Home Culture Culture News

Fear and Loathing in Elko

Our national affairs correspondent considers the case of Clarence Thomas

Writer, journalist, Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson›, circa 1990.

Chris Felver/Getty

Part I: Memo From the National Affairs Desk: Sexual Harassment Then and Now… The Ghost of Long Dong Thomas… The Road Full of Forks

Dear Jann, God damn, I wish you were here to enjoy this beautiful weather with me. It is autumn, as you know, and things are beginning to die. It is so wonderful to be out in the crisp fall air, with the leaves turning gold and the grass turning brown, and the warmth going out of the sunlight and big hot fires in the fireplace while Buddy rakes the lawn. We see a lot of bombs on TV because we watch it a lot more, now that the days get shorter and shorter, and darkness comes so soon, and all the flowers die from freezing.

Oh, God! You should have been with me yesterday when I finished my ham and eggs and knocked back some whiskey and picked up my Weatherby Mark V .300 Magnum and a ball of black Opium for dessert and went outside with a fierce kind of joy in my heart because I was Proud to be an American on a day like this. It felt like a goddamn Football Game, Jann — it was like Paradise…. You remember that bliss you felt when we powered down to the Farm and whipped Stanford? Well, it felt like that.

I digress. My fits of Joy are soiled by relentless flashbacks and ghosts too foul to name…. Oh, no, don’t ask Why. You could have been president, Jann, but your road was full of forks, and I think of this when I see the forked horns of these wild animals who dash back and forth on the hillsides while rifles crack in the distance and fine swarthy young men with blood on their hands drive back and forth in the dusk and mournfully call our names….

O Ghost, O Lost, Lost and Gone, O Ghost, come back again.

Right. And so much for autumn. The trees are diseased and the animals get in your way and the President is usually guilty and most days are too long, anyway…. So never mind my poem. It was wrong from the start. I plagiarized it from an early work of Coleridge and then tried to put my own crude stamp on it, but I failed. So what? I didn’t want to talk about fucking autumn, anyway. I was just sitting here at dawn on a crisp Sunday morning, waiting for the football games to start and taking a goddamn very brief break from this blizzard of Character Actors and Personal Biographers and sickly Paparazzi that hovers around me these days (they are sleeping now, thank Christ — some even in my own bed). I was sitting here all alone, thinking, for good or ill, about the Good Old Days.

We were Poor, Jann. But we were Happy. Because we knew Tricks. We were Smart. Not Crazy, like they said. (No. They never called us late for dinner, eh?)

Ho, ho. Laughs don’t come cheap these days, do they? The only guy who seems to have any fun in public is Prince Cromwell, my shrewd and humorless neighbor — the one who steals sheep and beats up women, like Mike Tyson.

Who knows why, Jann. Some people are too weird to figure.

You have come a long way from the Bloodthirsty, Beady-eyed news Hawk that you were in days of yore. Maybe you should try reading something besides those goddamn motorcycle magazines — or one of these days you’ll find hair growing in your palms.

Take my word for it. You can only spend so much time “on the throttle,” as it were…. Then the Forces of Evil will take over. Beware….

Ah, but that is a different question, for now. Who gives a fuck? We are, after all, Professionals…. But our Problem is not. No. It is the Problem of Everyman. It is Everywhere. The Question is our Wa; the Answer is our Fate… and the story I am about to tell you is horrible, Jann.

I came suddenly awake, weeping and jabbering and laughing like a loon at the ghost on my TV set…. Judge Clarence Thomas … Yes, I knew him. But that was a long time ago. Many years, in fact, but I still remember it vividly…. Indeed, it has haunted me like a Golem, day and night, for many years.

It seemed normal enough, at the time, just another weird rainy night out there on the high desert…. What the hell? We were younger, then. Me and the Judge. And all the others, for that matter…. It was a Different Time. People were Friendly. We trusted each other. Hell, you could afford to get mixed up with wild strangers in those days — without fearing for your life, or your eyes, or your organs, or all of your money or even getting locked up in prison forever. There was a sense of possibility. People were not so afraid, as they are now. You could run around naked without getting shot. You could check into a roadside motel on the outskirts of Ely or Winnemucca or Elko when you were lost in a midnight rainstorm — and nobody called the police on you, just to check out your credit and your employment history and your medical records and how many parking tickets you owed in California.

