Tierney’s room was three blocks off Fremont, on a quiet side street. He paid twenty a week for the converted bachelor apartment which consisted of one small bedroom and bathroom. In the bottom bureau drawer, hidden between two undershirts, was a hundred and eighty dollars.
My stake, Tierney thought sardonically, putting the money into his wallet. He stood thinking about Reno, and his chances of getting a job as dealer. But Reno was out, because in that town he would stand out like a fighting cock among barnyard hens. They would easily find him. So it meant Chicago or Philly, and he needed traveling money. This time he would start a new life, fresh and clean.
For just a moment, Tierney lapsed into his favorite dream. The dream he had never shared with anyone but Holly, and she, being high at the time, had laughed hysterically.
There were variations, but basically the dream was this:
He was parking in a garage driveway, and getting out of his car. The house was a clean white frame, with red shutters and trim. Across the lawn, two boys were throwing a football. Two blond, husky, laughing youngsters, that saw him and yelled and started a mad dash to see who could reach him first. The race was always a tie, with him scooping up both boys in his arms and tousling their hair as they squealed with delight and started the inevitable romp that ended with him stretched out flat on the grass pleading that he had had enough. Then, of course, he would show them how to really throw a football.
They would call him Dad. No Father, or Pop, but Dad. His wife would come out on the front porch with a quiet shine to her smile and tell them it was time for supper. So into the house they would go, Tierney and his two sons. He would kiss his wife thoroughly and tell her about the new promotion, the raise. She would tell him about going to the doctor that morning, and how he was definitely going to be a father for the third time.
He would kiss her with a wild burst of happiness, hoping it might be a girl this time. She, of course, would want another boy . . .
At this point the dream splintered and fell apart. Tierney looked into the mirror with contempt.
You’re a hustler, he told the mirror image. You’re broke, and you haven’t a friend in the world. Except for that stint in Korea you’ve never done an honest day’s work in your life. You can do cold readings but you’re out of practice. You’re very good at cards. You can even do a one-armed planche. You’ve got talent with women, on account of this beautiful damned face.
He had blond hair over very blue eyes, and good cheekbones. The nose was finely chiseled, the mouth strong and brooding. It was a face which combined sensuality with power, and which the majority of women found irresistible.
He turned off the lights, thinking how sour his luck had been since he had left Holly. Outside, he walked fast, toward Fremont. You need at least a thousand, he thought. Play percentages. Don’t get greedy.
He went into three casinos before he found the right one. They stood a silent three-deep around the crap table. Cigarette smoke curled like blue fog over the baize. He could smell that choked tension which meant some high roller had gone wild.
Tierney nudged expertly through to the table and bought chips. The high roller was a bald, elfin man in shirt sleeves. The pass line was littered with hundred-dollar chips.
“Five straight passes,” a woman whispered. “And he still hasn’t dragged.”
In that moment, Tierney’s brain became an analogue computer, calculating house odds. The high roller’s point was nine. Tierney bet fifty dollars on the come line.
Craps goes fast.
Ten minutes later Tierney had nine hundred dollars in front of him. The high roller had sevened out, losing everything. He stood fingering a lone pink chip, his face pearled with sweat. Tierney gazed at him with the empathy one damned soul feels for another. The man’s name was Dunbar, and he made a living by being a casino shill for ten dollars a day.
A year ago Dunbar had been a prosperous Chicago dentist with a wife and three children. He had stopped in Vegas overnight on his way to the Coast, and had lost fifteen thousand dollars. Subsequently he had lost every dime he owned, trying to recoup the fifteen thousand. Somewhere in the process, he had lost his wife and family. Like Nick the Greek, Dunbar was a Fremont Street legend. A few weeks ago he had created a mild furor on the strip by parlaying nine silver dollars into eighteen thousand, and losing it all before sundown.
It’s a disease, Tierney thought, watching the red cubes bound against the backboard. It’s a fever worse than typhoid or opium or liquor. But you don’t want to win, really. Down inside it’s that old moth-flame relationship, a corruption of the death wish. Like me and Holly.
He concentrated on the chant of the stickman and counted his chips. In two hours he could be on the plane. Once in Philly he would change his name. A new life. He shifted his bet from the field to the pass line.
An hour later he stood fingering his last pink chip. He tossed the chip on the pass line. The shooter crapped. He walked away from the table with one hand groping in his pocket for change. It took him less than five minutes to feed the slots his last quarter.
While he was doing this he was aware of a redhead staring at him from the bar. Her name was Florence and she danced at a downtown floor show. Because she looked like Holly he had taken her out once, a few weeks ago. After that she had called him repeatedly until he asked her to leave him alone.
She had come up behind him. He smelled the softness of her perfume, and shivered.
“I won tonight,” Florence said tremulously. “Let me stake you, honey. Please?”
Markham’s right, he thought. You’ve only got one important talent. He turned, giving her his very best smile, watching her blush.
“No thanks, Florence,” he said. “Let me take a rain check.”
As he walked toward the glass door he saw that it was almost dawn. Time for vampires and gamblers to return to their caves.
He went to see Markham.
Excerpted from The Baby Doll Murders by James O. Causey, reprinted by Stark House Press along with two other novels by Causey, Frenzy and Killer Take All.
James Oliver Causey was born July 12, 1924 in Compton, California, and grew up in nearby Long Beach. He began his writing career with stories written for Weird Tales magazine, but quickly established a talent for crime fiction writing. After serving in the military in World War II, he picked his career back up by writing for Detective Story and several of the science fiction magazines like Galaxy and Orbit. Causey returned to crime writing in the mid-50s, turning out three of the best noir novels of the period. He and his family moved to Laguna Beach, where they lived for many years. Causey passed away there on April 13, 2003.
Cover art by Roy Lance from Killer Take All!, altered by Cartoonize.