Lucky Now and Then: A Lucky O’Toole Novella
Summer 1982, Downtown Las Vegas
Albert Rothstein rarely abandoned himself to sleep. Tonight was no different. After a couple hours of fitful tossing, he’d donned his corporate monkey-suit and fought with his tie, then wandered down to the building site.
Little more than a hole in the ground, The Lucky Aces, his first Vegas hotel was inching its way from dream to reality. He’d made more than a few enemies along the way—necessary risks in this town that tolerated no fools and gave little ground. He could shoulder the burden of putting his life on the line, but Mona complicated things. Just the thought of her in the crosshairs made his stomach clench. They also had a daughter, Lucky, but nobody knew she was his. A secret he and Mona had decided to keep…for a lot of reasons, her safety being but one.
Vegas was long on secrets.
He took a deep breath and shrugged off the worry—any chink in his resolve would be a death sentence.
Vegas rewarded those with steel balls.
Standing on the sidewalk along Main Street, Rothstein hooked his fingers through the chain link fence then rested his forehead on his hands as he visualized his future.
Floodlights illuminated the iron-beam skeleton rising from the deep hole, casting surreal shadows. Four floors had been erected and half of the fifth. Cranes stood at the ready, like sleeping giraffes, their long necks arced, ready, waiting. Still hours from sunrise, the construction crew had yet to show. They’d be here soon though, building dreams. Rothstein liked that. Building dreams. Yeah, that’s what Vegas was all about.
Lost in thought Albert Rothstein didn’t hear the man creep up behind him.
“You need to come with me.” The voice held the sharp edge of a threat.
And a hint of familiarity. “Boogie? You fucking son of a bitch!” Rothstein started to turn but froze when the man jabbed the barrel of a gun into his side
“That’s right. Don’t turn around. Don’t do nuthin’ other than we’re going for a ride, like I told you.”
Rothstein paused for a moment, his body coiled, ready to spring, his hands itching to close around the wart’s neck. Boogie Fleischman. What that two-bit hood wanted with him was anybody’s guess. Of course, he could take him right now—the guy was a loser. But it might be more interesting to play along, to see who wanted what from him. Cause Boogie didn’t have the balls nor the smarts to be anything other than somebody’s stooge.
“Sure, okay, Boogie. Just keep the piece outta my side.”
Knowledge was power and Albert Rothstein hungered for both.
At thirty-five, he’d put in his time, learned the ropes. Now it was his turn. Vegas was his for the taking, he could feel it. And nobody was going to get in his way.
A black sedan eased to the curb next to him and someone inside pushed the rear door open. Boogie pressed the blunt-nosed handgun a bit harder, encouraging him to move. “If you know what’s good for you…”
He left the threat hanging. After enough hesitation to keep Boogie thinking he was going unwillingly, Rothstein stepped to the car and ducked his head inside. With a foot in his back, Boogie shoved him all the way in. Caught off guard, Rothstein fell across the seat. He saw the raised hand holding the gun a fraction of a second too late. The metal connected with his right temple. Pain exploded then rippled through his head, tunneling his vision. Light faded.
His vision tunneled. He caught a glimpse of the passenger leaning over from the front seat—a hard, cold face. A badge. The realization that he had grossly miscalculated. Then his world went black.
Consciousness returned slowly. What the hell happened? Where am I? Albert Rothstein eased opened his eyes, but remained motionless. Pain kept his right eye half-closed—the thumping headache made it hard to think. He was in the backseat of the car… alone. From the rhythmic thump of the tires passing over the joints in the road, he assumed they were on the highway, most likely heading south toward California. There was nothing out there but open desert and death. As the car passed through the anemic glow cast by random lights, Rothstein could see the men in the front seat…two of them. Boogie manned the steering wheel. The other one rode shotgun. Boogie was a lightweight, always hanging with some wiseguy who was bigger and tougher, absorbing some swagger safe in his shadow.
Moving slowly, trying to not attract any attention, Rothstein pressed the heel of his right hand to his temple then probed with his fingers. Blood matted his hair. He winced when his probing met tender, torn skin, and a growing goose egg. An hour, not much more, had passed, he guessed.
He felt the car slow. Pressing his feet against the door, he held himself against the turn. The car bumped off the highway leaving the lights behind. In the darkness, Rothstein moved, testing his limbs, his strength. Other than the bomb that had exploded in his head, he seemed unhurt. The car jounced and rolled over the rutted road.
