Authors: Richard S. Prather
The really impressive thing about the casino was the walls themselves. The ceiling was black, and all four walls from ceiling to floor were covered with scenes that looked, quite literally, like hell. Or at least what one would imagine hell to be like. There were hundreds of naked figures: in chains, being consumed by fire, being whipped or beaten or stretched on racks. It seemed that all the tortures of all time were being employed on the straining figures, but on no face was there any expression of pain, or any expression at all. These were blank, set faces with dull, staring eyes, and all the faces were exactly the same. These were the eternally damned and the eternally dying who could never die, existing forever till all senses were dead and living itself was death. It made me wonder, idly, what heaven would be like.
I drained my glass, managed to get the bartender, and asked him where Victor Dante's office was. He pointed toward the back of the casino and said there was a door in the corner, a hallway beyond the door, and Dante's office was across the hall, on the right.
I walked through the crowd, went across the hall, and knocked on the door. A voice inside said, "Come in."
I stepped inside the door and stopped. Victor Dante sat behind a large black desk and he looked up at me and his face dropped fifty degrees, and finally he said, "You son of a bitch."
It was the same guy, all right.
I STOOD completely still for a second after I stepped inside the door, and the incongruous thought struck me that for a relative stranger in Las Vegas I was sure running into a lot of people I knew. First Lorraine, and now the frozen-faced, foul-mouthed character who'd been in her dressing room last night. I knew that when I had time to figure out what this meant it should help clear a few things up for me, but right now I just didn't have the time.
We both recovered about the same moment and we both came up with the same first idea, but I was faster than he was in the first place, and his gun was in the drawer of his desk. I snapped my right hand up and flipped out my .38 and he stopped moving with the drawer halfway open. This was Sure Thing Dante, and the only sure thing if he jerked out a gun was that he'd be dead, and he knew it. But he looked right back at the revolver pointing at him and his little, far-apart eyes were just as cold and dark and empty as the open muzzle of my gun.
I kicked the door shut behind me and glanced around the room to make sure we were alone. I said, "Just for calling me a son of a bitch, you son of a bitch, I'm going to bust your damned head. Imagine what I'm going to do to you for the rest of it."
This was the first time I'd heard him use ordinary words, and he said, quietly now, "You're a stupid man, Mr. Scott."
I was tired of this guy. He piled insult on insult. But I wanted to ask him so many questions I didn't know which of them came first. I picked one at random. "Tell me about Isabel Ellis, Dante."
He didn't say a word.
"I've got ways, Dante. I can open that foul mouth of yours. Maybe you heard about the two goons at the airport." I stopped. "You bastard,
was some of your work. And that's just one more thing to club you for."
He just sat there behind his black desk as if he were waiting for something, and then I realized what it was. I'd had my gun on him all the time, and he hadn't gone into that drawer, but I couldn't see his knees or his feet or the buzzer that was probably under the desk, and I knew damned well he was waiting for somebody to bust in.
I stepped toward him and I snapped at him, "Up! Get up! Back away from that desk and get on your feet." He was slow about it, but he moved. I walked over within a yard of him, the gun close to my side. "Get over to the door," I said. He took a couple of steps towards the door I'd come in by, then he stopped. "Damn it, move," I told him.
He was too slow about it, and I owed this guy plenty anyway, so I kept the gun in my right hand, pointed at him, straightened the fingers of my left hand, and with my thumb up and hand rigid I swung my arm around and chopped him under the left ear. It spun him around and he staggered and dropped to his hands and one knee. He stayed like that for a moment, moving his head slowly, and I put my foot against his bottom and shoved him as hard as I could.
His arm buckled and he shot forward, his face skidding for three inches on the carpet. "Now get the hell over there," I said, and the door opened.
He came in without any singsong patter, and it was my other acquaintance from the Pelican party last night, but the thing that surprised me was that he came in without a gun. Apparently that buzzer didn't mean trouble, but simply "You're wanted by the boss."
