Saved By the Bones

by Kevin Mulligan

Frankie weighed the dice in her hand. She decided to keep them. Just for luck? Not likely. They’d given up their luck in one single shot the night Henry won nearly two hundred thousand at craps. The casino gave him the dice, didn’t want them, said they were lucky for him, not them. Maybe they knew that Henry would slowly hand back everything he won that night and more. None of that mattered now. Henry was dead and Frankie was broke.

She looked at the dice, held in a delicate cage of gold and attached to a silver chain. Henry had this tribute to his one great night made up special. She tossed them in with everything else and closed the suitcase.

Frankie met Henry when she worked as a dancer for the casino where he made his lucky strike. Most guys only stopped by her area when they needed to clear their minds before going in for another round. Henry was different from the others. He never had that desperate look they all got. And he only ever stared at her naked that first time they locked eyes. He was a real gentleman, found her after her shift that night and swept her away to a dream world that eventually included two kids, now grown, and a life straight out of some magazine.

For all of those years, the Boise Park Casino was Henry’s second home. Frankie never gave that a second thought, Henry had a good job and they wanted for nothing. Not that she was ever aware. When Henry passed, Frankie discovered that ignorance is only bliss until the school of hard knocks arrives at your front door. In Frankie’s case, the principal of that particular school came dressed as a collections sheriff. His lesson plan included repossession 101. When Frankie was done learning all of Henry’s secrets, she had less than a thousand dollars to her name and was packing the suitcase in front of her now, ready for one last goodbye to the home she thought she would live in forever.

Her go forward plan was simple. She was off to Vegas to get back what was hers. Though she disliked gambling, she knew more about it than most people. Before meeting Henry, she worked at the casino as a Blackjack dealer. She was good at cards, better than she ever let Henry know. She could count six decks. She knew when her patrons were headed for a bad hand, smiled through their excitement when they rode a winning streak, knew when their train would hit the station. When she first started dealing, that knowing gave her a thrill. As she saw more and more faces turn to a despair she could have warned was coming, she knew she had to get out.

That’s when she hit on dancing. The money was better and she was still working at the casino. She liked the action. She thought of how much she liked it as she closed her former front door for the last time. Maybe her current situation was divine retribution for all of the lives she could have kept out of the poor house. She walked to a waiting cab and never looked back.

At the airport, Frankie wandered and tried to get her head around what needed to happen next. It was years since she’d counted a card, and even when she did, it was never in Vegas. Henry liked being a big fish in a small pond much more than a minnow in Vegas. They’d only ever been there twice.

Her flight left on time and landed at McCarron International the same way. The ninety minutes that intervened weren’t nearly enough for Frankie. When she finally found her luggage conveyor, it was nearly deserted, most of the passengers she travelled with being seasoned veterans of the land where everything stays where it happens. She took up her bag and tried to find someone who could point her to a cab stand. She found the stand before she found help and was on her way to the 4 Queens within an hour of setting down.

On the way there she looked out the cab window at streets alive with humanity. She felt her former passion for pulling uncertainty out of the shadows star to stir and enjoyed it in silence. Her driver tried to get a conversation going but gave up quickly when her gaze didn’t leave the window.

When she stepped out at the hotel, it felt like walking into a dream. You do what you have to do, that’s what she thought. She just never thought she would have to do this. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Frankie knew she should be worried but wasn’t willing to search too diligently for that seed of doubt. If she was going to grow anything on this trip, it would be her future. At the moment her future was defined by cash and she planned on growing a money tree before she left this place. She walked up to the desk.

“And how will you be paying for your room, Miss, uh, Watson?” The desk clerk scanned her registration slip. He was young, handsome.

“Cash, thank you.”

“Cash will be fine.” The clerk paused, no doubt well-rehearsed on what he said next, “I’ll just need to see some form of identification. Driver’s license or credit card will work just fine. If you would like to stay more than one night we can use your card to hold the charges for checkout. That way you won’t need to come down every day to keep your room.”

Frankie pulled out her driver’s license. She had no credit cards left, none that still worked anyway. “No, thank you. I prefer to pay in cash. And I don’t mind coming down here for a visit.”

