Going for a Ride – By Bob Burnett
My Las Vegas fantasy of party-time with lovely ladies smashed against stark staring reality within days of my arrival. Tonight’s Las Vegas reality was borderline exhaustion from humping trays, peg racks and glassware on and off the dish machine conveyor for ten hours on second shift. No lovely ladies waited impatiently for me and I was too tired to care.
I punched out at the time clock, got my meal ticket from the chef, and ate like every other day. That was one advantage of working in a resort casino five-star restaurant; the food was first rate. I could never eat that well on what I make, but one meal is free for the hired help on each shift.
After eating, I lingered for a while on the sticky synthetic seat in the employee dining area, leaning my elbows on the sticky plastic table, smelling the funk of my sticky body. Maybe I could eat like a high-roller, but I sure didn’t feel like one or smell like one.
I had another cup of coffee, but the lift from the caffeine didn’t help my tired body very much. All I wanted to do was make it back to my cheap rented room and fall into bed.
If I left by the employee exit, I had to walk around the casino, but sometimes I used an emergency exit on the other side by the hotel. That saved some walking. The door sign said an alarm would sound if the door opened, but a guy I know in maintenance showed me the trip switch for the time-delay on the alarm so I could go out without setting it off. The alarm reset itself when the door closed.
If I was caught using that exit I’d probably be fired, but I was too tired to care. Washing dishes isn’t exactly a career path my high school guidance counselor would have recommended or one I would worry about abandoning.
I said ‘screw it’, tugged on my Cubs baseball cap, cut through the service area to the back side of the hotel, flipped the alarm switch and barged out through the exit door. I had taken several steps and the door banged shut behind me before I realized I was not alone. I had no way to get back inside even if they hadn’t seen me.
Two big guys were lifting a body out of a laundry cart behind a dark colored Lincoln with the trunk lid open. A third man turned and pointed a pistol at me.
“Freeze!” he said.
I froze. The two with the body dumped it unceremoniously into the trunk and looked both ways in the alley. We were alone. And I knew I was in trouble. I grabbed the bill of my baseball cap and yanked it down over my eyes.
“Hey,” I said. “I’m blind as a bat and dumb as a post. I ain’t seen nothin’ and damned sure don’t know nothin’. How ‘bout I just go on about my business while you take care of yours?”
I heard the trunk lid thump and for a minute I thought they were just going to leave and let me stand there. No such luck. A hand with fingers like iron sausages wrapped around my right biceps and tugged me toward the car.
“I really can’t see,” I said.
“Yeah, I know, kid. Make sure you keep your hat pulled down. But we can’t just leave you here, you understand? You need to take a little ride with us.”
I grew up watching the old black and white movies on TV, the ones with Bogart and Cagney and Raft playing gangsters. When they ‘took somebody for a ride’, he usually ended up tossed off a bridge or dumped from a speeding car. Going for a ride had unpleasant connotations.
I’d talked my way out of scrapes in high school, but I didn’t know what to say and I’m not sure my voice would have worked even if I’d had some bright idea about how to talk my way out of this. My captor dragged me along, then stopped and pushed on top of my head as he shoved me into the back seat of the car. His grip on my arm did not slacken. He kept pushing and scooted me across the seat. The car sagged as the big man sat on the seat next to me.
The other two got in the front seat, closed the doors, and we drove down the alley at a leisurely pace. We turned right on what must have been South Las Vegas Boulevard, stopped a couple of times – probably at traffic signals – then made a right turn and accelerated. We were not on the interstate, but I knew we must be on a highway to the desert. Going for a ride.
Not only was my hat pulled down, I had my eyes squinted shut so I could not see anything. But I had pulled my hat down too late. The light in the alley had been good and I had seen them clearly. I had seen them before. They worked security at the casino. Word was that they were ‘connected’. In other words, these guys were the real thing, the kind of guys Bogart and Cagney and Raft pretended to be.
I knew I was in deep doo-doo.
We rode in silence for ten or fifteen minutes, then the car slowed and turned left on a rough road. We drove slowly, the big car bumping and swaying, for what seemed like a several miles. Finally, the passenger in front spoke.
“The alley had plenty of light for him to see us. I saw his face and that means he saw mine. I could pick him out of a crowd, so it goes both ways.”
We bounced along in silence for a couple of minutes.
“Well, what do you say, kid?” the man next to me asked. He had released my arm after he put me in the car, but he was still sitting close to me.
“I have my hat pulled down and my eyes closed,” I said.
“Yeah, but you got a good look at us first, didn’t you?”
