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OCTOBER 27TH. 6 HOURS BEFORE OUTBREAK.
A plague that will cause the death of millions. A plague that will destroy countries. A plague that will plunge the world into a dark age.
A plague that will make nobody sick.
Lewis Stokes -- or so the false name on his Nevada driver's license reads -- feeds another dollar into the Wheel of Fortune machine in the lobby of hotel New York-New York in Las Vegas and feels his heartbeat pick up, but not because of the game. The onetime beggar boy -- whose mother was publicly beheaded -- has just spotted the twenty-year-old University of Nevada English major that he's flown six thousand miles to kill.
The boy -- slovenly-looking and dark-haired -- is weaving toward him, past the single-deck blackjack tables, heading for the reception desk. He's drinking from a foot-long glass beaker filled with bright red liquid, probably a Singapore Sling or mix of rums and fruit juices. The boy looks tipsy, unaware, alone.
The kid must be killed by 12:14 tonight.
"Not one minute later," Lewis's mentor had said when he'd provided the usual range of perfectly made false IDs.
Lewis tenses to stand, to follow. But he realizes that the boy is too tall to be Robert Grady.
He just looks like Grady.
Lewis curses under his breath and puts another dollar in the machine.
Normally a handsome blond, Lewis is disguised as a balding dark-haired man today. Normally lean, he looks heavy and clumsy from the belly-extender bladder and black-framed glasses. His posture is slumped. He walks with a limp. The few people who notice him register a nerd in a box-cut sports jacket. A cheapo off-the-rack design.
Playing slots enables him to sit within view of the reception desk, invisible to the bellboys, desk clerks and house detectives. One more gambler among hundreds. But this gambler conceals a Glock under his jacket and a serrated K-bar knife in the pit of his back. Lewis killed his first person at age twelve, in self-defense, in a tent.
"Wheel...of...Fortune," shouts a chorus of tinny mechanical voices in his machine as the wheel spins on top and multicolored lights flash, and potential amounts of winnings, $800, $100, $20, rotate in pie-wedge shapes on the wheel.
He hates Las Vegas, the brashness, the noise, the anarchy that reminds him of the refugee camp where he grew up. The damn ground floor is the worst. It's like Fellini designed the place. It's a madhouse of rock music, kids running, machines clanging, drunks laughing. No windows to the outside world. No glimpse of anything except the asylumlike gaming area, laid out in a maze through which flows a never-ending human jackpot. People spilling like coins from the elevators and heading out toward other local traps; the Riviera and the Paris, the Monte Carlo, the Gold Coast, none of them remotely resembling the romantic spots for which they've been named.
More to the point, where is Robert Grady?
"Make it look like robbery if possible," Lewis's mentor had said. "But if that boy is standing in a crowded lobby at 12:14, walk up and shoot him in the face. Can I depend on you to sacrifice yourself if necessary, my old and special friend?"
"What happens at 12:15 if he's still alive?"
"The world may -- unfortunately -- stay the same."
"Why will killing a college student make so much difference?"
"I want you to know his exact role. You deserve to. But if the Americans catch you, if they figure out who you are, they will do anything to make you tell."
Five hours and thirteen minutes left.
Lewis arrived in Las Vegas two days ago. Plenty of time to work. But he's been unable to locate Robert Grady. The boy has not gone home. He's not attended class. His telephone answering machine is so filled with messages that it refuses to accept new ones. Does he know Lewis is here? Who the hell is he, anyway? His girlfriend, when Lewis phoned her apartment, pretending to be from the school, said she'd not seen Grady in a week.
"He's a degenerate gambler, and I'm through with him," she'd snapped. "He only applied to your stupid school so he could play craps in casinos. When he disappears it means he won money. He'll keep playing until he loses it back."
Finally, an hour ago, Lewis had made a fourth round of calls to casinos that the kid frequented and learned that a Bobby Grady had a reservation to stay here tonight. So Lewis reserved a room too. The file said the kid always stays on the eleventh floor, Century tower, because he considers that tower "lucky." So Lewis checked in to that tower too. It was the only way to obtain key-card access to the elevators leading upstairs.
Lewis checks his watch, takes a break at the machine and calls the hotel operator on the house phone.
"Mr. Grady just called. He said he'll be checking in a little late," she tells Lewis.
"He didn't say."
"Did you talk to him?"
The operator seems offended that he's asked. "I'm telling you all I see on my screen, sir."
Lewis curbs his irritation, slumps his shoulders to remain inconspicuous, ambles back to the Wheel of Fortune machine.
A white-haired old lady in a wheelchair now sits beside him at another machine. She balances a plastic cup filled with quarters on her skinny lap.
The lady smiles at him. "This place is so exciting!"
