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Friday, April 1, 2005, 3:58 P.M.
Here it was April Fool's Day, and Vanessa Delware was still in Boot Hill some joke.
The petite, pretty brunette barely seemed old enough to enter the Four Kings Hotel & Casino, let alone be a seasoned dealer. Even with her shoulder-length hair tucked up in a businesslike bun, and black plastic-rimmed glasses that made her large blue eyes look even bigger, she might have been a high school kid, though she was in fact twenty-one, her tightly packed little body swimming in the white frilly shirt with red bow tie, and black tuxedo slacks.
At least dealers didn't have to wear the skimpy outfits the barmaids did, not that that stopped drunks from grabbing at her and making salacious remarks. If this were Vegas, that sort of thing wouldn't have been tolerated. And anyway, Vegas promised a better class of groper.
Yet, here she still was in Boot Hill, working second shift, just as she had been for most of the last year. But Vanessa had vowed long ago that she would get out of Boot Hill growing up in a little bump in the road had been bad enough and contributed to the poor decision she'd made, putting out for a cute boy whose body piercings were many but whose prospects had been zero.
Pregnant at twenty, local girl Vanessa had found herself abandoned by her boyfriend ex-boyfriend, the loser and barely tolerated by her mother, who'd had enough trouble making her own ends meet since divorcing her loser husband when Vanessa was fifteen. Cody Jacks, a family friend who worked part-time at the Four Kings, had pulled some strings and helped Vanessa get the job. The casino was glad to train her a pretty young dealer was a nice draw (nicer draw than most card players otherwise got).
She'd taken this small opportunity to heart and vowed to make her life as a single mother succeed.
The plan had been formulated in the hospital. She and Cyndi, her infant daughter, would be in Vegas by next Thanksgiving . . . which became next Christmas, then Valentine's Day, and now here it was April Fool's Day and she was still tossing cards in Boot Hill, not in a glitzy casino along the Strip.
Of course, working here, sort of apprenticing here, had been part of the plan (even a cute girl couldn't walk in off the street and get hired in a top casino without credentials, without skills). But staying this long hadn't been.
Oh, she made decent money, really good tips some nights, but always there were bills and more bills (babies were expensive), and she just could not seem to get enough saved for her and Cyndi to make that mere fifty-mile move up the highway.
She hated her situation; she felt stranded in the midst of her own life. Vegas was the promised land, so very close and yet always just out of reach. . . .
Usually around this time of day, the casino was empty, most tourists either having an early dinner or in their rooms resting before the night's attack on the gaming tables. Around her blackjack station, bells tinkled, whistles blew, and the slots made their various obnoxious noises over the piped-in country-western music, the whoosh of the air-conditioning, and the chatter of the gamblers who were scattered around the casino's convention center-size floor. The cacophony barely registered with Vanessa, who had long ago learned to tune it out. She concentrated on the cards . . . and the people.
Unlike on most days at a slow time like this, Vanessa found herself with three gamblers seated at every other chair of the seven places at her table. To her left, a fortyish fat man in denim shorts and a souvenir T-shirt ("Go to Boot Hill and Live!") constantly had to be reminded about the hand signals used in the game to aid security cameras in following the action. At center sat a younger guy, mid-thirties with a nice build and an okay face; beyond him, a busty middle-aged woman with weary features and dyed blond hair was clad in a beige sweater and tan skirt.
All three were losing only the guy in the center seemed to have any idea how to play and they were all chain-smoking. Vanessa knew she shouldn't be annoyed by that heavy smokers were an occupational hazard but why couldn't they have plopped down across the aisle at Laura's table? Laura smoked even more than they did!
No, they had to gather around Vanessa's table, constantly belching fumes in her direction; and what with the way they were losing, she had absolutely no tip to look forward to.
Even if she was the dealer, Vanessa felt like the real loser, on a day like this. . . .
"Hit me," the guy on the left said, hands on the table's edge.
"Sir . . . your hand signal?" she reminded him for what felt like the hundredth time (though the guy had been playing barely ten minutes).
The guy gave her a "sorry" shrug, made the proper gesture, and she hit his fifteen with a queen and busted him out of another five dollars, which she swept away as if it had never existed.
