Excerpt from Dead Man’s Hand by Pati Nagle. Copyright © Pati Nagle. All rights reserved.
(listen to Ned’s soundtrack on Pandora)
Las Vegas, Nevada
Ned rolled over and tried to go back to sleep, which was when he discovered he was lying on the floor. He was fully dressed in his best silk suit, and he was sweating. Wherever he was, the air conditioning wasn’t working, and these clothes were much too hot for Vegas, even at night.
A glint of light from something metal made him look up, and suddenly he recognized the place—narrow space like a hallway to nowhere, marble wall rising on one side, with big metal name plaques. His family’s names.
Either he had taken too many drugs or not enough. Probably not enough.
He was in the fucking mausoleum, Eden Vale, where his family was stashed. There they were, looking down at him—Daddy and Mama and the whole Runyon crew.
He scrambled to his feet and out of the space in front of the vaults, into the little chapel area with its token rectangles of colored glass. The air was stuffy and no lights were on. A vague noise of traffic reached him from outside.
He went to the glass doors, and saw outside the familiar palm trees: three to the right, three more to the left, confirming where he was. He tried the door, but it was bolted.
Definitely not enough drugs.
This was some asshole’s idea of a great joke. Randy, probably. Fucking bitch! It was just her kind of trick. Man, would she be sorry when he ran her down!
He stood fuming, trying to remember when he’d last seen her. There was something about her … he couldn’t remember. He’d been having nightmares, maybe that was it. He needed a hit. He always thought clearer when he was high.
He searched his pockets. Absolutely empty. Fucking Randy had even taken his wallet, goddamn bitch. She was probably out spending the cash right now, or blowing it on the tables.
His money. His money. She had said something about his money. She and fucking Dick Tabbet, they’d come to his house. Flaunting their affair in his face. Tabbet had been his friend, goddamn back-stabber. His friend and his mistress, lovers.
Anger and pain came stabbing at him. Ned rubbed his eyes, trying to will the misery away. He needed some horse. He had to get home, get some cash, get some drugs. Then he’d fix fucking Randy and Dick.
Yeah, he had to get out of here. He had the strangest desire to go to Atlantic City. That made no sense, but what the hell did make sense in this screwy world?
He searched the mausoleum for a back door. Found one, but it was bolted shut, too. Didn’t they have fire regulations about that?
He jogged back to the front doors. Just that little effort got him sweating. He needed to lose weight, get back in shape. Doctors were always nagging him. Probably they were right, but he just didn’t care enough. He had money, so he could get what he wanted without being young and beautiful. Good thing, ‘cause he was neither any more.
Once he had been. Once the girls had hung on him just for his looks, forget the money. Of course, it didn’t hurt to be the son of Ronny Runyon, founder of the Rabbit’s Foot Casino. Old Ronny had been one of the friendliest gamesters in town and one of the meanest SOBs if you crossed him. Living in his shadow was a hell of a drag, but the perks made it tolerable.
Daddy Ronny was long dead, though. He was up there in the marble wall. Ned had succeeded him as owner of the Rabbit’s Foot, but he’d lost the casino, along with his gaming license, in a power struggle with his siblings. He now had nothing left to do in life except indulge his appetites.
The drugs, the women, the gambling. They would kill him someday, but he was resigned to that. He enjoyed the hell out of them, and had no reason to go looking for another kind of life.
His gaze fell on a fire extinguisher mounted to the wall by the hallway. He grabbed it and swung it at one of the glass doors. It took two tries to break through, and a few more swings to clear enough glass so he could get through the opening. Alarm bells clanged the whole time, but he ignored them. He tossed the fire extinguisher aside and stepped through the door.
A big, black limo sat at the curb. Lincoln town car, had mob written all over it.
Ned’s heart started pumping and he turned around, heading behind the mausoleum. He hustled his steps and was out of breath by the time he’d got the building between him and the car.
He sneezed, and rubbed at his eyes some more. A hot breeze was blowing, and there was always some obnoxious, high-allergen weed blooming in the desert.
