Friday, June 24, 2011

Chapter Ten

There was no debate, no internal monologue this time. I was following them, and I was taking Laura Mills back to Los Angeles. Too much had happened in the past few days for me to do anything but.

There were only two guys with her, and I was sure they weren't cops. The Town Car had private plates, not Federal or State ones. I also noticed as I passed the car that there was no extra radio gear, no lights, no lowered suspension -- definitely not a law enforcement vehicle. The guys were Umbra Security, which meant... open season. Sure, they outnumbered me, but they were smaller, and I had the element of surprise.

As I tailed them through the gaming floor, I decided on my plan of attack. They looked like they were heading for the elevators, so once they got somewhere out of the way, that was when I'd crack some skulls and grab the girl. Two-on-one were about the best odds I could hope for.

I stayed about fifty feet back from them, keeping myself behind slot machines and late-night gamblers as I walked. Both of Laura Mills' escorts were scouting for tails, but they weren't doing a bang-up job -- a quick glance back over a shoulder here and there. I was, of course, concerned that there might be more guys hiding on the gaming floor, ready to pounce on me the second I made my move, but I was ready for that.

It's one of the things I learned as a stuntman -- situational awareness. Things didn't go wrong often in a big, coreographed stunt, but there was always the possibility. As a stunt performer, you learn to be aware of movement from any direction, almost like a sixth sense. If, say, a piece of burning metal was headed for the back of your head, you learned to duck without really thinking, or even consciously knowing the flaming chunk of death was trying to decapitate you. That was the state I was in now.

The two guys and Laura made it to one of the back hallways, a small elevator lounge that would take them up into the hotel. It was just far enough removed from the gaming floor that I could take them down there. As I got closer, however, I heard one of them mumbling into his sleeve, one hand over his ear.

"Copy that. We're in the lobby."

As he pulled his hand away from his ear, I saw one of those little Secret-Service radio earbuds. I ducked behind a rather large man at a slot machine near the elevator lobby and chanced a look out -- the elevator doors were opening, and inside were four more guys in black suits. One of them was Meskhiyev.

Shit. Two-to-one odds, I could handle. Six-to-one... well, there was bravery, and there was stupidity. Six-to-one definitely fell into the latter category. As the two guys from the car ushered Laura Mills into the elevator, I popped out from behind the obese gambler and watched the numbers on the elevator car. The elevator stopped on the 30th floor, and I immediately pressed the call button.

It only took about a minute for another elevator to show up, and I hopped in and pressed the button for the 30th floor. I was well aware I'd pretty much lost them already -- they'd be inside one of the rooms up there -- but maybe I'd get lucky and see a guy in a black suit going into or coming out of one. They weren't being too subtle, but it was Vegas. They probably just assumed no one was paying attention to their shit, and with the exception of me, they were probably right.

In the elevator lounge on the 30th floor, I was greeted by long, featureless hallways to the left and the right. A drunken 20-year-old guy ambled past, trying unsuccessfully to light a cigarette and walk at the same time. He smiled at me and shot me a thumbs-up, then leaned up against the wall next to the elevators. Slowly, he sunk down to the floor until he was sitting with his legs crossed, then finally managed to light his smoke.

"Hey, my man," I said, squatting down until I was in his eyeline. "You see a bunch of dudes in black suits hanging around up here?"

The drunk kid nodded, his eyes half-lidded, and pointed down the hallway to the right with his now-lit Marlboro. I nodded, grinned at him, and headed down the hall to the right. I kept to one side of the hallway, trying to make myself as small as possible, though that was pointless. Nowhere to hide out in the open, of course. But somehow, sneaking through an open, well-lit hallway made me feel better. Stealthier.

The Umbra guys made it easy for me to find them, but that's probably because they assumed no one was looking for them. Around the first corner, I noticed a guy in a black suit pacing up and down the hall. He was making a wide orbit, but right around room 3022, he slowed a bit each time. That was where they were, and they only had one guy on the door. One guy shouldn't be too hard to avoid. I had an idea, but I wouldn't be able to do it on my own.

See, here's the thing. The best bet would be to take this guy out and hang outside the room until they came out. But I knew I was facing five guys alone -- even if I caught them by surprise, I'd probably end up getting myself and the girl shot. I could hang back by the corner and watch, but if they took another elevator down... well, it would be really easy to lose them.

