Vanished, page 37
I opened the door of the Dodge and got out.
The night was cool, but not unpleasant. Popping the trunk, I grabbed my overnight bag and headed across the lot. Inside, the hotel was just as loud, the cars and planes and video screens replaced by the incessant ding, ding, ding of slot machines. I waited in line for the front desk, watching as a young couple in their twenties started arguing with one another. By the time I was handed my room card, I was ready for silence – or as close as I could get.
I showered, changed and raided the minibar, then called Derryn to let her know I’d arrived okay. We chatted for a while. She’d found it hard to adapt to our new life on the West Coast initially: we had no friends here, she had no job, and in our Santa Monica apartment block our neighbours operated a hermetically sealed clique. Gradually, though, things were changing. Back home, she’d been an A&E nurse for twelve years before giving it up to come out to the States with me, and that experience had landed her a short-term contract at a surgery a block from where we lived. She was only taking blood and helping doctors patch up wounds – much more sedate than the work she had been doing back in London – but she loved it. It got her out meeting people, and it brought in a little money, plus she got weekends off too, which meant she could go to the beach.
‘You going to spend all our money, Raker?’ she asked after a while.
‘Not tonight. Maybe tomorrow.’
‘Do you even know how to play cards?’
‘I know how to play Snap.’
I could tell she was smiling. ‘I’d love to be a fly on the wall when you sidle up to the blackjack table pretending you know what you’re doing.’
‘I do know what I’m doing.’
‘You can’t even play Monopoly.’
‘My biggest fan talks me up again.’
She laughed. ‘You’ll have to take me with you next time.’
‘I’d love to see Vegas.’
I turned on the bed and looked out through the window. Millions of lights winked back through the glass. ‘I know. I’ll bring you here one day, I promise.’
Except I would never get the chance.
Because, two years later, she’d be dead.
At one-thirty, I was still awake, even if I didn’t understand why. I’d been up until four the previous night filing a story, was fried after the five-hour drive down from LA – but I just couldn’t drop off. Eventually, I gave up trying, got dressed and headed downstairs.
When the elevator doors opened, it was like time had stood still: the foyer, the sounds of the slots, the music being piped through speakers, it was all exactly the same as I’d left it. The only thing missing was the couple screaming at one another. This was the reason casinos didn’t put clocks up: day, night, it was all the same, like being in stasis. You came in and your body clock disengaged. I looked at my watch again and saw it was closing in on two – but it may as well have been mid-morning. Men and women were wandering around in tracksuits and shorts like they’d just come from the tennis courts.
I headed to a bar next to the hotel lobby. Even at one-fifty in the morning I had plenty of company: a couple in their sixties, a woman talking on her phone in a booth, a guy leaning over a laptop, and a group of five men sitting at one of the tables, laughing raucously at something one of them had said. Sliding in at the stools, I ordered a beer, picked at a bowl of nuts and flicked through a copy of the Las Vegas Sun that had been left behind. The front-page story neatly echoed the one I’d been sent down to follow up: Las Vegas, the bulletproof city. While some analysts were predicting a recession inside the next twelve months, America’s gaming capital was set to make a record $8 billion.
About ten minutes later, as I got to the sports pages, a guy sat down beside me at the bar and ordered another round of drinks. I looked up, he looked back at me, and then he disappeared back to his table with a tray full of shots. A couple of seconds later, a faint memory surfaced, and – as I tried to grasp at it – a feeling of recognition washed over me: I knew him. I turned on my stool and glanced back over my shoulder. The man placed the tray down on the table – and then looked back at me. He knows me too. There was a moment of hesitation for both of us, paused at either end of the room – but then it seemed to click for him, a smile broke out and he returned to me.
As soon as he spoke, the memory became fully formed: Lee Wilkins. We’d grown up together, lived in the same village, gone to the same school – and we’d left the same sixth-form college and never spoken since. Now, almost twenty years later, here he was: different from how I remembered, but not that different. More weight around his face and middle, hair shaved, dark stubble lining his jaw, but otherwise the same guy: five-ten, stocky, a scar to the left of his nose where he’d fallen out of a tree we’d been climbing.