Maybe he should go to Atlantic City. Might change his luck. Get away from Randy, find a less sadistic bitch to warm his bed. Randy was a fucking psychopath. Not that she was warming his bed much anymore. She only came around when she wanted something from him.
He frowned, trying to remember whatever it was that niggled at him. Randy wanted money.
She always wanted money. No, that wasn’t it. He’d figure it out later. First he had to get home.
He dashed to the wall that surrounded the grounds, keeping an eye peeled toward the limo. No sign of movement there. He climbed on top of a dumpster and hopped over the wall, then hustled up the street, keeping off the sidewalk as much as he could.
When he got to the corner he looked cautiously around. No limo, but no taxis either. Not much traffic; this time of night all the action was downtown and on the Strip.
He really didn’t want to walk anywhere, but it looked like he’d have to find a phone, ‘cause there weren’t no taxis around here at night. Cussing under his breath, he crossed the street to a convenience store, keeping a wary eye out for the black limo.
He could see the lights of Fremont Street and the tower of the Rabbit’s Foot. He felt a pang for the old casino, even though these days he preferred the Palms. He squinted at the tower. For a minute it looked like the big rabbit’s foot was gone, replaced with a giant “R.”
Hallucinating. He shook his head and rubbed at his eyes, but it didn’t go away. Annoyed, he went into the convenience store.
His feet were killing him. The shoes he had on, Armanis, were new and expensive and uncomfortable as hell, not meant for hiking around in. He was getting a blister on one heel, he was pretty sure.
The scrawny kid behind the counter gave him a look like a startled deer. Ned was in too foul a mood to make nice.
“Lemme use your phone,” he said.
“Pay phone’s out front,” the kid said.
“That’s fucking great, except I don’t have any money. I’ve been robbed, OK? And I need to call a cab.”
The kid’s eyes went even wider. “Should I call the cops?”
Ned hated cops. “No, just call me a fucking cab, all right? Jesus!”
He paced away while the kid made the call. He maybe could have called a friend instead, except it was late.
He looked at his wrist, but he wasn’t wearing his watch. Fucking Randy probably took it and pawned it.
Glancing at the clock behind the counter, he saw it was after two. Party time. Some of his friends would be out and around, but he figured it was better just to get a cab. He didn’t much want to explain how he’d come to be in need of a ride.
For that matter, he couldn’t explain it, he didn’t fucking remember how he got to the mausoleum. A cabbie wouldn’t care, and Ned could pay him when he got home.
“Cab’s on the way,” the kid said. “Say, you look a lot like that guy who got killed a few years ago.”
Ned turned away without a word and walked out the front door. He was in no mood for a sick joke like that. He’d had one sick joke too many already tonight. He was even having trouble remembering what day it was. Not that that was unusual.
It was hot outside and he almost turned to go back in and wait in the store, but he saw a cab pulling into the parking lot and hurried toward it instead. Pulled open the back door and got in, sighing gratefully for the cold blast of the air conditioner.
“Where to?” said the cabbie, a chubby middle-aged woman with red hair out of a bottle. She snapped gum and looked at him expectantly.
He gave his address and leaned back, closing his eyes. His head was aching. What a fuck of a night.
“Say, you related to that Runyon guy? You look like him.”
Ned opened his eyes a crack. “Runyon?”
“Yeah, Fred Runyon. Used to run the Rabbit’s Foot. Got killed by his girlfriend and her boyfriend. Or his ex-girlfriend, I guess. Didn’t you see it on TV?”
Ned felt a chill on the back of his neck. Must be the air conditioner. “I don’t watch the news.”
“Oh, it was all over the place a few years ago. His ex and her boyfriend, they killed him and took all his money, only the court overturned it on appeal and they got away scot free. Ask me they’re guilty as hell.”
Ned sighed and closed his eyes again. He didn’t know what the fuck she was talking about, and he didn’t want to know. He just wanted to get home and get high.
Fortunately the drive didn’t take long. The cabbie shut up after a while, and just drove. Ned didn’t open his eyes again until the car stopped at the curb in front of his house.
“That’ll be fifteen-fifty,” she said. Snap.
