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While Drowning in the Desert

Don Winslow

  While Drowning in the Desert

  A Neal Carey Mystery

  Don Winslow

  In memory of my father, Don Winslow, who taught

  me—among so many other things—how to look at life

  and laugh.


  Thanks to Ric Ericson, Richard Sabellico, and the cast of “Little Rhody’s Big Burlesque” for the education.



  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30


  A Biography of Don Winslow


  I never should have got out of the hot tub.

  I was luxuriating in the steaming water when Karen asked me to get her a Diet Pepsi.

  “Excuse me?” I murmured.

  “I’m in postcoital bliss,” she said. “And when I’m in postcoital bliss I need a Diet Pepsi.”

  “Why don’t you get one?”

  She shook her head.

  “When a woman’s in postcoital bliss it’s the guy’s job to get the Diet Pepsi,” she smiled. “It’s a rule.”

  “I’m in postcoital bliss, too.”

  “Too bad.”

  I saw I wasn’t going to win so I lifted myself out of the tub. She looked at me with what I wanted to think was a lascivious expression.

  “Besides,” she said, “it’s your fault.”

  That was very nice of her to say.

  “Then you don’t mind if I get myself one, too?” I asked.

  “Not at all.”

  Even though no one could see us on the deck of our house I wrapped a towel around my midriff as I padded into the kitchen. I turned to admire Karen as she stretched her long neck back onto the edge of the tub and closed her eyes. Her black hair was wet with steam. Her wide mouth bent into a smile.

  I loved her to distraction.

  I had just opened the refrigerator and taken out two cold, shiny cans of Diet Pepsi when the phone rang.

  And stopped.

  I stood stock-still and watched the sweep hand on the kitchen clock. No, no, no, no, I thought. Let it be a wrong number. Let it be an obscene caller that chickened out. But don’t let it ring again in thirty seconds.

  Exactly thirty seconds later it rang again.

  I snatched the receiver off the hook and snapped, “What.”

  I knew who it was.

  “Son!” Graham’s mock cheerful voice pierced my eardrum.

  And it had been such a nice evening.

  “Hello, Dad,” I moaned.

  “Dad” was not actually my father in the biological sense. We met when I was twelve years old and tried to pick his pocket in a bar. He pretty much raised me after that, even to the extent of teaching me a trade.

  The trade he taught me included such skills as breaking and entering, following people, stealing documents from offices, searching hotel rooms, and finding the lost, missing, and running.

  In short, he taught me how to be a private eye.

  Like him.

  “You don’t sound happy to hear from me!”

  I could picture him on the other end of the line, sitting in his immaculate Murray Hill apartment, his artificial right arm set at a kitchen table that Christian Barnaard could operate on. I could imagine his cherubic little face, his thin, sandy hair greased straight back, and his aggravating, satanic grin.

  “Not exactly.”

  I know, I know. Petulant and rude. But a phone call that starts in code is not going to be good news. The single ring and thirty-second gap meant that this wasn’t a social call, but business.

  And I didn’t want to get back to business.

  Graham said, “My feelings are hurt.”

  “Yeah, right.”

  The Giants blowing the point spread with twelve seconds to play, that might hurt Graham’s feelings.

  “How are the wedding plans coming?” he asked politely.

  Wedding plans? I thought in a moment of alarm. What was there to plan? I figured that everyone would show up at the Milkovsky ranch, and Karen and I would say the I do’s, and that would be about it.

  “Uhh, fine,” I answered.

  “Have you registered your patterns?”


  Registered? Patterns?

  “What about the honeymoon?”

  “In favor of it.”

  “Great vacations don’t just happen, you know,” Graham said.

  I had never thought of a honeymoon as precisely a vacation, but I let it pass. Instead I said, “You didn’t call me just to nag me about wedding plans.”

  “No, that’s just a bonus. We have a little job for you.”

  “I thought I was on permanent disability,” I said. Ed Levine, our mutual boss at Friends of the Family, had officially declared me mentally ill. I knew Ed didn’t really think that I was actually crazy, just that I drove him nuts. Either way, it worked for me.

  By the way, my name is Neal Carey. I don’t carry a badge.

  Actually I never did. Even in the days when I was working I didn’t have a badge. Or a license or a gun or any of that private eye stuff. I just did the stuff that Friends asked me to do, and if that isn’t crazy.…

  “We decided that you’ve recovered,” Graham announced.

  “No, I’m still crazy.”

  “Don’t get your panties all wet,” Graham said. “It’s a short job. In fact, let’s not even call it a job. Let’s call it a errand.”

  “What kind of ‘a errand’?”

