“The greatest tragedy is not the brutality of the evil people, but rather the silence of the good people.” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
‘The Ultra-Luxe. Live life in the lap of Luxury.’ That’s what they said on the radio anyway. Up and down The Strip all day, in the blisteringly low, low temperature of a hundred and six degrees, that’s all you heard on a seemingly constant loop, broken up by a bit of Dino. Some overpaid disc jockey advertising for a place he’d never been, nor had any intention of going. Legate Lanius would try going his shift without tuning in, but that just made walking down The Strip eating a smoked ham and provolone cheese sandwich that much more depressing. From first hand experience, Lanius had found that sitting in the lap of luxury wasn’t all that different from anywhere else. The only difference was the amount of contempt in people’s eyes as they walked past you.
The Strip wasn’t what it once was, and Legate Lanius couldn't help but feel like it was partially his fault. He’d dreamed the same dream, and climbed the same mountain top as the newly minted Don Gustavo. The idea of taking The Strip back from the other families had sounded grand at first, because naturally in that naively premature state Lanius had been under the impression that Gustavo would run the place better. Only better meant the exact same but with a Bull on all the dollar bills instead of a Bear. It was getting especially hard to maintain the ‘City of Sin’ precedent when the man running the place had any junkies, whores, or fiends he found nailed to a cross just outside the city limits.
Without vice, Lanius pondered, what did they have that encouraged travelers to stay and not just keep heading west? Turns out, as the kickback started grinding down, not much. Joy was a free falling commodity on The Strip; Lanius figured they’d make more money just by bottling the stuff up and selling it like vitamins.
The ultimate fate of The Strip however, wasn’t the only question that unnerved Lanius, though it was the only one he could stomach trying to answer. The other’s swerving down the lane of: “Are you still a good person?” and “How many more mile markers until you reach Hell?”
Passing Boulevard station, Lanius could make out the towering geyser of champagne flavored vanity that stood erected in front of The Ultra Luxe. Stepping down the cobblestone steps and into the courtyard, Lanius passed the big sign in front of the geyser that read in bright, gold, neon letters: The Ultra Luxe; as if it could be mistaken for the Vatican by tourists.
Beneath the geyser was a small pond, and Lanius took to staring into it for a brief moment of sobering clarity. In his reflection, he saw a giant. A giant in a dark blue, gold buttoned down police man’s uniform that looked like it came out of nineteen sixties London, England. By his side was a polished, wooden nightstick; his hands were covered by tight white gloves, to keep them clean. Atop his head was a cap adorned with a Bull, as if anyone needed more of a reminder as to who he worked for.
What scared Lanius most about this giant, besides the fact that it possessed the same borderline lifeless scarlet eyes that he did, was the mask that it wore. The giant looked like a clown without any makeup; like a man on psychedelics that just had white tar poured on his face and let it cool and be molded down and whittled by a deranged Michelangelo knockoff, until it looked like he had a severe case of white face. Than there was that hideously contorted smile. It wasn’t even supposed to look human, Lanius though on reflection, finally ending the charade that him and the giant were somehow in different plains of existence.
People were scared of him. They avoided his gaze, side stepped out of his way on the street, sometimes into oncoming traffic. So, Lanius thought, This is what it feels like.
As a pair of kids mad dashed across the clean, mist dipped grass towards the geyser, their parents chasing them like Wile E, coyote and the Road Runner, Lanius walked up the lambent white staircase and through the revolving door to the lobby.
Striding around the circularly fashioned room, Lanius passed by an assortment of blackjack tables and slot machines; vibrant plant life encompassing every color visible to man’s eye like someone had just dumped acid on the Botanical Gardens; and a bar stocked full of pesticide for your liver. Looking up Lanius could see the purple streaks of dusk being filtered through the stained glass dome that was the lobby’s ceiling.
All around Lanius, guests at The Ultra Luxe were bustling around with pounds of arachnid themed chips practically spilling out of their pockets. It drew concern from Lanius, as the more money they won, the more money he lost.
Beyond the lobby Lanius passed down several sickeningly brightly lit halls adorned with a sharp amethyst wallpaper, and a slick, deep red African marble.
The whole place gave Lanius a migraine the size of Zion, and he could only imagine the lawsuit waiting to happen the second someone with epilepsy walked through the front door. It was as if overnight someone had just discovered that colors other than black and white existed, and demanded that everything be changed so that not a single, minuscule speck of anything that didn’t’ make your eyes bleed be ripped off the walls and thrown into a big fire. To call it a rebranding would have been a disservice. The place looked like a chocolate factory, never mind a casino.
It was this kind of needless over extravagance that made Lanius think there were just some people in the world that didn't deserve financial independence. The kinds of people that absolutely must have their dinner served off a gold plate washed in the blood of a virgin; or the ones who simply could not live without a scarf made from the still breathing backs of baby panthers. Lanius was of the mindset that, while the finer things in life certainly weren't free-not at first anyway-they shouldn't cost more zeros than there existed letters in the alphabet.
