Dear Croupier’s Quarterly,
I’m writing in response to your request for “Craziest Thing You’ve Ever Seen” stories for your September issue. Long-time reader, first time writing in though. I’m not a writer, but I’ve been rolling this story around in my head for so long that I figured now’s as good a time as any to get it on paper.
I was a croupier for ten years. I saw a lot of crazy stuff - Russian gangsters, nuns playing blackjack, a lady trying to poison her husband. You name it, I seen it. But that stuff doesn’t hold a candle to the craziest thing I ever saw. This happened a few years back, when I was working in the pit at one of the big casinos on the Vegas strip. I won’t say which one because I’m not looking for trouble, okay? Let’s just say it’s one of the ones that looks like a little version of a monument in another country. You’ve heard of it, trust me.
So, here goes.
It was a hot night. One of those nights that would feel like mid-afternoon anywhere other than Vegas, you know? The pit was lit up with drunk girls carrying their shoes and tugging on their dresses, guys weaving around wearing silk shirts they’d never get a chance to wear at home. I’d had two old fellas parked at my table for something like four hours, and they were up a little too long, so the house excused me and put in someone who could massage the cards. I didn’t mind, I needed a smoke break anyway, you know how it is.
So anyway, there’s this long alley that runs behind the joint, anyone who’s worked there knows the one I’m talking about. I always took my smoke breaks kind of around the corner from it, because I’m not trying to get stabbed to death in a dark alley no matter how long my night’s been. I used to occasionally see casino toughs dragging deadbeats down into that alley, but whatever they were doing in there, I figured it was none of my business. You learn fast what is and isn’t your business when you work the tables.
I liked my smoke-break spot because it was quiet. Real quiet, like you don’t get other places on the strip. Nobody slapping escort cards in your face, nobody spilling drinks on your shoes. The lights from the strip didn’t quite penetrate there, so I could rest my eyes on a dark patch of sidewalk and pretend that I wasn’t in Vegas for fifteen minutes a night. It was a pocket of calm in the middle of all that noise.
So that night, when I heard a sound coming out of the alley, I really heard it, you know? I mean I wasn’t hearing anything else, so I heard the hell outta this, and I heard it right away. It was like a drain unclogging again and again - a wet, sucking gasp. I didn’t want to go into the alley but I knew that sound. It was the same sound my old lady made right before she died. The sound of lungs filling up with fluid, a person drowning in their own sick. And the sound was coming from that alley, no mistake about it. I thought maybe someone got stabbed and robbed and left to die, or maybe they tried to cheat the house and got the life beat out of them. These things happen, you know, and I always looked away because I knew what wasn’t my business.
But I couldn’t just ignore that sound, because that was the sound of someone dying, and it was happening right around the corner from me.
I took my cigarette out of my mouth and poked my head around the corner. The alley was pitch black, darker than it had any right to be. “Everything ok in there?”
“Hey, buddy, you alright?” Another thick wheeze. Ah, hell. I knew I had to go in.
So I took a last drag off my cigarette, stubbed it out, and stepped into the darkness of the alley. I used this little flashlight that I kept on my keychain. Thing was all but useless but it made me feel better.
“I don’t want any trouble, alright? If something’s going on in here that I don’t need to see, just… just say so, and I’ll mind my business.” I’m not proud of saying that, but then, this story isn’t about things I’m proud of.
I was about fifty feet down the alley when my flashlight beam caught something moving in the shadows.
It was big. The beam from my crappy little flashlight barely illuminated it, so it just looked like another shadow. But then it started shifting around and I realized it was something alive. I nearly shit myself when I realized how big it was - can I say shit in your magazine? If you need to edit that out you can, sorry.
So I took a moment to gather my courage and I got closer to it. I realized it was an animal. I didn’t know what I was seeing at first, but then I realized I was seeing it from the back. It was huge, and I couldn’t imagine what kind of animal it would be. But then my flashlight caught the twitch of a long tail and it clicked that I was looking at a horse.
A massive horse.
I spent some time around horses when I was a kid. My Pop, he spent some time working on a ranch in upstate New York, and I would go visit him there during the summer and help out. So I’m no horseman, but I know a stallion when I see it, and this thing was the king of ‘em. The biggest horse I’d ever seen. It looked dappled until I realized it was just filthy. Under the alleyway grime, it was white - so white that the bits that showed through the filth reflected my flashlight beam back at me.