So second best would be to sit on their black Town Car downstairs, which I'm sure someone had parked by now. But it was entirely possible that wherever they were going to go when they did come out... well, they could easily walk. Vegas is the sort of town where you can get pretty much anywhere -- well, anywhere worth going -- on foot, especially at night when the heat had blown off a bit. So keeping an eye on the car might just let them walk right out the front door.

I'd need someone downstairs, someone who could pick up the tail after I lost it. And there was only one person in town who could get my back. It wasn't quite 2:00 yet, but I decided to check anyway. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed.

"Monte Carlo Hotel and Casino," a woman's voice answered.

"Hi. Ken Adams, please."

* * *

Quentin met me on the 30th floor in a matter of minutes. He had changed clothes -- we was now wearing a long coat and brown cargo pants. He had a pair of yellow-lensed sunglasses on, despite the fact that it was almost two in the morning.

"Hey. What's up?" he whispered, creeping up next to me at the corner of the hall.

"Found the girl."

"Man, you're good."

"No, I'm lucky. She's in 3022 under guard. I'm going to hopefully snatch her when they move her."

"What do you need from me?"

"Hang out downstairs near the elevators. If I call you, they're coming down. Guys in black suits with a good-looking woman my age. Keep on them until I can catch up."

"I can do that. Hey, got something for you," Quentin said, digging into the hip pocket of his cargo pants and pulling out a wad of bills.

"What's this?"

"It's your initial $25 investment, turned into $2500, minus ten percent. That's my fee," he said, grinning.

"How did you --"

"I'm a genius, remember? I'll be downstairs. You let me know when it's game time."

As Quentin headed back down the hall toward the elevators, I turned my attention back to room 3022. It was very quiet in the hall, and apart from the guard, no one was moving much. If he decided to round the corner, I was pretty fucked, but he hadn't in the last half-hour.

By the time something happened, most of the blood had drained out of my legs from crouching so long. Fortunately, none of the people coming up or down my side of the hall had been surprised to see me creeping around, any more than they were surprised by the frat boy sleeping next to the elevator lobby. I guess, after a certain hour, nothing really seems odd in Vegas. I checked my watch when the activity started: 3:27 a.m.

The guard left the hall first, heading into 3022. I pulled out my cell and dialed Quentin's number, and he picked up on the second ring.

"Movement. Guard just got recalled," I told him.

"Right. I'm near the front elevator lobby, but there's a back one, too. I can get there in under a minute."

"Hold on. They're coming out now," I whispered.

The door to 3022 opened, and Meskhiyev came out first, followed by another guy in a black suit. This one was huge -- I couldn't tell for sure, but he might have been bigger than me. They headed down the hall away from me. They must have been going for the back elevators.

"Back elevators. The girl and two guards, including the Russian guy. I'm coming down in the front elevators. Stay on the line."

"Got it."

I sprinted back down the hall, past the sleeping frat boy and into the elevator lobby. The door was just closing as I got there, but I shoved my arm in and stopped it. No one was inside, and I pounded the button for the first floor.

The ride didn't take long, but it felt like forever. As I passed the third floor, Quentin's voice buzzed in my ear.

"They're heading for the parking garage. I'm on them. Heading for a black BMW."


"Looks like they're having some trouble. Meskhiyev's checking his pockets. Holy shit. Think the guy forgot his keys."

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a set of BMW keys as the doors opened.

"Uh, I have them."

"How -- never mind. They're getting into a black Town Car two spaces down. We don't move quick, we're going to lose them."

I cleared the doors into the parking garage and saw Quentin crouched behind a concrete support. I tapped him on the shoudler, and he turned and hung up his phone.

"We need to stay on them," he said.

"Well, let's just take their ride," I said, grinning and holding up the BMW keys.

We stayed behind the pillar until the Town Car backed out and started off the other way. As soon as it was a few hundred feet away, we sprinted for the BMW, which thankfully had keyless entry. I got in the driver's seat and started backing out just as Quentin got his door closed.

"Nice ride," Quentin commented, running his hand over the dashboard.

"Yeah. Keep an eye on that Town Car. If it looks like they've spotted me... well, that would be good to know," I told him, heading off in the direction Meskhiyev had gone. We caught sight of them in just a few seconds -- they were turning out onto the Strip.

"There are, like, hundreds of black Town Cars out there," Quentin said.

"Yeah. Courtesy cars, private car services. Did you happen to catch the license plate?"

"Nevada CRJ899," he said as we turned left onto the Strip. "There it is."

