Ash had to do a double-take, a triple-take, hell, a quadruple-take, when he walked by the open door of the Peanut Butter and Banana Quickie Chapel & Pawn Shop at the far end of the Strip. It wasn’t unusual for the gaudy gold doors to be propped wide open in the spring, Vegas heat not yet in full force, comfortable days still the norm before the fire of the summer arrived; the chapel was small enough that he was able to peer inside, past the makeshift pews, past the smoke machines and disco balls, all the way to the far wall where linen flowers and neon lights surrounded the glitter-gold script of their slogan. One-stop shop! We’ll put a ring on it and take it off your hands, too!
However, none of the garish decor caught Ash’s eye. Instead, it was captured by the trio who stood with their backs to him, speaking to the Elvis impersonator. Now that he looked closer, he could tell that it was the blond girl who hooked up with the magician and the hotshot doctor who just happened to live out East near Mandy. These two were just secondary to the sight that stole his attention though because, right in the middle, always right in the thick of everything, stood the gorgeous lawyer herself, braid cascading down her back as she spoke animatedly to Elvis.
He wanted to head in, to say hello and take just a second to bask in her attention, to see her face, but he had to pause. If she was here, talking to a quickie minister with Reed at her side, it could only mean one thing. She definitely wouldn’t want him popping back into her life at this exact, special moment. So he took just a minute to watch, her hands flying through the air as she gestured to the flowers, the pedestal. He had to smile, melancholy as it was. He was glad it worked out for them. She deserved to be happy.
He hadn’t seen her in six months; hell, it felt like they had barely spoken over text since she left for the airport with her friends and his heart, but she was never far from his mind. He always knew that he was little more than an interesting diversion in her life, a wild story about the time she was in Vegas and met a two-bit hustler while on the run from the mafia, but for him? She was no drunken exploit or tall tale. Yes, it had been short romance, but it was the first time a tourist wove a path into not only his bed but his mind and his bones and his soul. He could still see her, clear as day, standing on the roof of his shit apartment, bathed in the sun's glow as it peeked over the mountains.
He would recognize her anywhere.
Which is why he had to do another double-take on the Strip that night. He was in the middle of a game of Find the Lady, a pair of eager college-aged tourists focused on his hands as they followed the familiar routine, over-under left right left , when a dark braid caught his eye for the second time that day. He turned his head, quickly, too quickly, and his hands stuttered, the second card falling from his palm to the pavement below.
The girls in front of him laughed as Ash gaped at the card on the ground. He never messed up this game. “Wow, ladies.” He pulled his best smile out. “I think you both distracted me. You win this time.” He knelt to grab his card and held out the deck again. “Best two out of three?”
Once they had finally wandered off, after five more games where he made sure he focused only on his cards, not the gorgeous brunette he was certain he saw, he scanned the crowd intently. Nothing. He looked around.
“Jayson, man, did you see-?”
“I’m not helping you.” Jayson held up his discs. “I’ve had no success tonight because you keep telling people my mix tape is just me at karaoke.”
“It is you at karaoke. It’s not even good karaoke; it’s a clip from your phone at Club Yamang that ends with you screaming at a bouncer as they throw you out.”
“I told them I paid my tab.” Jayson glared.
“Yeah, with a stolen credit card.”
“Man, shut up, you don’t need to blow up my spot.”
“You have no spot.” Ash was still scanning the crowd, Strip packed with tourists and grifters and hustlers enjoying the glittering facades around them. “Do you remember-”
“I remember nothing.” Ash sighed as Jayson stalked off, clutching his CDs under one arm as he looked for his next victim.
With one last look around, Ash shook his head and got back to work. It’s not like she was here to find him anyway.
The next night found him outside the strip club, LIV DUDS blinking in the window. Shitty exterior aside, it was always packed on Saturdays, an easy way to catch willing coeds as they streamed out of the club, high on the buzz that only scantily clad strippers provided.
He was far from the door, eyeing the crowd and waiting for someone who seemed willing to play, when a shout made him turn.
“BACHELORETTE PARTY PART TWO! WOOHOO! ALL THE FUN WITH NONE OF THE GUNSHOTS!” His jaw dropped. It was the blond again, Courtney, the one with the enormous wild streak and dirty mind. She was bouncing, vibrating, visibly excited at being in her element again. And trailing behind her? Ash watched as the three amigos walked out, the senator’s ex and the one with the sketchy job and then, trailing behind with a blush on her cheeks and smile on her face, there she was. Mandy always took his breath away, every time he saw her, and this was no exception.