And it was making that godawful noise. That sucking, drowning sound.
My first thought was that it was from the circus. You know, the one that has a show on the strip? I’m not gonna say the name because, again, I know how things work in this city and I don’t want to wind up in some dark alley myself sometime. But you know the one. Back then, their show had horses walking on tightropes and swimming in big tanks of water and shit. So I thought, he must have gotten out somehow, hurt himself.
I approached him flankwise, giving him a wide berth. Like I said, I spent a little time around horses, and I know that the last place you want to be is behind a scared one. Something was crunching under my feet - I figured probably broken glass - but I didn’t look down. I didn’t want to look away from an animal that big in such a narrow space. I made soothing noises, but he kept startling, trying to stand up and then slipping in the muck on the alley floor. It was brutal to watch.
As I got closer to him, something caught my flashlight beam. The crunching under my shoes and the sound of that poor horse trying to get air had all but covered the rattle of a length of heavy-gauge chain. On one end, it went to a fat metal ring sunk into the asphalt. On the other end, it went to the horse’s neck.
I never felt so sick in my life as I did right then. The metal collar was crusted with blood, and the horse’s neck was red and raw with sores. A smell wafted over the humid garbage stink of the alley. Blood, mixed with something sweet and rotten.
I cursed myself for leaving my cell phone in my locker in the casino. I couldn’t call anyone, and I didn’t want to walk away because there was no doubt in my mind that the horse would be dead by the time I got back with help. I wondered if I could break the chain, but each link was the size of my thumb, and I’m a croupier, not a bouncer. I’m not a strong guy. I’m not a chain-breaking guy.
I got up beside the horse’s head where he could see me. They can’t see right in front of their faces, you know, just to the side, and it freaks them out when they can’t see you. I kept the light trained on his neck so I wouldn’t blind him, and his face was kind of in shadow still, but I could tell that he was watching me. He was watching me real close. I could see the whites of his eyes, and there was some pink foam around the corners of his mouth. He was so scared, Jesus, I thought I was going to throw up seeing the fear in his eyes. Every time I took a step, the crunching from under my shoes made him jump a little. He was panting hard, wheezing. But he didn’t stand up. He kept scrambling around, and I realized that he couldn’t stand up because the chain was too short - it kept him close to the ground.
I stood there for probably ten minutes, running way over my smoke break, but by then I didn’t care if I got a write-up. I couldn’t figure out what to do - if I should walk away and call someone, or if I should try to help, or if I should ask Louie from the bar if I could borrow his concealed-carry and put the half-dead animal out of his misery. Or if I should just mind my own business.
After a while, the horse calmed down. He was still watching me, still wheezing, but he wasn’t scrambling anymore. Eventually he put his head down on the ground. I took a step closer, and he startled at the crunch, but he didn’t lift his head back up. More pink-flecked foam was gathering around the corners of his mouth.
I was right next to him. I crouched down, keeping my flashlight beam out of his eyes still, and held my hand a few inches in front of his nose - I remembered my Pop telling me that you have to let them smell you before you do anything else. Hot air huffed out over my fingers a few times. When I pulled my hand away, I thought maybe the horse had snotted on me, because something was sparkling on my skin. I wiped it off on my pant leg and rested my palm on a part of his neck that wasn’t crusted with pus and blood.
I stayed crouched there for a couple of minutes with my hand on his neck, and then I said “okay, okay big guy, I’m gonna try to figure out how to get you outta here.” I felt a little stupid talking to a horse, but I think I needed to hear my own voice more than anything else, just to convince myself that I was going to do something about this.
I stood up again. He twitched when he heard me crunching around, but still didn’t lift up his head. His breathing was real shallow by then, frantic and wet. It was… hard. Real hard to listen to. I played the flashlight beam around, looking for something I could use to try to whack the chain. When it illuminated the walls, I saw that they were bare cement - not even tagged, which was rare. Not even dirty.
I couldn’t believe my luck when my flashlight beam fell on an industrial cage light - you know, the kind that sticks straight outta the wall? Anyway there was a heavy industrial switch nearby, covered by clear plastic. I opened the cover, and I threw the switch, and the bulb sputtered on. It was dim, only brightened up maybe ten feet of the alley. I knew without knowing how I knew that the light wouldn’t make it out to the street, that probably this light had been on a hundred times when I was taking smoke breaks and I’d never even noticed.
