“At the coolest, hippest,
swinging-est joint on the Strip,
that's where! The Tops,
baby - don't miss it!”
* * *
“What brings such a pretty lady like you to our humble piece of heaven?” A voice pulled me out of my daydreams. I found myself at a bar once again, but this time at a much more refined location. “Let me guess, is it the booze? The games? The men? Damn, all of them? ‘Cause we got ‘em, ‘ya dig?”
I turned my head to my left and squinted to see a quite handsome man sitting on the stool next to mine. His gray suit and slick hair told me everything I needed to know about him: staff of The Tops and trained to sound like the most pretentious asshole in the Mojave. “Not much of a player, what can I say?” I replied, grabbing the shot glass from the counter and bringing it close to my mouth.
“Just the booze, eh?” He looked straight through my shot glass. Sounded slightly disappointed, breaking character, I thought.
I didn’t reply, I simply leaned my head back and took the shot. I then slammed the glass on the counter, grabbed my bag, took out a few caps and placed them on the counter for the bartender once he came around again.
“You don’t play around when it comes to drinkin’, I see, young lady.” Surprised? Impressed? A compliment? Hell, he was so conditioned to sound a certain way that I had no clue.
I turned to him, I wasn’t in the mood to play these little games - I almost never am. “I’m sorry, what is this about? Are you just trying to score a good night for yourself or do you have something, I don’t know, more important in mind? Because I can just grab my shit and leave.”
“Hey-hey there, pussycat. No need to stress out, just wanting to pull some chat.” His voice cracked through his sentence. I turned back to the counter slowly and grabbed a pack of cigarettes from my left pocket and a lighter from my right pocket - I needed to relax.
The Tops was full at that time - a surprise, considering that Gomorrah, the Strip’s own private brothel, was just beside it. The Tops was a rather interesting place made specifically for men, though it attracted the same scum that any other place does; Gomorrah, on the other hand, was a huge fuck-house designed for anyone whose sex drive is as large as their wallet.
With the cigarette lit and in my mouth, I directed myself to him once again. “Alright, you have two minutes.”
“Well, pussycat, we’ve got eyes everywhere. I’m not trying to sound like we’re some big dick badasses - even though we are - it’s just that anyone can turn their eyes into cameras if you’ve got enough caps.” He signaled the barman with his right hand. “And from what we’ve seen, you seem like just the right gal that we need.”
“Yes, Mr. Decola?” Asked the elegant and mature bartender; his head was almost free of hair and above his lips rested a fine crafted pencil mustache. He would often glance at my cigarette, almost as if he was craving it.
“Could you be a gentleman and see me a nice, cool glass of some Mean Billy?” ‘Mr. Decola’ swiftly glanced at me. “Make that two.”
“Right away, Mr. Decola.” The bartender walked to the shelves, grabbing many bottles of different colors.
“Mean Billy? Really?” I asked, chuckling at how ridiculous that sounded.
“You won’t be laughing after you feel the kick, baby, trust me.” He cleared his throat and his smirk turned into a poker face. “As I was saying, we need some guy or gal who can handle the job we need done, and you seem like just the type.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I’ve got many questions, I hope you’re aware.”
“If there’s one thing we know you’re not is reckless.” He commented, confidently. “But I’m afraid I’m not the fella you should be asking these questions to. Say we head to my boss’s office after we’re done with our drinks?”
“Is doing business while high a common practice for y’all?” I asked, smirking.
He looked at me and chuckled. “You know it, baby.”
The bartender returned with two glasses of a light green drink, with a little sunshade resting against the border of the glass. “I hope this pleases you, mister Decola and miss...”
“Ace. Just call me Ace.” I responded with a smile.
The bartender smiled back. “Mister Decola and miss Ace.”
“I know you and your drinks, Carlos, I’m sure this will be perfect.” Before he could take a sip, the man leaned towards me. “Name’s Jeff.”
