The long drive from Belen to Rancho Juárez seemed to Héctor an endless agony. He found the place in the greatest confusion, AveMaría vacillating between grim determination and hysterics as she packed a suitcase, Jesús “Eddie” tramping back and forth in the sitting room, shaking his fist and vowing to track down Contracepción’s fiendish paramour and tear his head from his body. Amid the uproar, only Beatriz Juárez seemed calm and unperturbed, while Dubya, having caught over and again the word Vegas in the otherwise unfathomable back-and-forth, raced from one end of the house to the other on all fours, emitting leonine roars in between earsplitting shouts of “¡Leones! ¡Leones! ¡Deseo visitar mas leones—muchos, MUCHOS leones!” For an instant, the relief Héctor derived from the thought that he and his family would shortly be leaving this terrible establishment was compensation (almost) for the dread he felt at the prospect of visiting Las Vegas again.
While his wife was putting up a box supper to bring with them on the overnight drive to Nevada, she gave her husband the facts of the case as she knew it, which turned out to be little enough. Contracepción had spent the hours immediately following her father’s departure for Belen in the bedroom, listening to Britney Spears and reading and writing e-mails on her laptop. At around eleven-thirty, AveMaría had put her head through the door to ask if she wished to accompany Dubya and herself to the Wal-Mart in Deming, and afterward for lunch at Tacos Mirasol. As the restaurant was a favorite of Contracep’s, her mother was surprised when the girl declined the invitation, explaining—in rather mysterious tones, her mother recalled—that she had important mail needing to be answered immediately. AveMaría, who thought this a reasonable explanation at the time, had left at once for Deming with Dubya. They had spent nearly two hours at the store (forty-five minutes buying groceries and household necessities, an hour and fifteen minutes while AveMaría shopped the women’s clothing department for holiday discounts) and gone on to enjoy a leisurely lunch lasting an hour and a half at Tacos Mirasol. Finally, the drive home had taken twenty minutes. At the house, they had been met by Beatriz, who’d just got home herself from the Pink Store where she’d met Jesús “Eddie” for lunch on his noontime break at the border to discover Contracep’s handwritten note on the kitchen table, weighted by an exhausted bottle of Paul Mitchell hair spray. The women’s first thought had been that Contracepción had been kidnapped and forced by the kidnapper to write a runaway note. But AveMaría pointed out that most criminals, suffering as they did from low IQ, were too unintelligent to think of so clever a ruse. The note, unambiguously in Contracep’s hand, explained that she had gone to Vegas with a famous talent scout who’d promised to make her a singing star. Not to worry, it added: Siggy had assured her Britney was washed up in Vegas, and she’d grab off all her bookings in a couple of months. Once she was a star, Contracepción promised, she’d buy her parents a big home in Vegas and a fancy new car each. Fortunately, AveMaría had phoned her husband in Belen before calling the police—an act, Héctor reminded her, whose surefire result would be their daughter’s arrest on a charge of having violated her probation in Belen.
The Villas got started for Las Vegas shortly before 11 p.m. Héctor began by trying to talk Jesús “Eddie” out of coming with them. But when persuasion failed, he put his foot down with a firmness and decision his friend had never seen in him before, so that, in the end, he backed off like a hyena confronted by a lion. Héctor had worked out the distance by road at 624 miles, for an estimated ten-and-a-half or eleven hours’ driving time. It would have been helpful to have a clue as to where, in a city of 600,000 people, his daughter and Siggy were likely to be found, but Héctor thought he had a pretty fair idea. Before getting in the car, he’d typed the words “Britney Spears” and “Las Vegas” into Google and discovered that Britney had performed her “Dream Within a Dream” World Tour at the MGM Grand Hotel in 2002. It was a start, at least, though for him the most unpleasant one imaginable. Perhaps, it had occurred to him, he’d be unrecognizable to anyone—including Juanito Villalobos—in disguise as a keeper at the Lion Habitat. Why—Héctor anguished—had his beloved Contracepción gone and visited this terrible ordeal upon him?
He drove as far as Tucson, where AveMaría took over while Héctor tried to get some sleep and Dubya snored wetly in the back seat. In Phoenix they stopped for gas at a convenience store, and the boy, awakened, bought a stuffed lion that took up most of the back seat of the Subaru. From Phoenix, Héctor drove the remaining 287 miles on to Vegas, keeping awake with strong coffee and the radio set low. He turned it off finally near Williams, Arizona, when the D.J. put a Britney song, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” on the air. At a little before noon they arrived in Las Vegas, where Héctor steered directly for the MGM Grand and was nearly run into by a chartered Greyhound bus on the way to the hotel. “¡Leones! ¡O-o-o mis leones!” Dubya began shouting as soon as he recognized the place.
Héctor had decided, on the dull desert drive from Phoenix, to book a room at the MGM, even though, as his bank account stood these days, he could hardly afford it. (What else was plastic for, he reminded himself.) The hotel was familiar territory, as well as a prime attraction for Britney wannabes. While Dubya had dozed the last fifty miles into town, his father and AveMaría had agreed that she and the boy would establish an observation post in the hotel lobby at a convenient distance from the Lion Habitat, while Héctor checked out the musical entertainment being offered that week. A sense of the most extreme urgency impelled both parents. Nothing less than their daughter’s virginity was at stake, while even now they might be too late, the sacred cause already lost—and forever!
