Read an Excerpt
I’d seen stiffs at crime scenes before, one flat on his back in the middle of his garage with a twelve-inch meat cleaver sticking straight up out of his rib cage like a Halloween prank; self-inflicted, to boot.
But this one beat all.
I got there before the cops. Saw the guy from my Mustang GT. It was 5:54 a.m.
He was positioned upright at one of the dozens of covered bus stops along the Strip. Beneath flickering fluorescents, it looked as if he was just sleeping, like a thousand other bums scattered like garbage across the sand-blown outskirts of “fabulous Las Vegas.” I rolled down my passenger window and leaned closer. Blood, dark like burgundy wine, but thicker–a pool of it, absorbed into the seat of his pants and ran shiny down the concrete block he was perched on, forming another smaller puddle beneath his black Converse high tops.
I shivered, remembering the call I’d heard on the scanner in the newsroom at the Review-Journal. Las Vegas Metro Police got an anonymous call about a potential shooting at the Civic Center North bus stop. I was wrapping up the obits and crime beat from the night shift and had some time to blow, so I headed out.
Leaving my car parked in a vacant lot along Las Vegas Boulevard, I did a three-sixty as I approached the body but saw no one. There was plenty of traffic, because Las Vegas was always pulsating with life, but this was not an obvious crime scene yet.
For more than eight minutes I waited, finally sitting right next to that dead man, with the cops nowhere to be found. That’s the way they were in Vegas, slow as sludge, especially if it had anything to do with the homeless. For all I knew, it might have been another hour before they showed.
That’s when I thought about searching him. Nothing bad, just find the wound, maybe get an ID, see if he had anything else on him. It was a fleeting thought. But as another minute, two, then three crept by, the vapor of the idea began to crystallize. I pictured how everything would come to a painful standstill once the cops finally arrived. They would boot me, tape off the area, and withhold the bum’s identity and cause of death until it was old news.
My heart rate kicked up a notch. I had no gloves. Would I leave prints? On what, clothes? It’s not like they’re going to go over this nobody with a fine-tooth comb. At first glance I wasn’t sure where the wound was. Blood covered the upper quarter of his torso. Ignoring my own sick disregard for the human being next to me, I scoped the area again, saw no one near, and gently leaned his 150-or-so-pound frame forward six inches.
To the touch, his body felt normal, as if he were still alive. There was no exit wound on his back. Dropping to one knee, I examined the bloody mess at the upper left portion of his chest. His coat was torn there, and yes, there was a bloody hole. Whether it was a messy knife wound or a bullet hole, I wasn’t sure.
That was as far as I should have gone. In fact, knowing myself–that I would dare to do more if the fuzz didn’t show up soon–I passed the time by jotting notes on the pad I always kept in my back pocket.
He had a thatch of red hair, bleached the color of sand by the scorching Nevada sun. The city had felt like Hades lately, going on seven consecutive days of 109 degrees or better. His peaceful, middleaged face, the side part in his hair, and the back of his hands and neck were a burnt brownish red; not raw sunburn, mind you–he was way beyond sunburn.
The stubble on his face was speckled blond and gray. He wore a gold T-shirt with dirty creases and a black, lightweight overcoat unbuttoned. Funny thing is, he didn’t smell bad. In fact, he smelled clean, like laundry soap. The pants were navy Dickies, and each sneaker had a hole just above the big toe. He wore two pair of thick gray socks on each foot. Perhaps most odd were his left ear and wrist. The skin on each looked melted, as if it had been surgically repaired with some sort of skin graft.
I was still within the bounds of the law. I’d taken my time with the notes, describing the scene, the wound, and the slumping corpse next to me–and hoping the LVMPD would hurry up and get here before I did something both stupid and illegal.
A steady flow of cars darted north and south, their drivers oblivious to the dead man twenty feet away. As always in Las Vegas, nightlife rolled seamlessly into morning within the mammoth hotels up and down the Strip.
My time limit had expired. The cops didn’t care. Likely, no one cared about this destitute beggar. A few hours ago he’d probably been as nasty and senile as the rest of the riffraff who shake their fists and wag their heads at me when I drive past them on Owens or D Loop.
