As her final act on this earth, Lyda Sue Stalnaker plummeted out of a Las Vegas helicopter and landed smack in the middle of the pirates’ lagoon in front of the Treasure Island Hotel, disrupting the 8:30 P.M. pirate show.
The video ran as the lead-in for the 11:00 P.M. news. I caught it on a television in the sports bar. Actually, it was amazing I caught it at all. My name is Lucky O’Toole, and I am the chief problem solver at the Babylon, the newest, most over-the-top megacasino/resort on the Las Vegas Strip. I’d been fighting my way through the crowds packing the casino on my way to Stairwell Fifteen to deal with a naked man asleep under the stairs when I caught the television feed out of the corner of my eye.
A grainy video of a helicopter with the Babylon’s script logo painted on the side appeared on the screen with a small head shot of Lyda Sue in the corner—it was Lyda Sue’s sweet smile that actually captured my attention. I leaned over the backs of two guys playing video poker at the bar, a sinking feeling in my stomach. In Vegas, nobody gets their picture on the news unless they’ve committed some grisly crime or have been a victim of one themselves.
Of course I couldn’t hear what the talking heads on the television were saying. The clamor of excited voices from the casino combined with the pinging from the video machines and the piped-in music to create a cacophony of excitement that made it not only impossible to talk, but to think as well.
Eyes wide, I watched as the station ran the video again—this time the full version as part of their newscast.
Hovering above the lagoon as the show began, the copter began to buck and roll. A body tumbled out, backward or forward—it was hard to tell. Thankfully, the final impact with the water was hidden behind the pirate ship advancing toward the British with cannons belching fire and smoke. The picture tilted, then went dark—a head shot of Lyda Sue taking its place.
“Ms. O’Toole?” My Nextel push-to-talk vibrated at my hip. “Are you coming?”
I grabbed the device and pushed the direct-connect button to shout. “What?”
I pressed the thing to my ear as I tried to hear.
“Ma’am, this is Sergio at the front desk. The doctor’s with our naked guy. He’s fine—apparently sleeping off a bender. But we got another problem—some guy in Security by the name of Dane is insisting we call the paramedics just to be on the safe side.”
I stared at Lyda Sue’s picture on the television, my mind unable to process what I saw. The video switched to the police, a body covered with a white cloth, one delicate hand dangling from the stretcher as they loaded it into the back of an ambulance. Nobody was in a hurry.
“Ma’am, are you there?”
The question snapped me back. “Sorry. Naked guy in the stairwell, right. Do not call the paramedics unless the doctor wants them. We don’t need to cause a scene and have this guy splashed across the pages of the Review-Journal in the morning—I’m sure he’d love that.” Trying to steady my nerves, I took a deep breath. Instantly I regretted it. Smoke-filled air assaulted my lungs, bringing tears to my eyes. “I’ll be right there, and I’ll deal with Dane.” I choked the words out as I struggled to catch my breath.
I reclipped the Nextel at my waist.
I fought to not only clear my lungs, but to clear my thoughts as well—a Herculean task as hundreds of questions pinged around inside my head.
Lyda Sue, dead? I’d seen her just last night, holding forth on the end stool at Delilah’s Bar. We’d talked for a minute or two; her world had seemed stable enough. Twenty-four hours later she took a header out of our helicopter, landing smack in the middle of the 8:30 P.M. pirate show. What had I missed?
Damn. Lyda Sue was dead. Double damn. She fell out of our he licop ter. The Babylon would be big news. My job was to keep the Babylon out of the news. Or to take the fallout when I failed. The Big Boss was not going to be pleased.
Tonight was shaping up to be a doozie.
I muscled between the two guys intent on their video poker monitors and leaned across the bar so the bartender could hear me. “Get the news off that television. Find a sports feed or something.”
The real world had no place in this fantasyland.
My mind clicked into gear. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on that pilot. He should have called me right away. Lyda Sue hit the lagoon at 8:30. Damage control was tough enough without giving the newshounds and gossip mongers two and a half hours head start. I had a feeling that nothing short of an overnight nuclear test at Yucca Flats would keep us out of the morning headlines now.
