My friend Andrew Hall said, “You should write a story about zombies in Las Vegas.” So I did. Thanks Andrew.
“Hey Boss,” Ike Johnson said, “come on over here. You need to see this.”
Tom Stafford, assistant head of security for downtown Vegas’ Lucky Cuss casino/hotel, hoisted himself with a groan from his genuine imitation leatherette desk chair (held together by matching brown duct tape) and trudged over to the bank of surveillance monitors where Johnson stood. “This better be good,” Stafford said. “I was just about to take a whiz.”
“Then you needed to get up regardless.”
“Not necessarily.” Stafford rocked back and forth from foot to foot. “What’s so damned interesting anyway?”
Johnson pointed to the screen, indicating a skinny gray-haired Asian woman in a safari print mumuu. “See this old broad feeding nickels into the Shuffling Dead slot on carousel 13?”
Stafford frowned. “Yeah? Looks like every other granny we get in this dump.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. I just got a call from Ortiz on the floor. Said she hasn’t gotten out of her seat since he started his shift.” “You called me over for that? I’d write you up if I could find my pen.” Christ. Eighteen years in this racket and it’s come to this. If
only he hadn’t told the truth on question 17 of the Metro police entrance exam, things might have been different.
Johnson continued, “And Miller before that said exactly the same thing. So I backed up the video. She’s been sitting there for 27 hours. Straight. Hasn’t moved a muscle except to push that damned button.”
“Probably wearing the giant economy size Depends,” Stafford said with a shrug.
Johnson wheeled around to face his boss. “Except she hasn’t ordered a drink, lit a cigarette, lifted a cheek to fart, nothin’. What do you make of it?”
“I’d say she’s a good customer. Is she ahead?”
“Up and down. Hasn’t had to dip into her purse, if that’s what you mean.”
“Well, the house always wins in the end. And that’s all that counts. Now get outta my way before I water your ficus,” Stafford said, pretending to unzip.
Johnson didn’t budge, blocking Stafford’s path with his ex-lineman’s frame. “We should have medical take a look at her. Just to cover our asses.”
“Okay, have it your way. Although it’s not my ass I’m worried about.”
Charles “Doc” Merritt threw back a shot of bottom shelf bourbon and shuddered. It went down like molten glass. “Hit me again, my comely serving wench” he said, slapping a couple of soggy singles on the bar. Before he could do any further damage to his 67-year- old system, he felt a beefy hand on his shoulder. Wincing, he turned in an attempt to focus on the hand’s owner, a stocky moon-faced fellow with a porn star moustache.
“Officer Ortiz, to what do I owe the exquisite pleasure?”
“Doc, how many times I gotta tell you about drinking on duty?”
Merritt blinked. “I don’t recall us ever engaging in that particular conversation.”
Ortiz grinned despite himself. “You can’t recall your own damned name half the time. Get off that stool if you can and follow me. We got a lady might need your attention, God help her.”
Merritt stood, swayed, steadied himself and put one wobbly foot in front of the other all the way to the slot carousel where the elderly Asian lady continued to sit like a statue.
After a quick briefing from Ortiz, Merritt leaned in and said, “Excuse me, madam, Charles Merritt at your service. I’m the house physician. May I have a word with you?”
No response. Merritt cleared his throat and tried again, louder this time. “My good woman, the people who run this establishment are concerned for your welfare. I must insist you stop playing and speak to me this instant.”
Still nothing. Merritt extended a shaky hand and gave her arm a gentle tug, just enough to get her attention. That’s when he knew he’d made a terrible mistake.
“She bit me!” Merritt howled like a wounded dog. “The bitch bit me!” He sat on a plastic chair bathed in the sick green light of the casino infirmary, gingerly applying an antiseptic wipe to a nasty chunk taken out of his right wrist.
“Quit your whining,” Stafford said. “It’s not the worst thing that’s happened to you around here.”
