After a long, rain-soaked delay on the tarmac at Denver, a jittery flight through black storm clouds, and a spectacular landing over the rivers of lights of the Las Vegas Valley, I was itching for some action. Gambling would be fine, so would street-brawling or a crab-walk, anything that didn't require me and my attention-deficient mind to sit still and be scolded for pinching the small child in the seat next to me.

Las Vegas! I was excited for so many reasons, the least of which was that my wife cannot monitor my drinking when she's too busy hollering at a "Piggy Bankin'" slot machine she believes has been unusually stingy. I was also excited about the Big Empire activities, including the Ice Cream Social, Gold Spike Cocktail Soiree and the Shrimp Cocktail Eating Contest. My job was to pull together enough people to insure chaos and then get out of the way.

It was almost eleven p.m. when we landed, and we were hungry. I made arrangements using the in-flight telephone to meet our friend Feldy at the Peppermill coffee shop on the Strip. Many people say the Peppermill's decor is a throwback to the 70s, but I don't think that's accurate. To me it's a throwback to the mansion of a rich pervert throwing an unsuccessful orgy circa 1969. Every square inch not covered with silver or plastic plants is draped in thick, dingy velour. The colors are dark, yet dazzling. The ceiling is low, so the deep, sexy murmurs of the gathered swingers carry. In the kitchen, former private dick John Shaft prepares the eggs. The ham and cheddar omelet is one bad motherfu - shut your mouth.

Amy is a vegetarian, so she ordered the fruit salad. What she got was more fresh fruit than our local Safeway has on hand at any time. The dish must have weighed five pounds and included an entire pineapple, bunches of grapes, half a juicy honeydew, a pound of deep red watermelon, a half-dozen fat strawberries, and a dollop of cottage cheese. Mine and Feldy's beef dips and fries were dwarfed in comparison, but still tasty. The service was superb and sultry, the prices were slightly higher than other coffee shops, but it was fair for the opportunity to dine where astronauts would not feel overdressed.

The Fireside Lounge, tucked into the back of the Peppermill, is tackier, cheesier, and infinitely more elegant than anything short of the Hustler world headquarters. A bubbling, multi-colored fountain is the centerpiece. In its middle, a raging fire glows year-round. The booths are low and modular, like leftovers from "2001: A Space Odyssey." From the back of the room I heard a voice from a speaker say, "Hello, Angels, I have an assignment for you" to a trio of scantily-clad, hot-looking ladies.

Midnight arrived - the witching hour and the time I had agreed to meet my new Internet buddy, Bob S. Black, at the El Cortez's quarter craps table. We thanked Feldy for his always welcome company, and pointed our dinky rental car toward downtown.

I had never met Mr. Black before. I had never even seen his picture and was a little concerned that I wouldn't recognize him. He assured me that I would know him because he'd be the only guy at the quarter craps table who didn't look like he belonged. At the risk of sounding like a braggart, I rarely miss a "One of These Things is Not Like the Other" on "Sesame Street" and was sure Bob would be an easy mark. With my wife following, I swaggered across the spooky, shadowy parking garage and through the little-used back entrance of the El Cortez. I strutted between the crowded aisles of old three-reel slots, my head cut through the thick haze that hung in the air, and I wheeled around the pit to the crowded quarter table.

I was stumped. Nobody there looked out of place. Every drunk, sour player stooped over his stack of rat biscuits. Around the table, there was more grousing than cheering, and some bettors barked at the roller to chuck the dice. Others were in arguments with the dealers over payments, debts or bet placement, and one fellow was vigorously fighting with himself. The only person slightly different was the younger guy at the far end of the table. What he lacked in age, though, he made up for in grease and slouch. His T-shirt's collar was stretched to his navel, his hair drooped from his scalp in stringy black clumps, his eyes were so bloodshot they made mine water, and his face carried the weary, haggard look of a man who had either been holed up in the ElCo for too long or just spent a month wandering around the deserts of Egypt.

