"Name?" the interviewer asked pleasantly, if somewhat tiredly.
His fingers typed the information in. He looked at the information sheet she had filled out while waiting in line. Age twenty-four, he noted, about 5í10". That was good.
"I see you went to a local dealerís school."
"Yes, sir," Gail said, placing a résumé on the desk in front of her. The man sitting behind it was about ten years older than she. The cubicle they were in was impersonal. Other interviews were going on to either side of them. People were talking in line. It was noisy, confusing, and a little scary. "I was near the top of my class."
The man read through the papers, occasionally stopping to type something into his computer. "And . . let me see . .. . how long were you at your last job, Ms. Douglas?"
"And your reasons for leaving?" His manner was pleasant, and this put Gail more at ease. She really needed the job.
"I was laid-off. The casino was cutting back and about twenty dealers got the axe. I was one of them." And that was six weeks ago, and Iím past-due on my rent, she thought, and Iíll be damned if I go back crawling to my parents.
The interviewer nodded. "Happens a lot. Union problems, fast growth . . . they all affect gaming." He added one more thing to the file, then took a pen, and put another form in front of Gail. "Which games are you more comfortable with?"
"Ah, Twenty-One, poker . . . you name it. Iíve been a dealer since I got to Las Vegas."
"And that was . . . ?"
"Three years ago." Away from the Midwest and never to return, she put in mentally.
"Would you fill this out, please?" The new form requested references, family information, and friends. Gail started in on it, hoping it was a good sign. She did not put down any next of kin, and she wasnít sure where her former roommate had gone off to.
"The Grand Facadeís hiring out for a number of positions," the interviewer said as she was working. "We have some dealerís positions open," he added blandly, gesturing to the crowded room, "but if that doesnít work out, what other positions would you be willing to fill?" He pointed at a list of job titles on one corner of the form.
Gail looked them over. "Well, I donít think Iím quite showgirl material," she said, blushing mildly. "I suppose waitressing or keno would be okay, though."
The man checked those boxes. "All right, though if you donít mind me saying, I think you underestimate yourself. Youíd make a wonderful showgirl." He laughed to indicate it was almost a joke. The last thing the casino needed was a sexual harassment suit.
Gail blushed again. "Well, you never know." She handed him the form. She had put down her references from school and the last casino she had been at, but she really didnít have any close enough friends to put down too. None she would trust anyway or want on for job references. She hoped that wouldnít make too much of a difference.
The interviewer looked through all the papers. He seemed satisfied. He looked up again at Gail. "I think thatíll about cover it. Do you have any questions of us?"
She shook her head and began getting ready to go. She wanted to make one more job interview today, and she didnít want to be late. "When will I know anything?"
The interviewer took the opportunity to look at her closely while she was putting her stuff away in her purse. Good-looking, he thought. Long boned, weight good. Bobbed hair, blonde.
No close friends. No family.
"Weíll get in touch with you as soon as possible, Ms. Douglas. I have to say, though, from your skills and demeanor, and your great résumé, you have a pretty good shot."
He made a special note as she left. Put her application in the "special" file.
* * * *
Sami knocked on Barbaraís door, but no one answered.
She turned to her husband. "I donít think sheís in there." He shrugged, and behind him Viola Andolin smiled. The managerís wife had arrived early that morning to take the family on the promised tour. Gregor had been called away on business.
"Sheís probably downstairs in the casino," Viola said. "If she is, weíll run into her eventually." Sami didnít think that was too likely - the idea of Barbara standing at a slot machine was slightly absurd - but it was possible she had gone down early for breakfast. And to avoid having to go on the tour, she added mentally.
Stan and Alicia werenít with them either. He had called them earlier and said he was taking Licia out to see more of the city. They would get together again for lunch. Sami thought he just wanted to have some quality time alone with her sister. And thatís not a bad idea, she thought. Sami didnít have the same objections to Stan as Barbara seemed to have. The two made a good match. He even liked that little fleabag of hers, Sasha.
"I guess weíre ready when you are, Viola," Chuck said.
"Then this way, please." Viola took them to the main elevator and pushed the button for the first floor. "Where should I begin?" she asked, though the question appeared to be more directed at herself than to her guests. She was wearing a tailored business dress, and she made Sami and Chuck feel a trifle underdressed in their average street clothes.