I drank my ‘Mean Billy’ in a hurry, anxious to get to know the big dick who ran that place and who had a job for me. Job meant caps. Caps meant more ways for me to get outta trouble. The Billy, however, did not go down without a fight. I felt a slight shiver overwhelming me and had to wait a few seconds before talking once again. “Could you now guide me to the ‘boss’, Jeff?” I would not turn down a job offer so easily, but I also didn’t want to waste much time - not more than I needed to, anyway.
Jeff grunted as the drink rushed down his throat and, after leaving his glass dry, he placed it down on the counter gently - maybe I should learn from him. “As you wish.” The man in the suit then got up from his stool and started to walk towards the door that lead to the play area of The Tops. That casino was built in a sort of “L” shape and the middle was a couple of steps down from the rest of the building, surrounded by a metal bar; this was where you would find the poker tables, the blackjack tables, and many more with respective players. Surrounding this main play area, you could walk on a rather wide path to get from place to place without interrupting the games and disturbing many people. Above all there was the second floor, which had its balcony extended over some of the play area. The walls were a dull and dirty orange, covered in paintings - which were peeling away as much as the wallpaper. The lights were dim and flickering and the whole place looked like shit - at least it was more polished than the last places I’d been in up to that point.
We walked past the casino and reached a small corridor, with elevators on both sides. “How far up are we going?” I reluctantly asked, afraid of the answer.
“Up to the 14th floor, above the presidential suite. Not many people even realize that there is such a thing as a 14th floor to The Tops, we like to keep it in the down low so those who want to cause us trouble have to work a little bit harder, dig?” He answered, confidently.
Not exactly the epitome of security plans, but I wouldn’t question these well-dressed fellas. Jeff pressed a button, signalling the elevator to come down to our level. After a few seconds, it reached us and he opened the way for me. Who said chivalry was dead, I asked myself deep within my thoughts, holding back a giggle from my own joke - if you can call it that. The trip up to top of The Tops was marked by silence and some anxiety from me; Jeff, on the other hand, didn’t take his eyes off the counter on top of the elevator door, counting the floors as we rose past each one of them. He looked strangely confident, probably anxious to see how things would go with his boss and I.
The elevator came to a soft halt and at the same instant, I heard a ring ding. We were there. Once again Jeff opened the way for me and let me go out first. I found myself facing an almost intact hallway. The wallpaper was superficially brand new, displaying a bright orange tone, with portraits of various different men - except for one to my left: it was covered in black paint, both the face and the name engraved in a plaque below the frame. All I could make out from it was “Mr. H”, and nothing more. The lights were flickering and generally really dim, though they also looked intact from the surface.
Walking down this fancy corridor I began to hear arguing coming from behind the double doors blocking my destination. The muffled sound was not enough for me to understand any specific words, or tell how many people were arguing. Once the door became a couple of steps away, I noticed my anxiety getting stronger; strong enough for me to feel slightly uncomfortable in that situation. The thing was: I could back out at any moment, but I didn’t. I challenged myself to take those two more steps and grab the door handle, and so I did.
“Woah, there, kitty. Chill out. It would seem more... professional if I did this for you.” Jeff came out of nowhere. I was so lost within my thoughts - once again - that I didn’t even notice he was following me through the whole way. “And put the cig out, he doesn’t like the smell.”
“Oh, yes. Sorry, I kinda got carried away.” I released the door handles, backed away and threw the cigarette on the floor, putting it out with my boot. “Alright, I’m ready” I said, clearing my throat.
Jeff grabbed the door handles and pushed.
The brightest goddamn light.
That office was no common boss office, it was something reserved for a king. If you’re like me and spent what seemed like your whole life in dim-lit saloons and bars, the first thing you’d notice was the bright sunlight coming from the very large windows behind the main desk - you could see the goddamn whole Strip from there. Looking down to my feet I saw a red carpet which lead to a few steps, used to get up to the main platform where the aforementioned ‘big dick’ jerked himself off with money. The boss wasn’t alone, however. In front of his desk and facing away from me stood a man in a black suit, but not like the guys who ran this place. He looked quite old but just as rich, and for some odd reason wore a cowboy hat.
