I guess the best place to start is with me getting lucky in a casino.
Which gets your attention, but is probably dishonest, since I am not really a gambler. Back in Wisconsin, at Twin Lakes, I played poker with a little group of locals once a month, young professionals in their thirties, two lawyers, a dentist, a doctor. I was a young professional, too, but of a different variety. We’d gotten to know each other at a health club in Lake Geneva, and started up our regular game maybe five years ago, but that’s not terribly relevant except to say that my idea of gambling was nickel/dime/quarter.
What had brought me to the big noisy casino in the little thriving town of Boot Heel, Nevada, was business, though you’d take me for another tourist. I was in a yellow polo shirt and chinos and loafers, and had a nice tan going, picked up over the month I’d just spent in Las Vegas, sixty miles north, also not gambling.
I was 32, five ten, one-hundred-sixty pounds, with shortish brown hair, a fairly anonymous sort, if passably presentable to the fairer sex. I based this on the many smiles I got from waitresses in little buckskin outfits, fringed vests over white blouses and fringed mini-skirts; they were circulating, offering free drinks, as I threaded through the slots and poker machines and blackjack and roulette tables, heading back to the bar.
Boot Heel had six casinos, but this one—at the Four Jacks Hotel—was by far the largest, sporting a showroom that hosted the likes of Jerry Vale (this week) and Vikki Carr (next week). The little town’s claim to fame as a sort of second-string Deadwood or Tombstone was based on Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday having lived here for a time. Holliday even killed somebody. Wild Bill Hickok gunned somebody down on Main Street, too, it was said.
The town of ten thousand had one other claim to fame, an annual biker blow-out that attracted a lot of media every year, giving Boot Heel a certain modern-day outlaw reputation. The last such event had been three weeks ago, and currently no bikers were to be seen, at least within the Four Jacks casino.
Which catered to strictly middle-class tourist trade that found Vegas either too expensive or crowded for their collective taste. Lots of people in their forties and fifties, with scads of Reagan For President buttons on display and not a single Carter, not that I saw, anyway. Who said Jerry Vale and Vikki Carr couldn’t draw any more?
Back to me getting lucky—while I was in Boot Heel for business, my presence at the Four Jacks casino was happenstance. I’d skipped lunch, due to following a guy here from Vegas, and having to shadow his every move. I had established the guy had checked in to a motel on the far side of Boot Heel, and he hadn’t come out after two hours, so now I was looking for some place to sit and eat a sandwich and maybe figure my next move. Someplace well away from that motel.
An open parking space just down the street from the Four Jacks had called to me. I swung in—no meters in this friendly little burg—and was about to cross the street to check out the restaurant in the Golden Spike, the smaller casino/hotel opposite, whose marquee—not having Jerry Vale and Vikki Carr to brag about—promised a $5 steak sandwich with "all the trimmin’s."
But traffic was momentarily thick, so I’d strolled down my side of the street instead, up to the half dozen glass doors of the Four Jacks. One casino restaurant was as good as another. I asked one of the liveried doormen where to get the best food in his place of employment, and he recommended the bar at the rear of the main floor. I went on in, experiencing a vaguely irritating symphony of sounds that included country western music, chattering gamblers, and slots digesting coins. Whirring, dinging, ringing.
Outside it had been as dry as unbuttered toast, but in here the air conditioning stopped just short of a meat locker. Closed off from the casino, the bar seemed a little less cold; it had its share of Dodge City trappings—rough wood paneling, reproductions of ancient wanted posters for Billy the Kid and John Wesley Hardin, bartenders in string ties, waitresses in those same buckskin outfits.
At least the music piped in was not god-awful country western (with the exception of Patsy Cline, there is no other kind) and right now "One Way or Another" by Blondie was cranking. I smiled. I liked this New Wave music—reminded me of the ‘60s stuff I grew up on back in Ohio.
The bar was under-populated. It was mid-afternoon and, even in a world without clocks, that meant tumbleweed was blowing through the old watering hole. You could get free drinks out on the casino floor, so who needed a bar? And nobody was hungry right now, except me.
I settled into a rustic booth, which thankfully had padded seat and back; it was off to one side and nicely isolated. I ordered a cheeseburger and fries and a Coke from the little redheaded waitress who smiled at me in a promising way.
It wasn’t that I was irresistible to young women. I wasn’t even irresistible to old women. But I was one of the youngest males at the Four Jacks. It was a Jerry Vale crowd, remember.
