Slim Chance - A Las Vegas Adventure
Following are the foreword and the first three chapters of "Slim Chance - A Las Vegas Adventure"by Burt Peretsky. To purchase the e-book, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Slim-Chance-Vegas-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00545LTF6. If you want to download the book onto a platform other than a Kindle e-reader, then go to www.smashwords.com and enter Burt's full first name, as in Burton Peretsky. Enjoy!!!
"Slim Chance - A Las Vegas Adventure" by Burt Peretsky
Nearly a quarter-century has passed since I experienced the events recounted here, twenty odd years since the fabled Vegas Castle Hotel -- the most successful and best known of the original Strip hotels, "The Place to Be!" -- faced extinction.
For me in that fateful year of 1989, Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the death of Emperor Hirohito, and the Dalai Lama winning the Nobel Peace Prize were events that all paled by comparison to what happened in the pages of this memoir.
That year 1989 was also, in retrospect, a year that changed Las Vegas forever, a year when the Golden Age of Las Vegas began to fade into memory. Yes, everything began to change for Las Vegas at about Noon on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 1989.
It happened like most everything else happens in Las Vegas; it happened with considerable ballyhoo and hype! I witnessed it from across the street with thousands of people at my side. The next morning's Las Vegas Sun devoted many pages to it, but its front-page headline and two lead paragraphs said it all:
The Mirage opens its doors
It was just about noon Wednesday when Steve Wynn, standing outside the entrance of his new The Mirage beside junk bondsman Michael Milken, radioed security to "Let those people in."
Both men watched as hundreds of people waiting on the Las Vegas Strip ran up the two driveways to the main entrance to be among the first to visit the elaborate, $630 million Mirage.
Sadly, Las Vegas would never be the same from that day forward.
James B. "Slim" Chance
Las Vegas, NV
Lefty Gets It. We Don't.
Everybody with ears, from the Strip east to Lake Mead, must have heard the bomb that killed Lefty Needham.
The explosion wasn't as big as those they have out at the Test Site, and it wasn't as big as the blast that blew that rocket fuel factory to smithereens last year in Henderson. But the bomb that killed Lefty was plenty loud. Every time I think of that sound, I shudder.
I was sitting in my car, Miss Nomer, when the bomb went off. I had just finished work and was in the Vegas Castle employee lot, about to leave for home. It was a typical summer day in Vegas -- hot as hell.
I hadn't yet started Miss Nomer. I had just rolled down her windows. Even the rumble of the big air-conditioning unit that sits next to the building where I park wasn't enough to mask the noise of the exploding dynamite that ripped Lefty and his Cadillac.
I vaguely remember thinking that even though Nellis Air Force Base was right outside of town, you don't often hear sonic booms in Las Vegas. Not today anyway, not since the Vegas tourism honchos cracked down on the Air Force a few years back. The booms scare visitors, went the argument, and visitors in Vegas are everything.
In the old days, big booms were part of the allure of the town, or so I'm told. Back then, some tourists actually came to hear and even see the nuclear bomb blasts 75 miles away at the Test Site. Can you imagine? Las Vegas is the only city since Nagasaki that has seen a mushroom cloud against its skyline. But not since the 50's has that happened, even in Las Vegas. For the past 25 years, ever since 1964, the bombs have been exploded underground. You can't see them; you can't hear them.
But, you sure could hear the bomb that killed Lefty!
I thought it was a plane out of Nellis. I figured the pilot wasn't headed north like he should have been. Most of the planes head north after takeoff from Nellis, just so they'll avoid creating those booms over town. North of Nellis, there's nothing to disturb, nothing except sagebrush, a rattlesnake or two, or maybe a prospector who hasn't heard that the low mountains of Southern Nevada had yielded their last silver nugget.
Lefty was killed on a Wednesday; it was the first of July; it was the beginning of a month I'll never forget.
By the time I steered Miss Nomer onto the Strip and toward home, the subject of sonic booms was well out of my mind. I was thinking about pizza by then. Yes, pizza. The supermarket near my apartment house sells a super frozen pizza. They make it in their own kitchens, and all the consumer has to do is to heat it up in the oven. With a beer, maybe some potato chips, it's my kind of meal.
So, I'm in my kitchen, and the pizza's in the oven, and the phone rings.
"Mr. Chance?" It was Margaret, the night-shift hotel operator. My fate, it seemed as I heard her voice, was to be disturbed through eternity just as I was about to sit down to dinner.
"Margaret, you sweetheart! How are you? What's it this time, a potato farmer from Idaho hit a jackpot? Or did a jumper reach for immortality?" Margaret was the senior operator at the Castle, as straight-laced as her white hair required. I had heard her a hundred times asking, in that formal tone of hers, "Mr. Chance? "
She didn't reply to my teasing. Instead, "Please hold on for Mr. Purdy ...."
"Please hold on for Mr. Purdy," I didn't expect. Why would George be calling me? What would a bean counter want with me? It wasn't tax season.
"Hi, Slim?" George's high-pitched, almost whiny, voice drove me nuts. Still does.
"Yo, George ... Whatzamatter? You don't see enough of me days, you gotta call me while I'm cooking dinner?"
"Slim, have you heard the ... uh, he squeaked in soprano, the ... uh, news? There was an unusual urgency to George's whine this time. On the word "news," he unaccountably became a tenor.
"What's going on, George?" My routine didn't work with Margaret. Maybe it would work on George. "Somebody beat the casino out of a couple of dollars?" As soon as I said it, I knew better. It had to be more serious. Otherwise, a shift boss, slots manager, or a casino host would be calling me, and not George Purdy.
At the same time, I was cooking a pizza, and that was serious too! I strained to reach the oven door to check on my dinner, but couldn't. "Is that what it is, George? Can't you tell Lefty your problems? I'm cooking."
"I can't tell Lefty anything, Slim. That's why I'm calling you."
"Whaddya telling me, George?" It wasn't registering. First, Purdy was calling me at home, which he never did before. Then, there was that change in the tone of his voice when he began the conversation. And now, he was giving me what could have been a punch line for a joke. " I can't tell Lefty anything."
I stopped leaning toward the stove and slowly came to attention, holding the phone tightly to my ear, straining to hear something in the background, something to tell me what was wrong. There was something wrong, very wrong.
"Lefty's dead. He was killed about an hour ago, Slim. They murdered him. Blew him up at Carla's, in the parking lot.
My heart skipped a beat. "What? What are you saying, George? What the hell happened?
"It's true, Slim. Nobody knows much of anything yet. I heard about it from a reporter from Channel 8. I was working late. He called the hotel and asked for the person next in charge to Lefty. So, the operator connected him to me. At first, I thought he was joking. But, it's true, Slim. They killed him!"
"Who killed him, George? Who?" I knew I was asking the wrong guy.
There was a long silence that passed between us then.
And after the silence, George replied quietly, I don't know. His voice was breaking now. Slim, can you get over to the hotel? I'm not sure I'm gonna be able to handle this myself." And then, before I could answer, Can you come over now?
Like George, I wasn't thinking too clearly at the time. But reflex took over. "Don't say anything to the press, George. I'll be there in a few minutes."
I don't remember whether I said goodbye to George or not. I stood in my kitchen for a minute, maybe two, immobile, frozen by the news. Shock, puzzlement, anger, and fear swept over me in waves. Lefty murdered? Lefty dead? This didn't make sense. I had just seen him at lunch; he was sitting with George in fact, probably discussing the hotel's latest overdue bill. I heard him paged for a phone call. He took it at his booth. He joked and flirted with the waitress. He waved to hotel guests he recognized. On his way out, he came over and sat with me for a while. He told me about another of his plans to expand the Castle, said he'd leave me a file with the blueprints he just had printed. Then, he gave me his usual ribbing, "By the way, PR man, who's dumping on us in the press today?"
Lefty was alive at lunch, as alive as anyone can ever be, as alive as Lefty always was. Now he was as dead as can be! Murdered? Yes, murdered!
I shook my head, as if I could shake some sense out of what I had just heard. It didn't work.
I was needed at the hotel. Reporters would be crawling all over the place, and a public relations man's place is where the reporters are. This was no time to think about things. Perhaps it would be straightened out before long. But, Lefty dead? How could that be straightened out?
I turned off the oven, leaving my pizza half done. I grabbed my tie and jacket off the bed where I had thrown them less than an hour before, and walking toward the elevator, I tied my tie, realizing only then that my hands were shaking, and shaking badly.