It was like the domino theory, once someone was handed a blank check by a Pegasus grazing in the hand of a wistfully benevolent God, they started spending and didn’t stop until their benefactor went broke or their finger tips snapped off, and even than they might just super glue them back on. In this case the former was the more liable outcome, in which case flamboyancy wouldn't account for much when there were two nails jammed through your wrists and the sun was charring your skin up nice and crispy for the vultures.
Entering The Gourmand, the pinnacle fine dining experience The Ultra Luxe boasted, Lanius could see the tables were just being set for seven o’ clock dinner. Waiters were mechanically setting the tables with knives, forks, spoons, and china so delicate it probably shouldn’t have even carried a salad. The click clack of their dress shoes didn’t cease or falter once as Lanius made his way back to the Kitchen.
Unison like that, Lanius figured, took months if not years to master. Working in perfect harmony, like a blind symphony. It was refreshing to not see a single weak link holding the rest back from greatness. Even if they were just setting tables, someone needed this job to feed their kids.
Within the kitchen were two cooks taking hacksaws to a slab of beef so thick it looked like it came from a cow that weighed four tons. Overhead smooth jazz played; the trumpet and the bassoon counteracting the stiff grunts of the butchers and the heavy cracks of their saws when they reached bone. The chefs weren’t even breaking the slightest sweat.
Descending a flight of cool, green tiled stairs, Lanius found himself in the heart of the kitchen. The jazz had grown louder, and the culinary masterminds at large were humming along in tandem as they chopped carrots and peeled onions. It was like being in Sicily, again.
The smell of a fine tuned and well oiled kitchen was intoxicating. Dozens of aromas all blending together to form one large stew that Lanius could practically taste on the tip of his tongue.
Winding through the kitchen, as the tang of oranges being squeezed filled his nostrils, and the sizzle of dough being fried flanked his ears, Lanius couldn't help but notice the elongated streak of something crimson on the floor that lead into the meat locker.
As the air grew colder around Lanius, tightening it’s grip around his throat, the smell of freshly plucked garlic and the sound of grated cheese began to fade.
Legate Lanius had seen much in his albeit short life. At only thirty seven years of age, he knew well enough that whatever, or more appropriately whoever, was in that meat locker, had about the same average life expectancy of a baby giraffe in a crocodile enclosure.
A voice very far back in the lower recesses of Lanius’s mind told him to just walk away. If he did, life would go on perfectly fine. It would just be another normal night. He would go and collect the kickback from Mr. Nancy, the animated new owner in charge of The Ultra Luxe who was just slightly bordering cartoonish, and than walk back across the street to the Lucky 38 and go to bed.
Things didn’t have to get more complicated than that. It wasn’t his problem, though that was a poor excuse to begin with, and the longer he told himself that, the longer he would be left wondering just what his problems actually were than. If not this direct byproduct of the incessant, omnipotent American dream, what was he accountable for? Was he accountable for the poor bastards rotting away on bit’s of wood out in the middle of the Mojave, where no one could hear their soft, desperate cries for a single drop of dirty, lead ridden water? Or, perhaps, he was accountable for Nero, the former manager of Gomorrah, another once thriving establishment on The Strip. Was he accountable for the fact that as the Frenchman, Le Quack, beat the poor Greek’s head in with a croquet mallet he just stood by and watched? Though, at the same time, surely this couldn't all be on him. There were dozens of other people there, all giving Le Quack his audience.
Why than, did it all fall on him to do something? Lanius was frustrated with his own dueling mortality.
Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously. On one shoulder was the angel, let’s call it: Grace. On the other shoulder was the devil, let’s call it: Caesar. Grace would argue that the entity in the meat locker is undeniably someone’s child, and that no one else was coming along to lend a helping hand, clearly. Caesar meanwhile, would argue that the entity probably deserved it, and that this was how justice was handled out in the Mojave. Who was Lanius to judge what was right and what was wrong? As so often is the case, there is no difference between what is right and what is necessary. Caesar would lastly point out that, were Lanius any better of a person, he wouldn’t even be in The Ultra Luxe’s kitchen in the first place.
To which Grace would retort that if he truly were a cruel, heartless sadist, there would have been no debate in the first place.
Seeing Grace’s point, and not hearing more than derogatory grumbles from Caesar, Lanius begrudgingly stepped forward and entered the frigid meat locker.
Along the many shelves lining the meat locker were cuts of over a dozen indistinguishable, at least to Lanius’s eyes, meats coated in icicles. Every breath Lanius drew sent a sharp sting down to his lungs; each a pleasant reminder that he could only blame his own free will for getting him into this situation in the first place, lest he try to shift the blame to another conveniently absent entity: namely someone with enough doctorates to tell him he was an idiot without seeming too smug.
