James Swain

Gift sense

And God said to Moses, 'Moses, come forth.' And Moses came fifth, And it cost God Two hundred and fifty bucks.

– old gambler's joke

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

It was February, cold, and Al 'Little Hands' Scarpi was pumping iron outside his double-wide on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Raising the bar over his head, he watched a ponytailed kid on a Harley roar up in a swirl of dust. Parting his leather jacket, the kid removed an airline ticket and spun it like a Frisbee, nailing Little Hands squarely in the chest.

'How much you bench?' the kid wanted to know.

'Five hundred, sometimes more,' Little Hands said, wiping his sweaty face with a stained towel. 'You lift?'

The kid laughed and revved his hog, as if that was all the muscle he needed.

'You on 'roids or something?' the kid asked.

'Steroids are for pussies,' Little Hands said.

The kid left and Little Hands went inside his trailer. The ticket was for a noon Nevada Air puddle-jumper to Reno, the return for later that night. Printed on the sleeve was the confirmation number of a Hertz rental, a four- wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee. Printed beneath that were cryptic instructions. Cal-Neva Lodge-ask for Benny.

Inside the sleeve was money, five grand in thousand-dollar bills. Little Hands clutched it while thinking about the flight his employer had booked him on. It would be filled with businessmen. Then he imagined himself standing on line at the Hertz counter. More businessmen. Shredding the plane ticket, he went outside and tossed the pieces into the wind.

The drive to Reno took eight hours, another hour to navigate the treacherous mountain roads to Lake Tahoe. A light snow had dusted the highway, and he did thirty most of the way. It was a different world up here, the air thin and difficult to breathe, and a pounding headache soon filled his skull.

The Cal-Neva Lodge straddled the state line, which was how it got its name. It was dark when Little Hands parked at a casino called Lucky Lil's, then jogged down the road to his destination, his broad muscular back lit up by oncoming headlights.

He entered the Cal-Neva to the happy sounds of a slot machine paying a jackpot. At the front desk, he learned Benny was on break. Going outside, he found his contact having a smoke by the tennis courts. To his surprise, Benny was a she.

'My mother wanted a boy,' Benny explained, blowing a smoke ring that hung eerily in the frigid air. 'Ain't you cold?'

Little Hands shook his head no.

'Guess all that muscle keeps you real toasty, huh?'

Benny winked, coming on to him, and Little Hands got up close and breathed in her face. She swallowed hard. 'Hey, I was just kidding, okay? Don't act so crazy. If you don't know it, this job is going to make you famous.'

'Quit blowing me,' he said.

'The guy in Bungalow ten-the guy you're going to whack. You know who he is?'

When Little Hands said no, Benny smartly said, 'It's Sonny Fontana, that's who, big boy.'

Little Hands didn't believe her. Sonny Fontana was the poster boy of professional hustlers and forever banned from stepping foot in Nevada. He'd ripped off every major casino and never done time. The notion that he'd be hiding out in this crummy dump was too much for Little Hands to swallow. Sonny Fontana, his ass.

Sensing his doubts, Benny said, 'Don't you get it? The bungalows are technically in California. Nobody can touch Fontana as long as he doesn't cross the state line.' Producing a newspaper from her pocket, she said, 'See for yourself.'

Little Hands held the paper up to the moonlight. It was a photograph of Sonny Fontana taken outside a federal courthouse in Carson City several years ago. Jet-black hair, bushy eyebrows, big Roman nose. A real street guinea.

'You positive this guy's in Bungalow ten?'

'Sure am.' Benny stamped out her butt. 'Enjoy your fifteen minutes of fame.'

'Right,' he grunted.

Beneath a smiling half-moon, Little Hands crossed the grounds. Bungalow ten was surrounded by fir trees. He stuck his face in a side window. A guy in his birthday suit stood inside a tiny kitchenette. Loud music was playing on the radio and an open pizza box sat on the kitchen table. In profile, the guy looked like Fontana, but so did a lot of guys. He took a bottle of vodka from the freezer and left the room.

Circling the bungalow, Little Hands found a rear window with light streaming out and resumed watching. Inside, a woman with a shaved crotch sat upright on a four-poster bed while the naked guy refilled her tumbler. Licking her lips, the woman said, 'Okay Sonny, let's see if you've got any more bullets in that thing.'

Little Hands gripped the windowsill. So it really was him. He'd always dreamed of whacking a big shot and making a name for himself. He watched Fontana mount the woman from behind. They went at it like a couple of porno stars. Just as he was about to climax, Fontana grabbed a cream-colored Stetson off a poster and stuck it on his head. Slapping the woman's buttocks, he said, 'Let's cross the finish line together, honey!'

Little Hands backed away from the window. Standing in the lonely gathering of trees, he fought back the urge to cry. At the tender age of six, he'd caught his mother screwing a fireman wearing a red helmet. His mother had picked the fireman up in a bar where he'd come after battling a four-alarm blaze. Seeing her son's stricken face, his mother had burst into tears; the fireman just kept screwing. With his little hands, Little Hands had beaten on the fireman, to no avail.

Little Hands went around to the front of the bungalow. He'd thought about the fireman every day since. And his red hat. Like his mother wasn't worth hanging around for. The anger had been building inside of him for a long time.

He knocked on the front door. From within, he heard feet shuffling. A light on the porch came on. He could feel someone watching him through the peephole.

'Hotel security,' he said.

The door opened and Fontana stuck his head out. He still wore the Stetson, only now it was perched rakishly to one side. Reeking of vodka, he said, 'Yeah, what's the problem?'

Little Hands stared at him, just to be sure. It was the same guy from the newspaper article; there was no doubt in his mind. He'd killed many men in his life, but this one was going to be special. Grabbing Fontana by the throat, Little Hands closed the door on his head.

'This is for Mom,' he said.

Six Months Later


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