“I am done with your bullshit, Benny. I’ve been in this business way before your little gang came around and started acting like you run the place. We had a deal: I supply your shitty restaurant with the meat, and you give us the caps. Simple. You’re not stupid, I know that. It makes me wonder, however, how the fuck you managed to mess that up?!” The man in the suit slammed his hand on the desk. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was foaming by the mouth, considering his tone.
The man sitting in front of him, Benny, stood up from his chair and put on a rather convincing smile, but a fake one nonetheless. “Mr. Gunderson, I beg you to calm your nerves so we can have a civilized talk; hell, isn’t that what business is all about? Civilization! I’m sure that there has been an unexpected shortcoming with the delivery, you know how dangerous things are out there with raiders and whatnot. Tell you what, I’ll deploy a caravan with a trusted friend of mine - handpicked, mind you - and you’ll get your caps, plus an extra for any inconvenience this might’ve caused you. Deal?” He extended his left hand to the man in front of him, placing his right hand on his belt, under his black and white checkered suit.
Mr. Gunderson reluctantly extended his own hand and shook Benny’s. The man in the checkered suit then pulled his business partner closer. “Good. Now how about you cash the fuck out of my kingdom, Heck Gunderson?”
The man in the cowboy hat pulled away from Benny and stormed out of the room, bumping me with his shoulder on his way out through the same doors I came through. “ Ah, don’t mind him, something bit him in the ass and he just doesn’t know how to cope.” Benny directed himself to me, something told me he knew exactly why I was there. “Well, come on. Have a seat.”
I walked up to his desk and sat on a red armchair; it was pretty much falling apart but you can’t ask for much. On top of his desk I noticed a few items - souvenirs, maybe. From my left to my right he had a bottle of Nuka-Cola; a photo - which I could not see as it was facing away from me; and a card. Just a single poker card facing down.
“I assume my friend here briefed you on our… Situation.” Benny sat down and leaned back.
“Not really. I still have many questions.” I responded, trying to sound confident but failing miserably. Benny then nodded and gestured with his hand as a way to signal that the spotlight was on me and I had the chance to get all of my doubts out of the way. “First of all, what is this job?”
Benny cleared his throat, got up from his chair and looked out his massive windows. “As you may or may not know, NCR troops, specially the military police, make a significant fraction of our clientele - not as much as in Gomorrah, but they still are a big part of it. Because of the way the NCR pays them, we have now accepted their own currency instead of normal caps, naturally. This is all fine and dandy, except for one thing: It’s much easier to fake paper money than bottle caps, dig?”
I frowned in confusion. “So… Someone is faking NCR money and you want me to do something about it?”
“Yes. You’ll have to find out who is doing this and… Get them out of the game.” The man in the checkered suit explained, pushing at his tie, tightening it around his neck.
Once again, I raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t you take care of this? I’m not backing out, it just seems like a lot of time is wasted finding some random person to do it when you have more than enough men at your disposal.”
“Good question. The thing is: we are too big, too recognizable. Some people would notice a Chairman from miles away. Plus, we don’t look good in uniforms.” Benny sighed. “Look, it’s not going to be easy. I want you to squeeze as much information as you can out of however is doing this. Get this person to trust you enough or cut their balls or whatever the fuck they have off and feed it to a dog in front of ‘em. I don’t care. Just get it done.” He leaned towards me with a rather serious face.
“Alright, how the hell do I do that? Who is this person and how do I find them?” I asked.
“Don’t worry, I got you covered - or, at least partly covered. You see, we have a few friends who owe us favors - one in particular who owes us many, many favors. He’ll be able to hook you up with an NCR uniform for a possible disguise and as much information as you need. Trust me, he knows more than he should. His name is private Erik Allsop. A funny fellow stationed at NCR’s embassy in the south side of the Strip. Blonde hair, skinny as a matchstick and as flimsy as one, shouldn’t be hard to spot.” The boss was putting a lot of faith in me and sounded really confident. Maybe he had a plan B, I thought.
