Read an Excerpt
By Deborah Coonts
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2011 Deborah Coonts
All rights reserved.
Millions of enraged honeybees had done the impossible: Single-handedly they had brought the Las Vegas Strip to a standstill.
Alerted by our limo driver, who was stuck somewhere in the mess, I bolted out the front door of the Babylon, down the drive, and screeched to a halt at the Strip. Momentarily speechless, I joined several hundred Vegas revelers gathered in clumps. Gawking, they encircled a large tractor-trailer. The cab lay on its side — I could see the driver still trapped inside, staring out at us.
Momentum had wrapped the trailer around the cab. The thin aluminum skin had given way, exposing smashed and broken hives. A trickle of golden goo, which I assumed was honey, oozed from the trailer's open wound.
Clouds of bees launched themselves through the jagged tear into the cool night air. They swarmed over and through the crowd like tiny avenging angels. The mass of hurtling bodies and flashing wings reflected the multicolored signs on the Strip in a free-form light show that put the Fremont Street Experience to shame.
Lifting half-full glasses in salute, the crowd oooohed and ahhhhhed as if this was another Las Vegas extravaganza provided for their benefit. The party atmosphere lasted but a minute or two — right up until the bees got angry. Swatting and twitching, the revelers did the bee dance. Then, realizing the bees meant business and outnumbered them by a large margin, they tossed their glasses and bolted. I never knew drunk people could run that fast.
Like a herd of wild horses in a mad panic, they stampeded past me, making a beeline for the relative safety of the hotel.
I was congratulating myself on my mixed metaphor when one of the little swarmers decided my neck was the perfect place to bury its stinger.
"Damn!" I slapped at the tiny creature, then plucked its squashed body from my skin and tossed it away. For such a small thing, it sure packed a punch. The pain galvanized me to action. I ran upstream through the crowd, heading for the truck.
Geoffrey David-Williston was right where I knew he'd be — in the thick of the action. Of course, I didn't have to be Einstein to figure that out — Geoffrey was the head of the World Association of Entomologists and their chief bee guy.
For months we'd been negotiating and planning the entomologists' conference at the Babylon, which would start the day after tomorrow. He had promised me we could populate an exhibit with millions of honeybees without incident. Fool that I am, I believed him — then.
Now I wanted a piece of his ass!
Reaching out, I grabbed his shirtsleeve, pulling him around to face me just as another little bugger planted a stinger in my left calf. Geoffrey's shirt still clutched in my fist, I bent down and swatted the bee away as I started in.
"You assured me no one would ever know you'd carted millions of bees through the streets of Las Vegas. Well, they damn well know now! In fact, you told me honeybees were docile and wouldn't harm anyone." I waved my free hand toward the bees. "They sure as hell don't look docile now, do they?" I ducked, hiding as much of myself as possible behind Geoffrey as the angry swarm buzzed past.
Several inches taller than my six feet, with hawkish features and deep-set eyes, Geoffrey was so thin he looked as if he hadn't seen a good meal in decades — making it hard for me to hide much of my bulk behind him. He didn't look at me. Instead he concentrated on the bees — his eyes following them as they raced through the night. When he spoke, I had to strain to hear. "Be calm. You're agitating the bees."
"Calm?" I brushed a little gold and black body from the sleeve of my sweater. "Agitating the ..." I paused, closed my eyes, counted to ten, then opened them again. Nope, still seeing red; so I repeated the whole counting thing. This time, when I opened my eyes, I was only seeing a slight shade of pink. Better. "Geoffrey ..." I started again, but he wasn't listening.
"Do you think you could get someone to turn off all these lights?" he said, as he watched the buzzing cloud whirling around. "The bees are disoriented. We're going to have a hard time getting them back into their hives."
"Turn off the lights? On the Strip? Sure, it'll only take me a minute." My voice was deadly. "Fortunately I've been entrusted with the secret code to the switch that will kill the power to the beating heart of Las Vegas."
Geoffrey looked at me, a quizzical look on his face. "You can't turn them off?"
What was it about sarcasm that eluded brilliant minds? "Of course I can't turn them off. You'll have to think of something else."
"Get me something to burn, then. Quickly." His eyes again followed the billowing mass of bees.
"A jackknifed tractor-trailer, a cloud of angry insects, a first-class traffic jam, and a panicked mob aren't enough for you? You need to start a fire?" My eyes were getting slitty — a bad sign.
"The bees are starting to sting. When they sting, they release an alarm pheromone that attracts other bees to help in the fight. Smoke can sometimes mask that pheromone." He turned and gave me the benefit of his full attention. "I think stopping the stinging first would be a good thing, don't you?"
I slapped at another bugger attacking my neck, then stomped my feet. Maybe I was imagining it, but I felt bugs crawling all over me. Real or imagined, the bugs propelled me to action. Geoffrey's plan being the only viable one at the moment, I grabbed my push-to-talk and barked orders to Security for barrels filled with something flammable.
