Thousand Words for February 18, 2018

Assistant director of the Clark County Historical Society was a position that Soren Roshwald took pretty seriously. He was the senior member in terms of time served on a board of eleven; he’d been on the board since 1979. The director, a lawyer brought in by the mayor primarily as a fundraiser, didn’t even live in Vegas, but as she was largely hands-off when it came to daily operations, she’d been tolerated by the board members and even embraced by some, Soren among them. “She’s a young woman who knows how to work in a hierarchy,” Soren had said over lunch at the Petrorussian to Board Member Madeline Conley, another of the four Old-Timers, as the other, younger board members called them privately.

“Bullshit,” Conley snorted. “She’s a carpetbagger who knows jack shit about this town.” Some of that was the three Bourbon and cokes on a light lunch, but even when she wasn’t loaded, Conley knew how to speak her mind. “She’s been in the job a year now, and I’ve still got ten blocks full of trash north of the Strat.” It was Conley’s pet peeve: the urban decay that separated the old Strip from the new.

“Christ, Maddy,” Soren replied. “She can’t fix that. That’s the same old zoning holds put in way back–”

“No, she could use some of that goddamn money, buy those bastards out.” Conley threw her napkin on her empty plate.

Soren caught the eye of their server, who, he noted, had been watching them discreetly. He nodded to her and she moved forward with the check. “Your lunch today is complements of Mr. Reynolds, who regrets that he cannot be here to greet you personally, Mr. Roshwald,” she said. She turned and nodded. “Dr. Conley.”

“Oh, no,” Soren said. “I’ll take care of that.” He laid down a crisp hundred dollar bill on the table. When he noticed Conley’s raised eyebrows, he shook his head. “It’s not 1983, Maddy. We can’t just buy out permit holders and we can’t let Little Tommy Reynolds buy us lunch anymore.” At the mention of her boss’ nickname–‘Little Tommy’–which, it was well known, he hated and had forbidden to be uttered in his restaurant, the server smiled in spite of herself. She retrieved the hundred and tucked it into the leather binder that contained the $81 lunch receipt. “Thank you, Mr. Roshwald,” she said, but the two board members were already on their way to the door.

Soren closed the passenger door after Conley and walked around the back, slipping behind the wheel of a year-old Lexus. “Where to, then?” he said. He was going back to the office for at least a couple of hours, but thought that Conley would call it a day after the drinks.

“Oh, take me home, Sor,” she waved her manicured hand. “I’ve had all I can take for one day.” He piloted the Lexus along a familiar route to a gated community south of the city and, after being waved through by a uniformed guard whose name was Henry, as they both well knew, he brought the car to a stop in the carriage turnaround of a two-million dollar home. “Come in for awhile?” she asked, her words very slightly slurred as the last drink she had slammed down took effect.

Soren knew better than to put her into a position to be embarrassed later. “No, I’ve got a pile of work,” he smiled. “I’ll see you tomorrow. ”

Characteristically, Conley got out of the car without a word and walked to her door, where a uniformed man opened the door for her. When she was safely inside, he maneuvered the car onto the street and back towards town.

On the back floorboard of the car lay a manila envelope with a series of photographs inside. Soren knew the that particular set of photographs well. He’d studied them both professionally and personally. They were stills from the Associated Press coverage of the 1971 opening of the north wing of the Sands Hotel and Casino. This project was the first to feature modular plumbing and fixtures in the expanded-size guest rooms and included modern design elements to encourage the spending of money and discourage leaving: unified textile choices, continuously curving throughfares and alleyways, and island slot stations. At the time, the project was thought to be innovative and cutting edge–even risky. Like so many things, it seemed obvious in retrospect, but at the time, a good deal of discussion and, in some quarters, derision, could be heard in the watering places of those insiders and hangers-on who followed such things. Soren had made a study generally of the small and large changes in the profit engine that, in the face of overwhelming challenges and difficulties, had managed to perform for decades prior and since. A line of cheap hotels out in the middle of a humorless and unforgiving desert, far from water, far from the comforts of a more familiar environment–Morris ‘Mo’ Green and his Sands of Arabia Hotel had been one of the first to plan for something bigger and better than working the Pheonix-to-Los Angeles traffic. Mo had dreamt of visitors coming to Vegas not as the last water stop on the road to southern California, but as a destination in itself: a fantasy land of hedonism and vice unobtainable in the more staid East. Atlantic City couldn’t offer the adult-oriented pleasures of what even back in the early 1960’s was known as Sin City. Green and the group of initial like-minded visionaries created something different, and its continuing profitability–witness the wagon train of airliners full of people in and out at all hours of the day and night–had succeeded beyond even their wildest expectations.

