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BOZ SKANNET’S RED cap of hair was sprayed by the lemon-colored sunlight of California spring. His taut, muscular body throbbed to enter a great battle. His whole being was elated that his deed would be seen by more than a billion people all over the world.
In the elastic waistband of Skannet’s tennis slacks was a small pistol, concealed by the zippered jacket pulled down to his crotch. That white jacket blazed with vertical red lightning bolts. A blue-dotted scarlet bandana bound his hair.
In his right hand he held a huge, silvery Evian bottle. Boz Skannet presented himself perfectly to the showbiz world he was about to enter.
That world was a huge crowd in front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, a crowd awaiting the arrival of movie stars to the Academy Awards ceremony. Specially erected grandstands held the spectators, the street itself was filled with TV cameras and reporters who would send iconic images all over the world. Tonight people would see their great movie stars in the flesh, shed of their manufactured mythic skins, subject to real-life losing and winning.
Uniformed security guards with shiny brown batons tucked neatly in holsters formed a perimeter to keep the spectators in check.
Boz Skannet didn’t worry about them. He was bigger, faster, and tougher than those men, and he had the element of surprise. He was wary of the TV reporters and cameramen who fearlessly staked out territory to intercept the celebrities. But they would be more eager to record than prevent.
A white limousine pulled up to the entrance of the Pavilion, and Skannet saw Athena Aquitane, “the most beautiful woman in the world,” according to various magazines. As she emerged, the crowd pressed against the barriers, shouting her name. Cameras surrounded her and charged her beauty to the far corners of the earth. She waved.
Skannet vaulted over the grandstand fence. He zigzagged through the traffic barriers, saw the brown shirts of the security guards start to converge, the pattern familiar. They didn’t have the right angle. He slipped past them as easily as he had the tacklers on the football field years before. And he arrived at exactly the right second. There was Athena talking into the microphone, head tilted to show her best side to the cameras. Three men were standing beside her. Skannet made sure that the camera had him, and then he threw the liquid from the bottle into Athena Aquitane’s face.
He shouted, “Here’s some acid, you bitch.” Then he looked directly into the camera, his face composed, serious, and dignified. “She deserved it,” he said. He was covered by a wave of brown-shirted men with their batons at the ready. He knelt on the ground.
At the last moment Athena Aquitane had seen his face. She heard his shout and turned her head so that the liquid struck her cheek and ear.
A billion TV people saw it all. The lovely face of Athena, the silvery liquid on her cheek, the shock and the horror, the recognition when she saw her attacker; a look of true fear that for a second destroyed all her imperious beauty.
The one billion people around the world watched as the police dragged Skannet off. He looked like a movie star himself as he raised his shackled hands in a victory salute, only to collapse as an enraged police officer, finding the gun in his waistband, gave him a short, terrible blow to the kidney.
Athena Aquitane, still reeling from shock, automatically brushed the liquid from her cheek. She felt no burning. The liquid drops on her hand began to dissolve. People were crashing all around her, to protect her, to carry her away.
She pulled loose and said to them calmly, “It’s only water.” She licked the drops off her hand to be sure. Then she tried to smile. “Typical of my husband,” she said.
Athena, showing the great courage that helped make her a legend, walked quickly into the Pavilion of the Academy Awards. When she won the Oscar for best actress, the audience rose and clapped for what seemed like forever.
In the chilled penthouse suite of the Xanadu Casino Hotel of Las Vegas, the eighty-five-year-old owner lay dying. But on this spring day, he thought he could hear, from sixteen floors below, an ivory ball clacking through red and black slots of roulette wheels, the distant surf of crapshooters hoarsely imploring tumbling dice, the whirring of thousands of slot machines devouring silver coins.
Alfred Gronevelt was as happy as any man could be while dying. He had spent nearly ninety years as a hustler, dilettante pimp, gambler, accessory to murder, political fixer, and finally as the strict but kindly lord of the Xanadu Casino Hotel. For fear of betrayal, he had never fully loved any human being, but he had been kind to many. He felt no regrets. Now, he looked forward to the tiny little treats left in his life. Like his afternoon journey through the Casino.
Croccifixio “Cross” De Lena, his right-hand man for the last five years, came into the bedroom and said, “Ready Alfred?” And Gronevelt smiled at him and nodded.
Cross picked him up and put him in the wheelchair, the nurse tucked the old man in blankets, the male attendant took his post to wheel. The nurse handed Cross a pillbox and opened the door of the penthouse. She would remain behind. Gronevelt could not abide her on these afternoon jaunts.
The wheelchair rolled easily over the false green turf of the penthouse garden and entered the special express elevator that descended the sixteen floors to the Casino.
Gronevelt sat straight in his chair, looking right and left. This was his pleasure, to see men and women who battled against him with the odds forever on his side. The wheelchair made a leisurely tour through the blackjack and roulette area, the baccarat pit, the jungle of crap tables. The gamblers barely noticed the old man in the wheelchair, his alert eyes, the bemused smile on his skeletal face. Wheelchair gamblers were common in Vegas. They thought fate owed them some debt of luck for their misfortune.
Finally the chair rolled into the coffee shop/dining room. The attendant deposited him at their reserved booth and then retired to another table to await their signal to leave.
Gronevelt could see through the glass wall to the huge swimming pool, the water burning a hot blue in the Nevada sun, young women with small children studding its surface like colored toys. He felt a tiny rush of pleasure that all this was his creation.
“Alfred, eat a little something,” Cross De Lena said.
Gronevelt smiled at him. He loved the way Cross looked, the man was so handsome in a way that appealed to both men and women, and he was one of the few people that Gronevelt had almost trusted during his lifetime.
“I love this business,” Gronevelt said. “Cross, you’ll inherit my points in the Hotel and I know you’ll have to deal with our partners in New York. But never leave Xanadu.”
Cross patted the old man’s hand, all gristle beneath the skin. “I won’t,” he said.
Gronevelt felt the glass wall baking the sunlight into his blood. “Cross,” he said, “I’ve taught you everything. We’ve done some hard things, really hard to do. Never look back. You know percentages work in different ways. Do as many good deeds as you can. That pays off too. I’m not talking about falling in love or indulging in hatred. Those are very bad percentage moves.”
They sipped coffee together. Gronevelt ate only a flaky strudel pastry. Cross had orange juice with his coffee.
“One thing,” Gronevelt said. “Don’t ever give a Villa to anyone who doesn’t make a million drop. Never forget that. The Villas are legendary. They are very important.”
Cross patted Gronevelt’s hand, let his hand rest on the old man’s. His affection was genuine. In some ways he loved Gronevelt more than his father.
“Don’t worry,” Cross said. “The Villas are sacred. Anything else?”
Gronevelt’s eyes were opaque, cataracts dimming their old fire. “Be careful,” he said. “Always be very careful.”
“I will,” Cross said. And then, to distract the old man from his coming death, he said, “When are you going to tell me about the great Santadio War? You worked with them then. Nobody ever talks about it.”
Gronevelt gave an old man’s sigh, barely a whisper, almost emotionless. “I know time’s getting short,” he said. “But I can’t talk to you yet. Ask your father.”
“I’ve asked Pippi,” Cross said. “But he won’t talk.”
“What’s past is past,” Gronevelt said. “Never go back. Not for excuses. Not for justification, not for happiness. You are what you are, the world is what it is.”