He stood, frozen on the spot, watching her talk on her cell, hands gesturing, as Diana put her hands on her shoulders to hustle her into a waiting Dryve.
He sprinted forward but watched as the backdoor shut, car lurching and pulling out into traffic.
Fuck . He glanced around, eyes falling on an idling cab. He dashed to the window, knocking frantically.
“I need a- Gene?”
Gene rolled down his window. “’Sup, Ash?”
“I thought you were still pretending to be a human statue by the Bellagio.”
“Meh. Gold paint took forever to wash off, especially when it got inside those tiny shorts and irritated my-”
“TOO MUCH INFORMATION!” Ash grimaced, making a mental note to bleach his brain as soon as he got home. “Anyway, I need a ride. Now.”
“I’m on my break!” Gene gestured to the tuna sandwich in his hands. “I haven’t eaten all day!” The words were barely intelligible around the giant bite in his mouth.
Ash could just make out the taillights of their car heading downtown. With a deep breath, he opened the door and yanked Gene out of the driver’s seat.
“Here.” Ash pulled open the back door and shoveled him in before hopping behind the wheel, turning the engine, and peeling out. He could just make out the rideshare and had suddenly never been so grateful that the Strip was a long, flat line. “Just sit and enjoy.”
There was a rustling in the back and then a thud as Gene dove towards the floor. “My sandwich!”
“I’m sure it’s fine.”
“You stole my cab.” He was pouting, brushing off the grime from his food, but Ash sensed that it was halfhearted as he settled into the seat and stepped on the gas.
“Not stealing-you’re in it!”
Ash saw Gene take a giant bite of his dinner in the rear-view mirror. “Still stealing,” he sulked.
“Risk I’m willing to take.” He didn’t know what he would say to her if he caught up to them. ‘Congratulations’ seemed a little too fake, ‘Remember me?’ a little too bitter.
“Grand theft auto here. I can’t believe I took financial advice from a thief!”
“Not a thief, I’m borrowing. Much like one does with a loan when they incur a debt. But I’m giving your collateral back when we catch up with that car!” Ash concentrated on darting between traffic, keeping the Dryve in sight, winding his way up the Strip, past the familiar glittering lights and lively casinos. “And, come on! It’s Vegas! Live a little!”
“View’s different back here.”
“That’s the spirit. Enjoy the ride, man.”
Gene gazed out the window. “Did you know that Dirty Harry’s has half priced drinks tonight?”
“Yeah, they do every year on Clint Eastwood’s birthday,” Ash answered idly, focused on getting closer to the girls’ car, gaining some distance as it started to slow down.
“Hmm….” Gene peered at him. “You’ve been doing this a long time, haven’t you kid?”
“Hustling on the Strip.”
“About ten years.”
“You ever think about doing something else?”
Ash thought to the manuscript saved on his laptop, forty thousand words, a treatise on hustling tourists and taking risks in the world capital of risky decisions, only partially completed before he lost his motivation, right around the time he realized he lost Mandy for good. He thought about his book and how maybe he could write from anywhere, even from the ritzy East Coast city where doctors and lawyers met and drank expensive whisky with their expensive degrees on the wall.
He swallowed. Gene was still looking intently at him, eyes peering into him like he read minds. “Sometimes,” Ash responded with a shrug. “But right now, I’m just thinking about catching up to that Dryve.”
“Just don’t crash my cab. I don’t need anymore debt!”
“You got it.”
Finally, after running two red lights, a nerve-wracking close call with a drunk tourist, and inventive insults from the backseat that Gene should definitely trademark, the Dryve pulled up to a stop; he could see the Girl Scouts jump out and file into their hotel.
He screeched to a stop in front of the building, wincing as the valet dove out of the way. “Ok, take your cab, Gene. Here’s my stop.”
He slammed out of the cab but the “Hey, Ash?” from behind him made him turn.
“Good luck with your girl.” He had to smile. Of course Gene knew who they were chasing. Ash had always been obvious.
“Thanks, man. Thanks for everything.”
With that, he raced into the lobby of the hotel, the same hotel where he had accidentally rescued them from the gunman, the same hotel with the forest penthouse and shitty security that seemed to allow Norwegian murderers open access to guest rooms. He shook his head. Focus . No time for a walk down a truly trippy memory lane now; he had to find them. Where could they be?
Luckily, raised voices at the bar to his right were a clear signal. A loud commotion, raised voices, and breaking glass? Bingo .
