Authors: John D. MacDonald
“He ought to be along any minute,” Gidge said. Gidge Allen had been with Alfred Addams Marta for over twenty years, serving in various capacities, all of them relatively confidential. Allen had the voice rasp and knowing eye of the carny pitch man. He had a shock of gray Will Rogers hair, a strong youthful body, and a saddle-brown face so deeply seamed and lined it was like some strange new kind of corduroy, contrasting in a startling way with glassy white dentures and eyes the color of mercury.
“Make it a three-way game,” Al said. “We’ll play Captains, okay?”
“Okay, soon as I finish out this blitz,” Gidge said. “I got a pigeon here and I need the money.”
Bobby Waldo snorted with exasperation. “Gimme some cards one time,” he demanded. He was young, huge, bulging, sun-raw, with an eighth of an inch of carroty bristle on his square skull, invisible eyebrows and lashes, extravagant fading tattoos on his fleshy freckled arms.
Al Marta felt annoyed with all of them. He was a stocky, powerful man with a sallow, fleshy face. He was almost exactly half bald, with no hair growing forward of an imaginary line drawn from ear to ear across the top of his skull. He had a thick growth of long black eyelashes, a small snub nose, a broad sensuous mouth, liquid brown eyes.
He owned, in the patois of Vegas, thirty points in the Cameroon. Thirty per cent of the corporate stock. Though it had been some sixteen years since he had suffered the indignity of an arrest, he had what is called a heavy record. Twenty-six arrests, three convictions. He drew probation on two of them, and had served one year out of three on the third. The criminal record should have kept him from owning anything in Nevada, but he had gotten in well before the so-called cleanup of 1955, and by then it was too late to move him. Nominally he was the largest shareholder in the Cameroon, but no one could say exactly how much of that was actually his own. And on the total list of shareholders, no one could say who was fronting for someone else and who was not. The quiet word in town and in Los Angeles and New York was that the Cameroon was Al Malta’s place, and thus a syndicate operation.
He knew a thousand people in the entertainment world by their first names, and most of them were such fools as to be flattered by this hoodlum attention. He smiled readily, laughed loudly and easily, listened with flattering attention, and told jokes with an almost professional timing. He lived
well, dressed well, entertained well. No, there was nothing at all sinister about Al Marta. He remembered birthdays and sent expensive presents, and if you were in any kind of a jam he was always glad to help out.
Al Marta used the Cameroon as a base of operation. In downtown Las Vegas, in a new office building, was X-Sell Associates, the nerve center for a random collection of corporations dealing in real estate, transportation, communications, wholesale supply houses. In one sense, Al Marta owned X-Sell. In a truer sense, and in one that would never be unraveled because of the obfuscating skills of the attorneys and accountants employed, Al Marta was a regional manager, taking his orders from a Los Angeles district headquarters which in turn was directed, through a Chicago setup, by the national council on syndicate policy, operating on the eastern seaboard.
A portion of every dollar, legal and illegal, declared and undeclared, eventually ended up in the war chest of the national council, where it was expended with such thought and care that people like Al Marta had been able to go for sixteen years without an arrest. Some percentage of each dollar was sidetracked for each station along the way. Nobody could say how much Al kept. But it was enough for a new Lincoln each year, a twenty-thousand-dollar wardrobe, lavish presents, luxurious entertaining, the maintenance of a special staff of “assistants” not covered by either the casino payroll or the hotel payroll, and the procurement of and proper entertainment of those young women who pleased him.
“No action today,” Al grumbled.
He stared with habitual wonderment at the operational technique of Wilbur “Beaver” Brownell. Beaver was a gaunted, spindly, fragile-looking man somewhere in his forties. His cheeks were so hollowed he had a death’s head look. The protruding angle of his large yellow teeth had supplied his nickname. His hair was dyed a curiously unreal shade of brown, like the color of cheap shoes. He had a reedy, monotonous voice, a sparrow-chested stance, and some mysterious source for the type of clothing that was called sharp during the thirties. He wore too many large yellowish diamonds, and he doused himself liberally with cologne, and yet this ridiculous man was never known to have less than three women on the string at the same time. Nor were they dogs in any sense of the word. And their inexplicable love for Beaver kept them in a state of torment.