I kept a few cars back, but Quentin was right -- there were a shitload of black Town Cars out on the Strip. Thankfully, I had a second set of eyes, so we didn't lose them as we powered on past the Strip and headed into North Vegas.

"Where the fuck are they going now?" Quentin wondered.

"I think I know. There's an abandoned office park way out in the ghetto. It's pretty secure. They get her in there, it's going to be tough getting her out."

"So we don't let them get there," Quentin said, nodding.

"Right. We take them in transit. Think you can handle one of 'em while I take down the other?"

Quentin reached into his long coat and pulled out an Ithaca 37 Stakeout shotgun with a pistol grip.

"Thought you'd never ask," he said, chuckling.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Chapter Nine

I spent the next several hours slowly working my way north up the strip, stopping in every casino and making several circuits to make sure I wasn't being followed. Most people are pretty easy to spot when they're trying to tail you -- if you see the same person more than once at several different, random locations, chances are he's after you. Especially if you have reason to suspect someone's following you. All it takes is a little observation.

Of course, it was a little harder when you figure that a whole company is after you. Companies have multiple employees, and if there are enough people on your tail, your chances of picking one of them out are pretty slim. One guy will follow you into, say, the Sahara, then hand you off to another guy as soon as you leave. That guy will follow you along the street, but hand you off to yet another guy the next time you duck inside. It's the same way the cops tail a high-priority suspect.

Still, there are ways you can tell. Catch someone looking away quickly right as you make eye contact? That guy could be tailing you. See someone stop suddenly and become very interested in something patently uninteresting when you look in his direction? He's definitely following you.

It seemed, though, I'd made my escape from the Imperial Palace without a tail. Or at least, without one I could discover. Either no one was after me, or the people after me were so good I wasn't going to lose them anyway, so it didn't really matter. I made it to the Stratosphere just after dark.

I found a place by the sports book to have a seat and keep an eye out. I didn't expect to see Quentin come in -- he was sneaky like that. But I was still worried about someone following me, so I spent the next couple of hours just sitting, watching. Besides, it felt good to sit down for a bit. I'd been on my feet all day. Still, I didn't detect any sort of tail, so I was good to go.

Around 11:15, I got in line for the elevator up to the 107th floor. It wasn't a short line this time of night -- the highest point in Las Vegas was a popular place to hang out around midnight, what with the postcard-worthy view of the strip, the laser light of the Luxor shooting off into space, and the relatively cheap drinks at the bar. No one really gave me much of a second glance, even though I was dressed in leather, a full head taller than anyone else in the line, and looking pretty damned rough by that point.

That's one thing I like about Las Vegas, though. No one really looks odd or out of place here. There's really no normal, no baseline for appearance. Unless you're walking around completely naked, you're probably not going to get stared at. Hell, even then you might not, but I'm not itching to test out that particular theory.

A group of Korean tourists, kids a couple of years younger than me, were in front of me in line. They were tipsy and affable, and had a couple 12-packs of Budweiser with them. Though they didn't speak any real English, at least not any that I recognized, they were making friends with everyone around them in line. When they smiled in my direction and handed me a bottle, I was only too happy to accept it and smile back. If there was ever a time I could use a drink, that was it.

Even with the long line, I made it to the 107th floor about ten minutes before midnight. I didn't bother to look around for Quentin -- he'd find me. I'm easier to pick out of a crowd than he is. Easier to pick out than most people, really.

And find me he did. One second, I was standing next to the Korean kids as they plowed toward the bar, the next he was there in front of me. He wore a big goofy grin and had a crazy-huge drink in his right hand. He was minorly tipsy, but I'd expected that. In addition to being crazy smart, Quentin had a bit of the social anxiety disorder. If he was going out in public, that meant he was two or three drinks up on everyone else in the world.

"You look like pounded shit," Quentin said, his lopsided grin widening. "What are you drinking?"

"Beer," I said.

"Hey, Frank! Get my guy here a Pete's Wicked, yeah?" Quentin yelled over his shoulder at the bartender, who was definitely not named Frank. Not unless her parents had a horrible sense of humor.

She scowled at him, but she produced a bottle of Pete's Wicked Ale anyway and set it on the bar in front of me. Quentin laid a $20 bill on the bar and winked at her, then picked up the beer and ushered me away towards the observation deck.

"Serious about you looking awful, though."

"Yeah. Happens when you spend the day on the run."