Nevertheless, I grabbed the Nextel, and started in. “Jerry?”
“Yo,” our Head of Security answered in his laid-back manner.
“I want our pilot in my office right now—handcuff him and drag him there if you have to. Next, get over to Channel Eight. I want all copies of a tape Marty ran on the eleven o’clock news of a woman falling out of our helicopter. If he refuses, remind him of that awkward little situation at the opening gala—he’ll know what you’re talking about. Bring the tapes to me when you get them.”
“I’m on it.”
“Oh, and Jer? I almost forgot. What’s the status on the mega-millions winner? Did she actually hit it?”
“We’re working on it. I’ll have an answer for you in the next half hour—our plate’s sorta full.”
“Welcome to the club. Thanks.”
I disconnected then scrolled through the stored numbers looking for Dane’s as I turned to head toward Stairwell Fifteen. Paramedics! Was the guy nuts?
As fate would have it, his number didn’t matter. Two steps with my head down focusing on my phone and I ran smack into the rather solid chest of the man I was looking for—Paxton Dane, the new hire in Security.
At a couple of inches taller than my six feet, Dane was the poster boy for the testosterone-laden, ex-military, jet-jockey set. Square jaw, soft brown hair, green eyes, great ass and an attitude—which I didn’t need right now.
“Did I just hear you tell Jerry to threaten to blackmail the manager of the television station?” His voice held the soft traces of old Texas, yet the sexy timbre of a man confident of his appeal.
“I never threaten. I offered him a deal.” I had neither the time nor the patience to educate Dane tonight, but it seemed that was in the cards.
“A rather fine distinction.”
“Dane, you’ll find those black-and-white lines painted so brightly in the rest of the world blur to a nice shade of gray in Vegas.” I put a hand on his chest and pushed him away since his nearness seemed to affect what rational thought I had left at this time of night. “I was already up to my ass in alligators, and the suicide dive just upped the ante. I really do have to go.”
I pushed away the images of Lyda Sue’s final moments. If I kept them at a distance, maybe, just maybe, I could make it through the night. If I spoke of her cavalierly, maybe I could hold back my emotions.
“What makes you think she was a suicide?” The soft traces of old Texas disappeared. Dane’s voice was hard, flat and held an edge like tempered steel.
The question and his tone stopped me cold. What did he know that I didn’t? “You got any reason to think otherwise?”
Murder, now that would be a real problem.
He waved my question away, arranging his features in an expressionless mask. “I need to talk to you about one of our whales. Apparently the guy had a mishap in one of the Ferraris. If you want me to handle it, I can, but you’ll have to make the call as to what the hotel is willing to do. The whale in question is . . .” He consulted a folded sheet of paper he had extracted out of his back pocket and gave a low whistle. “A Mr. Fujikara and he seems to be quite a whale—he keeps several million in play during his monthly visits.”
“I know Mr. Fujikara well.”
Dane glanced up, one eyebrow raised, but he didn’t ask the question I saw lurking there and I felt no need to explain.
“We also have a Pascarelli. Apparently he wants a hug from you,” Dane continued, not missing a beat as he absently rubbed his chest where my hand had been. “And the naked guy . . .”
“He’s all mine as well,” I interjected to speed up the conversation. With major problems to solve, I had little time and even less patience. “And, Dane, for the record, never call the paramedics unless it’s an all-out emergency or the doctor wants them. Casinos are closed worlds here—we protect our own—and we zealously guard the privacy of our guests. Remember that. Outsiders are allowed in to help with problems only, and I repeat, only when the problem gets out of hand.”
Dane’s eyes narrowed—his only response. A tic worked in his cheek.
I rolled my head and rubbed the back of my neck. “I need to take Mr. Fujikara as well; this is a game we play. For his millions, he likes some personal attention—apparently I’m the anointed one. You can help me with one thing though. We had a lady hit the mega-million, but we need to make sure she played the six quarters. Jerry’s shut down the machine and is reviewing the tapes. While we’re in the process, why don’t you offer the Sodom and Gomorrah Suite to the winner and her friends for the night? Make double sure that she understands her winnings have not been confirmed. I’ll follow up with her when I get the results of the diagnostics from Jerry.”
