As I strolled into the main hall of the casino, the pit boss Marko Brunelli brushed up beside me. We both knew we didn't like each other. I had no respect for fat, Mafia wannabes and Brunelli had made it clear he despised “over-confident, macho-type outsiders, regardless whether they had served in Special Forces.” Brunelli told me he used to break “punks like me” in two back in his old Brooklyn neighborhood. I was sure he was looking forward to breaking me, as he looked at me with a smirking grin and his pudgy fingers adjusted the toothpick between a gap in his cigar-stained teeth.
“Looks like you got lucky, heh Nikkie boy?”
I snarled. I didn't like terms of endearment. Especially that one.
“Maybe you'se and the owner have something going on? Huh?” Brunelli enjoyed giving me the treatment. “I mean, head of security in less than a month?” He removed the frayed toothpick from his mouth, turned it around and put the other end between his teeth. “Damn if you ain't moving up the company ladder.”
I was on the verge of ruining the fat man's day when something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. Among the small crowd of gamblers at the number two craps table a woman had just been slapped. It had been delivered painfully yet discreetly, in an effort not to draw attention, but I detected it nonetheless. With a tight jaw I approached the table.
“Problem?” I asked as I eyed the woman, who was trying inconspicuously to nurse her wound. An attractive blonde with the body to boot, she had an elegant yet dangerous air. In contrast, the large tycoon type beside her smelled of money. He picked up the dice slid to him, ignoring the question.
"No. No problem," the woman replied in a tentative voice. She lowered her hand in an effort to draw attention away from her face. I noticed the red splotch just below her baby blue eyes.
My gaze shifted to the man beside her. I knew his kind well; long on dough but short on class. I could tell by the fur coat and gold jewelry the man was the type who liked to flash around money; and slap around women. Sad thing was, because of the money, most women put up with it. Like this one. Occasional pain was part of the price. But not today, at least not while I was around.
The man continued to ignore my presence as he rolled double sixes. The dealer pushed three tall columns of blue chips in his direction as he announced, "Boxcars. The gentleman in the fur coat wins again." The touristy onlookers around the table clapped and cheered. The man acted nonchalant; yet I saw a greedy smile flash briefly on his thin lips.
After rolling snake-eyes, amid the audible disappointment of the crowd, the man finally decided to acknowledge my presence. Without lifting his eyes from the table, he paused before throwing the next pair and spoke: "Do you have a problem?"
Before I could respond, I felt a large hand pull abruptly on my arm.
"That's Mr. Diamond," interrupted the heavy set pit boss. "He's a good guest at the hotel. Very good guest."
Brunelli gave the man a friendly nod and then turned to leave with me. Only I didn't leave.
"Let me know if there is anything I can do." I looked squarely at the blonde. Our eyes locked together until she shamefully withdrew her gaze. I wanted to ring that rich bastard's neck but instead I turned and left, with the self-satisfied pit boss following smugly behind. I hated what money did to some people.
* * *
1:30 am. It had been a long day. As I slid on my blazer and prepared to leave, I noticed the blonde beauty from the craps table seated alone at the far end of the bar in the Venus Lounge. Her elegance seemed out of place amid the tawdry velour surroundings of the night club as she gracefully leaned forward on her elbows and blew a lazy thread of blue smoke into the air. As I approached, apparently unnoticed, I noted the double scotch in front of her. By the look of her, I didn't think it was her first. Or her second.
Thinking I'd let her start the conversation, I took the adjacent stool and gave the bartender a friendly nod.
"How's it hanging, Daryl?" I asked, popping an olive into my mouth.
"Good, Mr. Russo. About ready to call it a day?"
I winced at the formality. This guy was beginning to sound just like Wang, my assistant security agent, always with the Mister crap. Being head of security didn't mean people had to call me by my last name. Hell, I worked for a living just like everyone else. A month ago the bartender had known me simply as 'Nick'.
"Yeah. It's been a long one." I looked at my watch; fifteen hours and still counting.
"Coffee?" The bartender asked.