Lanius had only ever found himself within the confines of a meat locker once before, and it, like all places that harbored the cold, never received him with a fruit basket and a bottle of scotch. A coat of dread began to don over Lanius, fitting snuggly around him like a cozy blanket from when he was a child. It all did well to assure him that, while no doubt what he was about to glimpse would be unpleasant, it would be familiar. Lanius couldn't conceive a word to describe just how much he hated that familiarity.
Each step Lanius took further into the dark, gelid abyss felt like a mile away from the rest of civilization. The smell of the roast pork and the sound of the bass guitar overhead being but a distant and distorted memory from a seemingly long, long time ago.
Perhaps back to a time before The Strip, and before meeting Gustavo. Lanius had been struggling harder and harder to remember what that was like, what normalcy felt like. It seemed like such an abstract and foreign concept to him now. What even was normal anyhow? Was it just what we perceived our everyday monotonous routine as? Or was it more layered than that? Lanius couldn’t for the life of him even remember what he used to look like. How did he keep his hair? He couldn't have imagined he’d kept it long, but, maybe he had, he honestly couldn't remember. That terrified him. Not remembering himself.
Lanius contemplated turning back, after all, he hadn't seen anything yet. Usually you saw something by now. Perhaps his imagination had been playing tricks on him all along. Perhaps he was just succumbing to a paranoia induced stroke. Perhaps he’d just finally lost his mind. Though Lanius figured he wasn't that lucky, he was never that lucky. Lanius assumed that he had such bad luck, were he ever to meet a Leprechaun, it would drop dead at the sight of him. Which would only add another ten pound weight on his conscious.
Passing in between two shelves stacked with lamb, or at least what he assumed was lamb from the looks of it, Lanius rounded a corner.
There was a blinding white light overhead coming from a fixture that buzzed with the same irritating hum as one of those electric machines used to zap flies; beneath it was a stern metal chair.
When Lanius had first started working for Gustavo, it was out of a garbage dump in Barclay Mills. They’d settled in Barclay, not for it’s rustic hometown American atmosphere, as the signs put it, but rather because they were late to the party and all the best spots were already taken. These imperialist types not being exactly keen on sharing, if they even knew what the word meant, which Lanius went out on limb to assume they didn’t.
Delray Hollow was swarming with Cubans, and Gustavo wasn't fond of smoking cigars while having revoltingly serious conversations about just the right way to make communism work. River Row was stockpiling blonde haired, blue eyed Germans like they’d just got word to invade Poland again. Pointe Verdun was overrun with the Irish, and with the IRA going around setting everyone’s car on fire and calling them a ‘fag’ Gustavo suggested looking elsewhere. Downtown had a wasp infestation the likes of which made even Lanius feel out of place. Tickfaw Harbor was occupied by Persians, who weren't very forthcoming with a reason for being so far west other than really long, jagged knives about five feet thick. The Southdown’s were run by men who would have given fascist Italy a run for their money by the way of making every last one of their constituents want to stone them to death. The French Ward was steaming with, well, the French, ironically. Lastly was Frisco Fields, a part of town where the confederate flag was riveted to every lamppost, mailbox, and newborn baby in sight. Which left Barclay Mills as their only recourse.
The dump was inconspicuous enough that they never got much foot traffic running through there, bar the occasional garbage man come to spray the trucks down with just around nineteen gallons of bleach. The place didn't smell great, but no one had expected it too. The dump worked, at first anyway.
One day, in the dead middle of July, Lanius had been working late at the dump. He had been crunching the numbers, trying to see how many months it would take to propose buying out the Persians and not get gut open throat to taint. As he took a reprieve to rest his eyes, Lanius noticed a dim light out in the middle of the sea of infinite trash that caught his attention. Moving to the window, Lanius squinted, just barely making out what he believed to be several robed men huddled around a burning cross. One of the men held up a large white piece of cardboard. Spray painted in bold, capital red letters was the message: ‘NIGGERS DON’T BELONG HERE!’
At the hour of two in the morning, Lanius assumed the robed men had mistaken him for Gustavo. Lanius, noticing more and more of these robed men approaching from the north, hastily grabbed a scoped Barrett M82 .50 caliber sniper rifle from the arms locker and took aim.
Just as Lanius had lined up his sights, not quite sure what his plan of attack was, he stopped. Just beside the man holding the sign, was a little girl, no more than six. Lanius felt a piece of him, a part of the whole that still held out hope for humanity, drift away on a shooting star. Lanius dropped his rifle to the floor, and went back to work. When he looked back out the window forty minutes later, the robed men were gone. The cross still burned brightly.
As Lanius’s fingers began to go numb, his mouth arid enough to breed cacti, he found himself in a perplexed state of relief.
Strapped to the stern metal chair was a man dressed up in pure white bed sheets; a blood drop cross patched over his heart.
