Copyright 2014 by Ben Begley
Based upon characters created by Hunter S. Thompson
We were just past Baker in the middle of the desert when our vacation began to fall apart. Of course, we couldn't know that then, but the first in a series of weird events was about to appear on our horizon.
But I don't want to get ahead of myself. My name is Hank, and I am an insurance investigator. Oh, it's not as glamorous as it sounds, but it does have its moments. When I'm not investigating possible insurance fraud, I sell insurance. All kinds – life, home, health, auto – you name it, I've sold it, and if I haven't, I'll find it for you. I don't mean to brag, but I've been chosen Amalgamated Insurance's “Best Salesman” for my region for five straight years. It's something I'm pretty proud of, let me tell you, mister. Not that it's hard to sell insurance these days – everyone is so scared that some drug-crazed band of hippies is going to burst into their homes and kill them all with machetes, or some heroin-addicted kid back from Vietnam is going to stab them for their wallet, or a race riot is going to break out while they're trying to buy some southern friend chicken in a black neighborhood. The horror stories are everywhere, and most of them are real, believe you me. So while the world seemed to be going to heck in a hand basket, the insurance business had been booming, and 1971 was shaping up to be our best year yet.
In fact, that's part of the reason why I, my wife Madge, my pal Bob and his wife Betty were out there in that desert that day. As a reward for my winning “Best Salesman” for the fifth straight year (did I already mention that? Silly me!), Amalgamated was sending me and my wife on an all expenses-paid weekend to fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada, including tickets to see Debbie Reynolds and Harry James at the Desert Inn that night.
Bob had won second place in sales (a distant second, I might add, but don't tell him I said that, ha ha!). There wasn't really a prize for second place, other than a plaque, but since Bob and I were pals, and he was my partner in the investigation aspect of the job, the company generously included a second room for him and Betty, but they had to pay for their own food and tickets. Bob groused a little about that, but that's Bob for you.
It was a good thing the company had booked our rooms well in advance, because this was going to be a big weekend for Las Vegas. People were coming from all around the country for this Mint 400 off-road race they've had going there these last few years. We weren't particularly interested in that. We just wanted to see Debbie, maybe do a little gambling, some sightseeing – you know, touristy stuff. The wives wanted to do some shopping, of course. You know how the ladies are.
There was another facet to this trip, however - one that was going to make it sort of a “working vacation”, but I never shy away from an opportunity to make a sale. You see, in my capacity as an insurance investigator, I work pretty closely with our local law enforcement agencies. If I find evidence of a crime, I step aside and let the boys in blue take the wrongdoer away. Amalgamated also handles the life and health insurance for all the cops in the area (thanks to me - heh heh). I've become pretty close friends with several important lawmen in my area, especially “Big Bill” Fleem, the District Attorney of my home county of Buena Vista.
When Bill heard I was going to Vegas for the weekend, he asked me if I could do him a favor. Of course I would, I told him. Anything for my friends on the force - that's my attitude! He said that he had bookings for himself and the police chief of Pumpkin Center at the National District Attorneys' Association's Third National Institute on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. It was being held that same week in Las Vegas, shortly after the Mint 400. He said the police chief couldn't attend because he was embroiled in some kind of personal drama involving his son, who had been arrested for marijuana possession. As top cop for the county, it was Bill's job to oversee the investigation, so he was stuck too.
Bill explained that since the rooms were already paid for and it was too late to cancel, it would be a shameful waste of the tax-payers' money. Besides, as professional investigators, Bob and I could be his representatives at the convention and fill him in on any new information we could glean. I had some vacation days coming to me, and my bosses at Amalgamated were practically salivating at the prospect of their number one and two men getting to press the flesh with representatives of law enforcement agencies from all over the country.
As the cherry on top of this already sweet deal, “Big Bill” lent us a gorgeous, brand-new blue Ford Galaxy 500 that he had confiscated from some nefarious characters who had come here from Oklahoma (of all places) to broker a drug deal. So all in all, we were getting a nice five-day vacation in “Sin City” at little or no out-of-pocket expense to us.
We wanted to get started Friday evening, but one of my wealthier clients got himself into a little scrape when he struck and killed a pedestrian while tooling along Sunset Strip in his new Corvette Stingray, and I was up late dealing with that.
