This damned city, Dante thought. Nothing but booze and boobs, not a single profound thought among the lot of them. This most recent trip to Las Vegas had left him even more disenchanted with the city than the previous one. While others were content to see Sin City as an outlet for the weary businessman condemned to otherwise spend his days behind a desk, Dante saw it as a prison for the wayward soul, a gateway to addiction and debauchery. The hotels all looked the same to him now, especially with the neon turned on. He found himself hypnotized by the fountains of the Balaggio, dancing in rhythm to Cher’s “Do You Believe” while crowds of onlookers pushed past, thinking only of the next experience, the next indulgence.
A woman in a leopard bikini bumped into him, in what Dante was sure was an intentional ploy to get his attention. Her eye lashes were too long to be real or comfortable, drawing attention to her otherwise unremarkable brown eyes. The bones of her face were defined with an excessive amount of contour, accented by delicately drawn leopard spots that pulled together the illusion that she was in fact a jungle cat and not a wayward young woman who was likely deep in deb, struggling to break a cycle of pills and one night stands.
“Want a picture, hunny?” She spoke in a low purr, intent on continuing her charade. Dante politely declined. She placed a hand gingerly onto his shoulder, petting him. “More than that, purrrhaps?”
He fought back the urge to laugh outwardly, not only at this woman but at the hordes of other men this had clearly been effective on in the past. He gave her a polite “no, thank you” and a smile, hoping this would send her on her way.
“We have a show tonight, small place, not far from the Luxxxxor.” She reached into the back of her bikini and produced a pamphlet, which she tucked into his back pocket as she whispered in to his ear, this time dropping her cat voice. “Just in case you change your mind, love.”
Dante nodded politely to her, inching away slowly as the fountains completed their dance. He pulled the pamphlet from his back pocket, checking to confirm that his wallet was still there, and gave it a quick glance before tossing it in the bin.
THE JUNGLE — EXOTIC DANCERS. OFF STRIP ENTERTAINMENT. EVERY FRIDAY. 12 PM.
Dante continued down the strip for about two blocks before he realized that he had been walking in the wrong direction. He knew he had come from the Bellagio but could not place which way he had gone from there. The encounter with the cat woman had put him on the wrong course. He now found himself heading toward the Luxor, and in the direction of the show instead of away from it. He was now further from his room at the Encore than he had been standing in front of the Bellagio.
As he turned, he found himself face to face with yet another creature of the jungle, this time a lioness. Her skin, already a mixed golden shade, had been dusted with a golden powder, with intricately placed synthetic whiskers affixed to her nose. Cat eye contact lenses hid the true color of her eyes and her lashes were even more burdensome than those of her leopard compatriot, though this costume was likely warmer to wear in the evening. Her arms were covered all in fur from shoulder to shoulder, with boots to match. Though nothing much covered her chest but a few fur patches, this girl was likely quite comfortable in her getup, with the exception of what Dante imagined was a rather heavy head dress on her head.
“Oh hey there, love, not so fast. Where are you headed?” The lioness was more forceful than the leopard had been, demanding his attention in a more blatant manner.
“I know I’m pretty,” she said “But that don’t mean we can’t talk.”
Dante did not speak, he began walking again, trying to look away from the woman, who had actually managed to arouse him slightly. She casually stepped in front of him, blocking his path.
“You think I want to sell you something, don’t you?” The lioness hadn’t bothered with a purring voice in the way that the leopard had. She spoke in a confident, casual tone. “I just thought you might want to see what a real woman looks like.” She placed another of the JUNGLE pamphlets into Dante’s back pocket and sent him off with a glittering lip mark on his right cheek.
Once he had moved a few yards past her, he discarded the pamphlet again and wiped at his cheek, leaving his hand with a glittering gold smudge on the palm. Looking around him he realized that he had been walking the wrong way yet again. He had now walked several blocks in the wrong direction and was standing in front of the Luxor.
For the love of..
“Show’s this way, darlin’.” A third woman, this time a wolf, was taking him by the hand, walking with him past the Luxor and turning a corner off-strip. She was pulling him aggressively toward the tiny whole in the wall with EXOTIC DANCERS in bold letters on the outside. She wore fur similar to the lioness, only this fur was grey and white, and her dark skin was covered with a silver glitter that smelled of alcohol and vanilla. She hadn’t tried, as the others had, to charm him. She had simply pulled him away, sans introduction.
“No, thank you.” Dante pulled his arm away from hers.
“Fiesty!” The wolf girl, obviously offended, grabbed his hand again, this time turning on the charm. “Trust me hunny, you want to go this way.“
“No, I don’t.” Dante pulled his hand from her and began running. He felt the woman slip another pamphlet into his pocket as he fled, running back down the strip, certain now that he was going the right way, but still unsure where he was.