His head was thrown back and his mouth had been pried open with considerable strength, both were covered in dried up blood that the frost had begun to take a liking to. Lanius had bared witness to this sight before, the last time he was in a meat locker. The only thing missing was the sound of a power drill and classical Russian ballet music. Lanius didn’t need to check to know that every single one of the Klansman’s teeth had been drilled out, albeit crudely, as bit’s of the tooth’s root were still vaguely visible beneath his swollen, puffy gums; like someone had taken a hedge trimmer to them and than shoved an entire chapel’s worth of glass down his throat. The Klansman’s tongue had been severed, with half stuffed in the back of his mouth and the other half in his bloody lap. It was a sloppy job, not done by a professional. It had no doubt gone on for far too long, and the Klansman had probably died from shock long before the driller had finished.
The mere fact that Lanius was able to critique his current predicaments, and that it came as a relief to have seen something so vile before, unnerved him. He had become accustomed to this. Wanton torture for the sake of spreading fear. Nothing stood to be gained by any of it. There was no information to be learned. Fear was power, and people would never be afraid of you, Lanius supposed, if you didn't give them reason. To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless. Lanius knew that what had happened to the Klansman, however heinous, had been harmless in nature.
Caesar would look upon this pathetic excuse of a hate monger and laugh; he would argue that this was mercy compared to what Gustavo would have done. Who knew how many lives this filth had ruined before finding himself in his current predicament? How many people had he drove out of their homes? How many had he watched get beaten and lynched? A person filled with that much unfounded hatred, in Caesar’s eyes, lost the basic human rights afforded to the rest of the sane and tolerant masses.
Meanwhile Grace would cover her face with disgust. Violence only begets more violence, she would argue. Violence never solved anything worthwhile, all violence ever did was leave more people alone in the world. More orphaned children and widows than she could bare to contemplate. Whatever past transgressions the man had committed, he didn't deserve to die like a dog. Whatever he preached, Grace stood firmly by the fact that he was still a human being, and no human being deserved to be subjected to this, pointlessness.
Lanius found himself being pushed closer and closer off the cliff of realizing that he didn’t have the stomach for all of this brutality. Lanius knew that when you lost the will to see the wicked suffer, you no longer had any place working for the Devil. That terrified Lanius, knowing all to well what happened to those that crossed Gustavo, but the corroded pit at the bottom of his stomach where all his pent up regret and doubt went to, wouldn't allow for him to swallow his revulsion any longer. The question Lanius found himself asking more and more, was: ‘Is all this really necessary? Is nailing a crack addict to a cross really a suitable punishment, when your the one supplying the crack? Is drilling a Klansman’s teeth out really necessary, when it accomplishes absolutely nothing? Lanius knew questions like that were dangerous, more so than a boa constrictor eighteen feet long going on it’s third day of fasting.
Lanius just couldn't hold it in any longer. Existence had become nauseating. There was a certain sense of misery waking up every morning and having to ask yourself: How many people will I see die today? How will they die? Do they deserve to die? Can you even remember why you came here? Lanius couldn't remember. He couldn't remember why he’d ever come to The Strip, other than for the promise of personal profit. That simply wouldn't justify it any longer; all the money Lanius could ever dream of wasn't worth it, at least not anymore.
Lanius knew it was time for him to wake up. To get off The Strip before it buried him alive, or worse. He turned around and made his way out of the meat locker.
That morning, after the Southern Union had burned a cross in the dump, when Gustavo had showed up, he wasn't even mad. In fact, Gustavo had been delighted. “They finally choose to show us their true colors,” he had said, “Fantastic!, it took them long enough.” Lanius had never understood why. Though over time, he had surmised that it was quiet difficult to justify going to war against an enemy that had not provoked you, and Lanius could think of no better provocation than a cross burning on your front lawn. Gustavo had trekked across the sea of infinite trash and picked up the cross, holding it above his head like the Ten Commandments were written on it, “TODAY,” he declared, “THE UNION. WILL. FALL!” Lanius had cheered.
Outside the meat locker were four Paddy-Whacker’s, Mr Nancy’s enforcers. A Paddy-Whacker was typically a derogatory term used when referring to the Irish, as they were often found on the wrong side of the law in the New World, thus, the other side of a Paddy-Whacker. In this case it was quite the opposite. Mr. Nancy’s Paddy-Whacker’s were the law, and it changed everyday.
Each Paddy-Whacker was wearing a velvet, corduroy suit, and a matching fedora. At their sides were billy clubs, typically reserved for when a guest was caught cheating at cards. Though a casino enforcer really didn’t need a reason as specific as that to break someone's legs. Anything The House didn’t like, would not go unpunished. Each casino was like a sovereign nation, with it’s own rules, and it’s own consequences for breaking them.
Lanius didn't even need to make a fuss, nor ask the Paddy-Whacker’s who had summoned him. He merely followed them back out through the kitchen, the sweet smell of Creme Brûlée and the low pitter patter of the drums and sharp whistle of the trombone doing little to dissuade Lanius from dreading every second he knew Mr. Nancy would take getting to his point.
Out in the dining hall the tables had all been set, though not a single soul was present eating. The Paddy-Whacker’s sat Lanius down in a table at the far east end of the hall, and left him there, alone. Above his table was a mural of the last supper, though the head of Jesus Christ had been crudely slashed out, and the word Penniless had been etched on his forehead.
