As a Las Vegas detective, Devon Cartwright thinks he has seen it all-overzealous partiers, sadistic con men, desperate gamblers, and even murderers. But, when a dead woman is found scalped in a prominent hotel on the strip, Devon realizes there are monsters out there he has never imagined. What's more, this killer isn't finished.
A patchwork photograph of body parts left with the corpse, leads Devon to believe the scalping victim is just the beginning. As Devon's investigation begins, he finds nothing but tight lips and closed doors. With the media breathing down the police department's neck, Devon feels the pressure, but nothing is quite as it appears.
It seems people will go to great lengths to line their pockets with Vegas gold-even murder. From the strip's most prominent businessmen to the owner of seedy clubs, no one is talking. Despite dead ends and cover-ups, Devon will catch this killer ... or die trying.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.69(d)|
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By Lisa Dewar
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Lisa Dewar
All rights reserved.
The collector, who sat at a slot machine close to one of the Aria's stairwell exits, tried to look surprised as a screaming girl burst through the door onto the gaming floor. Wow, that was fast, he thought. He glanced at his watch. It had only been ten minutes. He hadn't expected anyone to find the dead woman for at least another twenty.
With their attention diverted for a second, or two at best, he watched as the gamblers resumed the pressing of buttons and swishing of cards on the tables. No one wanted to lose their momentum. It looked like the Aria's patrons dismissed the excitement as someone who had just beat the odds and won a big jackpot; but he knew better. The warm package held tightly under his left arm only made a slight bump under his jacket, but was a big, red flag — had anyone cared to look closely. So far, no one had bothered.
He knew that for the plan to succeed, he would have to leave the hotel as quickly as possible without being obvious; but he wanted to savor the moment just a little longer. It was really happening. A rush of tingling adrenaline coursed through his veins as he thought of what the warm lump under his arm promised. He felt his arousal starting, as his brain fast-forwarded to the end of the week — that was when the real fun would begin.
The Collector looked down at his finger as it pressed the play button, and noticed an eraser-head-sized drop of blood on his hand. He pulled a tissue from his right pocket and wiped the spot away. He had covered himself in the equivalent of a large lobster bib during the act. The thin plastic sheeting had then doubled as the bag that held his prize. He tried to look discrete as he checked himself for other spatter. Luckily, there was none. His clothes were clean and his jacket was full. Life was good.
Or at least it would be once he got out of the casino without being arrested.
He took the risk of lifting his head from the slot machine and scanned the area. Everyone in sight was focused on getting their next big win. The screaming woman was already long forgotten.
It still seemed like a crazy dream. Fantasy was finally becoming reality. He had the first of many perfect collectables. This one was by far the easiest, and had held the least risk that he would get caught. From this point forward, the tasks would be significantly harder. He would no longer have an assistant like he did today. He was officially on his own. However, in contrast, the payoff would be bigger ... much bigger. Just another gamble in an endless string of Las Vegas wagers he had made over the years.
One more spin on the machine. Seven. Seven. Cherry. Not a winner.
He hit the cash out button and walked toward the cashier's cage — twenty in, thirty out. The money was a nice bonus, but the commemorative piece tucked away in his coat was the real reason for the grin on his face. No one was looking at him — no one cared. He looked like every other gambler in the Aria; glazed eyes from too much booze and too many hours at the slots.
He couldn't wait to leave the hotel so that he could take a good look at his prize. He was going to take more than his fair share from the casinos over the next week; but it wasn't going to be cash, like the other 99% of patrons wanted.
From this spot, it was exactly six hundred and three steps to his next victim.
By the time devon Cartwright and his partner Holland Grant arrived on the scene, there was a full-fledged panic attack happening in the staff-only area of the casino. The two Las Vegas PD detectives were secreted into the Aria from a back entrance as soon as they arrived. In a city built on fantasy, murder wasn't considered a selling feature.
"One of our housekeeping staff found her. We left the body just as we found it, but the cleaner and a security guard walked into the stairwell and stepped in the blood. I hope that didn't contaminate the crime scene." The squirrely little man with slicked-back hair had identified himself as the on-duty manager of the hotel — nothing more, just his title — but his business card showed his name to be Mitchell Sanders.
"Hopefully not," Devon replied, as they walked through back passageways to the stairwell's entrance. He was momentarily grateful that there were so many CSI-type TV shows, even though most were a twisted version of real homicide work.
"We're going to need you to keep all of your staff out of the area while we do our initial search. We'll need to speak to the security guard and the housekeeper. There will be others joining us shortly. Please just direct them to us, and we'll take care of the rest." Devon unraveled some yellow crime scene tape and cordoned off a large section of the interior hall.
"Sorry, but this is one of the main arteries of the hotel. I can't have you blocking the staff from doing their jobs. Is that tape really necessary?" the manager asked.
