Story by Robb White / Illustration by Jihane Mossalim
“You red down below, too?”
The remark was made at the same time our cocktail waitress set our drinks in front of us: two Gin and Sins for Stu and Clifford, my new companions just in from Ohio, one Gimlet for me. The place was pushing gin for some reason. Her name was Patricia or Pamela, the bartender Sam had mentioned to me a day ago, but I couldn’t recall.
“Buzz off, wise guy,” she said.
“Hey, cutie, how about a little backseat bingo with me after work?”
She ignored Clifford, but she pocketed my dollar bills and another for her tip.
“Big spender, ain’t you?” Cliff said. He had a horse laugh that showed his open mouth all the way to his tonsils.
Pamela or Patricia was from Oklahoma and she was one of the thousands of people pouring into Vegas every month hoping to land some of the money being thrown around this desert boomtown. She made a buck an hour; everybody in Vegas except the musicians and the casino acts get paid one dollar an hour. But you walk home at night leaning to one side from all the silver dollar tips in your pocket.
I turned to Clifford and asked him if he could get his mind back on the subject.
Our waitress gave Clifford a look that could fry an egg on a sidewalk out there.
“I mean, like, she’s got a mop of red hair like, uh, what’s her name?” Clifford said. He was ignoring me and talking to his longtime friend Stu.
“Yeah,” Stu said, “I know who you mean. That broad with the flaming red hair. Her name’s Agnes—Agnes—”
“Moorhead,” I said. “Gentlemen, do you think we could focus our attention back to the real subject at hand?”
Stu was actually older by six or seven years, but I’d have said he was at the same age, mentally speaking, as his buddy Cliff. They were cellmates together fresh out of the Mansfield Reformatory. I’d done some time in Ohio myself but not there. I called Frankie Carvallho back in Cleveland. We grew up in Collinwood. I told him I needed two “heavy” guys for a job out here. He sent me these two clowns; after a few days of trying to set up the score with them, get the layout right, I had enough acid in my stomach to dissolve a half-mile of railroad track.
We hadn’t sat down in this second-rate Burly-Q joint off Fremont more than five minutes before Cliff wants to talk about the cup size of Tempest Storm because her name was on the marquee as a coming attraction. That precipitated a tense discussion between him and Stu over whose nipples were more prominent—Blaze Starr’s or Tempest’s. “Like eraser tips, man, I seen ‘em up close in Cleveland,” Stu yelled across the table.
Every time we got together it was like this. I felt like my old elementary school teacher back at St. Paul’s where Frankie and I went to grade school—except I didn’t have a ruler in my hands to smack the shit out of my two misbehaving students.
“Look, fellows,” I said, “we’re looking at twenty-five to life, minimum, if this job goes bad. By the time you two come out, you’ll think you’re in a Buck Rogers movie.”
“Don’t be such a wet dishrag, Daddy-O,” Cliff said.
“We’re just having some fun here, Mack,” Stu said. “You need to loosen up a bit.”
Frankie did give me a warning about Cliff when we spoke on the phone. He said he was the one I had to keep my eye on because of his temper. Cliff did his time for manslaughter. His pal Stu was a rubber check artist. Cliff didn’t like taking orders from me instead of his partner and pal, but the three-way split was keeping him in line so far.
“You guys need to understand one thing very clearly,” I said. I leaned across the table to glare at both of them. “Moe Dalitz fronted the Sahara’s money. We’re taking his money, not those Mormon businessmen who signed the paperwork.” Moe’s name worked a little better at getting their attention than the idea of a long prison sentence. Taking mob money at any time, from any establishment, was a colossal risk no matter what.
But the time was perfect. Frankie had overheard one of Dalitz’s top boys say the Sahara was changing security procedures at the casino. Things were changing fast everywhere. Vegas had a TV station now. Clifford asked Stu how pictures can be transported through the air and come out like that. His brains were mostly in his Duck Butt hairstyle. It just opened a year ago like so many casinos. They were sprouting up faster than toadstools after a summer rain—The Sands, The Fremont, and The Royal Nevada. The paper said more hotels were going up next year. Benny Binion turned the old Eldorado Club into Binion’s Horseshoe Casino and gave it a riverboat theme—in the middle of a desert. Nothing was too looney for Vegas, but people were saying the boom was ending and all those Hollywood stars knocking down thousands for a couple weeks at the Copa room like Judy Garland, Lena Horne, and Red Skelton would be out of luck in a year. I had stopped here on my way to California for training before shipping overseas and all I can remember is some broken-down gas stations, a wooden shack of a diner, and tumbleweeds blowing through Main Street.