“Well!,” a high pitched southern accent remarked from behind Lanius to the sound of another sharp wale from the trombone, followed by a waltz along the piano keys. “My oh my,” Lanius turned to see Mr. Nancy strut down the dining hall, a hand admiringly clutching his heart, “The Monster of the East!, in the flesh! I. Am. Honored. That you!,” Nancy extended his index finger, “Have decided to aggrandize my brand new establishment with your,” Nancy smelled the air, like Lanius radiated Lilac gooseberries, “Illustrious presence.”
Mr. Nancy sat across from Lanius, elegantly sweeping up his napkin and placing it on his lap. Nancy grinned from ear to ear, two stainless rows of white teeth simmering under the candlelight that lit the room from on high; his eyes encapsulated a wildfire, spread out across the entire southern Unites States.
Nancy had long side burns running along the outskirts of his cheeks; his hair shaved all but down the middle of his head, where his hair became loose and fluffy, necessitating it be slicked back or fear obscuring his vision. His left leg crossed over his right, showing off a pair of crisp, brown leather shoes that looked like they were ripped straight from the Kongo. He intertwined his hands, a brass spade on his left middle finger, a ruby and a golden spider on his right and left little finger’s, respectively.
Made from what looked to be the most expensive silk ever devised by man, Mr. Nancy was clad in a purple, green, and red checkered suit, with a pink pocket square; purple tie, and a white and blue undershirt with the collar turned up.
Lanius could barely keep his eyes from glazing over, “You… um, have the… full amount we discussed?”
Nancy laughed, clapping his hands together and slapping his knee in a show of overzealous mirth. “Why of course! First month on the job, and you think I’d be short?! Ha, ha. That’s funny, your a funny man monster.” Nancy paused, putting a hand to his chin, studying Lanius with ferocious tenacity, “Tell me something monster, humor me, there is an… air, about you. You seem… distraught. Why?”
Lanius could think of no worldly way to possibly answer that question. He was unable to tell whether or not Nancy was probing him about the meat locker, or if he actually cared. Either way, Nancy wasn't the type to favor dissent. “It’s nothing,” he shrugged, “Just a scrap with The French, that’s all.”
Nancy leaned over the table, resting his head atop the bridge of his hands. What Lanius had said about the French wasn’t entirely a lie, Le Quack was always campaigning for something, and it was never anything Gustavo was prepared to give him. This time it had been a Zeppelin, last time it had been a battleship. Though where, in the middle of a desert, he would have any use for a battleship, was undisclosed information.
“Oh, well,” Nancy nodded appreciatively, “Thank you, for the hon-es-ty! Honesty is such a… rare, commodity these days. Everyone think’s it’s easier to lie. To each other, to themselves. It’s not. Honesty always sounds better than a lie, like the whisper’s of an angel, letting you know, just how fucked!, the world is. And it. Is. Fucked. I know honesty can hurt monster, but lies, lies are just a cleaner form of suicide.”
Lanius squirmed a bit in his seat. Nancy was no fool, he’d give him that, but what his game was, Lanius could not discern, though he supposed it couldn't hurt to go along with the show.
A waiter than came over with two sparkling glasses and a bottle of white German wine. “…But!,” Nancy continued after tasting the wine, smacking his lips, and giving the waiter the all clear to continue pouring, lest his guest drink swill, “I am, so, terribly, afraid, that there is, quite frankly, nothing, nobody, can do, about that.” The waiter departed and Nancy held up his glass to toast. Lanius clinked their glasses together. The wine tasted like it’d just been thawed from a decade’s worth of hibernation under the Arctic. “…The Frenchman,” Nancy continued, “He is, a strange creature. A man of boundless cruelty,” he drank from his glass and sighed, “Not that you kids these days know what the fuck cruelty is. Oh no,” Nancy snarled, “You know nothing of true cruelty. Not a damn thing.” He grimaced, taking a large swig of his wine and placing the glass back down on the table half empty, “…Though, to call the Frenchman a sadist would be, improper. He is not vi-o-lent, for the sake of vi-o-lence. Le Quack is violent, because, as I’m sure you are well aware, Violence! Get's. Shit. Done. None of this, pacifist, nonviolence bullshit. Those who are, incapable!, of violence, are not brave-they ain’t on no higher ground. They. Are. WEAK!, gettin’ beat to death with a nine iron on that, golden perch of moral superiority they think they on. It’s just so, tasteless.”
Lanius cleared his throat, the fine line between who Mr. Nancy was talking about beginning to blur. “I’m just not sure, when he says he want’s a Zeppelin, what he plans to use it for. Inclining to believe him is, like trusting a crying crocodile.”
