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"Have you seen any cute cowboys?" Delinda Deline asked. She and Mary Connell threaded their way through the packed aisles of the Montecito Hotel and Casino's gaming floor. Sounds of laughter and whoops of joy filled the air, people celebrating big wins on slots or rolls of the dice or spins of the roulette wheel. Mary knew that Delinda enjoyed being on the casino floor and felt at home there even though she rarely gambled. Delinda preferred the sure thing to the long shot, and somehow she had the power to make things materialize when she wanted them badly enough.
"Dozens," Mary said, smiling at a couple of particular memories. Another memory in the making pushed through the throng just ahead of them, a good-natured grin affixed to his handsome face. He wore snug-fitting jeans, with a green-and-white-striped snap-button shirt. A white hat and boots with two-inch heels added to his already considerable height. "Maybe hundreds. I like the Stampede," she added, turning to watch him pass. The jeans fit just as well from this angle. "We should do it more often."
"There can only be one centennial of Las Vegas's first cattle drive," Delinda pointed out. Her dangling earrings were shaped like horseshoes with ten-gallon hats hanging from them, sculpted from twenty-four-karat gold. Like most of the Montecito's staff and guests this weekend, Delinda was wearing a western-style shirt; hers was in a silky gold fabric with pearl snaps and contrasting indigo piping on the yoke and cuffs, and she wore it like the supermodel she could have been, had she chosen that path in life. As it was, with her flaxen hair and glowing skin, she looked like the goddess ofgaming, if goddesses wore two-hundred-dollar jeans. "There might be another one in another hundred years, I guess, if you're willing to wait."
Mary shrugged. The National Rodeo Finals came to Las Vegas every year, so if Mary really ached for cowboys, she could find them there. But she wasn't on the prowl. Window shopping could be fun, but she had never found a boyfriend by looking for one. Somehow men always seemed to find her when she was least prepared for them. Why that happened she had never been able to figure out. Then again, she hadn't devoted a lot of effort to trying. If it ain't broke...
"There's just something about a cowboy," Delinda said, apparently unwilling to drop the subject.
"There is indeed," Mary agreed, watching another pair of tight jeans sidling toward the Sports Book. Then she glanced away and spotted a familiar face, shaded by a very unfamiliar hat. "Then again," she said, "some guys just don't pull off the look all that well."
Looking in the direction Mary indicated, Delinda laughed. "Oh my God," she said. "That is just something Danny should not do."
Danny McCoy, director of surveillance and security for the Montecito, worked his way through the crowd toward them. Tall and handsome in a dark blue Armani suit, he had a dusty black cowboy hat with a tall crown and a wide brim pulled low over his eyes, gunfighter-style. The effect of the hat paired with his contemporary power suit was simply comical. Danny had been Mary's best friend in childhood, then her first real boyfriend (Delinda's boyfriend too, for that matter, although not her first), and Mary knew that no matter where her life led, she would always love him.
But that didn't mean she couldn't burst out laughing when he looked ridiculous.
Danny tossed Mary and Delinda a bashful glance, reminding Mary of the two-year-old boy he had been when they'd met. He obviously had some idea of how goofy the big hat looked on him. Maybe if he had pulled an entire western outfit together, he could have carried off the hat -- but not with that suit. "Hey, ladies," Danny said. "Place is rowdy today."
"Must be all the beer and beef we're selling," Delinda said. "Tex."
Danny touched the hat's brim. "That's funny," he said, not meaning it in the least. "I did a guy a favor, okay? He was losing big-time at blackjack. He swore it was his unlucky hat's fault, so he took it off and stuck it on my head. Next hand, the dealer busted. The guy told me to take the hat away and never let him have it again, no matter how much he begs."
"That thing looks like he's been wearing it for the entire hundred years since that first cattle drive," Delinda said. "You sure his head won't come apart without it?"
"I think as long as the cards fall his way, he doesn't care," Danny said.
"Did you check it for livestock, Danny?" Mary asked. "Lice, maybe? Fleas?"
Danny lowered his voice, cocked his head closer to Mary's. "Look, I don't like the hat either. But the guy is one of Sam's whales, and she was standing right there when he put it on me. She told me that if I took it off, she'd reach down inside me, grab me by the ribs, and turn me inside out."
"That sounds like Sam," Mary said. "Anything for a big spender, even disembowelment."
"Especially disembowelment," Delinda said. "For a girl who hates guns, she has a definite vicious streak."
"So I'm stuck with it," Danny continued. "Make all the cracks you like, the hat stays on. At least for tonight."
"It could have been worse, Danny," Delinda said. "What if he'd had unlucky spurs, too?"