“Say, Mack, before we go back into the details, I’m a little short. Can you spot me a few bucks?”
Stu was losing his shirt every night at the Golden Nugget.
“Sure,” I said, “Here’s a sawbuck. Try to make it last.”
“Daddy-O,” Cliff said. “How about throwing some bread my way while you’re at it? I could use a little extra cabbage for my big date tonight.”
Clifford was trying to screw every chorus girl in town. He reminded me of a guy I served with who was always coming down with “drippy dick” in Italy where the clap was spread around like wildfire after the Krauts were defeated.
I took them both through it one more time, avoiding big words for Cliff’s sake but his eyes started to glaze over anyhow. He wasn’t big on planning, he said.
“I’m ready to go right now, damn it!” was his recurring theme song.
“Two more days,” I said. “Tomorrow we do a dry run to make sure nothing has changed. We go on the sixteenth, like I said.”
It had to be the 19th of May. That was the day the U.S. government was setting off its 32-kilioton bomb the Las Vegas Sun said was named “Harry.” You’d see the mushroom cloud from all the hotels in town. The detonation site was Yucca Flats just sixty miles northwest of us. Those people over there in St. George, Utah were going to get a metallic, ashy taste in their mouths once more because the winds blow in that direction.
But here, it’s a different matter. The people and the casinos make a big deal of advertising it; they sell Atomic cocktails for thirty-five cents, the salons feature Atomic hairdos, and Atomic hamburgers are sold in the drive-ins. The Sands has a Miss Atomic Energy competition with women decked out in mushroom cloud costumes. It’s a money-maker. It takes people’s minds off their jobs for a short while. They get three sheets to the wind at “bomb parties” until dawn and forget all about the Red Menace for a while.
Army convoy trucks will be driving through all day long. That’s how we’re blending in: a couple soldiers in uniform on leave in Sin City and one guy, me, dressed in khaki like every other jamoke around town working for a living.
I parted ways with Stu and Cliff in front of the Pioneer Club.
“Howdy, podner!” the forty-foot neon cowboy sign attached to the Pioneer Club bellowed and waved his massive mechanical arm in a greeting. The locals were sick of hearing Vic every fifteen minutes, every day, all night, but I was impressed. I like mechanical things and how they operate.
“Man,” Cliff said, “can’t they shut that big goofball off? He’s really beginning to bug me.”
I looked up at Vegas Vic, one of the names I’d heard locals call him; he looked jaunty in his yellow cowboy shirt, spurs, and with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
I took out my Lucky Strikes and of course Stu and Cliff both had to bum a cigarette right away. Despite the hot breeze blowing down the Strip from the desert, I managed to light all three before I realized what I had done.
“Three on a match,” Stu said. “That’s bad luck.”
“Come on, Stu,” Cliff said; “let’s agitate the gravel.”
I watched them cross the street and get lost in the crowds of tourists, the mopes with their ordinary lives and thirty-year mortgages back in Kansas City and Detroit.
Rehearsal day went surprisingly well. I noticed a difference between Stu and Cliff. Cliff was talking less, a little meaner, more intent on business. Stu and I had to pull him away from a couple on the Strip that afternoon because he’d called the guy a “faggot” for wearing a yellow silk shirt. I knew at a glance the man was Louis Prima and his wife Keely Smith. Most musicians on the Strip did gigs on the side because the competition for them was fierce.
Not only was Clifford hyped for the job but something else—I caught looks being exchanged between him and Stu as we covered our route from our staging area—an abandoned warehouse on Smoke Ranch Road—to the casinos and back to divide the take. Frankie back in Cleveland was getting a full ten percent of my share of the swag for a finder’s fee.
It wasn’t that hard to figure out. I’ve been around tough guys in combat and in a few prisons across the country, and I’ve learned to pay attention to them because your life can depend on a look or a word from them. Not the phony tough guys. The real ones, who might not look that different from you or me if you passed them on the street. These are the guys that could kill you, sit down on your dead body and calmly eat a sandwich. Cliff and Stu didn’t qualify—just loudmouths, amateurs.
Even though I didn’t let them think our take from the Sahara’s counting room was going to be more than twenty-two, twenty-five thousand tops, I knew it could easily go up to thirty-five, given the circus atmosphere in town leading up to the A-bomb explosion. Even Cliff could do simple division and figure out a half-share beats a third. It wasn’t the first time I was about to lead a team that planned to cut me out, and being the cynic I am about human nature, I didn’t think it would be the last. The desert’s plenty big and there’s a lot of room to dig a shallow grave out there. Cliff wasn’t even smart enough to hold back the look he shot Stu when I handed out the rods.
