Las Vegas is a weird place. I’ve never lived anywhere else, but I’ve traveled a little and I’ve seen enough movies to understand that this electric desert oasis isn’t like other cities. It isn’t just the Strip, either, or the fact that other places apparently don’t have slot machines at the airport or poker machines at 7-11.
There’s a different vibe here. Or…two vibes at once, I guess. Like two parallel worlds existing in the exact same spot on two different planes, completely unaware of each other.
The one most people know about—and the reason they come here in droves for vacations—is the shiny, sparkly one. The Las Vegas that always makes it into the movies, where it’s nothing but glittering lights, jingling slot machines, cheering crowds around craps tables, and drive-thru wedding chapels.
The other Vegas sucks. It’s the gritty, gross part. The burnt-out lights, the losing slot machines, the depressed tables where no one is winning, and the quickie divorces. It’s seeing the same person at the same slot machine or the same table at ten in the morning in the same clothes they were wearing when you saw them at midnight. There are pawn shops filled with wallets, cell phones, jackets, shoes, jewelry—the last few meager possessions a person unloads in the name of scoring a few dollars. Sometimes they’re smart and use that handful of money to get on a bus and hightail it out of town. Or if they don’t have enough for that, at least go to one of the buffets and get something to eat.
But usually, the money winds up in a predictable place—a casino’s coffers.
Sooner or later, people run out of things to pawn, and they wind up huddled against a wall with nothing but the clothes on their back and a sign scrawled on a wrinkled piece of cardboard. Nobody sees them, but they’re here, all along the Strip—the destitute people who’ve given their last dime to the casino gods and have nothing left. No money. No way out.
I live in that gray area between the two parallel worlds. Too jaded to be won over by the sparkly shit. Too numb to pay attention to the sad underbelly.
I walk down the Strip every day and every night. I step over the odd pool of vomit, get nearly run over by drunken partiers having the time of their lives, and pass by the still, sad homeless people without even looking long enough to read their cardboard signs. Once in a while—usually after I’ve watched someone lose everything at my blackjack table—I feel guilty enough to drop a handful of change into their cup. Especially when they’re using those plastic coin cups from the casino where I work.
But I don’t meet their eyes and don’t really give them much thought. As soon as the coins clang in the bottom of the otherwise empty cup, I’ve done my part, and that’s the end of it. I walk on and ignore them like I do all the other sad realities of this town.
Tonight as always, I want nothing more than to get home and take a shower. After six hours of dealing cards, I danced for another four at the NightOwl. My feet hurt. My body is exhausted. Nothing exists for me now except fatigue and the promise of a hot shower and several hours of sweet, sweet sleep.
Hands tucked in my pockets, I weave through the crowd outside the Bellagio. The fountains are dark and quiet this time of night—the water-and-light shows stop sometime around midnight—but there’s a reason they call this the city that never sleeps. Most people on the sidewalk are swaying a bit. Some drunk. Some probably just tired as hell. It’s Sunday night, after all—well, early Monday morning—so a lot of the weekend revelers are running out of steam.
The railing along the Bellagio’s enormous fountain has little patios every few feet for people to stand and watch without blocking foot traffic. Not that they’re big enough to accommodate everyone who wants to see the show. When the fountains are going, it’s a nightmare to walk through here.
It’s not so bad now, and as I pass one of the patios, there’s a homeless man pressed back up against a concrete planter. He’s a typical sight—rumpled clothes. A cardboard sign. A plastic cup.
I glance at him with the same interest I might glance at a manhole cover or some graffiti and keep walking.
For about eight feet.
I halt abruptly enough that a group of women—one wearing a tiny telltale white veil—crash into me, nearly knocking me off my feet. Someone slurs an apology, and then they’re gone, staggering down the walkway toward the next bachelorette party destination.
My feet are under me again, but I don’t start walking.
I glance back at the homeless guy. He doesn’t see me. His head’s down, and I wonder if he might be asleep or passed out. There aren’t any bottles near him, aside from an empty Aquafina bottle lying by his foot, though maybe he’s got something in the backpack tucked up against his leg. I didn’t smell any alcohol on him, but I’ve been inhaling cigarette smoke all day, and my nostrils were pretty much seared by the booze radiating off my last lap dance customer of the night.
He’s wearing a suit. It’s hard to tell for sure in the dim light, but it looks expensive. Finely cut. A nice gray material. I’m no expert, but I doubt those shoes are cheap. Wherever this guy fell from to land here—on the street outside the Bellagio with a cardboard sign at two o’clock on a Monday morning—it was a lot higher than any place I’ve ever been.
Shaking my head, I continue walking. I try to think ahead to shower and sleep, but something tugs my mind back to the homeless guy in the suit and nice shoes. Ridiculous. He’s hardly the first person I’ve seen who went from high-rolling to begging for change. He’ll hardly be the last.
And yet, with every step I take, guilt burrows deeper into the pit of my stomach.
My feet slow without any conscious effort on my part. Then, once again, I stop. This time it’s not such an abrupt halt, and nobody crashes into me, though some shitfaced guys just barely miss.
