Thursday, 17 May 2018

Off the Radar again

I've been kind of quiet on this blog for a while. That's mainly because I've been out of internet range for most of last year and this until a couple of weeks ago, in the Chiapas region of Mexico with the Zapatista rebels, staying as their 'guest.'

I'll tell you that story another time - still working it through. It did make me think though about another time I disappeared off the radar completely, in the late Eighties. Here's that tale...

Las Vegas
I’d pretty much given up on my agent when I called in that time. To be fair, I suppose, it’s hard to arrange much for a travelling musician who lives in a Dormobile and leaves no forwarding address.

‘I’m glad you got in touch,’ Fran said. I pictured her in that office of hers in L.A., in back of the mall where the rental stays low. ‘Have you ever been to Las Vegas?’

The gig was a three month residency: after that, she said, ‘we’ll see how we go.’ I should have smelled a rat from the start, but hey, money wasn’t exactly flowing into the coffers, and, this being late November, the cold was starting to bite my toes in Minnesota, where I’d fetched up at that point.

So I said, ‘sure, why not?’

It was a long drive to Nevada, but I made it in a couple of days, keen to impress my new employers. I didn’t have much in the way of details, so when I first got into town I drove up and down the Strip, dodging fifty foot neon signs and guys in Cadillacs, looking for the Hotel Murillo as if it would be tucked away next to Caesar’s Palace and the Flamingo.

It wasn’t, of course. It was downtown: a shabby four-storey square of concrete that had long been overtaken by the big money places on the long road heading into the desert. I heard later it was built as a reward for a minor player in one of the Mob deals that made the Strip what it was: the guy was big enough to need a pay off, but not to get a hotel on the main drag itself.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the lobby was the noise of the slot machines, and then the smell: a combination of floor polish, hamburgers and hairspray. The last of these came from the tribe of middle-aged women in velour pants at the machines, Dixie Cup full of small change in one hand, work glove on the other, hauling on those handles like their lives depended on it.

The owner came to welcome me himself, something I was made to understand was a great honour. ‘I’m such a massive fan,’ he said. ‘I’ve got all your albums, even the one you did in England.’

Like so many things about Jake White, there was something that didn’t quite ring true. He wore an expensive-looking suit, and a shirt fashionably open to the chest hair; there was gold on his fingers and in his teeth.

‘I’ve given you the Opal Lounge,’ he said. ‘Think it’ll suit your style.’

Whatever he thought my style was, the Opal Lounge was the smallest of the three ‘entertainment lounges’ in the hotel, but it still wasn’t small enough to look busy when the audience, most nights, was a couple of slot machine queens on their cigarette breaks, and a couple more conventioneers too dim witted or too drunk to find the bigger lounges on the first floor.

But hey, I was getting paid, wasn’t I? And it wasn’t so hard to sneak food from the gambling tables’ buffet trolley, so I got one square meal a day at least.

Most days I lay by the pool, sunbathing; unless Jake wanted me on ‘promotional activities,’ chatting to bored gambling or golf course widows, trying to convince them my show was the thing they wanted to see in Vegas.

Quite a lot of women had come to Vegas looking for a divorce, whether their husbands knew it or not; so gradually, by word of mouth, my audiences grew. All those break up songs began to come in handy.

There were a lot of stories to be had by the poolside, too. That’s where I learned that Jake White’s real name was Jacob Weiss, and that he and the rest of the Hotel Murillo’s management were connected. Sure, by then, the big palaces on the Strip had been taken over by the corporates, but down town it was a different picture. I filed the information away, for another day.

Then there were the gamblers, recovering from an all-night session by frying in the sun, who liked to tell their tales and those of others. It’s where I was taught how to play Kansas City Lowball. It’s also where I got the story of Johnny Moss and Nick the Greek, and their epic five month struggle at the poker table in 1949.

And that’s why, when a high-roller from out of town came and sat at the pool on the next sunbed, and Jake White introduced us personally, I didn’t run a mile. Even though I should have.
He really was called Vito Abruzzo, and he really was on a vacation from his trial in Atlanta on racketeering charges.

‘I think this calls for a cocktail,’ he said, settling himself down on the next sunbed. He was wearing a polo shirt and shorts, and somehow made it look as if he had stepped off a catwalk in them. Or, even, onto a yacht. ‘It’s not every day I share a sunbed with a beautiful lady who can sing and play guitar.’

‘You forgot the songwriting bit,’ I said. ‘Besides, we’re not sharing a sunbed. This is my one here, and you’re over there on yours.’

‘Give it time,’ he said, attracting a waitress’s attention with no effort whatsoever.

What can I say? He was very charming, and very good-looking, and the cocktails were pretty damn strong on an empty stomach. One thing, as they say, led to another.

We went to his room, which was a little grander than mine. I woke first, decided to have a shower, and took my bikini in with me. That probably saved my life.

The thing about guns with silencers is, they’re silent, but you still hear them: it’s like the air they displace moves the rest of the air in a room, even when the bullet’s gone home.

I was drying myself when I heard the room door open, and wondered why he was going out. Then I heard the sound of feet on the thick carpet, and I froze.

There were quite a lot of paces between the door and the bed. Vito stirred enough to say, sleepily, ‘Hey…’ Then that sound, that awful sound, of air moving super fast in the chamber of a gun, and a bullet blasting through bone and brain.

The owner of the footsteps retraced them, back towards the room door; one, two, three, then stopped. Keep going! I was screaming inside. I was stood behind the half-open bathroom door, a towel clasped to me: that was when the shower dripped.

I could hear the guy’s breathing as he took a pace onto the tiling of the bathroom door. Then the muzzle of a gun started to appear, slowly.

I froze solid. If this had been a movie, I would’ve grabbed the gun, karate-chopped the guy’s wrist, and plugged him, all while still wearing the towel; but this wasn’t the movies, so I just stood there, willing myself invisible.

Inch by inch, the gun appeared, then the hand holding it nudged the door wider. I was right behind it, so it bumped into my hands holding the towel. The gun stopped; and then, just as the assassin was ready to make his move, there was a sound from the room.

I still don’t know what it was. Maybe it was Vito, making some movement with his dying breath. If it was, he saved my life, because the gunman got spooked.

‘What the – ‘ his shoes squeaked on the bathroom floor as he turned. Then he crossed the room – I had the slightest view through the crack at the door jamb of a sharp suited figure, bending over the bed – and then he crossed the room again.

‘Lady,’ said a rasping voice, ‘If you’re in there, you ain’t seen me, and we’re going to keep it that way, capisce?’

And then he was gone, out the door and away. I sank to my knees, and the uncontrollable shivering started. It took ten minutes for me to get out of the bathroom and phone down for Jake, who, somewhat to my surprise, phoned the cops. I guess lines in Las Vegas were pretty blurred back then.

And that’s how my years in witness protection began, and the last remnants of a career slipped away. It was only when the Berlin Wall came down that I resurfaced at all, and that was in another continent, just to be on the safe side. By then, Jake White was in retirement, permanently, and so was the shooter. Or so they told me. I’ve never been back to Vegas to check with anyone.