There is no God. I lost my religion the hard way. First on Peleliu where we slugged it out for days taking Bloody Nose Ridge from the Japs, swapping hundreds of good Marines for a worthless chunk of coral somewhere in the vast wasteland of the Pacific. Repeat in the stinking, maggot-infested mud of Okinawa, only this time for months. Then, coming home from the war, scarred but with a chest full of medals, hometown hero for a day, only to learn my girl had dumped me for a college professor—yeah, Semper Fidelis, bitch. And now this: Gordon Lawson lying dead at my feet in a pool of blood still leaking from his shattered skull. So, tell me there’s a loving God who gives a damn for the vermin crawling this earth and I’ll call you a liar.
It was one of those nights in Vegas where the rains blew across the desert from the Mexican coast and temporarily washed the filth and slime off the streets of Sin City. This cleansing might last till morning, but I doubted it. The air was heavy and the smell of cordite still lingered near Gordo’s body. Whoever shot him did it up close and personal.
I lit a cigarette, leaned against the fender of my Ford coupe, and looked down at him again. Poor dumb kid. He’d drifted into Vegas from somewhere in Nebraska about three months ago after a hitch in the Army. Said he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life plowing and planting and depending on the weather for good times or bad. Said he wanted to be a private investigator, heard I had a reputation, and asked me to show him the ropes. Gordo had missed the fighting by a few months. Maybe he felt cheated. Maybe he thought being a private dick would provide the rush he’d been seeking when he enlisted just weeks before VJ Day. Whatever the reason, occupation duty in Japan hadn’t satisfied the hunger in his gut. Like the fool I was, I took him on.
I stared across the Desert Inn’s parking lot at the glitzy green saguaro cactus and yellow lettering lighting the facade. I’d heard Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were back in town. Inside the Painted Desert Room people would be drinking and laughing it up at Charlie’s double entendres. In the casino they’d be throwing good money after bad at the tables, or feeding the gluttonous one-armed bandits coin by coin; dreams of striking it rich running like electric impulses through the wired crowd. But Gordon Lawson would dream no more. I’d sent him on a simple overnight stakeout and things had somehow gone sour. It should’ve been a cushy job. But Gordo had cashed-in his life keeping tabs on one of the Inn’s three hundred rooms. I had to find out why.
Another ten minutes crawled by until I saw the Las Vegas Police cruiser pull into the parking lot. It headed toward my coupe whose parking lights I’d left on after calling in the crime from a phone booth on the corner. Just for effect the cop car gave a short burst of its irritating siren. It pulled to a stop a few yards from me. The driver’s door opened and a dark bulk spilled out of the vehicle and lumbered toward me. His fedora was pushed back on his broad forehead.
“Dinger,” the bulk said, nodding at me.
“Overholt,” I said, returning the courtesy.
“What we got here?” Homicide detective Henry Overholt said, staring down at the body of my late protégé.
“Gordon Lawson. My partner . . . or was. He was keeping watch on a cheating wife. One of the D.I.’s employees’ wives.”
With a grunt Overholt squatted and placed a finger on Gordo’s neck. “How long you figure?”
“Thirty, forty minutes, max,” I said. “He called in saying a man had entered the room he was watching. I told him to stay put and keep his eyes peeled. That’s when I heard the blast.”
Overholt grunted again and struggled upright, knees cracking in the effort. “So, how’d your partner get from the phone over there,” he said, pointing to the same phone I’d used, “to his car, here?”
“If I knew that we’d both know.”
“Yeah, some small town in Nebraska,” I said. “I got a record of it in my files. I’ll get it to you in the morning.”
“You make sure it’s on my desk by nine, Dinger. Don’t dally around with me. I don’t like corpses showing up in my beat, especially on my watch. You got that?”
“Yeah, got it, Hank,” I said and turned to my car.
“One more question, Dinger. You got any idea who might’ve done this? Him being your partner and all, I figured you might know something we can use.”
I turned to face the shadowy hulk. “I got nothing, Hank. But if I come up with anything, you’ll be the first to know.”
* * *
But I did have something. Shellie Martinette, nineteen years old, a showgirl with the Donn Arden Dancers, a mainstay entertainment troupe at the Desert Inn since its opening a few months back. Gordo had fallen head over heels for the young dame the first time he saw her shaking her stuff in the Inn’s Painted Desert Room. For a while even I thought the attraction was mutual. Until one night I saw her clinging to the arm of Dino Demitri, nephew of one of the mob’s money backers who’d taken majority control from front man owner, Wilbur Clark. Clark was still the big man of record for the new hotel-casino, but it was common knowledge around Vegas by those in the know that his “benevolent backers” were really pulling the strings. Dino was trouble. A punk with a silver spoon in his mouth and an itchy trigger-finger attached to his gun hand.
And so I came up with the brilliant idea that I’d teach the kid a hard lesson. I’d known for awhile that Demitri and Shellie had been having regular late night rendezvous in room 232. I figured the kid could benefit from a dose of harsh reality. Maybe wake him up from Dreamland where everything fell perfectly into place for those who worked hard and kept their nose clean. And now I hated myself for trying to teach Gordo anything, anything at all about life. Who the hell died and made me the expert? I couldn’t even handle my own shit I’d dragged back from the Pacific with me.
I drove back to the dump I called my office and home, located a few blocks off the Strip. My subletters scurried for cover when I flicked on the lights. I brushed the latest roach shit off my desktop and opened the top right drawer. I grabbed the box of .38s, reloaded my revolver, and dumped another dozen or so rounds in my pants pocket. I poured myself a drink from the pint of rye whiskey sitting in the same drawer and gulped it down in one big swig. Relishing the burn, I strode to the hall closet and grabbed my Browning automatic 12-gauge shotgun. I loaded it with five rounds of double-ought buckshot and shoved the remaining three shells from the box into my other pants pocket. Looking around the dump I’d grown rather fond of, I bid it and my fellow residents a fond farewell, just in case things didn’t work out. I grabbed a throw pillow off the ratty sofa and shut the door behind me.
My face was covered with a bandana, and I had the throw pillow in hand as I picked the lock of room 232. For all the glitz and glamour of the joint, they’d cheaped out on the door hardware. I cocked my .38 and pushed the door open. The chain gave way with little resistance. I flicked on the light as I closed the door behind me. Demitri bolted upright, a wild look in his eyes as he reached for the table next to the bed. I smothered the barrel of my revolver with the pillow and squeezed off a round with a controlled trigger pull. Blood and brains splattered the wall behind the bed in a pattern that would make any abstract artist proud.
It took a couple seconds for sweet Shellie to react. She sat upright, finally covering her fine bare breasts with the sheet, not yet realizing that lover boy’s blood and brains had painted a mosaic on the wall behind her.
“What the f—?”
“Easy, doll,” I said. “Take a gander at your friend.” I nodded to her left.
After a furtive glance she started to scream but was interrupted by vomiting on the covers in her lap. Shellie recovered in time to shout, “You bastard! Do you realize what you’ve done?”
I held up a hand and cocked back the hammer. “Cool it, toots. You better wise up and see what you’ve got yourself into. My advice, free of charge this time, is to get your sweet ass out of that bed, make a beeline to the bus station, and vamoose it back to where you came from. Dino’s friends aren’t likely to take to his untimely demise lightly. You read me, doll?”
She didn’t answer and I didn’t hang around to wait for one. I backed out of the room and drove back to my dive, taking a few more side streets and turns than I normally would have. Back home, I crawled into bed, my trusty .38 by my side, and for once relishing the company of my co-tenants.