He didn't come all the way in, just one step, and he stopped so fast that about half the mass of dry hair on his head flopped forward over one eye, but he saw enough out of the other eye to scare hell out of him.
That eye rolled down at Dante on the floor, then rolled up at me, and I thought it was going to roll clear back into his head. But it stopped at me and I yelled at him, "Get in here. And don't try a thing."
My gun was pointed right at him, but he was still only about a foot inside the door, with his right hand on the knob, and he leaped backward, swinging the door shut, and was gone as neatly as if he practiced it every day.
Dante slowly got up off the floor. He put his left hand up to his neck and looked at me. Finally there was something in his eyes: There was hate there, for me, but there was pain, too, and he was breathing so hard the air hissed in and out of his pinched nostrils.
He looked at me but he didn't say anything, so I did. "You going to answer my question now, Dante? About Isabel? And one about William Carter? And Freddy Powell?" I knew he wouldn't, and I knew I had to get the hell away from here, but I had to try.
He barely opened his mouth. "You won't get out, Scott. You won't get ten feet away from the Inferno. Not alive."
He was probably right. I knew as well as he did where our friend had gone. For help. And help was what they had plenty of here. But I was going to get one step closer to being even with Dante before whatever was going to happen finally happened.
I know a lot of Judo from the Marines, and I know how easy it is to put a man out or kill him with just one hand or even the fingers of one hand. But there is absolutely no satisfaction quite like slamming a hard fist into the face of a man who has beaten you up and tried to kill you.
So I transferred the .38 to my left hand, balled up my right into a large horny fist, and stepped closer to Dante. He suddenly understood what I was going to do. He got it, all right, but he got it too late, and he'd barely started to move when I launched my fist up at him, my arm straightening with the muscles corded in my forearm, and my shoulder behind it and my body pivoting and slamming ahead behind my whole arm. I landed right in the middle of his mouth and gave my fist a little twist as it landed, and it made a hell of a loud noise. Then it was quiet for the length of time it took him to hit the carpet. He'd be out for quite a while, and he was never going to be very happy with his mouth again.
There was no way out of here except the way I'd come in, so I stepped over Victor Dante, went to the door, and opened it. There was nobody in the hallway yet, so I put the short-barreled .38 in my coat pocket and kept my right hand on it and walked back into the Devil's Room.
One thing about it, there must have been close to a thousand people here in the casino. This was the first night of Helldorado, and the citizens were getting off to a roaring start. There'd been a big parade during the day, bands playing, a rodeo, the feeling of a party when you're dressed up in costume. There'd been drinking, too, of course, because the bars in Las Vegas stay open twenty-four hours a day, and there was a sort of drunken excitement in the air.
I was glad of the crowd, because I didn't think even Dante would turn anybody loose with a gun to pop away at me in his own clubâor in any other crowd, for that matter. I didn't think he would, but it was small comfort because I couldn't be sure. And, anyway, even if I were relatively safe in here, I couldn't stay here forever, and outside I was gone. I
to stay with this crowd. I looked at my watch. After midnight. It wouldn't be dawn for five or six hours, and even though daylight might help me once I was outside, I knew for sure that I couldn't last in here that many hours. But walking out now would be suicide. The room of a horned devil was an appropriate place for me to be now, because I was sure between the horns of a dilemma.
I walked ahead through the crowd, wondering how a man might be killed in a bunch of people like this. There was always a chance for a knife in the ribs; or maybe some boy would know enough to twist my hand behind my back, yank and press on my thumb and little finger, and simply lead me helpless out of the place and into that long blackness. I didn't know what faces to watch for, but I had to keep moving. I was well into the crowd now and I'd been glancing at the door behind me, so I saw old Bushy Hair, the boy with the frightened eye, come through with two friends. Friends of his. At least I got a look at them as they split up, one going left, one right, one into the crowd after me. I wasn't hard to spot because my six foot two stuck the white hair on my stupid head up over most of the crowd. It had taken these boys a little while to get this close, but I figured it was undoubtedly because they'd taken time to set up men outsideâand probably send more through the front.
