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Unload! By Stephen Richter


Unload

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To all the samurai who wake up in the dark for a daily duel to the death on the beach at dawn. You are not forgotten...

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La ciudad de Mexico, 18 de Septiembre…

Alex, Josephine, and Manny walked down avenida Insurgentes, towards the metro station. The crowd thickened about them. The smells of Mexico City humanity and poverty rose from the stairway. It led down to the subway level below. Tension and nervousness showed on their faces. They descended the stairs, nodding and smiling to one another with reassurance. Manny looked at his Rolex. “It’s already two-thirty,” said Manny, above the roar of activity. They waited in line to purchase subway tickets. “Mon Deux!” said Josephine, “We are running out of time, Alex! We will never make it like this. We should just catch a cab.” “Calm down.” said Alex. He looked over his shoulder, scanning the crowd. “We can’t afford a cab. It’s either the subway or the bus. We have five minutes to decide.” The line inched forward. “If we don’t take this son of a bitch down, we’re screwed, man.” said Manny. Perspiration beaded on his forehead. He adjusted his sunglasses with a finger. “The client will be looking for Josephine at the hotel by three o’clock.” The line inched forward. “Merd!” said Josephine. “Shit!” She jogged off towards the stairway, through a mass of vendors and beggars. Alex and Manny followed her. “Josephine, wait!” said Manny. He caught up with her and ascended the stairs into sunlight. They hurried along the brick paseo, through la Zona Rosa, Mexico City’s version of Rodeo drive, in Beverly Hills. Alex caught up with them, sweating and grinding his teeth. In the sunlight, one could see the stains and wear on Alex’s Armani suit, the scuff marks on his shoes. He loosened his tie and opened his collar, exposing a ring of dirt.

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“We can still pull this off,” said Alex. “Let’s not panic here.” They moved through the bodies, past boutiques, galleries and cafes. Alex’s pistol rubbed against the raw spot at the small of his back. “Two forty-two…” said Manny. Their pace quickened. “Come on!” said Josephine. “There’s a microbus!” Manny, Alex and Josephine ran the rest of the way to el Paseo de la Reforma. People were still boarding the green and white microbus. Horns honked. Traffic crept along the boulevard. Panting and perspiring, they joined the line of passengers at the bus stop. Josephine smiled. She took Manny’s hand. They boarded the bus together. Alex looked over his shoulder, at the angel of independence monument. He searched his pockets for change and removed three peso coins. He climbed on board and paid his fare. Everyone took their seats. Manny found a seat next to an elderly woman. Josephine and Alex sat next to each other, three rows back, across the aisle. “Two forty-five,” said Manny, looking over his shoulder. The bus pulled out into traffic. He smiled. “We’re gonna make it.” The bus stopped. In a fraction of a second, Alex noticed the men in suits and police uniforms, running around the front of the bus. It was too late. “A group of forty Policia Judicial agents stormed onto the bus, with their pistols drawn. Urine ran down Josephine’s leg. She recognized the man in the tan suit, running ahead of the agents.

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“¡Ahí está! There she is! That’s them!” said the man, pointing and screaming. Manny turned towards his window and closed his eyes. The man and the agents ran past him, down the aisle. People screamed. The mob of policia snatched up Alex and Josephine, dragging them off the bus. Alex’s vision blurred. Boots, fists, and batons pummeled him from all sides. His cheek split open. Alex was on the pavement now, taking blows to the ribs, the back of his head and neck. Tears streamed down his face, mingling with the dirt and blood. Alex wailed. The pistol fell from Alex’s waist, onto the pavement beside him. The shouting in Spanish intensified. More people joined in the beating. Josephine screamed without ceasing. An officer socked her in the mouth. Josephine’s tooth cut the officer’s fist. The microbus pulled away. Manny watched through his window, unable to move. “Oh God…” said Manny, in a whisper. “Oh God. Oh God.”

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“He was ... a degenerate gambler. That is, a man who gambled simply to gamble and must lose. As a hero who goes to war must die. Show me a gambler and I’ll show you a loser, show me a hero and I’ll show you a corpse.” - Mario Puzzo

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Las Vegas, Nevada, November 10th, five years earlier… “You’ve got to be shittin’ me, Clarence!” said Alex, into the telephone. He stood at his cubicle and pushed his chair back. He began to pace the floor. “You shoot me a lousy nickel. That’s juice money for a player like you! That’s not even my valet at Caesar’s for the week. I’ll still give you all of Stan’s college plays, that’s Thursday night’s game, five to seven games on Saturday, all the pro on Sunday, plus Stan’s ten-thousand star Monday Night NFL Lock of the Year! That game has covered eighteen out of the last twenty plays. It’s a dead-bang winner, Clarence, guaranteed three touchdown blowout.” “But, Jimmy I-” “Clarence, listen to me!” “No, fuck that, Jimmy!” said Clarence, “You listen to me! I already paid you thirty-five hundred for the season package. Then after we lost the Bamma Tennessee game, I sent you another two dimes for this so-called Lock Package! All those games are supposed to win! You said I get all the games!” Frank Russo paced the floor, in front of a large elevated desk at the helm of the production floor. He kept his cordless phone to his ear, listening in on every word of Alex’s pitch. The war-room roared around Alex, droning with Buffalo and Atlantic City accents. Sports consultants screamed, shouting their bullets down the phone lines. “Unload!” “You shoot me a lousy dime!” “That’s juice money for a player like you!” “Stan’s on fire!” “Clarence, listen to me!” said Alex. “Let me ask you a question and be honest with me. I’ve been honest with you!”

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“What, Jimmy?” said Clarence. “Look,” said Alex, “if you knew, I mean absolutely knew, that one game was going to win, how much could you move on it? And before you answer me, remember I know how much you picked up on last week’s action, Clarence.” Alex looked up towards Frank Russo. They made eye contact across the room. Secretaries ran back and forth with deal sheets in their hands. They screamed to each other, changing the totals on the massive white boards. Frank’s tennis bracelet shone beneath the fluorescent lights. His eyes were steel. He nodded at Alex. “Well…” said Clarence, “I mean, if I knew the game was going to win, I guess I could move ten dimes. But shit, Jimmy!” “Clarence let me ask you this!” said Alex. “Hold on a minute, there’s too many people around here.” He put Clarence on hold. Alex closed his eyes and exhaled. He refocused his mind, then began to count down from ten. Dr. Vegas, a three hundred pound Irishman in Italian wool and suspenders, looked over the top of his cubicle at Alex. Atta’ boy, Rash,” said Dr. Vegas. “Give it to him. Take his fucking head off.” “Alright, enough already!” said Frank, “Get back in there, Rash! Get me the fucking money, kid.” Alex took Clarence off hold. “Hello, Clarence?” said Alex in a whisper. “Look, have you ever seen one of those games where the receiver is wide open, catches the pass, then

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somehow drops it in the end zone? Or where there’s an easy twenty-yard field goal to be made and it just barely misses the uprights? Well…? I mean, if I were sitting in your living room right now I could tell you things that… My God, I could tell you such things… Let’s do this, shoot me the nickel, Clarence. Stan won’t take any less for this game, not with an eight and two record, brother. And let’s bang this one, Ok?” SILENCE “Ok, Jimmy. I’ll do it,” said Clarence. “I mean, a fixed game, hell-“ “Hey hey hey!” said Alex. “Not on the phone, Clarence.” “Oh, sorry, Jimmy,” said Clarence. “Ok then, so how much should I move on it?” Alex looked back at Frank again. Frank covered the receiver of his cordless with the palm of his hand. He mouthed the magic word. Alex nodded. “Unload!” said Alex. “Un-fucking-load! I want you to move the whole ten dimes, Clarence and we’ll bury that cock-sucking bookie of yours by Sunday afternoon, you hear me?! We’ll be up thirty thousand, Clarence! And that’s the kind of bankroll we want to have going into the playoffs! After this weekend, we’ll be ready to open an offshore account, or you’ll have to come to Vegas to place your bets. You’ll be moving too much weight by then. Are you ready, Clarence?!” “Holy shit, Jimmy,” said Clarence. “I’ve never moved this much money before. But fuck it. Let’s do it! Let’s do it! It ain’t mine anyway!” “All right, Clarence,” said Alex. “You did the right thing, buddy. I’ll just slap the nickel on the AMEX then, get you a new pin number, and have my girls from verification call you right back, Ok?”

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“Yeah, that’s fine,” said Clarence. “But look, just make sure you have them call me on my cell number, Jimmy. You hear me? And give me fifteen minutes to get away from the house. My wife will emasculate me, Jim, if she finds out. She really will. Not some sort of emotional or spiritual emasculation either. She will physically emasculate me. So don’t fuck up and call the wrong number again, Jimmy. You understand?” “Not a problem, Clarence. I’ve got it handled,” said Alex. Two men walked past Alex’s cubicle. One was a ferret of a man in Italian silk, the other, a sixty-five year old pit bull in tan Donna Karin. Frank nodded to the men as they passed by. They headed towards a pair of double doors, at the back of the room. They both carried briefcases. * * * * Stan Pastorini was a former NFL Quarterback-gone-sports gangster. He stared out through the one-way glass windows of his office, overlooking the war-room below. On the production floor, Frank Russo threw a tennis ball at the back of a sports consultant’s head. He screamed and gestured at the man, then climbed on top of the consultant’s desk. Stan smiled. “Stan, I’m telling you,” said a voice from behind him, “The motherfuckers have no manners. They’re soiling our name all over Vegas…” Stan continued to look out through the glass. He watched the two men with briefcases enter the private stairwell at the back of the war room. He turned away from the windows. Jerry Allen, Stan’s second in command, stood in front of a wall of TV screens on the other side of the office. Football games played on each monitor. Jerry loosened his tie. Perspiration ran down his face. “They’re stealing our business, Stan. They’re slandering our picks and fucking us in the ass!”

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“Breathe, Jerry…” said Stan, “It’s handled.” He walked over to the massive desk, at the head of the office. He poured four whiskeys. There was a knock at the door. “Come on in, boys,” said Stan. The two men with briefcases walked inside. Stan passed a whiskey to each man. Jerry watched the men with suspicion. “Jerry, I’d like to introduce you to a couple of friends of mine,” said Stan. “This is Howie Weiss and Nick Coletti.” He massaged Howie’s shoulders. Even at 65, Howie felt like a stone. “They’ll be taking care of our plumbing problems for us.” Jerry smiled. “The Vegas Pipeline?” said Jerry. He shook Nick’s hand then Howie’s. Howie’s grip surprised him. Nick looked about 35. “That’s right,” said Stan. “It’s time to play a little offense, Jerry.” “Nice to meet you, Mr. Allen,” said Howie. “He turned to Stan. “So, where do we start, chief?” * * * * “Unload!” said Alex, into the phone at his desk. “What? Oh, Manny. What’s up, buddy? I thought you were a client. It’s a zoo in here.” The room rumbled with activity all around Alex. Frank marched across the production floor and through the double doors, at the back of the room. “I can only talk for a second. Frank just walked off deck.” “The man’s an animal,” said Manny. “All right, look. We’ve gotta talk, Alex. The deal’s going down. Why don’t we meet back at the hotel?”

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“I can’t,” said Alex. He scanned the room with his eyes, then lowered his voice. “Let’s meet over at De ja Vous instead. Let’s say ten O’clock, all right?” “Ok,” said Manny. “Just watch your ass.” “Any word from Orquidia?” said Alex. “Fuck that bitch.” “Hey, that’s your sister,” said Alex. “Hey, that’s your wife. So what,” said Manny. “She left us to rot, Alex. Don’t you forget that. I have no love for that girl. You just keep your mind on Mexico, you hear me?” “All right, all right. I gotta go,” said Alex. “My phone’s lighting up like a Christmas tree, here. See you at De ja Vous.” “I mean it, Alex,” Said Manny. “Watch your ass. It’s a war zone out there.” “I know,” said Alex. Frank returned from Stan’s office. Alex hung up. He pushed the blinking light above line five. “Unload!” said Alex. Frank patted him on the shoulder as he passed by. “Let’s go, people!” said Frank. “Get me that fucking money! I want another twenty thousand on the board by six o’clock! Kill Kill Kill!” * * * * Manny placed the receiver back into its cradle. He stood at his desk, in his office at Black Book Sports. He glanced over all of the sports

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memorabilia, surrounding him on the walls and desktop. His gaze stopped on a photograph of three children playing in the snow. He rubbed a hand over his face. “Max!” called a voice from down the hallway, “Get in here!” “I’m coming!” said Manny. He ran down the hall to Larry Green’s office. Larry stood in front of a wall of video monitors, squeezing a football, watching the games. Larry was only thirty-five. He wore Vegas golfing attire. He was the handicapper that made Black Book sports generate cash like a machine. Larry gazed at the screens with confidence. “How we doing?” said Manny, to Larry’s back. “Winning,” said Larry. He turned around. “What did your brother-inlaw say? Will he do it?” “He couldn’t talk,” said Manny. “It was too risky.” “Frank Russo…” said Larry. He nodded his head. “Yeah. But I’ll talk to him tonight,” said Manny. “I think he’ll do it, Larry. We’re leaving for Mexico in three days anyway. He’s got nothing to lose.” Larry chuckled. He pointed the football at Manny. “Don’t take those bastards over at Pastorini lightly, Max,” said Larry. “They’re out for blood right now, believe me. They’re at war with Billy the Hun and the Vegas Pipeline. And if we don’t pull this defection thing off smoothly, that heat will be coming in our direction.”

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“Jimmy knows what he’s doing,” said Manny. “He won’t take any unnecessary risks.” “Well, the kid has chutzpah, I’ll give him that,” said Larry. “We just have to convince him that the upside is worth the gamble, that’s all.” Said Manny. “Well you better get started, Max,” said Larry. “I want Alex’s clients with us going into this weekend’s action. You hear me?” “Don’t worry, I got it,” said Manny. “So, when are you guys meeting?” “In an hour.” “Keep me posted then,” said Larry. “Will do,” said Manny. * * * * Willheim Woinke, the owner of the Vegas Pipeline, stood before his three department heads: Mike Winn, Sam Sharp, and Tommy the Monster. His office, like all other sportsmongers, was lavish and full of TV screens. Willheim, or Billy the Hun, was a giant in green Armani. He poured four glasses of Jäggermeister at the bar next to his desk. “So, what’s the word from Joe the Scout?” said Billy the Hun. He added ice to the drinks. “The scout says that Pastorini brought in some heavies from the East Coast this morning,” said Sam Sharp. He sat cross-legged in a chair, toying with a pearl-handled straight razor. “But who knows, it could be bullshit.”

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“The Scout doesn’t bullshit about anything,” said Tommy the Monster. The Hun dwarfed Tommy’s four- foot-eleven frame. Billy handed him a cocktail. “Thanks boss,” said Tommy. He pointed his glass at Sam. “The Scout knows everything, Sam. He’s everywhere. And if he says Pastorini’s bringing in some weight, then it’s gospel, trust me.” Billy gave Sam and Mike their Jäggermeisters. Both men frowned at the dark liquid. “All right, enough about the trenches,” said Billy. He returned to his desk and picked up his own cocktail. “Let’s talk numbers. What are we looking like going into this week’s college action?” Mike Winn, the Vegas Pipeline’s counterpart of Frank Russo, stood and took the floor. He had celebrity appeal. His smiling face was plastered all over town, on billboards, flyers, and the Vegas Pipeline’s television commercials. “The numbers are fabulous, Billy,” said Mike. “Our boys managed to pull another six clients away from Pastorini this week, all five to ten dime players. Add that to our active book of clients, and we’re already looking at 182 thousand, clear to the house, before we even go into tonight’s Arizona State game. I expect another 270 thousand by Monday Night Football. And I am being conservative here.” He flashed Billy the Mike Winn smile. “Good,” said Billy. “You stay at the helm, Mike. Keep the office running. I still want another twenty thousand on the board before anyone goes home tonight. I do agree with you that Arizona State’s a strong play though. So, go ahead and release it as the Pipeline’s 20,000 star Inside Steam Play of the month. Tell em’ all to unload. “Good call,” said Mike. “I’ll start passing the word now.”