I nodded and stretched my tired back muscles as I stole a sideways glance at the girl beside me. She was busy toying with her drink while running her well-manicured fingers nervously through her hair. As I looked at her, I could tell she was deep in thought and seemed frightened. Very frightened. I then had a change of heart about going first.
"Care to talk about it?"
The words appeared to jar the young woman from her thoughts and she looked at me as if noticing my presence for the first time. Vanessa Diamond regarded me for a long moment. Then, as if catching herself, she turned back, staring past the alcohol in her glass. "I'm sorry but I don't discuss my life with strangers."
I popped another olive. It was late and I was tired, but the girl seemed in need of a sympathetic ear so I decided to let the tough exterior fade for the moment. Anyway, I could sense something intriguing behind those eyes. I had a real soft spot for baby blues. I smiled and extended an open hand toward her. "I can fix that," I said. "Nick Russo. Head of hotel security, at your service."
"Vanessa," she said, placing her delicate hand in mine. "Vanessa Wayne-Diamond." The emphasis on the Wayne struck me as sudden and contrived. I let the thought go as the bartender delivered a cup of coffee.
"So," I asked, sipping from the cup, "how's the face?"
She shook her head agitatedly, soft shiny curls bouncing off her shoulders. "He can be a real bastard sometimes." She paused and corrected herself. "Make that most of the time."
I started to say something when she interrupted. "Sometimes I don't know why I ever left Belle Plaine. Seems my life was simpler, less confusing." She drank from the glass. "Happier."
Vanessa continued, "But I wanted to be someone, someone special. I wanted to see the world." She looked down in disgust, adjusting the neckline of her dress. "Only not at this price."
I searched my mind for the right words. I felt compelled to provide some kind of encouragement but the best my weary mind could come up with sounded trite: "Hey kid. It's never too late to change."
"I know. That's why I'm leaving. First thing in the morning." She tugged a slightly crumpled airline ticket from her small purse. "Non-stop flight for Paris. I've decided to give myself a vacation before starting a new life."
I looked at the young woman with praise but something in the back of my mind pestered me. Dismissing it, I heard myself say, "Good for you, kid. Good for you." She seemed to have a good head on her shoulders, I thought as I pulled the sleeve of my blazer back to see my watch face. It read a quarter 'till two. I knew if I left now, I could almost squeeze in a good five hours sleep before I had to be back on the job tomorrow morning.
"Here kid, take one of my cards," I said, pressing it into her hand. "If you're ever in trouble, give me a ring."
She nodded knowingly.
I spun off the bar stool, slapped a few bills on the counter and winked at her as I left. "G'Night, Mrs. Diamond."
* * *
The ringing from the telephone jarred me from a sound sleep. I clumsily groped until finding the receiver, bringing it to my ear slowly as I drifted into reality. The dark gypsy who had inhabited my dream, foretelling my future with body language, gradually dissolved into nothingness.
The voice on the other end of the phone sounded excited and apologetic. It was Larry Wang, my young right-hand man in security. My eyes painfully focused on the digital alarm clock: Shit. Only 5:30am.
"Hate to bother you so early, Mr. Russo. There's some trouble at the hotel."
This better be damn important, I thought, scratching my head as I mourned the loss of my dark-haired dream-girl. "What kind of trouble, Wang?"
"Someone's been murdered. A guest. Mr. Andrew Diamond."
The words shook the remaining sleep from me as I sat up and responded quickly. "I'll be right there. Wang...?"
"Where's Mrs. Diamond?"
"The police have her in custody."
I hung up the receiver and started getting ready. In the hot shower, I thought about the blonde and her attempts to make a new life for herself. She had almost convinced me that she could beat the odds. But, shaking my head as I dressed, I chided myself for almost believing people could change. It was the same old story with the same old ending. I then pulled the leather shoulder holster carrying my reliable Beretta out of the closet. Better safe than sorry, I thought, as I slipped it over my crisp white shirt.