He doesn't answer. She'll remember him less accurately that way. He's remembering his last visit to see his mentor, in August, transported in his mind to a more quiet, beautiful place. They'd sipped orange juice in a cool green garden. Mist-shrouded oaks had rimmed the vast lawn. The crash of the nearby ocean had mixed with the cry of wheeling terns as the mentor and younger man sat on nine-hundred-year-old stone benches. Everything around them, the private forest and green mountains and the sprawling home beyond the sculpture garden, had been solid, lovely, old.
"Actually, Robert Grady is one of several people I'm hoping you'll visit in America," Lewis's mentor had said, conveying orders as if they were requests, as always.
Lewis flashes back to the last murder, three weeks later, after he'd flown to Washington, D.C., bought a car and driven up I-95 to the Taconic Parkway, the Berkshire hills and the village of Becket, Massachusetts. There he'd located the isolated dirt-road home of a fifty-nine-year-old custom kayak maker. He'd entered through an unlocked door. People in the area did not fear home-breakers. He'd disemboweled the man when he returned home on a Friday night from a Savion Glover dance performance at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Lewis had worn latex gloves on the job. He'd used his left hand during the attack to fool forensics experts, analysts of angles of attack.
Lewis was a righty except when on jobs.
After the killing, he'd rifled the medicine cabinet for pills, stolen the cash in the man's wallet and taken some antique silverware. He'd dumped the loot in the waters of a nearby quarry, a deep green lake.
"ROBBERY MOTIVE IN MURDER," the local Berkshire Eagle had proclaimed.
As his mentor had said, "Deception is success. Disinformation is deception. Always make Americans blame others for what you do."
"By 12:14 Robert Grady will journey to the other side," Lewis had promised, recalling words that his great-great-grandfather had written after World War One. Words he carried with him on travels, in a dog-eared edition published in 1927. "Blood is always on our hands, but we are licensed to it."
And now, finally, he spots Robert Grady.
The kid passes within two feet of him on his way to the reception desk. At first glance Grady seems like one more easygoing college boy. Open-necked button-down white shirt, slightly wrinkled. Faded Levi's. Worn Avias and an Eastern Mountain backpack over his right shoulder. The face is young and scruffy with a brown beard. The boy has baby blue eyes.
But Lewis also glimpses something raw beneath the soft surface. The eyes aren't exactly clear and innocent but fixed on something invisible. Lewis grew up surrounded by desperation. He knows its forms: need, terror, obsession, greed. This boy is haunted by premonitions. By the pull of compulsion. The slavery to odds.
Lewis watches Bobby Grady turn away from the reception desk. But instead of going upstairs, Grady hands his knapsack to a bellboy, points at the elevator and gives the kid a tip.
Robert Grady wants to go gambling right now, it seems.
Lewis sighs, feeds one last dollar into the machine and lets the guy pass and draw away again, into the casino. He pushes the Wheel of Fortune machine button one last time and rises silently to follow.
But the machine goes berserk. Bells clang. Wheels spin. Everyone within a hundred-foot radius gapes at Lewis. Bellboys. Guests. Kids. A prostitute. Security cameras in the ceiling will be recording the scene. Hotel guests, people checking in, lined up with their luggage, crane to see. The Wheel of Fortune machine has been programmed, on super-rare occasions when it pays off big, to make a commotion as loud as an air-raid siren on an American military base. The noise almost drowns out the rock and roll music blaring through the lobby.
The old lady in the wheelchair gasps. "Good Lord! It's not stopping! Five thousand and...oh...oh my!"
Robert Grady, who has not turned to watch, is drawing farther away, heading for the sports betting area.
A flashbulb pops. Someone has taken a photograph of the big winner.
"Hotel newsletter," the woman holding the camera announces to Lewis with a grin as one of the casino attendants, a Hispanic-looking man in a brick-colored jacket, approaches with an immense smile, holding a clipboard that probably contains a form to be filled out for the IRS. You cannot deduct gambling losses on tax returns in the U.S. But you pay taxes if you win. Is life fair?
In the fraction of a second during which Lewis decides what to do, the process comes so fast he experiences it as instinct. If slowed to logic, his thoughts would be:
Don't worry about the witnesses. The photos won't show what I really look like. No one will connect what happened here to what happens to Robert Grady later tonight.
He turns to the woman in the wheelchair as the stupid machine keeps clanging, as numbers spin, zeroes flash, nineteen turns to twenty...
"I have to catch my flight!" he gasps with Lewis Stokes's "southern accent." He's been schooled in Austria, Bahrain, Tunisia.
The woman gapes at him. This is not what she expected to hear.
"My wife doesn't know I'm in Vegas," he says. "I'm here with her best friend. If I miss my flight, I'm dead!"
The old lady's eyes go wide. She understands now, all right. She's probably getting more shock and titillation material in the last minute to pass on to the knitting club back in Houston than she normally experiences in a decade.