“And who will authorize the comped suite?”
“I thought I just did.” My words sounded harsher than I intended. “Sorry. If Sergio wants confirmation, have him call me.”
“Right. Oh, and The Big Boss wants fifteen minutes of your time. He’s in his apartment.”
“He’ll have to get in line.”
“He told me now,” Dane said as he rubbed his eyes.
“I said, he’ll have to wait.” Now that I took a closer look, Dane’s eyes were bloodshot. The guy looked totally wrung out. I put a hand on his arm. “Are you okay?”
“Fine.” Dane shrugged my question off, then shrugged out of my grasp. “You leave The Big Boss hanging it’s your funeral.”
“It’ll take more than that to put me six feet under.”
My relationship with The Big Boss was none of Dane’s business. I turned and took off through the casino with more questions than answers bouncing around in my skull: Why the swan dive, why did The Big Boss send Dane to bring me to heel, and why did Dane sidestep my question?
Murder! What made him think Lyda Sue was murdered?
THE casino at the Babylon is much like any other. An intimate labyrinth, subtly decorated, windowless and, tonight, jam-packed with people all paying and praying for whatever it was they hoped to get in Vegas. A thin layer of smoke hovered over the crowd, as the slot machines sang their come-on songs, and occasional shouts arose from the tables. Cocktail waitresses wearing painted-on smiles and little else darted in and out delivering fresh libations and collecting the empties. Young women paraded around in tight-fitting clothes they wouldn’t be caught dead in back home. Pierced and tattooed young men, their jeans hanging precariously across their butts, followed the young women. How the boys kept their jeans from falling straight to the floor was an enduring mystery.
The nightly line of the young and the beautiful snaked from the entrance to Pandora’s Box, our popular nightclub and body exchange. Pulses of dance music escaped each time Ralph, our bouncer, opened the door to let one of the hip and trendy in or out. The entrance to the adjacent theatre was empty; the 10:30 show was well underway.
I knew where to find Mr. Pascarelli—thankfully he was on my way to Stairwell Fifteen. Like all serious gamblers, Mr. Pascarelli was a creature of habit and superstition. Dressed in the same shirt, a now-threadbare Hawaiian number his wife, Mildred, “God rest her soul,” had given him decades ago when I guessed he weighed forty pounds more than he did now, he always started his night of play at the third slot machine from the end of the third row.
A gnomelike eighty, Mr. Pascarelli was cute as a bug, bald as Michael Jordan, a night owl and, I suspected, a bit lonely. Three was his lucky number, and I was his good-luck charm.
Truth be told, giving Mr. Pascarelli his hug was usually the high-point of my night, a fact that—had I time to think about it—would probably have concerned me.
“There you are, my dear!” He waved his glass at me. “I was beginning to worry.”
“Worry? Don’t be silly, but this one will have to be a quickie.” I gave him a squeeze, careful to not crush him too tightly.
He laughed at the innuendo. “Hard night?”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
“Little Lyda taking a header out of the helicopter?”
“Bad news travels fast. You knew Lyda Sue?”
“Sure. When she wasn’t busy she used to pull up a stool and talk to me for a while. Sweet kid, from somewhere in Texas, I think.” He shook his head and crinkled his brow. “She’d been sorta jumpy lately.”
“Did she say why?”
“If she did, I don’t remember.”
“Do me a favor—try. When she sailed out of that helicopter she landed right in my lap. I could use some help on this.”
He nodded, his eyes serious.
I patted Mr. Pascarelli’s shoulder. “Go easy on us tonight, okay?”
“Sure, honey,” he said with a wink.
Mr. Pascarelli was the only man on the planet who could call me “honey,” wink at me and live to tell about it.
