Las Vegas, 1952
The fifth lost-your-last-dime hotel on the fifth barren, down-on-your-luck street looked to Daniel like the last four. Maybe this time I’ll get lucky anyway. Maybe not. Doesn’t matter. I’ll keep looking all night. Can’t be that many places she can afford. What did she say in her letter? A cocktail waitress? The thought of sweet, sassy, full-of-fun little Judy being pawed and leered at in some sleazy bar was enough to make Daniel’s blood boil, even if the ninety-five–degree heat couldn’t.
He considered getting a room at this hotel anyway when he went in. The lobby at least was decently clean and the drink machine seemed to be working. He knew he could use a shower and a shave. A man like him didn’t look respectable in the five-o’clock shadow that usually showed up around lunchtime. He wasn’t sure he ever looked respectable, with the axle grease that never quite came out from under his fingernails and his black hair that wouldn’t take a crew cut no matter how many different barbers he went to. His three-year hitch in the army had taught him to value order and cleanliness, even if he couldn’t always achieve it himself.
Daniel tried to wipe the sweat from his face as he approached the front desk. He knew he looked more intimidating when he tried to smile. It simply didn’t fit his face, so he took a deep breath and pressed his lips into what he hoped was a polite line.
“Help you?” The man behind the desk had drunk too many beers in too few years, if his face was any indication, but he looked like the type of man to run a decent operation and know who was under his roof.
Daniel nodded in greeting. “I’m looking for a young lady.”
“I don’t run that kind of place,” the man returned, pointing in the general direction of the downtown area. “You want to go further into Vegas.”
“No, not that kind of lady. I’m looking for the little sister of my best friend.”
“She got a name?”
“Yes, but I doubt she’s using it. Her name is Judy Morris. She’s about so high, with blond hair and bright blue eyes.” Daniel indicated a few inches below his own chin.
The desk clerk thought a moment before answering. “If I did see a gal like that, what would you want with her?”
“Just to talk. She wrote me a letter, telling me to tell her brother she was okay. Maybe she is, but I want to give her the chance to come home.”
“If she wanted to come home, why wouldn’t she just get on a bus?”
“If she didn’t want to come home, why did she write me?”
“You got a point, mister. Look, tell you what I’ll do. I’ll call her. If she comes out, fine. If not, you leave her alone. Deal?”
Daniel was about to agree, thinking he could always just wait around the corner until she came out if she wouldn’t see him, but the problem was solved for him when she came bustling into the hotel lobby. Turning immediately to put a coin into the drink machine, she spoke without looking. “Mr. Fields, I’ll get my paycheck from the casino tomorrow. I know the rent was due yesterday, but if you’ll just be patient, you know I’m good for it.”
Daniel removed his hat and waited until she turned around to face him. “Hi, Judy.”
“D-Daniel? Wh-what are you doing here?” She took one step toward him, those eyes every bit as blue as he remembered, but somehow tired in a way that snagged at his heart.
“I came to see you.”
Suddenly, she seemed to catch herself and pull away, as if she were drawing on a coat made of fear or shame. “Well, I uh…I…I have to get to work now. I can’t stop and talk.” She rushed out of the lobby, not even stopping to retrieve her cold drink.
He started after her, but the desk clerk cleared his throat, making him see sense as she peeled rubber off her tires in her haste to escape him. “Let her go, son. Looks like she needs a little time to get used to the idea of you being here.”
“I suppose so.” He leaned against the drink machine and wiped his face with his bandana again.
“She’s made me wonder more than once. Nice girl. Nicer than most who come through my door alone. Couldn’t figure why she’d be staying in a hotel in a town like Vegas. Hasn’t she got any folks?”
“It’s a long story,” Daniel replied, suddenly weary and grateful for a listening ear.
Mr. Fields perched on his high swivel stool and indicated the brown leatherette sofa on the other side of the small lobby. “Why don’t you sit down and drink the pop she forgot and tell me about her?”