* * *
As I entered the casino, I noticed a few men in blue taking statements from some of the hotel employees. Wang had a couple of Las Vegas's finest swarming around him as he waved to me with a walkie-talkie in his hand. I had no patience this morning to waste my time answering the perfunctory questions of the cops. They would find their way to me soon enough. So I looked at Wang and without saying anything, mouthed the words, "Which floor?"
"Penthouse," the thin, dark-haired oriental mouthed back, pointing upwards, amid the questions of one of the cops.
Good kid, that Wang, I thought as I pressed the 'UP' elevator button. A moment passed before the doors slid opened and I stepped inside. However, just after I stepped in, I noticed two dark suits slip in behind me.
The sudden appearance of the Mafia-types startled me. They each shouldered themselves firmly against me, looming ominously as the three of us rode the elevator up together. I then became aware of the end of a muzzle sticking into my ribs. I reminded myself again why I hated Mafia wannabees.
"You know, it's funny," the big thug on the left started, as he looked down at me with cold black eyes. The italian meatball had the smell of garlic heavy on his breath and I noted the peculiarity of its existence so early in the morning. The man spoke, "First this Diamond fella steals over a quarter million dollars from the Gambini family, then he gets battery acid poured all over his sweet little mug. And the next thing you know his old lady ends up in the slammer with guess who's card stuck in her purse?"
I silently cursed the Las Vegas police. Obviously, the mob had some strong connections; how else could they have known?
"Sounds too much like a coincidence to me," the other menacing slab mumbled, regarding his grimy fingernails. I noted the man's cliched attire: Black suit, black shirt, black tie and the other one dressed almost identically. Typical Mafia fare.
"You boys headed to a funeral or something?"
Whatever expressions of indifference they may have shown quickly turned cold-sober and I fought to curtail a wince as the muzzle sank deep into my ribcage. The owner of the piece announced, "This guy's a real comedian, heh Lenny?"
His partner bent forward and looked at me with eyes of a killer shark, cold and lifeless. I felt tiny beads of sweat forming on my palms; I may have pushed my luck too far. "If we find out you'se had anything to do with the money or this broad, you're gonna be looking down the wrong end of a .38."
The man with the greasy fingernails grabbed one of my lapels. "Then we'll be dressing up to go to your funeral. Got that, smart guy?"
I allowed my silence to serve as my understanding. A moment passed and a tone signaled the elevator's arrival at the hotel's top floor. I stepped out, adjusted my blazer, and then let out a deep breath. I cursed my legs for feeling wobbly. In my anger I turned and watched the elevator doors slowly close in front of the goons who had escorted me up. Then, brushing myself off, I rubbed my ribs and considered what had just occurred. "Goddamn gun-toting goons," I said to myself as I headed down the plush hallway toward Diamond's suite.
* * *
I noticed a lot of activity at the end of the hall as I approached. A thin yellow banner made of plastic bearing the words, "Crime Scene, Do Not Cross" stretched across the open doorway to the penthouse. Just inside, police crime analysts busied themselves searching for evidence and a police photographer scurried around taking snapshots using a special camera with a wide-angle lens.
As I ducked under the yellow banner, a young police man placed a hand on my shoulder. I started for my identification when a deep voice just inside the door said, "That's okay, Sergeant. He's head of hotel security."
I looked up and saw the tall, gaunt, familiar figure of Detective Woods. He was waving me in with a notepad in one hand and a Styrofoam cup of coffee in the other. The shabby overcoat Woods wore camouflaged his angular, wiry frame. As I stepped into the room and rounded a large aquarium by the entrance, I saw the dead man lying at the detective's feet.
"Not a pretty picture," the detective said, taking a loud sip from his cup.
A lump formed in my throat as I eyed the figure. Almost immediately I became aware of the acute, acrid smell of battery acid coming up from the horribly disfigured face. The visage looked all the more grotesque in contrast to the elegant, silk blue pajamas worn by the body below. A dark pool of blood, forming a large circle on the carpet, surrounded the area of what used to be the man's head. Next to the body a partially corroded Die-Hard car battery laid on its side with its filler caps removed. It appeared completely empty.
