craig recognizes the face of a notorious Nevada mobster of the time: Don Richie Giacomo.
Don Richie had been a sleazy thug who extorted millions from the casinos in Las Vegas. Though he and his “family” lived far out in the desert, they were ruthless and smart operators among the several criminal syndicates that created and ran Sin City. The Las Vegas families wanted him dead, since his extortions cut too much into their cartel profits; but they could never move on him. He kept a laundry list of cops and politicians on his payroll, and the families knew that if they whacked him these folks would crack down on them. It was the Nevada Mafia’s version of the Cold War doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction. Sometime in 1955 or 1956, no one actually knows for sure, the old man suddenly vanishes. His wife, Wanda, against the odds is able to hold the “family” together for a few more years. Then, Wanda and her Capos and Soldiers disappear as inexplicably as the old man. The Las Vegas families sweep in and absorb what is left of the Giacomo operations as soon as Wanda Giacomo and her cohorts are gone.
What stands out about the Giacomo Family is not their criminality, nor their longevity, but how they disappeared so suddenly and completely from the pages of history. Most families are defeated in a war, or imprisoned by the Feds, and several holdovers end up joining other families or branching out on their own. Usually, the end is prolonged and incomplete. As Craig refocuses his attention on the Doris Day Don, as her detractors called her, he realizes he is facing a woman who will be gone very soon. All the men behind him will be gone; and, if he remembers correctly, this house will be looted and razed, too. For a mob researcher, this is like coming face to face with the Holy Grail. Craig remains as frightened as ever, but he is also amazed.
“I worked some of the poker tables for him,” Craig remarks. “Small potatoes.”
Wanda sits back down on the sofa. She takes a smoke from her cigarette, and dabs ashes in a very ladylike manner onto the tray. She may be ruthless, but she has not forgotten entirely her years relaxing in the shade of a Southern Magnolia. She is so far from there now, and Craig wonders what life circumstances brought her into the arms of a notorious, older gangster like Don Richie. He actually wishes he could interview her, but he senses that that is out of the question. She is outwardly kind, if a bit formal, but has learned to mistrust persons who talk too much or ask too many questions. Moreover, in her eyes he is “Mickey,” and Craig really doubts “Mickey” is going to come across to her as a mild mannered book interviewer.
“All those potatoes add up,” Wanda says. “A man can live on them when times are tough.”
“So can a woman,” Craig says.
Wanda laughs. Craig can see in her eyes that she is recalling a far off memory. Whatever is in her mind is amusing, but there is also a hint of sadness. She puffs on her cigarette again.
“A woman always needs more,” Wanda remarks. “I told Sal the other day that when the Russians drop the Big One on us, I want him to put a bullet into the back of my head. No woman wants to survive when the beauty parlors are completely gone. It is just not in our chemistry.”
“What do you want?” Craig asks in a tone that suggests, “What do you really want with your life?”
Wanda catches the tone. She smiles, but also knows that this Mickey fellow has crossed a line. He seems too philosophical for a gangster.
“What every woman wants,” Wanda answers untruthfully. “Diamonds, furs, a man who will protect her….”
Craig says nothing. He senses her evasion. He does not want to push her any further. As much as he is intrigued with her, he values his own life more.
Wanda takes another puff on her smoke. She leaves the smoldering cigarette on her ashtray, and stands up. She drops the Doris Day amicability for a pair of iced cold, blue eyes and a frown. Her expression is a cue apparently, for Craig hears that unseen wise guy walking up from behind him.
“But I did not call you here to talk about ladies’ accessories,” Wanda snarls.
“No, you didn’t,” Craig says.
“I want you to do something for me,” Wanda says.
“A job,” Craig says.
“Yes,” Wanda says, “but this time not small potatoes.”
Wanda steps forward, and stops a few feet in front of Craig. She folds both of her arms before her chest like a schoolteacher about to dress down an unruly child.
Craig can feel how deeply Wanda is looking into his eyes. He knows that he is a dead man if he flinches. At the same time, she will mistrust him totally, if he comes across as too agreeable too fast. A real gangster considers the pros and the cons of a job in his head before he agrees to anything. That would be true even if he were now talking to the Don of Dons. The only time a gangster is expected to agree to a request without reservation is when it comes from his Godfather. There is no valid reason to refuse a job when it is personal. Wanda does not know Mickey at all, even though he worked for her husband. He is a hired gun, albeit a gun referred to her from the one man she trusts implicitly, but he is not a part of the Giacomo Family.