Still, this isn’t about me getting lucky with a barmaid. Just like it isn’t about me getting lucky at blackjack or even a poker machine. And at first it didn’t seem to be me getting lucky at all.
"Quarry! Is that you?"
The voice was midrange male and husky and just a little bit slurry.
I looked up. I had just finished my food, already pushed the plate aside, and was sipping the last of my Coke through a straw like a high-school kid. I’m sure my reaction seemed casual, just an upward glance, but in my brain, those submarine sirens, the aahhh-ooogah ones, were blaring.
"Jerry?" I said. I didn’t use his last name, because I doubted he’d be using that name here, and anyway what I knew him by wasn’t his real one. Just like Quarry wasn’t mine.
Quarry was a name very few people ever called me by—and then only occasionally, in business-related situations. Now and then I used it myself, as a last name, because I grew kind of used to it. It had been given to me by the Broker, over ten years ago now, more a code word than an alias; he’d laid it on me when I first went to work for him, taking on contracts he arranged. The Broker, who was a pretentious Brooks Brothers type, found the "appellation" amusing—a quarry was hollowed-out rock, he said.
And maybe an irony was in there somewhere, since what I did was seek quarries myself—people I’d been hired to kill. That kind of contract.
So, anyway, Jerry.
He looked like an old hippie, and the Jerry fit him, since the first thing you thought of was Jerry Garcia, right down to the granny glasses. Not that his clothes were overtly hippie-ish—he had on a green plaid button-down shirt, open at the throat, and nice blue jeans, his salt-and-pepper facial hair full but nicely trimmed. Gabby Hayes spruced up for the prom. Since I’d seen him, maybe nine years ago, he’d lost some hair up top and had a side-saddle comb-over going.
Without asking, he joined me, sliding in across the way in the booth. "Sorry," he said, almost whispering, and made an "eek" face. "You aren’t on a job, are you?"
I shook my head. "Just a tourist. How you been, Jerry?"
He had very light blue eyes that would have looked great on a sixteen-year-old baby-doll blonde. This assumes the blonde wasn’t a heavy drinker and her baby blues hadn’t gone bleary and spidery red behind granny glasses. His face was pale and splotchy, like he had radiation poisoning, his nose a bulbous vein-shot affair.
"Doin’ okay, Quarry. Hunky fuckin’ dory." He frowned, apologetic again. "Okay I call you that? Prefer something else?"
"Quarry’s fine. Is ‘Jerry’ okay, here? Are you on a job?"
But I knew he was.
He ignored the last question and answered the first: "Call me anything but late for lunch." He laughed, pleased with his own wit. His teeth were white, and he had a nice smile, friendly as hell, but the best bet at the Four Jacks right now was that Jerry kept that smile in a glass overnight.
"Speaking of lunch," I said, "I just had a late one. You want to order something?"
"I do," he said, "but not lunch."
He waved the redhead over, and ordered a double Scotch, straight up. She nodded dutifully, and went off in a rustle of fringe.
Jerry having ducked my question, I tried again: "Am I interrupting anything? Last thing I’d want to do is call attention, if you’re working."
"Naw," he said, pawing the air with a thick-fingered hand. "It’s fine. My part’s done, anyway."
That was good to know. That meant Jerry was working the back-up position. When I’d worked for the Broker, the drill had been two-man teams—one of us went in and gathered intel, getting the target’s pattern down; a day or two before the hit was to go down, the other half of the team would come in, get filled in by the back-up guy, and do the deed. At that point, the first guy was just there for back-up, in case anything went south, and to make sure his partner got away clean.
Passive and Active, the Broker called it. We all had a preference, and mine was Active—I preferred to come in for a day or two, and do the dirty work, rather than sit for a couple of weeks watching and taking notes. But the Broker insisted we trade off at least once every four contracts. Jerry here had been one of the first Passive specialists I’d worked with, and I had pretended to get along with him fine, but I hated his ass.
Nothing personal—it’s just that he was a drunk. Or I guess the polite word is alcoholic. The Broker insisted Jerry was a "gentleman drinker," which was his way of saying the boozing did not seem to have an impact on Jerry’s work. I didn’t like it. I have never cared for drunks, and never been a heavy drinker myself, and I didn’t like having my future in the hands of an alky.