"Near as we can tell," the detective began," someone bludgeoned him from behind and then proceeded to use that to turn his face into goo." He motioned toward the battery.
"Any sign of forced entry?"
The detective shook his head. "Nope. Apparently he opened the door for his assailant, meaning he must have known him."
I nodded my understanding.
"Or," the detective continued, "it was a hotel employee, someone you'd naturally open the door for. Like a maid or someone."
My mind was busy eyeing the scene when the detective's next question caught me off guard. "So you were with the Mrs. last night? Care to talk about it?" The detective had pad and pencil at the ready.
"Not much to say, really. She told me she was leaving for Paris this morning."
"One of the hotel pit bosses said you had a confrontation with Mr. Diamond yesterday in the casino. That true?"
Damn that Brunelli; couldn't keep from throwing in his two-cents worth. "I noticed a brief altercation between him and his wife and, being the conscientious security chief that I am, I asked if there was a problem. That was it. End of story." I was growing impatient with the detective's line of questioning. I started to wonder whether Woods suspected me of any wrong-doing. "You gonna ask me for an alibi now? What about the girl?"
"Take it easy, champ. Coroner's already set the time of death at around two in the morning." Woods flipped open his notepad, pushed a couple of pages back and continued, "According to the bartender, you left the bar at around two to go home. Right?"
"That's right," I said, my eyes drawn back to the body.
"As for the broad, the bartender says she hung around a few hours and continued to get herself soused up. In fact, we've already released her. So you got nothing to worry about." The detective paused, taking another noisy slurp from his coffee. "... As long as home is where you headed."
* * *
As I walked back out into the main casino a thousand thoughts clouded my mind. My oriental assistant intercepted me. Wang, noticing that I was deep in thought, seemed apprehensive about asking something. I decided to help him out with it. "What is it, Wang?"
"Police want to know if it's okay to use the fax machine. They want to get a copy of the deceased's dental records and make the match-up here."
"Why not at the morgue where he belongs?"
"I don't know. They seem to be anxious to identify the body. I told them to keep their clothes on until I checked with you."
"That's shirts on," I corrected with irritation. "Okay," I eased, but then quickly added before letting Wang run off, "anything that comes through I want a copy of it." I understood the police's desire for a quick match-up after seeing the body. Plus, if I knew the Mafia, they were applying pressure of their own to make certain the man who stole their money and the man with his face turned inside out was one and the same.
Restless, I stood alone in the lobby and took in my surroundings. Police still swarmed most of the casino but guests and tourists were beginning to filter in slowly. In a few hours, the casino would be back to normal, raking in its usual two million dollars a day. I looked at my watch. 7:30am. Even though my mind was trying to untangle a million thoughts, I felt hungry. I stopped one of the hotel pages who passed by and said, "I'll be in the Coffee Shop if anyone needs me."
* * *
I polished off the rest of my coffee and pushed the empty cup away from me. A pretty young waitress wearing a tight, short, skirt that showed a lot of leg offered another refill but I politely waived her off. I continued to go over in my mind the brief conversation I'd had with Mrs. Diamond, searching for clues. Something she had said stuck in my head but I couldn't quite jar it loose. Not yet anyway. I eased my mind by concluding it was nothing to worry about.
As I rose to leave, I felt a hand on my shoulder gently push me back into the booth. I looked up and saw Detective Woods.
"Hey there, Slick."
I could tell by the tone and choice of words the Detective had something.
"What's up, Woods? Any luck with the investigation?"
"You tell me." Woods clasped his hands together and plopped them on the table, waiting for an answer.
"What do you mean?"
The detective's eyes looked unassuming, but I knew the seasoned detective was carefully scrutinizing my face, looking for a sign of guilt, a 'tell'. After a long pause, the detective slowly pulled out a folded sheet of paper from within his jacket and placed it on the table between us.
"Want to explain this?"