“I want back something that belonged to my husband,” Wanda says after she has studied Craig’s eyes long enough.
Craig remains silent. The wise guy walks forward, and stands just behind his back. He can smell the wise guy’s cigar breath. It is very pungent, and he has to focus hard to keep his knees from buckling.
“Did you see the slot machine in the diner?” Wanda asks.
“Get Lucky,” Craig says.
“Yes,” Wanda says. “The Fat Pig stole it from him.”
Craig presumes she is referring to Phil, the heavyset short order chef who is eerily reminiscent of a young Johnny Cash. He did not look like a “fat pig,” though he could stand to lose a few pounds.
Craig wonders why Wanda would need to hire an outside man to pick up this slot machine for her. Surely, her goons can perform a simple burglary on a diner that did not look all that secure to him. Who will try to stop a couple of masked men with revolvers who show up one night and simply walk away with that old clunker? Does this mean the Giacomos are really slipping, or is there some other reason Wanda has to hire a mercenary? Either way, this means Wanda needs him more than she wants to let on. Craig decides to push back a little.
“What if I don’t wanna pick it up?” Craig asks.
The wise guy grabs Craig’s arms from behind. He squeezes them hard. Craig is careful not to show his discomfort. He does not resist. He just stares blankly back at the pissed off schoolteacher in front of him.
Wanda reaches into her flared skirt. She removes a small pistol that had been holstered over her right thigh. She moves very slowly, methodically, as she proceeds to point the pistol at Craig’s face and to pull back on the hammer. Craig is frightened, but he also notes that she moves so slowly precisely so as to enhance his fear. This is a psychological weapon at the moment. If she really had wanted him dead, she could have fired much faster; or more likely she would have nodded to the wise guy to put Craig into a chokehold. Mobsters do not mess around when they intend to whack the person in front of them. Moreover, Wanda wants Craig to do a job for her, and that is never going to happen if he is a dying man oozing blood all over her soft pink carpet.
Craig remains silent. He does not flinch. The wise guy squeezes his arms even harder, but Craig does not respond to that intimidation either. He will feel the black and blue sores in the morning, but right now his adrenaline is pushing back upon all that pain. Even if Craig is going to do what Wanda wants, he knows that he must win the test of wills right now. Otherwise, Wanda will mistrust him, or believe that he is weak, and either way he will be signing his own death warrant.
Wanda blinks first. She hates that, but she has no choice. She drops the pistol to her side, and nods for the wise guy to release his grip. The wise guy complies, but not before squeezing Craig’s arms one more time with all his strength.
“Are you gonna do it?” Wanda asks with a hint of desperation.
“What’s in it for me?” Craig asks.
“What do you want?” Wanda asks.
“What are you offering?” Craig asks.
Wanda grins. This Mickey is a tough negotiator. The jobs he did years ago for her husband may have been small potatoes, but he has what it takes to be really big one of these days. Wanda holsters her pistol, returns to the sofa, and takes another ladylike puff on her cigarette.
“I’d offer you diamonds and furs, but I don’t think that’ll do,” Wanda remarks.
Craig does not respond. She is right, though. He does not want diamonds and furs, even if the mob book researcher part of his brain would love to be able to leave here with a couple of souvenirs.
“I’ll give you back your freedom,” Wanda says.
She is getting a lot closer now, but Craig still does not respond. He is holding out for something even greater than his freedom.
“And I’ll send you back where you came from,” Wanda concludes.
Wanda’s eyes glow red, when she makes that promise. The red glow is not as easy to see as when Sal’s eyes glowed in the backseat of that Cadillac. Craig figures it is because of the lamplight inside of this living room. Still, he caught it before it went away. He has no idea what this is, though like before he is very certain it has nothing to do with his imagination. He senses what it means. It is an indication of resolution, or maybe commitment. It is like the seal on the envelope, before it is handed over to be delivered. If eyes are the gateway to the soul, then these are the slick devil’s eyes when the deal has been made. Craig realizes he cannot trust a pact with the devil any more than a pact he may have made with one of those sleazy hoodlums he has seen over the years. Like Wanda, though, he really does not have a choice. He simply has to roll the dice handed to him, and to hope that he gets lucky.
