Authors: John D. MacDonald
Jerry stared at him with fury and indignation. “I manage this hotel, Al. And when I happen to feel like straightening that punk out, I’ll.…”
Al reached him in two strides and, smiling, he pinched the loose flesh of Buckler’s cheek and gave the man’s head a painful little shake. “Baby, baby, what’re you trying to prove?”
“You got a home here, baby. You’re a drunk, but we all love you just fine. And so I’d hate to have you get hairy with me, Jerry. I’d hate to have to tell Harry and Bobby to take you out on the desert and break you up a little. They wouldn’t like doing it, and I wouldn’t like telling them to do it, believe me. But it would be better than letting Max handle it with a couple of those casino guards of his. They aren’t pro the way Harry and Bobby are. So just give me a little smile, Jerry, and tell me you’re going to cooperate a thousand per cent.”
The smile, when it came, was ghastly. “Sure, Al. Sure. I can see it your way.” He made a noise like a laugh. “I shouldn’t get into any detail work now that I’ve trained Hugh Darren to handle it. It’ll be … better this way, Al.”
“Now go nibble that big drink, baby,” Al said. As Jerry ducked his head and scuttled by, Al gave him a gentle, reassuring pat on the shoulder.
At the door Jerry turned, frowning, and said, “Do I get to keep my desk and my name on the door? And, you know, tell people I’m manager?”
the manager, Jerry! You want your name bigger? You want it in gold? You want a fancier desk, just say so.”
“No. Everything … the way it is … it’s fine, Al. It’s just fine.”
When they walked back out Al found that Artie Gill had arrived, bringing two burr-headed beatnik broads and a defensive linebacker from the Rams. By seven o’clock there were twenty people in the big room One of the three “owners” of the Cameroon had even appeared quite unexpectedly. At the time the hotel was being built, the public relations specialists decided the place would have more glamor if the general public was led to believe, through column plants and other devices, that three of their idols held substantial interests in the Cameroon. The three they carefully selected were each given a half point in the enterprise.
The first was a middle-aged, corseted, western-hero faggot, with a lisp hidden somewhere in his drawl, and a permanent expression of noble, enduring humility. The second was an often-married, stupid, lazy, arrogant, photogenic blonde whose sole shred of acting ability consisted of being able to take a very deep breath on cue. She had not worn well, but continual head-to-toe cosmetic surgery plus top cameramen and lighting specialists had maintained her in the role of pneumatic goddess to the pimpled set long past her time. The third owner, the one who showed up unexpectedly, was a famous jazz musician who hadn’t blown a note in years. Too many kinds of addiction and too many kinds of abuse had worn him down to a stunned half-world where an eighty-word vocabulary was sufficient for his needs, and he was carefully led around and displayed by nervous retainers who made a nice thing indeed off his old record royalties.
At one noisy point in the evening, before they split up, Al Marta drew Max Hanes aside and told him Jerry Buckler had bought the new deal with no fuss at all. Max looked gratified and said he’d let Darren know.
“Let’s bump that kid one more hundred a month, Maxie.”
“Isn’t he making out pretty good now?”
“There’s two things to think about. First, he handled this thing pretty good. Second—” Al tapped Max on the chest and winked at him—“the more a man makes, the more he’s got to lose. Right?”
“You always make sense, Al.”
“I think ahead. And because I’m thinking ahead, I’m telling you this. Don’t ride the kid. Suck him along. Do him favors here and there. I mean don’t change all of a sudden, because that looks phoney, but sort of come around gradual, so he’ll feel … you know, like obligated. Just in case you need a little
favor, and need it fast, and Jerry is hiding in a bottle someplace.”
“Maxie, you got a lousy taste in garments, you know that? A color and a cut like on that jacket, it’s for a college boy.”
“In my heart, Al, I’m young forever. You know, all we can take off the top this week is maybe twenty grand? And even that doesn’t depress me. Want to know why?”
“Tell me why, Max baby.”
“Because, Al baby, Homer G. Gallowell checks in here on Saturday, fresh and ready from Fort Worth. And we put a 200G bruise on Homer last time.”
“So he can stay here, but why will he give us the play? Maybe he’ll figure this place is cold for him and take his bread up or down the line.”