There were Laws, but they were not feared. There were Rules, but they were not worshiped … like Laws and Rules and Cops and Informants are feared and worshiped today.

Like I said: It was a different time. And I know the Judge would tell you the same thing, tonight, if he wanted to tell you the Truth, like I do.

The first time I actually met the Judge was a long time ago, for strange reasons, on a dark and rainy night in Elko, Nevada, when we both ended up in the same sleazy roadside Motel, for no good reason at all…. Good God! What a night!

I almost forgot about it, until I saw him last week on TV… and then I saw it all over again. The horror! The horror! That night when the road washed out and we all got stuck out there — somewhere near Elko in a place just off the highway, called Endicott’s Motel — and we almost went really Crazy.


P.S. And, speaking of crazy, take a look at this riff on the Judge and Sexual Harassment that I received yesterday from that brute who runs the Sports Desk. He must have been drunk when he wrote it — but whiskey is no excuse for this kind of brainless, atavistic gibberish.

I want that screwhead fired! He was harmless once, but ever since Judge Thomas got confirmed for the High Court, he has been mauling women shamelessly. Last week he pinned my secretary against a hot wall in the mainframe room and almost twisted her nipples off. Then he laughed and said it was legal now, and if I didn’t like it, I could take him to court [see enclosed memo, below]. It was addressed to me, but I have a feeling we’ll be seeing it soon, taped up on the wall of the Men’s Room — and probably the Women’s Room too.

Special Advisory From the Sports Desk
From: Raoul Duke, Ed.

I need your help, Doc. They’re trying to bust me on Sex charges. The snake has come out of the bag, and soon they’ll be after you. Your phone will be ringing all night with obscene calls from Radical Lesbian Separatists.

You know how I feel about Victims, Doc, and also how I worship the First Amendment — along with the Fourth, of course….

And all of the others, including our God-given Right to praise the President when he pulls off a Great Victory and rips the nuts off the Enemy. It was wonderful, Doc. We beat them like shit-eating dogs. They came, they failed, and now we will gnaw on their skulls. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, eh? Right! Fuck those people! Death to the Weird! We will march on a road of bones! Sieg Heil!

(Whoops. Strike that.) What I meant to say was Hot Damn! We’re back in the Saddle again! And I don’t mean maybe…. Right. You know me, Doc. I’m a gracious Loser — but when I win, I must Kick Ass!

That is the Law of Nature: Life is a brainless struggle, and “the Meek” will jabber and die like brain-damaged rats in a maze, long before they will ever have time to even think about inheriting the goddamn Earth — much less the White House.

No. Don’t worry about that, Doc. The Nigger is on the run all over the World, and we want to keep him that way. (Or “her” or “it” or “them,” if you know what I’m saying….) They are not necessarily Black, Doc, and many are not of our Gender….

But so what? They are Niggers, and we’re Not! Hell, yes! That’s what it comes down to. They were Fools! It was like the Charge of the Light Brigade. They rode into the Valley of Death, and We stomped them…. They were Wrong from the start, but they fooled a lot of people, for a while….

Thank God we got off that stinking Death Ship while we still had the chance, eh? They almost sucked us into it… and if we’d been Weaker, they would have….

Yeah. And if the Queen had balls, she’d be King, eh?… They screeched like Hyenas for a while, but then they ran like Rats. Shit on them. That’s what I Those bitches got their tits caught in a wringer.

Okay. Congress is a sinkhole of Whores. We all know that. Shit. Sexual Harassment is what Congress is all about. It was the Way of Our Forefathers, and it is Right!

Hot damn: I feel good about Myself today, Doc. I feel Innocent, for a change… and I guess you feel the Same Way, eh?

