It was a good hand. Not a royal flush, but good nonetheless. Two aces, three queens – a full house. It was hard to keep her face neutral, the spark from her eyes.
Kat breathed in quickly. Her ribs protested, driving a bolt of pain up into her head. That focussed her, dulled her excitement. She had got a kicking in the parking lot last night. She felt lucky it hadn’t been worse. Perhaps her luck would hold. That was all she had left.
She breathed in again and tried to cover her wince. Tomorrow. Tomorrow she’d see a doctor.
How desperate was she to come here in the first place? It had taken a lot of time, carefully applying makeup to cover the bruises and still look natural. Wearing the stolen dress, she looked like a million dollars. They must have thought she was good for the same amount. It had cost her a thousand bucks just to get in the door. Money Kat didn’t have. They’d let her put it on a tab, so she’d borrowed more for the game.
A bit of bling might help distract amateurs, even if it seemed totally out of place in a dive like this. Her heels kept getting stuck in pits in the concrete floor. A few dirty rugs had been laid down to give the basement a more homely feel, and probably covered some troublesome bloodstains.
Kat looked around the table, studied the others looking at their own cards. Yosemite Sam was only missing the cowboy hat. He played with his drooping moustaches, twirling the ends through his fingers. Was it his tell or a just habitual preening? He laid his cards face-down flat on the table and only curled up the corners. He gave Kat a wide smile and a slight nod. When he spoke he oozed Southern charm.
“I think I’ll stick,” he said, still smiling and looking at Kat all the while.
The Kid wore sunglasses indoors. Kat reckoned his tell was rattling the ice-cubes in his bourbon. It didn’t matter, she could clearly see his hand reflected in the dark lenses. Likely the others could too. A pair of sixes was all he had. Perhaps he was a maths genius counting probabilities to get himself through college. Maybe he had a trust fund. If he kept going the way he was, he’d be lucky to afford a textbook.
“I’ll take three.” He put his discards on the pile and the dealer darted three cards towards him. Lucky git got another six. In another round he might have stood a chance.
The dealer was a professional croupier making some extra bucks after hours. Hair was tied back and hidden under a baseball cap which shadowed most of the rest of her features. She wore a white blouse with short sleeves and a black skirt. No rings, no watch, nothing to catch the eye or that could interfere with the game. She spoke to no one and controlled the deck. If a new one was called for she took out a cellophane wrapped box and opened it in front of the gamblers.
That left Danton.
Kat had only been in Vegas a fortnight, but that was long enough to hear about Danton. Everyone knew someone who had done this or that for Danton. No one had ever met Danton first hand. Yet he sat next to Kat, flicking the edge of his cards like he had somewhere to be. He was a big guy, long hair, looked like a rock star - but a drummer, not a skinny front man like Steven Tyler. Danton had a broken nose too. Tattooed onto his left deltoid, a muscle as big as her head, was a crow made of thorns coming into land, talons ready. When he flexed his arm, it looked like it was coming right for her. There was definitely something there, a presence about the guy. Or was it just the mystique?
He was supposed to own at least one place on the main strip and had his hands in several more operations like this one. Built his empire from the ground up one card shark at a time. Given all the competing interests in a town like this he hadn’t peacefully made his way to the top.
Supposedly, he dropped by a different venue every night, liked to look in on his investments. It was Kat’s lucky night. She got to meet the Great Danton, and Danton was down to his last chips.
“All in,” Danton said in his warm molasses voice. He threw his chips onto the pile with a flick of disdain. He could get more anytime he needed to, but tonight he was all in.
Two weeks ago, though it felt like a lifetime, she had been blinded by the desert glare fresh off the plane from Glasgow, in cold, dreich Scotland. She had to root in her handbag for her sunglasses, which were feeble and ineffective. Everywhere it was like bright metal stabbing her eyes. Tony picked up her case and the taxi driver helped him put it into the boot of the cab. They must see them coming in, new meat. It would be quicker to just take their money at the immigration check at Vegas airport, but then it would be raw, brutal. Maybe it was better this way, a subtle anaesthesia that led to compliance. Kat’s nitrous fog had dissipated a week ago. Tony had already sold their passports. Like early morning mist her fiancée had burned off without a trace, leaving her robbed of her winnings and with a hotel bill due tomorrow, checkout before noon.