So bright and early on that fine spring Saturday we were on our way to Las Vegas. Bob almost had a fit when he saw the Oklahoma plates on the car. He said people would think we were Okies. I said, “What's wrong with that?” He responded by doing a goofy dance, all hunched over, knees and elbows pumping up and down and singing, “I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee...” It was kind of funny, if a little embarrassing. I guess that's how Bob thinks people from Oklahoma dance. I've known Bob since high school, and we served overseas together in the war. Other than boot camp in Georgia and our station in Japan, Bob's never been out of Southern California.
As I was saying, we had just passed through the little crossroads town of Baker on I-15 when I noticed something up ahead. It was a young man, and he was running for all he was worth towards town. It was pretty hot already, and as we drew closer you could see the kid was beet red in the face, his hair and shirt were soaked with sweat. He looked like he was running for his life. He kept looking back over his shoulder at the road behind him, like someone might be chasing him, but there was no other car in sight.
I started to pull off to the side of the road. Bob said, “Are you crazy? Stopping for a hitch-hiker these days? He could be some kind of fugitive from the Manson Family or something!” I told Bob to relax, that the kid obviously wasn't hitch-hiking. He looked like he needed help. Bob huffed and puffed but kept quiet.
When we pulled alongside the kid, he had stopped and was bent over with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. He looked pretty startled when he caught sight of us, but calmed down when he saw a nice car with four average folks (except for Bob glowering in the back seat). I got out and asked him if he was okay.
He took another nervous look back down the road from where he'd come and shakily said, “Yeah, I guess so. I just had a close call with some real weirdos back there.”
I asked, “What happened? Do you need the police?”
“No,” he said. “They didn't really DO anything to me. I just don't want to run into those guys again”.
He was still red in the face and perspiring heavily. I turned to the car and said, “Betty, why don't you give the kid some Coke?” Betty started digging into the big red ice chest that was sitting between her and Bob for a cool, tall bottle of America's favorite soft drink.
The kid practically jumped out of his skin. “Coke? No way! I don't do that!”, he hollered. He started to edge away from me until he saw the greenish bottle of dark brown liquid that Betty had just handed to me. Then he calmed down again and said, “Oh! Coca Cola! Ha ha! Yeah, sure, please! Sorry!”
I said, “Well of course - Coke. What did you think I meant?”
He said, “Oh, nothing. It's just those two guys I was telling you about were putting all kinds of weird things up their noses and acting crazy. They offered me some, but I don't do that kind of stuff.”
I said, “Why don't you sit here and tell us about it?” I had Madge scoot over behind the wheel and offered the kid her seat. He said he was hitch-hiking to Vegas. At this I couldn't help glancing over at Bob, and sure enough, he was giving me an “I told you so” look.
Getting a closer look at the kid, I was beginning to have some doubts myself. He was tall and muscular in a gawky kind of way, like someone who would be comfortable on either the football field or the basketball court. He had a perfectly round head, like a real-life Charlie Brown. Now that his color (or rather lack of it – he was the palest white boy I had ever seen) was returning to normal, I could see that he had a bunch of freckles under his round, deep-set eyes. The most remarkable thing about him, though, was his hair. It was sparse and stringy, long on the sides but short on top. At first I thought that he had cut it like that, but then I noticed that he was nearly bald on the top of his head. He couldn't have been but 19 or 20. Strange.
Actually, the strangest thing about him, and the one that gave me the most trouble, was his shirt. It had this terrible rendition of Mickey Mouse on it, flashing “peace” symbols with both hands, and – get this – with a gosh darned swastika on his chest! Mickey Mouse, for crying out loud! Can you believe that?
But for all that, he seemed like a decent kid. He was polite and mannerly as he sipped his Coke and told us about how he had gotten picked up by two degenerates who were driving a red convertible. When he said that, I remembered that earlier on the road we had been passed by a red convertible that must have been doing over a hundred. Even with our windows rolled up so we could enjoy that good old American air-conditioning, you could hear the most gosh awful racket coming from that car. It sounded like they somehow had two radios blaring away at top volume on two different stations. They flashed by so fast I couldn't get a good look at the occupants - just a brief glimpse of wild hair blowing in the wind and arms waving around. I know it sounds crazy, but one of the arms looked like it was swinging a fly swatter. Who tries to swat flies at a hundred miles an hour in a convertible? I don't know what this country is coming to.