"About that. Looked into Umbra Dynamics for you. Man, that is one beautiful system they have running there. I was almost right when I said it was unhackable," he said, his words barely above a whisper as we stepped outside into the warm, windy night. He stood close, so I could just barely hear his words before the desert wind caught them and whipped them away into the night.

"Almost right?" I asked, keeping my voice as low as his.

"Yeah. I got in. For about five minutes, but I got in. First looked for your lady friend, Laura Mills. Her file was locked up tight. But there was a file -- she works there."

I nodded.

"Then I checked out their Security People. This little guy, Russian, you think?"

"Could be."

"Black hair? Scar on the right side of his neck?"

I thought back -- there was a hint of a scar coming out from just under the little guy's collar. Old one, looked like.

"Yeah. That's probably him."

"Aleksandr Meskhiyev. Up until seven years ago, he worked for the KGB. Mean motherfucker. Please tell me he's all sorts of dead now."

"A concealed carry license doesn't mean I just get to shoot anyone I want, Quentin," I said with a sigh. I'd explained that to him before. "I can only legally shoot someone when my life or someone else's is in danger."

"Yeah, but wasn't this guy shooting at you?"

"Not him. A buddy of his in a building across the street. Hard to make a case to a judge that Meskhiyev was controlling that guy, or that shooting him would make the other guy stop shooting."

"A sniper?"

"I think so."

"Think I might know who that is, too. Name's Brendan White. Marine Scout Sniper in the Gulf War. These are some hardcore guys you're messing with, Jake."

I nodded. I'd already figured that much out -- so far, Quentin's hacking wasn't really helping at all.

"So what else did you find out?"

"Not much. Like I said, they have your lady locked down in the system. But someone got a little sloppy. I caught a reference to her name in a project file -- she was listed as a senior engineer on some project having to do with nuclear... something."

"Like what? Power plants?"

"The impression that I got was it was more about weapons. It was lumped in with all of their defense stuff -- same project group -- but there's no contract from the government for it. As near as I can tell, it's something the company is doing on its own."

I thought about that for a moment as I sipped from my nice, cold beer. Why would a private company be doing something with nuclear weapons if not for the government? And what research was there possibly left to do there? Hadn't we figured everything out in, like, the 50s? I'm not a student of history past whatever PBS documentaries I catch, so I couldn't be sure.

"And I found one more thing. Just like Laura Mills' credit card records, there was evidence that someone else had already hacked into Umbra Dynamics. This was a memo to their Security team, letting them know that someone in Compton had made an attempt to access their system."

Something clicked in my head. Compton. That's where Laura Mills' brother had gone. To see the hacker? To try and find his sister, like I was doing?

"Thanks, Quentin. I think you might have helped quite a bit there," I told him, draining the last of the Pete's Wicked. "You heading back to Los Angeles in the morning?"

"Oh, hell no. No way I'm going back to the house until you sort this thing out. That hacker in Compton? Probably the same guy whose house was firebombed with him in it this morning."

"I hadn't heard about it."

"Yeah, it was on the evening news. I put the pieces together shortly after I made it into Umbra's system. I'm in the wind for a while."

"You going to stay in Vegas, then?"

"Probably for a while. I'll be around if you need any help. What about you? You get another room yet?"

"Yeah, there's a problem with that..."

"Left your cash back in the Firebombing of Dresden?"

I was going to tell Quentin the truth -- that I was pretty much broke -- but me leaving most of my money back in the hotel room I'd had to abandon was much less embarassing. I nodded.

"Most of it," I said.

"You still got some on you?"

"Like, $25."

"Give it," he said, sighing and opening his hand.

I dug into my wallet and pulled out the two tens and one five dollar bill. He shoved them into his front left pocket, then checked his watch.

"Two hours. Meet me down at the Monte Carlo. Ask the desk clerk to ring Ken Adams."

"Who the hell is Ken Adams?"

"That's me. At least, it is until the heat dies down. Now, get gone. You're bad luck."

* * *

So I was back on the Strip again, but at least it wasn't brutally hot out anymore. And I was two beers up, which is always better than being no beers into the evening. I still had my eye out for anyone following me, but talking to Quentin had made me feel better. Even if he did have all of my money, as small an amount as that was.

Still, the cooler weather and the time since the morning's firestorm had me in a much better mood as I slowly walked south down the Strip. I had a destination -- the Monte Carlo -- but I had more than enough time to get there. People who have never been to Las Vegas don't realize that the Strip itself is only about five miles long, so it doesn't take too long to walk from one end to the other. I wasn't even going that far -- maybe three miles or so -- and I had two hours in which to do it.