The clerk smiled. He didn’t know Frankie was almost broke, thought he was hearing another pass from some older woman ready to leave a lot of secrets in the desert sand. “Of course, Miss Watson. That will be fine. Let me program your key and we’ll get you into your room.”

“Thank you,” she scanned his name tag, “Jeremy.”

He smiled and handed her a key. “Would you like help with your bag?”

“No, thanks. I can handle it myself. If you steer me in the right direction, I think I can take it from here.”

“Elevators are right over there,” he pointed, “When you get off on the seventh floor, go right and your room is just a few doors down.”

“Thank you Jeremy.”

When Frankie got to her room, she put down her suitcase and purse then flopped down on the bed. She stared up at the ceiling and listened to muffled sounds coming from outside. Her hotel was right next to Fremont Street and a band was playing on one of the corners close by. After listening for a while, she got up and went to the balcony door. When she slid it open, sound poured in, no longer held back by glass.

She stepped out onto her balcony and looked down. There was a wall right across from her room and a set of golden arches right below it. She was farther from Boise now than she had ever been. She decided to spend some time relaxing on the bed, letting numbers play inside her mind as they got limber again after so many years of vacation.

Frankie fell asleep shortly after lying down and woke up to find sunlight replaced by the glow of neon. She looked at her watch; it was just past six thirty. It wasn’t late, not too late anyway. Before she went out, she grabbed Henry’s necklace of dice and put it on. If it had no luck left for him, maybe it would still hold some for her.

She decided to forgo the hotel buffet and opted for something at McDonalds instead. The burger sat as well as anything would have and she tamped it into her gut by walking around the block to the Golden Nugget. She planned to warm up at the five dollar tables and when she had enough money built up, she would hit the high limit area.

The night started a little slow, Frankie let the dealer explain the rules to her and played timid until she had tripled her original stake. The other people at her table didn’t really take notice until she won both hands on a split and then cleaned up by doubling down a few rounds later. Frankie decided it was time to split when the dealer looked at her with a hint of suspicion starting to cross his face.

It was easy to find a seat at the medium stake tables. Frankie knew that most people playing Blackjack only do so because the game seems easy. Some pretend to know the inner workings but not many actually want to test their skill at twenty five dollars a shot. She did. She would have walked straight to the high stakes area had she thought it wouldn’t raise suspicions. But she knew it would. Strangers on a winning streak got pegged as card counters right away. When that happened, they got invited to leave.

As it turned out, Frankie never had to leave her second table. She noticed right away that the dealer was lazy, or careless. It didn’t matter which. He dug his cut card into the bottom of the stack way too deeply. When a dealer did that, he negated any advantage the house might gain by limiting the number of cards that could get played before a reshuffle. A mistake like that was magic for a card counter like Frankie. It never occurred to her that there might be a bit of a side game going on, that the dealer might be feeding a friend so he could get a real tip at the end of the night.

Frankie started slow, stayed with the minimum bet, only let herself win enough to slowly build her pot of chips. With the exception of one person who accused her of stealing his luck before getting up and leaving, nobody at the table seemed to notice her winning streak. All the rest were too focused on winning. Some had come back here before completely running out of cash playing high stakes. Some didn’t have quite enough to graduate to the big leagues.

Over the course of the next four hours, Frankie managed to turn her last seven hundred and eighty two dollars into something close to sixty five thousand. That was a great start and she decided to cash out before she got invited to leave. Beginners luck was one thing and counters deceit was another. At the cash window, she collected just about forty seven thousand after withholding tax and stuffed the wad of hundreds into her purse.

“Can we offer you an escort back to your room, ma’am?” The clerk was professional, distant.

“No, I’m actually staying at the 4 Queens. I can walk, it’s just around the corner.”

“I can arrange for one of our concierges to go with you.” It almost sounded like the cashier was reading from a script. Nothing in his manner indicated any real need for an escort, especially for such a short walk.

“No, but thank you. I’m sure I will be just fine.”