“I know the way his mind works just like he had a window in his head, Al. He believes in the law of averages. So we’ll get the play because, according to his law, we’ve got his money. I’ll even bet he’ll hit the same table and bet the same way.”
“How does he bet?”
“There isn’t any good way, Al, as you damn well know, but he goes for it the wrong way, doubling up on the losses. For a mark like Homer I’ll happily set a new house limit, just like last time. A nice brand-new big fat house limit that’ll make him very very happy. Then we lay back and watch the dice whip him again. Nothing in the world ever whipped him before, and he can’t take it.”
“He gets all the red carpet we got, Maxie.”
“Why waste your breath? I’ll check it out with Darren. If he wants a cruiser on Lake Mead, I’ll lay that on him too. If he wants a pair of twin Jap blondes, I’ll giftwrap ’em for good old Homer G. Gallowell.”
“How big a party?”
“Just Homer, like before. He’s maybe got the faint suspicion he’s being a damn fool, so he’s taking care nobody else he knows well gets to watch him.”
“What’s he worth?” Al asked.
“If it’s less than fifty million, I’ll eat his biggest ranch with a tin spoon.”
Al clapped him on his solid shoulder. “So let’s take it all.”
“We’ll take all we can get of it, boss.”
At ten o’clock, while Hugh Darren was checking the front desk, Max Hanes said he’d like a minute in private, so Hugh
took him back to the office and turned on one hooded desk lamp.
Max walked over and sat at Jerry’s desk in the far shadowy corner, sighing as he sat down. “Jerry is out of your hair, kid. I thought you’d like to know.”
“It’s a good thing to know, Max. It makes everything a hell of a lot easier for me. Thanks.”
“We can talk things over together once in a while, and it should all run smooth. Right?”
“No reason why not,” Hugh said guardedly.
“You get a hundred a month bump as of May first, Darren.”
“Don’t you think you’re worth it to the joint?”
“I know damn well I’m worth it.”
“Then that could be the reason you’re getting it, couldn’t it?”
“For a minute there, Max, I had the idea you were recruiting me for extra duty.”
Max Hanes chuckled in the darkness. “A clean-cut American boy like you, Darren? Hell, you’d write an indignant letter to the governor. We’re a bunch of thieves, like you learned all about on the TV. Dirty gangsters. Mafia, maybe.”
“I didn’t say that, Max.”
He heard the chair squeak as Max stood up. He came over into the cone of light. “Bill the casino account for everything on Homer G. Gallowell of Fort Worth.”
“I saw his name on the reservation list and I checked him back and saw that he got the best, on the house, before, so I set it up that way. But I planned to check with you, of course.”
“When you’re set on the suite you’ll give him, tell my assistant, Ben Brown, the number. I’ll have him put a one-dollar slot up there, and a hundred silver dollars to play around with.” He strolled toward the door, an apelike figure in a yellow raw silk sports jacket. “See you around, Mister Manager.”
“Max … this is just idle curiosity, but when you put a one-dollar slot in a room like that, is it the same payoff you have on the floor?”
“I like the way your mind works, kid. The state doesn’t like for us to rig the slots too lean. But they don’t care at all if we make one real fat. It gives a man a lot of confidence, pulling that handle, listening to the payoff crash into the scoop. It makes him happy. That’s why we’re here. This is a happy little city, full of fun and games.”
“I know. That’s why, on some of the checkouts, I have to charge the freight to the casino account, because somehow the happy people haven’t got one dime left. They’re so happy they can’t stop smiling.”
“You’ve got to learn that a mark is going to give it away to somebody, kid. There’s no way to stop a real mark. So when he’s ready, you just try to be first in line.”
By the time Bunny Rice, the night manager, reported in at eleven, everything was so well under control that it required only a ten-minute briefing to catch him up on the problems in process of solution.
Hugh had tried to make himself stop thinking of Betty Dawson, but by the time he walked down the corridor toward his room he had a good vibrant alive feeling, as though his skin fitted particularly well, as though he could do front flips all the way down the empty corridor. There was a prickling of the skin on the backs of his hands and the nape of his neck. Her burlesque bikinied strut came into his mind and it seemed to him that he was unable to take a deep breath.