Who would know if I searched the guy? My editor didn’t know I was here, no one did. My eyes darted about. My heart stormed high in my chest. And then I just did it–reached into his shallow outside coat pockets. Nothing there. Easing back his thin coat, I found an inside pocket–empty. I scanned again for onlookers and saw none. I was doing him and his family a favor by trying to identify him. As I braced him at the shoulder with my left hand, I jammed my right into his pants pocket. Again, nothing.
Convinced the Las Vegans breezing up and down the Strip were both oblivious to the crime scene and in a colossal hurry, I filled my lungs with morning air and took another plunge. Being careful to swing around the puddle of blood in front of him, I changed sides, leaned him forward, and slid my hand beneath his coat and into one back pocket, then the next. No wallet. The guy had nothing. Or so I thought, until I propped him up firmly by the opposite shoulder and stuffed my hand into that last front pocket of his navy Dickies.
He had something. Not much, but something.
Getting my fingers around what felt like some folded papers, I pulled, but my fist caught. My prints were on whatever was in that pocket. The sound of sirens arose far off from the south. My head jumped, and sweat started to bead on my forehead. Seeing no police lights, I braced him again and twisted my wrist back and forth, yanking hard. My heart almost catapulted from my throat as the man’s stomach gurgled and his head dropped and swung toward me, as if he’d decided to watch.
Trying awkwardly, desperately, to square the man’s hunching shoulders and swivel his jaw back to where it had been, I panicked, as his entire upper body started to collapse, quite unlike I’d found it.
Blue police lights canvassed the neon skyline.
I rehearsed excuses, lies, the truth–any way out of the developing mess. Then I realized the only way out was to get out.
But the object I’d ripped from the man was still in my hand. I looked down. It was a tattered bankbook with a worn maroon cover. As the screams from the sirens grew louder, my trembling fingers found the last page and the handwritten balance: $689,800.
The bus stop spun.
I felt my fingers press firmly into my forehead, as if trying to steady the ship.
He was rich.
It didn’t compute.
Figure it out later. Get out!
I stood to run, but something fell from the book, splattering into the puddle at the man’s feet. A key, now three-fourths covered in blood.
The sirens beckoned me to look up.
A squad car was in view, maybe a mile down the Strip.
Something inside told me to give up, wait for them, explain what happened.
Something else jolted me to the ground where I plucked the blood-drenched key from the crimson puddle and bolted toward my car.
Sprinting faster than I had since I was a boy, my mind wound down to slow motion, and I became disgusted by the cool, thick liquid Making my fingers stick grotesquely to the palm of my clenched hand. But I was even more repulsed by the type of man I’d become– stealing from a bum.
After scrubbing hard at my hands and the key in a long, hot shower back at my place–a stucco two-story in a cluster neighborhood west of the Center Strip–I put on some old cutoffs, went downstairs, popped a can of Dr Pepper, and examined the tattered bankbook at my kitchen table. It contained no name and little writing but was stamped with the address of a First Federal Bank of Nevada branch near Arville and Flamingo, not too far from my house.
Periodic deposits had been made in amounts ranging from $155 to $12,650 with no indicator of where the funds had come from. A number of withdrawals had also been made, mostly in the three- and four-digit range; on those occasions, the only word ever written in the memo area was “cash.”
One transaction stood out, dated the day before I found the body. The word “cash” was scribbled in the ledger. The amount withdrawn: $425,000.
I took the flat, gold key that had fallen from the bankbook over to a lamp in the living room and studied it closely. Although it was shaped like an old-fashioned key, it appeared to be brand-new, imprinted with the name of a well-known security company.
Tossing the key on the table, I studied the bankbook once more, this time searching specifically for any information about a safedeposit box. When I was almost through, I spotted the number “1510” penned neatly in black ink on the bottom corner of the inside back cover.
Did I want money? Was that what this was about? Was I following the footsteps of my old man? At least he had a reason to steal; I had none. My life was okay. I’d done well as a journalist. I was planning to get away, write novels at a cottage on the beach, perhaps marry someday. One way or another, I would show the old man I was somebody, that I could make something out of this life, on my own, with or without him.
Wandering into the garage, I flipped on the overhead light then drilled the black Everlast heavy bag with a firm right. It swayed. I pummeled it with both fists, six or seven quick, hard jabs. The bag’s metal chains squeaked as it swung from the ceiling, and I watched it in a daze.
