In which a nuclear scientist, fed up with government bureaucracy, blows off steam in the wilds of Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1953.
By every aspect considered, it had been a bad day. Looking back, it’d actually been bad for a while, but today the badness had reached its apex. Someone, his Oma probably, had told him that bad days were just a step away from being a lucky day, all he had to do was preserver. With that in mind, after the intolerable workday finished, he packed an overnight bag, signed himself out on 24-hour leave, and sped off down Highway 91 south in his new Mercury Monterey convertible with the top down although it was mid-March and the evening cool.
When the cop pulled him over for speeding just before entering Las Vegas, he smothered his panic and smiled at the non-military officer. He reminded himself that it wasn’t bad luck, it was bad luck getting out of the way for good luck. Despite his attempts to be sociable with the police officer, he got a ticket.
He pulled into the “exotic” Hotel Sahara right at about 9 p.m. The Friday night crowd had not fully descended, but it was busy enough that he eschewed the line for the valet and parked himself out in the far reaches of the parking lot. Inside the casino, amid the African-themed décor, he found the rows of slot machines dinging away and the first few tables filled. He found a craps table and joined in.
His first roll gave him a six and a three. The lady next to him, wearing a blue dress that emphasized her ample bosom, cheered. She leaned on him, wobbling a little, and said, “Do that again, sugar. You can be my lucky charm.” He hid a cringe from her alcohol-tinged breath and flashed an indulgent smile at her. He rolled a seven. She pouted and turned her back on him. He repeated that poor performance at a different table and with a different lady, as well. Ten bucks down, he thought maybe he’d take his bad-day-soon-to-be-a-lucky-night to a different casino.
By this time, the strip was antsville. The neon and flashing lights lured the curious, social, and seedy in to the casinos, which bedazzled and befuddled the unwary and took their money. He found himself comparing the flashing lights to the after image of the explosion in which he’d recently participated. Work, he reminded himself, does not belong here among the fancy people in their fancy clothes trying to claim winnings to fund more fancy clothes. He pulled into the Fabulous Flamingo hotel and waited in the line of other dupes to hand over their cars to the valets and their wallets to the tables.
Inside, the air conditioning relieved some of the stress caused by the color of the interior. There seemed to be an unusual amount of people in robes wandering about. A sign in the lobby read “Welcome Cardinal McIntyre,” which was just what he didn’t need. Not that he was against religion in theory, but he was a scientist. Science and the atom and primal power held much more interest for him than the followers of a Jew who’d been dead for almost two thousand years. He turned on his heal and went back outside to have the valet retrieve his car before one of the followers could talk to him.
He’d try the Sands Hotel, which he’d passed by to get to the not-so-fabulous Flamingo. He’d hadn’t been there before. He’d heard that the Copa Room brought the best entertainers. At this point, he needed some entertainment.
The Sands, he decided when he stepped into the lobby, would be his final destination for the night and a good place to plan his next steps, so he got a room. He dropped his overnight bag off in the room, appreciating the modern look and space, which was bigger than his bunk at the proving ground and gloriously private. He considered discarding his tie, but straightened it instead. He did take his military ID out of his wallet – no one in the casino would ask for it. No one, in fact, would even look at him twice. He gave himself a glance in the mirror, approved of the professional yet cool look, and took himself to the bar.
The Silver Queen Bar and Lounge, having been open for four months or so, still had a fresh smell to it. A cigarette girl, with copper hair and curves like a Formula-1 racetrack, smiled at him and offered him a pack of cigarettes, saying “You can’t go wrong with Luckies.” He declined and found a seat at the bar next to a pair of women, both blonde, both dressed in satin and furs. The bartender offered him an Atomic Cocktail. He ordered a scotch instead and sipped it slowly, savoring the smoky burn. He couldn’t help but listen in on the gossip happening next to him.
“You’d think,” the one closest to him said, “that Meyer would just have him perform for free.”