"Are you actually associated with the running of the casino?" Sami asked. The elevator doors opened, and they walked out into the ever-crowded casino. Viola took them along a path leading past the registration desk and into the sports book.
She shook her head. "No, not really. Iíve hosted a few parties, but I leave all the every- day details to Greg. And I have my own hobbies to occupy my time." She said hello to one of the celebrity impersonators then walking by, a double of W.C. Fields, and in their amazement at the resemblance Sami and Chuck both forgot to ask what those hobbies might be.
They passed the sports book, and Viola described how the system operated. Television screens were everywhere, almost all of them showing the same horse-race in action. They walked further along and Viola pointed out the classic movie theaters, all thirty of them. Some of the films showing that day were The Third Man, The Ox-Bow Incident, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and A Night at the Opera. The three of them stepped inside one; it was smaller than the average movie theater, with only about a hundred seats, but it was clean and very neatly decorated, not to mention totally free of charge.
"How can you afford to run all these movies for free?" Chuck asked Viola. Laurel and Hardy were standing outside the concession stand, and Sami wished she had a camera.
"The whole thing is surprisingly cheap, to be totally honest." They began toward an unmarked door. A security guard dressed like a Keystone Kop recognized Mrs. Andolin and waved them through. "It was just a matter of getting the rights from the studios. The lawyers handled it." She put a key in the door and opened it.
"Where are we going now?" Sami asked. She loved old movies, and the whole casino was a real treat for her. Chuck liked it, too.
"Backstage in the showroom. Thereís someone I want you to meet." They passed through a narrow and unmarked corridor and emerged in a large open space. A long curtain filled one whole side of the room; it was partially open, and through it Chuck could see row after row of tables. "Is this where the nightly shows take place?"
Viola nodded. "The special events center is larger, but itís used for concerts and fights mostly." She pointed toward a row of doors behind them. "Those are the dressing rooms for the showgirls and other performers. And that over there is the prop area."
A group of men were talking near the latter. One of them, a young man in his twenties with sleek black hair, saw Viola wave to him, excused himself, and walked over. "Hello, Mrs. Andolin," he said politely.
"Warren." She turned around and gestured to Chuck and Sami. "Warren, these are some new friends of mine, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Davis. Charles, Sami, this is Warren Dire. You might know him better by his stagename: Dire the Decadent."
The magician bowed at the waist. "At your service."
Sami was flustered. Chuck shook Direís hand. "Itís great to meet you. My wife and I saw your show in Portland, Oregon about two years ago. Youíre fantastic!"
"Iím glad you liked it. What trick did I do?" He shook Samiís hand, and his fingers lingered a moment in hers. He was very handsome. Her pulse sped up about twenty beats a minute.
"The Whirlwind of Death." Sami remembered. Dire had climbed into a metal assembly of razor sharp instruments, barely large enough for a child to stand in without getting sliced to ribbons. Then the whole thing was spun on a pivot while his Direís Demons, his silvery-clad assistants, had thrown even more knives into it. How he had survived, and without even a scratch, was beyond her. It was magic, pure and simple.
"Mr. Dire is performing here at the Facade," Viola said. "Five shows a week for the next two years, and worth every penny of what weíre paying him." The magician blushed slightly. "The showroomís crowded every night."
"What are you doing tonight?" Sami asked. "I mean, err, what are doing for your show?" She felt like a schoolgirl and chided herself for it, especially with her husband there standing next to her.
"I was just going over it with my prop crew," Dire replied. "Iím thinking a variation of the Burning Cage." He checked his watch. "In fact, if youíll excuse me, I still have a lot of work to do before tonight." He rummaged through his pockets melodramatically, then put his right hand up to Samiís ear and pulled two showroom tickets out of thin air.
He handed them to her. This time it was Samiís turn to blush. Chuck laughed and clapped his hands. "With Mrs. Andolinís permission, for Iím taking money out of her pocket, Iíd like to invite the two of you to tonightís show, whatever it turns out to be."
Viola met Direís eye and gave a brief shake of her head. A curious smile touched her lips. Neither Sami nor Chuck noticed.