Jesus. They had us on the run there, for a few days. The Fat Lady was ready to sing, and I was starting to feel guilty about almost Everything…. Especially touching Women — or even myself, for a while. It was Horrible. It got so I was afraid to ride the same elevator with a woman. It was too risky. What if she was one of these crazy New Age bitches that want to kick you in the nuts and then get you busted for “fondling” them?

What kind of life would it be if you went to jail or got ruined every time you tried to flirt with a pretty woman? Let’s face it, Doc. We are all Rapists, one way or another. The trick is not to get Busted for it…. Which is almost what happened, Doc. BUT IT DIDN’T. No! We were NOT Guilty! They called us Bullies and Mashers, but we were only falling in Love….

—Raoul Duke, Sports

PART II: Fear and Loathing in Elko: Bad Craziness in Sheep Country… Side Entrance on Queer Street… O Black, O Wild, O Darkness, Roll Over Me Tonight

It was just after midnight when I first saw the sheep. I was running about eighty-eight or ninety miles an hour in a drenching, blinding rain on U.S. 40 between Winnemucca and Elko with one light out. I was soaking wet from the water that was pouring in through a hole in the front roof of the car, and my fingers were like rotten icicles on the steering wheel.

It was a moonless night and I knew I was hydroplaning, which is dangerous…. My front tires were no longer in touch with the asphalt or anything else. My center of gravity was too high. There was no visibility on the road, none at all. I could have tossed a flat rock a lot farther than I could see in front of me that night through the rain and the ground fog.

So what? I thought. I know this road — a straight lonely run across nowhere, with not many dots on the map except ghost towns and truck stops with names like Beowawe and Lovelock and Deeth and Winnemucca….

Jesus! Who made this map? Only a lunatic could have come up with a list of places like this: Imlay, Valmy, Golconda, Nixon, Midas, Metropolis, Jiggs, Judasville — all of them empty, with no gas stations, withering away in the desert like a string of old Pony Express stations. The Federal Government owns ninety percent of this land, and most of it is useless for anything except weapons testing and poison-gas experiments.

My plan was to keep moving. Never slow down. Keep the car aimed straight ahead through the rain like a Cruise missile…. I felt comfortable. There is a sense of calm and security that comes with driving a very fast car on an empty road at night…. Fuck this thunderstorm, I thought. There is safety in speed. Nothing can touch me as long as I keep moving fast, and never mind the cops: They are all hunkered down in a truck stop or jacking off by themselves in a culvert behind some dynamite shack in the wilderness beyond the highway…. Either way, they wanted no part of me, and I wanted no part of them. Only trouble could come of it. They were probably nice people, and so was I — but we were not meant for each other. History had long since determined that. There is a huge body of evidence to support the notion that me and the police were put on this earth to do extremely different things and never to mingle professionally with each other, except at official functions, when we all wear ties and drink heavily and whoop it up like the natural, good-humored wild boys that we know in our hearts that we are…. These occasions are rare, but they happen — despite the forked tongue of fate that has put us forever on different paths…. But what the hell? I can handle a wild birthday party with cops, now and then. Or some unexpected orgy at a gun show in Texas. Why not? Hell, I ran for Sheriff one time, and almost got elected. They understand this, and I get along fine with the smart ones.

But not tonight, I thought, as I sped along in the darkness. Not at 100 miles an hour at midnight on a rain-slicked road in Nevada. Nobody needs to get involved in a high-speed chase on a filthy night like this. It would be dumb and extremely dangerous. Nobody driving a red 454 V-8 Chevrolet convertible was likely to pull over and surrender peacefully at the first sight of a cop car behind him. All kinds of weird shit might happen, from a gunfight with dope fiends to permanent injury or death…. It was a good night to stay indoors and be warm, make a fresh pot of coffee and catch up on important paperwork. Lay low and ignore these loonies. Anybody behind the wheel of a car tonight was far too crazy to fuck with, anyway.

Which was probably true. There was nobody on the road except me and a few big-rig Peterbilts running west to Reno and Sacramento by dawn. I could hear them on my nine-band Super-Scan shortwave/CB/Police radio, which erupted now and then with outbursts of brainless speed gibberish about Big Money and Hot Crank and teenage cunts with huge tits.