The lady to her left nearly choked on her drink, “For free? How would Meyer get his money back if he didn’t charge for the show?”
“No. I mean, charge for the show, but don’t pay ol’ Blue Eyes.”
“I’m not sure Frankie C would go for that. You gotta run these things through the books ya know.”
They both drank to that, then the one on the right said, “Did Frankie C tell you about his latest ‘atomic’ plan?”
The one of the left groaned. “Tell me it’s not another all-night bash.”
No more atomic plans, he thought, finishing his drink. He headed out to face the tables again. The cigarette girl said to him as he went by, “Maybe you’ll get lucky this time, Cookie. Bet on red for me.” He nodded, not really paying attention, and landed at the nearest craps table. While he was waiting to place a bet, he glanced up and saw the cigarette girl watching him in a way that made his face feel hot. He looked down at the dice rolling and hitting the wall and the whip pulling them back only to have them spin down the row again. It reminded him of the way the ground bucked when the shock wave passed over.
He moved away to a roulette table. When asked to place his bet, he almost put it on his favorite black 13, but he changed his mind and went for an outside bet of red, 3, and 21. He won. And then he won again. And then a third time. Another thing his Oma used to tell him popped into his mind. “Don’t you be greedy you little der bengel.” Of course she was speaking of his stealing cookies, but it stuck in his head. He took his chit to the teller and gathered his winnings. He found the cigarette girl.
“Thanks for the tip,” he said, offering her a dollar. She looked scared for a moment and hissed, “Are you psycho? Don’t say that.”
“No, I mean. I just won some money betting on red. I wanted to thank you for wishing me luck.”
She took his money after watching him for a moment.
“So what’s your name?” he asked while almost simultaneously wondering why he asked. He didn’t want to get involved with the locals, did he?
“They call me Las Vegas Red.” She pointed to her hair and shrugged. “What’s your name, Cookie?”
“Rudolph. It’s nice to make your acquaintance.” He shook her hand, noting that her hands felt like the leather in his new car.
“Where you from Rudy? Do you mind if I call you Rudy?” No one had ever called him that before and he thought he kind of liked it. Rudy, who won money at the roulette table after talking with Las Vegas Red.
“Rochester by way of Berlin.”
“You’re German? That’s fab. I’m from New Jersey originally, but now I’m a westerner.” She made her fingers into guns and made funny shooting sounds. He laughed and then he laughed at himself laughing.
She laughed with him for a while and then said, “Rudy, what’s so funny?”
He just smiled. “When you get off work, Miss Red?”
“Miss Red, ha, misread. I’m off in twenty minutes, why?”
“I want to see a show.”
“So go see a show. The Copa’s got something going on almost all night.”
“No, no, I mean I want to see a show with you.”
“I don’t know, Rudy. We just met, see, and I’m not supposed to socialize with customers, you know, outside of selling them cigarettes. You sure you don’t want a cigarette?”
“No thank you. I don’t smoke. Is that strange?”
“A little, but then again, you’re a little strange man. Cute, but a little strange. Must be the foreign influence.”
“If you say so.”
Miss Red turned away and offered a passing couple some cigarettes. Two of the casino hefty security guards approached them.
“How you doing there, little red riding hood?” one asked. The other stood at parade rest and looked around.
“Good Bernie. How you doing tonight?”
“This bad news bothering you, Red?”
“Bad news? This guy? Don’t flip your wig; he’s just asking directions. He’s German.”
Rudolph took that to be his cue to act like a tourist.
“You direct me to Copa, yes?” He said in his heaviest accent.
“Yeah. Just down that hallway,” Bernie said, pointing away.
“Vielen dank,” he said and turned to Miss Red, “Danke, danke.” He hurried off in the direction the guard had pointed and turned after a moment. The security goons hung around Miss Red for a moment and then moved away. She looked to where he was waiting and gave a little wave. He pointed to the Copa Room sign and she nodded.
He hoped that meant she’d be joining him there soon. He went in to secure seating.