What if there was easy money to be had? Could I get away with it? No, I wouldn’t do that. I just wanted to get the scoop on a dead homeless guy with almost three-quarters of a million bucks in the bank. It was a blockbuster story. That’s what I was after. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself as I went back into the house, threw on a T-shirt, stepped into my army green flip-flops, and headed for the First Federal Bank of Nevada at Arville and Flamingo.
As I devoured a second biscuit from Jack in the Box while waiting in my car for the bank to open at 9 a.m., I was faced with a number of tricky questions. What if the key in my pocket wasn’t to a safe-deposit box at all? Or what if it didn’t go to a box at this bank? What would I say? If the box was there, would I be required to sign in? What excuse would I give if they requested my name or ID?
Next thing I knew I was standing in the sterile lobby, grasping the key in my fist similar to the way I had only hours ago when it was covered in the bum’s blood. Three tellers faced me, and there was no sign of any safe-deposit boxes. Then I spotted a thin black woman on the phone at the customer-service desk to my right.
“May I help you, sir?” one of the tellers called out in a highpitched voice.
Pretending not to hear her, I headed for the black woman on the phone. She smiled and made eye contact. I waved the key at her between two fingers, lifted both hands, and looked around the room, as if to ask where the boxes were. I didn’t want to talk, just wanted her to point.
She spoke into the phone, “Just one moment,” then looked up at me. “Do you need help with your box?”
Uh-oh. “No. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. Where are they?” I glanced around the room. “This is the first time I’ve–”
“The self-entry boxes are right through that door,” she pointed, “and to your right. You’ll see them. There’s a room beyond, where you can have some privacy.”
I sauntered around the corner, relieved to be out of sight. The small room–with its wall of boxes–was actually a walk-in safe, the enormous, foot-thick door of which stood wide open.
The silver box fronts that covered the wall ranged in size from that of a postcard to that of a large folder. Looking around, I saw a telephone and a security camera. That was it. Clean, simple, secure and–at the moment–vacant.
Scanning the numbers–1300s, 1400s, 1500s–I knew I was in luck; my soul soared. The gold key slid in like a gem and turned easily. I couldn’t believe where this was going. Swinging the little door open, I bent over, reached in, and pulled out a long, black box, only about three inches top to bottom, but ten inches wide and two feet long. It was fairly light, but several items shifted as I slid it out of its slot.
Gulping back my trepidation, I headed for the tiny adjacent room, my eyes glued to the hallway, my heart thundering, and my mind convulsing with fantasies of taking the contents of the box and heading for the airport. I could be in Hawaii or even overseas, in Italy or France, by the next day. I had no ties in Vegas or in the States. All bridges had been burned between me and the old man.
Once inside the small room, I pushed the button lock on the doorknob, set the box on the wall-mounted desk, and took a seat in the leather chair. After pressing a release button at one end of the box, I lifted the lid. The cash caught my eye first, prompting me back to my feet. Hundreds, Twenties, fifties, tens–scores of bills scattered throughout. I sifted through with both hands, snapping them up in a mad, rushed state of euphoria, stopping every ten seconds or so to look out the narrow window in the door.
My mind reeled. What next? I was giddy. No matter what else was in the box, there was cash–lots of it. If I played this thing smart, I could be set for a long time. Somehow, find out his name, withdraw the rest of the money, maybe a little at a time. Before I knew it, I could be writing books at a beach pad on stilts overlooking the Mediterranean.
Take it slow, be smart, breathe. I could easily go to jail for this. My mind rewound to the trail of blood drops I’d left at the bus stop when I took the key. I was whisked back to the last visit I’d made to the penitentiary in Victoria to see the old man. Hotter than Hades. No AC. Putrid, overpowering smell of urine and body odor. Screaming, yelling, betting, and brawls. Wacko ward.
I could never do time.
Perched upright on the edge of the chair like a kid who was just served a double helping of chocolate cake, I put the money down on the desk and sorted through the items remaining in the box. Most intriguing were two rings that had wound up together in the same corner. One featured a humongous solitary diamond on a gold band; the other was a white gold men’s wedding ring. Each contained an engraved inscription that I would need steadier hands and a magnifying glass to decipher.
