It covers the antiquated slot machines in layers upon layers of filthy grunge. The yellowed placards (WIN! WIN! WIN!!!) (BLACKJACKBLACKJACKBLACKJACK) are barely visible underneath the thin crust of off-grey coating. The air is rank with the eye-watering smoke of a million human smokestacks and the smell is enough to make the nose well up with instant gratification.
And yet, somehow, the casino den is filled with bustling activity as not-so-high society fills the tepid air of the Grecian Lounge, the best place in North Las Vegas to get rich off dollar blackjack.
Disco lights flash from the low, vaulted ceiling upon the gamblers below. They don’t notice. They’re too busy watching out for the spinning sevens.
“What a night.”
The voice comes from my left. It’s Robero. He’s casually flicking the ash from his cigarette on the carpet, and sticks it back into his mouth, ignoring the NO SMOKING sign along with everyone else who has ever set foot in this infernal excuse for a casino.
“What a night.” He repeats, sticking one hand into the pockets of his frayed jeans and grasping the rusted faux-gold railing with the other.
We’re standing on a slightly raised platform that encircles the roughly circular gambling pit. Partly because it puts us above the heady smoke, partly because it gives us a decent view of the proceedings.
“Do you see him?” Robero says in his slightly guttural tone. It’s a side effect of his chain-smoking habit, along with his consistently yellowed fingers he gets from rolling his own cigars. Robero Anastia del Popito is a smoker, and proud of it. It’s a man’s calling, he says. One of the last real expressions of masculinity that he can indulge in, he confesses, now that they’ve stopped selling guns to criminals.
“No.” My eyes scour the bustling casino, from the slot machines to the Wheel of Fortune. I’m no smoker, myself. Never found it too appealing, especially since my grandmother died of lung cancer. Painfully. It was a hell of a way to go: coughing and wheezing until the very end. Somehow, I can imagine a very similar fate for my friend Robero.
“He s’posed to be here.” Robero points out the obvious, and looks at his Rolex that clashes painfully with his fat, crusty wrist. “Five past ten,” he grunts.
I’m beginning to feel slightly annoyed. “All I know is we were supposed to meet him here. No ifs or buts about it.”
Robero chuckles lamely. “I’d say you blew it, myself.”
Although I don’t want to admit it, Robero might’ve hit the jackpot. I should’ve realized I had been rash in setting up the delivery. It had been too easy to begin with; a simple phone call, suitcases full of money, no guns – how wretchedly clichéd. How so very gangster film-like. Al Capone would’ve turned in his grave. The real Capone, not the Donald Duck-ified version they show to kids these days.
“Wild-goose chase.” I mutter to myself, turning away from Robero, whom I suddenly dislike even more now that he’s right.
Robero hopefully picks up the suitcase we had brought along, filled with $30,000 in unmarked bills. “Early night, then?” He glances across the crowded walkways one last time, although his mind has already checked into the 24-hour buffet.
I sigh, looking at the chaos below me one last time. “Early night, Robero. Let’s get the hell – ”
Suddenly, guns. They appear out of nowhere, and they poke into my ribs very painfully. I hear screams from the gambling pit and the sound of a suitcase being dropped behind me, followed by a very loud thump which meant that Robero was on the ground.
Useless creature, I think to myself, as the cold gunmetal presses into my sides again.
The casino is empty now, I can tell not by my eyes (which have been blindfolded) but by the distinct lack of acrid smoke that has stopped floating into my nostrils.
Everything happened within a few seconds, and I’m struck with the realization that I’ve somehow gotten myself in over my head. We – I – was no match for them in the first place. It was a sting worthy of Al Capone.
In my peripheral hearing now, I listen to the suitcase full of money (I’m sickened by just how cliched the whole thing was; this isn’t the ’70s anymore, why can’t I have cut them a cheque?) being opened, its contents being dumped into a bag with its telltale plastic rustle.
I hear Robero being dragged away, then I hear a lone squeal of a bullet ripping through the air, and I know that he is no more.
And suddenly, I am sad. Not sad for Robero – that son of a bitch – but because I’m stupid. Stupid and ignorant, who should have kept a better look-out. I made a small mistake and now it’s blowing up in my face.
Forced to my knees, I kiss the carpet. Somewhere above me comes the cocking of a gun. A chill runs through my body like a jolt of electricity. This is the moment I’ve imagined, dreamed about, for years; but I rather fancied byself at the other end of the trigger.
I know the gun is aimed at my head, because I’ve seen it in the movies before. Gangsters always aim at the head. Pity I never got to practice it.
I am shot. The bullet is lodged in my chest – they missed! – exerting a pressure that makes it hard to breathe.
My heart is full of bullets. Will this be how I am remembered in crime lore? Will there be movies filmed about my gunfights, novels dramatizing my escapades, documentaries filmed about my secret rooms? Because I do have a secret room, in my apartment – you have to pry open a vent to get into it, and it leads to a small room that I’ve decorated with a lawn chair. But now no one will know, perhaps apart from my landlady. I regret not leaving a note somewhere explaining everything.
Capone would be ashamed of me, I know. My bowler hat tumbles to the ground and I vainly paw at my balding head, attempting to put back on a hat that I know has dropped far out of my reach. Above me, I hear laughter and am filled with a brief moment of hatred. How dare they laugh at me? I may have been defeated, but it was honorable; just like the gangsters of old, with their courage, their charisma.
Robero was a fool. He should have seen them coming from far away. That’s why I brought him here, had I not? Did I not explicitly tell him that he was my bodyguard? Rookie mistake. I could have done much better than Robero.
None of it matters now, of course, as I hear the faintest sounds of police sirens above the silent cacophony. As it always happens with the police, they’ve been bought out. Only crooked cops would appear so late, so after the action. I’m filled with an unreasonable rage and remind myself that I would like my last moments to be peaceful. Just like Al Capone; his final moments would have been peaceful, too. And I’d like to make him proud, like the gangster I meant to be.
My heart is full of bullets…