Lefty Grogan was out in the cold. A few of the employees at his level in the company had been retained when they agreed to relocate. Some who cooperated in the merger had even received a golden parachute. But Lefty refused to relocate and fought the merger to the bitter end, burning all his bridges.
His severance might take care of necessities for a few years, but ultimately he knew he would have to re-enter the job market. In the meantime, he was determined to spend his life doing something he really wanted to do.
He drove his aging Toronado into a truck stop and pulled a map down from the visor. The blistering heat still hung around 118 degrees, though the sun now hung low in the western sky. He opened the map and studied the thin red line that climbed north from Baker, California, into the Mojave desert and across the Nevada line. His eyes then fell back to his presentlocation and followed a narrow blue line that trailed off the main road and emerged north of the Mojave near Furnace Creek. With a grunt of satisfaction, he folded the map and stepped out into the oppressive heat.
The truck stop was now empty except for the cashier. Lefty quickly collected the provisions he would need--a bottle of water, a six-pack of Coors, a large bottle of diet Pepsi, a package of twelve chocolate-covered donuts, a jumbo package of Twinkies, and a five-pack of Swisher Sweets split-end cigars.
"That will be thirteen ninety-five," the cashier said, smiling from behind her register.
"Thanks," Lefty answered. He knew it was all junk food, but he didn't care. He reasoned that he was in a lot better shape than were most men his age, thanks to his rigid exercise program. "How's the road north of here that's marked one seventy-six?"
"Oh, I wouldn't go that way mister. This time of year they get washouts in the creek beds. There's nothing much up there anyway, just sand and rock and a few rattlesnakes."
"Sounds interesting," Lefty mumbled, picking up his sack of provisions. Waving, he turned around and walked back to his dusty Toronado.
Lefty started the engine, popped the top off an ice cold Coors, and tore open the pack of Twinkies with his teeth. He pulled out of the truck stop, driving with one hand. As soon as he reached Route 176, he turned off onto it.
Lefty Grogan, six foot two, was a dark complexioned man with thick black hair that showed not a single strand of gray despite his fifty years. His recent divorce settlement, coinciding with the loss of his job, had left him looking tired, with dark circles under hiseyes. But he was looking forward to spending several relaxing days fishing on the American River, south of Lake Tahoe. He was to meet a group of old school friends for their twentieth annual fishing expedition, though only five of the original twelve would show up this year.
The first sixty miles of Route 176 slipped by as if he were traveling on a super highway. But when the road headed into Death Valley, it rapidly deteriorated. Soon it was little more than crushed rock, and the Tornado slowed to a crawl. The road finally ended at a washout. A flat, dry, creek bed of smooth sand stretched out ahead a quarter of a mile before the road emerged again on higher ground.
Lefty got out of his car and popped the top off another can of Coors. The desert air in the waning sunlight was still blazing hot and dry. He absorbed the beer like a sponge, popped the top off another Coors, and walked out a hundred yards or so over the sand. He decided it would handle the weight of the car.
Behind the wheel again, he began picking his way over boulder-strewn washouts that would have been a challenge to any four-wheel drive. An hour of driving brought him only twenty miles, and it became obvious that he would never make the rendezvous with the others in Carson City by midnight.
The old Toronado began to overheat, and he was forced to turn off the air conditioner. Studying the map, he determined that he was probably half the distance to the junction across the Nevada state line. By the time he reached Furnace Creek it was already dark.
Finally crossing the Nevada line, he found Route 95. It was still over ninety miles to Tonopah, the first town of any size at all. He decided to stop there for the night and continue on to Carson City in the morning.He would call Willy and say to expect him in the late morning.
The driving was easy now. Lefty's thoughts turned to Willy Hanson, his closest friend among those who would be at the annual get-together. Willy had just completed a transpacific voyage on a large ketch, and he would no doubt have some fascinating stories to tell.
When he reached Tonopah it was after eleven o'clock. It was midweek and the old mining town was very quiet. He stopped at one of the small brightly lit gambling casinos, hoping to find a phone and a place to stay.
The Old Silvermine Club was virtually empty. Two men sat at a blackjack table, across from the dealer, quietly absorbed in their game. A tall young woman sat at the bar, her long auburn hair reflecting the blinking neon overhead. Lefty walked toward the bar, but saw no bartender.