The younger center-seated guy offered up a sympathetic smile and tapped the table for a hit on his thirteen. She fed him a three, his smile got broader, then he tapped the table again and she busted his sixteen with a seven. His smile quickly disappeared, his body not far behind as he spun off the stool and stalked off.
The weary woman down at the end took a drag on her cigarette and decided to stand on her fifteen after watching what had happened to her compatriots. Flipping her hand, Vanessa showed a seventeen and sucked up the chips from the woman, just as she had with the other two.
Scanning the room slowly, she mindlessly dealt another round to the two losers. Even though she gave them an empty smile with each card, she was paying them only the barest attention now as her eyes caught a group across the casino, a regiment of leather-clad bikers emptying from the three elevators the Predators.
Here for the annual Boot Hill Biker Blowout, the Predators had been spending one week a year in town for as far back as Vanessa could remember. Many retailers had ceased to see the advantage of having several-hundred-plus rowdy bikers around, even if they were pumping money into the local economy. She'd on more than one occasion overheard some merchants bitching that the Biker Blowout was turning their "fair city" into Boot Hell.
Hypocritical jerks, Vanessa thought. The city fathers gladly accepted the bikers' money, only to constantly complain about the gangs and the sort of trouble they brought with them.
"'Nother card, honey?" the bottle blonde asked, sighing smoke in Vanessa's direction.
"Sorry," Vanessa said, and managed a smile and a card for each: the heavyset T-shirt guy a seven to go with his nine, the woman mumbling an obscenity as Vanessa dealt her a five to go with her eight.
T-shirt Guy studied his hand for a long moment, said, "Stay," then at the last minute remembered to wave his hand for the benefit of the camera.
As she dropped the last card on the bottle blonde's hand, Vanessa saw the group of maybe twenty Predators moving across the casino floor in her general direction. After a moment, the woman motioned for a hit and Vanessa dropped a queen on her hand and busted the woman out.
The bottle blonde seemed just about to say something when the Predators started fanning out around the table. She and T-shirt Guy seemed to suddenly have somewhere else to be, and gathered up what was left of their chips and scurried away.
With proprietary swaggers, the four Predators sat down at Vanessa's table. The two in the middle she recognized as Nick Valpo the Predator leader himself and his second-in-command, Jake Hanson.
Vanessa had known guys like these all her life hell, her baby's father would have fit in with the Predators. And she didn't mind them really. One at a time, they could be fine. They could be nice.
In groups, however, they could be . . . a handful. Particularly when they had eyes glistening with the dullness of drink.
Of the half-dozen security men in the casino at this hour late afternoon, fairly light security staffing, a few more in the video room the only one Vanessa's eyes sought out was Cody.
A Boot Hill police officer, Cody Jacks moonlighted at the Four Kings, as did virtually every cop on the force. Cody was a big, tough, dependable bruiser whom she could count on to keep the peace.
Finally, she spotted him over near the slots, his eyes glued to her table, even though he was mostly out of sight. He wore the silly red sport coat of the male floor employees black slacks, white shirt with a black string tie. Already she felt comforted, knowing he was looking out for her.
Tall, with lupine gray eyes, Jacks may not have been the hardbody he was twenty years ago (why hadn't her mother married him?), but he still provided an imposing figure. Sure, his hair had grayed at the temples, and his waistband hung farther south than it used to.
But Cody Jacks could still lay down the law; and that feeling calmed Vanessa.
Not that she was really worried about Valpo, Hanson, or any of the other Predators, for that matter. All the years the Blowout had been going down, the motorcycle gang had never started any real trouble in either of Boot Hill's casinos or any of its several saloons.
Oh, yeah, of course, some fights here, some drunken partying there, a couple of broken slot machines; but stuff like that happened in a gambling town whether a motorcycle gang was around or not.
Her concern and no doubt Cody's, too was the Rusty Spokes, another motorcycle gang that had been regularly attending the Biker Blowout for the last couple of years.
A Phoenix outfit that seemed to go out of its way not to get along with the Predators, the Spokes had infringed a little more on the Predators' turf all week, at every turn.
Tensions were running high.