"I can't believe it," he says. "I lost almost all my money at Circus Circus and now...You take it."
Ms. Wheelchair's mouth opens so wide you'd think she could swallow the whole damn slot machine. Lewis pushes through the crowd, ignoring tourists snapping shots. The woman from the newsletter looms close to get a profile portrait. The overhead surveillance cameras undoubtedly follow his every move as he quick scopes the gaming area and limps toward the faux cobblestone restaurant row, toward the sports betting area, hurrying because Bobby is gone!
He hears astounded voices behind him, saying things like, "He's leaving without the money!"
"He told the lady to take it!"
"Why her? Why not me?"
Nobody coming after him though. They're glued to the Wheel of Fortune machine, rapt to see who will get his winnings. He moves faster, pushes a heavyset man aside and catches sight of the kid standing in the sports betting area, staring at the screens showing today's trotter races from Aqueduct.
Robert Grady turns away from the screens and heads outside. Apparently he's seeking a different casino.
Stokes jams his hands into his pockets and follows onto Las Vegas Avenue, the famous strip, in the always-moving crowd. At their backs rises the phony Manhattan skyline of hotel New York-New York. The false Statue of Liberty. The black towers made up to look like high-rises jutting incongruously into the sucked-out pastel desert sky. The perpetually racing yellow hotel roller coaster roaring and twisting, carrying screaming passengers.
I need to change appearance but can't lose sight of the kid.
At dusk the casino lights are coming on. In the distance, beyond backed-up traffic on I-15, the mountains look hazy, lavender. The city's glow blocks out early stars. It's so dry here that even at a hundred degrees, Lewis doesn't sweat, or rather, his sweat dries before he notices it. He relishes heat. Out beyond the garish hotels -- temporary edifices -- is the timeless desert. He's spent years working in deserts, but this one is different, harder at the surface, less white with sand, spotted with razor-needled cactus and flinty rocks. But it is clean like a good desert, blasted by heat and nightly cold from nature's purification process. The desert is a testing ground for human capability, luck and mercy, a place where those who lack survival skills perish as if they had never lived.
Lewis wills away human smells, the dirty odors of tar, hot dogs, perfumes, bus exhaust. He blends in perfectly.
For as his great-great-grandfather had written, in the stilted prose of the World War One era, "If I cannot assume the character of strangers, I can at least conceal my own, and pass amongst them without friction."
The book, a gift from Lewis's mentor, gives him purpose. When he's lonely, it provides comfort.
"We lived for the day and we died for it," great-great-grandfather had written, knowing well the secret life.
Bobby Grady ambles into the first casino he approaches, the Monte Carlo. He changes dollars for chips at a blackjack table. The kid hits blackjack on his first try.
Lewis takes a chance and ducks into a nearby men's room. He hadn't planned on morphing until later but can't risk being recognized after the big payoff at the Wheel of Fortune machine. People who walk away from $20,000 in winnings might land up on the news, he thinks. He envisions some tourist providing his photo to a local TV station, imagines a story broadcast later tonight.
Have you seen this man?
He finds an empty stall, his pulse racing. He's gambling that Robert Grady will stay at the blackjack table for a few minutes more. Lewis forces himself to move slowly to keep from making a mistake. Off comes the headpiece, changing him from a balding brunette to a full natural blond.
Hell, how many wigs are made with gigantic bald spots on top? Not many, he thinks.
Off comes his bland and ill-cut blue jacket, off comes the shirt and tie to reveal a white knit tennis shirt beneath. Off comes the belly extender, a simple deflatable bladder. Presto, off come the black glasses. His vision is perfect. He straightens his posture, adding two inches to his height. The limp is gone. The rubber cheek wedges are gone. The mustache is gone.
From his hip pocket he produces a scrunched-up reinforced knapsack of the thinnest, strongest polymer fabric. The discarded props go into the bag. The trousers stay the same, unfortunately, and so do the rubber-soled shoes. There are limits to making quick changes.
His Glock 9mm pistol now lies nestled against his back, beneath his shirt.
Less than three minutes after the balding forty-something "tourist" ducks into the second stall, a healthy, tanned, handsome blue-eyed beach boy type -- the real Lewis -- emerges and reenters the casino to see Robert Grady getting up from the blackjack table, scooping up chips, walking off.
He follows Bobby outside again, slows his pace to match the man's and drops the knapsack in a trash can, already spotting a scavenger -- a Vegas bum -- veering over to take it, and probably sell the props inside.
I wonder what happens after 12:14.
Ten fifty-nine now.
Bobby Grady is still walking.
It's unbelievable. Doesn't the kid rest? He's been in and out of casinos for hours, losing thousands of dollars at blackjack, craps, baccarat, sports betting. He's dropped in at the Palace Station casino and the New Frontier.
How does a student get all this money?