"Weíd be honored," Sami said, taking the tickets. "Thank you, thank you very much."
Dire shrugged nonchalantly. "Itís my pleasure, madam. Iíll see you around." He gave a brief wave and trotted back over to his prop guys. Viola started walking further backstage, and Chuck and Sami followed.
"Can we get tickets for everybody tonight?" Chuck asked. "Barbara and the others too?"
"Anythingís possible," Viola said. "However, I think something else will occupy your time tonight. I have a special sight to show you two, reserved for our Ďspecial guests.í" She led them to another unmarked door, and, after unlocking it, into another narrow hall.
"This is so exciting," Sami said to her husband. She turned to Viola. "I want to thank you for all the attention youíve been showing us. Youíre really making this a vacation to remember."
"Oh, Iím sure youíll never forget this," Viola said. They had come to an elevator, and it opened when Viola pushed the button.
"Whatís on the agenda next?" Chuck asked. They all got in.
"Youíll see. Youíll like it, I guarantee it."
The elevator doors closed.
* * * *
Barbara had awakened early. She had made a mistake taking a nap right before dinner last night; it was nearly midnight before she got to sleep again, and she was up around five still feeling groggy. After dressing, she went downstairs for some breakfast.
The casino had a buffet. Every casino in Las Vegas had a buffet, she had been told, and it was remarkably cheap. Standing in line getting her food, Barbara smiled ruefully and thought she had finally found something she liked about the city - you could eat cheap there.
The Classic Hollywood theme of the resort naturally carried over into its restaurants. The buffet was called The Walk of Fame and featured walls covered in reproductions of the same charcoal and coral terrazzo stars lining the real street. Everywhere Barbara turned she could she some famous name highlighted in brass. There was another restaurant she saw, Rickís Café Américain, named after the lounge in Casablanca, that Barbara also found interesting. If she had to stay there, and she still thought of Las Vegas as a place for chronic losers, then she might as well make the most of what did appeal to her there. She really didnít plan on ever returning.
Barbara was finishing up when she saw Alicia in line at the food counters.
"Licia!" She waved, and her sister saw her and came over with her plate. "Youíre up early."
"Well, Stan received a phone call this morning. Some kind of business deal." The sisters sat back down at Barbaraís table, and Barbara started looking around again for the waitress to order more coffee. "He left around six. He suggested I order room service, but you know how I hate to eat alone."
The waitress saw Barbara and started walking over. Barbara looked at her sisterís plate. She was dieting again, she noticed. There was hardly anything on it. "I just got here myself."
The waitress came to the table. "More coffee, dear?" she said smiling. She was a middle-aged woman. There was life in her eyes, quite unlike those of the maids from last night. Barbara liked her a whole lot more than them. "Please." The waitress filled Aliciaís cup too and picked up her receipt.
"Iím glad I ran into you alone, Bar," Licia said. She sipped her orange juice. "Iím sorry we dragged you along with us. I know you donít like it here."
Barbara felt sorry for her kid sister. She had never been a very popular girl compared with her two older sisters, and her choice of boyfriends in the past had not been good. Part of the reason for this whole weekend had been to prove to her family that she was a capable person in her own right, capable of making her own decisions, and that Stan was one of them. The thing about it was, Barbara felt, Stan was treating her as if she were a little girl and couldnít handle things on her own. She had watched him. Stan treated her sister like a possession.
But she could never say that to Liciaís face. "Iím having a good time. I was just sitting thinking in fact about the hotel restaurants. The casino must have some really good lawyers working for them. There are copyrights covering practically everything here."
"Do you really like the casino? Stan said heíd take me on a tour of it later on. You can go along, too." Alicia was putting some of her bacon away later for Sasha.
Barbara drank some of her coffee. "I donít like the gambling aspect of it at all, you know that, but as far as theme resorts go, Hollywood is pretty interesting, I have to say."
Alicia nodded. "I like it. This is much better than, say, Planet Hollywood. This place has more . . more atmosphere."
"I think so too. It has atmosphere in spades. But itís weird, too. Itís like, what did Mr. Andolin say last night? Itís like the casino celebrates the illusion of Hollywood, the glitz of unreality." Thinking about Mr. Andolin brought to mind again the fact that heíd bucked her question about the cocktail waitress. Barbara looked back at the waitress who was serving them. She seemed normal enough. All of the cocktail waitress she had seen, though, all of them dressed in those modified bellhop uniforms, they were all prettier but empty-headed all the same. There was something different about them.
