The neon sign atop the Nevada State Bank across the street is flashing the time, then the temperature. 2:59. 101. 2:59. 101. 3:00. 101. A few hours before dawn and still over a hundred degrees. Yeah, but it’s a dry heat. As if that matters. As if no one ever died from triple digits, no two year old strapped into the back seat of an SUV while his mother shops for one last pair of bargain-priced shoes.
It’s the end of a miserable week, a lousy month. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. Yet always, just down the block, there’s Hope leaning against a lamp post, a cigarette dangling from her lips, smoke veiling her face, skirt hiked up with promise.
So, I say good bye to any thought of sleep, lock the door behind me, and take to the street. The El Rancho Boulder Motel is only two blocks away and I figure I’ll brave the heat and walk it. Boulder City is nothing like the Strip. No pedestrian traffic at this hour. No traffic of any kind. The parking lot is vacant. The street lights echo in the stillness.
Willy is behind the front desk, perched atop a cushioned stool. He looks up at me and smiles his crooked smile. His teeth are perfect. A large hooked nose, brown eyes and black, unkempt hair all set against his dark olive complexion are proof of his East Indian heritage. But he’s born and raised in the states and his speech has the flat, nasal cadence of Cleveland.
“The coffee fresh?”
He looks up at the clock over his shoulder. “Maybe an hour old.”
I pour myself a cup and hand him two dollars. “I’ll take a paper, too.”
“Wait an hour and you can get today’s”
I shrug. “Doesn’t matter.”
Just then the door jangles open. I can see the reflection of a tall, string bean of a kid in the glass case at Willie’s back. Willie’s eyes grow wide and I turn to catch the kid slip a black trash bag over his head and position the eye holes so that he can see out. A small-caliber gun appears almost magically in his hand. Willie starts to move but I stop him with a look. I set my cup of coffee down and turn slowly, lazily, resting my back against the counter. The kid moves in quickly.
“No funny business,” he says to Willie. ” Just hand over the cash.”
“First time?” I ask.
He turns his face to me but the bag doesn’t move and he has to readjust it to see out. “What?”
“First time? The reason I ask is that we’ve already seen your face.” I nod up at the video camera on the wall above Willie’s head. “You’ve got to plan ahead next time. Put the bag on before you come in.”
“You a wise guy?”
I shake my head. “Nope. But I know for a fact that Willie here’s got a .357 under the counter. The moment you finish up and make for the door there’s going to be quite a commotion. Sort of like the old west. A regular shoot out. One of us is most likely going to get hurt. And I’d hate it to be me. Or Willie. Armed robbery’s bad enough but if someone gets killed it’s the death penalty. Yes, indeed. Now, so far nothing’s happened here. Just a couple of guys having a talk. So why not put the gun away. Take off the mask. You’ve got to be sweating bullets under that thing.”
The kid doesn’t move. It’s as if he’s contemplating what might be best.
“Willie, how much you figure you got in the till?” I ask.
Willie doesn’t take his eyes off the gun. “Twenty dollars, maybe. It’s been a slow night.”
“Do me a favor,” I say to the kid. “I’ll lend you the twenty. That way there’s been no harm. You can get on with your life and we can get on with ours.”
“Can I trust you?”
“No complaints so far!”
He nods. “OK.”
I move slowly to my wallet, take it from my back pocket and remove a twenty. I lay the bill on the counter.
The kid grabs the bottom edge of the plastic bag and rips it from his head. He looks to be in his mid twenties, not bad looking but with a large nose and close-set eyes that make him appear a bit dopey! His blond hair is matted with sweat. His face is flushed. He reaches for the twenty and knocks my coffee cup on its side, spilling the contents onto yesterday’s news.
“I’m sorry,” he says as he watches the coffee drip.
Willie shakes his head. “Who’s going to pay for this mess?”
“How much?” the kid asks.
“Seventy five cents for the coffee.”
“And the paper?”
“Well, kid?” I say, doing the math. “Looks like you owe a buck twenty-five.”
The kid doesn’t hesitate. He reaches into his front pocket and comes out with a crumpled single and a quarter and hands it to Willie, then turns and walks dejectedly out the door. I pick up the twenty he’s forgotten and place it back into my wallet. Willie’ s eyes are wide in amazement. Or maybe it’s amusement. I’m still not sure.
“That .357 I supposedly have under the counter,” he says. “Do I know how to use it?”
“You wouldn’t have had to,” I tell him. “The kid’s safety was on!”