Lefty Needham was dead.
I had eaten at Carla's Ribs 'n Chicken Restaurant almost as frequently as Lefty had, and with him many of those times. It was one of the boss' favorite spots. Lefty had offered Carla Simonetti a job at the Vegas Castle a hundred times, but a hundred times she had told him that all the money in the world couldn't get her to give up her own place. I knew why Lefty really wanted Carla. It wasn't for her ribs, but it WAS for her thighs and breasts. Carla was a good-looking lady in her mid-40s, one of the most eligible, unattached ribs notwithstanding, women in town, and even though Lefty was married, he occasionally -- like on days ending in "Y" -- fooled around.
My guess, though, was that Lefty hadn't yet scored with Carla. She was an independent lady who didn't need him and the complications a married man would bring into her life. She told Lefty that being in business for herself allowed her to call the shots. The same held true for her personal life; she called the shots there, as well.
I headed for the hotel by way of Carla's, down Maryland from my apartment house, all the way to Desert Inn. Through the dim twilight, I could see in the restaurant's parking lot what must have been Lefty's car. A fire truck, its red light slowly turning on its roof, was parked next to where the still-smoking hulk was sitting. A small knot of people stood watching as a fireman sprayed water onto the wreckage.
Beneath the car was a puddle trailing down the slight parking lot decline to the curb about 50 yards away. It must have been water, but I thought I saw the glint of redness in it. Lefty's blood? Or was it the reflection off the fire truck light?
My car radio, always tuned to the all-news station, hit me with the reinforcement I didn't need at the moment. "One man, whom police identified as Lefty Needham, owner of the Vegas Castle Hotel & Casino, was killed instantly tonight, when a bomb attached to the starter in his automobile exploded. The explosion occurred in the parking lot of a Desert Inn Road restaurant. Details are sketchy, but a K-News news team has been dispatched to the scene.
"In other news, Federal authorities in Los Angeles are denying reports that terrorists from the Middle East are in California ..."
Sure enough, there it was, the K-News news team, one guy in a K-News news car, just pulling into the lot. He was showing a cop something through the driver's side window. I assumed it was his press ID card.
I pulled into Carla's lot on the far side of the wreckage where there weren't any cops. I wasn't going to learn much at the scene of this crime. Whatever remained of Lefty's body had already been carted away. I walked toward the smoldering wreck that had been his Cadillac, but a uniformed cop stopped me about 20 yards away. "Hold it right there, pal!" he said, emphasis on the 'pal' as if to indicate I wasn't one.
The cop brought me over to a detective, a homicide detective who the patrolman said was Lieutenant Kearney. I didn't catch the first name. He was taking notes in a notebook with a pencil stub that looked like the one Columbo carries with him on TV. When he had taken my name and jotted down the fact that I was the PR man at the Vegas Castle, he asked me where I was when the bomb went off. I told him I was at home.
"We'll be in touch, Chance," he announced abruptly. I had obviously been dismissed.
I took the hint. The cops were dusting for fingerprints now and interviewing restaurant employees and patrons. I saw Carla standing nearby, staring at the smoking Cadillac. She looked like she had been crying. One of her waitresses had her arm around her shoulders, trying to comfort her. As I started over to talk with her, another detective stepped in front of me, also headed her way. I figured I wasn't going to get my chance with Carla, and anyway, I was needed more urgently at the hotel. So, I returned to my car and headed up Desert Inn and over to the Strip.
In the Vegas Castle lobby, Sidney, the head bellman, was talking to one guy in a suit who could have been either a detective or a reporter. The stranger was dressed cheaply enough to be either, but he must have been a cop, as I knew nearly every reporter in town.
By the cage in the casino, a uniformed hotel security officer and our chief Al Casey were talking to two guys I did recognize as police. They were Metro detectives whom I had seen in the hotel before on suicide investigations. After gambling, suicide was the city's most popular, albeit least publicized, sport, and over the years, the Vegas Castle had witnessed its share of jumpers from the two 16-story towers that held its 900 guestrooms and suites. Chief Casey was gesturing broadly to the detectives.
As I passed them, I overheard him in mid-sentence, almost yelling: "It's gotta be Mob. Christ, you kids! We would have had the case solved already!" The uniformed hotel guard looked pained. Casey was obviously embarrassing him. Neither cop, apparently, was going to get a word in edgewise, or otherwise, with the chief. I moved on.
To my complete surprise when I had reached my second-floor office, I found Pinky Dawson had also returned to work. Not surprisingly, she was on the phone, just as she was on most of every workday, mostly on personal calls.
"Hi, boss! You heard the news?" She looked up at me while covering the phone with her hand.
"Yeh, I heard the news, Pinky. Is that for me?"
She shook her head, and to whomever was on the phone, she said, "It was good for me too. I've got to go now, honey. I'll call you back!"
Pinky explained that after work that night, instead of going straight home, she had been at The Moat with one of her latest, when she heard me paged. When I didn't answer the third page, she took the call. It was George Purdy looking for me, and he told her about Lefty's murder. "I told Mr. Purdy that you had gone home, Slim, and figuring you'd be coming right back to the office when you heard the news, I said goodbye to my date and came up here. You're probably going to need some help with the press, won't you?"
When I first moved to Vegas from Boston, right after my divorce, I couldn't believe my good luck in inheriting a secretary like Pinky. Not only was she well meaning, as she proved again this night, but Pinky was also beautiful! No, that wasn't doing her justice. She was stupendous, a blonde bombshell extraordinaire, curvy where the curvies should be, looking every bit the former showgirl she was.
Pinky was somewhere in her 40s; she wouldn't say where. Except for her complete lack of secretarial skills, she was everything I could have wanted in a secretary. She was also everything that most men could have wanted in a woman.
Partly because of her great looks, and partly because she was so trusting, Pinky seemed to attract men that wanted to take advantage of her. Enough men had already hit on Pinky to make up a hit parade that Lucky Strike would be proud to sponsor. She had gone through countless boyfriends, and she had been married and divorced, officially, seven times-- uncommon even in divorce-happy Las Vegas. In addition, she had lived with at least three more guys for at least six months each. If ever there was a girl who couldn't say no, Pinky was that girl. Come live with me, Pinky. Okay! Marry me, Pinky. Why, sure!
Tommy Lake --I'll tell you more about him later -- is the resident comedian in our lounge. Some of his best lines are his divorce jokes, which he could have created in Pinky's honor, were he as thoughtless as I am.
Did I say thoughtless? Yeh, that's one way to describe someone who would use such jokes to talk about a real person behind her back.
"We the People," begins her marriage certificate. Hilarious, Slim!
"She owns a wash-and-wear wedding gown." Ha, ha!
"She gets anniversary cards from the First Infantry Division." I gotta million of 'em!
And, like in The Moat, when Tommy tells em, they always bring down the house, or the party, or the bowling alley. I'm not so heartless anymore. Even back then, before I stopped with the Pinky jokes, I always felt more than a little mean afterward.
I swear I don't do it anymore! I don't tell jokes about Pinky. But, even now, I have a vision of me, 20, 30 years in the future, still a bachelor in my 60s or 70s, and Pinky, still answering my phone, still single, perhaps by then divorced for the 13th time. I have a vision of my asking her to marry me, and in my vision I am overcome with guilt about the jokes I told over the years about Pinky and her marriages. And then, at the key moment, after I've said, "Will you?" Pinky discloses that she knew all about my jokes, and she's waited for this moment, all these years, just to tell me that she knows what I was saying about her behind her back. My vision of Pinky has her, suddenly nine feet tall, standing -- no, lording over me. Everybody in my life is watching our scene. And she's telling me off, calling me a jerk, and that she would never marry such a jerk. I recoil in humiliation in my dream, because I know she's right.
I never dated Pinky; I never even asked her out. It wasn't because she was married so many times. Nah, that amuses me, but it doesn't bother me. No, I never dated Pinky, because Pinky's not too bright, and brightness is something I want in a girl.
It took me all of two hours of working with her to find out that she wasn't a rocket scientist. And I like girls who know a bit more than the details of tonight's prime-time TV schedule. Call me spoiled!
My predecessor, a PR legend named Duke O'Callaghan, liked to have pretty girls around him. He had cut his PR teeth in the era of press agentry, and pretty girls were essential in the way he practiced his craft. In my picture files are hundreds of pictures of pretty girls at the pool, pretty girls kissing entertainers, pretty girls presenting checks to slot machine winners, and pretty girls caressing the Vegas Castle sign. There are pretty girls in short skirts, pretty girls in low-cut evening dresses, and, most of all, pretty girls in bathing suits.
