Soon Nolan was back out prowling the casino, taking it all in. He admired the business model—Vegas, as a wise man once said, was a city built on bad math. Working the restaurant trade with its narrow margins, and clubs where trends were elusive and customers fickle, he had to envy an industry where people gave you money and you gave them pictures of lemons or just nothing at all except maybe a free drink from a pretty girl who smiles but doesn’t see you unless maybe you tip.

The race and sports book, dead at the moment, held little interest for him; he liked to watch college and professional sports but betting just ruined it for him—betting the spread bored his ass. And he didn’t waste much time strolling through the slots, or the video poker. Now real poker was something else, and the French Quarter had an entire room of tables. Right now only perhaps a quarter of them were seeing action, but that would change. Hold ’Em had taken over, and nobody offered draw anymore. Which was fine with him, because he was a seven-card stud man and that was still around.

The poker room was the only part of the casino that tempted him. He was thinking that maybe he’d try to steal an afternoon or late evening away from Sherry and his honeymoon to find a table with no visible sharks and plenty of fish—tourists just looking to throw back a few beers and play some friendly poker. That much thief still lurked within Nolan, "boy scout" or not.

He checked his watch in this world of no clocks and saw that it was approaching eight-thirty. Making his way lazily back toward the bank of elevators, he slowed as he moved by the row of cashiers whose cages were of the same ornamental wrought-iron as the rails of the faux-Bourbon Street balconies. Ten cages in all, only five operating at the moment.He watched armed guards with metal boxes of cash—there was one under every game table, Nolan knew—leaving and entering what was obviously a double-locked count room. He smiled to himself, thinking it was like watching holy relics getting stowed away at the Vatican.

Moving down the central aisle of the game tables, where it was getting busier, with the same nearly equal mix of tourist and local, he would pause from time to time to take in the action. One roulette table was really cooking and he stopped for a few minutes to live vicariously.

He was doing that when two big men in the same purple suits as Harry, but minus the fat, came up alongside him and flanked him. Nolan stood over six feet, and these two both stood over Nolan. He glanced left and right; then a hand was on his either upper arm.

"Sir," said the one on his left, an African American whose breath was winter fresh and eyes were winter cold. "Would you come with us, please."

"May I ask why?"

"No," the other one said, a guy in his forties with short-cropped white hair, a trimmed white goatee and the general look of an ex-football player. Pro ball, of course.

"All right," Nolan said. "I’ll go quietly."

"That’s right," the white goatee said.

"Thank you, sir," the black man said.

"If you take your hands off me."

"Sir," the black man said, "we can’t do that."

"I think you can. Because there’ll be a scene if you don’t."

"It won’t last long," the white goatee said.

"Look, I’m a guest at the hotel. On my honeymoon. Why don’t you check with Mr. Bellows. The executive host? My name is Nolan. Don’t you have walkies or something? Or I’ll wait with one of you while—"

But they hauled him off, with impressive speed—it was like watching Harry Bellows dance, feather-light—and then they were in a corridor between a cafe and a bank of cheap slots, a featureless shaft that led to an unmarked doorway that he did not want to go through. So he stuck his leg in front of the white guy hauling him, sending him tumbling, while the black guy kept moving forward, as Nolan held his ground, using the surprise to pull his arms free.

He kicked the white guy in the ass, foot-of-the-shoe hard, and sent him the rest of the way down, like the bastard dived into a swimming pool whose water had suddenly froze, outstretched arms swimming in nothing. The black guy swiveled and Nolan slammed a fist into his belly, but those fucking abs were rock hard, and the next blow Nolan threw, at the guy’s chin, got swatted away like an annoying gnat.

Then the other guy was up and they were hauling him again, very fucking fast, and were through the door into the room, a concrete chamber just big enough to echo. The black guy held him while the white guy punched him in the belly and various other places, chest, ribs, kidneys, but staying away from his face. When he eventually got hauled out of here, they would not want his face messed up. That might alarm the paying customers.

Now and then, the black guy would say, "That’s enough, Vin."

"Fuck it is, Leo," Vin would say.

Rinse. Repeat.

Finally Nolan got slammed into a chair and he felt the handcuffs go on his wrists and heard the metallic snap. His legs were free but he couldn’t get at either man, again with the black guy on his left and the white on his right.

He was barely conscious, his head hanging, when Leo turned out to have a walkie after all, and used it to say, "We have him downstairs. Gave us some trouble."

Nolan had nothing clever to say. He was just sitting there hurting all over his midsection, wondering if any ribs were broken and also trying not to cry, not wanting to satisfy that white prick. The black guy was a better sort, but he would gladly kick the fucker’s teeth out, given half a chance.

While they waited for whoever was coming, Nolan did his best to take in the surroundings. He was sitting facing the door he’d been dragged through. His chair was metal. A metal picnic-type table was to his left, nothing on it. Maybe it was for emptying out a toolbox of such handy items as hammers, drills, chisels, nail guns. Do it yourself stuff. The walls were cream-color padded canvas, tufted like a leather chair. A padded cell, of sorts. But really just elaborately soundproofed.