I turned off my keychain flashlight and let my eyes adjust. It didn’t take long. Then I turned around, bracing myself to see the whole of a beautiful animal on the edge of death.
I saw exactly that, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all.
The first thing that struck me was how tightly his skin was stretched over his ribs. He probably hadn’t eaten in weeks, not a good meal anyway. And there was no water in sight, so who knew when he’d last had a drink.
The second thing that struck me was how big he really was - even bigger than I’d thought. He was bigger than any Clydesdale I’d ever seen. If he’d been standing up, I figured I probably coulda walked under him without my hair so much as tickling his belly.
The third thing that struck me was how filthy he was. His mane was matted and tangled, and streaks of alleyway muck blighted his flank. I could tell that he was technically white, but it was a close thing.
The fourth thing that struck me - and I can’t believe it took me so long to notice it -- was his horn.
That was the only thing that struck me for a while after that. Because, horn. Just the one, sticking right out of the front of his head where his forelock should have been. It was huge - maybe six feet long? I looked it up later and narwhal horns, except they’re called ‘tusks’ I guess, they can get up to eight feet long. I guess it’s proportional. Anyway, it was huge. And it looked wicked, with a tip like the point of a switchblade. I don’t mind saying I was back to being scared out of my mind.
I know what you’re thinking, but honestly, it never even occurred to me that it might have been a fake. You know how sometimes, you see something and you just know it’s real? It’s not even a question. You know what you’re seeing, and I was seeing a massive white horse with a big horn coming out of his head. There was no way for me to misunderstand what I was looking at.
So now’s the part of my story where I guess I have to start using the word ‘unicorn.’
I came back next to him, nice and slow, and put my hand back on his neck where it had been. I thought I was gonna piss myself, but I kept it together. He managed to lift his head up and look at me. Once I dragged my gaze off that insane horn, I noticed that his lips and his neck were crusted with rusty brown stuff. It was dried, matted all down his front, flaking off a little. It was all over his mouth and his front. I reached out to touch it, to brush it away. I wasn’t thinking. I should have known better. I guess I moved my hand too fast because he freaked out, you know? He panicked. And he bit me.
It didn’t register as painful. At first, I thought I’d pulled my hand away in time. I’ve been bit by a horse before, when I was a kid, and it hurts like a son of a bitch. They have big flat teeth, and they really crunch you, you know? Even if they don’t mean it, which I don’t think he did. Even if they’re just playing around. When they bite you, you feel it.
But the unicorn - can’t believe I’m using that word - the unicorn bit me and I didn’t really feel it, not until I looked at my hand and realized I was missing a finger. It wasn’t bleeding that much, just a little ooze. It didn’t even look like it had been bitten off, so much as sliced. The stump where my pinky finger had been was covered in unicorn drool and it was like it was kind of cauterized or something. The flesh was already scabbing over, even as he crunched through the finger that was in his mouth. My finger.
He swallowed, and he looked at me, and I realized that his breathing was just a little more even.
I don’t mind telling you, I fell on my ass. I scrambled back away from him on all fours. It’s no credit to my bravery that I didn’t scream. I think I was just in shock, you know? I was shaking like a pair of dice in a cup. He was just watching me, and he whickered like my Pop’s favorite mare used to when I had an apple for her. I managed to get to my feet. Automatically, I went to brush my hands off on my pants, but two things stopped me. The first was that the stump of my pinky brushed against my leg, cracking the fast-forming scab there, and little fireworks went off behind my eyes because hot damn. If it hadn’t hurt right away, it was making up for lost time. The second thing was that something was stuck to my palms. Something sharp and hard. I remembered the crunching and figured I’d probably stuck my hands into some broken glass.
I looked down at my palms, trying not to see my missing pinky finger. I was expecting to see a lot of blood and a few shards of glass sticking out of my hands. But there wasn’t glass there. No - there were tiny bones. They were notched and scratched. And they’d been picked clean.
For the first time, I really looked at the ground.
The alleyway - all of it that was visible in the light of that industrial cage light sticking out of the wall - was littered with bones. They were different sizes, mostly very small, like rats or pigeons maybe, I didn’t look that close. Some of them were bigger.
There was definitely a human skull or two in there.
Maybe more than one or two.