The Predators were staying at the Four Kings, technically, but not really their rooms were strictly for partying; the gang kept its HQ at a campground on the south edge of town.
The Spokes, meanwhile, had taken up residence at the Gold Vault, the casino motel directly across the street from the Four Kings. A certain antagonism between the two casinos underscored the rivalry between the motorcycle crews.
Fistfights and worse had been going on all week. Around the casino, rumor had it that the Rusty Spokes planned to force a showdown with the Predators and had designated Boot Hill to host the action.
While Vanessa would have liked to dismiss the rumor as paranoid b.s., she knew it made a sick sort of sense. After all, Phoenix had too big a police force to risk a showdown, and the Predators seemed to have no fixed home, bouncing between dozens of small towns in California, Nevada, and Arizona. Both groups knew that Police Chief Jorge Lopez had only a small force in Boot Hill, and that the nearest Highway Patrol substations in Jean (to the northwest) and Laughlin (to the southeast) were both over thirty miles away.
The only real police force of any size was the Las Vegas Police Department, the nation's ninth largest . . . but that, as Vanessa knew only too well, was a world away, fifty miles from Boot Hill.
Two nights ago (and this was no rumor) Chief Lopez and three of his officers had broken up what appeared about to turn into a nasty knife fight between the two factions (her coworker Laura had said, "It's a real powder keg, I tell ya, Vannie . . . and it's lit!").
She'd talked to Cody about it just before her shift started.
"Should be cool," the older man said. "Jorge put the fear of God in 'em. Past twenty-four hours, Spokes and Predators been avoidin' each other like the plague."
Cody nodded. "Tomorrow, Blowout's over, and these fellas'll be on the road back home. Like the song says, 'head out on the highway, lookin' for adventure.'"
And, across the room, Cody was giving Vanessa a reassuring smile. She gave him a little nod, then turned her attention to the Predators at the table.
The first one on the left, long brown hair swept straight back, wore worn jeans, a white T-shirt under an Army shirt with the sleeves ripped off, and that same smart-ass smirk that Vanessa had seen on a hundred bullies. Though thinner and younger, he reminded her of that weird-hair guy from The Sopranos, the one in Springsteen's band.
On his left sat the head Predator, Nick Valpo. Nearly fifty, the shirtless Valpo sported a black cotton vest, his skin frog-belly white, belying how much time he spent on his hog tearing across the desert. Two tattoos nestled in the hairy thatch on his chest over the right breast, a dagger pierced a heart, blood drops trailing down his torso (allegedly one for every man he had killed), and center-chest a caricature of himself with the words "Ride Or Die" emblazoned beneath it peered from between dark curls.
Like his underling, Valpo wore his hair combed straight back, which emphasized his widow's peak, showing shiny skull where some balding betrayed his age. A black goatee, three or four inches long, looked like an odd sponge hanging from the leader's chin a clownish effect that was nonetheless intimidating, perhaps due to Valpo's seemingly black, burning eyes.
To Vanessa, the Predator leader looked like Charles Manson on crank; on the other hand, during the several times he'd sat at her table this week, he'd been nice, even sweet to her, and not in a coming-on-to-her way.
Next to Valpo, his chief lieutenant, Jake Hanson, provided a contrast to his buddies, his jeans relatively new, white T-shirt cleaner, and an unbuttoned blue-and-white short-sleeved shirt, not a ratty vest. Hanson had soft blue eyes that reminded Vanessa of a mountain stream. The others were definitely bikers, but Jake Hanson might have been a rock star.
The final Predator of the quartet wore his dark greasy hair parted crookedly near the middle and had a skinny black beard and mustache, possibly intended to make him look older, though the effect was the opposite. He might have been a high school thespian who'd glued on a beard for a role. Vanessa probably should have carded the kid, but why push it with this bunch? Like Cody said, tomorrow they'd be going, going, gone.
"What're you waitin' for?" the bearded kid asked irritably. "Deal, bitch!"
Valpo shook his head, eyes narrowed, and gave her a warm, apologetic smile. "Vanessa, he's young. Be patient with his young ass. . . . Dicky, shut the hell up and treat her like the lady she so obviously is."