And don't you think that O'Callaghan's pretty girl method of publicity worked? It sure did. Nobody got more publicity pictures into the LA papers or into the papers back East than did Duke O'Callaghan. Nobody!
Pinky, a very pretty girl, was hired without so much as a typing test. Lucky for her. Typing's not her strong suit.
I spent the remainder of the evening doing my job, dealing with the press, reading to them, until I had committed it to memory, the detail of Lefty Needham's official biography, and now his obituary.
But, no matter how I couched it, the morning papers and the wires, like the radio that night, would lead with the facts and land with the speculation: "Lefty Needham, owner of the Vegas Castle Hotel & Casino, was killed yesterday, when a bomb attached to the starter wires of his car exploded. Needham, a reputed underworld chieftain ...."
They'd shout those words that had always been associated with Lefty: Mob, Mafia, La Cosa Nostra, organized crime. From the day he arrived in town to the day of his death, everyone knew Lefty as Mob. But, I'm here to tell you that it was a bum rap. I had no proof, but I knew Lefty as well as any man knew him. He wasn't Mob. He couldn't have been. He was boastful, crude, and clever. But, not Mob! He knew all the Mobsters; some even came to him for advice. But, I can't believe he was one of them. Not Lefty.
Now that he's dead, I guess I can and I really should separate the facts of Lefty's life from the fiction that grew up around him. Lefty is the reason that I'm telling this whole story in the first place. It's my chance to put it down in writing, to clear Lefty's name for all time, to repay a guy who gave me a chance when I needed one.
Lefty gave this Chance a chance by giving me a job when I needed one. Lefty was also there with a kind word and a buck or two when my own gambling or my ex-wife's money demands got me into financial or other type of trouble. I owe Lefty much more than I was ever able to repay him while he lived. Now that he's gone, and now that I know the whole truth about Lefty, all I can repay him with is that truth. So, here goes...
Lefty took a liking to me very early in my years of service with him; I think he thought of me as the son he never had. I felt comfortable in telling him some pretty personal things, and he confided in me, as well. Like Lefty, I had many acquaintances, but very few close friends. In fact, it's safe to say that Lefty was my best friend. I often wondered, however, whether he felt that way toward me. He wasn't always easy to figure.
One day, we were talking about the town's reputation as Mob property, and Lefty changed the direction of the conversation. He looked me straight in the eye, and he turned serious, as serious as all hell. "I want to set the record straight with someone," he said, "someone I can trust." He paused, and I knew I was going to hear a pronouncement.
"I'm not the freak, I'm not the murderer, and I'm not the asshole people think I am," he said, square-jawed and serious. "I'm not Mob, and that's the truth, no matter what the wise guys say!"
If he wasn't Mob, and at that point in time there were plenty who would debate the point, he was tough enough to be Mob. Lefty had come out of the slums of Chicago, a Horatio Alger of a rough-and-ready sort. His real first name had been Vincenzo, and the family name was Bacigalupo. But few people knew that. To his friends and to his enemies of which he had many more he was known as Lefty Needham, Lefty, because ever since he fractured his right hand in a teenage turf war, he had been a Southpaw, and Needham, for the street in the North Side of Chicago where he grew up.
Before becoming the owner of the Vegas Castle, Lefty's bio said he had been in the transportation business in Chicago and here in town. Those who thought they knew him figured that the "transportation" euphemism referred to his former job as driver for Nick Grazzo, the Chicago don whom Lefty served for so many years.
In actuality, however, Lefty was at one time the owner of a four-car taxicab company in Chicago and later a Vegas limousine firm. Both businesses were, to be sure, gifts from Nick Grazzo, so many people discounted Lefty's ownership, figuring he was the straw boss and Grazzo was the real power in both cases.
Grazzo gave Lefty the business, the two businesses, that is, because Lefty was loyal. Loyalty in the Mob means everything, and Lefty, if nothing else back then, was loyal to Nick Grazzo. He'd be there night and day for the boss. He'd keep his mouth shut when he heard something said that he shouldn't have heard. He'd look out for the boss, and once he even saved the boss life. That was the immediate reason for Grazzo to reward Lefty's loyalty.
It happened at a red light on a busy Chicago street. A black limousine with black-tinted windows had pulled up next to Grazzo's car, which Lefty was driving. Lefty happened to glance over at the limo, when he noticed a back-seat window dropping and a machine-gun barrel being raised and pointed at Grazzo. Lefty floored the accelerator, and in a hail of bullets and with some driving that would have impressed the best of the Grand Prix drivers, he outraced and outwitted the limo, until he had lost it in a maze of one-way downtown streets.
The gift of a taxi company to Lefty was one way in which Grazzo had shown his gratitude. Giving Lefty another gift, the limousine company in Vegas that the Mob also controlled, was another way of saying thanks. With the latter gift, Grazzo also had a trusted aide ready to go for him in Vegas, a destination that the Chicago Mobsters liked to frequent.
And finally, when Grazzo, in his later years, was looking for someone to run the Las Vegas hotel he had just secretly bought for a song -- it's amazing what you can buy for a song, if you also have a gun -- he put the hotels official ownership in the name of his trusted Las Vegas lieutenant, Lefty Needham.
The plan was that Lefty, who never had as much as a criminal indictment to his name, much less a conviction for anything, would be the licensed owner of the hotel, and Nick Grazzo the -- secret owner -- would handle the skimming, the scheming, and the scamming.
But before he could skim, scheme, or scam even a single plastic farthing at the Vegas Castle, Nick Grazzo did something for Lefty that far surpassed all the earlier largesse he had shown his loyal friend.
Nick Grazzo died.
He walked into a men's room at a Chicago restaurant and never came out. At least nobody every saw him come out. His body was found a few days later, two bullets lodged in his head, his hands tied behind him, face down in the dirt of a Chicago city dump.
Thus, Lefty Needham, in just a few years, had gone from Chicago Mob chauffeur to Las Vegas casino owner, from Family footman to Disneyland don.
The Chicago Mob and the locals in Vegas always assumed that Lefty was, himself, a Mobster. They left him alone in the years that followed, figuring he had Nick Grazzo's organization, powerful long after the boss' death, still behind him. Some even thought the Grazzo power had passed to Lefty. The truth was anything but. But nobody in Grazzo's employ, or for that matter nobody else, knew about the arrangement Lefty had with the boss. Nobody knew that Lefty was to be the figurehead, and in fact, nobody knew that Nick Grazzo had anything to do with the Vegas Castle. Lefty, the good guy, the loyal soldier who was never sent into battle, Lefty, who got lucky, broke a few traffic laws, and saved his boss' life, was the king of the hill now and, more importantly, king of the castle, the Vegas Castle.
The year was 1975. Las Vegas was about to see its greatest growth period in history. And Lefty Needham was in the right place at the right time, at the crest of the wave, riding high as the owner of the legendary Vegas Castle Hotel & Casino.
But now, a decade and a half later, Lefty too was dead, killed the way the Mob would do it, as dead as was Nick Grazzo. It looked to the world that Nick Grazzo's enemies may have finally caught up with Nick Grazzo's trusted lieutenant.
Lefty's obit wasn't to be a classic obit. There were no memberships in the Lions Club, the Kiwanis, or the Rotary. He had not been active in any church. His only survivor was his wife Arlene. His only epitaph: R.I.P., Lefty Needham, Mobster. There was nothing I could do about telling the truth of Lefty's life or nothing I could tell the press that would change its and the world's impression of Lefty, nothing that could put the lie to his unearned Mobster reputation.
I thought I would never be able to set the record straight about Lefty Needham.
Default is in our Stars!
Good morning, Las Vegas. It's 101 degrees, and it'll be another scorcher in the Valley today. Temperatures are expected to climb to 115 by midday. We'll have the complete weather in a minute, but first today's top news stories... "
Inside Miss Nomer, it was so cold you could see your breath. The air conditioner was on 'maximum,' the fan on high. I liked it that way. I could never get used to the Las Vegas weather, especially the summer. When I first arrived in town from Boston in June of '76, the first three months went by without a drop of rain falling. Days and even nights when the temperature failed to dip below 100 degrees were common that summer. What am I saying? They've been common every summer since. And this summer was no exception. It was the first week of July, and the summer heat had set in on Southern Nevada with a vengeance, and even at this early hour, 5:20 AM on the digital clock the Chrysler Corporation had so generously provided my Reliant, you could look out over the desert flatlands and see heat shimmering up into a cloudless sky just beginning to emerge from darkness.
