Part 1 of a serialized novelette
Copyright 2013, S.A. Barton
Cover art copyright 2013, Erik Elliott
The inside of a casino at 3 AM is a strange place. It’s half-dead just like everywhere else in town at that hour, but it’s not deserted. Not by a long shot. The lights blink and flash, no matter where you look. Corpses painted in neon, eyes wide, sit mummified while their undead right arms pump coins into slots and jerk levers. They stare at cards and push chips while gratis drinks grow warm and flat at their elbows, ignored. They throw dice, groan, and ask God what He has against them. They dig deeper into their graves, the money that they live and breathe leaking through their fingers, blood from financially slashed throats soaking into the sand of Vegas.
A very few of them, like lucky me, dig their way out. When the sun stood overhead at noon of yesterday, I was signing a title loan against my truck to a pawn shop for a stake to win my savings back—twenty grand, a meager thousand for each year I’d spent towing cars for the city of Ypsilanti, Michigan. Finally, fifty bucks up from where I’d started fifteen hours earlier, I pushed away from the blackjack table convulsively, breaking free of its spell. Through plenty of luck and a little skill, I had clawed my way back from the brink of disaster—it was harder than you’d think to stop rather than push my luck a little farther. I could damn near taste the extra thousand dollars the little devil on my shoulder told me I was sure to win, or maybe five thousand. Maybe I could double my money. I took a deep breath, let it out, and kept walking away. In a casino the temptation isn’t on every street corner, it’s right under your nose the whole time.
The texture of the green felt pulled at my eyes somehow. It felt as if the light was tacky, squelching against my eyeballs like wet paint on a roller. I closed my eyes and knuckled at them hard as I turned my back. Opening them again, I looked out over the rest of the room; it was leached of color, dull and weak in my eyes after hours of staring at the lush deep green of the card table.
The only thing that stood out to me was the crawl of rhinestone across the broad white back of a lone Elvis impersonator—or ‘tribute artist’ as they prefer—at the bar, a dead zone of empty stools marking the radius of dejection that emanated from him. I should be jubilant, I thought—I had just saved myself from ruin. But I had won twenty thousand dollars and done nothing but get back to where I was when I walked in the door. He was still there after I cashed out my chips; I slipped easily into the dead zone, his dejection and mine harmonizing, and sat down next to him. He turned his head to me, his enormous black lacquered pompadour nodding slightly under its own weight.
“Hey, baby,” he said, his voice not quite deep or smoky enough to be a good Elvis, but not bad either.
“Um, right,” I said, wondering just how drunk he was. “Are you doing a show here?” He took a slow sip of his beer and I took the opportunity to order one for myself.
“No,” he said, staring down into his glass. He looked over at me again, pensive, eyes piercing for a moment before filming back over with sadness and alcohol. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, deciding if he wanted to say more. Finally he gave a tiny shrug and a heavy sigh. “I didn’t know they did shows here,” he said, voice low. I leaned over a bit so I could hear his thick-lipped mumble. “I was expecting a church.”
“Um,” I said again, and sipped my beer, giving myself time to turn his words over in my head. “Bob Harris.” I stuck out my hand. He introduced himself as Elvison Gracer. “You mean the other imper… uh, tribute artists don’t respect Elvis enough? The original, I mean.”
“I shouldn’t be saying anything at all,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s going to matter.” He shook his head sadly and pushed his beer away, the sodden napkin under it tearing into soaked shreds on the deep polish of the wooden bar. “I need to air my head out.” He stood up. He was steady on his feet, obviously not stumbling drunk despite his odd choice of words, but the way he looked around the room—he struck me as a man in shock. Maybe he’s like me, I thought, except he didn’t win it back. Maybe he lost it all…