* * *
Lucy Bernstein slipped a twenty to the cabbie as she disembarked a block short of the Gold Rush entrance. Limousines stood two deep at the curb, obstructing traffic regally, and Lucy spied a charter bus idling on the nearest side street.
The sidewalk all around the bus and limousines was clotted with a press of tourists dragging luggage, red-coated bellboys weaving in among them, offering assistance where they could and pocketing the rare last chance gratuities.
She made her way upstream against the human current, finally gained the glass revolving doors and spent another moment jostling faceless strangers, being shoved and elbowed more than once before she made it to the lobby proper.
Inside, the hotel lobby was a larger replay of the sidewalk scene she had just witnessed. Ranks of angry guests were crowding up against the registration desk, all jabbering in unison at two beleaguered clerks, demanding refunds, glowering at the promises of other rooms in comparable hotels. One of the patrons, florid faced and beefy in a garish flowered shirt, had to be restrained by uniformed security from hurdling the counter and extracting his deposit from the cash drawer. Lucy veered away from the confusion, almost colliding with a Kansas-farmer type, his wheat-blond wife and stair-step children strung out single file behind him, all intent on plowing through the crowd toward freedom and the street outside. She moved across the lobby, searching for her grandfather amid the chaos.
Fifteen minutes passed before she spotted him.
She saw his white hair bobbing like a fleck of sea foam on the surging human tide. He moved with easy self-assurance through the crush — here speaking gently to an agitated guest, there giving orders to an employee. Lucy approached him, reaching out to touch him on the shoulder.
He turned to face her, smiling — and she saw the plasticized expression falter for an instant as he made the recognition. He took her by the arm and steered her in the direction of his office.
"Lucy... what on earth... What brings you out here on a night like this?"
"Like what?" she asked. "What's going on around here, grandpa?"
Bernstein spread his hands and smiled expansively.
"We're looking at some trouble with the culinary workers. Some damn thing about the pension plan. They're walking out at midnight, and we're putting up our guests at other places till it all blows over."
Lucy was confused.
"A wildcat strike? I haven't heard a thing about it at the paper."
"It came at us out of nowhere. Who can figure unions?"
They had reached the office and he ushered her inside. The closing door cut off the babble from the lobby.
"So, Lucy, would you like a soft drink? Or some wine?" He looked embarrassed. "I keep forgetting that you're not a little girl."
"Well, then... what can I do for you?"
She was hesitant now, nervous, having second thoughts about her presence at the Gold Rush.
"If you're too busy now... I could come back another time."
"Too busy for my one and only grandchild. Never, Lucy. Tell me what you need."
"Some answers, grandpa."
He smiled, but with a hint of caution now.
"Ali. The journalist."
"I don't know how to ask you this..."
"The simplest way is usually best. So, ask."
"How well do you know Frank Spinoza?"
Did she imagine the surprise behind his eyes, the ripple of uneasiness that spread like fleeting pallor underneath his sunlamp tan? No. It was there.
"We work together, Lucy," he was saying. "You know that. I guess you'd say I work for him."
"I've always wondered how that happened, grandpa. I mean, how Spinoza wound up running the hotel and everything you built from scratch."
Another flicker there behind the slick facade, but quickly hidden now, before she had a chance to name it.
"These things happen, Lucy. Businessmen run into trouble... Spinoza and his people helped me out, and in return I got myself some partners."
"Who exactly are Spinoza's people?"
"Eastern businessmen, some bankers, some..." He hesitated, spread his hands and shook his head. "I'm not about to tell you lies. Some of them... well... you hear these stories. Truth is, there are stories people tell about your grandpa, too, from the old days."
Lucy could not meet his eyes now. When she answered him her voice was soft, subdued.
"I've heard them."
"So?" He ruffled fingers through his snowy hair. "You see the horns? Smell brimstone? Lucy, every man has done some things he's not too proud of. Maybe if I had the chance to go back fifty, sixty years, I'd do some things a little differently." He hesitated, pinned her with a searching stare. "I can't go back, Luce. Nobody can. What's done is done."
"And what's about to happen?"
"Now you're talking riddles."
"Grandpa, there are stories, rumors... Are you planning something?"
"With Frank Spinoza? Or against him... I don't know..."
His voice was on the razor's edge of anger when he spoke again.
"Who filled your head with this meshugeneh idea?"
"It doesn't matter, grandpa."
"Well... what would I do to Frank Spinoza? What could I do?"
"I'm sorry, really. I don't know."
"Forget about it, Lucy. I understand how these things sound sometimes."
"I'd better let you go. You've got your hands full here." She was having trouble keeping tears out of her voice now as she turned toward the office door. She wanted to be out of there, away from him. The destination did not matter to her, just as long as she was moving.
"You stop by any time," he told her. "And never be afraid to ask me anything, Lucy. Anything at all."
"I love you, grandpa." But she could not face him. Could not let him have the parting kiss that they had always shared from childhood.
But she was already moving, the noises of the crowded lobby closing in around her, drowning out the old man's words. The tears were in her eyes now, burning, threatening to spill across her cheeks. The ache inside her chest was so intense she felt that it might steal her breath away. He had been lying to her, with the ease of endless practice. He had been lying, start to finish. Lucy knew it in her heart, and with the knowledge came a stabbing pain that pierced her like an ice pick. There had not been a wildcat strike in Vegas for as long as Lucy could remember; they were clearing out the Gold Rush for some other reason. But why? To accommodate whom?
And what about Spinoza? Every answer dealing with the New York mafioso had been just a shade too easy somehow. None of them rang true. As if in answer to her secret thoughts, she recognized the face of Frank Spinoza across the crowded lobby.
He was standing near the main security station, deep in conversation with another man she did not recognize — until he turned sideways.
Lucy placed the profile in a single lurching heartbeat. He was one of the hoodlums who had viewed her in captivity at Minotte's and briefly listened in on her interrogation by the boss before the roof collapsed around them.
And what would he be doing with Spinoza? Were New York and Chicago joining hands somehow? And did their business help explain the sudden mass evacuation of the Gold Rush in the dead of night?
Her tears were dry as Lucy Bernstein slowed her pace, no longer heading for the exit and the crowded sidewalk now, but drifting in the general direction of Spinoza and his company. The two of them were moving toward the bank of elevators, with another pair of flashy suits in tow. Lucy fell in step a cautious distance to the rear.
Her news sense drove her now. She was determined to uncover what the man she trusted most in all the world before tonight was so determined to conceal.
She meant to follow Frank Spinoza and his trail of slime wherever they might lead, and in the end, if some of his corruption should rub off on others — on her grandfather — well, she would deal with that when she came to it.
The man had made his choice years before she was born, and he could live with it — as she would live with what she had to do that night. She had no choice.
Lucy Bernstein had a duty, and she would see it through, no matter what the cost. There was no turning back from this point even if it killed her.
And it might, she knew with sudden chilling clarity.