As I placed the rings with the money on the desk, a sudden wave of anguish came over me. The stuff in the box was personal. It dealt with people’s lives and history and secrets and loves. This is none of my business.
But since when did my curiosity and greed ever succumb to my guilt?
I came to several newspaper and magazine clippings, folded and paper-clipped. I smoothed them out. They were business articles, some dating back twenty years, from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, Atlanta Magazine, and Business Week.
That’s when I recognized the dead homeless man from the bus stop. He was heavier in the pictures, and flashier, but it was him–the common denominator in almost every photograph. He wore expensive suits, a slick hairstyle, and a big, plastic grin. Schmoozing with the big dogs. Looked to have been some kind of business mogul in Atlanta.
Most beautiful of all, I had discovered his name: Chester Holte.Maybe, just maybe, my ticket to paradise.Voices beyond the door. I slid the stack of money and rings to the side of the box, out of view. Through the window I watched, almost breathlessly, as the black woman escorted a short, elderly man into the vault of safe-deposit boxes, eying me through the glass as she turned the corner. I set the lid on the box and waited, feeling the heat in my face and wiping the perspiration from my brow.
Less than a minute later she was at the doorway again, telling the man to let her know if he needed help but peering in at me once more, eyebrows lifted, before turning to head back toward her desk.
Rattled and running on empty after zero sleep, I needed to get out of there. But when I lifted the lid and looked back at the clippings, I stopped. It was a photograph of the man’s wife. Her name was Candice. A tall, shapely, striking brunette, pictured in sequins in one photo and a formal gown in another, with a glowing smile, arm in arm with her husband.
My curiosity was in overdrive. What was all this stuff doing in this box? Was it all he had left of his past life? I was sitting on one powder keg of a story, if I chose to pursue it. How did a rich, big cat from Atlanta–married to a sleek gazelle–end up on the streets of Sin City, apparently of his own choosing, with money to burn?
Movement distracted me. The old man, oblivious to me, was tucking an envelope in his coat pocket and shuffling toward the exit in his beige walking shoes.
Something else in the box piqued my interest, confirming that Chester Holte had some business savvy indeed. Opening up a number of stiff, white stock certificates, I was flabbergasted to learn he had been the proud owner of hundreds of shares of Atlanta-based stocks, including Coca-Cola and Home Depot. There had to have been enough value in those shares alone for him to have retired a wealthy man.
As I gathered everything up to leave, a different clipping fluttered to the floor–this one sickeningly different from the others, especially its large, severe, blocky headline on soft, yellowing newsprint:
HOLTE PLANE DOWN, WIFE LOST
The photograph showed rescue boats and searchlights scouring the rolling Atlantic. A door to my heart opened, ushering in a heavy robe of shame. The article was six years old. He had tried valiantly to save her,clinging to part of the Cessna’s wing, disregarding his own fuel burns and fighting savagely to hold on to the love of his life in the frigid waters. But he could not hold on. And Candice had slipped away.
I found Candice’s obituary next. A long one. I put it in my pile of things to take home. I’d had all I could take for one sitting and didn’t want to press my luck.
About to close the box, I stopped and stared at the impressive stack of money, rings, and other articles, letters, and paperwork I’d set aside to take home.
Don’t do anything stupid. Think it through.
Hesitantly, I returned the money and stock certificates to the box.
I’ll take the rest home, study it, and bring it back.
Snatching up the rings, letters, and clippings, I closed the box, returned it to its slot, held my breath, and gave the woman in customer service a confident nod as I glided breathlessly out of the building.
It was already sweltering. I would need sleep sometime that day, before the night shift.
As I headed west on Charleston I noticed a young, humpbacked woman walking in the direction I was driving. The sun shone hard on her back, casting a crisp, stark shadow on her path. She wore a black windbreaker and carried a gallon jug of water in each hand. A quartermile farther an elderly man and woman sat in old lawn chairs at the side of the road beneath a pink blanket they’d hung to protect themselves from the coming sun. Maybe that had been their daughter back there, bringing water for the day.
I’d never taken the time to think about homeless people as human beings before and wondered about the man I’d found at the bus stop. Where did he live? Where were his clothes and possessions? How had he made all that money?
Something had happened after his wife died.
Why had he chosen to live like a bum? Why Las Vegas? Why would someone want to kill him?
I knew me, and I knew I had to find out.