The woman turned to face him. Striking hazel eyes over high creek bones--she was a knockout, dressed in a silk sheath like she was ready to go out on the town. She might be a hooker, Lefty thought, but for a softness about her that said otherwise.
Lefty sat down near the woman. He had long ago killed his six-pack and was ready for another cold beer. "Howdy, miss. My name is Lefty Grogan."
"The dealer over there is also the bartender. I think he sees you now."
"Forgive me for asking, but are you alone in this one-horse town?" Lefty couldn't resist the question.
"Well, not exactly." She hesitated. "My business associate is the one over there trying to break the bank."
Lefty looked at the man. He wore a well-tailored dark suit. A necktie hung loosely around his neck, thewhite silk shirt unbuttoned. "You and your associate certainly bring some class to Tonopah after midnight."
The woman smiled. "Hacker's sister got married in Reno this afternoon, and we didn't bring a change of clothing with us." She glanced toward the end of the bar. "Here comes your savior."
The bartender walked behind the bar toward Lefty. He was tall, dark, and well muscled. "What'll it be, mister?"
"Make it a cold Coors, and can you tell me where I can find a telephone? Another drink for the lady, too, if she'd like one."
"Thank you. My name is Ellie-Jo, by the way. What are we celebrating?"
"I guess I'm celebrating just getting here. I took the scenic route across the desert and it took me all day and half the night." He continued to appraise Ellie-Jo as he spoke. If she had any flaws, he couldn't find them in the dim light. She was certainly a surprising sight in this dusty, old mining town.
The bartender interrupted. "The phone is down there at the end of the hall, past the last slot machines."
Lefty pushed a ten across the bar, nodded to Ellie-Jo, and walked off to find the phone. He dialed the number of the Nugget in Carson City. They connected him to Willy's room but the line was busy. He hung up and glanced over at an elderly couple seated against the far wall playing the nickel machines. A half-dozen video poker games lined the wall near him.
Lefty fished around in his pocket and came up with five quarters. He stuffed them into the slot of the nearest poker machine. Ace, king, queen, jack, and ten of clubs turned up one by one on the monitor in front of him. There were no bells, no whistles, no nothing, just the royal flush. The progressive monitorover the row of machines told him that he had won $1,910.20.
Incredible! Things like this never happened to him. He had played such machines for hours, even days, and never had collected the big payoff. Keeping his eyes on the machine in the empty casino, he once again called Willy Hanson. This time his friend answered.
"Willy Hanson here."
"Lefty Grogan here, you old son of a bitch. You're always the early bird. I got hung up on some bad roads in the desert. I'm in Tonopah and I'm shot, so I'll see you sometime tomorrow."
"Relax and get a good night's sleep, Lefty. There's no one else here either. Where's Tonopah?"
"It's about two hundred miles south of where you are. Hey, I just won nineteen hundred dollars waiting for you to answer the phone."
"Lucky Lefty! I deserve a cut then."
"The first dinner we all have in Carson City is on me." Lefty looked back toward the bar and could see Ellie-Jo sipping her beer. Then he turned to make sure the royal flush still stared at him from the poker machine.
"Look, Lefty, go to bed, get some rest, and stay out of trouble."
"I don't know, Willy. There's a gorgeous girl at the bar here named Ellie-Jo."
"Aha! Now the truth comes out; you'd rather chase some honky-tonk bimbo than see your old friends."
"Don't worry, Willy, my luck isn't that good. Her friend is all tied up at the blackjack table, some guy she calls Hacker. His sister got married in Reno today."
"Lefty, you're in Nevada. She's probably a hooker drooling over the nineteen hundred you just won."
"Hell, she don't even know about it yet. Don't worry about me. I've been from here to East St. Louis, you know."
"See you tomorrow. Stash the money in your socks, and get a good night's sleep."
Lefty hung up and saw the bartender-dealer walking toward him. "Hey, pal, I just hit the progressive royal flush."
The man looked disbelievingly at the five high clubs. "Congratulations. That hasn't been hit in a long time. I'll take care of it in a few minutes." The bartender continued on to the men's room.
Lefty sat on a stool in front of the royal flush. He wasn't about to move until he got his payoff. He glanced to his left and saw Ellie-Jo walking his way with a bottle of beer in each hand. The lights behind her were filtering though her skimpy silk skirt with devastating effect. He decided that she must be a hooker, after all.