"Once we get the smoke going, that should stop the bees from attacking. Then call the fire department," Geoffrey said when I was done, his words heavy with defeat. "The bees are simply too riled-up."
"And, pray tell, what will the fire department do?"
"They'll have to knock the flying bees down with foam." A baleful expression settled over Geoffrey's features. "That will kill them."
"Don't look so hang dog. You're not going to make me feel guilty about massacring millions of bees," I lied. "That solves the flying bee problem. What about the crawling ones?"
"I've called my team. They should be here any minute with the bee suits. We have to try to put the hives together and then, hopefully, the bees will return to them."
My hand began to cramp, so I let go of Geoffrey's shirt and swatted at a few bees crawling on my skirt. Since I knew nothing about taming bees (which sounded as improbable as teaching fleas to dance), and Geoffrey's plan was the only one we had, I decided to go with it. "Okay. Work your magic. I'll call the fire department." He started to speak, but I held up a finger to silence him. "And the police department needs to cordon off this area before these bees do a real number on someone."
"I'm sorry," Geoffrey whispered, his eyes again turned toward the sky.
"That's okay. I'm sure you didn't envision the truck dumping its load."
He turned and looked at me, his eyes struggling to focus. "I was apologizing to the bees, not to you."
"Of course you were." I felt the color rise in my cheeks as I wrestled for self-control. "Get these bees out of here and clean up this mess." I poked Geoffrey in the chest for emphasis. "But first, get the driver out of that truck before the bees eat him alive. Do it now!"
He gave me a look that told me, in no uncertain terms, I had exhausted my usefulness, then turned back to his charges. I paused to make sure he was moving toward the cab of the truck, before I turned to stalk off in a vain attempt to keep my dignity intact. I refused to slap at a bee that had punctured my elbow.
Stung, dismissed, and more than a little browned-off, I fought the urge to wring Geoffrey's scrawny neck, which was a bad idea anyway.
Then the bees would be my problem.
You see, problems are what I do. My name is Lucky O'Toole and I am the Head of Customer Relations for the Babylon, the most over-the-top resort/casino on the Las Vegas Strip. And as such, the hotel's entertainers, employees, and guests — oh yes, the guests; the weird, the wacko, the drunk and disorderly, the slightly naughty and the truly wicked — are all my responsibility.
I started in the business when I was fifteen. In the intervening years, I'd dealt with cockroaches, snakes, cats (both man-eating and domesticated), dogs, various reptiles (poisonous, venomous, and vile) and rodents (four-legged and two-legged), but tonight was my first experience with bees. And, frankly, I was at a bit of a loss.
Tired of offering my exposed skin to irate insects, I'd decided total retreat was the better part of valor when my phone rang. I flipped it open. "O'Toole."
"OhmyGod, ohmyGod, ohmyGod —"
"Paolo, calm down. What's wrong?" Paolo drove our limo on the late night shift.
"The bees! The bees! They are coming after me! How do they get into the car? OhmyGod! Mary, Mother of God, protect me." A staccato mix of English and Spanish, he fired the words at me. "Help me!"
"Where are you?"
"In the limo. Behind the fallen-over truck."
I squinted my eyes and stared beyond the light into the darkness. I caught the glimmer of silver and the reflection of light on black, like a black hole in the night. "I see you. I'll be right there."
I bolted toward the car, my arms crossed in front of my face, breathing through the loose weave of my sweater. I had no intention of discovering what it would be like to inhale an enraged bee.
Bees crawled all over the car. I could just make out the filmy aura of Paolo's face peering at me through the driver's window. He waved his arms frantically as if fighting off an invading horde. Using the sleeve of my sweater, I brushed the bees off the handle and wrenched the door open.
Paolo recoiled at the cloud of insects that swarmed through the opening. I reached in, grabbed his lapels, and lifted the small man clear of the car, setting him on his feet. We both ran like hell up the drive and through the front door, which we slammed behind us. Our backs pressed to the glass, we sagged against it, fighting for breath.
Color was returning to Paolo's face. Dotting his otherwise flawless Latin complexion, I noticed several red welts. I'm sure I sported a set of my own.
"I don't know about you, but I'm asking for hazardous duty pay," I said, when air again filled my lungs and I was no longer teetering on the brink of homicide.
"Hazardous duty pay? What is this?"
"Ask your boss when you insist on a raise."
Paolo crinkled his brows. "You are my boss."
"Oh, right." I straightened and smoothed my skirt. "Then forget what I said."
His eyes twinkled. "Paolo never forgets."
I raised one eyebrow as I looked at him. "Then you won't forget our limo which you abandoned in the middle of the Strip?"
"You want me to go back out there?"
