I sat back and sipped my coffee, staring at the picture. So DeBurra was right: Charlotte knew Lambert, and they had both been at the ball with Trevor and Rusty Abbott. I asked myself just how well I knew Charlotte Sampson.
I hated that I was doubting her, but the police were looking for her and she refused to come out of hiding. Instinct, or maybe it was growing up with a dad who was a cop, told me that hiding meant guilt. Or maybe she was just truly afraid of something or someone.
I sighed and took another sip of my coffee, which had grown cold.
I clicked on the next picture, just to get this one off my screen.
I sat up a little straighter in my chair as I looked at the image. It was Rusty Abbott and Lester Fine. Obviously later in the evening. Rusty wasn’t wearing his tuxedo jacket; his shirtsleeves were pushed up to his elbows.
He didn’t have a tattoo.
I tried to remember when Jeff said Rusty had come in with the two drag queens. I didn’t think he’d said specifically, just maybe sometime last year. From the looks of this picture, it could have been after the Queen of Hearts Ball.
I thought about the other two tattoos Jeff had done. Who were those drag queens? I had to find out.
I was willing to bet one of the three was the champagne shooter, though. It just seemed like it should be connected. It had to be.
I put Rusty Abbott’s name into Google. I wanted to see whether I could find his address before he could find mine. I’d at least feel like I had the upper hand that way, and I could tell Tim. Maybe he could check Abbott out for me.
There was nothing on the guy. I found a couple of Rusty Abbotts, but they were obviously not the one I was looking for. One was a contractor in Texas and the other a park ranger in Alaska.
I did find a phone number through Lester Fine’s campaign Web site. I jotted it down on a pad we kept next to the phone in the kitchen.
Just as I was about to call the guy-might as well nip this in the bud-the phone rang, startling me. I picked up the receiver, absently going back to the laptop as I said, “Hello?”
“Brett, I’m in trouble.”
“No kidding.” I couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of my voice. I mentally slapped myself. I shouldn’t kick someone while they’re down. “Sorry,” I said when she didn’t respond. “What’s wrong?”
“I need you to help me.”
“Sure,” I said, thinking that maybe now I could talk her into talking to the police, especially since DeBurra said her life might be in danger.
“I need you to meet me.”
“Charlotte, before you go any further, why don’t I bring Tim along?” Tim would be more friendly than DeBurra.
“You can’t bring Tim. Just yourself. I need your help.”
This was the second time she’d said that, and I grew concerned. “What have you got yourself involved with, Charlotte?”
I heard a sob. “Don’t tell Ace, either, okay? I didn’t call him. He wouldn’t understand.”
This was getting more and more mysterious. But I was willing to give her a chance to explain herself. Before I called Tim.
“Calm down, okay? Where are you?”
She gave me an address. It was just off the Strip, one of the high-rise condominiums. “It’s number twelve thirty-two,” she said. “Just go into the lobby, and take the elevator to the twelfth floor. Can you come now?”
She sounded so desperate, I couldn’t say no. “I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes, okay? Can you hang tight?”
But she’d already hung up.
I put on a pair of jeans and a stretchy black T-shirt with a pink peace sign on it. The outfit covered up most of my ink, except the garden sleeve. Usually I liked to be a walking billboard for my shop, but I wasn’t sure I should bring that much attention to myself on this mission to help Charlotte.
What could she have gotten into?
As I climbed into the Mustang, I debated calling Tim anyway, then chided myself for being a tattletale. I’d talk her into letting me call him later. She was going to have to listen to reason.
It was nine o’clock, and I knew I had an eleven o’clock client, so I hoped this wasn’t going to take too long. Fortunately, I’d already done the stencil so I just needed to go in and do the ink.
The Windsor Palms condominium was one of myriad condo buildings that had gone up around the Strip a couple years back, sold mainly as second homes. The condos were not for the poor and hopeful. They were for the rich who had enough money socked away that they didn’t need to worry about the foundering economy. But still, because of the real estate bust and the high rate of foreclosure in Vegas, a lot of developers had scrapped plans to build even more condos. I couldn’t help but think that Vegas would survive and those plans would be revived at some point. Sin City was too popular a destination and the climate too desirable.
I turned down the private road that led to the Windsor Palms and noted the palm trees that lined the sidewalks, allowing it to live up to its name. When I reached the circular drive with a fountain in the center, a small, discreet sign pointed me in the direction of the parking garage.
I found a spot on the second level and continued to follow signs to the elevator and then out toward the building lobby. I pushed open a glass door and stepped into a spacious atrium with a waterfall and all sorts of lush greenery. It was sort of like those science museums where you can walk through different ecosystems. Humidity hung in the air, the kind that I hadn’t felt since leaving Jersey, the kind that clung to your skin in a clammy sort of way.
I liked it.
A security guard sat at a tall desk with a monitor in front of him. He was a big, heavyset black guy with an Afro from the seventies. His smile was warm.
“May I help you?” he asked.
I told him the condo number Charlotte had rattled off.
“You have to sign in.” He pushed a clipboard with a sign-in sheet on it toward me.
I noted that Charlotte’s name wasn’t on the sheet, but the time of the first visitor was eight a.m. Maybe she’d been here earlier, or even all night.
I printed my name neatly as the instructions indicated, wrote down the condo number and the time, and handed the clipboard back to the guard.
“Elevators are around the waterfall and to your right,” he said.
I thanked him and found them easily. As I went up in the mirrored elevator, I thought about how I might want to move out of Tim’s house at some point and get my own place. I made pretty good money, and housing prices had come down considerably. And if that sixty grand I’d just won at roulette was legit-I wasn’t too certain, since Rusty Abbott had given me that chip-it would make a nice down payment. I liked the idea of a security guard, although the waterfall was a colossal waste of water in a city where waterfalls were not a natural phenomenon, especially during a drought.
The elevator doors opened and I stepped into the hall. I found number twelve thirty-two with no problem and pressed the buzzer.
I pressed it a second time when about a minute passed and no one responded.
When I didn’t get an answer that time, I figured knocking on the door might be a good idea. Where was Charlotte?
The second I knocked, the door swung open by itself. It hadn’t been closed shut.
A funny smell hit my nose: a mixture of vomit and smoke.
I hesitated. I’d been in situations like this before, and I had a bad feeling. I should go right back downstairs and get that security guard.
First, though, I called out, “Charlotte? Charlotte, are you here?”
I thought about how paranoid she’d been acting.
I was still in the hallway, and I made an executive decision. I stepped inside.
The room laid out before me must have been about sixteen hundred square feet by itself; floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the Strip. The space was split in two: a living room area and a kitchen. In the former, elegant furniture was scattered around the room; each wall was a different shade of blue and held gigantic oil abstracts that complemented the d'ecor. The floor was a laminate, but plush throw rugs gave the room some warmth. A long, dark granite countertop separated the two areas. Top-end stainless-steel, state-of-the-art kitchen appliances, and cherry cupboards told me that no price was too high.
I took another couple of steps, calling for Charlotte as I went. I hoped I had the right condo.
A slider to a balcony that stretched along the other side of the windows was just around the kitchen. I walked toward it, not sure what I was looking for, but as I turned the corner, I saw something I couldn’t see from the front door.
A bedroom the size of the living room, with the same view.
And a man’s body on the floor.