The large gold coin rang and settled on the green felt where the newly arriving young lady crying out "Eight!" had pitched it and the ivory marble clicked against the diamond-shaped silvery point in the darkly gleaming mahogany bowl while a voice called, "No more bets. Game closed." The golden coin's worn face faintly revealed to my glance a circle that was horned and had a pendant cross. Then the ivory ball clattered into a slowly revolving metal square.
"Eight. Black," the croupier called and the banker's large, meaty, well-manicured white hand with wiry black hairs sprouting from its back closed on the coin and lifted it off the eight square.
"That bet came too late. Sorry," he said and tossed it back.
The young lady did not pick it up, but stared across the table at the house.
The banker and the croupier stared back--and the pit boss too, come up opportunely behind them.
For a moment they made an arresting tableau of challenge. The young lady very slender and standing tall, dark hair piled high, profile neat as one on a coin, wearing a thin, thigh-length cotton dress (snug but not tight around the narrow waist) of black and carnation red, both colors harmoniously faded. The three men oldish young, gone beefy around the necks like tomcats, leaning a little toward her aggressively. All three in evening dress with the blank, stupid faces of athletes and ward politicians, but with a diamond glint deep in their eyes.
Beside me, the thin old man who looked like a bad-tempered high school physics teacher volunteered, "I heard the ball click out before the bet landed. It was too late."
The banker started a smile, then changed it tentatively to a frown as I said, "I heard it the other way. First the bet landed. Then the ball clicked out."
Immediately two ladies across the table, who looked the sort who are always eager to back up authority, said together, "No, the bet was too late. We were watching," and three other players nodded.
The banker's smile blossomed after all. "Sorry," he repeated.
The young lady snatched up her coin, turned her back, and walked away swiftly.
I had won a small wager split between eight and eleven. I cashed in my violet roulette chips and shoved the general house chips I got in return into the right-hand side pocket of my jacket, which I needed--the air conditioning made the Zodiac's casino almost frigid despite the moderate crowd and the furious Mojave heat outside; early that morning I'd opened my bedroom door, which faced the east and let onto an outside balcony, and the radiance of the new risen sun had been like a physical blow--as if it had been trying to knock me over with one sneaky shot.
I asked the old man beside me (he seemed sharp eyed at least), "Did you notice what kind of coin that was she bet?"
"That was no coin," he told me as if I were one of his poorer students. "That was a yellow ten-dollar chip."
I wandered up and down the luxurious aisles, wondering whether to have a go at blackjack, or rest a bit while making a few keno bets, or even more sensibly take a long nap before my night-long drive. I glanced at my wrist, but I'd left my watch in my room. I started to look around before I remembered that there are no clocks in Vegas, at least anywhere in the casinos.
They keep it a timeless place so one won't be reminded of appointments that should be kept, whether for business or food or sleep or work or love, and so be tempted to cut short a winning streak before it turns into a losing one, or the latter ever, but I like to fancy it makes time travel possible--enter the timeless world from anywhen and later exit at any time future or past one chooses.
Off in a shadowy corner I saw a slender patch of harmoniously faded black and carnation red. They'd put a small bar there. I eased myself onto the stool beside her and ordered a scotch and water.
She turned dark eyes on me. "Thank you for your support," she said and smiled.
"It didn't help," I reminded her with a shrug. "Tell me, isn't a horned circle with a cross below--a horned ankh, one could almost say--a sign of Mercury?"
"I think so," she replied, wrinkling her neat, straight, rather short nose a little as the dark eyes studied me. "But that's not so strange. We're on the edge of Astrological Territory." She said it with capitals just like that, as one would say Western Reserve or Hopi Reservation ... or Eldorado."
"Right in the middle of the Zodiac," I agreed. "I thought of the planet Mercury this morning when the sun looked in my bedroom door as I opened it and almost floored me--how the people on Mercury must live in capsules of chilliness to make the heat endurable."
"Yes, the sun's glance can be deadly, his diamond eye," she said oddly. "So you're not surprised at the idea of planet people?"
