Mr. Lucky, страница 1
Praise for James Swain’s Tony Valentine novels
Also by James Swain
For Deborah & Shawn Redmond
Everybody’s honest, when they can afford to be.
Famous casino owner
The author wishes to thank the following people for their help in writing and researching this novel: Peter Ballas, Chris Calhoun, Michael Connelly, Steve Forte, Joni Hatch, Jerry Hooten, Dana Isaacson, Linda Marrow, Deborah Redmond, Robert Knuts, Charles & Margaret Swain, and my wife, Laura.
The moon looked funny that night, so bright it seemed to sport a face with droopy eyes and a sly little grin, and for the rest of his life Ricky Smith would think of that face whenever he paused to reflect upon the series of events that had turned his life upside down.
“So how did you win all that money?” the beautiful girl in his room wanted to know. Her name was Rita, and somehow he’d talked her into coming up to his room high above the Las Vegas Strip, her statuesque body parked beside him on the lumpy double bed. God, is she gorgeous, Ricky thought. Her eyes demanded an explanation, and he shrugged like winning twenty grand at blackjack was no big deal.
“Come on,” she pleaded, giving his knee a squeeze.
The little man in Ricky’s crotch snapped to attention. Divorced six months and eleven days, he found himself getting aroused walking in a stiff wind. Time stood still as he struggled for something clever to say. “I got lucky,” he mumbled.
Rita’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t believe that for one minute.”
He looked at her face, seeing double. “Believe it.”
Rita’s tongue did butterfly kisses on his earlobe while her hand crawled up his thigh. The little man was six degrees from exploding, and Ricky squeezed his legs together.
“You were cheating, weren’t you?”
His head snapped. “No.”
Ricky shook his head. He played a system developed by a legendary counter named Stanford Wong, but tonight it hadn’t been necessary to memorize a single card. As every gambler knew, for all the calculations and odds and multiplying strategies of working the percentages, there were days when things just went your way.
“You’re holding back on me,” she cooed.
The little man was ready to pounce. Battle stations were ready, all men on deck. He swallowed hard as Rita’s hand climbed farther up his leg, her pink fingernail tickling the crotch of his pants. “I’ll make you tell me.”
Ricky didn’t think that was going to be very difficult. Rita coyly pulled her hand away, waiting for him to say something. He coughed awkwardly. “You want a drink or something?”
She crossed her arms. Not pissed off, but getting there. “Or something? What have you got in mind?”
Ricky’s cheeks burned. Talking to women always tied him in knots. Maybe that was why he’d married the first girl he’d ever slept with. Trying to get up, she grabbed his hand.
“Tell me your secret,” she demanded.
His tongue felt as thick as a potato. “If I did that, I’d have to kill you.”
Rita fell backward onto the bed and started laughing. Ricky would have been hurt, only she pulled him down for the ride, the two of them rolling around in each other’s arms like a couple of kids on a hayride. His lips brushed her mouth, and suddenly they were kissing. Ricky’s heart beat out of control. This is how it was meant to be, he thought. She did not seem to mind that he wasn’t good-looking or well dressed and that he had as much hair on his head as most guys had on their ass, and all Ricky could hope for was that the magic spell he’d cast over her wouldn’t wear off before morning.
“I’ll take you up on that drink,” Rita said when they pulled themselves apart.
“Name your pleasure.”
“Gin and tonic, heavy on the gin.”
He went to the room’s minibar. Once his winnings had started to mount, the casino had plied him with free drinks, and now he could barely walk. Stopping at the boxy TV mounted to the wall, he paused to stare at his disheveled appearance in one of the smoky mirrors that served as wall decorations. His face was smeared with pink lipstick, and his hair stood on end. He looked like shit. In the same reflection he caught Rita firing up a butt. She was a mess, too, but in a sexy way, like she’d just woken up, and it occurred to him that no matter what she did to herself, she was always going to be beautiful, and he would always be a grunt. He staggered into the bathroom, slamming the door behind him.
“Jesus.” The bathroom light was bright and harsh. Filling the sink with cold water, he dunked his head, came up for air, then plunged his face in again.
“Are you all right?” she asked through the door.
He pulled his face out of the sink. “Give me a minute, okay?”
“You want a drink?”
“Want some rum with that?”
Another dunk and he felt a little better. Drying himself, he examined the pocks and crevices of his face in the mirror, his wet hair hanging limply from the circular edge of his freckled head. His pride had been crushed long ago, and he felt the skeptic in him rear itself. What did Rita really see in him, besides the twenty grand? No immediate answers came to mind. Then he had a brilliant thought; he’d ask her.