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“Sam, I want you to meet with the scout,” said Billy. “You find out everything you can about what’s going on at Pastorini. Stan’s no sucker. He will respond, and soon. I need to know when and where, understand?” “I’m on it,” said Sam. He closed the straight razor on his knee, then slipped it into his inside breast pocket. “I’ll have something for you by tonight.” He stood. “That works,” said Billy. “Now, Tommy, I just want you to stay available. Keep your phone on, and be ready to go into the field at a moment’s notice. You hear me?” “I’ll be ready,” said Tommy the Monster. He stood and adjusted his jacket. A 9mm. Peeked out of a shoulder holster, beneath his arm. “Don’t worry. I’ve been looking forward to this shit for a while now. “All right, gentlemen,” said Billy. “Let’s go to work.” * * * * The minivan taxi rolled down Tropicana Blvd, back towards the airport and the lights of the MGM Grand. Alex sat in the backseat, his mind lost in thought. He rubbed the back of his head. It was cut high and tight. He adjusted the Browning .380 beneath his shirt, securing it against his abdomen with his belt. NVLV and the Thomas and Mac Center passed by. “So, you work for Pastorini then?” said the cabbie. He looked up at the rear-view mirror. Headlights illuminated his eyes. Alex took out a cigarette and lit it. “Yeah,” said Alex. He cracked the backseat window.

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“You know, I get down on football games myself,” said the cabbie. They crossed the strip and worked their way down onto Industrial. “Nothing heavy, never more than a nickel a game. And that’s if I’m winning.” The cabbie’s words passed right through Alex. His stomach trembled from too much coffee and nervousness. He had heard one word though. “Nickel?” said Alex. “Where’s your steam coming from? Who’d you get down on?” The cabbie laughed. “No, you didn’t hear me,” said the cabbie. “I don’t have any action on tonight’s game. I just meant in general. I get down every now and then. I mean, if the information’s strong enough.” Alex looked up at the cabbie's eyes in the rear-view mirror. “What?” said Alex. He exhaled with a cloud of smoke. “You asking me for a game?” “Well, I know you guys are real tight-lipped about that sort of thing over at Pastorini,” said the cabbie. “It’s just I heard that Stan was releasing his College Lock of the Month tonight and, you know…” They pulled into the parking lot of De ja Vous. A tuxedo-clad valet opened Alex’s door. The music from the strip club was just audible from the entranceway. Alex gave the cabbie a twenty, then stepped out of the vehicle. He tipped the valet, started for the club, then stopped. He walked back and tapped on the passenger side window of the taxi. It lowered.

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“Unload on Arizona State,” said Alex. “Thank Jimmy at the window. You have a nice evening.” Alex turned and walked towards the double doors of De ja Vous. Inside, Manny rose from his seat. The booth was tucked away, off to one side of the stage. Alex walked over. Men whistled and howled at the nude dancers. Manny and Alex embraced, patting each other on the back. “Good to see you, brother,” said Manny, into Alex’s ear. Tears nearly welled up in Alex’s eyes. He didn’t even know why. The intensity of the situation was taking its toll. Alex took a breath, slapped Manny on the back, then sat down. Manny slid into the booth next to him. “It’s been a hell of a day,” said Alex. He scanned the crowd with his eyes. “Things are getting serious around here, dangerous.” “The Vegas Pipeline?” said Manny. He lit a cigarette. “Yeah,” said Alex. He looked over his shoulder then back at Manny. “Don’t worry, I’m not re-negging on my deal with Larry. I’m just stressed, that’s all.” “So we’re still on for Saturday then?” said Manny. “Absolutely.” “Mexico…” “Mother fucking right, Mexico.” Said Alex. “You guys are so full of shit,” said a woman’s voice. Alex and Manny looked up. Alex put out his cigarette. He smiled. “April,” said Manny.

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“Hola, mi vida,” said Alex. “Sit down.” April was eighteen and beautiful. She came from Ohio. She adjusted her gstring then scooted into the booth next to Alex. “Give me a cigarette,” said April. Her eyebrow spasmed. She reached into Alex’s breast pocket. “You look like you’re having an aneurysm,” said Manny. “It’s very sexy.” “How you living, Baby?” said Alex. He gave April a cigarette and a light. “You fighting the good fight?” “I guess so,” she said, cupping the flame. “I miss you assholes. You’ve vanished from my plane of existence.” “Today marks our thirty-seventh straight day at the office,” said Manny. “It’s trench warfare out there.” “But you get to be big shot sports gangsters.” said April. “And you make hella’ bank.” “I’m here to say goodbye, tonight April,” said Alex. “What?” said April. Manny cut his eyes at Alex. “Manny and I are leaving Vegas in three days,” said Alex. “You guys can’t leave me here all by myself,” said April. “This is bullshit. What about your oath to succeed in Vegas or leave in a body bag, you bastards.”

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“Manny and I are barebacking up shit creek, right now,” said Alex. “The time has come to depart.” “We have succeeded,” said Manny. “And now we are moving on.” Manny scanned the crowd with his eyes. He lit another cigarette. “Listen,” said Alex. “When I leave Pastorini, Frank is gonna whore my book of clients out to every guy in the office.” “I don’t understand,” said April. “What’s going on?” Her chest heaved. “Listen,” said Alex. He grabbed April’s wrist. “I’m taking all my clients and defecting over to Larry Green and Black Book sports. Then we’re leaving the country.” “They’ll fucking kill you guys!” said April. “It’ll happen so fast, they’ll never know what hit them,” said Manny. “The point is we’re gonna give you a nice piece of money, April. All you have to do is keep an eye open for us, for the next three days. Ok?” “Oh please,” said April. “Was this thing you’re idea, Manny? Alex, use your head. Listen to what you’re saying here. Why? Why even risk it?” “It’s a shitload of money,” said Manny. “It’s enough to take care of everything,” said Alex. “Manny and I go to Mexico, and sell timeshare on the beach. You stop dancing and take your ass out to L.A. like you said you were going to do. Then, when you’re a famous actress, you can pay me back. How’s that?”

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“Oh Jesus,” said April. “April! Girl, I’ve been looking all over for you,” said Cassandra. She stood in front the booth, wearing thigh-high boots and a thong. “Tommy’s here. He’s been waiting for you. He’s getting pissed.” “Shit,” said April. “I gotta go. I still want to talk though. Don’t do anything until we talk, Alex, please.” She stood. “Who’s Tommy?” said Alex, pulling April back. “This is important. I have to talk to you.” “He’s my new sugar daddy,” said April. “Don’t worry, I’ll be right back.” “Hey, Cassandra, how’s it going?” said Manny. He offered her a cigarette. She took one. “I’m worried,” said Cassandra. “Thanks, honey. Come on, April. Let’s go.” Cassandra and April walked away, towards a table at the center of the club. Alex followed them with his eyes. Four men sat at the table. Girls were everywhere. Cassandra and April joined the group, tossing their hair and laughing. April sat on a tiny man’s lap. Alex’s eyes widened. The man looked in Alex and Manny’s direction. A look of recognition passed over the man’s face. Alex’s hand went to his waist. He touched the lump of the 380. “Tommy the Monster,” said Alex. “God damn you, April.” “He’s looking right at us,” said Manny. He removed the 9mm. from the back of his pants, racked the slide, and dis-engaged the safety. He

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stuffed it into the front of his pants and untucked his shirt. “Let’s do something.” “Walk,” said Alex. Alex and Manny stood and walked towards the exit. They jogged down the entranceway, through the double doors, and into the 102 degree Vegas night air. “Taxi!” said Manny. A minivan cab pulled up. They climbed inside. Tommy the Monster and two other men stepped out of the club. The taxi turned onto Industrial. “Aw, fuck em,” said Tommy. He smashed his cigarette underfoot. “That’s a luxury. For now, we stay on call. Come on, I’ll buy the next round of table dances.” BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP All three men pulled their sports pagers from their hips. They pushed buttons. The lights from the pagers illuminated the men with a ghostly blue. “Touchdown Arizona!” said Tommy. “14 to 6, baby. Fucking A!” The men jumped up and down, stomping and shuffling like leprechauns. BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP Alex and Manny dug through their pockets like wild men. The back seat of the cab filled with blue light. “Arizona!” said Manny. “14 to 6,” said Alex. “Son of a bitch. The Sun Devils are gonna cover!”

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In the rear-view mirror, Alex noticed the tears streaming down the cabbie’s cheeks, illuminated by the headlights. Manny leaned over and whispered into Alex’s ear. “He must have unloaded on Texas Tech.” The cab crossed Las Vegas blvd, heading towards the convention center. It pulled into the parking lot of “the Beach” nightclub. A line of people stretched down the sidewalk. Manny paid for the cab. Alex tipped the valet. They walked to the entrance and tipped the doorman. “Jimmy the Rash and Miracle Max, what’s up fellas?” said the doorman, “You been watching Arizona State?” “I told you so,” said Manny. "It’s my burning bush play. It’s beyond inside information, Leon. It’s a divine pick.” “Did you get down?” said Alex. “Huge,” said Leon. He opened the velvet rope for them. They entered the foyer. “I unloaded, just like you told me to, Miracle Max.” His eyes flashed with excitement. “What about you, Rash? Did you get down too?” Alex scanned the crowd. He lit a cigarette. “Rash,” said Leon. “Huh? Oh, yeah, of course. I’m all over Arizona State,” said Alex. “Ten dimes worth.” “Jimmy the Rash!” said Leon. “The rash is all over Arizona, ladies and gentlemen! Give it up!” A group of tourists applauded.

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Manny tipped Leon then followed Alex into the flashing lights and thundering bass of the main atrium. Barechested bartenders and bikini-clad barmaids danced on top of the bar. They gave customers body shots, with whipped cream, Bailey’s, and Marichino cherries. Manny scanned the crowd. “Come on,” said Alex, over the music. “Let’s just find her and go. I tied up my loose ends, now you tie up yours.” They worked their way across the main dance floor. People looked down on them from balcony overhead. “There she is,” said Manny. He pointed to the stage. Simone danced, martini glass in hand. She had short blonde hair, white high heels, and a Chanel dress on. Simone was a moneymaker. “Aw, Christ,” said Alex. “I know,” said Manny. “Isn’t she magnificent? Look at her…” Simone spotted them. She smiled. Her eyes narrowed. She blew Manny a kiss. “Sure she is,” said Alex. He searched the crowd with his eyes. “At least Frank thinks so, and Mike Winn from the Pipeline. Go on. Hurry up and talk to her. I don’t like being out in the open like this.” Manny signaled Simone to meet them on the far side of the club. She nodded. Manny and Alex moved through the crowd with caution. They secured a table underneath the corner staircase. They sat with their backs to the wall, beneath the stairs. Simone joined them, fanning herself with her hands. She smelled of perfume and sweat. Simone was from Detroit, though you’d never know it.

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“Maxi, I’ve missed you,” said Simone. “Where the hell have you been?” “Hustling, baby,” said Manny. “so I can sweep you off your feet and take you to the Caribbean with me.” He lit a cigarette. “What have you been up to, princess?” “Hustling…” said Simone. “trying to make that money for our love nest, Daddy.” She took a cigarette from the box. Alex lit it for her. “Oh, for christ’s sake, stop it,” said Alex. “Both of you. I’ve never heard so much bullshit, and remember what I do for a living.” Everyone laughed. Simone moved over and sat on Manny’s lap. “I don’t care what Alex says,” said Simone. “You and I are soul mates, Manny. We’re cut from the same cloth. We’re made for each other.” “You tell him, baby,” said Manny. “I agree with you, Simone,” said Alex. “The king and queen of horseshit. Two compulsive liars who lie for a living.” “Fuck you, Alex,” said Simone. Alex smiled. “Look, I’m gonna go buy some drinks,” said Alex. “That way you two can talk in private for a minute. Manny has something he wants to tell you.” Alex stood and walked to the back bar, leaving Manny to deal with what they had come there for. Alex ordered a Crovassieur and tipped the bartender. He engaged himself in some small talk with a girl in a bikini. She was selling Coors Lights in the corner. Alex looked back at the table. Manny and Simone were arguing, gesturing with their hands.

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“Excuse me, honey,” said Alex. He left the Coors Lite girl and headed upstairs, towards the restrooms. A row of video screens hung above the second floor bar. Screens were everywhere. They all showed the Arizona State game. Alex entered the men’s room. He stood at the urinal, forgetting himself for a moment. He hadn’t noticed the two men step up on each side of him. He noticed they weren’t pissing though. The man on his left pulled something from his pocket. Alex didn’t hesitate. He was already holding his .380 in place so he could piss. With one motion, Alex sidestepped, jammed the barrel of the pistol beneath the man’s jawbone, and turned to face the second man. Alex’s pants were still open, exposing himself. “Drop it!” said Alex, over the man’s shoulder. The guy in front of Alex took a step backwards. He reached towards the inside of his jacket. Alex pointed the pistol at him. “Put your goddamned hands up!” The man complied. Alex shoved the pistol against the side of the first man’s throat again. “I said drop it, motherfucker!” “All right. All right,” said the man. A pearl-handled straight razor fell to the floor with a clank. Alex pushed him towards the other man, then pointed the pistol at the both of them. He looked at the straight razor then back to its owner. “I should kill you, you piece of shit,” said Alex. “You want to do me?! Over football games, you cocksuckers?!” The bathroom door opened. A group of four customers walked in. They screamed. Sam Sharp and his lackey went for their weapons.

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“Fuck you, Rash!” said Sam Sharp. He aimed a pistol. The four customers dove to the floor. Alex ran out the door, pistol in hand, pants dangling, genitalia swinging. Women screamed. Some smiled. Alex rushed across the room, adjusting his pants. He palmed the .380. The crowd thickened. Alex pushed and shoved. Sam Sharp and his lackey moved through the crowd behind him, closing fast. “Shit!” said Alex. The crowd thickened even more near the bar. Lines of people waited for drinks. Sam popped his straight razor open. Alex bared his teeth. He was within arm’s reach now. Alex’s eyes widened. He saw Sam, the glint of his steel. Alex turned to point his pistol. “Touchdown Texas Tech!” The broadcaster’s voice boomed over the speakers. People cheered. Sam Sharp froze, mid-swing. Alex stopped in his tracks. Sam’s lackey stopped. His face twisted with disbelief. All three men looked up at the screen. “God damn it!” said Alex. “Oh come on!” said Sam, pointing his razor at the screen. “What the fuck?!” “You’ve gotta be shitting me!” said Sam’s Lackey. They all looked at each other, shaking their heads in disgust. “Fuck you, Rash!” said Sam Sharp, breaking the spell. Alex took off running again, tearing through the crowd. “Outta the way! Move!” Alex shot down the first flight of stairs. The second flight was jammed solid with people. Alex looked over his shoulder. Sam and his lackey were at the top of the staircase now. Alex climbed over

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the banister and leaped onto the stage. He fought his way through the dancing bodies, then stage-dived onto an overweight tourist in a Texas Tech jersey, flattening the man to the ground. People screamed. Some smiled. “Rash!!!!” Sam Sharp roared from the stage. He looked like a demon. Alex sprang to his feet. He glanced toward the corner where he had left Manny and Simone but thought twice. Alex sprinted for the entrance of the club. He ran past Leon the doorman and into the night. “Hey, Rash!” said Leon. “Come back! It ain’t over yet, Baby! The Sun Devils’ offense is gonna get that ass!” Alex streaked across the parking lot. “It’s a lock-burial! It’ll be a three touchdown blowout!” said Leon. “Don’t lose the faith, Rash!” Alex zipped across the street, elbows pumping, Italian leather slapping the asphalt. “Stan’s at the game, man!” said Leon. “He’s running down the sidelines, gathering up all the inside steam, motherfucker! Don’t leave!” Alex grew smaller and smaller. “Rash!” said Leon. Alex disappeared behind the convention center. Sam Sharp and his Lackey burst out of the club, into the parking lot. Their chests heaved. Sweat poured. Their heads snapped, from side to side, searching the crowd, scanning the faces. Sam adjusted his jacket then smoothed out his hair. Perspiration soaked the palm of his hand. He shook it.