“I could lie and say I didn’t, but you wouldn’t believe me. Yeah, I saw you. I’ve seen all three of you before. I don’t know any of your names but I think you work security at the casino, at least that’s what I’ve heard.”
“Well, there you go,” the driver said. We rode a few more minutes in silence before the car rolled to a stop. The driver turned the engine off and popped the trunk release. The man next to me opened his door and tugged me out of the car. He pulled my cap off and set it back on my head so my eyes were no longer covered.
“Nice try, kid. It was worth a shot.”
“Yeah,” I said, opening my eyes. “It was worth a shot.”
The thin desert air was cool and moonlight cast a silver glow over the scrub brush and cactus, bright enough to see without flashlights. The only sound was the clicking of cooling metal from the car. My pulse raced at about one-sixty and sweat trickled off my face and down my shirt. My palms were slick with sweat. I knew they were going to kill me if I didn’t find some way to escape.
My captor kept his grip on my arm, pulling me to the rear of the car. The other two men dragged the body out of the trunk and dropped it on the ground. The body squirmed and tried to say something behind the duct tape over his mouth. So he wasn’t dead. Not yet, anyhow.
“End of the line, Charlie,” the driver said.
One of the men took a shovel out of the trunk, walked a dozen paces out into the desert to an area clear of brush, and began to dig. Charlie, on the ground, bound with duct tape, tried to make his case with mumbled sounds. Hard to talk with duct tape over your mouth.
“Shut up, Charlie,” my captor said. “You bought this. I ought to tie your sorry ass to the back of the car and drag you slow for ten or fifteen miles. Now for once in your worthless life act like a man.”
Charlie continued to make noises. The other man, without any show of emotion and without saying a word, kicked him in the belly. Charlie moaned a few times then was silent.
No emotions. That intimidated me. They were going to kill the man on the ground and they were going to kill me. They would bury us in the desert where our bodies would never be found. For these three men, this was simply something occasionally necessary, no pity and no regrets, just part of the job. At least in the movies, Cagney and Bogart and Raft snarled and said stuff like ‘you dirty rat’ when they killed someone.
When the digger was knee deep in the hole, the other man relieved him. Below the desert crust, the ground was softer and the digging went swiftly. Soon the hole was crotch deep. My mind was whirling, ideas for survival gyrating on a hamster wheel.
“I can dig,” I said to my captor, acting on the only idea that seemed to offer hope.
He looked at me for a long moment, staring down at me in the moonlight, before he released my arm and said, “Indeed. Why not.”
I walked to where the other gangster was crawling out of the hole – yeah, I know, the grave, but I didn’t want to think of it that way. He extended the shovel toward me handle first.
“Take your handkerchief and wipe it down,” I said.
“What? Too dirty for you?”
“No. Wipe it down to get your fingerprints off of it.” He cocked his head to one side, looking at me. I continued, “When I’m done you can put duct tape over some of my fingerprints. Those fingerprints will last forever under there. Then leave the shovel here. I don’t know where we are and I could never find this place again. If I talk about you and they find this place, you can put it all on me. This way you can let me go and be sure I won’t talk.”
He didn’t answer me, but he did wipe the shovel down before he handed it to me. That was a good sign. Maybe.
I shoveled steadily. The three mobsters leaned against the car, smoked, and watched me dig. They may have been talking softly, but I couldn’t hear anything they said. I don’t know if Charlie could see my progress or not since the excavated dirt mounded between us.
When the hole was arm-pit deep I tossed the shovel out on the heap of soil and hopped up to sit on the edge with my feet dangling into the grave. Fatigue pounded at the grating fear I felt. Either they would let me go or they would not. I saw no need to postpone what must come.
“I think that’s deep enough,” I said.
They walked over and stood across the grave from me, looking at me with no expression that I could see in the moonlit shadows.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“How old are you?”
“You ever been in trouble, Will McRae? Police trouble where they took your fingerprints?”
“Then fingerprints on a shovel are worthless, aren’t they?”
“I guess so. It was the only thing I could think of. I’m not ready to die.”
“But you ain’t whinin’ about it either, are you? Reason I put the tape on Charlie’s mouth was I was tired of hearin’ him whine. You got bigger huevos than Charlie ever had. Charlie is here because of what he did. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, Will McRae. Tough luck.”
“If I thought it would help I imagine I could squeeze out a tear or two, but if you want me to beg you can kiss my hairy ass.”
“You got plenty of mouth on you, Will McRae. Well, we already decided to take you back to town with us instead of sticking you in the ground with Charlie. Like you said, you don’t know where we are. C’mon over here.”