The kid's in a trance. He gambles and drifts. Gambles and walks. He's even paused to watch outdoor shows between bouts of losing. At the Venetian Hotel, and its re-creation of the canals of Italy, he'd sat for a long time eyeing hotel "gondoliers" pushing tourists around a "canal" as they imagined that their absurd imitation approximated reality.
Water again, Lewis thinks in disgust, following Grady into the Bellagio casino, past a line of sprouting jet fountains outside. The fountains sway back and forth like coordinated dancers, to the strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner." It's funny. In a desert city dedicated to expense, the most valuable tourist draw, the most fabulous part of so many shows is plain water.
One hour and four minutes left.
Robert Grady strolls into the hotel's mist-cooled tropical garden. He pauses to gaze stupidly at the gigantic mechanized bald eagle, whose huge head swivels back and forth, an allegedly patriotic incarnation whose jerky movements remind Lewis of robotic dinosaurs in 1950s ilms. He used to watch old American movies in the refugee camp, when he was a boy.
Wait a minute. Grady's walking into a men's room.
His hand goes behind him, feels the knife.
He hears heavy laughter in there, though, and when he walks in sees half a dozen large men -- police types from the build and haircuts -- at the sink. They're wearing name tags. They're part of a convention.
"When did you join the FBI?" one man asks another.
At eleven twenty-four, Bobby comes out of the men's room, rubbing his belly as if he feels a stomachache.
If I have to do it in public, I will.
Robert Grady turns and pushes back out of the casino, turns south toward his hotel, passing the pizza and burger places serving the lower-rent tourists, and stepping over hundreds of discarded business cards -- phone numbers of prostitutes handed out by illegal aliens, Mexican workers -- lying on the sidewalk.
New York-New York coming up again.
Lewis follows the man back into the hotel. The lobby echoes with Irish music, rock music. Robert fishes in his wallet for his key card, matched to a specific elevator.
He walks into the elevator behind the boy. They're alone. He can hear the kid's rumbling stomach.
Bobby shrugs at him and asks, "How'd you come out tonight, guy?"
"Ahead," says Lewis in his southern accent. "You?"
"Hey, luck has to change, right?"
Lewis precedes the man off the elevator, onto the eleventh floor, half a step ahead so as not to alarm him. Both men turn left at the hallway junction. Lewis notes that there's no one else in the hall. Dirty room service trays sit outside a few rooms. The AC is arctic level here, probably to keep the guests from sleeping, Lewis thinks.
"Good luck tomorrow," the kid remarks over his shoulder, inserting his card into his door slot.
It's all pretty easy after that, pretty routine.
Lewis's hand comes out in one smooth movement. He hits the boy from behind, right hand over the mouth as he drives Grady into the room, left hand shoving the knife in between the third and fourth ribs. He's carried out the motion a thousand times over the years, on sandbags, on dummies, on prisoners, on his mentor's targets of choice.
Only seconds have passed. He shuts the door. Robert Grady lies facedown on the carpet, facing the bathroom as blood spreads on his shirt. He's voided himself in death. He never even struggled. The AC will cut the smell that will eventually reach the hallway and attract a maid, despite a DO NOT DISTURB card on the door. The TV is on. The window is open by half an inch, maximum space. Hotel windows in Vegas only open that far, probably so depressed losers won't jump out, Lewis thinks.
Phony evidence time. Latex gloves on!
Lewis steals the wallet and stack of hundred dollar bills inside. He slips from his pocket a small Ziploc bag from which he removes one gold earring, a prize he'd spotted beside a slot machine. A bit of woman's dried blood discolors the post. He drops the earring on the carpet.
He also opens a small bottle of cheap perfume and knocks it over on purpose. That way the smell will stay in the carpet, even after he puts the bottle back in the bag.
Then he makes sure he leaves two partial haunch impressions on the stiffly made-up bed, as if two people had been sitting there, side by side. An investigator will conclude that Robert stood up from the bed, and got hit from behind while on the way to the bathroom.
Finally, Lewis lets himself go crazy with the knife, using his left hand, of course, stabbing and slashing the back and neck and base of the head so that the death blow will be considered just one more thrust, not the first.
Lewis Stokes -- who will as of later this morning become Clayton Cox -- decides that one day he too will record his memoirs, like his great-great-grandfather. Perhaps he will begin formulating them over the next few weeks, when he's been ordered to go to Washington, to monitor certain people at the Pentagon and wait for instructions from the man who changed his life.
Deception is the key to success.
On the night table, the red digits of the clock turn over. It is 12:14 A.M.
I wonder what will happen a minute from now?
Time to get out of here, to leave Vegas. The mentor has supplied a safe route.
For as Lewis's great-great-grandfather had written of his secrets, for history, for governments, for scholars, "We had on our heads prices which showed that the enemy intended hideous tortures for us if we were caught."
Copyright © 2007 by R. Scott Reiss