I decided not to say anything about what I had seen. The other three hadn't seen it, and I didn't want to worry them - especially Bob. As he listened to the kid's story, his face was getting as red as the kid's had been. And he wouldn't stop staring at the kid's crazy shirt. I was afraid he was going to say something, and I thought that the poor kid had already been through enough.
The kid seemed better after a couple of Cokes and after getting his story off his chest. I offered to give him a ride into Baker, but he said he'd be alright walking. He said he had lost interest in going to Las Vegas if there were people like that going there. As he started to walk away, he spotted our rear license plate. His eyes lit up and he said, “Are you folks from Oklahoma, too?” I heard a sharp intake of breath from Bob's corner of the car.
I said, “No, that's just how the car came. Why, is that where you're from?”
“Yeah, it sure is,” he said proudly pointing at his chest with his thumb, “Oklahoma City, O-KAY!” He said that he was just hitching around, seeing the country before he had to report for the draft. That made me feel alright about the young man, and I could practically feel Bob relaxing in his seat when he heard. I couldn't resist giving him a bit of fatherly advice, telling him that he might want to lose that shirt - that it could be considered offensive to those of us who had served in Dubya Dubya Two. Bob chimed in with “Damn straight”.
The kid clapped his hand self-consciously over the offending symbol and said, “Gosh! Did you fight Nazis?”
I said, “No, not really. Bob and I came late to the party. We were part of the occupation force in Japan after they surrendered. But the principle is the same.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I guess I just thought it was funny. You know, on account of Disney not liking Jews and all.”
This was news to me. Bob said, “So? Lots of people hate Jews. That doesn't make them Nazis.” The kid looked confused, but I shook my head to indicate he should ignore Bob, although he was starting to get on my nerves.
I said, “Well, I don't know about that, but think about what I said.” He said he would, and thanked us for our kindness. I handed him one of my business cards, telling him to call me if he needed anything. I figured it was a long shot, but any meeting is a chance for a sale, after all. He looked at my card, which said,
Licensed Insurance Agent
Amalgamated Insurance, Inc.
Life – Home- Auto
When he looked back up, his eyes were as big as dinner plates, and he had gone a paler shade of white, if that were possible. I said, “What's wrong?”. He stammered, “Savage? Savage Henry?” I laughingly said, “Well, that's how they used to say it in the service, but yeah, that's me!”
He said, “Listen, those two guys I was telling you about? They said they were going to kill you!”
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I asked him what in the heck he was talking about. He said, “The one guy, the big guy, he said they were going to Vegas to 'croak' a scag baron – whatever that is - named 'Savage Henry'.”
My mind was reeling. It had to be some kind of crazy coincidence. I mean, in my line of work, I've made a few people mad when I uncovered their insurance flim-flams, but I seriously doubted anyone would kill me for it. Besides, why would they be looking for me in Las Vegas? I had never been there in my life. No one outside company headquarters and the District Attorney's office knew I was making this trip.
I decided it couldn't be serious, but I couldn't help asking if these characters had given their names. The kid said, “I'm not sure, but I think the foreign guy's name was Sam Owen.”
“ 'Sam Owen' ?”, I repeated. “That's an awfully American-sounding name for a foreigner. Are you sure?”
“That's what the other guy called him, but he didn't seem sure himself. He said, 'I think he's probably Sam Owen”. The skinny guy said he was some kind of doctor, and the big guy was his attorney, It was weird! Sir, I don't think you should go to Las Vegas!”
I tried to laugh it off, but I was rattled. “Oh, I'm sure it's just a coincidence. Crazy talk from a couple of hop heads!”
“Well,” he said. “I hope you're right. But please be careful.”
I told him I would and thanked him for his concern. He went on his way toward Baker. I got back in the car and sat and pondered what I'd just heard.
Bob was all agitated again. He said, “We need to call the police and have these weirdos picked up!” I told him we didn't have enough to go on - that it had to be nothing anyway. After all, the kid hadn't mentioned the whole “Savage Henry” thing until after he saw my name on my card. Maybe his recent experience and running around in the desert sun with that bald head and no hat had done something funny to his brain.
“Come on,” I said. “Let's forget all this and get on with our vacation! Let's have some fun!” I tried to sound as cheerful as I could as we drove off into the bright desert day, but it felt like an invisible cloud had gone over the sun.