Mr. Nancy tapped his head with his forefinger, “You don’t trust the man, that’s smart. You should never put your faith in blind men, they are destined to lead you astray. Le Quack, The French,” his voice cracked with a hint of disdain, “The devil in all but name and salary. ‘Oh no please masa, when you see me do have some courtesy masa. Have some sympathy, oh yes!, have some motherfucking taste, oh yes!,” Mr. Nancy chuckled, “It’s a little to late for that. Taste has become a matter of, objectivity. Take the room we are sitting in.” Mr. Nancy held up the dining hall in his hands, “Before me, well, these motherfuckers were eating some strange fucking fruit! Now, it’s got,” his eyes went wide, “Flair! I do so enjoy some, flair. Don’t you monster? How boring would life be without a little, excitement, every now and than?”
Lanius knew the only correct answer would be to say how fun and entertaining it is to give Klansman root canals. However, he just couldn't bring himself to do it. He couldn't bring himself to put on a big, faux smile and pretend to take pleasure in the pain and suffering of other’s, just because you could; just because everyone was too scared to stop you, or tell you that what you were doing wasn't just wrong, but in any armed conflict would be considered a war crime.
“Is that what drilling the man’s teeth out was, flair?”
Mr. Nancy sat back in his chair, arms crossed in triumphant victory at finally dropping the facade, and revealing the wolf in sheep’s clothing. “Oh please, monster, spare me the self righteousness. What’s the alternative? In case you’ve for’gott’en, we are in the CITY OF SIN! We ain't in no fucking church boy! This ain't no Sunday fucking mass! These,” Nancy stood and pulled a Ruler SR1911 chrome black pistol out of his back pocket and pointed it at Lanius’s head, “Aren’t instruments of peace!, they don't shoot flowers and sunshine!, they shoot lead motherfucker! We are not working out of a goddamn red cross chapter! Stalin didn't run the fucking lollipop guild! Kindness got us absolutely fucking nowhere! And it was NOT!, FOR A LACK!, OF TRYING! But what I have found, is that hatred, is a unifying force that no amount of love and friendship can break. Kindness is an uphill battle of endless attrition, one that neither of US can win. And don't you dare, sit there and act like you don't know what I’m saying is true.”
Mr. Nancy holstered his pistol and straightened out his suit; sitting back down and nonchalantly taking a sip of his wine.
“I’ve never purported to advocate for this brand of unbridled brutality,” Lanius retorted, “Things never used to be like this. It all used to mean something. The Strip used to mean something.”
Mr. Nancy put his hand up in indignation, “First things first. Let's talk about all this, ‘unbridled brutality.’ I don't ever, remember seeing you raise a finger against ANY of it! You just stood by and watched, and sulked, you never said, or did, a goddamn thing to stop any of it! You see that, that brother, is your fucking problem. Your taking all of this too fucking personally! Life isn't about you! You want to talk about meaning. The meaning ain't never changed. It has, and it always be, about, making money. What Gus is doin’, it’s not about his unwavering responsibility to put food on your plate. Motherfucker wants to get rich! All these casino’s, just what the fuck do you think they do? Money, they make money. You livin’ in a nice house, wearin’ nice clothes, eatin’ nice food, that is a bonus, it was not ever, a part, of the bargain.”
Mr. Nancy finished his glass of wine, running his tongue over his chapped lips, “Now, I know you didn't ask for it, but let me give you some of my patent free advice. Shut. Your. Fucking. Mouth. Be content, knowing that you have everything, that every man that’s ever walked his two feet on this rancid fucking earth could ever dream of desiring for. Be content, knowing that you are one of the most privileged motherfucker’s to ever breath the oxygen in our putrid fucking atmosphere. Be content!, knowing that as long as you stay in the Don’s good graces, you will be, rewarded. But!, do not think, for one goddamn minute, that you are untouchable. Cause if I find out, that you’ve been running your fucking mouth, boy, there won't be a thing anyone can do to stop YOU!, from winding up in that meat locker.”
Mr. Nancy reached across the table and finished Lanius’s glass of wine, “You might not like being a bystander, but, allow me to, en-lighten you: those motherfucker’s have very, long, life expectancies.”
He stood, taking a little red box wrapped in a neat gold bow out of his suit pocket and handing it to Lanius. “Go on, take it. A gift for the object of your undying affection. I hear she likes the color purple, she’s got good taste.”
Lanius hesitantly took the box, assuming that had Nancy any intention of seeing him drop dead, he would have just shot him when he had the chance.
Mr. Nancy snapped his fingers and had a suitcase brought out to him by one of the Paddy-Whackers. “Here, our agreed upon sum, five hundred large. Make sure Gustavo get’s every last penny.” Lanius took it from him, mildly amused that Nancy thought he would be stupid enough to rob Gustavo, or that he needed five hundred grand in the first place.
As Lanius serpentined in between the uniform tables and chairs of the Gourmand, Mr. Nancy cackled, calling out to him, “The time’s monster, Whoo! They are a changin’! History is being written- right here!, right now! Make sure your on the right side of it!, Or be declared in damnatio memoriae!”