  Because this was no time for a job or an errand. Not only was I getting married in two months, I was also heading into the last semester of my master’s program at Nevada. I even had my thesis, Tobias Smollett and the Image of the Outsider in Eighteenth-Century English Literature, almost finished. Dr. Baskin, my old professor at Columbia, thought he could get me an assistantship in the Ph.D. program there, and Karen was cool about going to New York for a couple of years. So this was no time to get involved in some wacko job for Friends.

  And Friends has some wacko jobs, all right. Friends of the Family is a confidential service that “The Bank” in Providence, Rhode Island, provides for its wealthier depositors. I had worked on and off for Friends since the day Graham found my hand in his back pocket.

  Graham said, “This old guy wandered away from his home and ended up in Las Vegas. His niece has a couple of million in The Bank and is worried sick about him. Thinks maybe he has Alzheimer’s or something. She’s a friend of the family. We were wondering, what with you being so close, if you’d pick him up and take him home.”

  If I haven’t mentioned it, Karen and I lived in Austin, Nevada, a small, remote town in the Toiyabe mountain range. It’s six hours and a hundred years away from Las Vegas.

  “I’m supposed to find him in Vegas?”

  “You don’t even have to find him,” Graham answered. “He’s in a nice room at the Mirage and security’s keeping an eye on him. It’s a no-brainer, which is why I thought of yo

  There has to be a catch, I thought.

  “Where does he live? Tibet?”

  “Palm Desert.”

  “Where’s that?”

  “Next to Palm Springs.”


  “No. Palm Springs, Antarctica.”

  Graham has a gift for sarcasm.

  A pause, then Graham repeated, “Alone and confused. An old man.”

  He also has a gift for bathos. Bathos is one of those graduate-school words you don’t often get a chance to trot out. Bathos, bathos, bathos.

  “All right, all right,” I said.

  “You’ll do it?”

  “I’m a sucker.”

  Especially for bathos.

  “Nathan Silverstein,” Graham said. “Room 5812. He’s expecting you, but clear it through security first, right?”


  “Now, what am I supposed to wear?” Graham asked. “I hope this isn’t going to be one of those blue-jeans weddings.”

  “See you, Dad.”

  “Bye-bye, son.”

  I hung up and grabbed the sodas. This wasn’t so bad after all. I’d be gone a couple of days and pick up a few extra bucks. And not get dragged back into Friends.

  Yep, master’s degree soon, deliriously happy marriage, back to New York for a while. I had life pretty much wired. And maybe Karen had evolved into some precoital bliss in my extended absence.

  When I got back outside she was sobbing.

  “Honey, what’s the matt—”

  She looked at me with red-rimmed eyes and bawled, “I want a baaaaby!”

  I never should have got out of the hot tub.

  Chapter 1

  A baby, I thought the next morning as I drove the Jeep down lonely Highway 93 toward Las Vegas. A baby, I thought, replaying the whole argument.

  “We’re not even married yet,” I’d said to Karen as we sat on the edge of the hot tub.

  “We will be in two months,” she answered.

  We’d decided on an early-October wedding out at the ranch of our best friends, the Milkovskys.

  I trotted out some old cliché I’d seen on a talk show. “But I thought we’d have some time together just as a couple before we brought a third person into it.”

  “We’ve been living together for almost two years,” she reminded me. Then she got pissed off. “And how dare you speak of our baby as ‘a third person’?”

  It had sounded so good on television, too.

  “The damn thing’s not even born yet,” I muttered. Mistake.

  “‘The damn thing’?! The ‘damn thing’?”

  “You know what I meant.”

  She looked at me accusingly. “You don’t want a baby.”

  “Yes I do.”

  “No you don’t.”

  “I do,” I answered. “Just not right now.”


  “What, you want a date?”

  “Yes, a date.”

  I thought about it for a second, then said, “In two years.”

  “Two years?!” she screeched. “Neal, I’ve been getting weepy over McDonald’s commercials!”

  “Maybe it’s just one of those hormonal things,” I said.

  That did it. She got up and stomped into the house before I could say, “And then maybe again it isn’t.”

  So early the next morning when I said, “Karen, honey, I’m leaving,” she just said, “Good.”

  “I’ll be back in a couple of days.”


  “Uhh, can I bring you anything?”


  Sperm, I thought as I reached Vegas’s northern burbs. I’ve become sperm. Sperm leads to babies. Which leads to diapers and rashes and colic and to a person, which was the scariest thing of all because a little person expects things from you. Daddy-type things.

  The problem is, I have no experience with this stuff. No role model, as it were, my own father having been your classic anonymous sperm donor who knocked up my prostitute mother. No role model unless you count Joe Graham, the one-armed dwarf of a private eye who raised me, taught me a trade, and set me up with Friends of the Family.

  A father.

  I don’t know.