So I stopped often, checking for tails of course, but also just to people-watch. Vegas is great for people-watching, especially after midnight. All of the crazies are out, and mingling with all of the normals. At about 1:00 in the morning, I'd made it down to the Stardust, and was stopping to cool my heels for a few minutes before continuing on.

And then I saw something I didn't expect: Laura Mills. And she wasn't alone -- two men in black suits were ushering her out of a black Town Car and shuffling her into the hotel.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Chapter Eight

The little guy wasn't in a hurry to start talking. He slowly pulled a gold windproof lighter from his jacket, clicked it open, and touched the tip of the flame to the cigarette in his mouth. I was glad Mike was such a heavy smoker, so I was used to it now, but back when I quit two years ago, this guy lighting up right in front of me would have driven me to homicide.

"Now, we both know why you're here, and why you were at a certain room across the street this morning. You even made it out to the complex, which surprised them."

"Them?" I asked.

"Yes, them. Not me, though. I told them not to underestimate you."

I considered pushing for a more accurate description of who "they" were, but something in the guy's face told me it was pointless. "They" were simply "them." Best to let it stand and move on.

"Well, I'm a smart guy," I said, shrugging my shoulders.

"Hardly," the little guy chortled, sending micro-puffs of smoke my way. "But you are, as I mentioned before, stupidly persistent. It was only a matter of time."

I considered again pouncing on this dude from across the room. How quick could his sniper friend react, anyway? Still, self-preservation instincts kicked in, and I let the comment slide.

"Now. I must warn you -- as a friend, you understand -- that your continued persistence in tracking down this young lady will only result in bad things for you. And not just for you," the little guy continued, nodding slightly at me.

"For who? My family?"

"Patronizing me is not a healthy course of action," he told me. "You don't have a family. Only child, mother died when you were three, father drunkenly crashed his patrol car into a tree in your senior year of high school. But you do have friends -- Mike DeLonge, Quentin Barnes. One in downtown, one in Silver Lake. Quiz me if you don't think I have their exact locations at this very moment."

Shit. "They," apparently, knew everything there was to know.

I was stuck, and I knew it. If this guy didn't get the answer he wanted, I just might live long enough to make it back to LA and find Mike and Quentin dead. I had to say it, but I didn't have to mean it. No rules against lying.

"Fine," I said, sighing. "You've made your point. I'm off the case.'

"It was, of course, the only choice you could make," he told me, nodding. "See that you stay clear. Go back home, take a few days off. The whole situation will be done by the time you go back to work, and you'll never have to spare a thought on it again."

I nodded, gritting my teeth together as I did so. The little guy smoothed out his black jacket, stood, and tucked his cigarettes back into his pocket. As he started for the door, I saw the red dot vanish from my chest.

It would take the little guy's sniper buddy time -- a couple of seconds? -- to reaquire me, and I knew I could move faster than that could happen. In half a second, I had the little guy tackled to the carpet. I'd already punched him once hard in the face, and I was bringing up my fist to deliver another blow. He laughed.

"That was... unwise," he chortled, spitting up a few drops of blood.

The windows suddenly exploded in on us. Gunfire ripped up the walls, the beds, and the door as I threw myself flat on the floor and pulled out my Sig. Don't know who I was planning to shoot at, but it felt better to have it in my hand than not.

The gunfire was flying over my head, and I realized the sniper couldn't see below the windows. That meant he was probably close to the same height in the building across from us, and it also meant I might be able to belly-crawl to the door. I checked the floor next to me -- the man in black was still chuckling on the floor, bleeding from the mouth.

"You should have listened to me, my friend," he shouted over the continuing gunfire. "You would have survived."

"Oh, shut the fuck up," I grumbled, shooting my right leg out and catching him in the side of the head.

The little guy's lights went out almost immediately, and I quickly rifled through his jacket pockets. Inside, I found a Glock .23 pistol, his cigarettes, and a set of car keys. I took the gun and the keys and stashed them in my jacket. Just as I was crawling away, I noticed a small, gold pin on the jacket's lapel, a sweeping, inverted triangle design. It tried to ring a bell in my brain, but nothing came up right away. Maybe the continuous gunfire was distracting me.

I crawled out into the hall, where I could just see people running for the elevators. As soon as I cleared my door, I got up and ran along with them, throwing myself into the elevator just as the doors closed and the car started to descend to ground level.

