And I will stand the hazard of the die.
It started at exactly eleven minutes past three A.M. on Sunday when Bello made his first appearance in the pit, picked up a pair of dice, and asked that the house limit on bets be taken off. At first only the casino itself was involved, then the charged atmosphere, the fever and melancholy spread like a plague to people staying under its roof. The ending came at exactly five twenty-three on Wednesday morning with the first cold, gray slabs of daylight.
So that was Zero: 3:11 A.M. Sunday morning.
But when was the real beginning? On what day, hour and moment was the decision made and the wheels set in motion? Or was there a definite time and place for it? It could have been a culmination of small events that at last erupted into the idea itself.
Take a day months ago when Nick Lotas and his two boys were unceremoniously ushered out of Rainbow’s End, put in the black limousine, and told to start driving and not to stop until they were over the Nevada state line. Nick wouldn’t have tried crashing any of the other front-line casinos because they are protected by the syndicate which has made these places out-of-bounds for visiting hoodlums. But Joe Martin’s Rainbow’s End is a strictly independent operation. It figured Joe wouldn’t be going by syndicate rules. He was, though. And Nick got the bounce.
That could have been the incident that started it, although nobody ever found out whether Nick Lotas had contributed to the money pool behind it or not. He might have. He could easily have chunked in as much as a hundred thousand toward the project.
Or was it another time, a different situation that was the germ that became an action? Morrie Stetten’s wife came out from New Jersey to spend six weeks waiting for a divorce. Morrie’s a big man in Jersey enterprises. He wanted his wife back. But she shacked up with some man in Las Vegas and wouldn’t even answer his long distance calls. Morrie was told that the man was Joe Martin. It wasn’t true, but he believed it.
Morrie could have kicked the whole thing off, not so much for the ten million dollars but for revenge.
Yet it is possible Morrie was no part of the venture. Ten million dollars is a lot of money and the plan could have begun in a penthouse in some big city, triggered by no incident at all, motivated by greed alone. Greed and envy and frustration, for Las Vegas is a walled city to outside hoodlums and they constantly look for a crack in the wall to slip through.
It is obvious now that they planned the invasion long and painstakingly. They knew it would call for tremendous financial backing and managed to raise almost half a million dollars. Once they had the money, they realized they needed one thing more—a front. A man who could walk into any casino without being questioned or suspected. So they obtained the greatest gambler of them all—Bello.
Bello was their first expense. You didn’t buy a man like him cheap. He was to cost them seventy-five thousand dollars. Hot or cold. Which means: whether he won or lost. It was part of the bargain that he was not required to risk his own large fee. So what with other considerably smaller expenses, the show actually went on the floor with four hundred thousand dollars.
They were pitting that against ten million.
It was neither known nor suspected until just before Zero that Bello was the front man. Otherwise, the plan wasn’t a very well kept secret. Word had leaked out weeks ago that something big was coming to town and that it would be directed at Joe Martin.
The town knew it, but the hapless patrons at Rainbow’s End were totally unaware.
One of the richest, most exclusive playlands on this earth is a strip of U.S. highway just outside Las Vegas, Nevada. A gaudy, sparkling honky-tonk avenue of gold, it glitters with giant neon signs, towering structures of stunning architecture, elaborate motels with shining blue swimming pools, and most impressive of all, dwarfing all the rest in undreamed of splendor, majestic monuments of luxury known as casino hotels. Flamingo, Thunderbird, El Rancho Vegas, Tropicana, Rainbow’s End, Royal Nevada, The Sands, Riviera, Sahara....
As Joe Martin drove rapidly past the signs, the motels, the casinos, a desert wind licking at his face, he wondered if he’d be up to the big ordeal when it started. He knew it could start any time, even tonight. And he wondered if, in these days of his late thirties, he could cope with all the dirty pool they’d throw at him: the tricks and devices they’d use. He slowed the car now, approaching his ten million because there it was, all in one piece—the biggest, gaudiest and best casino hotel on the whole Strip. The giant sign overhead was a fountain of color with the words:
Below that, on the twinkling marquee, was the name of the thirty-thousand-dollar-a-week entertainer currently featured in his floor show.
Joe turned into the wide driveway, still gazing at the sign. Next week—would his name be blacked out at the top? Hell no, it won’t be, he told himself. Am I getting soft in my old age? Not so you can notice it. When you’re in this business, you’ve got to expect a rumble once in a while. I’ll handle it. I’ll send those creeps running so fast their fat little legs won’t hold them. I was never afraid of anyone before, at least not afraid enough for it to matter—and it’s the same now. The big trouble, of course, is the waiting; waiting for the first move. The suspense. Like those last minutes before your LST hits the beach. Once the mainline action begins, I’ll know what to do and won’t worry about it any more.
In the parking lot, he angled into the spot that was always reserved for him. It was six o’clock on a June afternoon, and there wasn’t another parking space in sight. He switched off the ignition, climbed out of the white convertible, and headed for the casino.
He was just under six feet, his body lithe, stomach flat. He wore a crew haircut, and had a deeply tanned face that was hard, often inscrutably blank, sometimes mean. His gray eyes could cut into you, and usually did, but they could also shine warmly if he wanted to turn on charm. He seldom felt like it. He had authority, quiet-voiced dignity, and a big reputation. The women who could get close enough found his masculinity irresistibly attractive. But he wasn’t easy to get close to, because whenever he did want a woman, he did the choosing. There was never any problem. At least there hadn’t been until just recently.
