“Wow, talk about killer heels.” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. I dropped my head for a moment, then recovered. “I can’t believe I said that.”
Openmouthed, I stared at the body of a young woman sprawled across the hood of a candy-apple red Ferrari on display in our dealership, the heel of one of this holiday season’s signature Jimmy Choos embedded in her neck.
“I can,” growled Paxton Dane, the man who had summoned me to the scene and the only other living, breathing human within shouting distance at this ungodly hour of the morning. His tone held a not-so-gentle chiding.
Truth be told, he was right—very bad form. Normally I had a better filter but tonight it was on the fritz. At least I had an excuse.
Murder always made me twitchy.
“Death by Jimmy Choo,” I babbled, riding a building wave of panic. “Well, at least she went out with style.” The words and thoughts gathered like dark clouds heralding an impending storm. “This is clearly a new twist on the stiletto-as-a-murder-weapon theme, don’t you think? And can’t you just hear Sherlock Holmes now? ‘Come, Watson, murder’s afoot.’” I choked back a nervous giggle but was singularly unable to rein in my runaway foot-in-mouth disease. What had the poor woman done to deserve such a hasty exit? Better yet, who could’ve done such a thing?
“It’s ‘Come, Watson, the game’s afoot,’” growled Dane, “and you need to put a sock in it.”
Again, he was right, but I wasn’t about to tell him so. I wondered who the dead woman was. And how had the Vegas magic so deserted her? At Dane’s scowl, I swallowed the comment on the tip of my tongue.
“The sock reference was unintentional.” He raised a finger, silencing me. He knew me far too well for my comfort level. When he was sure he had my attention, he continued. “And if you can’t stifle yourself…”
I struggled to get a grip. Focusing on breathing, I gulped steady, even, deep lungfuls of air. Finally, the morbid comedian in me beat feet.
Okay, maybe not. Clamping my lips together, I tried to think.
Anyway I looked at this … situation … it was so not good. Three A.M. A closed and presumably locked Ferrari dealership—in my hotel no less. A dead woman. A ruined shoe. And somehow all of it had landed in my lap.
Not entirely unusual, but certainly unappreciated.
My name is Lucky O’Toole and I am the vice president of Customer Relations for the Babylon, Las Vegas’s most over-the-top Strip casino-resort. Drowning in the aftermath of a still deep and turbulent romantic tsunami, I had recently taken temporary residence in smaller quarters in the hotel—a decision I was currently rethinking.
Accessibility clearly had its downside.
Dane was a former co-worker, sometime suitor, and now awkward friend. Despite past skirmishes and unrequited affections (his, not mine, for once), we’d reached a grudging respect for each other, a détente, if you will. He had said little since calling me. Instead, standing quietly off to the side, he lurked like a gargoyle, waiting, observing, while I absorbed the scene. Shadows angled across his features, hiding his expression behind a mask of darkness and reflected light. Arms folded tightly across his chest, he hugged himself. Was he seeking comfort, or stilling himself from action?
Fight or flight? I was so there myself. Unfortunately for me, flight was not an option. Like it or not, I was the Babylon’s professional problem solver in residence.
And the dead girl was clearly a problem.
Sometimes, being a grown-up sucked.
“Murder sort of refocuses you, doesn’t it?” The normal comfort I found in the familiarity of my voice proved elusive. Dane had enough insight to know I didn’t expect an answer.
Frozen for the moment, I watched as the car rotated on a raised platform in the center of the showroom, each detail captured in the accusatory beam of a single spotlight mounted above. The young woman wore a silver spandex dress, very short, strapless, hugging her every curve. Her feet were bare. A red welt marred the otherwise perfect skin of her neck. As she rotated past, I had an unobstructed view up her dress—no underwear. Of course, this being Vegas, most of the young women went commando—no muss, no fuss, no panty lines, no worry as to how to get them off or where you might have left them when the evening was over. Vegas survival skills they should print in the visitors’ guide, if you ask me. Chasing runaway skivvies was part of my job description—the wrong pair in the wrong place could be a catastrophe of epic proportions. Trust me on that one.