That sounded like a plan to Daniel, so he snapped the top off the bottle and took a long drink, then sat on the couch, leaning back. “I’ve known her brother Jock since we were in grade school together. Saw the kid sister grow up from a pest to a pretty pet, a little spoiled but sweet as pie. Then around the time we were supposed to be heading to the army together, Jock’s folks got killed in a car wreck. Left him in charge of his sister and a small car dealership. He did his best with both, but by the time I got back, I could tell he’d let her get good and spoiled. The gals he ran with didn’t know what to do with her and the next thing you know, she’s barely graduating high school.”
“It happens that way sometimes. It’s hard to make a kid toe the line when they’ve had a setback like that. And a girl needs her mother.”
“That’s right. He wanted her to go to college, but she wasn’t having any of it. I worked for my dad’s towing and car repair service, so I saw the results of her wild driving and her wilder friends. She always liked me and we’d talk, so I tried my best to warn her about where she was headed, but I guess nobody listens at that age.”
“I know I sure didn’t,” Mr. Fields admitted.
“Neither did I, but the army and my job showed me what can happen when you take too many chances. I feel kind of bad about it now, but it was me who told Jock to take the car away.”
“Jock had bought her a used car to get back and forth to work in. She had a job at the local grocery, but once she turned eighteen, there was no stopping her. Over the next year or so, she just got wilder and wilder, like she had something to prove. The third time I had to pull her out of the ditch on Bain Road, I told Jock she’d wind up in the hospital if he didn’t take the car away. The title was in his name, so he could do it. He told her he would take her to work, but she said she’d find her own ride. When he went to check on her at quitting time, he found out she hadn’t been to work because she’d lost that job the week before.”
“And he didn’t know it?”
“She’d kept it a secret somehow. In a town as small as ours, I don’t see how, but she did. He came by my place and we went together to talk some sense into her, but when we got to their house, she was gone. Left a note saying she would make it on her own and not to try to boss her around anymore. That was it. We went to the bus station, her friends’ houses, everywhere, but nobody had seen her.”
“Oh, we went, but they wouldn’t even take a report when they heard about the note. Said she was old enough, being twenty at the time of disappearance, and had left of her own free will. Nothing they could do.”
“So how did you find her here?”
“About six months after she disappeared, I got a letter from her, postmarked Las Vegas. She asked me to tell her brother she was fine and not to worry, but that she wasn’t coming home, so don’t ask. Now, if that isn’t a girl’s way of asking to be brought home, I don’t know what is.”
Mr. Fields laughed. “Could be. Girls can get ornery when they’ve had too much freedom. Fellas too, for that matter. Everybody needs roots.”
“I knew I had to try, so I came out here.”
“And just started hitting all the hotels?”
“I started with the ones I thought she could afford and I have to say, yours is the nicest one I’ve seen yet. In fact, if you have a room available, I’ll take it.”
“Sure do. You can have room two-oh-two. It’s on the other side of the parking lot from hers, but you can see when she comes in tonight.”
“I’m not waiting that long. Which casino does she work in?”
“All I know is that it’s one of Don Cicero’s places. He’s got three. Here, I’ll write them down for you. But I have to warn you, he doesn’t like trouble in his casinos. He sees it as personal disrespect. If you go, watch your step. He’s not the kind of man you’d want to rile.”
“Thanks for the warning. I can handle myself and I’ve got a little ‘insurance’ in my suitcase. I heard this was a rough town.”
“It can be. If you know how to use that ‘insurance’ you’ll be all right.”
“And I don’t plan to make a scene. I just want to talk to her. If I go order a drink, she’ll at least have to let me speak to her.”
“That’s true enough. These days, she goes by the name Judith Monroe.”
Daniel took the slip of paper the desk clerk gave him and studied the three names. His plan was to search one after the other, so after checking in and cleaning up, he followed the bright lights and hopeless dreams to the strip at the heart of the city.
* * *
Judy tried not to show how flustered she was. The sight of Daniel had brought out reactions in her she hadn’t dreamed would occur on that night weeks ago when, in some sort of fit of homesick desperation and loneliness, she had written that insane letter. Why had she done it? Had she been so desperate for attention?