“As you wish.” The cashier finished up his duty, “Thank you for visiting us at the Golden Nugget. Please come back and see us again during your stay here in Las Vegas.” He manufactured a smile for Frankie.

“Why, thank you, I think I will be back. I’ve never had such luck. Your dealers really are very good. I barely knew how to play when I first walked in.”

“Well then, you’ve done very well. I hope to see you tomorrow, or maybe later tonight if you can’t get to sleep. This is a noisy corner.” This time the cashier sounded truly interested and Frankie actually considered coming back in a few hours. After she had her winnings stored in the room safe, that is.

“It is noisy. I’ll see how the night goes. Thanks again,” With that, Frankie headed for the street and found herself in a world of neon as soon as she stepped onto the sidewalk.

If she had only been a dealer in Vegas, how would her life have turned out? She figured it would likely have been a different version of the same thing. Life offered choices but followed a path, at least she thought it did. Either way, she was in the process of setting it back on track and forty seven thousand was a great start.

She looked at the intersection just off to her left, thinking she had come from the hotel that way. There was a crowd of people out on the corner, celebrating something, who knew what. She didn’t feel like getting into the middle of a party and decided to go back to her room the other way. It was a block longer but the night was warm and she didn’t mind the atmosphere. She thought she would come back out after she took care of money business. Maybe hit a buffet, that burger she had earlier didn’t quite do the trick.

She started off and crossed at the next set of lights. The parking lot for Binion’s was right there and she cut through the middle of it to save a few feet. When she was half way across, she heard a person behind her. He was saying something, trying to get her attention. She turned around and found herself face to face with a tough looking man that had a lot of tattoos, at least on the skin she could see, which was a lot. She was transfixed with the size of him and never noticed his fist coming up to hit her in the face. If she had remained conscious, the blow would have hurt. As it turned out, she wouldn’t feel it for quite a while.

Frankie woke up inside what looked like a van. She knew it was going down a highway because of the road noise, steady and loud. There was a window set in the back door. Lights shone down on her intermittently, flashing across her face as if to wipe the daze from her scrambled thoughts. She focused and saw the light was coming from fixtures that were much taller than anything you would find inside a city. She had to be out of town. Where, she had no clue. She managed to pull herself up, sitting at first and then graduating to a kneeling position. She found a small railing along the wall and held onto it as she stood, slightly hunched, for a look outside the window. She saw the lights of what looked like an attraction of some sort fading off into the distance. Behind them and much farther away, she could make out Las Vegas.

Her mouth fell dry as she considered the reasons for being taken on such a drive. None of them were good and all of them ended with her being dead. She remembered her purse and looked back into the van to find it. It wasn’t there. She started to put together a story of what happened and money wrote itself into the first sentence. There were forty seven thousand dollars in that purse, more than enough reasons to mug her. But even forty seven thousand didn’t explain why she was in this van. There had to be something more, something she was missing.

She almost fell over when the van slowed and made a hard right turn. It threw her against the side and she only managed to stay upright by grabbing the railing with both hands.

She managed to look out the window again and saw the van was passing another set of buildings. They looked like some sort of highway stop. There was an old neon sign that said something she couldn’t make out before the letters grew too distant to read. Steady again on straight blacktop, the driver punched it and Frankie found it easiest to lean against the back door. She watched the road narrow with perspective, saw a crescent moon hang over an ever expanding stretch of desert that separated her from that last lifeboat of safety. She watched for maybe five minutes as the lights turned into a twinkle against the backdrop of Vegas haze. Just before the van slowed down to round a corner that took it out of sight, Frankie thought she saw a set of headlights far off in the distance.

The headlights came from a 1964 Chevy low rider. Inside were two brothers, Carlo and Philippe Alderez. They had been waiting months for Frankie’s captors to make a mistake. One of them, a rival named Ramon, had killed their main man in central Vegas. Carlo and Philippe knew the cost of doing business involved losing a man or two. They considered that as interest on a mortgage. But when someone had the balls to take out their lieutenant it called for vengeance.

