* * *
Lucy Bernstein poked her head out of the office door and took a cautious glance along the corridor in each direction. There was no one in sight and she edged into the open, taking time to close the door behind her, wincing as the locking mechanism clicked audibly into place. She realized that she was holding her breath and it embarrassed her, but she was still afraid. It was more than an hour since the last paying guests had cleared the Gold Rush, and in that time, instead of digging up the leads she needed for the climax of her expose, she had been in and out of empty suites and offices, dodging and hiding wherever she could find a door unlocked.
They were not hunting her — not yet — but she felt cut off now, under siege. She had accomplished nothing, losing track of Frank Spinoza and his friend almost at once, and now the only thing that she could think about was getting safely out of there, away from what she sensed was brooding danger. She had been right, the lady news hawk knew, when she suspected that her grandfather was lying to her.
There had been no labor trouble at the Gold Rush this night, not if all the bellhops and domestic personnel around the place were any indication. Strange, but now that Lucy stopped to think of it, she had not seen a woman anywhere around the hotel and casino since she'd left the crowded lobby better than an hour ago. It was as if the female staff — the cooks, the maids, whatever — had been cleared away to preserve them from the coming storm.
Now she was all alone inside the cavernous hotel that had so quickly taken on the characteristics of an armed encampment. That was a story in itself, but first she had to be alive to write it — and she feared that if she was discovered, her short career might be abbreviated by a one-way midnight ride into the desert.
Lucy did not plan to end her days as cactus fertilizer, and she moved along the corridor with grim determination, looking for an unobtrusive exit that would get her out of there and on the street again without attracting any unwelcome attention along the way. She reached the bank of elevators, hesitated with her finger on the button, finally decided against it. If the elevator did not dump her right into the lobby, she would run the risk of being stopped at any one of several floors along the way, or else emerging into hostile hands upon arriving at her destination. No, the elevator simply was not safe enough to suit her needs.
Lucy was turning away from the stainless-steel doors when the approaching sound of voices reached her ears. She hesitated, gauging their direction, bolting as she realized that they were just around the corner from her, closing swiftly.
She retraced her steps and reached the doorway to the office she had just vacated. It was small, belonging to some middle-ranking secretary of Spinoza's from appearances, and it had yielded nothing in her search for information, but right now it was her only sanctuary.
Lucy made it to the door with heartbeats left to spare — and found it locked. She cursed the modern doors that locked themselves each time they closed, and just this once she wished that security had not become such an obsession in the hotel industry.
She turned away, pulse pounding in her ears now that the jumbled voices were almost on top of her. One of them sounded so familiar, somehow, almost... There was no time to make the connection. She was running blindly, biting off a sob that rose unbidden in her throat. There had to be some service stairs around here someplace, had to be some... And she found them, almost stumbling as she veered hard left to reach the doorway marked Emergency. If there had ever been one, Lucy thought, this must be it.
She put her weight against the door, expecting hinges stiff with long disuse, and almost fell through as it opened without resistance. She stumbled through, gasping, and just found the strength to close the door behind her.
She was clear.
She took a backward step... and bumped against the man who had been standing, watching her.
No stifling the cry this time, as Lucy Bernstein turned and recognized the man she had seen earlier with Frank Spinoza, the same face from her ordeal the night before at Bob Minotte's.
Recognition was mutual and his reaction was as coolly, cruelly practiced as a soldier's own conditioned reflex in the heat of combat. He took a closer step, the smile etched deep into his face like marks on marble. She saw his fist coming, knew that it was hurtling toward her jaw, and yet she found herself unable to avoid the blow.
Lucy Bernstein's head impacted on the concrete wall behind her and the darkness of the stairwell swallowed her alive.