Devon noticed how his tone and demeanor changed once Mitchell Sanders realized that a homicide investigation might hinder the flow of business. "Yeah, it's necessary. We'll have to do this at each and every entrance to this stairwell. We'll try to be out of your way as soon as possible; but I assume that you want us to do our job properly and catch the killer." He matched his tone to that of the manager; polite, but with an edge of annoyance, and was pleased when the man nodded and walked away.
With over a hundred murder cases under his belt, Devon expected to process the scene with his usual professionalism; wanting to respect the person who lay dead in front of him.
All of that went out the window as he caught sight of the dead woman.
"Fuck me; what the hell happened?" Devon almost gasped the words. This wasn't like anything he had seen before. He had witnessed his share of party-girls who met the wrong John, drug peddlers who cut each other up over territory, and gamblers who ended their lives once the money ran out; that was normal — this was something else entirely.
The first word that came to Devon's mind was gruesome, followed shortly behind by brutal. The woman's body looked normal, but her head.... holy shit ... the pastrami sandwich he had eaten earlier rose up in his throat. He managed to swallow hard to keep it in place. He took a few moments to compose himself before he got started on the job at hand.
Devon spoke quietly into his cell phone's voice recorder, "Female victim found lying face down in the interior service stairway at the Aria. Found wearing a black, strapless dress and black heels. Victim looks to be about five foot eight, thirty years old, and has had her entire scalp removed." As Devon spoke, Holland took pictures of the woman and the surrounding stairs, walls and ceiling from as many angles as possible.
"Someone she knows maybe? It feels personal to me. Why take her hair?" Devon asked.
Holland continued snapping pictures, knowing that he wasn't looking for an immediate reply. "I'm going to flip her over — see if there's a purse underneath her, some kind of ID." As he moved the woman's body onto its side, the sticky pool of beet-red blood grew a little in size. Her throat had been slashed, deep and long, all the way to her spine. And where her hair should have been was reduced to a smooth, blood-covered skull.
Holland tugged at a small clutch under the body and at the same time found something even more curious. "Check this out," he said. As he spoke, he removed a small, folded paper from between the woman's breasts and unfolded it into an 8 ½ by 11 inch page. "Holy shit. This can't be good. You see that? Divinity's Desire? What does that mean?" Holland asked, as he passed the paper to Devon.
Nothing in Devon's homicide training or experience had prepared him for what he saw. The image on the page was a grotesque collection of body parts, painstakingly pasted together into the picture of one woman. Divinity's Desire was printed in Times New Roman at the bottom of the page. Devon held the paper up as Holland snapped a few shots of the image and the clutch. "Check the purse."
The blood-soaked purse contained an Aria staff ID which stated that their victim's name was Stacy Bailey. Other items included a pack of breath mints, a lipstick, a hundred dollars cash, a set of keys, and a small cell phone. Everything was bagged for transportation to the crime lab.
Holland clicked another dozen pictures and let out a long sigh. "What kind of sick bastard did this? And, what's with the picture?"
"Don't know, but it looks to me like this won't be our last vic," Devon said.
"CSU and the ME should be here soon. Let's go talk to the manager and see if he can identify our girl. I'm thinking that this is going to be a long night."
Within ten minutes of securing the scene and getting the crime scene unit in place, Devon and Holland had the answer that they were looking for. The victim was, as her ID had told them, an Aria cocktail waitress named Stacy Bailey, age thirty-two. She was on a two-day weekend and was scheduled to work the late shift the following day.
Devon spoke to the Aria's on-duty manager, who by this point in time was back into his regular routine of barking out orders to his staff. "Did Stacy have a husband or boyfriend that we can talk to?"
Sanders, who was still looking irritated with the whole situation, squared himself up with Devon's face as he replied, "I have no idea. I'm going to have to direct you to HR. All I can tell you is that our staff and their families have been security-checked and screened."
"We'll need to get her address and family contact information. Did she have any close friends here that we can talk to? Any regular customers that she served?"
"I'll talk to the girls and see who she was friends with," the manager replied. No mention of the customers.
Devon noticed a waitress glance nervously at the men as she walked by. The manager gave her a 'get-back-to-work' glare as he added, "Look; we're the new kid on the block. There were billions of dollars invested into the City Centre project, and more specifically, this hotel and casino. We really can't afford any negative publicity. I assume that you will conduct your investigation without involving our patrons?"
This was the side of Las Vegas that Devon hated more than anything — the city was built on a façade, a sparkling, multi-colored façade of lights, sex, and indulgence. The only reason for its existence was to take money from people who believed that maybe they could beat the odds —hoping to be the rare winner in a sea of losers. Not that long ago, he had been one of them. He quickly pushed the memory from his mind. There was no point in living in the past. It was the equivalent of driving your car by looking only through the rearview mirror.
"We'll do our best not to involve anyone that doesn't need to be involved. However, I assume that you don't mind if we get your security tapes from the past twenty-four hours, and a guest list. This is a homicide investigation." This girl's death didn't matter one iota as long as the drinks were flowing and the cash was rolling in. Devon found it challenging to hold back his anger, but luckily the manager's face changed — he had gotten his point across.