He fitted his key into the lock and opened the door as quietly as he could, and made himself close it again with the same stealth and shoot the night bolt before he let himself look at her. She lay tousled in his bed in a sweetness of sleep. She had thrown a towel over the bedside lamp, and there was a soft orange-pink glow against her sleeping face. She was on her side, facing him, both hands under the crumpled pillow, with a crow wing of her dark tumbled hair curling down her cheek and around to her throat.
There was a note for him under the light, a sheet with large printing on it, one corner under the lamp base.
AWAKEN WITH TENDER KISS.
A crude arrow pointed toward her. Her slacks, cardigan, big purse and wisps of underwear were arranged in severe order on a straight chair beyond the foot of the bed. She wore a nightgown, pale blue-and-white net and lace, as evanescent as a mirage, a tenderness against the brown of her throat and shoulders. Her lips were slightly apart, and the thickety lashes were closed over the secrets of her eyes.
Moving without sound, he undressed in the sweet silence of the room, he paused once when he caused a harpsichord jangle of hangers, but she was not awakened. He went to her then with eagerness, but paused and sat slowly, with the patience of a thief, on the edge of the bed, so he could watch her for a little while and enjoy the gentle guilt of one
who watches the face of a sleeping friend or lover. By forestalling his own hunger he sharpened his desire.
It was, he thought with a proper humility, a rare kind of luck, and a seldom thing. Back in August when he had begun work, he had been tense about the size and complexity of the operation and the almost total lack of proper administrative controls. There had been no one to break him in on the job. Buckler was a compulsive fool, obviously jealous of the assistant who had been forced upon him. And Hugh could define the limits of his authority only by testing them.
The employee situation was difficult. The good ones were glad to see the change, and the thieves were frightened. He had no one to confide in, no one whose judgments he could trust. And so his first project was to familiarize himself with every aspect of the operation, from linen inventory, to printing receipts for guests, to rejuvenation of wilted lettuce, to window-washing schedules, to shot-glass dimensions, to the uniforms of maids, to furniture repair and replacement. He worked a fifteen and sixteen hour day, roaming, watching, scribbling notes, assessing personnel. He knew they were all watching him, wondering when he would suddenly stop being an observer and start chopping off heads.
It was during the nights of his roving that he became aware of Betty Dawson. She worked the Afrique Bar just off the main casino floor to the right as you came into the casino from the lobby. She was working the midnight to six, doing her four shows in alternation with other entertainers. He found that she could provide the closest thing to relaxation and forgetfulness for him, and he fell into the habit, when he was around during the small morning hours, to go in and sit at the curve of the bar nearest the small stage and listen to her. She had a limited range. She talked her way through a lot of her songs. But her face was very alive and, at times, wonderfully comic, and she had the refreshing trait of seeming to be sourly amused by her own antics. The lyrics of her songs were quick and tart—and blue without being tasteless.
He began to have a preference for some of her songs and to await them with pleasure. He liked
ALICE WAS AS BLUE AS HER GOWN
RE STILL RECRUITING GIRLS FOR THE NAVY
THE GIRL OF THE WEEK CLUB.
She seemed to enjoy truly horrible puns, and he wondered who wrote her material, and he was more pleased than he should have been when he learned she wrote it herself.
By a quiet question here and there, never betraying more
than the most casual interest, he learned that she was the nearest thing to an entertainment fixture the Cameroon had. She had been there almost two years, and her room was but three doors from his. Knowing that Max Hanes handled the entertainment, with approval, when necessary, he made the obvious assumption that there was a special relationship between Betty and Max, between that curiously sinister apelike old man with his playboy wardrobe and this handsome woman who, behind the practised facade of an entertainer, had the ineradicable perceptions and instincts of a gentlewoman.
With that nagging question still unanswered, he had begun to move, doing the things that needed doing, installing checks and controls, weeding out and strengthening the staff. In this process he had learned he could trust Bunny Rice. One dawn while they were discussing individuals, Hugh casually mentioned Betty Dawson as being Max Hanes’ girl.
Bunny looked pained. “No, it isn’t that way, Mr. D. I’ve never known of Max to take that kind of interest in any girl, or any boy either, in case I’m giving you the wrong idea. Max is maybe in love with the money room.”