* * *
The Cadillac rolls to a quiet stop by the pole. The “Phil’s Place” sign overhead reflects off of the shiny roof of the vehicle, but otherwise it is hidden in the darkness before dawn. Several more black Cadillacs come to a stop behind the lead one. There is an air of menace about them, especially when the neon light from above reveals a number of masked men crouched low beside their windows.
Craig is seated in the backseat of the lead car. He has a revolver in his hand. It is the older version of a weapon he has fired many times at a shooting range. He has never even contemplated firing at a person before. He is not sure what he will do, if he has to do that. He tries to tell himself that this is not real. Even if this is not a sick hallucination or a nightmare, this is a time and a place where he does not belong. He is supposed to be driving home in the third decade of the twenty-first century. He is not supposed to be firing a gun at someone alive before Kennedy was elected to the White House. This has to be an alternative reality, like another one of those different dimensions the old cat lady talked about on “Coast to Coast AM.” If so, then from his perspective anyway this is not “his dimension,” so this is not “his reality.” If he has to shoot someone, then from his perspective he may as well be shooting at a phantasm. If he ever gets home, then the injury or the death he causes here will have absolutely no bearing over there. It will be as if it never happened, because indeed over there it never happened.
Craig is simply not falling for his own mental gymnastics, though. Deep down, he knows that a dirty gunshot wound is what it is regardless of the parallel universe or the dimension in which he pulls the trigger. If karma can skip generations, then it may also skip passed the lines between alternative realities.
Still, what choice does he have? He cannot run away. If somehow he managed to slip away from his captors, he is sure that he would wake up still in this reality. He may or may not like it here, but he would never be home. Though he cannot explain it, he senses that these red-eyed freaks are responsible for him being here, and they alone will be able to send him back.
“Time to go, Mickey,” Sal says.
Craig opens his door, and begins to step out of the Cadillac. Sal grabs his arm, and pulls him back briefly for another word.
“You’d better pop the bastard if you need to,” Sal says.
The look on Sal’s face says that if Craig fucks this up, he will fuck up Craig big time. Craig gets the message, and nods in assent. Sal releases his grip, while his eyes continue to glow red.
Craig clicks the Cadillac door shut behind him. It is so silent outside right now that the click sounds to him like it could be heard miles away. He also hears his own heart beating fast in his chest. He is not sure he can control himself with so much hot adrenaline rushing through his veins, but he manages to walk toward the front door with measured steps. He stuffs the revolver in his right pocket, but knows he will be able to retrieve it fast if necessary.
As he approaches the diner, Craig sees that there are few patrons left. He sees the waitress smoking a cigarette behind the counter and chatting up a cowboy there. He does not see Phil, but he presumes Phil is looking out for him. He figures that Phil will make an appearance before he manages to leave with the slot machine.
Just as Craig reaches the front door, the jukebox starts playing George Jones’s “White Lightning.” Craig thinks the song is appropriate, since he is surely drunk with adrenaline at the moment. He also hopes the music will distract some of the patrons.
Craig pushes the door open. He must have done so too forcefully, because the waitress immediately looks away from her cowboy friend. She focuses on Craig, and intuits at once that something is wrong. She starts to rush towards the kitchen.
Craig turns toward the far wall. He sees the slot machine there. He senses the patrons behind him turning all their eyes in his direction. “White Lightning” is not a distraction apparently.
Just as Craig squats down to pick up the slot machine, the kitchen door opens, and Phil stomps out with a cigarette in his mouth and a shotgun in his right hand. He lifts the shotgun from his side, and pumps back the handgrip. An empty shell falls to the floor. There is a distinct click as a new round is set into place.
“Get away from there,” Phil orders.
That is Phil’s last mistake. He should have fired instead.
While still in a squatting position, Craig grabs his revolver, and fires a round at the big man. He hits Phil in the back of his left hand, just as Phil pulls back on his trigger. The shotgun blast is knocked upward as a result. Craig stumbles backward from the resounding blast, but the bullet misses him completely. Craig fires another round before Phil can pump his shotgun again, and this time it is a direct hit into the big man’s chest. A blood geyser squirts out from his chest, and splatters all over the floor and the slot machine. Phil still struggles to pump the shotgun, but within a few seconds all the color has vanished from his face. His eyes roll back, and he falls with a thunderous crash to the bloodstained floor.
Craig swivels on his butt so that he faces the patrons in the dining room. He is not sure what they are doing, if anything, but he is sure they are armed. Pretty much every cowboy in Nevada in the late 1950s is packing heat.