I headed southeast on Boulder Highway, away from the Strip, away from Las Vegas, away from everything. As usual, I had awakened early. Actually, I barely sleep nights. And as usual, I was killing time, putting my thoughts in order for the day, mindlessly driving wherever Miss Nomer would take me.
Driving alone early in the morning before any other car was on the road does me wonders.
Today, I was headed toward Boulder City, home of Boulder Dam or Hoover Dam, as it was alternately called. My plan was to turn around there and head to work. I'd still be early, but with Lefty's funeral yesterday and his death only a week ago, the work piling up for my office was overwhelming. Some extra time at the office would help in clearing away some of the paper that was now obscuring my in basket. Normally, I took these early morning drives in complete silence, without the radio. But for the past week, the Vegas Castle had been in the news nearly every day. What with the investigation into Lefty's murder going nowhere, the precarious financial position in which he left the hotel, a new investigation into the matter by the Gaming Control Board to see if his murder had been related to any casino-related shenanigans, and with rumors on everyones lips regarding the hotel's future, I kept my car radio tuned to the all-news station.
This morning, as usual, the local news on the station was a mere paraphrasing of the early editions of the Las Vegas papers, which I had already seen over coffee at my house. By now, I was beginning to hear items repeated.
"We'll have a story of a Henderson man reunited with his sister after 60 years right after this ..."
Turning off the radio, I squinted into the rising sun and drove again in silence. I happened to be in Henderson, still on Boulder, and was in no mood to be reunited with the reunited siblings story.
Boulder Highway always struck me as a road that couldn't make up its mind as to what it wanted to be, a mix between an interstate, a commercially studded junior Main Street, and a lonely country highway. The Las Vegas part of it was a would-be second "Strip," anchored on one end by the Showboat hotel-casino, a 1950s-era high-rise with a honky-tonk downtown Las Vegas atmosphere. On the other hand, Sam's Town, further east on Boulder, almost into Henderson, was more like a Strip hotel. It was big, garish, and noisy. Sam's Town was developing a rather hefty clientele from out of town as well, especially folks from Arizona.
The Vegas Castle on the Strip and the Showboat and Sam's Town on Boulder all shared popularity with Vegas townies, because all three hotels had bowling alleys.
Bowling junkies -- they abound in Vegas, if junkies can abound anywhere -- patronized the three hotels more often because of the bowling alleys they sport. Unfortunately, of the three joints, the two on Boulder Highway, probably because they were off the Strip and insulated from most of the tourists, did better with the locals than did the Castle.
Boulder Highway was the logical way into Las Vegas from Nevada towns to the east and from the Interstate that dumped cars near the Arizona side of Boulder Dam. Sam's Town was the first major resort on this particular ride, and so it drew hundreds of the faithful from the Grand Canyon State, added to its pretty fair representation of townies. Sam Boyd, the proprietor of Sam's Town, knew how to run a pretty good shop, offering, for instance, better payoffs on slots, lower minimums on table games, loud country music 24 hours a day in the casino, and good, cheap food for the masses.
Sam had found the combination of factors to ensure success at his place. Lefty Needham had not. That was the reason that the Vegas Castle was on such shaky ground.
As I drove, I looked to the East where the sun was rising over one set of the mountains that created the Las Vegas Valley. The mountains were undistinguished enough. In fact, they probably couldn't be classified as true mountains, but they were all the mountains Las Vegas had. On both sides of the valley they rose, brown bare slopes reaching from a brownish-red floor to a brilliant, even in the morning light, royal blue sky. Colors in the desert were either the color of the rock on the mountains, or they were blue, the omnipresent color of the sky and the color of swimming pools and Lake Mead.
On drives like this, I missed the green of my native New England, the trees and grass, the bush and brush that landscape both sides of country roads, and the green hills that poke their rounded tops above the pastures. I didn't miss the congestion of New England, though, not yet anyway. After nearly 15 years, if I again had to choose, I'd still take the broad, flat valleys of the Southwest, the mountains that created them, and the expanse of sky that covers them, I'd take them over the congestion, the cars, and the concrete of my native Boston.
Still another reason for my choosing Vegas over Boston was Boston blueblood Georgia Susan Alcott Chance. In fact, Georgia was the main reason I was living in Las Vegas. The former Mrs. James Chance, my lovely ex-wife, or should I say my ex-lovely wife, drove me west. Well, first she drove me out of my mind, then out of our cozy little suburban Cape in Wayland, near Boston. I wasn't good enough for her, I got the feeling. You'd get the feeling too, if someone you lived with was constantly saying things like "You'll never amount to anything. You're a no-good failure!"
Cute, huh? Georgia sung a different tune in the divorce proceedings, claiming to the judge, a woman judge by the way, that not only did I have a high-paying job writing a column for the Boston Gazette, but that my free-lancing was good for another $10,000 to $15,000 a year, and that she should be entitled to half of that in alimony.
The judge wouldn't believe me that free-lancing was an iffy proposition, and that in some years I couldn't earn much of anything pitching stories to a diminishing number of magazines. She wouldn't listen to my lawyer's arguments that Georgia's family money which I never saw was more than adequate to support her in regal style. No, I was ordered to pay Georgia an alimony of $200 a week, plus $1000 a month in child support for little Anthony, the kid that she had with her first husband, the kid that I had adopted only out of the goodness of my heart after we got married.
Thanks to that judge, and more specifically, thanks to Georgia and little Anthony, I decided to look around for a PR job. Newspapers in Boston and around the country were dying, and the Gazette was no different. It only had a few years left, and that meant that, if I wanted to support Georgia and little Anthony, and if I wanted to eat three squares myself each day, I had to get another job.
At first, I looked for a PR job in Boston, but I was coming up empty-handed everywhere I went. Then, when I was in Vegas on a gambling junket, a pastime that also contributed both to my early marital woes as well as to my lack of money, I heard that the legendary PR guy at the Vegas Castle, Duke O'Callaghan, had left the hotel to start his own PR firm.
What the hell! Since I was in town anyway, I made an appointment with the hotel owner, one Lefty Needham, and I applied for the position. I was, much to my complete amazement, hired the same day. And within a month, I was in Vegas working for the Castle and for Lefty. The pay wasn't much better than I was earning in Boston for the paper, but the few extra dollars I made, the free meals I could have at the hotel (that's how I maintain my fabulous, girlish figure!), the lower cost of living in Vegas, and the change I needed at that point in my life made all the difference in the world to me. I was able to squeak by on the alimony and child support payments just with my new Vegas Castle salary, and once in a while, I even put together enough money to stake myself in a friendly craps game. When the dice were rolling right, which wasn't all that often, I even had enough money to splurge. One fabulously successful night at the tables allowed me to plunk down enough money at the finance company to pay off Miss Nomer. And although I haven't since been able to duplicate that feat at the tables, I haven't yet lost my ass or Miss Nomer at craps.
The Vegas Castle conference room filled promptly at 9AM with hotel department heads. By that time, I had put in a couple of hours of work, I had breakfasted at the hotel's Little King Coffee Shop, and had smoked a half pack of Merit Ultra Lights, two of which had been inhaled in the conference room waiting for 9AM.
I couldn't remember the last staff meeting that everyone had attended, much less the last staff meeting to which everyone had been on time. In front of most of those seated at the huge mahogany table stood a Styrofoam coffee cup, some still bearing their plastic covers from the employee cafeteria, others sending a gentle wisp of steam into the air to mix with the cigarette smoke already stagnating above the group. About half of the attendees were smoking. A package of Pall Mall lay on the table in front of Chief Casey.
As I told you, it was only one day after Lefty's bizarre funeral. Arlene had had the boss' remains cremated, or at least what remained of the remains after the explosion.
The funeral, however, featured an ornate empty coffin, pallbearers, mostly hotel department heads including me, and a band that played "Nearer My God to Thee." In the eulogy, spoken by the funeral director rather than a clergyman, it was explained that Lefty had seen "A Night to Remember," on television some time ago, and when he heard the Titanic orchestra playing that song for the movie audience, as the glorious ship sunk not so gloriously beneath the icy Arctic, he told his wife that he too wanted to go out with that music. And so he did.