“Private Erik Allsop. Got it.” I sighed, with a feeling in my guts that things were going too smoothly.
“Also, we don’t know who could be involved in this apart from Erik, and we only know about it because he… Was convinced to cooperate.” He stopped himself and snapped his fingers. “Right. He’s also gone dark. He was apparently assigned to some other area. Last we heard of him he had some juicy stuff to tell us. Make of that what you will. You’ll have to go down to the embassy if you want to get anywhere near finding him. They’ll never talk to one of us.”
That all sounded like a lot of work, and I wasn’t sure whether or not it would be worth it - after all, I still hadn’t heard any word on what I would get in return. “So, let’s say I take this job and I get it done. What should I expect from you in return? This, to me, sounds like a risky job, and risks aren’t cheap.”
“Five hundred caps and we might like you a tiny bit more.” He responded quickly and confidently, as always… Almost always.
I was blown away by that amount. The most I had gotten for an individual job so far were one hundred caps. These guys were either desperate to get this job done, or I would really take some risks. Regardless, I wasn’t going to refuse it.
We shook on it to seal the deal and Jeff was signaled to walk me back to the hallway and into the elevator. “Your work will not go unnoticed, pussycat.” My newest friend assured me as we got near the elevator. The journey down to the main floor was again marked by silence, but this time I wasn’t as anxious. We walked out and went our separate ways.
I walked to the reception and Jeff walked back to the restaurant. The reception was as fancy and as pretentious as the rest of The Tops. A big bowl-shaped structure held many large plants and lights; in front of it, an arc-shaped counter.
“Uh, lady?” The receptionist behind the counter called for me. “Aren’t you going to get your equipment back?”
Woah. I almost forgot about those. The casinos in the Strip had a no-gun policy, which meant players or visitants had to give in their weapons to the security staff so no ‘safety issues’ occurred during games. Naturally, they wouldn’t take your guns away permanently. Once you left the building, you could get them back.
“Ah, yes, of course. How careless of me.” I laughed in relief and embarrassment.
The receptionist asked for my name - to which I replied with the name I had given him before. “Just Ace.” He signaled a security officer that was near the door and handed him some keys. “I want the equipment for an Ace, female. Entry… Last night.” I felt slightly embarrassed but I was sure I wasn’t the first person to stay in that place overnight. “Your equipment should be here shortly.”
After a couple of minutes, I saw the man coming back from far into the casino holding a fairly big wooden box. He walked all the way to me and handed it to me. “Alright. Your stuff should be all here. Thank you for visiting The Tops.”
I thanked him and proceeded to put the box down, hoping everything was indeed there. To my relief, they were. A .357 caliber revolver and a hunting rifle. I wasn’t used to carrying much, so I kept it light during most of my travels, keeping with me all that I really needed. Those two guns never failed me, so why not? I holstered the revolver in my belt and rested my rifle on my shoulder using another belt I had attached to it.
Leaving the grimness of The Tops and facing the bright and dusty reality of the Mojave desert put me back in my place - it reminded me of where we all really were. The Strip in itself was an escape, however. Sure, you had your Gomorrahs, your Tops and your Ultra-Luxes - but above all of that, the walls surrounding the Strip made this the safest place I had ever been in. While you were in there you could forget the raiders, the gangs, the Legion, the NCR, famine, thirst and radiation. While you were in the Strip, the whole world could collapse around you and you would not give a shit. And, hell, it already did.
As I left The Tops, across the road from the entrance, I saw the New Vegas Boulevard Station. Controlled by the NCR. That station was a quick way of leaving the Strip and going straight to Camp McCarran without having to travel through Freeside - a slum that connected the main entrance to the Strip with the outside. Everyone had to go through Freeside and deal with any low-lives who tried to get lucky. The station connected the Strip to the outside through a monorail line that was still functional. As you might expect, it was not open to the public, only selected individuals could travel back and forth through.