Merritt had to agree. During his time at the Lucky Cuss, he’d been sneezed on, puked on, peed on, shit on, and bled on. There wasn’t a form of bodily discharge that hadn’t found its way onto, and perhaps into, his person. It was a minor miracle he hadn’t contracted AIDS or Hep C. His football-sized liver was something else entirely, but at least that was self-inflicted. Small consolation as he placed a large gauze pad over his newly acquire souvenir, now growing redder and angrier by the second. Merritt knew the human mouth harbored more bacteria than that of most animals; with his luck he’d be fighting a raging infection by morning. He’d have to remember to write himself a scrip for a Z-Pak and hit the Walgreen’s on East Flamingo on his way home. In the meantime, he eyed a bottle of isopropyl alcohol and it was as though Stafford could read his mind. “You can’t drink that stuff, Doc. You’ll go blind. I’ll have Stacy bring up a bottle of that rotgut you’re so fond of.”
“As long as it’s on the house, maybe she could favor me with a Wild Turkey. Just this once?”
“Just this once,” Stafford agreed. “Besides, we got more important things to talk about. Like what to do about that crazy old broad.” The old broad in question rested quietly in a locked holding facility in the casino basement, pushing the button on a non-existent slot
machine. It had taken Ortiz and two other guards a full two minutes to subdue her, mainly because they were trying to avoid her surprisingly powerful choppers. Pepper spray just pissed her off. Cuffing was out of the question. Only when Davis sent her false teeth flying with a well-placed baton to the mouth (they landed squarely in the middle of a nearby craps table with nary a glance from the regulars) did they feel confident enough to wrestle her to the ground.
“So what do we do with her?” Stafford asked. “Metro or UMC?” Meaning the cops or the hospital. Vegas didn’t have its own version of Bellevue, although Lord knows it needed it.
“We could flip a coin,” Merritt said. “But if we make the wrong decision, I might lose my license.” “You got a license?”
“Last I checked. I hate to say it, but I’d better have a closer look at her. Officer Ortiz, would you please accompany me? And bring two of your largest companions.”
Ortiz and the companions, as it turned out, were unnecessary. The woman had returned to her former semi-vegetative state, docile enough (after some cautious prodding with a particularly long cotton swab) for Merritt to perform a perfunctory exam, the results of which made him crave the rest of the Wild Turkey. Just to be sure, he went through the routine a second time, pleased to know he could still act like a real doctor when the situation warranted. Now if it weren’t for that damned twitch in his right hand . . .
“What’s the story?” Stafford asked when Merritt and his helpers returned to the security room. “You look like shit, by the way. After we’re done here, why don’t you call it a night?”
Merritt plopped himself onto a metal folding chair with a noise that sounded like air escaping from a tire. “I’m most appreciative of your concern for my health and well-being,” he said, knocking back an enormous swig from the bottle of bourbon. “Our guest downstairs is technically, how shall I put this . . . dead.”
“Jesus Christ! When the hell did this happen?” He envisioned law suits, weeping relatives and stacks of paperwork plunging his life into new depths of misery.
“Based on her body temperature of 83.7, I’d say roughly ten hours ago.”
“Quit your clowning Doc. The faster we wrap this up, the faster we both get out of here.”
“I’ve never been more serious. There’s no pulse, no blood pressure, no pupillary response to light. I checked twice. Ask Mr. Ortiz.” “He’s telling the truth Boss.” Ortiz crossed himself while fingering the gold crucifix around his neck.
Stafford looked like a man listening to a used car salesman. “Assuming this isn’t a case of the DTs, how do you account for the imaginary button pushing? What is she, some kind of slot zombie?” His laugh was part snort, all derision.
Merritt plowed ahead. “There are a number of pharmacological substances known to mirror morbidity, most notably tetrodotoxin. But the more logical explanation is some kind of reflex action. Cadavers have historically been known to exhibit reflexive behavior, although not to this extent. There may be a small vestigial part of her brain still active.”
Stafford rubbed his already bloodshot eyes. “So I guess we call the morgue then? Ortiz, you got positive ID on the, uh, deceased?” Ortiz shook his bowling ball-sized noggin. “Nothing in her purse except a couple dozen wet wipes, some loose singles and a bunch
of rolls from the buffet. Buttered.”
“May I offer a suggestion?” Merritt said. “I’d like to keep her on ice for a few more hours of observation. This could be a once-in-a- lifetime phenomenon.” He flashed on an image of his byline in the New England Journal of Medicine. His hand was flopping around like a one-legged cricket, reminding him of a scene from Dr. Strangelove, and he jammed it deep in his pocket. The hand could wait. At the moment, there was nothing more important than the dead Jane Doe in the basement.
