It was clear DeBurra was already on to Wesley Lambert for some reason, but Tim had no idea what sort of game he was playing. Tim promised to look Lambert up in the database when he got to work to see whether he had a rap sheet or some sort of alert out about him. He took the drawing with him.
I looked longingly at the mountains in the distance as I drove toward the Strip. Red Rock was beckoning. I hadn‘t been up there in a couple of weeks, and after the previous night I could have used some time chilling out. I wanted to fill my daypack with sandwiches and water and a sketchpad, and put on my too-expensive-but-I-couldn’t-resist hiking boots.
Sometimes I sketched when I went up there, using pastels; their soft, pliable texture lent an Impressionistic look to my drawings. But most times, I just hiked, the desert hard beneath my boots, the air still enough so you could hear a coyote from miles away. The pale browns and pinks of the mountains were interrupted by bright red stripes, as if Christo had decided to wrap them, like he’d wrapped those islands off Miami years ago.
During my first visit there, the ranger told me Red Rock was where the West Coast had ended once upon a time, which was why the mountains looked the way they did. I tried to imagine the ocean licking the same rocks that I gripped, the brown desert floor once the sea floor.
I was deep enough in thought that I missed my turn onto Koval Lane, which ran behind the MGM, Planet Hollywood, Paris, Bally’s, the Flamingo, Harrah’s, and finally the Venetian. I had to take the Strip now, which was annoying because of all the traffic and the lights. I was stopped at the one just before the turn off Tropicana. The MGM golden lion loomed large over me, a replica of the Statue of Liberty at New York New York across the way. Through the power of suggestion, I had a sudden hankering for bagels. Real bagels, like I could get at Il Fornaio Panetteria.
Parking was usually an issue, but for some reason the parking gods were with me today, and I managed to easily slide into a free self-parking slot in New York New York’s parking garage.
Il Fornaio Panetteria was near the casino, which was enclosed in what the developers had hoped would look like Central Park. Fake trees hung over craps and blackjack and roulette tables, brownstone and other building facades on either side. Somehow it seemed wrong. The casino shouldn’t be immersed in the illusion; it should just be what it is: a casino without all the bells and whistles. Not like the gamblers really cared.
I walked up the fake sidewalk to Il Fornaio Panetteria, a small shop that sold real New York bagels, fresh fruit cups, muffins, pastries, and coffee. I bought a dozen bagels to bring back with me to the shop and added some cream cheese to the tab. Despite the eggs Tim had served me that morning, I was still hungry, my mouth salivating as I watched the girl behind the counter fill the bag.
On impulse, I decided to play hooky for a few minutes and sit and enjoy one of the bagels there. I took out one with poppy seeds, slathered some cream cheese on it, and savored it. Since I’d have to wait to go to Red Rock, this was going to have to be my Mecca for the moment.
Until my cell phone rang.
I dug it out of my messenger bag and looked at the caller ID. Bitsy.
“Hey, there. Picking up some bagels,” I said, hoping that would appease her if she was upset I wasn’t there yet.
“Good idea,” she said. “Just wanted to let you know your noon appointment canceled.”
I sighed, but I’d been doubtful that she’d show. Emily Sokol was just eighteen and had been at the shop the day before with a gaggle of friends egging her on to get a tattoo. I told her that a tattoo is private-and permanent. If she had any second thoughts about it, she shouldn’t do it. Emily insisted that she wanted to go through with it, told me she wanted a butterfly in pinks and golds. I said I’d do a sketch and we’d look at it when she came back, to make sure it was what she envisioned.
Now I had a little more time to spare. I was only halfway done with my bagel.
“Joel’s here. He told me about the sketch you did last night,” Bitsy said. “Like a police artist or something.”
“Yeah. And that detective who I talked to last night came to the house this morning.” I quickly told her about Tim and Shawna and how DeBurra knew who the mystery guy was all along but didn’t let on. “His drag name is Shanda Leer.” I chuckled. “Get it? Chandelier?” I had no idea why this amused me so much. “Bits?” I asked, wondering whether the call was dropped, it got so quiet.