Barbara didnít know why she was so preoccupied with maids and waitresses. Maybe it was just something to keep her from getting bored.
"I didnít really like Mr. Andolin, either," Alicia said, finishing her coffee. "Or his wife. They were . . whatís the word for it? - decadent. They were decadent."
"They did seem a bit obsessed with themselves, didnít they?" Barbara added, leaning forward to whisper. "The way he was carrying on about illusions and so on . . . really strange." She made a mock shiver and leaned back.
"Has Stan known them long?" she asked casually.
Her sister shook her head. "I donít know. Stan hasnít told me a lot about his business arrangements. I donít even know where he is right now."
Barbara looked at her sister exasperatedly. "Just what has he told you?" She took Aliciaís hand. "Who is this guy, really? Do you really know him at all?"
Alicia took her hand back. "He treats me very well," she said stiffly. "He knows Iím not interested in gambling - Iím like you, I donít like that kind of thing - and so he leaves me out of it." She wouldnít meet Barbaraís eyes. She looked down and put the scraps she had wrapped in her napkin in her purse.
Barbara sighed. "Iím not going to tell you how to handle Stan. Thatís your concern. I think, though, that if you want to stay with him, you better talk to him and tell him to start treating you better." There, I said it. Barbara waited for the explosion.
But it didnít come. Alicia just closed her purse and glanced up at her sister. "What do you mean?" Her voice was guarded but not angry.
"Well, take this morning, for example. Stan should have told you where he was going. I mean, he brought you here all the way from New York and he leaves you in a hotel suite? Tells you to order room service and just leaves?" Barbara told herself not to get mad.
"Heíll be back," Licia said calmly. "Iím not worried heíll skip out, so why are you?"
Barbara opened her mouth to say something, then abruptly changed her mind. "I . . donít want to get into this right now. Youíre right, itís none of my business." She saw Alicia was getting ready to go - she was a fast eater - and tried to smooth things over before they left. "What do you two have going today?" she asked.
"The tour I told you about," Alicia answered, "and then Stan said weíd maybe head on over to Hoover Dam." She paused. "When he gets back, that is."
"What about now?" They got up and started heading for the casino.
Her sister shook her head. "Nothing, really. I think Stan wanted me to stay in the suite in case he needed to phone me, but I suppose he could always have me paged." They passed a billboard showing various movie showings and times. "Want to see a classic movie?"
They paused in front of the sign. "Hmm, why not?" Barbara said. Her finger reached out to brush the listings. "How about Dinner At Eight?" she asked.
"We just ate, Bar," Licia said, laughing a little. "Have you seen The Ox-Bow Incident? Thatís a good one."
"Cool .. . . a western." The movie started in fifteen minutes. "Want to visit the little girlsí room before it begins?" Alicia laughed again, "Sure," and they headed off.
And they got about five steps before they both saw Stan.
He was sitting at a blackjack table. One of the cocktail waitresses from the night before, when she had been dressed up like a maid, was there beside him. She was not working. She was dressed in a gown wholly inappropriate for the morning, with one arm wrapped around Stanís and blowing obvious kisses in his ear as he played.
The angle was just right enough to let them see he had a hand on one of her nyloned thighs.
Well, gee, Barbara thought before her real reaction set in, no wonder he wanted Licia to stay her in room like a good little girl. He wanted to go out and play. Then, she looked beside her at Alicia and saw her sister go pale and start shivering. Ah, christ.
"Barbara . . ," Alicia began, then really started shaking. Stan hadnít looked yet in their direction, and Barbara pulled her sister back over to the billboard quickly. She had to get her upstairs before she broke down. "Stan . . he . . heís . . . ."
"Weíre going upstairs, Alicia," Barbara said. "Letís go."
Alicia looked faint. "I . . Iím going to be sick, I think." She put a hand to her mouth. She had really turned pale, and Barbara thought her sister very well might get sick in public, which would be the absolutely last thing she would have wanted.