I dove into the crowd and wove my way on toward Stairwell Fifteen. I threw my weight against the stairwell door and came face to face with the normally unflappable Sergio Fabiano, our night-shift front-desk manager. Dark hair, olive skin, a face a photographer would love and a body to match, Sergio was the Babylon’s resident Greek god. Women were drawn to him like sharks to an injured seal. Thankfully the women were nowhere in sight. Neither was Security. Apparently Dane had done as I asked and called off his posse.
“Thank heavens!” A scowl creased Sergio’s otherwise flawless face, but his dark eyes danced with merriment. He gestured disdainfully toward the space under the first flight of stairs.
“Good God!” The words escaped before I could stop them.
“But not a merciful God,” announced Sergio.
Our naked guest must have weighed four hundred pounds, with pasty white skin and more hair sprouting on his body than his head. Thankfully he was curled in the fetal position. And he was still out cold. But, judging from the way his ass was twitching, his dreams were good ones.
“We don’t know who he is?” I managed to choke out. I kept repeating, I will not laugh at this over and over in my head until I felt confident I would do as I told myself.
Sergio shook his head, his jaw clamped tight, his lips compressed together. He didn’t laugh, not even a smile, or a smirk. Amazing.
I keyed my Nextel. “Security, any missing-person reports for tonight?”
“Excuse me?” The unmistakable voice of Paxton Dane. Did the guy ever stop? Like the Energizer bunny, he just kept going and going, handling everything, everywhere.
“Dane, have you guys had any calls from anyone looking for someone who matches the description of our guy in Stairwell Fifteen?”
“Already checked that. And, to answer your question, no.”
“Okay, then send four . . .” I looked at the inert shape again. “Make that five of your strongest guys to Stairwell Fifteen, ground floor.”
“On their way—again.”
Taking the high road, I ignored the jab. “And, Dane, remember, a bit of discretion here. This man is most likely one of our guests. We wouldn’t want to see him on the news, okay?”
“You mean one appearance on the nightly news is enough?”
Did the guy take a class on how to be a jerk or was it something that just came naturally?
“Dane . . .” I started in on him then realized I was talking to dead air.
Sergio looked at me, his eyes round black saucers.
I snapped my phone shut. “Sergio, take care of this guy,” I said as I reclipped my phone, glad that Dane had retreated. I was too wrung out to do the whole verbal thrust-and-parry thing. “You know, the usual routine.”
“Right,” Sergio began. “First get a robe that’ll fit him—preferably one with another hotel’s logo on it.” He paused to flash me a grin, then continued as if he’d memorized it all from the employee handbook and hadn’t actually learned it from me. “When Security gets here, have them carry him through the back corridors to the worst room open tonight. Take all the bedsheets, the towels and the robes—anything he can put around himself when he wakes up, so he can’t sneak out on us.”
“You’ve got it. But you might see if Security can spare someone to stand outside the door just in case our friend—” I pointed to the guy on the floor, now snoring loudly. “—has an accomplice to bring him some clothes.”
“And the doc is going to check on him?” I asked.
“Every half hour.”
“Good work.” Another problem down, how many more to go? I’d lost count. “Sergio, another thing . . .”
Again those black eyes focused on me.
“I need you to alert your staff at the front desk, the bell staff and the valets. If anyone comes around asking questions about a girl falling out of our helicopter, they are to be directed to my office. That includes the police. Our staff is not to answer any questions or to give any information. Is that clear?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Sergio’s eyes grew a fraction wider, but he kept his composure.
“And if anyone is poking around, let me know, okay? Just because you send them to my office doesn’t mean they will actually do as you suggest.”
I gave one last look around. I couldn’t think of anything else. Satisfied Sergio could handle the problem from here, I turned to go.
After all, it’s not as if this was our first naked drunk sleeping in a stairwell.
THE elevators lurked just inside the foyer of the Babylon, separating the casino from the hotel. The foyer was the Babylon’s showpiece. Designed to draw all passersby inside, the grand ceiling was covered with millions of dollars worth of Chihuly blown glass. The Bellagio had glass flowers, we had butterflies and hummingbirds—thousands of them. Personally they made me feel like we all were in a remake of the film The Birds, but obviously no one shared my opinion. As usual, a crowd clustered under them, oohing and ahhing.