He needed to do something fast. This was a one-way ride to nowhere. He’d heard stories about bones bleaching in the desert. And that wasn’t part of his plan.
The car wallowed over the rough surface for a few minutes more. Rothstein braced himself, biding his time. He’d get one shot, if he was lucky. Finally, the car slowed to a stop. Boogie killed the engine, but left the lights on. The silence of the desert closed around them like a warm, stifling cloak, muffling the world.
No one said anything. Rothstein could feel his heart pounding, the trickle of sweat wilting his shirt. Slowly he worked his hands above his head, finding purchase on the door. Then he flexed his knees. Coiled, he worked to steady his breathing, clear his thoughts.
“There they are. Looks like there’s two of ‘em.” Boogie sounded bored but tense, feigning bravery. “Late, as usual. Assholes.” While the other guy remained where he was, Boogie popped his door open then levered himself out of the car. Stepping around to the rear passenger door, he grabbed the handle and pulled.
When he heard the latch release, Rothstein braced with his hands then kicked the car door with all the force he could muster. The door flew open, catching Boogie Fleischman off guard, hitting him in the chest.
The small man flew backward into the darkness, grunting when he hit the desert floor. His gun arced into the night, out of sight… and out of reach.
With the ferocity of an animal sensing weakened prey, Rothstein pushed with his arms, propelling himself, then scrambling the last bit through the open door. In the diffuse edges of the cone of light from the headlights, he could see the shadowed outline of Fleischman, hands in the dirt, pushing himself to his knees. The little asshole.
With a growl, Rothstein launched himself. Fisting his hands in the shirt on the bastard’s back, he drove a knee into the soft flesh of his side, doubling the small man over. Standing, Rothstein coiled, then let loose a savage kick, catching Boogie in the stomach, lifting him. For a moment he seemed suspended, then he dropped, curling his knees to his chest, his arms a ring of protection around his legs.
Rothstein whirled, looking for the passenger. Nobody. He thought about diving after Boogie’s gun, but he didn’t. If they’d wanted to kill him, they would’ve done that already. So, he waited, looking for movement. Wondering. What did they want from him?
He hadn’t seen anyone get out of the second car…yet. Or maybe he’d missed them. He dropped his hand and squared his shoulders. Fighting to slow his breathing, he eased around a full three hundred and sixty degrees. If he looked directly into the headlights his night vision would be shot, so he cast around the edges of the light.
“What do you want?” He hoped his voice sounded strong.
Nothing moved. Through the smell of the sage, and the heat of the long absent sun, a stale tinge of fear hung heavy in the stillness. The night air pierced his damp shirt, bolting a chill through him. Still breathing hard, now more from adrenaline than exertion, Rothstein gathered his breath and shouted.
“Come on you bastards. Show yourselves. You want me, you gotta take me.” He swiped at his nose with the back of his hand. Clenching then unclenching his fists, he waited. “Chicken shits,” he muttered.
Anger still pulsed through him as he fought for control. God, he ached for a fight—this one had been too short. But he didn’t think a fight was what these jokers were looking for.
A bright light bolted out of the darkness. Another set of car lights, the highbeams. Blinded for a moment, he squinted against the assault. He couldn’t see how many of them there were. Boogie had said two.
“That’s enough, son.” The voice was low, heavy, thickly accented. Boston, maybe? Or New York? Rothstein wasn’t sure.
He braced himself, ready. Shoulders hunched, he took a couple of steps toward the voice. The click of a hammer being pulled back stopped him.
“That’s far enough.” The man behind the voice stepped into the light. Tall and lean with a nose mashed to one side, thin lips and dark, hollow eyes set too close together, the man had the look of someone hope had abandoned. Rothstein had seen that look before, once. He had a scar from a .22 slug to remember it by. This man also had a gun, but he’d come better prepared. This one looked to be a .45. “I’ve been looking for you, son. You’re a hard man to find alone.”
“Who the hell are you?” Rothstein kept his eyes moving, keeping track. He was outnumbered. As far as he could tell, the odds were three to one against him—not good, but not impossible. He heard the door on the car he had been delivered in open. He backed up and angled so he could keep all the players in front of him. Boogie’s passenger got out of the car but didn’t move toward him. Backlit by the headlights, his face remained in shadow. A flash of familiarity, something about him… but Rothstein couldn’t place him.