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“Oooooooh that fucking Rash,” said Sam. “I’m gonna get that son of a bitch.” He spat on the ground. The lackey’s cell phone rang. He answered it. “Sports…” said the Lackey. “What’s that? Yeah, sure, Joe. Just a second.” He held out the phone to Sam. “It’s the scout.” Sam snatched the cell phone away. “Where the hell have you been?!” said Sam. “Oh. OK, good. So what do ya’ have for me?” * * * * Alex closed his eyes. The elevator was full of people. It continued to climb, rocking on its way to the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel Casino. The doors opened. Alex opened his eyes. He stepped out onto the carpet of the rotunda, his hands in his pockets. The sweating had stopped now. He took his time walking the perimeter of the tallest man-made structure in the west. The city of Las Vegas sparkled beneath a full yellow moon. Alex sighed. He stopped and leaned on his forearms, against the rail. He looked up the Strip, towards the lights of the Stardust and beyond. “My lucky lady,” said Alex. He shook his head. Alex pulled his cell phone from his pocket and auto-dialed. The line rang… and rang… “Hello?” said Orquidia. Her voice slurred. “Who is this?”

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“It’s me, baby.” Said Alex. “I need to talk to you. I’m so glad I got a hold of you. I’ve been trying to reach you for the past three days.” Alex’s heart raced. He swallowed. “Look, Baby, I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately and-” “Alex…?” said Orquidia. “Babe, I’m busy right now. Why don’t you call me tomorrow?” “Orquidia, there’s no time,” said Alex. “Just listen for a sec. I’ve been thinking about us, and how maybe a change of scenery is all we might really need and-” “Alex, I gotta go,” said Orquidia. “Call me tomorrow.” She hung up. Alex looked out at the lights of the Strip. Tears rolled down his cheeks. BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP Alex pulled his sports pager from his hip. He pushed the light button. Touchdown Arizona State. Alex wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Tears continued to flow. An elderly couple walked by. Alex tried to dry his eyes. They stared at him. Alex smiled with embarrassment. The elderly gentleman stepped over to Alex and patted him on the back. “It’ll be alright, son,” said the man. “We unloaded on Texas Tech too…” His wife smiled, nodding with encouragement. “It was a dog of a pick, sweetie,” said the old woman. “You’ll get em’ next time.”

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Alex nodded. He smiled and dried his eyes. “Yeah…” said Alex. “Next time.” The elderly couple walked away arm in arm. Alex watched them go. He shook his head. “Vegas…” he said. “Gotta love it.” He auto-dialed Manny’s number. “Gotta love it.” * * * * Alex found himself naked, lying on his stomach, underneath a car. Police sirens wailed in the background. Flashlights, and a spotlight from a helicopter swept over the street, searching. Alex could hear the police radios. A pair of black boots stepped up to the car that Alex was hiding under. Alex’s eyes popped opened. He gasped. In the darkness of his hotel room, he realized that he had forgotten to turn on the air conditioner before going to sleep. Sweat soaked his body and the bed sheets. The alarm on the hotel’s TV caused it to turn itself on. It was 5:00 am. ESPN news blasted through Alex’s room at the Center Strip Inn. “Sports!” said Alex. He leaped from his bed. An ashtray fell to the carpet, spilling cigarette butts. Alex dug through a pile of clothing on the floor, fumbling in the light of the television set. He found his cell phone and auto-dialed. “Hello, Manny?!” said Alex. “Yeah, yeah, everything’s cool. I’ll explain it all later. Just tell Larry to meet us at the Hard Rock tonight at

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8:00. I have a ton of work to do today, but I should be ready by then. What’s that? Yeah, of course. You watch your ass too. Talk to you later.” Alex hung up. He toweled his body off, threw his suit back on, and checked the safety on his pistol. He tucked the .380 into his waist and tightened his belt. Alex walked to the bathroom. He looked at himself in the mirror. “Stan’s on fire, Al! Unload!” He took a breath and tried again. “You’re gonna feel like you’ve been struck by lightning, when we go 6 and 0 Saturday! Un-fucking-load, Al!” Alex nodded. He looked at his watch then ran for the door. * * * * Billy the Hun adjusted his tie in the mirror. He crossed over to the windows and looked out over the Tropicana, towards the airport. The suite was on the top floor of the MGM Grand. Orquidia sat up in bed, covering herself with the sheets. Strands of hair fell over her face. She rubbed her head. Champagne bottles littered the nightstand and carpet below. “Who called you last night?” said Billy. “I don’t remember,” said Orquidia. “Maybe it was your wife.” “No,” said Billy. “There was a call. You only spoke for a short while, but there was a call.” Orquidia smiled. She still had makeup on.

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“It was nobody,” she said. “Why? Are you jealous?” She lit a cigarette. “No,” said Billy. “I just want to make sure that you still remember who is paying the rent around here.” “Hey,” said Orquidia. “If you don’t like it, stop paying the rent. I don’t care. I don’t need you, Billy. I don’t need your bullshit either. And if you piss me off, I’ll just disappear on your old ass, and you’ll never find me again. You understand? Let’s not forget who came to who last night, crying and begging for another chance.” Billy’s jaw muscles rippled beneath his skin. “Well?” she said. Billy stared at Orquidia. His fists clenched, then opened again. “I have to go,” he said. He walked towards the double doors. “That’s what I thought,” said Orquidia. The doors closed behind Billy. She laid back in the bed, smoking, one arm folded over her chest. She clutched her cigarette lighter in the palm of her hand. She rubbed it with her thumb. Her eyes stared up at the roof. She opened the lighter then closed it again. It was the only sound in the room. She looked at it now, a silver Zippo with a United States Marine Corps emblem embossed on its side. She held it to her chest and closed her eyes. A tear rolled down her cheek. The sun rose, outside, through the windows. * * * *

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Joe the Scout walked out the front door of his house, at the Royal Oasis Estates. He locked it behind himself, then walked down the cactus-lined path to the driveway. Joe pointed his key chain at a burgundy Cadillac SUV. An alarm chirped twice. Joe climbed into the driver’s seat and shut the door. There was a tapping at the window. It startled Joe. He looked up, then sighed with relief. It was one of the colony’s private security officers. The officer smiled. He looked about sixty. Joe rolled down his window. “Morning, Joe,” said Howie. He fired four times into Joe’s face and chest. The Desert Eagle’s silencer chugged, spitting rounds. Blood, flesh, and bone fragments scattered. Howie destroyed the Scout, beyond recognition. He looked back over his shoulder and nodded. A black sedan pulled up to the curb on the street. Howie holstered his pistol. He tossed a piece of paper into the Cadillac’s interior, then walked down the driveway. He climbed into the passenger’s seat of the sedan. It drove away. Inside the Cadillac, lying on top of a piece of Joe’s scalp, was a Vegas Pipeline flyer. It advertised Joe’s 1-900 line. It had a picture of Joe, dressed in a suit with sunglasses on, standing in front of the fountains of Caesar’s Palace. Across the top it read: Joe the Scout… He’s Everywhere! * * * * “You’re gonna feel like you’ve been struck by lightning when we blow six and… I mean, when we unload on this burial of a… Tony, hold on a second please.”

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Alex pressed the hold button. Line two flashed on and off. He closed his eyes and squeezed his head between his hands. He opened his eyes. The flashing stopped. Tony had hung up. “Fuck!” whispered Alex. He looked at the wall of his cubicle, then snatched Orquidia’s picture from it. Thumbtacks landed on his desk. He crumpled the picture in his fist and threw it into the trash. “Hey, Rash. Get over here!” said Frank. All of the other sports consultants were gathered around Frank’s desk. “We’re gonna have a quick steam meeting before we kickoff today,” said Frank. He stood at his desk, squeezing a football in his hands. “Alright, listen up,” said Frank. He paced back and forth. “I know you’re all aware of the situation going on between ourselves and the Vegas Pipeline. Believe me, I understand all too well how hard this work can be, especially when you’re running around out there, worried about getting shot or killed on top of all this shit.” Frank pointed the football at Alex. “I’m sure you all head about the incident the Rash had at the Beach last night…” Dr. Vegas slapped Alex on the back and massaged his shoulder. “Way to go, Rash.” Said Dr. Vegas, in a whisper. “My point is this,” said Frank. “Were heading into the playoffs now, fellas. The money we’re making right now is about to triple, you understand? We’ve gotta look out for each other in the streets. We’ve gotta pull together when we’re here in the office, and get that fucking money! Because it’s there for the taking, if we’ve got the balls!”

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The men in the room looked at each other. Their faces hardened. “I want you to get in there! Go for the juggler!” said Frank. “Pound on em’! Chew on em’ and squeeze those degenerate, lying piece-of-shit sports gamblers for every dime they’ve got!! You understand me?!!” “Yeah!” “Fucking A!” “We’re with ya’, Frank!” The men clapped and screamed their approval. Frank climbed up onto his desk. “Arizona State won last night!” said Frank. “We had everybody unload, so they’re all up a ton! Saturday’s games are coming. And it’s time for them to pay the fucking piper! You bring me that money!” Everyone cheered. Frank pulled a wad of cash from his pocket. “I’ve got five hundred dollars for the first season deal of the day! I’ve got a thousand cash for the first lock package sold! Are you ready for some football?!!!!” “YEAH!!!” Everyone sprinted for their cubicles like savages, roaring and yelling at the top of their lungs. Secretaries cowered, with their backs against the whiteboard. Frank punted the football. It ricocheted off the ceiling with a thud. “The man’s a genius,” said Stan Pastorini. “Look at that. Just like fucking Spartacus.” He stood next to Jerry Allen, looking out through the one-way glass of his office windows.

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“Howie called in,” said Jerry. He looked straight ahead, watching the frenzy. “And?” said Pastorini. “Mission accomplished,” said Jerry. “He’s waiting for the order to start up phase two.” Stan smiled. He nodded, watching Frank storm around the production floor, waving the wad of cash above his head. “Good,” said Stan. “Tell them to move on to phase two, and Jerry… pay them.” * * * * Cassandra and April sat in the backseat of a taxi. It drove down Decatur, behind the MGM Grand, heading towards the Hard Rock hotel casino. April wore a red cocktail dress. Cassandra wore black. “April, we’ve made enough tonight,” said Cassandra. “We don’t need to do this.” The neon guitar of the Hard Rock came into view, through the windshield, up ahead. “I’ve gotta look out for myself now,” said April. She reapplied her lipstick. “And Tommy’s more than willing to pick up the tab.” They pulled up to the valet and the red carpet of the casino entrance. “Do you have any idea why they call him Tommy the Monster?” said Cassandra.

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“He lost his prick to cancer,” said the cabbie. He turned around in his seat. “Then his wife made him a cuckold with his own father. That’ll be twelve fifty, ladies.” Cassandra paid. They walked to the entrance of the hotel. “He told me it happened in Vietnam,” said April. They entered the main atrium of the World Bar. Harley Davidson motorcycles lined its perimeter. “It doesn’t matter,” said Cassandra. “It just means he’s mad at the world. He’s even more mad at women, and we should just count our blessings and leave.” “No,” said April. “Knock it off. Here they come.” She adjusted her dress. Tommy the Monster and Sam Sharp walked up from the casino floor. They grinned. “I have a very bad feeling about this,” said Cassandra. Roulette wheels spun. People gambled. They ordered drinks beneath the globe of the World Bar. Near the sports book, Alex and Manny shook hands. Larry Green joined them. They walked down a plush corridor, outside, to the man-made beach of the swimming lagoon. “I appreciate you coming out to meet me like this, Rash,” said Larry. Moonlight sparkled on the water between the palm trees. “I’m gonna need at least thirty dollars a name, Larry,” said Alex. “Jesus, Rash,” said Larry. “Nobody pays that kind of money for Pastorini paper. I’m telling you I-”

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“I also want sixty-five percent of all the cash I bring in off my players,” said Alex. “Then in two days, Manny and I leave and Black Book Sports will keep my entire book, all my active clients. And they’re up a ton, huge.” “It’ll be worth 180 thousand to you, minimum,” said Manny. He looked over his shoulder then back to Larry Green. “By the end of the season you’ll make your initial investment back eighteen times over.” “And that’s not even factoring in Basketball season,” said Alex. He took out a cigarette and lit up. Larry joined him. “Eighteen dimes,” said Larry. He exhaled with a cloud of smoke. He scratched his scalp. “Jimmy the fucking Rash… Alright, who’s got a calculator?” Both Alex and Manny complied. Larry laughed. Inside, the Hard Rock shook, rattled and rolled. Money exchanged hands. Neuvoux Flamenco music played over the sound system. The Gypsy Kings would be giving a concert at 10:00 pm. Friday nights were free of all football action. Playoff-fattened sports consultants, from every house in Vegas, descended upon the festivities like undercover Montagues and pistolpacking Capulettes. Billy the Hun entered the Harley Davidson-lined atrium by the side door valet, next to the Hard Rock’s concert hall, the Joint. He wore Jäggermeister green Armani. He strode like a giant. Orquidia trailed behind him, surrounded by the Hun’s five-man entourage of bodyguards. They walked past a ferret of a man in a Hawaiian shirt. The man spoke into a cell phone. * * * *

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“No no, that’s good,” said Howie. He stood on the side of a mountain road. He held a cell phone to his ear. He looked out over the view of Las Vegas. The moon was just rising. A private security patrol car idled behind him, next to the curb. The weather was cooler on top of Mt. Charleston. The city sparkled below. “Just stay with him,” said Howie. “Don’t get too close though. The minute he leaves, you give me a call, understand?” “I gotcha,” said the ferret. Howie walked back to the open trunk of the patrol car. “Just stay loose. Try to keep it natural,” said Howie. He removed a security guard hat from the trunk and placed it on top of his head. “Stay in touch.” He hung up. Inside the trunk, a naked man was gagged and bound with duct tape. Howie closed the trunk. * * * * The music played. Center stage, at the Joint, the Gypsy Kings had the house jumping. The guitars filled the room with picado and rosquiado. It poured out over the sound system, over the World Bar and the casino below. Dr. Vegas entered the building by the side door valet. He noticed the ferret. “Hey, buddy. How’s it going?” said Dr. Vegas. “Is Frank here? Where’s everybody at?” “Get your fat ass away from me,” said the ferret.

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“Fuck you too, pal,” said Dr. Vegas. He walked off, past a glassencased Elvis suit, towards the World Bar. A pair of dice bounced off the back wall of a craps table. They flipped end-over-end then came up… “Five, five, center field five,” said the dealer. He pushed the dice back to April with his stick. A second dealer pushed her a stack of chips. “Atta’ girl, April,” said Tommy the Monster. His chin barely cleared the craps table. “You keep rolling like that and you’re gonna give me such a stumpy. I swear to God!” Cassandra cringed. Sam and Tommy laughed. Billy the Hun and his entourage walked up. “What the hell are you two doing?” said Billy the Hun. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for the past twenty minutes now. We have a situation.” “Billy, we’re missing the show,” said Orquidia. “Shut up,” said Billy. “Listen, someone hit the Scout today.” “What the fuck?” said Tommy. April and Cassandra looked around themselves with awkwardness. “Who the hell are these two leeches?” said Billy. He towered over Cassandra. April swallowed.

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“Hey, Boss,” said Sam. He pointed at the two men talking over by the glass-encased Elvis Suit. “That’s that fat piece of shit, Dr. Vegas, right there!" “Who’s the other cocksucker?” said Tommy the Monster. Billy looked. “That little schmatzie’s been eyeballing us ever since we stepped through the door,” said Billy. At the Elvis Suit, Dr. Vegas walked away from the ferret. The ferret looked back towards Billy, only to find the whole group staring at him from the casino floor. “I’m gonna order a drink at the bar,” said Cassandra. “You do that,” said Sam. He walked off towards the ferret. Three of Billy’s bodyguards accompanied him. Tommy followed. Billy palmed the Monster’s head, preventing him from leaving.