Her eyes were open, sightless. They were blue—one a brilliant sky blue, the other a muddier, ocean-after-a-storm blue. I found the difference unsettling.
One arm flung over her head, her legs splayed, her shoulder-length hair a spun-sugar pillow under her head, she’d been beautiful. Stunning even. The champagne-colored crystals of the single shoe fractured the light like a disco ball in a cheesy nightclub. A beaded mini hobo—multicolored sequins stitched on silver satin—dangled from a chain wrapped around her lifeless hand. I’d bet my lifetime membership in the Conspicuous Consumers Club it was also Jimmy Choo.
Somebody had a fat wallet and impeccable taste.
Blood trickled from her wound, tracing a graceful path across the woman’s bluish skin, then dropping silently to the hood of the car. The reds blended until it was difficult to follow the blood’s meander down the smooth metal to the white faux-marble tile underneath where it pooled, a dark ominous stain. Following imperfections in the stone, tiny rivulets of darkening color flowed outward until they painted a freeform web.
But something important was missing: the other shoe. I bent down to peer under the car. Clean as a whistle. Boy, being Cinderella in Vegas clearly wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“Who is she?” I asked Dane, hoping he had some easy answers.
With his hands jammed in his pockets, he shrugged but didn’t look at me.
“You are going to tell me how you managed to stumble upon this young woman, in this position, after hours, in a dealership locked up for the night, in a hotel where you no longer work, right?” I pressed, casting a quick glance at him as he stepped into the light and parked himself at my shoulder.
He didn’t look good. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Several inches taller than my six feet, with ax-handle wide shoulders, a narrow waist that hinted at washboard abs, wavy brown hair, and emerald eyes, he always looked good—especially in his creased 501s and starched button-down. Normally, one glance at the man could throw an unwary female into hormonal overdrive. Tonight, however, with dark circles under worried eyes, his brows furrowed, his face pinched with an emotion I couldn’t quite read, Dane didn’t look his best.
I didn’t blame him. Even after years of dealing with the occasional dead person in my hotel, I still hadn’t gotten used to it.
Of course, most of them hadn’t been murdered.
Before Dane answered, he ran a shaky hand through his hair and avoided looking at me.
From past experience, I’d learned a thing or two about Paxton Dane, most of it the hard way. If he was good at anything, the long, tall drink of Texas charm was good at prevarication. Right now, I’d wager my future firstborn that Dane was framing his answer. Like a woman looking for the perfect pair of jeans, he’d try a few on for size until he got the fit just right. Only then would he trot out his choice for my perusal. With Dane, most of the time what he told you wasn’t nearly as interesting as the stuff he left out.
“I was in the Poker Room. Watching.” His eyes furtively sought mine, then skittered away. He nodded toward the dead woman. “She caught my eye.”
“Understandable.” I took a deep breath, marshaling my notoriously thin patience. “She was playing?” I prompted.
I took that to mean yes.
“She’d made it to the final table of the thousand-dollar buy-in, but she busted out about an hour ago and left.”
“As far as I could tell.”
This time I gave Dane my full attention, leveling my eyes to his. He still wouldn’t look at me for more than a few seconds. “What do you mean, as far as you could tell? You’re a private investigator. Don’t you guys notice that type of stuff?”
“I wasn’t investigating, I was watching.”
“Ahhh. So your powers of observation only function when you’re on the meter?” I knew he was smart enough to recognize a rhetorical question, even when it was obscured in dripping sarcasm, so I forged ahead. “If you weren’t … investigating … how did you mange to find her here?”
This time his eyes met mine. “I was on my way to the garage—my truck is parked on level three, row C. You can check it out if you don’t believe me.” The tilt of his chin held a challenge, but his eyes looked haunted. “I saw the door to the showroom was cracked open. I knew the place was closed, so—”
“You investigated.” I finished his sentence, enjoying the minor victory. “Why didn’t you call Security? After all, you used to work for them; you know the protocol. Or, better yet, why didn’t you call the police?”
“I called you.”