I kept moving, and I could hear the buzz of conversation, and the dealers at the crap tables intoning, "Here goes; comin' out, we're comin' out. Ten. Ten's a winner." And at another table a dealer with a more poetic streak: "I have a new roller, a new bowler, are you set with a bet?" All very happy and carefree.
I moved through the crowd and looked at every face I could, and that's how I happened to see her. Just inside the entrance leading from here into the main lobby was one of the big posters that are displayed in all the hotels listing the acts in the current floor show. She was standing with her profile toward me, looking at the big poster about fifteen feet from her. But I knew what she was looking at, because she probably wasn't used to it yet, and right at the top it said, "LORRAINE," in big black screaming letters. Not "Sweet Lorraine," but it was the same terrific profile all the way down.
The long black hair wasn't loose as it had been when she'd done her fire dance, but was coiled in a bun at the back of her head Ã la Faye Emerson, and I was close enough to see the little button nose, and the way her full lower lip protruded a little farther than the upper one as she studied her name. The same other things protruded, too, just as they had at the Pelican.
I walked up beside her and when she turned toward me I said right in her cute little face, "You bitch. You damned murderous bitch."
Her blue eyes suddenly went wide and her mouth dropped open. "Whaat?" she gasped. "What? What do you mean?"
I was pretty close to that lobby entrance, and I had an idea that somebody would be there watching for me. There was. A slim, six-foot guy with a college-boy face spotted me and shoved away from the wall. He was a new one, but he was one. He walked toward me and stopped about five feet away.
I looked at him and asked him in a conversational tone, "Did they tell you what to do when you got to me?"
He blinked. He didn't know what to do. I'm damn sure I wouldn't have known what to do either. I still had my right hand in my coat pocket, and I shoved it easily toward him about two inches, coat and all. His eyes flicked downward, then back up at my face. He looked around at the crowd, licked his lips once, and went back to the doorway.
Lorraine said, "What in the world was that? And what did you mean?"
There was a little anger on her face now, but she looked puzzled more than anything else. I jerked my head at the collegiate type and said, "That's more thanks to you, too, probably. Maybe you don't know it,
, but I've got a good idea you killed a nice kid named Freddy Powell just as surely as if you'd shot him."
"What? You must be crazy!"
"Yeah? Tell me you didn't pass on to Victor Dante the information that I drove the airport limousine into town."
"Well, what. . . I don't understand."
"If you did, baby, let it be on your conscience. Because as soon as Dante knew that, he could figure I must have left my own car at the airport. That was all he needed to know. And he had somebody go look at registration slips and stick a very damned explosive bomb in the car so he could kill me when I picked the buggy up. Only a guy named Freddy picked it up for me and got blown all to hell."
She stared at me blankly for several seconds. Then she said, "I don't believe you."
"You don't believe the story? Or you don't believe they want to kill me? Which is it?"
She didn't say anything.
I asked her, "You think that last guy wanted to shake my hand?" She looked down toward my right hand, still in my pocket, and her eyes got wider. She'd seen that part, too. I said, "And there's probably nineteen more like him keeping me penned up in here. Even if Dante didn't want to kill me before, he will when he looks at his face. So, baby, you better make up your mind what side you're on. I don't know what the hell your angle is, but you're in
screwy, and right now you're turning my stomach. You want to answer some questions about Isabel Ellis or William Carter?"
She looked at me out of those wise-looking eyes and pressed together those lips I'd thought were willing, and then she said, "I don't know what you're talking about."
I turned around and walked away from her into the crowd. No matter what she told me, it wouldn't do me any good until and unless I could get out of hereâand I was worried. I couldn't afford any more foolish plays like busting in on Dante with my gun still in its holster. Even though I hadn't known till now that Dante and Frozen Puss were one and the same, I'd known Dante might very well not feel friendly toward me. Freddy's death had thrown me off balance a bit, and I couldn't afford anything now that shoved me off an even keel. No matter how callous it seemed, I had to say the hell with Freddy and everybody else, and concentrate instead on the health and welfare of Shell Scott.