He found a seat at a table in the middle of the Copa Room with two couples from Milwaukee, tourists. One of the wives asked “Were you here for the atomic bomb? We missed it.”
“You could say that,” he answered after a moment.
“Was it amazing? The news footage made it seem scary, but the announcer said it was safe.”
“Let me assure you, Mrs…”
“Dunbar, Fred and Dorothy Dunbar, and our friends Patty and George Stephanio.”
“Rudy. Nice to meet you. Let me assure you, Mrs. Dunbar, friends. The atomic bomb is not safe. It is not a toy or an amusement. When the news tells you its safe, they’re lying. So you’re actually very lucky to have missed the explosion.”
“Well aren’t you wet rag,” Mrs. Stephanio said and turned her back to him to look at the stage. Mrs. Dunbar made a face and followed her friend’s lead. The lights flickered a moment later. Miss Red had not joined him.
The showgirls came on stage. The third one out was Miss Red. She sang and danced. How talented she was. How attractive. Did all the showgirls sell cigarettes and give betting advice? After the showgirls performed, the band played a few numbers and the showgirls went out between the tables to sell raffle tickets before the main attraction. Miss Red made her way to his table.
“Raffle ticket sir? Ma’am?” Mr. Stephanio bought one. Mrs. Dunbar bought one. Miss Red just handed Rudy a ticket with a wink and then moved off.
“Those showgirls are just stunning,” Mrs. Dunbar said. Rudy agreed.
There were three prizes for this raffle. Third prize was a bottle of champagne and a meal at the Garden Room. Second prize was an exclusive Atomic City gift package, including hotel room and atomic-themed lunchbox (breakfast) with chauffeured drive to the viewing site to see the next blast. The first prize was a trip to Cancun, Mexico. The announcer pulled the tickets. At a table near the stage, a young woman won the third prize. She giggled and blushed when she accepted it. Her date shook the announcer’s hand. The second prize, which gave Rudy a stomachache just thinking about, was won by a gentleman sitting over on the side of the room. He toasted the announcer and the room with his Atomic Cocktail. Mrs. Dunbar pouted. The final prize ticket number had to be read twice. It wasn’t until Mrs. Stephanio leaned over and tapped his ticket did he realize that he’d won.
He stood up and waved at the announcer. A trip to Mexico, he supposed, was a good next step. His table mates oohed and aahed over his luck. He looked for Miss Red, and found her talking with her hands to Bernie the security guard. Dread pulled at him as he watched Bernie grab Miss Red’s arm and take her backstage. Rudy excused himself from his table to Mrs. Dunbar’s “But you’ll miss the show,” comment and went to see if he could save Miss Red.
Instead he found the two blonde women from the bar bearing down on him.
“Hi there,” the one wearing a tight shimmering pink dress said, “I’m Helen. This is Ruth. We’re from The Sands’ hospitality corps. You’ve been pretty lucky tonight, so we want to make sure you’re having a good time. Lucky customers make The Sands lucky.” Helen latched herself to his right side.
“Yeah, Cookie. Let’s have some champagne and hit the tables,” Ruth said, latching herself to his left side. They dragged him off to the tables, fed him booze, and made him bet a lot of money he wouldn’t have normally. The more booze he drank, including the dreaded Atomic Cocktail, which tasted like like an orange-scented cleaner with bubbles, the more trouble he had getting away from the women and finding Miss Red.
“So you’ve won at craps, you’ve won at roulette, you’ve won at the slot machine. Let’s see if you can win at poker,” Helen said. She dragged him to a roped-off area with a guard, who almost bowed when opening the velvet rope, “Miss Helen.”
“Thanks, James. Could you please tell Mr. C. that we’re almost done?”
“Sure thing, Miss Helen.”
“Wha?” he asked, curious. His mouth and thinking were starting to malfunction.
“Don’t you worry, Cookie. We’ve gotcha,” Ruth said, tightening her grip on his arm.