From a time before The Strip, Lanius and Gustavo had been driving from Delray Hollow to Barclay. On the side of the road was a young couple and their two boys. The father had waved them down and beseeched them for assistance in restoring their car to drivable condition. Gustavo had insisted they comply, making pleasant and idle conversation while Lanius went to work on the engine. Within minutes the car was made road worthy, and when the mother went to give Gustavo a hundred dollar bill, he had declined. The mother thought this meant he wanted more, so she took out another fifty. Gustavo turned that down as well, stating that for the repairs, he would accept no money. Instead, he wanted the family to remember this kindness, and bestow it upon someone else worthy of it in the future.
As the family had drove off, Gustavo had waved and smiled merrily. Once they had got back in the car, Lanius commended Gustavo, as he himself would have absentmindedly just taken the cash. Gustavo had burst out laughing, something he rarely did, and it wasn't brought on by amusement with Lanius’s sentiment. Rather, when Gustavo had composed himself, he had said: “Lanius, you do me a great disservice. If you have a gun, you can rob a bank. But if you have a bank, you can rob anyone.”
At that precise moment in time, Lanius didn't know why he’d felt so at ease. He just did, so he drove on. Never once second guessing the man siting next to him. Never once questioning a thing that he did. Lanius had taken every word that Gustavo said as Gospel.
Now Lanius knew all too well, all too late, what a false Shepard he’d been following, slowly into the gates of hell.
The Strip wasn’t what it once was. When Lanius had first glimpsed it, walking down the Lonesome Road from Boulder City, his mind ached with the possibilities that could await him inside. The future had held a realm of infinite possibilities. Two remained. Stay, and live out the rest of his day’s with a constant reminder on every street corner about the cruelty he’d subjected onto other’s; or leave, and become vilified by The Legion.
Neither sounded all too preferable over the other, and either way Lanius knew that eternal damnation was waiting for him at the end of the Lonesome Road, so it didn't so much matter how he got there, only how soon.
Walking past The Tops casino, Lanius felt a catch in his throat, remembering all too vividly how petty their actions had been. Gustavo held onto grudges like they were rabbit’s feet; perhaps understanding the concept of empathy, but never fully internalizing it. He supposed Nancy had been right about that, Gustavo couldn't care less whether he ate out of a five star restaurant or the trash; whether he wore fancy suits or rags; whether he lived out of a paper box or a mansion. None of it was consequential to him.
Next Lanius passed by Gomorrah, and Mr. Nancy couldn't have been more wrong about Le quack if he’d called him a humanitarian. The only reason Le Quack woke up in the morning was to crack someone’s skull open on the concrete. There had perhaps been a time when Le Quack’s special brand of barbarism was, at the very least, tolerable. That time had long passed. Now instead of putting the rabid dog down, Gustavo lengthened it’s leash and cried heresy every time someone got their hand bit off, claiming it was all painstakingly harmless.
Lanius still vaguely remembered The Strip’s previous de facto leader, they called him The House, and Gustavo had adopted the name out of spite. House had run The Strip for decades like a pristine clock. It had never looked so difficult from the outside; twist a few gears, polish a few knobs, dust for cobwebs once or twice a year. How hard could it really be?, Lanius had thought. Gustavo was a remarkable business man, and surely he could keep a simple clock running.
Though perhaps he’d been too premature to judge the nature of the world while still being but a barely materialized embryo within his mother’s womb. In retrospect, Lanius concluded that The Strip was destined to fail. It was almost as inevitable, if not more so, than the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.
Though as Lanius came to this realization, he couldn't help but immediately begin pondering who would wind up taking the fall for it all. It certainly wouldn't be Gustavo. Maybe it would be Le Quack. Maybe it would be Nancy. Maybe it would be him. Whoever it was wouldn't change the fact that come the next sit down, there would be quite a few smug faces around the table, all glaring at Gustavo with unparalleled derision.
Upon finally arriving at the Lucky 38, Lanius stood for a long moment just staring up at the tacky, red and black neon sign that hung above the entrance like a parasitical viper, just waiting for someone like him to walk under it. As he did, the viper would swing down and sink it’s two front teeth into his back. Lanius would trudge through the casino’s main floor, the snake draining every last bit of life from his body, until he dropped dead at the base of a poker table. No one would even notice.
However, when Lanius did finally muster up enough willpower to enter the Lucky 38, no cosmic anvils descended from on high, as Lanius had no more life left to give to the preverbal snake.
By comparison to Mr. Nancy's acid trip though wonderland, the Lucky 38 was relatively bland. Nothing stood outright to bring offense to the ocular senses, and were it not for the man rhythmically tapping his fingers in the high castle, the Lucky 38 would be the safest place on the entire Strip.
At the hour of a quarter past eight, the Lucky 38 was firing on all cylinders. Guests bustled around cheering at the roulette table and booing at the blackjack table; drinking from tall frothy mugs fashioned with tiny little orange umbrellas for dexterity.
