Two days after my meeting with Sam, the Corsair’s chauffeur piled my luggage into the trunk of the hotel’s limousine and motored to the dusty expanse of the airport. I sat in the backseat with Inez at my side. She looked movie-star perfect in dark glasses and with her green sheath clinging to her curves like a second skin. Her charm bracelet jingled away, driving me nuts. I’d already tired of her petulant expression.
“Oh Dannykins, I’ll be so sad with you in New Orleans with little me all alone. I’ve decided to go back to Los Angeles tomorrow. Will you miss your Inez?”
I lied. “Yes, of course, baby.”
The limousine drove through the dreary concrete archway festooned with dusty neon airplane propellers and a glitzy sign announcing MCCARRAN FIELD, LAS VEGAS, NEVADA. The driver steered us toward the ugly Western-style terminal sprawled across the sand, its beige and terra-cotta paint faded from the sun’s angry rays. My plane sat in wait on the tarmac behind a chain-link fence.
The limo stopped, and I moved in for a kiss, a chaste one, no tongue involved. “Good-bye, Inez.”
Her brows knotted. “No, Dannykins. I want to see you off.”
Would I ever get rid of her? “But, baby, I’m just picking up my boarding pass.”
Inez sighed, obviously annoyed. She gave me a brittle smile. “Well, I’ll go with you.”
I didn’t have the energy for a scene. Once she’d made up her mind, I couldn’t stop her. “Sure.”
I turned to my driver. “Take care of my bags, will you, Charlie?”
Tourists flooded the terminal, everyone dressed to the nines, the men in seersucker and the ladies in tailored suits with matching hats. Stewardesses in chic uniforms, cigarette smoke wreathing their heads, rushed to awaiting planes. Frantic energy mingled with the desperation of gamblers and the newly divorced, yet when Inez and I entered, everything came to a standstill. The whispers began.
“Is that who I think it is? Inez Hale? Who’s the fellow with her?”
“Don’t know, but he’s real good-looking. Must be an actor or maybe a gangster.”
People had pegged me for a gangster from the time I turned fourteen. Sam called me a thug, and my mother always said I had an air of danger about me, one I inherited from my father. “My darling boy, everyone considered your papa a thug, and you look just like him.”
Tears had rolled down her cheeks. “If I didn’t know what a mensch you are, I’d think you were a hoodlum.”
Sam and I had also inherited Pop’s hazel eyes that flared deadly when angered. I even walked like a thug, something I’d picked up from my grandpa at the age of eleven. Before I made my way to the plane, Inez grabbed me by the arm. “Stop, lamby pie.”
A bunch of photographers descended on us from nowhere, and Inez struck a seductive pose. I saw flashes of light, heard the pop of flashbulbs, and smelled fried glass. I turned, but Inez held me firm while photographers went at it again.
Hot rage coursed through my veins. “You called the press?”
She pulled off my sunglasses and displayed her pearly whites. “No, silly. Freddy did.”
I once doubted that anyone could be a bigger phony than Inez, but Freddy Bennett, her weasel-faced press agent, would have sold out his mother for a quarter. Inez pouted and held tight to my arm. “Don’t be a grump, Danny. Everybody thinks you’re an actor, so smile for the camera like a good boy.”
I couldn’t argue. Bringing Inez to Vegas had been my idea from the beginning. Despite my anger, we exchanged loving looks and grins. I’d been with Inez long enough to know the crackle of a flashbulb was music to her ears. She threw her arms around my shoulders. Flash! Someone shot another photo. For the first time that day, the thought of New Orleans thrilled me.
Without warning a childish voice called out my name, “Uncle Danny!” I spun around just as Ruthie and my two nieces rushed toward me. The youngest, a bubbly four-year-old named Sheila, jumped into my arms. “You’re going away, and you didn’t say good-bye. I’m mad at you, Uncle Danny.”