I don’t mind telling you I lost my lunch. Who knows whose bones I’d been crunching through as I walked around the unicorn? Who knows how many times I’d watched somebody get dragged into this alley, and I’d assumed they were just going to get roughed up a little, and they never came back out? As I straightened, wiping my mouth, I saw that the unicorn was staring at me, intent. He whickered again, but this time, his lips pulled back a little and I saw his teeth.
Unicorn teeth aren’t like horse teeth.
His teeth, they were wicked, just like his horn. Curved, sharp. Not made for eating hay, I’ll tell you that much for sure. I saw a Siegfried and Roy show once, back before that shit all went sideways, and during the whole show, I couldn’t stop watching the tigers’ teeth and thinking, those things are made for killing.
I felt like prey just then, in that alley. I don’t think I was wrong.
I wrapped my hand up in the end of my shirt, trying to slow the blood that was oozing from the place where my finger had been. I knew that it wasn’t just my imagination. The unicorn’s breathing was better, was clearer, since he had bitten me. Since he had (my stomach lurched again) eaten part of me.
I thought then about what kind of man I was. What kind of man I wanted to be. And I didn’t exactly come up on the hero’s side of things. I decided in that moment that I wanted to be an alive man - that I didn’t want to become anything’s lunch in an alley in Vegas, even if it was for the sake of saving a unicorn. I turned to walk out of the alley. I was prepared to forget the whole thing.
But the thing is, I wasn’t alone.
A guy was standing there, right at the edge of that pool of light. Wiry kind of guy. Kind of guy who snaps his fingers at the valet. If he’d been poor, I would have called him greasy, but I could tell that a whole lot of money had gone into making him slick instead. He was looking at me, and he looked pissed.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Sorry, I don’t know if I can say ‘fuck’ in a magazine, but if I can’t, can you just replace it with asterisks or something? It’s just that he really said ‘fuck’ and I wouldn’t feel right leaving it out.
I didn’t know what to say, but as luck would have it, he didn’t give me any time to answer anyway. “You didn’t see what you think you saw, alright?” He slicked his hair back with one hand. His cufflinks flashed in the dim light of the alley. “You just walk away from this right now, nobody gets hurt.”
I made a mistake then. I held up my left hand so he could see the bloody stump where my pinky had been. His lip curled.
“Alright. Well. Maybe you had a little accident, huh? Maybe you bet on the wrong color one time, and you owed money to the wrong people, and they cut your finger off. Shit happens around here. Don’t mean anything.” He shrugged elaborately. “Just walk away.”
I couldn’t move. It was like my feet were cemented to the alley floor; like the bones had grown up around my ankles to shackle me to the spot. I wanted to leave, I wanted to walk away like he said, but I was just standing there with my mouth half-open and blood oozing down the back of my hand. The guy sniffed, then scratched the underside of his chin. I could tell that he thought he was hot shit, but then, he probably was hot shit. He had a unicorn chained up in an alley - I don’t know how much hotter shit you can get than that, you know?
“Look pal, I gave you a chance, right? You coulda walked away from this. You coulda just gone back to whatever you do all day and nobody had to worry about it.” He took off his well-tailored suit jacket, folded it neatly over his arm, and laid it on the ground by his feet. “But then you didn’t go, so. What am I supposed to do, you know?” He rolled up one shirtsleeve, then the other. “You leave me no choice.”
My tongue was sticking to the roof of my suddenly dry mouth. I started to say something - I don’t even remember what it was going to be, now, I just know I wanted to say something - but then he was on me and we were on the ground and those tiny bones were digging into my back. He wasn’t saying anything, and neither was I. The only sound was our grunts as we fought and the crunch of little skeletons underneath me. He was winning. There’s no question that he was winning. He wasn’t hitting me at first - just grappling, wrestling almost - but then he drew back his fist and popped me right in the temple. I was blind for a good long count of ten, and I could just hear him - ‘hah, shit, that hurt’ - and when I could see again, he was still straddling me, and he was digging in his pocket.
He pulled out a knife.
It wasn’t a flashy, fancy knife. It looked almost cheap, actually - I remember being surprised by that. But it looked sharp. He held it up under my chin, breathing heavily with the effort of the fight. With the hand that wasn’t holding the knife, he reached up and wiped perspiration from his top lip.
“Sorry, friend. Had to go this way, you know? Nothing I could do about it.” He licked his lips and I felt the tip of that knife open a little cut on my throat. A bead of sweat rolled down his nose and he lifted his hand to wipe it away.
