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The Las Vegas illusion was so good at times that it was almost possible to believe the Powers that controlled the huge hotel-casinos also controlled the outside air temperature. Almost but not quite. Hannah Jessett stood on the chilled side of the plate glass doors and gazed out at the hotel swimming pool. The gigantic, whimsically shaped oasis with its meandering curves and unbelievably cute little bridges lay glittering beneath a broiling summer sun. The present difference between the gambling hell inside and the desert hell outside was approximately forty degrees.
On the whole, Hannah would have preferred to stay indoors. She was not fond of deserts. She was from Seattle. But time was running out.
Her cane skidded on a small patch of wind-tossed gravel as she shoved open the door and stepped outside. Pain shot through her left leg when she grabbed for the wrought iron railing that lined the wide steps down to poolside. For an instant she closed her eyes against the lancing agony and then she drew a deep breath.
"Damn it to hell."
It struck her that the oath was probably somewhat redundant. She considered the philosophical ramifications of the question while she waited for the pain to subside. She should have taken that midday tablet after all.
For a long moment she leaned against the ornate railing and wondered if the painkiller would have dulled her awareness any more than pain itself did. It was probably a toss-up. In the meantime she was grudgingly grateful for the fact that there were very few people around the pool to witness her less than graceful entrance. A couple of showgirls, all thoroughbred legs and classically contouredbosoms, drowsed beneath sunshades at one end. Hannah decided they either hadn't gotten the word that tanning was no longer considered healthy or else they were going for the short-term cosmetic benefits and consigning the future to oblivion. Hannah wondered what sort of future a Las Vegas showgirl had. Professional lives were probably short in that line of work. Might be a crying need for good career counseling here in Vegas.
Hannah forced her tense muscles to relax while she replaced the determinedly cool smile she had let slip a moment earlier. Forget the showgirls. Her goal was the other end of the pool where a man sat at a table beneath a fringed umbrella. Even from where she was standing Hannah could tell he was suffering. He had loosened his tie, opened his collar, and rolled up his sleeves, but the heat was taking its toll. There was a grimly determined expression of concentration on his face as he bent over a folder full of papers. Hannah got the impression that he was committed to the project at hand and would complete it even if required to do so in temperatures that hovered around a hundred and ten degrees. The dedicated type. As Hannah studied him, he glanced up and saw her. The intent look congealed into a considering frown.
He probably knew right off who she was, Hannah decided. She didn't look much like a showgirl. And she wasn't wearing a bathing suit. The man got to his feet and started toward her.
Her left leg grudgingly agreed to move again as Hannah tentatively leaned on the cane and took a few purposeful steps. She made it to the halfway point around the pool. Then she stood composing herself while she waited for the man to reach her. It wouldn't do to startle him by confronting him with a grimace of agony. People were very uncomfortable around someone who was in obvious pain, and the last thing she wanted to do was to make Gideon Cage uncomfortable. The leg was manageable now. Just as soon as this was over, she promised herself, she would go back to her hotel room and swallow the painkiller she'd put off taking earlier. As she consoled herself with that thought, the man reached her. Now she could clearly see the sweat on his brow and the dampness that marked the front of the once crisp white shirt.
"Mr. Cage?" She summoned a truly brilliant smile for the intense man with the slight paunch who stood before her.
"I'm Mr. Cage's administrative assistant. Steve Decker. I assume you're Miss Jessett?"
Decker removed his heavy-rimmed glasses and polished them with an automatic gesture as he waited politely. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties and obviously was not following the Yuppie trend toward physical fitness and a lean figure. In this era of fitness madness, a flabby physique could hurt his chances for career advancement. Hannah wanted to tell him that just sitting in the heat was not going to take off weight, regardless of how much he sweat, but she didn't. Sometimes it was hard to resist handing out free advice. But Hannah reminded herself that just because she had a natural talent for advising, she couldn't expect everyone she encountered to appreciate it. There were plenty of people who played kazoos with concert level precision, but not everyone cared to listen. Free kazoo play-ing and the free dispensing of sound adviceespecially career advicewere rated at about the same level on humanity's scale of values. The secret was to make people pay for both.
Without even thinking about it, Hannah picked up the stray clues that Decker gave out through his appearance, his manner, and his job. With a skill that was second nature she began assembling an interior puzzle, which, if she ever got around to completing it, would have enabled her to predict his actions very accurately. It was a knack she had, one that made her very good at her work. Hannah's bright smile became genuine. She liked people such as Steve Decker. They were generally decent, hardworking, loyal types. Unfortunately for them, it was their lot in life to need bosses. They were the kind of people who could hold an organization together but who would never dream of trying to assume control over it. "Administrative assistant" was a loose term that covered a lot of territory in some companies, but Hannah had a hunch that in this case she was looking at a valuable cog in Gideon Cage's powerful wheel.
"I have an appointment with Mr. Cage. I'm Hannah Jessett."
Decker blinked at the cane and replaced his glasses. "Ah, yes. Gideon's expecting you. This way, please."
He was on a first-name basis with Cage. That was interesting. It suggested that Decker might be one of the few decent, hardworking, loyal types who had been lucky enough to end up with a boss who appreciated him. It also said a few things about Cage, himself.
As Decker turned to lead her toward the table where he had been sitting, Hannah saw that he was developing a slight bald spot on the crown of his head. He could still comb the side hair over it but not for much longer."Gideon will be finished in just a few minutes, Miss Jessett. You're welcome to wait over there under the umbrella."