They were dangerous Speed Freaks, driving twenty-ton trucks that might cut loose and jackknife at any moment, utterly out of control. There is nothing more terrifying than suddenly meeting a jackknifed Peterbilt with no brakes coming at you sideways at sixty or seventy miles per hour on a steep mountain road at three o’clock in the morning. There is a total understanding, all at once, of how the captain of the Titanic must have felt when he first saw the Iceberg.

And not much different from the hideous feeling that gripped me when the beam of my Long-Reach Super-Halogen headlights picked up what appeared to be a massive rock slide across the highway — right in front of me, blocking the road completely. Big white rocks and round boulders, looming up with no warning in a fog of rising steam or swamp gas…

The brakes were useless, the car was wandering. The rear end was coming around. I jammed it down into Low, but it made no difference, so I straightened it out and braced for a serious impact, a crash that would probably kill me. This is It, I thought. This is how it happens — slamming into a pile of rocks at 100 miles an hour, a sudden brutal death in a fast red car on a moonless night in a rainstorm somewhere on the sleazy outskirts of Elko. I felt vaguely embarrassed, in that long pure instant before I went into the rocks. I remembered Los Lobos and that I wanted to call Maria when I got to Elko….

My heart was full of joy as I took the first hit, which was oddly soft and painless. No real shock at all. Just a sickening thud, like running over a body, a corpse — or, ye fucking gods, a crippled 200-pound sheep thrashing around in the road.

Yes. These huge white lumps were not boulders. They were sheep. Dead and dying sheep. More and more of them, impossible to miss at this speed, piled up on each other like bodies at the battle of Shiloh. It was like running over wet logs. Horrible, horrible…

And then I saw the man — a leaping Human Figure in the glare of my bouncing headlights, waving his arms and yelling, trying to flag me down. I swerved to avoid hitting him, but he seemed not to see me, rushing straight into my headlights like a blind man… or a monster from Mars with no pulse, covered with blood and hysterical.

It looked like a small black gentleman in a London Fog raincoat, frantic to get my attention. It was so ugly that my brain refused to accept it…. Don’t worry, I thought. This is only an Acid flashback. Be calm. This is not really happening.

I was down to about thirty-five or thirty when I zoomed past the man in the raincoat and bashed the brains out of a struggling sheep, which helped to reduce my speed, as the car went airborne again, then bounced to a shuddering stop just before I hit the smoking, overturned hulk of what looked like a white Cadillac limousine, with people still inside. It was a nightmare. Some fool had crashed into a herd of sheep at high speed and rolled into the desert like an eggbeater.

We were able to laugh about it later, but it took a while to calm down. What the hell? It was only an accident. The Judge had murdered some range animals.

So what? Only a racist maniac would run sheep on the highway in a thunderstorm at this hour of the night. “Fuck those people!” he snapped, as I took off toward Elko with him and his two female companions tucked safely into my car, which had suffered major cosmetic damage but nothing serious. “They’ll never get away with this Negligence!” he said. “We’ll eat them alive in court. Take my word for it. We are about to become joint owners of a huge Nevada sheep ranch.”

Wonderful, I thought. But meanwhile we were leaving the scene of a very conspicuous wreck that was sure to be noticed by morning, and the whole front of my car was gummed up with wool and sheep’s blood. There was no way I could leave it parked on the street in Elko, where I’d planned to stop for the night (maybe two or three nights, for that matter) to visit with some old friends who were attending a kind of Appalachian Conference for sex-film distributors at the legendary Commercial Hotel….

Never mind that, I thought. Things have changed. I was suddenly a Victim of Tragedy — injured and on the run, far out in the middle of sheep country — 1000 miles from home with a car full of obviously criminal hitchhikers who were spattered with blood and cursing angrily at each other as we zoomed through the blinding monsoon.

Jesus, I thought. Who are these people?

