"How many of them die every year?"
An excerpt from this month's new Vegas-set novel, Gangsterland
The setup: It’s 1998 and Sal Cupertine, hitman for the Chicago mob, has been dispatched to Las Vegas after a botched job ends with three FBI agents dead. Six months of surgeries and rabbinical studies have turned him into another person altogether: Rabbi David Cohen, youth rabbi at a thriving Summerlin temple run by Rabbi Cy Kales, father-in-law of local gangster Bennie Savone. Here, Rabbi Cohen begins to learn just what his future holds.
Temple Beth Israel was only a few miles away, just on the other side of the Summerlin Parkway, on a mostly barren stretch of Hillpointe Road ... which meant it was a few blocks away from hundreds of houses and gated colonies that looked suspiciously like the very one David lived in. For a people that spent forty years lost in a desert, David found it more than a little dubious that they’d parked themselves in a place where it could happen just as easily, the replication of precisely manicured lawns, pastel and cream homes, and gold Lexuses a desert in itself.
The temple took up an entire block and was abutted on either side by expanses of open field that, at that very moment, were being graded and watered. On one side was a sign that read future home of the new barer academy: now enrolling k–12! and on the other was a sign that proclaimed it the future home of the temple beth israel community park & learning center. Across the street was the Temple Beth Israel Cemetery and the Kales Mortuary & Home of Peace, which gave David his first bit of understanding regarding where the good rabbi’s shake was coming from.
David pulled into the temple’s parking lot and saw that Bennie was already there, pacing back and forth in front of a playground filled with young children — they couldn’t have been more than five years old — while he talked on his cell phone. Though David could tell that the temple was fairly expansive just from its width on the street, he wasn’t expecting to see that the place was more like a campus of buildings in the back. There was a sign pointing to the dorothy copeland children’s center, which was a one-story building just adjacent to the playground, and another sign pointing toward the tikvah preschool. Both were modern glass and steel buildings that looked to David more like the FBI office in Chicago than any place he ever went to school. The playground itself was like something from the model-home signs he saw all over Summerlin: a jungle gym that resembled a Navy SEAL training regimen, complete with rope jumps, tunnels, pools of percolating water, monkey bars over a padded blacktop, a pegboard for climbing.
“All this,” David said to Rabbi Kales as they walked across the lot toward Bennie, “and you couldn’t afford a sandbox?”
“If you’re paying a thousand dollars per week for preschool,” Rabbi Kales said, “I’m afraid a sandbox isn’t sufficient.”
“A thousand dollars per week? For how many weeks?”
“It depends,” Rabbi Kales said. “Most do it for at least six months. Many do it for nine months, like a traditional school year. You can do the math.”
There must have been sixty kids on the playground. A couple million. And no blood.
“How many years?”
“Usually two,” Rabbi Kales said.
“Jesus,” David said.
“When the private school opens next fall,” Rabbi Kales said, “it will be more.”
“How much more?”
“The high school students will cost thirty-five thousand dollars per year, maybe more. The younger children will be less than that, but not by much.”
“And people will pay that?”
“People will line up to pay that,” Rabbi Kales said. “And those that can’t afford it will be offered loans.”
“And what happens if they can’t pay back the loans?”
“We’ll put a lien on their property, that sort of thing,” he said. “But I suspect that won’t be a problem.”
“Everybody defaults,” David said. “Trust me on this.”
“Well, then it will be your problem to solve,” Rabbi Kales said.
Bennie then waved them over, though he was still on his phone. In the time David had been in Las Vegas, he’d gotten the sense that Bennie was a pretty busy guy. He had the Wild Horse, which he went to most nights, and then he had his other business interests, which David didn’t know too much about. David knew what Bennie had told him about his involvement in the construction game — he’d put good money on those land graders belonging to Savone Construction — and the unions, which probably took a lot of time and energy; he just didn’t have a sense of how the Savone family soldiers went about making their nut or how Bennie collected.
Back home, even though he was just a gun and therefore not expected to be pulling jobs, he knew that Fat Monte, for instance, his main job was the low-grade heroin distribution, the crap they gave to college kids and Canadians. So he had his whole operation and he kept his take and kicked the rest upstairs. Or a fool they called Lemonhead, because he was always sucking on Lemonheads, he was in the off-track betting they ran out of a couple of different restaurants. Perfectly legal, except that Lemonhead ran the side game, running the crazy bets and parlays, along with a little bit of girl business, too.
In Las Vegas, though, with so much stuff actually legal, David couldn’t see Bennie collecting much on that. When you can jack someone for their toddler’s tuition, maybe it didn’t matter.
“That was your daughter,” Bennie said to Rabbi Kales. “She wants to know what you want for Thanksgiving and whether or not we should invite over the new rabbi, since apparently it took Tricia Rosen all of five minutes to let her parents know they met.”
“Perfect,” Rabbi Kales said.
“Perfect?” David said.
“It’s important that you don’t just show up one day,” Rabbi Kales said. “But if you’re here for a few weeks, showing up periodically, people will get used to you. Won’t be a big deal when you start doing actual work.”
“You think Curran saw us at lunch today?” Bennie said.