A stranger was sitting at the table next to George Purdy, who opened the meeting.
"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming here this morning. In a moment, I'll introduce our guest." Purdy gestured to the stranger. "But please feel free to conduct yourselves with the same directness and openness that normally prevails at these meetings."
Right. Lefty Needham's staff meetings usually consisted of everyone telling the boss what great decisions he was making and then meekly sitting there as he barked out orders to them. In the collective memory of the assembled multitude, directness and openness were the last thoughts associated with staff meetings.
Purdy, normally in charge of carrying out Leftys whims, was now ex-officio boss of the Vegas Castle...
"As this is our first meeting since that terrible day, I want to start with some introductory remarks. First, I know you all share my grief over the untimely demise of our president and general manager, Lefty Needham ..." Turning his nearly bald head toward Arlene Needham, Purdy continued, "We all want, once again, to express our condolences to Arlene. We all know what a loss this was to her."
Arlene was seated at our staff meeting by virtue --and I use the word advisedly in her case -- by virtue of her position as the hotel's entertainment director. At George's remarks, she didn't say a word, and her features were immobile. An attractive enough woman, she was also a plain-looking type. She was thin, had an average build, and she wore very little makeup on a rectangular face framed by slightly curly brown hair which she wore nearly shoulder length.
I, for one, was surprised to see her at work this soon after her husband's funeral.
Purdy, turning again to another department head: "Chief Casey, perhaps you can outline for all of us how the police investigation is going?"
"There's not so much to report," Casey began. The Chief of the Vegas Castle security department exuded a retired Marine look, and his brusqueness added to a Semper Fi character. In fact, despite his brawny features, square head, and crew-cut gray hair, Casey had never served in the Marines; he had never been in the service, except the service for 23 years of the Los Angeles Police Department. Why he had left the force was a mystery to everyone, but I had heard that Casey had been shot at, and the fright of being a target, reportedly for the first time in his career, had been enough to send Al Casey into retirement. And like many of his police detective colleagues before him, he "retired" into a cushy job as head of security of a Las Vegas hotel, in his case the venerable Vegas Castle.
"... not much to report at all. Metro Police are still investigating who had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to kill Left ... er, Mr. Needham."
Real clever, Chief. Either Casey was watching a lot of detective shows on TV, or he was trying to impress us. Or maybe both! Cops wouldn't be cops if they didn't investigate 'three things ... means, motive, and opportunity.' Real clever, Chief.
"One thing that everyone in this room should be made aware of," he continued, "is that none of us has been ruled out as a suspect. Well, I've been ruled out." He laughed nervously. "But, that's not to say that any of you are active suspects, either. On the other hand, you may be."
Eyes darted about the conference room like in a B-grade movie. The guilty, or those who had their suspicions of guilt, looked at one another furtively. I suddenly felt like a character in a Charlie Chan movie or an Agatha Christie novel. Several of the assemblage had the right means, motive, and opportunity to knock off Lefty, if not personally, then by arranging to have someone do it for them.
Lefty was not the best-loved person at the Vegas Castle. And the Spanish Inquisitor wasn't Jewish.
Casey went on ... "Several points have been established, and several questions remain. First of all, Mr. Needham was killed by a dynamite charge attached to the ignition of his car. When he started the car, the bomb was set to explode. Second, the police have established to their satisfaction that Mr. Needham was in financial trouble. I'm sorry to say, Arlene, but it's no secret to anyone in this room that the Vegas Castle has been losing serious money for the past few years, and Mr. Needham has had to refinance this place to its limit. And a few months ago, as Mr. Purdy knows, when a mortgage payment came due and it couldn't be paid, Mr. Needham suddenly came up with the dough from somewhere. The police are trying to find out where the somewhere was. They think it might have something to do with his murder."
When she didn't say anything at this juncture, which must have been embarrassing to her, I began to watch Arlene Needham. Throughout Casey's report, his soliloquy, as it were, I watched her closely. She barely moved a muscle, no matter what was being said. She stared straight at the Chief, focusing the entire time, I thought, on his lips as they moved in their normally precise manner. Except for an occasional blink, Arlene's eyes looked straight ahead, except when Casey repeated that the police had not ruled out anyone in the room. As everyone else's eyes looked around, Arlene's eyes looked down at the table momentarily, just like people do, I thought, when they suddenly want to be invisible.
To say I never warmed up to Arlene would be an understatement. On the other hand, nobody ever warmed up to her. My reporter's instinct long ago had caused me to dislike Arlene. She was cold and remote, and she exhibited a mean streak for which she was given a wide berth by people in her path. When all was said and done, and probably before all the saying and doing, Arlene Needham was my Suspect Number One in the murder of Lefty Needham. No, she didn't do it, but she sure as hell had something to do with the murder, and she probably engineered it. Talk about means ... Arlene, despite having an alibi of being at the hairdresser when the deed was done, knew all the same Mobsters that Lefty knew, and any one of them was for hire or knew of someone for hire.
As for motive, take your choice. Arlene wanted Lefty's personal fortune. Arlene made no secret of thinking she could run the hotel better than he, and that she should be running it. And Arlene pretty much knew of Lefty's affairs with women.
And opportunity ... Arlene knew her husband's daily routine; she knew he'd be eating that day at Carla's, that he'd be there at just the time that he actually was there. She also knew just when she would need an alibi, while some hired hand connected the wires from the starter under Lefty's hood to the five sticks of dynamite under Lefty's seat.
Not much more of substance was contained in the Chief's report. After Casey finished, George Purdy announced he would introduce our guest after brief reports from the department heads. In order, Casino Manager Vic "The Stick" Milton, Hotel Operations Manager Herb Schwartz, Sales Director Ed Griffin, Food and Beverage Manager Rosa Laurence, and Housekeeping Director Anna Leo ticked off the sort of statistics you'd expect at a half-occupied, half-assed hotel-casino.
As each of them gave their reports, I pondered means, motive, and opportunity in each case. Let's take motive, for instance. The Stick and Lefty argued nearly every day about casino receipts. Having come out of the Mob, Lefty knew all about the various skimming routines. And he knew that for a successful skim, an insider in the casino itself was necessary. The Stick knew what Lefty suspected, and he either resented the implications, or he argued with Lefty to cover his tracks. Every once in a while, Lefty would threaten to fire Vic, and while I suspected Lefty was just making noise, I wondered if Vic took the threats seriously.
Sales Director Ed Griffin was an able manager, but he and his small staff were fighting a losing battle in selling hotel rooms to tourists and convention groups. Huge pleasure palaces were rising on every side of the Vegas Castle, and our joint had long ago lost its luster. The chic palaces were everywhere else, places like Caesars, the DI, the Riviera, the Trop, the two Hiltons, and now the Mirage. The Vegas Castle was yesterday's joint, and Ed Griffin, or the best sales director in the world, couldn't turn this particular sow's ear into a silk sales purse.
But, try and explain that to Lefty when he was on the rag. I heard him yelling plenty of times at Griffin, whose office was next to mine on the second floor of the hotel. Yeh, Ed Griffin certainly had reason enough to want to see Lefty dead, I thought.
Hotel Operations Manager Herb Schwartz had a different reason, but I thought just as valid, for wanting to kill Lefty. Schwartz had toiled at his thankless front office job for ten years, and for ten years, Lefty repeatedly passed over him for promotion to the key number two job that George Purdy was finally given.
And what of Rosa Laurence, our food and beverage manager? Rosa wanted something that Lefty refused to give her, and for that matter, refused everyone - respect. She'd do her damndest on parties for the boss, preparing buffet tables the likes of which even Vegas doesn't often see, and what would she get for her troubles? Not even a thank-you from Lefty, barely a nod. I remember one night, after one of her fabulous spreads was ignored by the boss, I happened by her office and heard her sobs from the darkness inside.
And finally, there was Anna Leo, the housekeeping director. Lefty had an affair with her a few years ago. It went on for about six months, and then it suddenly was over. Only a few of us knew what was going on, and none of us knew why it ended. Did the boss pay for spurning Anna? Did he pay the ultimate price?
This particular day, the suspects, perhaps one of them more than a suspect, gave their reports of a hotel in deep trouble. Business was poor at the Vegas Castle, and business had been poor for years. The crowds that came to Las Vegas visited the Mirage, Excalibur, Caesars, the Hiltons, the Riviera, the Sahara, or the Holiday Casino. They walked past the Vegas Castle on their way to Circus-Circus, the Frontier, the Dunes, or the Stardust.