Her older sister, six-year-old Blanche, stared up at me, her dark eyes questioning. “Why didn’t you tell us you were going, Uncle Danny?”
My sister-in-law, a dark-haired, doe-eyed beauty from Brooklyn, gave Inez a polite but chilly smile and patted Blanche on the head. “Your daddy is sending Uncle Danny on this trip, but he’ll be back to you soon enough, won’t you, Danny?”
I put Sheila on the tiled floor and knelt in front of the girls. “I promise to come back as soon as possible and bring you both dolls from New Orleans.”
The girls exchanged a look; then Sheila spoke out with all the earnestness in the world. “We don’t want dolls, Uncle Danny. We want you.”
At that moment, I wanted to scrap the whole trip and spend the day with my two girls.
* * * *
Nothing extraordinary happened on the flight—no turbulence, wailing babies, or drunken frat boys acting like asses. However, I became the object of affection for every stewardess on board, each one trying to outdo the other in their attempts at pleasing me. They were all pretty, trim yet curvaceous in their stylish suits. The hostesses ignored the polite, well-dressed passengers in first class and fell all over each other to serve me. They plied me with airline food, hot hors d’oeuvres, jiggly shrimp aspics, and scotch on the rocks.
The stewardesses treated me like a pasha and acted like members of a flying harem, ready to grant my every wish. Flattering, but call me nuts, I had no interest. Two baby-faced newlyweds who only had eyes for each other were the ones that intrigued me. The girl wore her dark hair in a ponytail, and the boy looked like he’d just left college. They billed and cooed the whole flight. I overheard the groom whispering their honeymoon plans. “Darling, I can’t wait to get you alone in Havana. We’ll spend our days on the beach and make love all night.”
The bride’s skin turned deep fuchsia. She gazed into his eyes and murmured, “Jimmy, you’re so naughty, but I love you anyway.”
When they kissed, I felt a pang of jealousy burning in my chest. No girl had ever looked at me that way, and I would have given my right arm for it. I took another sip of scotch and tried to convince myself the lovebirds didn’t matter. But I knew they did.
The plane landed at Moisant Field. I disembarked into a swamp and made my way through the wet heat. I’d be stuck in this bug-infested inferno for the next week. I wanted to fly straight back to Vegas.
The terminal sat in the damp air, a vast, ragtag army hangar left over from the war. It looked thrown together with tape and rubber bands. Two stewardesses grinned at each other, and the braver of the two, a willowy blonde, thrust her breasts forward and slithered toward me.
“Hi, Mr. Rothstein. Hope you enjoyed your flight.”
The other girl, a stunning young woman with reddish hair styled in an upsweep, stepped forward, her hand extended. “Hello, Mr. Rothstein. I’m Mindy, and this little firecracker is my friend, Roseanne. Please don’t think we’re brazen, but we were wondering if you needed a little company. We’ve got time to kill.”
Who could say no to two pretty girls willing to show me a good time? Just as I was about to tell them, Yes, I’d love to take you two dolls up on your offer
, the newlyweds strolled by, arm in arm. They were breathless in their innocence and so eager to start their life together.
My need for feminine companionship disappeared in the blink of an eye. I pulled two business cards out of my pocket and handed one to each girl. “Ladies, I’m flattered, but I’m already booked. Business, you know. The card has my private line at my casino on it. I’ll be back in Vegas next week. Call me. I’ll try to repay your kindness with some of my own.”
Mindy and Roseanne exchanged a look and simpered like schoolgirls. Roseanne took my hand and whispered a seductive good-bye. “See you next week, Mr. Rothstein. We can’t wait.” She blew me a kiss, and they sauntered away, their hips swaying with each step.
I went off in search of my luggage. By the time I reached the baggage counter, a beefy young tough in a rumpled seersucker suit and two-toned oxfords had already loaded most of my luggage onto a dolly. He shouted at a redcap, “Hey, Emil, get the large suitcase on the dolly. Step on it. I ain’t got all day.”