"It's really fine, Danny," Mary said. "If anything, it makes you easier to spot in the crowd." She let a few moments pass for effect. "Unless the crowd is full of guys in cowboy hats, of course."
"Ha-ha," Danny said, without humor. "Sorry, ladies, but the hat stays."
"What the hell are you doing in that stupid hat?" Ed Deline's voice was a low, intimidating growl, and Danny spun around when he heard it, his eyes widening in surprise. As president of operations, Big Ed ran the Montecito, and everyone on the staff -- even Delinda, his only daughter -- treated him with respect. That respect was often tempered by the slightest trace of fear -- especially among people who didn't know him well enough to realize that Ed only truly exploded at those who had earned his wrath. Mary knew he could be a pussycat when he wanted to be, but she'd seen him in tiger mode too, and facing the tiger side of Ed was never fun.
"Sam said..." Danny sputtered.
"I don't give a damn what Sam said, you're an executive of this hotel and casino and you look like a clown. If you want to go all out on the western duds for the duration of the Stampede, then go for it. But the half-assed look doesn't cut it. You look like you're making fun of our guests."
"It's really just -- "
"Take the damn thing off," Ed growled. He turned to Mary and Delinda, gracing them with a charming smile. "You ladies, on the other hand, look delightful. Please excuse me and Hopalong Cassidy, here."
"He's all yours, Daddy," Delinda said.
"See you later, Danny," Mary said. "Don't take any wooden Indians."
Ed led Danny away, toward the stairs that led up to the executive offices. "Did Ed seem angry to you?" Mary asked, watching them go.
"Oh, no," Delinda replied. She knew her father better than almost anyone on Earth, and Mary often looked to her to explain his moods. "Maybe a little stressed out. There were some rodeo clowns on the floor earlier, and you know how he is about clowns."
Mary had heard about the clowns, playing craps in full makeup and tattered outfits, although she hadn't seen it for herself. She got the picture, though, and nodded. "Perfectly understandable, then." I wouldn't want to be Danny right now, she thought.
Danny took the hat off and deposited it, as he passed by, on the head of a white-haired woman playing two slots at once. He couldn't tell if she even noticed. If Sam saw him without the dusty old thing, she would be pissed, but that was an abstract concern. Ed was right here, right now, and already unhappy. "What's up, Ed?" he asked as Ed led him toward the front staircase.
"What's up is that you're on the floor talking to Mary and Delinda and wearing a stupid hat when you're supposed to be focused on coordinating security with the Secret Service and Klaus Aickmann's people. Aickmann arrives tomorrow, and he's going to be a much bigger security nightmare than all these good old boys put together."
"I know, Ed," Danny assured him. He had, in fact, been taking a short break from his almost nonstop effort to mesh the needs and requirements of the United States Secret Service and the German magnate's private security force, without compromising the Montecito's own systems and procedures. The long struggle and tenterhook diplomacy had resulted in an increasing ache beneath his temples, as if his head were being drilled into from both sides at once, and he had made a circuit of the casino floor in an attempt to shake it. That was when he ran into Sam and her unlucky whale, then Mary and Delinda. And finally Ed, who assumed he wasn't working because -- well, because at that precise moment, he was not, in fact, working. "I'm on it," Danny continued. "It's tough, though, getting them to even talk to each other, much less agree on anything."
"And that's why you get the big bucks, right?"
They had almost reached the staircase that would take them up to the second-floor overlook, where they could talk without being disturbed by the racket from the casino floor. Before they made it to safety, however, Dieter Klasse, the Aickmann team's second in command, broke from the crowd and walked toward them. Klasse's back was ramrod straight, his arms and legs scissoring precisely as he approached, looking like a man with something on his mind. He kept his white hair chopped very short, with pink scalp showing through, his face clean-shaven, his suit pants pressed to knife-edge creases. "He wants something," Danny muttered. "I swear the man thinks I'm his personal wish fairy."
Ed gave Danny a sidelong look, head cocked, as if trying to read the younger man's mind. "Wish fairy," he muttered, shaking his head sadly.
Dieter Klasse joined them at the foot of the stairs a moment later, coming to an abrupt military stop. "Mr. Deline, Mr. McCoy," he said. His words carried the warm, conversational tone of a whip crack.
"Something we can do for you, Mr. Klasse?" Ed asked. He sounded remarkably composed, Danny thought, considering he had assigned Danny to deal with this situation because he wanted to keep his own involvement to the barest minimum. Before being promoted to president of operations, Ed had run surveillance and security; his CIA background and years of experience meant that no one in the hospitality business had been better at the job. Danny had almost dreaded taking over the gig precisely because he didn't want to follow Ed's act. Ed had left awfully big footprints to fill, and part of filling them was keeping problems like this away from Ed when he didn't want to be bothered.