“He was sitting at his usual table,” Rabbi Kales said.
“Good,” Bennie said.
“Wait a minute,” David said. “The mob columnist from the R-J was in the Bagel Cafe while we were eating lunch?”
“Every Monday,” Bennie said.
“Then why do you go there?” David asked. They’d spent an hour noshing and talking business … in full view of the guy who catalogued the coming and going of local wise guys like they were members of a boy band? None of this lined up, David thinking that whatever amount of money Bennie paid to get him to Las Vegas would have been better spent on decent legal counsel.
“So that he sees us sitting there,” Bennie said. “I thought they said you were smart.”
“It’s not how we did it in Chicago, is all I’m saying,” David said.
“And yet here you are,” Bennie said.
David needed to stop looking for evidence that anything in Las Vegas was like it was in Chicago. He didn’t want to be like one of those guys from New York who could see things only as a compare-contrast with New York.
“I just,” David said quietly, “I don’t want to wake up and find a bunch of U.S. Marshals on my front lawn because you want to keep up appearances.”
“The only way for you to avoid the marshals will be to keep up appearances,” Rabbi Kales said. “No one is looking for you here, David. That’s what you need to understand.”
Bennie pointed at his watch. “I’ve got an hour,” he said, and started walking toward the main temple. “Either keep up and learn something or fly back to Chicago where everything is candy canes and pillow fights.”
Religious places freaked Rabbi David Cohen out. He knew intellectually that a church or a synagogue was just a place, just dirt and wood and cement and glass. He knew that the priests or rabbis or whatever were just men (and, occasionally, women) who had once been kids, had once watched Daffy Duck cartoons and The Brady Bunch and saw Spot, Dick, and Jane run and then, at some later point, decided they wanted to devote themselves to a book. Still, there was something about religious places that made David aware of how different his own life was, how if any of the people in the building (save, in this case, for Bennie and Rabbi Kales) knew what he was, they’d throw holy water on him and try to cast his demons out. He was a bad guy, he knew that. Was he evil? No, David didn’t believe he was. Messed up? For sure. He watched enough of those shows on the Discovery Channel to understand that maybe his brain didn’t work like other people’s brains, though David also had to consider that people who celebrated the purported holy day of Easter by eating marshmallow baby birds were just as twisted.
So as he followed Bennie and Rabbi Kales through the temple and they told him bits of information that was probably very important, he had to do his very best to concentrate, what with all the stained-glass windows, Hebrew letters on walls, memorial candles for dead Jews, notices about Shabbat and daily services and holiday services and the upcoming Hanukkah celebration. Weird thing was, it was the first time in his life that he’d been in a place like this and actually knew what everything meant. Not that he could read Hebrew, though he had a sinking feeling soon that would not be the case. Some things had become so familiar to him from his reading that he kept getting a strange sense of déjà vu.
“There are one hundred thousand Jews in Las Vegas,” Rabbi Kales said as they turned down a long hallway toward the temple’s administrative offices. “And six hundred Jews move here each month, which, as you can imagine, has created a need for more and better facilities. We built the cemetery and mortuary here in 1990 and we’ll have the Barer Academy built by next fall, ready for all grades. The Learning Center should open at the same time. The next phase will be the Performing Arts Annex, though that may be a few years down the line, depending upon funding.”
“How many of them die every year?” David asked. The preschool kids grossed the joint a cool two million dollars, though someone probably had to teach them something, and feed them, and that preschool looked like it cost more than a few bucks, too. But funerals? That was another kind of beast. When Carlo Lupino died a few years back — and granted he was old-school Chicago Family, so there was a whole production — David remembered hearing it ran over seventy-five thousand dollars once you factored in food, flowers, embalming, the casket, the service, all that. Even a simple service was going to run ten, fifteen, maybe twenty-five Gs. There was cash in the body business, David knew that firsthand; burying them, however, that’s where the real money was.
“What did you say?” Bennie rubbed that spot on his neck again, that spot that looked like someone had garroted him. Rabbi Kales looked pale.
“He asked how many,” Rabbi Kales said. He sounded rattled for the first time.
“Yeah,” David said, “that’s what I asked.”
“Depends,” Bennie said. He wasn’t rattled in the least. He seemed fairly giddy. “Good year? Usually between 750 and 900. Of course, we don’t bury all of them. Some get shipped back to Boca Raton or Seattle or Palm Springs. Some get buried across town at the old Jewish cemetery, though I don’t see that happening much in the future. Anyway, we’ve had a lot more lately.”
“Lately?” David said.
“Next year is already looking good,” Bennie said.
Rabbi Kales pushed on past Bennie and made a show of fumbling in his pockets for something. David took this to mean he didn’t want to hear whatever was coming next.
“How is this week looking?” David asked.
Bennie shrugged. “Who is to say?”
“It’s okay,” David said, getting it now, or thinking, maybe, getting part of it. “I’m a rabbi. We have the privilege of confidentiality.”
Tod Goldberg wrote the novels Living Dead Girl and Fake Liar Cheat. He was a columnist for the long-defunct newspaper the Las Vegas Mercury.