He played Blackjack, and although he could win on any pair that had a red card, he couldn’t hit the Blackjack.
“Interesting, don’t you think Helen?”
“Very. I think we should go report, don’t you Ruth?”
The blondes exchanged similar somewhat sinister smiles and dragged him away from the table. In the lobby, as they waited for an elevator, he heard his name called.
The room spun a little when he looked around. It was Mitch, his accomplice, hurrying toward him followed by two military policemen.
“You’re needed back at the base. It’s urgent.” Mitch said as he arrived.
“I’m on leave,” he announced. It came out slurred.
“Doctor is it?” Helen asked, running a possessive hand up is arm.
“Not according to the colonel.”
“Doctor Eisner,” One of the police officer’s said, “You need to come with us.” The other one put his meaty hand on his gun. The elevator dinged and the doors opened and Helen and Ruth started to direct him inside.
“They think you stole–” Whatever Mitch was about to say was drowned out by Ruth saying something to Helen. Suddenly the alcohol, the MPs, the clingy women, and worry about Miss Red galvanized him to action. He pushed away from the women and spun out of the elevator, rebounded against one of the MPs, and sprinted toward the lobby door. He got maybe two yards and someone hit him on the back of the neck and he blacked out.
He awoke with a terrible headache. He appeared to be tied to a chair. The light from outside dimly illuminated the otherwise dark room. A soft hiss alerted him that he wasn’t alone. Looking around, he saw the sparkles on the person next to him and a strip of yellow light coming from under a door behind them.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. You?”
“Other than being tied up and having a headache, I appear to be well.”
“That’s good. When they dragged you in here all limp I was worried.”
They spoke softly and in the pause while each of them tried to figure out how to get out of their bounds so they could help the other, they heard part of the conversation coming from the next room.
“Who’s that talking with the Texas accent?” Miss Red asked.
“That’s Private Mitchell. Who has the thick Italian accent?”
“That’s Frankie C. He’s the owner of this casino.”
Still in The Sands, he thought. That’s good.
“Who’s that deep voice?”
“One of the MPs I think.”
They listened for a moment more.
“What’s all that about a car?” Miss Red asked.
He let out a soft laugh. “Mitch and I liberated a car. But I didn’t expect them to come after me so quickly.”
“You stole a car, Rudy? You don’t seem the type.”
“I’m not, in general. It’s a long story, but to summarize, I was mad because my coworkers were making more money than I. Then the local car dealership offered up all these beautiful new cars to be blown up by Annie…”
“I heard about that. What a waste.”
“They keep talking about a doctor. Is that you?”
“Yes. I’m a radiobiologist.”
“And whatever that is, you do it at the proving grounds, right?”
“Yes, it’s all classified, but I work at the proving grounds trying to prove that radiation from nuclear weapons is harmful.”
“And did you?”
“Prove that it is harmful? Yes, but none of my so-called superiors wanted to hear that.”
They listened to the conversation again.
“What’s the Italian saying about a lucky charm?”
“That’s me, Lucky Las Vegas Red. Ever since the bomb dropped, five days ago now, I’ve been able to, you know, grant people good luck. Frankie wanted me to test it out on someone new.”
“So you picked me? Why?”
“You looked so, I don’t know, twitchy or upset. I thought you could use some luck. Really, I didn’t think it’d get you in any trouble. I just wanted to make your day better.”
“So the owner asked you to give me luck.”
“No, I was supposed to pick someone one Frankie knew. When they realized I’d picked you, Frankie sent his girls to watch over you to make sure you didn’t take their money away or tell anyone of your special luck.”
He thought that over for a bit.
“So this is a sham? I didn’t really win?”
“Oh you totally–“
The door opened and the light came on, making him wince. A short dark-haired man in an expensive suit came in, followed by Bernie the guard and meaty-handed MP. The blonde women followed by Mitch, in handcuffs, and the other MP walked past and out the door behind them.
