The Ragged End of Nowhere

A Novel

Roy Chaney

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

1.
“so what form of satan brings you to Las Vegas?” said the clerk behind the rental car counter at McCarran International Airport. He was an older man. Black brush bristle hair, one sleepy eyelid. A sly smile crossed his face as he tapped away at his computer terminal.
Bodo Hagen got the joke. What little there was of it. Las Vegas— gambling, drinking, hookers, dope. All the accepted vices  were  here for the asking, and a few others besides.
Hagen was back in Las Vegas. After more than ten years.
Hagen was back home.
He’d left Berlin more than twenty-four hours ago. Berlin to Paris. Paris to New York. New York to Chicago. Chicago to here. He’d got­ten a little sleep on the Paris to New York leg but not much. He was worn-out and groggy. Too many cups of burned airline coff ee had given him a headache.
Twenty minutes later Hagen drove a silver Buick LeSabre sedan off the rental agency lot, headed out into the harsh sunlight and blast fur­nace heat of the southwestern desert.
He turned left on Tropicana, then right onto Las Vegas Boulevard. Behind him was a casino hotel built in the shape of a pyramid, with a tall sphinx looming over the Strip, its eyes staring at the runways of the airport across the street. To his left stood a Statue of Liberty and a Coney Island roller coaster. Farther down the Strip he passed an Eiff el Tower, a fully rigged pirate galleon, and an Italian campanile looming over a narrow canal where gondolas floated on still, blue waters. They were all casino hotels and Hagen hadn’t seen any of them before, ex­cept as pictures in magazines or on tele vision.
The Strip had changed a lot in the last decade. The names of the casino hotels alone told the story—the Luxor, the Excalibur, New York New York, Paris Las Vegas, the Venetian, Mandalay Bay, Treasure Island. Las Vegas had been busy in recent years. Busy trying to turn itself into a billion-dollar version of someplace  else. But then the Las Vegas that people came to see had always been an illusion. It was simply the scale that had changed. The illusion had grown larger in every way and now walked with giant’s feet across the flat desert of the Las Vegas valley.
Hagen checked his watch. He had a little time. On a side street off the north end of the Strip he pulled up in front of a small bar, half sur­prised to see that it was still there. The white stucco walls  were cracked. The red script on the electric sign that hung over the oak door read high numbers club.
The barroom was cool and dark. Two men with sun-parched faces under battered cowboy hats sat at a table in the center of the barroom, silently drinking. A country-and-western song about picking up and leaving town, some town, any town, played on the jukebox.
Hagen stepped up to the bar. Ordered a short beer and a shot of bourbon.
The High Numbers Club had always been a dump. But it was a comfortable dump. The barroom was dark and the beer was cold and the clientele was usually local. And for comedy relief there  were the wedding parties that stumbled in from the Desert Rose Chapel next door, freshly pressed and starched and still giddy from a fifteen- minute, two-hundred-dollar Las Vegas wedding. Hagen had spent quite a bit of time in the High Numbers Club years ago, before he left for Berlin. His old man was sick then, sick with the cancer. Hagen didn’t hang around long enough to help bury him.
He let his brother Ronnie do that.
The bartender set the glass of beer and the shot on the counter. Hagen downed the bourbon in one splash, then went to work on the beer. A few minutes later he signaled for another round. “Another quick
one.”
The bartender set the second round in front of Hagen.
“Let me guess,” the bartender said. “You’re in a hurry to get to a wedding.”
“No,” Hagen said. “A funeral.”
Bodo Hagen had already been in Berlin for several years when he re­ceived a letter mailed from Castelnaudary, France. It was a note from Ronnie, telling Bodo that he’d just enlisted in the French Foreign Le­gion.
Bodo was surprised but not too surprised. Their father had once served in the Legion. He’d never talked about it much, but once or twice, when he was in his cups, Hagen’s father had unlocked the wooden foot­locker he kept in his closet and shown his two sons his old dress uniform cap— the képi blanc, his medals for service in Indochina, and a wooden plaque that had once hung in a Legion command post in Na San, in the mountains of northwest Vietnam, in 1953. The plaque bore the unit crestof the Deuxième Bataillon Étranger de Parachutistes. Engraved under­neath the crest was the Legion motto. Légio patria nostra—
The Legion is our country . . .
A year later the Deuxième Bataillon Étranger de Parachutistes had been destroyed at Dien Bien Phu.
Hagen’s father had been there too.
Bodo received a few more letters from Ronnie after he joined the Legion. The training was tough, his younger brother wrote him, but “sweat saves blood.” It was an old Legion maxim that Bodo had heard his father also invoke.
After initial training in Castelnaudary, Ronnie was assigned to a Legion detachment in the Comoro Islands, north of Madagascar. Later he was transferred to the Premier Régiment Étranger in Aubagne, France. Less than two weeks ago he’d gotten out of the Legion and flown home to Las Vegas.
Five days later he was dead.
Bodo Hagen got a phone call late on Friday night in Berlin from a man who had been a close friend of their father. His name was Robert Ipolito but Hagen had always known him as the Sniff. The Sniff didn’t know the details, only that Ronnie was killed out at the Hoover Dam. A gunshot to the head.