Thirty-five years ago, the story was different.
Thirty-five years ago, they couldn't crowd into the Vegas Castle fast enough or in big enough numbers. Those were the days when Pat Andrea played the spanking new hotel. Pat Andrea was then the hottest crooner in America, and wherever Pat Andrea sang his ballads and love songs was the place to be. He was the guy who built Las Vegas, who attracted the first crowds to this growing oasis in the desert. His soothing, caressing voice and pleasing Mediterranean hominess were like magnets that drew into the Vegas Castle coffers the coinage of a generation of kids on their honeymoons, wise guys wasting time, and middle class Californians on vacation from workaday workdays. He was the biggest of the Fifties idols. He and the hotel he made were referred to by last names only. It was "Andrea;" it was "the Castle."
The bubble burst in 1975, shortly after Lefty Needham took over the Castle. Something was said between Lefty and Pat Andrea; something happened with their relationship -- nobody knows what -- and Andrea never stepped foot into the hotel again. I asked Lefty about it once, and his answer was puzzling. "He thinks he's a better American than I am," Lefty said of Andrea. "I don't want to hear his name again!" That was that!
"Slim, would you give us both your report and Arlene's? I know you've been covering the entertainment situation for her this past week."
Purdy's request brought me out of my reverie, and in a transition worthy of a PR man, I'm proud to say, and one that even brought a slight smile to my face, I began, "This hotel could profit by having Pat Andrea playing its showroom again." I thought I might be taking a chance, mentioning the singer's name in front of Lefty's widow, but if I was, Arlene's stonefaced stare didn't reveal anything.
"Our review 'Cozy At The Castle' continues in our showroom," I continued, "and Tommy Lake is still breaking them up in the Moat." I was being somewhat facetious with the business about Tommy. "As far as how well we're doing, I think the question is better asked how badly we're doing. Since the decision was made to go from a star policy in our showroom to a musical revue, it's no secret that business has fallen off. On the other hand, as Arlene correctly has pointed out ... " I nodded to the dowager ... "a $30,000 per week revue is a lot easier for this hotel to handle than a $150,000-a-week big name.
"As far as PR goes, needless to say, the fact that Lefty was killed in such an ugly manner has scared people away from the hotel. It's tough to overcome the bad publicity this quickly. Perhaps when the cops catch the murderers, then people can be convinced that the hotel is not going to have some other grisly killing, perhaps even on our property. In the meantime, there will be less and less of the murder in the local papers as time wears on. More importantly, there hasn't been anything In the LA papers since the weekend. When they catch the killers, then we expect there'll be a lot more in print, and that's the kind of print we should all be looking forward to."
I paused and winced. I had ended my sentence with a preposition.
Purdy was pleased with whatever way I had ended my sentence and my report. He obviously wanted to get on with the meeting. The "go-around," as the staff called department head reports, was always tedious, and the last person in the circle invariably was cut short.
"Thank you, Slim. It's now my pleasure to introduce our guest who's been at the Vegas Castle for three days. You may have seen him at the funeral yesterday, and since his arrival, he's been taking a close look at our operation. Mr. Francis Weatherbee is Vice President of Customer Relations at the State Bank of Illinois, the bank that holds the mortgage on the Vegas Castle. He nodded to Weatherbee, who nodded back.
Weatherbee, a rather large man, was attired in a gray three-piece suit, a white shirt, and blue tie with thin red stripes. Central Casting, with the cooperation of Wardrobe, couldn't have sent a more typical banker, dressed more typically. He looked like the Weatherbee that was the principal in the Archie comic strip. He wore half-glasses, halfway down on his nose. He was bald at the top of his head, and his graying hair formed a wrap atop his ears and in back. Short sideburns topped a clean-shaven, pudgy red face.
"Thank you, George. And thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for the hospitality you've shown me these past few days. I can honestly say that the Vegas Castle Hotel is still the hospitality leader of Las Vegas. I don't know when I've been treated so graciously."
Right, Francis! Sure!
The room was absolutely still, except for Weatherbee's crisp, solid voice.
"But, these last few days have been troublesome as well. With all due respect, madam," he said, nodding to Arlene, "the State Bank of Illinois has lost a fine customer with the loss of Mr. Needham. And the Vegas Castle Hotel has lost a devoted owner.
"The circumstance of Mr. Needham's untimely demise has required that I undertake the unenviable task of looking at the finances of the Vegas Castle Hotel, and those finances are not good. As we are the bank that holds the mortgage on the hotel, and since the hotel has frequently over the past few months been in arrears in paying that mortgage, I have been sent to Las Vegas to assess the situation.
"First, let me say that Mr. Needham, during his years as hotel president, had continuously found ways to overcome the financial pinches into which the hotel had strayed. He has rearranged this facility's debt, he had borrowed from other sources, and he had worked out payment plans with his creditors. There is, however, a limit to the borrowing, the rearranging of debt, and the stretching out of payment plans. Mr. Needham, in fact, was reaching the financial danger point at the time of his passing. That danger point, ladies and gentlemen, is now upon this hotel. The situation is critical."
And then, Weatherbee really got to the point: "Unless significant, imaginative steps are taken, and taken now, this hotel will default on its mortgage. The State Bank of Illinois would then be forced, in carrying out its fiduciary responsibility to its own investors and depositors, to assume ownership of this property. And given the likelihood that the Vegas Castle would not be able to recover from default, we would be forced to put the hotel up for sale. And finally, given the likelihood that no buyer would step forward that would be able to give us a fair price for the hotel and still pay off its outstanding debts, we would be forced to close the hotel. In accordance with our own policies, it would remain closed and be sold at auction.
"Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, even in an auction situation, I don't think anyone would want to buy the Vegas Castle and be saddled with these operating costs and debts. In short, I am forced to give the Vegas Castle 30 days to come up with a viable plan for survival, a plan that would generate enough revenue to avoid default. In the absence of any such plan, the State Bank of Illinois will close the Vegas Castle permanently, and, I'm afraid, you will all be out of jobs.
"George has all the figures and the details. I'm sorry I could not be more encouraging, but I hope you understand that I'm merely the messenger of the bad news. I cannot change the facts."
A Little Tax Matter
"Honey, you know I still love you." Some man was calling me "honey" and telling me he still loved me.
"Who is this?" I asked.
"Who's this? Where's Pinky?"
"Look, pal, Im Pinky's boss. Hold on a minute, willya?"
I pressed the hold button on Pinky Dawson's latest and hit the only other lighted line.
" ... It's not a question of my not loving you, Sweetie. It's that awful thing you did to me in bed ... " This time, I recognized the voice.
"Pinky, this is Slim. Is this call for me?"
Another voice answered, another woman's voice: Slim, this is Sandra Emerson. What the hell is going on there? Who is that person, and why is she talking to me like that?"
"Oh, hi, Sandra. Pinky, take your call on line two. This one's mine." Pinky didn't answer. She was probably embarrassed. I heard her hang up and watched the blinking hold light on the second line go solid.
"Sorry about that, Sandra, a little mix-up with phone lines, obviously. What were you two talking about, anyway, and did Pinky realize she had the FBI on the phone?"
"Very funny, Slim. I didn't know what was going on, but I was trying to recall which of the many interstate communications laws this woman was breaking. Do you happen to know why I was being propositioned and critiqued sexually in the same conversation, woman to woman at that?"
If nothing else, and she was plenty else -- like sexy -- Sandra Emerson was clever. You don't have to be clever to be an FBI agent, but I suppose it helps! I remember, not long ago, hearing in the news about an FBI agent accused of being duped by a female Soviet agent -- a Mata Hari, of sorts. This guy was hardly clever and hardly a credit to J. Edgar's Bureau! He also had pretty poor taste in women, considering that his Mata Hari looked like she could barely fit into a size-46 borscht belt.
But if that Russian was typical of Soviet womanhood in the latter part of the Twentieth Century, Sandra was what the script calls for an American woman to be.
She was direct from Central Casting, answering the call for a Ms. Magazine woman -- confident, beautiful, always in command of herself and the situation, the kind of woman who routinely wraps men around her little finger.
"Sorry, Sandra. My secretary has problems with things mechanical. But never mind that. To what do I owe the pleasure of your call ... business?" Pretty good line, Slim, considering it was off the top of your head.
To my surprise, Sandra replied, "You're right, Slim. This is Bureau business. How did you know?"