‘Yes!’ An even bigger smile spread across his face and we shook hands. ‘Bloody hell,’ he said. ‘I thought when I saw you, “He looks familiar,” but I just never figured …’
‘Are you on holiday here?’
‘No,’ he said, perching himself on the stool next to me. ‘I live here now. Been in Vegas for two years; been in the States for seven.’
‘You remember I wanted to be an actor?’
‘I remember that, yeah.’
He stopped; smiled. ‘Well, it didn’t work out.’
‘No, I mean it didn’t work out in the way I thought it would. I spent five years in LA trying to catch a break, waiting tables and turning up at auditions. Got some minor roles here and there but nothing anyone would have seen me in. Then I started compèring at this comedy club in West Hollywood, and things got a little crazy. Ended up going down so well, I became the act. Couple of years later, I got offered a support-act slot by a guy I know who runs the entertainment in the MGM hotels, so I travel between here, the Luxor, New York, the Mirage, the Grand, all of them. It’s just sort of grown from there.’
‘Wow. That’s incredible, Lee. Congratulations.’
‘Right place, right time, I guess.’
‘Or you’re just really good at it.’
He shrugged. ‘I can’t believe it’s you. Here.’
‘So what are you doing in Vegas?’
‘You remember I wanted to be a journalist?’
‘Well, that did work out.’
‘Fantastic. Are you working now?’
‘Yeah.’ I looked around me. ‘Well, I’m working tomorrow.’
‘You live here?’
‘No. I’m just down from LA for the night.’
I tapped the front page of the Sun. ‘Writing about money.’
‘Are you a correspondent or something?’
‘Just until the elections are over next year, and then I head back to London. The paper’s pretty excited about the idea of Obama, which is why I’m out here so early.’
‘Anyone’s better than Bush, right?’
‘I guess we’ll see next year.’
‘How come you’re based on the West Coast?’
‘I was based in DC last time I was out, but this time I’m here for much longer. So I’m spending six months in LA, to cover the build-up from Cailfornia, and then I move to DC to cover the last six months from Capitol Hill.’ I nodded at the Sun again. ‘Thing is, at the moment, it’s still early days, so there’s nothing to tell. Which is why I’m down here trying to justify my existence.’
‘Not a bad place to come for a night.’
He laughed. ‘Yeah, I guess it is.’
We ordered more beers and sat at the bar and talked, covering the nineteen years since we’d left home. I’d grown up on a farm, in the hills surrounding our village, but when I headed to London and it dawned on my parents that I wasn’t going to be taking over the running of it any time soon, they sta
‘And then Mum died.’
Lee gave a solemn nod of the head.
I shrugged. ‘It was pretty much all downhill from there: I helped Dad get the farm sold and moved him into the village, but he could never really handle it on his own.’
‘When did he die?’
‘Almost two years back.’
I hadn’t been back home since.
The conversation moved on and got brighter, Lee telling me how his parents now lived in Torquay, how his sister was a teacher, how he was still single and loving it, even if his mum wanted him to settle down. ‘They flew out earlier in the year, and Mum basically asked me once a day for three weeks when I was going to get married.’ He rolled his eyes and then asked, ‘So how long have you been married to Diane?’ He was busy polishing off his fifth bottle of beer, so I forgave him the slip-up. We were both a little worse for wear: him – two bottles ahead of me – on alcohol, me on a lack of sleep.
‘Damn.’ He laughed. ‘Sorry. Derryn.’
The bar was quieter now, all the men he’d been drinking with earlier off in the casino somewhere. ‘It’ll be thirteen years this year.’
‘Yeah, it’s been good.’
He nodded. ‘I admire you, man.’ He nodded a second time and then sank the rest of his beer. ‘And now I’ve got to use the can.’