Ramon proved especially difficult to extract blood from. As a last resort, the brothers turned to their patron saint, Santa Muerte. She was the giver of favours and taker of tribute. She was a virgin in all ways human except for the sacrament of death. In that she feasted and would accept payment in souls over cash or possessions given the choice.

Carlo and Philippe had paid her many times, always knowing she could one day accept payment with their lives. The dice hanging from their mirror symbolized that. Made of bone, they had spots carved in the shape of human skulls. They were there to remind followers of the Skinny Lady that life was temporary and she was the one who held the dice of fate. At the moment, fate swung through ghostly light reflected from a desert highway.

The brothers lost sight of the van taillights at the same time Frankie noticed their headlights. They knew where Ramon and his partner were headed. There was a little pullout just past the bend that took the van from sight. They knew Ramon liked to tie up loose ends there. They would slow down, get quiet and park close to that spot. Then they would walk over and take care of business, their virgin patron willing.

Inside the van, Frankie held on for another turn, this one much slower than the last. The road became rough as her prison continued to navigate forward. Frankie wished it would stop, thought she would try to make a run for it. She looked for a handle, thinking she might jump, they weren’t moving very fast. When she realized that it had been removed, a sense of panic came over her unlike anything she had ever felt before. It felt like her body was growing a shield of adrenaline, felt like she could pull the rear door off by its hinges if only it had something to pull.

The van slowed again, more dramatically this time. She flew forward and slammed into a wall that separated her from whoever was driving. Someone cursed from the other side, she couldn’t make it out, wasn’t even sure it was English that she heard. They were moving slowly now, it reminded her of the times her father would taxi around campsites looking for a perfect spot to settle into. She wished she was still a kid, safe and unaware of the dangers waiting just outside of our familiar personal worlds.

She started to cry as the van finally came to a stop. It was only a few seconds before the back door was pulled open, though it felt longer. The man standing there had her purse slung over his shoulder and was lit up red by the tail lights. He was saying something.

“All right bitch, time to talk. Who sent you to steal our money?” He pulled the purse from his shoulder, held it tight by the top and shook it at her.

“I don’t know what you’re saying.” Frankie tried to be clear through her sobs, barely controlled. The man was speaking Spanish.

In English now, “I said, bitch, who sent you to steal our money?”

“I didn’t steal your money. I won that money at the casino playing blackjack.” She felt a small chance of survival present itself. This was all just a misunderstanding and the man would let her go when he realized his mistake.

“What, do you think I’m stupid bitch? Who sent you? Do you know how hard it is to buy a dealer in Vegas? Our man was at that table. He was supposed to walk away with this!” He shook the purse again.

Frankie was confused now. At least that felt better than being paralyzed with fear. This was turning into a real conversation. The man might end up laughing about all of this when she explained herself so he understood.

“No, I’m sorry, you must have me confused with someone else. I don’t know anything about buying dealers. I never even knew you could so I can’t be the person you’re thinking of.”

“Fucking bullshit!” He cursed in Spanish again. Frankie looked at him, blank.
The man threw Frankie’s purse over his shoulder again and started to reach into the van. Frankie tried to back away but there was nowhere to go. He was about to climb up inside when another man ran to join him.

“Ramon, I hear someone coming. Come on, we can deal with this later.”

She heard something, it sounded like another car coming to join them. But why did the second man seem so excited? And why was the first man reaching for something from his belt? Maybe they didn’t want to be joined. Maybe the police had come to her rescue. How they knew she was there didn’t matter.

When the first man pulled back his shirt to grab a gun, Frankie found herself staring at a belt that looked like it might be made of solid gold. It had pockets all around, or at least as far around as she could see. Before she had a chance to refocus on the weapon, the van door slammed in her face and both men ran down a short road, hooked left and were gone.

Frankie heard yelling that didn’t sound friendly. And then she heard gunshots. She prayed it was the police taking down her captors, didn’t want to think about the alternative.

Trapped again, she watched as someone approached. He had her purse but didn’t look like the first man. This one was shorter and seemed a little thicker.

He pulled the door open again, stared and asked, “Lady, is this your purse?” What a strange thing to ask.