“Am I lucky or what?” I blew at a strand of hair that tickled my eyes. Even at 3 A.M. and far from my best, I had enough functioning gray matter to realize he hadn’t answered my question. Of course, I knew my in-your-face style always shut him down. It must be a Texas thing, those Southern men and their delicate egos. Unfortunately, coddling was rarely in my repertoire. “You weren’t stupid enough to touch anything?”
A tic worked in his cheek as he ran a hand over his eyes. “I checked for a pulse. That’s all.”
“Uh-huh. I suppose that’s your bloody footprint then?” I pointed to a half print under the driver’s-side door—triangular with a pointed toe.
His head swiveled in surprise, his eyes following my finger. We both glanced at his feet—very expensive kickers made from some exotic skin. “Looks like it,” he acknowledged with a deepening frown.
“Not messing with a crime scene—isn’t that the first thing they teach you in investigator school? Right after they give you your very own decoder ring?” I asked, but Dane didn’t take the bait.
None of this was adding up, and Dane didn’t seem inclined to offer any clarity. And to think, thumbscrews weren’t included in my vice president’s superhero utility belt. An oversight I’d have to remedy. But until then, I’d have to wait for answers. Not one of my best things. Especially since I had no doubt that, while what Dane had done would make interesting reading, why he had done it would keep me riveted.
But I’d leave Dane’s questioning to the police—surely they had a set of thumbscrews somewhere. Or, better yet, a water board.
“Well,” I said, my word choice matching my brain function, “it seems a bit late to muster the in-house cavalry, but don’t you think it would be wise to call young Romeo?”
Detective Romeo was the ace up my sleeve at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department—Metro to the locals. Romeo was definitely a high person in a low place.
The still wet-behind-the-ears detective and I had met chasing a weasel. We’d bonded over an oddsmaker who had become a tidbit for a tiger shark, and cemented our working relationship while investigating a disappearing magician. He’d do his job, but he’d watch my back as well.
Loyalty, a precious commodity in a fickle world.
Having one of Metro’s finest on speed dial spoke volumes about my life, but I refused to think about it. Instead, I flipped open my phone and pressed his number.
The kid was going to have a field day with our Ferrari girl.
* * *
DANE and I had boosted our butts onto the dealership’s Parts and Service counter and now sat, hands tucked under our thighs, feet swinging. My thoughts whirled as I concentrated on my alternating white ankles and studiously avoided looking at anything else. My feet, which protruded from the ends of my purple flannel pajama pants, were tucked warmly into fuzzy slippers. A departure from my normal vice president costume, but at this god-forsaken time of morning it was all I could muster. I was particularly proud of the faded UNLV tee shirt that rounded out my ensemble—a Vegas fashionista to the end.
The whir of the motor turning the Ferrari’s dais and the imagined drip of blood mingled with the distant echoes of fun and frivolity leaking in from the casino beyond the closed doors, thankfully keeping silence at bay.
Quiet would have been way too creepy.
Unable to resist the draw of the macabre, I cast a furtive glance at the girl’s body as if half expecting her to push herself to a seated position, remove the shoe from her neck, and laugh at a really great practical joke.
But she didn’t.
“Do you normally sleep in flannel pajamas?” Dane’s voice sliced like a knife through my carefully constructed calm.
I flinched, then shot him a sideways glare. “Why would you care?” I snapped. “We resolved that issue, as I recall.”
“Not entirely to my satisfaction.” He gave me one of his famous grins although it lacked its normal wattage. Still it seemed out of character, not to mention out of place and inappropriate.
Too antsy to sit any longer, I hopped down from my perch and turned to face him. “I’ll have you know there are numerous factors that influence what I sleep in.” Hands on my hips, I paused and looked at him. A smirk lifted one corner of his mouth. Smirking was not on my list of acceptable responses. “Why are we talking about this? It seems … irreverent or something. Not to mention that it’s none of your business what I sleep in or who I sleep with.” Now where had that come from?
“You don’t have to rub it in.” Dane eased himself to his feet. “But somehow talking about something normal…”
I knew what he meant, comfort in the mundane. Not that my sex life was mundane—it was nonexistent—but that was another story. And not that Dane and I normally talked about it, but there had been a time, fairly recently, in fact, when he’d been in the running.