"I can't afford to be," I told her. "I write science fiction stories for a living."
"And you think the Zodiac Hotel is like a Mercurian capsule, only bigger?"
"Exactly. Aren't you chilly?" I asked, looking down at her thin dress. Although it was completely opaque, she seemed to be wearing little under it.
She picked up the pony of brandy in front of her and drained it, the tip of her tongue slipping out to capture the last drop.
"Not after that," she said.
There was nothing else in front of her on the bar and she wasn't carrying a purse. In fact, she was clean from her small flat ears fully revealed by her unswept, high-piled hair to her toes looking out of the ends of her flimsy shoes through finely textured dark stockings. I wondered where she kept the gold piece.
"Would you have dinner with me?" I asked.
"I'm sorry," she said pleasantly, "but I'm driving south tonight soon as I take a nap."
"That's a coincidence," I said. "So am I too, as far as Lordsburg. Perhaps we could combine--"
Her dark eyes (they were blue) which had been smiling at mine looked past me and grew serious. I looked around.
The pit boss from the roulette table was looking serious too in his beefy way. I thought he was going to speak to her, but instead he took a small green notebook out of his pocket and handed it to me.
"You left it at the table," he told me.
It was mine, all right, though I'd have sworn I hadn't taken it out of my left-hand jacket pocket. "Thanks," I said.
"No trouble," he assured me and walked on. It occurred to me it might have been lifted off me--God knows why, maybe to check on my antecedents. In that case they'd found nothing suspicious except the behavior of two Martians when confronted by an emissary from Galaxy Center. The notebook was for story notes as they occurred to me.
I looked back. The young lady was gone, nowhere in sight, but by the pony glass was a curled-up green bill.
"That was funny," the bartender observed to me as he spread it open. It was a two. "She had it in her hair."
Oh well, not everyone wants to know you better, I philosophized grumpily, but why does it always have to be svelte, long-limbed young ladies with gold pieces tucked away in their high-piled dark hair?
I went and put my wristwatch on and had my nap. When I woke it was fully dark outside, but still oven hot and my car had no refrigeration--one of the reasons that I drove at night. I dressed in brown cotton pyjamas that almost looked like slacks and shirt, but were a lot cooler, then checked out. Dunkirk (my little Datsun station wagon) was like a furnace. I opened her up and gave her a chance to get less hot before I got in.
Over the parking lot, despite the upward glare of the casinos along the Strip, the desert night showed some bright stars: the triangle of Vega, Deneb, and Altair, and to the south red Mars in Sagittarius. Vega from Vegas? The asphalt under my feet was baking hot.
On a slightly higher section of the parking lot near its exit, beyond an intervening row of cars, light spilling sideways from the Zodiac showed two white roadsters with tops down parked next to each other. Beside one was a slender figure with head held as if in thought or meditation. Even at the distance there was no mistaking that profile and she was still wearing the harmoniously faded red and black cotton dress.
As I considered strolling over, she quickly scurried around to the other white roadster and got behind the wheel and then just before driving out she seemed to look straight at me and she lifted her hand and waved twice, rather solemnly.
Perhaps, I thought, my spirits rising, we'd meet somewhere along the lonely way. I got in Dunkirk (the seat was still hot) and started her and let her run quietly while I checked that my maps and flash and tissue were on the dashboard, my pocketbook, notebook, and pens in my pyjama pockets, Dunkirk's tank full, her hot oil coursing, and her lights all working.
We took off softly. Just before the exit I glanced at the open white roadster with the empty space beside it. From a point near the center of the white hood--from the car's heart, you might say--a single intense highlight reflected by God knows what or from what source, dazzled my eyes so that I flinched them away. It made me wonder, but I didn't try to look back--and wouldn't have even if I'd wanted to, because where was an empty spot coming in the traffic ahead that I wanted to catch, and did.
A quarter mile farther on I heard fire sirens behind me. Looking quickly back, I saw a shaft of intense white flame shooting up from somewhere close to the Zodiac. I wondered if there could have been a connection and if it were the white roadster burning. No, I told myself, the highlight and the shaft of flame could have had no relation.