The casino door was opened for him, and he stood just inside for a moment, bathing in the cool air conditioning. Although it was a full two hours before the floor show was scheduled to start, a line was already queuing up at the faraway dining room door for reservations. Here, close to where he was standing, the big, luxurious gambling pit was packed with people. A security man spotted him, and immediately made his way over, not to him, but within a radius of ten feet. He was under wraps again—protected from every and any conceivable angle. He started forward, and security men throughout the room kept an eye peeled in his direction. The old, familiar drone of stickmen was echoing from the four different active crap tables:
"Eight. Eight a number. Who wants odds on the hard way? Place your come and field bets. Here we go. Five. Five, eight the number. You’re looking for an eight, sir. Eight’ll do it." ("Come on, baby, sweat a little! Eighter-from-Decatur!") "Six. The field loses. Eight the number. Let ’em roll. Seven. Seven, the loser. Next shooter. All bets down. The dice are coming out—do or don’t come. Seven! Seven, the winner. Pay the front line. He’s coming out again, the same lucky shooter." ("Once more, dice, a natural!") "Ee-o-leven! Pay the line...."
The noise was rising to a steady roar: The crack of dice against the backboards, the multiple clang of nickel, dime, quarter, fifty-cent and dollar slot machines along the walls, the continuous chant of stickmen, voices pitched high to overcome the mounting babble of the customers. The blackjack tables, though, were silent: crowded to capacity with players seated in high chairs hunched over the green felt as green-visored dealers with green aprons and flat, bored faces dealt out the cards. But the roulette games in the corners behind them were audible—the click of the spinning wheel, and the voice of the croupier afterward, "Seventeen, on the black"; and there was a periodic whir of the mixer machine behind the bar stirring up free drinks for wilted losers that would be delivered on nice, bright trays by pretty and shapely cocktail waitresses, wearing half boots and soft leather cowboy shirts.
From the elegant, leather-cushioned lounge that adjoined the casino, Joe faintly heard Mal Davis playing and singing popular songs. His eyes roved the pit for a few minutes, checking the action. The pit boss and floor manager both nodded, meaning that everything was normal. So he turned and moved into the lounge, heading for the piano.
He saw Mal now, singing as he played, wearing a white dinner jacket, a bow tie. He was slim, in his thirties—fairly rugged, with high cheekbones, blue eyes, and a short haircut. A man and two women were seated on three of the six stools around the piano. Mal had an infectious smile and he stopped singing and turned it on now as he saw Joe. The customers swung around to look at who could be important enough to make him stop in the middle of a song. If they didn’t know, they quickly guessed. They always did. Joe looked the way people expected Joe Martin to look. And Mal cued them in fast. "Hi, boss."
"Why’d you stop playing?"
"I’ve been keeping an eye out for you."
"Another advance on your salary?"
"No, I’m staying away from the tables this week."
For the benefit of the three customers, Joe parried with the usual joke: "Look, if you’re not going to lose it back, how can I afford to pay you so much?"
After hearing this, people would say to one another privately: he thinks we think he is kidding, but he isn’t. That’s how they pay them those big salaries. The entertainers lose it back. Those casinos get their shows for practically nothing by the time it’s over.
"She’s here," Mai said.
Joe showed no expression. This is why I came over, he thought. Whenever she shows up, Mal always knows first. She likes the way he sings. Spends a lot of time at the piano. In fact, Mal was the one who convinced me I ought to give her a whirl. "For laughs," he had said, "besides, once you dig that body of hers, and the crazy way she walks, you’ll be talking to yourself." And when that had failed to inspire Joe: "You’ll never be able to make it in the hay with her, though. That chick is the original square."
"Boss, say something," Mal urged, grinning, "Talk to me."
Joe’s face was still blank. "All right—she’s here. Now you’ve told me." It was Mal’s challenge three weeks ago that had mildly intrigued him. He’d never make it to bed with a girl like Sunny Guido. Well, so far he hadn’t.
"Quit clowning," Mal said, "you like that doll."
Joe scowled. With customers present and listening, Mal was using his jaw too much. "Say where she’d be?"
Mai nodded. "One of the tables poolside."
Joe showed no interest whatsoever. Instead, to bring Mal down, punish him for running off at the mouth, he flipped a five-dollar chip over on the piano.
"Play something comical."
Then, to prove even further he had no intention of rushing out poolside to see anybody, he walked over and sat down at a nearby cocktail table. A waitress quickly brought him a glass of plain soda water, and he sat there with it, still angry. People said he was overly sensitive, too quick to explode. But the one thing he could live with least in this world was personal embarrassment; and he felt important enough not to have to tolerate it from anybody.
Mal Davis was singing the words of a love song against the background chant of stickmen, saying: "New shooter coming out. Do or don’t come. All bets down, please. Who wants Ee-o- or any? Seven! Seven the big winner. Pay the line..." while Joe sat frowning over his glass of undiluted soda water.
To a man at the bar who was watching Joe, and had been watching for several days, taking shifts with others who had been hired by outside people, he seemed brooding—and somehow sick. That was good. It was something to report.
Copyright © 1958 by Steve Fisher; copyright © 2008 by the Heirs of Steve Fisher.