He rocked from side to side slightly as he shifted away from the bar, and patted me gently on the shoulder as he passed. Then he headed to the toilets.
And I never saw him again.
A couple of minutes later, after picking up where I’d left off with the Las Vegas Sun, I looked up in the direction Lee had gone and saw a man standing next to me at the bar. I hadn’t seen him approach. His body was facing the bar but his head was turned towards the paper, reading one of the stories on the front page. A second later he glanced at me and realized he’d been caught out. ‘Shit,’ he said. ‘Sorry. That’s incredibly rude of me.’
He was English.
I looked over his shoulder, in the direction of the toilets. No sign of Lee. When my eyes fell on the man again, his head had tilted – like a bird – as if he was studying me.
I pushed the paper towards him. ‘Here.’
‘That’s really good of you,’ he said. ‘Thanks.’
He smiled. ‘You’re English.’
‘Yeah. Looks like we both are.’
He was in his late forties, thin and wiry, with a tan and a smooth, hairless face. As he smiled, I could see he’d had his teeth done. They had an unnatural sheen that you could only get away with on the West Coast. He perched himself on the edge of one of the stools, still smiling. He was dressed smartly: pale blue open-necked shirt, black jacket, denims, black leather shoes polished to a shine. His hair was slicked back from his forehead and glistened under the lights. ‘Are you out here with work or something?’
‘Just for a couple of days.’
‘Ah, I didn’t think you looked like a whale.’
‘Whale’ was what casinos termed the world’s biggest gamblers.
‘You wouldn’t be sitting here for a start.’
‘If I was a whale?’
‘Right. You’d be living off your complimentaries – your free flight and free suite and free food from the restaurant – not drinking alone in the bar at the foyer.’ He seemed to realize what he’d just said. ‘Wait, I didn’t mean that how it sounded. Sorry.’
‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘I mean, I’m one to talk, right? I’m here too.’ He laughed briefly, then flipped the newspaper closed. ‘Do you know how much casinos pay in comps to the high rollers?’
He leaned in towards me.
‘Wouldn’t have a clue.’
‘Anywhere between 3,000 and 5,000 dollars. But do you know how much the high rollers will lose at the tables?’ He lowered his voice, like he was imparting some ancient secret. ‘Twice that much. No one beats the house. High rollers come in here with their credit lines, and their casino-paid hotel rooms and five-star meals, thinking they’re going to defy the odds, that the casino’s losing out. But every game here – every game in every single casino in the city – is designed to give the house a mathematical advantage.’
The man shifted from side to side, one hand pressed against the stool between us, the other flat to the marble of the bar. He was missing nails on the first two fingers of his one hand, like they’d been torn off. ‘You know what they call that?’ he asked quietly.
‘The mathematical advantage?’
I glanced over the man’s shoulder. Still no sign of Lee. It must have been five or six minutes since he’d left. The man moved in even closer when he didn’t get a response, his fingers inches from mine. I glanced down at his missing nails, then back up at him.
‘It’s called “the edge”,’ he said.
He stayed like that for a moment and then, finally, moved his hand off the stool and on to the marble, as if signalling for service. At the other end of the bar, the barman started to come over but then the man made eye contact with him – a tiny, fractional swivel of the head – and the barman stopped immediately, as if he’d been hit by a truck. When I looked back at the man, something had changed in him – something subtle – and a ripple of alarm passed through me.
We stayed like that for a moment, the ding, ding, ding of the slots ringing around us, then I slid off the stool, pulled a couple of $10 bills out and left them on the counter for the barman. I turned back to the man. He was about five inches shorter than me, but it didn’t make me feel any easier around him. He was still standing in the same position, body turned to the bar, hands flat in front of him, head turned towards me.
‘You off to bed?’ he said.
‘Something like that.’
I went to step around him – but then he grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into him. His grip was like a vice. I stumbled, completely knocked off balance. Then instinct kicked in: I pushed back at him and ripped my arm free.
‘What the fuck is the matter with you?’
He realigned himself: both hands flat to the counter. ‘Let me give you a piece of advice.’
