It was like the volume had been pushed up to eleven. While my blood pressure had been racing with the adrenaline of the game, my heart began to pound even harder as I tried to catch my breath.
He realized his mistake. His eyes grew wide, and he swept up his chips faster than I could get mine.
Sure, I could’ve just left them. I’d been playing with his chip initially, after all, but he’d given it to me. I grabbed my chips, too, shoving them into my bag around the bagel bag, and rushed off after him.
He wasn’t heading to the cashier, but up the escalator, taking two steps at a time.
I had longer legs than he did and gained ground, noticing that he didn’t have a bag like I did, and he was trying to put the chips in his pockets. He had a lot of chips-a lot more than I did-and he wasn’t completely successful, leaving a trail of them sort of like Hansel and Gretel in the forest.
He pushed open the glass doors and went outside.
I followed him out, but the sun was blinding, so I blinked a few times to focus, glanced around, and saw him running across the concrete footbridge that connected New York New York with the MGM Grand. A huge video display ahead of me advertised Journey’s next concert in Vegas. So they were still performing. Who knew?
I sprinted off the concrete as I followed the mysterious guy.
He took a quick right, and as I got closer I saw him running down the escalator steps.
I went after him.
At the bottom, he was crossing the street, going back toward New York New York, making a circle. It was harder this way, though, since dodging traffic was part of the equation.
He crossed between cars, and I got lucky because the light had turned and the traffic was stopped.
I kept my eye on him and turned right toward the Brooklyn Bridge.
Of course it’s not the real one, but a smaller, accurate replica.
It was the first time I was going across it, but I didn’t have time to stop to admire the workmanship, which was pretty remarkable. Just as I reached the end of the bridge and was about to hit the sidewalk, a family of six, including a baby stroller, stepped into my path. I tried to sidestep them, but I’d been going too fast and found myself spinning like that roulette wheel toward the ground.
The bagels broke my fall.
The father leaned down. “Are you all right?” he asked, although I could see his wife frowning, wishing that he hadn’t bothered to try to be a Good Samaritan in Sin City. Her eyes traveled over my tattoos disapprovingly.
“Yes, I’m fine, thank you,” I said, and the wife looked surprised, as if she didn’t think someone like me would be able to speak such good English and be so polite.
I brushed off my cotton skirt, noticing now that I’d skinned my knee and blood was trickling down the front of my leg. The family walked past me as I rummaged in my bag for a napkin from the bagel place.
I didn’t even want to look at the bagels. It wouldn’t be pretty.
I dabbed at the wound and looked up, trying to see whether the guy was anywhere in sight, but no. I’d lost him-and any chance of finding out how he knew my name. I thought about his ink and wondered if he was the guy from last night, the guy who shot Trevor with the cork.
I shook the thought away. Was I going to think that every guy with a queen-of-hearts tattoo had been the one who attacked Trevor last night? Odds were that Wesley Lambert was the true culprit, since he’d been poking around Chez Tango and had sent Trevor a warning through Eduardo. That would make the most sense. Kyle said he didn’t remember Lambert having a tattoo, but he could’ve easily gotten one in the time since he’d last been at the club.
Something bugged me, though, about this roulette guy. The ink was in the right place; it was the same design I’d seen. And he knew my name.
I had to get back to my car, which was in the self-parking garage. The sun was blasting, and even though late September isn’t as steamy as, say, July, the asphalt absorbed the heat and sent ribbons of it into the air.
The chips made little clicking noises in my bag. I wondered how much they were worth. I pushed the glass doors to the casino open, and as I passed the escalator I noticed a couple of stray chips on the up side, the ones the guy had dropped. For a second, I had a crazy thought that I could go back and collect them, adding to my winnings.
I knew I shouldn’t be so greedy. Technically, the chips I won might not even be mine because I wasn’t playing with my own money. And considering what had just happened with that guy, I was uncomfortable with the whole situation.
Still, I found myself at the cashier window, pushing the chips through the little slot. While I waited for the cashier to count them, I looked around at the fake trees, the fake brownstones, the fake New York City. I missed the city. The real one. There was something vibrant about it that no other city could match.
I was distracted by my thoughts enough so when the cashier pushed the wads of money through the slot, it surprised me. I glanced at the receipt.
I’d won more than sixty thousand dollars.
I stopped breathing for a second.
The cashier grinned. “Congratulations,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said, carefully putting the bills in my bag next to the smashed bagels. I needed to get to a bank before I got mugged.