The fellow raked his fingers through his dark brown hair, then popped a stick of Juicy Fruit into his mouth. I smelled cop on him. I don’t know where I got my talent from, but I could sniff out a flatfoot from a million miles away. Something about this bastard screamed police, but at that moment, my bags most concerned me.
“Hey, what the hell? That’s my luggage. What are you two doing with it?”
The beefy fellow smiled, his hand extended. “Well hey, Mr. Rothstein. I’m Gino De Luca, Otis LeBlanc’s body guard. He sent me to carry you to his hotel, La Reine de la Nouvelle Orléans. Everything’s all set up, sir. You don’t have to worry about nothing, nothing at all, sir. When we get to the La Reine, you can refresh yourself, and afterward I’ll bring you to meet Mr. LeBlanc at the Mason-Dixon Line, his fancy nightclub.”
Gino spoke with a heavy New Orleans accent, in a speech neither Southern nor New York. More like the Bronx, barbeque-style. We left the air-conditioned comfort of the terminal for the inferno outside. In Vegas, the heat blows from the desert, bone-dry, and we’d walk from one air-conditioned building to another. Mild winters turned into gentle springs. Piping hot summers became moderate autumns. New Orleans was different. I’d never lived in a Turkish bath before.
Our limo moseyed past graveyards, restaurants, more graveyards, and empty casinos. Gino pointed to a boarded-up white building with a broken neon sign. “That place was once the Beverly Country Club, the biggest casino in Louisiana. It had a fancy dining room with great grub and pretty gals. Hell, half the police force worked there as doormen and bouncers. Jimmy Durante even did a show there.”
He chuckled at his memories of the good old days. “The feds kept closing it down, and the Sicilians and the Jews kept opening it back up. Mr. LeBlanc wanted to go into business with the owner and bring gaming into New Orleans, but the deal never went through. I used to be a cop, and I know a lot of stuff that goes on. There won’t be no gambling in New Orleans anytime soon, if ever.”
I leaned back into the upholstery, pleased. My cop radar was still spot-on. “Well, Gino, you can tell your boss he won’t have that problem in Vegas. It’s just the place for a smart gent like Mr. LeBlanc, loaded with folks with money to spend.”
He nodded and gobbled another stick of gum.
The limo finally hit the city limits. I’d been to New Orleans once as a kid, but now I looked at the city as an adult. Street musicians encircled the car, but with the windows rolled up, I couldn’t hear the music I knew blared from every corner or the sound of natives calling out to each other in their strange accent. Night charmed the bright hues of old Creole town houses, softening the garish colors, concealing centuries of grime. People sauntered down the ancient boulevards, some promenading in their best outfits, others staggering down Quarter streets after sampling the liquid delights of the city.
It seemed as if we’d driven forever, but Gino finally pointed to my destination, a palatial mansion with a circular driveway. “Here’s your hotel, Mr. Rothstein, La Reine de la Nouvelle Orléans. It means the Queen of New Orleans, and she sure is. Mr. LeBlanc is very picky about the clientele. Only the cream of the crop, sir. He bought the place off a crazy family a few years ago and turned it into the best hotel.”
The limo pulled up in the courtyard in front of a huge estate that looked straight out of Gone with the Wind
. It had it all: white pillars, ornate balustrades, manicured lawns, every charming Southern cliché. An army of housemen swarmed around and whisked away my bags. The car doors opened as if by magic, and a grinning fellow in a natty black suit took my hand in his. “I’m delighted to meet you, Mr. Rothstein. My name is Tony Durand, manager of La Reine de la Nouvelle Orléans. Mr. LeBlanc has given me special instructions regarding you, sir. Your wish is our command. Allow me to escort you to your suite of rooms.”