He reached in to his back pocket for the pamphlet, realizing that it was not there, and neither was his wallet. The woman had not put something in his pocket. She had taken his wallet out.
“FUCK!” A few people stopped to stare at him, while others simply walked on by, likely assuming he was a man who had just lost his fortune on a gamble. To Dante, this felt like the truth. It was a gamble even walking down the strip with his wallet in his pocket. He was lucky that he had left some cash and a few cards back at the room, but getting to them was likely a long journey on foot now.
He had just made up his mind that he would go back and confront the woman when a man tapped on his shoulder.
“Not fuckin’ now buddy. I don’t have any money, and I don’t want to see your nude show or your suck your dick or smoke your weed, or—-“
Dante turned to see a short dread-locked man with friendly eyes, standing in front of him, holding out his hand, only where he had expected to see a handful of pamphlets, he saw a wallet.
“I’m glad,” the man chuckled. “I’d rather you not smoke my weed, or my pole. No offense, you just ain’t my type. Even so, thought you’d want this back. Cash is probably gone though.” Dante took the wallet, stunned.
“Thanks. You saved me big time.”
The good samaritan brushed the thanks aside with a wave of a hand. “Couldn’t let them Jungle girls eat you alive, man. They are the worst.”
“I think I learned my lesson.” Dante slipped his wallet into his front pocket this time, and was about to walk away, when he realized that he still didn’t quite know where he was. “Hey, uh, can you tell me how far up the Encore is.
The man let out a sharp whistle and a chuckle. “Man, you ain’t in Kansas anymore at all. You better off taking a cab up there, that’s the whole other end of the strip.”
Dante felt the gravity of the situation. With no cash for cab fare, aching legs, and blisters on his blisters, he would never make it where he needed to in time. His new friend patted his shoulder.
“I know a short cut, though, if you want you can come with me. I know a place, we can have a drink— on me— and then I’ll guide you to your hotel. Less milage on the good ol’ Chevro-legs.” He patted his legs, laughing at his own joke.
“And you get…” Dante was sure there had to be something in it for him. For all he knew, the guy was going to try to sell him a timeshare.
“A drink with someone that ain’t already drunk.”
Dante gave his new friend a skeptical sideways glance, looking him up and down. The man didn’t look drunk, high, or otherwise mentally checked out in the way that others one the strip did. Despite an unkempt appearance, he looked otherwise harmless. In his eyes there was a genuine loneliness, a longing for companionship and camaraderie.
“Swear, no funny business?”
The man gestured across his heart making a cross. “Swear.”
With that, he followed the man down the strip to a small bar, Diablo’s City of Sin.
Dante would have missed Diablo’s entirely if it hadn’t been shown to him. Without the guidance of the strange man who led him here, he would have surely missed it again. The tiny bar hid itself nicely in a grouping of shops and bars, disguised by the glitz and glamour of towering buildings and more notable establishments. It as if the owner of the bar had not wanted Diablos to be discovered at all. True to this, the bar was completely empty, not a soul in sight. This was a disservice, Dante thought, not only to the bar itself but to the hordes of people exploring the strip with their heads down, passing up such a carefully concealed gem.
If any place completely embodied Las Vegas, it was Diablos. The decor spoke to the grand themes and well played gimmicks that made the city a tourist attraction, from Circus Circus to New York, New York. The entire bar played on the “Sin City” theme with unapologetic gusto. Old slot machines, now inoperable, created the bottom of the bar at the center of the establishment. The selection of these machines was intent and deliberate, touting such titles as “Lucky Devils”, “Hell’s Millions”, and “Sinful Sixes”. The theme carried to the top of the bar, which appeared to be on fire underneath its glass top, and the seating — studded black stools held up by pitchforks. Nine tables filled the main floor of the establishment, each painted with macabre images representing the nine circles of hell. Dante found himself chuckling out loud.
“What is it?” This man, who Dante had been certain was homeless, was now on the other side of the bar making a drink. In that setting, carefully pouring three fingers of rum into a glass, it was clear that he was not a vagrant at all. He belonged there, behind the enflamed bar, with his tattooed arms and torn clothing, his dreadlocked hair framing his sun weathered face. He fit in this place like the very last piece to a complicated puzzle. The picture was now complete, the truth clear as day. Diablo’s was his.
“My name,” he said, chuckling a little as I swallowed. “It’s Dante.”