Vanessa nodded her nervous thanks to Valpo and dealt. The first guy busted and Valpo got a blackjack.
"Surprise, surprise," Dicky said from the far end.
Holding his breath for a long moment, Valpo seemed to be concentrating on something somewhere in the distance; then his eyes found Dicky's and held them, snake and mouse.
"Dicky, I swear to Christ, if you don't shut it, I'm gonna take you outside and beat the ever-livin' piss out of you myself till your manners improve."
"Ah, come on, dude "
"Dude. I don't care if your mom's my cousin or not. Be nice to the dealer. Try to remember you're indoors."
Hanson held on nineteen and Dicky managed to start out with nine and still find a way to bust.
"Daaaamn!" Dicky yelped.
Vanessa turned over an eighteen. "Paying a blackjack and a winner." Her eyes caught the blue-eyed Hanson's, and when she passed over his winnings their hands brushed for an instant.
God, he is cute, she thought. Who does he remind me of?
"I can't believe this crap," Dicky groused. "Is there any other kinda luck but bad luck in this town?"
Valpo shot him a glare and Dicky went silent. "Here's a thought, sunshine don't hit on seventeen and maybe you won't lose every damn time."
"You think I don't know how to play cards?" Dicky challenged. "I know how to play cards."
Laughing, Valpo said, "I know you can't play cards. You can barely play with yourself . . . Dicky bird."
Dicky reddened, but Hanson and the other guy joined Valpo's laughter and nothing was left but for Dicky to take it: he was the kid, Valpo the man.
Vanessa was working not to join in the laughter when she looked toward the front door and beheld an unsettling sight.
Twenty or so Rusty Spokes were rolling into the casino like a bad wind.
That put a chill up Vanessa's spine, and her eyes immediately darted around looking for Cody, for any security guy. . . .
She caught Cody, already moving toward the door. But as she turned to see what the Spokes were going to do, guns as if from nowhere seemed to appear in all of the intruders' hands. Revolvers, shotguns, rifles . . . was that a machine gun? Jesus!
The first shot was fired before Vanessa could utter a sound.
Her mind managed to form the thought, What about the damn metal detectors?
But that was as far as she got before Jake Hanson leapt over the table and swept her into his arms. They rolled to the floor and Vanessa looked up just as bullets from the machine gun ripped into her table, tossing splinters like a dealer flipping cards.
Instinctively, she turned her head away and found herself staring into the blue eyes of Jake Hanson, who still held her. His face seemed peaceful even as hell exploded around them.
Mouth to her ear, as if kissing it, he yelled, "Are you okay?"
That's what it took for her to hear the words over the din of the gunfire.
She nodded. He released her from his grip, and the fear hit her harder she had felt safe, somehow, cocooned in his arms. He flashed a smile, winked, rolled away, rose to a crouch, and moved off.
The smell of shooting filled the air, making her choke. Gun smoke and stirred dust and wood fragments clouded the room and, cowering behind and flush against the bullet-riddled blackjack table, Vanessa felt like this might go on forever already it seemed like forever since she had turned to see the Rusty Spokes entering the casino and those guns materializing and yet still the guns clattered, some of the Predators now returning fire.
How in God's name had this many guns made it past the metal detectors?
Around her, other patrons, the ones on the floor in fear, those not part of either gang, still had the wherewithal to gather up chips spilled around them by the battle. Nothing could kill greed.
Or anyway, nothing as inconsequential as a firefight in the middle of a casino.
She did not avert her eyes, much as she wanted to she was not ready to shut the world out and just wait and hope and pray she would open her eyes without a bullet finding her first. The violence, the carnage, the destruction had the same hypnotic effect as being in a car crash and having the world go into slow motion. The heavyset guy in the Boot Hill T-shirt took a bullet in the chest and scarlet showered from the ripped logo as he keeled over backward, smacking his head on the corner of a slot machine as he went, which made Vanessa wince even though she knew the man might be dead before his head came anywhere near the machine. . . .