Lanius had never quite understood the fascination with gambling, which given where he worked was probably a bit disingenuous. Lanius was well aware of why people gambled, he just never understood why they were so passive aggressive about it. People gambled, not because of the excitement of taking a risk and betting your daughter’s entire college fund on black seventeen, but because the concept of debt was irresistibly appealing. Debt was all some people had. At least, Lanius assumed it had to be, otherwise an extreme allergy to maintaining some small semblance of wealth was the only alternative.
Lanius had never seen a man win anything more than a hundred dollars and not immediately lose it. A tournament had once been held at the Lucky 38. Some prepubescent kid, probably fresh out of college, had won almost three hundred thousand dollars. Lanius had wanted nothing more than to tell the kid to cash out then, while he still could. He hadn’t, and the kid, not ten minutes later, lost it all at poker to a royal flush that had seemed to come out of literally no where.
Later that night, Lanius had been woken up at about four in the morning to find out the kid had tried to break into the vault. He hadn't made it but ten feet before Vulpes Inculta, the only person breathing six feet above ground that gave Le Quack and maybe even Gustavo nightmares, threw him to the ground and snapped both his legs back like they were toothpicks. Vulpes had found the whole experience delightfully charming.
Lanius walked up to Victor, the cowboy, complete with red scarf, straw hat, and tangy, deep fried southern accent, and handed him the briefcase. “And ‘ere I was startin’ to think you’d gotten lost partner, Nancy didn't give you a hassle did he?”
“No,” Lanius removed his cap and wearily took off his mask, “He didn’t,” handing them both to Victor.
Victor smiled at Lanius to the point that it appeared to physically hurt him, his eyes giving way to far more sinister machinations, “You really shouldn't take the mask off until your shift is over.”
Lanius looked at the clock above the slot machines, “My shift ends in ten minutes, take it out of my pay.”
Victor tried to force the mask back into Lanius’s hand, but with the briefcase weighing him down, proved unable to without dropping and subsequently spilling half a million dollars all over a crowded casino floor. “That’s not how it works, you gotta keep the mask on until your shift ends.”
Lanius used the foot he possessed over Victor to his advantage, looming over him and gritting through his teeth, “Tell Gustavo, to take it out of my fucking pay. I will not let her see me like that. Got it, partner?”
Victor stared him down defiantly, “Sure thing, I’ll be sure to let ‘em know right away.”
Brushing past the cowboy as he scurried along to the elevator, Lanius prepared himself for what he could only assume was his last supper.
Which wasn't long, as he abruptly found himself encompassed in the warm embrace of dazzling wings. “Where have you been puppy?” Lanius looked down into the angelic eyes of the little bundle of joy cradled in his arms; beaming euphorically up at him with cheeks as red as bright spring roses.
“Just… here and there. Making my way back to you.” Lanius leaned down and pressed a kiss to to the little one’s impatient lips. The soft taste of cherries was almost more than his meager heart could bare.
“I love you puppy.”
“I love you too, angel.”
“Now come on, I don't know how much longer I could have kept Caesar from eating the lobster straight from the tank.”
The angel led Lanius through the Cocktail lounge; long dark brown hair cascading over her like waves; hips filling out the little black dress she was wearing a bit too well.
When they reached the table, Caesar got up to firmly shake Lanius’s hand. “Everything go alright with Nancy?,” he whispered.
Lanius stood stock-still, the entire lounge seemingly stopping under a sheet of invisible ice. “Yeah,” Lanius mumbled, “Any reason it wouldn't it have?”
Caesar chuckled, “No,” the lounge sprung back with vitality, “No reason at all.”
“Alright now that’s enough,” Caesar’s wife, Evan, motioned for the two men to sit down, “No work talk at the table. We have no idea what any of your fancy latin words mean.”
Lanius and Caesar both took their seats. The little one wrapped her hand tightly around his, kissing him lightly on the cheek. “Are you okay puppy?,” she asked .
The answer to that question was unequivocally, no. Lanius was in no way, shape, or materialistic form, okay. By any standard or definition he was the complete and utter opposite. Mr. Nancy had appreciated his honesty, but that’s because Lanius hadn’t cared enough for him to lie. The angel perched next to him, with her halo glowing brighter than the sun at midday, deserved to be lied to. Were she to know the truth, that halo would turn pitch black and promptly fall to the ground and shatter into a million pieces. Lanius couldn't let that happen. A world where that halo didn't exist was a world that Lanius would no longer be able to draw breath in.
So he lied. It wasn't even a very convincing lie, at least to himself. The little one seemed to buy it though, for the time being at least. She rested her head tranquilly on his shoulder, “I love you puppy.”
Lanius didn’t remember much about his life before meeting Gustavo, that is, except for the angel. She’d always been there, never having left his side once. Or, perhaps, not always. There were some places in the world that even angel’s feared to tread. The Lonesome Road was one of them.
Lanius, for a beat, became mesmerized by the angels’ glow, and forgot all about his troubles. For just a beat, he was convinced that he was still a good person.
“I love you too, angel.”