Boogie groaned then crawled over to a Yucca and puked. Rothstein didn’t allow himself to smile.
“Your uncle sent me,” the man with the gun said. Flat and cold, his voice lacked even the hint of an inflection.
“What?” The statement caught Rothstein off guard. “My uncle? I’ve got nothing to say to that piece of trash.”
“That don’t mean he ain’t lookin’ for you.”
“Tell him to go to hell. He chose which side of the line to stand on.” Rothstein worked to even his breathing, to act casual, but the last thing he needed was some two-bit hood claiming blood relations. Especially with his application for a gaming license pending. After the last round of purging, one almost needed a fucking letter from God and dispensation by the Pope to be blessed by the Gaming Commission.
“Now that ain’t very sociable.”
The man chuckled, a low evil rumble. “You’re like one chip off that block, you know that? Your uncle sent me to give you a message. He said he’d be watching you. And someday soon, you’ll be expected to pay what you owe.”
“I don’t owe him.” Rothstein spat the words.
“Kid, he staked you.”
His blood ran cold. “I paid him back. Every cent plus interest.”
“This here’s a surcharge, for going above and beyond and all.”
The man paused. Lowering his gun he stared at Rothstein, his eyes cold holes to Hell. “You got a kid, right?”
“A kid?” Rothstein snorted and let his arms fall to his sides. “What? I look stupid or something?” He forced a casual, derisive tone, but the fight balled into a cold hard spot in his stomach.
The man paused. Albert could sense him weighing his words. “All’s I know is you got a tasty bit of trash you’ve been banging for a good long time. And she’s got a kid. Who’s it is don’t really matter. That’s the thing about bangin’ whores, you don’t really know, do you?”
Rothstein almost lost his war with self-control, but he didn’t. He adopted a nonchalant stance. “An advantage by my way of thinking.”
The man’s laugh was cold and cruel. “I can see why your uncle wants you on a short leash.” He took a few steps closer.
Rothstein thought he could smell garlic.
“Think about this, kid. That piece of ass… Mona, isn’t that her name?” The man didn’t wait for a response. “She’s nineteen. If the kid is yours, even if she isn’t, you do the math.”
Rothstein’s heart jumped. “What?”
“Fuckin’ minors, hell even in this backwater that’s a felony.” The man lowered the hammer on the .45 with his thumb, then flipped on the safety and tucked the piece in his belt at the small of his back. He made a point of straightening his jacket and buttoning the middle button before he leveled his gaze at Rothstein. “Gotta treat your family nice, kid. You never know when you might need some help, you know? Secrets, they have a way of not bein’ so secret anymore.”
He turned around and walked slowly back to his car. Stepping to the passenger side, he bent and opened the back door. Squinting into the headlights, Rothstein couldn’t make out exactly what the man was doing. A moment passed, a seeming eternity to Rothstein, his heart banging a staccato rhythm in his ears.
Finally the man stepped back into the light, dragging something. Rothstein squinted one eye trying to make it out against the glare. A man. He staggered and groaned as the man in black shoved him into the light. With his arms pulled behind him, the passenger staggered a few paces then dropped to his knees. Hanging his head, he moaned.
Rothstein couldn’t make out the man’s features. Nothing else about him seemed familiar.
“Here’s your package,” the man said to the passenger who had been riding in the car that had brought Rothstein. “We’re square.”
Then he pulled out the .45, thumbed off the safety, pressed the barrel to the back of the man’s head, and pulled the trigger.
Albert Rothstein stared in horror. “Christ Almighty. You fucking killed him!”
The man brushed his coat aside and replaced his .45 at the small of his back, then let the cloth fall back into place. “And you’re an accomplice. That guy there is a witness.” He tilted his head toward the passenger who hadn’t moved, hadn’t uttered a sound. Then he turned on his heel, and climbed back into his car.
Rothstein watched the car retreat toward the road, the cone of its headlights knifing through the night. The lights winked out as the car crested a small ridge then edged over, dropping from view as it descended below the horizon. Boogie Fleischman groaned behind him. Rothstein whirled around. He grabbed the small man, hauling him to his feet in one jerk. “What the hell is going on. And, who the hell was that guy?”
Fleischman reeked of puke. In a weak gesture, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve. Rothstein let go of him with a shove of disgust.
“I can give you some insight.” The voice behind him was quiet, calm…assured.