After a half-hour’s search undertaken on one of the house computers, Héctor understood that, if Britney Spears really were in town this week, she wasn’t booked to sing anyplace. Sir Elton John and Céline Dion were playing at Caesars Palace, and Barry Manilow was at The Hilton with “Manilow: Music and Passion.” Thunder From Down Under, the male revue from Australia, was performing at The Excalibur, and The Mirage offered The Beatles’ “LOVE,” while The Chippendales had been booked at the Rio and the MGM itself offered “La Femme,” imported direct from the Crazy Horse in Paris. Where Contracep and Siggy might possibly fit into any of this, Héctor had no idea. He could, he realized in despair, hang out for months on end at these shows—to the tune of $59.95 to several hundred bucks a pop—without ever catching sight either of his daughter or her showbiz boyfriend, whom he wouldn’t recognize from a zoo keeper with a pooper-scooper over his shoulder. If he was going to find Contracepción, and in time (the act was hardly a lengthy one, especially with a young male), Héctor could not afford to wander blind around downtown Las Vegas. He needed to think like Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, played by Humphrey Bogart, accustomed to tracking seedy people in seedy places like L.A. (a town Héctor had always deplored as hopelessly Mexicanized in a sordid low-class way, an American Juárez on steroids).
The name Marlowe suggested alcohol and tobacco, and thoughts of both put Héctor in mind of a drink, considered by some health experts he’d read to be conducive to mental concentration when indulged in with restraint. Therefore, having ascertained that AveMaría and Dubya, fortified by colas and a bag of fried pork rinds, were at their post in the lobby, he ducked into Zuri, a martini bar open 24 hours a day, where, on the recommendation of the barman, he ordered a gin gimlet with Rose’s Lime Juice, straight up.
The gimlet, of which he had been initially skeptical, proved exotic but delicious. Further to concentrate his mind by distracting it from the gorgeous, near-naked females who came and went in the bar, Héctor requested a cigar from Zuri’s signature humidor and sat with it above crossed arms, thinking. When he felt the gin infusing his brain so as to induce thought, he ordered a second gimlet and went on thinking. But the harder he tried to think, the more petrified his brain seemed to become, while, the more he drank to soften it up, the more squashily recalcitrant it grew. Héctor consulted his watch and read the time: five-thirty. Already half a day had been wasted, and he was getting that way himself. What kind of a father would sit all afternoon at a bimbo bar while his own daughter was being deflowered? Héctor called for the check and was numbly trying to calculate a fair tip when two girls flounced in and perched themselves on the two tall seats to his right. Rather, they would have flounced had they been wearing skirts instead of a slightly more modest version of thong panties below and pasties above. The girls looked to him to be very young—hardly older, if at all, than Contracepción, Héctor thought. Both of them acted over-excited, tossing their hairdos from side to side and talking even more expressively with their manicured hands than with their gaping painted mouths. To his astonishment, the barman accepted their orders of two infused vodkas without requesting IDs. While he was away preparing the drinks, both girls took wallets from their pocketbooks and drew out what looked like identical business cards to admire, turning them over and over in their hands and giggling hysterically. Héctor glanced sideways at the nearer girl. Her card read:
Usa World Showcase
3960 Howard Hughes Pkwy #500
Las Vegas, Nevada 89109
Corporate Office: (702) 400-6315
He returned to his study of the check and decided to leave 20 percent, as it was easier to calculate than fifteen. That was when he overheard one of the girls squealing, “Oh, Danele, I just, like, know we’ve got it made with Justin! He’s hot for me—I could, like, feel the body heat, y’know? He’s all set to book us at The Mirage now, without even waiting for the World Showcase, soon as I—you know”—she giggled again, and gave her friend a knowing dig with her elbow—“give him a little of what it is he’s really after!”
Héctor’s instincts, working above the gin, responded in the instant. On impulse, he turned in his seat to address the girl directly.
“Can I please have a look at that card for a second?” he asked her.
The two of them stared at each other in astonishment, then burst into laughter.
“So, like, what are you auditioning for?” the first girl demanded, and covered her mouth with her hand.
“I just want to write that address down, if you don’t mind,” Héctor told her.
Over the next three days, he and AveMaría combed the city of Las Vegas, traipsing from one booking agency to the next in search of anyone who might have been approached by Siggy and Contracepción while Dubya passed the time at the Lion Habitat, supervised by a nanny who charged $25 an hour in her job. Héctor had not realized that Las Vegas was so big, nor that it embraced talent enough to keep so many scouts and booking agents in business. It was no doubt on account of business pressures that most of them were dismissively impatient and rude, except on those occasions when they mistook him for an ethnic character actor looking for work of the “¡Ay Chihuahua!” variety. Typically short, bald-headed, and sweating, with circular waistlines tented in loud shirts, they lurked like moray eels in cramped, smelly offices amid steel filing cabinets, guarded by professional-looking secretaries (professional as in the oldest profession, Héctor thought). For three full days, from nine in the morning until five at night, they approached these dragons, patiently and somewhat apologetically. No, no one by the name of Siggy or Contracepción (“Is that name for real?”) had stopped by the office. (“I’d remember that one, buddy, believe me!” “What do you think I am, a lousy private dick?”) At the end of the first day, he and AveMaría were close to tears; at the conclusion of the second, they had nearly given up hope, less of finding Contracep in the end than of rescuing her innocence on which they were aware the meter was ticking, as on their mounting hotel bill. By the evening of day three, both parents were in despair, and Héctor talked of calling the police as a measure of last resort.
Nervously as well as physically exhausted, they dragged themselves back to the MGM Grand, where Dubya and the nanny awaited them near the front desk. The little boy spied them first and raced forward across the lobby, knocking the knees of gathered couples who stared after him disapprovingly.
“¡Mamá! ¡Papá! I found Contracep—I saw her, I did! She’s over there with the leones at the Lion Habitat!”