“Well, that police detective was here already. About ten minutes ago. I told him you’d be here soon, and he said he’d be back.”
I sat up straighter, the anger moving through me. Was DeBurra going to start stalking me? First he comes to my house, and now to my shop? He was the one who wouldn’t take the sketch. That wasn’t my fault.
I tried to calm myself down by thinking that maybe he’d changed his mind about the sketch and he figured he’d catch me at the shop.
That must be it. Although something was still nagging at me about him.
I stared at the last bit of my bagel. Well, he was just going to have to wait for me. “When did he say he’d come back?” I asked.
“He didn’t.” Bitsy paused. “What’s going on, Brett?”
“I have no idea. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I stuffed the last of the bagel in my mouth as I closed the phone.
While the gods had been on my side today as far as parking, it seemed that’s all they were going to be good for.
I put the bag with the bagels in it in my messenger bag. Times like this, I needed a real backpack. Instead of slinging the bag across my chest, like I usually did, I just put it over my shoulder and let it bounce against my side.
I wandered past the gaming tables in the faux Central Park on the way out to my car. There were a few early-bird diehards eager to make their fortunes. I passed a couple of blackjack tables, ignored the craps, and stopped at the roulette table. The dealer was spinning the wheel.
But I wasn’t watching the wheel. I stared at one of the players, a young guy, maybe late twenties, slight build, wearing a white, almost see-through T-shirt that clung to his frame. His arms were bare.
Except for the queen-of-hearts playing-card tattoo on his inside right forearm.
“Care to place a bet?”
The dealer’s voice shook me out of my trance. He was staring at me expectantly, as was the young man with the tattoo and an elderly gentleman wearing a straw hat.
“Um, just watching,” I said.
“Need a chip?” The young man tossed a chip toward me, and instinctively I reached out and caught it. Nice to know something stuck from those couple years playing softball in middle school.
“Thanks, I guess,” I said, moving closer to the table, noticing that he wasn’t looking at me like I could identify him in a lineup. That was a good thing. The bad thing was, I had no idea just how to play this game. I turned the chip over in my hand and saw it was worth fifty bucks. Startled, I looked at the young man and held it out toward him. “I can’t take this.”
He grinned and with a little wave of his hand indicated that the huge pile of chips on the table was his. “I’m on a streak. Have at it,” he said.
“Place your bet,” the dealer said.
I studied the table, covered with red and black squares and numbers. “Why not,” I muttered, and put the chip on 18 red. It was a shot.
The wheel spun and then slowed. It stopped. The little ball fell into a slot.
My mouth hung open as the dealer added some chips to the one I’d had. The young man still won-he had put his chips on red-but I wasn’t exactly sure how all this worked.
“Where’d you get your ink?” I asked as we both moved our chips to other spots.
“Sssh,” the older gentleman said.
But the young man obviously didn’t have any respect for his elders. “Murder Ink. Know it?”
Murder Ink was owned by Jeff Coleman. We had a complicated relationship in that while we were competitors and started out hating each other, we were growing on each other. His mother had done the Napoleon ink on my calf.
I nodded, and the wheel spun.
Go figure, but I won again. My head told me that I should quit while I was ahead, but my adrenaline was racing and I couldn’t help myself.
“Why don’t you go for a split?” the young man asked, and when he saw my confusion explained I could place chips on two adjoining numbers.
I won again. The chips were piling up. The young man had started betting with me. I’d forgotten about the bagels in my bag, how I had to get to my shop, why Frank DeBurra was stalking me. All I could think about was the game. I kept moving my chips around the table, and each square I put them on won. Well, not all of them, but because I’d done the split I was doing better than if I was going for broke on just one square each time. My heart was pounding with each spin of the wheel, every time the dealer said, “Place your bet.”
The young man with the ink and I kept winning. The elderly gentleman disappeared at some point, and a few other people wandered over. And then the spell broke. Not because I lost. But because the young man spoke.
“We’re doing great, aren’t we, Brett?”
I hadn’t told him my name.