All Jerry knew, however, was that after a handful of successful jobs together, the Broker had split us up, and assigned us new partners. I’d gone on to work with a guy named Boyd, who had his own problems, but that’s another story. I had no idea who Jerry had teamed up with.
Well, maybe not no idea....
"Are you out of the business, Jerry?"
"Not hardly," he said, followed by a sigh. His Scotch had come. He sipped it. "I wish to hell I could get out. I mean, it’s been a long run. Hell of a ride. But someday it’s got to catch up with you."
"I hear that."
He made a sound that mingled a grunt with a chuckle. "Made a small fortune, these ten years or so. If I had invested instead of throwing it away on three fuckin’ wives, and six fuckin’ kids...shit. Child support’s a bitch."
"So you’re not going to take out your wallet, and show the family photos?"
"Fuck them. Two of those brats I’m not even sure are mine."
"Shame. Long as you’ve been at it, you could have socked a lot away by now."
"Tell me about it." The white smile flashed. "What the hell? Easy come, easy go. And anyway, my new wife isn’t like those other bitches. We got so much in common, it’s ridiculous."
So she was a drunk, too.
"I always wondered," I said, and summoned a nostalgic smile, "whatever happened to the guys I worked with, after the Broker bought it."
"Yeah. I wonder who killed the old bastard?"
You’re looking at him.
"I wonder. Without him, how did you stay in the business? I mean, Broker kept us cut off from clients. We were in limbo."
A laugh rumbled up out of his barrel chest. "I was fuckin’ lucky, Quarry. Did you ever work with Nick Varnos?"
Nick Varnos was the guy I’d been shadowing in Vegas for the past month.
"Never heard of him," I said. "But then, how would I? Broker kept us away from the rest of his crew, unless you were working with somebody."
Jerry nodded his shaggy head. He sipped Scotch. "I been with Nick all these years. Great fuckin’ guy. He’s gets more tail than Sinatra, that boy, and none of them bitches have ever managed to tied his ass down. Lives like a king. He’s got a boat, and a time share in Aspen. You should see the kind of car he drives."
Varnos drove a 1976 Excalibur sports, modeled on the pre-war Mercedes Benz SSK, but with a Chevy Corvette engine under its old-fashioned hood. That was at home. Right now, on the job, Varnos was driving a ‘78 Buick Century, a nothing two-door coupe. Light blue.
There was something I’d been wondering about, and I took a chance and asked, "Where’s Nick live?"
"Just over in Vegas."
I frowned. "And you’re doing a job here? Just sixty miles down the road?"
Jerry shrugged. "It is close to home for Nick. Does break the don’t-shit-where-you-eat rule, I grant you. But Nick and me, we’ve done this our own way, for a lot of years. The Broker and his rules and ideas, lot of that went out the window a way long time ago for us two....So—are you still in the trade?"
I shook my head. "After the Broker got himself killed, I took what I’d saved up and bought a little business."
"Yeah? What kinda business?"
"Used books and records. In Illinois. Little college town—Dekalb?"
None of that was true, of course. Well, Dekalb is a college town.
"That’s the life," Jerry said, shaking his shaggy head again, loosening a couple tendrils of comb-over, and flashing the expensive grin. "I bet you got yourself hot-and-cold runnin’ coeds."
"I not only get more tail than Sinatra," I said, smiling back at him, "I get more than Nick Varnos."
That had more truth in it than the other stuff I’d told him, but only slightly.
Nevertheless, it made Jerry roar with laughter. The redhead came over to give him a refill, and he frowned and started to raise a reluctant hand, to shoo her away.
"Sorry, sweetie," he said. "I’m drivin’."
The thought of him driving made her eyes widen.
"I can take you to your hotel," I said. "Go on and enjoy yourself....Another round, miss. Please."
She smiled at me—I think you got in good with her if you just didn’t call her "honey" or "sweetie." Maybe I could have got lucky with her, but I was playing another game.
As Jerry and I spoke, she brought several more rounds—and of course, my side of that was Coca Cola, one glass to every double Scotch Jerry downed. My sugar high was far outweighed by his alcoholic fog.
"How did Nick keep you guys afloat," I asked, "with the Broker out of the picture?"
Jerry shrugged, and blinked blearily. "I’m not the business end. I stay out of that shit. What I don’t know can’t hurt me kinda deal. All I know is, Nick has some connections with the goombahs—I mean, he’s lived in Vegas for over twenty years—and I figure that’s the, uh, you know...the con do it."