Standing in front of me, with a finger under my chin, he lifted my gaze to his. His eyes were dark, troubled. His expression serious. And he was way too close for comfort.
While I was wise to his charms, I wasn’t immune. I wanted to step back, but his hand on my arm held me.
“Lucky,” he said, his voice shaking. “I’m going to need your help.”
For a moment time stopped. The empty room crowded around us. I stared at my friend and for the first time truly saw.
Red scratches on the side of his face—one deep enough to draw blood that had dried to a dark crust. A tortured look in his eyes. The stern slash of his mouth. The slight tremor to his hand as he quickly stuffed it into the front pocket of his jeans.
The touch of his skin on mine was unexpectedly cool.
Oh God, what had he done?
We both jumped as my former lover Teddie’s voice shattered the silence singing “Lucky for Me.” My phone! Dang! And why had I chosen that song as my ringtone? It skewered my heart every time I heard it.
The jump-start surge of adrenaline pegged my heart rate. My hand closed over the offending device, jerking it from my pocket. I shot Dane what I thought might resemble a rueful look. “Self-flagellation.” I flipped the thing open. “What?”
“Lucky?” The delicious French intonation, the voice as smooth and rich as a homemade hollandaise, could belong to only one person: Jean-Charles, our new chef and, if he had his way, the new man in my life. But once burned, twice shy, I was riding the brakes. “I am thinking you are not sleeping,” he continued. “I did not awaken you, then? Yes?”
“No.” For some reason, or perhaps for a multitude of reasons, I seemed to be struck monosyllabic at the moment. His voice suffused me to the core with warmth. Taking a deep breath, I struggled to apply pressure to those brakes. But they’d gone all mushy … along with my brain and other body parts that I won’t mention. Apparently my self-control had thrown in the towel as well. Toss a handsome man with empty promises in my path, and I’d take the bait, hook, line, and sinker. Swallowing it whole, I’d lose my heart only to have it handed back to me on a platter. I knew the drill. Why couldn’t I just grab some local hunk and have wild, meaningless sex like everybody else?
Unfortunately I apparently lacked the moral fortitude to be immoral.
“Non? You were sleeping then?”
“No. I mean yes, you did not awaken me.” Exactly when did I lose the ability to speak proper English? “I’m sorry, I’m a bit muddled at the moment.” I scrunched my eyes shut and tried to block out the scene around me—Dane’s stricken face, the dead woman on the car. Turning my back to them, I conjured a mental picture of the Frenchman in a vain attempt to recapture a sense of normalcy. “Are you just now heading home?” I attempted to infuse a casual, warm tone to my voice, but I wasn’t sure I pulled it off.
“Yes, I am driving on the Fifteen.” A car horn sounded, then faded, as I heard Jean-Charles’s sharp intake of breath. The American form of offensive driving was a skill the Parisian had yet to master. He’d spent most of his adult life in the great cities of the world where owning a car was not only superfluous, it bordered on the insane—New York parking fees regularly equaled the rent for a studio. I shuddered at the thought of him at the wheel while on the phone.
“A late night then?” I chatted as if I hadn’t a care in the world. They say compartmentalizing is one of the first signs of mental illness.
“Oui, the restaurant, it was very busy. These Americans, they like food,” Jean-Charles said with classic European understatement. Another car horn sounded, this time answered with a muttered Gallic epithet, which made me smile.
“The American way: Treat each meal as your last,” I said, finding my equilibrium.
Jean-Charles had opened a gourmet burger joint in the shopping area of the Babylon called the Bazaar while he perfected the menu and finished out the space that would be his signature restaurant.
“Precisely! So many, many burgers, pomme frites, shakes. And I am working on the new dishes for the Vegas Last Chef Standing. My kitchen here, she is, how do you say it? A poor stepchild?”
“Found wanting in every way?”
“Yes, this is it. I need my kitchen at Cielo.”
“We are at the mercy of the contractor, you know that. He is working.”
“Perhaps you can do something?”
