Ben Groundwater's attempt to recreate The Hangover in a wild trip to Las Vegas becomes too close for comfort.
We've lost Richie. Like, properly lost him. He could be in jail right now, or in hospital. We have no idea. Maybe he picked up a girl. Maybe he's still gambling.
All we know for sure is that we have to get the groom, Russ, on the plane to get to his wedding, and that means Richie is about to be left behind. He was last seen at the Bellagio, making his way towards the $100 blackjack tables. Las Vegas has claimed him.
In a way, this is awesome. We're on a buck's party with five guys – a Hangover-style "wolf pack" consisting of me and my friends Russ, Richie, Simon and Paul – and we came here to Vegas with a mission: to see if the stories are true. To find out if this really is the wildest place on Earth.
Richie might have just proved that it is.
Let's go back to the start. Our trip begins on a Monday – Russ is getting married in Mexico four days later. The wolf pack's mission is to make sure he has the time of his life in a city well known for providing the times of people's lives, and then get him on the plane to Cabo San Lucas with his face unmarked, his eyebrows still on his head and his marital status still "single".
We're not trying to recreate The Hangover – just see if we can have one of our own.
First afternoon. We arrive by car from LA and everyone's pumped. The Strip appears in the desert like a mirage – the first drink can't come soon enough. Viva Las Vegas.
We ditch the car, check in to our hotel – Aria Resort and Casino, a spanking new property on the Strip – and head across the road to the MGM Grand for a Vegas specialty: the pool party.
These infamous venues feature mostly spring break-style Americans exposing tanned and toned bodies while dancing and drinking in the fierce Vegas sun. Wet Republic is exactly that. Unfortunately our little group is neither tanned nor toned, so we decide to call it an early afternoon.
Night one is hazy. It starts civilised, with an eponymous dinner at Tender Steak in the Luxor. Already the vibe of this city is seeping into our bones, the flashing lights and dinging bells and cheers and chatter from the gambling floor adding to the building feeling that yes, this place really is everything people say it is.
Simon wants to go to the Coyote Ugly bar at New York, New York. It sounds tacky, but he plays his trump card: from 9pm till midnight it's $30 for all you can drink. We're sold.
There's gambling later in the night, somewhere. Simon and Richie disappear, sometime. There's more drinking. A stumble down the Strip. Russ, Paul and I make it back to the hotel. Simon and Richie do not.
Aria. Now here's a place designed with hangovers in mind. Open your bleary eyes and reach across to the nightstand and there's a small touchscreen. Everything in the room works via this tablet: the curtains, the lights, the TV, the stereo. You literally don't have to move to make anything happen.
But it's not until we drag our sorry butts up that next morning and stumble downstairs in search of food that the real glory of Aria reveals itself. You know at home how you wake up with a hangover and wish someone would come in and clean up your house? At Aria, it happens.
We come back and our room is spotless – clothes folded, sunglasses placed on little white cloths, furniture rearranged. Perfect.
Simon and Richie eventually reappear, sheepish. We're going go-karting today, then shooting guns at a range. Ever gone go-karting with a Vegas-sized hangover? It's painful. Exhilarating, but painful.
Firing machine guns is just ridiculous. Russ, nerves jangling, has to be talked into even pulling the trigger.
By night two we've figured out that an evening in Vegas can be rapidly derailed with the wrong decision. Every casino is willfully difficult to find your way out of, meaning if you pick a bar or restaurant that turns out to suck, it'll take half the night to get somewhere else.
Night two's choices fluctuate wildly.
Taking the "eight-pound burger challenge" at The Pub at the Monte Carlo is a good decision. It's awesome. Going off-Strip to the Hard Rock Casino is a bad decision. It's dead. Heading back to the Cosmopolitan to get all classy with some cocktails is a good decision. It's pumping. Going off-Strip again to a dive-bar called the Double Down Saloon is a bad decision. It's scary.
Four of us make it back to Aria that night. Richie doesn't. Again.
Afternoon three, and Vegas is taking its toll. Paul and Russ were the only ones well enough to hit the Aria lunch buffet, and it's all they can talk about while we lie by the hotel pool and have bikini-clad waitresses bring us mojitos.
Richie has reappeared again, fortunately, but he's not too keen on sharing the details of last night's after-hours adventures. Unfortunately.
There have been a few differences of opinion on this trip, but right now we're all agreed on one point: tonight is going to be a quiet one. We've got an early flight the next morning, and Russ has to be on it. Paul wants to just go to a show. The rest of us are keen on a couple of drinks and bed.
But there's no such thing as a quiet night in Vegas.
First, cocktails and cigars. That's how most quiet nights start, right? We drink mai tais and smoke Cubans in the warm Vegas evening at Rhumbar, a classy joint at the Mirage. All of a sudden we're feeling like superstars.
We decide to press our luck, heading to the Bellagio and all chucking 20 bucks in to play roulette together. We call it quits when we're $150 up – that's small change in this city, but it feels like $150 million to us. This is a recipe for disaster.
We head off-Strip to a fairly drab casino called the Tuscany. We've heard there's a karaoke night on there, which is being run, according to a girl we met at Aria, "by two hot twins". It is, and they are. The wolf pack sings a rendition of Don't Look Back in Anger that ensures the rest of the patrons will forever look back at their night in anger.
Then ... well, some things that go in Vegas really should stay in Vegas. But we finish up at 5am, with four of our pack heading back to Aria for an hour of sleep before we have to leave for the airport.
We kind of assume we'll see Richie the next morning in the lobby. We don't.
That means he's still out there somewhere. Maybe in hospital. Maybe in jail. He's not answering his phone, not returning messages. We've lost him. But we have to go.
A few hours later we land in Cabo, and finally a text message comes through. It isn't very helpful. It's a single sentence, mashed into the keypad by a drunken Richie having just had the time of his life: "Viva Las Vegas."
The writer travelled as a guest of MGM Resorts. Richie did not.
Aria Resort and Casino is right on the Strip, and has rooms from US$129 per night, plus tax. See www.arialasvegas.com. For all of the other activities listed just follow the links in the story.