We got to Las Vegas without further incident, and the sights of that crazy town were enough to drive any dark thoughts from my mind. Even in the bright sunshine, the lights on the casinos were something to see. I looked forward to the night to see what they really looked like.
We got to the Mint Hotel – the epicenter of the craziness that had descended upon the city for the race. I said a silent prayer of gratitude to Amalgamated for those reservations. A smartly-uniformed valet whisked our Galaxy off to park it while an equally spectacular bell hop took our luggage up to our room. Even with our reservations, what with all the hub-bub over the race, we had to stand in a long line to check in. There was some kind of hold-up because a guy at the front of the line seemed to be having an epileptic fit or something until he was led away by a large fellow.
I was surprised to see that they went right over to the table set up across the lobby for the members of the press to register for their passes. I couldn't imagine a couple of flamboyantly dressed peacocks like those two being reporters, but I guess they can't all be Edward R. Murrow. They were probably from the so-called “alternative press” or maybe one of those magazines advocating sex, drugs and rock and roll. Why those hippies would be interested in the fine American tradition of motor racing was beyond me. They probably just wanted to make fun of it all.
We got up to our rooms and freshened up and ordered some room service while we eagerly waited till it was time to leave to see Debbie. Bob kept whining about having to pay for his and Betty's room service food. I finally offered to order double on my tab. I figured Amalgamated wouldn't care considering all the new accounts Bob and I were sure to bring them from this trip.
When it was time, we waited out front while the valet brought the car around. He told us that we could have called down before we left the room so we wouldn't have to wait, but I didn't mind because I was too busy looking at all the lights of the city. Boy, I'd sure hate to have to pay their electric bill!
The valet told us how to get to the Desert Inn, and we arrived in short order. Madge thought she saw Liberace walking along the Strip, but I think it was just a fairy in a fur coat. We were treated like royalty. We got seats in the front row. The lights went down and Debbie came onstage wearing a silver Afro wig. Crazy! She launched into some Beatles' song from their drug days. I don't care for that kind of music myself, but Debbie and Harry James made it all so fun.
Shortly after the song started, there seemed to be some kind of commotion at the back of the auditorium. The doors banged opened while there was a lot of shouting and hysterical laughter, which faded out as the doors were quickly but quietly closed. Some people have no respect. If Debbie even noticed, she never missed a beat. What a professional!
The show was great. We hated to see it end, but we were getting hungry, so we made a bee-line back to the Mint and had a great dinner in the restaurant. Then back up to our rooms. I was exhausted, and soon fell asleep in the big bed while watching Walter Cronkite.
My slumber was interrupted by some kind of gosh awful din that seemed to coming from another floor. Someone was playing some psychedelic music at top volume. A woman's voice was yelling something that sounded like “feed your head!” over and over again. I looked at the clock on the nightstand. It was 5 o'clock in the morning! What sort of maniac plays music that loud at that time of night? And in a hotel - where decent people are trying to sleep! Even through the thick walls and floors the noise was unbearable. Suddenly the music stopped but was immediately followed by all kinds of screaming and howling and crashing. I was about to call down to the front desk and complain, but then the noises subsided. All was quiet, except for a dull roar that sounded like snow on a TV at top volume. Even that was eventually absorbed by the night sounds of the city, but I had a hard time getting back to sleep after that. So much for getting some rest on my vacation!
I guess I did fall back asleep, but it seemed like only minutes later I was again awakened by some gosh awful roaring. I sat bolt upright in the bed and yelled, “Goddamit! They're at it again!” Light was streaming in the open curtains. My wife stuck her head in from the balcony and said, “What are you yelling about? You should come see this!”
I put my robe on and joined her on the balcony. Bob and Betty were out on their balcony next door. Then I saw the source of all the noise. The street below was full from curb to curb with row upon row of four-wheel-drive trucks and dune buggies and motorcycles, all gunning their engines as loudly as they could. Of course! I had heard there was going to be a parade of all the vehicles that were going to be in the Mint 400 before they headed out to the race course outside of town. They were quite a sight, I must say. I had to keep my hands over my ears for all the noise, though. Eventually, the smelly exhaust got to be too much, even up on the seventh floor where we were, so we went inside and closed the sliding doors.