The sides of the bartenders mouth came up, but only slightly. No doubt, this wasn’t the first Dante to point out the similarity between their name and the establishment. Dante was usually the first to admit that connections to his name and the poet who had shared it were simply not funny, but in this place, which so blatantly mirrored the Inferno from the classic poems, he could not help but feel like the punchline to a bad joke.
“You think that’s a riot,” the bartender grunted, “mine is Virgil”. He handed the rum to Dante with a chortle and a sigh. “Never get’s old.”
“You own this place?”
“I guess you can say that.” Virgil said. “I was given what you might call a franchise opportunity. Wasn’t exactly my first choice for employment, but I accepted anyway. The offer was a bit difficult to refuse.” There was something in his tone that Dante could not place. It wasn’t quite regret, and it wasn’t dishonesty, yet there was hesitation in Virgil’s voice. There was more here that his new friend did not want to tell. Dante nodded as if he understood, which seemed the polite response.
“Well, thanks for the save.” Dante raised his glass to the air in a toast to Virgil. “Those girls would have eaten me alive.”
“You have no idea.”
The two men shared a bit of conversation after that, mostly chatting about the locals and their general demeanor, which tended to get on Virgil’s nerves. He was quite content with his lack of clientele.
“So how do you stay open?” Dante was curious since he had walked in. Decor like this couldn’t have come cheap, and the space rental was likely not affordable, yet a sign outside said “Since 1966”.
“Like I said, It was a franchise opportunity. Guy that actually owns this place, he has his hands in much more lucrative things here. Keeping me here, holding up the fort at this empty bar, ain’t a cost at all to him. Doesn’t matter much to anyone if this place makes money, least of all me. I’m good with being alive, don’t care about the money part. I do my job here, fella behind the curtain gives me what I need.”
There was a silence. Again Dante had a notion that Virgil had been withholding something. The loneliness behind his eyes was still there, a bit less though now that he had someone to talk to. Dante had finished his drink and was ready to be on his way, but did not want to break the man’s heart.
“So you said there was a short cut?”
Virgil hit his hand down on the fiery countertop, as if suddenly remembering why they had come there. “Yes. Of course.”
He quickly came around to the front of the bar, crouching down next to the stool where Dante sat. He placed his hand on the lever of a slot machine called “The Gate”, pulled down, and moved back several feet. Dante watched, stunned, as the dials on the front of the slot machine rang up three sixes in a row and the floor in front of Virgil opened up, revealing a gateway. An intense heat rose up from the hole, accompanied by the smell of fire burning and the sound of screams.
Dante was sure, at this point, that he was dreaming. Cat girls didn’t just accost you on the strip, people didn’t go out of their way to get you back your wallet and then pour you free drinks and stairways to Hell certainly did not open up under Las Vegas.
“This,” Virgil said “is the Sin City you ain’t ever seen before.”
“Are you telling me…” Dante found it hard to get his words out in the correct order “You are telling me that this whole time, the gateway to hell has been underneath Las Vegas.”
Virgil nodded. “I’m not telling you, man. I am showing you. It’s right there.” He laughed a breathy laugh, gesturing down the staircase.
“And we just cross through hell, and I’m in the Encore.”
“I dunno man, Im thinking I’ll risk the blisters.”
“Oh come on, man! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity!” Virgil now wore a showman’s smile, stretched ear to ear.
“You said no funny business! That’s the… that’s HELL!”
The smile left Virgil’s face. “This ain’t funny business to me, man. Just business. I guard the gate to hell. I ain’t laughing about that. Now you can take the shortcut or not. Your choice, but I ain’t got all day.”
Dante didn’t need to consider it at all. For him there was only one answer.
“No! Pass! Hard Fuckin’ Pass!”
Virgil shrugged. He clapped his hands loudly and the gateway closed. He made his way back behind the bar, fiddling with something beneath. He shook his head, clicking his tongue to make a “tisk” sound. “That’s a real shame, man.” From under the counter, he produced a silver pistol. “I really hate when I have to do this the hard way.”
At the sight of the gun, Dante jumped up and ran, managing to dodge the bullet when the gun went off. He no longer cared how blistered his feet would become, or how much his legs would ache. All he cared about now was putting as much distance as possible between him and Diablo’s.
Dante awoke the next morning unsure if he had been dreaming. The blisters on his feet and his tight hamstrings told one story, but logic told another. A hotel shuttle drove him to the airport that morning, passing the spot where Diablos should have been, but there was nothing where Virgils little hideaway had been but brick wall. As he passed the Luxor, he glanced left and right, searching for the Jungle Club or any sight of the animal print clad women. He saw no evidence that anything the night before had been real, except for one thing, a dread locked man sitting at a bus stop on Las Vegas Blvd, winking and waving goodbye.