The Sands expansion of 1971 was a significant, if somewhat obscure, part of that, and Soren reveled in knowing about it, in being an expert on such things. He had studied the news coverage at the time in detail, and even had the color slides, from which the black-and-white prints that had appeared in the paper had been made–they were carefully packaged in black plastic, sealed, and filed. Soren was meticulous about such things. He had preserved much of the arcane documentary stream of papers of his own life in carefully organized files at his home. Such things as eighth-grade homework, acceptance letters to colleges, correspondence with his member of Congress, and a thousand other pieces of arcana could be found in alphabetical order in his files. He had something approaching a photographis memory for such things; once he had seen a piece of paper, once he had handled it, the fact of its existence was effortlessly and forever etched into his consciousness.

And when he saw the man in the Venetian that day, sitting at a slot machine feeding in quarters, Soren knew he had seen him before.

In a photograph.

Soren knew the man as one knows the barista at one’s daily-visited coffeeshop, as one knows the driver of the bus one takes to work–that is to say, Soren knew his face. The man was not one of the colorless, anonymous, banker-from-Cleveland types that Vegas was full of; he had an interesting face, one that would be remembered by someone such as Soren, who noticed such things.

The man was about 65, his wavy grey hair was parted and combed. He sported a well-grown mustache in the style that was known as Imperial–Soren knew it well. His father had affected such a mustache, and his memories of his father styling it carefully with a wet comb were distinct. The man was dressed casually, conservatively, a checked shirt open at the collar and tucked into beige gaberdines. Soren knew the man’s clothes too. He strode past the man as he sat at the machine; they did not make eye contact, but Soren got a direct look at him, recognizing him as a familiar figure immediately but lacking the context to make a positive identification. His initial impression, arrived at within a half-second of seeing him, was not that he knew the man personally, but rather that he was someone whom Soren had seen in a professional context. The man didn’t look like an actor or a famous person, the type that could be spotted from time to time in the casinos; he had once recognized the actress Carrie Fisher in New York New York, looking unhappy as she sat in front of a slot machine much as the man in whom Soren was suddenly so interested did. Soren strode on past him, filing the man’s face and form away in his mind for further analysis and ultimate identification; he knew it would come to him. It always did. He played with it as he walked along, but the man’s identity and the context in which he had come to know the man–Soren was certain that he did know the man–still had not dawn on him by the time he reached Davidson’s office, which was the reason for his presence in the Venetian that afternoon.

Miguel Davidson was the catering manager for the Venetian’s food service operation: three major sit-down restaurants, five fast-food type counters, and support of 440 guest rooms with a limited room service menu for 20 hours a day. Soren had come to speak with him about a produce contract that was in dispute in an effort to persuade him to accept Gala apples instead of Red Delicious–it was a favor to a friend–and Soren was sitting in Davidson’s office in the middle of a sentence about the temperature at which Galas should be stored when it hit him where he’d seen the man at the slot machine.

The Sands photos from the 1971 expansion.

Soren suddenly knew the exact photograph in which the man he’d seen 20 minutes ago appeared. It was one of the few which had not been composed ahead of time–photographs of actual people in public places inevitably included midline eye closures or the strange grimaces that arise as people change their facial expressions, but this one looked natural and posed, the people seeming to be the type that make a casino fun and desirable. The men were handsome enough and dressed appropriately; the women were youngish and pretty in a girl next-door way without being beautiful enough to threaten the wives of men who might want to come–with or without them. The man in question was just to the left of center and his face was clear and well illuminated. He was one of a row of people crowding up to the far end of a long roulette table. He was wearing the same checked shirt that he’d been wearing 20 minutes ago. His hair was parted and combed, his Imperial mustache bristled above his lip. Soren suddenly realized he was no longer listening to Davidson, so he put away his thought of the Sands photograph and the man who was–impossibly–in two places that seemed to be mutually incompatible.