Who indeed? They seemed not to notice me. The two women fighting in the back seat were hookers. No doubt about that. I had seen them in my headlights as they struggled in the wreckage of the Cadillac, which had killed about sixty sheep. They were desperate with Fear and Confusion, crawling wildly across the sheep…. One was a tall black girl in a white minidress… and now she was screaming at the other one, a young blond white woman. They were both drunk. Sounds of struggle came from the back seat. “Get your hands off me, Bitch!” Then a voice cried out: “Help me, Judge! Help! She’s killing me!”

What? I thought. Judge? Then she said it again, and a horrible chill went through me.… Judge? No. That would be over the line. Unacceptable.

He lunged over the seat and whacked their heads together. “Shut up!” he screamed. “Where are your fucking manners?”

He went over the seat again. He grabbed one of them by the hair. “God damn you,” he screamed. “Don’t embarrass this man. He saved our lives. We owe him respect — not this goddamned squalling around like whores.”

A shudder ran through me, but I gripped the wheel and stared straight ahead, ignoring this sudden horrible freak show in my car. I lit a cigarette, but I was not calm. Sounds of sobbing and the ripping of cloth came from the back seat. The man they called Judge had straightened himself out and was now resting easily in the front seat, letting out long breaths of air…. The silence was terrifying: I quickly turned up the music. It was Los Lobos again — something about “One Time One Night in America,” a profoundly morbid tune about Death and Disappointment:

A lady dressed in white
With the man she loved
Standing along the side of their pickup truck
A shot rang out in the night
Just when everything seemed right

Right. A shot. A shot rang out in the night. Just another headline written down in America…. Yes. There was a loaded .454 Magnum revolver in a clearly marked oak box on the front seat, about halfway between me and the Judge. He could grab it in a split second and blow my head off.

“Good work, Boss,” he said suddenly. “I owe you a big one, for this. I was done for, if you hadn’t come along.” He chuckled. “Sure as hell, Boss, sure as hell. I was Dead Meat — killed a lot worse than what happened to those goddamn stupid sheep!”

Jesus! I thought. Get ready to hit the brake. This man is a Judge on the lam with two hookers. He has no choice but to kill me, and those floozies in the back seat, too. We were the only witnesses….

This eerie perspective made me uneasy…. Fuck this, I thought. These people are going to get me locked up. I’d be better off just pulling over right here and killing all three of them. Bang, Bang, Bang! Terminate the scum.

“How far is town?” the Judge asked.

I jumped, and the car veered again. “Town?” I said. “What town?” My arms were rigid and my voice was strange and reedy.

He whacked me on the knee and laughed. “Calm down, Boss,” he said. “I have everything under control. We’re almost home.” He pointed into the rain, where I was beginning to see the dim lights of what I knew to be Elko.

“Okay,” he snapped. “Take a left, straight ahead.” He pointed again and I slipped the car into low. There was a red and blue neon sign glowing about a half-mile ahead of us, barely visible in the storm. The only words I could make out were No and Vacancy.

“Slow down!” the Judge screamed. “This is it! Turn! Goddamnit, turn!” His voice had the sound of a whip cracking. I recognized the tone and did as he said, curling into the mouth of the curve with all four wheels locked and the big engine snarling wildly in Compound Low and blue flames coming out of the tailpipe…. It was one of those long perfect moments in the human driving experience that makes everybody quiet. Where is P.J.? I thought. This one would bring him to his knees.

We were sliding sideways very fast and utterly out of control and coming up on a white steel guardrail at seventy miles an hour in a thunderstorm on a deserted highway in the middle of the night.

Why not? On some nights Fate will pick you up like a chicken and slam you around on the walls until your body feels like a beanbag…. BOOM! BLOOD! DEATH! So Long, Bubba — You knew it would End like this….

We stabilized and shot down the loop. The Judge seemed oddly calm as he pointed again. “This is it,” he said. “This is my place. I keep a few suites here.” He nodded eagerly. “We’re finally safe, Boss. We can do anything we want in this place.”

The sign at the gate said:
Endicott’s Motel
Deluxe Suites and Waterbeds
Adults Only/No Animals

Thank god, I thought. It was almost too good to be true. A place to dump these bastards. They were quiet now, but not for long. And I knew I couldn’t handle it when these women woke up.