No responsible casino employee could beat the shit out of a guy and allow the patrons out there to hear the unpleasantness rising over the bells and whistles of them losing money.Nolan flicked a glance over his shoulder. A door was back there, punched out of the padded cell. On the outside would be the parking lot. Still a possibility of a beat-up subject being seen by a customer while getting hauled out. Of course, if a car was backed up close, and its trunk lid was up, especially after dark, the subject could be dropped in and driven out for a tour of a stretch of desert and maybe an already dug hole. That would work for already dead subjects, too. Wouldn’t matter which end of the trip you died on, the hole was waiting.

Waiting for all of us, he thought, somewhat deliriously.

For the next four minutes or so, nobody beat on him.

The man who came through the door was so important, he wasn’t wearing the purple, gold and green ensemble. Instead he wore a gray sports jacket, a salmon shirt and white tie, his slacks and shoes white, too; that outfit hadn’t cost any more than a second car. He had a cigarette in a holder in his right hand. His bland, blond handsomeness was flawed only by a too-high forehead. If he’d been any smoother, he’d have been a Ken doll.

With unimpressed eyes and a trace of a smile, the new arrival walked over and planted himself before Nolan, though not close enough to get himself kicked. He had a draw from the cigarette-in-holder. He let out smoke forming what was nearly a question mark. Good trick.

"Mr. Nolan," he said, in a voice that was midrange and unthreatening. "You were recognized."

With Leo at his right, and Vin on his left, Nolan nonetheless risked saying, "Got a commendation, you mean?"

The casino man chuckled. "Not in that sense of recognized. You’re familiar with the so-called ‘Eye-in-the-Sky.’ "

"No. I’m just some dumb asshole."

"We have quite an elaborate set-up, Mr. Nolan—electronically state of the art. We have you on tape, if you’re interested."

"If this is a chance to buy a tape of myself on vacation, I’ll pass."

He took in more smoke, then let it out. "I assume you know that our parent company is in Illinois. Some of our employees hail from there. The Windy City?"

"Nobody from there calls it that," Nolan said.

Half a smile. "I’m not from there. But, as I say, my employers are. One of my people, who does hail from those parts, says your name is Nolan. And he informs me that you are a thief. A very successful one, well-regarded in certain circles."

"I was. More recently I worked for your employers myself. Check with Harry Bellows. He worked with me at one of their places. For me, actually."

The casino man frowned. Then he turned to Leo. "Get Harry on the walkie. Have him join us."

Thank God, Nolan thought.

Then said, "Do you know Felix in Chicago?"

"If I do?"

"Call him, too. I have my own restaurant and nightclub now. In the Iowa/Illinois Quad Cities. I’m out of the game. Strictly straight."

"...If so, we’ve made a mistake."

"Tell me about it."

"Maybe you can explain why you were...casing the joint?"

Nolan laughed. It hurt and he stopped.

The casino man was saying, "Eyeballing every security camera? Checking out the table games? The poker room? The cashier cages? The counting room?"

"Oh, right. I checked out the counting room. When nobody was looking, I ran in there and dove into the piles of money like Uncle Scrooge and tossed hundreds in the air. Just lolled the fuck around."

Vin had a fist ready and boy did he want to use it, but the casino man said, "No," then to Nolan said, "Why reconnoiter, then?"

Nolan shrugged. That hurt, too.

"Habit," he said.

The casino man frowned. "Let’s have a better answer."

"Jesus, man. No thief except a fucking fool thinks there’s any way to knock over a casino. Fort Knox, maybe, in James Bond. Joints like this, in the real world? No fucking way."

A knock came to the door. The casino man nodded to Vin, who went and answered it. A concerned-looking Harry was there with Leo.

"Mr. Briggs," Harry said, from the corridor, "this is a horrible misunderstanding."

Vin returned to Nolan’s side and the casino man went out and talked with Harry in the hall, door open. Harry gestured toward Nolan, looking very upset, and now and then Nolan picked up on a word or phrase: "...for years...tight with Felix... straight...stand-up guy...."

The casino man came back in, shutting the door on Harry out there. Planting himself in front of Nolan, he said, "We made an honest mistake, Mr. Nolan. Can we put this behind us?"

Translation: Do I have to have you killed to make this go away?

Nolan said, "What did that guy say at the end of Some Like It Hot?"

"Nobody’s perfect," the casino man said. Then to Vin: "Unlock the cuffs."

Vin was doing that when the casino man leaned in and asked, "Can we make this right?"

"Me burying Vin in the desert would be a start," Nolan said. Then he grinned at Vin. "Kidding."

The casino man helped Nolan get to his feet. "I’m Jack Briggs. You need anything here, anybody gives you trouble, you mention my name."

He handed Nolan his card.

"Work and home," Briggs said. "Day or night."

Then the casino man was gone.

Nolan looked at the two security thugs and said, "By the way, goddamn hard fucking feelings."

He got out of there, hoping Sherry was still sleeping in. If he’d caused her any worry, he might have to hurt somebody, even if nobody was perfect.

Copyright © 2020 by Max Allan Collins

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