They were all waiting for her. She was staring at the pile of chips in the middle of the table. There was at least five hundred grand there. Enough to get the hell out of here and not look back. Enough to make it all worthwhile after she cleared her debts, and Tony’s. The pain in her ribs a reminder.
“Call,” she said, and pushed her winnings towards the pile, one of the stacks spilling over, chips cascading. What was she thinking? Too late now, she hadn’t won much, but there had been enough there to get her out of trouble. Kat could walk away even, maybe fly home without calling her mum for help. She felt a cold sweat break out along her spine. The cards, the cards said everything would be fine. It was a good hand.
Yosemite Sam grunted and folded by flicking his cards away from him across the blue felt and pulled on the ends of his tache.
Did the Kid think he actually had something? Kat would happily take his money. She ignored the advice from the Kenny Rodgers song and started totting up the Kid’s chips. Whether it was because he knew his cards weren’t gonna win him this round, or he knew better than to go all in against Danton, the Kid folded too.
This was it. The moment Kat had been waiting for. She closed her eyes. When she opened them Danton had turned over his cards. The concrete beneath her feet melted and she was falling down into the earth. Danton had a straight flush two to six, clubs. Kat’s full house was no use.
“No.” Did she say that out loud?
There it was in black and red; Danton had won.
Kat got up on weak legs, knocking over her chair. She needed air. She needed out of there.
What was she going to do? Kat had nothing but the dress she was wearing and a case with some cheap cosmetics.
The warm night air punched her in the guts. The smell of gasoline and the tendrils of cigar smoke were too much for her. She retched beside a dumpster, wiping away filaments of bile with the back of her hand.
Go. You gotta go. Now. She listened to her voice.
Kat made it to the neon safety of the Strip. She had no idea where to go next. Not the hotel, they’d find her there easily.
She pushed through the crowds, the air warm and smelling of sweat, cheap perfume and grilling meat. Everyone seemed to be heading in the opposite direction.
Kat wished she’d worn jeans and trainers. Her feet were killing her, her ribs pulsed with pain. She really needed to pee.
Could she risk nipping into the Golden World Casino to use the ladies room, or would that flag up exactly where she was? Didn’t they keep track of known card counters and the like? It was all electronic now. Where were the cameras? How much could they see?
Her need to go was more urgent than her need to stay hidden, and she wasn’t squatting in an alley. A small army of doormen waited to usher her inside, all wearing different national costumes made from golden material. She’d never seen a tartan kilt like it, so headed for wee Braveheart who let her into the cool darkness of the casino lobby.
Kat followed the signs to the washroom and found an empty stall. When she was finished she just sat there shaking. There was no way out of this nightmare. Fucking Tony. This was all his fault. They had been so happy. What went wrong? Had he been hiding a habit all along? Maybe weekends with his mates he was in a casino putting it all on black. But there’s been no signs, no obvious times where he was suddenly broke and drowning his sorrows, or ecstatic and lavish in his spending. He had kept this part of himself separate from the man she thought she knew. Almost from the minute they got here the gentle and generous accountant had his inner self unleashed becoming a whirlwind of needs; trying out tables in different casinos, to get a ‘feel for the flow’, dragging her to a strip club ‘just to try it once’. Then he took her money and ran.
Kat put her head down low and breathed deep and exhaled slowly. She could smell bleach and desperation. Mostly her own.