"Come on, donít think about it." The elevator was just close by, and Barbara pushed the call button. "Weíll just go up and pack." She paused. "Is that what you want?"
Alicia didnít speak. She couldnít speak.
But she nodded.
The elevators opened, and they got on. I wanted Licia away from Stan, Barbara thought, but this isnít the way I pictured it. They went up. Total bastard, right out in the goddamned open. The doors popped open again, and they went down the hallway to their rooms. One of the chambermaids was standing by a door with a linen cart.
"May I help you, maíam?" she said sweetly to Barbara, ignoring Aliciaís near-hysterics. There was a shiny dullness in her eyes.
"No. Get out of the way." Barbara took Aliciaís room key and opened the door to her and Stanís suite. The maid curtsied and went on about her business.
Alicia broke down completely inside. "Oh my god," she said, sobbing and falling to the floor. "Not again. Oh my god, not again." Barbara sat down beside her and wrapped her arms around her sister. Dark images of Stan roasting in hell filled her mind.
"Heís not worth it, shhh," she said, whispering in Aliciaís ear. She rocked her sister back-and-forth. "Heís not worth it. Shhhh." They sat there for what seemed a long time.
Finally, Barbara helped Alicia to her feet and got her into the bedroom. She sat her on the bed and began looking around for her suitcases.
"Where . . whereís Sasha?" Alicia asked. She had grabbed a pillow from behind her and was clutching it to her chest. "I donít see Sasha." Her eyes were wet and red.
Barbara straightened up from the closet and looked around suddenly.
No sign of the dog anywhere. Alicia called for Sasha, and Barbara echoed, but no familiar yelp returned. Alicia started crying again.
Damn it, whatíd he do to the dog? Barbara asked herself. Maybe thereís a kennel or something downstairs. She wouldnít put it past Stan now, though, if he had done something bad to the dog.
She heard a the door in the outer room open.
Stan, she thought. Barbara looked around, then inside the suitcase she was holding. Alicia had packed a heavy flashlight for some odd reason. She picked it up and held it like a club. All right, you bastard, come on in and explain yourself.
Licia got up from the bed. She thought it was Stan, too.
Instead, a group of chambermaids walked in.
Say what? Barbara couldnít have been more surprised if Orson Welles had walked in.
There were six of them, all young and pretty, blank-eyed and smiling. They came into the room, surrounded the sisters, and grabbed them. Alicia screamed and Barbara swung the flashlight down hard, but her arm was at once held in a grip of steel. She kicked and screamed in rage, but that too was to no avail. The maids were strong . . . far, far too strong. Fighting them was like trying to fight a team of football players. The maids just held the two sistersí arms down, one on each side, while a third grabbed their legs.
They never had a chance.
It was absurd.
They had been kidnapped by a gaggle of chambermaids.
There was no conversation. No speech at all. The maids picked the two women up and simply carried them out of the suite, no fuss, no muss. Both struggled, Barbara especially, but neither had any leverage. They screamed, but no one heard them. The party passed through the richly textured hallway, past those pictures of old-time celebrities, the eyes of Errol Flynn watching, and into the service elevator, its doors waiting open. They went down, past the main floor and into the sub-basement.
Viola Andolin was waiting when the elevator doors opened again.
It was a large and connected series of rooms in the basement. The walls were gray stone, seemingly carved right out of the natural bedrock and done so with precision and accuracy. The floor was perfectly flat and richly carpeted. An iron cage stood open in one corner of the first room. Barbaraís brother-in-law Chuck lay bound and gagged inside it. Sami was similarly gagged and tied in a nearby chair.
Their eyes widened when they saw Barbara and Alicia carried in.
Viola stood to the side and watched them enter. "Ah, and I was just preparing things for you. How convenient. Now you can watch." Barbara would have cursed at her, but one of the maids put a hand over her mouth. She tried biting it, but the metal-hard fingers were wrapped tightly around her jaw. None of the sisters could make a sound.
Mrs. Andolin walked to the cage and looked down at Chuck. "I need another pet for my stable," she explained to him pleasantly and closed the gate.
Almost immediately he started shivering. Barbara heard a low hum emerge from the gridwork, as if the cage itself were vibrating. Chuck began struggling even harder to break his bonds. His face turned red with exertion, and he perspired heavily in spite of the slight chill in the basement air.