“Doctor Eisner, I have to apologize for this inconvenience,” Frankie C. said. Bernie untied him and Miss Red.
“I really wanted to extend our experiment and take you to other casinos to see if the luck Red here gave you lasted outside of The Sands, but, time, as you can see,” he gestured to the window, “has run out. His excellency Cardinal McIntyre is giving a private Mass over at the Flamingo at dawn, so I must be going. Your military police friends insist that you return to the base. Some sort of nuclear emergency.” The MP helped him stand. Bernie tried to help Miss Red up, but she stepped away from him.
“Oh, just out of curiosity, where is the car you stole?”
“Ask your valet. It’s easy to find – it’s a red Mercury with a big 42 painted on the side.”
Frankie C chuckled.
“Bernie and Officer Bonnetti will escort you to your room. Red, why don’t you go with our good doctor here and see him off? Then get some beauty rest. I’ll expect you in my office at four.”
Frankie C walked out. One the ride down the elevator and the back up the next elevator, he wondered about what nuclear emergency could be happening. He expected that Dr. Hobart wanted to argue about radiation readings again. Well, he’d just have to argue with him through the cell door he expected he’d be behind as soon as he got to the base.
Bernie and the MP stood at the door while he and Miss Red went inside the hotel room. Miss Red looked around, glancing in the open closet and the bathroom.
“I really don’t have much to pack.” He paused, feeling awkward. “Miss Red, I don’t know why I’m embarrassed. I guess I didn’t expect to have a woman in my hotel room. May I ask your real name?”
“Oh, sorry. So many people call me Red I just got used to it. I’m Jenny O’Connell.”
“Doctor Rudolph Eisner. A real pleasure.” They shook hands and exchanged grins.
Miss Red, Jenny, went to look out the window while he gathered his things.
“Rudy,” she said, her voice sounding worried, “What’s that?”
He looked out the window. An object flew through the air, the sunrise just catching its vapor trail, from the direction of the proving grounds.
“That’s a…Jenny get in the tub, quick!” he said, pulling her with him. They hid in the tub just as a blinding bright light flashed. A terrible loud rumble and a shaking, like an earthquake, happened a moment later.
“Keep your head down,” he said from his position on top of her in the bathtub. Terrible heat, worse than opening an oven, followed by the sound of breaking glass, cracking walls, and screaming swirled away as they were blown from the room.
A moment later, they landed in water. He had enough thought to pull Jenny up to the surface with him, when he found it. A quick glance around showed that they landed in the deep end of the pool and their life-saving tub had landed behind them on the edge. Jenny sputtered, blowing water out of her face.
“Under here.” He pulled her along to hide under the space the tub made over the edge of the pool. Ash and debris fell around them. “We’ll be safe as long as we stay in the water. The metal from the tub should protect us from the radiation.”
“What happened?” Jenny’s voice shook with fear and shock.
“Atomic bomb. From the amount of devastation I see, I’d say more than 16 kilotons of force.”
“Is that bad?”
“Oh, it’s very bad.” He laughed, adding, “but I’m very lucky.”
“We’re lucky to be alive.”
“That too. But I’m the lucky one.”
“Oh yeah?” she said with a faint laugh.
“Yes. Not only did I win big at the casino, I met you.”
“Ah Rudy.” They kissed.
He had them wait for nearly an hour, in the water, to make sure the fallout had passed. When they got out and looked around at the hollowed out building, ashy remains of people, and piles of debris, he said, “Do you want to go Mexico?”
“I sure as hell don’t want to stay here.”
With Jenny’s uncanny ability to give luck, they found a functioning car and drove south. Other bombs had fallen, including one at the Hoover Dam. They had to backtrack to get around it.
They met other survivors, even some with other strange gifts. Eventually they made it to Mexico – not to Cancun, as was promised by the winning lottery ticket, but to Copper Canyon, which had water, food, shelter, and not much radiation, which suited Rudy and his Lucky Las Vegas Red just fine.