I knew I couldn't go for my car -- they'd have that covered for sure, and the Imperial Palace Parking garage was small and closed off. It would be a turkey shoot in there. My best bet was to stay with these people in the elevator, try and slip out into the streets in the confusion and get some distance. That was, of course, assuming I could blend in, and that they didn't have guys waiting at every exit.

When the elevator doors opened, the people inside with me simply joined the chaos in the lobby. Surprisingly, there were no cops at the front doors yet. That struck me as odd, as it felt like the little guy's buddy had been shooting at me forever, and the Strip was usually crawling with LVPD. Still, the front doors weren't covered, and the chaotic mess of people was heading that way, so I hunched down into the crowd and spilled out onto Las Vegas Boulevard with them.

Most of them were just standing around outside, not sure what to do after they'd made it out of the building. I immediately took it on my heels, sweating intensely underneath my leather coat. I didn't dare take it off, though -- the two handguns under my jacket were sure to draw some attention, especially so close to an area that had just gotten all shot up. I headed north up the Strip, but there wasn't any strategy behind that. I just wanted to put as much distance between myself and the crime scene as possible.

I knew I was in trouble. Once the cops got there, the Imperial Palace would let them know who was staying in the room that now resembled North Vietnam. About ten minutes after that, they'd have my driver's license picture in every patrol car. The Beast might as well have been parked in Guam, because as soon as the little guy's friends were off it, the cops would be on it. I had no room, no transport, about $25 in my pocket, and a credit card that had about $50 in available credit on it. Couldn't use the card anyway -- as I'd proved last night, it was a nice, easy way to track someone down.

It was pretty stupid to kick the crap out of that little guy. I know this. I should have just done what he told me and walked away, but it wasn't something I thought out. Rage was rarely logical, and that was the fuel behind the little guy's beat-down. I'd made things a whole lot worse for myself, but still...

Damn it felt good to kick the shit out of that guy.

I just kept walking, and ended up at the Riviera after a bit. I was covered in sweat, so I popped inside to get some air conditioning and will my hands to stop shaking. My heartbeat was probably still north of 100 BPM. I know the big, tough-guy move would be to say I wasn't scared, but that would be a lie. You try being calm and collected when someone just pumped a couple of hundred rounds in your direction.

As I wandered around the casino floor, I realized I needed to make a couple of phone calls. The little guy had threatened Mike and Quentin, and while I was sure they could both take care of themselves, I needed to give them a heads-up. My cell battery was still pretty well charged, but the roaming charges were going to be killer. Yeah, you think of strange stuff when you're in panic mode.

I called Mike first and explained what had happened. Mike has more cop buddies than any man I know. It's one of the perks of his job, and the fact that he's actually pretty likeable. He wasn't happy with the situation I'd gotten him into, but I was sure he'd be fine. He'd let his cop buddies know someone was out there with a grudge against him, and they'd keep an eye on him.

Quentin was armed to the teeth and never left the house, so I was even less worried about him. He had cameras covering every inch of his crappy-looking property, so no one would even get close without him knowing about it. Still, I gave him a ring and let him know what was up.

"Damn, man. Another person out to get me? You got a name or anything?"

"Nah. Little guy. Eastern European. Tough as shit. And he has friends."

"No ID at all on him?"

When Quentin asked, I remembered the pin on the little guy's lapel. More importantly, I suddenly remembered where I'd seen it before -- on a wall behind a disinterested secretary in Santa Monica.

"Umbra Dynamics," I told Quentin. "I think the little guy works for them."

"Oh, shit. You really got us into a mess now, boss," Quentin groaned.

"What? You know something about Umbra Dynamics?"

"A bit. Nothing good."

"Think you can hack them for me, get me something to work with?"

I could hear Quentin cover the phone, and even with his hand over the reciever, I could still hear him laugh hysterically for a couple of seconds.

"Seriously, Jake. Umbra is un-fucking-hackable. They're a Defense Department contractor, but they're harder to hack than the Pentagon. If they don't want to kill me already, me trying to hack them will definitely put me on their kill list."

"You saying it can't be done?" I said, smirking to myself in spite of the situation. I knew how Quentin would respond to that.

"Whoa, whoa. Hold on there, big guy. No one said I couldn't. It'd just be a bad idea."

"Hey, you can't do it, you can't do it. No worries."