I stand there for a long moment, hemming and hawing, before I finally turn around and backtrack.
He’s still there. In the moments since I walked by him, someone’s dropped a winkled bill into the cup. Or maybe it was there before and I just didn’t notice it. He’s awake, too, but looks out at the dormant fountain instead of at the people passing him by. I wonder how many people he walked by before he crashed and burned too.
After a moment, he tenses a little, and turns toward me, like he’s just realized there’s someone standing here. He lifts his chin, and a pair of dark, exhausted eyes meet mine. Then he breaks eye contact and pulls his knees in close to his chest. “Am I in your way? Sorry.”
In my way? It’s weird—and makes me feel guiltier—that he’s worried he’s in the way. I’m used to stepping around homeless people. I didn’t even have to step around him because he’d situated himself outside the flow of traffic.
“You’re not in the way,” I say quietly.
He looks up at me again, but keeps his knees hugged to his chest. His jaw is scruffy, a few gray hairs peppering the otherwise dark beard. My guess is it’s been three or four days since he’s shaved, so whatever happened to all his money—whichever casino, hooker, or drug dealer took the last of it—it wasn’t all that long ago. Something about him is familiar, but I can’t put my finger on it. And anyway, I see countless faces every day, either at my blackjack table or when I’m dancing.
And he’s still watching me, equal parts curious and uneasy about my sudden fascination with him.
Yeah, I’m right there with you.
I clear my throat. “You, um…” I scrabble for words, and finally settle on gesturing up the road and saying, “There’s a twenty-four hour buffet up there. If you want something to eat, I can buy you a plate.”
His eyebrows jump, and the way his jaw works, I suspect his mouth is watering. Still, he stays guarded. “Why?”
“Because I’m going to guess you haven’t eaten in a while.”
His eyes flick toward the Aquafina bottle. There’s a Snickers wrapper next to it. Either some litter that blew up next to him, or the remnants of a small act of kindness from a passerby. Or hell, maybe he stole it. Or scrounged up enough change to buy it.
Returning his gaze to me, he keeps his voice flat and disinterested. “You don’t even know me.”
“No.” I swallow. “But…” I can’t think of anything that doesn’t sound patronizing. “The offer’s open. You don’t have to.”
“Neither do you.”
I want to be frustrated with him, but I suspect I’d be just as reluctant if I were in his position. Pride, for one thing. Also because in this town, a lot of things have strings attached.
“No strings,” I say. “I’ll help you get something to eat, and then I can drive you down to the shelter. It’s…gotta be better than sleeping on the sidewalk.”
He gnaws his lip, considering me uncertainly. “I don’t have any way to pay you back.”
“It’s okay.” A casual comment about how it isn’t much almost makes it past my lips, but I stop it in time. Yeah, a little bit of gas and two plates at a buffet isn’t a lot of money for me, but that might be kind of insulting from someone with a few dollars and a handful of change to his name.
“Are you sure?” he finally asks.
I nod. “Yeah.”
“I’m, uh…” He looks down at himself, then shyly back up at me. “I’m not really presentable to go into a restaurant, am I?”
I smile. “It’s Vegas. They’ve seen worse.” I flinch at my own comment, realizing a second too late that I sounded like a dick.
But he actually cracks a little laugh, and shrugs. “Okay. Um, I’ve got…” He pats his backpack. “If they don’t mind me using their restroom, I could actually clean myself up. You know, get rid of this.” He strokes his beard and wrinkles his nose.
“I don’t see why not.”
“All right. Well…” He releases a long breath, and gathers his things—the backpack, the change cup, the sign, the bottle and wrapper—and stands. At his full height, he’s got at least three inches on me. Not that that’s a shock since I’m only five nine in boots.
He shifts his weight. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Max.” He extends a hand but then starts to retreat, as if he’s second-guessed the idea.
I clasp it, though, and shake it. “Let’s go get something to eat.”
“Let’s?” His eyebrow lifts. “You’re joining me?”
“If I’m going to drive you to the shelter afterward, I might as well.”
“Oh.” His eyes flick down.
So do mine.We haven’t let go of each other’s hands.
Blackjack dealer and stripper Adrian West has lived in Las Vegas long enough to be numb to beggars on the Strip. Their destitution is a sad, ugly part of reality in a city where people win or lose it all at the tables every single day.
So he’s at a loss to explain why the homeless man in the suit catches his eye. Why he can’t just keep on walking like he always does.
Former advertising executive Max Reynolds is a Las Vegas cliché. After a run of bad luck costs him his boyfriend, his job, and his home, he’s decided to go out with a bang—a week of high-rolling capped off with a peaceful overdose in a luxury hotel room.
When a last second epiphany keeps him from finishing the job, he’s ready to live again… but he doesn’t have a dime to his name. He has nothing.
That is until a stranger takes him in off the street. Max may have hit rock bottom, but now he has a glimmer of hope and an unexpected friendship.
A friendship that just might turn into everything neither man knew he was missing.
This novel is approximately 51,000 words.