The intensity of Beaver’s focus on the new blonde gave Al an idea. He went over and stepped into the conversation and took the blonde by the hand.
“I got to borrow this broad a couple minutes, Beaver.”
“Hey, Al. Hey now!” Beaver said, alarmed. The girl giggled.
“I got to get my back scrubbed, Beaver. This here is a good strong-looking blonde and. she can do a good job, can’t you, honey?”
The girl giggled again and Beaver said, “What the hell, Al?”
Al looked directly at him and said, “I’d hate to think you were being selfish about this, Beaver.”
“Huh? Oh, hell no, Al. I mean, we were just talking. Go ahead, Al.”
With a sudden muscular tug, Al hauled the girl up onto her feet. She glared down at Beaver. “The big hero!” she snarled. “The big shot!”
“Just be a good kid and do a little favor for a pal,” Beaver wheedled.
Al led her into the bedroom by the hand and closed the door. She yanked her hand away. “Lissen, I’m not scrubbing your back or anything else.”
“What’s your name, darling?”
“How old are you, sweetheart?”
“I’m … twenty-one.”
“Stand right there a minute, sweetheart.” He went to the bureau and took a fifty-dollar bill from the top drawer. He went to the bathroom and came back with a bath brush. “Put your hand out, dear.” He put the bill on her hand and the brush on top of it. “One goes with the other, dear. Take your choice. It’s a good pay scale, don’t you think? I’ll leave you right here. If you don’t like the offer after you think it over, leave both items and take off. Fair enough? But don’t leave one and take the other, because then you might be in a hurry, and you might fall and break one of those pretty legs, sweetheart.”
She gave him a skeptical look. “Just for scrubbing your back, Mr. Marta?”
“That’s all, sweetheart.”
He went into the bathroom and, as he started his shower, he left the glass door of the shower stall open. When he felt the first tentative touch on his back he smiled to himself. She did an efficient and vigorous job. When he sensed she
was about to stop he half turned, pretended to slip, grasped her arm, and pulled her under the roaring water. She leaped out, gasping and cursing, her hair pasted flat, her blouse and shorts drenched.
He apologized profusely and with great sincerity, and gave her a big fresh towel for her hair, and went to the extra closet and selected a hostess coat in pale blue satin that he knew would fit her.
“You’ll have to accept this as a gift, sweetheart.”
“You shut yourself in there and get organized, darling. Throw your wet stuff out and I’ll have maid service take care of it.”
He dressed quickly, then picked up the wet blouse and shorts from the floor outside the bathroom. He balled them up, walked into the next room, closing the door behind him, and hurled them against Beaver’s chest. They hit with a damp substantial sound and fell into his lap. Beaver stared stupidly down at them, and picked them up, holding them gingerly.
“Where’s Gretch?” he asked.
“That little broad is resting, Beaver. She got real tired.”
“What the hell, Al?”
“She thought you’d like those things as a keepsake. Sleep with them under your pillow, buddy. Sorry they got wet, but we got so eager we were in the shower before either of us remembered she should have taken them off. So I helped her get ’em off.”
“But she’s a
girl,” Beaver said in such a heartbroken way that Gidge gave a high hard yelp of laughter.
“Oh, and I nearly forgot,” Al said sternly. “Get the hell out of here. That’s one thing she asked me to do, like a favor. She doesn’t want to see you when she comes out.”
“Me? Get out?”
“Need Bobby’s help?”
“Hell no,” Beaver mumbled. “I’m leaving.”
Al had just started to explain what he’d done when the girl came out. “My hair is pretty messy but I guess it.… Where’d Beaver go?”
Al had to fight to keep a straight face when he took hold of her hands. “Sweetheart, we had a pretty ugly scene here. I’m glad you missed it.”
“Whaddaya mean?” she asked blankly.
“Beaver said we’d both lie, but he said that no matter what we said, he knew a lot more than back scrubbing went on.”
“Why that dirty.…”
“So I ordered him out of here, sweetheart. As he was leaving, he left a message for you.”
“He said to tell you he’d be looking you up soon, and tell you he wants his back scrubbed, and he said you’ll know what he means.”