I sensed something wrong as I reached out and unfolded the paper. As I looked at it, I realized it was a xerox copy of a check and a deposit slip. The slip had a name and bank account number scrawled across it in what appeared to be a man's handwriting. The name was 'Mr. Nick Russo' and the amount on the check below it read 'Twenty-five thousand dollars.' I swallowed; my blood was beginning to boil. As I studied the paper copy in my hands, I noted the signature at the bottom of the check: 'Vanessa W. Diamond'.
"This is bullshit," I said, more to myself than to the detective. I could feel a wave of anger beginning to overtake me. Some sonabitch was obviously setting me up.
"Imagine that," Woods sarcastically began. "Twenty-five G's payable to one Mr. Nick Russo. Recently promoted head of hotel security. Now why do you think Mrs. Diamond would be writing you a check for twenty-five thousand dollars?"
I was way ahead of the detective, my mind searching for answers.
"Handled any car batteries lately, Slick?"
"Look, Woods. This is a friggin' set-up. You know it and I know it." I spun the copy back to the detective. "If you got something on me, then get on with it." I rose to my feet. "Otherwise, stay out of my way. I've got a casino to look after."
"There's more..." The detective said.
I placed my hands on the table and faced him. "What now?"
Woods continued. "We found the murder weapon. Nightstick. Like the kind used by security."
The surprise hit me hard. I suddenly felt the walls closing in around me.
"Sent it to the lab for prints." The detective continued. "We should know in less than an hour." Woods' eyes continued to pour over my face, searching for some sign of recognition. After a long minute he spoke. "I hope for your sake they're not yours, Russo. But if you see me back down here again, you can be sure I'm not coming to shoot the breeze. I'll have an arrest warrant with me."
I quickly interjected. "I assumed your men checked to see if she boarded a flight for Paris?"
"What flight? We checked with the airport first thing this morning and there ain't no flights headed to Paris. I think it's obvious she's skipped town."
I scolded myself for being so gullible. Non-stop flight for Paris. She had me falling for it all; hook, line and sinker.
"If she's still around town, we'll find her," Woods confirmed. "As for you," he said, rising to his feet, "I wouldn't take a vacation anytime soon."
I didn't reply, but now I knew I had something to worry about. Something serious to worry about.
* * *
"Good morning," smiled the cheery desk clerk.
I didn’t answer. I was too busy trying to unravel the mystery in my head and read the letter the clerk had just given me at the same time.
"You say you don't remember who delivered this?"
"No sir," the clerk answered, the plastic smile fading as he nervously adjusted his uniformed jacket. It was obvious to me the man was becoming intimidated by me. "The hotel has lots of guests and..."
I nodded impatiently. Yeah, yeah. Blah, blah. I don’t give a damn how many guests the hotel has. But if someone's playing me for the fool, then they've got another thing coming, I thought as I folded the letter and slid it into my breast pocket. Then I walked away before having to stomach any more of the clerk's obsequious platitudes. I didn’t have time for that. I had murder on my mind.
* * *
I entered through the door marked "Authorized Personnel Only" carefully going over in my mind the events of the past twenty-four hours. Next to a cabinet labeled "Personnel" sat a young, female security guard in a gray uniform closely monitoring rows of black and white screens where different vantage points of the casino appeared in alternating fashion. I failed to return her smiled hello as I opened the filing drawer and removed several manilla folders. As I headed into my office with the folders, I passed another uniformed guard with a headset sitting before a table supporting radio equipment and several unused walkie-talkie units. I entered my office and saw Wang leaned up against my desk eating microwaved popcorn and reviewing the police reports. Wang greeted me with a wide grin as I closed the door behind me.
"Some kind of excitement out here today, heh, Mr. Russo?"
I did not share the young man's level of enthusiasm for I had more important matters on my mind. I tossed the note the desk clerk had given me on the table as I threw my blazer across an empty chair. "What do you make of that?"
Wang, sensing the mystery, picked it up and read the handwritten note aloud. "N. R. Here's a clue: It's one of the hotel employees and you're going to let the situation gnaw at you until you turn it around." Wang looked up at me with a questioning grin. "Some kind of riddle? What do you suppose it means?"