"Fuck. Give me ten hours. I'll meet you on the top floor of the Stratosphere at midnight," he growled.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chapter Seven

I looked like hell when I got back to the Imperial Palace, as I could tell from the girl at the front desk shaking her head slightly when she saw me. My nose was still running like mad, and I couldn't keep my eyes open for more than a couple of seconds at a time without needing to blink. They didn't sting as much anymore, though, which was nice.

A shower was the first order of business. I still didn't look great when I got out -- my nose was still running, and both eyes were still red and puffy. I had the beginnings of a shiner on my left eye. An angry blood vessel had also popped in the left eye, though I'm not sure if it was from the pepper spray or the guy's mega-punch to my skull. Damn if he didn't hit hard for a little dude.

I was feeling a little better, though. I could keep my eyes open a reasonable amount of time now, and nothing felt like it was burning. That was a plus. I decided to catch some breakfast and scope out the address on the business card I'd found before I got punked by a guy half my size.

Yeah, I was still smarting on that one.

If you want a cheap breakfast, Vegas is the place to get it, especially in the casinos. They want you to spend your money gambling, not on things like food. For the change in my pocket, I got access to the Palace's breakfast buffet. It wasn't what I would really call good, but there was a lot of it.

After breakfast, it was time to check out the address in North Vegas. Sure, it was hot as fuck out, but going to North Vegas in the daylight was infinitely preferable to going there after dark.

If you've just been to Las Vegas on vacation, you've probably only seen the Strip, maybe Old Town. You might even think Vegas is a perfectly nice city, but man would you be wrong. If you really think that, try an experiment -- walk about three blocks off the North Strip (you know, around Sahara and Stratosphere). See how quick you feel like you're about to get murdered, even in broad daylight. From what I've seen on my previous work trips, most of Las Vegas is a fucking ghetto, plain and simple.

So, even in midmorning, and even with my best buddy Sig Sauer riding shotgun, I wasn't exactly crazy over the prospect of going way off the strip to this random address. I had no idea what I was going to find there, but if my adventures in Compton the day before were any indication, it would probably be something fucked up.

I considered again just walking away, just cutting my losses, going home, and looking for any other job but this one to pay the bills. The cost-benefit ratio on Bounty Hunting was going down with each passing minute, what with getting shot at twice in as many days and some little dude beating the crap out of me. Throwing in for some Welfare looked great right about then.

One thing I inherited from my dad, though, was stubbornness. I guess I just can't leave well enough alone, ever. At least I didn't inherit his alcoholism, too. So I retrieved the Beast from the Imperial Palace's parking garage, got a map of Las Vegas from a 7-11 just off the Strip, and plotted my way out of the good part of the city.

Compton was a ghetto, but at least it didn't really look like it. For the most part, people took care of their property, mowed their lawns, kept their houses from falling apart. That wasn't the case in North Las Vegas. Trash on the lawns wasn't uncommon, at least in the rare places you could find lawns. Mostly, the neighborhoods were concrete and sand, with a little more concrete and some dirt thrown in for good measure. Cars were broken-down, dented, and dirty, but no real rust thanks to the desert climate.

Then there was the smell. Ever walk behind a strip-mall Chinese restaurant on a hot day? The garbage rotting in the sun -- that was the exact smell that hit me as I drove deeper into North Vegas. I would've loved to have rolled the windows up, but the mercury was already past 100, and as I mentioned before, the Beast's air conditioning was theoretical at this point. I resloved that if I ever tracked down Laura Mills and got paid, the first thing I was doing was getting the damn AC fixed.

I passed out of the residential areas and found myself in what looked like a broken-down business park, one that had been built about 10 years ago. It looked like some developer had optimistically thought he could turn this neighborhood into a business zone, but I doubt even one corporation moved in. The place looked completely abandoned, and I double-checked my notes. I was in the right place, but I was the only one there as near as I could tell.

I killed the engine and sat back to take a look at the place. Just because I didn't see anyone right away didn't mean the place was really abandoned, so I opened the 20-ounce bottle of Pepsi I'd bought with the map and settled back into the Beast's rapidly-warming leather front seat.

First thing I noticed was that the entire park was surrounded by a high, chain-link fence. That wasn't too surprising, really, nor was the barbed wire on top of the fence. Abandoned or not, whoever still owned the place probably didn't want homeless folks crashing there, or opportunistic thieves stealing copper pipes and wiring out of the walls. Even if the place wasn't pulling in any money, it didn't make sense to just let the ghetto swallow it back up again.