Absentmindedly, she pushed another groping hand off her thigh. Just because the uniform skirt she wore showed more leg than it hid, the men considered copping a feel to be part of the service like free pretzels and popcorn. She was usually quicker to sidle away from the too-familiar ones, but tonight they were having fun while her mind kept turning back to the hotel lobby.
Why hadn’t she realized he would come find her as soon as he had such a concrete clue as to her whereabouts? She hated to admit, even to herself, that she had wondered why he hadn’t already found her. She had definitely outgrown her schoolgirl crush on the man. Why hadn’t she just sent the letter to her own brother, who surely had to be more concerned about her than anyone else? And yet, it was Daniel who came, not even knowing more than the name of the city where she might be, willing to search for her among the thousands of young women who came to the big city every day, hoping to win fame or fortune or both.
At last, as she knew he would, he walked in the glittering glass doors of the casino. She tried to resist the urge to pat her hair and straighten her skirt. She watched him as he looked around until he located the bar. Trying to stay busy, she went over to the station where the clean glasses were handed out on trays. There were always glasses to be dried and polished while she kept an eye on her tables and waited for drink orders to come in. It was right in the middle of things, where she could see and be seen by everyone, which was the way she liked it.
She saw the hostess smiling up at him when he tipped his cowboy hat to her, then lost sight of him when one of her tables signaled for another round. By the time she got back, the hostess had seated him in her area, so she steeled herself and went over, pen and pad in hand. Smiling, she leaned down as if she couldn’t hear him speaking. “You shouldn’t be here,” she hissed. “I’m working.”
“Not for long. Come on. I’ll take you home.” He stood up, towering over her, as he always had, as if nothing could hurt her as long as he was there to keep the wolves away. Still, he said it without much force, as if he knew how she would react.
She didn’t surprise him. “I’m not going anywhere with you. If you read the letter, you know I’m doing fine here.”
“I read your letter. Got it right here, not that I need it.” He patted the pocket of his shirt. “It was short enough to memorize.”
“Then you should remember what it said.”
“You were always terrible at lying and you haven’t changed.”
“What do you mean? I am making it on my own. I do have a job. I am happy and I do want you to leave me alone. Him, I mean. I want him to leave me alone.” She realized she didn’t sound very reasonable, since her brother didn’t know where she was, but she had to say something.
“Then why did you write the letter in the first place?”
He had her there and they both knew it. She blushed, patting at the back of her bouffant hairdo self-consciously. “Because I…I wanted him not to worry. If he was worrying, which he shouldn’t.”
“Of course he should. He’s your brother. He worried. And so did I.”
“Are you going to order? It’s a busy night.”
Daniel resumed his seat. “At least let me take you home tonight. We can talk more about it. You can convince me how happy you are.”
It sounded as if he was expecting her to try to tell him that the moon really was made of cheddar cheese after all. “I can’t,” she snapped back. “I have a date afterwards. I’m seeing the boss’s son. He’s going to pick me up in his Lincoln and we’re going to have a great time. That is one classy ride he’s got, let me tell you.”
Daniel looked as if she had just kicked his puppy. “If that’s what you want.” He gave her his drink order and she went to get it.
“Of course it’s what I want,” she told him when she came back. “All the girls want to go out with him. I’ll be the talk of the town for a week. Look, it’s sweet of you to come all this way, but you shouldn’t have bothered.” She only hoped he couldn’t tell how much it meant to her that he had made the trip.
“I’m not leaving until day after tomorrow. That gives you time to think about things. I’m staying at your hotel, room two-oh-two. I’ll come by your room tomorrow and we can talk.”
She made it through the rest of her shift somehow. Every time she went past him, she could feel her face flush hot. Would she ever outgrow the way he made her heart race, the desire to impress him, make him notice her? She was even more surprised to find that, far from being happy to show off her date for the night, she actually felt a little embarrassed at the way Vinny blasted into the bar.
With complete disregard for the fact that she was still working, Vinny crooked his finger at her and turned back to the bartender to take the drink he proffered. “Come on. Get a move on. I ain’t got all night. You ready for a party, honey?”
