The city had a fever. Even after midnight, the streets were on fire. Girls in sequined skirts tumbled out of nightclubs, kicked off their high heels and recoiled as their feet hit the smoldering sidewalks. Elegant women stepped out of cool, perfumed hotel lobbies and gasped as their jewelry burned their skin. Pool-goers fell asleep in the hot-white light reflected off of nearby casinos and were awakened by the smell of singed hair.
It was August in Las Vegas, and the monsoon season had, so far, passed without a drop of water from the sky.
“The rain will come soon,” everyone said. “It has to.”
The day after Las Vegas tied its all-time high of 117, the air grew thick with moisture, silver clouds unfurled over the city and entire neighborhoods of people went out into the streets to look at the sky.
But it didn’t rain.
The next day, the first girl’s body was found.
* * *
Every morning on the news, after reporters with shaky smiles tallied the days without rain, they tallied the number of girls found dead downtown. A bartender wearing black panties with red fringe. A cocktail waitress in a strappy dress. A stripper in a bikini. After the sixth girl was killed, the newspaper warned women in the 89101 area code to stay inside after sundown.
Miles from the opalescent casinos of the Strip, Caroline sat on the rooftop of her downtown apartment and watched a homeless man push his three-wheeled shopping cart down the alleyway. A skinny dog hiding beneath an abandoned car let out a low, rumbling growl. The man cursed and kept going.
The heat made everyone hate each other.
After the sun dropped down into the desert, Andy emerged from the fire escape and appeared beside Caroline on the roof, uninvited, still wearing his Caesars Palace uniform. He withdrew a can of beer from his backpack and tossed it to her. It was warm, which meant the cooler at the corner store was out again.
The air conditioning in her apartment was out, too. The thermometer in her bedroom read 111. She couldn’t tell if it was hotter or cooler outside. After 110, it was all the same.
“Did you call your landlord?” Andy asked.
“Yes,” Caroline said. “You don’t need to check up on me.”
She felt a sudden irritation with him, as if it was his fault that her ratty apartment was hot as hell.
“You should come back to my house,” he said. “My air conditioning works.”
He had left her for someone with money and now felt he could save her by plucking her out of downtown and bringing her back to his sprawling home in his fancy neighborhood. For a moment, she thought of that cold, bright Christmas morning they’d spent naked under the sheets of her bed.
“Let’s watch It’s a Wonderful Life and drink peppermint schnapps and hot cocoa,” he’d whispered into her shoulder.
They’d hidden out under the covers until noon and then walked to the buffet at Main Street Station and filled their plates with honey-glazed ham. On the way back to her apartment, they’d passed the Downtown Vegas Chapel and he’d tilted his head toward her like he was asking a question. Her heart had filled up like a dry lakebed, accepting the rain.
“I wish you would stop coming around here,” she said now from the roof. “I don’t need your pity.”
“Just because we’re broken up doesn’t mean I don’t care if you get murdered.”
A police helicopter slowly circled the block, propellers turning the thick air, a beam of light pouring over the street below, probing.
“I’m still alive,” she said, pressing the can to her dry, cracked lips. “Now go back to Summerlin.”
* * *
She crawled down the fire escape and slipped into her apartment through the window. In the shadows of her bedroom, she peeled off her denim shorts and stood by the window in her underwear. The streets below were dark and the houses were boarded up and vacant. Sometimes on a full moon, she could spy squatters shifting around in the milky light.
The space of her apartment, with the mattress she and Andy had laid on while listening to his Neil Young record, felt hollow.
She got pictures on the wall, they made me look up, from her big brass bed.
For weeks after she’d heard that song, she’d wandered thrift stores, in search of an antique bed frame. These days, she took the bus to Goodwill and bought the unwanted shoes of strippers and escorts. Glossy red heels, gold platforms, black leather boots. On hot Vegas nights, she told herself that putting on a tight dress and a pair of glittering pumps was an act of defiance.
“You’re going to get yourself killed,” one cashier had said. “Don’t you read the paper?”
The heat of her apartment was crushing her. The thought of the rooftop pool at the Downtown Grand, a mere four blocks away, flickered in her mind.
Before she could talk herself out of it, she was on her way there.
* * *
The casino floor was unsettlingly quiet. Caroline could still hear the trill of the slot machines signaling the cycle of hope, victory and loss, but the normal din of conversation over cigarettes and watered-down drinks was softer.
Earlier that day, she’d passed a newspaper stand and seen a headline that read, “Las Vegas Police Accuse Man of Having Sex with Dead Woman in Public.” The woman was one of the downtown killer’s victims.
Caroline ascended the escalator to the pool. Through the glass doors, the water radiated neon blue against the black sky. She heard the sound of police sirens several blocks away.
“What a wild, violent summer it’s been,” the pool bartender said, pouring her a rum and Coke.
A sparse crowd ringed the water. Men and women—mostly men—drank amber beers and spoke in low voices. Music drifted from a speaker in a far corner, but no one was dancing. Beyond that, the glowing lights of downtown flickered pink and yellow.
She wondered if he was out there in the darkness, skulking through alleys and ducking behind cars under the buzzing, fluorescent lights of parking garages.
She slid off her high heels, tossed her dress aside and stepped into the pool. No one else was in the water.
Once underwater, she looked up at the shimmering surface, the bare feet of people on vacation, the night sky awash with neon. Everything moved in slow motion, like she was having one of those dreams where she was trying to run away from someone but she was paralyzed. She had heard that after three minutes of holding your breath underwater, you’d pass out and drown, but after counting out 60 seconds, she gave up and swam to the surface.
* * *
The midnight hour offered no refuge from the heat. All day long, the steel and concrete absorbed the sun and emanated warmth back at night. Caroline walked the streets, her heels clicking against the pavement, echoing throughout the alleys. She wasn’t sure if she was walking home or to another smoky casino. She wasn’t sure if she was walking to meet a stranger at a bar who would buy her a drink, hold her hand on the way to her apartment and sleep beside her on the bare mattress.
She headed east, past the casino loading dock where the bartender had been found on a 105-degree morning with 11 stab wounds in her stomach. Past the corner where the cocktail waitress had been discovered slumped against a wall. Past the dumpster where the stripper had been discarded alongside empty beer bottles.
She turned onto 8th Street and made her way through the darkened alley behind the El Cortez. From the nearby parking garage came the hollow sounds of scattered laughter, fading radio stations and slamming car doors. The police helicopter flew overhead. The cherry red and raspberry blue lights of a cop car danced across the parking lot of a weekly motel.
The second-hand heels were rubbing her toes raw. She took them off and leaned against the alley wall.
She thought of the murderer, passing through the crowds on Fremont Street, drifting by the open doors of casinos and hotels, unseen but searching. Looking for the next girl, the one with the smoothest legs, the softest hair, the smile that curled into the proper greeting, pretty eyes that would stay wide open forever.
Everything seemed inescapable. Her aching heart. The mangled bodies. The searing sun.
She sank to the ground, looked at the starless sky and waited.
Krista Diamond is a freelance writer who often works remotely from Downtown Las Vegas. Her fiction has appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine and is forthcoming in Spry Literary Journal. Her favorite Downtown haunts include Atomic Liquors and Therapy. You can learn more about her writing at www.kristamariediamond.com.