“Yours is a decoration, Stu,” I said. “You keep it holstered unless there’s a big emergency—and I mean one goddamned big emergency.”
He nodded and slid the .38 in its holster. Our drab olive uniforms were purchased a week earlier from an Army surplus. Stu’s uniform came with sergeant’s chevrons because he was much older. Cliff and I were going in with the guns drawn once we’d overpowered the two armored car guys. That was a bonus, in fact, to Frankie’s tip about the changes coming to the Sahara’s weak security system. The guys who escorted the money from the casino looked young and fit. If I had to guess, they were combat vets like me and it was crucial we got the drop on them fast.
But the driver and the lone security guard for the armored truck company looked like a pair of heart attacks waiting to happen: overweight, gray-haired, and near-sighted middle-aged men in their early sixties. I reconned their movements for two weeks straight. They made a routine stop at the A & W Root Beer Drive-In before the first of three smaller pickups before the Sahara. The girls were young and pretty and they served customers’ orders on roller skates carrying their trays aloft. When a pretty, busty carhop rolled up to my window, Cliff shouted from the back seat of my DeSoto sedan, he’d like a couple Coney Islands, ketchup and relish, hold the onions, and some of her deep-dish cleavage. I cringed, but by then, I was counting the minutes until the heist and hoping nothing was going to make me famous before then. I pulled up next to them three different occasions and could hear the guards talking, windows rolled down, smoking cigarettes, and ogling the girls on skates.
We dressed in our uniforms, mine was all khaki and the cap was doctored to look like the one with the armored car company logo, a close enough approximation. Stu and Cliff pulled their fatigue caps low over their ears, and made sure we had everything for the job including duct tape, knife, a couple changes of clothes, duffel bags.
Cliff made a big show of asking Stu if he had his train ticket.
“We’ll be on that night train to Santa Fe,” Cliff said and winked at me.
The armored truck left the warehouse in North Vegas on East Lake Mead Boulevard at the same time every afternoon and stopped at the drive-in almost within fifteen minutes of departure from the warehouse either way.
We followed the truck onto Interstate 15 and kept pace with the truck. The traffic was always heavy and gave good cover. We knew they’d make what was probably an unscheduled stop at the drive-in before their first stop at South Casino Central Boulevard. Besides the casinos, they had contracts to make pick-ups at some manufacturing businesses.
It was a furniture factory where we were going to make the jump. It was approachable from one direction and it forced the driver of the armored car to do an awkward three-corner turn. Stu kept the car running while I opened the hood and Cliff pretended to be tinkering with a mechanical problem. The driver looked over at us; then Stu got out and looked under the hood while Cliff grabbed his smokes and shook one out. “Got a match?” he said. We shook our heads and went back to looking at the engine. My heart was beating faster now, and I had to slow my breathing. Stu was sweating perspiration off his forehead so hard it made sizzling drops on the engine block.
“Easy, easy,” I told him. “Just relax.”
When the guard came out swinging his bag over his shoulder and squinting into the late afternoon sunlight, Cliff casually approached him and asked for a light for his cigarette. Before the guard could answer, Cliff’s other hand was pushing his .38’s barrel into his fat stomach and I was up on the running board with my own gun barrel brushing the ear lobe of the driver.
“Open the door, fat man,” I said, “and move over.”
Cliff walked the security guard to the back of the truck, well out of view of anyone standing near the factory’s windows.
“Open it or you’ll die right here,” he ordered the man.
I had my driver’s hands taped in front of him. He was breathing hard. I was afraid he might have his heart attack right there.
Long seconds elapsed. Nothing. Finally, I heard the back door open and slam shut. A few seconds later, two distinct taps against the metal sides told me everything was good back there. I drove while Cliff duct-taped the guard in the back. I’d done plenty of driving over rough terrain for the Army. This was a piece of cake.
“Stay calm,” I told the driver next to me. “Nothing will happen to you. This isn’t your money. You’ll go home to your family if you stay calm and do what I say.”
I pulled into the Sahara lot and Stu pulled in next to me. We exchanged places.
“Don’t talk to him,” I said. “Just sit there.”
Cliff and the security guard stepped out of the back of the truck and came up to me.
“You know what you’re supposed to do, right?”
He nodded. The sheen of perspiration on his face glistened. He had the beginning of a mouse under his left eye where Cliff must have hit him.
“He couldn’t get the key—”
“Never mind. Wipe his face off,” I told him.