“I’m not quite finished with my shift, Vinny,” Judy began.
The hostess cut her off before she could say anything else. “That’s okay, Judy. Go on with Mr. Cicero. He don’t like to be kept waiting. Not by nobody, but especially a dame. Ain’t that right, Mr. Cicero?” She laughed a knowing laugh that made chills run up Judy’s spine.
Daniel was on his feet. The last thing Judy wanted was her brother’s best friend coming along and ruining an evening she had been hoping for since she had first heard about the boss’s young son. His reputation as a big spender and partier had sounded so glamorous. Judy had been thrilled to be chosen to go out with him.
“I’ll just hang up my apron and get my bag, okay?” she suggested as she approached close to him.
He snatched the apron off her uniform and threw it on the floor. “Problem solved. Let’s go! I’m ready to party! Come on, Frank.” Signaling to his driver, Vinny took Judy by the arm and propelled her out of the bar.
The shine of the new car, the luxury of a personal driver, the obviously expensive drinks Vinny kept flowing served to impress Judy as, all over town, doors opened to them with gratifying obsequiousness. All the famous clubs and bars were open to them, welcoming the pair with bows and flourishes.
Vinny made a point of showing her how much money was in his wallet and how many women he knew well enough to kiss on both cheeks as he clutched at them, too long and too close. She didn’t mind his paying attention to other women, however, because it gave her some respite to his constant grabbing and groping. She had thought she would enjoy the crowds as she usually did, but Vinny’s treatment of her made her feel somehow dirty.
“It’s really late, Vinny. I’ve had a great time, but I think I should—”
“You should what?” he asked as they drove down another glitzy, neon-lit street of casinos and bars. “Take me to your room and say a proper thank you? I’m all for that. Frank, do a U-turn here. We’re going back to Judy’s place for a nightcap.”
“Oh, Vinny, I thought you’d take me back to the casino. My car is there.”
“I can’t do a U-turn here, Mr. Cicero. There’s a concrete median. I’ll turn down this side street and do it.”
“We’re not far from your place, are we, honey? You live down here in a hotel, don’t you? I find these things out, see? I could get things started right here and we could finish up at your place.” Vinny had his hand up her skirt before she could stop him.
Suddenly, the car gave a violent swoop and Vinny was thrown on top of Judy. She tried to push him off, but he was laughing and pressing himself down harder onto her. “Good one, Frank. Attaboy!” He had one finger trying to probe between her thighs when she felt another hard jolt.
She found herself on the floorboard of the car, desperately frightened, yet glad for the chance to get away. She sprang out of the car, only to find herself trapped in a dead-end alley by three angry, shouting men.
“Can’t you watch where you’re going?”
“Crazy drunk! You hit me! I’m calling the cops!”
“Go ahead. My dad has the police commissioner in his back pocket.”
“You want I should take care of him, Mr. Cicero?”
“Cicero? You his kid? Hey, I don’t want none of that!”
“Yeah, well, you got it anyway. Take care of it, Frank. That’s right. Give ‘im the old one, two.”
Judy heard sounds of squelching and a loud thump as a male form fell to the ground. “He’s got a piece, Mr. Cicero.”
There were two loud bangs, freezing Judy to the pavement. The form on the ground went still; shockingly, finally still.
“Did I get ‘im?” Vinny’s voice in the darkness made Judy sick with fear and loathing.
The two forms still standing went over to what Judy feared to be the body of their victim. “Yeah, good shooting, Mr. Cicero. Make the old man proud. Don’t nobody mess with you, eh?”
“That’s right! The old man don’t tolerate no disrespect and neither do I.”
Judy saw her chance and ran behind them as they bent over the body. Not daring to breathe, much less look back, Judy raced to the street. Sounds of drunken laughter followed her into the night. Judy, like any small creature in fear, ran to the closest place of safety, but instead of stopping at her own room, she continued, as if by instinct rather than logic, to the room number Daniel had mentioned earlier.