Rothstein whirled to face the man who had been riding in the passenger seat next to Boogie. “That would be so…unexpected.” Wit was his only defense since he’d decided having a gun was just a temptation to use it. Right now he was rethinking that whole premise. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Name’s Cryder.” He stepped into the light as he adjusted his belt—it was a county-issued gun belt, his piece still holstered.
Rothstein squinted. The guy wore a Sheriff’s Department uniform. They had him. They had him good. So, he goes to the authorities with his story? The other two would weave a tall tale with him at the center, and it would be two against his one. “All of this was to get me over a barrel?”
“Not really, it just presented a good opportunity. You see, me and Fleischman had been hired by the union to provide some… enthusiasm… for some hold-outs to join the Union.”
“You bombed their joints.” It wasn’t a question. Rothstein knew the answer.
“Fleischman did the heavy-lifting. I just provided cover.” Cryder shouldered the weight of the admission easily. He dipped his head toward the body. “That guy was the head of the Culinary Union.”
“So what’d you want with the union chief? And why is he dead?”
“He didn’t pay.” The man smiled. It sent a chill to Rothstein’s heart—it was the smile of a dead man. “The guy whacking him was a stroke of luck.”
July 2012, Las Vegas
One stick of dynamite had not been enough to kill me.
Although it was sufficient to put a dent in my day.
Of course, I’d been lucky. I didn’t even smile at the pun, which was unusual for me. You see, Lucky is my name, Lucky O’Toole to be exact, and I’m the V.P. of Customer Relations at the Babylon, one of the primo properties on the Las Vegas Strip. Usually my duties include diffusing the average domestic dispute, not bombs. But, life had been… well, a bit more explosive lately.
When the elevator doors opened and I stepped out onto the rooftop of the Babylon, I was returning to the scene of the crime, drawn by a primal need, a curiosity I didn’t understand but felt powerless to resist. A survivor, I was lured by the inexorable pull of reliving my incredibly close call. The police and the bomb squad were finishing up. Like wraiths, they moved silently in the half-light, in and out of shadows, gathering clues, looking for answers. Just like me. Although, as I stepped to the edge of the roof, crossing my arms against the slight chill on the night breeze, I suspected my questions were a bit different, my answers more difficult.
“What are you doing here?” Detective Romeo’s voice was a soothing salve to my raw nerves.
I turned to find the detective in the shadows. “You see me, right? I’m like really here?”
A sympathetic smile ticked up one corner of his mouth, as he stepped in next to me. “I don’t see dead people, if that’s what you mean. Well, I see dead people—all the time, in fact, but they don’t talk to me.” He shook his head as if tossing one of those snow globes trying to realign the snowflakes of words and thoughts. “Well they talk to me, but, well, not like you mean…” Trailing off, he looked as confused as I felt. With a sigh, he put a hand on my arm and squeezed. “See, you’re not dead.”
“To be honest, I’m sort of ambivalent about that right now.” I meant that as a joke, but I didn’t pull it off. My recent bout of melodrama was getting a bit tiresome—it was so not me, the normal me, anyway. Of course, my life had been turned on its head recently: my lover had abandoned me, I’d moved, and now had almost been killed. I would guess, coupled together, those would rank me as a strong candidate for a meltdown—if I allowed myself that sort of thing.
Romeo didn’t respond. I could see him fighting the urge to run. Typically male, all of his flight tendencies were triggered by a woman on the verge of histrionics. To his credit, he held his ground.
Could my father be a killer? Assaulted by the possibility, I tried to shake off impending panic. But with my armor worn thin by the spinning wheel of a life out of balance, it took all the strength I had to cling by my fingernails to the ledge of logic.
Resolutely I pushed away the thought and returned to one of my favorite views: Vegas at night. Like a blanket snapped out full, the lights of Las Vegas unfurled at our feet, covering the valley floor in every direction. Several hours had passed since the conclusion of the annual 4th of July fireworks display, launched from the rooftops of seven of the major properties and choreographed to the second. The bomb I had tossed in desperation off the top of the Babylon had been a bit of adlibbing, but I doubted anyone noticed.
The lights from the huge signs lining both sides of the Strip to the south painted our perch in a shifting kaleidoscope of color and alternating shadows as they flashed their messages to the world. Someone told me once the lights of Vegas could be seen from space. I didn’t doubt it—the folks in charge around here would accept nothing less.