Sure enough, the cowboy who had been chatting with the waitress has pulled out his Colt 45. Craig fires his revolver, and blasts the Colt 45 out from the cowboy’s hand. More scared than hurt, the cowboy grabs his hand, and he falls onto his knees.
Craig looks at the other patrons. They are all standing, but are frozen in place.
Craig slips on the blood while trying to stand up. He finally manages to do so. He squats down, and picks up the slot machine. It is much heavier than he figured it would be, and he has a hard time walking towards the front door.
He looks back and sees that the waitress has pulled out a pistol from behind the counter. Still puffing on her cigarette, she holds the pistol with both of her hands and points it toward Craig’s back. She shakes nervously, which makes it difficult for her to pull the trigger. This gives Craig just enough time to squat down low and then to thrust himself head first through the door. The waitress fires, but the bullet only manages to shatter the front door glass above Craig’s head.
Craig stumbles outside on the shattered glass. He is cut, but still not shot, and thus able to scurry out of the way with the slot machine before another bullet blasts out from the inside.
Craig sees Sal waving him over to the Cadillac. He heads in that direction. He is delirious with pain and fright, but already a terrible guilt is starting to gnaw at his raw heart. He hates himself for what he has done. Though he realizes that this heavy slot machine somehow is his ticket to freedom, it also feels like a ball and chain that he is forced to endure for having killed an innocent man.
The Giacomo Soldiers storm out from their Cadillacs with guns blazing. They are all men in black types with glowing red eyes and demonic smirks. Craig is really horrified to see them charging into the diner, and he tries to block out the wretched cries from the carnage.
* * *
Craig is seated upon a chair in Wanda’s living room. The first hints of sunrise are bleeding through the draperies, but Craig does not notice or care. He remains in a cold, dark place in his mind. He cannot handle his guilt at having pulled the trigger and caused so much death and destruction in that diner. He tries to tell himself that he had no choice, but that is not really true. He could have refused and then suffered the consequences.
The slot machine is on the floor beside his feet. He had to carry it while riding in the backseat of the Cadillac, and he had to carry it to where he is now. He thought at first that it was strange that the mobsters would not take this “treasure” from him as soon as they had left what little remained of the diner. After all, this heavy, clunky carnival amusement is what their Doris Day Don wants. Why did no one remove the slot machine from his hands to take it to her directly? Why is she not marveling at it at this very moment?
He thinks about how the wise guys steered clear of him, when he carried the slot machine from the Cadillac to the living room. Sal told him where to go and to sit down, but he did not accompany him in here. They are afraid of this thing. They are not going to touch it. Perhaps, they are not able to do so. That would explain why the Giacomo Family had to recruit someone from the outside.
Wanda steps into the living room. A wise guy accompanies her inside, but he stays on guard at the door. Wanda walks over to the sofa, finds her cigarette pack by the ashtray, and lights another smoke. She remains the bitchy schoolteacher, as she looks at Craig from a safe distance.
“We are leaving soon,” Wanda says.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Craig says.
Craig can see that the wise guy wants to pounce on him, but he remains at his post. Wanda’s lips tense, and for a moment her cheeks are beet red, but she makes a conscious choice to remain calm.
“What are you saying?” Wanda asks.
“You said you’d send me back where I came from,” Craig says.
“Yes,” Wanda says before taking another puff on her cigarette.
“That means you know damn well I’m not from this time or place,” Craig says. “You know my real name’s not ‘Mickey’ and that I’m not a gangster.”
Wanda is silent a moment. She is thinking about what to say.
“So what if we do?” Wanda asks.
“This is a set up,” Craig says.
“So what if it is?” Wanda asks.
There is a cold silence. Craig looks down at the slot machine. He is as mad as he is forlorn. If he had a hammer in his hand, he would destroy the damn thing, and let these freaks do with him as they please. He is no longer afraid that they may put a bullet in his head. Given what he did earlier this morning, he deserves that.
Still, he wants to know what this is all about. Clearly, this has nothing to do with Wanda having a sentimental attachment to a small piece of casino history her husband used to own. None of these gangsters, including Wanda, even want to look at it, let alone get near to it. Something else is going on, and even if it kills him Craig wants to find out what.
“So why the charade?” Craig asks.
“Why did Sal call you ‘Mickey,’ and pretend to know you?” Wanda asks.
“Yeah,” Craig says.
“We wanted to disorient you,” Wanda explains. “Make you question your own sanity. You’d be easier to manipulate.”