She banged on the door of his room, pleading, “Daniel, let me in. Please, let me in.”
He appeared in the doorway, dressed in only pajama pants, his lids half-lowered in his fatigue after his long drive. Before Judy’s eyes, he snapped into alertness, as if a switch had been thrown. “What happened?” He stepped back, drawing her inside the circle of his arms as he shut and bolted the door behind her.
“It was Vinny. He…he…and I…but then the other man…I don’t know if he had a gun or not…but I think he’s dead. Oh, Daniel, I think…he wasn’t moving.”
At the word “gun,” Daniel sat Judy down on the bed and stepped onto a chair to reach up into a light fixture. In his hand when he turned around again, Judy saw a sidearm, fit to his hand as if it had seen years of service there. “Who had a gun?”
“Vinny did, but I don’t know about the other man. It was dark. But I know…I mean, I think…He was on the ground.”
“We need to call the police. I’ll take you to Mr. Fields down in the—”
He never finished his sentence. The door burst open with a bang and in lurched Vinny and Frank. In the ensuing seconds, Judy felt Daniel’s strong arm throwing her to the floor behind the bed. She smelled the heavy, acrid odors of cordite and singed flesh and terror. She heard several cracks of pistols being fired and bodies falling to the ground like so much shattered baggage. She knew a benumbing terror even after the moment Daniel appeared at her side, gun still in one hand, pointed at the door.
His free hand ran over her hair, her face, her shoulders. “Are you all right? Were you hit? He fired at you.”
She was up in a moment, hiding herself in the safety of his arms, making herself as small as possible against the warmth, the strength, the protection that she knew she would find in him. “Are they gone? Are they gone?”
Daniel answered in a strained voice, “Yeah, they’re gone all right. Let’s get you out of here. Wait! Were there any more of them?”
“No, that was all! Just the two. Please, let’s go!”
“All right. I’ll take you to the lobby and we can call the cops from there.”
“No, you can’t!” Judy’s brain was beginning to thaw, like a river freeing itself from winter’s grip. “Cicero owns the police. He was just bragging about it to that man he…that man he…”
“It’s all right. Never mind,” Daniel murmured into her hair as he kissed her head. “Come on. Out of here.” In a moment, he was banging on the window of the room in the back where the night duty clerk slept. “Fields! Is that you? Mr. Fields?”
“Not so loud. Someone might hear,” Judy pleaded.
Fields came to the window already dressed. “What the—? Daniel? Judy? Come in the back way. What’s wrong? Did you hear shots? I was coming out to check.”
“We need to use your phone, I’m afraid. We have to call the police. I didn’t just hear the shots. I fired them.”
Judy spoke loudly, trying to drown out Daniel’s words. “Mr. Fields, it’s Vinny Cicero up there in Daniel’s room.”
“Vinny…Don’t say another word. I didn’t hear anything and I don’t know anything. Get out. Here, take this money and go. North to Idaho is your best bet. Not much between here and there. Go!”
“Thank you, Mr. Fields.”
“I don’t get it,” protested Daniel, resisting Judy’s pulling and Mr. Fields’ pushing.
“Cicero owns the police, Daniel. If we call them, we won’t last the night.”
“Cicero is one mean son-of-a-gun. He’s all about family pride and honor. He might burn my place down just because it was here his son bought it. You wouldn’t stand a chance anywhere in this state. You have to go now!”
“Oh, Mr. Fields, I didn’t mean to bring any trouble down on you!”
“It’s all right. I’ll think of something. Just peel out of the driveway and start south. Once you get out of town, take side roads back north. Do it fast. Maybe you should give me a short clip, just enough to leave a mark.”
“What?” Judy asked.
Daniel seemed to know what he meant. “Are you sure? The police…”
“Make it look good.”
“I don’t want to drag you into this.”
“I’m already in it. You’ll help me get out of it if you do what I say. Now, just a short jab.”
Judy turned away until she heard a thunk and a grunt. “Are you sure he’s okay?”
“He’ll be better once we get out of town,” Daniel replied. “We’ve got a long drive ahead of us.”