Soren pulled his car into the garage and immediately hit the button to close the overhead door. By the time the rubber seal at the bottom of the door settled onto the painted concrete, he was out of the car, through the door that led to what his wife called a mud room but what seemed to him to just a small room whose purpose seemed to be a place for shoes to be kicked off on the way in–Andrea liked everyone to do that, family and visitors alike. “Shoes in the house is an abomination,” he had heard her say to their daughters more than once. He supposed it was the influence of her Japanese mother, who had married Andreas father, a serviceman, returning with him to Carbondale, Illinois. She had said it to him too, and he automatically stepped out of his loafers as he entered the house. He made his way straight for his home office and its fileroom; he’d been thinking about what lay in the stack labeled with an ‘S.’ What he was after lay in the third drawer down, near the front; he could see it in his mind as he dialed the combination into the lock and opened the third drawer. “Ah, yes,” he muttered, picking out the file and carrying over to the adjacent low table. He sat down and opened the folder; the photo he’d been thinking of was the third one down and it was precisely as he remembered. There just to the left of center was the man, in the checkered shirt. His face appeared to be in the middle of a contracture to a smile, but it was not an unpleasant expression. Soren stared at the photo and the man’s image as he recalled the sighting at the slot machine. He felt certain that this was the same man, despite the apparent and obvious impossibility. His hand opened a drawer to the left and he retrieved a magnifying glass which was contained within. Bringing it to his eye, he examined the man’s face carefully. The color photo was a high quality one, and the man’s face was clear and sharp. Soren noticed a speck on the man’s right cheek; it was too small to discern the color clearly, but it looked for all the world like a small clot of blood, the kind that would be formed if the man had shaved with a somewhat dull blade, or if the blade were sharp and it had inadvertently dug a tiny bit too deep in that particular spot. The man’s face appeared to have been recently shaved. He tried to recall the slot machine man’s face–he had approached the man on the right, walked past him on that side. Had the man not had a speck of blood on the cheek on that side? He wasn’t sure and couldn’t allow himself to believe such a thing in the absence of positive evidence–and yet, it seemed possible.

Then it suddenly occurred to him that the casino might have some security camera images of the man he had seen that morning. Soren knew very well how the cameras worked: the were positioned and pointed such that every gaming device and entrance was visible on one camera or the other, and they constantly recorded full-color digital video at a high resolution, which was stored as it was generated in a high-capacity hard drive located in the casino’s security office. The drive looped such that the newest images were recorded over the oldest; at anytime, the most recent ten days or so of video was on the drive. Soren thought for a moment–whom did he know in security at Venetian? He picked up the phone and dialed a number.

“Venetian Resort and Casino,” the operator answered briskly. “How may I direct your call?”

“Bill Hayes, please,” Soren said.

“Please hold.” The phone clicked and then an Italian aria–Soren recognized it as coming from Verdi’s Carmen, although it was not the iconic tune–was in his ear. He pressed a button on the phone and lay the handset in its cradle while the tune played through the phone’s tinny speaker. After some minutes, the music clicked off in the middle of a pleasant phrase, rang once, and a gruff voice in stark contrast to the contract spoke. “This is Hayes.”

“Bill. Soren Rothwald here.”

“Soren,” he said. “How are you doing today?”

“Good. Listen, I was on your floor today.”

“Yeah? How’d it look?”

“Fine, just fine.”

“Yeah, well, we had a hell of a mess in here last night,” he said. “Did you see the news?”

“No,” Soren said. “What happened?”

“Woman stabbed her husband right there on the floor,” he said. “Who the hell comes to Vegas to stab their husband? There was blood everywhere. Took until this morning to get it cleaned up.”

“Stabbed?” Soren said.

“Yeah, apparently it was a dispute about a girlfriend. The guy’s okay and the woman is in lockup. Anyway, what can I do for you?” Bill asked.

“Well, as I say, I was on your floor this morning and I saw a man sitting at a slot machine. I want to take a look at him on your tape.”

“Sure,” Bill said. “Come on down.”

“Great. How about tomorrow afternoon, say about three?”

“Yeah, sure. Just come to the cage and Laura will let you back,” he said. “Is it a player?” By that word, Bill meant to ask whether the man who had attracted Soren’s interest might be one of several hundred persons whom the casino had come to believe was cheating at the various games the casino offered. There were always players; once they were identified and photographed, the casino worked hard to keep tabs on them and keep them out of the house and out of the till–but it was surprisingly difficult, even with the highest of high-tech surveillance systems in and out of the building. As there was no right to admittance in any casino, these individuals–and sometimes teams–were banned, and they were prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The casino never settled. But the bean counters accepted a one or two percent loss to cheating as the cost of doing business, and there was an upside to it. When there was a big win, word got around that the tables or the machines at such-and-such casino were ‘hot’ and the amateurs from Palookaville swarmed in.

“No, just a guy,” Soren responded. “I only saw him for a second, but–” he judged how to put it. “I think I know him from somewhere.”

“Yeah, well come on over and we’ll see.”

“Okay, tomorrow at three.”

“Yeah.” The line went dead and Soren clicked off the speakerphone. He continued to examine the face on the photo through the glass. Who are you? he thought, and what are you doing here?

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