Vegas, as quintessentially American as apple pie and baseball. But while the others exuded wholesomeness, Sin City had an ugly past. That happy little thought led me right back to the line of thinking I was trying to avoid: my father’s past. When my father had begun his climb up through the ranks, Vegas had been a rough and tumble town run by the Mob. Born of nothing, he had clawed his way to the top of the heap. As the owner of the Babylon, he was one of the men who had made Vegas. And as a player who had gotten his start in the rough-and-tumble Vegas, then made his mark in the corporate Vegas, he was an enigma. To be honest, I didn’t know many details his past, I’d never thought to ask. What can I say? I’m sort of a big-picture kind of gal. Besides, Vegas was like that… nonjudgmental.
A city of second chances.
Just about everybody who came here was running from something, so nobody asked, and nobody cared. Which fit my father like a tailored suit. To him, the past was the only thing in life that couldn’t be changed, so it wasn’t worth much thought or discussion.
But as a man in the public eye, a member of the Vegas elite, his silence created a vacuum of conjecture.
Could he have something to atone for? I shook my head in self-recrimination and chewed on the inside of my cheek. Guilty until proven innocent might be the battle cry of the Internal Revenue Service, but it wasn’t mine. However, I wasn’t stupid. Men had done much worse for a lot less.
I shivered in the cool breeze—probably not that cool really, but the disparity between the triple digit sizzle of the sun on your skin and the tickle of a slight wind in the dark usually peppered my skin with goose bumps. The pops of distant fireworks from the suburbs sounded like gunshots. Like summer clouds, puffs of smoke eerily lit by the city lights below, drifted on the breeze. Most likely remnants of the fireworks… or a bomb. A couple of sticks of very old dynamite, a 12V battery and a fairly clever motion trigger…
Life… what a crap shoot.
This had all started with the appearance of Albert Campos.
“Care to share?” I asked the detective at my shoulder. He appeared almost as shaken as I felt. When we’d met, he’d looked all of twelve. Now, less than a year later, he looked a decade older, which wasn’t that bad when I thought about it. But, if his job kept taking its toll at the same pace, he’d soon be old before his time. Dealing with death and despair day-in and day-out, some of it was bound to rub off.
Tonight his sandy hair ruffled in the light breeze, his cowlick at the crown standing like a flagpole, tall and defiant. His eyes, normally a vibrant blue, now held the faded hue of color too long in the sun. His clothes hung on his slender frame—the kid needed several good meals and some serious R and R. I felt the tug of guilt; it’s not like I was helping or anything. And, I did feel sort of responsible for him.
“I don’t know jack.” He gave me a sideways glance as he pulled his pad and pencil from an inside pocket. “But I bet you can fill me in.”
“What makes you think I have any answers?”
“Experience,” he noted with a wry smile.
He had me there. “I’m assuming you heard Campos claim to be my father’s illegitimate son?” At his curt nod, I started in, “Apparently Boogie Fleischman tutored him in bomb-making. Not only that, but the creep told Campos where to find his old stash of materials.”
“Boogie Fleischman.” Romeo’s voice held a hint of awe. “Man he really knew how to blow. He took out a bunch of non-union joints back in the day.”
“Kid, he’s not a rock star.” Why the world held a fascination with the old, mobbed-up Vegas was beyond me. Boogie and his ilk came after that, though. During an unsavory period when the Mob was on its way out, leaving a power vacuum, the Culinary Union had valued his skills, using them to sway holdouts to join up. “To hear him tell it, this whole thing with your father started over some woman.” He gave me an impish look—at least that’s what I thought it was. “That’s so trite it’s a cliché, isn’t it?”
I cocked an eyebrow at him. “Everything good begins with a bad woman.”
He shrugged and I knew he was blushing even though I couldn’t see it in the half-light. “In this case, the bad woman was Eugenia Campos, Albert’s mother.”
“So you know that part of the story?” The detective had clearly done his homework.
“Yeah. She was quite a looker. I’ve seen pictures.” Romeo ran a finger around the inside of his collar, tugging at it. “She ended up pregnant, had the kid, never pointing the finger at the father.”
I nodded. “That’s not the whole story. To hear Boogie tell it, he took the fall for something she did. When he was sent up, she hung around for a while, then split.”
“What did she do that got him sent to prison?”
“Tried to kill Mona and me.”