“I don’t have it on me. Wait and I’ll bring it out.”
“What the fuck? You trying to rip me off, buddy? Gonna screw me for a lousy fifteen bucks?”
No, you’d have to pay me a lot more than that, Ned thought.
“I’m not gonna rip you off, but someone took my wallet. I have to get cash from inside.”
“Well, you can leave your jacket here, then,” she said crankily. Snap, snap.
God, what a bitch. But it was hot anyway. Ned got out of the car, shrugged out of his jacket, and tossed it on the back seat.
“Be right back.”
He turned to the house. Didn’t have his keys, so he’d have to punch in the code on the gate. He walked up to it and jabbed at the security panel. The gate didn’t open.
“What the fuck?”
Had Randy changed the code? That was going too far! He tried the code again with no luck, then peered through the gate. Two cars sat in the driveway, a green truck and something yellow that looked like it should have clowns coming out of it.
The truck could be Dick’s, but who the fuck’s was the clown car? Randy wouldn’t be caught dead driving that thing.
He was about to start yelling when he noticed something else on the driveway. A red and yellow plastic trike.
Holy fuck. Someone else was living in his house.
He looked up at the windows, all dark. A sudden dread descended on him, along with that urge to drop it all and go to Jersey. Fuck, fuck, fuck! He must have had a bad crash. Must have been out for days. Weeks, even, long enough for them to fucking sell his fucking house!
He turned back to the cab. The driver sat snapping her fucking gum, looking bored. His suit jacket was neatly folded beside her on the front seat. He climbed into the back again.
“I changed my mind. Take me to the Desert Inn.”
“The Desert Inn?” The driver turned around and gave him a weird look.
“Yeah, the Desert Inn. What, are you deaf?”
“What are you, stoned?”
“I wish. Just drive.” Ned leaned back and sighed. His head was starting to ache.
The cabbie kept staring at him, snapping the gum. “You got money at the Desert Inn, eh?”
“I got friends there. Don’t worry, I’ll pay you. Fifty bucks. If not, you can keep my jacket.”
The cabbie shook her head. “OK, pal. Whatever you say.”
She turned around and took off, muttering something into her dispatch radio. Ned glanced back at his house as the cab pulled away from the curb. He’d get whatever fucker had pulled this. If it was Randy and Dick, they were both dead.
He tried to remember what had happened, but could only conjure vague dreams. Wandering around lost in the Rabbit’s Foot’s casino, watching the WSOP and cussing the winners. Spacing out on the floor of his house. He’d been chasing the dragon, and he couldn’t tell the nightmares from reality.
Too much horse. Not enough.
He swallowed the saliva that rose to his tongue. God, he needed a fix.
Don’t think about it. He had to talk to Donny. Donny’d lend him some cash and help him sort out this mess.
The cabbie turned down the Strip and Ned looked out at the lights. They seemed even brighter and more crazy than usual. He stared out the window as they passed the sci-fi shape of the Stratosphere, the carnival pinkness of Circus Circus. All the glitz that hid the dark stuff underneath this tawdry town. God, he loved this place.
The cab pulled across the street into a long drive that led up to a hotel he didn’t recognize. It was Bellagio-shaped but slick and modern, with a lake out front and landscaping out the wazoo and a honkin sign that said “Wynn.”
“That fucker Wynn,” Ned muttered. “Buying up the whole fucking Strip.”
The cab pulled to a stop at the lobby entrance. The cabbie turned around and looked at him.
“What the fuck is this?” Ned demanded.
“Desert Inn’s gone, buddy. They tore it down ten years ago. Where’ve you been?”
Ned looked behind them at the other side of the Strip. He could see the corner of the Fashion Mall, but the Frontier was fucking gone. Desert Inn, too, was gone.
He looked back at the giant Wynn hotel. It was sleek and modern, whispering of huge amounts of money.
His stomach churned. This was getting fucking scary. His house they could sell in a few weeks, but tear down the Desert Inn and build this? It would take years. What the hell had happened?