“Because you needed me to pick this up for you,” Craig says. “Even with all of your muscle, you could not be sure I’d go through with it unless I was nuts.”
“A touch of madness will turn a strong man into a coward,” Wanda says with a devilish grin. “Upset a man’s sense of time and place, and his moral conviction will go out the window pretty fast.”
“But why me?” Craig asks.
Wanda chuckles. She takes another puff on her cigarette.
“Don’t think for a moment you’re special,” Wanda says with disdain. “Yes, we needed a rube to do the job for us, but we could’ve recruited any man from any time or place not in our circle. You just happened to be the lucky one.”
“The lucky one,” Craig mutters.
“It’s how the universe works,” Wanda says. “Once in awhile, even a little man like you hits the jackpot.”
“And all those people your guys killed in the diner…” Craig says.
“They were unlucky,” Wanda interrupts with a grin.
“Why’d they have to die?” Craig asks with sadness underlying his otherwise angry tone. “I had done the job already. They weren’t going to get it back from me.”
“Cold revenge,” Wanda says. “So long as Phil had that machine, we could dine there all we wanted. Chat with the waitress. Drink a hot cup of coffee. Remind them to keep our steaks raw and our eggs runny. But we couldn’t move on him. That thing would knock away whatever we threw at him. Fire a round, and the bullet would go off course. Torch the building, and the fire would extinguish. That big guy had found his lucky charm, and we couldn’t do anything about it.”
“So what’s gonna happen now?” Craig asks.
“You’re gonna put that thing back where my husband found it,” Wanda says.
“So it can no longer restrain you,” Craig says.
“So we can go home,” Wanda corrects him.
Wanda finishes her cigarette. She places the stub in the ashtray, and looks at Craig with contempt. She folds her arms before her chest.
“Any more questions for the teacher?” Wanda asks.
“Yes, one more,” Craig says. “How did your husband get a hold of this thing? I thought you guys were not able to touch it.”
“He was not one of us,” Wanda says. “He summoned us, and as long as he had it he could control us. His luck ran out the night Phil stole it from him.”
“I see,” Craig mutters.
“We feasted on my husband’s flesh,” Wanda recalls. “A fitting end, really, for a man who profited so much from enslaving ours. We still have some of him left in the freezer, if you’d like a bite before we head out.”
“So this thing summoned you,” Craig says.
“It lures you in, and it keeps you around, until you have no more coins left in your pocket,” Wanda says. “It’ll throw you back a jackpot every now and then, but it blocks you mostly. Stops you from pushing back on the man.”
Craig looks back down at the slot machine. He has heard enough in the past few minutes to write the definitive book on the mysterious Giacomo Family. This is a book that will make him rich, and free him finally from his dead end job at the law firm. He has success at his fingertips, if he ever gets back home.
* * *
Craig is seated alone in the backseat of the Cadillac. He has the slot machine on the seat beside him. The Cadillac is parked smack in the middle of an old, desert graveyard. Most of the tombstones have been wiped barren over the years from the daily barrage of sun and sand. A scraggy vulture sitting on one of the tombstones is hopeful that something edible will be left behind when the funeral party has exited from the scene.
Wanda, Sal, and her Capos stand off to the side, while the Soldiers dig up the grave of a man named Booth. His is one of the few tombstones with a readable name on the front. Craig wonders if this guy had been related to the infamous assassin. He would not be surprised if someone related to a family of famous actors somehow got all the way out here to the Nevada desert. Actors and their relations are romantics at heart, and there is a kind of mystical allure to an isolated desert. It can draw them in as much as this slot machine apparently drew in these red-eyed fiends.
Once the grave has been exposed, one of the Soldiers steps into the space and opens the sand encrusted coffin. Wanda and Sal step forward, and look down into it. Wanda turns to Sal, and says something to him.
Sal starts to walk toward the Cadillac. It is at that moment that Craig decides what he is going to do.
Sal opens the backdoor. He takes a drag on his cigarette, and coughs. He looks down at Craig with those creepy red eyes of his.
“Let’s go, Mickey,” Sal says.
Craig looks back at Sal with contempt, and Sal grins. Craig picks up the heavy machine, and carries it a few steps behind the old man toward the open grave. It is a terribly hot morning, and the effort taxes Craig considerably. He moans and groans, so that everyone can see just how exhausted he is.
Craig falls to his knees. Sal turns around. He is pissed.