I knew Bob was only 27, and that's about how old this guy looked, so I tested the waters. "Bob?" Those bleary eyes looked up from the felt. "Yeah, Matt, how are you?" His eyes stayed up long enough for a covetous glance at my wife, then they turned back to the table. "Keep your greasy mitts off my wife," I advised him, then we shook hands.

I pushed Bob over a bit, squeezed into the table and changed a new $20 bill for 80 rat biscuits. The waitress strolled by and I requested a Budweiser. All the beers come in cans at the El Cortez, even the fancy import stuff that Bob sucked on. The rookie dealer shoved me $19 in chips, which I wouldn't have noticed if there hadn't been a five minute delay in the action while the dealers tried to figure out how to pay a hop bet. My wife had wandered off into the bowels of the ElCo, in order to review the decor and theme, so I had time to pay attention to my chips, rather than keeping Bob from wrapping his octopus-arms around her.

"Hey, I'm a buck short here," I harped at the dealer. "Huh?" he asked. "Look, there's only nineteen bones here." The dealer looked at my stack and nodded. He said under his breath, "I'll square you up, but I gotta do it on a payout, when the boss ain't looking."

Whatever, I figured. Bob and I rolled up and down, winning fifty cents, losing fifty cents and watching the dice move around the table as our cocktail waitress kept us happy for those big (by ElCo standards) dollar tips. At some point, my wife returned and said she was cashing in for the night and hitting the sack. I turned to kiss her goodnight and so did Bob. After I slugged him in the arm, he knocked that nonsense off. The dealer never did give me my missing dollar. Finally, the dice got to Bob and he "Hung 'em High."

I learned from Bob this night, in addition to the facts that he isn't above pursuing married women and that he wears Speedos under his trousers, that there is a Lucky Zone above the craps table. If you toss the dice higher than six feet, you're gonna be a winner. And the higher you go, the more luck will flow. Not to get too technical, but it has something to do with the winner-dust which floats above craps tables, sort of like the ozone layer. Bob kept inching higher into the Lucky Zone, until the dice flew over my head and the dealers gave him dirty looks.

When the rookie dealers finally got the guts to order greasy Bob to bring it down, he descended from the Lucky Zone and crapped out. It was okay, though, because I had earned my missing dollar plus a few others for tips. The dice moved to me and I was aiming to top Bob's lofty heights. Up, up, up the ladder I went, adding inches to every toss. I figured I'd be throwing a while and was in no hurry. Finally, with the dice grazing the dusty chandeliers, the stickman rapped my knuckles and ordered me down. Even the rookies, obviously, are aware of the Lucky Zone.

With the dice now being pitched into what I call the "Loser Zone," I crapped out and decided to call it a night. I bid farewell to Bob, who was headed back to the Golden Nugget to prowl for wealthy divorcÚs or, as he put it, "adventurous married ladies." I headed upstairs and joined my wife in our $23 room.

The El Cortez has several room categories and all of their prices are fixed for all seven nights of the week. Twenty-three bones buy a night in the portion of the hotel that's been there since 1941. It's up one open flight of stairs from the casino, and down the door from a low-rent barber shop. The sounds of the slots and drunken revelers funnel up the staircase and rattle around the old halls, making the cheapest rooms a bad choice for light sleepers. They are small, with barely enough room for a dresser and queen-sized bed. Otherwise, they are clean and comfortable. The bathroom was recently remodeled in frilly flowers and ornate fixtures, and it was well stocked with soaps and shampoos. The other room choices include bigger and fancier $28 queen rooms in the new tower and $35 double-queens. For $40, you can move into the "King Suite." Frankly, if you're getting something called a "king suite," you're too damn fancy for the ElCo.

I climbed into bed with Amy and the effects of the long day hit me. Amy woke up briefly and asked how the craps had gone. I told her I won a little and said there was something I needed to tell her but couldn't remember. As I tumbled into Slumberland, I still couldn't remember.

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