I went in the bathroom to take a shower. The soap the hotel provided was this weird, translucent orange stuff. It smelled good, but boy, was it strange-looking. I stuck my head out and asked my wife what was up with the soap. She said, “Oh, it's called Neutrogena, and it's wonderful! I love it!” I wasn't so sure, but I used it. It was pretty good, I guess, but I felt like some kind of sissy European using anything other than good old white Ivory.
The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. The town seemed to have emptied out to watch the start of the race. I don't know what they expected to be able to see. You could see a cloud of dust rising up into the sky from the direction of the racecourse.
We all did some sightseeing, and later the wives did some shopping while Bob and I hung out in the casino, making a few contacts and even a couple of sales to nervous-looking tourists from the Midwest. We had a few drinks and did a little gambling. Actually, Bob did more than a little. He was starting to lose too much and was getting hot under the collar until I grabbed him and forced him to leave with me.
I stopped in the hotel gift shop to see if I could find some full-size bars of that soap my wife liked. The clerk sheepishly said they were all out, which was unusual, since - as she explained - the owner of the hotel also owned the soap company. She couldn't understand where it had all gone. I told her to send a message up to my room if they got some more in She promised to do so, but I never heard from her.
Days Three and Four
The next couple of days were pretty quiet. The race was over, but I have no idea who won. The company-sponsored portion of my vacation had come to an end, so we moved over to our new Buena Vista County District Attorney's Office-sponsored “digs” at the Flamingo in preparation for the conference. The cops were starting to trickle into town. In the lull between the race and the conference, we enjoyed ourselves as much as we could while making as many contacts and sales as possible. Unfortunately, it was getting harder and harder to keep Bob away from the slot machines. He was spending more time losing money than making sales.
There were a couple of odd notes to those days. On Monday I was making conversation with a Portuguese photographer at the bar at the Mint. He was about to leave town after covering the race. He looked a little frazzled. I thought he seemed like a man in need of insurance. When I gave him my card, he stared at it for a long time with a quizzical expression on his face.
“Savage, Savage. Henry Savage,” he said. “Where have I heard that name before?” Suddenly it seemed to dawn on him, and he looked at me strangely. Then he just stood up and left without a word. He didn't even finish his drink. After the incident with the hitchhiker, this spooked me a little, but I decided to write off his unusual behavior to the stresses of his profession.
Another weird incident occurred shortly after we checked in at the Flamingo. From a room below us some idiot seemed to be arguing with someone on the phone. He bellowed that someone was kicking his door in, but I heard no sounds like that. There was same banging and clanging, however, and he was yelling about someone named Duke and Lucy. Just as quickly as it started, it seemed to be over, with one final bang. What is happening in this country?
I couldn't imagine any of the attendees of the conference acting like that, and cops seemed to be about the only people in the hotel that week. Bob and I were probably the least law enforcement-related people there, except maybe some reporters, but I think they were keeping them at another hotel. At least I hoped they were, especially if they were anything like those two weirdos we'd seen at the Mint. Ha! What was I worrying about? Those types wouldn't dare show their faces at a cop convention!
On Tuesday afternoon, I stopped one of the maids as I passed her in the hall. I asked her if the hotel had any of that Neutrogena soap. She seemed rather nervous, and just stared at me funny. I noticed she had an American-enough name on her badge – Alice - but maybe she didn't speak English. I pantomimed washing my hands. I said, “You know? Soap? Orange soap?”
She said, “Do you mean, 'one hand washes the other' ?”, in acceptable but Mexican-accented English.
I said, “Well, yeah, that's how it usually works.”
She sidled up uncomfortably close and whispered, “I fear nothing”. I told her that was nice, but all I wanted was some orange soap. She looked at me doubtfully and said, “Inspector Rock?” I said, “No, my name is Savage”. She turned without another word and started trundling her little supply cart as fast as her old legs would carry her, casting fearful glances over her shoulder at me until she rounded a corner and disappeared.
I walked slowly back to my room, trying to make sense of it all. Was it just this town, or was the whole world going crazy? All these little run-ins probably would have seemed like nothing before this week, but after that first day outside Baker, I had been feeling a little – well – fearful. A sense of foreboding had been following me ever since. Thank goodness tomorrow was the DA conference. I could lose myself in some good, old-fashioned American salesmanship, and then get the heck out of this loathsome town.