The Endicott was a string of cheap-looking bungalows, laid out in a horseshoe pattern around a rutted gravel driveway. There were cars parked in front of most of the units, but the slots in front of the brightly lit places at the darker end of the horseshoe were empty.

“Okay,” said the Judge. “We’ll drop the ladies down there at our suite, then I’ll get you checked in.” He nodded. “We both need some sleep, Boss — or at least rest, if you know what I mean. Shit, it’s been a long night.”

I laughed, but it sounded like the bleating of a dead man. The adrenalin rush of the sheep crash was gone, and now I was sliding into pure Fatigue Hysteria.

The Endicott “Office” was a darkened hut in the middle of the horseshoe. We parked in front of it and then the Judge began hammering on the wooden front door, but there was no immediate response…. “Wake up, goddamnit! It’s me — the Judge! Open up! This is Life and Death! I need help!”

He stepped back and delivered a powerful kick at the door, which rattled the glass panels and shook the whole building. “I know you’re in there,” he screamed. “You can’t hide! I’ll kick your ass till your nose bleeds!”

There was still no sign of life, and I quickly abandoned all hope. Get out of here, I thought. This is wrong. I was still in the car, half in and half out…. The Judge put another fine snap-kick at a point just over the doorknob and uttered a sharp scream in some language I didn’t recognize. Then I heard the sound of breaking glass.

I leapt back into the car and started the engine. Get away! I thought. Never mind sleep. It’s flee or die, now. People get killed for doing this kind of shit in Nevada. It was far over the line. Unacceptable behavior. This is why God made shotguns….

I saw lights come on in the Office. Then the door swung open and I saw the Judge leap quickly through the entrance and grapple briefly with a small bearded man in a bathrobe, who collapsed to the floor after the Judge gave him a few blows to the head…. Then he called back to me. “Come on in, Boss,” he yelled. “Meet Mister Henry.”

I shut off the engine and staggered up the gravel path. I felt sick and woozy, and my legs were like rubber bands.

The Judge reached out to help me. I shook hands with Mr. Henry, who gave me a key and a form to fill out. “Bullshit,” said the Judge. “This man is my guest. He can have anything he wants. Just put it on my bill.”

“Of course,” said Mr. Henry. “Your bill. Yes. I have it right here.” He reached under his desk and came up with a nasty-looking bundle of adding-machine tapes and scrawled Cash/Payment memos…. “You got here just in time,” he said. “We were about to notify the Police.”

What?” said the Judge. “Are you nuts? I have a goddamn platinum American Express card! My credit is impeccable.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Henry. “We know that. We have total respect for you. Your signature is better than gold bullion.” The Judge smiled and whacked the flat of his hand on the counter. “You bet it is!” he snapped. “So get out of my goddamn face! You must be crazy to fuck with Me like this! You fool! Are you ready to go to court?”

Mr. Henry sagged. “Please, Judge,” he said. “Don’t do this to me. All I need is your card. Just let me run an imprint. That’s all.” He moaned and stared more or less at the Judge, but I could see that his eyes were not focused…. “They’re going to fire me,” he whispered. “They want to put me in jail.”

“Nonsense!” the Judge snapped. “I would never let that happen. You can always plead.” He reached out and gently gripped Mr. Henry’s wrist. “Believe me, Bro,” he hissed. “You have nothing to worry about. You are cool. They will never lock you up! They will Never take you away! Not out of my courtroom!”

“Thank you,” Mr. Henry replied. “But all I need is your card and your signature. That’s the problem: I forgot to run it when you checked in.”

“So what?” the Judge barked. “I’m good for it. How much do you need?”

“About $22,000,” said Mr. Henry. “Probably $23,000 by now. You’ve had those suites for nineteen days with total room service.”

“What?” the Judge yelled. “You thieving bastards! I’ll have you crucified by American Express. You are finished in this business. You will never work again! Not anywhere in the world!”