‘Let me give you one: don’t ever touch me.’
I went to leave.
‘Someone will always have the edge over you, David.’
I stopped. Turned back to him. ‘What did you say?’
‘You’re just flesh and bones like everyone else.’
There was a threat in him now, as if he’d completely changed his appearance somehow. His eyes seemed darker. His face was twisted up like an animal about to strike. ‘Go back home to your wife,’ he said, looking me up and down. Then he leaned in and dropped his voice to a whisper: ‘And do both of you a favour: stay out of our business.’
‘What the hell are you talking about? I don’t even know you.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘But you know Lee Wilkins.’
He nodded once, eyes fixed on mine, then pushed past me and headed out into the casino. Inside a couple of seconds, he was disappearing into the crowds.
Inside ten, he was gone.
The boy trudged across the shingle beach, six feet from where the waves were breaking on the shore. Their noise was immense: a roar, like an animal, and then a deep, visceral boom which passed right through him. When the tide began its retreat again, sucked back into the sea, the pebbles became caught in the wash and he could hear a soft, chattering sound, as if thousands of voices were calling from beyond the sea wall. On the other side of the eight-foot wall was the village: old fishermen’s cottages, a pub, a few shops and businesses. This side of it were boats, lined up on the beach, masts chiming in the wind.
He adjusted the straps of the backpack and heard t
The village was set in a bowl, with coves cut into the faces of the hills on either side. In order to get to the coves, you had to climb over a series of rocks that rose up out of the shingle at both ends of the beach. To the boy, the rocks – polished and hewed by the relentless power of the sea – looked like the tail of a dragon, the bulk of the creature still submerged somewhere beneath. On the other side of the tail, in the coves beyond, hundreds of rock pools had formed in the grooves and chasms of the beach. That’s where the crabs would be; washed up and spat out by the tide.
The boy started the climb.
Carrying the bucket at the same time made it harder. Normally his dad hauled all the equipment for him, but he was away with work and had told the boy he was big enough now – at almost thirteen – to go by himself. ‘As long as you’re careful,’ his dad kept saying. The sea spray and the rain could make climbing more difficult but he was doing okay: after five minutes he’d got up on to the top of the tail and was looking down at the first of the coves. It was about thirty feet across by sixty feet deep, with a thin sliver of shingle running from the shoreline to where the hills at the back started their steep ascent. The rest was just rock pools, sea washing over them, foam bubbling in the clefts and rifts. He started down, bucket – gripped in his hand still – clattering against the rock, his eyes fixed on where he was placing his feet. Wind roared in, once, twice, pulling him around like it had reached out and grabbed him – but then he jumped the last few feet, on to the shingle, and the wind died instantly as he stepped into the protection of the cove. All he could hear now was the sea breaking on the beach behind him.
Placing the bucket down on the shingle, he removed his backpack, unzipped it and started taking out the equipment. Crab line. Short-handled net. Bait. He attached the bait to the line, grabbed the net and the bucket and made his way across the cove, to the rocks at the back. As long as you’re careful. He placed his feet down just as deliberately as before, not wanting to have to explain to his dad how he had managed to snap the line, or cut himself, or both. Halfway across, he heard the sea crash again behind him, an even louder and longer roar than previously, and when he looked back he saw a wave rolling in towards him. He wasn’t worried about getting wet, but he was worried about getting knocked over, so he reached forward and grabbed hold of a thin column of stone. The sea washed in, almost knee high, soaking his trousers and boots, and flattening out in the space ahead of him. Once it started drawing out again, he looked to the backpack and saw it was safe, perched in a high groove where he’d placed it after getting the equipment out. He headed to the rock pools right at the back of the cove where it would be too far for the sea to reach him. There, he could drop the line into the pools without fear of being soaked a second time. High tide had been an hour ago. The waves may have been loud, may have been fierce, but they were slowly retreating. In another hour, they’d be weakened. An hour after that, they’d hardly make it to him at all.
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