Just then, I heard a whicker. It sounded very close by.
We both looked. We’d been rolling around on the floor of the alley, and this guy, whoever he was, had been so focused on killing me that he hadn’t paid attention to where we were. Well, he was paying attention now. When I turned my head, I was looking directly into the wet brown eye of the unicorn.
I know now what I do when I’m scared: I freeze. I froze when the unicorn bit my finger off, and I froze when I saw this guy standing between me and my exit from the alley, and I froze then, when I realized that I was close enough to the unicorn’s mouth that I could smell my own blood on his breath.
Freezing did me some good, though. See, when he was straddling me, that guy in the suit got his leg kind of tucked under mine for leverage. If I’d’ve moved... well, maybe his leg would have been freed up.
As it was, I didn’t move, and his leg stayed pinned. He tried to jump off me, but instead, he lurched and fell forward. He didn’t catch himself in time, and his forehead cracked into my nose. A hot rush of blood gushed out of my nose, covering my mouth and chin. I scrambled out from underneath him, holding my face and gagging on the blood.
He didn’t move. But he did scream.
Best I can figure it is this: when he put out his hand to catch himself, it probably landed on the ground right next to my head. But the unicorn’s mouth was on the ground right next to my head. So, you do the math.
He screamed for a long time. He struggled for a long time. And then, he didn’t anymore.
I’ll never forget the sound of his neck snapping between the unicorn’s jaws. The way his legs twitched and jerked, and then went limp.
While the unicorn was eating, I could have left. But I didn’t. Not right away. First, I walked down the alley a little ways. I found some stuff there-- an old, stained folding chair, a few rolls of duct tape, some pliers and a mallet and a baseball bat. And a big sledgehammer. It’s not too hard to imagine what that alley got used for. I was almost relieved to know that maybe some of the toughs I saw walk through there actually did just use it to rough people up.
I left everything but the sledge. I took that back over to the unicorn. He was totally engrossed in his meal. He held a shirtsleeved arm between his forelegs and gnawed on one end of it, like a dog with a rawhide bone. He was drooling everywhere, and I realized that his saliva shimmered. I looked down at the bones on the floor - they looked like they were covered in a fine layer of glitter.
Unicorns, I guess.
As the unicorn tore a long strip of flesh off the arm he was working on, I lifted the sledge high over my head. I figured I’d only have one chance to do this thing right. I shifted my feet a little, and then let the sledgehammer drop.
The chain broke.
I let the sledge clatter to the ground. I remember thinking, there. It’s out of my hands now. Whatever happens, happens.
The unicorn didn’t get up. He kept eating until the guy was stripped clean. He licked the bones with a long purplish tongue, cracked them open between his back teeth and licked out the marrow. As he ate, he seemed to recover right before my eyes. His flesh filled out until his ribs were no longer visible, and the sores on his neck healed over. I watched for a little while, but then I realized that I didn’t want to be there when he stood up. I’d be willing to bet that when he was fully recovered, he’d be fast. Faster than me.
I left as quietly as I could, but my footsteps still crunched. When I reached the edge of the pool of light in that alley, I looked back. The unicorn was staring at me with those huge brown eyes. He blinked once or twice, and then went back to gnawing the gristle off a femur.
In that moment, I felt that I’d been granted a pardon. Just that once. Get-out-of-death-free.
I called my boss and quit my job that night. I couldn’t be a croupier without my pinky - sure, some people could, but I figure I’m too old to teach myself how to handle cards with just nine fingers. I went home and taped my nose, put a band-aid on my neck, and threw away my bloody clothes. The next morning, the skin on my hand had healed over; it was as if I’d been missing a finger for years. I got a job as a bartender at a little pub off the strip, and I never looked back.
I never told anybody about this before now. Not when I’m in a checkout line and the person in front of me is reading a tabloid with a blurred photo of a hulking white creature on the cover. Not when the cops offer a reward for information on what they still think is some kind of cannibal cult. Not even when new half-eaten bodies show up on the news - I don’t have anything to say about it. I change the channel. Because I know what’s my business, and I know what’s not my business.
And what happened in that alley? That’s none of my damn business.
Anyway, love the magazine. I’ve kept my subscription up even though I’m not working in a pit anymore, because the articles are so good. I hope you can use my story.
- Anonymous Croupier