“You stay put,” said Billy. “We gotta talk.” * * * * Alex and Larry Green shook hands on the other side of the casino, near the sports book. The screens showed pre-season basketball, a Canadian tractor pull, and a highland Kaber tossing competition. “I look forward to doing business with you,” said Alex. “So do I,” said Larry. “Just be careful tomorrow, Rash.” “Don’t worry,” said Manny. He patted Larry on the back. “All the contingencies are covered. We’ll hit em’, go underground for the next two days, and you make a ton of money.”

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“It will be ugly,” said Alex. “I’m not gonna lie to you. But my players are loyal. They’re up a ton.” “Huge,” said Manny. “They’ll follow me,” said Alex. “All right,” said Larry. “Just recognize, motherfuckers, if you fuck it up, we’ll all be ass-out in a world full of pricks. You feel me, Rash?” “I know,” said Alex. “And I’m willing to go down for this one if I’m wrong. I feel that strongly about it.” Larry stared into Alex’s eyes, searching. “Ok,” said Larry. “See you tomorrow. Try to show up before 6 am. We’ll need a head start on the East Coast. Take two or three cabs also. Make sure you’re not followed.” “Done,” said Alex. “You guys get some sleep,” said Larry. “Besides, I don’t care how neutral the Hard Rock is supposed to be. I wouldn’t stick around here too long.” Larry turned and walked to the side exit, near the gift shop. Alex and Manny smiled at each other. They scanned the crowd with their eyes. Alex started towards the exit. “Wait a minute,” said Manny. “Let’s at least have a drink to celebrate.” “All right, come on,” said Alex. They headed for the World Bar.

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* * * * A white Humvee limousine rolled down Flamingo blvd. It crossed the Strip, passing the Bilaggio and Caesar’s Palace. Inside the limo, Stan Pastorini, Frank Russo, and Jerry Allen were surrounded by a bevy of women. Simone was among them. She sat next to Frank. All three men stared straight ahead. Their faces were stone. The women laughed and drank. Stan spoke into a cell phone. “When he shows up, I want you to show no fucking mercy. You understand me?” said Stan. Simone looked at him. She looked away. Stan’s eyes burned. “That’s right,” said Stan. “Everybody, that means the gardener, the Shitzu, the goldfish, the goddamned sea cucumber, everybody!” * * * * “You’re a very stern man, chief,” said Howie. He sat in the driver’s seat of the patrol car. He wore an earpiece microphone. “I can appreciate your passion, Stan.” Howie peered through a pair of binoculars at a cliffside estate, further up the road. The city sparkled. “I’m just saying, it feels like we’re putting a little too much on it. That’s all,” said Howie. An elderly woman appeared in the second floor windows of the estate. “Besides, what kind of message are we sending by butchering a Shitzu, Stan? And in the end, who’s really gonna give two shits?” * * * *

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“I do give a shit,” said April. “I’m just trying to survive here.” She stepped up to the World Bar. Cassandra looked back over her shoulder at Billy the Hun, Tommy the Monster, and the entourage. “Then what are we hanging out with these hoodlums for?” said Cassandra. “Vodka tonic, please,” said April. “Vodka tonic,” said the bartender. He looked to Cassandra. “And how about you?” * * * * “I’m fine, just fine,” said Alex. “We really should get our asses out of here pretty quick though.” Dr. Vegas threw an arm around Alex’s shoulder. “Come on, Rash. Where’s your sense of danger?” said Dr. Vegas. “So, what brings you down here, doc?” said Manny. The crowd thickened. Manny, Alex, and Dr. Vegas approached the world bar. “I was gonna get down on some early baskets,” said Dr. Vegas. “I’ve got some pretty good inside steam.” “The Lakers are gonna be huge tonight,” said Manny. “That’s my Miracle Mile inside steam.” They stood in line. Two girls ordered drinks at the station ahead of them. “Miracle Max,” said Dr. Vegas. “That’s why I love you guys. I have the very same steam, baby, the exact same steam.”

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“Alright, that’s enough,” said Alex. His eyes searched the crowd. He swallowed. “Please, the steam is choking me. It’s fucking choking me.” April and Cassandra turned around in the line ahead of them. * * * * “Bring the van to the Joint valet entrance, now!” said Sam Sharp. He spoke into a cell phone. The three bodyguards formed a wedge behind him. They sliced through the crowd. At the glass-encased Elvis Suit, a little boy pressed his face to the surface. He made faces, blowing and farting against the glass with his lips. The ferret headed for the exit. The Gypsy Kings played faster. The rhythm filled the room. Sam Sharp’s pace quickened. The ferret was almost to the exit, up ahead. “Hey there, buddy. Wait up,” said Sam. “Let’s go, boys,” said a bodyguard. “Red Blast on three.” The ferret hit the door like a linebacker. He burst out of the building, into the Vegas night air. He power-walked down the red carpet, heading for the valet station. Sam exploded through the doors. The bodyguards jogged behind him in a V formation. Their knees pumped. Even in suits, it was obvious that these men were once football players. “May I help you, sir?” said the valet. “Taxi!” said the ferret, jogging up. His chest heaved. “Taxi! I need a taxi!” He looked back. Sam broke into a sprint. One guard ran a pattern to

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the left. The other two sprinted alongside Sam’s weaker flank. Their shoulders lowered in anticipation of impact. The ferret ran. A taxi skidded, nearly hitting him. A van screeched to a halt, right in front of the ferret. The side door flew open. The ferret looked back. The bodyguards hit him only milliseconds apart, one from each side. There was a crunch and a popping sound. The third guard blasted up the middle. His 400lb. frame launched all four men through the open side door of the van. Sam slammed the door closed. The van peeled-out. It drove up Decatur blvd. The valet’s eyes bulged. His jaw dropped. Sam walked over to him. A man entered a taxi. A group of girls walked by. “How you doing, kid?” said Sam. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and shook it from the palm of his hand. He smiled. Sam pulled an NFL money clip from his pants pocket. * * * * Billy the Hun looked down at Tommy the Monster’s face. “It’s becoming a real scheize fest here, Tommy,” said the Hun. He loosened his tie. “That it is,” said Tommy. He looked back towards Orquidia and the remaining two bodyguards. The bodyguards stretched their shoulders and quadriceps while they waited by the craps tables. Orquidia tapped her foot. Tommy looked towards the World Bar.

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“Tommy,” said the Hun. “I’m sorry, boss,” said Tommy. “Look, what do you want me to do? Command me.” “I need to know where those motherfuckers are going to strike next,” said the Hun. His eyes searched the crowd. “We have to respond, Tommy.” Tommy shook his head. He looked up at the Hun. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles,” said Tommy. “What are you talking about?” said the Hun, “I know them shits like I know the back of my own mother.” “War is about opportunity, boss.” Said Tommy. “You never defeat your enemy. He defeats himself, by allowing you the opportunity to fall upon him with superior force.” Orquidia walked off towards the World Bar. “Then take Sammy with you and fall upon Pastorini’s ass with brutefucking-force!” said the Hun. “ We’re running out of time, Tom. Handle this, please. I’m counting on you.” Billy walked after Orquidia. His bodyguards followed. Tommy the Monster looked at the ground in thought. He nodded. He followed the Hun and his entourage to the World Bar. * * * * “Is this your idea of laying low, Alex?” said April. She sipped her vodka tonic. Dr Vegas squeezed past April, to the bar. He ordered a cocktail.

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“Hey, Cassandra,” said Manny. “How you living?” “Nauseous,” said Cassandra. She drank from her glass of Merlot. “We’re just tying up a few last-minute details,” said Alex. April shook her head. “A shot of Patrón, please, Doc,” said Alex. “Are you all right?” said Manny. Cassandra held her abdomen with one hand. She bent forward. “I don’t feel so good,” said Cassandra. The doors of the Joint flew open, flooding the casino with concertgoers. “Hey, baby. Are you ok?” said Tommy the Monster. He walked to Cassandra and placed a hand on her waist. He looked up. Manny and the Monster made eye contact. Billy the Hun, Orquidia, and the bodyguards arrived. Sam Sharp jogged up, smiling. He patted Billy on the arm. “Alex?” said Orquidia. She frowned. Alex turned around. Dr. Vegas turned away from the bar. His hands were full of cocktails. “Hey, Rash,” said Dr. Vegas. “Take your tequila before I drop these.” Sam Sharp’s expression blackened. He saw Alex. Their eyes locked. Manny took a step backwards, away from the Monster. Manny’s hand went to his hip.

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“Come on!” said the Monster. He crouched, arms out, fingertips moving. He circled towards Manny. Manny backed into Alex and Dr. Vegas. “Hello, Rash,” said Sam Sharp. He smiled, baring his Iteeth. He reached into his jacket. April’s head snapped back and forth, looking for a way out. “Take em’,” said the Hun. He pulled Orquidia away by the wrist. The bodyguards stepped in, blocking Orquidia’s view. “Alex?!” said Orquidia. The crowd thickened. Billy and Orquidia vanished into a mass of bodies. Sam Sharp, Tommy the Monster and the bodyguards formed a half circle. Alex, Manny, and Dr. Vegas were pinned between the bar and the Hun’s men. Alex’s heart pounded. Without knowing why, Alex lunged at Sam Sharp. Sam had jumped at the same moment, swinging his straight razor. “Break!” said Alex, crushing Sam’s elbow and wrist. The razor fell. “Kick and place!” said Alex. Blood sprayed from Sam’s nose. “Switch and twist!” Alex cranked Sam’s arm and shoulder skyward. “Sweep and stomp!”

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Sam flew through the air. Alex never released Sam’s arm, just like they taught him to do. Sam slammed onto the floor. The bodyguards charged Dr. Vegas threw his armful of cocktails at them. Glass shattered. The bodyguards tackled Alex and Dr. Vegas to the ground. People scattered. The Monster leaped onto Manny’s back. Manny ran. He couldn’t shake the Monster off. Tommy snatched Manny’s earring free. Blood sprayed. The Monster laughed. He clawed, bit, and chewed on Manny’s face, neck and ears. Manny screamed. He ran for the exit. The Monster held fast. People ran. Alex couldn’t see. He twisted on a thumb until he heard a pop. The hand released Alex’s throat. Alex gasped. He kicked and lowcrawled free of the brawling mass. The fighting had spread. Security officers were everywhere. Alex’s eyes burned. He tasted pepper spray. Alex moved into the river of fleeing customers, blind as Teiresias, in the panic-filled streets of Thebes. * * * * “Just get it done!” said Stan Pastorini. He closed his cell phone. The limousine stopped. All fifteen women stared straight ahead. No one spoke.

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“We’re here, chief,” said Frank Russo. Stan toyed with his Super Bowl ring. He frowned. A valet opened the door. “Come on, Stan,” said Jerry Allen. “Let’s go. The ladies are waiting.” He smiled. “You think I give a flying-fuck about these half-cunts?!” said Stan. Simone blinked. Frank squeezed her knee. The valet held the door open. He forced a smile. “What are you cheezing about there, sunshine? You want some of this?!” said Stan. “Whoa, whoa, easy, Boss,” said Frank. “The kid’s just being polite.” “All right, whatever,” said Stan. “Everybody out of the car. Let’s go. Move your fat asses.” They all exited the stretch Hummer. Jerry tipped the valet. Frank led the way, down the red carpet, to the entrance of the Rio hotel casino. The doors opened. They crossed the casino floor. A line of people waited to get inside the nightclub on the other side of the room. Frank pulled Simone behind him by the wrist, to the front of the line. “What the hell is his problem?” said Simone. “Shut your mouth, before I stick something in it,” said Frank. He smiled. “You guys are so foul,” said Simone. The doorman opened the velvet rope for them. “It’s a miracle you have any clients at all.” * * * *

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In front of the Hard Rock, Billy the Hun and Orquidia fought their way through a sea of bodies. People fled. Sirens barked. Metro Police cars pulled up. Orquidia fell. She tore her dress. Billy left her lying on the asphalt. He jumped into a taxi. The cab drove away. * * * * Chaos reigned inside the Hard Rock hotel casino. Police officers stormed into the building. Tommy the Monster saw them. He released Manny’s face and jumped from his back. The Monster vanished into the crowd. Blood ran down Manny’s cheek. He covered it with one hand and inched his way to the Joint valet exit. The crowd thickened around him. On the far side of the World Bar, Sam Sharp slipped out of the brawl. His chest heaved. Blood flowed from his nose. He looked towards the gift shop exit but thought twice. Officers charged through the doors. They swung batons and unleashed a hurricane of pepper spray at the crowd of fleeing customers. Sam jogged down a corridor, holding his shoulder in place. His right arm dangled, useless at his side. “Oh, that filthy Rash…” said Sam. He stepped into an elevator. He pushed a button. Sam’s heart raced. Police officers ran down the corridor. The elevator doors closed, just before they saw Sam. Sam exhaled. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and placed it to his nose. Blood spread through the cloth. * * * * Alex was blind. Mucus flowed from his nose and eyes. He drifted, trapped in a river bodies. People struggled. Panic spread. The crowd poured down the hall, past the Joint. An elbow slammed into the side of Alex’s neck. He growled with pain. Someone took Alex’s hand.

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“Come on!” said April. “I’ve got you. Don’t let go.” Cassandra took Alex’s other arm. “This way,” said Cassandra. They squeezed through the bottleneck of the valet exit. The heat of the night engulfed them. Alex coughed. He heard sirens and shouting. He thought of his nightmare. Alex’s heart pounded in his chest. Cassandra and April helped him into a taxi. They jumped into the backseat behind him. “What about Manny?!” said Alex. His eyes burned. The blackness persisted. “Get us out of here!” said April. The taxi driver peeledout. The cab raced up Decatur blvd. “We’re no good to him back there,” said Cassandra. “What the hell is going on, Alex?!” said April. Outside, in front the Hard Rock, people scattered. Police officers brutalized the fallen. On the corner, a lone figure stood watching the taxicab drive away. The neon guitar of the hotel casino illuminated his backside. “Fucking cunt,” said Tommy the monster. He sniffled and touched his crotch. A tear rolled down his cheek. He wiped it away with the back of his hand. Tommy’s cell phone rang. * * * *

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The moon disappeared behind a cloud. Howie crept up to the gates of the cliffside estate, beneath the cover of darkness. He still wore the security guard’s uniform. Headlights filled the street. Howie vanished into the bushes. A patrol car drove by. Its door light panned over the bushes in passing. Howie smiled. He laid on his back and screwed a silencer onto his Desert Eagle. He racked the slide, engaged the safety, and tucked it back into his shoulder holster. Howie stood. He climbed over the wall, like a twenty-year old. * * * * Manny walked out of the Hard Rock. He covered his face with one hand. Blood continued to flow down his cheek. Police officers struggled in streets with the fleeing customers. Manny walked past the valet station. “Manny!” said Orquidia. She sat on the corner of the red carpet, holding her ankle. Many saw her. He kept walking. Two police officers handcuffed a man in an Arizona State jersey, on the ground up ahead. Manny stopped. He turned around. “Goddamnit,” said Manny. He walked back and helped Orquidia to her feet. “I should leave you here, you know that?” he said. Orquidia limped. They headed down the sidewalk, trying to avoid the frenzy. “Fuck you,” said Orquidia. “You’re supposed to be my brother, you asshole.” They crossed the street to the Paradise Strip Club. Manny hailed a taxi. “Is that why you left me to rot in the streets?” said Manny. They climbed into the cab. It drove away.