The D.A. conference was held in the main ballroom of the Dunes Hotel. Boy, there were a lot of police types and their wives there. Bob and I were lucky to find some seats near the back. I won't bore you with the details of the conference. I was pretty bored myself, to tell you the truth. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have anything of value to report back to my friend “Big Bill” Fleem. I felt like I owed him that much for the free accommodations. Oh, well, maybe I could just grab some pamphlets and such from the many tables in the lobby.
I was having a hard time concentrating on the guest speaker's lecture, however, despite being nice and close to one of the many speakers spaced around the room. The source of my trouble were a couple of jackasses a couple of rows away who wouldn't stop whispering too loudly to one another. Finally one of them, a big Hispanic fellow in an expensive-looking pin-stripe suit, got up and made a big scene of trying to get out of the ballroom. He was yelling something about not belonging there, and I had to agree with him. Bob had to make things worse by loudly saying, “Good riddance.” The big guy stopped and looked around, trying to find who had spoken. Bob was glaring at him with his fists clenched against the sides of his legs. Thankfully, the Spic turned and made his way to the door. He was followed immediately by his bald-headed companion who said he was going to be sick. Bob muttered, “Yeah, you're sick, alright”, and I couldn't argue with him on that count.
After awhile Bob started getting fidgety. He said he had to use the restroom, but I knew where he was going. I couldn't stop him. I didn't want to make a disruption like those two other guys, so I let him go.
Finally after what seemed like hours the conference broke up. I wandered out to get a drink and look for Bob. No sooner had I gotten to the bar when I was accosted by a District Attorney from Georgia whom I had met earlier. He looked pretty shook up. I asked him if everything was alright. He said he needed insurance, and lots of it – which was funny, because he had resisted my charms when we had spoken earlier. He said he'd been talking to a couple of cops from Los Angeles, and the things they had told him that were going on there were something terrible. Tales of vampires and beheadings by giants. And that they were working their way to his neck of the woods, he claimed. I wanted to tell him that I was from Southern California, and I hadn't heard about anything that bad, but I didn't want to scotch a potential sale.
Before I could start making a pitch, he whipped out his check book and signed a blank check and thrust it into my hand. He said, “Here, just make me the most comprehensive policy you've got for me and my wife, and send it to me by express mail! And make sure it contains coverage for accidental dismemberment!” He then scurried off to goodness knows where while I just stared after him with my mouth open.
I found Bob at one of the slot machines (of course). He was in a worse mood than usual, having lost the last of his money. He and Betty had been arguing a lot the last couple of days about how much money he'd been losing. I told him of my windfall. I suggested we round up the gals and go out for one last night on the town to celebrate before heading home tomorrow. We hadn't been to the Circus Circus yet. I'd heard it was pretty wild.
On our way to the Circus Circus, we were sitting at a red light when a white Cadillac convertible pulled up on our left. The guy in the passenger seat was a fat Mexican wearing a yellow fish-net shirt. He was leaning over the side, which was streaked with vomit, and yelling that he wanted to sell us heroin. It was disgusting.
The ladies and I stared straight ahead - we didn't want to make eye contact. Bob, however, couldn't take his eyes off the maniac. When the guy said the word 'scag' I couldn't help but look over at him. There was something familiar about him. Of course! It was the Spic who made the ruckus at the conference earlier that day! I couldn't see much of the driver, other than his fingers drumming nervously on the steering wheel, a fishing hat, aviator sunglasses and a cigarette in one of those holders, like he was freaking FDR or something. I couldn't be sure, but I was willing to bet it was the bald-headed guy from earlier, too.
The light was taking forever to change, and the Spic was getting more and more out of control. He didn't look typically Hispanic. What with his long, wavy hair flying everywhere, he looked more exotic-like. I could see how someone might mistake him for, say, a...
“SAMOAN!”, I shouted. It had all clicked in my head in a fraction of a second. “Not 'Sam Owen'! Samoan! The kid was right! It's them!” The car wasn't the right color, but what's to stop creeps like that from just stealing whatever car suited their fancies? Before the others could ask me what I was talking about, the light changed. I stomped on the gas and the big 500 shot forward. It was only a short ways to the Circus Circus. I felt if I could just get there, we'd be safe from these maniacs.