Could it be true? I stood and walked over to the gangster. The other two, each taking an arm, dragged Charlie to his grave and dropped him at the side. He was making as much noise as he could behind the duct tape. When they dropped him next to the hole in the ground, he just shuddered and got quiet.
“You know what we do for a living, Will McRae?”
“I have some idea.”
“You know what ‘make your bones’ means.”
“Only from what I’ve seen in the movies.”
He laughed. “Well, it ain’t exactly like that, but close enough. If you want to make your bones and sign on with us, this is your chance. Either way, you go back to town with us. This ain’t about your life or death, kid. Not everybody can pull the trigger when it comes down to it. Don’t mean you’re more or less of a man.”
He removed a revolver from his shoulder holster and handed it to me butt first. “Kill him or don’t. Make your bones or say no thanks. Either way, you live.”
If I could believe in the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, I could believe that no matter what I did they would let me go. Yeah, right. You bet. My only chance to live, and that possibility would be small indeed, was to shoot Charlie, to ‘make my bones’, to be complicit in Charlie’s murder; my life for his. I knew I could not do that. Could I shoot the three of them? Did I have any chance at all?
I held the heavy black deadliness in my right hand, turned it slowly in the moonlight, fitted my fingers to the grip and touched the trigger. Colt Cobra .357. Dad has one just like it and I had fired it hundreds of times. What I noticed first was that it felt too light, and then I saw that there was no brass gleam at the back edge of the cylinder. Of course. Empty. Only a fool would hand me a loaded weapon in this circumstance. But I was not supposed to notice that. The unloaded weapon certainly resolved the question of who I would shoot: I could not shoot anybody with an empty weapon.
In order to let me live, they needed to believe I was willing to kill Charlie. Okay. It was show time. I would show them I was cold. I would show them the same lack of emotion they themselves exhibited. My only chance to live was to make them believe I was just like them.
I looked at each of the three gangsters, then stepped over to Charlie, pressed the barrel against his temple and pulled the trigger without hesitation. Click. I pulled it twice more. Click. Click. Like I couldn’t understand why it didn’t fire.
The driver stepped past me and shot Charlie once in the head. The sound made my ears ring. Standing with the empty pistol dangling from my hand, I waited for the shot that would end my life. With one foot, the gangster pushed the body into the grave. It hit with a thump. The other gangster started shoveling soft dirt over Charlie’s body. They were going to let me live! I turned away and swallowed hard against the rising bile in my throat, straining to control the tremble I felt in my legs.
“We don’t care about the fingerprints, kid,” the shovel-wielder said with a chuckle. “We’ll take the shovel with us. Might need it again sometime.”
I walked over and returned the pistol to the man who had given it to me, handing it to him butt first. He released the latch and flipped open the cylinder with a flick of his wrist. He had shiny brass cartridges in his hand and he inserted them into the weapon one by one. He snapped the cylinder back in place and nestled the weapon into his shoulder holster.
“You understand,” he said. “I didn’t know what you might do, kid. You might have got stupid and decided to use it on me. Couldn’t chance it. But you were ready to make your bones. Pulled the trigger. That’s all that counts. You done good.” He slapped me on the shoulder.
After a few minutes, I took my turn at the shovel, and then the driver finished filling the grave. He tromped around to compact the loose soil, and then tossed the excess dirt around and smoothed out the grave surface. He placed the shovel in the Lincoln’s trunk and closed the lid. When we were back in the car and the driver was turning around, I again pulled my hat down over my eyes.
“I really don’t want to know where we are,” I said. All three of them laughed, but I kept the hat over my eyes. We rode in silence for what seemed like a long time before we left the bumpy trail and turned on the highway. The big Lincoln accelerated smoothly. I waited.
“You can open your eyes now, McRae,” the big man on my right said after a few minutes. I raised the bill of my cap and opened my eyes. The city lights were just ahead. The sky in the east was beginning to brighten with the first light of false dawn and the promise of another scorching day in the desert.
The driver asked where I lived and I gave him the address. He drove directly to my rooming house and stopped in front.
“You work in the kitchen?” the big man asked.
“You ever think about going to dealer school? Work in the casino?”
“I’m not old enough. Minimum age is twenty-one.”
“I can fix that. Interested?”
“My name’s Vincent Marconi. Call me Vinnie. Come to the security office at six tonight and I’ll hook you up with what you need. Get your rest today, kid. You’ve had a busy night.”
“Okay. And thanks.”
As I opened the door, Vinnie said, “Don’t worry about not making your bones tonight, McRae. You done good. Stood solid. You got a good future ahead of you.”
I nodded and got out of the car. I stood at the curb and watched the Lincoln speed away, tasting the sour bile at the back of my throat, swallowing the saliva flooding my mouth.