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* * * * “Of course I’m fucking sure!” said Sam Sharp. He spoke into a cell phone. He walked down the 8th floor hallway of the Hard Rock Hotel. His free arm dangled at his side. He clenched his teeth. “The Scout said they were all getting together at Club Rio tonight. Round up the offensive unit and our Special Teams. Then get your ass over there and wait for me! I’ll meet you as soon as I find a way out this shithouse.” An elevator bell rang. Sam looked back over his shoulder. “And, Tommy, watch your ass,” said Sam. He drew his pistol and hid in the doorway of room 811. He clipped his cell phone to his hip. Sam turkey-looked back down the hall. Two security officers exited the elevator. * * * * A security guard, dressed similar to Howie, patrolled the pool area behind the estate. Blue light shimmered on the pool house walls and the gazebo. The guard stopped. He took out a cigarette and lit up. Upstairs, an elderly woman closed the blinds of a second story window. The guard watched her. Howie sprang from the bushes. He covered the guard’s mouth with one hand and stabbed the man five times in the neck with a buck knife. Blood sprayed over the surface of the swimming pool. Howie dragged the body behind the pump house. * * * * Billy the Hun sat in the backseat of a taxicab. It drove away from the lights of Las Vegas. The cab wound it’s way up Mt.

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Charleston. It passed a Security patrol car parked on the shoulder of the road. “Listen to me, Tommy,” said the Hun. He spoke into his cell phone. “You just make sure no one survives the blitz. I want the whole first string in there.” The cabbie looked up at the rear-view mirror. “Get your goddamned eyeballs off me!” said the Hun. “You want some of this, too?!” The cabbie looked back at the road. “Jesus, what is it with everybody tonight?” said Billy, “What?! No, no, no. If Sam doesn’t show up in time, you handle it yourself.” He hung up. The taxi pulled up to the gates of a Cliffside estate. A security guard nodded at the Hun then pushed the gate open. The cab drove down the driveway road, past a Roman fountain, to the stairs of the main entrance. Billy paid the cabbie then walked inside. * * * * Howie circled the swimming pool. He stayed low and kept to the shadows. He crept up to the trashcans beside the kitchen. A guard walked through the door. He carried a flashlight. He looked up at the moon then walked down the steps. Howie put the man into a strangle hold then stabbed him twice in the kidneys. Blood poured. Howie slit the guard’s throat. He dragged him behind the trashcans. * * * * Cassandra wiped Alex’s face with a disposable wet-nap. Alex winced. His vision returned. The cab turned into Caesar’s Palace. “Pull up to the registration entrance, please,” said Alex.

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“We’ll just keep the taxi, then,” said April. “You really should stay at my place tonight, April,” said Cassandra. “I still have a room at the Sun Harbor.” The cab pulled up to the lobby. A valet opened the door. “Everybody out,” said Alex. He gave the cabbie a twenty. “I’ll get us a suite. It’ll save me the money I’d spend on Pepto Bismol if I let you leave.” April smiled. Cassandra kissed Alex on the cheek. They walked to the entrance of the hotel. “Why are you being so nice to us,” said April. They entered the lobby. “To atone for my sins,” said Alex. “You just want to get the two of us into bed with you,” said Cassandra. She took Alex’s hand. They laced their fingers together. April smiled. “Is that what you want, Alejandro?” said April. “We could do that for you.” They approached the registration desk. “I just want to know that you’re both safe,” said Alex. “You’re sweet,” said Cassandra. “I’m selfish,” said Alex. “I can’t afford the extra stress tomorrow.” “Good evening, Alex,” said the desk clerk. She smiled. “Welcome back to Caesar’s Palace. Will you be needing a single or a suite tonight?”

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“Suite please,” said Alex. The clerk searched her computer. “What happens tomorrow?” said April. “Judgment day?” “Something like that,” said Alex. * * * * Howie crossed the kitchen. A man, wearing a T-shirt and an apron entered the room. Howie drew his Desert Eagle. The man gasped. He extended an arm of mercy towards Howie. The Desert Eagle’s silencer chugged twice. Head shot. Head shot. Howie moved to the doorframe. He turkey-looked into the massive hallway. * * * * Manny and Orquidia entered the Rio hotel casino. Manny draped his coat over his sister’s shoulders. They checked in at the front desk then took the elevator to the 12th floor. The room had a view of Caesar’s Palace and the strip beyond it. Manny looked out through the glass. He iced the side of his face with a towel. At the bar, Orquidia poured herself an endless Jäggermeister into a coffee cup. At the window, Manny scrolled through the digital photographs on his cell phone. Three children played in the snow. He closed the phone. He turned from the windows.

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“What the hell is wrong with you, Orquidia?” said Manny. Orquidia poured herself another Jäggermeister. “You’re just mad because you’re broke and I’m not, motherfucker,” said Orquidia. “You have nothing, Manny.” “What are you talking about?” said Manny. He grabbed Orquidia’s wrist, preventing her from drinking from the cup. “Stop this! What are you doing with your life, Orquidia?! What about your daughter?!” “Fuck you!” said Orquidia. “I do everything I fucking do because of her!” She hurled her coffee cup at Manny. * * * * SMACK! Billy the Hun backhanded an elderly woman. Her pink muumuu fluttered. She fell to the bed in slow motion. Blood sprayed from her lips. Billy loosened his tie. “I’m sick of coming home and having to explain myself to you!” said the Hun. He rolled up his sleeves. * * * * April and Cassandra had sex on top of the bed. Alex looked out the windows, over the grounds of Caesar’s Palace. He wore a shoulder holster, bareback. His slacks were unbuttoned. Alex sipped on a bottle of Dos Equis. April ate Cassandra’s pussy. Cassandra looked upside down at Alex from the bed. Her back arched. Alex walked towards the bar. “Where are you going?” said Cassandra.

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“Mexico,” said Alex. He took another Dos Equis from the fridge. April’s head moved between Cassandra’s thighs. Cassandra gasped. “You will bring conflagration back with you,” said Cassandra. “I’m not coming back,” said Alex. He massaged Cassandra’s scalp in passing. He stood at the windows again. Cassandra climaxed. “How great the flames are that you are seeking over these waters, you do not know, Alejandro,” said Cassandra. She closed her eyes. April slid up over Cassandra’s naked torso and kissed her on the lips. Alex dialed a number on his cell phone. “He doesn’t believe you,” whispered April. * * * * Howie climbed the stairs. He held his Desert Eagle at the ready. He approached the bedroom doors. The sounds of a woman being beat emanated from the room. Howie entered, aiming his pistol. “Turn around,” said Howie. The Hun stopped. He faced Howie. Sweat rolled down his cheeks. The elderly woman cowered in her pink muumuu, beside the bed. “What kind of ass fuck is this?” said the Hun. His fists clenched. “Do you have any idea who you’re fucking with?!” “A dead man.” Said Howie. He squeezed the trigger. The Hun’s shoulder exploded against the wall behind him. He dropped. “Where are the leads?” said Howie.

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“I shit on you, you crazy fuck!” said the Hun. He writhed in pain on the floor. Howie shot the Hun in the foot. The front half of it blew up. Toes scattered. Blood sprayed and poured. The elderly woman screamed. A Shitzu, wearing a Prada dog vest entered the room. He ran to the woman’s side. “Where are the Pastorini leads?” said Howie. “I’m gonna kill you Billy, so you better tell me something pretty impressive, pal.” “Wait. We can do some business here,” said the Hun. He scooted across the carpet, like a slug. Blood trailed behind him. Pain assaulted his every pore. He clenched his teeth. “You had to mutilate me too, you cocksucker?” he said. Billy pulled himself to the bathroom closet. Howie followed him. “Look at my foot!” said the Hun. His chest heaved. “But that’s small potatoes compared to the steam I have to offer you tonight, my friend.” He slid the closet door open. Howie frowned. “Oh, come on,” said Howie. He pointed the Desert Eagle at the Hun. “You want to give me a game? I hope that’s not what you’re saying to me, Billy, because that doesn’t sound very impressive.” “Who said anything about giving?” said the Hun. His voice gurgled. He coughed and smiled. “This kind of inside steam only goes to the highest bidder.” He reached into the closet with his one good arm and removed a lock box. His hand trembled. Billy sat up against the wall. “You couldn’t afford it,” he said. Blood pooled around him on the floor. “It’s a Last Supper play.” The Hun nodded. He fought to remain conscious. “Twelve players get the opportunity to bid on one fixed college game. It’s huge,” he said. “And you’ve got the game,” said Howie.

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“Not so fast there, Einstein,” said the Hun. He gazed up the barrel of the Desert Eagle’s silencer. “I’ve got the players. The steam’s coming in through a contact of mine.” The Hun clutched the lock box to his chest. He swooned. “So what do you want to offer me there, hot shot?” he said. “You son of a bitch!” said the elderly woman. She charged in from the bedroom, pointing a .380 lady-killer. The Shitzu followed her. Howie reacted. He aimed at the woman’s head. “Drop it,” said Howie. He looked at the woman’s face, the outline of her naked body under the muumuu. She was about sixty and attractive. She pointed her pistol at the Hun. Blood flowed from her nose. A wave of recognition washed over Howie. “Get the fuck out of here!” said the Hun. He coughed up a mouthful of blood. He spat at her. “Can’t you see I’m doing business here, woman?!” The Shitzu barked at the Hun. Howie cocked his head sideways. He lowered his pistol. “This shit ends right here, right now!” said the woman. She took aim at the Hun’s heart. “Ruthie?” said Howard. “Ruth Praskowitz?” Howie’s stomach sank. Billy looked at him. The woman looked at him. The Shitzu looked at him. “Howard?” said Ruth. She blinked. Her lips trembled. Howie holstered his pistol. “Oh, shit,” said Howie. * * * *

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Orquidia slept. She tossed and turned on the bed sheets. Many sat in a chair next to the window. He looked out at the pre-dawn sky. His shirt was stained with Jäggermeister. He held a cell phone to his ear. “I guess we’ll know soon enough,” said Manny. “There’s no turning back now.” “First class tickets or a body bag,” said Alex, on the other end of the line. Many chuckled. “If I don’t catch up with you,” said Manny, “I just want you to know that it’s been one hell of a ride, my friend.” He removed the 9mm. from the back of his waistband and checked the safety. “Shut your jib,” said Alex. “You’re gonna make it, Manny. I’m gonna make it. And we’re getting the hell out of this cesspool, understand? I’ll see you at six.” The line went dead. * * * * Ruthie Praskowitz squeezed the trigger of her .380 again and again. The Hun’s body twitched from the impact of each round. He was long dead. Howie gathered up the lock box. The 380 clicked empty. Ruth’s hands shook. Her eyes widened. Howie reached over and took the pistol from her. She embraced him. “Howie, Howie, Howie…” she said. Her body shuddered from her sobbing. “How did you know where to find me? How did you do it?” “Ruthie, listen to me,” said Howard. Outside the estate’s windows, the sun began to illuminate the horizon. “I had no idea you were

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here, baby. I haven’t seen you since Brooklyn, and that’s gotta be at least 20 years ago.” “But, you came for me,” said Ruthie. Howard pushed her away from him. He held her at arm’s length. He looked into her eyes. “Ruth, listen to me,” said Howie. “That’s not why I’m here.” “But, you-” “They sent me to here to kill you,” said Howie. Realization passed over Ruth’s face. Her body shook. Howie took her into his arms. “Don’t worry,” said Howard. “There’s been a change of plans, ok? We’re gonna get you out of this.” Ruthie held him tight. She kissed his neck. “I’m just gonna need a little gasoline, that’s all.” said Howie. “Come on. It’s gonna be ok.” They walked towards the bedroom doors. * * * * Alex looked looked out windows of his suite, over the grounds of Caesar’s Palace. Cars moved up and down the strip. Cassandra and April slept on the bed behind Alex. “Yes, I know what time is, Miguel,” said Alex. He spoke into his cell phone. He wiped a tear from his cheek with the back of his hand.

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“Hello?” said a sleepy voice, on the other end of the line. Alex’s heart skipped a beat. “Hey, big girl!” said Alex. His voiced cracked. “How’s my baby doing?” “Hi, Daddy.” “I’m sorry it’s so early, Zoë, I just had to-” “Where’s momma?” said Zoë. “She’s not here, baby,” said Alex. He swallowed. “Look, sweetie, I just wanted to tell you that I love you and-” “I miss you, Daddy,” said Zoë. “I miss you too, baby,” said Alex. “Grandpa says I have to go back to bed,” said Zoë. “Hello, Alex?” said Miguel. “Now look here, son, you can’t just disappear from the face of the earth then expect to-” Alex hung up. He closed his eyes. He squeezed his head between his hands. “Fucking looser… Fucking Looser… Fucking looser!” whispered Alex. His chest heaved. He stopped. He looked towards the nightstand. He walked over and removed a tattered paperback from the inside pocket of his jacket. He returned to the windows. The sun rose over

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the mountains in the distance. Alex turned to a dog-eared page in the book. He looked back out at the rising sun. He recited the passage from memory. “My dreams are worthless. My plans are dust. My goals are impossible. All are of no value useless unless they are followed by action. I will act now.” Alex swallowed hard. “I will act now.” * * * * Stan Pastorini, Frank Russo, Jerry Allen and Simone waited outside the Rio. The sun rose behind them. Everyone’s eyes were bloodshot. Frank put an arm around Simone’s shoulder. He kissed her on the cheek. Stan looked at them. He toyed with his Super Bowl ring. The veins in his forearms flexed. Simone made eye contact with Stan. He smiled. A white Hard Rock cargo van approached. “I’m sorry I called you a half-cunt,” said Stan. “You didn’t deserve that.” Two men in Oakland Raider Jerseys walked up the sidewalk. “I accept your apology,” said Simone. She walked over to Stan and embraced him. “No hard feelings, all right?” she said. Frank smiled. Jerry Allen lit a cigarette. The Hard Rock van pulled up to the curb. Stan’s sunglasses fell from his hair. He laughed. “No wonder Frank’s so crazy about you,” said Stan. “You’ve got a big heart.” He bent over to pick up his shades. One of the men in the Raider jerseys stood behind Stan with a pistol. He fired. The silencer chugged. Simone’s head popped open like a melon, showering Stan. Frank screamed. The cigarette fell from Jerry Allen’s lips. He didn’t see Tommy the Monster walk up behind him.

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Tommy extended his gun arm. He placed the tip of a silencer to Jerry Allen’s asshole. He fired twice then ran to the open door of the van. The men with the Raider jerseys were already inside. Jerry Allen’s body fell to the asphalt. Blood pooled. The van peeled out. It raced off. Stan pulled Frank away from Simone’s corpse. They climbed into the stretch Hummer. The driver stood amazed, gawking. “Get us out of here!” said Stan. The driver snapped out of it. He ran for the open driver’s side door. The Hummer rolled down Flamingo blvd. Frank Russo looked out through the tinted windows, towards the rising sun. His lips trembled. He pulled a rosary from his jacket pocket. Droplets of blood dried on his forehead. Frank couldn’t remember the Lord’s prayer, nor the words to the Ave Maria. Tears welled up in his eyes. He recited from the Greatest Salseman in the World. “I will be liken to the rain drop that washes away the mountain…” Frank’s shoulders shook. He closed his eyes. “…the ant who devours a tiger, the star which brightens the earth, the slave who builds a pyramid… I will persist until I succeed.” Frank clutched the rosary in his fist. He grieved for the woman he could never pay one kind word to. He grieved for her the only way he knew how. “I will persist until I succeed.” The limousine raced up Tropicana blvd, towards the Pastorini offices, and into the rising sun. * * * *

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Up Tropicana blvd., beyond the Orleans Casino, Black Book Sports masqueraded as a Carpet warehouse. It was fenced and hidden away behind a trucking yard. Larry Green sat in a leatherback chair in his office bunker. He wore velveteen sweats and gold jewelry. Larry held an ornate telephone to his ear. He swallowed. “Teach us how to pray,” said Larry. “Tell me the pass phrase,” said a man on the other end of the line. “Judas Iscariot,” said Larry. His heart raced. Silence hung in the air. Sweat rolled down Larry’s cheeks. “Notre Dame,” whispered the man. “What?!” said Larry. He bolted upright in his chair. “Are you sure, your Eminence?” “Notre Dame will fail,” said the man. “Have them Unload on Boston College and we shall all prosper.” “I understand,” said Larry. “Be careful,” said the man. “These are perilous times now.” “I will,” said Larry. He hung up. Larry walked over to the only window in the building. Its blinds were closed. Larry opened them. His stomach tightened. He looked into the sun, rising over the hills.