Hagen asked the Sniff if he’d take care of the funeral arrangements. On Saturday the Sniff faxed him documents to sign that allowed the Sniff to take custody of the body. On Monday the Sniff called to give him the details of the burial and the phone number of the funeral home so that Hagen could pay the tab.
On Tuesday, his affairs in order, Hagen packed a bag and caught a morning flight out of Berlin Tegel Airport for Paris, on his way back to Las Vegas to bury his only brother.
Now it was Wednesday.
The stop at the High Numbers Club had taken some of the edge off and Hagen felt better. He’d needed a drink. He’d probably want a few more before the day was over.
At the cemetery Hagen parked, pulled his gray sport coat on and walked through the front gates. Dried-out flower arrangements littered the brown grass around the grave markers. Hagen spotted a priest and two other men standing at a grave site on the far side of the cemetery.
The priest looked up from the leather-bound Bible he was reading from as Hagen approached.
“The Ronald Hagen service?” the priest said to Hagen, nodding toward the bronze-colored funerary urn that one of the other men held in his hands. The priest sounded hopeful—an audience of three was better than an audience of two. The priest wore a short-sleeve black shirt with a white priest’s collar. A crucifi x hung from his neck on a gold chain and a rosary with purple beads hung from his hand. A Catholic priest? Ronnie hadn’t been Catholic. Maybe the Sniff was Catholic. But it didn’t matter, Hagen knew.
“He was my brother,” Hagen said.
“May I offer my condolences.” The priest pulled his sunglasses down on his nose, looked over the tops of the rims at Hagen. “Would you like me to start over?”
“No, that’s all right.”
The priest returned to his Scriptures. Hagen looked across the small hole dug in the ground at the other two men. He didn’t know the short Asian man in the green suit who held the funerary urn before him as though it was a trophy he was showing off. Must’ve been a cemetery employee. Maybe this was his sole function—holding the ashes of the deceased at graveside services that no one showed up for.
But Hagen recognized the other man. A tall gaunt man in his fifties. A tan linen suit topped by an austere bolo tie. A white Stetson cowboy hat. A pair of dark aviator sunglasses hiding his eyes. His name was John McGrath and the last Hagen had heard he was a cop. A detective. Las Vegas Metro.
McGrath nodded to him.
The priest read on. Hagen watched the sweat roll down the side of the priest’s face. Must’ve been a hundred and ten degrees. The heat made Hagen feel sluggish. Hagen lowered his eyes. The freshly dug earth in the grave at his feet looked parched. The Ronald Hagen service—it was difficult to believe that Ronnie was dead. His only brother. Dead at thirty. He’d survived five years in the Legion only to come home and die.
The priest closed his Bible. McGrath coughed. The man holding the urn looked uncomfortable. The priest turned to Hagen.
“Would you like to say a few words?”
Hagen shook his head. “No.”
When the urn was in the grave the priest picked up a handful of dirt and let it fall between his fingers over the urn. Then Hagen did the same. He felt no emotion. The urn was only an urn and the ash inside wasn’t much different than the warm earth that now slipped between his fingers. The ash  wasn’t his brother.
As soon as the priest departed the Asian man handed Hagen a business card, told him to call when he was ready to make arrange­ments for a grave marker. Then the Asian man hurried off and McGrath stepped up.
“How are you, Bodo?”
“Hello, McGrath.”
“I’m sorry about Ronnie.”
“What do you know about it?”
“We can talk about it when you’re ready.”
“I’m ready now.”
“Suit yourself.”
The two men started off toward the cemetery gates. McGrath lifted the Stetson off his head, smoothed his thin gray hair back on his scalp.
Hagen said, “Are you working the case?”
“I took it over yesterday.”
“Would’ve thought you’d be retired by now.”
McGrath tucked a cigarette into the corner of his mouth, lit it. “I’m a tired old dog, Bodo, but I’ve still got a few teeth left.”
McGrath suggested that they go to the station. McGrath could show him the police file. At present there  weren’t any leads in the case. No witnesses, no hard clues other than the bullet that killed Hagen’s brother. The fact that Ronnie had only been in town five days didn’t help matters much.
“How did you hear about it?” McGrath said.
“The Sniff called me. He heard it on the news.”
McGrath nodded. He knew Robert Ipolito from the old days. He must’ve also known that the Sniff had taken custody of Ronnie’s body. “What  else did the Sniff say?”
“Nothing. I asked him to make the funeral arrangements.”
“But he didn’t show up.”
“Why did you show up, McGrath? You  weren’t close to Ronnie.”
“No, I  wasn’t. But I’d like to know who was. I was hoping that some of them might turn up for his funeral.”
“There’s only you and me.”
As they approached the cemetery gates McGrath said, “Come to think of it, you  weren’t  here for your old man’s funeral. He’s buried here in this same cemetery. Did you know that, Bodo?”
McGrath offered to show Hagen the grave. The two men followed the low rock wall that surrounded the cemetery, then veered off to­ward a small barren tree. After a few minutes of searching they found it. A small bluish metal plate lying flat on the ground.
The inscription read simply:
wolfgang karl hagen 1926– 1991.
 
Excerpted from The Ragged End of Nowhere by Roy Chaney.
Copyright © 2009 by Roy Chaney.
Published in November 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
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