Conduit, in non-drunkese.
"Jeez," I said, and mock-shivered, "handling mob hits, that must make things kind of tense. I don’t scare easy, but any time I had to deal with those boys, it gave me pause."
Jerry flashed the choppers again. "I don’t know, Quarry. You always seemed like a pretty cool customer to me—I don’t see anything much ever giving you fuckin’ ‘pause.’ "
"Thanks. But I got out. You stayed in. You and Nick must be made of sturdier stuff. I just buy used books and records from college kids now. Not too many bullets flying."
His head moved side to side, kind of proud, or maybe it was just trying to stay on. "Well, you know how it is. I’m sure a lot of what the Broker gave us, all of us, came through those kinda channels. I can’t say more than half a dozen of the forty or so hits we’ve done over the years would be what I’d call, you know, mob hits. Mob related."
He’d had enough Scotch to be pretty loose with his mouth. Our booth was over to one side—like I said before, isolated. The place had filled up a little, which I didn’t love, but the music was loud—more New Wave, The Romantics, "What I Like About You." At the bar, two guys were side by side playing poker machines embedded in the counter, a little drunk and somewhat loud. So we really could talk freely.
Anyway, I knew what Jerry meant. The Broker himself had told me that superficially straight business types with even a tangential connection to the mob would go to somebody they knew in that left-handed domain and request help with a problem, and that problem would be shifted over to the Broker, and then to people like me. And Jerry and Varnos.
That’s how business partners and business rivals and wives and boyfriends of wives and girlfriends and all sorts of folks in the straight world wound up dead in various puzzling ways, accidental deaths, home invasions gone tragically awry, and so on. It could get fairly exotic.
Anyway, actual mob hits by any of Broker’s string rarely represented one Gotti going after another; that kind of action was kept in house, soldier to soldier. When a guy like me was called in for a mob job, it was more likely one of those superficially straight business types getting removed. For non-payment, or tying off a crooked loose end, or whatever.
"Like this guy we’re here to do," Jerry said. Way in the bag now. His speech was only slightly slurry, but his movements were strictly slow-motion. "He’s no mob guy. You know what he is? He’s a film director!"
"Yeah—they’re making some kind of Billy Jack rip-off. Some kind of biker movie where a good guy biker kills the shit out of bad guy bikers. This Boot Heel, it’s famous for bikers, you know."
"I heard. But that was last month."
"Yeah, but this isn’t real bikers, though they hired a few to do security on the set." Jerry shrugged elaborately; it took some work. "So what does a movie director do to piss off the mob? But it must figure in somehow. Who knows?"
Mob money funded a lot of movies. And a low-budget biker flick could either be a cash cow, if it were successful, or a money laundry, if it flopped.
"So when does it go down?"
Hitting the director, I meant.
Jerry understood. "Not sure. Soon. But Nick, he doesn’t work like you, you know. He’s a real artist, and I don’t mean to put you down in any way, Quarry, you could take care of business just fine, it’s just...Nick doesn’t do straight, you know..." He made a pointing gun gesture, fairly steady for as blasted as he was.
"What does Nick do?"
He makes the kills look accidental.
"He makes accidents happen. Not vehicular, either, which is, you gotta say, relatively easy shit to pull off. No, I mean, he’s an artist...." Jerry leaned over and his bleary blue eyes widened behind the smudgy granny lenses, and he whispered, as if what we’d been discussing hadn’t already been taboo. "...he sets fires...he fixes balconies to give way...he packs overdoses into ‘scription meds...he sends guys down icy stairways...he makes people drown...he even fed a farmer to a fuckin’ wheat thresher."
"He is an artist. How’s the movie director gonna buy it? I hear film stock catches fire easy."
Jerry shrugged. "Not my department. Nick and me, we’ll talk, later on—Nick takes a certain pride. Likes to share with his partner. But always after the fact."
"Sounds like a sweetheart."
"Great guy. Great guy. Don’t get me wrong, Quarry, I think you and me made a great team, too. Or woulda, if Broker had give us half a chance. But we didn’t have a chance to grow, to get to know each other, really."
I knew Jerry, all right. He was a drunk and a talker. And it was wonder he and Nick had lasted this long. As a team. And on Mother Earth. Nick would need to be an artist to survive working with this jackass.
"So is Nick staying here?" I asked, indicating our surroundings, knowing he wasn’t—he was at the Spur Motel.