I bit back a smile at his stricken look. "When it's safe, get the car."
* * *
THE dispatcher at the fire department didn't miss a beat when I explained the problem — she rallied the troops. Their sirens already sounded in the distance. My call to the Metropolitan Police Department didn't go quite as smoothly. In a snippy voice, the dispatcher assured me Metro had the incident "under control," which I thought highly unlikely. Metro had a disdain for directing traffic and regularly left motorists to their own devices when dealing with gridlock — an interesting approach in a state with a Concealed Carry law.
As a precaution, I keyed Security again and asked for reinforcements outside to help untangle the snarled traffic before somebody started shooting.
My footsteps echoed off the marble floor as I strode through the lobby. The revelers chased inside by the bees had filtered away, leaving the vast space virtually empty. I paused for a moment, drinking it all in. I rarely saw the place this quiet — two thirty in the morning wasn't my usual gig.
A work of art, the Babylon had been designed to incorporate all of the ancient wonders of the original Babylon — with a Vegas twist, of course. Large and grand, the lobby resembled an ancient temple with polished marble floors and walls inlaid with intricate, iridescent mosaics. Chihuly blown-glass hummingbirds and butterflies of all shapes, sizes, and colors covered the ceiling. Long and low, the registration desk hid under the colorful tents of a bazaar that formed the pathway into the casino.
The Bazaar, a vast array of high-end shops, the entrance to which was on the far side of the lobby opposite the registration desk, beckoned weary revelers, and big winners. What the gambling gods gave at the tables, the retail gods could take away. We had all the best names — Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, Cartier, Jimmy Choo, Dolce&Gabbana, Hermès, Escada, Ferarri — to name but a few.
An indoor ski slope, replete with manmade snow and moguls, lurked behind a wall of glass adjacent to Registration. Of course, I rather doubted the ancient Babylonians strapped on a pair of K-2s and threw themselves down a snow-covered run, but, after all, this was Vegas, and some latitude with reality was expected. At this time of night, all the skiers were doing the après ski thing; the mountain was closed.
Completing the picture, a winding waterway — the Euphrates — snaked through the public areas of the ground floor. Lined with flowering plants and spanned by numerous footbridges, the Euphrates was home to myriad fish and fowl.
Sitting on one footbridge, half-hidden from view, a man and a woman caught my eye. Anger infused their posture. Even with their backs to me, I could tell their conversation was not a pleasant one. At this time of the morning the combination of too much alcohol and too little sleep was often incendiary. As the problem solver on duty, it fell to me to put out the fires.
I edged closer for a better look. The guy's wavy brown hair looked familiar. So, too, the tailored tweed jacket. Damn! The Beautiful Jeremy Whitlock! What was he doing here? And what was he doing with that petite woman with long strawberry blond hair? Actually, as Las Vegas's ace private investigator, Jeremy was often nosing around, so seeing him wasn't that unusual. But seeing him with this woman certainly was, since Jeremy was involved in a hot-and-heavy with Miss Patterson, my senior assistant, who was neither petite nor a redhead.
The woman stood. Jeremy leapt up and grabbed her arm. When she turned to yank her arm from his grasp, I got a good look at her face. With a sinking heart, I realized that I also knew her. Numbers Neidermeyer — the scourge of every bookie in town. Our very own sportsbook manager swore the woman had no soul. I agreed with him — she'd sold it to the Devil a long time ago.
Numbers and I had history. When she was a blossoming odds maker and I was the Director of Operations for one of the Big Boss's lesser properties, she'd tried to put us over a barrel. I'd won that round, and, luckily, our paths hadn't crossed since. But, if the grapevine could be relied upon, she'd continued playing the same game, although with bigger stakes. To hear it told, she'd ruined several dozen careers not only in the gaming industry but in professional athletics as well. Because she was the best in the business — such was her reputation that one word from her would cause the big money to jump in before the casinos could change the odds, leaving the casinos with their pants down — she'd emerged from the various wreckages unscathed.
With a glance toward the front door, Numbers turned on her heels and headed in the opposite direction, leaving Jeremy alone. We both watched as she disappeared into the casino.
I wandered over to Jeremy's side. "Slumming tonight?"
He jumped at the sound of my voice then shook his head. "You have no idea." He ran a hand over his eyes. "That woman. She's a bloody cow."
"Can you speak American rather than Australian?" Actually, I'd sit and listen to the Beautiful Jeremy Whitlock speak Swahili if he wanted — those brown eyes flecked with gold, the wavy hair begging to be touched, the dimples, the perpetual tan, the great ass, the delicious accent. ... If he and I weren't both already spoken for, I could definitely embarrass myself in his presence.
His dimples flashed then disappeared.
Excerpted from Lucky Stiff by Deborah Coonts. Copyright © 2011 Deborah Coonts. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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