Frankie replied, “Yes. It is.” She wasn’t sure what to say next, “Did you want to keep it? Because you can. I didn’t know about your man at the table so that money is yours if you want it.” This man seemed more reasonable; maybe she had a chance after all.

“He wasn’t our man.” That was all he said for a moment. Then he continued, “And you aren’t our woman. You belong to Santa Muerte. She sent you so you could bring them out of hiding.” He tossed his thumb back, pointed into the dark. Frankie figured her captors were out there, probably dead now. Then he hefted her purse, “Here, take it.” he tossed the purse at her, it landed at her side.

“Thank you…” Frankie wasn’t sure what was going on so she reached for the purse, started to think she might actually make it out alive.

The man stood silent, then spoke again, “Santa Meurte gives but she also demands a tribute. What can you offer her?”

The conversation that started out friendly was taking a decidedly weird turn. Frankie wasn’t sure what might come next. She searched her mind for something that could be considered a tribute. A prayer, perhaps?

“Do you mean a prayer?” she asked.

“No,” The word came out short, “Something of yours. Something that will please Santa Muerte.” He added, “And not the money in that purse. It is tainted. It came from them,” he spit.

“I… I don’t know. I can’t…” Frankie suddenly remembered the dice around her neck. Tonight was the first time she had ever worn the necklace. She reached into her shirt and pulled it out, holding it so the man could see.

He fell to his knees immediately, crossing himself. “Oh my God, have mercy on my soul Santa Muerte” He kept his head bowed and held out a hand, raising it up in an invitation to the gift.

She wasn’t sure what to do next so did the only thing that seemed reasonable. She lifted the necklace over her head and extended it toward the man’s hand. At that moment, another man came from the darkness, saying something in Spanish.

“Carlo, what the hell is…?” He stopped mid-sentence, saw Frankie and his brother Carlo lit by the red tail lights.

Philippe Alderez stopped immediately when he saw the dice. Frankie watched him fold to the ground, felt like she was being worshipped. Everything went silent as she placed the necklace into Carlo’s hand. He closed his fingers around it and then stood, barely able to look at Frankie. Even when he did, he avoided her gaze.

“Thank you, Santa Muerte. Grace be to you and all that you offer.” He turned and called out to the man still kneeling, “Philippe, we’re done. Let’s go!”

Turning back to Frankie one last time, he pulled up his shirt, revealing the golden belt Frankie had glimpsed earlier on her captor. He unbuckled it, took it off and handed it to her, “Remember me, Santa Muerte.”

With that he turned, and when he stood even with the other man, they both walked into the night, gone.

Frankie wanted to look closer at the belt but drove away first to make sure she was alone. When it felt safe enough she stopped and snapped open one of the golden pockets, saw it was full of money. She pulled out the wad and counted it. There were two hundred and fifty hundred dollar bills. Her heart jumped. For some reason, she checked her purse to see if the forty seven thousand was still there. It was. She turned her attention back to the money belt. There were five more pockets, each seemed to contain the same amount of money. She didn’t count it.

Frankie threw the van into gear and headed toward the main highway. When she saw a collection of lights in the distance, she drove just close enough to walk the rest of the way. After wiping down the steering wheel and back door she finished her journey, hi-heeled shoes in hand, feet cooled by desert pavement.

When she got close enough, she read the sign ‘Moapa Paiute Travel Plaza Casino’. She saw there was a hotel attached and walked inside the front doors. The clerk barely flinched when he saw her black eye. He didn’t say a word about the shoes she still carried in one hand.

“Good evening Ma’am, can I help you?”

“Yes, I would like a room. Do you take cash?” She smiled at the clerk.

“Yes, of course, Ma’am. It’s fifty three dollars for one night.” He added, “And you get a free continental breakfast as well as three drink tickets you can redeem in the casino.”

“That sounds perfect.” Frankie reached into her purse, a golden glint briefly catching her eye. She took a hundred dollar bill from the money she had won a few hours earlier and placed it on the counter. She couldn’t resist adding one more thing to the night.

She smiled at the clerk, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

The clerk smiled back, Yes, ma’am. Yes it does.”