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."

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