  I was still thinking this over—and developing a wicked headache—when I gave the Jeep to the valets at the Mirage and found my way to the security desk in the basement.

  “Hi,” I said to the thickly muscled, blue-blazered man behind the counter. I slid my wallet—open to show my driver’s license—over the counter. “I’m Neal Carey. I’m here to escort Mr. Silverstein home.”

  “Natty Silver,” the guard said, chuckling.

  “You know him?”

  “You don’t?”


  “Natty Silver!” the guard prompted. “One of the great burlesque top bananas. When that died he went stand-up. Worked this town when it was just the Flamingo. You probably saw him on Ed Sullivan.”

  “That Natty Silver?!” I vaguely remembered the comic’s baggy checked pants and deadpan delivery. “‘Wherever you go, there you are,’ Natty Silver?”

  “The one and only.”

  “Whatever happened to him?”

  “Ah, he did some more stand-up, a few shitty beach movies where the kids made fun of him. He faded. Christ, he must be, what, eighty-six, eight-seven?”

  “Natty Silver,” I repeated.

  “I’ll call up, let him know you’re coming,” the guard said.

  Natty Silver, I thought. This might be kind of fun.


  I rang the doorbell to room 5812.

  “Who is it?” a voice asked from behind the door.

  “Mr. Silverstein, it’s me. Neal Carey.”

  “Am I expecting you?”

  “Yes, you are.”

  My head throbbed.

  “Where are you from, Neal Carey?”

  “Originally, New York.”

  A long pause.

  “City or state?” the voice asked.

  Throb, throb, throb.

  “City,” I answered.


  “East or West Side?”


  Another long pause, during which the throbbing turned to pounding.

  “Mr. Silverstein?” I asked. “Are you okay?”

  “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?”

  A trick question.

  “Grant and Mrs. Grant,” I said. You have to get up pretty early in the afternoon to put one over on Neal Carey.

  “What’s on the corner of Fifty-eighth and Amsterdam?” he asked.

  “There is no corner of Fifty-eighth and Amsterdam.”

  Who did he think he was playing with, a child? I thought with some annoyance. Of course, if I hadn’t been so annoyed, I might have asked myself the question: Why is Nathan Silverstein being so careful and what is he afraid of? But I was too concerned with my own state of mind to think of that. This is what happens when you tend to be as self-absorbed as I am.

  The door opened a sliver. I saw a tiny face with big blue eyes peek out.

  Great, I thought. My fiancée wants an insta-child and I end up babysitting Yoda.

  “Hi,” I said.

  Okay, okay. I never claimed to be a great wit.

  “Hello yourself.”

  “May I come in?”

  “Why not?”

  Nathan Silverstein was a small man with wispy white hair, a small beak of a nose, and skin as crinkled and tan as an old paper bag. He was wearing a white terrycloth robe with Mirage stenciled on it and a pair of cloth slippers.

  “Say, didn’t I meet you in Cleveland once?” he asked me.

  “I’ve never been to Cleveland.”

  “Neither have I,” Silverstein said. “Must have been two other guys.”

  Yeah, that’s me: straight man to the universe.

  “You wouldn’t have any aspirin, would you?” I asked.

  Chapter 2

  “… So the guy sa
ys ‘I don’t know. I never lit it!’”

  Nat Silver gave the old punch line and looked at me expectantly.

  I laughed politely and said, “Mr. Silverstein, I’m here to escort you home.”

  “You’re an escort service?” Silver asked. “The last time I called an escort service I got a young honey with big bazookas. I mean, you’re a good-looking kid, but…”

  “How did you get here, Mr. Silverstein?”

  “Everybody’s got to be someplace,” Silverstein shrugged. Then he added, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

  “Yeah, but to Vegas …”

  “Here’s your aspirin.”


  “You want to go see the tigers?” Silverstein asked. “They got tigers here.”

  “No thanks.”

  “White tigers.”

  I don’t care if they’re plaid, I thought. We need to get to the airport.

  “We have a four-o’clock flight to Palm Springs,” I said.

  Nathan frowned and shuffled over to a chair in the corner of the room. He let himself down slowly and stared at the floor.

  He looked pathetic.

  Nathan Silverstein was in his mid-eighties, at least. He was frail, of course, with his few strands of wispy white hair and the translucent skin of the elderly, but he had the eyes of an eight-year-old in a candy store.

  Now the eyes were staring at the floor trying hard to look … pathetic.

  “Are you okay, Mr. Silverstein?” I asked.

  “I’m old,” Nathan answered.

  What could I say?

  “You’re only as old as you feel,” I said.

  It was the best I could think of. Give me a break.

  “I feel old,” Nathan said. He took a pack of Winstons from the side table, slipped a cigarette into his mouth, and shook the lighter toward his lips.