"It is? You are? I mean, this IS Bureau business?"
Suddenly, Fred Astaire had become Don Knotts. I was hardly expecting that she really was calling on business. After all, the business she was in was ... well, you know!
Then I said it: "Wow!"
My "wow" must have really impressed Sandra. For several moments, she didn't say anything. Neither did I, and the silence was deafening.
Finally, she spoke. "You did say 'wow,' didn't you?"
"Sorry, Sandra! I sound like a kid. It's just that I don't often get calls from FBI agents, especially business calls from beautiful female agents."
Once again, she paused before answering, and I realized I was getting in deeper. What the hell possesses me? I'm a goddamn PR man! Words are my business!
"Well, thank you, Slim. I'm not sure I deserve that, but I thank you, nevertheless." My God, she was every bit as cool as I was moronic!
Then she got down to business, and it was business, as she had said. "I'm calling on a Federal tax matter which may involve you. Now, don't get worried, Slim, you don't owe the government thousands of dollars, but it is important for the Bureau to talk with you. I've been elected, because, as I told my boss, you and I are next-door neighbors."
Now it was my turn to pause. "Uh, don't get worried, Sandra? The FBI calls me to talk about a 'little tax matter,' and you say, 'Don't get worried?' Geez" -- yeh, I really said Geez -- "what should I do if not get worried? What's my crime? What little tax matter?"
"For starters, Slim, I'd be happy to explain to you in person. You can let me buy you lunch."
"Huh?" I was obviously at my articulate best in this conversation!
"That's right, Slim. How about meeting me downtown for lunch today, say at the Mint?"
"We can eat here, at the Castle," I offered.
"No." Sandra was quick to say the word. "Let's eat downtown, at the Mint coffee shop!"
Never one to turn down a lunch with a pretty lady and hardly ever one to be offered lunch by one, I was out of my office, downstairs, and in a thrice, headed downtown to the Mint. Well, in Miss Nomer, if not in a thrice!
I was eager and at the same time reluctant to see Sandra. I'll admit I was smitten with her. In fact, during the first few months after she moved into my building, I asked her out about once a week, but each time she turned me down, claiming Bureau work was keeping her too busy, or that she had to go out of town. Sandra claimed she frequently traveled for the Bureau. She said she traveled a lot to Reno, which, she explained, was part of the FBI Las Vegas Bureau territory. She also occasionally used LA, Phoenix, or even Washington as travel alibis. But, after a few of those excuses, I figured the truth was simply that she wasn't interested.
The relationship between us, what little there was, developed into a polite, neighborly one. We'd exchange how-hot-the-weather-is chit-chat in the elevator as we brought up our respective grocery bags, or would talk detergent and fabric softener down on the first floor, at the washing machines. Then, I'd go into my apartment and fantasize into the night about how it could have been between us.
This business about "a little tax matter" had me more than a little nervous. This had already been a murderous week for me, no pun intended. Lefty's death and the hotel's imminent demise were plenty to deal with. Now, "a little tax matter" with the FBI was just terrific! As I drove into town, I tried to remember what H&R Block had done for me. I wondered if my ex had anything to do with this, whether she had claimed that I wasn't paying her alimony or child support, and whether the Feds were questioning my deductions in that regard. No, that couldn't have been it! Ive claimed those deductions for years!
I tried to reconstruct in my mind what I had told the kid at H&R Block, the one who was doing my taxes. I remember he was a part-timer; he told me his full-time job was on the graveyard shift in the Riviera casino cage. What did I tell him? What deductions did I list that now might be called into question? I wondered briefly if my claim of $500 in cash donations to church collection trays might have been discovered as phony, especially considering I was, and still am, an atheist and hadn't been in a church, temple, or mosque in ages.
And then, it occurred to me, as I waited for the light at Sahara, why would the FBI, and not the IRS, be calling me about a "little tax matter?" What was going on?
I'd find out soon enough, and in the meantime, I tried to put it out of my mind. I'd think about Sandra. Seeing her was always a treat, and to have lunch with her -- on our first date at that -- would be special!
I was right; it was special!
To get to the Mint, in Las Vegas's honky-tonk downtown section, I had to drive right past the FBI office, which is located just off the Strip halfway downtown on West Charleston. Sandra could have driven to the Vegas Castle from her office a lot more easily than to the Mint, and I remember musing, as I drove, as to why she insisted on both of us having to go out of our way.
I pulled up to the valet parking lane at the Mint, grabbed my claim ticket from the attendant, and pushed through the glass doors leading into the air-conditioned casino, leaving the 109-degree noontime heat behind me. It was possible, what with air-conditioned cars, valet parking, and air-conditioned buildings, to live nearly one's entire life in Las Vegas without being seared by the intolerable summer heat. But to do so, one becomes a prisoner of the indoors; you can't take a lunchtime walk to clear the cobwebs; you can't open your car windows to enjoy the breeze. The air-conditioning was essential, but it contributed to the artificiality of Las Vegas.
The downtown hotels, however, displayed less of the phoniness apparent on the Strip. To me, downtown was reminiscent of New York's Times Square or Boston's Combat Zone crowded, less tidy, noisier than it should be. It had a get-rich-quick-for-less attitude that didn't seem to be present at the huge Strip hotels. On the Strip, palaces and castles housed the nobility. Downtown, nickels and pennies were the coin of the realm.
Del Webb's Mint Hotel, as it was still called some 20 years after Webb had died, is one of my favorite casinos downtown. Webb once owned the Sahara hotels; he even once owned the New York Yankees. He was a real estate mogul, the founder of Phoenix's Sun City housing complex for the elderly. He was a unique character for Las Vegas. He wasn't Mob, as far as anyone knew. He just had a lot of money and spent much of it in Vegas, Reno, and Tahoe buying up some of the state's best casino properties. When he died, the Del E. Webb Company owned the Sahara Hotels in those three gambling Meccas. The company also owned the Mint, a hotel-casino property in the then-tiny Colorado River boomtown of Laughlin, and several hotels in Arizona, California, and Hawaii. But, when Webb died, the company also began its long but steady slide downhill. Based in Phoenix near much of its non-casino real estate holdings, the Webb Company became caught in the web of late 1970's high inflation and higher interest rates.
After borrowing huge amounts of money to upgrade its long-neglected casino properties, Webb executives and shareholders watched the rates rise on their loans and costs increase on their construction projects, until what Wall Streeters would call the company's "debt to equity ratio" was perilously close to sending Webb into bankruptcy. The cash generated by its casinos just wasn't sufficient to deal with loans that floated with increasingly higher interest rates, and a sale of assets was the only medicine to be prescribed. And the only saleable assets the company had were its hotels.
Within a few months of each other, the Saharas were sold, and in Las Vegas all that was left in Webb's dell by the early 1980s was the Mint. By the end of the decade, even the Mint had been sold.
I crossed the busy and noisy casino and headed for the coffee shop and my meeting with FBI agent Sandra Emerson. She was already sitting in a corner booth near the back of the room and waved to get my attention as I approached. She looked magnificent. Who would have believed it? This woman was a Fed, an FBI agent. And who, least of all me, would have believed it she was asking me out to lunch. Granted, it was Bureau business, this "little tax matter," she said, but it was still lunch, just the two of us for a quiet bite to eat in a corner of a coffee shop amidst the anonymity of downtown Las Vegas.
"Hi!" Good starter, Slim. You wordsmiths sure know the right things to say!
"Hi, yourself!" Great! Now, she was making fun of me, Baccalling my Bogart. For a moment, I considered leaning over to her and placing a kiss on her cheek, like one would normally do on seeing an old friend of the opposite sex. But, this was "Bureau business," about that "little tax matter," and kissing, even the polite, on-the-cheek variety, seemed out of place. So, I sat down at the table, obediently placed my napkin on my lap, and automatically opened the menu at my place setting.
We, or to be exact, I, got right to business. "I'm intrigued, and I confess" -- did I say, confess? -- "I'm worried by your invitation."
Sandra, up close, was pretty. She wasn't glamorous, not a Las Vegas chorus line type, nor movie star beautiful. But, that day at the Mint, she was very pretty. Her short black hair framed a petite face. Her brown eyes and small, ski-jump nose and demure mouth seemed just the right size for her. A thin, athletic woman, she was dressed in a green print blouse, a black skirt, and a solid green jacket. A bit overdressed to be a tourist, she was obviously a professional woman at work, but not a "working" woman of the type that proliferated downtown.