He skidded into the bar and froze. And blinked. And blinked again. “Ummm....”
“Oh! Hi, Ash.” Aisha gave him a quick wave and then returned to the task at hand, trying to corral an overwhelmed Courtney while bobbing and weaving to avoid the signature hand flap. “Courtney, come on!”
“But....” Ash grimaced as her hand collided with Aisha’s shoulder, the slap barely audible with the noise of the insanity in front of him. “But...”
Diana peeked around her friends, barely visible behind the giant thing in front of him. “Hey, Ash.”
“Hi, Diana. Umm...” He blinked again, wondering if he blinked enough times, the vision in front of him would fade. Did he hit his head? “Is that an ostrich?”
She scoffed at him. “It’s an emu!”
“Why the hell do you have an emu?”
Courtney was still flapping her hands, limbs vibrating as she stood; Diana edged away from her and muttered, “.... because we’re staying in the rain forest suite again?”
“What. Do emus even live in the rain forest?” The emu looked unfazed.
“Who cares, Ash!?! Do I look like I watch National Geographic?”
“Yes?” He took in her prim outfit, the severe look on her face, and the bottle of electrolyte water in her hand. He nodded definitively. “Yes. You look like your idea of a wild night is binging National Geographic in a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers while wearing a face mask and drinking a green juice.”
She wrinkled her nose. “That was so specific that it feels like you were spying on me last weekend.”
He rubbed his temples. “Ok, where the hell did you get an emu?”
Courtney had calmed enough to join the world of the semi-functional and jumped in, “Ash, it’s Vegas! You can get anything here!” She lovingly stroked the neck of the bird; it seemed like it enjoyed the attention. Then again, who knew? “They still haven’t supplied any cute animals, so we had to find our own!”
“You mean, you stole it from the zoo.” Ash whirled to see Mandy walking in, a severe man in zookeeper garb trailing behind her.
“Borrowed!” Courtney’s voice did the screech-thing again.
“Stole and hid it in the suite until it escaped because no one fed it!” Mandy put her hands on her hips.
“What?!?! I left it cocktail weenies and made it Bloody Marys from the mini fridge!”
“It eats seeds. Insects. Grass.” The zookeeper edged closer. “It can’t metabolize alcohol; since water is scarce in their natural habitats, they have a tendency to consume vast amounts of liquids so it has reserves when-”
The zookeeper trailed off as the emu made a few grunting noises and, in a stunning display, threw up partially digested hot dogs and red liquid onto the bar floor as the entire group lunged backwards. They all looked at each other in stunned silence.
“Of all the vomit I thought I would see, I really didn’t think it would be from that .” Diana blinked, looking down at the violent red stain on the floor. For once, Ash agreed with her completely. The emu squawked and looked around, nosing its beak towards the bowl of peanuts on the bar.
“Did that emu just boot and rally?” Courtney sounded as shocked as Ash felt.
The zookeeper sighed. “They really are amazing animals with a fully developed system of-”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, enough with the zoology lesson.” Aisha glared. “Can you get this thing out of here?”
The zookeeper glared. “It’s not a thing. It’s the second largest bird on Earth with a wingspan of-”
“Ok.” Mandy patted his arm. “It’s amazing, but can you please remove it? I’m sure it wants to get back to the zoo.”
Ash stepped out of the way, watching the zookeeper coo in some bird-language that made the emu duck its head and follow him out of the bar.
“Wow.” Courtney had stars in her eyes. “That creature is majestic.”
Mandy shrugged, catching Ash’s eye for the first time. He felt his heart stop. “Hi, Ash.” Hell, time stopped.
“And that’s our cue...” Courtney grabbed Diana’s arm, and he barely registered them brushing by, Aisha hot on their heels as they entered the bowels of the casino. The only thing he registered was Mandy’s gaze, pinning him in place with the weight of months of unspoken words and missed opportunities.
She stepped closer and still he couldn’t move. “Earth to Ash.”
“Hey.” He looked behind him, taking in the open pair of barstools, past the pile of emu vomit on the ground, and set his shoulders. “Do you want to grab a drink? Not Bloody Mary’s?”
He could barely focus on anything else as they settled down at the bar and waited for their drinks. The dim lighting made her seem shadowy, gauzy, as if she were floating in and out of his daydreams; he had to shake his head and take a swig as soon as the beer was placed in front of him. It seemed like she was already so close to fading away, back into her normal life and out of his reach.
“I wondered if we would find you.”
