When Dortmunder became aware of the two rent-a-cops in tan uniforms dogging his tracks, he knew it was time to go somewhere else. Surprising, though, how fast they’d made him. He’d thought of himself as looking like all these other clowns around here, moping along, trying to figure out where all the fun was supposed to be. Guess not.
In any event, he’d seen all he needed to see for now. The casino, the lake, the cottages where Fairbanks would be staying, the general lay of the land. So he yawned and stretched, he looked around like any innocent fellow without a care in the world, and he strolled away from the lake and the cottages, toward the main building and the casino and beyond them the Las Vegas Strip. And every time he happened to glance around, those two security men were still somewhere nearby.
Well, he’d been warned. He’d been warned three times, in fact, and all of them friendly warnings, given with his best interests at heart.
The first was last night, when he’d flown in from Newark, and walked through the terminal building at McCarran International Airport, ignoring the gauntlet of slot machines that seemed to snag one tourist in ten even before they got out of the building. Outside, in the dry night heat, he threw his suitcase and then himself into the next taxi in line in the rank, and said to the cabby, a scrawny guy in a purple T-shirt and black LA Raiders cap, “I want a motel, somewhere near the Strip. Someplace that doesn’t cost a whole lot.”
The cabby gave him the fish-eye in the rearview mirror, but all he said at that point was, “Uh huh,” and drove them away from there.
Nighttime on the desert. High stars, wide flat dark empty land, and out in front of them the city, burning white. They rode in silence for a while, and then the cabby said, “Bo, a word of advice.”
Dortmunder hadn’t known he needed a word of advice. He met the cabby’s unimpressed look in the mirror, that scrawny pessimistic face green-lit from the dashboard, and said, “Sure.”
“Whatever the scam,” the cabby said, “don’t try it.”
Dortmunder leaned forward, resting a forearm on the right side of the front seat-back, so he could look at the cabby’s profile. “Say that again?”
“This town knows you, Bo,” the cabby said. “It’s seen you a thousand times before. They’re fast here, and they’re smart, and they’re goddam mean. You think I come out all this way to haul a cab?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Dortmunder said.
“You are not a tourist,” the cabby told him. “Neither was I. I come out eleven years ago, I figured, this is a rich town, let’s collect some for ourself. I was down on the sidewalk with a shotgun in the middle of my back before I could even say please.”
“You’ve got me confused with somebody else,” Dortmunder said.
“Uh huh,” the cabby said, and didn’t speak again until he stopped in front of the office of the Randy Unicorn Motel & Pool. Then, Dortmunder having paid him and tipped him more decently than usual, the cabby said, with deadpan irony, “Enjoy your vacation.”
“Thanks,” Dortmunder said.
The Randy Unicorn was long, low, brick, and lit mostly by red neon. When Dortmunder pushed open the office door a bell rang somewhere deeper inside the building, and a minute later a mummified woman in pink hair curlers came through the doorway behind the counter, looked him up and down, and said, “Uh huh.”
“I want a room,” Dortmunder said.
“I know that,” the woman said, and pointed at the check-in forms. “Fill that out.”
Dortmunder wrote a short story on the form, while the woman looked past him out the front window. She said, “No car.”
“I just flew in,” he said. “The cab brought me here.”
“Uh huh,” the woman said.
Dortmunder didn’t like how everybody around here said uh huh all the time, in that manner as though to say, we’ve got your number, and it’s a low one. “There,” he said, the short story finished.
The woman read the short story with a skeptical smile, and said, “How long you plan to stay?”
“A week. I’ll pay cash.”
“I know that,” the woman said. “We give five percent off for cash, and two percent more if you pay by the week. In front.”
“Sounds good,” Dortmunder lied, and hauled out his thick wallet. He was paying cash here, and his own cash at that, because the kind of credit card he could get from his friend Stoon might shrivel up like the last leaf of summer before this excursion to Las Vegas was finished. And although it was his own cash at the moment, it had in fact come originally from Max Fairbanks, one way and another, so it seemed right to spend Fairbanks’s money to hunt Fairbanks down.
Also, the reason he was staying at a motel a little ways off from the Strip, rather than at the Gaiety, was because he knew Fairbanks knew he was coming, so any singleton guy checking into the Gaiety the next few days would be given very close observation indeed. In fact, pairs of guys together, or groups of guys, any combination like that, would be scrutinized right down to their dandruff, which was why none of the people coming out to help Dortmunder in his moment of need would stay at the Gaiety, but would all be around, here and there, somewhere else.
The mummified woman watched Dortmunder’s wallet and his hands and the money he spread on the counter. He put the wallet away, she picked up the cash and counted it, and then she said, “It’s none of my business.”
Dortmunder looked alert.
“I wouldn’t do it if I were you,” she said.
Dortmunder looked bewildered. “Do what?”
“Whatever you’re thinking of,” she said. “You seem okay, not full of yourself or nothing, so I’ll just give you some advice, if you don’t mind.”
“Everybody gives me advice,” Dortmunder complained.
“Everybody can tell you need it,” she said. “My advice is, enjoy your stay in our fair city. Swim in the pool here, it’s a very nice pool, I say so myself. Walk over to the casinos, have a good time. Eat the food, see the sights. A week from now, go home. Otherwise,” she said, and gestured with the handful of money, “I got to tell you, we don’t give refunds.”
“I won’t need one,” Dortmunder assured her.
She nodded. “Uh huh,” she said, and put the money in the pocket of her cardigan.
So that was the second warning, and the third warning was this morning, in the cafe a block from the Randy Unicorn where he ate his breakfast, and where the waitress, at the end of the meal, when she slid the check onto the table, said, “Just get to town?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Just a friendly word of warning,” she said, and leaned close, and murmured, “Just leave.”
And now, he’s less than an hour at the Gaiety Hotel, Battle-Lake and Casino, and he’s got security guards in both hip pockets. What’s going on here?
It was a twenty-minute walk from the Strip back to the Randy Unicorn, through flat tan ground with more empty lots than buildings, and none of the buildings more than three stories tall. And back there behind him loomed those architectural fantasies, soaring up like psychedelic mushrooms, millions of bright lights competing with the sun, a line of those weird structures all alone in the flatness, surrounded by Martian desert, as though they’d sprouted from seeds planted in the dead soil by Pan, though actually they’d been planted by Bugsy Siegel, who’d watered them with his blood.
Walking in the sunlight through this lesser Las Vegas of dusty parking lots and washed-out shopfronts of dry cleaners and liquor stores, Dortmunder reflected that somehow, once he was out of New York City, he was less invisible than he was used to. He was going to have to move very carefully around this town.
When he came plodding down the sunny dry block to the Randy Unicorn, he had to pass the office first, with the rental units beyond it, and as he sloped by, the office door opened and the mummified woman stuck her head out to say, “Over here.”
Dortmunder looked at her, then looked down along the line of motel room doors that faced onto the blacktop parking area between building and street. A silver Buick Regal was parked among the vehicles along there, nose in, probably in front of Dortmunder’s room. It was quite different from the dusty pickup trucks and rump-sprung station wagons in front of some of the other units. Dortmunder couldn’t see the license plate on the Regal, but he could guess. And he could also guess what the mummified woman wanted to say.
Which is what she said: “Some fella picked his way into your room awhile ago. He’s still in there.”
“That’s okay,” Dortmunder said. “He’s a friend of mine.”
“Uh huh,” she said.