Mr. Balistrari had a Neanderthal's looks, but a whole lot of money, big fists, and a temper to match Mount Vesuvius, and so nobody ever questioned his looks. He looked dumb; the protruding brow and watery eyes, but he wasn’t dumb and only an idiot would have though so. He knitted his fingers together, and glowered at the rest of the men seated at the table. They shuffled nervously.
The table was nice: mahogany with mica flecks embedded in it to match the grandeur of the room. The Paloma Hotel boasted classic Vegas gaudiness in that uniquely sick way where everything looked both fake and expensive. The purple curtains, the red carpet, the nice mahogany table, all of it clashed, and the men in the cheap suits fit right in.
“The thing is,” Balistrari was saying in his rumbling voice, “the thing is, the guy’s name is Lou the Fish. Fuck’n Lou the Fish, Now, I don’t want to tell people how to do their job, but with the name like Lou the Fish, you’d thing you idiots would have just shot the fella instead of trying to drown him.”
A protracted silence followed.
“You see, boss…” came the reply, several seconds after the speaker-- one Renalt Scarlozi-- gathered his courage. “You see, boss, there was the lake right there and I thought we spend enough on bullets, so why not just punch him until he was out and then pitch him right in.”
Balistrari shook his head. “See, right there. You have to think things through. Now, Lou ran off to the Flamingo, and he’s out of our reach.”
“Can’t you get a button man?” this was Balistrari’s cousin: a thin man in an overly large suit that barely fit him. The men just called him little Balistrari.
“Not without tipping off some cops,” Balistrari said. “The real question, boys, is what am I going to do with Scarlozi here. I’m pretty pissed, Renalt.”
“I can go to the Flamingo and--”
“No,” Balistrari said. “You wouldn’t make it past the lobby before somebody buttonholed you up to the executive suite and then off the roof.”
Scarlozi looked at a loss for words.
“Don’t worry,” Balistrari said. “I got a work shortage, and I can’t just be pitching fellas myself. I do have something for you.”
“Yes, boss?” Scarlozi’s face suggested that this was better than anything he could have hoped for.
“There’s a box job I got,” Balistrari said. “Little safe coming in from New York. Got some interesting stuff in it. Apparently, there’s an exhibition of rare artifacts at one of the galleries or something. A fancy show. Doesn’t matter, ‘cause nobody'll ever see it. You grab the safe, I forget about Lou the fucking Fish.”
“Hey now,” little Balistrari said. “I’m the best safe guy here. I should go and--”
“I don’t remember asking you,” Balistrari said. “Aunt Mina may be in heaven looking down on us, and she may have loved me as her own, but as God sits on a golden throne, I will send you to her express if you ever so interrupt me again.”
Little Balistrari shrunk down into his suit, and then slouched so far down in his chair that he was practically just a pair of eyes hiding in an enormous dinner jacket.
“No problem,” Scarlozi said. “I’ll lift it right out. What am I getting?”
“Don’t know,” Balistrari said. “The safe’s small enough that you can carry it by yourself. I’ll have Diane get you the details.” Then: “What are the rest of you looking at? Get out!”
“He’s always been too full of himself,” Scarlozi said. He’d parked his little Honda right where he could see the entrance to the Galleria. Supposedly, the safe would arrive during peak business hours to ensure safety. The staff, putting up the banners for the up-coming “Cabinet of Terror” show, had to work around the crowds coming in to see the current exhibit, something about native Paiute art. The unfortunate bastards had to work through the Las Vegas heat too, something Scarlozi in his air-conditioned car had a good laugh at. The work would all be wasted, since he planned to take whatever was in the safe.
He didn’t really know if what was in the safe was the main attraction. It was possible that the safe was the only thing small enough to carry off. The exhibition posters promised “dark things from even darker lands,” a claim rendered hilarious in the monstrous light of the Vegas sun in the middle of summer. The severed hand of an old witch withers in the blaze and the chattering tourists, and the screaming cars. And capitalism too. This was all a gimmick, a parlor trick to get gawking Ohioans’ money between slot machines.
It didn’t look like it, but all of Vegas was a slot machine: the fabulous tackiness of it hid its only motive: money. But then, maybe it didn’t hide it at all. A slot machine was flashy, blinding the user with lights and sound and confusing rules. The streets and shows of Las Vegas were the same and the Casinos on the street were as avaricious as a common thief or con-man, pilfering its wealth and hoarding it. Some won, sure, but the casinos always won.
Scarlozi scoffed at the people milling in the street. They ran from casino to casino, hotel to hotel, trying to score. To make it big. It was all one big scam, and there were only two types of people here: those in on the scam and those that weren’t. The first type still spent their money and played along. They knew they would lose, but they laughed and lost anyway. The second: they were dopes. The only game that won in this town was crime. It was a town built on crime. And in such a place, there were no ghosts, only hollow shows.
He watched, and waited, and when it grew dark, drove his car to a hotel near the Galleria and had the valet park it--- “Wherever, I’ll be back in an hour.”