The whole situation would have been easier if this had been a "normal" week at the Montecito, but Danny had worked there long enough to know that normal didn't exist. With the Stampede in full swing, the place was crowded with cowboys, cowgirls, and western wannabes, all intent on enjoying a rowdy good time, Vegas-style. The huge exhibit hall in the resort's convention center was jammed with western and ranch merchandise, from the smallest gift items to giant tractors and stock trucks. Some of the Montecito's sprawling grounds had been turned into a makeshift rodeo arena where exhibition bull riding, barrel racing, and other events took place from noon to midnight. Livestock had been fenced into a section of the vast parking lot, filling the air outside with sounds and aromas that had not been experienced in Las Vegas for the last century. Animals had even been put on display inside the hall, creating a feast for the senses that even the Montecito's state-of-the-art ventilation system had to work overtime to control. All in all, it was another atypical week in a place where nothing ever stayed the same.
"I'll handle this, Ed," Danny said. "Why don't you go on up and I'll meet you in your office."
Ed didn't budge, as if, having been buttonholed by Klasse, he was determined to see it through.
"We have a request," Klasse said. His thick German accent made his ws sound like vs and his vs sound like fs. "We would like feeds from all the Montecito's cameras routed to our control van."
Danny saw Ed's mouth start to move, and he quickly held up a hand to stall whatever rude comment Ed might make. "You understand, Mr. Klasse, that we have five thousand and three cameras on the premises." He had already gone through the Montecito's statistics with the people in charge of both groups, including Heinrich Hartung, Klasse's boss, who headed up Aickmann's private security team, and Charles Hooper of the Secret Service.
"Yes, I am aware of that," Klasse said.
"You can't possibly have enough monitors in that van to keep track of five thousand cameras," Danny said. The van was similar to those that local TV stations sent out for remote broadcasts. They'd need a moving truck to hold that many monitors and the associated equipment to run them and to record the feeds.
"This is our problem, no?"
Danny started to respond, but Ed cut him off, his impatience bubbling to the surface. "No, this is our problem," Ed said. "We want very much for Mr. Aickmann to have a good trip to Las Vegas, to make his speech and to enjoy his stay. But we will not sacrifice the integrity of our surveillance system, and that means nobody -- nobody, am I making this clear? -- gets full access to our internal security systems. Not you, not the Treasury Department, not the president of the United States, and not Klaus Aickmann."
Danny's head swiveled between the two men. "Ed, I've got this. Mr. Klasse...what Ed said. I'm afraid we can't do that."
"Afraid?" Ed repeated, shooting Danny an anguished frown. "He's not afraid. It's an absurd request!"
"I can only relay what Herr Aickmann asks for," Klasse said.
"Let Herr Aickmann know that we absolutely intend to guarantee his security," Danny said before Ed could speak again. "But that we have to dictate the terms of that security. We're happy to take input, but we don't take orders." He glanced at Ed, who gave him a nearly imperceptible nod. "Are we understood?"
Klasse clamped his lips together in a thin, unhappy line and held that pose for a moment before speaking, as if to demonstrate his dissatisfaction with Danny's response. "Yes, Mr. McCoy. I understand."
Swiveling on his glossy wingtips, Dieter Klasse departed as stiffly as he had arrived. For a fraction of a second, Danny thought Ed had a smile on his face, but it faded so fast he couldn't be sure it had ever been there. "Danny?"
"Just...deal with this, okay? Make it so I don't have to think about it."
"If that's how you want to handle it," Danny said.
"That's how I want to handle it." Ed started up the stairs without another look back. The stained-glass wall behind him cast a multicolored glow on his ascending form.
Danny knew that his boss meant what he said. Aickmann's trip would be the biggest security and logistical nightmare Danny had encountered thus far at the Montecito. If he screwed it up...well, he could not afford to screw up. Multibillionaire Klaus Aickmann had connections at the very top of Germany's government. He served as an advisor and confidant to politicians throughout Europe, and in the United States. His speech, scheduled for the next evening, would be broadcast live on cable news stations and was meant to relay to the world Germany's international intentions for the next several years. Aickmann couldn't officially speak for the German government, but everyone knew that he would air their views unofficially, and because he was a private citizen, he could be more direct than government officials allowed themselves to be. Any problems that arose during his visit would reflect badly not just on the Montecito, but also on the city of Las Vegas and even on Washington. To call it an international incident would border on the cliché, but that's what it would be.
Which meant it had to run as smoothly as any other event at the Montecito, in spite of the increased complexity and the potential for catastrophe. And Danny was prepared to do whatever it took to ensure just that.
Copyright © 2007 Universal Studios Licensing LLLP.