“So,” said the cabbie, grinning, “about that fifty bucks—”
Ned got out of the cab and walked into the hotel. Cool air washed over him. The lobby was huge and expensive, the ceilings painted with weird flowers. It was quiet, unlike the older hotels where the sound of the slots was an ever-present jangle in the background of the lobby. This place oozed class. Ned went over to the concierge desk, occupied despite the late hour.
“I want to speak to Donny Salgado.”
The concierge, a smart-mouthed looking spic kid in tailored charcoal silk, raised an eyebrow. Ned bit back an insult and tried again.
“Mr. Donny Salgado. He was a resident of the Desert Inn.”
“Ah. Well, sir, I suggest you might try Planet Hollywood. Starwood owns that property.”
What the hell was Planet fucking Hollywood? Never mind. Starwood was the big conglomerate that had owned the Desert Inn. Donny had an interest. He had his fingers in a lot of pies in Vegas.
“You got a phone I can use to call over there?”
The guy’s polite smile wilted a little, but he picked up a phone and dialed, then handed the receiver to Ned. After a couple of rings a woman’s voice answered.
“Yeah, is Donny Salgado staying there?”
She hesitated. “I’m not able to give you that information, sir, I’m sorry.”
“OK, if he’s there, I want you to connect me to his room.”
“It’s after two in the morning—”
“I know that!” Fucking bitch. “Just connect me.”
“Please hold,” she said in a voice gone frosty.
He held. The concierge was shuffling brochures on his desk, obviously wishing Ned would leave. Ned turned his back and leaned against the desk.
Finally the phone started ringing. He counted seven rings before the sound of someone fumbling to pick up on the other end.
“What?” said a cranky voice.
“Donny, it’s Ned. I need your help.”
“What the fuck? Who is this?”
Silence. Then a click. He’d hung up.
Ned turned to the concierge. “We got disconnected. Could you redial it?”
The smile was gone by now, replaced by the beginnings of a frown. Ned smiled instead, the ho-ho-I’m-just-a-big-overgrown-kid smile that usually made points with the chicks. The concierge barely stifled a sigh and punched the phone. Ned gave him a big grin and a nod, then turned around again.
This time Donny picked up after three rings. Ned shouted over Donny’s cussing.
“Donny don’t hang up. It’s me, Ned. I need your help, buddy.”
“Whoever the fuck you are, this is one sick tasteless joke!”
“Don, it’s me, Neddy! C’mon, pal, I need you! Look I’m coming over, all right? What’s your room number.”
“Fuck you, that’s my number.”
“Wait, wait, wait! OK, I’ll meet you in the lobby, then. Please, Don old buddy. I really need a friend right now. And could you lend me a hundred? I gotta pay the cab.”
A pause. “You sure do sound like Ned.”
Ned laughed. “Yeah, well, what do I gotta do to convince you?” He dropped his voice, cupping a hand over the phone. “Look, I’m not dead, OK? I’m alive and I need your help.”
Ned waited, shifting from foot to foot. He could feel the concierge’s eyes boring into the back of his head.
“OK,” Donny said slowly. “In the lobby then. Fucking Christ.”
Donny hung up and Ned handed back the phone with another big smile. “Thanks.”
The concierge hung up the phone, glanced at Ned’s hands and saw no tip forthcoming. His face turned sour and he said nothing. Ned hurried away, out the big glass doors that slid aside with a whisper, out into the sweltering night. He was half afraid the cabbie would have left, but she was still there, snapping her gum and watching the meter tally up the bucks.
Beyond the cab sat the black Lincoln. The back of Ned’s neck prickled as he froze in his tracks.
The back door of the limo swung open and a woman leaned toward him, her cleavage drawing his gaze. Something sparkled there, a pendant of diamonds or rhinestones. She was dark, Mexican maybe, and small. She smiled and beckoned to him.
His body said “yes,” but his brain screamed “no.” He’d been hijacked once already.
He jumped in the back seat of the cab and told the driver to go to Planet Hollywood. She looked over her shoulder at him and rolled her eyes.
“My friend moved over there, OK? I talked to him, he’s bringing some money. You’ll get paid, all right? Now move it!”