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.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Chapter Five

I tried to get Mike on the phone again, to let him know I was following the BMW into Compton, but service sucked in this part of town. My battery was circling the drain, so I'm sure that didn't help, either.

Well, no problem there, I thought. At least he won't wonder where you went. He'll probably see it on the news.

My brain, apparently, is a pessimist.

The BMW crawled further into Compton, where it kind of stuck out like a sore thumb. I knew we were in a bad neighborhood when my car blended in quite a bit more than a model-year BMW in Los Angeles. Still, the BMW had dark, tinted windows, and I was riding around in the twilight with my windows down. Damn broken air conditioning.

I couldn't imagine what a 30-year-old white guy from Long Beach would be doing in Compton, much less when it was getting dark outside. Usually, a guy going to the ghetto meant drugs, but something told me that wasn't the issue here. No, he was here for something else, and I'd have to follow him to figure out what.

And the following part wasn't exactly easy. There were few cars on the road as we drove through the residential neighborhoods -- just me and him, really. And though my car might have blended a little better down here than his, it had to become pretty obvious to the guy that someone was tailing him. If he didn't think that, he was an idiot. Still, he made no attempt to speed up or to lose me, so I don't know -- maybe he was stupid. I didn't get the chance to ask him.

I do know that he should have rolled through that stop sign. It was dark enough out now that the BMW's headlights switched on, and I turned on the Beast's, as well. As the BMW slowed to a stop, another, much older BMW shot into the intersection in front of it and slammed on the brakes. Two men got out of the older Beamer, and another appeared out of the darkness on the driver's side. They all had guns, two .45s and a 12-gauge shotgun. One of the guys from the old BMW pointed his pistol in my direction while the other two pulled the white guy out of his vehicle.

"Just stay cool and you ain't gonna get shot," one of the carjackers growled at the white guy, who was on his back on the pavement.

"Please... I need my car. I have somewhere I need to be," the white guy pleaded.

"Shut up and stay down," one of the other thugs warned.

"Hey, you want the Buick, too?" the thug with his gun trained on me yelled.

"Nah. Can't do much with that piece of shit," the one with the shotgun -- my guess, the leader -- said.

"Look, I can pay you," the white guy said, standing up from the pavement.

"Stay cool!" the carjacker with the 12-gauge yelled.

"I have the money right here --"

The white guy reached into his jacket, and the 12-gauge jacker made sure it was the last thing he'd ever do. Even loaded with slugs, the 12-gauge turned the guy's torso into ground beef in a split second. I knew I was next -- no point in leaving witnesses -- so I threw the Beast into reverse and stomped hard on the gas, rocketing backwards even as bullets started flying. One cracked through the windshield on the passenger side just as I whipped the Beast into a wild J-turn and shot down a side street.

* * *

There was no thought of calling the police this time. No thought of reporting this dead body, at least not yet. My only thoughts were ones of survival, fired into my reptile cortex in quick, brutal bursts. Drive. Don't crash. Lose them. I was a witness, and I knew they'd be after me as soon as they could manage it. I pulled out my Sig Sauer and thumbed off the safety as I jammed the gas pedal to the floor.

The Beast was a great-looking car, and it was fast in its day, but its day was almost thirty years ago. The '88 BMW could probably catch it, and the brand-new one could smoke it easily. Worse, these guys had to know the neighborhood a lot better than I did. My only chance was to head directly for the freeway, open the Beast up as much as it would go, and hope they'd give up after we got out of Compton.

I made it to the freeway without seeing another set of headlights. No gunshots, either. As I hammered the Beast up the onramp, I realized that no one was following me, but I wasn't going to push my luck and head back in. No way to tell where the dead guy was headed now anyway. The trail had gone cold as soon as the guy in the BMW had hit the ground.

It should have been time to give up. Nothing was worth this kind of hassle, having all my leads vanish as soon as I found them. And two dead bodies on a case was two more than my limit. But I never said I was smart -- I just said I was big. Now I wanted nothing more than to know what the fuck was going on, and I was going to find out. I'd mentioned earlier that I had other tricks up my sleeve, and I was going to use them.

Problem was, some of them were on the ragged edge of legal. And the other ones... well, they weren't even close to legal at all.

* * *

Quentin lived in a house in Silver Lake that, from the outside, really looked like shit. The lawn was patchy, overgrown in some places and dirt in others. He had a 1986 Chevy Celebrity with a busted-out back window in the narrow driveway and boards over most of the front windows. There were plant pots along the front porch, but most of them were filled with dirt. Only one had a plant in it, a snake plant with brown, drooping leaves. I think it got watered only when it rained.

The house's outside appearance, though, was carefully crafted, or so he once told me.

"The amount of gear I have in here, man -- worth several hundred thousand dollars on the black market. I'd hate if someone thought the house looked too nice and decided to break in to see what I had in here."

Truthfully, I just think Quentin was too lazy to go outside and maintain his property, but whatever. The guy could get shit done, and that's what I needed right now.

I called his cell phone as I drove into the neighborhood. That was protocol. You didn't just roll up on Quentin's house and knock on the door, not unless you wanted to open it to find him waiting with a shotgun pointed at you. Apart from being lazy, Quentin was paranoid as all hell, probably because of the sheer amount of quasi-legal and illegal shit he was up to in there.

"Come around the back door, brother," he told me when I called. "And try to be quiet this time. Neighbor's dog is all sorts of keyed up tonight."

I parked the Beast along the street and locked it, though any truly determined thief could just probably tap on the windshield where the bullets had cracked it and get in that way. I walked through the weeds and dirt to the back fence, carefully opened the gate, and crept toward the back door. The dog Quentin was so worried about was sitting happily on the other side of the chain link, panting and wagging her tail at me. She was maybe twenty pounds on a good day.

I knocked softly on the back door, and it opened almost immediately. Quentin was standing there in a pair of jeans, a Metallica T-shirt, and no shoes. He had a Glock .23 in his right hand, and he looked all around before looking at me.

"All right, man. Get in here. Quick."

You know how some people are insane, but it's kinda cute? Eccentric, I think, is the word. Quentin's about a tick above that -- no longer cute, but mostly harmless, despite the several guns he had stashed around his house.

As I stepped into the crumbling three-bedroom ranch-style house, a blast of uncomfortably chilly air hit me. This was normal for Quentin's place -- he had his air conditioner running 24-7. He'd even strategically placed a couple of window-box units around the house in addition to the central air to help keep some of the hot spots cool. I guessed the temperature was somewhere around 55 degrees, and as a local, I just wasn't used to people keeping their houses this cold. It was like walking through the frozen section at a supermarket.

"So what brings you by tonight, as if you ever just drop in socially?" Quentin asked, closing the door behind me and closing one, two, three deadbolts.

"I need some help tracking someone," I said, holding up Laura Mills' file folder with my left hand.

"Right. How long have they been in the wind?" He asked, taking the file folder and leading me into the living room.

"Less than 48 hours," I said, looking around at the thirty or forty computer towers humming away all the way around the baseboards. It was a bit warmer in this room, thanks to all the working machines.

"OK. Let's see what we can do, here," Quentin said, flopping down on the couch and typing into one of his machines. A huge monitor in the center of an ancient, heavy wooden coffee table flickered to life, and I tried to find some surface to sit on. I was prepared for this to take a while.

Turns out, it didn't even take five minutes. I was just clearing off what appeared to be a footstool to sit on when Quentin looked up from his monitor.

"You feeling lucky?" he asked.

"Not particularly."

"Too bad. Looks like you're headed to Las Vegas."