There was no sound from the pool, and it took Hannah a second to realize that it was being used. A man was swimming deep under the water. Hannah wished she'd been left to wait in the air-conditioned casino lobby. Out here the oppressive heat of the Nevada summer was dampening in more ways than one. She didn't know if the wet marks in the fabric of the rakish khaki bush shirt she wore with her jeans were from the heat or from nerves. She should have put on the olive camp shirt instead of the khaki bush. Olive didn't show perspiration stains so obviously. A little something to keep in mind if she ever found herself in this sort of situation again.
"If you'll excuse me, I have to be going. I was just on my way back inside when you arrived." Steve Decker smiled politely, concerned eyes going to the cane one last time. "Unless there's anything else you need?"
Hannah shook her head. "I'll be fine, thank you." She started toward the table under the umbrella, willing herself to move at a reasonably even pace. She would not betray any more signs of weakness than she could help. She would not, for example, start screaming immediately for the waiter who tended the poolside bar, even though she could use the alcohol to dull the ache in her leg. She would handle this with aplomb. Gideon Cage was a man who preyed on weakness. The first order of business was not to display any. "Goodbye, Mr. Decker."
Decker nodded, hesitated a moment as if having second thoughts about leaving a wounded creature alone with the man in the pool, and then left. Hannah's attention focused on the bar set up beneath the canopy on the other side ofinto a webbed chair and lifted a hand with what she hoped was casual demand. A waiter dressed in white shorts and a polo shirt detached himself from the bar and headed in her direction. Hannah hoped Gideon Cage would stay underwater a while longer.
"Two margaritas, please," Hannah said with her most winning smile as the young man from the bar reached her.
"From scratch. On the rocks, not turned into snow, and made with real limes, not that yucky sweet mix." She slid three dollar bills across the table. "Any problem?"
The young man smiled in a friendly fashion and pocketed the bills. "No problem. The bartender generally uses the mix and turns the drinks into green snow but I think I can convince him to squeeze a few limes."
"Thank you. You can put the drinks on my tab." She displayed her room key. The young man nodded and headed back to the bar. Hannah watched him go, feeling a strong sense of elation. She was a good tipper because she had worked a couple of summers in a restaurant, and most people who had once waited tables were notoriously big tippers. But this was the first time she had ever tried outright bribery, and she was fascinated to find that it apparently worked. Slipping people a few bucks, she had heard, was the way to get what you wanted in Vegas. Hannah's only concern was that the three-dollar advance on the margaritas wouldn't be sufficient. Or perhaps she'd overdone it. Perhaps two dollars would have done the trick. There were obviously nuances to be learned.
The margaritas arrived in perfect condition a few minutes later. Hannah was sampling hers with what an ungenerous soul might have termed indecent haste when she became aware of being watched. Automatically sheglanced up and found herself looking into the eyes of Gideon Cage. He studied her while standing chest high in the water, his arms folded on the concrete edge that surrounded the pool. Water glistened on his shoulders and slicked his heavy, dark hair.
Hannah's first impression was that he didn't appear to be as big as she had expected him to be. Somehow one always thought of predators in large terms. That sort of thinking tended to ignore spiders and snakes, she realized. Although it was only a tiny error in the mental image of him that she had fashioned, it bothered Hannah. Little mistakes, small pieces missing in the puzzle, could lead to much bigger and more dangerous mistakes.
"The cane is an interesting touch, Miss Jessett. A little theatrical, but interesting."
At least his voice fit her preconceptions. Soft and gravelledthe voice of a man who never had to shout to convince the phone company it had made a mistake on its monthly bill.
Hannah toasted him lightly with her margarita. "I'm glad you approve, Mr. Cage. My whole purpose this afternoon is to whet your interest." She took a long swallow of the refreshingly tart drink, wondering how much alcohol it would take to equal one of her pain tablets. Dangerous thinking. Rather like concentrating on images of wolves and lions while forgetting about the menace of spiders and snakes.
"You should have done your research a little more thoroughly. I'm a simple man. Not real kinky in my sexual tastes. The image of a lady in bed with a cane doesn't do a whole hell of a lot for me."
"I'm afraid you misunderstand the situation, Mr. Cage. It's not your sexual interest I'm going to try to whet.""My sympathy?"
"No." She paused, thinking about that. "Have you got any?"
"Sympathy? None that I'd let get in the way of a business deal."
She nodded, satisfied. "That fits." "With what?" "The image of you that I've been building in my mind. I'm a guidance counselor by profession, Mr. Cage. It's my business to construct images of people that give me reliable information about how they function and what they need."
"And you're going to tell me what I need?"
She slurped determinedly on the margarita before answering. It would take a hell of a lot of it to equal one of her tablets. Then she smiled. "Come on out of the pool, Mr. Cage. You can't hide in there forever."
Something unpleasant flickered in his eyes and Hannah guessed he didn't like the implication that he was hiding from her. She would have to be careful to push him only so far or this whole thing would explode in her face. There were still too many unknowns in the puzzle that was Gideon Cage.
The pool water made a soft, rushing sound as Cage ignored the steps and hauled himself out the hard way. Upon quick reflection Hannah decided that he wasn't trying to impress her. It was the way he always left the pool. A moment later he was walking toward her, reaching down to scoop up a fat, white towel that lay on a lounger.
Not only was he under six feetprobably more in the neighborhood of five-ten, and built along lean, unbulky lineshe was also considerably less attractive than she had expected. A man who commanded the kind of financial power Gideon Cage did ought to look more like agraduate of Harvard Business School. There should be classic East Coast preppy refinement here, rather than this assortment of raw, blunt-edged features and hairy arms and legs. Hannah made another quick adjustment in her mental construct of the man. It was important to stay flexible.
"All right, Miss Jessett," Cage said mildly as he threw himself down onto the chair across from her. He cocked one bushy brow as he saw the second margarita glass and then reached out to pick it up. "Let's have it. Why did your brother send you?"