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“I will forget the happenings of the day that is gone, whether they were good or bad, and greet the new sun with confidence that this will be the best day of my life,” said Larry. He smiled, closed his eyes, and recited the rest of the passage. “For so long as there is breath in me…” * * * * “…that long shall I persist,” said Manny. He buttoned his jacket in the mirror. He adjusted the pistol in his waistband. Manny took one last look at Orquidia, sleeping on the bed. “I will persist. I will win,” said Manny. He walked out the door and closed it behind himself. * * * * Sam Sharp, Tommy the Monster, Mike Winn and the bodyguards stood in front of Huncrest, Billy’s cliffside estate. Flames and clouds of smoke engulfed the entire structure. Firemen fought bravely in the morning sunlight. They ran, their silhouettes black against the rising sun. Flames circled to the sky. A tear ran down Tommy’s cheek, beneath his sunglasses. “Goddamn you, Billy,” said Sam Sharp. He spat on the ground. He ran a hand through his hair. “Exult O shores, and ring O bells…” said Tommy. His voice cracked. He cleared his throat. The men gathered. They bowed their heads in silence. Tommy began again. “Exult O shores, and ring O bells! But I with mournful tread,

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Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.” Mike Winn looked up. His face hardened. The men looked at him. Mike would be next in line to ascend the Vegas Pipeline’s throne. “Today is game day, gentlemen,” said Mike. Smoke and flames billowed in the background behind him. “No matter what has happened, we must press forward as a team! Step after bloody step, yard after bloody yard! You hear me?!” The men looked at each other. “We’re gonna take every last cocksucking client Pastorini has left! And we’re gonna get that money! Even if we have to go down in a hail of fucking bullets to pull it off, because that’s exactly what Billy would’ve wanted us to do! Are you with me?!!” “Let’s do it,” said Sam Sharp. He extended a hand. The men huddled around him. Tommy placed his hand on top of all the others. He looked up at their faces. He removed his sunglasses. The flames of the estate reflected in Tommy’s eyes. “For the love of the Hun!” said Tommy. “One! Two! Three!” “BREAK!!!!” The men walked towards their vehicles. The sun climbed higher behind them. * * * *

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“You’re gonna feel like you’ve been struck by lightning when we go 6 and 0 today, John!” said Alex. Frank paced the floor behind him. He slapped Alex on the back. The war room roared with activity. “Let’s go, people!” said Frank. “I want another fifty thousand up on the board before East coast kickoff. Kill! Kill! Kill!” Dr. Vegas adjusted himself in his seat. His eye was swollen shut. His head was wrapped in gauze and he wore a sling on one arm. His free hand clutched a telephone receiver. “I’m in a fucking body-cast, Joe!” said Dr. Vegas. “A fucking body-cast! And I still came in here, just to be sure you received Stan’s 10,000 star SEC College Lock of the Year! That’s how strong this steam is, you understand me? Un-fucking-load!!!” Frank walked to the back of the room, towards the entrance to Stan’s office. Alex’s heart raced. He unzipped the duffel bag he had stashed underneath his desk. Sports consultants screamed. Secretaries ran back and forth like ants. Alex grabbed the book of clients from his desktop. He looked over his shoulder then slipped it into the duffel bag. “Rash! Line three!” said a secretary. “Just a sec,” said Alex. He slung the duffle bag over his shoulder. He walked towards the exit. “Alex?” said the secretary. Alex walked past her. “I forgot something downstairs. I’ll be right back,” said Alex. He walked out the door then ran down the side staircase. He threw the duffel bag over the brick wall behind the building. He jumped, pulled himself up, then climbed over the top.

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“RASH!!!!” said Frank. He stood at the balcony holding a clipboard. Barbed wire cut into Alex’s forearm. He dropped down to the other side. Alex picked up the duffel bag and ran to a taxicab, idling on the street. “Go! Go around!” said Frank. “Get him!!!” Alex didn’t look back. He shut the backseat door. The taxi raced up the street. Alex adjusted the sunglasses on his nose. He wiped the blood from his forearm. “Where to, pal?” said the cabbie. “Take me to the Orleans Hotel, please,” said Alex. He settled into his seat. He patted the duffle bag on the seat next to him. Alex looked back through the rear windshield. Three men stood in the middle of the street. They grew smaller as the cab drove away. Alex took out a cigarette and lit up. His hand trembled. * * * * A patrol car drove down the stretch of desert highway, away from Mt. Charleston. Howie drove. Ruthie slept in the passenger’s seat, wrapped in an Indian blanket. She wore sunglasses. Howie looked at her. His stomach tightened. He looked back to the road ahead. The flames of Huncrest burned through the rear windshield like a Hollywood set. Howie’s cell phone rang. He answered it. “Hello,” said Howie. “Give me the head count,” said Stan Pastorini. He paced the floor of his office, above the war room. “I need to know exactly what we’re up against here, Howie. We have security issues.” Frank hurled a chair across the production floor below.

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“Seven,” said Howie. “And the Shitzu?” said Stan. “No.” “No?” said Stan, “Well what about Mrs. Attila?” “No, not yet,” said Howie. “I’ve got her in the trunk.” “What the hell are you doing?!” said Stan. “Howard, listen to me. We have a situation. I need you back here now!” Stan poured himself a triple Glenlivet. He drank it in three swallows. “Ok, look,” said Stan. “I want you to get rid of the old bag, I could give a fuck about the Shitzu, then get your ass back over here so you can cover mine, you understand?” Howie tried to digest all of the words. “Yeah, no sweat,” said Howie. “I’ll call you when it’s done.” He hung up. Ruthie stirred. Howie reached into the lock box on the seat between them. He removed a business card. It read: BLACK BOOK SPORTS Larry Green Sports Consultant, Handicapper, CPA 1702 Industrial park rd. Las Vegas, NV (702) 2 UN-LOAD * * * * Manny stepped out of a taxicab. Sweat rolled down his face. He scanned the street and the warehouses around himself. Nothing

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stirred. The cab drove away. Manny walked to a chain-link fence gate. He opened the padlock and entered the yard. He locked the gate behind himself then ran to the service door at the front of the warehouse. Inside, the air conditioning hit Manny in the face. He jogged down the hall. “Max!” called Larry, from his office. “I’m coming!” said Manny. He stopped in his own office for a second. He placed Orquidia’s room key on his desktop. He kissed a printout of three children playing in the snow, made the sign of the cross, then ran out of the room. “Max!” said Larry. “Alright, buddy. Let’s do this,” said Manny. He entered Larry’s office, rolling up his sleeves. “Where the fuck is the Rash?” said Larry. He paced the floor with a clipboard. “It’s already ten after nine on the East Coast! I’ve got the steam that’s gonna blow the lid off this entire city. We need those clients, Max. You better miracle his ass on over here before-” “There he is,” said Manny. He pointed to one of the video screens on Larry’s wall. Alex locked the gate behind himself and ran across the yard. He carried a duffel bag. “That’s my Rash!” said Larry. He ran for his desk. “Let’s go, people!” said Alex. He ran into the room. He tossed the duffel bag to Manny.

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“I’ll pull all of your East Coast players first,” said Manny. He opened a massive binder on top of Larry’s desk. Larry pulled three telephone headsets from his desk drawer. “Heads up, Rash,” said Larry. He tossed Alex a headset. “Max, suit up. Let’s go!” Manny struggled with his headset. He passed Alex and Larry a stack of Alex’s client sheets. Larry shuffled through them. “Do not hesitate,” said Alex. He plugged the headset into his cell phone. “Confront them with my defection right out the gate. Bludgeon them. Beat the shit out of them, but bring them on board. You understand? Bring em’ in or blow them the fuck up.” He began to dial. “No mercy,” said Manny. He dialed the number from a deal sheet. “Is this woman really seventy years old, Alex? Hello, Audrey? Yes mam’… Well, I can appreciate that. And I’ll bet he told you to unload too, didn’t he?” “Whoever survives this battle shall taste the bittersweet steam that only rises from the manholes of Boston Massachusetts,” said Larry. He dialed a number on his cell phone. He looked at the client sheet on his desk in front of him. “Hello? May I speak with Mr. Fontane please?” “You’ve got some inside steam, Larry?” said Alex. “Hello, Al! I don’t care what that cocksucker told you, I had to leave there! They want to fuck you, Al. Stan’s inside steam is nothing more than shithouse gossip and blind speculation. No, you listen, Al! I’ve been honest with you, goddamnit, now you be honest with me. If I had one game, one game that you knew was gonna win, what could you move on it?!” * * * *

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“Listen to me, Clarence!” said Frank. He paced the Production floor, speaking into a cordless phone. “You still have a platinum package with us. That means you’re gonna get Stan’s 10,000 star SEC College Lock of the Year today! That game is 18 and 2 over the last twenty plays. Do not take a game from the Rash, Clarence, you understand me?! And when this lock burial comes in and we disembowel that bookie of yours, you can thank Frank at the window. Un-fucking-load!” “I’m sorry, mam’, but the Rash is out of control,” said Dr. Vegas. Sweat soaked into the gauze wrapped around his head. “Any steam he’s offering you is gonna be tainted. Believe me. Stan knows the game, Miss Erickson. He knows the coaches, the players, the trainers. He’s got over a hundred scouts out there pounding, gathering up the inside steam, the gray stuff that no one ever talks about. You follow me? Let’s do this…” Frank and his legion of sports consultants battled like Titans. Their steam rose and the bullets flew across America. The East coast morning College games would begin in fifteen minutes. “The Rash has gone ballistic, Merv. Don’t listen to a word he says. He’s the father of lies, you understand? Unload!” “The Rash is gonna bury you with that pick! Let’s do this…” “The Rash can’t pick his ass! He’s buried more people than Hitler!” “Unload! For god’s sake, man, un-fucking-load!” Upstairs, Stan Pastorini looked out over the war room, through the one way windows of his office. He downed another glass of Glenlivet. He looked at his watch.

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6:45 am Stan picked up the telephone receiver on his desk. He pushed a button. Stan stared at the droplets of blood drying on his forearm. He shuddered. “What?!” said Frank, on the other end of the line. “Look, Frank,” said Stan, “I do not want to end up fighting a war on two fronts here.” “I’ve got a twenty dime player on hold!” said Frank. “To hell with the Rash, Frank!” said Stan. “He’s not gonna creep up and shoot us in the head while we’re sleeping! We need to put some contingencies in place to deal with the Hun’s men. They will attempt to avenge their master, Frank. They-” The line went dead. “Frank!” said Stan. He slammed the receiver onto the cradle. The veins at his temple throbbed. “You’re killing me,” he said. Stan poured himself another Glenlivet. He downed it in one swallow.

* * * * Outside the offices of Stan Pastorini Sports, a black Lincoln Continental pulled up to the curb. Sam Sharp was behind the wheel. He leaned across the passenger’s seat. Sam looked up at the row of henchmen standing guard on the balcony outside Frank’s War Room. He smiled. Sam’s cell phone rang. He opened it.

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“Talk to me,” said Sam. He toyed with a straight razor in the console beside him. “Do you have line of sight?” said Tommy the Monster. He spoke into a cell phone. He walked across the parking lot of the Sun Harbor Apartments. “Not yet,” said Sam. “But I’ll be paying the Doctor a house call before the day’s done. You can bet the stump on that.” “Fuck you!” said Tommy. “Aw shit, Tommy. You know what I mean,” said Sam. “Just keep your eyes peeled for the Rash.” “I’m all over him,” said Tommy. He looked up a woman’s skirt as he passed her. Tommy circled the swimming pool. He moved through a cluster of shoulder-high bushes, heading for the apartments beyond them. “I’m gonna apply a little pressure,” said Tommy. He looked over his shoulder then climbed the staircase. He drew a pistol with from inside his jacket. “I’ll see if I can make the Rash surface. I gotta’ go.” He hung up. Tommy the Monster placed his ear to the door of apartment 211. He smiled. Tommy looked both ways, up and down the tier. He pointed his pistol at the lock. The silencer chugged twice. Tommy kicked the door in. * * * * A football spiraled through the air.

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Alex screamed into the microphone of his headset. Veins bulged at the side of his neck. The Michigan State crowd held their steaming breath. It was a Hail Mary pass. Tommy the Monster shot April in the hip. Cassandra screamed. Blood splattered against living room wall. A receiver ran down the sidelines, never looking at the ball overhead, never breaking his stride. Frank Russo screamed into a cordless telephone. He threw it. Secretaries ducked. The phone exploded against a sports consultant’s shoulder. The Michigan receiver crossed the five-yard line. He held out his arms. His fingertips stretched. Manny and Larry passed each other in slow motion, pacing, pitching, screaming and perspiring. The ball passed through the receiver’s hands. A linebacker slammed into him, smashing him to the ground. Howie adjusted his sunglasses. He slipped through the main gate outside the warehouse. He walked across the screen of one of Larry’s video monitors on the wall. No one noticed. * * * * April screamed. She writhed in a pool of blood on the carpet. Cassandra ran. She fell. Tommy grabbed a handful of her hair. He forced her to look up at him. He placed the barrel of his pistol to her temple. “Do you know what a cuckold is, you filthy bitch?!” said Tommy. Cassandra shook her head. She tried to speak, but no sound escaped her lips. “Please!” said April. “Oh God, please don’t kill us, Tommy!” The pool of blood widened around her.

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“Shut up!” said Tommy. “Look at me, Cassandra.” Tears streamed down Tommy’s cheeks. Tommy placed the pistol to the center of Cassandra’s forehead. He unzipped his pants with his free hand. Cassandra’s eyes widened. Jerking and high-stepping, Tommy jumped out of his pants and underwear. “So, you two flea bags would rather fuck with the Rash than me?!” said Tommy. Cassandra swallowed. “Answer me!” said Tommy. Tiny butt cheeks flexed with each syllable. Behind Tommy, April dragged herself across the carpet. She reached for her purse on the floor ahead of her. “Do you know what happened to Cassandra as Troy burned to the ground?” said Tommy. He placed the pistol to Cassandra’s lips. April’s fingertips reached for the strap of her purse. “Ajax followed her into the temple of Athena,” said Tommy. He grabbed Cassandra’s cheeks. Tommy forced her mouth open and shoved the barrel of his pistol inside. Cassandra gagged. April pulled a Ruger .22 from her handbag. Blood poured. Her hand trembled. She rolled over to aim the pistol at Tommy’s naked backside. The telephone rang. Tommy looked over his shoulder. BLAM! A mirror shattered on the wall behind Tommy. Cassandra ran for the door. Tommy shot April in the chest and face. He took aim at Cassandra. “Stop!” said Tommy. Cassandra’s hand trembled, clutching the doorknob. Tommy smiled.

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He rubbed the hernia-like knuckle protruding from his crotch. “Come here, Cassandra,” said the Monster. * * * * Howie squeezed the trigger of his Desert Eagle. The silencer chugged. The lock on the warehouse office door exploded. Howie adjusted his security guard hat. He walked inside. * * * * “I hate to say I told you so, Clarence, but I fucking told you so,” said Alex. He paced the floor of Larry’s office, speaking into his headset. Manny and Larry stood in front of the wall of video screens. They stared up at the games. Michigan State was winning. “Well, what do you want me to do about it?” said Alex. “I gave you the game, Clarence. We’re all over the Spartans down here, huge. If you couldn’t come to terms with your own fears and desires and recognize when you’re in the presence of some real inside steam, it’s not my fucking problem.” On the TV screens, a Michigan State fullback burst through the defensive line and charged into the end zone. “TOUCHDOWN!!!” said Larry. “Look,” said Alex. “I have some inside steam for the PM game that is gonna bury bookies by the thousands, you understand? But I gotta know, right now, if you’re in or out, Clarence. Yes or no?” Manny looked at Alex. He smiled.

