Six Million on Red
Publish Date: 02/10/2021
“Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business.”
“The greatest escape I ever made was when I left Appleton, Wisconsin.”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You want me to go to Las Vegas to find some guy who owes us money.”
Jacky nodded, put his fingertips together, and managed to look like a Buddha. If a Buddha were to wear a Chicago Bears sweatshirt and sit sipping Jack Daniels on the nineteenth-floor balcony of 1040 Lakeshore Drive.
“This guy is in Vegas?”
“As far as we know.”
“How much does he owe?”
“Magician. He disappeared suddenly. He was renting the theater at Galloping Dominos.”
“So, you want me to go to Vegas and un-disappear some magician that owes us two huge? In other words, put the rabbit back into the hat?” I looked at my watch. “The date on my Rolex doesn’t say April first, Jacky.”
Jacky smiled, reached over the wrought iron table, and poured more whiskey into our glasses.
“I know you can do it, Nick. We’ve booked you on the redeye out of O’Hare tonight. Take you two, three days. There are some old friends out there. They can help.”
“You sweet talking me, Jacky?”
He did the Buddha finger-tips thing again and smiled.
“Someday, Jacky, I’m gonna come into about six million bucks…”
“Yeah, I know that old saw, Nick. You’ll never walk away. You’d put the six mil on red and give the wheel a turn. You’d die without the action.”
It was no use arguing with him. He knew me. Give me a challenge, something to figure out, and I was like the dog with a new rawhide bone,
I gave him my charming grin, picked up my Delta tickets, and smiled some more.
“I’ll go out there and take a look around.”
“You’ll do fine, Nick. You’ll do fine.”
I thought about how I was going to handle our disappearing magician as the plane made its way to Vegas. It’s true that people go to Sin City and disappear. Sometimes they disappear one identity in favor of a new one. Divorce, remarriage is part of it. Then there’s the method of where someone disappears someone else, usually over money or another kind of betrayal. The desert is full of ghosts. Skeletons show up from time to time.
Usually, there’s a line on people if you look hard and know who to talk to.
The word was that this magician, Charlemagne, had one of the hottest shows in Vegas. The house was packed every night. Two months ago, he quit paying his rent. A few days back, he disappeared. The whole show vanished. No trace.
Or so they said.
My first stop was the Galloping Dominos Casino and a heart to heart with Neal Braxton, who supposedly ran the theater. I knew him from Chicago. We didn’t hang out together, but we traveled in the same circle. Capisce?
Braxton always seemed a little too loose for my taste. I couldn’t make up my mind if he was a coked-up hipster, or just some ass kisser who couldn’t be trusted. He was always a little too agreeable with the people he was talking with at the time.
“Nick, good to see you,” he said as I entered his office. “How are Jacky and the rest of my friends in Chicago?”
“They’re a little forlorn,” I said. “They’re missing their friend Charlemagne and the treasure chest he took with him. With your cooperation, I’ll head for his forwarding address and square things up with our magical friend.”
“Hah,” he said. “Wish I could help you there.”
He tossed his hands up in the air like he was about to signal two-thirds of a touchdown.
“Yeah, I wish you could help, too,” I said. “Because if you can’t, Jacky’s going to be pissed, and you don’t want that. I don’t want that either.”
“You’re right,” he said. “But there isn’t a line on any of those people in Charlemagne’s show. They just vanished. It’s like they were ghosts.”
“What do you mean? Ghosts?”
“This ain’t that big a town,” Braxton said, leaning forward on his desk like he was about to take an order at a pizza joint. “Everybody knows somebody, but no one knows anybody in Charlemagne’s show. Nobody was screwing any of the women. Nobody knew any of the technicians. Nobody could even swear to you what Charlemagne looked like out of his costume. Whoever they are, they kept to themselves.”
“Are you telling me you never met Charlemagne?”