Then he whipped Mr. Henry across the front of his face so fast that I barely saw it. “Stop crying!” he said. “Get a grip on yourself! This is embarrassing!”

Then he slapped the man again. “Is that all you want?” he said. “Only a card? A stupid little card? A piece of plastic shit?”

Mr. Henry nodded. “Yes, Judge,” he whispered. “That’s all. Just a stupid little card.”

The judge laughed and reached into his raincoat, as if to jerk out a gun or at least a huge wallet. “You want a card, whoreface? Is that it? Is that all you want? You filthy little scumbag! Here it is!”

Mr. Henry cringed and whimpered. Then he reached out to accept the Card, the thing that would set him free…. The Judge was still grasping around in the lining of his raincoat. “What the fuck?” he muttered. “This thing has too many pockets! I can feel it, but I can’t find the slit!”

Mr. Henry seemed to believe him, and so did I, for a minute…. Why not? He was a Judge with a platinum credit card — a very high roller. You don’t find many Judges, these days, who can handle a full caseload in the morning and run wild like a goat in the afternoon. That is a very hard dollar, and very few can handle it… but the Judge was a Special Case.

Suddenly he screamed and fell sideways, ripping and clawing at the lining of his raincoat. “Oh, Jesus!” he wailed. “I’ve lost my wallet! It’s gone. I left it out there in the Limo, when we hit the fucking sheep.”

“So what?” I said. “We don’t need it for this. I have many plastic cards.”

He smiled and seemed to relax. “How many?” he said. “We might need more than one.”

I woke up in the bathtub — who knows how much later — to the sound of the hookers shrieking next door. The New York Times had fallen in and blackened the water. For many hours I tossed and turned like a crack baby in a cold hallway. I heard thumping Rhythm & Blues — serious rock & roll, and I knew that something wild was going on in the Judge’s suites. The smell of amyl nitrite came from under the door. It was no use. It was impossible to sleep through this orgy of ugliness. I was getting worried. I was already a marginally legal person, and now I was stuck with some crazy Judge who had my credit card and owed me $23,000.

I had some whiskey in the car, so I went out into the rain to get some ice. I had to get out. As I walked past the other rooms, I looked in people’s windows and feverishly tried to figure out how to get my credit card back. Then from behind me I heard the sound of a tow-truck winch. The Judge’s white Cadillac was being dragged to the ground. The Judge was whooping it up with the tow-truck driver, slapping him on the back.

“What the hell? It was only property damage,” he laughed.

“Hey, Judge,” I called out. “I never got my card back.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s in my room — come on.”

I was right behind him when he opened the door to his room, and I caught a glimpse of a naked woman dancing. As soon as the door opened, the woman lunged for the Judge’s throat. She pushed him back outside and slammed the door in his face.

“Forget that credit card — we’ll get some cash,” the Judge said. “Let’s go down to the Commercial Hotel. My friends are there and they have plenty of money.”

We stopped for a six-pack on the way. The Judge went into a sleazy liquor store that turned out to be a front for kinky marital aids. I offered him money for the beer, but he grabbed my whole wallet.

Ten minutes later, the Judge came out with $400 worth of booze and a bagful of Triple-X-Rated movies. “My buddies will like this stuff,” he said. “And don’t worry about the money, I told you I’m good for it. These guys carry serious cash.”

The marquee above the front door of the Commercial Hotel said:

Welcome: Adult film presidents
Studebaker society
Full action casino/keno in lounge

“Park right here in front,” said the Judge. “Don’t worry. I’m well known in this place.”

Me too, but I said nothing. I have been well known at the Commercial for many years, from the time when I was doing a lot of driving back and forth between Denver and San Francisco — usually for Business reasons, or for Art, and on this particular weekend I was there to meet quietly with a few old friends and business associates from the Board of Directors of the Adult Film Association of America. I had been, after all, the Night Manager of the famous O’Farrell Theater, in San Francisco — the “Carnegie Hall of Sex in America.”