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“Atta boy, Clarence,” said Alex, “That’s what I’m talking about. Let’s bury that cocksucker! Call me in an hour.” Alex closed his cell phone. He removed his headset. “Jimmy the fucking Rash!” said Larry. He punched Alex in the chest. “You’re an animal, kid.” Larry threw an arm around Manny’s shoulder. “Max, you worked miracles today. You were huge,” said Larry. “One hundred and twenty-five new players, on board and winning before noon, gentlemen.” “Everybody was huge,” said Manny. “But it ain’t over yet.” He smiled. Howie’s image passed beneath a camera on one of the video screens. No one noticed. Larry pulled an ornate envelope from his breast pocket. “Well, this steam right here is gonna take us to the other shore,” said Larry. “When they all unload on this lock-burial, we’ll be rich.” “No you won’t,” said Howie. He entered the room, pointing his pistol. “Hand over the envelope.” Alex scanned the room with his eyes. Manny swallowed. “Who the fuck are you?” said Larry. “Your karma,” said Howie. He aimed at Larry’s forehead. “I don’t follow,” said Larry.

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“I’m the blade of the sword that you live by, my friend,” said Howie. “Hand it over. Let’s go, unload.” Larry’s expression hardened. He held out the envelope with two fingers. He let it drop. Howie stepped forward. Larry pulled two pistols from the small of his back. Howie’s eyes widened. Larry unloaded. Rounds exploded against the wall and doorframe. Howie dove out of the room, just in time. Alex flipped Larry’s desk over and took cover. He drew his Beretta. Manny scuttled for the cover of the desk just as the 44 caliber rounds began to impact all over the room. Larry dove for the desk. He snatched the envelope from the floor. A round blew his hand clean off. Blood sprayed. Howie pulled back into the hallway. Smoke rose from the barrel of his Desert Eagle. Larry screamed, his back pressed against the inside of the desk. “Get the envelope!” said Larry. Manny snatched it from the carpet. Alex fired at the doorframe. Rounds punched through the wall nearly striking Howie on the other side. Larry clutched his 45 in his one good hand. He trembled. He aimed at the window behind them. He fired. Glass shattered. “Take the games and get out of here!” said Larry. In the hallway, Howie rolled over onto his back. Rubble and debris fell from his hair and shoulders. He fired his Desert Eagle at the wall. Rounds blasted through the desk, nearly hitting Manny. “Get out of here!” said Larry. Alex climbed over the windowsill. He hung by one arm, like a monkey, then dropped to the asphalt below.

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“Larry, come on!” said Manny. A round exploded between them. Wood chips scattered. “Get to the Barbary Coast and unload on the game!” said Larry. “Go!” Max climbed out the window and dropped to the pavement. He ran after Alex. “Alright, you son of a bitch!” said Larry. He stood. Blood sprayed from the stump of his wrist. He swayed back and forth. Howie stepped into the doorway. Their eyes locked. Howie nodded to Larry. They ran at each other, pistols blazing. “UNLOAD!!!!” said Larry. His courage was that of a samurai warrior but his aim was found wanting. Rounds peppered the wall behind Howie. Howie clenched his teeth. He waited, checked his aim, then squeezed the trigger. Larry’s head exploded from the impact of the 44 caliber round. His body pitched backward, onto the floor. Howie’s chest heaved from his breathing. He looked out the window. A taxicab sped away from the gates of Black Book sports. Howie holstered his pistol. He walked out of the room, down the hall, then stopped. He looked through the open doorway of Manny’s office. A hotel room key and a yellow post-it note sat on the desktop, beneath a picture of three children playing in the snow. The note read:

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714-955-2600 Howie smiled. He stuffed the note and the room key into his pocket then walked out the door. * * * * The cashier at the Sports Book smiled. Two war refugees in Armani unloaded piles of cash onto the counter in front of him. He counted the money then handed the men a ticket. “That’s forty eight thousand six hundred and twenty three dollars on Boston College, plus six, over Notre Dame.” “Thank you,” said Alex. Perspiration rolled down the side of his face. He passed the ticket to Manny. They headed for the casino exit, eyes searching, gun hands at the ready. They crossed the parking lot of the Barbary Coast hotel casino. A taxi idled next to the curb. They climbed inside. The cab pulled away. In the backseat, Alex stared at a piece of stationary. A circle of blood had stained its corners. “Notre Dame,” said Manny. “Jesus, who would have ever thought.” Alex rubbed a hand over his face. He closed his eyes and groaned. “I’m hanging on by a pubic hair, man,” said Alex. “We’re almost out of here,” said Manny. He showed Alex the ticket. “This is it. Mexico, baby.” The taxi tuned onto Las Vegas Blvd. It headed towards the Stratosphere and the cheap motels hidden beneath its shadows. 87


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“Almost fifty dimes personal, and all the money our clients have in the world,” said Alex. “We have definitely reached the decisive battle, Manny. This one’s gonna decide our fate.” The taxi pulled into the parking lot of the Aztec Inn. A man pushed a shopping cart full of soda cans along the sidewalk behind them. He wore a Sweatshirt, with a Fighting Irishman on the front of it. * * * * A football flipped end over end through the air. The Boston College punt returner swallowed hard. He adjusted his stance, stared at the sky, then caught the ball. He sprinted into traffic. The Notre Dame defensive unit thundered down the field towards him. Dr. Vegas stepped out of Stan Pastorini Sports. He walked through the line of henchmen gathered on the balcony then made his way down the stairs. Perspiration stains showed through the gauze wrapped around his arms and forehead. The Boston College punt returner weaved his way across the middle of the field. He outran two blockers then cut up the sideline. The crowd roared their approval. Dr. Vegas entered a taxicab. He grunted with discomfort. The cab drove away. A black Lincoln Continental pulled away from the curb in pursuit. Alex and Manny sprang to their feet in front of a television set in their room at the Aztec Inn. Condensation from an air

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conditioner sweated through the wall. Prostitutes screamed, faking orgasms in the next room. “Come on, Baby! Come on!” said Alex. The punt returner hurdled over a diving linebacker. Fans screamed. He cut towards the center of the field again. He burned past two of the remaining Notre Dame blockers. A third blocker ran a trajectory to intercept him at the end zone. Dr. Vegas paid the cabbie and walked up the path to his apartment. He climbed the stairs. Alex held his breath. He closed his eyes. “God, please,” said Alex “Do not forsake me, Lord. Just this once, please grant us favor. Please, please, Jesus please…” The remaining linebacker lowered his shoulder. The punt returner from Boston College dove for the goal line. The impact was heard all the way to the nosebleed seats. The football shot into the air. Both men rolled out of bounds. Dr. Vegas reached for his doorknob. He felt a stinging sensation at the side of his neck. He slapped at it from reflex. Blood hosed, pouring over his fingers. Sam Sharp smiled. He watched Dr. Vegas fall to the ground gasping. The football hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, a Notre Dame lineman caught the ball. He sprinted downfield with a speed that denied his 450-pound frame. Blockers gathered. They cleared a path for him all the way to the Boston College end zone.

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There was a scream. A wailing and weeping rose over the drone of the television set. Manny punched a hole in the wall. He smashed a chair against the doorframe of the bathroom. The weeping grew in intensity and volume. Alex looked around the room. He wondered why anyone else would have reason to cry like that, then he realized it was himself. Alex sank to the floor. He squeezed his head between his hands. Both Alex and Manny’s cell phones rang. * * * * “Hello, Manny. How you doing, buddy?” said Howie. He spoke into a cell phone on the 3rd floor balcony of a ranch house. The sun sank on the horizon. Howie turned on the phone’s speaker. “What do you want!” said Manny, on the other end of the line. “Who is this?!” “That wasn’t very honorable back there, at the Black Book,” said Howie. He walked back inside the house. “Leaving your buddy to face my steel all alone like that, I was very disappointed.” The place had Bavarian décor. Orquidia was tied to a chair made of antlers on the dining room floor, below. Howie descended the staircase. “Fuck you!” said Orquidia. Her voice boomed through the Hacienda. Manny didn’t speak.

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“What’s the matter, Max?” said Howie. “All out of steam?” Ruth wrapped her Indian blanket around Orquidia’s shoulders. She wiped the mascara from Orquidia’s cheek. “Don’t worry, sweetie. Howie won’t hurt you,” said Ruth. “Just leave her out of this,” said Manny. “Please, what do you want?” * * * * “I want to see you squirm, Rash,” said Tommy the Monster. His voice sent ice down Alex’s back. Alex sprang to his feet at the Aztec Inn. He held a cell phone to his ear. Manny paced the floor, speaking into his cell. “Listen to me,” said Alex. “It’s been a hell of a day, alright? Let’s do this-” “No, no, no. it doesn’t work that way,” said Tommy. “I want your book of clients, Rash, every last cock sucking one of them, you understand me? I want you here at the Shark Club, alone, book in hand, at eight o’clock sharp or Cassandra takes a bullet up the ass.” “Alex!!” Cassandra’s voice echoed in the background. The line went dead. “Shit!” said Alex. He tossed the phone onto the bed and drew his Beretta. “Manny!” said Alex.

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“Wait, goddamnit!” said Manny. “Yes, I understand. I’m just telling you, we don’t have a penny! Boston College was the play. He was wrong!” “Manny!” said Alex. He racked the slide of his pistol then stuffed it into his waistband. “I know that’s not your problem,” said Manny. He spoke into his cell phone in the bathroom. Moaning and headboard banging echoed through the walls behind him. “I’ll be there at nine o’clock, all right? Just leave her alone.” Manny hung up. “Manny, they’ve got Cassandra,” said Alex. He put on his suit jacket. “The monster’s gonna kill her if I don’t give him my book by eight o’clock tonight.” “The motherfuckers have my sister, Alex!” said Manny. “What?!” said Alex. “The torpedo from Black Book Sports,” said Manny. “He’s got Orquidia up at Hunland Ranch. He wants the take from Larry’s bullshit Last Supper play. He thinks we have money, Alex!” “Oh, Jesus,” said Alex. “If I don’t bring him eighty thousand dollars by nine, he’s gonna kill her,” said Manny. He ejected the magazine from his 45. Manny pulled a handful of rounds from his pocket. “Ok, ok, think,” said Alex. He paced the floor. The moaning and headboard banging from the next room intensified. “Eighty

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thousand dollars,” said Alex. Manny loaded his pistol. He racked the slide and tucked it into his pants. “What can we sell?” said Manny. “What assets do we have?” “The only thing we have left is steam,” said Alex. “And after Larry’s last supper burial, who the fuck would listen to us anyway?” “We still have your clients,” said Manny. He wiped the sweat from his eyes. “They’re worthless, we’ve buried them,” said Alex. “No one else knows that,” said Manny. “Fuck me! Oh yeah! Come on, baby!” A prostitute screamed on the other side of the wall. “Active Pastorini clients,” said Alex. “We could sell them for fifty bucks a player. That’s ten thousand for the book.” “Then what?” said Manny, “Once we’ve sold the book we’re fucked.” “Oh yes! Oh God, I’m gonna come!” said a prostitute. “That’s it!” said Alex. “No one else will know.” He dialed a number on his cell phone. “What are you talking about?!” said Manny. “We don’t have time to fuck around like this!”

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“We’ll make our own client books,” said Alex. “Hello Jackie? Can you talk, it’s Jimmy.” Alex paced the floor. “I know,” said Alex. “And they will, unless you help me. I just need one small favor, Jackie, please. If you could somehow sneak one blank client profile sheet out of the office, you could save my life. Plus I’ll give two hundred dollars for it.” Manny closed his eyes. The headboard pounded in the next room. Manny’s temple’s throbbed. “I’m fucked. I’m fucked. I’m fucked.” Manny chanted along with the rhythm of the pounding. “Thank you so much, Jackie,” said Alex. “I’ll meet you at Office Depot in twenty minutes. Thank you.” He hung up. Manny opened his eyes. “We have three hundred dollars between us,” said Manny. “What are we gonna do?” “We’ll use their greed to protect us,” said Alex. “Let’s go. There isn’t much time.” He walked out of the room. Manny followed. At the top of the Stratosphere, a little boy pointed at the two dots that were Manny and Alex. He pressed his face to the glass of the observation deck. He watched them climb into a taxi and head up the strip towards Tropicana blvd. He ran back over to his mom and dad. They gazed at the sunset. The boy hugged his mom’s leg. “It’s so beautiful,” said the woman. “Kinda like Apocalypse Now,” said the man. “Horribly beautiful.”

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* * * * The printing presses at Office Depot churned out copies of Stan Pastorini’s client profile sheets. Alex embraced his former secretary, Jackie, in the middle of the aisle. He gave her two hundred dollars then watched her leave. Manny watched the exits and the faces of the people passing through the doorway. * * * * Howie’s cell phone rang. Ruth looked at him. She stopped fussing with Orquidia’s bindings. “Why don’t you answer it, you sick fuck!” said Orquidia. She struggled against the bed sheets holding her to the chair. “Listen to me,” said Howie. “If you want to make it out of this alive, you’ll shut your trap and stay out of the way.” He walked out of the room. “Hello? Yeah, chief I’m almost done over here.” Howie’s voice trailed off down the hallway. Ruth approached Orquidia with a roll of duct tape. “Wait,” said Orquidia. “Please, lady, don’t let him do this. I have a daughter. I’ve got a four-year-old who hasn’t seen me in six months, please. Please don’t let him murder me!” Her teeth chattered. Mascara stained her cheeks and chin. “He’s not gonna murder you,” said Ruth. She bit the duct tape and tore a piece free. “But you gotta stop rocking the boat, honey. These men are so emotionally engorged right now, they could kill their own mothers.” She placed a strip of duct tape over Orquidia’s mouth. Ruth

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walked to the door. She stopped, then looked back into the room. Orquidia’s eyes pleaded her. Ruth nodded. She turned off the lights and walked down the hall. Orquidia trembled in the darkness. * * * * “A congressional

inquiry began today, to investigate the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by united states soldiers in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison,” said the news anchorwoman on the television set. “This comes as very bad PR for an occupying force that is already under a great deal of scruntinty.” Alex turned off the TV. The headboard from next room marked time like a metronome. Hookers cooed and whinnied on the other side of the wall. The room at the Aztec Inn was covered in Stan Pastorini sports paraphernalia. Binders, flyers, and client profile sheets blanketed the carpet and beds. Alex and Manny worked in their shirtsleeves, assembling fake client books. “If they try to verify any of these players, we’re dead men,” said Manny. Sweat poured down his forehead. He glued a cutout of Stan Pastorini’s head to the inside flap of a binder. “We do have some real players in here,” said Alex. “There’s about a one in five chance of opening the book to a legitimate client.” He placed another binder into the box beside the bed. “Either way, it’s all we have to work with.”

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“I’m scared, man.” Said Manny. “The odds against this are huge.” “I’m scared too,” said Alex. “But as long as we keep moving,” He put his shirt back on and buttoned it. “If we keep moving and stay focused, we will find ourselves on a plane bound for Mexico tomorrow morning.” Alex checked the safety on his Beretta then tucked it into the back of his waistband. “So let’s get this money, pay these fuckers off, and get the hell out of here. We’ve got two hours.” Manny placed the last client binder into the box beside the bed. He racked the slide of his 45 and tucked it into his trousers. “Let’s finish it,” said Manny. Headboards pounded like war drums behind them. Alex and Manny carried the box of client books between them. They walked out the door. The wailing of hookers blessed their departure into the desert night. * * * * Tommy the Monster marched toward a chain link fence. He pulled Cassandra behind him by the wrist. The fence surrounded the remains of the Shark club. Lightning flashed. A storm was brewing. “Tommy, wait. You can still change your future,” said Cassandra. “Don’t take me down this path with you!” Tommy shot the lock off the fence. He kicked the gate open. A tumbleweed rolled by. “I shit on the future,” said Tommy. Headlights illuminated their backsides. “The Hun is dead! And you made me a

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cuckolded with the Rash, Cassandra. What kind of future is that?” A black Lincoln and the Hard Rock van drove past them, into the parking lot. “We’re gonna die in there, Tommy.” said Cassandra. “Shut your filthy little hole,” said Sam Sharp. He spat on the ground. The three ex-linebacker bodyguards charged out of the van. They wore suits and hard faces. “Tonight we’re gonna cure ourselves of that fucking rash once and for all, gentlemen,” said Tommy the Monster. He dragged Cassandra to the boarded up entrance of the Shark Club. * * * * “I understand, chief,” said Howie. He spoke into his cell phone in the library of Billy the Hun’s ranch house. Light from a desklamp cast shadows on the walls. “I don’t know what the hell is going on out there,” said Stan Pastorini, on the other end of the line. “But you better finish off that old bitch and get your ass back here! I just lost another two men tonight!” Ruth stood in the doorway, wringing her hands together. “Yes, sir,” said Howie. He looked at Ruth. “And leave her body there at the ranch,” said Stan. “I don’t want any doubt that she’s dead. We have to send a message to these pricks, that Stan Pastorini is not one to be fucked with!” “Ok, chief,” said Howie. He rubbed a hand over his face. “I’ll take care of it now.” He hung up. Ruth approached him.

