Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Chapter Six

"How'd you find her so fast?"

Quentin leaned back on the couch and kicked his bare feet up next to the huge monitor. I noticed then that his toenails were in desperate need of clipping. Ugh.

"Your buddy Mike kept a carbon of her credit card. I traced the number," Quentin said with a grin. "Looks like I wasn't the first one to do it, either."

"LAPD?" I asked.

"No, but I expect they will before long. This was another hacker -- one who was good enough to cover his tracks, but not completely. I could still see that he ran the card, but not who he was or where he ran it from."

"So, better than you or worse than you?" I asked.

"Man, no one is better than me," he said, his grin getting wider. "Got time for a beer?"

"Nah. I should probably get on the road, find a hotel in Vegas. Crash out and start hitting the pavement in the morning."

"If you're looking for a hotel, I suggest Caesars. Looks like your girl checked in there last night."

"I'm on my own dime until I catch her, and I think one night at that place would max out my credit card," I said, shaking my head.

"I could massage the system a bit. Book you in and charge it to someone else."

"No thanks."

"Then Imperial Palace? Pretty close by, tons cheaper."

"Yeah. I'll do that."

Quentin typed on his keyboard for a few more seconds, then looked up at me.

"Done. Just give them your name when you arrive. Guaranteed the room with your Visa."

"How do you know my credit card number?" I asked.

Quentin just grinned again.

"Have a good time in Vegas, big guy."

* * *

I don't go to Las Vegas often, and there's a good reason for that. It's not that I hate gambling or anything -- I was brought up in a pretty damn liberal household, even though my dad was a cop (a traditionally conservative profession), so gambling wasn't demonized as the Devil's Work. No, I stay away from Vegas because I love gambling, and worse, I used to think I was pretty good at it.

I wasn't, of course. I was just on a lucky streak for a little while there, and when it ended, man, it *ended.* But you just try telling a gambling junkie his lucky streak is over. It's never over, man, it's just stepped out for a smoke. It's just around the corner, and if you keep playing, it'll come right back.

When I got out of the hospital, my buddy Ethan took me to Vegas to cheer me up. I was still in a wheelchair at that point, and I learned something interesting on that trip. A guy in a wheelchair who's winning? Well, he's good luck, and everyone in the casino crowds around him, buys him drinks, and treats him like the earthly embodiment of Our Lord and Savior himself. Nothing's quite the self-esteem boost for a cripple than the attention you get when you're winning.

A guy in a wheelchair who's losing, though? Well, that's just sad. Sad and unlucky. When that dude wheels his way up to the Blackjack tables and starts hemmhoraging money, people get up from the table like he's coughing up Bubonic Plague instead of red chips. No drinks bought for you then, apart from the ones the casino gives you for losing. You'll get nice and hammered off loser drinks, but your lucky streak stays outside, smoking pack after pack of cowboy killers until you finally lose every scrap of cash you came with and start doing the math on what your car is worth.

So, yeah, I usually stay away from Las Vegas.

After I left Quentin's, I headed back to my apartment to throw some things into a duffel bag. Before Mr. Hernandez tried to perforate me with an AK-47 yesterday, I'd been doing laundry, so I had a dryer full of clean clothes. I grabbed indiscriminately and stuffed most of the dryer's contents into my bag, then hefted it over my shoulder. After that, all I had to do was lock the door and ask Eammon to grab my mail while I was out. I want to buy a dog, but I have to go out of town kind of often and always on short notice... so for now, it's just me.

It normally takes about four hours to drive from Los Angeles to Vegas, and I was leaving after dark, so I didn't expect any delays. A straight-through drive would put me in about three in the morning, which would be an odd time to check into a hotel in any city other than Las Vegas. There, it was pretty much routine.

I loaded up the CD changer in the trunk with some decent, loud road-trip stuff: Wu-Tang Forever, Pantera's Far Beyond Driven, Antichrist Superstar by Marilyn Manson, Evil Empire by Rage Against the Machine, Unpredictable by Mystikal, and the old road-trip favorite Nevermind by, of course, Nirvana. Yeah, my musical tastes are all over the map, but for a long drive on zero sleep, nothing beats loud and agressive. I made a stop for gas and coffee and hit the road just before 11 p.m., and traffic was almost nonexistent.

I rolled into Vegas just after three in the morning, and pulled up to the Imperial Palace parking garage with "People of the Sun" blaring from the huge, aftermarket speakers I'd put in the Beast back when I was making movie cash. After I parked and checked in, I hit the bed and was out cold in seconds.

* * *

In June, there are only a couple of safe times to move around Las Vegas. Late night, when the heat is usually bearable, provided you drink enough water; and early in the morning, before the sun starts its daily quest to fry humans on the sidewalk like ants under a magnifying glass. I slept for about four hours, so I was dressed and on the street by 7:30. I ate a hot dog as I walked, promising myself I'd get some health in my diet as soon as I tracked down Laura Mills.

Hotel employees aren't supposed to give out any information about their guests. If you don't believe me, call a hotel where your friend is saying and ask what room he's staying in. Unless the clerk is a complete idiot or just an asshole who's trying to get himself fired, he won't tell you -- he'll offer to connect you with your friend's room instead. I could always just talk to the guy at the front desk, tell him who I was and why I was there, but I didn't want to count on him helping me out of a sense of "what's right." Besides, I'd seen a picture of Laura Mills, her mug shot from her file.