"No," he said. He laughed, for some unknown reason, and flecks of spit touched my cheek. I didn’t brush it away till he was focused on his next sip of Scotch. "Nick’s at the same motel as the mark. Handy, if you’re in the accident game."
I shook my head slowly. "Man, I don’t think I’d have the stones. What are you doing at the Four Jacks? You aren’t staying here, right?"
His face fell. "Right. Nick...Nick’s got a rule."
"He won’t let me stay any place that has a bar. He thinks I have a drinking problem."
"I think you hold it just fine."
"Thank you! Thank you!" His expression turned melancholy, the bleary eyes tearing up. "I mean, I have had to hear this shit forever. Every goddamn one of my wives, ‘cept the new one, Wanda, has ragged and nagged and fragged me about my drinking. Can’t a guy fuckin’ relax in his own goddamn fuckin’ home?"
"Women can be such bitches."
"Yes! Yes! And Nick can be such a bitch, too, for a man, let me tell you. Oh, I love the guy. Don’t misunderstand me. But never once, in all these years, has drinking caused me any trouble on the job. You know, I hardly drink at all on the job."
"Well...aren’t you on the job right now?"
"Naw. I’m not even meeting up with Nick."
"How do you mean?"
Jerry pawed the air. "He doesn’t want back-up out of me—just surveillance. Background stuff. Mark’s pattern and all. I write it all up. It was waiting for him in a manila folder in his mailbox at the motel when he checked in. That’s how we work it."
I told you I got lucky.
"So that’s why you’re letting your hair down a little," I said.
"Yeah. Damn straight. I thought I’d gamble a little, maybe have a nice meal, maybe take in Jerry Vale and laugh my ass off at that square shit."
That wouldn’t attract any attention.
"But now, Quarry..." He put a hand on his plump stomach and rubbed it, like he was trying to summon a genie. "...I don’t know...."
"Change of plans, Jerry?"
"Yeah—I think I better crash. I maybe put away a few too many of these..." He tapped his empty Scotch glass. "Tell you what—why don’t you drive me to my motel, and I’ll have a little nap, and we can get together later? Maybe around...ten-ish? There’s a blues club where the local girls go—they’re not USDA prime, maybe, but they know how to make a guy’s dick go boy howdy."
"Sounds like a blast. Give me your keys and lead me to your car. What motel are you staying at again?"
Dusk had doused the little casino town purple, a nice shade for neon to glow against. Something cool was blowing in off the desert, but for a guy used to the Midwest, this lack of humidity was flat-out strange. Heat that didn’t feel hot. Nevada was another planet.
His car was a late-model red Mustang—what a brilliant surveillance guy this Jerry was. Who would ever spot a red Mustang? He and Nick had done forty jobs and lived this long? Unreal.
Anyway, the car was in the lot behind the Four Jacks, and Jerry fell asleep in the rider’s seat probably thirty seconds after he managed to fasten his seat belt. Driving north toward Vegas would have put us in Clark County and that meant big city cops maybe taking an interest. Jerry had half a tank of gas, so I drove south a good thirty miles, with the last gorgeous gasps of an orange desert sunset glowing off to my right, like a fire far away. Jerry was snoring.
By the time I pulled off the highway and took the dirt road to nowhere, darkness had fallen. Christ knew what kind of evil critters were out here. Lizards, snakes, coyotes. I decided not to take Jerry off exploring, risking the Mustang on sand, and instead to stay on the dirt strip. I stopped five miles or so off the highway. No lights of houses were visible, just stars and scrubby silhouettes of yucca and cactus against darkness diminished by a fingernail trimming of moon.
I hauled the slumbering Jerry out of the car and dragged him onto the dirt road and let him sleep there. I did crouch to take his wallet from his back jeans pocket and the wad of cash from in front. Otherwise, I didn’t disturb him. He lay sprawled, ripping the night with the z’s he was cutting, blissfully unaware of his circumstances, even the Mustang’s headlights not disturbing him.
When I drove the right wheel over his head, vehicle barely moving, the crunch made an unsettling sound in the stillness. The left wheel rolling over him made only the slightest bump and no discernible sound at all. The bad part was I had nowhere to turn around, and had to back up the whole five miles. Had somebody swung down that road, I might have had a problem.
But like I said, I got lucky.
Copyright © 2010 by Max Allan Collins