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“Was that him?” said Ruth. She noticed Howie’s Desert Eagle, sitting on top of the desk. “Yes,” said Howie. Ruth swallowed. She looked around the room. “Howie, that girl in there is pretty terrified,” said Ruth. Howard grabbed Ruth by the shoulders. His eyes burned into hers. “Listen to me,” said Howard. “You stay away from her. The men we’re dealing with here want you dead. Not only that, they want your body left as an example of what happens to the people who oppose them.” “But why?” said Ruth. “I haven’t done anything to them. That girl in the other room hasn’t done anything to them either, Howard.” “Ruthie, I will do whatever it takes to get you out of this alive,” said Howard. “Then let’s just run,” said Ruth. Howard took his Desert Eagle from the desk and placed it back into his shoulder holster. “Sweetie, please,” said Ruth. “It’s not that easy,” said Howard. He shook his head. “I wish it was.” He offered Ruth his hand. She took it. Her hand trembled. “I love you,” said Howard. He kissed Ruth on the forehead then walked towards the door. “I love you too,” said Ruth. * * * * “I love it!” said Carmine Russo. He was a Walrus of a man in velveteen sweats. He sat behind a desk, thumbing through Alex’s

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client book. “So Frank whores out your book and you end up with nothing, then.” “Unless you buy it from me first,” said Alex. Alex and Manny stood between six henchmen, in Carmine’s office at “Steam/Work/ Sports”. “And why would I want to do that?” said Carmine. “Frank’s my godson, you know.” He continued to turn pages. “Because he’d do the same thing to you,” said Alex. “Look, I’m not trying to get rich here. You know what’s going on between Pastorini and the Hun. I just want to cut my losses and get the hell out of Vegas alive. And I’m willing to let you rob me on my way out. Is that such a bad thing?” “And Frank will never know because you’ll never have to tell him,” said Manny. Sweat poured down his face. Carmine stared at him. “Well, it would be a shame to pass up,” said Carmine. “Ok, I’ll do it, twenty thousand dollars for the book. But I want someone to verify its authenticity first, if you don’t mind.” Carmine passed the book to one of his men. “No, no problem,” said Alex. “You see, David here worked over at Pastorini for ten years,” said Carmine. David flipped through Alex’s book. Manny fought to control his breathing. “So where did you boys say you were heading again?” said Carmine.

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“Cancun,” said Alex. “Cabo,” said Manny. “Cabo?” said Carmine. “I have a timeshare there.” Alex and Manny looked at each other. David turned another page. He frowned. “When are you leaving?” said Carmine. “Tuesday,” said Alex. “Thursday,” said Manny. “Well, which is it?” said Carmine. “It’s legit, boss,” said David. He passed the book back to Carmine. Carmine smiled. He opened his desk drawer and removed a strong box. “Well, wherever you go is fine with me,” said Carmine. He placed two bundles of hundred dollar bills on the desk. “Here, enjoy in good health.” Alex took the money. “Thanks, Carmine,” said Alex. He turned and walked for the door. The bodyguards parted. Manny followed. Neither of them looked back. They crossed the production floor, hearts pounding. Sports consultants screamed into their telephone headsets. Secretaries ran back and forth with deal sheets. Football games played on screens all around the room.

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Alex and Manny exited the building. A taxi idled beside the curb. They climbed into the backseat. “Where to?” said the cabbie. “Donelli Brothers Sports,” said Alex. “and hurry.” The cab drove away. * * * * Alex and Manny hit every sports house in Vegas with their phony client books. No one said a word, because everyone who bought them believed they were pulling a fast one over on Frank Russo and Stan Pastorini. In two hours, Alex and Manny had accomplished what they could not do in six months of scratching and struggling beneath the desert sun. Manny unzipped a suitcase on top of his bed at the Aztec Inn. Headboards pounded out a drum roll, on the other side of the wall. Manny lifted the lid back. The suitcase was full of cash. Hookers screamed and moaned in the next room. “I’ll take the last copy of the book with me to the Shark Club,” said Alex. He shut the suitcase and placed a box of rounds on top of it. Manny took them. Alex checked the safety on his Beretta then tucked it into his trousers. “Wait for me here. If I don’t call you by eight thirty, take the money and go to the meeting at Hunland Ranch without me.” “Be careful,” said Manny. He stood. Alex looked at his watch.

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“Don’t worry. I’ll be right back,” said Alex. He walked towards the doorway then stopped. He looked back at Manny. “Semper Fidelis,” said Alex. He smiled then walked out the door. “Fucking jar-head,” said Manny. He lit a cigarette. Manny shut the door and turned out the lights. He sat in the dark with his pistol, watching the door. “Be careful, my friend.” he said. * * * * Tommy the Monster stood at the center of the Shark Club’s stage. Cassandra was bound on her knees at Tommy’s feet. Sam Sharp and the linebackers stood amongst the rubble and dust below. The club was in ruin. “Sam, why don’t you take up my right flank there in the catacombs,” said Tommy. The rest of you fan out and disburse yourselves in the columns by the side entrance.” Sam opened his straight razor with a glint of steel. He vanished into the shadows. “When he comes in I want you guys press up to him,” said Sam Sharp. His blade shimmered in the darkness. “Draw his attention.” “Like a trap block,” said one of the bodyguards. “Whatever!” said Tommy. He drew his Glock-9. “The point is that you goons need to draw his attention, so Sammy can step up and fillet the fucking rash off of my ass! It’s not that difficult.”

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“Tommy, listen to the voice of reason,” said Cassandra. “Please, this is becoming a free-for-all. It can never work. Don’t you see that?!” “Somebody bring me a gag,” said Tommy. * * * * Alex paid the cabbie then disappeared into the darkness of the dirt field behind the Shark club. He entered the canal behind the fence line. He waded through the reeds. “Maintain noise discipline and avoid silhouettes,” thought Alex. The response was pure Pavlov. At the first touch of water on his shoed foot, Alex began a night movement checklist. He circled the perimeter to the far corner of the fence line. Two vehicles sat in the parking lot. Alex surveyed the situation, looking for the soft and hard cover he would need on his way out. He climbed the fence. “Low profile… over the top and drop.” Alex dropped down into the lot. He rolled into the shadows beneath a ruined neon shark sign. Alex drew his Beretta. * * * * “I already used my socks to tie her hands,” said a voice in the shadows beyond stage left. “Oh come on!” said Tommy. “This is just fucking stupidity.”

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“Who’s gonna keep a box of gags handy around an abandoned club?!” said Sam, from the shadows on the other side of the room. “Come of fellas, let’s anticipate a little here. Shit!” “ I gave up my socks to tie her feet,” said another voice. Tommy looked down at Cassandra. A chain of designer socks bound her ankles, knees and thighs together. Cassandra shook her head. “Shut up,” said Tommy. * * * * Alex sprinted across the darkness of the parking lot, in a blur of befouled Armani. He slipped up against the shark bone doorframe of the club’s entrance. He disengaged his safety, turkey-looked into the club, then took a breath. He thought of his daughter. He thought of the beaches outside Mogadishu, Somalia. He thought of Mexico. Alex entered the building. * * * * The foyer was dark. Alex caught a glimpse of the stage at the back of the club. He cut to his right, down the dark hallway that encircled the bar. He stopped at the next entrance to the club’s dance floor. Alex looked at his watch. Hands glowed. 8:27 Alex turkey looked into the entranceway. Three silhouettes stirred in the columns, off to the side of the stage. Alex removed his jacket. He pulled his original client book from the back of his pants.

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“Forgive me, father in heaven,” Alex whispered. “What I do now, I do for the sake of one of your children. Grant me favor, father.” Alex crept back up the hallway, maintaining noise discipline. * * * * Manny clutched the suitcase to his chest. He sat in the back seat of a taxicab. It drove through the desert. The cab turned onto a dirt road. It drove beneath a wooden archway. The words ‘Hunland Valley Ranch’ were written across it. “This is fine right here,” said Manny. The cabbie pulled over. Manny paid his fare and stepped out onto the dirt road. The Milky Way shone overhead. The cab drove away. Manny drew his 45. He walked up the road, towards the ranch house on the hill. * * * * “Well, well, well,” said Tommy the Monster. “It’s Jimmy the fucking Rash.” Alex walked into the room through the main entrance. He held his client book out in one hand. His pistol was tucked into the back of his pants. Tommy stood shirtless on the stage at the back of the room. Cassandra was bound and tied at his feet. An Armani classico shirt was tied around her nose and mouth like an Italian bandit. “I brought my book,” said Alex. “Just like you asked.” He walked towards the stage. His eyes scanned the room. “Stop right there,” said Tommy. He pointed his Glock-9 at Alex. “Toss me the book.” Alex stopped. “I can’t do that, Tommy,” said Alex. “Not unless you let her go.” Tommy put the pistol to Cassandra’s head.

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“Throw me the cock-sucking book, Rash,” said Tommy. Alex complied. Cassandra’s eyes pleaded him. Tommy picked the book up from the stage floor. He thumbed through it. He smiled. “Do you know what a cuckold is, Rash?” said Tommy the monster. Veins pulsated at his chest and shoulders. “Yes,” said Alex. He sensed motion in the columns, from his peripheral vision. “And could you dare to fathom the depths of his woe?” said Tommy. “Yes I can,” said Alex. “I’m a cuckold too, Tommy, many times over. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, my friend.” Tommy raised his gun hand in slow motion. Alex bolted towards the columns. He drew his pistol. Tommy and Alex fired at the same time. Tommy missed. Alex dropped two of two of the silhouettes then dove into the hallway. He low-crawled out of the way. Rounds impacted all over the wall and doorframe behind him. * * * * Manny opened his eyes. He found himself bound and laying on his side on the floor of the ranch house dining room. His head pounded. Blood trickled into his eyes. Across the floor, Orquidia was

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gagged and tied to a chair made of antlers. An elderly man and woman stood beside her. “Orquidia!” said Manny. He struggled against his bindings. The old man whispered something to the woman. She gathered up her purse and blanket then walked out of the room. The old man picked up Manny’s suitcase and drew an enormous firearm from a shoulder holster. He walked across the floor. Manny watched his shoes approaching. “I like you kid,” said Howie. He crouched down and looked into Manny’s face. He untied Manny’s hands then stood. Howie drew his Desert Eagle. “Go on. Get up,” said Howie. He kicked the suitcase over to Manny. He aimed his pistol at Manny’s chest. * * * * “Get his fucking ass!” said Tommy. The last linebacker crept towards the exitway, aiming a pistol. It trembled in his hands. He entered the hall. Two shots fired. The guard’s ankles exploded. He dropped, screaming and wailing. Alex took his pistol and tucked into the back of his trousers. Alex pressed his back against the wall. He gripped his Beretta in both hands. “Always take the initiative,” whispered Alex. He ran back into the room. Tommy fired. Alex aimed as he ran towards the stage. Tommy fired again. Alex squeezed the trigger. Tommy’s shoulder exploded. His Glock fell to the stage. Cassandra screamed into the shirt tied around her mouth. Alex fired again. He missed. Sam Sharp leapt from the shadows, tackling Alex to the ground. Alex’s Beretta slid across the dance floor. Sam rolled on top of him. He slashed at Alex with his straight razor. Alex blocked the blow with his forearm. It sliced him open with a spray of blood. Alex rolled away. Sam

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swung again. Alex kicked his hand. The razor flew through the air. It landed on stage. “You motherfucker!” said Tommy the Monster. He picked up the razor with his good arm. Alex and Sam Sharp struggled with each other on the dance floor. Sam dug his fingers into Alex’s wound. Tommy grabbed Cassandra by the hair. Her eyes widened. She screamed into the shirt. “No!” said Alex. He dug a thumb into Sam’s throat. On stage, Tommy swung the razor like a hammer. He hacked Cassandra’s throat open. He swung and swung. Alex screamed. He kicked and thrashed like an animal. He broke free of Sam. Tommy’s arm was a blur. Steel flashed. Blood sprayed all over the stage. “RASH!!!!!” Sam charged at Alex, screaming his battle cry. Alex pulled the pistol from the back of his pants and fired. Tommy cut through the last of Cassandra’s nerves and arterial tissue. Cassandra’s head pulled free of her body. Rounds peppered Sam Sharp’s torso. He dropped. Tommy the Monster stood on stage. He held out Cassandra’s head like Perseus. “She was right, you know,” said Tommy. A tear rolled down his cheek. Alex aimed for Tommy’s chest. Tommy smiled. He hurled Cassandra’s head at Alex. He reached for his Glock. Alex fired. Tommy dropped. Cassandra’s head rolled into the darkness. Alex stood amongst the dead, panting. He began to weep.

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* * * * “Most guys like yourself would have told me to fuck off,” said Howie. You knew what you were up against, yet you still showed up with the money like you said you would. I respect that.” He pointed the pistol at Manny’s head. “Look, I know what kind of shit you and your buddy are in. It’s all over town. And I know this money is probably your ticket out of here. So here’s what we’re gonna do. I’m gonna let you keep a little traveling money. You’re gonna turn around, walk out that door over there, and live your life.” Manny looked at Orquidia. Her eyes pleaded him. “I’m sorry, kid, but the girl’s gotta go, though,” said Howie. “I need a body and she’s it.” “Wait!” said Manny. His lips trembled. “You have one choice to make,” said Howie. The Desert Eagle pointed at the center of Manny’s forehead. “You can choose to die here with nothing, or you can take that money right there, walk out the door and choose life. And you better decide pretty quick, because I’ve never done anything like this before and I might change my mind.” Tears ran down Manny’s cheeks. Orquida’s eyes widened. “Come on, kid, I’m trying to turn over a new leaf here,” said Howie. “What’s it gonna be, life or death?” Manny picked up the suitcase. His hand trembled.

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“Have a nice life,” said Howie. He walked towards Orquidia. Manny ran out the side door. The silencer of the Desert Eagle chugged twice. Manny ran across the field, sobbing through his teeth. * * * * Alex and Manny sat in the backseat of a taxicab. They were dressed in fresh suits sunglasses. The morning sun rose in the distance. The cab pulled up the departures terminal of the Las Vegas International Airport. Alex tipped the cabbie. They walked to the security checkpoint. Alex pulled his client book from his attaché case. Manny nodded. Alex dropped it into a trashcan. They removed their shoes and walked through the checkpoint. A loud cry rose above the crowd behind them. “RASH!!!” Frank Russo charged towards the gate. Security restrained him. Alex and Manny turned back around in line. They walked to the departure gate and handed the stewardess their boarding passes. “Enjoy your flight,” she said. Alex didn’t speak. The Southwest airliner took flight. Alex closed his eyes. He tried not to think of the events of the past three days. The old man sitting in the aisle seat next to him put down his magazine. He leaned across Alex and tapped Manny on the shoulder. “Excuse me, son,” said the old Man. “You wouldn’t happen to know the score of last night’s Notre Dame game would you?” Manny turned and looked out the porthole. He wept, staring into his own reflection in the plastic.

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Southwest Flight 1704 banked west, heading for the coast. The sun burned on the horizon behind her. * * * *

Book 2

Mexico

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