He cracked the bathroom door. She was at the minibar, her back to him. In the smoky mirror he watched her fix their drinks. She’d slipped off her shoes and found Kenny G on the radio, her feet dancing as she poured his soda. She was primed, and the little man sent a message to his brain telling him to drop his drawers and march right up to her. “Or something,” he’d say wittily, then throw her on the bed. Wild, uncontrollable sex would follow, and life would be perfect for a little while.
“Don’t drown in there,” she called out.
His pants were hanging around his knees when he saw Rita dig a tiny vial from her purse. Oh no, he thought, a coke head. Unscrewing the top, she dumped the contents into his bubbling soda and mixed it with her pinky.
“I’m waiting,” she
Ricky shut the door and leaned against it, breathing heavily. Not coke, a mickey. Knock out the dummy, take the money. He wanted to cry; would have had he been alone.
“Time’s up,” she called out.
A strained laugh came out of his mouth. Being a nerd, Ricky carried a miniature screwdriver in his shirt pocket, and he got on his knees and unscrewed the air-conditioning vent, then removed his winnings from his belly pack and stuffed them into the small rectangular hole in the wall.
A strange smell was coming out of the vent. He took a deep whiff, trying to place it. Like badly burnt toast. Rita knocked on the bathroom door.
“Not without me!”
“Ha-ha,” he said.
He screwed the vent back into place. Opening the bathroom door, he saw Rita sitting on the bed with their drinks, her blouse partially unbuttoned.
“Here I am,” he said, sitting down beside her.
She passed him his soda. “Bottoms up.”
They clicked glasses, and Ricky felt her stare. He put his drink on the floor, then said, “Listen, something’s come up. I think it would be best if you left.”
“But we’re just getting started.”
She had a mouth that could make your heart melt. Ricky was a sucker for beautiful girls and had to remind himself that this one wanted to roll him. Staring past her, he said, “I really think you need to go.”
She squeezed his leg. This time the little man did not respond. “What’s wrong? You got a wife at home you’re not telling me about?”
“Something like that,” he said.
“Sure you don’t want to play around?”
The dreamy look vanished from her face. Putting her drink on the floor, Rita picked up her purse. “And I thought you were someone special,” she said.
Ricky looked into her eyes, trying to see into the soul of a woman who’d take advantage of a lonely guy and steal his dough. Did she care that he was hypersensitive to sleeping medication and that her mickey might kill him? No, she probably didn’t. He stood up and pointed at the door.
“Get out,” he said.
Her face turned to granite. She went to the minibar and slipped on her pumps. She didn’t seem tipsy anymore, and walked calmly to the door before stopping.
“Maybe some other time,” she said.
“I don’t think so.”
She scowled, the lost money eating a hole in her. In the movies the guy got to say something clever right about now, and Ricky pointed at the door. “See you around, sweetheart.”
“Who said that? Bogart, or was it Edward G. Robinson?”
She lingered at the door, smiling coyly. “Sure you don’t want me to stay?”
“You don’t quit, do you?”
“Quitting is for losers, big boy.”
“Get lost, or I’ll call security.”
“You’re so brave.”
“Keep it up and I’ll toss you myself.”
“A slob like you?” She pulled a can of mace from her purse. “I don’t think so.”
Ricky blinked. A thick black snake about nine feet long had slithered into the room and wrapped itself around Rita’s shapely legs. Thinking the booze was messing with his head, he watched the snake begin to squeeze the life out of her, only to melt away in a harmless puff of smoke. Rita looked at the floor, sensing something was wrong.
“What’s that funky smell?” she said.
“Something’s burning. You’d better not open that door.”
Because somewhere deep down inside I want to believe you might really care for me, he thought. “I think the hotel’s on fire,” he said.
Rita put her hand on the knob and twisted it. “Right. And you and I are going to stay in this room until the firemen come. My hero. Well, if I stay, it’s going to cost you, toilet-bowl head. Four hundred bucks an hour, a grand for the night.”
Ricky winced. All his life people had soiled him with names, but for some reason this dagger hurt more than the others. He hadn’t intentionally lost his hair, but women seemed to think something was wrong with his genetic makeup because he had. His lower lip began to tremble, and he had to think hard.
“How about twenty bucks, and you have to shine my shoes in the morning?”
Rita’s mouth dropped open: score one for RS. Jerking the door open, she said, “Stick it up your ass, fat boy,” and marched into the hallway.
A loud whoosh! greeted her as the fire smoldering in the hallway sucked up the bedroom oxygen and caused the hallway to burst into flames. Rita stood in the center of it. She acted confused, like someone trapped in a carnival fun house, and Ricky watched in morbid fascination as her flowing blond hair and baby-doll red dress sparked, then burst into bright orange flames.