I made it inside and up to the third step before I lost it, puking all over the side of the stairwell. After the spasms subsided, I trudged up the stairs to my rented room. I took a long, hot shower and washed my hair to remove the stink of dirty dishes and grease and sweat and fear.
I shaved, but when I brushed my teeth I hit the gag reflex and wilted helplessly to the floor, retching into the toilet bowl while dry heaves persisted. Resting my cheek against the cool porcelain, my mind’s replay machine streamed forward and reversed, out of my control, replaying the scenes again and again. I slept – or fainted – for a minute or an hour with no way to measure the passage of time. When I again became aware, the retching had stopped and I felt somewhat better physically. Mentally, the whirl of ideas was back on the hamster wheel. What should I do? What could I do?
Dad would tell me to go straight to the police and tell them what I knew. My father is a righteous man, an honorable man. For him, the law and his practice of it is the lodestone for his moral compass, perhaps more important to him than the regular Sunday services that offered salvation for his soul. I had witnessed – no, I had participated in – the breaking of both man’s law and God’s law. Dad would see no alternatives.
But in my father’s practice of corporate law, no Vinnie Marconi with cold eyes killed people. Thinking of him chilled me to the core. What could I report if I went to the police? Charlie ’somebody’ was murdered by Vincent Marconi and two other men I could identify by sight but not by name. This ‘Charlie’ was buried somewhere in the desert south and west of town, many miles away at a location I could never find. If the police started checking on a missing ‘Charlie’, Vinnie Marconi would know the source of their information. With one phone call to the personnel office Vinnie would know all about me. He would see his mercy toward me in the desert as a mistake. If he did not kill me himself, he would surely send others to do it. Not only was I a potential witness against him but also, and more importantly, he would see my actions as the worst sort of betrayal, the ultimate insult. He offered me a career and I not only snubbed his offer, I turned against him.
I flushed the toilet and showered again, gradually turning the water to cold. As I toweled off I decided that if I simply disappeared he might believe I was just a kid, unready to accept the responsibilities of manhood. If nobody inquired about Charlie, maybe Vinnie would just shrug it off and let the matter rest. Maybe.
It was time for me to get a whole lot of gone between Vincent Marconi and me. I dressed in old faded jeans, a pullover, and sneakers. I got down on my knees in the closet, removed the molding I had carefully loosened right after renting the room. I retrieved my wristwatch, billfold, credit cards, and my stash of cash.
I had not planned to leave for another week, but staying longer might hook me into another career path my high school guidance counselor would not have recommended. Should I be a dishwasher? No, of course not. How about training to be a mob hit man? Don’t be foolish, William.
What she actually recommended was Columbia, then Harvard Law, following my father’s path to an eventual partnership in the family law firm. Dad suggested that I spend my last summer before college working at the kind of menial occupation to which dropouts are condemned. I picked Las Vegas with a pubescent fantasy about long-legged showgirls, but the only job I could get, seventeen with no experience and only a high school education, was kitchen scutwork. It was not a likely spot to connect with long-legged showgirls.
I left the door to my room open so anyone could steal the few belongings I had accumulated during my two month stay in Las Vegas. I walked three blocks to a cab stand, took a taxi to McCarren International Airport, and booked a first class ticket home on United, paying with my Platinum Visa card. Since I was three hours early for the flight, the agent escorted me to the VIP lounge to wait.
The attendant asked if she could get me anything and I asked for a bottle of water. I was dehydrated and my mouth was dry, but I felt better than I had felt earlier. I could probably keep some water down.
I settled into one of the soft leather recliners and put my feet up. God, I was tired. When she brought my water, I told her I would probably take a nap and asked if she would be certain I was awake in time to make my flight.
She smiled. “Tough night, Tiger?”
“You have no idea,” I said.
She chuckled and said she would be sure I did not miss my flight. I opened my water and drank about half before replacing the cap. It felt like it would stay down. I set the bottle on a side table and stared drowsily out the window at aircraft arriving and departing.
My path through college and law school lay ahead. Behind were echoes of fear and a waking nightmare of cold-eyed men in the desert. Would they let me go?
My direction in the law would indeed follow my father into the safe haven of corporate statutes. I would never invite a nasty piece of work like Vinnie Marconi into my life by the practice of criminal law. And I would never again set foot in Las Vegas.
My eyes drifted to a poster on the near wall, pictures of smiling, beautiful people in evening clothes and sport clothes and swimwear enjoying elegant exotic pleasures. Yeah. Maybe the convention bureau advertising promotion provided my answer.
What Happens in Las Vegas Stays in Las Vegas.