“This is no time for rest, boy,” Sal snarls.
“You’re right,” Craig says, as he reaches forward and grabs Sal’s revolver out from his holster. “But it is a time for destruction.”
Craig turns the revolver around, so that the muzzle is facing the blue sky. He raises the revolver high like he is about to slam the butt into the face of the machine.
The gangsters all want to pounce on him, but they are also terrified. They just stand there with their eyes glowing red-hot. If looks could kill, the Soldiers would be digging up a grave for Craig at this moment.
Craig is frightened, but he is also determined. He knows they will not kill him. They need him to put the slot machine into the grave. Whatever happens afterwards is a different matter. All he can do is to hope that Wanda follows through on her pact with him, and if that happens he wants to make sure that everything is made right at the end. He is not just going to look out for himself anymore.
“What are you doing?” Wanda screams.
“I don’t want to go home anymore,” Craig says.
“What?” Wanda asks incredulously.
“If you want me to bury this thing, then you’ve got to send me back to when I first arrived at Phil’s Place last night,” Craig says.
“I don’t understand,” Wanda says.
“Yes, you do,” Craig says. “And if Phil’s Place is not what it was, then I’ll come back out here, dig up this thing, and summon you back. You’ll never remember Don Richie after you’ve had a taste of your new Godfather.”
There is a tense moment of silence, while Wanda weighs the new deal. She is pissed that this upstart is pushing her back, especially in front of her men, but she is also anxious to get home.
“So be it,” Wanda says.
Craig stands up. He almost hands Sal back his revolver, but then decides that he will keep it. He puts it in his own pocket.
Craig squats down, picks up the slot machine, and carries it to the open grave. He steps into the grave, and places it in the coffin below the feet of the skeleton that is in there. The coffin obviously had been built to accompany both the corpse and his slot machine, so it is back where it is supposed to be.
Craig climbs out of the open grave. He is vulnerable now, but no one pays any attention to him. Instead, all eyes are transfixed on a desert wind that just started to blow up the sand in the distance. The sandstorm is coming straight towards them at a fast speed, and the earth begins to shake at their feet.
Craig runs back to the Cadillac. He tries to open the backseat door, but is now locked. He squats down by the door in the hopes that the side of the vehicle will give him some protection from all that sand.
He looks toward the open grave in time to see that Wanda, Sal, and all of the other mobsters have been transformed. Their faces and limbs have melted away to reveal hot, red, lizard scales. The lizard flesh cracks into many pieces in the intense sunlight, and the approaching sandstorm gathers up the remains. The clothing falls to the earth, and is trampled by the sandstorm into phlegmy ashes. It is as if Sal had coughed up everything in his stomach and in his lungs at the same time.
For a while there are beady red eyes floating in and out of this whirlwind, but eventually they too vanish. Craig hears loud screams. He cannot tell if those cries are frightened or euphoric. Regardless, they are swallowed soon into the deafening roar of the storm. Craig covers his eyes and his ears, but the mayhem is way too powerful for him to block out. He loses consciousness, just as the storm fills in the open grave.
* * *
Mickey Shaw opens his eyes, and sits upright. He had fallen asleep behind his steering wheel, after parking his Oldsmobile in the lot. He rubs his temples. He has a terrible headache. He really needs a cup of Phil’s coffee.
He gets out of his vehicle. He looks up at the “Phil’s Place” neon sign on the high pole. Mickey had convinced Phil to put up the sign a year ago. He is very happy to see the extra business it has attracted. Phil has had a hard time since coming back home from the Korean War. He deserves a break.
Actually, we all deserve a shine from Lady Luck every now and then, Mickey thinks. He walks across the parking lot toward the front door. He sees Wilma inside at the counter. All the waitresses are good, but she’s the best. She keeps his cup full, and always has a nice word for him.
* * *
Craig waits for the librarian to return to the counter. He glances at his watch. He does not have much time before he will need to head back to the law firm. He has been given an extended lunch break but not the whole afternoon.
The librarian hands him the rare book: “The Mysterious Disappearance of the Giacomo Crime Family.” The author is a man by the name of Mickey Shaw. Given the date of publication, he is probably long dead.
Craig notes the same last name. Maybe, he has a long lost ancestor who also wrote mob books. It would not surprise him really, if he is related to this guy. Craig has felt a strange kinship with other mob book writers over the years. It is a kind of unspoken brotherhood of men, like himself, searching through prose for the elusive hand of Lady Luck.