He then entered the crowd, and milled about the games until seven and the sun began to dip. It barely cooled the streets, did nothing to disperse the crowd, and did nothing to the lights. The faces looked less sunburnt, but the neon glow bathed every face, and even the sex workers who shoved pornographic ads into his hands looked exotic.
The Galleria buttressed the Hotel Solitairio. There was a service corridor along the wall. The buildings probably had been separate once, but now the thin alleyway between them had been enclosed by a narrow concrete roof. It was an ugly and cheap modification, but like most of Vegas, away from the front of the Strip, behind the shiny glitz, everything was ugly and cheap.
Scarlozi supposed he fit right in. Cheap, fake suit, cheap creep underneath. He had no illusions. A thief was a thief, even if stealing was buongiorno, buona sera, and buona notte in this horrid town.
The Galleria’s lock was cheap, even for Vegas standards. A square padlock that a middle schooler might put on his locker. Scarlozi’s tools were cheap too: he only carried a hammer and a screwdriver. They made short work of it, and he pocketed the broken lock. This was practical. If somebody noticed the door was unlocked, a broken lock nearby would look terribly suspicious, prompt some investigation, and cause problems. Problems with police, maybe. Problems with Balistrari, certainly.
He hadn’t prepared for the “Heist,” as he thought of it. No need to. The Galleria had one storage area and minimal security. There were cameras, but they were connected to a computer. There’d be no guard watching it, and once he had his prize, the camera recordings were as good as Balistrari’s own private records. There might be a night watchman, but not this early. There might be a security guard, but Scarlozi looked like anybody you’d see on the street. The nice suit gave him an air of respect.
As he was walking through the main gallery, he stopped one of the employees who were busy cleaning the display cases (filled with modern art “inspired” by Native Americans), and asked, “I’m from the company. I need to check the bill of lading.”
“Over there,” the employee said, pointing in the direction of the storage area. Scarlozi nodded, and continued toward where he was going anyway. The employees were busy. They’d not notice.
He got to the store room, nodded pleasantly to a young man with wild eyes exiting the room, and looked around. It was dusty and cramped with some of the new exhibit items resting on shelves. There were some grotesque pieces: a shrunken head, a two-headed fetus in a jar, a cursed painting. Some of it might even be real.
The safe was in the back, next to a much larger safe. To his dismay and horror, the little safe was open. And empty.
He glanced from the big safe to the little safe. Back and forth. The little safe had indeed been small enough to move. But the big safe…
“Shit,” he said.
Whatever he needed would be in the big safe, but how to open it? He knew a few things about safes, and this was a cheap thing with a simple three digit combination lock. Now, usually, when people were in a hurry…
He checked. The dial rested on three. So that’d be the last digit. People were disgustingly lazy with their combinations.
They liked things like birthdays, weddings, important numbers like their social. But that didn’t do any good if you didn’t know the person. Sometimes, they were so lazy they didn’t change the factory default combination. But that didn’t do any good if you didn’t know the number.
Scarlozi thought a bit. When safes were open you could pick the numbers by wobbling the wheel around to see where it jiggled. A closed safe, however? He could try every single combination with three at the end, but that’d take too long. He wasn’t sure how many numbers that would be, but while he was doing that, somebody would wander in, and ask him what he was doing. No good.
The hammer wouldn’t work either. Not on a combination lock built into the safe. Irked, his eyes began to drift around the room as he thought. Dismal, dark, with wooden shelves and junk on all of it. It occurred to him that the stuff in the little safe might have been just as easily moved to the shelves. Was there anything valuable here?
There were a lot of fake artifacts and left over museum displays covered in dust. Most of the shelves held tons of the stuff. Mostly yellow Vegas sand. How it managed to get into the building, he had no idea, but it suggested a very laxed policy of dusting. The ancient signs advertising decades past art shows looked as ancient as the art.
There was one shelf without dust. It was the shelf he’d passed on his way in. The one with the shrunken heads and creepy fetuses. The one clearly for the upcoming show.
He walked over to it. His eyes quickly swept from one side to the other. Anything of value?
At first, he didn’t notice anything, and then something did catch his eye. He stared as if at a priceless treasure. A wooden doll with eyes made of some bright red stones-- rubies?-- with thick brown hair pasted to its head. It was small enough to fit into his hand, and the hair was-- real. Real hair. Something real in this place. This had to be it. Nothing in the room was as captivating as this precious thing. It was sheer perversion that they’d leave it sitting alone.
Scarlozi grabbed the doll. Stuffing it into his jacket, he exited the room. He knew from experience that hurrying would look suspicious. So, he stopped to look at some of the fake art before exiting through the service corridor.
When he’d been young, stealing had always felt like a rush. As he aged, the thrill lessened. This however, felt exhilarating. Like stealing for the first time. Sneaking off with something important.
He barely remembered the entire drive to Balistrari’s office. Or even taking the elevator up. The Paloma Hotel’s garish furnishing didn’t bother him at all. He’d found it. The important thing his boss wanted. Only something this special could warrant keeping it in a safe.