To my left I saw Gomorrah and their girls dancing out front of the entrance. Directly opposite to Gomorrah you could see the huge Lucky 38 Casino tower - home of Mr. House, the unquestionable ruler of the Strip, and the only casino which no one was allowed to enter. All everyone knew about the Lucky 38 was that the robots that now secure the Strip alongside the NCR troops all came from there. It just opened one day and those robots started pouring out.
I took a deep breath and turned to my right, heading to the South side of the Strip to get my mission going. The sun was high and the air was as hot and dry as always. I walked by countless drunks, intoxicated by alcohol or money, or both. I also noticed a few stares from men and women, though I didn’t feel threatened - they just noticed I wasn’t from around there, and they were right. Everyone walked on the shattered roads as there were no cars to worry about anymore. They were all free to go wherever they wanted and wherever they could. As long as you had caps, you ruled this place.
Passing under a broken overpass that connected the sidewalks from both sides, I was reaching NCR’s embassy. To my right I saw the Vault 21 Gift Shop. I stood still for a while and looked up at the big and tall sign with the number “21” on it. Vaults were really interesting and sort of mythical, almost. Designed by Vault-Tec and with only one purpose: to secure and protect. You knew someone was from one of those because they always had that Pip-Boy thing on their arm.
Walking by that glimpse of the past, I found myself closer to the embassy. A large fence surrounded a few small buildings, troopers walking around everywhere. I crossed the road to get to the left side and reached the entrance. I walked in and headed to the building directly left of me. Gotta start somewhere, I thought.
Opening the rather small double doors, I faced a receptionist in the middle of the main hall, which branched off to both sides for different purposes. A cute lady who, I assumed, could point me to the guy I'm looking for. I walked up to the desk and saw her head sunken into many notebooks, probably taking note of appointments or meetings… or whatever receptionists do.
“H-hey, uhm.” I cleared my throat. “I need some help trying to find someone, it’s important.”
The woman with the short, blond hair and pink dress glanced up to me. “Yes, how can I help you?”
“Ah, well, there's this friend of mine, his name is Erik. Private Erik Al…uh, Allsop.” Fuck, that was close. “You see… It’s his birthday and I haven’t seen him in awhile. Could you please tell me where he is? This is really important.”
The woman’s expression became one of suspicion as she scanned me with her eyes. After a few seconds, however, she looked down and started thumbing through the pages of her notebook. “Private Erik Allsop… Huh. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid he's not here. He was reassigned to a patrol around Freeside.”
I dropped my act. “He was what?”
“It's what I have written here. He was reassigned to patrol the northwest end of Freeside. I keep track of all reassignments and roster updates, and this is what I got for him.” She started going through more recent notes, but found nothing else.
“When was that?” I leaned on her desk and placed both of my hands on it.
“Uh, couple of days ago. There’s a small NCR outpost around that area” She reluctantly responded.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “Alright. Thanks.” I turned around and walked to the exit, thinking about a way to get to this Erik guy.
Leaving the building, I thought about the weight of the situation I was getting myself into. Five hundred caps were definitely worth the risk - I was just worried about how I would get it done and get back in one piece. Just leave through the north gate into Freeside and find the guy, I thought to myself. Benny said he should be an easy find considering his unique characteristics. Whatever the plan was, I knew I had to get it done. I took another deep breath and got on my way to the north entrance of the Strip.
I walked through the streets, dodging the drunks and perverts who got in my way - that was my golden rule: keeping a low profile and avoiding any unnecessary interactions that might end in someone bleeding. After a lot of walking, I finally reached the end of the line. Two massive metal doors, guarded constantly by two robots. The doors were as thick, if not thicker than the walls surrounding the entire Strip. I whistled to the robots and they moved to open the doors for me. “Stay safe out there, and thank you for visiting the New Vegas Strip” A robotic and distorted message came from one of them.