I was the Guest of Honor, in fact — but I saw no point in confiding these things to the Judge, a total stranger with no Personal Identification, no money and a very aggressive lifestyle. We were on our way to the Commercial Hotel to borrow money from some of his friends in the Adult Film business.

What the hell? I thought. It’s only Rock & Roll. And he was, after all, a Judge of some kind…. Or maybe not. For all I knew he was a criminal pimp with no fingerprints, or a wealthy black shepherd from Spain. But it hardly mattered. He was good company (if you had a taste for the edge work — and I did, in those days. And so, I felt, did the Judge). He had a bent sense of fun, a quick mind and no Fear of anything.

The front door of the Commercial looked strangely busy at this hour of night in a bad rainstorm, so I veered off and drove slowly around the block in low gear.

“There’s a side entrance on Queer Street,” I said to the Judge, as we hammered into a flood of black water. He seemed agitated, which worried me a bit.

“Calm down,” I said. “We don’t want to make a scene in this place. All we want is money.”

“Don’t worry” he said. “I know these people. They are friends. Money is nothing. They will be happy to see me.”

We entered the hotel through the Casino entrance. The Judge seemed calm and focused until we rounded the corner and came face to face with an eleven-foot polar bear standing on its hind legs, ready to pounce. The Judge turned to jelly at the sight of it. “I’ve had enough of this goddamn beast,” he shouted. “It doesn’t belong here. We should blow its head off.”

I took him by the arm. “Calm down, Judge,” I told him. “That’s White King. He’s been dead for thirty-three years.”

The Judge had no use for animals. He composed himself and we swung into the lobby, approaching the desk from behind. I hung back — it was getting late and the lobby was full of suspicious-looking stragglers from the Adult Film crowd. Private cowboy cops wearing six-shooters in open holsters were standing around. Our entrance did not go unnoticed.

The Judge looked competent, but there was something menacing in the way he swaggered up to the desk clerk and whacked the marble countertop with both hands. The lobby was suddenly filled with tension, and I quickly moved away as the Judge began yelling and pointing at the ceiling.

“Don’t give me that crap,” he barked. “These people are my friends. They’re expecting me. Just ring the goddamn room again.” The desk clerk muttered something about his explicit instructions not to….

Suddenly the Judge reached across the desk for the house phone. “What’s the number?” he snapped. “I’ll ring it myself.” The clerk moved quickly. He shoved the phone out of the Judge’s grasp and simultaneously drew his index finger across his throat. The Judge took one look at the muscle converging on him and changed his stance.

“I want to cash a check,” he said calmly.

“A check?” the clerk said. “Sure thing, buster. I’ll cash your goddamned check.” He seized the Judge by his collar and laughed. “Let’s get this Bozo out of here. And put him in jail.”

I was moving toward the door, and suddenly the Judge was right behind me. “Let’s go,” he said. We sprinted for the car, but then the Judge stopped in his tracks. He turned and raised his fist in the direction of the hotel. “Fuck you!” he shouted. “I’m the Judge. I’ll be back, and I’ll bust every one of you bastards. The next time you see me coming, you’d better run.”

We jumped into the car and zoomed away into the darkness. The Judge was acting manic. “Never mind those pimps,” he said. “I’ll have them all on a chain gang in forty-eight hours.” He laughed and slapped me on the back. “Don’t worry, Boss,” he said. “I know where we’re going.” He squinted into the rain and opened a bottle of Royal Salute. “Straight ahead,” he snapped. “Take a right at the next corner. We’ll go see Leach. He owes me $24,000.”

I slowed down and reached for the whiskey. What the hell, I thought. Some days are weirder than others.

“Leach is my secret weapon,” the Judge said, “but I have to watch him. He could be violent. The cops are always after him. He lives in a balance of terror. But he has a genius for gambling. We win eight out of ten every week.” He nodded solemnly. “That is four out of five, Doc. That is Big. Very big. That is eighty percent of everything.” He shook his head sadly and reached for the whiskey. “It’s a horrible habit. But I can’t give it up. It’s like having a money machine.”

“That’s wonderful,” I said. “What are you bitching about?”

“I’m afraid, Doc.