“Wave my magic wand?”
Silence stretched between us. “I have made you angry.” His voice held a note of defeat.
“No. I’m just…” I looked at Dane, his face pulled tight, the woman on the Ferrari, still dead. “It’s just not a great time.”
“For this I am sorry. Perhaps tomorrow would be better?”
“Right now, it’s not looking so good, but we’ll talk about your kitchen soon, I promise.”
“You must help me, you see, I am also nervous.” Jean-Charles said the words haltingly, as if confessing a major sin—one he couldn’t believe he’d committed. “This is a very public stage. My reputation and that of your hotel hang in the balance. This is not only a competition with my fellow chefs, the media is turning it into a circus.”
“Vegas and reality television—a perfect storm of bad taste.”
“Yes, well, with your help, I will adjust and we can make it better. However, right now I am, how do you say it? Wrecked?”
“That will do.” For some reason I enjoyed his struggle with American slang—sometimes his choices made the mundane charming.
“I am looking forward to sleep.” His voice sounded tired as he deftly changed the subject. “But I could not end the day without hearing your voice.”
I felt like a ping-pong ball being smashed from one side to the other. On one side I was the potential romance, on the other, the hotel exec standing in his way. How this game would play out—and which me would win—was anybody’s guess. “I’m glad you called.”
“Yes, but why are you awake?” He sounded as if the thought that normal people were asleep at this hour had just occurred to him, which was probably accurate.
“I had to answer my phone.” I know, I know, playing fast and loose with the truth. Not good. But to be honest, I was having a real hard time with reality right at the moment.
* * *
AFTER finishing the conversation, I reluctantly hung up and repocketed my phone, taking my time to savor the sweet taste of a very real fantasy. Turning, I glanced at Dane. He still looked like hell, maybe worse. Underneath it all, he looked … guilty. Which doused my French glow pretty nicely.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” I hissed, my temper flaring again. Add playing games to the long list of things that piss me off. Dane was a master.
“I wish I knew.” His face remained a blank slate, a study in self-control.
“Cowboy, you know…” I was reaching for something to say, measuring my words, trying to resist closing my fingers around his neck, when the doors opened. Instinctively I turned, squinting through the darkness. Like a Hollywood version of a near-death experience, figures moved toward me silhouetted by the bright light behind them.
There was someone here near death, but it wasn’t me. So I wasn’t too alarmed.
“Lucky?” Romeo called, his voice hushed as if he had wandered into a church and was afraid to awaken the dead. He needn’t have worried.
At the sound of the detective’s voice, Dane stiffened. Stepping back, he straightened, throwing his shoulders back. With practiced ease, he arranged his features into a bland, impenetrable mask.
The man could be as stupid as a bull thrown in with the cows.
Lying to me would land him in the doghouse. But lying to the police would move him up the food chain to the Big House … if I didn’t kill him first.
And he wanted my help?
He acted as if he’d find my name under the word doormat in the dictionary. Just another bit of proof to my all-men-are-pigs theory. Yes, it’s a sad commentary that the survival of the human species rests solely on the low expectations of females.
Been there, done that, bought the tee shirt. But thankfully, I’d never done the nasty with Dane. One minor triumph, all things considered.
“Over here,” I called to Romeo. My voice sounded strangled, as if Dane had put both his hands around my neck and squeezed. Of course, if he did, it might save us both a ton of trouble.
Out of the darkness, Las Vegas’s finest young detective materialized in front of us, followed by a half dozen officers in uniform and three people in civilian clothes. With his rumpled beige raincoat, wilted shirt, a dark suit that hung on his thin frame, his tie knotted but hanging loosely around his neck like a noose ready to be tightened, Romeo looked as if he hadn’t seen a decent night’s sleep or a good meal in a month of Sundays—something I suspected was closer to the truth than I’d care to think.
His sandy brown hair, mashed down on one side, held the evidence of a recent wetting and combing. A cowlick stood at the crown of his head like a defiant thistle. The hint of sleep lingered in the corners of his cloudy blue eyes. One cheek held the imprint of something, his hand perhaps, or the corner of a stack of papers—remnants of a quick catnap.