“Where have you been?” Bitsy demanded when I walked into the shop about an hour later.
I didn’t answer right away. I wasn’t quite sure how to explain everything so it wouldn’t sound like I was nuts.
My eyes skirted around the shop, my home away from home, checking everything out, sort of like when a cat goes on the prowl to make sure everything’s still where it was an hour ago. The blond laminate flooring was sleek; the mahogany desk near the door was shining. A spray of light pink orchids from Bitsy’s greenhouse gave the place elegance, as did Ace’s new paintings we’d just hung: comic-book versions of Caravaggio’s Lute Player, D"urer’s Adoration of the Magi, Holbein’s Henry VIII, and Corot’s View of Venice-which offset the canal and gondolas and St. Mark’s Square just outside our shop at the Venetian Grand Canal Shoppes.
Four private rooms were closed off in the middle of the shop, and a waiting area fitted with a black leather sofa and glass-topped coffee table was behind the rooms to the left. A staff room was to the right, and an office off that. It was classy, no flash-stock tattoos-lining the walls like in a street shop. We prided ourselves on the custom designs we created. And since Charlotte had arrived, we’d bought a new Apple computer for even more design options. I didn’t have a background in computer graphics-I was a painter-but Charlotte had been teaching herself and had begun to show us some of her tricks. Joel was getting into it more than anyone; he’d started in street shops and didn’t have formal art training like Ace and me, but he somehow managed to take his raw talent and transfer it to the computer.
“So?” Bitsy asked, following me into the staff room, bringing her small stool with her. She needed the stool to compensate for her height, but her habit of dragging it along the floor caused it to squeak in that fingernails-on-the-blackboard kind of way that made me cringe.
“I had to go to the bank,” I said, trying not to meet her eyes as I pulled the bag of bagels out of my messenger bag and set it on the small table we used for eating. We also had a light table, but that was for work.
“What happened to that?” Bitsy asked, staring at the bag, which had ripped and now bled portions of onion, poppy seed, and sesame seed bagels on the table.
Ripping the bag even further, I saw that the container of cream cheese was also a victim of my fall: It had exploded all over the bagels and the bag, leaving a white, creamy mess.
“I fell.” I lifted my knee to show her my wound.
“You better start at the beginning,” she said, shoving the stool to the side and plopping herself down on one of the chairs as I tried to clean up the bagel mess.
“Well, I stopped for bagels-you know that-and then I got a little distracted by the roulette table.” Her eyebrows went up, but before she could say anything, I continued. “There was a guy there, a guy with a queen-of-hearts playing card on his arm, and I stopped, and he gave me a fifty-dollar chip, and I put it on a square, and it won, and then I played again and again and again, and I won over sixty thousand dollars.” I sank into the chair opposite Bitsy as I took a deep breath.
“No, really, Brett, what happened?”
She thought I was kidding.
So I told her about the guy knowing my name and about running and falling because of the stroller and the woman who looked at me like I was from Mars.
I nodded, unable to believe it, either.
“Remind me to go with you the next time you’re playing the tables.”
She wasn’t kidding.
“So how did he know your name?”
“I have no idea. He ran before I could ask him.”
“So he knows that he shouldn’t have known your name.”
“He might be the guy with the cork last night.”
“The guy in the picture you drew?”
“No, a different one.”
She snorted. “So there are two?”
It all sounded so far-fetched.
Bitsy got up. “Joel’s finishing up with a client, Ace has gone who knows where, probably that oxygen bar to get his fix, Charlotte called in, said she was going to spend the day with Trevor. Guess she brought him home from the hospital this morning; everything’s fine.”
But everything wasn’t fine. At least not in my world. I was sixty thousand dollars richer because of a stranger who knew my name.
And then I thought of something.
He said he’d gotten his tattoo at Murder Ink. I could call Jeff Coleman and see whether he knew the guy.
Could it be that easy?
Bitsy was picking at one of the bagels, sweeping it across some of the loose cream cheese. She stuck it in her mouth and nodded. “Good,” she said through the poppy seeds.
Nice to know they still tasted okay, even though they looked like a cement roller had run over them.
We heard the front door buzzer, and Bitsy went out to see who’d come in. I took the wad of cream cheese-covered paper towels and threw it in the trash.
“Brett?” Bitsy had returned, sticking her head in the staff room door. “Someone’s here to see you.”
I didn’t have a client scheduled for another hour, but Bitsy didn’t hang around for me to ask who it was. I followed her out.
Detective Frank DeBurra was standing by the door.