To her right came an explosive sound a grenade? and her eyes shot in that direction of their own volition. On the floor, in an aisle, a man twitched and danced, blood spurting from a hole in his right pants leg where his limb had been severed by the blast shotgun, not grenade. He was screaming, but she could not hear him, or anyway discern distinctly the screaming out of the overall din. But she could tell he was bleeding to death, and she averted her eyes, finally taking control of them.
She could feel the wet warmth of tears on her cheeks and wondered, as if from a distance, why she was crying when she was not among the injured, one of the lucky ones in this unlucky casino.
Farther to her right, Jake Hanson was ducking behind a craps table, jamming a fresh clip into a huge black pistol. He then rose and fired several rounds in the direction of the Spokes and ducked down again.
To her left, maybe twenty feet away, the Predators' leader knelt behind a video poker machine. Every few seconds, he would peek out, squeeze off a couple shots, then dodge back behind the machine. When he turned toward her, he saw her watching him and flashed her a grin as if he was having a great time.
The insanity in that smile gave Vanessa an urge to jump up and run screaming from the room; but survival instinct overrode that. She kept her head down and did not move. As for Valpo, he still had that maniacal grin pasted on, though his wide eyes spoke of hysteria and fear.
Valpo leaned out from behind his cover, raised his pistol, and a crimson flower bloomed in his right shoulder, the gun springing from his grasp and bouncing out of reach under a table across an aisle where bullets zinged and pinged.
As Valpo fell sideways, back behind the poker machine, Vanessa finally picked out a sound other than general gunfire sirens.
Whether they were near or far she could not tell, but help was clearly coming, the wailing getting louder by the second.
As if wanting to strike back before the local law arrived to stop their fun, Valpo scrabbled after the pistol, shots chewing up the carpeting and shaking machines till their coins rattled, bullets all around him as he dove for the weapon.
Just as Valpo got to the pistol, a ghostly figure moved through the smoke and dust and running people and came up behind the Predator leader, aiming a handgun at the back of the man's head. . . .
Vanessa saw the flash from the barrel more than she actually heard the sound.
She jumped, a full-body twitch, just as Valpo's body did much the same, the pistol dropping from his dead hand.
Vanessa felt herself screaming, but could not hear it. The shooter now turned to face her, lowered the gun toward her. The scream died in her throat and she followed the line of the gun barrel to the madman's eyes burning through her.
Her mouth dry now, she struggled to cry out, but no sound would come.
Vanessa suddenly felt that distanced, slow-motion sensation again. Almost serene, she prayed in the church of her mind that someone would take care of her daughter.
She knew she would not live through the next minute, let alone her shift. The house always wins, they say, but this time a dealer could lose.
Then, just as suddenly, the killer lowered the pistol and gave Vanessa a smile so gentle and sad that she knew she'd been reprieved, she knew she would see Cyndi again, after all.
"I'll never tell," she said, and averted her gaze, but guns were still firing, and no one heard her, not even herself.
Something slammed into her.
The breath left Vanessa's body and she felt herself toppling to one side it was as if she'd been struck a blow.
But she had, indeed, been shot.
Her eyes went back to the killer, who turned away now, not meeting her wide-eyed amazement at his having reneged on the reprieve, shooting her after all, and she tried to inhale, but a rope must have been constricting her neck. The more she struggled, the less oxygen she seemed able to gulp down. Her side ached like she had a really bad bruise, but beyond that, all through her body, flowed a red hotness like swallowing a whiskey shot too fast . . . only the burning ran horizontally through her and warmed much more intensely.
Each breath was a greater struggle now.
Surprisingly, no real pain the broken leg she got when she fell off a garage roof at twelve hurt a lot worse than this, way worse. Okay, she'd been shot, but wasn't sure it was so bad. You can recover from gunshot wounds her ex-boyfriend had. Her baby's father. Her baby . . .
If only she could breathe. She was sure that would help. Somebody must have hit the air conditioner with a stray bullet, because it seemed to be running full tilt now, getting colder by the second. For a moment she caught the killer walking away and wondered if she'd have kept her promise, if it had been heard, if she'd been allowed to live.
Oh hell, she thought, I hope it's not Mom who raises Cyndi, and then even the coldness was gone.
Copyright © 2006 by CBS Broadcasting Inc. and Alliance Atlantis Productions, Inc.