When we’d first met, Romeo couldn’t hide his emotions. Each one would march bold and unbidden across his face, much to his chagrin. Now he eyed our dead girl with the blank, businesslike stare of someone who had seen more than his share of the bad things in life.
A fact that broke my heart just a little.
I watched and listened as Romeo instructed his men to secure the scene. He supervised them until, apparently satisfied, he turned to me. Pulling a spiral-bound pad from his inside coat pocket, he flipped it open, then wetted the end of a stub of pencil on his tongue. Glancing between Dane and me, he said, “I should separate you two, go by the book. But with our history, why bother?” He turned, focusing his words on me. “You’re probably eight steps ahead of me already anyway. You gave me the overview on the phone, so just give the rest to me straight, okay?”
“When have I ever not…” I trailed off. Better not to open that can of worms. So I did as he asked—straight as I could. As I talked, trying to remember every detail, even the seemingly unimportant ones, the young detective scribbled, his brows furrowed. “The call from Dane came in at…?”
Dane started to answer.
Romeo silenced him with a frown. “You’ll get your chance, cowboy.”
I raised my eyebrows at my detective friend. Like a spark, a hint of humor flared in his eyes, then quickly faded. The kid was growing into his badge. Somehow, I didn’t feel like celebrating. One more cockeyed optimist thrown under the reality bus.
Scrolling through my phone directory to the most recent calls, I said, “Two forty-two.”
Romeo made a note. “This dealership is a concessionaire, right?” He glanced up from his notes. At my nod he continued: “I need to know who owns it, and who has access.”
“Frank DeLuca owns the place. Give me an hour to get you the rest.”
“DeLuca?” Romeo’s brows snapped together, making him look older than twelve and somehow a bit more serious. Perhaps he ought to think about that as a permanent look. Could they do that with Botox?
Stress and panic had clearly fractured the few functioning brain cells I had, leaving loose random thoughts to ping around my empty skull. Terrific.
“DeLuca? As in the pro poker player?” Romeo continued. “I went to Bishop Gorman with a couple of his kids.” A local Catholic high school, Bishop Gorman had educated the best and brightest of most of the old Vegas families.
“One and the same.”
“I’d like to talk to him,” the kid muttered as he made a note. “Although after that dustup with his daughter…” Romeo’s cheeks reddened as he glanced at me and shrugged.
“Nothing like having history in this burg, huh?” I said with a hint of resignation and a sharp nip of reality. “A lot of people live here, but it’s still a small town.”
“Tell me about it.” Weariness hung heavily in his voice. The kid looked barely old enough to drive. How much history could he have? “Would you happen to know where I might find Mr. DeLuca?” he asked, his pencil poised.
“You’re in luck. He qualified for the Sin City Smack Down.”
Romeo’s face creased with puzzlement. “Smack Down? Isn’t Mr. DeLuca a bit old for cage fighting?”
“Poker. It’s a poker tournament almost as important as the World Series of Poker. What rock have you been living under?” I felt like a creep the minute I said it—I don’t normally feast on unseasoned detectives. The hurt look flashing across his face didn’t help. “Sorry, I forget not everyone lives in my happy little corner of the universe. The Smack Down is the Super Bowl of Texas hold ’em and this weekend is the final table. The hoards descend today—the nine players who qualified, the media, celebrities wanting some face time, the hookers hoping to land a whale, and folks just needing an excuse to misbehave. Tournament play starts day after tomorrow. Each interminable moment will be televised to the world from Teddie’s old theatre.”
There, I’d said his name. Teddie. I held my breath, waiting for a reaction. Nothing happened. My pulse remained steady. My heart didn’t constrict to the size of a raisin. Wow. Maybe I was over him. As I let my breath ease between my lips, the ache in my chest returned. Okay, maybe not completely over him.
“Oh.” Romeo chewed on his lip as his eyes turned toward the ceiling and his brain shifted gears. “No cameras in here?”