I shrugged. I was at the end of my rope and my grip was beginning to loosen. "What about the dental records?" I asked. "Did they confirm Diamond as the dead man?"
"Yessir. Tried to get a copy too like you said but the police were all over the place like rice on white making sure they got whatever came off before we could get our hands on it."
"Damn!" I cursed, running my fingers through my hair. Normally Wang's inept attempts at English colloquialisms amused me, but at the present the focus of my mind on the matter at hand was all consuming. Frustrated by the lack of clues, I wandered aimlessly out to the administrative area where they kept a pot of hot coffee brewing around the clock. My watch read 10:30am and already I felt drained.
* * *
I drank the last of my fourth cup of coffee and leaned tiredly against the counter. In my mind flashed brief segments of the events from the past twenty-four hours. I thought of my minor confrontation with Diamond at the gaming table and of my midnight chat with Diamond's beautiful blonde wife. I considered the elevator ride with the two large henchmen. Horrid images of Diamond's disfigured face intertwined with visions of Vanessa's loveliness formed a grotesque collage in my head. I tried to shake it free and clear my thoughts.
As I rested, I tried to look over the personnel records I had pulled from the filing cabinet but my thoughts kept being drawn to the activities of an elderly administrative woman who efficiently moved from computer to printer to copier, assimilating data and preparing files. I watched with faint interest as she set out to change the printer cartridge of a large, waist-high copier machine. The woman appeared focused on her work as she pulled the front access panel open and knelt before the copier with a new cartridge in her hand. With my mind a blank, I went to pour myself another cup of coffee. As I slowly poured the coffee, my eyes peered mindlessly into the aluminum pot. Staring into the side of the coffee ewer, a strange thing occurred. I became aware of an unusual yet interesting reflection. Spelled backwards, in the reflection of the metal pot, appeared the name of the copier manufacturer. The maker had printed its logo in large black letters on the inside of the open door which the elderly lady was kneeling in front of as she worked to replace the spent cartridge, and suddenly, sadly, everything became clear.
At that exact moment, the door leading to the outside hallway burst open and Detective Woods stepped in, with two uniformed policemen followed by Wang and Brunelli at his heels. Wang carried the folded note and a shocked expression of disbelief on his face and Brunelli's face held the look of contentment one would have in seeing an old nemesis in apparent trouble. As the men approached, I inconspicuously pulled out one of the file folders I had laid on the administrative lady's desk. I hid it behind me.
"Nick, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to come with me downtown." The detective held what appeared to be a warrant in his hands.
"Let me guess. The prints on the nightstick came back and they're a match with mine, right?"
Woods nodded somberly. He motioned to one of the policemen to apply their handcuffs.
As the policeman cuffed my hands behind me, I turned to announce over my shoulder. "Good thing I know who the real killer is." The group of men fell silent as the detective reached behind me for the folder but I gave Woods a signal to play it cool. Woods backed off, returning a skeptical glance that indicated his confusion as to exactly what I was up to.
"It's obvious Mrs. Diamond wants us to catch the man who murdered her husband!"
The five men stood quietly, trying to see where I was headed. The detective spoke on behalf of all of them. "Go on, Russo, we're listening."
I continued, "Why else would she be giving away clues?" I indicated the folded sheet in Wang's hands. "Someone working for the hotel killed Diamond."
I then turned and looked squarely into Brunelli's face, so closely no one but Brunelli could read my eyes and the indication they were giving. "Last night, I saw her leave with you after I left her in the lounge. Your hands were all over her." I felt it time to turn up the heat. "What gives, Marko? Was she good in bed?"
Brunelli looked as though he was about to unleash his anger at me. And then, just as quickly as the anger arose, a hint of understanding shown in his eyes.
"Yeah, she was good in bed."