Mitchell Sanders seemed to realize his lack of sympathy and replied in a hushed voice, "I'm sorry. I hope you understand my concerns. Of course we will assist your team in every way possible."
Devon marched off to talk to the Aria's Human Resource department while Holland talked to the head of hotel security to gain access to the video surveillance footage. According to HR, Stacy was single, no family in the city, and lived in an apartment on the west side. Her personnel file photo showed a woman who looked vibrant, with a full head of long, dark hair. She had been with the Aria for six months and was a model employee. The HR Manager noted that the hotel had a strict hiring policy, and Stacy's background check had nothing noteworthy, or she wouldn't have gotten the job. She had given her landlord's name as her emergency contact number.
By the time the two detectives came back to the hotel's manager, he had rounded up three women who were friends of the dead girl. They all huddled together in their black, low cut-dresses, with tears leaving trails of mascara snaking down their perfectly-powdered faces. Devon noted that the hotel was obviously selective on more than just their staff's security status. All three women were well-endowed, were stunningly beautiful, and had legs that went on forever. The more the casino dazzled its customers, the higher-end clientele that frequented their gaming floor. Devon was impressed — these girls were pretty spectacular. The talent level at his neighborhood casino was nothing in comparison. Mind you, no one at his local casino dropped more than a couple hundred in a sitting— not even a drop in the bucket to what was spent here.
Devon fell into his typical hardnosed cop routine. "I know this is difficult, but I need to ask you a few questions. Was Stacy dating anyone? Was she having any issues with any of the customers? Anything you can tell us would be helpful."
The only blond in the group spoke softly in between sobs, "She wasn't dating anyone, which was crazy, 'cuz she was such a nice girl. She used to waitress at Harrah's in Laughlin. I know that she had a messy breakup with an ex-boyfriend a few years ago, and that's why she came to Vegas. She caught the guy with another woman."
One of the brunettes spoke next. "I just saw her on Friday. I just can't believe she's gone. It doesn't make sense that someone would do this to her. I wish I would've given her a big hug the last time I saw her. I was super-swamped Friday night. I can't even remember if I said goodbye." She broke down in a torrent of tears.
"Did she mention any customers who were giving her a hard time? Was the ex back again?" Devon felt for the women, but needed to get information as quickly as possible.
The second brunette, who seemed to be in the best emotional and mental shape of all three, glanced at the two other women before she spoke. "I probably knew Stacy the best; we were pretty close. We aren't supposed to date the customers — definitely not on the property — but I think she met a guy. She called me on Saturday night and asked me if I could get her an access card."
The blond, who only a moment before was a puddle of gooey sorrow, shot her an angry look as she interrupted, "Don't do this, Cindy."
The brunette shook her head. "She was our friend. Someone killed her. You want the guy to get away with this? They're the cops, Shelley. They need to know."
The blond backed off, and the brunette continued, "Some of the staff know about a dead area where the security cameras can't see you. You can get into the service hallway and up to the guest rooms. If you "borrow" an access card from one of the housekeeping staff, you can go into one of the suites and have some fun. The only thing you have to do is clean up afterwards. Look, I know that it's not above-board, but it doesn't happen very often — just if you're really trying to impress someone."
So now they knew why she was in the hallway; next step was to find out with whom. "Did she tell you who she was trying to impress? Who she was taking to the suite?"
"She didn't say. All I know is that she went out on a date with the guy in the afternoon, and she wanted to get to know him a little better. He must have been pretty hot for her to bring him here. Otherwise she would have taken the guy back to her apartment. It's small, but it's clean. Nothing to be ashamed of."
The blond was shredding a Kleenex as she spoke, "Are you going to tell our boss about the camera thing? He already rides us all like ponies. I can't imagine what would happen if he found out that we use the suites. I really need this job. I have a kid at home."
Devon looked at the woman and weighed his options. She was just a working-class girl who would probably never be able to afford the type of luxury that the hotel's invited guests were offered. All three were probably so scared that they would be on the straight and narrow for quite a while. And word would spread among the other staff. "It will come out at some point. But, I doubt that I'll need to mention any specific names." All three women looked relieved.
Devon wrote down their names, gave each of them a business card, and listened to promises that if they thought of anything, they would call him. It was standard procedure; but he knew that the cards would be thrown away the second he walked away, and chances were, he would never hear from any of them again. Too bad, he thought to himself, the talkative brunette was a hottie.
Regrouping in the back hallway, Devon and Holland did a quick debrief. It was obvious that the Aria had some issues with in-house security; but that told them little else about who killed their victim. The ME had finally arrived, and the crime scene team was busy dusting for prints at each of the many access doors to the interior hallway, and gathering trace evidence. The pieces of the puzzle were being collected, and now it was up to Devon and Holland to put them into place. They needed a lead. There wouldn't be any sleep for the next forty-eight hours; maybe only twenty-four if they caught a break.
Excerpted from UNCOMMON COLLECTABLES by Lisa Dewar. Copyright © 2013 by Lisa Dewar. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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