“It’s the only place in the hotel without internal monitoring, if that’s what you’re getting at. Look around,” I swept my arm toward the showroom. “There’s nothing in here but some expensive Italian iron. Nothing much to pocket and take home. So only the external door alarms, the front door into the Bazaar, as well as the exterior doors, are wired into hotel security.” As the detective opened his mouth to speak, I silenced him with a raised finger. Flipping open my phone, I pushed to talk. “Jerry?”
“Lucky? You ever go to bed, girl?” The voice that came back belonged to Jerry, our head of security. Me and Jer went way, way back … all the way back to the beginning. I kept the guests happy; he kept them safe—flip sides of the same coin.
Feeling the burn of their penetrating stares, I turned my back to Romeo and Dane. “Sleep isn’t part of my job description. Nor yours, apparently.” I pressed the phone to my ear and lowered my voice. “Did you guys get an alarm on the front door to the Ferrari dealership?”
“Funny you should ask. I was just heading down there.”
“According to my staff, the alarm lit up at…” He paused, then said, “Two oh three.”
“You guys didn’t respond?”
“No, the alarm was silenced with a code shortly after. As procedure dictates, we called down there. The woman who answered the phone had the magic word. But this is coming to me secondhand. I was dealing with what’s looking to be more and more like an inside ring of thieves working the guest rooms when I was called away to handle one of the poker players in town for the big wingding. Not only is he a whiz at poker, he’s a pretty good card counter too.”
“So you enlightened him as to the dim view we take of that skill?”
“Hell, he’d already been enlightened—we had him under contract to not play blackjack. Guess the lure of a new shoe, a young dealer, and the time of night got to him.”
“What did you do?”
“I’ll probably regret it, but I gave him a slap on the wrist and let him go. I didn’t finish up with him until just a couple of minutes ago—wanted to scare him a little.”
“You’re going soft on me. If that gets around it’ll be regarded as an invitation,” I half joked.
“Yeah, well, maybe they’ll give me my gold watch. They’d be doin’ me a favor. But before you put me in for early retirement, the kid was deaf. I cut him a break. Some of the other players had been hassling him and it ticked me off.”
“Gotcha. Had he qualified for the Smack Down or was he a hanger-on?”
“Neither. He’s a player but he missed the final table by a few spots—finished pretty high in the qualifying as I understand it, though. He was flashing a wad around.”
“Inviting attention. Thankfully, not my problem, but this alarm at the dealership? That one has landed in my lap. Anything more you can tell me?”
“Not much, that’s why I was coming to check it out myself.”
“If she had the proper word, what piqued your interest?”
Alarms were double-checked with a phone call. Each authorized person was assigned a unique code word. If they could repeat that word when Security called, then all was clear and Security had no other duty to perform.
“The time of night raised a red flag, although test-driving a Ferrari at two in the morning isn’t that odd of a request. Seen it before.” Jerry sounded like he was reciting statistics as he gave me the rundown. “But to be honest, a woman with the owner’s code word? I know DeLuca’s a player—runs through the ladies like a slot addict through quarters. But the kid who took the call didn’t ask to speak to Mr. DeLuca—a breach in protocol—he shoulda known better. At least he had the sense to find me and tell me about it. I reamed him a new one, then called the dealership back, but the gal didn’t pick up. When I finished with the deaf kid, I thought I better check it out myself. Your call caught me in the lobby heading toward the dealership.”
“I got this one covered.” I stared at the girl on the car—thankfully someone had stopped the rotating. “But our system apparently has a fatal flaw. What was the code word?”
“You and I both know that if someone’s intent on jumping into a buzz saw there’s not much we can do to stop them. Hang on.” I waited, then Jerry’s voice came back on the line. “The word was, well, it was actually a phrase: dead man’s hand.”
“DeLuca drew to that one year to win a World Series of Poker bracelet—the stuff of legend, but it’s sorta creeping me out right now. So no one asked the woman where DeLuca was?”
“Apparently not. I didn’t bother trying again, I figured she’d left by now.”
“She’s gone all right.” I glanced at the girl.
Two technicians were bagging her hands. One of them pawed through her jeweled feedbag of a purse. The tech pulled out a lipstick and a couple of condoms in pink wrappers. He shook his head at Romeo.