“I met his manager, Ted Evans, who forked over the million every month. I took him through the facilities when we made the deal, just like Jacky said to do. Take a million out front and let them have the keys to the theatre. Whatever this guy Charlemagne was going to do, would be a hell of a lot better than the Liberace impersonator that fell on his ass there. Jesus. That show was god awful. I told that to Jacky out in front. The young fags don’t know who Liberace was, and the old ladies that liked the guy are all dead.”
So much for enlightenment among casino operators. I tried to steer Braxton back to the business at hand.
“Ted Evans. That’s the manager, right?”
“Yeah.” Braxton lit a cigarette. “Big fat guy with an old desert rat beard. He wears those flowered cowboy shirts. Smells like he stepped in horseshit. A real character, but his cash was good. Jacky knows that. Probably still has most of it, unless he bet it on the Bears.”
“So, where does this guy Evans stay? He must have a room somewhere. Where’s he hang out? Shit, they have to eat. Have to sleep somewhere?
Braxton signaled for two-thirds of another touchdown.
I didn’t want to lean on him too heavy. Maybe he was telling it like it was.
I took the keys to the vacant theatre from Braxton and told him I’d look around. In the meantime, I wanted him to get me some shots of Evans off the security cams. Maybe I could find someone who at least knew him by sight.
“Hell, all he’d have to do to disappear is shave his beard,” Braxton said.
I looked at Braxton and wondered how someone like him ended up at the Galloping Dominos. Good taste, I decided, had nothing to do with it.
Braxton was typical of Vegas, an over-blown loser who fit perfectly into the culture of what some my Chicago people call Loser-Land.
“Nick,” I can hear you say, “Shouldn’t you be the kind of guys that love Las Vegas? You Chicago guys?” Wink, wink?
Yeah, Chicago guys. I should start a group called “Chicago Lives Matter” so we can all be defended from know-it-alls. We won’t have to listen to some Eastern experts expound on how we all like our hotdogs without ketchup. We all want our pizzas with a thick crust. We all suffer from the Cubs and get our hearts broken each year by the Bears. And, oh yeah, we all know some fantastic place to go hear the blues. It’s right next door to an Italian restaurant where everybody there is connected to the Mafia.
I smother my hotdogs in ketchup and anything else I can get my hands on. The fact is you could leave out the hotdog. I’d never miss it.
I like the thin-crusted pizza.
I expect the Cubs and the Bears to lose more than their share, and I bet accordingly. The blues are best at a lakefront festival, not in some Southside rat-hole. As far as the Italian restaurant where the Mafia hangs out, well, we don’t use that disgusting ethnic slur. In Chicago, we refer to it as The Outfit.
Chicago used to love Vegas, but Vegas has taken a dive. The high rollers are in Macau. Vegas, according to some Chicago associates, is where shoe store managers go to play Sinatra. Ring-a-ding-ding, my ass.
Anyhow, a shoe store manager playing Sinatra wasn’t on my current dance card. Finding Charlemagne and the two million he owed Jacky was.
I walked over to the theatre and let myself in with the keys Braxton gave me. It was clean as in “too clean.” Whoever had done the cleanup when Charlemagne decided to boogie could have been from the CIA doing one of those Area 51 cleanups. The only DNA in the place I thought as I walked through was coming from me.
I spent a couple of hours looking through the place. I was about to leave empty-handed when I noticed an old over-stuffed chair next to the loading dock door. It might have been for a security guard taking in deliveries. I reached beside the cushion. Something was down in the crack. A small plastic bag with about a dozen coins inside: next to it was half a pack of Gauloise cigarettes.
Did I find a real clue, or was this just the stash of some underpaid working stiff who no longer worked in the theatre? How long had this stuff been sitting there? The chair was beat-up. Most people wouldn’t sit in it.
I shoved the stuff into my pocket and locked the place up.
Back at Braxton’s office, I picked up six stills of Ted Evans from the security cams at the Galloping Dominos. Evans looked pretty much what Braxton had described. Behind the beard, he could have been anybody.
I headed over to the Dominic’s Sports Betting Parlor on the strip. I knew I’d find Jimmy Cox there. You could call it his office, but he wouldn’t be the one answering the phone. He was one of their more exciting customers. He had moved to Vegas from Franklin Park, outside of Chicago.