I wasn't there too long -- maybe five minutes -- when the first security car looped around the parking lot. It came from behind the furthest of the three buildings, driving slowly along with its windows up and its lights off. Again, that wasn't too out of the ordinary on its own. Some of the above-mentioned homeless people or thieves might try to get around the gate, so hiring some minimum-wage security was a reasonable investment. The car took about three or four minutes to pass by where I was parked, and didn't even really slow down as it drove by.

Ten minutes later, either the same car or an identical one made another loop through the parking lot. This one, though, sped up as soon as I saw him (and, I'm guessing, as soon as he saw me). His lights went on as he hammered toward me, so there was little doubt he was coming to see why the hell I was just hanging out there. Time to go. I started the Beast and tore away from the curb.

I figured the security car would just come up to the gate and stop when he saw I was leaving, probably take down my license plate number and keep it on file. That wasn't the case. He didn't even slow down as he approached the gate, which rattled open for him. He shot out into the street and jammed on the gas -- and if I wasn't sure that he was after me, the gunfire that started up a second later sure convinced me.

I didn't know who the hell these guys were, but no way were they going to be able to hang with me. In addition to driving a faster car (they were driving what looked like a Taurus), I knew I was a better driver. Rent-a-cops, no matter how good, just cannot hang with a fully trained stunt driver. No way in hell.

I chanced a look through the rearview as I hammered the gas pedal. There were two of them, one driving, the other leaning out the window with either an M-16 or an AR-15. The way I was juking the Beast in and out of oncoming traffic, the guy with the assault rifle was having a hard time hitting me. I heard bullets crack against the pavement, slam into a bus shelter on the side of the road, tag other cars... but the Beast was fine.

I was in the ghetto, and I hadn't seen a cop since I came into that neighborhood. The security car, like most, was painted up sort of like a police car, but different enough that no one would mistake it for one. That's the only reason I can figure that someone else opened fire on it as I passed a block of apartment buildings crumbling in the desert sun -- that whoever was shooting knew these weren't real cops, and were therefore open game. I guessed it was some gangbanger or criminal badass wanting to take a chunk out of these guys, but the motive didn't matter. Someone was helping me out, whether he intended to or not.

I would have been able to lose the rent-a-cops on my own, but it turned out I didn't have to. The mysterious shooter -- my benefactor, I guess -- put several rounds in the hood of the Taurus, and the thing stopped dead as I rocketed on back toward the relative safety of the Strip.

As I eased the Beast down to the normal speed limit -- no sense in getting pulled over by a real cop now that I was heading back to civilization -- I tried to plan my next move. That all depended on the information I had been able to piece together so far, which didn't take long at all to go through. I had a missing woman, Laura Mills, 31 years old. Her listed employer was Umbra Dynamics in Santa Monica, a company that claimed never to have heard of her. She was pulled over and detained on a failure to appear, but her bail had been set astronomically high for unknown reasons. Her brother -- I assume -- was shot down in a carjacking in Compton on his way to... what? And she had gone to Las Vegas for... what?

Like I said, didn't take long. Didn't much help me plan any next moves, either. But from the sweat soaking my shirt thanks to the heat, my next move was going to have to be a shower and a change of clothes. The Imperial Palace it was. I piloted the Beast into the parking garage and trudged off to my room.

It wasn't as I'd left it. Oh, the duffel bag was still haphazardly thrown on one of the queen beds, sitting open and rifled through. The dirty clothes from yesterday were still kicked into a pile in the corner of the room. But when I left, there wasn't a little guy in a black suit sitting in the armchair across from the door. Same little guy in a black suit who had kicked my ass a few hours ago. Looked like I wasn't the only one who knew that trick with the card readers on the door.

"Your persistence borders on psychosis, my friend," the little guy said, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his coat. His voice had a thick accent -- somewhere from Eastern Europe, I guessed.

"First, we're not friends. Second, you have ten seconds to get the fuck out of my room before I --"

"Reach for the Sig Sauer in the left inside pocket of your jacket?" he asked, smiling. "I would not suggest that."

The little guy nodded down at my chest, and I chanced a look. A little red dot was floating just above my heart. Shit.

"Now, please, sit. We need to have a conversation."

Though I knew there was a sniper somewhere outside waiting to put a large-caliber bullet through my chest, I seriously considered going for the Sig anyway. Sighing, I sat on the bed across from the little guy.

"Fine. Let's talk."