“There’s no friggin’ fan back there, man,” he said.
The security man’s shirt collar was wet and the buttons down his front were already from the fear he exuded.
“Remember, I’m a trainee. My name is Sam. That’s easy to remember. Don’t talk to anybody unless they speak to you first. I’ll have this gun on you under my jacket the entire time. No mistakes and you’ll come out of this fine.”
We headed for the back of the Sahara where the counting room had been relocated far from the casino floor adjacent to the back of the parking lot. It was a design error that was going to be fixed in the coming renovation.
We walked slowly together but his breathing was labored and he grunted with every step.
“Stop moaning like that,” I ordered him.
As he knocked on the door, I continued to whisper soothing things to him.
The man who let us in wore a white shirt and plastic black bow tie. He looked more like a pit boss than a security guard.
“The damn air-conditioner’s on the fritz again,” he complained.
“Yeah, it’s hot,” the security guard beside me said.
I nudged him with the gun to remind him not to talk.
He walked ahead of us to the small caged room where three people, two men and a woman wearing tight black Capri pants and a striped blouse that exposed the tops of her breasts; they were sorting bills and stacking silver dollars on a stainless steel table under very bright lights. They were all talking excitedly about the bomb that had gone off a few moments ago.
“I seen that mushroom cloud on my way in,” the woman said and popped her gum.
Three heavy-duty canvas bags were loaded up with money banded by denomination.
“Who’s the new guy, Joe?”
One of the men was looking my way. I smiled at him and gave him what I hoped passed for an “aw, shucks” look—the new guy about to be teased all over again.
“He’s a—he’s a new guy. Ss-steve, his name’s Steve.”
The man came over to check me out up close. He was big, about two-fifty, heavy-joweled, dark from his beard right up to just beneath his eyes. A single black eyebrow line extended from beneath a forehead that would have made for a good imitation of a Neanderthal. The fat gold watch on his hairy wrist didn’t look fake. I took him to be the boss of this section.
He gave me his hand to shake. I took it but kept the barrel pointed at his stomach in case he was going to try something. He gave me one of those crusher handshakes.
“Joe here is mistaken,” I said and winced from the pain just to flatter his ego. I smiled big. “My name’s Sam.”
The big man let out a big laugh.
“Christ, we can’t keep our people straight either,” he said. “Hiring faster than we can handle them coming through the door.”
That’s when I noticed Joe looking as if he wanted to say something. His mouth twitched, but I pulled him aside and barked out a laugh to cover the moment.
“Come on, old timer, I have to keep learning the ropes. You can’t stay here all night admiring that pretty woman.”
The men laughed at Joe. I took the three bags from the man in the white shirt, and he led us toward the door. By now, sweat was dripping from my cap into my eyes and it stung.
“Keep moving,” I ordered him. “Don’t slow down.”
We made it to the truck and Cliff took over, leading him by the elbow back into the truck.
“Hurry it up,” he told me. “It’s an oven back here.”
Stu slid out of the seat and got in my car.
We left the same way we’d arrived. I doubted seven minutes had passed since we pulled in, but they were minutes stretched out to a hellish length. I had an urge to gun it all the way back to the staging area but resisted and drove the speed limit all the way.
Twenty minutes later, I was backing the truck into the loading dock of the warehouse well out of sight of the road. Stu was pulling the DeSoto in right in front of me. As I stepped out of the truck, I backed into a gun barrel. Cliff had jumped out and was holding the gun on me.
“Too bad for you, Mack,” he said, “or whatever your name is.”
He reached around me to remove the gun.
“Why is that, Clifford?”
“Because it’s the end of the line for you, tough guy. I’m sick of you and all your bullshit. You’re taking orders from me now. Thing is, you ain’t gonna be takin’ ‘em for long. That right, Stu, baby?”
Stu came up to me and swung a haymaker into my jaw. I fell backwards into the truck and slid to the ground. It wasn’t a bad punch, all things considered, but it wouldn’t have put me down if I didn’t want to go.
Stu and Cliff stood there admiring Stu’s work while I leaned over, moaning, as if hurt and unable to rise.
“Kill him, Cliffie boy,” Stu said. Put one right into his smart mouth.” He spat a gob of phlegm at me. His pasty white face in the bad lighting made it look as if he’d applied pancake make-up.
I feigned terror and raised my hands the way victims of murder often do.
“No, no, please,” I said.
Stu’s gun exploded in his hand. He let out a shriek of pain and grabbed the bloody stump of his hand. A bright ribbon of blood gushed from a severed artery.