I waited. I needed more. Luckily Marko was a fast learner: "Good in bed, what am I saying?!? Hell, that bitch was good on the floor, good on the kitchen table, good in the shower, and friggin' GREAT in bed!" Brunelli was pouring it on thick now. "She couldn't get enough of me. And a moaner too, a real loud one. Too bad she's probably lying naked on a beach somewhere with some other guy's face buried between her legs. No doubt about it. That Diamond broad was a great piece of a--"
"That's enough!" burst Wang, lunging for Brunelli's throat. The others stood frozen, surprised by the sudden outburst. After quickly regaining their senses, the two police officers successfully managed to pry Wang's hands off the pit boss's throat. A moment later they escorted the sobbing, hysterical young man to a squad car parked outside the hotel.
Woods seemed flabbergasted. Finally, he looked at me with a questioning expression and, removing the handcuffs, asked, "You mentioned clues. What clue?"
I picked the note up from the ground that Wang had dropped during his outburst and handed it to the detective along with Wang's personnel file I had selected earlier. As he massaged his sore neck, Brunelli peered curiously over Wood's shoulder in an attempt to read the note held by the detective.
"You had it all figured out from this?" Woods asked.
I nodded and looked at Brunelli. "Luckily I had some help there at the end."
"I got wind you'se up to something from the look in your eye," Brunelli replied, giving me a tight smile.
The detective remained confused. "But how did you...?"
"Think about it, Woods," I carefully explained, pointing to the words in the note. "'It will gnaw at you until you turn it around.' Gnaw?"
The detective looked at me with a blank expression, then at Brunelli and shrugged. Brunelli shrugged back, equally confused.
Finally, in an effort to clear the mystery in their minds, I pulled the access door of the copier open. The manufacturer's name appeared in large bold letters across the inside of the opened panel. I carefully read it backwards. "G-N-A-W! Turn it around, Detective! Gnaw -- Wang!"
* * *
I stood on a short dais overlooking the main casino and allowed a long awaited sigh to escape my lungs. It was noon, and as I looked over the casino, I watched with mild amusement the hundred or so people dropping in coins, pulling down handles, all with the faint hope of a miracle in their eyes: winning the big one. I noticed Marko, comfortably back in his place among the main pits. Amid the normal bustle of activity the burly Italian appeared calm and in control, okaying limits, monitoring the change-outs, rotating dealers. From where he stood in the main pit in the center of the casino, Marko looked up, saw me and gestured a friendly salute, which carried with it his respect. Maybe I could learn to get along with Marko after all, I thought as I returned the gesture, unable to hide the smile of relief on my lips. Suddenly a voice from behind startled me. It was my old pal, Detective Woods.
"Well, we got Wang's full confession." Woods said. He then went on to quickly relay how Wang had gotten my prints on the nightstick and deposited the phony check into my account.
I gave a knowing nod. That explained why the payee was prefaced by 'Mr.'
"The poor bastard let himself get brainwashed by a pretty face and the lure of money." Woods said, shaking his head. "Lucky for you, you must have made a good impression on the girl."
I agreed. "Damn lucky." And then I added, "If I know her type though, she had her a one-way ticket out long before she ever met Wang."
"Yep. Oh, and by the way," the detective continued, "her maiden name isn't Wayne. Its Johnson." He shrugged, acknowledging his ignorance of the fact's importance.
"She was full of clues, that one." I said, more to myself as I recognized the similarity between Wayne and Wang and the message she had tried to deliver.
"Well," Woods concluded. "Wang should have been more careful." He then slapped me on the back with a laugh before leaving. "Try to stay out of trouble next time, pal."
I looked at the detective but didn't reply. I didn't have much sympathy for Wang, the kid who had tried to frame me for murder. A man can't let himself be distracted by a woman like that, I thought as I fingered the dog-eared business card in my pocket. A card with a telephone number across its face scribbled in a woman's handwriting. It had been attached to the note the desk clerk had given me. I knew of it, for it was the same card I had slipped into Vanessa's hand last night in the lounge. In one fluid move, I pulled the card from my pocket and flicked it into the open mouth of a trash bin several feet away. I didn't have time for distractions. I had a casino to look after.