The driver of that white Caddy knew what he was about, though. He kept right alongside us. Suddenly Bob leaned across Betty and began hurling the foulest language at the guys in the Caddy. It was a good thing the 500 is a two-door, or he probably would have jumped right into that Caddy and started biting them. The Circus Circus was coming up fast. I started edging left, trying to force the Caddy to make way for us. Suddenly the driver jammed on his brakes and veered to the right in our wake, across three lanes and down a side street.
Now I was at the turn-off to the Circus Circus. I was going too fast for the turn. I hit the brakes while cranking the wheel hard to the left. We stalled, sitting diagonally across the middle of the intersection. Bob was yelling, “What the hell are you doing? We can't stop here!” Cars were honking, fists were waving, in the distance I could hear the wail of sirens. Even though we were the victims, I didn't feel like trying to explain the whole mess to anyone.
I got the Galaxy restarted, and as quickly but nonchalantly as I could I pulled into the parking area of the Circus Circus. The lights and sirens flashed on by. It was an ambulance! All that insanity had taken only a few seconds, and no cops had even noticed. Thousands of extra cops in town, and those two maniacs were careening around, terrorizing innocent tourists, Scot free.
We parked and sat for a few minutes. We were all pretty shaken up. Finally I said, “Come on, folks. Let's put this behind us and have something to eat.” But there wasn't much heart in it.
We ate in silence at the buffet. I reluctantly agreed to loan Bob 10 bucks and he hightailed it the machines. Betty went off in the direction of the bar. I guess she had managed to keep some money away from her husband. Madge and I wandered around the place.
Boy, that Circus Circus is really something else. It's just like a real circus inside, with high wire acts and carnival booths - the works! Bob turned up a little while later, looking (my) ten dollars poorer. He just followed us around with his head down, casting longing glances toward the gambling floor.
This one barker was trying to get us lay down a buck or two to have our image projected 200 feet tall over the Las Vegas skyline, but we weren't interested. We moved on. After a bit I realized Bob was no longer with us. Just then there was a commotion from the direction of the booth with the 200-foot projection.
I couldn't believe what I was seeing. There was Bob, grappling with the barker and another carny. He had grabbed the microphone and was screaming something into it. I rushed back there. There was a TV connected to a camera outside so you could see yourself looming over the city. Sure enough, there was a 200-foot-tall Bob, flanked by two even larger carnies, who were now being joined by a couple of uniformed security guards. Bob was shrieking, “Hey, you two chicken-shit motherfuckers in the white Caddy! Come back here! I'll kick your asses! I'll kill you. I'll fucking kill you!”
The two security guards and the carny managed to wrest the microphone away from Bob while the barker hit the switch to turn off the projection. It was quite a scene. They hauled Bob off to the security office. I sent Madge to look for Betty while I hustled after Bob.
The casino was ready to press charges against Bob, because not only had he not paid for the use of their projector, but he had bitten a carny on the arm. I showed them my identification badge from the conference, proving I was an official representative of the Buena Vista County District Attorney. I gave them a couple of bucks for the projection, and explained that Bob had been under a great deal of stress from our job as investigators – you know, dealing with the scummier elements of society.
Finally I got things smoothed over, and I fast-walked Bob out of there, collecting Madge and a now-inebriated Betty along the way. We got in the Galaxy, and I just started to drive. I didn't even care where I was going. I needed some time to calm down. Eventually we came across an all-night diner called the North Star. I suggested we get some coffee and pie to settle our nerves.
We entered the place. It was empty except for the waitress – who kind of looked like Jane Russell - behind the counter. She didn't even look at us. She was staring out the window with a vacant look on her face. She said, “We're closed.” I said, “But your sign says 'Open 24 Hours' “. As I was saying it, my eyes began to take in certain details. There were two barely-touched plates of hamburgers on the counter, along with a five dollar bill, and oddest of all, the receiver from the payphone was laying next to one of the plates. Something very strange had happened there.
Suddenly the waitress came to life. She came around the end of counter, fast, screaming, “I said 'We're CLOSED' !”. She was a big gal, and she looked ready to hurt someone. We hightailed it out of there. As we piled into the car, I saw her lock the doors and then she walked over and yanked the cord for the neon 'open' sign out of the wall. Then she disappeared into the back, shutting off the lights as she went.