Durand led me through the grand lobby. Its elegance matched some of the most beautiful hotels I’d ever seen. Immense crystal chandeliers rained light on the Italian marble floors. The ornate furnishings looked straight out of the Tuileries Palace, and I figured they must have cost LeBlanc a bundle. Durand led Gino and me past the regular elevators to a set of doors beneath an elaborately carved faux lintel. He turned a key, and the doors opened. “There’s your private elevator, sir.”
Durand shot me a carnal grin. Since New Orleans crawled with willing ladies, the letch probably figured I’d be smuggling girls into my suite by the score. Just in case, I’d brought a suitcase full of prophylactics, the best money could buy. Perhaps some choice pussy would make up for the heat and the bugs.
We glided up to my floor, stepped into a deserted freesia-scented hallway with marble floors, trompe l’oeil panels, and mirrors in gilded frames so highly polished they almost blinded me. Durand grinned again when he opened the door. Wow!
The room almost outdid the lobby in opulence. Cut-crystal vases filled with fresh-cut flowers gleamed back at me, and the place smelled like heaven. I noted a profusion of museum-class alabaster, ivory, teak, and mahogany. A hi-fi nestled inside an ornate console, and fruit baskets and hothouse flowers sat on the marble countertop along with a bucket of chilled Taittinger champagne. The staff had stocked the mirrored bar with the best liquor: Laphroaig, Chivas, Progue, Old Fitzgerald, every top label. I nodded to Durand when he handed me the key to the room and the elevator. “Nice, very nice.”
He locked eyes with Gino, and they smiled in unison. “Thank you, sir. I’m thrilled that you’re pleased. Your bags are in your bedroom, and I’ll send a houseman to unpack them. Mr. De Luca informed me that you’re meeting Mr. LeBlanc later, so how about I send up a maid to press your tux, sir?”
“That would be fine.”
Gino gave Durand a surreptitious smirk that broadcast, Hey man, we reeled the sucker in, didn’t we?
If the room had been bigger, I would have done a back flip. LeBlanc wanted this deal, and I wouldn’t have to sweat it out. I acted as cool as I could. “It would be great if you send the maid now. I need a shower before I go out.”
Durand flashed a toothy grin. “Yes, sir.”
He pranced off with Gino at his heels. Gino called out as he dashed through the door. “The driver will be back for you in five hours, Mr. Rothstein. He’ll take you to the Mason-Dixon Line. You ain’t never seen anything like it, no, sir. You’ll meet Mr. LeBlanc there.”
* * * *
I strolled into the air-conditioned comfort of the Mason-Dixon Line exactly five hours and ten minutes later. The place had the LeBlanc touch all over it. Another New Orleans corpse exhumed, resurrected, and made beautiful by a master mortician. Bourbon Street rocked that night, and people queued up around the block champing at the bit to get inside the club. LeBlanc had draped the wrought-iron balconies in Bonnie Blue banners and mounted a giant cannon on the roof. Maybe his ode to the old South wouldn’t fly in Harlem, but LeBlanc seemed to know what he was doing. He’d clearly been collecting Civil War paraphernalia for years, a revolving exhibition of guns, uniforms, and maps artfully displayed in the lobby. Not my taste, but my brother and I ran a giant pirate ship festooned with cutlasses and Jolly Rogers, so what did I know?
The moment I strolled into the club itself behind the maître d’, the ambiance changed for the better. The lobby opened to a chic supper club, elegance in ivory and crimson with damask tablecloths, bone china, fine cutlery, and the best crystal. I’d heard that in a city noted for great food, experts considered the kitchen here one of the best. One glance at the trays of New Orleans cuisine confirmed their judgment.
A trumpet blared, and a curvy blonde dancer undulated onstage from behind two fake palm trees. The girl moved to an Afro-Cuban beat, tossing her platinum mane in rhythm with the music. She twirled like a dervish, rolling her hips and bobbing her ass up and down to the beat of a conga drum.