She had increased her debts significantly. A room bill she could probably have gotten help with through the British Embassy or something, along with sorting out her stolen passport. A few hundred thousand dollars, though - that was a criminal act. Not that anyone was going to be pressing charges. While she didn’t expect to be killed – dead people don’t pay their dues – she could be hurt, or worse. Could she get a legit job? Must be plenty of illegal workers in a place like this. She breathed deep and exhaled slowly. She’d take her chances, try getting out of town first.
Washing her hands and face in the sink made her feel better, even though the cold water never got below lukewarm. The attendant offered her a thick paper towel.
Kat started. She hadn’t seen her, sitting on her stool quietly in the corner of the washroom. She had thought she was alone.
“I’m sorry,” Kat said, shaken. “I’ve got nothing for you. Lost it all.” Kat hated these people. Not personally, but in general. Lurking, pushing themselves into your life when you want a moment of privacy, looking for a token of thanks when you just wanted to leave. Still, couldn’t be good for them stuck in a poor-lit room listening to people in the stalls.
“I know, honey,” the attendant said. “I seen that look before. Seen it in the mirror more than once myself. You still got your health. Don’t forget that.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Kat said, and she tried a smile.
“Danton’ll find you though,” the attendant said. “Always does.”
“What did you say?” Kat felt dizzy. How did word travel so fast, even in this town?
“Downtown. Find yourself there, always places to stay,” the attendant said. “Church folks there, looking to help the fallen. Helped me get back on my feet. You want a mint?”
Still stunned, body jangly with adrenaline, Kat took a black and white striped candy from the saucer and squeezed the mint out of the cellophane. It was fresh and clean in a way Kat hadn’t felt in days. “Which way is Downtown?”
“Just keep along the Strip ‘til you can’t go no further.”
“God bless you, lady. You’ll be alright.”
The warm evening air felt oily. Kat walked past a gold clad German whose legs under the lederhosen were also painted gold, and a woman in a golden kimono. Back on the Strip the crowds were heading everywhere other than Kat’s way. She kept looking at faces, at the street, expecting any moment a car could stop or someone grab her and take her away.
An hour seemed to pass before the crowd thinned out and the big names and grand architecture had become low buildings; diners and rooms filled with one-armed bandits. After that the crowd disappeared and Kat was exposed, a lone walker, moving between the lit islands of drive thrus, strip clubs, wedding chapels, gas stations and motels, all surrounded by huge parking lots. Had she gone too far, was this Downtown, beyond the bulbs of the big casinos? She hadn’t seen any real churches. Her feet were sore, her legs were tired. She walked into a donut franchise and sat in a plastic booth. With nothing to her name, she couldn’t even afford coffee.
“Hey, lady,” a guy called from behind the counter, the light on his lenses masking his eyes.
Had she fallen asleep? Kat looked around. Only a couple of other folks in here.
“Lady, we don’t do table service here, you got to order at the counter.”
No free parking in this town. Kat got back on her weary feet and walked out into the night once more. She just wanted to rest. It was starting to get cool, although the day’s heat was still baking off the sidewalk. Maybe she could really hit bottom and just lie down, right here. It would be alright, warm for a while, then she’d cool slowly with the night and pass on before dawn. But her feet kept putting themselves one in front of the other and she continued along this long, long road with its endless parking lots around concrete blocks. A road sign said she was heading Downtown. Kat felt slightly better that she hadn’t gotten turned around and was going back towards Danton.
Rows of shops started to appear. Mostly bail bonds and pawn shops with the odd bodega thrown in, she’d left the larger 7-Elevens behind. A few injury lawyers and yet more wedding chapels and strip clubs. Was there anywhere here you could go and not get married or see fake tits? There was bound to be a chapel staffed by strippers round there somewhere.
The first proper place she found was a low square building that looked like it was made from putting a number of Portakabins together. A plain steel fence, black paint peeling, ran around the outside, wire grills covered the windows. Probably wasn’t even a church as such, more a shelter with a cross held in place above the eaves by a complex of cables. There was no sign outside, but a few people lost to the city were loitering near the door.
“Hey, lady, spare a dollar. I’ll sing you a song.”