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Charlie Hustmyre

House of the Rising Sun

CHAPTER ONE

Ray Shane turned around and found a gun stuck in his face. The muzzle was a black hole the size of an ashtray, barely a foot from his nose. Somewhere at the other end of the barrel a voice whispered, “Don’t move, motherfucker.”

Ray had been working the front door of a place called The House of the Rising Sun, a mob-owned strip joint on the ground floor of an old four-story hotel in the French Quarter. That was the legal part of the business. What happened on the other three floors was… less legal.

Normally, Ray didn’t even work the front door. He had only been filling in for the regular doorman, a pimply faced Mexican kid named Hector who asked Ray to cover for him while he went to take a leak. Ray had entertained himself during Hector’s absence by chain-smoking Lucky Strikes and watching the freak show flowing past him on Bourbon Street.

Halloween night brought out all the weirdos, but it was late and the crowd was thinning. Most of the tourists had reached their limit and called it a night. The only ones left were kids too dumb to know when to quit and hard- core drunks who couldn’t.

After playing doorman for twenty minutes, Ray had checked his watch and saw it was just past three a.m. He pulled a walkie-talkie from his back pocket and called Hector. When the kid didn’t answer, Ray figured he was probably hanging out by the stage, gawking at the strippers.

One more cigarette. That’s how much time Ray had decided to give Hector. Standing on the sidewalk, he lit another Lucky Strike, breathed in a lungful of smoke, then closed his eyes and rubbed a hand over his face. He was so tired he was having trouble staying awake. Just three more hours. Then he could go home and crash.

Leaning against one of the metal poles holding up the cloth awning over the front door, Ray saw a guy pass by on the street dressed like a hot dog. His partner-Ray couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman-was covered from head to toe in a foam rubber bun.

Hector’s time was up. Ray took one last drag, then flicked the butt into the street. He turned toward the door.

That’s when he found the gun stuck in his face. The muzzle twelve inches from his nose. He still had the walkie-talkie in his hand.

Ray couldn’t see the face behind the gun because his eyes refused to move from that big black hole. It was too big for a 9mm, had to be a. 40 caliber, maybe even a. 45. The gun was a stainless-steel semiauto, probably a Smith amp; Wesson. It wasn’t the first time Ray had had a gun stuck in his face, but it wasn’t something you got used to with practice.

“Drop the radio,” the voice said.

Ray forced his eyes to move past the big pistol, back to the hand holding it. A white hand with a spiderweb tattoo covering the back.

The thumb cocked the hammer. “Drop it.”

The walkie-talkie slipped from Ray’s fingers and crashed onto the sidewalk. Something moved to his left. Out of the corner of his eye he saw someone step up to the heavy wooden front door and pull it open.

The voice behind the gun said, “Inside.”

There was no face behind the gun, just a rubber mask shaped like a skull with a pair of bloodshot eyes showing through two holes. Inside the mouth slit, Ray saw two lips and a set of bad teeth. As the muzzle of the big pistol poked Ray in the forehead, the skull said, “Now.”

Carefully, Ray took a step toward the door, his hands up at shoulder height, fingers spread, wanting these guys to understand that he wasn’t a threat. The guy next to the door wore a gorilla mask framed with thick black fur. He carried a sawed-off shotgun in his hands. An old double-barrel, cut off even with the wooden fore end, the stock chopped down to form a pistol grip and wrapped in black tape.

Two more assholes stood beside the skull, both wearing plastic masks, the kind with a rubber band that went around the back of the head to keep them in place. George Bush and a vampire. Each of them carried a pistol in one hand and a canvas gym bag in the other. Ray stepped through the door first, the skull with the bad teeth right behind him, keeping the muzzle of his Smith jammed against the back of Ray’s head. The other three trailed in. The door swung closed behind them and cut off the light from the street lamps outside.

The first floor housed the bar and strip club, the stage directly opposite the door so that people passing on the street could get a peek at what they were missing. From the speakers, Jonny Lang’s voice sang “Lie To Me” while a naked girl danced across the stage, hips grinding to the beat. Maybe forty people in the room, almost all men, everyone focused on the stage.

A hand on Ray’s shoulder spun him to the right, toward the stairwell. At the foot of the stairs, next to the bar, stood an empty wooden bar stool. That was where Ray spent most of his time, sitting on his ass, smoking cigarettes and drinking the club’s cheap whiskey, keeping the riffraff from going upstairs. For the last twenty-five minutes, ever since Hector went to take a leak, the stool had been empty.

The skull stepped in real close behind Ray and lowered his pistol, pressing the muzzle against the base of Ray’s spine. No one looked at them as they crossed the room. The stairs went up half a flight to a landing, then turned around before going up to the second floor. Ray crept up the steps, feeling the gun in his back. When they got to the mid-floor landing, he said, “You sure you know what you’re doing? You know who owns this place?”

“Shut up and walk.”

“You’re not the first guy to pull a gun on me. I just want you to think about it. You can still walk away, no hard feelings.”

The pistol jabbed hard, making Ray wince. “I said shut up,” the skull hissed.

“What’s he saying?” the vampire asked.

“Nothing,” the skull said. “Just stick to the plan.”

At the top of the stairs Ray felt another tug on his shoulder that spun him to the right. “This way,” the skull said as he pushed Ray toward the money cage built into the back right-hand corner.

The second-floor casino was about 10,000 square feet. A bar ran along the right-hand wall directly above the one on the first floor. The rest of the room was crammed with gambling tables-craps, roulette, blackjack, and poker. Every table was packed, the players tossing their chips and cash around, trying to keep a hot streak alive or turn a cold one around. There was urgency in the air. In less than an hour the House was closing for the night. Everyone was so busy trying to win their money back or add to their winnings that no one had time to look at five guys strolling toward the money cage.

Even the two drunks perched at the end of the bar didn’t look up as Ray and the four masked gunmen passed behind them. On the other side of the bar, the door to the storeroom stood open, the bartender’s back visible as he bent over to pick something up.

Ray did some quick mental math. The nightly take from all three floors was usually somewhere around a hundred grand. At this time of night, almost all of that cash, less what was still out on the tables and at the bars, was in the counting room behind the money cage. Even the money from the whorehouse upstairs was in there because every couple of hours someone walked the third-floor take down to the counting room just to be safe.

If you had the guts-and the guys in the masks had already shown they had guts-this kind of job beat the hell out of knocking off a 7-Eleven for fifty bucks. But nobody had to die. Let them take the money and go. The last thing Ray wanted was a Wild West shoot-out.

“When we get there,” the man whispered in Ray’s ear, “tell the girl to open the door.”

Ray nodded. Nobody has to die.

The money cage wasn’t really a cage, but a chest-high wooden counter with wire mesh running from the top of the counter to the ceiling. There were two openings in the wire, each the size of a toaster. It was through them that money passed back and forth to the players. At the end of the counter, separating it from the wall, stood a

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