Just the same, a black spot was still dancing in front of my eyes. That highlight had been bright
I soon turned out of the traffic streaming toward California and Los Angeles once the narrower, emptier route leading to Boulder Dam and Arizona. The night stayed hot. At Boulder City I checked Dunkirk's tires, letting out some air. I also checked the oil and water, filled my plastic two-gallon bottle of the latter, and topped off the gas tank.
I kept a sort of watch (not a very serious one, I told myself) for a white roadster and on a straight stretch just beyond Boulder City I thought I glimpsed one disappearing around the far bend, its red tail lights winking. I speeded up, but when I came to the next straight stretch, a much longer one, there wasn't any car ahead at all, though I thought I saw a car, maybe a white one, sneaking away from the highway down a wooded sideroad.
Well, if that were she, I told myself, she hadn't been driving very far south.
Boulder Dam, when I got to it, was magnificent in a monstrous way. The highway went across the top of it, from Nevada into Arizona, but it was so wide and very brightly lit that one could see little of its surrounds and nothing of the Colorado River. There was also much heavy mesh wire fencing. The smell of security was very strong, so that one got the feeling it had been built not for Herbert but for Edgar Hoover. There were several great squat chunky towers, like banks or forts--in fact, to me with my peculiar imagination, it had the feeling of a fortress on Jupiter, built for a heavier gravity than ours. It had a Jovian look, or a Vulcanian.
The shouldering crags at either end were correspondingly hulking, and on them were short, burly, immensely strong-looking openwork towers of steel beams bearing on their huge insulators the thick heavy copper wires that carried off the power the dam generated.
This is electricity's heartland, I told myself, a castle of the lightning. From here the stuff goes out to the great military and space establishments and to the myriad industrial complexes and to the multi-million lights of the Vegas Strip challenging the stars. It somehow made my liberal heart feel lonely and oppressed. Dunkirk the Datsun seemed to feel it too--a little Japanese bowing nervously to giants as she scurried past them.
On the other side it got rapidly darker and the empty road led steadily down and the night got better still. I reminded myself that the county containing this corner of Arizona is called Mojave--I checked it by my map. On my right were Black Canyon and the Eldorado Mountains, on my left the Cerbats with Mount Wilson and Squaw Peak--but you can't see such things in the dark from a car with a top.
The shoulders of the road widened for a little settlement. I slowed down and then pulled up across from a small old cafe that was still open. Better get a little to eat, I told myself, it was a long empty stretch ahead. And some coffee, too, despite the heat.
I got out. The stars crusted the desert night so luxuriously that one almost forgot they marched in unalterable order. Deneb, Altair, and Mars were merely brighter points in the great, eddying river of the Milky Way. Only Vega was still somewhat lonely.
There was a counter with two Indian women behind it. The older, who looked toothless, cooked. The younger (but not that young) was very stolid and taciturn in dark shapeless clothes. I told her coffee and a beef enchilada. She went back and leaned by the older woman. Whatever culture they belonged to, it was apart.
The screen door creaked and a modern cowboy (I took him to be) walked in stiffly. His blue Levi's were caked with whitish dust. So was his wide-brimmed black hat, which he didn't remove. So were his sunken cheeks. And he was very bowlegged. He wearily settled down and ordered tacos. He looked every bit as authentic as the Indian women.
Our food came. The coffee was strong and bitter. My enchilada tasted all right but was too heavy, while orange grease dripped from the end of the cowboy's huge taco, which he munched steadily. I made some notes in my little green book.
I heard another car draw up across the road, but no one came in.
I finished my coffee and some of my enchilada, paid (including a tip), and went out. As I passed the cowboy, he said to the Indian woman and the cafe in general with the solemnity of William S. Hart, "That was the best taco I ever ate, and I've eaten many a taco."
The white roadster was parked off the road on the wide shoulder, but she was standing close beside Dunkirk, looking toward me quite gravely. But as I crossed the highway she started to smile, and when I got to her, she said, "You were saying, 'Perhaps we could combine--' and I'm accepting your offer."