I figured her jacket was necessary even in the heat of the summer to hide her .38 revolver, or whatever piece the FBI carried now. I momentarily thought of that cheap joke about the broad with two .38s and a pistol. And then a brief picture of an FBI agent flashed through my mind, an agent pulling an Uzi submachine gun from under a jacket. Do FBI agents carry Uzis, or is that the Secret Service? But, it didn't matter, because then I remembered that female FBI agents in the movies carry their pieces in their purses.
"Slim, let's order." Sandra brought me out of my reverie. "We've got a lot to talk about."
Over my hamburger and French fries and her taco salad, she told me that the "little tax matter" didn't exist. It was just a ruse to get me downtown and out of the hotel for a private chat with her. I didn't press the matter, but the indication was that she was worried that my phone was possibly being bugged. Why else play that "little tax matter" game in our earlier conversation?
Sandra told me that the FBI wanted me to help with a project, a secret project. It was so secret, in fact, that the FBI couldn't even let me in on the whole story.
"Is this a joke, Sandra?" I asked, assuming at the same time that it couldn't be.
"No joke, Slim. All I can say, at least until you agree to hear a bit more of what we want you to do, is that you are in a perfect position, given your job and all, to help out the FBI and your country. I should add, however, that some danger to you would be involved, if you were to do what we're asking. I can't say any more, unless you wish to go on with this conversation." She paused, and when I said nothing: "So, do you want to go to the next step, to hear what we're asking?"
I thought for a moment, and I looked into her dark brown eyes. "Does this have anything to do with the murder of Lefty Needham last week?" I asked, speaking my mind, perhaps too abruptly. Before she could answer, I continued, "I, for one, know he wasn't Mob, and I think the FBI and Metro are wrong if they think he was a gangster."
"Maybe, Slim, Mr. Needham wasn't Mob," she said, putting her emphasis on the wasn't, "but I really can't say whether the investigation I'd like to talk to you about has anything to do with his murder. It possibly could."
Her answer struck me as being way too vague. I had the impression that Sandra knew more about Lefty's murder than she was telling me.
"We think Mr. Needham was killed by someone in organized crime," Sandra continued, "someone who may not have known him as well as you say you did. And even if he wasn't Mob, himself, not all Mob killings result in Mob deaths, you know."
She had me there, although it sounded a bit like twisted logic. I digested what she said, and went on, spurred by curiosity. "So, Sandra, what do you want me to do?"
"Are you saying you're interested in helping us, Slim, knowing that there might be some danger?"
I told her I was. If I could help in the investigation of Lefty's murder and also help myself to becoming closer to Sandra, then I could be brave. What the hell!
We suspended our conversation while the waitress cleared our table and asked for our dessert order. Neither of us ordered any, but both of us wanted another cup of coffee, if for no other reason than to be allowed to continue our meeting at the table. After the waitress finally left us in a sipping position, Sandra got to the heart of the matter.
We'd like you to keep an eye out for someone at the Vegas Castle," she told me, "someone who we believe to be an occasional guest there. When you see him, all you have to do is to notify the Bureau, to notify me. Then, while he's in the hotel, watch him as best you can without being noticed and let us know, or describe to us who he meets with, who he talks to, and things like that. If you are willing to do this, tell me now, Slim, and we'll go on to the next step."
"What's the next step?" I asked.
"I'll show you his picture."
I figured I couldn't lose by pressing a little. I was curious, after all. "Is this guy a suspect in Lefty's murder?" I asked Sandra.
"We're not sure," she answered, "but now you're asking me to talk about more than I can talk about. Slim, you'll have to trust me a little on this one. You're one of the few people at the hotel any of us at the Bureau know personally, and we need an insider to continue our investigation."
Now Sandra was telling me something else. "Hold it, Sandy." I realized I was calling her Sandy rather than Sandra for the first time. "What do you mean to 'continue your investigation?' Are you saying that someone else at the Castle was helping you, and that now that someone else isn't there to help any more? Someone like Lefty? Is that it, Sandy? Was Lefty working with the Feds? And is that why he..."
"Whoa! Slow down, Slim!" Sandra was smiling, but the smile seemed a bit ingenuous to me at the time. "Don't let your imagination get away from you. I told you that Mr. Needham was probably killed by someone in organized crime. I know how you felt about him, but please don't confuse things."
What was she saying now? Was this guy she wanted me to spy on, was he a Mobster, or was she eliminating him from suspicion of being a Mobster?
She was not smiling now. "My request is based on nothing more complicated than the FBI needing a person who's somewhere we can't be to do something we can't do. I wouldn't be asking you to do anything dangerous. I assure you. All we want, Slim, is for you to keep your eyes open for a man whose picture I'll show you if you agree to help us. Just watch for him and any strangers acting suspiciously around him, and just let us know. Let me know. I, for one, would sincerely enjoy working with you. You know I always liked you, and I really regret not having been able to go out with you all those times you asked. Really, Slim!"
That was the clincher! Case closed! The woman would 'sincerely enjoy working with me,' and, 'really regrets not having dated me...'
"Okay, Sandra. I'll help you out. But, keeping my eyes open for any strangers acting suspiciously is useless. This is Las Vegas, after all. We get 15 million strangers a year visiting this city. And the Vegas Castle is a hotel. We urge strangers to come in and stay overnight with us.
"And as for acting suspiciously, do you know how many husbands are in this town without their wives' knowledge, or wives without hubbie's OK? I would guess that on an average day, weve got 10,000 strangers in town acting suspiciously! I'll help you, but don't expect miracles!"
"Thank you, Slim. I won't expect miracles. I promise you. Now, I'd like to show you the suspect's picture." That was the first time she used the word 'suspect.' "I can't tell you his name though. You understand that, don't you?"
As she talked, Sandra pulled a picture out of her handbag and held it up for me to see. "Remember this face. We want to know when he's at the hotel and with whom he's talking. That's all. We don't want you to approach him. We don't want him to know you're even looking at him. Please, Slim, do just what we're asking and no more!"
I took the picture in my hands for a closer look. It looked like something off a driver's license, a straight-on head-and-shoulders color shot. The man was average-looking, blond, clean-shaven, wearing a solid red tie and navy jacket. About the only distinguishing feature he had, as the cops would say, was a mole under his right eye, like "John-Boy" on The Waltons.
"Can I have this picture?" I asked.
"No, I can't let you have it. You're going to have to remember what he looks like, Slim. You're an ex-reporter; you should be good with details."
I didn't remember ever telling Sandra that I was an ex-reporter. Not many people in Vegas knew that, aside from a few reporters on the Sun and Review-Journal and my buddy with the AP. It's just not the type of subject that comes up in everyday conversation. But, I might have been mistaken. Perhaps I did mention it to her once upon a time, maybe when I was asking her out those first few months, trying to impress her.
Or, maybe the Bureau had run a check on me. Maybe I was a suspect in the murder of Lefty Needham, and all this was a trick by Sandra, or agent Emerson to be exact, to get me to say something.
"Are you being honest with me, Sandra? I mean, tell me, because now you're asking me to get involved in something I know very little about, something that, if you're involved in it, may be dangerous. I am a devout coward, you know."
"Really, Slim, all we're asking you is to keep your eyes open on your job, and let us know if you see this guy and who he's talking to. That's all. We're not asking you to carry a gun or to round up a ring of spies, er ... or Mobsters, singlehandedly. You needn't, and shouldn't, approach this guy, and everything will be fine. We would prefer to keep in the background. That's why I must ask you to keep our arrangement a complete secret. Please don't tell anyone at the hotel what you're doing, not even your security people. In this way, we can stay out of the hotel ourselves and still have someone inside at the same time. I wish I could say more, but that will have to wait until some time in the future. For now, that's all I can say. End of story."
I considered in silence what she said. I sipped some coffee. She did too. I think what tipped the scale in her favor was the smile she gave me, just when she noticed me staring at her.
"OK, I'll do it, Sandra, I'll watch for John-Boy, here. And if I see him talking to anyone, Ill tell you."
"And Slim, the Bureau prefers that we do all of our future talking at the apartment house. Let's try to avoid being seen together anywhere else, at least until after our investigation is over. Okay with you?"
I had plenty of questions, but I could see that Sandra wasn't going to give me any more answers. Not now, anyway.
"Okay, Sandy, from now on, it's your place or mine!" I smiled.
And, for onlythe second time in our meeting, Sandra also smiled.