He had been a lawyer in Illinois. He had carried the ball for Jacky for problems at Club Ali Bam in North Lake. Gambling and prostitution were frequent legal problems on the premises.
If North Lake sounds like a scenic town, guess again. It’s named after an industrial intersection of North Avenue and Lake Street.
Jimmy didn’t practice law anymore. His retirement came out of an agreement with the Illinois Bureau of Investigation and an influential politician from Chicago’s Southside who told the IBI that all should be forgotten. Allegations of Jimmy Cox bribing a Republican Senator and a Democrat congressman were dropped. Retirement to Nevada by Lawyer Cox was a big part of the deal. Everybody involved wanted it all to go away.
Jimmy sat in his favorite spot. He could watch all the monitors from sporting events around the world. He could also watch many of the bettors, and to Jimmy, that was as important as an insider’s report on Wall Street.
“Watch what Dinkins does on that sixth race at Gulfstream,” he said as I approached where he sat. “He’s been sitting there all afternoon doing nothing. He’s getting ready to plunge.”
Jimmy nodded and watched Dinkins.
Dinkins nodded at Jimmy.
Jimmy raised his hand and spread his fingers.
“Five,” he said.
We were good at nodding.
“How’s Jacky,” Jimmy said. It wasn’t a question.
“Fine,” I said. It wasn’t an answer.
“Good,” Jimmy said. “You must be here trying to find Aladdin or Houdini or whatever his name is. I hear he’s into Jacky big time.”
“That guy Braxton let that magician slide out without paying,” Jimmy said. “That Neal’s a real jerk. Christ’s sake, is that the best we can do these days?”
I nodded again.
“Find anything to go on?”
I showed him the photos of Ted Evans.
“This guy for real?”
“Hell,” I said. “As far as I know, none of this is for real.”
I showed him the pack of cigarettes and the plastic bag of coins.
“Not much to go on,” He said. “This belongs to some cheap French hooker?”
He nodded, then said, “You know, almost nobody uses quarters anymore. It’s all electronic. Most of the slot machines don’t take coins. Hell, not even the Laundromats. You buy a card with so much on it and use it on the washers and dryers. It makes it harder to launder money through self-serve laundries.”
I told him where I was staying. I’d think about what he said, and I’d get back to him. I headed to the hotel to check in.
There was a message on my phone in the hotel suite. Could I call Cassandra Black at the Las Vegas Star Review? She heard from Jimmy Cox that I was in town. She might have some information about Charlemagne that I’d be interested in hearing.
I was about to return her call when there was a knock on the door.
Two suits wearing dark sunglasses stood in the hall. The thinner of the two spoke while the fat one nodded and grunted.
“We heard you were in town,” the thin guy said. “We’re from the FBI Special Projects Criminal Terrorist Section.”
They both flashed IDs.
I was surprised that they didn’t have dark glasses on in their ID photos.
I invited them in. Agents Fitch and Rice.
“There’s a possible connection between Charlemagne and a foreign group,” Rice said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Cirque du Soleil.”
Rice began scanning the room with his eyes. Maybe he thought I was hiding Charlemagne in the bathroom or under the bed.
“No, we’re serious,” Fitch said.
“So, you guys are looking for him, too?” I asked. “I’m only interested in collecting some money he owes us. You think he’s some kind of terrorist?”
“Didn’t say that,” Rice said. “Let’s just say we’re interested in any help you can give us.”
“Likewise, I’m sure,” I said. “You guys got any kind of a lead on him you’d care to share?”
“Not right now,” Rice said. “Here’s my card. Call me any time, day or night. One other thing, this Charlemagne character is dangerous. Don’t think you can handle him by yourself.”
“How’d you guys get wind of my being in town, or is that a state secret?” I asked.
“You show up in our database from time to time,” Rice said. “Let’s just say you’re one of our more interesting persons of interest.”
Fitch stared at Rice and made a “let’s go” flip with his head.