"I brought you your beer, Lefty. Didn't want it to get warm." The royal flush on the poker machine caught her attention. The big hazel eyes widened as she read the figure.
"Nineteen hundred and ten dollars! I can't believe it! I've never hit one of those things. So quick! You haven't been gone ten minutes."
"Ellie-Jo, it cost me all of five quarters." He couldn't help but gape at Ellie-Jo's long legs. A delicate scent of perfume wafted his way as she brushed her hand through heavy auburn hair. "Ellie-Jo, you are a work of art."
"Well, thank you, Mr. Grogan! I betcha it's rare that a woman gets a compliment like that here in the Old Silvermine Club." Her lips puckered as she brought the beer bottle to her lips for a long drink. Lefty was delighted by the whole ritual.
"After the wedding in Reno this afternoon, Hacker got this great idea that we could rent a car and drive back to Vegas. He wanted to show me some wide open country. The fact that I didn't bring clothes for such an expedition didn't bother him a bit."
"Ellie-Jo, it sure doesn't bother me either. You've brought cheer to the end of my day."
She grasped his hand in both of hers. "Oh, come on now Lefty! I think the cheer comes from winning that jackpot." She dropped her hands from his and looked up at the progressive sign.
"How's your friend doing in the blackjack game?"
Ellie-Jo shrugged. "He's an addict. You never know whether it's going to be ten minutes or ten hours."
"Well, that's lucky for me." Lefty looked up to see a man he hadn't noticed before coming toward them.
"Hello, sir. I'm the night cashier. I'm really sorry about this, but you're going to have to take all of this in tens and twenties. That okay?"
"Sure, that's fine with me." The slightly built man wore a green eyeshade and seemed a bit nervous as he started to count out the money. Lefty watched him. When it was handed over, Lefty did not recount it but stuffed it into his two side pockets.
"This machine hasn't been hit in weeks. You're a lucky man, sir." The cashier handed him five quarters and told him to play off the winner. The play brought nothing.
Lefty walked back to the bar with Ellie-Jo. They say down next to each other. "Are you staying in Tonopah tonight?" he asked.
"No, Hacker will probably want to drive on through to Vegas, even though we won't get there til daylight."
"Too bad. I'm going in the opposite direction. I was going to stay here overnight, but now I feel completelyinvigorated. I guess I'll drive on to Carson City tonight."
Ellie-Jo brightened with a thought. "About thirty miles back, we passed a motel that looked pretty decent. You might check that out."
"Thanks, I'll take a look."
"Since you are leaving," Ellie-Jo said quietly, leaning toward Lefty slightly, "there is one thing you could do for me."
"You name it, Ellie-Jo," Lefty replied, looking down at her beautiful crossed legs.
"Hacker is playing against the dealer. The other man is just watching. That's the way he likes to play. If you were to sit down and play for a few hands, he'd get up and we'd be off to Vegas."
Lefty frowned. He had really never won much at blackjack. In fact, he disliked the game. He looked at Ellie-Jo. She scribbled something on a cocktail napkin and then passed it to him. It was a phone number.
"Lefty, whenever you are in Vegas, please call. Okay?"
"Hell, Ellie-Jo, I'll make a special trip." He watched with great pleasure as she uncrossed her legs. "Ellie-Jo, I'd be happy to help you out."
Lefty sauntered over to the blackjack table and took a seat. Hacker scowled. Lefty shoved two hundred dollars at the dealer and asked for change in twenty-five dollar chips.
He played a hundred on the first hand and doubled down on an eight and a three. The next card was a ten. He let the four hundred ride on the next hand, was dealt a blackjack, and was now looking at a thousand. Lefty decided it was indeed his day. Bravely, he made a motion to let the thousand ride.
The dealer reached for a sign at the corner of the table and tapped on it. It read Five Hundred DollarLimit. Lefty withdrew the thousand and pushed out a twenty-five dollar chip for his bet.
His fast good fortune completely unnerved Hacker. Grimacing at Lefty, he rose from the table and made his way toward the cage to cash out.
Ellie-Jo was watching from the bar. She looked right at Lefty and gave him a big thumbs-up sign and said a silent thank you with those beautiful lips. Lefty felt like a big-time operator.