The maître d’ signaled me to follow him to a corner booth where a chubby gentleman sat alone sipping bourbon while he watched the girl dance across the stage. The fellow rose from his chair and gave me a million-dollar smile before extending his hand.
“Mr. Rothstein, I’m so glad to meet you. I’m Otis LeBlanc. I don’t stand on ceremony, so call me Otis. Your brother said your name is Daniel, but you look like a Danny to me. Sit, and let’s have a drink.”
Otis looked somewhere in his fifties, wore an expensive tuxedo, his dark hair carefully combed in place, a perpetual smile slapped across his face. Yep, he sure looked jolly. I’d never seen a wider grin or brown eyes crinkling with such mirth.
“Thanks, Otis. And you’re right. It is Danny.”
He called a waiter over, and I took my seat. I settled back in the chair ready to make my spiel, but Otis got a leg up on me.
“What do you take, Danny? I’m drinking Blanton’s. Great bourbon, and I never mess it up with ice or branch. You look like a scotch-on-the-rocks man to me. I bet you haven’t had time to eat since you got off the plane. Try one of our filet mignons, the best in New Orleans.”
The crafty son of a bitch had nailed me the moment he saw me. “Yes to scotch on the rocks, and please make that steak medium rare.”
His eyes twinkled. “How about Laphroaig?”
“Laphroaig? I can’t turn down one of the best whiskeys in the world, can I, Otis?” He put a finger up to a waiter, who rushed over glass and bottle. I took a sip. “This is great stuff.”
Otis chortled when he pointed to the girl onstage. “What do you think of that gal, Danny?”
The girl rolled her hips one more time. “She’s good.”
Otis never took his eyes off her. “Good, but not great. I had a terrific girl. The Bayou Volcano. Never saw anything like her. Hot as a July day and could dance her ass off. Hell, they’d line up around the block to see her even if there was a hurricane warning. She got into a little trouble, and we had to replace her. Oh well, this one will have to do.”
The dancing girl’s skirt fell to the floor to reveal her muscular thighs and a shaved pubic area barely covered by a flesh-colored G-string. I felt a stirring in my loins. “She’s not bad, Otis. If she came to Vegas, I’d give her a lounge act. With those hips, that ass, and those tits, she’d bring in the fellows. Don’t know if you’ve heard, but some of the casinos are even thinking of going to partially nude, bare-breasted showgirls. I guess everybody likes tits.” I fortified myself with a shot of scotch. Leaned into him. “By the way, I have to thank you for that beautiful suite. I’ve stayed at hotels around the world but haven’t seen too many that equal yours, not in Paris or even in London. I’m afraid the rooms in our casinos aren’t as elegant, at least not yet.”
He didn’t look at me, just kept his eyes on the stripper. “Danny, they’ll have to be if I come on board.” Otis signaled to a waiter, whispered my order before he took another sip of his bourbon. As charming and genial as he seemed, the voice in my head told me Otis LeBlanc wasn’t a man to cross.
Otis turned back to me. When I looked past the surface jester, I saw a dangerous glint in those sparkling eyes. Something lurked behind the smile, and I wondered just how jolly Otis LeBlanc really was.
He gave my shoulder a pat. “You know, Danny, I once dreamed of slot machines and roulette wheels here in New Orleans, but that’ll never happen.”
The time had arrived to make my pitch. “I know, Otis. I’ve talked to a number of our associates in Miami and Havana, and they agree that gaming in New Orleans isn’t feasible, at least not for now. But Vegas is wide open and perfect for a smart gent like you.”
He sighed. “I’ve been to Las Vegas, Danny. I’ve seen those garish casinos and loud rooms, all purple and orange. If we come to an understanding, whatever we do has to be classy or I’m not interested. I don’t want to get involved with nothing cheap or sleazy. You understand me?”