The smell of burning food was unmistakable. He imagined a fire raging out of control in the hotel restaurant, perhaps caused by a punctured gas line or a greasy stove. Once the fire exceeded eighteen hundred degrees, its radiant heat flux would travel up the elevator shafts and air-conditioning ducts and cook the building like a giant soufflé. Rita was getting the full treatment, and she ran back into the room like she’d been shot out of a cannon.
“You bastard!” she screamed.
Ricky sidestepped her mad charge and watched her sail headfirst through the glass slider. Choking black smoke filled the room, and he kicked out the remaining glass and followed her onto the balcony.
Only, Rita wasn’t there. He went to the railing and stared down. Her burning body lay in the grass five floors below. She had landed with her arms spread out, like a kid making an angel in the snow. I could have saved you, he thought. He lifted his eyes. The moon wore a face that resembled a sly little grin.
Screams carried up from below as other guests opened their sliders and came outside. Suddenly, Ricky remembered his twenty grand in the bathroom. He tried to go back inside and was met by a blinding column of smoke.
He staggered off to the side of the balcony. With his hands he found the wall of the hotel, and put his back to it.
He asked himself how this could be happening. Tonight, his luck had finally changed. He’d made a huge score on his own. But instead of staying downstairs in the casino and continuing to gamble, he’d let the first pretty girl to wink at him talk him into coming upstairs. He’d ruined a beautiful thing and had no one to blame but himself.
The hotel began to shake. He could hear flames roaring through the building and guessed that the fire had gotten so hot that a deadly electromagnetic wave had been created. The soufflé was just about done.
Time to talk to the Big Guy, he thought.
In college he’d written a paper about all the novels Ernest Hemingway had written in which characters had prayed at the point when prayer wasn’t going to do them any good. For Hemingway, prayer and tragedy were forever linked, the world a sad, distrustful place. Ricky’s opinion was about the same. Life sucked, then you died. But just in case God was listening…
“Oh, God, please spare me from dying,” he said, his eyes tightly shut. “Please, God…I won’t ever fuck up again.”
Flames jumped onto the balcony, singeing his arm. He let out a cry and opened his eyes. He was thirty-five, no family, a guy with big dreams but nothing to show for it. He looked over his shoulder into his room. The fire had eaten away the ceiling, and conduits and sheets of insulation were dropping onto his bed. Soon the room would be roaring with flames; then the walls would melt; then he’d catch on fire like Rita.
He went to the railing and started to climb over. So far, the fire had confined itself to the main hotel, and he stared down at the glass rooftop of the hotel’s plush spa, where a pair of identical Swedish bimbos named Olga and Hilga gave body massages and had a waiting list three months long. Next to it was a swimming pool, and what Ricky remembered about the pool was that at its deep end
“Well,” he said, puffing his chest in his best Clint Eastwood imitation, “do you, punk?”
All his life, he’d been stealing tough guys’ lines from the movies, and it had never made him any braver. His ex-wife had asked him to stop a thousand times. Like he’d told her at the divorce trial, he didn’t know how. The words just leapt out of his mouth.
The railing was growing warmer; soon it would be too hot to touch. His time was running out. Well, he thought, at least I get a say in the matter. He put one foot into space, then hesitantly drew it back. Jump, or turn into a cinder. What a choice.
“Your move, Mr. Bond.”
His move indeed.
The sharp wind that blew through Tony Valentine’s house made the hurricane shutters rattle and the bamboo trees in his yard shake their branches. It dropped the temperature by several degrees, and he felt his skin harden beneath his clothes. A storm sitting out in the Gulf of Mexico was churning up the ocean, and a small-craft advisory had been issued for boaters. A good night to stay indoors, the TV weatherman had cautioned.
Sitting at the desk in his study, Valentine stared through the lone window at his backyard. Although he could not see the ocean from where he lived, he could taste it in the air, and that was all that mattered. Even on a night like tonight, it was a friend, always there to comfort him when his soul was troubled.
The phone on his desk rang. His private line. The caller ID said UNKNOWN, but his gut told him it was Lucy Price, a woman in Las Vegas he had helped out a month ago. At the time, it had seemed like the right thing to do; only, he hadn’t counted on her tracking him down in Florida.
“Go away,” he said to the phone.
It kept ringing. The sound was like a hammer tapping on his conscience. He had nothing to say to her; nothing that would change the horrible thing she’d done. Another stiff wind blew through his house and infused the air with the ocean’s spirits. It made him feel better, but only for a little while.
Finally the phone went silent. On his desk was a clock in the shape of a roulette wheel. It was nearly ten. Normally, he didn’t work this late, preferring to read a book until his eyes gave out. Only, he’d let his work pile up, too disturbed about the situation with Lucy to put in a full day’s work. He stared at the pile of FedEx envelopes stacked on his desk. Each was addressed to Grift Sense, his consulting company. He’d opened it up as a way to fill his days after his wife had died, never expecting it would lead to a second career.