Diane buzzed him in and he stood in front of Balistrari’s giant oak desk. The office had a picture window out on the Strip. The view would have been fantastic if the lights in Balistrari’s office hadn’t drowned it out with a shoddy, overbright reflection of the room.
“You don’t look like you’re carrying a safe,” Balistrari said, voice growling out like a tiger.
“They’d moved it out,” Scarlozi said. “Look.”
He withdrew the doll from his jacket.
“What the fuck is that?” Balistrari said.
“It’s what was in the safe.”
“That?” Balistrari said. “Give it here.”
Scarlozi almost said no, that he’d not give it up. He felt like screaming like a child. His reaction died, however, and he dutifully handed it over.
Balistari stared at it, before throwing it at Scarlozi’s head.
“This isn’t a damn diamond, you idiot,” he screamed. “Get the fuck out! If I see you again I’m going to cut your goddamn head off!”
Scarlozi fled in terror. He ran by Diane, as if she barely existed. He didn’t bother with the elevator, instead fleeing down the stairs. He’d fucked up bad. He’d have to go back to the Galleria and break into the safe. How stupid did he have to be to think a doll was--
Wait. The doll. It was still in Balistari’s office.
Scarlozi had cleared at least three landings. He turned around and very slowly took the stairs back up. He’d winded himself in his run, and each step was like torture. But he couldn’t leave it there. Balistrari clearly didn’t understand its importance. He hadn’t seen its little ruby eyes or touched the real hair. He’d thrown it! How could a man who threw such a fine little girl understand its worth?
He could not. It was clear. He’d go up and demand the girl back. That was the only thing to do. There was no way to express the importance of the doll. The girl. The doll.
He exited the stairwell panting. Diane stood up when she saw him.
“Mr. Balistrari will not see you again,” she said. “Frankly, you need to get out of the city before he takes care of you.”
Scarlozi didn’t respond. He didn’t slow down either, shouldering the door open like a linebacker breaking a picket line.
Balistrari looked up from the floor. He was sitting in front of the doll like a child listening to a teacher. He’d evidently turned off the lights in the short time Scarlozi was gone because the room seemed huge, dark, and cavernous, with twisting shadows hanging from every corner of the room and the only light was the avaricious light of Las Vegas flickering like the atavistic flame preceding electric bulbs.
His face went white when he saw Scarlozi.
“No! You can’t have Her!” he said.
“You threw Her. How can you understand Her?”
“She’s mine. You abandoned Her!”
“You thieving son of a bitch!” Scarlozi said, drawing his screwdriver and raising it like a dagger.
Balistrari grabbed the doll and scrambled for his desk.
Scarlozi drived at him, swinging the screwdriver wildly. He nearly tripped in the dark, but managed to catch himself. He growled and cursed. The bastard was still holding Her and fumbling in his desk for something.
Scarlozi flung himself over the desk, banging his shins on the top as he threw himself across it. They hit the window hard, and it shuddered. Darkness closed in around them as Scarlozi struck randomly with the screwdriver.
There was a flash and the darkness withdrew. Scarlozi’s ears rang. Balistrari tried to reposition his gun so he could fire it again. Scarlozi hardly cared, he slapped at the doll, and knocked it to the floor.
They both went for it, hands and shoulders used as weapons. Scarlozi brought the screwdriver down on Balistrari’s outstretched hand, and the darkness swelled back. Diane was screaming somewhere, but that wasn’t important.
Balistrari might be screaming too, or maybe Scarlozi himself. He couldn’t tell, his ears were ringing so bad and this asshole wouldn’t give him Her and the damn gun was right there.
Scarlozi seized the gun and fired it. He’d lost track of Balistrari so he fired it madly at the window and the horrible lights of the damned city.
He felt a shock as Balistrari tackled him. The window gave and they both fell. Glass like biting teeth tore through his suit at him and his assailant's hands slapped at him, and there was a hideous rush of air, and just before he began to tumble uncontrollably, he caught a glimpse of the window he’d just fallen out of and the darkness reaching out trying to grab him and pull him in and he thought, Now that bitch Diane will have Her. He then thought about Her real hair and then there was nothing as his brains spread over the Vegas concrete.
There’d been an incident at the Galleria. Vickie, an insurance claim investigator, was going over an itemized list of things damaged. One of the staff had gone crazy and torn apart the back storage room looking for-- well, who knows what exactly? There’d been some damaged stuff, but reviewing the security tapes, something had actually been stolen earlier.
“What is that?” she’d asked. The Galleria curator, a fancy title for something so commercial as the Galleria-- Vickie understood it to mean art director-- had explained it to her.
This is what she wrote in her report:
Stolen: Antique wooden doll with red zircon eyes. Mid-twenty (sic) century. Hair reputedly belonged to creator’s daughter who died in house fire. Supposedly cursed. Estimated dollar value, $12.43, mostly for the eyes.
Behold a Pale Horse: The 2021 Halloween Horrorquest