I savored my scotch’s smooth taste. “I understand, Otis.” Suddenly, the stripper began a series of bumps and grinds. Her hips undulated in lazy circles. She tossed her head back and forth as if in the throes of a sexual climax, and I couldn’t stop myself from getting a full erection. Lord, I prayed Otis hadn’t noticed. My hard-on made my napkin look as if I’d set a linen tent on my lap.
I moved a bit closer and whispered, “Speaking of sleazy, Sam told me about this place you acquired. The Lucky 13. He said I should give it the once-over.”
The Jolly Cajun disappeared, and Otis hissed. “Sam should’ve told you not to mention the Lucky 13 in polite company. I acquired that dump as payment for a debt. Pardon my French, but the most fucked-up folks in New Orleans frequent it. It’s not a place for a handsome young man. If you want to get laid, I can arrange it, but forget about the Lucky 13.”
Before I could reply, a cigarette girl strolled up to our table. “Hello, Mr. LeBlanc. Would your guest be interested in some smokes or a nice Cuban cigar? I have premium ones.”
When I looked up, my heart nearly stopped beating, and I almost dropped my scotch. She had the face of a goddess with lips like two fluffy pillows covered in hot-pink silk. Her eyes were the most beautiful I’d ever seen—large, double lashed, and framed by heavy brows. She locked them on me, and I felt the heat of two blue klieg lights. An electric current went through my body and through hers too. After a long moment, she finally looked away.
She may have been young, but from her manner I sensed she wasn’t an innocent. Beautiful women had given me the eye since I walked into the joint, but this one interested me. Otis looked from her to me, his face revealing nothing. “Two Cohibas, darling.”
I pulled a twenty from my pocket and handed it to her. She opened her cash box, rifling for change, but Otis stopped her. “They’re on the house, Yvette.”
She nodded and gave the twenty back. “Here you are, sir.” I felt a surge of playfulness, folded the bill, and stuffed it between her two gorgeous breasts.
“Keep it, baby.”
Those big blue orbs flared at me with lethal fire. She mumbled a breathy, “Thank you, sir,” and sauntered away before looking back over her shoulder, her eyes shooting daggers. The girl had sass, and I liked it.
I kept my gaze on her. She wore a short, black, spangled affair that displayed every inch of her velvety skin and curvy body. The costume showed off her cleavage, and her tits looked magnificent without the pointy brassieres cocktail waitresses favored. Her black curls danced around her creamy shoulders. I couldn’t stop staring at her even when I tried to talk business with Otis. She looked back at our table once more, noticed me staring back, and quickly averted her face. Her playing coy got me hot and bothered in the best possible way, and my erection returned.
“Who the hell is that?”
He chuckled. “Yvette? She’s a kid I helped once.” Otis sat back in his chair, smirking. “Yes, sir, Miss Yvette Delacroix, a lovely name for a lovely girl. She’s worked here for three years. You interested?”
The girl looked like heaven on two legs. “Hell yes, I’m interested. Didn’t you say you’d get me laid? I pick her.”
Otis shook his head. “Sorry, Danny, not that little girl. I know a number of young ladies who’d gladly entertain out-of-town visitors, but I’m afraid she’s not one of them.”
I watched Yvette saunter through the crowd. “She seemed interested to me. Could you talk to her?”
“I’ll give it a try, Danny, but there are other girls. Besides, a good-looking fellow like you should have no trouble finding companionship.”
“Maybe, but I want her. Please.”
“All right, Danny. Let me see what I can do.”
I sat back, savoring my smoke. I rarely partook of cigars since ladies don’t like them, but I enjoyed this one because of the seller. Otis rose from his chair, walked over to Yvette, and took her by the arm. He escorted her to a dark corner of the club. From my vantage point, their conversation began calmly enough, but the tempo became quite animated. Otis pointed toward me, and she shook her head. From the vehemence of the head shake and her adamant stance, Yvette seemed angry. Still, the madder she got, the more I wanted her. My dick grew hard at the sight of her. I resolved not to leave New Orleans without sampling the charms of Miss Yvette Delacroix first.