Her voice brought him back to the present, and he shrugged a shoulder. “Vegas is a small place for a local. Also, the four of you cause so much trouble it was only a matter of time.”
“ Courtney causes so much trouble.”
“And you’re right there with her.” The smile was impossible to stop. “I seem to remember you getting into trouble all on your own.”
“And I seem to remember you bailing me out a few times.”
“Don’t need to do that anymore.” He winced as the words came out far more bitter than he intended.
“Ash? Why are you…?” She put her hand on his arm and he inhaled sharply, as even that simple touch sent his mind spinning. He pulled away, needing a bit of distance, any distance, something to give him space from the memories of another bar, just like this, another time when he wondered if he would ever see her again. She sighed, watching him, dark eyes cautious and waiting, before she leaned in again to aver, “You know I missed you.”
He had to turn away so she wouldn’t catch his eye roll. “You stopped texting me but it’s ok, I get it.”
“I’ve been working on some things, Ash. I’m sorry but-”
“It’s fine.” He shrugged, lifting his glass. “It’s all transient. You know how it is.”
“We had something real. You know we did.”
“Aren’t you getting married!?!”
“WHAT?” She stared at him. “To who? What?!?”
“To Reed? The doctor?” Ash shrugged, turning away from her to hide his face. “I saw you at the chapel. And it’s your Bachelorette Party. Congratulations.”
A hand on his cheek turned his face, so he could see Mandy gaping at him. “Reed? Wait, what? No, no, no. He’s here for the wedding, too. Courtney is getting married.”
“Wait, Courtney ?” Any happiness he may have felt at the implication that Mandy might be fair game was supplanted by his shock.
“Yeah. To Mario.”
Ash was so glad that he hadn’t taken another sip of beer because it would have ended up splattered on the marble of the bar. “The MAGICIAN ?”
Mandy shrugged. “I think it’s good for her. She needs a bit of stability in her life.”
“I agree, but a magician named Mindblaster is the stability here?” Ash couldn’t stop the scoff.
“Ok. So it’s not a ton of stability.” Mandy smiled. “But they really are a great fit. And she’s happy.”
She caught his eye. “And I’m not getting married.”
“I see…” It felt like the air had left his lungs. “So, are you saying you’re single?”
“I don’t know about single…” Ash felt his face fall as Mandy looked up at him, curiously. “There is this guy I like….”
He turned to face the bar, grabbing his beer. Of course.
A hand on his arm stopped the bottle halfway to his mouth. “You fool. You know my type. Japanese-American street performers?”
“Pretty niche, you know.” He had to smile ruefully, trying to keep the bitterness from his voice. “You remember you left him behind, right?”
She swallowed. “Ash… I’m moving to Vegas.”
“My firm has a rotation program for high potential lawyers.” She looked at her hands. “I was selected and get to work with a top partner at a different branch across the country for nine-month trial period. If it goes well, I might have a permanent position.” Finally, she raised her head to meet his eyes. “It’s a big career opportunity. And I requested to come to Vegas.”
He carefully placed the bottle on the bar. “Are you serious?”
“Starts in two weeks. I want to be more than a tourist here. My career is so important to me, Courtney’s moving here, but I mean…I was hoping you…”
He cut her off with his lips. He just couldn’t stop himself from kissing her, pulling her close so the bar stool tilted and she was supported by his hands on her waist, her thighs against his, reacquainting himself with her lips and her tongue and the small of her back and the soft noise she made in the back of her throat and how her hands clutched his jacket as if she was afraid he would vanish.
Pulling back, he had to grin, eyes tracing over her face, the soft look in her eyes. He’s had some big wins in his life but this one takes the cake.
“And here I was, thinking of moving out East.”
“Wait, what?” She was still so close to him and he watched the individual lashes surrounding those beautiful eyes flutter as she gazed at him.
He shrugged, feeling bashful. “I missed you.”
“Well, you’re lucky my type is extremely rare back home.”
“Your type....” He couldn’t stop the grin spreading across his face. “Tell me all about this street performer you like. Total hunk, right?”
“No one says that anymore.”
“Dashing hustler by day, fearless mafia fighter by night?” He smirked and leaned closer, drawn to the smile playing around her lips; it called to him, to his every cell, urging him closer.
“You legit peeled away as soon as we got shot at.”
“With an amazing sense of self-preservation?”
Finally, her grin broke into a wide smile, beaming across her face, and burned into his brain. “Oh my God, shut up and kiss me again.”
So he did. Nine months of this with a chance for more? That’s a gamble he’d take every time.