It was the hair that Barbara noticed first.
It was getting thicker.
Whatís happening? she screamed inside. This is . . this is unreal. What are they doing to us? What . . whatís happening to Chuck? Chuckís struggles increased for a minute or two until he was literally rolling around the cageís interior. As he did so, the hair on his head seemed to turn darker, glossier, as if wet with oil. Barbara thought at first that he might have cut himself, that he was bleeding. Then he abruptly stopped moving. A ripping sound filled the room. Chuckís pants and shirt were spreading as if the legs and arms underneath were thickening in size. A confused look filled his eyes.
It wasnít blood. Chuckís hair was turning darker, all on its own.
Barbara could only look on amazed at the sight . . . and horrified.
Chuck was changing.
His shirt ripped across the chest. Buttons flew.
He stood up, the ropes holding him suddenly weak and thin compared to his newfound strength. As he stood, his pants too fell away from him, leaving him mostly naked save for his white shorts. These too were starting to bulge ominously, hugely. Fur spread across his expanding chest. His arms lengthened. His legs bent inward and shortened. Chuckís face broadened. His nose flattened.
Sheís turning him into an ape! Barbara sickly realized. She tried struggling again but was held by her two maids like a child held back by her parents. She could do nothing.
It was all happening so quickly. One moment she and Alicia had been up in their room, the next they were watching something . . something impossible.
Chuck indeed began looking more and more simian, though Barbara was mistaken about the exact nature of his transformation. He wasnít really being turned into an ape . . .. at least not strictly an ape. More of a crossbreed. His body began to hunch over, his arms now long enough to reach the cageís floor. His shorts ripped. Sami gasped. Her husbandís sudden erection was punching a hole through the cotton cloth. He was getting bigger in more ways than just the obvious. An old phrase dredged up from Barbaraís memories as a teenager, from the graphic romance novels she had enjoyed reading then. Hung like a horse. Only in this case, Chuck was now hung like an ape.
Viola looked on approvingly. She turned to wink at the girls. "Delicious," she said, a gleam in her eye. Sami passed out.
The older woman removed the key that had been wrapped on a light chain around her wrist and inserted it into the cageís lock. She turned it, and the cage popped open.
"Your name is . . . hmm, letís see," she said. "Ah . . . Your name is now Jojo. Come on out where I can see you, Jojo."
Jojo did, moving forward with an apelike waddle, his arms brushing the floor as he moved. Viola felt along one arm, testing the muscle, then dragged a finger along the ape- manís tight buttock. "Very good. You always get good results with dark-haired men." There was still a dazed look in his eyes. Viola noticed his problem.
"Are you distracted, Jojo dear? Ahhh. Well, we can fix that." She motioned to one of the maids. Barbara saw it was the cocktail waitress she had recognized from before. "Come over here and relieve my new pet of his . . . problem."
"Yes, maíam," the maid said politely, curtsied, and walked over to the transformed Chuck. Barbara couldnít believe her eyes. The maid went to her knees in front of the confused ape-man, positioned herself, and began running her hands slowly up and down his powerful legs. Then she bent forward and went to work.
Jojo began making strange cooing sounds and low grunts of pleasure as the maid held him in her mouth. It was a disgusting thing to watch, yet Barbara could not tear her eyes away. Her mind kept repeating the same phrase over and over: this canít be happening, this canít be happening, this canít be happening, this canít . . . .
Viola motioned again to the maids, and in response the ones holding Barbara moved her forward to their mistress. "I want you to know, Ms. Carter, Iím honestly glad that you and your family showed up here when you did. I was getting bored. Now, I can spend the rest of the year breaking in my new Jojo. Iím sure he and I will get along splendidly."
Viola looked back at him and saw that he was almost finished. "Make sure heís cleaned before youíre done with him," she said to the maid. The girl didnít speak, couldnít speak really, but did bob her head once in agreement.
Satisfied that affairs were being taken care of, Mrs. Andolin returned her attention to Barbara. "And now I think it should be your turn in the cage. My other primevals have long needed a female to occupy their time. You seem like good breeding stock."
She gestured with her chin, and the maids began dragging Barbara to the cage.