Next thing I recall I was in our room on one of the two beds, half-rolled in the rug we’d encountered upon entering the one-night-commune.
Somehow I still had my telephone. I called my contact. They didn’t answer. I left a rambling message about giving up and passed out.
Seth’s call woke me. Peter was asleep next to me. The lights were out but I could tell it was him by the smell. One thing about Peter: He smells delicious yet sour. A paragon of cleanliness, class, and custard. Also, he felt like felt. He’d pulled the rug around him so we were burritoed in it together.
Where are we in our investigation? Nowhere.
What will it take? Everything.
Where are they? In the crowd at the concert.
I’d known this before I’d arrived. It’s the reason I’d agreed to go to Morongo in the first place.
Morris Day & The Time were playing Morongo’s “night club,” Vibe. Great act; doesn’t matter. I’d received two free passes and Sam, as he’s just a slightly larger The Time fan than Seth, had won the second ticket through an impassioned display of interest. And I was more comfortable with Sam backing me up than Seth.
But Sam was now with a small man, drenched in thick, black raiment, in, as Sam had said, “the tunnels.” Or was he? How long have I been out?
The digital clock on the nightstand read 11:39.
I unraveled the blue, woven tortilla and spilled the beans, i.e. me. My waking eyes were adjusting to the dark. Peter mumbled something in his sleep and torpidly pawed at his eyes.
“I’ve gotta go,” I told him. Slowly he nodded and set his hand for a high-five. I never leave someone hanging.
As I left the room something burned like trouble in my spine. The hair on my neck rose as I looked back at the small table to see that Chris was gone and the false gardenias had been trimmed to make two figures, one on bended knee looking up at the other who met the proposer’s gaze.
I added a new mission to the docket:
After telephoning my contact a second time, leaving yet another confusing message, I flushed the unused toilet, retrieved my tools, and set out to find Chris as well as my daughter’s killer.
The elevator ride down was bumpy with regret. Each misstep, every mismatched syllable spoken, all messy decisions climbed my burning spine with embarrassment and pointlessness; a meltdown in the core of a personal history wrought with cowardice and drunken errors.
Oh, Cleo. You would’ve hated it here. So many fools. So much noise. But we could’ve hated it all together. I can hear you now. “Good god. There isn’t a chic person within a mile.” No, Cleo. No there isn’t.
After breaking through a smattering of Peggy Lees harmonizing on “Mañana” and hopping over the swats of a vertically challenged woman flaunting a ski-pole taller than her, I got back to the bar where I ordered a drink to help me forget all the mistakes I’d made while drinking.
The Hulk drinkers of last night were gone. Deflated balloons mélanged with plashes of glowing, spilled, green drink. The table’d yet to be tended to, so I tended to it.
I took a knee and slurped the alcoholic veneer from the party bench.
Once, when Cleo had hidden even the least interesting alcohols, I drank a bottle of Angostura bitters and danced alone to the improvised rhythm of the dryer and the washing machine, while my wife slept under dosage of some kind of sleeping pill and a black vanity mask with white-laced edges.
My night vision goggles bounced on my chest as I treaded the ashy Morongo carpet.
Passing the roulette tables I inserted my ear buds and hit shuffle.
My eyes fused as a long-focus lens. The radiance of the casino’s machines went for many blurry miles. But right in front of me, with Allan Sherman in my ears, lazing on about camp Grenada, I spotted Seth. Rather, I ran toward Seth and disrupted the game of blackjack he wasn’t going to win anyway with two 2’s and two 4’s.
“You should fold.” I shouted.
Seth shifted in his chair, eyeing me with his usual patience.
“You don’t fold in blackjack,” he informed me.
“Okay, you should, like, not play anymore. Two 2’s and two 4’s? That’s not even close to twenty-one.”
Seth gently tossed his cards face-up on the green-felted table.
“Well, that’s true.”
“Have you seen Chris?”
The dealer took Seth’s chips, made some arcane motion toward Seth, and Seth made a different motion back, also indecipherable. Two new cards were laid before him.
“Well?” I needed to know where Chris was before I moved on to killing the curly-haired killer.
“Last I saw him he was way on the other side of the Casino.”
“Which way?” I asked, trying to hide my rage.
“Uh, over there.”
Seth pointed toward the glass doors that served as both the entrance and exit.
I thanked the unlucky gambler and teetered in the direction he’d provided.
Was there some kind of Halloween-style holiday I didn’t know about?
A “sexy Santa” spun a massive wheel that clicked like playing cards lodged in a child’s bicycle wheel. This is a costume I’ve never really understood. From the boots with the fur to the bikini with the fur, the lady was hot. But the long false, white beard really took me out of it.
Something in my head burst. My chest swelled with congestion. I’d been poisoned! Had he found me before I’d found him?
I collapsed into a triad of massive, debonair Native American men, in sunglasses and white ties, who helped me to my resting place.
I was left on the rounded curb just outside. To continue my mission I’d need an antidote.
“Antitoke.” No, that’s not right. This poison attacks your nervous system and diction skills. “Todinak.” No. Try again. “Annatoad.” Close enough.
“Annatoad!” I yelled at the blurry figures passing me. I knew if I could get to my flask the juniper in the gin would act as an annatoad.
But my hands wouldn’t work. My legs wouldn’t move.
“Barniclad!” I howled and pointed at the flask at my ankle.
You can do this. Do it for Celene. Cleo will come back if you kill him. You’ve got this.
“Dlantidode!” I screamed, yanking the gin-filled flask from my sock. I guzzled at the juniper teat. Alas, the killer had done it. The poison had won. I was gone.
Patrick Benjamin is a writer living near Los Angeles. He lives with his sister and grandmother.