She was pretty, even in the mug shot. And if someone looked good in a mug shot, chances are that person was stunning in real life. If the guy behind the counter was a heterosexual male with a pulse, he'd send me to the wrong room, then call Laura and warn her the second I was out of sight.

Nope, if I was going to get any information out of the hotel staff, I'd have to be sneaky about it. And, fortunately, Nevada was one of those places I could be sneaky. I once tracked down a bail jumper in New Orleans, and Louisina requires bounty hunters to wear a uniform when they're looking for people -- kind of kills the element of surprise. Nevada, like California, has no such law, and no one ever told me I couldn't lie my ass off to get the information I needed. So that's what I was going to do.

The kind of cool thing about Las Vegas is that it's a very on-demand town. If you want something sent up to your room, chances are very good there's a service that specializes in exactly that thing you want. Feeling a little sick and need a doctor sent to you? That's an easy one. Want someone to prepare you a Louisana-style Creole dinner in your room? Yeah, they can do that, too.

Of course, no one's going to buy that I'm a doctor, or probably not even a chef. But there is one thing they'll buy, and probably send me up without hesitation. It's a little degrading, but we're talking about quite a bit of money here. That, and finally getting some information on this asinine quest I seem to have gotten myself involved in. And it's another one of those areas where being a big, in-shape dude comes in handy.

"Hi," I said to the young, thin guy behind the desk at Caesar's Palace. "I'm here to see Laura Mills. I'm the exotic dancer she ordered."

I made sure to crack a big, goofy smile when I said it. Like I thought, the guy gave me her room number without even a moment's hesitation. Ten seconds later, I was navigating my way through the sprawling monument to gaming and consumerism that is Caesar's Palace.

Laura Mills' room was in the Forum Towers, a relatively new part of the complex. It was a suite, and probably cost more than a week in the room I slept in last night. Since it was a newer room, it had those brand-new card readers on the door rather than keys. Those things almost make my job too easy. I'm not going to say too much about how to beat those locks here -- no point in disseminating criminal information -- but I was in the room in twenty seconds.

It was only 7:30 in the morning, and it was Las Vegas. I was almost sure to find my target passed out, but no one was in the room. There was a small suitcase on one of the queen beds, though, and some stuff scattered around the bathroom, so I knew someone was staying there, at least. I took a look through the suitcase -- clothes, in a size that would probably fit Laura Mills (if the height and weight on her driver's license was accurate). Minimal cosmetics and toiletries in the bathroom. Other than that, the room looked clean, at least at first glance.

Looking further, though, I found a manilla folder between the mattress and box spring on the bed furthest from the door.

"Boo-ya," I whispered to myself as I opened the folder and flipped through the papers inside.

The pages inside -- there were six of them -- didn't make any sense to me. They looked like technical documents or blueprints of some kind, but the writing was all in Chinese or Korean or something. And I couldn't tell what I was looking at just from the drawings. It just looked like a bunch of vertical and horizontal and diagonal beams arranged into various shapes, some of them with a ball in the middle. No clue.

As I was putting the papers back into the folder, a business card fell out onto the floor. It didn't have a name or a business on it -- just an address and a phone number. The address was in North Las Vegas, and the phone number had a Vegas area code. I jotted them both down on a pad in my pocket, then put everything back and headed back out into the hotel.

You know that kind of paranoia you get when you're doing something you know you're not supposed to? Like when you were drinking with your buddies underage, and your head snapped around at every noise? I'm convinced that it's not necessarily paranoia, but hyperawareness -- what atheletes and elite soldier types call "flow state." Paranoia plays tricks with you, but the flow state just might save your life.

It's pretty accurate to say I was in flow state the whole time I was doing my little breaking and entering routine. It didn't leave off when I left the room and headed back out into the hotel, either, a fact I'm sure saved my life.

When I closed the door to Laura Mills' room, I wasn't the only person in the hall. There was a white guy about five foot eight coming down the hall towards me, dressed in a black suit and a black silk shirt buttoned up to the throat. Nothing odd about that on the surface, as he could have just been a high roller coming back after a late night. He glanced at me as he approached, and I nodded and smirked as I walked toward him, heading back to the casino floor and the exit. I was still in that hyperaware frame of mind when the two of us passed in the hall, so I felt him reach inside his coat before I saw it, and I reacted by ducking low and driving my shoulder into his midsection.

His gun bounced on the carpet, and I kicked it down the hall as he swung a right hand toward my head. I dodged, but not fast enough -- the first two knuckles of his right hand connected with my skull just above my temple, and I saw flashes. The guy hit like a runaway pickup truck. Thankfully, I can hit hard, too. I smashed him in the nose, knocking him onto the floor, then reached into my pocket and pulled out my Sig Sauer. I trained it on him, and he put his hands up.

"Stay right there," I growled.

"Not going anywhere, Chief," he said with a grin. His left hand twitched, and suddenly my eyes and nose were on fire.

By the time I blinked away the pepper spray, he was gone.

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