“Huh, yeah, I’ll try my best.” I was a bit nervous, if I’m honest with myself. Being in Freeside by yourself was a journey only those who experienced it themselves could fully comprehend.
As the large doors opened with a gut wrenching metal drag, Freeside started to reveal itself. I had been to that place already a couple of times, but it never failed to make me feel cold to my stomach. The smell of booze and sex suddenly got overwhelmed by the stench of shit and blood. The two robots inside were merely a precaution. On the outside - six of them, keeping anyone from entering illegally.
The first thing you noticed about Freeside is how wrecked everything was. As I walked out of the Strip and into the slum, I had a hard time getting used to the shattered and broken road that split the town in half. On both sides you could see small buildings, some in better conditions than others, but all inhabitable. You had to walk for a while to get to the part of the town that wasn’t as fucked up.
Walking in the middle of the road in a town like Freeside wasn’t the best of ideas. I noticed stares coming from the few people brave - or high enough - to be outside and roaming around. I only felt slightly safer once I saw the flashy lights of the Kings’ little headquarters. The Kings were a gang of mild thugs who walked around in leather jackets and with the same pompadour hairstyle. Clones, if I didn’t know better. They could be dangerous if you got in their way or disrespected their leader - the King - in any way. Though I did feel safer, considering they weren’t too fond of the usual scum that often tried to attack distracted passerbys. Their headquarters was a building found on the corner of a road-turn to my right, stretching along a good portion of both sidewalks. Across the side of the four-story building, big letters spelled out “school of impersonation”. Right above the main entrance, you could see a massive guitar outlined by lights - in the guitar, big letters: “The King’s”.
Following the road that branched off to the right, past the Kings’ headquarters, you would find Mick & Ralph’s in a small building. According to their advertisement, you could buy anything in there - and they emphasized anything. Even stuff “they weren’t supposed to sell”.
To my left, I saw the “fun” part of town. I was greeted by a big banner made from scrap that read, in bright letters, the name of the slum. It was a street that branched off left of the main road, and it lead to the two main attractions: the Silver Rush and the Atomic Wrangler.
The Silver Rush sold weapons. Energy weapons. If you needed a gun that kills fast and leaves no trail, that’s where you’d go. If you had the caps, that is.
The Atomic Wrangler was the poor man’s Gomorrah. In there you could either watch a shitty comedy show, or have an easy, cheap and often diseased fuck. I didn’t judge, however.
Looking forward I could see the second part of the town - if you could call it that. It was separated by a rather small fence, which seemed to be getting improvements over time. On the other side of this fence, all of the attention want to the Old Mormon Fort on the right side of the street. Now occupied by the Followers of the Apocalypse, it was a sort of hospital for those in Freeside. Don’t let their cult’s name fool you, however. They were a group of doctors and scientists wandering the wasteland trying to help as many people as possible without judging character or background.
I’ve had a couple of encounters with them in the past, but nothing too meaningful. Usually I just had to get a few scratches patched up. The fort was a big square-shaped compound built like a small castle. The walls were a few meters thick of stone bricks all the way through. In each corner there were small watchtowers, and inside, a dozen tents surrounding the main yard. In the center, a post with the Followers’ flag on the very top.
I had no business with them, but looking around and seeing nothing but dust, shattered glass and dry overgrowth, I felt obligated to pay them a visit to ask for directions. Arriving to the front gate, I wasn’t greeted by any security. No guards, no locks or barbed wire. Just big, old, medieval wooden doors. Granted, it was hard to open, but nothing stopped you from trying.
“Move!” yelled a rushing man from behind me moments before I was able to touch the doors. I jumped to the side and saw two others carrying an NCR soldier. The man in the front was running ahead of them, clearing the path and pushing the two doors open before I could even attempt to do the same. The other two men carried each end of the injured trooper. As they ran past me, I glanced at him. Blonde, flimsy. My eyes almost jumped out of their sockets.