The girl turned chalky white and then a violent spastic red. She unleashed a howling stream of vituperation, semi-coherent, so loud that it jarred Jerry Buckler up out of his deep sleep. Her general opinion was that one Beaver Brownell could work on his project thirty hours a day for ten years without ever getting close enough to give her a phone call that would cost less than a dollar toll. As she still spouted, Al eased her out to the private elevator that serviced his suite and, at the last moment, tucked her damp raiment into her hand.
When he walked back in, grinning, Jerry said, “What the hell was that?”
Al went over to Gidge and slapped a hundred-dollar bill down on the table. “I say he doesn’t score, not on ole Gretch.”
“Odds?” Gidge asked.
“Two to one?”
“Done,” Al said. “Come up with your fifty. You got confidence, friend.”
“That Beaver,” Gidge said, “he hardly ever gives up.”
“There’s one thing for sure,” Bobby Waldo said. “If Gidge wins it won’t be hard to check. Beaver’s women follow him around, howling like stomped dogs.”
“Ready for three-handed?” Gidge asked.
“You guys play. I don’t feel like it right now,” Al said. He walked slowly over to the window and looked down at the half-full parking lot, spangled with pastel cars. He saw a young couple get out of a convertible and run, hand in hand, toward the front entrance, laughing at some joke.
Suddenly he knew the laughter of Gidge and Bobby Waldo had been forced. It hadn’t been a good gag. It had been too complicated and clumsy. A stupid young broad, half stoned, and the old Beaver. Gidge had covered the bet because he knew Al wanted it covered. What had happened to all the good gags and the good laughing times? There wasn’t any action any more. The world has flattened out. The score is nothing to nothing every day lately.
He heard the steady glug-glug of a bottle and turned sharply and saw Jerry Buckler, his hotel manager in name only,
at the bar making himself a half-pint highball of bonded bourbon. He moved quickly and quietly over and put his hand on top of the glass just as Jerry tried to pick it up.
Jerry looked at him with an uncertain smile, waiting for the punch line. The liquor route, Al realized, had been shrinking the man lately. The belly still bulged and the red face was puffed, but the jacket sagged on him, and the neck was stringy, the shirt collar too big and slightly soiled.
“You’re leaning on my little drink, sun,” Jerry said in a forced way.
“I’d hate to see you mix a big one, for chrissake. Let it sit right there. Come on in the bedroom, Jerry.”
Al closed the door as they went in, and he let Jerry fidget as the silence grew. “Something on your mind, Al?”
“How was New Orleans?”
“It was fine, fine. Everybody was fine.”
“What the hell would you remember about it?”
Jerry shrugged. “It did get a little drunk over there, Al.”
“It gets a little drunk everywhere, doesn’t it? For you?”
“Hell, Al, I can take it or leave it alone. But why should I leave it alone?”
“You look like a drunk, Jerry. You got the shakes. You got a dirty shirt and dirty hands. You smell dirty. You
a drunk, Jerry.”
“I love you, baby, but you bore me lately. You really do. I don’t like to see a man let something get on top of him. He isn’t a man any more then.”
“What’s on your mind, Al?”
“I know. Get it over with. That big drink is sitting out there getting lonesome.”
Jerry smiled, and Al could sense what the smile cost him. “It’s such a waste of good booze, boss.”
“Max and I had a little talk about you today, Jerry. You’re making Max and me unhappy.”
“How? What am I doing wrong?”
“You aren’t being an executive, Jerry. We bought you a good boy down there, that Darren. We bought you the best we could get. That was so you could let him handle all the details for you, baby. But you keep messing around, bitching up the routine for him.”
“I’ve known you a hell of a long time, Al. I was running big places before that punk learned to feed himself. Are you all of a sudden going to listen to Darren instead of me? He’s got no beef. I just straighten him out once in a while.”
“Who said I listened to Darren? Who said he isn’t happy as clams?”
“Then what’s wrong anyway?”
“Max likes the new deal around here, Jerry. He likes the way things are running now much better than he liked the way they used to be. Max has strong ideas, Jerry. He’s got the idea you’ve turned into a foulup. He thinks you suck on the bottle until you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. So here is the way it’s going to be. You stay the hell out of running the hotel. The time you come into the picture is when Max has a special problem. And when he has a problem, you handle it cold sober, baby. No other way. And when the problem is solved, you get off the pot and you keep hands off Darren’s job until the next time you get your orders from me or Max.”