They left. Their business card had heavy raised type on it. I wondered if it had micro circuitry under the ink – a perfect way to track someone. I wrote the info from the card into my notebook and headed out.
I could have walked to Cassandra Black’s office, but my ulterior motive had me grabbing a taxi. As I exited the cab in front of the Las Vegas Star Review, I dropped the FBI business card behind the rear seat cushion. From the looks of the cab’s littered interior, the card would be riding around town for the next few weeks. Agents Fitch and Rice might be following.
Cassandra ushered me into her private office. She was a beautiful woman in her late thirties and looked like she’d stay that way forever. Cassandra knew how to use her good looks and her brains to build her news and entertainment website up from nothing.
“She decided she wanted to be dealt into the game,” Jacky had said. “When the major players didn’t move fast enough to let her in, she jumped the line.”
She got a major developer to back her. In turn, she threw all her support in back of their project. She managed to sell it to the powers-that-be, even though it was way too big and verging on the obnoxious. It was all planned. The developers didn’t want to go that big. Actually, they couldn’t afford it.
At that point, she formed a civic group that wanted to scale back the project. Her website got behind that. The developer agreed. The city government got off the hook on sewer bills that would have run into millions—sharp lady, all around.
I sat in the sharp lady’s office, looking at a bunch of awards on display.
“Nick,” she looked at me from across her mahogany desk. “How’s Jacky? When’s he coming out?”
“Jacky’s fine, except he’s a little light in the pocket due to our friend Charlemagne,” I said. “I’m out here trying to do the impossible trick of un-disappearing a magician. Maybe I should go over and see Penn and Teller. See what kind of ideas they have on the subject.”
I gave her my crooked grin.
“It ain’t magic, Nick,” she said. “It never was. I caught the Charlemagne act several times. This was something else. Being in that theatre was like being in some sort of a fourth or fifth dimension. People walked out of there stunned. It was enough to make you start believing in the Devil or witchcraft. I’ve seen a lot of shows on the strip. This was nothing like the others. All the others you can figure out. All the magicians on the strip tried to figure it out. They never got past first base.”
Cassandra could read people and get them to open up. I asked her if she had ever met Ted Evans, Charlemagne’s manager. Neal Braxton had described him as fat horseshit wearing a beard and cowboy shirt. His photos off the security cams didn’t dispute Braxton’s point.
“My God, yes,” she leaned forward. “He’s an interesting character. Several times I interviewed him. He’d refer to himself as Old Zeke.”
“Old Zeke?” I asked. “Like an old cowhand?”
“Maybe,” she said. “He had a lot to say about the old days when people had more respect for others, and religion really meant survival. He said he had hopes that Charlemagne’s show would break people out of their troubled lives. Evans is one of those people who respect the desert. He’d talk about it mystically. About righteousness coming out of an approaching storm and floods washing things away. If you’ve ever seen a flash flood out here, it’s impressive. People drown in the desert. Imagine that. It was one Hell of a show. You never saw it, Nick?”
I shook my head.
“It was out to break all conventions,” she said. “Not just the nudity and the shooting money into the audience. There was this whole thing about spatial relationships. Things got bigger and smaller and changed colors and disappeared. It was like a challenge to reality. While you were in that show, it was as if you gave up every notion of what was real and what was fantasy.”
“I had a visit from the feds before I came over,” I said. “They wanted to know what I knew about our boy Charlemagne. FBI Special Projects Criminal Terrorist Section.”
“Two suits named Fitch and Rice,” she said. “They’ve been all over the strip looking for a lead on Charlemagne. I don’t think they’re who they claim to be.”
I was interested.
“Who do you think they are?”
“Not who they say they are,” she said. “One of my contacts works over at the city jail. Roland. Nice guy. Gives us the old heads up when he gets an interesting boarder at his hotel. Working gal got busted trying to steal a couple of wallets from two johns she was partying with. Your pals, Rice and Fitch. In the end, all they wanted was all their wallets and toys back. Drop the charges, they said, but that’s not what Doris, the working gal said about it. She claims these two got high on coke. They started talking about working at Area 51 and some sort of space warping project.”
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