Tom Stafford, already sweating through his white dress shirt, marched to the board room podium like a man facing a firing squad. “G-g-gentleman,” he said to the Lucky Cuss executive team, “we have a problem.”
CEO Arthur Morgante, he of the perfect hair and teeth, jumped in. “Problems are just opportunities in disguise.” Morgante, a typical Las Vegas success story, had started out a decade earlier playing piano in the casino lounge before somehow magically acquiring controlling interest in the property. He hadn’t sunk a dime into it since, bleeding the place dry while letting it devolve into downtown’s most notorious shithole. What remained of the carpeting would feel right at home in a toxic waste dump, while the billows of unfiltered air made second-hand smoke look like pure oxygen.
Opportunties, Stafford thought. Wait’ll you hear this one. And proceeded to lay out the details of the previous night’s activites, including a few new wrinkles that included Doc Merritt, Gabriel Ortiz and half the security staff, all sporting fresh bite marks, sharing guest quarters with Patient Zero. And pushing those damned imaginary buttons.
When he finally ran out of breath, Stafford scanned the faces of the assembled execs, staring at him wide-eyed and wide-mouthed, looking like bottom feeders pulled up from the deep. Nobody wanted to risk being the first to comment for fear of ridicule or worse. Instead, they waited for Morgante to weigh in, at which time they could nod their heads approvingly and chirp in agreement. And weigh in he did, although not in the way they expected.
“That miserable fucking Wexler! Okay, everybody out! Out!” he said, pounding his fist on the table. No sooner had the door clicked shut than Morgante punched a number into his cell phone, his hands shaking in rage.
“Neil, Arthur Morgante. We’ve got a situation on our hands here and it’s your fault, you lying piece of shit.,” he said, circling the room like a shark.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” said Neil R. Wexler, CEO of Universal Gaming Technologies, makers of 80% of all slot games in Las Vegas including the prototype Shuffling Dead progressive. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“You know goddamned well what I’m talking about. That chip you installed in that fancy new machine of yours, the one you gave us the ‘exclusive’ test market on. That’s some favor you did me. It’s turning my people into zombies.”
“Impossible! We’ve never had a product that surpassed so many of our quality control protocols. It’s simply designed to impact the human neural network in a very subtle way, making players want to play longer.”
“Longer is right. As in forever.” Wexler started to protest but Morgante cut him off. “Now you listen to me. You fix this. I don’t care how you do it but you fix it. Or my friends in Kansas City are going to pay you and your family a nice long visit. Capiche?”
Morgante slammed the cell on the table, ending the conversation and the phone at the same time. He stormed across the room and flung open the heavy wooden door, causing his assembled flunkies to scatter like pigeons. “Dolan, get your ass in here!”
Like the casino itself, PR Director Mike Dolan had seen better days. But he could still rise to the occasion when the occasion demanded. That and the fact he worked cheap kept him in Morgante’s stable of has-beens.
“Word gets out and we’re all history,” Morgante said. “I don’t think any of us want to hit the streets at our age. Mike, how we gonna spin this?”
Dolan’s head was already spinning. It went hand-in-hand with the churning in his gut. “Well, here’s what we know,” he said in a voice that quavered more than he was hoping for. “The Asian woman is a Jane Doe, no ID. So in all likelihood nobody’s looking for her. How about Merritt? Anyone give two shits about him?”
“Nah. An ex-wife or two somewhere. No kids that I know of.” “And Ortiz?”
Morgante glanced over his shoulder reflexively and whispered, “Illegal. The rest of the guards too. Completely off the books.” “And as long as nobody bothers them, they just sit there pushing buttons?”
“Whether there’s a machine in front of them or not.” Dolan held his hands out in triumph. “So there you go.” “There I go what?”
“Your answer. Stick them in front of those newfangled slots, set the machines for tournament play so they don’t need money, and leave them the hell alone. They don’t drink, don’t smoke, work for free and won’t bother anyone. And they certainly won’t smell worse than any of your regulars. The perfect shills if you ask me. Before you know it, this joint’ll be packed with real customers. Paying ones. Because people want to hang out where the action is.”
It was as though the sun rose on Morgante’s face. “Dolan,” he said, “you’re a genius. Let me use your phone.”
As Dolan pondered the possibility of a raise and maybe even some time off for good behavior, Morgante made his call. “Neil, it’s me. Forget what I said. Order me up another dozen slots.”