“That took some talent to do, Cliffie boy,” I said, “because it could have sent shrapnel flying in all directions if it didn’t go right. I told you I have a knack for mechanical things.”
Stu dropped to his knees and let out a long, ear-piercing wail. Then he collapsed head-first to the grease-stained cement floor and lay there twitching. The geyser from his torn artery continued pumping in spurts; it was fascinating and obscene at the same time.
“Maybe you should help him stanch the blood,” I said. “He could bleed out on the floor.”
“More for me then,” Cliff said.
He really was dumber than he looked.
Cliff pointed the gun—and then stopped.
“Maybe you tricked my gun out, too, you slimy bastard. I’ll use your own gun.”
He stuck his in his pants and raised mine to finish me.
Click-click-click. Dry fire.
“What—what did you do? You went in there with an empty gun? Are you crazy—”
I’d had enough. It’s sheer vanity to play with your victims, and I had to use time to my advantage now. Moe Dalitz’s boys would have the word out and I didn’t want to waste it with this clown.
My other gun was also a Smith & Wesson but it had a two-inch barrel and it was strapped to my leg the night before we met at the staging area. I shot Cliff in the stomach and watched him jack-knife to the floor next to Stu.
I stood over him.
“I love these tiny bellyguns, don’t you? I wonder if some cowboy in the Old West first decided to saw off his revolver so it would come out of the holster faster—or maybe some Civil War soldier? I guess we’ll never know, will we?”
Cliff wasn’t listening to me, as usual. He was whimpering the whole time I talked, begging me not to kill him, and then I heard a loud noise like a balloon losing air that came from behind him. He’d shit himself, the hero.
I put one bullet in his right eye and then one to his temple while he was still thrashing on the floor.
The guards were next. The driver’s eyes got big when I yanked open the door.
“It’s better if you look away,” I said. I gestured for him to turn his head.
He obliged me. I shot him in the head before he could speak. He slumped against the passenger door.
The guard in the back of the truck wouldn’t come out. I didn’t blame him. He knew what was coming.
I was mindful of the fierce ricochet if I missed. I took my time and aimed. My shot took him in the chest and he fall backward. The boom of his body against the metallic floor was loud. He lay still. I didn’t buy the act however much I admired him for courage. A tiny bullet can’t knock a man off his feet like that. People see it everywhere nowadays on that newfangled invention, the TV set, in war movies and cowboy shows and so they think they have to fall down when they’re shot.
I grabbed one leg and hauled him out of the truck just in case my next slug bounced off skull bone and hit me in the leg. He was obese and all dead weight, which made for a terrific effort on my part, I can tell you. When his body thumped to the floor, he couldn’t help himself as a loud groan erupted from his chest. That told me he could have survived that first shot.
Not the next one; it went into his forehead and blew most of his brain matter to pulp. Twenty months of fighting in Italian Campaign from Palermo with Patton’s Eighth through the minefields of Foggia to the breakthrough at the Argenta Gap—too many places to remember where hot lead projectiles blew off body parts of the men beside me; it dulled me and a lot of my generation to bloody violence. America, I discovered, was too quiet when I got home, and selling shoes or wrapping pork chops in a grocery store for housewives didn’t have much appeal.
The garage floor was turning slick with blood. The tug of gravity pulled it this way and that, sometimes the streams merged and formed a pool or a tiny rivulet of blood would follow the skewed flooring into another direction. I watched it, marveling at the way gravity worked with all things human and otherwise. After a successful job, it’s easy to let your guard down and stay relaxed. But I knew better. I had a long way through the desert to drive.
I loaded the money bags into the trunk of the DeSoto, took a last long look at the bodies on the floor and headed out into the cool of an early evening. I figured the papers were right: Las Vegas was going nowhere. But there were always plenty of places to go and time to think about my next job. The stars come out early in the desert, not the kind on Fremont with all that glowing illumination from the signs and marquees drawing the suckers to the tables or that brighter illumination in the desert I just missed while I was following the armored truck to the Sahara.
I like driving at night. Come to think of it, I’ll be passing near Yucca Flats where they detonated “Harry” this afternoon. What an odd name for a bomb that can instantly blister the paint off a house from a mile away and then send a shock wave that would knock the whole house apart in seconds. I’ll probably get a mouthful of ash from the bomb, but what they hey. It’s a small price to pay for three bags of cold, hard cash. Which reminds me: Stu’s prediction of three on a match came true—for him and Cliff. But not me, baby. I’m home free.
“The Black Boy Who Reached For The Stars” by Jerry Cunningham
Illustration by Joseph Valesquez