Madge said, “Let's just go back to the hotel and try to get some sleep, so we can get out of this town.” I couldn't have agreed with her more. As I was pulling out into the street, Betty began to vomit copiously all over herself, the back of my seat and the floor. The smell was horrendous. I almost barfed myself. I opened all the windows, and tried to keep my head as close to the fresh air as I could while navigating toward the Flamingo. Bob didn't even look at his poor wife. I guess he was sulking because she had gotten drunk on money he could have been gambling with.
When we got back to the hotel, Madge helped the puke-covered Betty up to the rooms. I pressed two twenty dollar bills into the valet's hand and asked him to have the boys in the garage see if they could do something with the mess in the car. He didn't look too enthused especially when he got a whiff of the car, but you can't argue with a tip like that.
Bob hadn't said anything since we'd left the Circus Circus. As we shuffled toward the lobby, he said, “Say, Hank. Can you loan me another 10 bucks? I know my luck's got to change.”
I lost it. I laid into him - telling him things I'd been holding back for years. Things like how the only reason he was even number two at Amalgamated was because he had been riding on my coat tails ever since the service. Hell, the only reason he was even on this trip was because of his association with me. And now he had thrown away his money and was trying to do the same with mine.
Bob said, “Screw you, Hank! I'm sick of your 'holier than thou' attitude. You've been making me feel second-best ever since high school! Hell, you're lucky to be alive tonight! I tried to tell you to call the cops about those two degenerates when the kid first told us about them, but oh, no! Not the great Hank Savage! He can handle it! Well, you almost got us killed tonight!”
This was too much. I hauled off and punched him square in the nose. I felt something crunch under my fist, and blood squirted all over Bob's shirt. He staggered backwards, with his hands over his nose. He screamed, “Fuck you!”
I tried to apologize (even though it had felt good). I tried to calm him down, saying “Let's just try to get some rest, so we can get out of this damned city tomorrow!”
Bob yelled, “Fuck you! I'm not going anywhere with you! I can make my own way back home!”
I said, “Oh, yeah - with what money? And what about Betty?”
He said, “I don't give a shit. Take her with you. Hell, maybe I won't even go back. I think I'll stay here. I can make it in this town just fine without any help from the great Hank Savage.” With that he turned and stomped into the casino, bloody shrit and all. As soon as the doors swung shut, there was screaming and yelling from inside. I never saw him again after that.
I went back up to the room. Madge had cleaned Betty up and put her to bed on the couch in our suite. We were both exhausted and went to bed without a word.
We got up late, and ordered breakfast in the room. I got a Bloody Mary for Betty. She needed a little hair of the dog that had bit her. She didn't ask about Bob, and I was glad.
After we packed, I called downstairs to have them bring the car around. When we got to the car, I edged up to it nervously. The guys had done a great job. The car was spotless, and they had perfumed it so it smelled like new again. After we got in, however, you could detect a faint odor of barf under the deodorant. Oh, well. I'm not sure Betty even noticed. I didn't know if she even remembered what she'd done. I hoped for her sake she didn't.
I cracked the windows and ran the air-conditioning – the ultimate American luxury. We drove slowly out of town, then picked up speed on the interstate. It felt good to see that awful city disappear into the haze of the desert sun in our rear-view mirror.
When we stopped at a traffic light in Baker, who should we see but the hitchhiking kid. He didn't look so good. I guess a week in Baker can do that to you. At least he had changed out of that awful shirt. He was just standing in the shade of one of the few trees, with barely enough energy to hold his thumb up. I tootled the horn. When he looked our way his face lit up when he recognized us. He scurried over.
“Where you heading?”, I said.
“West,” he said. “Actually, anywhere but here. I gotta find an induction center soon. I've been stuck here all week. I can't get a ride.”
“Well, son,” I said, “Your luck just changed. Hop in!”
Madge stepped out to let the kid into the back, next to Betty. I saw his nose wrinkle up when he caught his first whiff of the faint smell of vomit, but he was too polite to say anything.
He said, “Where's your friend?”
“It's...complicated,”I said, nodding toward Betty, hoping he'd take the hint.
He didn't. “Those guys didn't get him, did they?”, he asked with genuine alarm.
“No! No,” I said. “Well, not exactly. It's a long story. I'll tell you about it sometime. Why don't we listen to some music?” I turned on the radio. “Okie from Muskogee” was playing.
We all laughed, even Betty, who seemed perkier since the kid had gotten in. I turned the music up and we sang along, as we drove west, back to civilization, or what was left of it.
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