“Do you happen to know when you called down here?” I asked Jerry.
“Yeah.” Jerry paused. “Two twenty-one. These iPhones are amazing—all the information at your fingertips.”
“Got it.” Eighteen minutes after the alarm sounded. Then another twenty give or take until Dane called me.
“You going to tell me what happened?” Concern crept around the edges of Jerry’s weary voice.
“Your woman didn’t leave. Somebody buried the heel of a shoe in her neck—the pointy end punctured something important. She bled out all over a new California. I’ll need a list of everyone who had access, keep all the tapes from the cameras in the hallway, and those outside showing the external doors to the dealership, you know the drill.” I rattled this off as if murder were as common as a drunk locking himself out of his room.
“They killed her with a shoe?”
“Has a certain style,” I said. “Romeo’s here. Are you going to be around for a while?”
“Now I am.” Jerry sounded as if the world had just been dropped on his shoulders. “Besides, I got some paperwork to do on this rash of room robberies, but I was going to ignore that until tomorrow.”
“Sitting behind the desk where the buck stops is overrated, isn’t it? Can I meet you in Security in an hour?” I glanced at my watch. Wow, apparently time also flew when you weren’t having any fun. I thought this was a good thing, but I couldn’t marshal the brainpower to think it through. “Make that an hour and a half.”
“You got it.”
As I closed my phone and stuffed it into the pocket of my pajama bottoms, I turned back to the young detective who stared at me with old eyes. I gave him a quick and dirty recap of my conversation—he’d already heard my side of it. Glossing over the code word thing, I bartered a bit of self-respect for some sniffing-around time.
“If you’re done with me,” I said, trying not to feel guilty about my contribution to his downward spiral into the morass of cynicism, “I’ve got to dress for the day, then I have some other fires to put out.”
He nodded. “But—”
“I know,” I said, interrupting him. “Don’t leave town.”
Finally, that got a grin out of the kid, which made me feel hopeful. “Your leash isn’t that long,” he fired back.
I was about to bite off a stinging reply when the kid’s grin faded. “I started to ask if you have any idea who this woman is. No ID in her purse.” The look on his face telegraphed his desire for easy answers.
“Since she had a code to silence the alarm and call off the dogs, one could assume she either worked here or knew someone who does. And, if that is the case, whoever that is has some answering to do.” I’d pointed him in the right direction, which made me feel a little better about not giving him the whole story. As an insider myself, I owed Frank DeLuca a chance to explain how the woman ended up with his code word before I turned the cops onto him—that’s the way the game was played. But holding out on Romeo didn’t sit too well either—that’s not how our game was played. I’d make it up to the kid somehow. “Mr. DeLuca isn’t going to like this one bit.”
Romeo paled. From the looks of him, his fracas with Mr. DeLuca’s daughter had included a run-in with the man himself, which was good. Knowing the kid, he’d put DeLuca at the bottom of his interview list, buying me some time.
I put a hand on his arm. “Before we go any further, could you do me a favor? Check her bra. A lot of the girls carry their licenses and mad money there to outfox the purse snatchers and pickpockets.”
“If your date gets mad, you can still pay a cab to take you home. It’s a girl thing.”
“I see.” Romeo didn’t make a note of that little tidbit. “We’ll look, but even still, I’d appreciate it if you could do a bit of digging, maybe come up with a name.”
Great. The young detective who had barely graduated from training wheels was throwing me in with the wolves. Of course, that was the role I played. After all, being Albert Rothstein’s daughter did open a few doors … and would give me a few minutes’ head start before anyone started shooting.
Dane cleared his throat, making me jump. He’d been so quiet and still that I’d forgotten he was even there, which, given his considerable charms, I had heretofore considered an impossibility.
“I can tell you who she is,” Dane said, his voice flat, hard, yet with a tremor of emotion.
Romeo and I turned toward him.
“You know her?” I asked, not even trying to keep the incredulity out of my voice.
“Unfortunately.” Dane’s eyes captured mine. “She’s my wife.”
Copyright © 2013 by Deborah Coonts